Choreograph this: making the music for Hubbard Street Dance Company

By Donna Marbury,

Hubbard Street Dancer Kellie Epperheimer in AZIMUTH by Alonzo King with, from left:

Hubbard Street Dancer Kellie Epperheimer in AZIMUTH by Alonzo King with, from left:
Jacqueline Burnett, Ashley Jackson, Ana Lopez and Yujin Kim. Photo by Margo Moritz.

Playing in a rock band and composing music for ballerinas is all in a day’s work for Ben Juodvalkis. As keyboardist for the San Francisco-based band Battlehooch, he has toured the country always on the lookout for new and interesting music. And yes, sometimes you can find him syncing synth chords to plies at the University of California-Berkely Dance Ensemble during dance practices.

As more choreographers heard Juodvalkis’ rock and blues hybrid, and the more Juodvalkis worked for dance companies the more people wanted him on board. He’s worked with Company C Contemporary Ballet, Lines Ballet School and the San Francisco School of the Arts.

Juodvalkis’ original music is featured in Hubbard Street Dance’s Spring Series collaborative show with Lines Ballet that runs March 14-17 at the Harris Theater at Millennium Park. He contributed his music to Azimuth, choreographed by Alonzo King, who tapped Juodvalkis to make the music.

We talked to Juodvalkis about how both his rock sensibility, understanding of classical music and his unique dance compositions flow together.

How did you start composing music for dance companies?

When I moved to San Francisco, I had an idea that one way I could make money was to accompany ballet classes playing classical piano. I started doing that and making a living. Some dance classes like electronic music, so I started doing that by building up loops and playing drum beats. I started doing that more, and choreographers with dance companies would walk by the classes and ask me to make music for their dance companies. So I kind of just got overheard in the dance world. I started getting hired more, and now that is mostly what I do. I still do dance classes, but mainly I compose.

What’s you’re process like? Are you mimicking classical music or looking for something else?

I love classical music, but it’s not what naturally flows in my blood. So the music I make is based more on the American vernacular, like blues and rock and roll. American music is what comes naturally for me. So that’s what I reach for first. I’ve made a lot of classical music, so I can definitely work in that space though.

How does it feel to see people dancing to your music?

The nicest thing is that a lot of the times I am there making the music as the choreographer is there making the dances. So we are both in the room together, making it up as we go along. That can be really nice because everything can grow organically. Every change I make is adjusted in the choreography, and vice versa. There’s a lot of feedback that makes everything powerful and natural. Watching the Hubbard Street dance company is really interesting because every second brings back memories of different stories and moments.


LINES Ballet Dancers Meredith Webster and David Harvey in AZIMUTH by Alonzo King.

LINES Ballet Dancers Meredith Webster and David Harvey in AZIMUTH by Alonzo King.
Photo by Margo Moritz.

How did you start working with the Hubbard Street dance company?

They hired the choreographer, Alonzo King, and he chose me to do the music. We had been circling around each other for the past few years. I worked with some of his colleagues, and he heard some of the stuff I’ve written.

What are the best and most challenging parts of your job as a musician?

The best and most challenging thing is that because I work with dancers they have a very intimate knowledge of music. But, they don’t think about [music] at all like a musician thinks about it. They don’t talk about music very much. So when a choreographer has an idea, it can be really challenging to figure out what they want.

Choreographers talk in metaphors. So they might say, I need something that sounds like a wall of ice with birds falling off the top. But the great thing is, I get to make music that I would never ever make if I were talking to a musician. I get pushed outside of my comfort zone. I get to make music on the spot, so I get all these other sensory cues by watching the dancers. There’s a never ending stimulation there.

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