An Interview with Billy Smith, the Choreographer of La Historia Del Soldado

This January, Washington Heights Chamber Orchestra will present La Historia del Soldado, a new bilingual adaptation of Igor Stravinsky’s L'histoire du Soldat. Translated by Margarita Feliciano, La Historia del Soldado will feature three dancers from the Mark Morris Dance Group who will debut choreography by company member Billy Smith.  WHCO got the chance to sit down with him and talk about some of the inspirations and challenges that came along with La Historia del Soldado! Check out below:

Billy Smith of the Mark Morris Dance Group.

Billy Smith of the Mark Morris Dance Group.

Washington Heights Chamber Orchestra: When did you first begin to dance, and where did your love of dance come from? And from that, when did you begin to choreograph?

Billy Smith: My father put me into my first dance class when I was 6.  In Virginia. I loved the discipline, artistry and physicality of it.  It was also a great way to make friends at a young age. I started choreographing on my peers when I was about 11 or 12 just because it felt natural and it was something fun to do with my friends.

The Mark Morris Dance Group Student Company.

The Mark Morris Dance Group Student Company.

WHCO: Do you have any particular projects that you have done lately that you have really enjoyed?

Smith: I always enjoy making dances on the Mark Morris Dance Group Student Company.  They are usually a highlight of my year. These high schoolers are so eager and interested in everything.  It's refreshing and inspiring to work with them.

Recently, a fellow member of Mark Morris Dance Group, Lesley Garrison and myself created and performed a dance to Philip Glass' String Quartet 3. This was performed with live music in The Freer Sackler Meyer Auditorium in Washington D.C. I usually don't like dancing in things I create because I need to see the whole picture.  This project was a great challenge for me to step outside the normal.

WHCO: How did your relationship with Washington Heights Chamber Orchestra begin?

Smith: I was introduced to Chris Whittaker because I was recommended for this very project.

WHCO: How did you first approach the choreography for La Historia Soldado? Were there any particular themes or moments within the piece that inspired you?

Smith: I was not very familiar with the piece before I was approached by Chris.  After listening to a few different recordings I knew I had to take it on. I love challenging myself creatively and this is unlike anything I've ever worked on.  After studying the Ramuz libretto and thinking about all of the moving parts of L'Histoire du Soldat (actors acting, dancers dancing, musicians playing) I decided that it was best to keep things simple.  The dancers are onstage and the musicians and actors are in front of the stage in full view. Every element is equally important but this keeps the audience from being overwhelmed.

Composer Igor Stravinsky with writer C.F. Ramuz.

Composer Igor Stravinsky with writer C.F. Ramuz.

Stravinsky's musical themes with respect to the storyline is the soul of this L'Histoire du Soldat.  The music is fairly challenging to understand.  What is interesting to me is how it sounds and how it's written don't necessarily align.  There are so many different layers and rhythms happening simultaneously that the written meter sometimes becomes irrelevant for me as a choreographer.  This is not the case for the music of many composers. Stravinsky is very unique this way. It's challenging but also pushes you to do something you didn't think was possible because the lines aren't so crisp.  There are so many different ways to hear this music.

What I've done is taken the story, what it means to me and created something that I felt represented the bizarre union of the text and the music.  The actors are the bones of the piece while the dancers are the heart, lungs, blood and guts. The choreography focuses on the mood and feeling at each chapter of the story.  It is very expressive of the music while still respecting the dialogue of the actors.

WHCO: What are you looking forward to most about this project?

Smith: I'm looking forward to giving an emotional experience to our audience.  I hope that it is different for every person. The bilingual translation is going to be something very unique. I can't wait to see how it unfolds!

WHCO: And, of course, what do you love about Washington Heights?

Smith: I actually used to live in Washington Heights on 191st and Wadsworth.  What is great about The Heights is you can feel a pulse and a culture there.  Not everywhere in New York is like that. It is still vibrant and full of life.  Oh, and the food!

La Historia Del Soldado will take place at 3 PM on Saturday, January 19th at Fort Washington Collegiate Church. The performance will last for approximately one hour.  For more information, please visit our website. We hope to see you there!

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