Composer Jonathan Romeo offers a glimpse into the creative process. 

A Window on Creation

Richmond Ballet
Carpenter Center
Nov. 5-7

While sojourning on the magically named Island of the Seagulls, Jonathan Romeo gazed out across the Mediterranean at Corsica. In this picture-postcard moment, he pondered how isolated, infant civilizations must have been eager to talk to other people across sea and land barriers. Perhaps they experimented with shells or animal horns. Romeo had good cause to be absorbed in such musings — he had been commissioned to write a ballet for Stoner Winslett's 20th anniversary year as artistic director of the Richmond Ballet, and the required theme was no less intimidating than "the new millennium." By the time Romeo returned to his home in New York 10 days later, the seed of his new ballet, "Windows: Fantasy on a Theme of Paganini," had begun to sprout. He knew his ballet would be a homage to the most important development in human history, that of communication, which, at its essence, was the harnessing of sound.

"I can get an aural inspiration really quickly," he says. It can, however, take a long time for him to get the ideas into concrete form. Romeo started composing by drawing diagrams that he calls "graphs." "That's the easiest way for me to notate a [musical] thought," the Richmond native explains by phone from his New York apartment. "That helps me remember the ideas." A spike might stand for a chordal punch. A long line would represent a long, thin sustained section. "It's like flying into a city," he says. "The closer you get, the more detailed your impressions of it are."

Winslett provided the marble block from which Romeo sculpted his ideas. Romeo speaks glowingly about her input. "She was fantastic to work with because she really let me do what I want to do," he says. Yet Winslett did provide fairly rigid parameters — the piece had to be about 15 minutes long.

Also, Romeo's score had to complement a set of four previously choreographed sections of a ballet that is danced to variations on a famous theme of Paganini's. Romeo was very aware the work was going to be choreographed. "The piece is very defined rhythmically and I did that purposefully," he says. "I really wanted to the dancers to like it. It has a lot of rhythmic drive."

As the ballet began to develop in his mind and on paper, Romeo found living in New York to be financially untenable. He sublet his New York apartment and divided his time between a trailer on a friend's Amherst County spread and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, an artists' retreat in Sweetbriar.

Romeo has had to depend on the help and financial assistance of various arts patrons in Richmond, saying that he is "so thankful for how supportive the arts community, the whole community, has been." Mounting large orchestral works is financially difficult; Romeo traces this community's support back to George Manahan's willingness to take a risk in having the Richmond Symphony perform his "Ruins" in 1994 and his "First Symphony" in 1997.

Romeo finished the new ballet at the end of September. But the laborious business of proofreading still loomed ahead. Usually, Romeo receives only three days of rehearsal before a performance, leaving no time to make substantive changes. However, with "Windows" the Richmond Symphony participated in a rare and welcome reading session of the piece on Oct. 6.

The composer found "all kinds of things I had to change in the score." He still has minor adjustments and reorchestrations to make before the Nov. 5 performance.

"Windows" is actually Romeo's second work for the Richmond Ballet; the first was 1994's "Tandem Spaces." "I've lost count," he admits, "but I've written about 40 pieces for dance." Whether or not he will write more such works remains to be seen. The lucrative world of writing film scores beckons, and Romeo has already worked on such scores as the "The Englishman Who Went up a Hill..." and the ravishing score to Martin Scorsese's "Kundun."

At the same time Romeo laments the difficulties of making a living as a composer of art music, he is unable to avoid noticing the music and dance surrounding him. Across the street from his East Village apartment is a playground. Romeo becomes excited, agitated even, when out of nowhere, a group of children begins dancing. It begins with one girl's spontaneous, rhythmic movement, and like charged subatomic particles, the other children fall in line, with no adult leader, no orchestrator. Romeo is fascinated by this. He murmurs, "Life is dance. Music is dance."

Stoner Winslett, choreographer, and Jonathan Romeo, composer, will discuss their collaboration that has produced "Windows — Part IV" on Sunday, Oct. 24 at 4:30 p.m during a "Get the Pointe" lecture in the Flemish Room of the Jefferson Hotel. Call 359-0906, ex. 226 for details.

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