Why Solange is the perfect choice to compose for New York City Ballet

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In keeping with its history of high-profile music commissions, New York City Ballet asked Solange Knowles to compose an original score for a new ballet, which will premiere at the company’s Fall Fashion Gala next month. But the partnership with Knowles, the Grammy-winning R&B, pop and dance-oriented singer-songwriter, is notable for more than its buzz and box-office potential.

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Of course, those may well have been reasons one and two for tapping the musician — who also happens to be Beyoncé’s younger sister. Knowles’s name guarantees publicity for the Sept. 28 event at New York’s Lincoln Center, along the lines of Paul McCartney’s involvement in the company’s 2011 fall gala. The celebrated musician composed the score for “Ocean’s Kingdom,” choreographed by Peter Martins, the company’s director at the time.

According to NYCB spokesman Robert Daniels, Knowles came to the company’s attention after her 2019 work with dancers in a performance-art piece at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Former NYCB dancer Ryan Kelly had collaborated with Knowles on that piece, titled “Bridge-s,” where dancers moved through the museum’s outdoor plaza while Knowles sang, and suggested her to NYCB associate artistic director Wendy Whelan as a possible collaborator, Daniels said.

Knowles also attended a rehearsal of Justin Peck’s ballet “Rotunda,” which Peck created for the company just before the pandemic. In early 2022, Whelan approached Knowles about writing the score for the new ballet.

The piece, which has yet to be titled, will be choreographed by Gianna Reisen, 23, a graduate of the company’s training arm, the School of American Ballet. Reisen made her first ballet for the company in 2017, when she was 18 and the youngest choreographer to create a repertory work for NYCB.

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The Knowles/Reisen pairing promises at the very least to prompt curiosity from ballet’s most coveted age group, the difficult-to-lure millennials and Gen-Zers. They’ll have ample occasions to buy tickets: In addition to the premiere, the piece will be performed in October and in May, during the company’s spring season at Lincoln Center.

There are clear advantages to linking the high-art world of dance with mainstream pop culture. Yet it appears there’s more to the choice of Knowles, 36, than the obvious marketing bonanza springing from her large fan base and wide appeal to younger audiences. What’s especially interesting about this deeply creative artist is her evident fascination with the art side of dance. In recent years, she has branched off into dance-centered performance art. In addition to “Bridge-s,” Knowles directed and composed “Witness!” at Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg, in which she accompanied an ensemble of dancers with her vocals, backed by an orchestra.

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The NYCB commission is Knowles’s first ballet score and the company’s second commission of a Black female composer (the first was of Colombian Canadian singer-songwriter Lido Pimienta). According to NYCB, Knowles has composed her piece for a chamber ensemble. (Knowles could not be reached for comment.)

After NYCB’s announcement this week, Knowles tweeted photos of herself in the vast marble lobby of Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater. Tantalizingly, she wrote that the score would be performed by the City Ballet Orchestra and a “soloist from my ensemble.”

Who might this be? NYCB’s statement noted only that Knowles’s work would be performed by “some of the composer’s frequent musical collaborators.”

These are anyone’s guess; Knowles has worked with such boldface names as Kelly Rowland, Pharrell, Lil Wayne, Questlove and Tyler, the Creator, though she might more easily choose from her less well-known colleagues.

In addition to Knowles and McCartney, mainstream commercial musicians have often figured among NYCB’s commissions for new ballets. Resident choreographer Peck has frequently turned to folk-electronica composer Sufjan Stevens. Other premieres have featured original scores by indie rocker Bryce Dessner and jazz eminence Wynton Marsalis.

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In 2018, NYCB premiered dance piece “The Runaway” at its gala, with a score that included existing recordings by Kanye West and Jay-Z. Though these artists weren’t commissioned, the piece drew attention for the music as well as for its choreographer, Kyle Abraham, who at the time was the first Black artist to create a ballet for the company in more than a decade. Abraham is also premiering a work at next month’s gala, alongside the Knowles/Reisen piece.

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But ballet companies aren’t the only ones lucky enough to elicit new music from recording stars. In 2003, at age 84, Merce Cunningham, the pioneering guru of avant-garde dance, collaborated on a dance with two adventurous rock bands: the enormously famous British band Radiohead, fresh from a concert at Madison Square Garden, and the lesser-known but widely respected Icelandic group Sigur Ros.

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Both bands played live in the orchestra pit for the world premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Opera House. Radiohead’s contributions sprang mostly from a soundboard. Sigur Ros drummed out beats from various custom-made instruments, including pointe shoes screwed into a rack. After the opening, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company performed the dance, titled “Split Sides,” to recordings of the two bands’ original contributions, along with the dance company’s live musicians.

Cunningham, who died in 2009, delighted in working with musical innovators, notably experimental composer John Cage. He’d sent out requests to the bands to join his project, and when both unexpectedly agreed, he simply expanded the piece into halves, with separate lighting, costumes, decor, music and choreography for both parts. And in keeping with his affinity for “chance operations,” a preperformance roll of a die determined the order of each element.

Cunningham was an expert at finding ways to surprise his audience and flout tradition, and he had a knack for choosing nonconforming musical artists who relished working in new ways. By turning to Knowles, New York City Ballet seems to have found a musical artist in that mold, one who has an appetite for new sounds, new ways of creating — and new collaborators.


An earlier version of this article incorrectly said the Solange Knowles commission was New York City Ballet’s first commission of a Black female composer. It is the second; the first was of Colombian Canadian singer-songwriter Lido Pimienta. This article has been corrected.

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