While researching music for his new work for GWDT’s Fall Dance Series, Artistic Director David Shimotakahara came across Conlon Nancarrow’s work by accident. Immediately taken by the American composer’s idiosyncratic qualities and unique sound, Shimotakahara knew he found his inspiration.

“Within its complexities, [Nancarrow’s] music maintains a sense of humor and, for me, a kind of whimsy,” he says. “Despite its mechanical and maniacal underpinnings, the music retains its humanity. It’s this tension that attracted me to Nancarrow’s music and hopefully will continue to resonate through our dances.”

A jazz trumpet player influenced by the music of Art Tatum and John Cage, Nancarrow developed a method of composing by hand punching piano rolls for piano players, being one of the first to use auto-playing musical instruments and realizing their potential to play far beyond human abilities. An American expat who lived and worked in Mexico for most of his life, he remained in relative isolation and did not become more widely known until the 1980s.

We recently sat down with Shimotakahara to discuss his upcoming piece for GWDT’s Fall Dance Series, his affinity for Nancarrow’s unique sound and what he’s got in common with the distinctive artist.

You’ve said there is a somewhat maniacal quality about Nancarrow’s work. What about his music inspired you to create this particular piece?

“I’m interested in people synthesizing different styles of music. I always like when I find a composer who is working in some unconventional way.  Some of his music can sound deranged, like clocks gone crazy. I was intrigued by its uniqueness.”

Given Nancarrow’s idiosyncratic sound, was it a challenge to choreograph movement to this kind of music?

“Nancarrow’s work made me think about the photo illustration (above), created by Noé Sendas for The New Yorker. Conlon’s music does that – it makes you think social dance forms, tango, dance hall type of rhythms and themes. These themes float in and float out, and yet there’s this other thing, the way his brain was working, it’s unattached to time and place and it’s very abstract. We started playing around with the lower body, creating a lower body movement that was based on social dances, tangos and the like, and then creating a whole other vocabulary for the upper body.”

That sounds really intense.

“Yes, it’s really work intensive and requires a lot for the dancers to process. But once you get it, then your body starts to treat it as a whole movement. I imagine it’s a little like piano players with certain kinds of irregular coordinations between what they do with the left and right hands. When you’re initially trying to figure it out it can be tricky, but then you start to achieve this fluidity.”

Does your piece follow a narrative?

“It’s more episodic. It doesn’t follow a story. I’ve created my own little suite out of it, using different recordings of Conlon’s music – some original recordings as well as recordings from other artists playing his work.”

As an artist, are there ways in which you relate to Nancarrow?

“I like this idea of music that is layered and that doesn’t quite fit in any category. That made me think of this idea of how odd we are anyway, how we have parts of us that don’t fit. Speaking of which, I am a Japanese Canadian raised in the French Canadian city of Montreal, born in Iowa, who came to dance ballet in US! Talk about layers that don’t quite fit into any category.”

What do you hope audiences will feel from this piece?

I’m always interested in exploring movement that, to me at least, looks different. I’m excited to see if that holds up on stage. There are questions, ‘Is it too weird or too disjointed?’ I’m curious to see how it communicates to the audience.”

This is GroundWork’s 18th season. Is there anything that makes this season different from past seasons?

“It’s a kind of organization development year for me. We’re looking at a lot of possibilities, around how the company operates in the next three to five years. I’m really glad to have some head room in terms of scheduling and planning. We just hired a new development director. We’re looking into a new space in which to grow. We may be invited to Israel to perform. These are all things we are really excited about.”

Photo illustration by Noé Sendas for The New Yorker