What Do Indie Rock and Contemporary Ballet Have in Common? Musician Chris Kasper tells us ahead of his show with BalletX

Philadelphia is a small town and a big city. Paths cross and diverge; connections lost can be rediscoved in the unlikeliest places. So it was when I encountered an old friend at Fergie’s Pub: locally famous and nationally renowned musician Chris Kasper. We shared decades-old memories and Chris told me about his latest project: providing live accompaniment to the Summer Series, by premier Philadelphia dance troupe BalletX, whose work I frequently write about and whose Spring Series I’d just seen the week before. Philly.

Chris Kasper.

Chris Kasper.

I first met Chris when he was a student at the West Virginia University in the late 1990s. Already a talented guitarist, he was a friend, classmate, and sometime bandmate of my high school buddy, who I later lived with in a peculiar log cabin on a Main Line estate. Chris recorded an album there as a drummer for my housemate’s drunk-metal hip hop band, and would come to our all-night parties, jam sessions, and pig roasts. Around this time, he started performing as a singer songwriter, moving on from college rock and jam bands to play increasingly impressive folk-influenced songs, with unassuming, heartfelt lyrics and simple yet virtuoso accompaniment.

He’s now recorded five albums, paid his dues with years of cross-country tours, shared the stage with Amos Lee, The Avett Brothers, The Wood Brothers, and other major acts, and is regularly heard on WXPN and other independent radio stations. British-based Texan choreographer Adam Houghland came across Chris’s most recent album, Bagabones, when he was thinking about making an original dance for BalletX with a Philadelphia musician.

“I feel Chris has a sensitivity to his writing and a vulnerability that I am always searching for in my own work,” Houghland says. Created with dancers and musicians in the same space, Hougland’s world premiere ballet will explore the juxtaposition of the art forms as contemporary ballet and indie rock converge. I reconnected with Chris to ask him about his experience working on this sure-to-be-awesome project. (Scroll down for interview)

BalletX’s Summer Series runs July 8-12, 2015, at The Wilma Theater [265 S. South Broad Street]; balletx.org.

Christopher Munden: You’ve come a long way since those days at the cabin. Do you have any stories you’d like to share from those day?

Chris Kasper: Maybe those would be best shared around campfire or a bar. We’d need an another entire interview for that! I tend to stay focused on present and future endeavors.

CPM: So how did this endeavor with BalletX come about?

CK: From what I understand, Adam Hougland came across my music somehow, in particular my record Bagabones, and heard something in it that inspired him. He gave me call and I was on board immediately.

CPM: Had you been to much ballet or dance before?

CK: No, I’d never seen a ballet before.

BalletX dancers rehearsing for the Summer Series. Photo by Bill Hebert.

BalletX dancers rehearsing for the Summer Series. Photo by Bill Hebert.

CPM: What an introduction! How has working with the company changed your view of ballet?

CK: I have such a better understanding of this art now, like how it is so similar to music but uses forms and body shapes as means of expression rather than sound. Other than that, you can see how all the vast and endless variety of emotions, ideas, and mastery can be expressed and prevail through dance.

CPM: What challenges do dancers and musicians share?

CK: The rehearsals, individual practice, staying with it when you feel blue or things aren’t living up to your standards, maintaining correct focus so when it comes time to perform, you can push your mind out of the way and rely on the greater forces of yourself to take over. And this leads to the shared joys of being well prepared for a performance, reaching that state of no mind while remaining physically involved.

CPM: What are other shared joys?

CK: The connection that then happens between the performers and with the audience. Those connections are a joy like no other. They’re fulfilling for everyone involved.

Photo by Bill Hebert.

Photo by Bill Hebert.

CPM: What has surprised you most about working with the dancers and choreographers?

CK: Their commitment is amazing. The dancers rehearse for endless hours everyday, working on the subtleties of the rhythm and how to move through it, using the space and each other to guide them into the next form. The expression of emotion through posture and facial expressions can only come with full commitment to the piece. It’s born through a true passion. What they do cannot be faked or half-assed or it would stand out.

CPM: Tell me about one of the songs they are dancing to and what they’ve brought to it?

CK: They bring such beautiful motion to all of these tunes, but one that stood out to me was “Blessed Little Secrets”, which I always describe as a song about moving into a place with a significant other and having no furniture. The dance interprets this idea as two people act out the lyrics. Its different from the other pieces which tend to dance around the lyrics. This one brings to light the simplicity of this idea (living a new place with nothing) and also the deeper nature of getting along with someone and having a ball, even when you have nothing. It really gets to the essence of the song.

CPM: Is that the one in the promo video [above]?

CK: No, that’s “The Raven and The Rose”. It’s a song where the narrator learns preconceived notions about a reletionship were, in fact. “make believe”. The dancers were asked to improvise over the song while we rolled film. The brought a very sensual and soft visual to this song. It also brought to light how sexy and mysterious the song actually is.

CPM: To what do your credit your career success?

CK: The realization that I don’t know everything, so I should heed the advice and direction of people I trust. I would never compromise my artistic vision but at the same time, I could never handle my vision alone. I need people who know more than me and can steer me on track when I lose myself in myself. This happens when you lock yourself in a room trying to compose a masterpiece. Maybe you can squeeze a tune or two out that make you proud, but no way could you sustain a career like this. You need to interact on a creative level with admired masters and colleagues and on a business level with trusted advisors. The most satisfying progress comes from collaborating with people whom you trust and who trust you. It must be symbiotic or ego slows things down. Even if its just talking about business or your favorite string section or a lyric in some song, collaboration is much better than beating yourself up trying to figure things out on your own.

Chris Kasper's newest album, Bagabones. Listen here

Chris Kasper’s newest album, Bagabones.
Listen to it here.

CPM: What else are you working on?

CK: Writing the next record, working on more videos, revising some old songs for a short-run project, enjoying the company of two new dogs, writing more poetry, cooking delicious meals, going to see concerts (something I haven’t done for while), setting up small tours around our favorite markets, working that social media stuff… all types of things.

CPM: What do you think you’ll take away from your time with BalletX?

CK: Well, the band and I have made friends with the entire BalletX company and I hope that remains. I have a much greater appreciation for how far an idea can go once it leaves your brain if you put the work in. Dancers work harder than most professional athletes. That type of dedication to a performance is so inspirational. It’s also good lesson to team up with the right people because so much unexpected beauty is possible. This is also more proof that you never know what life has in store for you.

CPM: Nice thought. Thanks Chris!

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About the author

Christopher Munden

Your faithful correspondent and publisher Christopher Munden has written and edited for many publications, websites, and cultural institutions. He was an editor/publisher of the Philly Fiction book series, collections of short stories written by local writers and set in Philadelphia. He's also a soccer coach and a pretty good skier.