Photo by Brian Brown
Randy Blythe and Matthew Frain during the 2014 Richmond Ballet New Works II Festival. (Photo by Brian Brown)
Richmond Ballet company member Matthew Frain — recently seen sashaying around the Carpenter Theatre stage as the buffoonish dandy Gamache, who vies for the affections of leading lady Kitri in the 400-year-old Spanish fable Don Quixote — is turning his attention to a project that’s much more contemporary, and more personal.
Frain is one of four choreographers whose creations will be performed during the Richmond Ballet’s New Works Festival from March 17 to 22. Now in his third year with the company, the Chicago native has participated in the festival twice before as a dancer. “You get all sorts of different perspectives dancing in the New Works Festival. You never know quite what you’re going to get.”
During his first season, Frain danced in a piece created by Starrene Foster, an instructor with the School of Richmond Ballet. He found the process inspiring, particularly since he was able to work with a local artist. “I look at it as a big turning point in my career because it sort of let me know that choreography was possible for me to experiment with,” he says.
Given the opportunity to produce something for last year’s New Works Festival II, which involved School of Richmond Ballet dancers, Frain says he was having trouble finding musical inspiration. At Starbucks one night, he told his friend Randy Blythe about the project, and Blythe — lead vocalist for Richmond-based metal band Lamb of God — let Frain listen to some music he’d been working on independently in the back of his tour bus.
Responding to questions via email from Australia, where Lamb of God was performing in the Soundwave Festival — and doing some surfing — Blythe recalls, “[Frain] asked me if he could use some of it, and I said, ‘Sure, but why don't we just conceptualize a piece from the ground up, together?’ ”
"Inventory": A Preview
Thus began what might seem at first glance to be an unusual collaboration. But Frain says of Blythe, “He’s a brilliant photographer as well, and does all sorts of stuff outside what he’s generally known for. ... He’s a very well-rounded individual in an artistic sense.” (Examples of Blythe’s photography can be found on Instagram @drandallblythe.)
Though Blythe enjoys watching ballet — he recently went to see the Richmond Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker with his wife and parents — he’s unfamiliar with many of the terms that dancers use, Frain says. “We had to come up with a code where we talked with one another,” he says. Instead of saying the male dancer would be doing a pirouette, for instance, “I had to tell him, ‘I want this part to feel like you’re floating in a sea of water, or I want it to feel like you’re trying to swim through mud.’ … It started to work out in an interesting way. It’s been a cool collaboration.”
Blythe says, “Working with Matt was very natural — we speak the same ‘creative language,’ albeit in two different disciplines. He and I have been close friends for a few years now, which usually (but not always) makes a collaborative effort happen a bit smoother. … Both pieces I have composed for the ballet have had Matt involved every step of the way. I don't think I could work on a piece for dance with any confidence at all if the choreographer wasn't giving me input from the start.”
When they are working together, Frain first describes a basic idea or theme, Blythe says. “From there, we discuss the major movements of the dance, usually three to four different main sections. As we talk, I draw stage diagrams in my notebook, noting how many physical actions there are within each movement, on what part of the stage they are occurring, and in which direction they go. Matt will actually show me some of the movements he wants to use, which helps my ‘mind's ear’ hear what sort of sounds I'd like to use.”
At times, Frain will have a specific musical suggestion, such as a stripped-down piano run in a minor key, Blythe adds. “Sometimes it’s a bit more open ended, and we figure it out as we talk. After we have formed a very rough road map of how the dance will unfold, I begin working on each musical movement, emailing him rough mixes of the pieces as they get done. If I'm at home in Richmond, we'll get together for coffee and talk about the music and dance as the piece grows, changing things as needed. If I'm out of town (as I so often am), we'll communicate via email.”
Blythe notes that he’s worked on the current piece while traveling in three different continents, adding, “I'm really glad I’ll be home in time to see it performed. It’s something really special to see a creation you’ve built from the ground up with a close friend executed on stage by skilled dancers. Once the ballet starts, our work is done, and our ‘baby’ is out of our hands into the world to live on its own. As an artist, it’s quite amazing to witness.”
He says that because he’s been out of town so much, he’s only seen video of the rehearsals for the upcoming performance. But, he says, “I can already tell [Frain] has grown quite a bit in confidence and power as a choreographer; I told him that as soon as I saw the first video of the new piece. I was quite happy with and proud of the piece we worked on last year, but his latest choreography has quite a bit more strength behind it, as well it should. If we aren't growing as artists, then we are doing something wrong.”
Blythe says people who know him aren’t surprised to hear he’s writing music for ballet — “ ‘Oh, there goes Randy, following another one of his crazy ideas down the rabbit hole,’ ” he says with a laugh. “I guess some fans of my band or metal music in general might be surprised, because they only know me as a two-dimensional cartoon-character-like screaming frontman of a metal band.” He continues, “Artistically, I don't live in some heavy metal cave — most of my favorite frontmen all work in various disciplines — Nick Cave, Henry Rollins, David Yow; these are men whose musical work I admire and respect. These guys have made some of the most original and caustic tunes in the history of music, but they also have produced some really beautiful art and literature. Those are the types of artistic role models I look to for inspiration — they stay busy and work hard.”
Frain says that the piece he choreographed, titled Inventory, “draws on past experiences in my life. It deals with sort of a personal struggle and the process of taking an honest look at oneself, sort of like taking a look in the mirror, not just physically, but emotionally and spiritually.”
As Frain prepared to work with the four dancers cast in the piece (Fernando Sabino, Trevor Davis, Sabrina Holland and Elena Bello), he recalls, Blythe was mixing and recording music. “I was given new music pretty much every single day leading up to when I was going into rehearsal,” Frain says. “He’s given me a wonderful score that expresses … the emotion I wanted it to say.”
He says he hopes that those watching will be able to connect with the feelings expressed. “It’s really how the audience can identify with things that can happen in their life — each audience member has a different perspective based on where they’ve been.”