Thomas Adès is no stranger to the stage. His operas Powder Her Face (1995) and The Tempest (2004) have clocked up a huge number of performances on both sides of the Atlantic, with The Tempest set to make its Viennese début in June 2015. Adès has yet to compose specifically commissioned music for dance, but that has not stopped his works being used by some of the most respected choreographers on the international stage, who are inspired by his startlingly rich, layered and at times challenging musical language.

His Violin Concerto Concentric Paths was used by Wayne Mc Gregor for Outlier, a New York City Ballet commission (Architecture of Dance, 2010). Karole Armitage chose the song cycle Life Story, set to words by Tennessee Williams, for her duet (of the same title). Both works now make their European debuts, alongside two world premieres – by Crystal Pite and Alexander Whitley – in Sadler’s Wells upcoming 'Thomas Adès: See the Music, Hear the Dance' (note the suggestive twist in the title). London’s creative powerhouse thought big here, and rightly so, for this commissioned evening is likely to be one of the most innovative, dialogic and challenging performances you will see for quite some time.

Adès himself will conduct the Britten Sinfonia in what will be his only London performances in 2014. We were keen to find out how the choreographers approached Adès’ music and hear how each has used its dynamics to enrich their very individual styles.

One of Adès’ foremost chamber works, his Piano Quintet, is the frame to Alexander Whitley’s The Grit in the Oyster.

Studio rehearsal for Alexander Whitley's <i>The grit in the Oyster</i> © Jane Hobson
Studio rehearsal for Alexander Whitley's The grit in the Oyster
© Jane Hobson
This single movement work starts with solo violin playing a three note figure, which recurs throughout. Referencing the classical tradition, it twists the style and sonata form into something more modern, a little like Stravinsky’s neoclassical take on Baroque works. Whitley describes the Piano Quintet as having “an interesting range of textures and dynamics, which I felt would provide a breadth of possibilities in the type of choreography I could set to it. There is also something about the combination of the classical sonata form structure and Adès’ modern ideas that appealed to my experience, having trained classically but moving into contemporary dance with my choreographic explorations.” The quintet makes use of fractured dance music – a waltz and a tango can be detected, anchoring, just as Whitley’s contemporary physical language is anchored in his classical roots, the modern experimentations of both composer and choreographer.

It’s perhaps precisely Adès’ dissident explorations, away from traditionally classic frames that inspired Karole Armitage to work with Life Story. The American choreographer has always been curious about how “the classical concepts and poetic expressivity of ballet can be combined with process-oriented dance, thus making [dance] modern by taking from concepts of our times”. She creates dances that have “theme and variation occurring simultaneously”, a symbiosis prevalent in Adès’ compositions. “Every piece is different, but I always look for music that has space in it so that a layer of dance adds a new dimension.

Karole Armitage's <i>Life Story</i> © Henry Leutwyler
Karole Armitage's Life Story
© Henry Leutwyler
I often like music that is either hyper-lyrical or full of noise and intensity. I am not one for the middle ground.” Life Story – like Balanchine’s Duo Concertant – places the musicians on-stage alongside the dancers (with Thomas Adès on the piano as well as soprano Claire Booth) and this union, she feels, is vital. “The most important aspect of having the music and the dance working together is the extreme sensitivity that goes on between musicians and dancers; the listening, looking and feeling makes it so ALIVE for the audience”; a seemingly contagious chemistry, as Armitage underlines: “The public feels the intensity and the immediacy in a way that cannot be replicated with recorded music.”

Singularity certainly influenced Wayne McGregor in choosing Adès’ music for Outlier, although, he tells us, it was not the initial driving force behind his work. “I was asked to make Outlier as part of  ‘Architecture of Dance’ – a series about architecture. I wanted to look at the Bauhaus influence on American architecture and so I approached the creation from a visual image.

When I looked for music, Concentric Paths imposed itself. I feel it has the attributes of a modernist, minimalist, visual artwork.” It was also fit for a NYCB commission. “The work of the company is very specific, it’s inherited legacy is so strongly shaped by Balanchine’s relationship with Stravinsky.” The parallel, it seems, between the two composer’s foregrounding and seminal experiments is a feeling shared by many. McGregor adds: “I think of Adès as a modern Stravinsky. And so the musical choice for Outlier really imposed itself.”

Random Dance rehearsing <i>Outlier</i> © Ravi Deepres
Random Dance rehearsing Outlier
© Ravi Deepres
Revivals of Armitage’s and McGregor’s works give us opportunities to witness how malleable both music and dance can be. Originally set on pointe, for NYCB soloists, Outlier will be performed next week by Random Dance who lend McGregor’s language a different, raw and “animalistic” quality. McGregor (just like Whitley) identifies in Adès’ score features that are present in his choreographic works. “I find Adès’ music quite acerbic, rather stringent and very direct… it’s very articulated, sometimes it sounds very dysfunctional… and I think these are all things that I love to explore physically, with bodies. The structure of Concentric Paths is that of Outlier. Instrumentation is also key in Concentric Paths. The way that Adès used the violin as a virtuoso instrument in this context infected and affects the way in which I constructed the dance.”

Subtitled a ‘Voyage for Orchestra’, Polaris has been exceptionally well received, earning performances around the globe since its 2010 première. The title refers to the pole star, its musical equivalent here being the note ‘A’, which anchors the piece in the surging waves of the ocean, first hinted at in rippling piano figures in the opening pages.

Crystal Pite’s response to Polaris is Sadler’s Wells’ second commission (and world première) for 'See the music, Hear the Dance', using a cast of 64 dancers. Pite’s choice of music was instant: “I only needed to listen to Polaris once to make the decision. I was really excited by the challenge of meeting this stunning music with choreography. It’s huge, earth-shattering stuff, yet it also contains a human element. It has the same contrasts and tensions that I’m always striving for in my work. It has great rolling thunderous passages that pop you out into silences taut with tension. This is the dynamic I hope to manifest in a single dancer, but also in a single entity made of 64 dancers.”

Rehearsals for Crystal Pite's world première on Adès' *Polaris> © Chris Handle
Rehearsals for Crystal Pite's world première on Adès' *Polaris>
© Chris Handle

Crystal Pite’s words already have us giddy with excitement, eagerly awaiting next Thursday, when the programme opens. There is a wealth of possible answers to the stimulus of music and the four choreographers that Sadler’s Wells brings together are all artists who believe that music, dance and elements of the cultures that surround us should not just inform artworks, but that performances can too, in return, inform our own monologic perception of our environment.

When I asked Wayne McGregor whether I should come to Sadler’s Wells next week having thought of certain elements of the programme beforehand, he simply advised me to “listen to the music ( ahead, if possible), to build a relationship with it, and open your imagination; to come with an open mind [...] not to bring preconceived ideas, but to engage with the music, the dance, their hidden layers and their secrets”.

Written by Alexandra Desvignes (Dance editor) and Mark Pullinger (Classical Music & Opera editor)

Thomas Adès : See the Music, Hear the Dance runs at Sadler’s Wells from 30th Oct - 1st Nov, and features works by Karole Armitage and Wayne Mc Gregor, as well as to two world premières by Crystal Pite and Alexander Whitley, and Mr Adès will conduct all four works (with orchestral by the Britten Sinfonia)

To read upcoming in depth interviews with these four choreographers, visit our dance page.