On Stage at Juilliard: A Little Night Music

by Gillian Abbott, 4th-year dancer

My name is Gillian Abbott. I am currently dancing my last few months away at Juilliard. Looking back at my favorite experiences, I realized many of them were collaborations that I or other students made happen on our own time. I have had some amazing opportunities to work with extraordinary artists in all divisions. Last spring I got to choreograph the first musical ever performed at Juilliard! My dear friend Claire Karpen Pettry dreamed of making Sondheim’s A Little Night Music come to life by incorporating students from all three divisions: Dance, Drama and Music. In her final year of the Drama Division’s Actor Training Program, she decided to truly pursue this idea as an independent project.

Claire and I had become good friends through a school-run outreach program called GLUCK. The two of us, along with two other actors and one opera singer, went to different medical centers throughout the city to perform for patients of all ages. She asked me if I would be interested in helping her tell the story of this beautiful classic. I was so honored to be asked and jumped aboard! We held auditions for students at Juilliard in the fall of 2011 and it was such a great experience for me to be on the other side of the table, figuring out how we could best tell the story. We ended up casting 10 actors for the characters, and 5 opera singers for the “quintet”. In true Sondheim fashion, the music was incredibly complex and could not have been tackled without our Music Director Evan Fein, a forth-year student of the DMA in Composition and a new faculty member of Juilliard’s Pre-College and Evening Divisions. It was nice to work with him again as I had been friends with him from another school run outreach program called Artreach in which we went to New Orleans to build houses with Habitat for Humanity and to work with students at the YMCA. Taking parts of Jonathan Tunick’s orchestration along with the piano-vocal score, Mr. Fein orchestrated the score for four instruments! With himself on piano, and three Music Division students on Clarinet, Harp and Cello, the sound came to life. I learned so much from working with him, as I had to know the music like the back of my hand in order to put counts to my choreography to teach the actors and singers. The biggest battle we faced collectively was “A Weekend in the Country”, but somehow we did it!

So when do Juilliard students find time in their insanely busy schedules to make a musical? Sundays and holidays! We rehearsed every Sunday starting in December, as well as one week over spring break in March. Thanks to both the Drama and Dance Divisions, we had studio space to play in and a great black box for the show. I loved working with the actors and singers and was so impressed by their willingness and eagerness to try new things. I was thankful for their patience as well, as this was the first show I ever attempted to choreograph. I love telling stories through my choreography, so eventually I felt at home working on a musical.

In my eyes the show was a great success and, more importantly, something I think all of us will cherish forever. In Mr. Fein’s words, “Juilliard is not just about creating at the highest professional level, but about stretching the boundaries of the profession itself.” We hope this project inspires others to break down division walls and find inspiration and growth from each other just as we did. I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to work with such talented artists and I hope it is just the beginning of collaborating with Mrs. Pettry and Mr. Fein!