Not all of the artists who converge on Duke's East Campus every summer as part of the American Dance Festival are dancers. Included in the gaggle of out-of-towners are about fifteen professional musicians who accompany ADF's six weeks of dance classes on drums, keyboards, and a wide range of electronic equipment. It's a coveted gig: four of them have returned to ADF for at least thirty summers. On the job, it's an opportunity to whet their improvisational skills, and after hours, they can hobnob and jam with their contemporaries, most of whom are professional accompanists. Two of them—multi-instrumentalists Andy Hasenpflug and Westin Portillo—who work as dance accompanists at Slippery Rock University and Texas Woman's University, respectively, spoke with us about improvising, electronic tools, and making music as a religious experience.
INDY: What kind of guidance do you get from each teacher?
ANDY HASENPFLUG: You go in and either discuss, or you just figure out what they want. What their agenda is for their class is always the priority, and that's going to be a huge factor in all the decisions I make.
WESTIN PORTILLO: Some teachers are more structured in terms of, this needs to be here, this needs to be there. And other teachers say, "Oh, you know what to do." Our role is a utility for them. It makes class flow faster, and it makes things go easier for them so they don't have to stop and use iPods.
Do you work with the same teachers all summer?
AH: No. It changes every two days, because everybody wants to work with everybody else. And I also think that people—on both sides of the fence—wouldn't like it if they got the same person for forty classes in a row. How has the advent of more electronic tools changed your experience of improvising music for dance?
AH: It's changed the whole industry, a ton. There are still people who don't incorporate it and good for them, but I feel like I have to, to stay relevant.
WP: Music in general is using it—synthesizer sounds, voice processing, AutoTune—so it's the language of what people are listening to. Making that connection culturally with the music landscape helps me connect with the dancers.
How is playing for dancers different from playing any other show?
WP: I still feel like it's a performance, but the focus is not really on me; they're mainly focused on the teacher. It's nice because some of that pressure is relieved, and also there's the reciprocal kind of push-and-pull energy from each other, which makes it very rewarding.
AH: When I'm playing, I find it rewarding when we're making a symbiotic art. To me, that's kind of religious—not necessarily theistic, but it fulfills that level of human experience. I feel like almost all the class, almost every class, should be art all the time, even if they're just stretching or doing tendus.
Why do ADF musicians come back year after year?
AH: It's really magical here. It's the time of year that feeds us. It's very fulfilling artistically—I think people play their best here. We'll hang out and jam with each other at somebody's house at night; we do that all the time. It's really both inspiring and challenging to see the other players and what they do with what they're bringing
WP: It's always a treat to come to ADF and see everybody play and go, "Oh, that's really cool, I'm stealing that for later." It's kind of like, as we go out and do our own independent research in our own little nooks, we get to come back and compare notes and say, Oh cool, that works really well, I would've never thought of that. It's very satisfying to be here. It's like, "Yeah, this is the best part of the year to be with people who are really excited to be here." That energy is infectious.
This article appeared in print with the headline "In Step"