30 Nov 2023

They're dancing to our music here

From Three to Seven, 4:00 pm on 30 November 2023
Conductor Tianyi Lu and composer Celeste Oram

Tianyi Lu and Celeste Oram Photo: Supplied

New Zealanders love articles about ex-pats doing well overseas. This story brings you two for the price of one.

Composer Celeste Oram and conductor Tianyi Lu have just collaborated on a new ballet, Marie & Pierre, which had its premiere in the Swiss city of Basel last month.

Oram wrote the music for Theater Basel's production of the Bobbi Jene Smith choreographed work, Lu conducted it.

By the time RNZ Concert host Bryan Crump had caught up with the two Kiwis, Lu was already back in her home base in the Netherlands, but it's obvious the old friends are still buzzing from the performance.

Marie & Pierre began as a one-act ballet in Copenhagen. For Theater Basel, Oram and choreographer Bobbi Jene Smith worked on a prequel to create a full length work.

The ballet doesn't have a story line. This is not a work about the prince and a princess who live happily ever after.

Oram says the basis of the work is the very strong characters each of the dancers creates on stage.

"What's extraordinary about Bobbi Jene's work as a choreographer is the world that she creates ... and then within that world, and by observing those characters I think there's a really rich and open invitation for the audience to find their own story. It's really a choose your own adventure experience."

Lu and Oram's adventures together began in the early years of the 21st century, when the pair were both studying flute and composition at Auckland University.

Tianyi Lu enjoying herself at the “Guido Cantelli” competition

Tianyi Lu enjoying herself at the “Guido Cantelli” competition Photo: Premio Cantelli International Conducting Competition

Lu was known as 'Moonboot Girl'. She'd broken her toe falling, running late to get an Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra concert on time.

"We were destined to be twins," Lu says, "except we went on very different paths. I discovered conducting in my second year of uni, Celeste went on to do composition and ended up going to the States, and I ended up going to the United Kingdom."

But, being friends, they kept in touch and when Lu saw a video of the initial Copenhagen version of Marie & Pierre she asked Oram to get in touch if the ballet got another run.

"And it's just amazing to see, after twelve years, how much we've grown and how many different places we've been to, and the different things we've picked up along the way."

Lu eventually settled in the Netherlands capital, The Hague, while Oram married a New Yorker and is based there.

Celeste Oram

Celeste Oram Photo: NZSO/supplied

Crump asked if being in New York had changed the kind of music Oram creates.

"That's an interesting question, and I'm going to say 'not yet'. Because in a strange kind of a fluke, for the last two years while I've been living in New York, the work that I've been doing has largely been for projects outside of New York."

Basel panorama

Basel - not a bad place to collaborate Photo: M.Strīķis / CC 3.0

Projects such as writing ballet music for theatres in Europe.

Oram says having Lu with her in the run-up to the premiere of the two-act version of Marie & Pierre was "very grounding".

"Having a good relationship between composer and conductor is just transformational. As a composer, I can't tell you how amazing it is to have someone who is your staunchest advocate, on the podium."

The Basel season of Marie & Pierre continues until February 2024. Oram is hoping it will get a run elsewhere, as does Lu, who is looking forward to seeing how the ballet evolves.

And what about the flute the two were both playing when they first met in Auckland?

"In private!" laughs Oram.

"Gathering dust," says Lu, although her husband, who is a teacher, has persuaded her to play it in his school's Christmas concert this year. "I don't even know if I can make a sound on it!.

If all else fails, she could perhaps use it as a baton instead.

New Zealand conductor Tianyi Lu

New Zealand conductor Tianyi Lu Photo: ©Adrian Malloch