The American Repertory Ballet knows how to keep Haley Wright ’23 on her toes. Wright, who started dancing when she was 4 years old, first joined New Jersey’s preeminent ballet company as a trainee when she was in high school. Then, in 2018, she was hired as one of the company’s professional ballerinas. Most recently, and perhaps most exciting, she traded her toe shoes for piano fingers when the ARB commissioned her to compose a musical piece for its spring performance season.
The leap from dancer to composer was a natural transition, says Wright, who is also an accomplished pianist. “It’s kind of been a crazy dream of mine to write music for ballet,” she says. “And because I was a dancer, I can visualize what kind of steps might accompany the music, what kind of mood I want to achieve.”
The director of the ARB, Julie Hench, asked Wright to compose something to convey the current times of the pandemic, so Wright’s score, “Saudade,” reflects on those shared experiences. Saudade, a Portuguese word, means “a sense of nostalgia for something that you don’t know is going to return,” says Wright.
The 10-minute piece is meant to travel through four moods: “The beginning is introspective with a feeling of loss,” says Wright. “Then it moves into nostalgic tones, remembering all these wonderful things that once happened. Then it goes right back to that longing feeling.” The last part, she says, is more upbeat. “I wanted to give a feeling of hope for what’s left to be discovered in the future.”
Wright, an interactive multimedia major with an interest in using technology and computer coding as a means of creative expression, worked with TCNJ music professors Teresa Nakra and Mark Kalinowski to professionally record “Saudade” on the piano in Mayo Concert Hall.
“It is an extraordinary opportunity for a college student to compose a work for a ballet company,” says Nakra. “Professional ballet commissions are extremely rare, even for famous composers,” she says. “Clearly, the ARB has a high regard for Haley.”
Wright’s music was paired with a dance from ARB choreographer Ryoko Tanaka and was originally performed and livestreamed as part of the company’s digital spring 2021 season. This fall, the piece will be in front of live audiences at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center and at the Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College in New York City.
“It has just been amazing,” says Wright. “I cry every time I see the performance.”
Illustration: Nguyen Khoi Nguyen