The Whitneys strut stuff in music and in dance
“It’ll be cool to get to perform together. We don’t really get a chance to do that too often.”
The speaker is Bill Whitney and he’s talking about an upcoming music and dance performance in Cambridge in which he and his wife Ruth will play prominent roles.
Residents of the St. Mark’s Area neighborhood for most of the last decade, the Whitneys, one a musician and instrument maker, the other a dancer, are widely regarded as one of the most creative power couples on the Boston arts scene.
Next weekend (Sat., June 18), each will play a prominent role in the Cambridge Symphony Orchestra’s semi-staged ballet production of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Bill will play the ophicleide, a rare 19th-century brass instrument that preceded the tuba, while Ruth, who has designed and sewed the costumes for the performance, will dance in the role of Titania.
Bill has learned how to play multiple instruments over the years, but, thanks to his father, a mechanic who blessed him with a set of creative hands, he spends a lot of his time making the instruments, too. He started his custom drum business, Calderwood Percussion, about eight years ago, and before that, he was a high school music teacher and then a sound engineer for Harmonix, the Boston-based video game developer behind the virtual music game Rock Band.
For her part, Ruth has worked as a professional ballerina for most of her life. After falling in love with “The Nutcracker” at age 3 and training at Boston Ballet School, she danced with Teatrul de Balet Sibiu in Austria and, later, Festival Ballet Providence in Rhode Island. Having previously worked with the Cambridge show’s choreographer, Gino di Marco, and its music director, Cynthia Woods, Ruth said she expects the show to offer a different spin on the classic summertime tale by having dancers tell the story through body language rather than dialogue.
If you aren’t familiar with Bill Whitney’s video game work, you may have heard his drums on the soundtrack of the Broadway hit musical “Hamilton.” In an interview with the Reporter, Bill explained that the drummer for the musical reached out to him a few years ago to request a Revolutionary-era snare drum to play in the show.
“There are very few rope drum makers left in the country,” said Bill. “He sent me an email after finding my website. That one just kind of fell into my lap.”
Whitney handcrafts several different types of instruments, from piccolo snares to custom guitars to a multi-surfaced hand drum creation he calls an “octocajon.” But many of his requests for custom designs are for vintage, period style drums needed by historical re-enactors and members of drum and fife bands. He says that a lot of time, work, and research goes into making drums that resemble the instruments played by our forefathers.
“First of all, you want to use indigenous woods, like, ash or maple,” he explained. “There are a few different ways to do it, but the most period-accurate one is the steam bending method.” Steam bending involves heating a single piece of wood and then bending it around a frame to form a cylinder. These types of drums, while historically accurate, are not easy to make.
“When doing period instruments, you can make them the way they actually were, but most people care more about the drum actually being functional,” he said. “You want them to be durable, and to sound good.”
Whitney’s drums do indeed sound good, and they look good. Musicians of all kinds have ordered custom Calderwood drums, from the drummer in British rapper M.I.A.’s touring band to the drummer in Broadway’s “Spongebob Squarepants” musical.
As to the dancer’s art of telling a story without dialogue, Ruth explained that “there’s a whole vocabulary of mime in ballet. Gino’s really good at conveying the story through the dancers’ body language. In ballet, you use the minimum of storytelling you have to, and then hope that the dancing conveys the emotion of the moment, and that the audience picks up on it.”
In designing the costumes, Ruth said she chose to incorporate floral themes and ample sequins. “With ‘Midsummer,’ she said, “I feel like the singers need to look like fairy attendants and there needs to be flowers everywhere and if it’s more sparkly it looks more like a fairy,” she said with a laugh. “It’s more fun for the audience that way, and for the dancers, and I feel that visually it’s more exciting.”
Her experience in dancing in various costumes gives her insight when she’s designing her own in terms of functionality. It also informs her on how different types of material will look on dancers in different poses.
“Because I’m a dancer, I’m obviously into movement, and I feel like when you have fabric that flows and moves, it changes the way it looks,” she explained. “Like you stick out your leg in space in pants and it looks one way, you stick your leg out in space with all this flowy stuff with it and it looks like something else.”
The Whitneys love their home near Shawmut station, but both say they find the arts scene in Dorchester to be lacking at times, mostly due to a scarcity of performance space. Bill suggested that the addition of a music venue in the neighborhood could help reinforce people’s relationship to the arts.
“I think it’s kind of an ‘if you build it, they will come’ situation,” he said. “Right now Dorchester is a bit underserved because there are only venues for specific things,” offering the Strand Theatre as an example of a beautiful space that remains mostly inaccessible and provides only limited programming.
“We’ve talked about starting up an independent performing arts after-school program nearby,” said Ruth. “I hope we do one day.”
Tickets ranging from $15 to $25 are available for purchase at cambridgesymphony.org. The performance will take place at 8 p.m. on Sat., June 18, at MIT’s Kresge Auditorium, 48 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge.