An Interview with Accompanist Eli Nelson

Back in 2006 at the San Francisco Conservatory of Dance summer program, I was dumbfounded when I first took a ballet class accompanied by Eli Nelson. After years of ballet accompaniment being equivalent to piano renditions of Swan Lake, I was floored when Eli started shredding on the guitar during allegro. What alternate universe had I walked into?

Meet Eli Nelson, musician and dancer extraordinaire. Aside from his accompanist duties at the SF Conservatory of Dance, Eli also teaches and accompanies at the University of San Francisco, where he accompanies modern and ballet classes and teaches a music-for-dancers class, a senior project class, and co-teaches a choreography class. That’s right, Eli choreographs too. He choreographs on the USF students every year, as well as on the SF Conservatory of Dance summer intensive students. Eli got his bachelor’s degree in composition and choreography from University of California, Riverside and from there danced professionally with Stephanie Gilliland and Heidi Duckler in Los Angeles before coming to San Francisco. I talked with Eli to learn how his dance and music lives intersect.

Emmaly Wiederholt: Outside of accompanying class, how would you describe your musical practice and pursuits?

Eli Nelson: I try to score music for film whenever I can. I’ve done a few dance films recently. I did music for Detour Dance’s “Pedestrian Crossing”, a film they just recently premiered. I’m working on a film with Austin Forbord and Amie Dowling set in Alcatraz. I did music for another film for Austin about the history of theater in the Bay Area called “Stage Left”. It actually just got played on PBS and there were some screenings at ODC and over at the Geary Theater and the Mill Valley Film Festival. I try to do more music for film because I enjoy doing that.

I play in a band on the weekends called Notorious which is essentially a wedding band. We do corporate events, weddings, some clubs and whatnot. We play current hits and hits of the 80’s, so covers. It’s an income thing, which is good.

For ten years I had an original band I worked with called Taos Hum. We played all original stuff that I was writing or co-writing.

EW: How has your experience accompanying dance influenced your overall practice as a musician, or vice versa, how has your experience as a musician influenced your understanding of dance?

EN: They’re flip sides of the same coin. It’s hard for me to separate them in a way. There are certain things that are different about musicians or dancers but I think the art forms have a lot of parallels and I like to accentuate those. There are a lot of structural similarities between music and dance.

One of the first experiences I had when I started dancing regularly was looking at my hands on my guitar and realizing that they were dancing. So I started choreographing music based on what happened on the fretboard. How do I choreograph my hand across the guitar as opposed to thinking about exactly what I’m doing musically and coming from a musical melodic standpoint?

Interestingly, when I choreograph I don’t use music until way into the process. I don’t rehearse to music, and I almost never use counts, which is funny because in music I love counts, I love odd times, I love all that sort of stuff. But when it comes to dancing I’m more interested in the idea of painting and using broad brush strokes than being precise. There are people who do counts really well but I’m just not wired that way as a mover.

Both music and dance push each other in one way or another. I go see some dance that makes me think about music; I hear music and I think about the ways it could be danced.

EW: Do you approach accompanying dance differently than a more traditional pianist would? What do you try to bring to dance class as an accompanist?

EN: I hadn’t accompanied a ton of ballet before Summer [Summer Lee Rhatigan, artistic director of the San Francisco Conservatory of Dance] pulled me in to what was initially the Lines program at that point and then later the Conservatory. I had accompanied a few ballet classes but I had never danced ballet so I didn’t really have the experience of being either a dancer or an accompanist in a ballet class. I had studied Rudy’s [a piano accompanist] approach, as well as how other pianist’s handle ballet classes. My initial approach was from having accompanied modern dance classes for about fourteen years (I’ve been accompanying dance since 1993). When I started working with Summer she wanted me to do percussive stuff, which was weird for ballet but normal for modern. I’d done modern for years and used a percussive and electronic music base, generating loops and larger textures. As I did more and more ballet I discovered that ballet dancers respond really well to melody in the way modern dancers are more rhythm-based and need a constantly cascading flow of rhythm and beats. Of course beats and rhythm are inside ballet music, but ballet dancers seem to respond better to melody. I think it’s something in the training, since much of the training is done with a pianist who is using classical repertoire. I personally don’t use classical repertoire; my whole thing is improvisation and looping. I keep myself challenged by constantly having to improvise and think of new things, and that informs my practice as a musician to understand compositionally what I’m doing. I’m always trying to push the edge of my technique so that I’m getting better as a player. However, the challenge is not to do that in a way that is musically offensive. It’s like when you see an incredible technician of dance but there’s no soul to it. It’s dry. I try to ride that line where I’m generating soulful music for class as well as pushing my own personal envelope compositionally and technically.

My goal is to bring good music and serve whatever’s going on in the moment; I feel that the accompanist’s role is truly a service role. And I think some accompanists miss out on this, especially really good players who miss out on the concept that they’re there for the dance, not the other way around. That’s why it’s called accompaniment: it is accompanying dance. I know musicians who’ve failed to get that. And after twenty years of accompanying, I still enjoy it. I make my choices around how I pursue work, and who I want to work with, and that’s what keeps me happy doing it.

Photo Courtesy Eli Nelson