Remembering an artist through music and dance

Mar. 31, 2014 @ 05:36 PM

Duke University graduate Jennifer Fitzgerald left a lasting legacy through her music even though her life was cut short. She was 32 when she died on Dec. 23, 2007, after a long battle with cancer.

Now, for the first time, one of her compositions, "Liquid Prisoner,' has inspired a dance featured at a Duke Dance concert.

Duke Dance professor Barbara Dickinson created the dance, "Liquid Prisoner/Remembrance," for 11 student dancers. The work premieres at the ChoreoLab concert Friday and Saturday (March 28-39) at Reynolds Industries Theater.

The progam also features work by other faculty members: Ava LaVonne Vinesett's "Cluebra" and Julie Walters' "Circadian Rhythms," as well as dances by students: "Dura" by seniors Bonnie Delaune and Zsofia Solta, and a duet by sophomores Jennifer Margono and Maurice Dowell.

Dickinson had first listened to "Liquid Prisoner" after Fitzgerald gave her a CD of the music around 2004, when Dickinson was on Fitzgerald's doctoral committee. The talented composer and pianist received her PhD in 2005 and earlier a master's degree - both in music composition - at Duke.

"I remember her as someone you would treasure because of her potential, the musical gifts she had," Dickinson said.

Over the years, Dickinson used "Liquid Prisoner" in her dance composition classes at Duke. "It was a way to honor her - to have her music listened to," Dickinson added. Then, one day last year when Dickinson was looking for music for a new dance for the sprnig ChoreoLab concert, she listened to the music again and knew she had found her music.

Unlike some music she considered for past dances, Fitzgerald's composition stood the test of listening to for 100 times, Dickinson said. When making a dance to music, it's not unusual to listen to the music this many times, she added.

"It excited me more and more as I listened to it over and over. It's rhythmically very interesting, very complex ... syncopated, driving 3s (3-part rhythm)... Other times, it's very spare. It seems like every time I listen to it ... it continues to feed me," the choreographer said.

Dickinson had no information about what had inspired Fitzgerald to compose this piece of music in 2001. All she had was the music itself and the evocative title to work from, she added. The choreographer came up with the idea of a group of people living their entire lives in an enclosed space.

"What would happen to their emotions, spirits trapped in this space?" she wondered.

For the "Remembrance" section, Dickinson used "Air," Paul Winter's version of Bach's "Air for a G-String." Winter performs the work solo on a soprano saxophone in the Grand Canyon so sounds of water and birds can be heard in the background, the choreographer said.

"It is just really haunting," she added.

In her dance, Dickinson said, she used direct and indirect gestures to communicate the acceptance and avoidance of facing the fact that a loved one has died.

Fitzgerald lives on in her music, as well as in a short biographical sketch she wrote the month before she died. That bio is now part of an online memorial to her by pulsoptional, a group of musicians and composers. She was a founding member of this group and active in leadership.

In her bio, she spoke of how this group had continued to inspire her after she had left Duke: "I often write for unusual instrumental combinations - the result of my years as the pianist for pulsoptional, ‘North Carolina's Band of Composers,’ which boasts the highly unusual instrumentation of oboe, bassoon, violin, two electric guitars, percussion and piano."

Pulsoptional's debut album includes her composition, "how terrible orange."

At the time she wrote the bio, she was teaching composition at Laurence Conservatory in Appleton, Wis. Her excitement about a new project comes through as she adds that she is working on an opera based on Megan Marshall's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "The Peabody Sisters."

The website,, also features an archive of Fitzgerald's music "as a way to highlight Jen's contributions to the world, her restless vitality and generosity and, above all, her distinct musical voice."