Channeling Emily Dickinson Through Music and Movement

November 10, 2022

A Music Ph.D. candidate composes a ballet with a resonant theme: the suppression of women artists.

Ballet Performance
On November 5, MorDance previewed a new ballet based on the Emily Dickinson poem “They Shut Me Up in Prose,” which is being composed by Music Ph.D. student Polina Nazaykinskaya. (Photo credit: Kelsey Campbell)

As a young girl growing up in post-Soviet Russia, Polina Nazaykinskaya knew no female composers, yet she felt she was one. 

“When I asked my teachers ‘What should I do?’ they said, ‘Forget about this, just learn how to play the violin,’” she said. “And I did. I became a decent violinist, but it was never enough for me, so I kept composing in secret.”

Today, Nazaykinskaya, a Graduate Center Music Ph.D. candidate, composes music for orchestras and ballet companies, including the Russian National Orchestra and the San Francisco Ballet. In 2015, she was awarded the prestigious Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans to support her doctoral studies. 

Learn more about the Ph.D. Program in Music

Her struggle to realize her ambition gives Nazaykinskaya a personal connection to her new commission. She has been invited to compose music for a ballet by MorDance, a woman-led ballet company in New York, based on “They Shut Me Up in Prose,” a short poem by Emily Dickinson that evokes the stifling of women poets by 19th-century society. The dance is being choreographed by MorDance founder Morgan McEwen and will premiere at John Jay College’s Gerald Lynch Theater in April.

Last Saturday, at a Works in Progress event in New York’s West Village, the company previewed the first two movements of the ballet, set to Nazaykinskaya’s searing music for piano and viola, performed by musicians Konstantin Soukhovetski and Jesus Rodolfo. There, Nazaykinskaya spoke about the work, her career, and her experience at the Graduate Center. A lightly edited interview with her follows.  

The Graduate Center: How does composing for dance compare to composing music for an orchestra or a soloist?

Polina Portrait Portrait
Polina Nazaykinskaya (Photo credit: Emma Kazaryan)

Nazaykinskaya: It’s different because I need to be mindful of the tempo of my music, and I can't really write super fast because the dancers’ steps have certain patterns. So I have to be mindful of the time signatures that I'm using. The music is not square, it's not predictable, yet, for the dancers, it feels even because it's easier for them to count steps. 

What's different in terms of the creative process? I feel like it's not that different from writing for symphony orchestra or for solo piano. You're kind of searching inward; you're searching for inspiration, for the themes that deeply touch you. 

GC: You mentioned that theme of Dickinson’s poem — the struggle of women artists to break through prejudice — was meaningful to you. Can you talk about that and your personal experience as a female artist? 

Nazaykinskaya: Definitely, as a female artist, I can relate to the struggle. I was born in a small town in post-Soviet Russia. It was a very conservative society — no support towards women artists whatsoever. Growing up, I didn't know that such thing existed because no role models were around me. 

When I moved to Moscow to study at Moscow Conservatory, I found my first composition teacher who believed in me. He was a chauvinist so he disliked the fact that I was a girl, but I was so passionate, and he said, ‘Okay, come and take lessons with me, you’re decent.’ 

And then when I moved to the States, finally, no one questioned my gender anymore. I felt like coming to the United States was a breakthrough moment for me. I felt absolutely liberated here for the first time in my life at the age of 21. 

Polina Nazaykinskaya
Polina Nazaykinskaya (right) spoke about composing ballet music for MorDance founder and choreographer Morgan McEwen (left) at a preview of the work last Saturday. (Photo credit: Kelsey Campbell)

GC: How has your Graduate Center experience influenced your career so far?

Nazaykinskaya: For the first time in my life, I’ve had a female mentor, [Professor Emeritus] Tania León, who was a role model and an amazing human being. I love her deeply. I became her student and she influenced me tremendously.From the beginning, she believed in my music, she believed in my art. So I would say that was the most important thing for me: to meet her and become her student. 

Right now, I'm in the process of finishing my dissertation. My dissertation adviser, Jeff Nichols, is incredibly supportive. During these difficult times for Russia and Ukraine, he has written me countless emails expressing his support and that he’s thinking of me. So I'm just feeling so supported, and the program was wonderful. My coursework was incredibly intense in a good way. I learned a lot during the three years I was taking classes, and now during my dissertation writing process, I still feel supported. I'm very grateful that I'm a part of the program.

GC: What advice would you give yourself, or do you wish you had been given, at the start of your Ph.D. program? 

Nazaykinskaya: Take more opportunities and take classes outside of the program because there are so many amazing minds among the professors in different departments. Just even audit classes in history and literature. I'm very interested in those subjects, but I just never had time or patience. So I would say, take more advantage of what's offered in the Graduate Center, which is a lot.

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