By Eva Kahn
How does a heavy-metal rock-star with MTV-worthy hair come to write the music for a ballet? Meet C.F. Kip Winger, founder of the rock band Winger and former ballet dancer.
It all started at age 16 when young Winger’s girlfriend asked him to take a ballet class with her. Although he had grown up in a musically talented family and performed in bands since age 8, ballet—and classical music for that matter—were entirely new to him.
In an interview, Winger recalls his first time at the ballet studio, “I remember looking into the advanced class and hearing this incredible music and seeing people with their legs higher than Bruce Lee could get them. And I thought ‘Oh my God, this is incredible!’”
That class proved to be fateful; Winger returned to the ballet studio every single day, drawn to the ethereal music of the ballet greats: Debussy, Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky, and Prokofiev. He would still indulge himself in the likes of Van Halen and Led Zeppelin, even while performing with a small ballet company at age 18.
His ballet background instilled a desire to compose his own classical music, but,= being late to the game, he had very little experience with the process, theory, and terminology of the art form. So, he decided to do what a typical music student would do: go to college. That proved difficult since he was always on tour with his band, Winger.
In the end, Winger flew to New York once a month to study with Richard Danielpur at the Manhattan School of Music, as well as with two other teachers. As a testament to his studiousness, he wrote the first movement of his ballet score, Ghosts, and recorded it in Austin with the Tosca String Quartet, who will be performing live with Ballet Austin in March 2020 as part of THE AUSTIN MUSIC PROJECT.
A friend of Winger’s at New York City Ballet introduced him to the young choreographer Christopher Wheeldon. As Winger recalls, “I sent the first movement of Ghosts to Wheeldon and immediately got an email back, and he said ‘I love this! I really love this, but it’s very short. Can you make it longer?’ And so I felt like, ‘oh my God this is amazing! What a great opportunity!’ And then about eight months later, Chris emailed me and said, ‘I love this music, and I’d love to set it on San Francisco Ballet.’”
Upon seeing the premiere of Ghosts on Feb. 9, 2010, with the San Francisco Ballet, Winger remarked to Peter Hartlaub, a pop culture critic: "He totally hit the mark...It's exactly the antithesis of the stodgy ballet. It's extremely cutting-edge, very skillfully handled movement of the human body." And it’s the expressive score that allows Wheeldon to achieve his goal, which is exactly as Winger desired: to make ballet less stodgy.
Winger’s highly improbable transition from leading bands to leading orchestras has not only brought a Grammy nomination for his Conversations with Nijinsky, which features Ghosts and is another classical music homage to ballet, but also a new identity: composer.
"The universe does amazing things," Winger says. "It took me down on one side, and on the other side, it gave me the opportunity to go back and do what I really wanted to do, which was move to Santa Fe, N.M., put up a studio and basically relearn how to write music."
Fans will have a chance to meet Kip Winger prior to performances of RESTLESS HEARTS at the Long Center on Friday, Feb. 14, and Saturday, Feb. 15 from 7:15 p.m. to 7:45 p.m. and on Sunday, Feb. 16, from 2:15 p.m. to 2:45 p.m. Winger will have copies of his CD, Conversations with Nijinsky ($15, including tax) available for purchase.
Grammy Awards. “C.F. Kip Winger.”
Hartlaub, Peter. “‘Ghosts’ Resurrects Kip Winger’s Career.” SFGate. Feb. 4, 2010.
McCollum, Maureen. “Kip Winger Explores His Classical Side.” NPR. Jun. 25, 2016
Christopher Wheeldon, Nathan Fifield, C.F. Kip Winger, Paul Vasterling (Nashville Ballet)
Eddie Malluck, San Francisco Ballet