The composer Nico Muhly is one of the most buzzed about artists in New York’s culture scene right now. Known for his work with choreographers like Benjamin Millepied and pop acts like Bjork and Sufjan Stevens, he is also the youngest composer to have had a commission from the Metropolitan Opera.
But hop over the Atlantic and it’s another story. “In France, Nico Muhly is virtually unknown,” said Guy Walters, one of the directors of Les Subsistances, a 237,000-square-foot, or 22,000-square-meter, building on the banks of the Saône river in Lyon, that is both a creative laboratory for artists and a platform for new work.
That is why Mr. Walters and his co-director, Cathy Bouvard, have made Mr. Muhly, 32, the focus of this year’s edition of Aire de Jeu, or playground, a small festival that has been running for three years and which opened on Tuesday.
“The idea is a simple one,” Mr. Walters said, speaking in French in a telephone interview. “One composer, four choreographers, live music. It brings in dance audiences who wouldn’t necessarily go to listen to new music, and music audiences who wouldn’t necessarily go to see dance.”
The choice of Mr. Muhly continues the festival’s focus on American composers: the first edition in 2012 featured David Lang, last year showcased Julia Woolfe, both equally unfamiliar to French audiences.
“In France, we adore music that is very written, very cerebral,” Mr. Walters said. “There is a stylistic barrier that prevents all sorts of music being heard here. Exposing these composers is a way of breaking out of a certain form of musical religion.”
Ms. Bouvard and Mr. Walters invited a diverse group of choreographers to participate. Some they knew from residencies at Les Subsistances, which invites up to 70 artists a year, from theater, dance and circus arts, to work in the polyvalent space. These residencies always culminate with a public showing in some form, Ms. Bouvard said. “The idea is to be a point of creation, an experimental space, but to be as open to a large public as much as possible, not a hermetic institution,” she said. (Les Subsistances has an annual budget of 2.5 million euros, or $3.42 million, funded by the city, the region and the state.)
Their instructions to the choreographers – Kyle Abraham (American), Laurent Chétouane (French, living in Berlin), Yuval Pick (Israeli, living in France) and Yasmeen Godder (Israeli) – were simple. They had to pick something from Mr. Muhly’s existing oeuvre (which wasn’t difficult as he has composed over 70 works in the past six years alone); the musicians must play live on stage; and the work should be around 30 minutes.
“My idea had been a group work,” Mr. Abraham said in a Skype interview from Chile where his company is on tour, “but the number of musicians was a factor here, and I wound up selecting three string and percussion pieces that felt on a smaller scale. So this is a solo.”
That piece, “Frail,” is set in part to a section from Mr. Muhly’s latest album, “Drones,” which places different solo instruments over sustained, low, ambient noise. The drone pieces proved a popular choice – each choreographer involved is using at least an element from the same album, which Mr. Muhly suggested in conversations about their musical choices.
“None of them had been choreographed, so I was excited about that idea,” Mr. Muhly said by telephone from Los Angeles. “There is a lot of poetic possibility.”
Mr. Muhly, who has had ongoing conversations with the choreographers during the process, added that the choreographers had used the material in very different ways, reshuffling the order of the pieces, interspersing silence – or, in the case of Mr. Chétouane, adding music by the Renaissance composer Domenico Gabrielli.
Mr. Chétouane’s work, “15 Variations autour de l’ouvert,” which uses four dancers, three musicians, and lasts 85 minutes, is an ambitious enterprise that was stimulated by Mr. Muhly’s music, he said.
“Contemporary dance is scared of emotion; contemporary music too,” Mr. Chétouane said. “Nico’s music has a great freedom of reference, without asking questions about whether it is ‘contemporary’ enough. It’s an intellectual music that isn’t scared of feelings, and that’s exactly where I find myself with my choreography.”
Like Mr. Chétouane, Ms. Godder had not heard of Mr. Muhly or his music before the Aire de Jeu commission. “That’s always a good beginning,” she said in a Skype interview from Les Subsistances, where she had begun to rehearse her solo, set to “Drones” excerpts. “I’m particularly looking forward to performing with a musician onstage,” she added. “When you work with a recording, you get used to a certain tempo and sound. I’m sure this is going to develop new qualities, and be challenging too.”
Mr. Pick, who participated in the first Aire de Jeu, has created a 22-minute female duet, “Loom,” which intersperses long silences between three musical sections. “It’s a kind of music that isn’t really played here in France,” he said. “It brings a certain kind of functionality and frankness to the sound, an energy that feels very New York to me.”
Mr. Muhly said that he was always intrigued by the alchemy of his music and dance. “The really interesting part of all this is to watch them interpret and navigate these pieces.” He added, “It feels like a crazy luxury to watch the music take on all these different forms.”