Sources for the “Esmeralda” pas de deux

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One of the oddities about the ballet repertoire is that the more famous and frequently performed the piece, the more tricky its musical history, like the  “Black Swan” Pas de Deux, for example, which does not exist in Tchaikovsky’s original score, at least not in its entirety, as you know it, or where you’d expect to find it. Over time, people like Adam Lopez who writes so much for Wikipedia on the Imperial Russian ballet and its music, and the brilliant ballet music librarians Lars Payne and Matthew Naughtin (see “Black Swan” link above) have solved many of these mysteries.

There is one ballet mystery  which just won’t go away, however, and that’s the question of the source for the “Esmeralda” pas de deux. I don’t mean Pugni’s 1844 ballet, but the one with the famous tambourine solo for the ballerina created by Pyotr Gusev in 1949, and later produced by Ben Stevenson in 1982 for the Jackson International Ballet Competition (see Matthew Naughtin’s Ballet Music: A Handbook). 

Naughtin says that the opening is by Drigo (for a revival of Petipa’s L’order du roi), but by chance, while I was looking to see if there was a scan of Marenco’s Sieba (1880-1881), which is reputedly the source for the tambourine variation, I found a couple of pages of that score (i.e. Sieba) in Matilda Ertz’s doctoral thesis.  Look at example 29 on page 287-288  (pdf page 311-312, the opening of the tempest from Sieba) and you’ll see that the  latter half of it is note for note part of the adagio in the Esmeralda pas de deux. For the full thesis, see Nineteenth-century Italian ballet music before unification: Sources, style, and context” Matilda Ertz, (Univ. of Oregon, 2010).  It might be that some is by Drigo and some by Marenco—it’s certainly a very abrupt cut and bizarre modulation from B major down to A, at the point that the Sieba tempest comes in, and the materials don’t seem to be related at all. Incidentally, Ertz’s thesis is really interesting if you’re into ballet music. 

I haven’t managed to find a scan of the score of Sieba beyond these two pages, but it would make sense that the tambourine solo is from the same piece as the adagio—though if the attribution to Drigo is not correct, or at least, an erasure of underlying sources, then I wonder if we should question the tambourine solo’s origins too, until we see the evidence. Incidentally, I  can’t find the coda of Esmeralda in the source that Naughtin gives, either (Pugni’s The Pharaoh’s Daughter). I have seen that coda in another ballet, but I cannot for the life of me remember which one it is. 

If anyone has either a piano reduction of Sieba to send me (there’s a copy available in the reading room of the British Library, I know, but I don’t have time to find it right now) , or the correct attribution for the coda of Esmeralda, it would make my day. 

Giselle and the Peasant Pas de Deux

While I’m at it, there’s another mystery to be solved—or at least, in my view it’s a mystery. How many times have we heard that the Peasant pas de deux in Giselle is by Burgmüller, and a piece called Souvenirs de Ratisbonne Op. 67? Well, Aki Kuroda has recorded it, and it sounds like this: 

In other words, it’s not the peasant pas de deux in its entirety, but one of the female variations, transposed from its original C major into D. There’s an awful lot more music that needs to be explained.  Now, I’m sticking my neck out here on the basis of not a lot of knowledge about Burgmüller, but from what I know of his music, I find it hard to believe he’s the author of the entrée polonaise, because it’s very polonaise-y, whereas his tend to be waltzes with a funny left hand. The pas de deux? Maybe. But the E major male  solo that begins with the whole-beat upbeat? That’s very Franco-Italian metrically speaking (see my post “compound errors” and the section on Franco-Italian hypermeter in this post for more on that topic) and not at all like the kind of thing Burgmüller writes usually—even one of his tarantellas begins on the first beat of the bar. You find Franco-Italian barring all over Pugni’s scores, but not Burgmüller’s. On the other hand, there’s something I don’t quite trust about the female solo in G major (2/4). That looks like the kind of solo that should begin on the upbeat, like these by Auber but it doesn’t. It looks like a French solo in German clothing. 

Whatever and whoever is behind this story, there is more to it than simply Souvenir de Ratisbonne. Cyril Beaumont in his The Ballet Called Giselle (1945) is more precise: he refers to “a waltz entitled “Souvenir de Ratisbonne” and a suite of dances which used to be performed by Giselle’s friends and their two leaders,” but I haven’t yet come across anything more than that in music scholarship. Contributions very welcome. 

 

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Rudy Apffel’s Czerny For Ballet Class blog

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Rudy Apffel's Czerny for Ballet Class Blog

Click the image to go to Rudy Apffel’s Czerny for Ballet Class Blog

Absolutely thrilled to discover Rudy Apfells’ Czerny for Ballet Class blog  — lovely recordings of huge numbers of Czerny exercises, together with reimaginings/reworkings of them (see here for a description of the project) lots of interesting commentary, and downloadable scores. 

Not content with just one reworking, some exercises, like Op 335 No. 6 have six.

Czerny Op. 335 No. 6

Czerny Op 335 No. 6: reworked in six different versions by Rudy Apffel

In the wrong hands (what a great metaphor for a pianist-related post!) this kind of music can  sound so drab, just the kind of thing that should be banned from ballet classes forever. But Apffel’s reworkings are witty and clever, and hold a mirror back to the original that make you hear it differently. There’s one in the style of Prokofiev’s “Dance of the Knights,” for example, but my favourite is the jazz waltz rendering. If you didn’t know it was based on Czerny, you could believe it had been a No. 1 chanson in Paris in the 1950s. Sometimes when you come to rearrange things like this you realize that the underlying composition is cleverer than you realized, obscured by a patina of tired familiarity. 

This is such a magnificent labour of love, but I fully understand Apffel’s fascination with Czerny.  I think it’s Taruskin who said that there are two Beethovens (or Bachs? Or Mozarts?—I’ll correct this if I’m wrong another time) —there’s Beethoven, and “Beethoven.”  The one in scare quotes is the composer that comes with all the baggage—the music appreciation classes you hated, the feeling that you had to like the music even if you didn’t, the way that people look in concert halls as they’re listening to his music. Without the scare quotes, you might feel quite differently about the music (for good or ill, as it happens, with some of the great names). 

Likewise, with Czerny: there’s Czerny the fun composer, Czerny the man who worked like crazy, with so many simultaneous projects on the go that he reputedly set them all out on different desks in his study, spending an hour at each in succession in order to make progress on them all (even if the story isn’t true, I love it); Czerny whose exercises dance and sing and convey drama. Then there’s “Czerny,” the scourge of young pianists, who are handed the books of exercises as if they were not really music, but “merely” technical machines to improve technique, like those things 19th dancers used to splay their feet in to improve their turnout. “Czerny” the abandoned sheet music in the Oxfam shop, with a stained cover, musty smell, and pencilled ticks and music teachers’ fingerings in.  I feel sick just thinking about it. 

Take away the scare quotes, and there’s a joyful, imaginative composer here with a staggering wealth of material, and that’s what Rudy Apffel is mining with his new arrangements and reimaginings. There’s a danger that you might miss Apffel’s humour and ingenuity if you just turn on a single track and think “I wonder if I could use this for tendus?” Get inside the music, listen to them as a series, compare one with the other, and this is a wonderful musical journey.  One of the things I especially like is the use of technology to do the impossible—freely admitted by Apffel!— as in this Schubert-Impromptu-Meets-Czerny-Op 335 No. 18

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Lightly up, up, up: John O’Brien, legendary dance teacher

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John O'Brien in June 2016. Photo: Andrew Florides (www.andrewflorides.co.uk)

John O’Brien in June 2016. Photo: Andrew Florides (www.andrewflorides.co.uk)

When John O’Brien died on 11th May this year, I suggested to the RAD that they should do something to remember him, since he taught for many years there, quite apart from being the proprietor of Dance Books. It’s hard to imagine the world of dance scholarship, or discourse about dance generally, without the history of that shop and publishing company. What follows is the tribute to John I wrote for the RAD’s in-house staff newsletter. It’s one of quite a few such pieces on my site now, so forgive any small repetitions. No sooner had I finished it, than I thought of dozens of other things I could say about John and what made him such a great teacher and person, but I hope this is at least the beginning of a worthy tribute. 

Lightly up, up, up: John O’Brien

Mention the name John O’Brien to people above a certain age in the dance world, and they’ll usually start showing you one of the exercises that started his famous continuous body conditioning barre: lightly up, up, up, gently down, down, down, arm halfway across, and open out, out; or the leg-swings, followed by the leg-swings, bending the knees. He had started these body conditioning class for the orchestra at Ballet Rambert when he was a dancer there, and later taught developments of it at the Actors’ Centre, the old City Lit in Stukeley Street, and Pineapple Dance Studios, where he also taught ballet classes on Saturday afternoons that incorporated a continuous barre.

At RAD headquarters, John taught boys’ ballet classes on a Saturday morning, and body conditioning on the LRAD course, which is where I first met him in 1986, just before I left to go freelance. I then played for him almost exclusively for the next three years, sometimes for nearly every class he taught in the week, excluding the private lessons. On a free morning, I would sometimes drop into the RAD and play for him there for free, just for the joy of working together. One week, I accompanied classes he gave at Crystal Palace to an Olympic diving squad. They started the week looking muscle-bound and defensive. After a few days, they looked like dancers.

John became so well-known for those body conditioning classes, that people often forgot—if they ever knew at all—that he was first and foremost an outstanding ballet teacher and coach. At the same time, “body conditioning” doesn’t begin to describe what those classes were about—it was just a name for something that incorporated all kinds of approaches to working with the body, that inspired and helped generations of dancers, figure skaters, gymnasts,  actors, and anyone else who had an interest in movement. The seemingly endless list of people he’d worked with included Maggie Smith, Jane Fonda, Fenella Fielding and George Chakiris, yet he was humble to the point of complete self-effacement: he was not a “personality,” or the life and soul of the party, or a character, or someone who impressed you with the amount of their knowledge, or the wit of their one-liners. John’s presence in a room was deeply pacifying and refreshing, it had a kind of hum and energy to it that went out to others rather than drawing attention to himself. When he taught, it was never about transmitting knowledge, but about enabling, challenging and nurturing people until they were more fully themselves, and better at what they did.

Music and the continuous barre

Those continuous barres really were continuous. John would say “if you need to take a break, just stop, and drop back in again with the music when you’re ready.” He meant it, of course, and I often did take a rest for a couple of exercises, but he also knew that I couldn’t resist the challenge of trying to keep going. In one of the longest non-stop barres, we finally took a break after 45 minutes.

A lot of the repertoire I have now, I learned in those classes. It was before the days of iPads and electronic scores, so I had to arrange music books all over the piano and on the floor, just managing to switch between them and turn pages in time for the next exercise. Often, I would go straight from class to Zwemmers music shop in Litchfield Street to pick up more repertoire books: buskers’ books, the Irving Berlin songbook, or scores of ballets that John had mentioned, like Les Forains by Sauguet, a work I would never have known without him. He gave me several scores from his own collection, including a book of Gershwin songs that I now know by heart.

I would set myself challenges, such as trying to play everything in 3/4 time until I ran out of ideas, or everything in four, switching sometimes between double or half time. As I grew more confident, I would challenge both of us: to suddenly change from three to four or double to half-time between exercises, or play music that was minimal and quiet on one side, raucous and loud on the other. He loved the challenge, but was never caught out, probably because he had long ago practised with Marie Rambert some of the Dalcroze-inspired rhythmic exercises she had used to help dancers in the original cast of Rite of Spring. In the centre, his exercises would have Dalcroze-based challenges in them—step across left, step across right, in a foursquare rhythm, while doing something else with the arms, then saying the days of the week (which of course, come in sevens, and with different numbers of syllables, so they would never align with the feet or arms). The idea was not to achieve perfection, but to keep trying, to keep nagging the brain and body out of their habits. I am sure there are people who had been going to those classes for years, if not decades, but were still challenged by this part of it.  

Musicality

These are just some of the ways that John’s musicality was unique and extraordinary, which was why most musicians loved playing for him. Apart from anything else, you could play almost any song from any show from 1900 to the present day, and he’d know it, recalling the words instantly. I’d make him smile with ironic segues from one song to another, like Love and Marriage on one side to It ain’t necessarily so on the other. With his voice he kept an impeccable rhythm, secure but never controlling, as fluid and expressive as a conductor’s beat, and with a musician’s sense of phrasing. During the last few counts of the second side of an exercise, he would usually give the instructions for the next one, but sometimes this would be shortened into a single gesture right at the end of the phrase, raising his arm, for example, in preparation for the arm-swings that were about to come. Somehow you knew from the slightest breath or movement what he was going to do next, how much to hold back or push on with tempo. He listened not just to what you were playing, but how you were playing it, and always left space for you to play expressively. It didn’t matter if you made a mistake, or if what you played didn’t quite work: he kept the rhythm going for you and the dancers, so you could quickly find your place again. It was this that enabled me to try out so many things for class in our time together, because you could go wrong, and it didn’t matter. If there was a way to make them work, he’d find it, and if not, well, we’d try again another day.

You can’t teach this kind of musicality, but neither, I think, can you unlearn it once you have experienced it. Many years ago, I took Christopher Hampson (now artistic director and CEO of Scottish Ballet) to one of those classes, eager for him to see what had inspired me so much. He loved it, and began to use continuous barres in his own classes, always acknowledging the debt to John. Alex Simpkins, John’s partner, restarted the body-conditioning classes last year, working together with former members of the class, some of whom had been to them for literally decades. Playing for both Chris and Alex, I feel the same kind of freedom as I had working for John: a musical conversation in the class that often spills out into an excited verbal one afterwards. 

To a large degree, this has nothing to do with music at all, but with sensitivity and communication. John once said that for pianists in a class, it can be a bit like being on the outside of a dinner party, when you don’t know anybody, and nobody makes you feel at home until all of a sudden, somebody says something like “and where do you come from?” and then it’s fine. John was always looking for a way to open, maintain and develop that contact, to make the pianist feel welcome, at home, at one and engaged with the class, because he knew that if it was lost, or never there in the first place, both teaching and playing were a thankless task.

And on the other side

John was one of the most down-to-earth people I have ever met in the ballet world, which is why he was so refreshing to work with, yet at the same time, he had what I feel obliged to call, for clarity’s sake, a “spiritual” side—though I’m not sure I ever heard him use the word: it implies a division between body and spirit that was foreign to him. He was as many people know, a healer, and in his teaching, coaching, and classes, he always remained open to the mysterious, the numinous, and the transpersonal, in the sense of that something that happens between people who do things together that is intensely felt and experienced, but is difficult to identify or describe. There was nothing strange or awkward about any of this. It was a humility, an openness to something beyond himself, as natural as feeling the breeze through an open window. As he put it himself in class one day, rousing everyone to action with his characteristic big smile, “This thing’s bigger than all of us!”

London 1st June 2019

Other posts on this site about John O’Brien

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Bulletin of the Vaganova Ballet Academy — online journal (with English abstracts)

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Am I the last person to have noticed that the Vaganova Ballet Academy has published a serious journal containing the work of Russian dance scholars, Bulletin of the Vaganova Ballet Academy,since 2015, with six issues a year? The articles are in Russian, but all have English abstracts. Given that there’s such a divide in most countries between academic scholarship and practical ballet teaching, it’s astonishing to see both together in the institute most famous globally for producing dancers rather than scholars. 

I came across it by chance, because I was looking up something about airs parlants, and found an  article by Galina Bezuglaya on airs parlants in early 19th century ballet—which will give you some idea of the level of scholarship. A glance through the contents pages reveals a huge breadth and depth. 

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On-screen commentary from pianist Joshua Piper during YouTube ballet class

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When I first learned to drive, I read a book about the police driving test, in which you had to do a “commentary drive,” which involves describing to the examiner (while you’re driving) what you are observing on the road ahead, explaining the decisions you’re making, the precautions you’re taking, and so on. I often think of this during ballet class, because as any ballet pianist will tell you, although we seem to “just” play when the exercise starts, there’s a whole series of observations, analyses and decision-making processes going on before we lay a finger on the keyboard, and then a dozen more as we’re actually playing, some of which are so quick as to seem unconscious and instantaneous. For the novice pianist trying to learn something about how to play for class, watching another pianist has limited use, because you don’t know why they’re doing what they do. Sometimes, they don’t know either, or have forgotten by the time class is over. That’s why the video below by ballet pianist Joshua Piper (aka heavypiano) is really useful: he’s filmed a real class, with him playing, put it on YouTube, and put a short text commentary over it, usually at the beginning and ends of exercises, so you can see why he’s doing what he’s doing. [If you can’t see the embedded video, click here to see it on YouTube]

He explains, for example, that at a certain point in the barre, the teacher likes a “less is more” approach to the music, so he holds back, avoiding too much subdivision, playing chords in light touches, which gives the dancers space to move, so to speak; elsewhere he talks about trying to maintain tempo, and create a feeling of ebb and flow, of introducing a bit of stride, but not too heavy. It’s a great lesson on making your repertoire stretch, too—adapting tunes according to the tempo and feel of the exercise, so that you only just realise by the end that you know the tune, but in a different form (I’m thinking here of his styling of Korobeiniki, a.k.a. the Tetris theme.

He emphasises that what’s happening in this class at times is fairly unusual: the teacher wants him to play quiet, thin, and spacious music for exercises that would often be accompanied by more robust, circussy stuff. But that’s why the video is so useful—it demonstrates how a particular pianist adapts his style to a particular teacher and the dancers, rather than making any claims that you can apply the same musical template to every ballet class in the world. It’s the necessity to adapt that is what makes the job difficult, but also rewarding. One of my favourite comments is where he says he’s trying to “imply round movement with my LH pattern” in ronds de jambe, an exercise that’s normally taken in 3/4, but which he’s playing in 4. Finding ways to trick people’s ears into thinking they’re hearing three when they aren’t is one of my tactics, too, as I’ve described in another post.

This is a great video, and Joshua Piper plays beautifully—but I also have to say he’s lucky to have this teacher, and that class (I’m guessing it’s Ballet Austin, but I’m not sure). There are other videos to be made, where the pianist—like a police driver explaining how he is going to manoeuvre a skidding car out of a muddy ditch while pursuing criminals— shows how they try to make the eternal fondu-tango-that-is-too-slow or the ronds-de-jambe-stirring-porridge-waltz still feel like music against the most challenging odds.

The more I watch and listen to this video, the more I love the way Joshua Piper plays, his repertoire, stylings, and commentary—and the video itself, too: it makes such a nice change to have a static, wide camera angle, and a focus on a good quality recording of the sound, rather than a body mic given to the teacher, and fetishistic close-ups of dancers’ feet and sweaty faces. Ballet on TV is so darn predictable. This video gives you a feel for the calm, peaceful concentration that you get in a ballet classes, and an idea of just how exposed and focal the music can be when you’ve got a teacher who isn’t screaming over the top of it.

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RIP John O’Brien

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John O'Brien, June 2016, photo by Andrew Florides

John O’Brien in June 2016, at Café Richoux in Mayfair. Photo by Andrew Florides (www.andrewflorides.co.uk)

In all the years I knew John, he always seemed the same age, and always young, so I never thought I would be writing this post. He was also one of the most present people I have ever met. I’m lost for words to hear that he died yesterday, so here is a post I wrote about John   a few years ago; another about the time the actress and singer Gertrude Thoma and I surprised him in Barnes at the crack of dawn on his birthday , inviting him to a house where we’d just spent the night at a party (they had a piano), with a rendition of the Marlene Dietrich number Johnny, Wenn du Geburtstag hast. And the last word, the thing that made John’s classes different from any other teacher I’ve known, his gentle philosophy of “This thing is bigger than all of us.” 

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Music in “Where Snowflakes Dance and Swear” by Stephen Manes

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Where Snowflakes Dance, book by Stephen ManesI bought Where Snowflakes Dance and Swear when it first came out in 2011: I didn’t particularly want to read it (because I spend enough time in this world at work) but I couldn’t ignore it as a kind of ethnography of the ballet world that I was writing about. It was a good decision: unlike so many other authors of backstage views of the ballet world, Stephen Manes actually talks about music—the problems, what people play, the problems of hiring and marking up orchestral parts, how much it costs, and so on. 

For anyone who has ever had a problem with music publishers, copyright and licensing in the ballet world, pages 252-258 will probably be one of the first times you’ve seen your experience represented in a published book, with the exception of Matthew Naughtin’s Ballet Music: A Handbookwhich tells the story (and gives information) from the music librarian’s perspective. Even he, though, doesn’t get into the kind of gory embarrassing detail that Manes does, where a company has to do things that are on the grey, fuzzy margins of legal, in order to get by. Everything in these pages I had experienced myself, and was delighted and surprised to see that my troubles had been shared by others. You think you’re mad, criminal and incompetent until you realize it’s the craziness of music publishing that is the problem. 

I can’t think of another book or article that contains so much about everyday musical practice in the ballet world: what pianists play for class; the decision to use CD or piano for rehearsal; the embarrassing moment when you do a new work, and find that there’s no rehearsal score, so the company pianist has to do one. It’s just a shame that you have to trawl through the book looking for the references—the indexing could be improved so that it’s easier to find topics, rather than very granular references to particular people or ballets, but at least the references are in there somewhere: ethnographies of ballet often say little more than ‘classical music plays in the background’ and leave it at that, so this is a welcome change. 

Ballet pianists and company class

The author (see comment below) has reminded me of one of the biggest sections on the work of ballet pianists, on page 697-703, with detailed explanations from two company pianists, and their route into the profession. One ended up playing for the company “because they hated the class pianist” (p. 698), another started out when he was left to sink or swim in a class in Moscow—  “. . .there’s something about someone foreign yelling at you, screaming at you. . .” (p.700). Quite. We’ve all been there. But the balance in Manes’ writing is everything: despite the awfulness, there are compensations, and reasons why ballet pianists end up loving their job and staying in it. A lot of so-called “behind the scenes” writing on ballet musicians is nothing of the sort, because it’s commissioned and written under the auspices of the ballet companies themselves. 

Repertoire

Dotted around the book (and this is what prompted this post) are little references to music that to my mind, make a huge difference, not just to the evocation of the scenes that the author is describing, but to our knowledge of what music in the ballet world is like generally. The book may be specific to a time and place, but musically, it sounds very familiar: “A medley of ‘Stairway to Paradise,’ ‘Bidin’ my Time,’ and ‘Nice Work if You Can Get it’ played with strong emphasis on the beat accompanies a combination that involves what Otto calls ‘many’ turns.” (p. 44). Stretches are done to a Dvořák Slavonic Dance, and sit-ups to Carmen (p. 119); “Flashy jumps and big turns to Beethoven, Bach, “Be a Clown,” and “Meet Me in St. Louis” begin to lighten the mood of the room. (p. 505).  In a description of a rehearsal, Manes mentions that “The Merry Widow Waltz” wafts in from an adjacent classroom (p.173), prompting a momentary digression in the rehearsal to remember fondly the time the company did Ronnie Hynd’s ballet The Merry Widow.” It’s a lovely detail—it’s exactly the kind of thing that happens in rehearsal. In writing about ballet, there is usually so much emphasis on the hyperfocus and determination of dancers as elite athletes, that these little overhearings and spillages of music and memory usually go unmentioned.  

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Ivor Guest Trainee Pianist at The Royal Ballet (paid 9 month contract)

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Delighted to see that the Royal Ballet have launched a 9-month paid position for a trainee pianist at the Royal Opera House, named in memory of Ivor Guest. Please pass on the details to anyone you think would be interested.

It so happens that I was on the point of writing a blog post about training ballet pianists yesterday, because I’m halfway through Matthew Syed’s Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice. Syed, a former table tennis champion, is basically reiterating and expanding on the 10,000 hours of practice rule, and the “growth mindset” theory: that you become expert at something through artful practice, not through innate talent (though genetics obviously has a role to play on what Syed calls the “threshold” for entry into a particular sphere). The take-home point is that there are no cases where people achieve skills by short-cutting the practice, and none where continued practice doesn’t lead to results (obviously, it has to be the right kind of practice). 

It suddenly struck me, as I was sitting in a ballet class watching students go through some of the 10,000 hours that they would need to become truly expert, that it’s rare that pianists are given the opportunity to get the practice they need in order to become skilled. Many of my colleagues agree that it takes a ball-park figure of two years regular playing for class (and an intense amount of hard work outside class, finding and practising repertoire, or learning to improvise in appropriate styles), before you begin to feel comfortable—and then, anyone I’ve ever met in this field says “and you never stop learning.” It’s true: there’s always more to learn, and always that one teacher, regardless of your experience, who can freak you out and make you wonder whether you’re in the right job. 

This is why whenever someone talks about “training courses” for pianists, I always sigh inwardly (even though I’ve taught on them myself), because as much as there are things you can teach on a course, background stuff you can learn that is necessary and useful, there is just no replacement for sitting on that piano stool, and being served exercises like Syed was served thousands of table-tennis balls by his coaches. That’s not just a sentimental “There’s no substitute for experience” —there really isn’t. Of all people, ballet teachers should understand this principle, because that’s how people get good at ballet, yet it’s very rare that teachers do give pianists opportunities to try for long enough to get better.  It’s assumed that what is needed is some kind of training in music, whereas that’s like passing your driving theory test, but never getting in the car. 

 

 

 

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“Ballerinas in the church hall”—Virginia Taylor’s thesis online

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Joyce Kilmer thought she would never see a poem as lovely as a tree; well, I’m pretty sure I will never see a thesis as lovely as Virginia Taylor’s  Ballerinas in the church hall: Ideologies of femininity, ballet and dancing school.” (PhD, University of Chichester, 2003). I had known Virginia Taylor’s work from the papers she published on why girls go to ballet, but only recently noticed that her thesis is now freely available online. 

It is so beautifully written, I thought all the time about what John Law wrote in After Method (2004): 

Why do the books fall into two heaps, the novels on the one hand, and the academic volumes on the other? [. . .] What difference would it make if we were instead to apply the criteria that we usually apply to novels (or even more to poetry) to academic writing? . . . if we had to write our academic pieces as if they were poems, as if every word counted, how would we write differently? How much would we write at all. [. . .] How, then, might we imagine an academic way of writing that concerns itself with the quality of its own writing? With the creativity of writing? (Law, 2004, pp. 11-12) 

I enjoyed reading this thesis as much as any of my favourite novels, and I could read it again and again for pleasure. She takes apart woolly, ideological thinking about ballet so elegantly, it’s like watching a surgeon at work. I burst out laughing several times, and I copied and pasted quotes from almost every single page of the thesis, sometimes several paragraphs from the same page. If you have suffered for years with the art form you work in being denigrated as girly, fluffy, pink, feminised, uncreative, hierarchical etc. (as if all those things were inherently wrong) and ideologically inferior to state dance education, then this will be the oxygen you need, but she’s paid for every cylinder with razor-sharp arguments and critiques of texts that are often regarded without a second thought as canonical in the dance education world. The thesis pre-dates the Jordan Petersoning  of ballet which requires it to be manned-up  into something masculine, athletic, and sciencey for boys and girls alike, but the tools you need to unscrew that screwed-up thinking are right here.

It’s not just that. It’s beautifully structured, and her methods are so clear and down-to-earth, there’s never a point where you can say “Ah yes, but. . . ” because she’s already pre-empted you. One of my favourite moments is when she asks  a senior examiner from one of the dance teaching societies how she would explain the global spread of ballet teaching: 

“She replied, ‘Parents all over the world want their daughters to be graceful’; although indeed she laughed when I added ‘just like us.’ (I was washing the car, she was walking her dogs.)” (p. 128)

I’ve been at conferences where people post up quotes from their respondents on the PowerPoint screen (“Anna, aged 19, name changed to preserve anonymity”), against the snazzy colours of an off-the-shelf template with a University logo in the corner, sharing  Elizabeth’s hope in Pride and Prejudice that it will be “something that will amaze the whole room, and be handed down to posterity with all the éclat of a proverb.” To admit that you were washing the car or walking the dogs at the time is—never mind that it’s also responsible scholarship—pure class. 

Altogether, the paragraphs I copied and pasted for my own notes amounted to 6,467 words. I think I’m going to be saying “see Taylor (2003)” for many years to come, because there is, to my knowledge, almost nothing out there right now that attests to and celebrates the lived experience of everyday ballet teaching and ballet dancing. What is more commonly represented and what is studied is the rarified world of professional ballet companies, or the vocational training that serves as preparation for them, as if this were the platonic ideal of ballet of which dancing in church halls is a corruption, or not even an instance at all. And that would be correct, because the two are different things, but it takes a doctoral thesis to unpick the political and ideological problems that confuse them. Increasingly, dance education research also focuses on the experience of dance students in higher education, but that’s another story. 

One of the things that she dissects is the idea that there is something  old-fashioned, “traditional” and anti-progressive about ballet teaching (and therefore morally wrong), and something inherently ideologically pure about state education and child-centred progressive education philosophies.  In her interviews with children about how they felt about it, something quite different emerged: they like dance school, because they get seen, not stuck at the back of the class. It’s so simple, and yet I hadn’t really thought of it before: of course, for all the formality of ballet class, there are times when it’s your turn, when you’re in the centre, when your line is at the front, when it’s your turn to come from the corner. You get seen. You get corrected, not because you’re wrong, but to get better. 

Choreography and ideology

For years, every time I see an article saying that it’s a disgrace that there are so few female choreographers, my first thought is “But what is so culturally important about being a choreographer that this is such a disgrace?”  It promotes the idea of the 19th century genius, but sticks a skirt on him, as if Christine Battersby wrote Gender and Genius in vain. I also wonder about  boys who have no desire to choreograph—are  they emasculated by wanting to “just” dance? I have avoided saying this for fear of being misunderstood, or changing my mind, but Virginia Taylor puts what I mean more clearly: 

Here I have an unashamed polemical aim, which is to convince the reader that all dancing is creative. Ballet, and other dance, is a creative experience. It may not be original, but it is ideologically specific to consider dance-inventing a superior activity to dance-doing. Indeed, I question that ‘self-expression’ and ‘creativity’ are only to be found in dance-making, or in improvising. (Taylor 2003, p. 167) 

She exposes ideological positions for what they are, to the extent that I think this thesis ought to stored in the fridge with the EpiPen for anyone who is allergic to current educational dogma. Speaking of a performance by two dance-school girls accompanied by their friend on flute, that was frowned on by state school teachers who saw it, she says: 

If a girl thinks the tune from The Deer Hunter (1978) is beautiful, and plays it as well as she can, and her friends make what they see as an appropriate dance to a piece of ‘classical’ music borrowing classical dance forms, what is the cultural position which denies this validity?” (p. 168)

Quite. I have too many other favourite lines, but this is one of them, which wins my prize for the best use of italics in a feminist sentence: ” Thomas the Tank Engine pulls coaches Annie and Clarabel, who are identical to each other, without much of a character, and most importantly and with startling Freudian implications, they have no motor.” (Taylor, 2003, p. 102)

I love “Ballerinas in the Church Hall”  not least  because it’s so close to what I’m writing about in my own work: how teachers in everyday situations deal with music, how music gets “done” in the studio, how people deal with music in terms of tum-te-tums, diddly-diddlys and “I don’t do time signature.” It’s also about how teachers don’t deal with music, or the latest educational theory, because frankly, there’s too much else to deal with, like the former student of mine who told me about a particularly bad day in the studio: her teaching course demanded an assignment from her about peer assessment in ballet. The reality of her teaching experience was that she was having to clean the tutu of a girl who’d sat down on a very ripe banana, before taking another baby ballerina to the toilet to wash the diarrhoea out her knickers.  You won’t read about that in the scholarly literature, but you should. 

Ballerinas in the Church Hall: Ideologies of femininity, ballet, and dancing schools. Virginia Taylor, 2003.  (Free download of the full text)

Postscript: on research and note-taking

Finding this thesis has ended a search that has lasted several years: some time in perhaps 2013, I was in the RAD library, and read an article that said that on current numbers,  you had more chance of becoming a premier league  footballer or member of parliament than a professional ballet dancer. It was one of those surprising, clever formulations that stuck, to the extent that I wanted to quote it several times. But where had I read it? Wherever I thought I had read it, I was wrong. I could have sworn I remembered the shelf I took the box of journals from, and what colour the journal was and so on. I couldn’t just say the same thing without acknowledging my source. It turns out, it was Virginia Taylor who said it—and I guess I must have read it an a conference paper, while I was reading a box of journals. 

I have drawn attention before to the employment opportunities – or rather, lack of them – for professional ballet dancers in the UK (Taylor 2000a, 2003). On-line company lists in February 2003 revealed the grand total of 219. Statistically therefore, you are three times more likely to be a Member of the House of Commons at Westminster (659), or thirteen times more likely to be a professional footballer (2875) than a ballet dancer with a regular pay packet. (p. 9)

Apart from shouting my joy from the rooftops at finally finding the source, this is a warning to anyone writing an essay, dissertation, thesis or whatever: keep a file somewhere for quotes, and use it, all the time. Don’t read stuff on the train, or for pleasure, unless you are at the same time rigorous about adding accurately to your sources at the point of reading. Always add quotation marks, because if you don’t, years later you won’t remember whether you were paraphrasing or quoting. 

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Judith Espinosa, the fishermen’s wives and the waltz

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As allegro was about to begin during a ballet class yesterday, I started to smirk thinking about something I’d read in the fascinating The First 75 Years of the Academy, a book about the RAD from 1995. It was a reminiscence about the teaching methods of Judith Espinosa, who “spoke Cockney in the old Dickensian manner” (pronouncing the letter v as w, apparently), and was rarely seen without a cigarette. For those used to universal smoking bans, it’s hard to believe that this was probably in a ballet studio, but even I remember having an ashtray on the piano during company class. In addition to chain-smoking and speaking Dickensian cockney, she also shouted so loud that people feared for her vocal health. 

Put all these together, and now imagine the way that she set her choreographic “scenas” in class:

“You’re fishermen’s wives—you’re waiting on the beach for the boats, but there’s news that all the men have been drowned in a storm; you’re wild with grief. [To the pianist] We’ll have a waltz.” The First 75 Years of the Academy, p. 12

The style is hilarious, but what I was smirking at just as much was the familiarity—to anyone who’s played for class—of the abrupt return to musical mundanity with “we’ll have a waltz.” 

 

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