Advent 20: What a difference a D makes

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The end of the 1st air de ballet from Le Prophète

The end of the 1st air de ballet from Le Prophète

Today’s golden moment also concerns Mark Morris and Les Patineurs, it so happens. I was playing the waltz from Meyerbeer’s Le Prophète (better known as the  pas de trois from Les Patineurs) for another Mark Morris class, and around bar six he says to the dancers over the music in an anticipatory way ‘This is the best bit!’. I looked to see what was about to happen in the exercise, but I’d misunderstood – he meant the ‘best bit of the music’, which was clear when he sang along with the last two bars (shown left).

To have those two bars as one of your favourite bits, you have to have an enjoyment of music unencumbered by pretension, a response to what music does rather than what it means.  It takes an almost pathologic enjoyment of music to feel two bars of a Meyerbeer waltz coming up, and want to tell a company of dancers that it’s about to happen and not to miss it, when you could have so many other things on your mind.

What more often happens is that even if they get beyond the business of ‘ballet teaching’ (all those muscles, all that Pilates & health & safety and reflexive practice and somatics and nutrition and angles, heights and uniform and steps) to the music, some teachers then have a pathological suspicion and worry about music – maybe it’s not ‘classical’ enough, perhaps it’s too ‘jazzy’, or doesn’t ‘send the right message’ or ‘sound like ballet’, or maybe it’s just not cool.  With so much image at stake, they never get down to the simple bit where you just like music for what it does, to the bit where you can like Meyerbeer because he goes ‘yum ta-tum ta-tum ta-TUM!’ at the end. It’s always fascinated me that Balanchine, the archetypal modernist who championed a work like Agon, could equally enjoy Minkus, Gershwin or Rodgers and Hammerstein, but it doesn’t surprise me. If you like music, you like music, not what it can do for your image (unless you’re 12, of course).

If you wonder what motivates me to write all this stuff, it’s partly because I often sit behind the piano in classes gagging to tell stories like this, like some lonely old lady at a bus stop wanting to tell you their life story.  If I can get it off my chest, there’s less risk that I’ll start interrupting your ballet class with my anecdotes and opinions. The point of this particular story today is that after the exercise, Mark said ‘where is that music from?’, and so I told him, adding that Le Prophète was the first opera to include roller skating. A few moments later I thought ‘Oh my God, I’ve just interuppted a Mark Morris class with anecdotes about roller skating in ballet – what was I thinking of?!’

But of course, it was all right, because he interrupts his own class with asides about all kinds of things, too (for a longer description, see my 2005 posting). There’s dialogue. There’s education, erudition, humour and playfulness. It’s like Socratic questioning with music and dance. It’s all the things you might have hoped to get from a dance education, but if you’re lucky, you might just get it if you join a company.

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3 thoughts on “Advent 20: What a difference a D makes

  1. Abigail

    Hello, I have been enjoying reading your blog so much. I am a ballet teacher with a lot of musical background and I have learned a lot from your posts.
    I do have a question regarding the 1st air de ballet from Les Patineurs though ( the one you mentioned above in this post). When I listen to it I can’t be sure if it is a waltz or a mazurka. It seems too steady for a waltz but the rhythm isn’t quite right for a mazurka. Could you possibly elaborate?
    Thank you,
    Abigail

    Reply
    1. Jonathan Still Post author

      Hi Abigail, glad you’ve been enjoying the blog, thanks so much for the feedback.

      In my head, I distinguish between waltz music where you can clearly hear three “steps” and an accent on “one” every three counts, which seems to be characteristic of early 19th century waltzes and polka mazurkas, and later Viennese waltzes which are more gliding and swaying in nature, and have a lift/lilt/pause in the middle of the bar (i.e. on 2), and are more in 6 than in 3 (because you get an accent every six counts rather than every three). This piece seems to be the first kind, and although it may not be correct to do so, I mentally call it a “polka mazurka” because it has a lot in common with that dance (dotted rhythms on every beat).

      It does have the characteristics of a “ballroom” mazurka, and of a polka mazurka in many ways, but it feels rather German peasant-y to be either of those (which would fit the story of the piece). So perhaps what it “is,” if it is anything at all, is a dance for ballet dancers pretending to be peasants, for an audience of people whose repertoire would be dancing polka-mazurkas in their leisure time.

      A lot depends on how you play it as to how it sounds. You could tell a pianist (or orchestra) to play it fast and light, or you could ask them to play it at a moderate tempo with an accent on the third beat, and it would have quite a different character, though “the music” in terms of the score has not changed.

      Reply

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