Advent 2008 as a list

We’ve all got stories to tell about life in the ballet world. Here’s a list of some of my favourite musical ones from behind the piano.

  • Advent Nov 30, 2008 11:59 am It’s that time of year again. I didn’t stir up any puddings on this, stir-up-sunday, much as I would have liked, but I have decided what my advent calendar will be this year. In my experience, the best choreographers and dancers are much more enlightening, enlightened, insightful and interesting, amusing and quick-witted than any musician. To ...
  • Advent 1: Solving musical problems Dec 1, 2008 8:09 am The opening of Mark Morris’s Drink to me only with thine eyes, choreographed to piano etudes by Virgil Thomson  begins with a bizarre, meandering bitonal extravagance called Chromatic Double Harmonies (Portrait of Sylvia Marlowe), which the on-stage pianist plays for a long time without the interruption, so to speak, of any choreography.  In one of ...
  • Advent 2: The chord game Dec 2, 2008 5:48 am Prokofiev’s March from the Love for Three Oranges strictly speaking doesn’t end at the end of its first 16 counts, but it has all the gestures of a perfect cadence even if the chords are ‘wrong’. I’d played this dozens of times for class and got away with it until one day in Berlin, during a ...
  • Advent 3: On being too ‘musical’ Dec 3, 2008 9:26 am In the summer of 2000, Christopher Hampson (a.k.a. Chris in this blog elsewhere) created a five-minute graduation-day piece for the final year students at the RAD called Finale, for which he assembled a reconstituted miniature of  Saint-Saëns’ 4th piano concerto (1875). Given the brief, some cuts would be inevitable, most of which he’d decided on in ...
  • Advent 4: Can I have that on a… Dec 4, 2008 7:07 am In the years that I’ve been playing for student ballet teachers, I’ve always found the notion of asking for ‘dance rhythms’ a bit silly, unless dance rhythms are your thing. Fine, if you’d rather have a mazurka than a waltz, and you know that for sure, but if you don’t know a hornpipe from a ...
  • Advent 5: When you do the step… Dec 5, 2008 9:23 am This has to be my favourite correction of all time, from Gary Harris (aka Fido, now director of Royal New Zealand Ballet) after the first run through of an allegro enchaîinement: “Can you look as if you’re doing the exercise, rather than having the exercise done to you” Pure gold.
  • Advent 6: If in doubt… Dec 6, 2008 10:51 am I think you probably have to have a mental imprint of Julia Farron’s voice and demeanour to appreciate this. It was about 20 years ago, at an induction course for a new syllabus at the RAD (when Julia was artistic director). I can’t remember the exact context, but in that assured and re-assuring,  husky  voice ...
  • Advent 7: Moving to think Dec 7, 2008 2:19 pm I could have picked any number of examples, but this is one that I remember most from the times I’ve worked with Gillian Lynne because it’s so darn simple. Somebody in the studio was attempting to describe the way two steps in the solo that Gillian had created needed to run smoothly together.  It was ...
  • Advent 8: Reasons to be cheerful 5, 5, 4, 3, 11, 7, 6, 6, 9, 4, 4 Dec 8, 2008 11:44 am Stravinsky’s Agon is a dastardly  complex score, serialist, polyphonic, polyrhythmic, you name it, and Balanchine’s choreography takes no easy ways out.  But that’s just the technical challenge of the piece, not its object. As the incomparable Pat Neary tried to explain to dancers at the Deutsche Oper Berlin when she was putting it on there, ...
  • Advent 9: And for this I’d like…. Dec 9, 2008 6:07 pm Nothing makes me more uneasy than the kind of teacher who seems to imagine a music so perfect, so refined and so sublime to accompany their exercise that there is very little in the real world that is likely ever  to approach it. Like Georgie and Lucia playing duets in Tilling, they close their eyes ...
  • Advent 10: Can I have that on a (2) Dec 10, 2008 11:28 pm Another from Fido. About two minutes before class began officially, he came to the piano (it was an upright) and stood at it facing me, using the lid as a barre. In his best mock ‘teacher voice’ he began ‘For my plié exercise, I’m going to do oooone-aaand-a-twooooo. Threeeeee-aand-aa-fooouuuur, fiiiii-ve and a six, sevvvven and ah eiight’ ...
  • Advent 11: Rite and Wrong Dec 11, 2008 11:32 pm Most of the time, my experience, education, instinct and what I’ve picked up from friends and colleagues serves me quite well when it comes to speculating and arguing about music and dance issues. But I’ve found that it’s the views I am most certain of that my friends have had to disabuse me of. “Surely”, I ...
  • Advent 12: Being & Time Dec 12, 2008 9:14 am How an argument with Christopher Hampson turned into a total rethink of space and time. Well, in Tooting, anyway.
  • Advent 13: King Tut Dec 13, 2008 9:41 am It’s not polonaises that I hate, so much as polonais-ing. Playing a polonaise on the piano is on a par with sanding a dozen sash windows by hand, or scanning 150 pages of articles from books which won’t quite fit on the scanner. If God had intended man to play polonaises on the piano, he ...
  • Advent 14: Brace yourself Dec 14, 2008 10:34 am Another from the incomparable Jackie Barratt, when she was ballet mistress at ENB. She was rehearsing two principals in Cranko’s Taming of the Shrew, which involves a lot of complex and heavy-duty lifts. In one of them, Kate adopts a position rather like a figurehead on a ship. “Careful with your shoulders there” said Jackie, “otherwise it ...
  • Advent 15: Leg stories (1) Dec 15, 2008 5:26 pm I think this is a Jackie Barratt-ism: describing a rather dull-looking arabesque, she said to the dancer concerned ‘that leg’s a bit…BBC2’
  • Advent 16: Leg stories (2) Dec 16, 2008 5:36 pm One of my favourite gigs of recent years is playing for the company of dancers that does the Raymond Gubbay Strauss Gala (choreographed by Christopher Hampson). In intensive rehearsal periods, I’ve noticed that companies & choreographers end up speaking in ballet shorthand, so if you come in in the middle of it, you need a ...
  • Advent 17: Going up… Dec 17, 2008 9:22 am This is one of my favourite tales of ballet misunderstandings, but the context takes so long to describe that it’s almost untellable verbally. Let’s start with the main characters – Glen Tetley, one of the most gentle, quiet, and modest people I’ve had the pleasure of working with. When he worked with us in Berlin setting ...
  • Advent 18: Say it with cut Flowers Dec 18, 2008 1:57 pm Actions speak louder than words, and this post is about an ‘action’ rather than a one-liner.  It’s topical, since I happened to be swanning around at the opening night of Christopher Hampson’s Nutcracker at the Coliseum last night (thank you to Erina Takahashi for letting me snap her after the show for the blog picture). After ...
  • Advent 19: Trills and spills Dec 19, 2008 10:47 am In a class for Mark Morris’s company  a couple of years ago, I was playing the waltz from l’Étoile du Nord (that has to be someone’s nickname, surely?) better known as the opening number of Les Patineurs. During the exercise, I suddenly heard Mark’s voice booming at me over the top of the piano saying ...
  • Advent 20: What a difference a D makes Dec 20, 2008 8:14 am 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 ...
  • Advent 21: I got rhythm, I got matches… Dec 21, 2008 12:06 am Around the same time as the Gary Harris/Indian River Music story, Kevin Richmond was playing Scrooge in Christopher Hampson’s Christmas Carol. So there we all were, in the National Youth Theatre studios up Holloway Road, doing class (it might even have been the same class). Scrooge was a speaking part, most suitable for Kev, who had ...
  • Advent 22: How to lead someone off stage Dec 22, 2008 1:23 am Another gem from Mark Morris.  It was in a rehearsal for Drink to me only with thine eyes and there was this bit where a guy had to lead a girl off stage, downstage right. The correction went something like this: “Look, you offer your hand, she takes it, you walk off. Natural. Why do you  ...
  • Advent 23: Brought to book Dec 23, 2008 10:35 am When Ivan Nagy took over ENB after Peter Schaufuss went to Berlin, we had another year of Peter’s Nutcracker to contend with until Ben Stevenson’s came in the following year. It was an eccentric production, with interruptions to the score in the first Act where Drosselmeyer suddenly mimes two interpolated piano solos (the real pianist ...
  • Advent 24: Till Eulenspiegel Dec 24, 2008 4:59 pm The top-prize for annoying till-routines goes jointly in my head to Boots and Smiths. Smiths at airports always seem to be running special offers, so that whatever you take to the counter, you’re advised that if you buy two you can get something else free, or that it’s cheaper to buy this and that together. ...
  • Advent 25: And the last word… Dec 25, 2008 12:01 am …goes to John O’Brien. I could never pinpoint why John’s classes, and the experience of working with him was quite so different to every other teacher.  Then one day, he happened to say in passing, ‘my attitude to class is, this thing is bigger than all of ...
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