Tag Archives: ballet pianists

Ballet pianists on film

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Film clips of ballet pianists playing for class are so rare. There are films (such as the World Ballet Day online classes) where pianists play for a class that is being broadcast, but that is quite a different thing. The pianists are usually already in place in their corner, expertly making the class work, the piano mic’d and mixed in with a mic feed from the teacher, so that you never hear what a class sounds like as a natural observer, from a particular corner of the room. You don’t see the moment the pianist walks into the studio, whether they have music with them or not, how they are greeted (if at all) by the teacher, or what kind of people they are when they are not playing the piano.

So it was great to find this short clip, (starting at 28:20—should start playing there automatically)  in The Children of Theatre Street (1977) a feature length documentary, with Grace Kelly, about what is now called the Vaganova Academy. 


 

The voiceover intones mournfully, “Maria Ioseyevna Pal’tseva has walked these halls for 40 years. Like Madam Frankopolo [?], she has become part of the fabric of the school. The dancers come and go, but Pal’tseva remains, going from class to class with her purse and her old bag of music.” 

Meanwhile, Pal’tseva is filmed walking down the corridor; the camera shifts to behind the piano, and shows her ambling slowly towards it.  There is an almost embarrassing wait—as if editing hadn’t been invented in 1977—  while the pianist puts her “old bag of music” on the floor, and places her right foot on the sustain pedal almost before she has finished sitting down properly. And no wonder: without a second thought,  she provides a tinkling flourish to accompany the entrance of the teacher into the room. 

There then follows a short interaction where the teacher explains to Palt’seva what the exercise is, and what music she wants for it. It’s a noticeable contrast to the 2007 film about the young English dancer Henry Perkins who studied at the Bol’shoi, where the pianist was invisible, and just supplied music on demand as the teacher barked “AGAIN” repeatedly at his student. 

Both may be fictions. I doubt whether such interactions ever happened in quite that  way in real classes in 1977 (any more than they do now). Documentary makers seem to swing between portraying idealized forms of collaboration, or cherry-picking tense moments which they may even have induced themselves,  so I am likewise cautious about drawing any conclusions about the status of the pianist in the Bolshoi documentary.  But that’s precisely why I find these clips interesting. You have to unpick so many strands of fiction to get at any kind of truth, and to do so would involve a lot of difficult work. 

For more on this, see an earlier post on communication in ballet classes, featuring a great clip from Stepping Out. 

 

 

Confessions of an anxious ballet pianist day #18: Page turns

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Picture of a page of the score for Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker (Sugar Plum Fairy variation, the manège section)

The manège from the Sugar Plum Fairy variation. This line (the end of a page) should be a left hand page – if it isn’t, you’re stuffed.

I’m not a particularly tidy or obsessive person, except when it comes to scores that I have to play from. If it’s for a performance, I’ll want to know exactly what the score does long in advance: where are the page turns? Can the score be cut and pasted to make better places for turning? How thick is the paper, and what does it feel like to turn the page? How easy is it to turn two pages at once? How does it sit on the music stand? Sellotape, glue, PrittStick, loose leaves or A4 sheets stuck back-to-back, thin paper curled in a photocopier, bad pagination, poorly marked cuts, these are almost the only things in life that turn me into the kind of nutcase that could feature in Channel 4 documentary.

I think it all goes back to a single traumatic incident when I was playing for a performance by West Midlands Youth Ballet very early in my career. It was during the section choreographed for the youngest children, that consisted of several short dances accompanied by different piano solos. I had carefully pasted all the separate pieces in order into a scrapbook for the show, to avoid having loose-leaf pages on the stand. So far so good.

But in the first show, at the end of one of the dances, I realised – way too late, because the dance had finished – that I’d turned over two pages at once, thanks to a tiny protrusion of Sellotape that caused two pages to stick together as I made the page turn.  It meant that the  children had danced (let’s say) Section 4 to the music of Section 5. I realised the only thing to do was to play Section 5 again, this time, with the right dance.  To their eternal credit, you would not have known that anything had gone wrong – the children had danced an entire dance to the wrong music, and then had to work out what I was going to do next without any communication between stage and pit. We got to the end, and it was fine. I felt shamed and awed by their professionalism.

Perhaps it was that early experience that made me obsessive about page turns in all the syllabus books that I’ve prepared over the last few years for the RAD. The thing about playing for dance is that you just have to keep going, absolutely in tempo, when you’re accompanying a dancer. You can’t ask them to wait while you handle a page turn, or correct a wrong note. In an ideal world, there wouldn’t be a single difficult page turn anywhere in a ballet score. On the whole, copyists (the people who prepare scores for print) are careful to position page turns where there is a rest, or where the music leaves one hand free to make the turn.

That’s why it’s vital to get LH and RH pages in their correct position when you make a copy. By long publishing tradition, odd page numbers are always RH pages, and even page numbers are always LH pages. One of the worst things you can do to a musician is put a score through a photocopier so that even-numbered pages come out on the RH side – easily done if you’re photocopying an extract that begins on a LH page, but you don’t put a blank page on the top of the pile to force it on to the left when it comes out of the copier. Every carefully positioned page turn will now be in the wrong place, and those places that were deliberately given two-page spreads because they constitute impossible turns, are now on a page turn.*

This was the case with a score of Nutcracker I was playing from the other day. The manège, which in every other score should be (and is) on a two-page spread, was split over a LH and RH page, and you don’t have a hand free to turn. What’s worse, I turned two pages at once, because the bottom corner of the page had disintegrated, so I accidentally turned the page behind it instead. I tried to save myself, but I discovered to my horror that without the music, I haven’t a clue  what the manège of the Sugar Plum Fairy does, even though I’ve been playing it for years.  I apologised, and we started again. I turned the corner of the page up nice and sharp, so I wouldn’t miss it this time. Unfortunately, this was one fold too many, and the corner of the page ripped off in my hand.  I think it may be time to carry my own copy around with me, or learn the manège by heart.

 

* So the golden rule is, always photocopy a score starting at an odd-numbered page, even if you don’t need that first page. 

Confessions of an anxious ballet pianist day #17: Why’s she looking at me like that?

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tortureThe very first time I ever played for a ballet exercise was in my audition at RAD headquarters in 1985 (they’d advertised for a pianist, with an offer of training for a suitable candidate if, like me, they didn’t have experience). They got a couple of students into a studio, and asked the teacher Debra (Debbie) Wayne to set a few exercises as if it was a real class. It can’t have gone too badly because I got the job.  But I’ve never forgotten the moment when, during a pirouette exercise, the teacher suddenly stopped right in front of me, fixed a terrifying wide-eyed stare straight at me and shouted “STOP!”

I snatched my hands from the piano keyboard, looked at her and cowered. “Sorry….” I began. Everyone looked at me – her, the audition panel, and the students. Why had I stopped? You said “stop,” I explained. The wide-eyed stare melted into a smile. “I said SPOT,” she explained, “I was talking to the students.” I remember thinking “So why were you looking at me, then?”

Only several weeks later did I realise that this is normal for ballet. Teachers sometimes half-do an exercise in front of the dancers, as if they were part of the group, acting normally for the most part, but then suddenly isolating particular directions, positions or movements, admonishing or encouraging as they go. When they appear to be looking at you, they’re not. They’re facing whatever direction the exercise has taken them, which might mean that they’re standing feet away from you, staring right at you and through you at the same time – which can look menacing if you don’t realise what’s going on.

Sometimes, dancers use you to spot when they’re doing some fiendishly difficult diagonal, so you see this person coming straight at you with tense features, gritted teeth and wide eyes that seem to say “I’m going to kill you.” They’re not, of course: this is just their “fouetté” face or whatever horrible step it is that they’re trying to achieve while they come at you from their corner to yours. But it’s difficult to turn off the fight-or-flight instinct that such a gaze naturally evokes in you, especially as, you never know, maybe today they really do want to kill you because you’ve got the tempo wrong.

I don’t think I’ve ever quite got used to the weirdness of ballet directions, that is, the way that dancers just face the way that they’ve got to face when they’re doing an exercise. Just when you look across to someone you know in class during pliés, they turn away from you, with a pained expression. The pained expression is probably nothing to do with you, it’s just their “it’s too early, but I’ve got to do this plié anyway” face, and they only turned away because that’s the exercise. But even after all these years, you can’t help occasionally feeling a visceral tug at your emotions when it happens, that makes you wonder why she’s (not) looking at you like that.

Slightly weirder is the opposite – when you’re facing a dancer because she’s hanging on to the edge of your piano, or you’re looking that way, and the directions of the exercise mean that you’re staring straight at her for several counts at a time. That’s when you have to use what Erving Goffman brilliantly termed “civil inattention,” the way of acknowledging that someone is there, but in such a neutral way that you make it clear that it’s OK, you’re not going to demand interaction. With its carefully choreographed deference, changes of direction and eyeline, ballet teaches you exactly how to do that for hours at a time. When you step out of that into the real world of messy interaction, you begin to miss it.

Confessions of an anxious ballet pianist day #5: Playing for the White Swan variation

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I’ve already written an entire recent post about one problem with accompanying this variation (The perils of musicality when you’re accompanying a ballet solo) but that’s not the end of the story.  Oh no. For only a day or so later that episode, another problem came up with another part of the solo. The whole piece is like a slow-motion assault course, and 28 years of playing it for students in vocational schools, candidates in competitions, and dozens of ballerinas hasn’t made it any easier. In fact, the most recent experience, which was with one of the most musical ballerinas I can think of, and the most musically perceptive coach I’ve ever encountered, made me feel I’d had to go back to school and start again.

You say tenuto. . .

The bit in question was the two-note anacrusis at the end of bar six (F# E#) going on to the  two-note slur at the beginning of bar seven (G# F#). Yes, a life hanging on four darned quavers. “Don’t slow down!” said the coach. We tried again. The rehearsal stopped. “Just play it in tempo, don’t go ‘dah dah da dah,’ [exagerrating the anacrusis]  just play it straight. Don’t follow her.” I tried again. The rehearsal stopped again. This time, the ballerina said “Don’t follow me, just play it straight, even if you think it looks like I need more time, because I can catch up, but if you slow down, I can’t do the step.”

Another tricky corner in the "White Swan" variation

Another tricky corner in the “White Swan” variation

This time, I had to speak “I’m really sorry,” I said, “I thought I was playing it straight. I’m trying my best to do it, but I don’t even know I’m not playing it straight any more.” Before I’d even finished, they both said “No, no, it’s fine, don’t worry, it’s natural. With this phrase you want to go “da dah da dah” because that’s what you want to do musically, but you just have to do it straight.”

So once again – how many times is this now? Four? – and this time, finally, I got it right, and do you know what, they were right. It took me that long (28 years, plus four repeats in a single rehearsal) to realise that I’d never played those four quavers straight in my life. I like to think that the explanation is something to do (again) with Justin London’s “many meters hypothesis” that I referred to in the “musicality” post, i.e. that a time signature like 6/8 isn’t a single, arithmetically precise metrical framework for music, but a model that has many variants in a musical culture, each of which can exhibit different types of squeezed and stretched microtiming effects in different parts of the bar: a bit like taking one of those molecular models and bending it in your hands (that’s my analogy, not London’s). In this case, as my colleagues noted, it’s “natural” to want to add a bit of space to the anacrusis, because that’s what this particular model of 6/8 always seems to do.

I hope that is the explanation, and it’s not just that I’m incapable of playing in time any more. This solo is difficult because it’s often so slow that you begin to lose your sense of when the last quaver happened.  Added to that, the older you get, the more ingrained your habits become unless someone points them out, not to mention the fact that types of expressive timing go in and out of fashion too.  

Another day, another dolour 

That’s not the end of the story, however. The next day, armed with my squeaky clean and fresh timing, I played for a different ballerina, who – yep, you guessed it – wanted the expressive timing put back in. “Can you just watch me there…” she said. I’ve since watched several videos on YouTube, and noticed that some ballerinas want that anacrusis slowed up forever, but then the tempo switches back to something that’s faster than the opening, because that was slow because they can hold the extension in the ronds de jambe. 

As a musician, you look at this music on the page, and it looks light, capricious, free; dainty and thin. Whether it was ever that in the ballet, I don’t know, but now, in some performances every movement in the solo seems to drag the music along behind it like a huge family checking in excess baggage, and then there is a moment of release where the orchestra catches up the tempo they would have preferred to play all along. 

I could write another four posts as long as this on another four awkward bits in this solo, and there are probably more, but that’s enough White Swan for one advent calendar. The trouble with this solo is not just that it’s difficult for the ballerina, and difficult to accompany, but also that it’s so replete with meaning: it’s Swan Lake, the ballet that almost defines the art form, and defines the ballerina. I’m not sure that there’s a single work in the musical repertoire that you can compare that to.

If you’re thinking “You think White Swan’s difficult? Black Swan’s even worse!” hold that thought – that’ll be tomorrow’s post.

A christmas ballet class #01: Warm-up – Oh come all ye faithful

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As it’s christmas, I’m handing out carols for class, one a day, until Christmas day. Free for you to use in class, but don’t go selling them on street corners or anything.

cotoneaster-bannerRight click (or Mac: ctrl+click) to download the audio file (MP3)

Don’t use this for class unless you’ve planned it. Like many carols, the phrasing of this one’s all over the place (8 8 8 | 8 8)  because you’ve got a three line verse, and a two line chorus, each line of which consists of two 4 bar phrases (‘Oh come let us adore him’).

Oh come all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant
O come ye, oh come ye, to Bethlehem
Come and behold him, born the King  of  angels

Oh come let us adore him, Oh come let us adore him
Oh come let us adore him, Christ the Lord  

So it would be pretty hopeless for pliés, because most pliés need 16 counts per position, and you always end up with half phrases if you try and do that to this song. But if you’ve got some exercise that could work with 5 sets of 8, done twice, this could be the piece for you. You could use it for a warm-up, maybe, or perhaps a révérence/port de bras at the end of class. I camped it up a bit at the end because I got bored. If you’re a pianist, you can probably throw this song out of your repertoire now, unless you have hymn-singing for the injured in class one day.