Tag Archives: choreography

Playing for ballet class tip #21: Make friends with a notator

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If there’s one kind of person in the ballet universe who can really understand where you’re coming from as a musician, and where you need to go, it’s someone who writes movement notation, whether that’s Labanotation or Benesh Movement Notation.

As they have to be able to dance, notate movement, and work out how their movement notation aligns to a musical score, they live in a kind of wireframe version of the world where    everything is provisional until they’ve found a way of writing it all down coherently.  They understand the anomalies and contradictions that  time signatures bring with them in relation to movement, and have ways of marking up musical scores that indicate logically how dancers are moving in relation to them.

They can speak your (notational) language, but also understand things from a dancer’s perspective, so they can help you make sense of the dance world with reference to your own musical background. They’ll show you how to mark up a score in rehearsal so that you next time someone says ‘Can we go from the second time she does the arabesque?’ you don’t have to sit in shame playing bars at random until they shout ‘That’s it!’ (Only to shout two seconds later ‘Oh…No it’s not there, it all sounds the same, doesn’t it?). They can also tell you a lot about the ballet repertoire, and help you to judge when you need to improve, and when someone’s just being difficult and naff in a rehearsal.

If you ever meet one, grab hold of them and make friends. In my experience, they’re often very happy to help when you want to know why something didn’t work for class, or talk through music and dance problems with you (like I did only yesterday with notation expert Vicki Watts) and from the very beginning, I learned a lot of my trade from the lovely Gillian Cornish, who used to chaînée across the room for me while we tried out different bits of music. I’ve enjoyed sitting in on countless conversations about notation with Christopher Hampson and the person who’s notated so many of his ballets, Caroline Palmer.  I could list many more – Mark Kay, Patricia Tierney, Marzena Sobanska, the people at the Benesh Institute that has its home now at the RAD, and of course the most remarkable of them all, Ann Hutchinson Guest.

Playing for ballet class tips #13: Make space for dancing

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Drowsie Maggie. Try it raw.

Drowsie Maggie. Try it raw.

You’ll sometimes hear dancers and choreographers talk about music having ‘space’ for dance, or being ‘spacious’, and although it’s difficult to define, it’s something to do with allowing the dance to speak, giving it room to do what it does and let the audience see it, rather than enveloping it in musical fug.

‘Musical interest’ is often the enemy of good dance music, because it orients the audience to dramatic processes in the music, pulling their attention away from the visual. This is why so much ‘art music’ just doesn’t work for dance, at least not for class. It’s just too ‘musical’, in the sense that it’s overly interested in its own development.  Charles Rosen sums it up nicely in The Classical Style: 

The application of dramatic technique and structure to ‘absolute’ music was more than an intellectual experiment. It was the natural outcome of an age which saw the development of the symphonic concert as a public event. The symphony was forced to become a dramatic performance, and it accordingly developed not only something like a plot, with a climax and a denouement, but a unity of tone, character and action it had only partially reached before. (2005, p.155)

It’s a good thing in class to keep looking for ways that you can do less with music. The occasional use of tacets, playing quietly, pretending to be pizzicato strings, playing unisons, wide-spaced chords, playing off-beats, repetition with variation,  all of these things are ways of stepping backwards and letting the dance speak louder.

My favourite example is this: in a petit allegro or fast barre exercise, take a fiddle tune (Drowsie Maggie works particularly well), give a nice clear vamp as an introduction, and then take the left hand right away, and play just the melody, no accompaniment. Particularly in a jump, the sound of the dancers feet landings become part of the music, like an invisible bodhrán in the room.

Dancing to words

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Interesting blog by Eleanor Turney in the Guardian about dancing to words, and what makes it work or not work. It’s a topic that interests me a lot, ever since, about ten years ago, I saw a pas de deux in Christopher Hampson’s Canciones done to a reading of the poem instead of the sung version, due to a ghastly cock-up over rights.

It has stayed with me as one of the most beautiful, haunting, and musical moments of dance, one of my favourites, even. You have to understand that it’s all I can do to stay awake in a pas de deux. Too much blurred sentimental wrestling. But in this instance, the rise and fall of Rosario Serrano’s voice seemed to be more musically communicative and articulate than any music could have been.

Perhaps the reason it worked is precisely because the movement had originally been choreographed to de Falla’s music rather than the words, so what emerged from the conjunction of the music and text was the musicality of the poetry, not what it meant.

Jacob’s Pillow Dance Interactive

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It’s not often that I get really excited about a dance website, but this is one HUGE mother of an exception. Launched today (I think) the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Interactive site has excerpts of dance performances going back to the 1930s, catalogued by artist/genre/era.  This is the most wonderful guide to all kinds of stuff you thought you might never see, including clips of Ted Shawn dancers from the 30s, and dances of all styles from around the world right up to 2010.  It’s beautifully presented and fascinatingly, joyfully diverse. Phenomenal.

Ebb and Flow

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One of my favourite landmarks by the Thames

To the Peacock Theatre yesterday afternoon to see ENB school’s performance. Well, to be honest, mainly to see my friend Chris Hampson’s new piece for the men, Flow. I always have to remind myself how young these dancers are. When they graduate, musicians can get away with being a bit teenagery, geeky and badly dressed with a slouch even though they can play the oboe rather well, but dancers have to be fully finished human beings as part of what they do, and hell, were they good yesterday.

A single moment stands out and haunts me from the whole show. It was in Ernst Meisner’s joyous piece done to the Rachmaninov two-piano suites. Surrounded by Stravinsky, John Adams & Bach, Rachmaninov on two pianos could have sounded a bit arch and fruity but it didn’t, because the choreography rode the waves of the music so you felt like you were surfing it, not watching it. The single moment in question was when a line of dancers formed stage right, and in unison, turned their heads to watch an imaginary object pass overhead. The ‘imaginary something’ was a musical phrase. It’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen in a ballet, so simple it hurt.

There was something similar in Chris (Hampson’s) piece to the Bach C minor double piano (violin) concerto.  A simple flowing arm movement found the music in the music in a hundred ways, and in the slow movement, the soloist turns his head slowly to the back, then looks quickly to the front when the solo instrument enters, as if he has suddenly ‘seen’ the music.  A security guard in the audience was so taken with what he had seen that I saw him in the lobby trying out the recurring arm movement in different ways, amazed at what it felt like to move to music. Actually, that didn’t happen, I dreamed it last night, but that’s how intoxicating it was to watch.

I’d never really got into John Adams’ music before seeing Hallelujah Junction at the Linbury, which I loved, and Christopher Tudor’s piece to another Adams’ score made me realise this is my kind of music. Just wish there’d been more of it.

It’s no reflection on Michael Corder’s choreography, which is always  musical and sensitive (and the dancers did it excellently), that his piece to Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks annoyed me. It’s not him, it’s Stravinsky, or rather ‘Stravinsky’ (as Taruskin might put it). I’m bored with ‘Stravinsky’, bored with the fawning ideology that presents him as the natural progression of music in the twentieth century, from which there can be no rhythmic going back. I spent the piece trying to work out what annoyed me about it, and concluded that the trouble with music that is consistently unpredictable is that it’s also consistently forgettable. The metrical ambiguity and change and melodic fragmentation leaves you with nothing but a series of passing snapshots, like watching a crowd in an electric storm at night.  It’s not even that I particularly dislike the music, it’s just  more analogous to a painting than to a dance. It has texture and flashes of colour, but no temporal quality. You can only stand as an observer and take in a moment at a time and then pass to the next one.

And so to Giselle Act II, which was the second half of the programme. Again, nothing against the dancers who did brilliantly, and I think the concept of doing a whole Act of a classic is great. But oh lord, this  Giselle of all things needs to be taken apart like an old sports car and put together from scratch.  It’s presented as a classic ballet blanc when even in 1841 it was nearer to Phantom of the Opera or Wicked. Giselle is the gothic ballet par excellence, so has enormous resonance for an era obsessed with  Twilight, but this production  glosses over that in a schoolmarmy, worthy way so that ironically, all the life really is taken out of it – the true corpse is the ballet, not Giselle the person.

There’s also something about listening to a recording of the music (complete with reverberant acoustics that suggest a concert hall a hundred times larger than the Peacock) that gives an auditory  unity to the score which ruins the surprise and melodrama of it.  I’ve  just been re-reading Marian Smith’s excellent Ballet & Opera in the Age of Giselle, and her argument based on utterly convincing evidence, is that we miss the point if we don’t understand how much Giselle borrows from the methods of opera.  The score is in many places made up of recitative-like interjections and abrupt changes suggesting verbal drama, but once it’s been engineered and passed through a sound system, and in the absence of life in the form of an orchestra or conductor it is flattened and straightened out into an acoustic sausage that is 80% sawdust. And what on earth is that darn fugue doing in the middle of this production? There are those wilis, being all 19th century and weird and gothic, when suddenly they do a kind of  Mark Morris style celebration in the forest to a fugue that is surely the most pointless episode in the history of ballet.

But that’s a side issue, a symptom probably of being in the middle of writing a dissertation on relationships between voice, gesture, music & communication. You notice these things when you look for them. In total, it was a magnificent afternoon, and I was in awe of the dancers’ extraordinary abilities and commitment. It’s for this that I’ve preferred spending my life in the dance world rather than music.

Let’s have a Kristen McNally evening!

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Now you know how I feel about the wonderful work of choreographer Kristen McNally (see previous post), so I’m delighted to see from her just-published  blog over at Ballet.co that she’s keen to put on an evening of her work to date, plus a new piece (yeah, OK, I’m all chuffed that my blog gets a mention too). I’ve told so many people about the Obama piece (if it was on video, I’d make it illegal not to see it on one of my courses) that it just has to have another viewing soon, and I will bring everyone back from their holidays to make them see Don’t Hate the Player, Hate the Game. There’s an invitation to send suggestions & ideas or join a discussion about it on Ballet.co. Use your democratic rights, make your voice heard and let’s have a McNally evening!

Ballet troubles & music

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Picture of view from the Royal Ballet Studios, Covent Garden

The view from here

Music in Motion is an article on new scores for NYCB from The New Yorker by Alex Ross, author of The Rest is Noise. (Via theballetbag via Twitter)

I enjoyed reading The Rest is Noise more than any other book I’ve read on music, which is saying something, because I usually can’t even bring myself to even walk past the  ‘music’ section in bookshops.  By ‘music’, I mean that very specialised thing that people do in concert halls, or in the privacy of their own home hifi, the contemplation of works. And so by ‘books on music’ I mean things like biographies of composers, and the whole fawning and promotional literary culture that surrounds the classical music industry.  Since the moment I had the experience of seeing people dance while I played the piano, I found it difficult to find music without movement interesting or enjoyable any more, and it is the premise of so much writing about music that nothing, but nothing, should come between ‘the music’ and ‘the audience’ – especially not dance.

So I was rather sorry to see an author I admire so much be so dismissive of ballet. As a friend of mine pointed out recently, no-one would think it was OK to be ignorant of a work of literature or a canonical work of music, but when it comes to dance, there’s almost a certain hipness about saying you’ve never seen any, or don’t understand it, or don’t know anything about it. Ross quotes the pianist Susan Tomes as someone who also writes about her ‘ballet troubles’ in her book, Out of Silence. “I feel a sense of frustration that the dancers’ steps are not actually to the music, but merely run in parallel with it. I’m all too aware of the way they have rehearsed their movements in the studio using spoken rhythms (‘And one-and-two-and-point-and-turn,’ etc.).”

I don’t mind that she feels frustration – heaven knows, some of the worst nights I’ve ever had in a theatre have been watching ballet – but what does this mean,  ‘the dancer’s steps are not actually to the music’? Which dancers? All ballets? All music? All steps? And what determines the right of anyone to say what the music is, and that others have somehow got it wrong?  What’s so terrible about spoken rhythms, or rehearsing?  Watching pianists rehearse is no picnic  either.

So much of Western art music has dance at its very heart (see the section on ‘mind and body’ from Philip Tagg’s great article on High and Low, Cool and Uncool: aesthetic and historical falsifications about music in Europe), and there’s a whiff of high-mindedness about both Ross & Tomes on this subject – it’s only the body, it’s only dancing, how could it matter, compared to the great rational minds that create music?