Tag Archives: Friends etc.

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

Trissie’s dollies: tunes, travel, gardens and a Blue Shawl

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trissies-dollies

“Trissie’s Dollies” – from Bournemouth to London via three gardens in 40 years.

Last year I either discovered, or re-remembered, that my friend, contemporary and colleague Julia Richter had been taught by Rosemary Barnes, who was a friend and colleague of my piano teacher, Trissie Cox. Julia said that she had in her garden what Rosemary had called “Trissie’s Dollies” (her nickname for “persicaria bistorta” or “common bistort“). That is to say, many years ago, Trissie had given Rosemary some of the plants for her garden, and Rosemary had given Julia some of those. Then In turn, last year, Julia gave me some of hers for my garden. And so here they are: plants from my piano teacher’s garden, uprooted and replanted three times, and flourishing a hundred miles away some 40 years later. It would be nice to think that I’ll have a reason to give a few to someone else one day.

It struck me that this is what happens to tunes when they pass from one person to the next. The person you got them from doesn’t lose them, they just give you a bit of the plant stock, and then you have some to play with too. You transport those tuneful plants all over the place, and they grow, as if they’d always been yours, and that’s probably how others think of them. It’s only when you come to blog about how you arrived at your repertoire (like I sometimes do) that the journeys become clear – and then only to people who read it.

What caused me to think all of this was a lovely incident in the seminar I was teaching at in Ljubljana for ballet teachers and pianists.  We were looking for music for an exercise, and one lady played a beautiful, plaintive waltz. A Russian teacher at the back of the studio gave a deferential nod and said “Thank you for that” – because, as it turned out, this was a famous WW2 song, and it happened to be VE day, so it was appropriate in more ways than one. It was one of those moments where you see a dozen meaningful transactions at once in a split second – which funnily enough was what I was going to talk about in another lecture, with reference to Daniel Stern’s forms of vitality. I asked what the name of the song was, thinking that if it wasn’t in copyright, I’d put it straight in the 52 cards repertoire. It was Синий Платочек (Sinii Platochek/Blue Shawl). It is in copyright, unfortunately, so I can’t transcribe and put the score here, but here it is: choose your moment and play it for your Russian colleagues, or just for the sake of a beautiful song for class. As you’re doing that, you’ll be taking part in the kind of replanting and gardening activity that is the subject of this post.

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A christmas carol ballet class #21: Ding dong merrily on high

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A bell tower from a tower. Merrily on High. Ding Dong.

A bell tower from a tower. Merrily on High. Ding Dong.

To download the song, either right-click (Mac: ctrl+click) the player above and select ‘save audio as’, or right-click (Mac: ctrl+click) this link and select ‘save link as‘.

I wish I could do this to all Christmas carols, but you just can’t (although, as I tried it out on ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’, it felt familiarly awful, and I think someone has done it, and achieved the same terrible result).  Learning about this carol on Wikipedia, I discovered the wonderful new (to me) term ‘macaronic‘, used of language that mixes up words of different linguistic origins. At first, I thought it was a faintly off-colour, recent term like ‘spaghetti Western’ but it turns out it’s probably 14th century, but related to pasta/dumplings nonetheless. 

I guess you could say this is a kind of macaronic music, because it mixes styles in a rather crude way. I owe the idea for the second piano part in the second half to the last movement of Milhaud’s Scaramouche. Any apparent bitonality might sound vaguely Milhaudesque, but is in fact an emergent feature of me not really knowing what I was going to play next.

For the real enthusiast, here is a version for 2 recorders, perhaps more suitable for your least favourite tendu exercise.

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.

To the altar in Malta

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So that’s it then, Dan & Kei are married at the Xara Palace in Mdina, Malta. And seeing this boat, the Padre Ignazio, Valletta brought back memories of another trip so here it is as a keepsake.

It’s a small world – a few weeks ago I went to see Porn The Musical at the Latchmere in Battersea. It won an award at the Edinburgh Festival and rightly so. The music was so good, I kept looking over to watch the musicians, keyboard player and composer Kris Spiteri in particular.

The band at Dan & Kei’s reception here in Malta were brilliant, and the keyboard player had that kind of touch and inventiveness that makes you turn your head. And when I did, I realised it was none other than Kris Spiteri. I was in awe and very proud of the photo I got to prove it all really happened.

Places that are still there #2: The Cosmoba, Bloomsbury

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Picture of the Cosmoba

The Cosmoba, restaurant in Bloomsbury off Southampton Row

I can’t walk anywhere in Bloomsbury without being wistfully rushed back in time to when I was a student at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies back in 1978-81. And nowhere holds more potent memories for me of that time than the Cosmoba in Cosmo place just off Southampton Row.  God rot the internet, however much I may love it: when I try to think what was so special about the Cosmoba, it’s not just that it was in a tiny corner of London that feels like a wonderful guilty secret, it was the warmth of friends, conversation and being out and about after dark.

So last year when, after about 28 years of losing contact, I met up with my  friend  Jackie from college, we decided to see if by any remote chance the Cosmoba was still there. Well, would you believe it, there it was, and it seemed much the same in so many ways, even down to the red wine, chicken kiev and zabaglione that was about the only thing I would ever order, once I’d found out how good it was.

We’re going again soon, so since I was cycling past Cosmo place on my way back from the IoE on Monday, I thought I’d double check that it’s still still there. And yes, it is.

Come on in, the water’s lovely: what swimming teaches about procrastination

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Dunwich in Suffolk last summer

At the pool yesterday, I was fascinated to watch a group of  5-year olds having their swimming lesson. One instructor was in the pool ready to catch the poor things when the other instructor, on the side of the pool, ‘encouraged’ them to jump into the water.

A few were quite easy and nonchalant about it, and just dropped themselves in and swam to the steps. But others had emotions ranging from mild distress to pure terror. One just cried and cried and shook his head and his hands and stepped backwards from the edge  in a combination of gestures that couldn’t have said ‘no’ more loudly if they tried.

I smiled, not because I’m cruel, but because I had a feeling that the same child would pretty soon probably enjoy jumping into the water, and might even like  the slight frisson of terror as he does so.  How is it possible to be so upset and terrified and apprehensive, and yet be so wrong?

I smiled also because all that little-boy stepping back from the edge, tears, apprehension and hand- and head-shaking is remarkably similar to how I feel when I know that I have an essay to write or some other big, complex task.  Talking to friends, I discover that I’m not the only one with an ingenious array of techniques for avoiding starting stuff – the best one being ‘I’d better do the washing up first’. Curi0usly, on most days, I’d happily leave the washing up until tomorrow.

Watching those kids trying to jump in the pool made me think that the thing with procrastination is that it’s not a fear of the thing you’ve got to do, it’s apprehension about jumping into it. Surely, you think to yourself, the best way to start is to prepare, to ease yourself in gently, to wait until it feels right, to let yourself acclimatize to your working conditions, to make everything around you comfortable and convenient.

In life as in swimming, this is nonsense.  If you’ve ever swum in the sea in England, you’ll know that there’ll never be a good time to get yourself in the water. Whether it’s an essay or the English channel, it’s there, it’s cold, you have to get on with it and jump in.

Learning to speak dog

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Chris (L) & VIcky (R), Czech dog.

My favourite story of the day: how staff at an animal home thought a dog was deaf until they discovered it had come from a Polish household and therefore only responded to commands in Polish. The story brings back fond memories of Prague last summer, when Chris baby-sat   Vicky the lesbian German Shepherd for a day (pictured left). Vicky’s owner handed over the dog to Chris together with a slip of paper with Czech dog commands on. Despite my background as a linguist, it hadn’t occurred to me that they’d need it. Strange that some humans are treated with less compassion – think of the dancers all over the world who have commands barked at them in French.

And while we’re on the subject, if you need to say ‘Go away bird’ or ‘Come here, cow’, then this list of multilingual animal commands will be invaluable.

Give to East Cheshire Hospice

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In training

In training

Get your credit cards out…

On November 7th, best pal & favourite choreographer Christopher Hampson is running the marathon in aid of the East Cheshire Hospice, who looked after David Fielding in his last days.  Not one to do things by halves, Chris is running the marathon – from Marathon to Athens.  He’s currently up to £705 of the £1,000 target.

Go to http://www.justgiving.com/hampy/ to donate.


From casting to casting-on

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Chris, in Beccles Sewing & Handicraft, November 2007

Chris, in Beccles Sewing & Handicraft, November 2007

Choreographers and all creative people fascinate me. It’s the bits in between that I’m interested in – what does a composer, artist, choreographer etc. do when they’re not creating?

For that reason, and a few others, I don’t think I’ve ever been so proud of a friend as when I got a google alert telling me that there was a mention of best mate Christopher Hampson, renowned choreographer (of course) in a review of a book about knitting in the US.

Dindy Yokel, the Atlanta Literature examiner, reviews a book about the social networking affordances of knitting in a book by Suzyn Jackson called ‘Knit it Together’ over at Examiner.com.

“Christopher Hampson” she says, “a London-based choreographer who guests with the Atlanta Ballet took up knitting to pass the time he spends on airplanes and waiting in airports.  When in Atlanta he can be found between rehearsals at Knitch working on something lush, cashmere and black.”

I’m proud on two accounts. Firstly, a good knitting review has real gravitas because knitting writers can usually knit, expertly. You don’t join that circle easily. But secondly, I’m proud because I happened to be there when it all started, back in November 2007 at the Beccles Sewing & Handicraft shop, after a gorgeous weekend with old friends Alice & Andrew.  We were a bit hungover from the night before, and passing a knitting shop, Chris decided to rekindle an old hobby, and the ladies in the Beccles were marvellous, and inducted him back into knitting in the shop, on the spot.  If you’re interested in gender studies, imagine that a 35 year old woman went into Homebase and said she was interested in board-cutting.Guess who’s doing well in a recession.