Drigo’s “Reveil de Flore” piano score online

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Thanks to Patty Noel who alerted me to the fact that Harvard now have this available online digitally. We’d both previously searched high and low for it without success, but then it seemed to suddenly appear. As always with Drigo, some wonderful music in there that in my view (shhhh don’t tell anyone I said so) eclipses a lot of Tchaikovsky’s ballet music. 

Link to Harvard University’s digital piano score of Le Reveil de Flore (Drigo)

 

 

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Little Humpbacked Horse thesis online

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Great to read Aaron Manela’s masters thesis “Arthur Saint-Léon’s The Little Humpbacked Horse in Context,”  which is available online. Here’s the abstract: 

In this study I examine representations of antisemitism, fantasy, and cultural imperialism in the 1864 ballet The Little Humpbacked Horse, composed by Cesare Pugni and choreographed by Arthur Saint-Léon. As the creative team adapted the story from verse to ballet, they literally morphed the titular character into new fantastical forms. They also added Jewish, Muslim, and other oriental characters and ended the ballet with a parade of the Russian nations. Drawing on the works of Richard S. Wortman, Julie Kalman, and Roger Bartra, I place these transformations in the context of a larger Russian ambivalence around the shift from a rural and woodland economy to an urban one, the inclusion of Eastern provinces in the rapidly expanding nation, and the emancipation – and inclusion of – internal minorities. I then explain how the music, choreography, and focus of the ballet change as the relevance of these mid-nineteenth century concerns fades.

As I’m struggling with a very tricky paragraph about music and representation right now, it’s helpful to read something like this that is so clear about the connection. 

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“. . . And she done the fandango all over the place”

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The Body and Everyday Life by Helen Thomas, the source of the fandango story in this post

The Body and Everyday Life: excellent guide to the field by Helen Thomas.

I’ve just found another beautiful piece of dance research. Beauty might be an odd adjective to use, but there is something deeply attractive about the careful observation, and attention to  social and musical details in this particular study. It resonates strongly with the kind of thing I and my ballet pianist colleagues often see in classes and rehearsals, and the analysis and conclusions throw interesting light on our world too. 

I found it in Helen Thomas’s excellent book, The Body and Everyday Life (Routledge, 2013), on pages 32-33. Thomas refers to Anya Peterson Royce’s description of arguments between members of a Zapotec dance group from Juchitán, Mexico (Royce, The Anthropology of Dance, 1980, pp. 27-31).  The detail is what makes the story, so there’s a lot you can’t skip, but I’ll try to summarize it briefly.

The fandango rehearsal

In Royce’s account, six couples are rehearsing the Fandango, a dance which has alternating fast and slow sections. Four of the couples change place two bars before the new tempo begins, whereas the other two change place right on it. An older dancer from one of the “two-bars-before” couples , considered an expert on dance and a regular performer at the annual dance festival, corrects one of the women from the “right on the tempo change” couples, saying that two bars before is the correct way. She also happens to be the right-on-it woman’s older cousin, as well as being from a distinguished old Zapotec family.

You’d think that the younger cousin, being younger, and being outnumbered and outclassed in terms of dance experience, would have just said “OK, thank you” and taken the correction from her older cousin, especially as there were other relatives from the same family in the rehearsal who sided with the two-bars-before view. But she didn’t. She insisted that her way was right, and what’s more, she’d even learned it  from her older cousin’s grandmother—considered one of the best dancers in Juchitán. She refused to budge, and said that the grandmother should be called on to arbitrate. 

Having seen both versions, the grandmother declared the two-bars-before version to be the correct one. I rather like the sound of the younger cousin, who now says that she’d seen the grandmother moving on the tempo change, not two bars before it, on a recent occasion. When grandmother asked her daughter (i.e. the older cousin) whether that was true, the cousin said, no it wasn’t, she’d moved two bars before, as they’d been saying all along. The younger cousin had finally to bow to pressure and give way in the face of all the odds stacked against her. 

But Royce later performed the fandango with another member of the two-bar-before family, and in keeping with what she had observed in the family drama, made to move two bars before the upcoming tempo change. At this point—and if you work in the dance world, you’ll have guessed this bit already—she was told that she should only move when the music changed! After a lot of questions and further observation, she realized that it was acceptable to do the dance both ways, changing before or on the tempo change—but under the circumstances, family values won the day, not choreographic truth. It reminds me of those rehearsals where everyone does what they’re told if the visiting choreographer or ballet mistress wants a change made, but as soon as they’re on a plane, things get changed back to how they were, at least for those who have sufficient status to get away with it. 

Commentary on the fandango rehearsal

I love the story, but also Thomas’s commentary on it: 

The dancers’ body movement in time and space in the context of the rehearsal became a site of resistance to and an affirmation of the cultural codes of behaviour which almost go unnoticed in everyday life. This case also raises the question as to when a performance event (in the case of a rehearsal) can be said to begin and end, which, in turn, leads to a questioning of the closed-off notion of the ‘performance event’ from everyday life” (Thomas 2013, p. 34). 

As class and rehearsal pianists for ballet you get to see, or hear of, similar altercations about music that are about so much more than just music because they are thoroughly embedded in social structures (for some reason, dance seems to be particularly prone to such things, perhaps precisely because it involves bodies moving together socially). And yet, you absolutely have to have the musical detail for the story to make any sense at all. That’s why I think this is such a beautiful bit of research. It’s about so little and so much at the same time, and music is not accompaniment or background, but part of the cloth from which the whole story is woven. 

She done the fandango

I couldn’t resist calling this She done the fandango all over the place. Years ago I was at a party at house of the wonderful poet, Kit Wright. He’d found a Victorian music hall song with that title in a compendium of such things, and as after-lunch entertainment, sang it, accompanying himself on the guitar, in the style of a Country and Western ballad. Every time I hear fandango I remember that song, and that party. I am certain that Kit’s book had it as She done the fandango, rather than she “did” or “does,” because that was why it sounded so funny, but I’ll have to wait til my copy arrives to find out. Meanwhile, here’s the chorus from Henri Clarke’s 1883 song, “She does the fandango all over the place.” 

She sang like a nightingale, twanged her guitar
Danced the Cachuca, and smoked a cigar
Oh what a form, Oh what a face
And she does the Fandango all over the place.

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Moira Shearer, according to Francis Sparshott

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Sometimes I put things on my website just because I know that I’ll never find them again, and because they’re so darn weird, blogging about them is the only way to get it out of my system. 

So here it is, the strangest thing I ever read in a book purporting to be on the philosophy of dance, or about Moira Shearer, come to that.  I discovered, rather too late, that the philosopher Francis Sparshott had written a whole chapter on music and dance in A Measured Pace (1995), one of his two philosophical books on  dance.  I’m skimming through, then all of a sudden, I see this extraordinary passage about Moira Shearer, who, Sparshott relates, had once said that for her, some modern ballets, performed to “squeals, grunts and groans, or no music at all,” seemed to contradict what dancing was. In her view, or it must surely be fair to say, in her experience, choreographers wanted to choreograph out of a response to music—”Something surely makes one want to dance,” she says. 

That sounds pretty normal to me—let’s face it, it’s probably not the money, the lifestyle, or the career prospects, and although it’s not everybody’s reason to dance, an awful lot of dancers will say that it was because of the music, or that they don’t like dancing without it, or that they chose to choreograph a piece because they liked the music. But for Sparshott, who’s already written 200-plus pages on dance by now, this seems “strange.”

“One would have thought,” he says, as if philosophers and their readers are better placed to know the mind of the dancers they are writing about, “choreographers simply wanted to compose dances, and dancers wanted to dance them,” he says on page 218. “She [Shearer] might have said, with equal reason, that something makes musical composers want to compose.” To me, that doesn’t seem so strange either.  I can understand that a composer must primarily be interested in putting sounds together, otherwise they’re doomed, but it seems perfectly reasonable that they might look to the world around them for inspiration. They might have to, if they’ve been commissioned to write something. Also, speaking as a musician, I don’t find anything strange in the idea that there is something that precedes music before you actually make it: it’s particularly acute in performance, where you have to have an idea of the music before you start playing, otherwise what are you going to do? At the most basic level, if you’re playing for a class, and you need to set the tempo, you also first need to set the tempo for yourself. In a sense, there is something that is “making you want to play” in that tempo, even if you are part of that process yourself. 

But here’s the oddest bit of all, that I’m afraid made me wonder if I should pay any attention to this book any more. I’m going to put it in bold so you don’t miss it: “It is not surprising, as one reads this, that Shearer abandoned her dancing career—no doubt her heart was never in it.” (Sparshott, 1995, p. 218). What on earth is a comment like this doing in a book on philosophy? And what are the implications of it? That Shearer had no right, if she were to fit his conceptual claim about what being a dancer was, to have four children, or enjoy anything other than dancing? On that view, Vicky had no option but to throw herself under that train in The Red Shoes. 

Now, as it happens, a comment in  Shearer’s obituary in the Daily Telegraph lends some support to Sparshott’s comment. She is reported to have said that she never really wanted to be a dancer as a child, and later on, that “there was so much more in life than dancing – so much ordinary living to do.”  But that does not seem unreasonable either. It’s not given to most of us to be able to have the extraordinary, multi-faceted career that Shearer had, so to dismiss her other work and life choices as “abandoning her dancing career” seems a pretty mean-minded way to support your conceptual claims. And above all, if you’re a philosopher, why pick an argument with Moira Shearer, rather than other philosophers? 

I’d forgotten when I posted this that I’d long ago posted a link to a wonderful interview with Moira Shearer about The Red Shoes. Delightful to read again. 
 
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Jewels from the Ballet: down the wonderful rabbit-hole of English ballet history

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Jewels from the Ballet

Jewels from the Ballet: a music anthology that has followed me around since I was a child. I never realized what a jewel it really was.

I’ve seen this book so many times in my life, either as the piano version, or the one for violin and piano, that I have come to instantly disregard it. Oh yes, that book, with all those tunes that I know backwards, standing on my head. To be perfectly honest, I’ve been a bit snobbish about it, most likely because, published in 1946, it looks like the kind of book that was already long out of date and out of fashion when I was a child in the 1960s, and spoke to me—whenever I saw it in second-hand book shops or on the shelves of ballet schools—of a thankfully bygone era. I mean, who nowadays would use a phrase like jewels of the ballet?

And that oddly composed picture—it’s so full of quaint sentimentality, compared to those faceless sweaty Athena-style prints of the 1980s: perfectly-crossed fifths in legwarmers, or the close-up of the pointe-shoe battered toes of a ballerina. If I’m even more honest, there’s  something about being classically trained that makes you think that serious music shouldn’t have pictures on the cover, unless they are black and white engravings from so far in the past that they are historically informative. It shouts “commercial!” at you, when you want to believe that the people who publish the music you play are doing it for scholarly, dignified reasons. Such thoughts are so deeply embedded and habitual, that it’s only when I came to pick this anthology up and look at it more carefully that I recognised my own absurd prejudices. 

Pauline Grant and On with the Show

I took it off the shelves because I wanted an example of a certain kind of anthology. This’ll do, I thought. I turned the cover, expecting to find the contents page, but to my astonishment, found this full-page picture of a tableau called “Wedgwood Group,” choreographed by Pauline Grant for “On with the Show” on Blackpool North Pier. And then the trip down the historical rabbit-hole started. Even though I was supposed to be writing about something quite different, I couldn’t get this picture, and what it symbolized and portrayed, out of my mind.  I instantly thought of what VIrginia Taylor says in her thesis about the contrast between dance in the working theatre, and the companies that we know most about such as the Royal Ballet or English National Ballet, and a phrase used by one of my school friends about his sister, a ballet dancer (albeit not of this period): she did all the summer shows. 

Pauline Grant's "Wedgwood Group" —unknown English ballet history

Pauline Grant’s “Wedgwood Group” from On with the Show, Blackpool North Pier.

“End of the pier show” is used pejoratively, but this was by no means vaudeville: Pauline Grant choreographed the Tchaikovsky Serenade for Strings (the same piece that Balanchine used for Serenade) for this number in On with the Show on Blackpool North Pier. There are a few more pictures after this one, of Pauline Grant, Mona Inglesby, and, with no great fanfare or top billing, Margot Fonteyn. I began to do my homework on Lawrence Wright, and discovered via this fascinating page on him from the Blackpool Museum, that he’d produced the long-running On with the show, and so now the connection between Pauline Grant, Jewels of the Ballet and him began to make sense: he was publishing music that had been heard in ballets in his shows. 

The more I researched, the more interesting it got. I had heard the name Mona Inglesby, but in somewhat disparaging terms, which I now realise is rather shocking, but also understandable: despite her enormous achievements and massive popularity, she has been all but wiped from ballet history. Her completely self-financing company International Ballet had  60 dancers and an orchestra while the Sadlers Wells were playing safe with Constant Lambert and Hilda Gaunt on two pianos playing arrangements. The Musicians Union thanked Inglesby for having kept so many musicians in work during the war. 

English ballet history: Ismene Brown’s Blackout Ballet

I then found  that Ismene Brown had had a similar shock of recognition when she was researching for an article about the Kirov’s recentish reconstruction of the Sergeyev Sleeping Beauty. Mona  Inglesby not only had Sergeyev to teach her company the original choreography from the notations, but after Sergeyev died, she sold the scores to Harvard (where they are now), who at the time seemed to be the only people who recognised what a legacy this was. Ismene Brown’s 30 minute BBC radio programme about this, Blackout Ballet is available here—scroll down to the bottom of the page for the audio (but read the page, it’s fascinating and wonderful). A transcript of Blackout Ballet is available here, with some pictures as well. 

English ballet history: Karen Eliot’s Albion’s Dance

After that, it was only a matter of time before I found Karen Eliots’ Albion’s Dance which documents this period in detail,  painting a remarkable picture of ballet in wartime England that I simply had no idea about, companies that had come and gone, sometimes with enormous success, and certainly bringing ballet to audiences in a way that seems unimaginable now. Among others, Eliot quotes some lovely stories from Joy Camden’s autobiography, and it makes me sad to think that I had no idea who I had been talking to when I played for her RAD exam session for a week in Newcastle back in 1986, and that it’s taken me 33 years to find out, mainly because English ballet history has been so skewed by the big, arts council funded names.

The biggest surprise of all, which I am still pondering, is that all this music which I knew as a child from albums like this, had perhaps been made famous not by the big-name companies, but by these passionate, hard-working war-time ones. If it hadn’t been for Lawrence Wright and Pauline Grant and Blackpool Pier, would I ever have been sitting at a piano in the 1960s playing selections from Coppélia and other pieces in this album? Would Les Sylphides and Coppélia, La Source, and The Nutcracker been regarded as “classics” had it not been for Mona Inglesby and her touring? 

And just as an aside, here’s the book which in a sense gave me a career. The Keith Prowse “Standard Series” Book Two, Ballet Music etc. for piano arr. by Ernest Haywood. I had listened to the LP we had of Coppélia countless times, and loved it as a child, and learned to play the mazurka from this book, and did so over and over again. I was so astonished to find one day that I could make a living out of having so much fun. 

 

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Presentation at DANSOX summer school, Oxford, 7th July

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Presentation at DANSOX

A packed and interesting programme of lectures/events at the DANSOX summer school in Oxford coming up (6th–8th July 2019), including a joint 2-hour presentation by me and Susie Crow based partly on our doctoral research into ballet classes. That’s on Sunday 7th, 4-15–6.15pm. I promise you, there’ll be a piano, dancing, and no PowerPoint, plus, I hope some interesting conversations about our nerdy interest in ballet class as a hot topic for discussion. 

There’s a nice short video here about DANSOX by Prof. Susan Jones 

 

 

£15 for a day ticket. 

 

 

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Sources for the “Esmeralda” pas de deux

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One of the oddities about the ballet repertoire is that the more famous and frequently performed the piece, the more tricky its musical history, like the  “Black Swan” Pas de Deux, for example, which does not exist in Tchaikovsky’s original score, at least not in its entirety, as you know it, or where you’d expect to find it. Over time, people like Adam Lopez who writes so much for Wikipedia on the Imperial Russian ballet and its music, and the brilliant ballet music librarians Lars Payne and Matthew Naughtin (see “Black Swan” link above) have solved many of these mysteries.

There is one ballet mystery  which just won’t go away, however, and that’s the question of the source for the “Esmeralda” pas de deux. I don’t mean Pugni’s 1844 ballet, but the one with the famous tambourine solo for the ballerina created by Pyotr Gusev in 1949, and later produced by Ben Stevenson in 1982 for the Jackson International Ballet Competition (see Matthew Naughtin’s Ballet Music: A Handbook). 

Naughtin says that the opening is by Drigo (for a revival of Petipa’s L’order du roi), but by chance, while I was looking to see if there was a scan of Marenco’s Sieba (1880-1881), which is reputedly the source for the tambourine variation, I found a couple of pages of that score (i.e. Sieba) in Matilda Ertz’s doctoral thesis.  Look at example 29 on page 287-288  (pdf page 311-312, the opening of the tempest from Sieba) and you’ll see that the  latter half of it is note for note part of the adagio in the Esmeralda pas de deux. For the full thesis, see Nineteenth-century Italian ballet music before unification: Sources, style, and context” Matilda Ertz, (Univ. of Oregon, 2010).  It might be that some is by Drigo and some by Marenco—it’s certainly a very abrupt cut and bizarre modulation from B major down to A, at the point that the Sieba tempest comes in, and the materials don’t seem to be related at all. Incidentally, Ertz’s thesis is really interesting if you’re into ballet music. 

I haven’t managed to find a scan of the score of Sieba beyond these two pages, but it would make sense that the tambourine solo is from the same piece as the adagio—though if the attribution to Drigo is not correct, or at least, an erasure of underlying sources, then I wonder if we should question the tambourine solo’s origins too, until we see the evidence. I  can’t find the coda of Esmeralda in the source that Naughtin gives, either (Pugni’s The Pharaoh’s Daughter). I have seen that coda in another ballet, but I cannot for the life of me remember which one it is. 

Thanks to Adrian Mathers, the mystery of where the coda came from (see crossed out section above) is now solved. Matthew Naughtin was right, it is from The Pharaoh’s Daughter, and I had seen it before, but I had completely forgotten that where I had seen it was in the violin repetiteur of that ballet, not the piano score. It was Adrian who drew my attention to the fact that it’s in the repetiteur but not the piano reduction. You can see the Pharaoh’s Daughter repetiteur it for yourself, digitized in Harvard Library. The coda of Esmeralda is on pages 125-129. 

If anyone has either a piano reduction of Sieba to send me (there’s a copy available in the reading room of the British Library, I know, but I don’t have time to find it right now). 

Giselle and the Peasant Pas de Deux

While I’m at it, there’s another mystery to be solved—or at least, in my view it’s a mystery. How many times have we heard that the Peasant pas de deux in Giselle is by Burgmüller, and a piece called Souvenirs de Ratisbonne Op. 67? Well, Aki Kuroda has recorded it, and it sounds like this: 

In other words, it’s not the peasant pas de deux in its entirety, but one of the female variations, transposed from its original C major into D. There’s an awful lot more music that needs to be explained.  Now, I’m sticking my neck out here on the basis of not a lot of knowledge about Burgmüller, but from what I know of his music, I find it hard to believe he’s the author of the entrée polonaise, because it’s very polonaise-y, whereas his tend to be waltzes with a funny left hand. The pas de deux? Maybe. But the E major male  solo that begins with the whole-beat upbeat? That’s very Franco-Italian metrically speaking (see my post “compound errors” and the section on Franco-Italian hypermeter in this post for more on that topic) and not at all like the kind of thing Burgmüller writes usually—even one of his tarantellas begins on the first beat of the bar. You find Franco-Italian barring all over Pugni’s scores, but not Burgmüller’s. On the other hand, there’s something I don’t quite trust about the female solo in G major (2/4). That looks like the kind of solo that should begin on the upbeat, like these by Auber but it doesn’t. It looks like a French solo in German clothing. 

Whatever and whoever is behind this story, there is more to it than simply Souvenir de Ratisbonne. Cyril Beaumont in his The Ballet Called Giselle (1945) is more precise: he refers to “a waltz entitled “Souvenir de Ratisbonne” and a suite of dances which used to be performed by Giselle’s friends and their two leaders,” but I haven’t yet come across anything more than that in music scholarship. Contributions very welcome. 

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Rudy Apffel’s Czerny For Ballet Class blog

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Rudy Apffel's Czerny for Ballet Class Blog

Click the image to go to Rudy Apffel’s Czerny for Ballet Class Blog

Absolutely thrilled to discover Rudy Apfells’ Czerny for Ballet Class blog  — lovely recordings of huge numbers of Czerny exercises, together with reimaginings/reworkings of them (see here for a description of the project) lots of interesting commentary, and downloadable scores. 

Not content with just one reworking, some exercises, like Op 335 No. 6 have six.

Czerny Op. 335 No. 6

Czerny Op 335 No. 6: reworked in six different versions by Rudy Apffel

In the wrong hands (what a great metaphor for a pianist-related post!) this kind of music can  sound so drab, just the kind of thing that should be banned from ballet classes forever. But Apffel’s reworkings are witty and clever, and hold a mirror back to the original that make you hear it differently. There’s one in the style of Prokofiev’s “Dance of the Knights,” for example, but my favourite is the jazz waltz rendering. If you didn’t know it was based on Czerny, you could believe it had been a No. 1 chanson in Paris in the 1950s. Sometimes when you come to rearrange things like this you realize that the underlying composition is cleverer than you realized, obscured by a patina of tired familiarity. 

This is such a magnificent labour of love, but I fully understand Apffel’s fascination with Czerny.  I think it’s Taruskin who said that there are two Beethovens (or Bachs? Or Mozarts?—I’ll correct this if I’m wrong another time) —there’s Beethoven, and “Beethoven.”  The one in scare quotes is the composer that comes with all the baggage—the music appreciation classes you hated, the feeling that you had to like the music even if you didn’t, the way that people look in concert halls as they’re listening to his music. Without the scare quotes, you might feel quite differently about the music (for good or ill, as it happens, with some of the great names). 

Likewise, with Czerny: there’s Czerny the fun composer, Czerny the man who worked like crazy, with so many simultaneous projects on the go that he reputedly set them all out on different desks in his study, spending an hour at each in succession in order to make progress on them all (even if the story isn’t true, I love it); Czerny whose exercises dance and sing and convey drama. Then there’s “Czerny,” the scourge of young pianists, who are handed the books of exercises as if they were not really music, but “merely” technical machines to improve technique, like those things 19th dancers used to splay their feet in to improve their turnout. “Czerny” the abandoned sheet music in the Oxfam shop, with a stained cover, musty smell, and pencilled ticks and music teachers’ fingerings in.  I feel sick just thinking about it. 

Take away the scare quotes, and there’s a joyful, imaginative composer here with a staggering wealth of material, and that’s what Rudy Apffel is mining with his new arrangements and reimaginings. There’s a danger that you might miss Apffel’s humour and ingenuity if you just turn on a single track and think “I wonder if I could use this for tendus?” Get inside the music, listen to them as a series, compare one with the other, and this is a wonderful musical journey.  One of the things I especially like is the use of technology to do the impossible—freely admitted by Apffel!— as in this Schubert-Impromptu-Meets-Czerny-Op 335 No. 18

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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

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Bulletin of the Vaganova Ballet Academy — online journal (with English abstracts)

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Am I the last person to have noticed that the Vaganova Ballet Academy has published a serious journal containing the work of Russian dance scholars, Bulletin of the Vaganova Ballet Academy,since 2015, with six issues a year? The articles are in Russian, but all have English abstracts. Given that there’s such a divide in most countries between academic scholarship and practical ballet teaching, it’s astonishing to see both together in the institute most famous globally for producing dancers rather than scholars. 

I came across it by chance, because I was looking up something about airs parlants, and found an  article by Galina Bezuglaya on airs parlants in early 19th century ballet—which will give you some idea of the level of scholarship. A glance through the contents pages reveals a huge breadth and depth. 

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