Monthly Archives: October 2004

L’après-midi d’un phone

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Together with the very much alive use of the vocative case in South East European languages, ablaut is one of those subjects that makes me go all tingly, so I was delighted to find It’s Ablaut Time, the weblog of David Mortensen . Anyone who regards the agentive nominalization of verb-particle combinations as a ‘relatively amusing construction’, and something to chat about over coffee with friends, or who writes papers called “Chain-shift, schmain-shift: Anti-Identity and Tone Sandhi in Hmong, A-Hmao, and Jingpho” is a-ok in my book. Long may he prosper.

Italian ballets

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That old party game ‘name five famous Belgians’ is a little unfair on the Belgians. A more difficult game is ‘name five Italian ballets’, I’ve discovered. Until, that is, I found this wonderful catalogue of Italian Ballet Plot Synopses, 1816-1933 . I first came across Manzotti & Marenco when I read Giannandrea Poesio’s paper on Galop, gender and politics in the Italian ballo grande
(20th annual conference of the Society of Dance History Scholars, 1997). Before that I had never heard of Amor, Excelsior and Sport, let alone the others. The only time I have ever seen any of Romualdo Marenco’s music is when the archivist Jane Pritchard lent me her precious copy of the score for Excelsior. An Italian wiki entry on Marenco shows just how prolific he was, and if the other scores as much fun as Excelsior, he must count as one of the most underrated and under-acknowledged ballet composers around. I’m only sorry I missed the 3rd international conference on Romualdo Marenco e il ballo grande italiano. There isn’t a single item by Marenco on either Naxos or Amazon, apart from the DVD of Excelsior, and I am still trying to find a recording on an Italian site.

Skip, change of step

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I often feel extraordinarily privileged to have such illustrious friends in the ballet world, particularly when I want an answer to a simple question, and can just pick up the phone and ask someone whose knowledge and experience is of such an order that it would be like asking Einstein to change a fuse on your vacuum cleaner.

But it has always been my experience with geniuses that they put their great minds to the most humble of subjects; thus my composition teacher, Malcolm Williamson, for example, in time off from being the Master of the Queen’s Musick, offered suggestions as to how I could improve the music I had written for the RAD Intermediate syllabus, and surprised my parents by knowing all the details of an argument my grandmother had had with one of her oldest schoolfriends. Wayne Sleep once lent me a pair of his socks when I had none to wear in the pit.

Last night, however, I felt – as Tony Blair would say – the hand of history on my shoulders, when I was trying desperately to accomplish skip change of step from instructions on the Internet. I was trying to write a paragraph on why one piece of music was more suitable than another for this step, when I realised I didn’t really understand what I was talking about.

I googled ‘Skip change of step’ and tried to follow the instructions on the screen. Try as I might, I couldn’t do it. I considered ringing colleagues at the RAD, but then decided this would be like asking a plumber friend if they’d help you out with your blocked toilet on a Saturday night.

Then chance intervened. As I hobbled round the room, my mobile rang, and there on the screen was the name ‘Chris Hampson’. If anyone should understand skip change of step, a choreographer should. Before he could even utter a word, I was in full flow “Look, how do you do skip change of step?”. I explained my dilemma, and that I couldn’t interpret the instructions on the internet.

“Read them out to me,” Chris said, “And I’ll try and do it”.
“I hope you’re not anywhere public” I replied
“Just so you know how public I am,” Chris responded “I’m outside the National Theatre in Norway at the premiere of the Taming of the Shrew.”
“So”, I said, beginning to feel the index finger of ballet history on my shoulder, “Take a little hop on the left foot….”
“OK. Yup. Yup. OK, got it.”
Miraculously, I also got it too. What the instructions didn’t tell you is that it’s your left foot which propels you, not your right.
“Oh, the ballet master of Royal Swedish Ballet’s here now. He’s doing it with me.”
Well, of course he is. The ballet master in question, the extremely lovely Krzysztof Nowogrodski, formerly of BRB, the PDTD course, and now in Sweden, was there with Mr Hampson, practising skip change of step at a premiere outside a theatre in Oslo, from instructions on the internet conveyed by mobile phone from Tooting. As if that were not all, I even got corrections “Oh no, it’s all very small in Scottish Dancing” said Chris wisely, as I explained how I had been trying to jump the step (impossibly) with the non-working leg.

So when you read your guidebook to the Alternative Music for Grades 1 -5 have some respect – I suspect that it’s rare that so much balletic weight has ever been brought to bear on the first exercise in RAD Grade 1.

The joy of libraries and my Czech mate Czerny

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It’s not often that I get goosebumps sitting in a library, but I came pretty near to it yesterday on a trip to the University of London Library. I have been looking for months for the Czerny piano studies on which Riisager’s ballet Etudes was based. I had traced about half of them, but some – in particular those that I like most – I simply could not find. Having trawled through all the online, digitized scores, I kept coming across the same old books over and over again (the School of Velocity). Then I spent a day walking round London’s music shops – the same story.

My last hope (and I’d nearly given up) was a library, and Senate House appeared to have some Czerny I hadn’t heard of on the stacks. Possibly one of the nicest people ever to sit behind a stack service desk fetched me four enormous volumes of Czerny from somewhere in the bowels of Malet Street.

And there they were, those elusive etudes, in a set of books that from their good condition appeared not to have been opened since 1838 when they were published. This was a different Czerny to the one I knew from being a piano student, and it was suddenly easy to see how Riisager got the inspiration for Etudes. Dance permeates these studies to the extent that you’d think Czerny must have done the 19th century equivalent of clubbing every night and come home so loved-up and buzzing that he just had to write exercises the way other people put on their favourite trance album. Saint-Saëns did him an enormous disservice by caricaturing him in Carnival of the Animals with the exercises in thirds. He might have been born in Austria, and associated with Beethoven, but he was Czech – his father came from Nymburk in Bohemia, which explains a lot about the good-naturedness of his music. It also explains why there’s a Czerny Piano competition in Prague.

Think about it – these books are 166 years old, and still in perfect condition. It took less than 5 minutes to get them from the stack shelves, and probably about half an hour to flick through about 1500 pages to find what I wanted. By conrast, I have already lost innumerable music files that I created using version 1 of Logic on my Atari only 12 years ago, and even with broadband, you can’t ‘flick’ through a digitized score.

All of which reminds me of an article I read in July this year by Bruce Stirling of Wired Magazine. He wrote a piece in the Daily Telegraph called Delete Our Cultural Heritage?. His point is that the world is suffering ‘a silent phenomenon of “digital decay”‘; whereas books last centuries, the rapid obsolescence of computers and electronic storage methods means that things that we created only 10 years ago may be irretrievable unless they have been printed out, filed and catalogued – and as Stirling says, can you be bothered? It’s not until you come across an endangered species such as the Czerny pieces, that you realise that future generations may have less to remind them of the 20th century than they do of the 19th.