John O’Brien is probably the greatest inspiration and teacher I had in my life as a ballet accompanist. This is Dec. 3rd in my dance inspirations advent calendar, in which I celebrate some of the un(der)sung heroes of the dance world who have helped and inspired me in my career.
How we met
In the late summer of 1986, I decided that the RAD wasn’t for me after all. I have to be grateful to one of their examiners, to whom I poured my heart out over several G&T’s on the train back from Newcastle after a gruelling exam tour – she said “Resign now while it still bothers you. If you stay a few months longer, you’ll ‘sear’ yourself to the pain, start to lose your drive and end up one of those people who ‘get by’ in their job because they’ve taught themselves not to care any more”. It was brilliant advice: I took it, and resigned.
Due to some emergency or other, in my last couple of weeks at the RAD I was asked to play for John O’Brien, whose classes up until then had been considered too complex or fast for someone as green as me, but this was an emergency and the view was, we’d both have to cope as best we could with each other under the circumstances.
Cope?! We had a ball. From the minute he started the class, I felt that if only all ballet had been like this, I would have stayed in it. John seemed to need music for his class, rather than that strange recipe of metre & anxiety that other teachers demanded. His exercises felt like dancing, rather than exercises. His manner, his voice, his rhythm and his warmth as a human being were totally different to anything I’d experienced, and – darn it – they’d saved this one til last, once I’d decided to leave.
The John O’Brien years
As it turned out, a few weeks after I’d left, John called me at home, and asked me if I’d be willing to play for some of his classes outside the RAD. So began a period of three years, in which I ended up playing for nearly every class that John taught. It was a fabulous working relationship, and a wonderful friendship which has lasted ever since. It was with John that I found my ‘voice’ as a dance accompanist, a notion that I hardly understand myself, but it’s true. He is one of the greatest teachers and coaches I have ever known in any field, because coaching is his natural state – if you met him in the street, you’d go away feeling as if you had improved at saying ‘hello’. His teaching and his classes seemed to leave everyone involved – from the participants to the pianist to the doorkeeper to those just watching – a better person physically, emotionally & spiritually. As extravagant as that claim may sound, I think there are probably thousands of students or class members who would agree wholeheartedly with it.
John’s holistic approach to teaching, dancing, music and everything else helped me to develop as a musician in a way that now seems second-nature, but without him I would never have become that person. The structure of his continuous barres combined with the natural phrasing and rhythmic sense of his voice gave me a framework in which to explore thousands upon thousands of pieces of music and see how they worked or didn’t work. The emotional and spiritual warmth of his classes were a safe environment in which to explore the outer limits of self-expression in music. For five minutes before every class and sometimes in the middle too, he would help me to optimise my posture and sort out (or rather prevent – I’ve never had any) back problems. Our knowledge and experience of each other’s work enabled us to play with what we did, and challenge each other to an extent that would be mind-boggling to an onlooker. He coached me a few times for performances, and to this day, I still use what I learned from him – not tricks or methods, but ways of connecting better with your own ability and identity, using what you have to the maximum.
There are thousands of people who passed through John’s classes in dance or body conditioning, and you can easily spot those who he’s coached. They all have that mysterious connection between music, technique & the person within that makes the great dancer. The classes and exercises that John has developed bear the hallmark of genius, and you could write dissertations on why they are good, and what theories & knowledge underpin them. People don’t, though, and sometimes I lie awake at night wondering whether this is the paradox at the heart of great dance teaching – it is embodied knowledge, and it’s in the body that it belongs and flourishes, so you can’t extrude it from the body (into a book, for example) without taking away the thing that makes it work. I don’t know, but I do know that unlike so many others, John hasn’t turned himself into a book or a video, and knowing him, there’s probably a good reason why.