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susie_small.jpg This is Dec. 9th in my dance inspirations advent calendar. Opened already: December 1st 2nd 3rd 4th 5th 6th 7th 8th

Susie is another one of those people that I seem to have had a non-stop conversation with about dance & music since the day we met, which was some time early in 1986. She taught choreography at the RAD, and was what you might call the ‘token contemporary’ teacher, having come from Rambert and therefore partial to the odd lean sideways and music with wrong notes in. I’m being facetious: if there’s one thing that is guaranteed to get me and Susie worked up into a lather, it’s the idiocy of trying to make rigid distinctions between ‘contemporary dance’ and ballet, or ‘classical’ and ‘modern’ music.

A recurring theme in all these blog entries about the people who’ve inspired, educated & helped me, is the huge importance of conversation & discussion. In music, if you were going to accompany another musician, you wouldn’t walk into a rehearsal room, put the score on the piano and start playing. You’d spend a few minutes getting to know the other person, talk about tempo, feel, style and interpretation, discuss any problem passages and so on, and then get to work. I was amazed, then, when I first started in dance, at how one was expected to walk into a studio, play and leave, week after week, without any meaningful conversation, feedback, discussion, working-things-out. [Someone recently described this quite brilliantly as Plug n Play teaching]. Considering how little I knew about dance or dance accompaniment, this was like having driving lessons with a deaf-mute instructor.

Some of this is fine – it’s part of the professional expectations of the job. But a lot of it isn’t: if dance has anything to do with moving to music in an expressive way, then there has to be some dialogue and mutual discovery between the people involved in teaching & playing for it. Susie was one of those rare exceptions – a teacher who liked nothing more than to stand by the piano and listen to this music compared to that, discuss the effect of doing this movment with that piece, or just get excited or annoyed about music.

We’ve had endless conversations like this, punctuated with laughter & musical examples: What does music for falling off a cliff sound like? What is the worst music in the world for battements fondus? (We reckon it’s probably Ei Ukhnem (The Song of the Volga Boatmen) In fact, let’s think of the worst music for every exercise in class! What does voluptuous sound like? Then there was the spontaneous Ballet for Swivel Chair she choreographed to Glière’s Concerto for Coloratura Soprano Op. 82

If anyone doesn’t have this kind of fun and curiosity in the course teaching or playing for dance, they’re doing something wrong. And yet there is nothing frivolous about this, it’s all in pursuit of getting music right: this is better than that; this won’t do, but that will. This is good, but that is perfect. True frivolity, in the worst sense of the word, is to not care at all.

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Jonathan Still, ballet pianist