is December 23rd in my Dance
Inpirations advent calendar
What works on a piano in the studio very often doesn’t work on stage with an orchestra, so that the first day a conductor comes to rehearsals in the lead-up to a show is a bit like your parents coming home early to find you getting drunk with your teenage schoolmates on their duty-free Campari. It’s only a baton, but you can almost hear the dismay:
“Look at this rubato all over the place! You should be ashamed of yourself!”
“I told you that Boris was a bad influence. I don’t care how many pirouettes he can do, you keep in tempo like you’ve been taught!”
“How dare you help yourself to my presto?! I was saving that for the coda!”
“Now your mother and I are going to try and sort this ballet out. From now on, you’ll do as your told and play when I tell you to”
What I learnt from Graham Bond, however, was that it can sometimes the other way around. I have a tendency sometimes to play through music somewhat peremptorily, forgetting how healthy it is to let it breathe. In my early days at ENB, where Graham was my boss, I was also pretty clueless about how to make a pas de deux work between the music and the dancers, and as a result was quite heartless, without meaning to be, about tempo.
But Graham could accommodate the dancers’ need for elasticity or slight waywardness in tempo into his musical fabric in such a way that you felt the music actually sounded better for it. Time and time again, I saw his eagle eye catch some tiny geographical problem – a dancer who had ended too far upstage, and needed a few milliseconds more than the music would allow to turn and run back to her partner, for example – and in response, those expressive hands would mould tempo like a sculptor with clay. The result never sounded like putting the brakes on, it sounded like a miniscule rubato that Graham had intended to put in the music anyway.
Indeed, after a while, I began to feel that it was all the other way round – those ‘tempo corners’ were actually in the music; the reason that a choreographer had put that run & turn in the dance was because the phrasing and potential for elasticity in the music suggested it. And in the end, I’m darned if I could tell you which is cause and which is effect, because there was something so natural and perfect about the way he could mould tempo, and his music was so warm & expressive as a result. He was no pussycat, though, and would be the first person to say “you can’t get an orchestra to do that” about an unreasonable tempo change, or a tasteless approach to the music, but his ability and willingness to give-and-take whenever possible was exemplary.
I learnt a lot from his professionalism, too. He would use every ounce of his energy, enthusiasm and musicality for whatever music was in front of him on the podium, whether it was Johann or Richard Strauss, Paquita or Pierrot Lunaire. I felt quite ashamed once, when playing in the pit for Taming of The Shrew, a score I didn’t particularly like. Graham conducted one of the pas de deux so passionately and sensitively, the music almost brought tears to my eyes. It made me realise that if I didn’t like the music, it was at least 50% my fault for the way I had been approaching and playing it.