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This is day 11 in my Dance Inspirations Advent Calendar (II)

ambal_2.jpgOne of the hardest things for pianists to understand about ballet classes is what exercises are about. As a musician, you’re usually trying to express something, tell a story, create a mood, show-off, entertain or explore an emotion with music, so the idea of movement for movement’s sake is odd.

The idea that a teacher might ask you for ‘some music’ for an exercise without being specific about what kind of music, or without explaining (or caring about) the motivation behind the exercise or the music seems even odder. What kind of movement is a tendu – angry? sensuous? sly? lyrical? determined? quirky? And if you don’t have a view on that, then what kind of music do you need? And (frankly), if you don’t have a view on that, why have music at all?

Now a tendu may just be a tendu, but you can still have an attitude of mind or spirit while you do it, and that’s what the best teachers get across. Betty Anderton, though, went one further. Her repertoire of tunes, sung with terrific abandon, contained everything you needed to know about the aim, character, tempo, articulation, spirit, dynamics and humour of the exercise without any need for explanation. The ‘ha ha ha’ in this Fledermaus aria says more to both the dancers and pianist about the quality of the music and the quality of the ronds de jambe than words or counts ever could. When my colleagues and I at the RAD were compiling A Dance Class Anthology, one of our aims was to create a kind of catalogue of musical paradigms like this, and whatever contributions I made owe a lot to the education I received by playing for Betty.
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Jonathan Still, ballet pianist