This is day 11 in my 2007 Advent Calendar. This year, I’m giving the
story behind some of the music that I’ve collected for ballet classes.
All the pieces are on Studio Series Vol. 4 published by RAD
[Picture: Josephine Jewkes in Les Sylphides, Photo: Elizabeth Pacey]
When we made the very first Studio Series album back in 1999, we had to arrange two short recording sessions after the main one to add some extra tracks that we hadn’t foreseen at the start. At the end of the second one, there was still some time left, both in the session and on the recording. On impulse, I said ‘Let’s put the Prelude from Les Sylphides on bang in the middle, as a kind of musical transition from barre to centre’. It was a kind of statement – ballet class albums are so much about ‘functional’ music – music to use, music to do stuff to, music for something, in a prescribed order using long-standing convention; why not, while we’ve got the chance, throw something in there that will just be there for what it is, that defies ‘usage’ in the normal sense? It might be the track that no-one knows what to do with except listen to it or waft around to, but that would be No Bad Thing.
Although Les Sylphides is one of the ballets which defines ballet for most people – lush orchestrations of Chopin waltzes, wafty tutus and moonlit glades – it achieves this effect through means which are far less conventional than might appear at first, and nowhere more so than in the Prelude. I’ve been worryingly obsessed by this solo ever since I had the privilege of playing it in performance with former ENB & Rambert dancer Josephine Jewkes (see photo above), who, in the words of Woytek Lowski, regularly ‘ruined’ performances of Les Sylphides by doing it so well that it made the rest of the show look pants. It’s not about technique in the traditional sense, it’s about embodying the mystery and other-wordliness of the ballet and drawing an audience into it. Jo did this so well, that the image of the Prelude was still resonating long after the finale had finished. She very kindly agreed to come to the RAD to teach the solo to my second year music students a few years ago, and that class counts as one of the most fascinating insights into dance and music that I can remember. Boy, does she know her stuff.
So on to the CD it went, with no explanation, no introduction, and no prescribed usage, and at a speed and delivery that you could only waft, choreograph or dream to.
And in the same spirit, when we came to record Studio Series 4 this year, I decided to put on Satie’s Gymnopédie No. 1 in the same place (between barre and centre), for the same reason. There are times when you want music to just be music. If it weren’t for those moments, no-one would ever choreograph or be inspired to dance, so it seems fitting that in the midst of all those exercises, there should be a chance to dream. And if you want music to stretch to, it ought to be something like a Gymnopédie, whose phrases hang in the air like mist, seemingly never beginning or ending, but with an intoxicating rhythm that is both regular yet pulseless, measured yet free.