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museeinsel.jpgThis is day 12 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

I count the day that I first saw this variation as a curious kind of watershed in my experience of ballet.  Given that I’d been playing for dance for about 10 years before I saw it, the shock was on a similar scale to discovering that your partner liked cross-dressing and having cream buns thrown at them when your back was turned.

It was the dancer Yoko Ichino in Berlin who first introduced me to it, and that rehearsal stands out as one of my favourite and most memorable times in a studio. I played a few bars of it (on paper, it’s just a fairly straightforward looking 2/4 in C minor – but that should have been a clue: how many 19th century female variations can you name in a minor key? And what are they?).  Yoko smiled cheekily and said ‘It needs to be….’ and I can’t really remember what she said – stretched? Rubato? Free? Camp? I thought she’d brought the tambourine in for a joke. But then I realised it was part of the solo.

If you haven’t seen it, I promise you it’s the silliest campest, weirdest variation you’re likely to see, and once I’d seen it, I was convinced that every pianist should have to accompany this solo in the first week of working in dance so they know just how much fun ballet can be. I felt like they’d kept this variation hidden from me (and it’s true that you hardly ever see it in England). If all you’ve ever done is accompany Swan Lake pas de trois or Lilac Fairy attendants, you get a very skewed view of what 19th century ballet is, like a history of 20th century film that doesn’t include the Police Academy or American Pie movies.

Ever since I saw the effect that playing this has on a company class (without fail, someone somewhere does ballet comedy – big butch boys do the solo, or the girls add imaginary tambourine slaps to the exercise, for example) I’ve had to restrain myself from playing it for every class. As it happens, it works terribly well for a lot of exercises, because it’s got so much elasticity and weight without being heavy, and it’s one of those solos where the musicality of the interpretation is so important, it makes everyone focus on that whatever you play it for.

Until a few weeks ago, I thought like everyone else that it was by Drigo. The magnificent Mr Lopez who’s done all the excellent work on Petipa & Minkus at wikipedia has shown otherwise – it’s actually by Marenco, of ‘Excelsior’ fame. I might have known….

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Jonathan Still, ballet pianist