Ballet troubles & music

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Picture of view from the Royal Ballet Studios, Covent Garden

The view from here

Music in Motion is an article on new scores for NYCB from The New Yorker by Alex Ross, author of The Rest is Noise. (Via theballetbag via Twitter)

I enjoyed reading The Rest is Noise more than any other book I’ve read on music, which is saying something, because I usually can’t even bring myself to even walk past the  ‘music’ section in bookshops.  By ‘music’, I mean that very specialised thing that people do in concert halls, or in the privacy of their own home hifi, the contemplation of works. And so by ‘books on music’ I mean things like biographies of composers, and the whole fawning and promotional literary culture that surrounds the classical music industry.  Since the moment I had the experience of seeing people dance while I played the piano, I found it difficult to find music without movement interesting or enjoyable any more, and it is the premise of so much writing about music that nothing, but nothing, should come between ‘the music’ and ‘the audience’ – especially not dance.

So I was rather sorry to see an author I admire so much be so dismissive of ballet. As a friend of mine pointed out recently, no-one would think it was OK to be ignorant of a work of literature or a canonical work of music, but when it comes to dance, there’s almost a certain hipness about saying you’ve never seen any, or don’t understand it, or don’t know anything about it. Ross quotes the pianist Susan Tomes as someone who also writes about her ‘ballet troubles’ in her book, Out of Silence. “I feel a sense of frustration that the dancers’ steps are not actually to the music, but merely run in parallel with it. I’m all too aware of the way they have rehearsed their movements in the studio using spoken rhythms (‘And one-and-two-and-point-and-turn,’ etc.).”

I don’t mind that she feels frustration – heaven knows, some of the worst nights I’ve ever had in a theatre have been watching ballet – but what does this mean,  ‘the dancer’s steps are not actually to the music’? Which dancers? All ballets? All music? All steps? And what determines the right of anyone to say what the music is, and that others have somehow got it wrong?  What’s so terrible about spoken rhythms, or rehearsing?  Watching pianists rehearse is no picnic  either.

So much of Western art music has dance at its very heart (see the section on ‘mind and body’ from Philip Tagg’s great article on High and Low, Cool and Uncool: aesthetic and historical falsifications about music in Europe), and there’s a whiff of high-mindedness about both Ross & Tomes on this subject – it’s only the body, it’s only dancing, how could it matter, compared to the great rational minds that create music?

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