When you’re accompanying a ballet solo, too much “musicality” (as musicians understand that term) can be a bad thing. In the last week, I’ve had the same correction from two eminent ballet mistresses about my playing. What I did seemed so glaringly wrong to them that the correction came with the same tone of voice as you might tell someone they’d left the door open. The mistake concerned exactly the same rhythmic pattern in two pieces of music, and more or less the same kind of step.
The first example is from the slow solo in Raymonda (B major), the second from the white swan solo in Swan Lake. I put what I thought was quite a subtle tenuto on the D major chord in the second half of the last bar of the Raymonda example, and on the C#s at the beginning of each bar in Swan Lake.
I instinctively labour those notes slightly. The harmony, melodic contour and rhythmic sequence of dotted quaver followed by semiquavers in a 6/8 bar all seem to demand it. Or more precisely, my training as a pianist taught me to do it. It’s so instinctive, that I wasn’t aware that I was doing anything unusual until I got impassioned pleas from the front to “just keep the rhythm” “don’t hold that note” and “keep the tempo going.”
In both cases, the dancer was doing what to my mind was a visual analogue of a tenuto – “holding” a position in a way that I’ve heard referred to as precipitée – i.e. get there quick and linger. There was me thinking I was being a good accompanist, following these very musical dancers and lingering with them, only to find that I was doing something fundamentally wrong which imperilled their performance.
Once I’d got over the shame of having to be corrected over something so basic, I realised that this is one of the ironies of accompanying very accomplished dancers: what looks “musical” in ballet is that ability to linger on a note, to play with the timing. But if you’re going to do that, you have to have something to play against. It’s a bit like what my piano teacher (who was a singer, as well as being a renowned accompanist for singers) used to call “support” – i.e. providing a firm musical mattress for the singer, not one that gave in to every lump and bump in the musical line. In fact, the dancer in the rehearsal yesterday said “don’t watch me, because I’m going to play with the music,” which seems to confirm what I’m saying.
Your own “musicality” as a pianist, the things you do with timing that are conventional markers of expressiveness in musical performance, can be perilous when you’re accompanying dance. It’s not just that you have to remember that you can’t muck around with beats in an orchestra the way you can with a piano. It’s also that in order for the dancer to be able to “play” with the music using those same conventional expressive markers (rubato, agogic accents etc.) you have to provide something solid enough for them to work with. It’s their show, not yours.
Is this a rule of thumb? I don’t know. It’s odd that this should have happened twice in the same week in different countries with different people, and with the same kind of musical object. I began to doubt myself yesterday, wondering whether I’d become a kind of Mapp and Lucia pianist, proudly wallowing in my own “musicality” without realising that it just sounds mannered and plain unrhythmical. It’s a funny business, this ballet thing – they say you never stop learning as an accompanist, but I seem to be getting worse, rather than better sometimes. A kinder interpretation is that I just happen to have worked with two expert coaches in the past week, who were able to determine accurately what it was they and their dancers needed to make things work. It’s probably somewhere between those two poles. The rather frustrating thing is that the nature of the job means that you rarely get to discuss these things with others, unless you do what I’m doing now and blog about them.