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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. 

6/8 B major solo from Glazunov’s “Raymonda.”
Odette's solo (White Swan) from Swan Lake: too much musicality when you're accompanying this can be a bad thing
Tchaikovsky: White Swan solo, Act 2 Swan Lake

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.

4 thought on “The perils of “musicality” when you’re accompanying a ballet solo”
  1. I both dance (ballroom, salsa, tango, swing, contra, English country, etc.) and sometimes play music for dancers (flutes, recorders, tin whistle), so I see both sides. It is definitely the case that a popular topic among dancers is assessing the “danceability” of what different musical groups or accompanists do. One particularly important fact about dancing is that one has to have time to anticipate what is going to happen, because of the slow speed of the body and the uncontrollable nature of gravity, so it can be very disruptive when suddenly the flow changes, or during music and dance improvisation, random changes in phrase length, etc. As far as just rubato is concerned, even purely in piano there has always been debate about whether the left hand should stay relatively steady while the right hand is more free, in order to create a contrast amidst stability. In a way, the musician is the left hand when there is dancing.

    1. Your last comment is what I was mentally heading towards with this post, and it’s interesting to hear your perspective as someone on both sides of the counter, so to speak. With rubato, I’m not sure that there is any debate over it, just that there are two types of rubato, one “early” one “late” (see “Stolen Time” by Richard Hudson). Chopin seems to have been pretty clear I think about what he was after – steady left hand and “backphrasing” with the right – though of course, that doesn’t rule out stringendi when they’re marked.

  2. Hi Jonathan. Yours is an interesting blog and I agree a lot with what Franklin Chen has said. From my perspective as teacher I much prefer the music is played beautifully according to the tempo that is set, unless perhaps discussion has taken place between the solo dancer and the musician. The dancer is able to express what she musically feels if she knows where the music is going. It steadies her and she can respond, quickening a movement phrase to add interest, interpretation and sparkle to the choreography then pausing slightly. Alternatively, pulling out a movement or movement phrase beyond what is usual, then quickly catching up. I’ve seen many young dancers falter going into, for example, a posé in arabesque en pointe because the musician has slowed the tempo to “help” or follow, all with the best of intention, but mostly it dosen’t work because the dancer’s natural rhythm is confused. Your paragraph beginning ” your own musicality” is absolutely right, however I don’t quite agree with the last statement. The dancer can only totally express herself to beautiful music if she has a musician who understands how this can happen. It is both of their “shows” requiring equal skill.

    1. Hi Carole,
      Thanks for your comment. As it happens, it’s only last week that I had exactly the correction you mention (about not slowing up to “help” someone going into a posé in arabesque on pointe). The trouble is – and this is partly why I made the mistake – choreographers often choose to put a step like this on music where, as a musician, you would yourself slightly pull out the phrase to “place” the note that comes on “1” (where the posé will be). Out of the corner of your eye, you see the hesitation before the posé, and it encourages you almost subconsciously to put more of a hesitation in the music than you would have done anyway. I was going to write my next blog post about this very thing (and I still will), but you’ve beaten me to it!

      When I said “it’s their show, not yours,” what I meant was that something like hesitating (or faltering) into a carefully placed first beat, or slightly holding that first beat (an agogic accent) is a feature of expressive timing in classical musical performance, so – as I’ve tried to explain above – it’s something that you might do anyway as a musician, at a place where there’s going to be a posé in arabesque on pointe. It’s one of the things that would define a “musical” performance. When you’re accompanying a ballet solo, as you’ve explained yourself in your comment, it’s the dancer who makes these expressive adjustments to the timing, and it’s difficult for her to do so if the timing in the music is unpredictable or wayward (or what we musicians call “expressive”!). So to some extent, there are times when as a musician you have to put your own “musicality” aside so that the dancer can demonstrate hers. It’s counterintuitive for the musician, because – as Franklin says – it’s as if you have to be “the left hand” and let the dancer be the right, and you have to trust that for the audience, the musicality will be carried, so to speak, by the dancer.

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Jonathan Still, ballet pianist