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I’ve already written an entire recent post about one problem with accompanying this variation (The perils of musicality when you’re accompanying a ballet solo) but that’s not the end of the story.  Oh no. For only a day or so later that episode, another problem came up with another part of the solo. The whole piece is like a slow-motion assault course, and 28 years of playing it for students in vocational schools, candidates in competitions, and dozens of ballerinas hasn’t made it any easier. In fact, the most recent experience, which was with one of the most musical ballerinas I can think of, and the most musically perceptive coach I’ve ever encountered, made me feel I’d had to go back to school and start again.

You say tenuto. . .

The bit in question was the two-note anacrusis at the end of bar six (F# E#) going on to the  two-note slur at the beginning of bar seven (G# F#). Yes, a life hanging on four darned quavers. “Don’t slow down!” said the coach. We tried again. The rehearsal stopped. “Just play it in tempo, don’t go ‘dah dah da dah,’ [exagerrating the anacrusis]  just play it straight. Don’t follow her.” I tried again. The rehearsal stopped again. This time, the ballerina said “Don’t follow me, just play it straight, even if you think it looks like I need more time, because I can catch up, but if you slow down, I can’t do the step.”

Another tricky corner in the "White Swan" variation
Another tricky corner in the “White Swan” variation

This time, I had to speak “I’m really sorry,” I said, “I thought I was playing it straight. I’m trying my best to do it, but I don’t even know I’m not playing it straight any more.” Before I’d even finished, they both said “No, no, it’s fine, don’t worry, it’s natural. With this phrase you want to go “da dah da dah” because that’s what you want to do musically, but you just have to do it straight.”

So once again – how many times is this now? Four? – and this time, finally, I got it right, and do you know what, they were right. It took me that long (28 years, plus four repeats in a single rehearsal) to realise that I’d never played those four quavers straight in my life. I like to think that the explanation is something to do (again) with Justin London’s “many meters hypothesis” that I referred to in the “musicality” post, i.e. that a time signature like 6/8 isn’t a single, arithmetically precise metrical framework for music, but a model that has many variants in a musical culture, each of which can exhibit different types of squeezed and stretched microtiming effects in different parts of the bar: a bit like taking one of those molecular models and bending it in your hands (that’s my analogy, not London’s). In this case, as my colleagues noted, it’s “natural” to want to add a bit of space to the anacrusis, because that’s what this particular model of 6/8 always seems to do.

I hope that is the explanation, and it’s not just that I’m incapable of playing in time any more. This solo is difficult because it’s often so slow that you begin to lose your sense of when the last quaver happened.  Added to that, the older you get, the more ingrained your habits become unless someone points them out, not to mention the fact that types of expressive timing go in and out of fashion too.  

Another day, another dolour 

That’s not the end of the story, however. The next day, armed with my squeaky clean and fresh timing, I played for a different ballerina, who – yep, you guessed it – wanted the expressive timing put back in. “Can you just watch me there…” she said. I’ve since watched several videos on YouTube, and noticed that some ballerinas want that anacrusis slowed up forever, but then the tempo switches back to something that’s faster than the opening, because that was slow because they can hold the extension in the ronds de jambe. 

As a musician, you look at this music on the page, and it looks light, capricious, free; dainty and thin. Whether it was ever that in the ballet, I don’t know, but now, in some performances every movement in the solo seems to drag the music along behind it like a huge family checking in excess baggage, and then there is a moment of release where the orchestra catches up the tempo they would have preferred to play all along. 

I could write another four posts as long as this on another four awkward bits in this solo, and there are probably more, but that’s enough White Swan for one advent calendar. The trouble with this solo is not just that it’s difficult for the ballerina, and difficult to accompany, but also that it’s so replete with meaning: it’s Swan Lake, the ballet that almost defines the art form, and defines the ballerina. I’m not sure that there’s a single work in the musical repertoire that you can compare that to.

If you’re thinking “You think White Swan’s difficult? Black Swan’s even worse!” hold that thought – that’ll be tomorrow’s post.

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Jonathan Still, ballet pianist