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The museum of medieval torture in Prague. The very first time I ever played for a ballet exercise was in my audition at RAD headquarters in 1985 (they’d advertised for a pianist, with an offer of training for a suitable candidate if, like me, they didn’t have experience). They got a couple of students into a studio, and asked the teacher Debra (Debbie) Wayne to set a few exercises as if it was a real class. It can’t have gone too badly because I got the job.  But I’ve never forgotten the moment when, during a pirouette exercise, the teacher suddenly stopped right in front of me, fixed a terrifying wide-eyed stare straight at me and shouted “STOP!”

I snatched my hands from the piano keyboard, looked at her and cowered. “Sorry….” I began. Everyone looked at me – her, the audition panel, and the students. Why had I stopped? You said “stop,” I explained. The wide-eyed stare melted into a smile. “I said SPOT,” she explained, “I was talking to the students.” I remember thinking “So why were you looking at me, then?”

Only several weeks later did I realise that this is normal for ballet. Teachers sometimes half-do an exercise in front of the dancers, as if they were part of the group, acting normally for the most part, but then suddenly isolating particular directions, positions or movements, admonishing or encouraging as they go. When they appear to be looking at you, they’re not. They’re facing whatever direction the exercise has taken them, which might mean that they’re standing feet away from you, staring right at you and through you at the same time – which can look menacing if you don’t realise what’s going on.

Sometimes, dancers use you to spot when they’re doing some fiendishly difficult diagonal, so you see this person coming straight at you with tense features, gritted teeth and wide eyes that seem to say “I’m going to kill you.” They’re not, of course: this is just their “fouetté” face or whatever horrible step it is that they’re trying to achieve while they come at you from their corner to yours. But it’s difficult to turn off the fight-or-flight instinct that such a gaze naturally evokes in you, especially as, you never know, maybe today they really do want to kill you because you’ve got the tempo wrong.

I don’t think I’ve ever quite got used to the weirdness of ballet directions, that is, the way that dancers just face the way that they’ve got to face when they’re doing an exercise. Just when you look across to someone you know in class during pliés, they turn away from you, with a pained expression. The pained expression is probably nothing to do with you, it’s just their “it’s too early, but I’ve got to do this plié anyway” face, and they only turned away because that’s the exercise. But even after all these years, you can’t help occasionally feeling a visceral tug at your emotions when it happens, that makes you wonder why she’s (not) looking at you like that.

Slightly weirder is the opposite – when you’re facing a dancer because she’s hanging on to the edge of your piano, or you’re looking that way, and the directions of the exercise mean that you’re staring straight at her for several counts at a time. That’s when you have to use what Erving Goffman brilliantly termed “civil inattention,” the way of acknowledging that someone is there, but in such a neutral way that you make it clear that it’s OK, you’re not going to demand interaction. With its carefully choreographed deference, changes of direction and eyeline, ballet teaches you exactly how to do that for hours at a time. When you step out of that into the real world of messy interaction, you begin to miss it.

2 thought on “Confessions of an anxious ballet pianist day #17: Why’s she looking at me like that?”
  1. But What’s happening To the future of ballet class accompanists ? What is the RAD thinking? And now imperial! Jonathan your piece is lovely but describes a dying art, no?

    1. I’m not speaking for the RAD, because I don’t work there, but I guess there’s always at least two ways to look at it: making live music compulsory for exams makes ballet inaccessible for people who don’t have pianists, pianos, or the money to pay for them (and where teachers teach now don’t necessarily have pianos, unlike the church hall of old). Using recorded music for dance classes has been going on since at least the 1920s, and pianolas for dances before that even, so I don’t think it’s the end of a line, so much as just a shift in ecology. I don’t think it’s a dying art at all – I can think of more really fantastic pianists now than I ever met when I first started out.

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Jonathan Still, ballet pianist