Monthly Archives: May 2019

Bulletin of the Vaganova Ballet Academy — online journal (with English abstracts)

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Am I the last person to have noticed that the Vaganova Ballet Academy has published a serious journal containing the work of Russian dance scholars, Bulletin of the Vaganova Ballet Academy,since 2015, with six issues a year? The articles are in Russian, but all have English abstracts. Given that there’s such a divide in most countries between academic scholarship and practical ballet teaching, it’s astonishing to see both together in the institute most famous globally for producing dancers rather than scholars. 

I came across it by chance, because I was looking up something about airs parlants, and found an  article by Galina Bezuglaya on airs parlants in early 19th century ballet—which will give you some idea of the level of scholarship. A glance through the contents pages reveals a huge breadth and depth. 

On-screen commentary from pianist Joshua Piper during YouTube ballet class

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When I first learned to drive, I read a book about the police driving test, in which you had to do a “commentary drive,” which involves describing to the examiner (while you’re driving) what you are observing on the road ahead, explaining the decisions you’re making, the precautions you’re taking, and so on. I often think of this during ballet class, because as any ballet pianist will tell you, although we seem to “just” play when the exercise starts, there’s a whole series of observations, analyses and decision-making processes going on before we lay a finger on the keyboard, and then a dozen more as we’re actually playing, some of which are so quick as to seem unconscious and instantaneous. For the novice pianist trying to learn something about how to play for class, watching another pianist has limited use, because you don’t know why they’re doing what they do. Sometimes, they don’t know either, or have forgotten by the time class is over. That’s why the video below by ballet pianist Joshua Piper (aka heavypiano) is really useful: he’s filmed a real class, with him playing, put it on YouTube, and put a short text commentary over it, usually at the beginning and ends of exercises, so you can see why he’s doing what he’s doing. [If you can’t see the embedded video, click here to see it on YouTube]

He explains, for example, that at a certain point in the barre, the teacher likes a “less is more” approach to the music, so he holds back, avoiding too much subdivision, playing chords in light touches, which gives the dancers space to move, so to speak; elsewhere he talks about trying to maintain tempo, and create a feeling of ebb and flow, of introducing a bit of stride, but not too heavy. It’s a great lesson on making your repertoire stretch, too—adapting tunes according to the tempo and feel of the exercise, so that you only just realise by the end that you know the tune, but in a different form (I’m thinking here of his styling of Korobeiniki, a.k.a. the Tetris theme.

He emphasises that what’s happening in this class at times is fairly unusual: the teacher wants him to play quiet, thin, and spacious music for exercises that would often be accompanied by more robust, circussy stuff. But that’s why the video is so useful—it demonstrates how a particular pianist adapts his style to a particular teacher and the dancers, rather than making any claims that you can apply the same musical template to every ballet class in the world. It’s the necessity to adapt that is what makes the job difficult, but also rewarding. One of my favourite comments is where he says he’s trying to “imply round movement with my LH pattern” in ronds de jambe, an exercise that’s normally taken in 3/4, but which he’s playing in 4. Finding ways to trick people’s ears into thinking they’re hearing three when they aren’t is one of my tactics, too, as I’ve described in another post.

This is a great video, and Joshua Piper plays beautifully—but I also have to say he’s lucky to have this teacher, and that class (I’m guessing it’s Ballet Austin, but I’m not sure). There are other videos to be made, where the pianist—like a police driver explaining how he is going to manoeuvre a skidding car out of a muddy ditch while pursuing criminals— shows how they try to make the eternal fondu-tango-that-is-too-slow or the ronds-de-jambe-stirring-porridge-waltz still feel like music against the most challenging odds.

The more I watch and listen to this video, the more I love the way Joshua Piper plays, his repertoire, stylings, and commentary—and the video itself, too: it makes such a nice change to have a static, wide camera angle, and a focus on a good quality recording of the sound, rather than a body mic given to the teacher, and fetishistic close-ups of dancers’ feet and sweaty faces. Ballet on TV is so darn predictable. This video gives you a feel for the calm, peaceful concentration that you get in a ballet classes, and an idea of just how exposed and focal the music can be when you’ve got a teacher who isn’t screaming over the top of it.

RIP John O’Brien

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John O'Brien, June 2016, photo by Andrew Florides

John O’Brien in June 2016, at Café Richoux in Mayfair. Photo by Andrew Florides (www.andrewflorides.co.uk)

In all the years I knew John, he always seemed the same age, and always young, so I never thought I would be writing this post. He was also one of the most present people I have ever met. I’m lost for words to hear that he died yesterday, so here is a post I wrote about John   a few years ago; another about the time the actress and singer Gertrude Thoma and I surprised him in Barnes at the crack of dawn on his birthday , inviting him to a house where we’d just spent the night at a party (they had a piano), with a rendition of the Marlene Dietrich number Johnny, Wenn du Geburtstag hast. And the last word, the thing that made John’s classes different from any other teacher I’ve known, his gentle philosophy of “This thing is bigger than all of us.” 

See also: Lightly up, up, up” a tribute to John that I wrote after this post. 

Music in “Where Snowflakes Dance and Swear” by Stephen Manes

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Where Snowflakes Dance, book by Stephen ManesI bought Where Snowflakes Dance and Swear when it first came out in 2011: I didn’t particularly want to read it (because I spend enough time in this world at work) but I couldn’t ignore it as a kind of ethnography of the ballet world that I was writing about. It was a good decision: unlike so many other authors of backstage views of the ballet world, Stephen Manes actually talks about music—the problems, what people play, the problems of hiring and marking up orchestral parts, how much it costs, and so on. 

For anyone who has ever had a problem with music publishers, copyright and licensing in the ballet world, pages 252-258 will probably be one of the first times you’ve seen your experience represented in a published book, with the exception of Matthew Naughtin’s Ballet Music: A Handbookwhich tells the story (and gives information) from the music librarian’s perspective. Even he, though, doesn’t get into the kind of gory embarrassing detail that Manes does, where a company has to do things that are on the grey, fuzzy margins of legal, in order to get by. Everything in these pages I had experienced myself, and was delighted and surprised to see that my troubles had been shared by others. You think you’re mad, criminal and incompetent until you realize it’s the craziness of music publishing that is the problem. 

I can’t think of another book or article that contains so much about everyday musical practice in the ballet world: what pianists play for class; the decision to use CD or piano for rehearsal; the embarrassing moment when you do a new work, and find that there’s no rehearsal score, so the company pianist has to do one. It’s just a shame that you have to trawl through the book looking for the references—the indexing could be improved so that it’s easier to find topics, rather than very granular references to particular people or ballets, but at least the references are in there somewhere: ethnographies of ballet often say little more than ‘classical music plays in the background’ and leave it at that, so this is a welcome change. 

Ballet pianists and company class

The author (see comment below) has reminded me of one of the biggest sections on the work of ballet pianists, on page 697-703, with detailed explanations from two company pianists, and their route into the profession. One ended up playing for the company “because they hated the class pianist” (p. 698), another started out when he was left to sink or swim in a class in Moscow—  “. . .there’s something about someone foreign yelling at you, screaming at you. . .” (p.700). Quite. We’ve all been there. But the balance in Manes’ writing is everything: despite the awfulness, there are compensations, and reasons why ballet pianists end up loving their job and staying in it. A lot of so-called “behind the scenes” writing on ballet musicians is nothing of the sort, because it’s commissioned and written under the auspices of the ballet companies themselves. 

Repertoire

Dotted around the book (and this is what prompted this post) are little references to music that to my mind, make a huge difference, not just to the evocation of the scenes that the author is describing, but to our knowledge of what music in the ballet world is like generally. The book may be specific to a time and place, but musically, it sounds very familiar: “A medley of ‘Stairway to Paradise,’ ‘Bidin’ my Time,’ and ‘Nice Work if You Can Get it’ played with strong emphasis on the beat accompanies a combination that involves what Otto calls ‘many’ turns.” (p. 44). Stretches are done to a Dvořák Slavonic Dance, and sit-ups to Carmen (p. 119); “Flashy jumps and big turns to Beethoven, Bach, “Be a Clown,” and “Meet Me in St. Louis” begin to lighten the mood of the room. (p. 505).  In a description of a rehearsal, Manes mentions that “The Merry Widow Waltz” wafts in from an adjacent classroom (p.173), prompting a momentary digression in the rehearsal to remember fondly the time the company did Ronnie Hynd’s ballet The Merry Widow.” It’s a lovely detail—it’s exactly the kind of thing that happens in rehearsal. In writing about ballet, there is usually so much emphasis on the hyperfocus and determination of dancers as elite athletes, that these little overhearings and spillages of music and memory usually go unmentioned.  

Ivor Guest Trainee Pianist at The Royal Ballet (paid 9 month contract)

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Delighted to see that the Royal Ballet have launched a 9-month paid position for a trainee pianist at the Royal Opera House, named in memory of Ivor Guest. Please pass on the details to anyone you think would be interested.

It so happens that I was on the point of writing a blog post about training ballet pianists yesterday, because I’m halfway through Matthew Syed’s Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice. Syed, a former table tennis champion, is basically reiterating and expanding on the 10,000 hours of practice rule, and the “growth mindset” theory: that you become expert at something through artful practice, not through innate talent (though genetics obviously has a role to play on what Syed calls the “threshold” for entry into a particular sphere). The take-home point is that there are no cases where people achieve skills by short-cutting the practice, and none where continued practice doesn’t lead to results (obviously, it has to be the right kind of practice). 

It suddenly struck me, as I was sitting in a ballet class watching students go through some of the 10,000 hours that they would need to become truly expert, that it’s rare that pianists are given the opportunity to get the practice they need in order to become skilled. Many of my colleagues agree that it takes a ball-park figure of two years regular playing for class (and an intense amount of hard work outside class, finding and practising repertoire, or learning to improvise in appropriate styles), before you begin to feel comfortable—and then, anyone I’ve ever met in this field says “and you never stop learning.” It’s true: there’s always more to learn, and always that one teacher, regardless of your experience, who can freak you out and make you wonder whether you’re in the right job. 

This is why whenever someone talks about “training courses” for pianists, I always sigh inwardly (even though I’ve taught on them myself), because as much as there are things you can teach on a course, background stuff you can learn that is necessary and useful, there is just no replacement for sitting on that piano stool, and being served exercises like Syed was served thousands of table-tennis balls by his coaches. That’s not just a sentimental “There’s no substitute for experience” —there really isn’t. Of all people, ballet teachers should understand this principle, because that’s how people get good at ballet, yet it’s very rare that teachers do give pianists opportunities to try for long enough to get better.  It’s assumed that what is needed is some kind of training in music, whereas that’s like passing your driving theory test, but never getting in the car. 

 

 

 

“Ballerinas in the church hall”—Virginia Taylor’s thesis online

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Joyce Kilmer thought she would never see a poem as lovely as a tree; well, I’m pretty sure I will never see a thesis as lovely as Virginia Taylor’s  Ballerinas in the church hall: Ideologies of femininity, ballet and dancing school.” (PhD, University of Chichester, 2003). I had known Virginia Taylor’s work from the papers she published on why girls go to ballet, but only recently noticed that her thesis is now freely available online. 

It is so beautifully written, I thought all the time about what John Law wrote in After Method (2004): 

Why do the books fall into two heaps, the novels on the one hand, and the academic volumes on the other? [. . .] What difference would it make if we were instead to apply the criteria that we usually apply to novels (or even more to poetry) to academic writing? . . . if we had to write our academic pieces as if they were poems, as if every word counted, how would we write differently? How much would we write at all. [. . .] How, then, might we imagine an academic way of writing that concerns itself with the quality of its own writing? With the creativity of writing? (Law, 2004, pp. 11-12) 

I enjoyed reading this thesis as much as any of my favourite novels, and I could read it again and again for pleasure. She takes apart woolly, ideological thinking about ballet so elegantly, it’s like watching a surgeon at work. I burst out laughing several times, and I copied and pasted quotes from almost every single page of the thesis, sometimes several paragraphs from the same page. If you have suffered for years with the art form you work in being denigrated as girly, fluffy, pink, feminised, uncreative, hierarchical etc. (as if all those things were inherently wrong) and ideologically inferior to state dance education, then this will be the oxygen you need, but she’s paid for every cylinder with razor-sharp arguments and critiques of texts that are often regarded without a second thought as canonical in the dance education world. The thesis pre-dates the Jordan Petersoning  of ballet which requires it to be manned-up  into something masculine, athletic, and sciencey for boys and girls alike, but the tools you need to unscrew that screwed-up thinking are right here.

It’s not just that. It’s beautifully structured, and her methods are so clear and down-to-earth, there’s never a point where you can say “Ah yes, but. . . ” because she’s already pre-empted you. One of my favourite moments is when she asks  a senior examiner from one of the dance teaching societies how she would explain the global spread of ballet teaching: 

“She replied, ‘Parents all over the world want their daughters to be graceful’; although indeed she laughed when I added ‘just like us.’ (I was washing the car, she was walking her dogs.)” (p. 128)

I’ve been at conferences where people post up quotes from their respondents on the PowerPoint screen (“Anna, aged 19, name changed to preserve anonymity”), against the snazzy colours of an off-the-shelf template with a University logo in the corner, sharing  Elizabeth’s hope in Pride and Prejudice that it will be “something that will amaze the whole room, and be handed down to posterity with all the éclat of a proverb.” To admit that you were washing the car or walking the dogs at the time is—never mind that it’s also responsible scholarship—pure class. 

Altogether, the paragraphs I copied and pasted for my own notes amounted to 6,467 words. I think I’m going to be saying “see Taylor (2003)” for many years to come, because there is, to my knowledge, almost nothing out there right now that attests to and celebrates the lived experience of everyday ballet teaching and ballet dancing. What is more commonly represented and what is studied is the rarified world of professional ballet companies, or the vocational training that serves as preparation for them, as if this were the platonic ideal of ballet of which dancing in church halls is a corruption, or not even an instance at all. And that would be correct, because the two are different things, but it takes a doctoral thesis to unpick the political and ideological problems that confuse them. Increasingly, dance education research also focuses on the experience of dance students in higher education, but that’s another story. 

One of the things that she dissects is the idea that there is something  old-fashioned, “traditional” and anti-progressive about ballet teaching (and therefore morally wrong), and something inherently ideologically pure about state education and child-centred progressive education philosophies.  In her interviews with children about how they felt about it, something quite different emerged: they like dance school, because they get seen, not stuck at the back of the class. It’s so simple, and yet I hadn’t really thought of it before: of course, for all the formality of ballet class, there are times when it’s your turn, when you’re in the centre, when your line is at the front, when it’s your turn to come from the corner. You get seen. You get corrected, not because you’re wrong, but to get better. 

Choreography and ideology

For years, every time I see an article saying that it’s a disgrace that there are so few female choreographers, my first thought is “But what is so culturally important about being a choreographer that this is such a disgrace?”  It promotes the idea of the 19th century genius, but sticks a skirt on him, as if Christine Battersby wrote Gender and Genius in vain. I also wonder about  boys who have no desire to choreograph—are  they emasculated by wanting to “just” dance? I have avoided saying this for fear of being misunderstood, or changing my mind, but Virginia Taylor puts what I mean more clearly: 

Here I have an unashamed polemical aim, which is to convince the reader that all dancing is creative. Ballet, and other dance, is a creative experience. It may not be original, but it is ideologically specific to consider dance-inventing a superior activity to dance-doing. Indeed, I question that ‘self-expression’ and ‘creativity’ are only to be found in dance-making, or in improvising. (Taylor 2003, p. 167) 

She exposes ideological positions for what they are, to the extent that I think this thesis ought to stored in the fridge with the EpiPen for anyone who is allergic to current educational dogma. Speaking of a performance by two dance-school girls accompanied by their friend on flute, that was frowned on by state school teachers who saw it, she says: 

If a girl thinks the tune from The Deer Hunter (1978) is beautiful, and plays it as well as she can, and her friends make what they see as an appropriate dance to a piece of ‘classical’ music borrowing classical dance forms, what is the cultural position which denies this validity?” (p. 168)

Quite. I have too many other favourite lines, but this is one of them, which wins my prize for the best use of italics in a feminist sentence: ” Thomas the Tank Engine pulls coaches Annie and Clarabel, who are identical to each other, without much of a character, and most importantly and with startling Freudian implications, they have no motor.” (Taylor, 2003, p. 102)

I love “Ballerinas in the Church Hall”  not least  because it’s so close to what I’m writing about in my own work: how teachers in everyday situations deal with music, how music gets “done” in the studio, how people deal with music in terms of tum-te-tums, diddly-diddlys and “I don’t do time signature.” It’s also about how teachers don’t deal with music, or the latest educational theory, because frankly, there’s too much else to deal with, like the former student of mine who told me about a particularly bad day in the studio: her teaching course demanded an assignment from her about peer assessment in ballet. The reality of her teaching experience was that she was having to clean the tutu of a girl who’d sat down on a very ripe banana, before taking another baby ballerina to the toilet to wash the diarrhoea out her knickers.  You won’t read about that in the scholarly literature, but you should. 

Ballerinas in the Church Hall: Ideologies of femininity, ballet, and dancing schools. Virginia Taylor, 2003.  (Free download of the full text)

Postscript: on research and note-taking

Finding this thesis has ended a search that has lasted several years: some time in perhaps 2013, I was in the RAD library, and read an article that said that on current numbers,  you had more chance of becoming a premier league  footballer or member of parliament than a professional ballet dancer. It was one of those surprising, clever formulations that stuck, to the extent that I wanted to quote it several times. But where had I read it? Wherever I thought I had read it, I was wrong. I could have sworn I remembered the shelf I took the box of journals from, and what colour the journal was and so on. I couldn’t just say the same thing without acknowledging my source. It turns out, it was Virginia Taylor who said it—and I guess I must have read it an a conference paper, while I was reading a box of journals. 

I have drawn attention before to the employment opportunities – or rather, lack of them – for professional ballet dancers in the UK (Taylor 2000a, 2003). On-line company lists in February 2003 revealed the grand total of 219. Statistically therefore, you are three times more likely to be a Member of the House of Commons at Westminster (659), or thirteen times more likely to be a professional footballer (2875) than a ballet dancer with a regular pay packet. (p. 9)

Apart from shouting my joy from the rooftops at finally finding the source, this is a warning to anyone writing an essay, dissertation, thesis or whatever: keep a file somewhere for quotes, and use it, all the time. Don’t read stuff on the train, or for pleasure, unless you are at the same time rigorous about adding accurately to your sources at the point of reading. Always add quotation marks, because if you don’t, years later you won’t remember whether you were paraphrasing or quoting.