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Cartoon by Marlene Spiers of a ballet pianist
Everyday life as a ballet pianist, a cartoon from the “Dance damn you, Dance” collection by Marlene Spiers. © unknown, but was sent to me in 1990

I have cherished this postcard for the last 30 years. I have never found anything that expresses so perfectly the world of the ballet class pianist as this. I am terrified of losing it, so while I can still find it, I’m posting it online. This is an illegal act for which I hope Marlene Spiers or her estate will forgive me, and I will take it down, or pay a reasonable sum to put it online if the copyright holders contact me, but it’s too good not to share.

The card was sent to me by Susie Cooper—by the strangest coincidence, since I literally just picked this out of a box at random—on 6th April 1990, almost exactly 30 years ago today. It was a lovely encouraging postcard and a letter continued on another sheet, and it gives me such joy to be able to say that the conversation still continues today.

Representations of the everyday life of a ballet pianist

The ballet pianist is such a trope in film (see the clip from Stepping Out on another page on this site), but the reality is never far off (see earlier post about the pianist in The Children of Theatre Street). One of my favourite gentle portrayals in literature is Mr Booth in Zadie Smith’s Swing Time, in the early chapters that describe so perfectly the world of Saturday morning dance classes). But the all-time prize for an honest documentary shot goes to the bit around 1’56” in the British Pathé film of Preobrajenska teaching in Paris in 1959.

The pianist smiles so beautifully at the teacher, so engaged, so totally attentive and involved in what is going on, so respectful to Mme. Preobrajenska. Nonetheless, on the music stand, open for even the documentary maker to see and film with no shame, is an open magazine. I just love the fact that she made no attempt to hide it for the camera.

Screenshot of documentary from 1959 of Preobrajenska teaching in Paris
Screenshot from British Pathé film (about 1:36″) 83 Year Old Ballet Teacher (1959) [Film ID:2726.04] [Documentary]. British Pathé. For full film, see embedded clip below.

Chatelot, C. (1959). 83 Year Old Ballet Teacher (1959) [Film ID:2726.04] [Documentary]. British Pathé.


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Jonathan Still, ballet pianist