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To go into such nerdy detail about the musical aspects of this film reminds me of Ed Zern’s famous tongue-in-cheek review of the reissue of Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1959 in Field and Stream:

Although written many years ago, Lady Chatterley’s Lover has just been reissued by the Grove Press, and this fictional account of the day-to-day life of an English gamekeeper is still of considerable interest to outdoor minded readers, as it contains many passages on pheasant raising, the apprehending of poachers, ways to control vermin, and other chores and duties of the professional gamekeeper. Unfortunately one is obliged to wade through many pages of extraneous material in order to discover and savor these sidelights on the management of a Midland shooting estate, and in this reviewer’s opinion this book cannot take the place of J.R. Miller’s Practical Gamekeeping.

Field and Stream, Ed Zern (November 1959) (see here for more)

But I can’t help it. I’m always fascinated by films that show ballet pianists at work (see earlier mentions of The Children of Theatre Street, and—though it’s a tap class— Stepping Out). I also love collecting the very rare mentions of them in literature (fiction or non-fiction). It’s something that I’m working up into an article, so I’m not going to give too much away here, but for a taste of what I mean, see my posts on pianos and violins in the ballet class, on Steven Manes’ book Where Snowflakes Dance and Swear, and on Helena Wulff’s Ballet Across Borders.

If you see a ballet pianist in a film these days, it’s usually as a convenient, ready-made marker of “ballet class,” even if in real life, the kind of school depicted would have been using recorded music for at least 30 years (“We all adored Margaret, but when she died we never got round to replacing her. And Miss Debs has got an app on her phone now, it’s so useful.“) In contrast, you might have noticed, as I have, that a lot of the vocational ballet schools that actually have pianists, overdub their promotional films of them at work with generic cheap or royalty free library music. You can generate it pretty easily with AI, too. Almost without exception, these promo films fish in the same pond of sample-based soft rock that was probably labelled “aspiration” or “youthful ambition (sports)” in the library catalogue—as if every £30,000+ a year ballet school aspired to have the sonic branding of a leisure centre, teeth-whitening clinic, or electricals discount warehouse, you name it, any place that you wouldn’t associate with a lively interest in music. The real reason is probably not that, of course, but to avoid music licensing fees and hide the out-of-tune pianos and terrible acoustics.  

So imagine my surprise when I found, on Amazon Prime, Frederick Keeve’s The Accompanist (2019), which not just includes footage of ballet classes and a ballet pianist, but is actually about the pianist. When I say “Frederick Keeve’s The Accompanist,” Frederick Keeve wrote the film, stars in it, supervises the music, and plays and composes a lot of it too. Write the theme tune, sing the theme tune comes to mind.

From a musical point of view, The Accompanist tells it remarkably like it is in a ballet class. The piano is out of tune, but not terrible (though I was surprised to see Kawai as the brand—I love Kawais, and this was no great advert for them). The playing is the kind of OK-ish performance that you might expect in many a class, a few missed notes, a couple of inexplicably empty beats, expression all but squeezed out in order to fit the choreography and tempo, serviceable but a bit dull. The middle section of Chopin’s G flat major waltz (the one used in the Waltz in Les Sylphides) turns up at least three times for different exercises, which again is a bit dull. But that’s exactly what we do, repurposing or reusing the same material because it works, albeit wondering how many times is too much. The class looks like a class, though for whom, at what level, and why is something of a mystery.

But that’s about where the similarity with any kind of life that I’ve experienced in the ballet world ends. Where to start? We’ll go in sequence, starting with the bit where the teacher marks a fondu exercise in class, and the pianist (Jason, played by Keeve) plays “Chiarina” from Schumann’s Carnaval, which has a certain mazurka-ish quality. The teacher halts the exercise with a clap of his hands and a loud “Stop!” and asks for a tango instead. That’s almost spot on, except it comes too late. Most teachers I know would have stopped Jason at the beginning of bar two of the introduction, not halfway through the tune. Also realistic is Jason leafing frantically through his Nyrex folder of photocopied 19th century classics, going “shit, haven’t got a tango, shit.” He starts playing a brisk mazurka that is even more wrong for the exercise than “Chiarina.” Nice touch, I thought, expecting histrionics from the ballet teacher. But no, the exercise just continued without the “No, no, maestro, I said A TANGO. Pah-paah—pah PAM PAM, Pah-paah–pah PAM PAM. AND!!!” that surely would have come if you had ignored the instruction in real life. This ballet master says Can we have a tango, please, and doesn’t complain when he doesn’t get it. Well, there you go, this is America, maybe it’s different there.

I’m going in order of unbelievability. Buckle up, it gets wild. So next, one of the students, Brandon (played by Ricky Palomino) comes by the piano at the end of class and says impishly to Jason “I didn’t know a mazurka could pass for a tango!” Yeah, that incident had me perplexed too, as I’ve explained, but not as much as hearing those words from the dancer’s mouth. Next, he follows Jason to his car to tell him he’s an awesome musician, which also requires a stretch of the imagination, from what we’ve just heard and seen.

Next up, Brandon wants to hire Jason to help him rehearse for a ballet audition that is taking place soon. Jason is reluctant. It’s impossible right now. Are you crazy, Jason? You need the money, according to the backstory that’s going to unfold. Considering you only seem to play for morning class, and seem to have two kids, and a very nice looking house (you couldn’t get that on a freelance ballet pianist’s wage here), I’d take all the extra hours you can get. Brandon tells him to come to the back of the studio at 10pm. He’s got an extra key.

10pm? Yeah, that would be past my bedtime too, but I was also thinking, what kind of school is this where the student can arrange private sessions with a pianist at 10pm? Cut to the studio, 10pm. We see Brandon, pirouetting around in nothing but a dance belt. When Jason turns up, Brandon looks somewhat surprised, as if he hadn’t been expecting him to walk in on his near-nakedness, despite inviting him there for exactly 10 o’clock. Jason, on the other hand, walks straight past him as if this is normal student behaviour. My safeguarding, professional etiquette alarm bells were going off like crazy. OK, so this is a story, and a gay passion/romance/love story at that, but I’d have reservations about this gig, if it ever happened to me.

But not Jason. He says, OK, $50 dollars an hour, and if you turn up five minutes late or miss a rehearsal, I’ll charge you the hour. $50! Ballet pianists: this is not usually how you do business. You might get an orchid and a bottle of wine, or some chocolates, unless you’re talking about the home-schooled child of an oligarch, but even they can be tight with cash. You certainly don’t demand $50 and then make the rules.

Anyway, Jason sits at the piano and starts playing his classical rep, while Brandon continues to pirouette. No, Brandon says, play me some of your music. Jason obliges with something mildly contemporary, and suddenly there’s an earth tremor and a ceiling tile falls to the floor. Brandon picks up his phone, and in less time than it takes to say PIN, says that there’s nothing on the news that might explain it. Me, I’d have run out of that building first. I had to rewind the film at this point, because the next thing Brandon asks is not “Shall we maybe do this another time,” but “You . . . You don’t think you did this, do you?” as if, Occam’s Razor, the power of a ballet pianist’s improvisation would be your go-to explanation for a very localized earthquake. Jason doesn’t say “Are you crazy?” but replies in a brooding voice I TRIED TO WARN YOU. Did he? I feel like Brandon deserved more clarity about the effects of modal improvisation in octaves. There’s more stuff like this, as the film goes on, minor rips in the space-time fabric of the universe, which make you have to keep pressing the 10 seconds back button to check you didn’t mishear.

If you can handle all the red flags of a student turning up to an unchaperoned rehearsal in a jockstrap after dark and hitting on the middle-aged pianist, you might still have reservations when you find out that young Brandon already has an abusive boyfriend from his year-group. But wait, as Brandon explains in a throwaway line, he’s only abusive because he’s got a really bad cancer. Ah, I see. Jason gets in to rescuer mode, and invites Brandon to stay with him, for safety. Yeah, right. Brandon says he’ll be fine, but of course he isn’t, and turns up late at night at Jason’s house, face punched in and bleeding. This time, he wants to stay . . . and in Jason’s bed. It seems like an odd occasion to clinch the relationship. I’m trying to imagine the conversation with the school principal when news of the liaison leaks out. “So . . . this student came round to your house after he’d been beaten up by his boyfriend who has cancer. And you slept with him.” Ah yes, but he was begging me for it. Hmmm.

I’ll leave the rest for you to watch, if it sounds like your cup of tea. I’m being a bit tongue-in-cheek, but I quite enjoyed the film, and had more patience with it than Saltburn, which I skim-watched after 10 minutes, choosing to read the rest of the plot on Wikipedia as life is short. I have to admit I skimmed through the last 40 minutes of The Accompanist, because it was late, and because I found it difficult to accept the premise of the relationship. In an interview, Keeve says that he wanted “to tell a story with magical realism . . . but with the realism of what gay love and gay sexual expression is like in the real world.”  

I loved the magical realism, and there are some truly lovely moments in the film where the here-and-now seems to burst into eternity, the there-and-then of other worlds, places, times. It’s the realism I had issues with. It’s hard to see what Brandon sees in Jason, whose about-turn from wife and two kids to rampant gayness goes without any hint of a struggle or self-questioning, and then there’s the fact that while Palomino looks good for the mid thirties he must have been in when this was filmed, he (and for that matter, his classmates) don’t look like they’re at any kind of school or college, unless they had to repeat several years and then do a grad course followed by an appprenticeship or two. But whatever you think of the rest of the film, this certainly has to go in the hall of fame of works featuring ballet pianists. And don’t quote me, but I also loved that Keeve just went ahead and called it The Accompanist, when musicians in my field the world over are involuting endlessly over what name to give themselves that sounds more important than just accompanist, from musician in dance to collaborative piano. All it needs for someone to add the word practitioner on the end, and we’ll have arrived.

One thought on “Ballet pianists on film (2): The accompanist (2019)”
  1. Shelley Winters in ‘Stepping Out’ is an absolute gem! She reminds me of a pianist I had at school ‘The Accompanist’ sounds a bit rum..
    Tim and I agree that we will retire if KHiO decides it can’t afford live accompanists. As it stands, we are the only dance line using live musical accompaniment nowadays. I believe that we should be helping to train up the next generation!

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Jonathan Still, ballet pianist