Category Archives: Personal

Lightly up, up, up: John O’Brien, legendary dance teacher

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John O'Brien in June 2016. Photo: Andrew Florides (www.andrewflorides.co.uk)

John O’Brien in June 2016. Photo: Andrew Florides (www.andrewflorides.co.uk)

When John O’Brien died on 11th May this year, I suggested to the RAD that they should do something to remember him, since he taught for many years there, quite apart from being the proprietor of Dance Books. It’s hard to imagine the world of dance scholarship, or discourse about dance generally, without the history of that shop and publishing company. What follows is the tribute to John I wrote for the RAD’s in-house staff newsletter. It’s one of quite a few such pieces on my site now, so forgive any small repetitions. No sooner had I finished it, than I thought of dozens of other things I could say about John and what made him such a great teacher and person, but I hope this is at least the beginning of a worthy tribute. 

Lightly up, up, up: John O’Brien

Mention the name John O’Brien to people above a certain age in the dance world, and they’ll usually start showing you one of the exercises that started his famous continuous body conditioning barre: lightly up, up, up, gently down, down, down, arm halfway across, and open out, out; or the leg-swings, followed by the leg-swings, bending the knees. He had started these body conditioning class for the orchestra at Ballet Rambert when he was a dancer there, and later taught developments of it at the Actors’ Centre, the old City Lit in Stukeley Street, and Pineapple Dance Studios, where he also taught ballet classes on Saturday afternoons that incorporated a continuous barre.

At RAD headquarters, John taught boys’ ballet classes on a Saturday morning, and body conditioning on the LRAD course, which is where I first met him in 1986, just before I left to go freelance. I then played for him almost exclusively for the next three years, sometimes for nearly every class he taught in the week, excluding the private lessons. On a free morning, I would sometimes drop into the RAD and play for him there for free, just for the joy of working together. One week, I accompanied classes he gave at Crystal Palace to an Olympic diving squad. They started the week looking muscle-bound and defensive. After a few days, they looked like dancers.

John became so well-known for those body conditioning classes, that people often forgot—if they ever knew at all—that he was first and foremost an outstanding ballet teacher and coach. At the same time, “body conditioning” doesn’t begin to describe what those classes were about—it was just a name for something that incorporated all kinds of approaches to working with the body, that inspired and helped generations of dancers, figure skaters, gymnasts,  actors, and anyone else who had an interest in movement. The seemingly endless list of people he’d worked with included Maggie Smith, Jane Fonda, Fenella Fielding and George Chakiris, yet he was humble to the point of complete self-effacement: he was not a “personality,” or the life and soul of the party, or a character, or someone who impressed you with the amount of their knowledge, or the wit of their one-liners. John’s presence in a room was deeply pacifying and refreshing, it had a kind of hum and energy to it that went out to others rather than drawing attention to himself. When he taught, it was never about transmitting knowledge, but about enabling, challenging and nurturing people until they were more fully themselves, and better at what they did.

Music and the continuous barre

Those continuous barres really were continuous. John would say “if you need to take a break, just stop, and drop back in again with the music when you’re ready.” He meant it, of course, and I often did take a rest for a couple of exercises, but he also knew that I couldn’t resist the challenge of trying to keep going. In one of the longest non-stop barres, we finally took a break after 45 minutes.

A lot of the repertoire I have now, I learned in those classes. It was before the days of iPads and electronic scores, so I had to arrange music books all over the piano and on the floor, just managing to switch between them and turn pages in time for the next exercise. Often, I would go straight from class to Zwemmers music shop in Litchfield Street to pick up more repertoire books: buskers’ books, the Irving Berlin songbook, or scores of ballets that John had mentioned, like Les Forains by Sauguet, a work I would never have known without him. He gave me several scores from his own collection, including a book of Gershwin songs that I now know by heart.

I would set myself challenges, such as trying to play everything in 3/4 time until I ran out of ideas, or everything in four, switching sometimes between double or half time. As I grew more confident, I would challenge both of us: to suddenly change from three to four or double to half-time between exercises, or play music that was minimal and quiet on one side, raucous and loud on the other. He loved the challenge, but was never caught out, probably because he had long ago practised with Marie Rambert some of the Dalcroze-inspired rhythmic exercises she had used to help dancers in the original cast of Rite of Spring. In the centre, his exercises would have Dalcroze-based challenges in them—step across left, step across right, in a foursquare rhythm, while doing something else with the arms, then saying the days of the week (which of course, come in sevens, and with different numbers of syllables, so they would never align with the feet or arms). The idea was not to achieve perfection, but to keep trying, to keep nagging the brain and body out of their habits. I am sure there are people who had been going to those classes for years, if not decades, but were still challenged by this part of it.  

Musicality

These are just some of the ways that John’s musicality was unique and extraordinary, which was why most musicians loved playing for him. Apart from anything else, you could play almost any song from any show from 1900 to the present day, and he’d know it, recalling the words instantly. I’d make him smile with ironic segues from one song to another, like Love and Marriage on one side to It ain’t necessarily so on the other. With his voice he kept an impeccable rhythm, secure but never controlling, as fluid and expressive as a conductor’s beat, and with a musician’s sense of phrasing. During the last few counts of the second side of an exercise, he would usually give the instructions for the next one, but sometimes this would be shortened into a single gesture right at the end of the phrase, raising his arm, for example, in preparation for the arm-swings that were about to come. Somehow you knew from the slightest breath or movement what he was going to do next, how much to hold back or push on with tempo. He listened not just to what you were playing, but how you were playing it, and always left space for you to play expressively. It didn’t matter if you made a mistake, or if what you played didn’t quite work: he kept the rhythm going for you and the dancers, so you could quickly find your place again. It was this that enabled me to try out so many things for class in our time together, because you could go wrong, and it didn’t matter. If there was a way to make them work, he’d find it, and if not, well, we’d try again another day.

You can’t teach this kind of musicality, but neither, I think, can you unlearn it once you have experienced it. Many years ago, I took Christopher Hampson (now artistic director and CEO of Scottish Ballet) to one of those classes, eager for him to see what had inspired me so much. He loved it, and began to use continuous barres in his own classes, always acknowledging the debt to John. Alex Simpkins, John’s partner, restarted the body-conditioning classes last year, working together with former members of the class, some of whom had been to them for literally decades. Playing for both Chris and Alex, I feel the same kind of freedom as I had working for John: a musical conversation in the class that often spills out into an excited verbal one afterwards. 

To a large degree, this has nothing to do with music at all, but with sensitivity and communication. John once said that for pianists in a class, it can be a bit like being on the outside of a dinner party, when you don’t know anybody, and nobody makes you feel at home until all of a sudden, somebody says something like “and where do you come from?” and then it’s fine. John was always looking for a way to open, maintain and develop that contact, to make the pianist feel welcome, at home, at one and engaged with the class, because he knew that if it was lost, or never there in the first place, both teaching and playing were a thankless task.

And on the other side

John was one of the most down-to-earth people I have ever met in the ballet world, which is why he was so refreshing to work with, yet at the same time, he had what I feel obliged to call, for clarity’s sake, a “spiritual” side—though I’m not sure I ever heard him use the word: it implies a division between body and spirit that was foreign to him. He was as many people know, a healer, and in his teaching, coaching, and classes, he always remained open to the mysterious, the numinous, and the transpersonal, in the sense of that something that happens between people who do things together that is intensely felt and experienced, but is difficult to identify or describe. There was nothing strange or awkward about any of this. It was a humility, an openness to something beyond himself, as natural as feeling the breeze through an open window. As he put it himself in class one day, rousing everyone to action with his characteristic big smile, “This thing’s bigger than all of us!”

London 1st June 2019

Other posts on this site about John O’Brien

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Judith Espinosa, the fishermen’s wives and the waltz

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As allegro was about to begin during a ballet class yesterday, I started to smirk thinking about something I’d read in the fascinating The First 75 Years of the Academy, a book about the RAD from 1995. It was a reminiscence about the teaching methods of Judith Espinosa, who “spoke Cockney in the old Dickensian manner” (pronouncing the letter v as w, apparently), and was rarely seen without a cigarette. For those used to universal smoking bans, it’s hard to believe that this was probably in a ballet studio, but even I remember having an ashtray on the piano during company class. In addition to chain-smoking and speaking Dickensian cockney, she also shouted so loud that people feared for her vocal health. 

Put all these together, and now imagine the way that she set her choreographic “scenas” in class:

“You’re fishermen’s wives—you’re waiting on the beach for the boats, but there’s news that all the men have been drowned in a storm; you’re wild with grief. [To the pianist] We’ll have a waltz.” The First 75 Years of the Academy, p. 12

The style is hilarious, but what I was smirking at just as much was the familiarity—to anyone who’s played for class—of the abrupt return to musical mundanity with “we’ll have a waltz.” 

 

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“Lyrical”—an update on the term “lyrical dance” from Dance Chronicle

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Those who remember my post about the “lyrical waltz” and the fuzzy meaning of the term “lyrical” as applied to dance generally, will be delighted to know that there is a wonderful article by Jennifer Fisher on lyrical dance. The title was enough to confirm for me that it must be a gem: “When Good Adjectives Go Bad: The Case of So-called Lyrical Dance.” 

There are a thousand articles like this yet to be written, ones which take the terms we are used to hearing in everyday life in the dance world, and putting some conceptual flesh on them based on research out there among the leotards, sequins and competitions. There is much that is quotable and interesting, but I particularly love her analysis of articles in Dance Spirit magazine, which includes this observation: 

Contradictions sometimes arise in these articles that resound with “how-to” advice. “It’s not how high you can kick,” one competition judge and choreographer advises, “it’s [about] telling the story through your face and emoting with your upper body.” But if you watch much dance labeled “lyrical,” you will see that it is also about how high you can kick, because kicks are rarely anything but high as can be. (Fisher, 2014, p. 328)

It’s funny but also a bit depressing that you could say much about the ballet world: for all the stuff about “ballet is more than acrobatics,” it’s hard, much of the time, to see what the “more than” consists of, and to what degree. 

 

 

 

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The attentional commons and Leicester Square tube station

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Leicester Square tube station, Northern Line escalator, free of adverts

Leicester Square tube station on 12th April 2019: note the lovely lack of adverts

Nothing to do with music, except that I have to go to Leicester Square several times a week on my way to piano playing jobs, so when something changes about the station, I notice it. Recently though, I couldn’t quite put my finger on why I felt calmer on the way up the escalator from the Northern Line, until I realized it was because for the first time I can remember in all the years I’ve travelled on the tube, I could just stay with my own thoughts instead of being distracted by adverts every few centimetres, and I was reminded of the long rant I wrote about the “attentional commons”  and New Street Station in Birmingham.

For once,  I had a sense of place rather than that feeling that you could be absolutely anywhere, followed by the same adverts wherever you go. Even though it’s nothing but a cavernous white space, you notice the whole space, its shape, volume and colour, and can live in it and enjoy it for a bit, rather than being drawn at face level into the forced intimacy of those advertising panels, that do the opposite—they nobble your sense of who and where you are and what you’re doing. Leicester Square tube station suddenly felt like  a place, rather than an advertising space. Other cities do this much better: just look at this station in Prague,  Staroměstská, for an idea of how different things could be (and see this page for more pictures and descriptions of the Line A stations in Prague which have similar designs, in different colours)

Staroměstská metro station in Prague

Staroměstská metro station in Prague

It’s just a guess, but I think that you could probably reduce stress levels exponentially if you were to turn tube stations into places, rather than billboards. 

See also:

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Tchaikovsky’s hairpins

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Roberto Poli's book, The Secret LIfe of Musical Notation

The Secret Life of Musical Notation

The secret life of hairpins

In The Secret Life of Musical Notation, Roberto Poli examines a number of notational conventions—hairpins, sforzandi, rinforzandi, pedals, stretti and rhythmic values—that have perplexed him as a performer, and led him to investigate the possibility that they don’t mean what we assume them to mean. 

I found the chapter on hairpins very interesting, and the evidence for there being a problem is persuasive: he shows  a number of examples from Chopin’s work where the hairpins don’t make a lot of sense, either because they’re redundant (they show a hairpin as well as a diminuendo, for example) or because they contradict the musical sense: a “diminuendo” hairpin just at the point where you are getting to the high point of a phrase, and to taper off seems expressively illogical. 

When is a hairpin not a hairpin? 

His conclusion is that hairpins, among some composers and in a certain time period, denoted not [simply] increases or decreases in volume, but agogics,  i.e. expressive timing. What we think of as a “crescendo” hairpin would mean pulling out (i.e. slowing down) towards the open end of the hairpin. A “diminuendo” hairpin would mean essentially a tenuto where the open end was, recovering normal tempo towards the end. Two hairpins together, with the open end in the middle, would mean treating the tempo of the bar with rubato. I’m reducing the arguments a little (the chapter is nearly 70 pages long), but that’s roughly it.  Importantly, what appear to be accents might in fact be mini hairpins, and as such, are an alternative sign for what we would normally expect to be represented by a tenuto. 

As convincing as the arguments are, It all sounds a bit too much like an engaging conspiracy theory to be true, but then he quotes Riemann’s Die Elemente der musikalischen Äesthetik (1900), where

hairpins are described as affecting both dynamic and agogic coordinates. Riemann explained that the symbol might serve different purposes, its agogic function only strengthening the dynamic one and vice versa. He formulated that, should the context in which the hairpin is found convey the necessity, one or the other function can be abandoned, as long as this would not incur a great loss of either parameter. (Poli, 2010, p. 66

The Lilac Fairy Attendants’ Hairpins

As it happened, the day after I read the chapter on hairpins, I was down to play the Lilac Fairy Attendants from Sleeping Beauty on an Easter School, a piece that is really horrible to play on the piano, and doesn’t get any less horrible when you’ve done it at every summer school for the last 30 years. I was still in two minds about Poli’s thesis about hairpins, but I thought, let’s see how his theory fares on this piece. 

Whether or not Tchaikovsky fits in to the league of composers or periods when hairpins or “accents”  could mean agogics or not, I am utterly convinced that this is a better way to read the score than any way I have done in the past. 

Using Poli’s analyses, one could interpret the “accents” over those notes as meaning tenuto marks, rather than accents. Do that once, and tell me you’re not convinced: what sense does it make to have accents on those notes when the marking is grazioso, and later pianissimo? For years, I’ve obeyed the music and put a little accent of sorts on that note, but when you get to the hairpin starting in bar six, why on earth would you get louder and accent those notes in music like this? 

But change those accents to tenuto marks, and pull out the music towards the F#, and give slightly more tenuto on the following B, and then on the bottom line, pull out towards the C#, and it all makes beautiful musical sense. You can play this music without any dynamic accents at all, only agogic ones, and it begins to sound like music again. 

Likewise, the accent on the D in voice 2 in the RH in the penultimate bar. A tenuto there makes perfect sense within the waltz, because there would be a slight hold there in the movement, but an accent is neither musical, nor does it give the right tempo feel to the bar that would be appropriate.  As Poli points out, we are so conditioned by later performance practice not to conflate dynamics with agogics, that it’s difficult to imagine a time when it was considered perfectly normal and musical to do so. 

I compared the orchestral score to Siloti’s arrangement. Siloti has a narrowing hairpin in the last few bars, where the orchestra doesn’t, and it makes musical sense to pull out towards the end a bit. A conductor would do this without needing to be told in the score, but perhaps Siloti wrote his hairpin in the score to give an indication of what would be determined in orchestral practice. 

Another rather interesting thing is that the tendency towards metronomic tempi, and the going-out-of-fashion of this kind of agogics, has seeped into ballet as well. It’s a delightful rarity to work with a ballet teacher who lives and breathes expressive timing, but that may be a side-effect of performance practice in music rather than ballet. People my age will remember a time when to slow down at the end of a piece of early music was like wearing brown shoes in the city. We live in less dictatorial times I think, thanks to Taruskin’s diatribes against such things in Text and Act for example, but I hadn’t realised until this Sleeping Beauty experience how much my reading of notation followed such carefully self-policed rules. 

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RIP Kevin Richmond

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Photo of Kevin Richmond in Prague, 2008

Kevin Richmond in Prague, 2008.

Very sad to hear by chance (through this posting on Ballet.co forums) of the recent passing of the dancer Kevin Richmond, far too young. When I first started playing for ENB as a pianist in the late 1980s, and on tours with the company when I was full-time there in the early 1990s, Kev was one of those rare people who was able to make the ballet world comprehensible and interesting for me as a novice musician in that field.

In 2008, I wrote a blog post about Kevin as part of my Advent Calendar that year, which was about favourite moments from conversations with dancers, dance teachers and choreographers.

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Learn quadrilles for a day in Charing, Kent, 28th April 2019

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Here’s a lovely idea for a Sunday in April—come to Charing in Kent for a day of learning to dance 19th century quadrilles with early dance expert Nicola Gaines.

Nicola and I have done a few of these workshops before, and they are great fun, but also a wonderful challenge, as there are so many variants and possible embellishments of the basic idea. They’re also just very jolly and social.

The day runs as follows:

10.45 Registration and coffee

11.15 Session One – Warm up, Steps and Patterns

1.15 Lunch – please bring snacks

2.00 Session Two – learning the first set and adaptations for use in class

4.15 Finish

It’s a bargain at £35 for the day, £25 for concessions, £20 for observers.

Download flyer with more information and application form

Location of Charing Parish Hall

Quadrilles — some background on the music

Readers of this site will know that I have a bit of a fascination for quadrilles. The interest began when I realised how much of the 19th century ballet repertoire owed to the rhythms and structures of quadrilles. Like other ballet pianists, I had searched the classical repertoire I knew for pieces that were suitable for battements glissés exercises and petit allegros in 2/4 or 6/8, and found very little. The day I discovered quadrilles, I realised I’d been looking in the wrong place all the time. (see earlier quadrille post).

Quadrille music is kind of the Hooked On Classics of the 19th century. Composers threw together all the best tunes from opera, operettas, and ballets, making cuts and changes of tempo or time signature just so you could carry on dancing to it in the form of the dance that you were expecting. Sometimes, you have to listen twice to realise that some deadly serious tune has been turned into a 32-count galop, or conversely—as in the article on Rossini below—you are taken aback to realise that “serious music” in fact has all the hallmarks of a quadrille (Odette’s 6/8 coda in Act II of Swan Lake is a prime example—it’s prime jigging-about music).

Any production of ROSSINI must bear his mark upon it, and must breathe his spirit: what that is may be best understood from the appearance of a set of “Stabat Mater Quadrilles.” This publication—a gross outrage upon decency, it must be confessed—shows the sort of ideas which ROSSINI’S music generates: and it shows also that those ideas are the very reverse of those which are conveyed in the words. Why is not PURCELL’S Burial-Service turned into a set of quadrille?—Not probably, from any regard to decorum if the speculation would be a profitable one, but simply because the thing is impossible.

(From The Spectator, No. 749, week ending Saturday November 5th, 1842, p. 1068)

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A guide to some 19th century repertoire for ballet class by Ethan Iverson

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Air de Ballet is a guide to 19th century piano repertoire for ballet class by Ethan Iverson, who used to be music director for Mark Morris’s dance company, among other things. The page is richly illustrated with scores, audio recordings and useful commentary. Although you can play all kinds of repertoire for class, the 19th century dance tradition (waltz, polka, mazurka) provides the workable rhythmic framework for exercises, even if your tunes come from Maroon 5 and Ariana Grande. 

My favourite creative tip from this page is the idea of improvising Czerny-esque etudes over the chord sequences of  jazz standards (listen to his recording of Ain’t Misbehavin’ for an example).  I’m also beginning to read some of the other articles on Iverson’s site, such as  Mixed Meter Mysterium, a brilliant article on Stravinsky. Well worth stopping a while and browsing! 

I’ve added the Air de Ballet link to my Playing for ballet class: Links, books, suggestions page. If you have any more suggestions let me know, and I’ll add them. 

 

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Dites-moi pourquoi, Giacomo

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Just a random observation this. There’s a little snippet of Les Patineurs (the red girls pas de deux, for which the music was taken from the Prelude to Act III of l‘Étoile du Nord)  which is almost note-for-note the tune of “Dites-Moi pourquoi la vie et belle” from South Pacific. 

For comparison, see/hear below—though I’ve no doubt the South Pacific clip will go offline before long 

 

 

Screen shot of music by Meyerbeer

Prelude to Act III of l’Étoile du Nord by Giacomo Meybeer, used in Ashton’s Les Patineurs—highlighted part is straight out of “Dites-moi pourquoi” from South Pacific (or rather, vice versa)

 

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Christmas carols for ballet class: free downloads

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Christmas carols for ballet class: get ready for advent!  

Five years ago, as an “advent calendar” I uploaded a free ballet-class version of a Christmas carol every day for advent. As it’s getting to the time when teachers start putting their festive classes together, if you haven’t had enough of these already, or haven’t tried them yet, here’s the link to all of them as a list. The last one in the list is a link to download all the tracks at once.

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