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!
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
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)
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.
It might not look like much, but it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to write, but it was worth it. The book itself seemed such an easy read first time through, but when I came to try and condense the main points for a review, it was a lot tougher.
I was going through some kind of romantic phase at the time when I thought there must be something organic and better about making notes in longhand. I thoroughly enjoyed the feeling of using a fountain pen again, but in truth, it turned out to be the biggest waste of time and effort: I’m now re-typing those handwritten pages into MaxQDA so I can make some use of them in my other work.
DeNora uses a wonderful metaphor to describe the complex temporality of music therapy, whose effect might not be immediate or direct: the good that music does in a person’s life might come later—perhaps much later—than the intervention itself. To capture this, she describes it as being like the future perfect tense (e.g. “I will have done”). That idea has dropped into my head at least once a week in connection with some experience of my own. Whenever people ask me if I enjoyed the three years I spent in Berlin, for example, I have to try and explain that when I was actually there, I was often miserable—but it was one of the most enriching and wonderful periods of my life, from which I continue to draw so much in different ways even today, It’s not retrospect or nostalgia, and it’s not the same as saying “it was awful, but it was good for me.” It’s a feeling that something is by nature good (not awful) in some kind of eternal time zone where when you are ready for it, you can draw on its goodness.
My recent discovery that one of the interpolations in Coppélia for Franz’s variation is from a “Scottish” ballet (Gretna Green, by Guiraud) encouraged me to re-watch Philip Tagg’s wonderful hour-and-a-quarter long documentary on the so-called Scotch snap. I say “so-called” because that’s the chief take-home point of the documentary: it’s called the Scotch snap, but it was once as characteristic of English music as Scottish, and the speech rhythm from which it derives is still prevalent in English today. If there’s a reason why we think of it as Scottish, or “Celtic” it’s because the English musical tradition where it was once common has been wiped clean, “upgraded” as Tagg puts it, of such elements, precisely because they became associated with lower class, country people. I suppose you could compare it to the way that people with regional accents or sociolects are taught RP in elocution lessons. English music from roughly Handel onwards became the Elisa Doolittle or Lina Lamont (see below—and for more on all this, watch Tagg’s video).
In the Guiraud solo, that snap is an an identifier for “kind of Polish/Ukrainian” (i.e. 19th century Galicia), except that in the piece it came from, Gretna Green, the snap is Scottish. There is also the drone D in the bass that suggests rusticity, but it’s the snap that’s the real giveaway. Here are the two side by side:
The Galician “snap” in Swanilda’s “Frends” dance (Thème slave varié in Act I)
Guiraud’s Scotch snap from Gretna Green, used as Franz’s solo interpolated in some productions of Coppélia
As Tagg argues in his video, what this is about, surely, is not so much race, nation or ethnicity. but class. The same seems to be true of Coppélia: it doesn’t really matter (at least to modern audiences, I suspect it did matter to Delibes) where Franz comes from, what matters is that he’s a rustic local, not a prince, or an urban(e) shopkeeper or toymaker. In theory, Franz could be dancing to Chopin, since Chopin was Polish. But how wrong would that have looked? Chopin is the wrong class of Pole, the concert-giving, salon-performer in Paris, the poet with a floppy cravate in Les Sylphides. Franz is a rustic, like those villagers in Giselle whose waltz is all Bohemian snaps.
The Waltz from Act I in Giselle, showing the Scotch snap (or Bohemian snap, if you like)
But I’m leaving out an important detail here. The music that Delibes *cough* “borrowed” the “Friends” tune from, is an art song by Moniuszko (see earlier post for all the details), and the “snap” doesn’t exist in the original: it’s something Delibes added. The notes at the same position in Moniuszko’s song are semiquavers, and they are for a single syllable.
Poleć, pieśni, z miasta by the Polish composer Moniuszko (1819-1872). Source: IMSLP
Fair enough, there’s an acciaccatura in the piano accompaniment but does that amount to a Scotch snap? Not really, I think.
They would have…
I can guess how that Gretna Green solo ended up in Coppélia. It sounds kind of foreign, kind of rustic. That’s usually enough geographical detail and social context for the average ballet scenario. I once heard a student ballet teacher tell a class of children, “Your hands are like this in this dance, because they would have…” That phrase, they would have has stuck with me ever since: she was talking about character/national dance, referring to people from another country as if they were not only remote geographically, but also historically. There was no detail about who “they” were, or where they were from, they were just “they.” The construction would have seemed to imply that what these people did (whoever, or wherever they were) could not be documented in terms of real people or events, but just as a list of possibilities, of permanent characteristics. That sums up the strange universe of ballet pretty well. We do this, they would have done that. I’m not sure what it was that the hands were supposed to be doing. Digging potatoes? Showing off handkerchiefs that they had embroidered? It’s not the students’ fault: this is the casual, institutional racism, snobbery and ethnic nationalism of ballet that seeps from the walls of the art form.
Rustics and rustication
Ballet apparently needs settings like these to make it interesting, to give it what programme writers call “colour.” Here’s an example from Pittsburgh Ballet, which is so representative of the genre, that you should not read anything into the fact that it’s that company or that author. It could be any ballet programme, anywhere:
Nuitter and Saint-Léon changed the names of the characters, except for Dr. Coppelius, and moved the location from Hoffmann’s Germany to Galicia, a province of Austria-Hungary, because it was thought to be more colorful. Today’s map finds Galicia in southeastern Poland and western Ukraine. The “color” of the region can be seen in the brilliant colors, heavy embroidery and elaborate trimmings of the peasant costumes, widely enhancing the designer’s palette, both then and now. It can also be heard in the rich nationalistic melodies and complex folk dances of the composer. (Source: Pittsburgh Ballet Programme Notes)
Before continuing, let’s take a moment to remember that “Friends” is not by Delibes, and nor is the Csárdás, and nor is this variation for Franz. I’m not sure what a “rich nationalistic melody” sounds like, or that Delibes “folk dances” are really that complex, but never mind. The main point is that ballet seems to need those Scotch snaps (or Celtic, Hungarian, Polish, Galician, Bohemian or whatever kind of snaps they are) to prevent the music from being a wall of ballet gammon, or perhaps ballet mayonnaise. It’s a perverse form of “poverty tourism” where you can admire the rustics from the comfort of your box in the theatre, but at the same time shine a light on your own dullness, your lack of the rhythmic vitality demonstrated by the people on stage.
No-one, particularly not your average ballet audience, would actually want to go to those places of course. One of the punishment for academic misdemeanours at Durham University was (and still is) “rustication,” i.e. being sent back to the sticks. According to a lecture by Dr Martin Pollack, this is apparently how Austrians (who annexed it in the 18th century) once viewed Galicia, a place you didn’t want to get sent (one writer referred to it as “Halbasien,” “half-Asia”), at least, until the job of Germanification had been completed, and the locals had been tamed.
Of course, there is poverty, and there is staged poverty. Pollack mentions that his stepfather had been stationed in Galicia in the first world war (so less than 50 years after the premiere of Coppélia). His memory of those experiences included “wide wooded uplands, and impoverished hamlets where everything was built from wood, even the churches.” The wooden churches were what surprised his stepfather most, since in his native Austria, he had never seen such a thing. One thing is for sure: it didn’t look like the set of Coppélia.
The inhabitants of Galicia aren’t just a fictional people invented for the ballet scenario. They had names, and lived and died in villages with names. Where he can, using archival records, Tagg names some of the English workers who went as indentured labourers to the US in appalling conditions. Likewise, you can find out about the inhabitants of Galicia: Poles, Ukrainians, Jews, and others at the time of Coppélia by searching the All Galicia Database which has records going back to the 18th century. Obviously, Coppélia is a fiction, not an attempt to portray real people. But it matters that Galicia is a real place, with complex histories, if you’re going to start saying local colour, and they would have…
Esmeralda and the Truands
Next on my list is La Truandaise from Esmeralda, another example of the “Scotch” snap being used to denote otherness that is geographically vague (Bohemian? Gypsy?) but definitely poor. In the video below (assuming YouTube don’t block it) of Osipova dancing the “Truandaise,” the flexed foot is perhaps the movement equivalent of the Scotch snap. She does it, because (as a ballet teacher might say) they would have flexed their feet (because they couldn’t afford to go to ballet classes, and find out about good toes and naughty toes). So how could she afford pointe shoes then? Best not to ask too many questions.
Pugni’s “La Truandaise” dance from Esmeralda (1844)
Feed the birds
Tagg demonstrates through many examples that the Scotch snap rhythm is common enough in English speech that it is bizarre that it should have come to denote anyone from the British Isles except the English (as “Celtic” has come to mean). Playing for class today, I discovered another example: “Feed the Birds” from Mary Poppins.Tup-pence, Tup-pence. I “discovered it” because as I was playing it, I thought first of all, “here’s a rather odd example of a “Bohemian” snap in a musical, until I realised that is not Bohemian at all, but English—and, fitting Tagg’s hypothesis, it’s a certain kind of Englishness—an old beggarwoman selling breadcrumbs for tuppence a bag. If you’d never seen Mary Poppins, and just heard the tune of Feed the birds, you might well think that it’s a tragic song from old Bohemia.
Feed the birds is an interesting case. According to the Wikipedia page on the song, the author of Mary Poppins, Pamela Travers, only wanted period Edwardian songs in the film, and had to be coaxed round to Americans writing the soundtrack. Oddly, it turned out to be an excellent choice, because the Sherman brothers portrayed Englishness in music particularly well with those “Scotch” snaps (there’s another one in A spoonful of sugar.The class issue is less clear there, though Mary is still only the nanny, however posh she might be). Listening back to “Feed the birds” with Tagg’s documentary in mind, I wonder what it is that I think I can hear—and it’s the very ordinary speech of my childhood. My dad, and the local shopkeepers saying “tuppence” or “tuppence ha’penny,” or “throppence.” The (musical) idea that the Scotch snap is Bohemian, gallic, celtic, Hungarian, or whatever, has blinded me to the rhythms of my own speech. Extraordinary.
What a difference a demisemiquaver makes. And how much history you can write, just by focusing, as Tagg does, on detail like this. And as one final aside, writing this post I came to hear of a novel I should have known about years ago, Joseph Roth’s, Radetzky March(Dr Pollack mentions it in his lecture), and am thoroughly enjoying reading it. I wish I had read it before any of my travels in what was once the Austro-Hungary, and I suspect it will make great background reading for Coppélia.
Update: House of the Rising Sun, another candidate
Playing this for class the other day, I suddenly realised that the “scotch” snap features in this song, too: and it’s nothing to do with the words this time, because no-one pronounces New Orleans with the emphasis on the new (not even The Animals, later in the song), though many a poor boy is an example of the “scotch” snap in everyday English.
It’s interesting to compare this with the 1933 recording of the related Rising Sun Blues by Tom Clarence Ashley & Gwen Foster. Ashley said he learned it from his grandfather, and the song—or a variant of it—may date back to the 16th century.
As this will be a longish ramble about finding music, I’ll cut to the chase. The Bugatti Stepby Jaroslav Ježek is a fantastic piece of piano music that you could use for class, and the sheet music is available online. I’m not usually guarded about sharing ideas for class music, but in this case I have to confess it’s taken me weeks to do so, because I love it so much, I don’t actually want my colleagues to have it in their repertoire as well. But I can’t help it. It’s too good not to share.
How I discovered Ježek and the Bugatti Step
What prompted me to finally share the score was that the route to finding it (and other music by Ježek) has been so delightful and interesting. Not long after I vacated Facebook and Twitter a few weeks ago, I was listening to the radio in the car, and heard Barry Humphries talking about his forthcoming show at the Barbican, a presentation of music from the Weimar period, including some of my favourite cabaret songs and composers. As I love the music of this period, I thought I can’t possibly miss it. I checked the dates. Then, because I wasn’t on Facebook anymore, I wrote an old-fashioned email to someone who I thought would appreciate this as much as me, but who is probably the busiest person I know, and lives hundreds of miles away. I don’t suppose by any chance you’re in London when this is on, and free? As it turned out, he was, and so we went, and it was wonderful.
Barry Humphries presents this collection of music as if you’re having a pleasant after dinner chat in his sitting room (or, if you’ve ever been there, the Kleine Philharmonie bar in Berlin, which in turn looks like the set of Cabaret). The story he tells is wonderful: as a young man, he discovered this music in second-hand shops in Melbourne, remnants of the possessions of Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, who had clearly loved the music enough to bring it with them. He fell in love with it, and has ever since nurtured a fascination with it, leading eventually to this show.
One of the first pieces in the programme was Bugatti Step, played as a piano solo. I couldn’t help thinking, this is wonderful music in itself, but it would also be great for class, so I made a mental note to check it out afterwards. The composer, Jaroslav Ježek, (known as “the Czech Gershwin”) as so many others, was forced in the late 1930s to flee the Nazi occupation of Czechoslavakia and go to New York, having until then been a huge contributor to the Czech music and theatre scene.
What comes across as Humphries introduces the music, is a sense of loving and cherishing these pieces, of giving them the value and the hearing they deserve; a will for them and their composers not to be forgotten. It’s infectious, but It’s something more than enthusiasm; there’s a warmth and intelligent sensitivity about Humphries’ advocacy of this music that sometimes helps you hear it almost too closely for comfort; you hear with the ears of those who wrote it and heard it at the time. It’s hard not to draw parallels between the politics of then and now.
Rendezvous with Ježek in Prague
So now fast-forward a little (I went to the concert on 23rd July, and it’s now 10th August), and I see an former Czech colleague of mine at the studios in Prague—she used to play for class when the ballet masterclasses in Prague that I’m at now first began. Years ago, she had told me where I could find a second-hand music shop in the city. I asked her it was still there. She checked on her computer; she wasn’t sure, but there’s this bookshop in Wenceslas Square No. 42 that has a new and second-hand music department. By chance, I was walking there in the afternoon, so popped in.
The book of Ježek’s music I found in Prague today
And blow me down, one of first things I see on the shelves is a book of 81 songs and dances by Ježek, arranged for piano byu Sidonius Karez. (81 melodií a tanců z modrého pokoje). I had to buy it, even if I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with it. I’m glad I did. It’s a wonderful book, lovingly and carefully put together, with interesting panels of information about Ježek and photographs of him and fellow musicians and performers from the Liberated Theatre in Prague. I can just about work out what it all means, with a bit of help from Google Translate, and my background as a Slavic languages graduate. I start to search for the original 78rpm recordings on YouTube. The music is just wonderful.
I’m telling the story because it’s not the first time that my route to finding music has been face to face, material, hand to hand. Meeting people, going to bookshops, being present somewhere. If I hadn’t been to that concert at the Barbican, I might never have heard of Ježek, or had the chance to be thrilled by his music. Barry Humphries found the music in a second-hand shop where it had come from Europe in the 1930s. And now, I’m finding more of it, actually in Prague, in a bookshop, because I bumped into my colleague and she recommended that bookshop. I would not have known what I was looking at, had it not been for someone bringing that music to Melbourne in a suitcase, and Barry Humphries looking after it, and years later, presenting it at the Barbican. If I hadn’t got off Facebook and made the effort to make arrangements to see a friend in real life, I wouldn’t be writing this now.
There are other ways to find music, of course, and YouTube is great for researching what has already triggered your interest. But for me, at least, the music you discover like this, passed from hand to hand, music that you can touch, or music that you hear in the physical presence of others, is somehow always more precious. Barry Humphries tells a story in the show about how his mother didn’t like library books “because you didn’t know where they had been.” For him, that was precisely what he liked about them, and that was the appeal of the music he had found in the second-hand shops that led eventually to this concert.
After I’d finished that last post on teachers and their summer school rep, I wondered whether I’d gone a bit too far on the world-weary musicians’ humour. But then the very next day, I was asked if I could locate music for the solo in the video below (sorry if it gets removed, that’s the pain of posting YouTube links. If it does, search for Franz variation, Coppélia, Bolshoi and probably another one will turn up). It’s Coppélia, I was assured. It’s not needed for the summer school I’m playing for currently, but for another that’s happening in a couple of weeks (and all credit to the teacher who knows enough to be looking in advance to get the scores together.)
The video I was shown was from the Prix de Lausanne some years ago, where the solo was announced as Act I of Coppélia, and was in E major. Now I’ve seen a few other videos (including the one above), I’m pretty sure it had been speeded up and pitch-shifted from D. So what? Well, I’d looked through hundreds of pages of scores of Sylvia, La Source, Le roi l’a dit and other ballets, looking for things in E major. It’s not that I wouldn’t have spotted the tune in another key, but a key helps to speed up the search.
How many dancers does it take to identify an interpolated solo?
At dinner last night, about eight illustrious stars of the ballet world sang along with the tune and said “what IS that?!” First answer? Raymonda. The director on my right rang Moscow. “It’s Coppélia.” Yes, so everyone keeps telling me, but WHAT IS THE MUSIC. Because the music isn’t from Coppélia. I had already asked the oracle (Lars Payne) who informed me that the solo wasn’t in the Schott edition of Coppélia which has includes music that was dropped from the first (Heugel) edition of the score.
Someone on YouTube commenting on this solo says “That’s Fille mal gardée not Coppélia.” You never know with YouTube commenters. They’re either mad bots, or they know something. Could it be?
I’ve done a transcription of the music, but I am pretty sure I am going to see it in print one day, because it sounds very familiar. My first thought was that it sounded a bit like Glazunov — it has resonances with that awful Jean de Brienne solo. But Glazunov would surely have had a few middle lines going? The opening really does sound like Delibes, but that middle section with the lazy falling chromatic bass? That sounds more like Lanchbery. Until that point, it sounded like it could have been Minkus or Pugni. I take that back. There’s something really rather fine about this solo, in its melodic construction, and in the voicing of the chords. In that sense, it has quite a different feel to the usual suspects.
Enter Ernest Giraud, wearing a kilt
Could it be Ernest Guiraud, who added a solo for Act 3 (see this article from the Petipa Society)? I’d looked through the scores available on IMSLP, but couldn’t see the solo. Then I hovered over Gretna Green again. Come to think of it, this music does sound like it could be Scottish, rather than Hungarian/Polish. IMSLP only have a scene and waltz from Gretna Green. Is there anything else on the net? Well, yes there is. There’s a manuscript full score at archive.org (on pages 196-201). As I’d done the transcription already, it was easy to recognise what I was looking for, despite the old score and handwritten notes. Et voilà, the mystery is solved. That solo — now the third interpolation for Franz that I know of in Coppélia is from Gretna Green, by Ernest Guiraud.
Gretna Green piano reduction at the British Library
There is a piano reduction of the whole ballet in a few libraries, and this solo starts on page 66. It’s available online at the British Library (direct link to the first page of the solo here). Now that I can see the piano score, it’s clearer that the solo (or whatever it was originally) was quite a bit longer, and the repetitions up the octave in the Bolshoi version are probably as a result of having cut out the middle section.
Doing this kind of transcription work is labour-intensive: I listened over and over to the video, taking down the solo by dictation. Having found the orchestral score, I amended the harmonies I hadn’t been able to hear properly. Now I’ve seen Guiraud’s own piano reduction, I see how I could have made mine simpler. However, audio transcription has it’s advantages. You make the arrangement much closer to how it sounds: for example, the simplicity of Guiraud’s arrangement is at the expense of the doubling of the cello and bass, which is what gives the solo the oomph it needs when you play it for a ballet rehearsal.
More on Guiraud
Guiraud is an interesting person to follow up, judging by my skim through this dissertation on Guiraud’s life and works by Daniel Weilbaecher (1990). Born in New Orleans to French parents, he moved back to Paris to continue his music education. winning—like his father before him—the prestigious Prix de Rome. Gretna Green (originally Le forgeron de Gretna-Green), according to Weilbaecher (see p.71 of his thesis), was the first work of Guiraud’s to be produced at the Opéra in Paris, on 5th May 1873, choreographed by Louis Mérante. The famous Milanese ballerina Rita Sangalli was supposed to have taken the leading role as her Parisian debut, but preparations were delayed and so she made her debut in Delibes La Source instead. Now the interesting thing about that is that it was Sangalli’s specially composed solo from La Source (No. 23 in the piano score from IMSLP) which is one Balanchine’s interpolations into Coppélia for Franz’s solo alongside the waltz variation, Act III No. 16 (d) from La Source. Petipa apparently originally introduced the latter for Swanilda in 1904, which means that both previously “female” variations are now coded as male to many people.
Guiraud was best friends with Bizet, and good friends with Delibes (he was a pallbearer at his funeral), and the teacher of Debussy. Weilbaecher is full of fascinating stories that sound extraordinary given the stature now of the people concerned. Shortly after the premiere of Gretna Green, Guiraud was at Lalo’s house with Saint-Saëns, Massenet, Reyer and Bizet. Massenet, it seems, was all over Guiraud, praising his new ballet. Bizet intervened and told Massenet to shut up, and that he “disgusted” him—much as they all loved Guiraud, he said, Gretna Green was not as good as all that, you sycophantic creep. Or words to that effect (full story on p. 74 of Weilbaecher’s thesis). One contemporary opinion was that Gretna Green might have had a much longer life had it not been for the fire which destroyed the Opéra at the end of 1873. Whether or not that is the case, Guiraud was well-known and liked in Paris at the end of the 19th century, and I’m so pleased to be able to identify him as the composer of this solo.
Tchaikovsky named Guiraud as one of a group of French composers who gave him hope in a world where German music, in his view, had gone into decline.
In France, on the contrary, one can hear something which is new and at times very interesting, fresh, and striking. Bizet, of course, is head and shoulders above them all, but still Massenet, Delibes, Guiraud, Lalo, Godard, Saint-Saëns, etc are people with talent and, most importantly, people who are at any rate a long way from the dry routine manner of contemporary Germans.
Let’s run through the details briefly again: the teacher wants to do a solo, and says it’s from Coppélia (by Delibes) and is in Act I, and judging by the video, it’s in E major. As it turns out, it’s not by Delibes, it’s not in Act I, and it’s not in E major, it’s from a ballet with a Scottish theme, not a Polish one. The moral of the story? If you’re going to teach a repertoire class, get in touch with your pianist well in advance to make sure they can source the music. That’s how this fascinating journey started, and it has been a pleasure to sort out.
It’s been a bit like smoking: I had tried a couple of weeks without Facebook in Prague in 2014, which was a good practice run for Lent 2016, when turned it off and cut down on Twitter. By the time I saw Jaron Lanier talking about his book Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Nowearlier this year, I barely needed convincing any more. I had already read Lanier’s earlier book Who Owns the Future? and was so impressed by his thinking that I was ready to listen to anything he had to say about social media. I read Ten Arguments in a day, and like someone who’d gone to an Allen Carr session on stopping smoking, I just went straight to my computer and deleted my Twitter and Facebook accounts, and haven’t missed either of them since.
There were two things in Ten Arguments that pushed me over the edge:
Finding your own passions again: Getting off social media leaves you free to find what drives you, when you’re not being constantly driven, poked, nudged, informed, advertised at, and inflamed by thousands of strangers and companies on social media.
The direction of social media is neither left nor right, it is always down. What drives engagement is negative feelings, outrage, disgust.*
On the second point, I knew Twitter was winding me up, and making me depressed. When I saw the “on this day…” posts on Facebook, I would be embarrassed at how often my posts were of the “THIS IS DREADFUL!” type, with a link to some worthy and miserable story. [Update in November: after a few months, I realized that even apparently serious journalism now operates in the same manner: look at headlines in the Guardian or Independent, and you see the same attention-grabbing headlines designed to feed pre-existing prejudices of the readership]. I also found that once I had started reading on Twitter on the tube or waiting for a bus, I could barely pick up or concentrate on a book any more. Since leaving, I have rediscovered the joy of reading novels.
As for the first, I had convinced myself for a long time that I could never leave Twitter because it was so useful for staying informed. The minute I left, I rediscovered how nice, how different it felt like to do your own research, follow your own nose, or the opposite: just do nothing, and not be inundated with suggestions for articles and books you might read. How lovely not to have to have an opinion on something.
From a different perspective, leaving Facebook and Twitter is about no-platforming. I’ve had enough of the hatred, the stupidity, the alt-right keyboard warriors, the journalist (and MP) “provocateurs” making money by stirring up outrage. Enough.
All the other reasons Lanier gives were enough in themselves, but it was these two that made the biggest impression on me. There was a third reason for quitting that has nothing to do with Jaron Lanier. It was finding out that Zadie Smith more or less shuns social media and the internet altogether. After I’d finished one of her novels, I noticed that she’d given a credit to SelfControl, an app for blocking the internet on your computer while you work, rather like Freedom, except that so far, SelfControl is free. Zadie Smith is probably the writer I admire most. There is something so perfect about her sentences, both in their formation and their truth. I’d give anything to write like her. It might sound stupid, but I thought, if Zadie Smith can write like that without being on Twitter, then there’s no reason to be on Twitter.
I used to say that my reason for staying on Facebook was to stay connected with people, and it’s too useful for work to ditch it. When I look back, Facebook has been instrumental in two jobs in years and years of being on it. In recent weeks, since being off it, I’ve met up with people in real life and had a wonderful time. It didn’t require Facebook, it never did. I’ve also just reconnected (via my contact page on this site) with my best friend from junior school, which has been wonderful. I’ve had a lot of work just by letting people know I’m available.
Velleity: the word we need for Facebook connections
Facebook helps you find and stay connected with people from all around the world. But what then? I only learned the word velleity a couple of years ago (again, thank you Zadie Smith). It means “a wish or inclination not strong enough to lead to action.” I don’t know how I lived without that word until now. It perfectly describes how I feel about cigarettes 10 years or so after giving up smoking. If I ever think about smoking at all now, it’s no more than a velleity. That is the level, I feel, of interaction on Facebook. I glance at people and their lives and go “Uh huh OK, nice” and scroll on. Time after time after time. It’s easy, non-committal, and requires nothing of you. They probably do the same to me. If you do meet, it’s because you discover that by chance, you’re going to be in the same place at the same time. You get out of the habit of making plans to see people that matter to you.
How to contact me the old fashioned way
I’m delighted to say that many people have used my site to find me, and contacted me using a form such as the one below. If you fill this in, it comes to me as an email. I’ll reply to it!
*Footnote: Kathleen Turner, in an interview for Vulture, credits a similar line (but in relation to politics) to the American newspaper columnist Molly Ivins, “over ten years ago” so circa 2008.
“Beloveds, these are some bad, ugly, angry times. And I am so freaked out. Hatred has stolen the conversation. The poor are now voting against themselves. But politics is not about left or right. It’s about up and down. The few screwing the many.”
One of the reasons I started blogging was because I was frustrated that journalists and historians tended to focus only on the big names: the stars, the directors, the choreographers, the “game-changers,” the critics and scholars, while leaving out the people who did so much of the heavy-lifting: ballet mistresses, teachers, coaches, notators, assistants. Another category: those dancers who come over during a rehearsal and help you out when those at the front charged with doing so don’t know how to. Insiders know that ballet is a joint enterprise, and that on the dancing side, these are the people who make the ballet world go round, who hold it together, who support and lift everyone in it, who keep the ship afloat and motivate the crew in stormy seas badly navigated.
I wanted to do two things: to say thank you to the people who had explained the ballet world to me when I was floundering, particularly at the beginning of my career; but also, to disrupt the web search results, so that some of the people I admired most would come out of the footnotes to other people’s biographies. It was the early 2000s, and at the time, people believed (perhaps they still do?) that if you couldn’t be found on the web, you didn’t exist.
They weren’t all women, but the fact that men in these roles are also overlooked has, I believe, a lot to do with gender, with the tendency to dismiss supportive, other-directed, compassionate, nurturing and emotionally intelligent behaviour as unimportant “women’s work,” compared to the more attention-grabbing projects of choreography, composition, or building new premises. Joyce Fletcher writes about this in Disappearing Acts:
[C]ertain behaviors “get disappeared”—not because they are ineffective but because they get associated with the feminine, relational, or so-called softer side of organizational practice. This implicit association with the feminine tends to code these behaviors as inappropriate to the workplace because they are out of line with some deeply held, gender-linked assumptions about good workers, exemplary behavior, and successful organizations. In other words, the findings [of Fletcher’s research among female design engineers] suggest that there is a masculine logic of effectiveness operating in organizations that is accepted as so natural and right that it may seem odd to call it masculine. This logic of effectiveness suppresses or “disappears” behavior that is inconsistent with its basic premises, even when that behavior is in line with organizational goals. The result is that organizations adopt the rhetoric of change—moving, for example, to self-managed teams—but end up disappearing the very behavior that would make the change work, such as recognizing the effort involved in helping a team work together effectively.
As an example, she cites a discussion in a manufacturing firm where everyone agrees that “the ability to bring people together, to resolve differences, and make team members feel at ease with each other is something that is very important in getting a diverse group of people working well together,” (p.2) yet these do not get added to a list of core competences because “they are not measurable or something that could be written into one’s objectives.” If you’ve ever had to write learning objectives, or been told to make your goals S.M.A.R.T. you’ll know what it feels like to have to bring yourself kicking and screaming into line with this way of thinking.
This is about women who want to be listened to and taken seriously and to make a difference to the ordinary workplace. Power isn’t just stratospheric. It’s not just about the glass ceiling. There’s quite a lot of women who feel so far from the glass ceiling that that metaphor is a real turn off. This is about how we operate together at every level in the culture, whether that’s around a university seminar, or high school, or a retail store, or whatever. It’s about thinking about who we take seriously, how, and why.
This list is 13 years old, and I could add many, many more to it now (I won’t, because if I start, I’ll end up doing a new Advent Calendar) but it’s wonderful that I still know, work or catch up with most of them today, and they are still every bit as fabulous.
10 Fabulous Ballet Women for International Women’s Day
If I ever get to play what I think of as “a waltz” for class (you know, the rollicking, flowing, swaying kind that has a pendulum swing in it that propels you forward without ever getting tired) , I mentally crack open the champagne. Ninety percent of the time in class, you’re trying to find something that is waltz-like, but not exactly “a waltz.” I suspect the problem is that the waltzes we know from the concert repertoire were made more for ears than legs. I have rarely, if ever, found a suitable moment in a ballet class to play Léhar’s Lippen schweigen (“The Merry Widow Waltz”), yet that’s one of the first tunes that comes to mind when someone says “waltz.” Over ten years, many of the posts on this site have hovered around this topic in one way and another, to the extent that I’ve now created a page listing the “waltz problem” posts.
The sound of three heads turning
Much of the music you’re asked for in class has zen-like conundrums in the specifications. A colleague said he’d been asked by one teacher for a “melting march.” Sounds familiar: I tried to solve a similar problem with what I called a “chameleon-like March by Granados). Waltzes for multiple pirouettes are similarly taxing: you need something slow, but not too squidgy. Rhythmic, but with space for allowing more turns without sounding naff. Elastic and steppy for balancés, but then with three sharp beats that can signify three “heads” for a triple pirouette.
If there’s a model for the tune that can accommodate all this, then perhaps it’s the opening theme of Kaiserwalzer Op. 437 by Johann Strauss II:
But it doesn’t last long, and it’s played so often for classes, you can only use it sparingly.
That’s why Dvořák’s Prague Waltzes is such a find. Like the old slogan for Andrex toilet paper, it’s soft, strong, and very, very long. If you’ll forgive the comparison, the design problems of pirouette music and toilet paper are not so dissimilar. Beats in waltz music need a softness combined with a tensile strength such that they can hold together and stretch without breaking, but also separate with a quick tug when you need them to. And here you have it: pages and pages of pirouette music that does all the right things (though I’ve made a few minor cuts to make it class-ready).
Prague Waltzes is a useful model of what “waltz” can mean. This composition is evidence that waltzes don’t just go “1 2 3 1 2 3” — there’s a whole world of varied accents and tempos and rhythms within a single phrase. Most significantly, in my view, there’s a lift/accent/length/weight, call it what you will, in the middle of the bar rather than beginning, and often a sense of direction towards the third beat, not the first; sometimes there are three separate gestural beats in a bar, not three subsumed into one. Prague Waltzes also provides many examples of how to vary and extend a waltz idea when you’re improvising.
I also love the title, having spent every 14 of the last 15 years playing for the International Ballet Masterclasses in Prague. It’s a city I will associate forever with ballet, playing for some of the best and nicest people in the ballet world. I wish i’d had this music for some of them, however, considering how many hours of pirouettes I must have played for.
Tempo for Prague Waltzes
I left the allegro vivace on this arrangement out of deference to the orchestral score, but to me this doesn’t sound right given what’s on the page, and so the metronome marking range is mine. I like the tempo that Jirí Belohlavek takes it with the Prague Symphony Orchestra (I also like to think they must know what they’re doing with this Czech music). For class, you could take it even slower, and pull it about in different ways as necessary. Belohlavek plays around with the tempo quite a lot for the sake of concert interest, but the opening sections are the kind of tempo which works well for a lot of pirouette exercises.