Tag Archives: advent 2006

Pirouettes Graham Bond – Pigtail Girl from Graduation Ball

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This is day 15 in my Dance Inspirations Advent Calendar (II)

151206.jpgOne of the jobs I’ve hated most as a company pianist is having to be the errand boy for the ballet staff during stage calls with orchestra. You’re asked (no, told) to sit in the front row of the stalls behind the conductor, and wait for one of the ballet staff to shout down to you “Can you tell him it’s too fast?” or ‘”Tell him we want to go back to where Jane comes on”. Now, you’re not supposed to talk to bus drivers while they’re driving, so how do you think conductors (excuse the confusion of terms) feel about having some lowly pianist tapping them on the shoulder while they’re commanding an entire orchestra, telling them they’re doing it wrong?

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Tendus & pirouettes Ann Hogben – Waltz from The Haunted Ballroom

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This is day 14 in my Dance Inspirations Advent Calendar (II)

ann_hogben.jpgOne day I was walking through the Fonteyn Centre at the RAD, and as I passed the Ashton studio, I became transfixed by the most haunting melody being played on the piano. I stopped to listen, curious to know who was playing so beautifully, and what this extraordinary piece was that they were playing. You have to know that I’m not often transfixed by the music that comes out of ballet studios to understand why this was unusual.

It turned out it was Ann Hogben, playing Geoffrey Toye’s waltz from The Haunted Ballroom, from the 1934 ballet by Ninette de Valois. I’d seen pictures of this ballet in some old Sadlers Wells annual, but never heard the music – and it did exactly what it said on the tin, it was truly haunting. But it also took someone of Annie’s calibre to play it with such integrity that you could be haunted from outside the studio.
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Grands battements Mark Morris -Take back your mink

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This is day 13 in my Dance Inspirations Advent Calendar (II)

mark_morris.jpgAs I’ve noted many times, music in class can be part of a wonderful conversation between pianist and teacher, and this is especially true of a class with Mark Morris. In one class, Take back your mink was the perfect riposte (played unexpectedly, suddenly, for the second side of an exercise that went straight from one side to the other) for something that Mark was doing cheekily to the music on the first side, and it made us all laugh. It’s a sign of the heightened, intense musical awareness and focus that goes on in Mark’s classes that anyone found this funny or noticed it at all.

As they say about jokes, ‘I guess you had to be there…’. Well, that’s the point, I was there, and that’s why it counts as one of the moments that has made being a dance musician most worthwhile for me – I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
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Petits battements Woytek Lowski – Ich bin die fesche Lola!

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This is day 12 in my Dance Inspirations Advent Calendar (II)

feschelola.jpgWoytek Lowski often used to look quite severe during class, probably due to a combination of his angular features, an intense focus on the job at hand, and the aloofness of a visionary. He was also a terrifically hard worker, and expected others to be no different. By the time class started, he had probably been awake for hours, writing down and memorizing exercises in longhand in reporters pads.

But the look could crack suddenly into rapture or helpless laughter, and all it took was a piece of music. I knew Friedrich Hollaender’s wonderful comic song Ich bin die fesche Lola from working with Gertrude Thoma, but what I knew was only the notes and the words – the song didn’t have a context or history for me. Woytek, as I discovered, knew the film it came from, Der blaue Engel, with Marlene Dietrich as the eponymous Lola of the song, and so the minute I started playing it for a class full of male dancers at 10.15 in the morning, he found it outrageously funny. (Incidentally, another luminary of this calendar, Christopher Hampson, knows the whole chorus in German, and always sings along if I’m playing it. It’s a funny old world.) It was not the first time, by a long shot, that a dancer ended up teaching me about the music I was playing – and my gratitude for that is the point of these Advent calendars.
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Ronds de jambe en l’air Betty Anderton – Adèle’s laughing song from Die Fledermaus

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This is day 11 in my Dance Inspirations Advent Calendar (II)

ambal_2.jpgOne of the hardest things for pianists to understand about ballet classes is what exercises are about. As a musician, you’re usually trying to express something, tell a story, create a mood, show-off, entertain or explore an emotion with music, so the idea of movement for movement’s sake is odd.

The idea that a teacher might ask you for ‘some music’ for an exercise without being specific about what kind of music, or without explaining (or caring about) the motivation behind the exercise or the music seems even odder. What kind of movement is a tendu – angry? sensuous? sly? lyrical? determined? quirky? And if you don’t have a view on that, then what kind of music do you need? And (frankly), if you don’t have a view on that, why have music at all?

Now a tendu may just be a tendu, but you can still have an attitude of mind or spirit while you do it, and that’s what the best teachers get across. Betty Anderton, though, went one further. Her repertoire of tunes, sung with terrific abandon, contained everything you needed to know about the aim, character, tempo, articulation, spirit, dynamics and humour of the exercise without any need for explanation. The ‘ha ha ha’ in this Fledermaus aria says more to both the dancers and pianist about the quality of the music and the quality of the ronds de jambe than words or counts ever could. When my colleagues and I at the RAD were compiling A Dance Class Anthology, one of our aims was to create a kind of catalogue of musical paradigms like this, and whatever contributions I made owe a lot to the education I received by playing for Betty.
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Battements frappés Klaus Beelitz – Ich wollt’ ich wär’ ein Huhn

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This is day 10 in my Dance Inspirations Advent Calendar (II)
lotsroad_small.jpg I used to love forcing a smile out of Klaus Beelitz for class by finding ever more obscure or oddball German songs to play when he least expected it. You can’t get more oddball than the songs, and the way they performed them, of the Comedian Harmonists; and of all their repertoire, Ich wollt’ ich wär’ ein Huhn (‘I wish I were a hen’) surely wins a few prizes for lunacy. Even the title is funny, with its crescendo of nitpicking umlauts, elisions and subjunctives leading only to the word ‘hen’.

In terms of rhythm, tempo, articulation and dynamics, it’s got everything you want for frappé music, with the added bonus that it’s got ridiculous lyrics sung by nutty Germans, and the strangely uncomfortable knowledge that they were singing them at one of the darkest moments in the history of the world. You need context like this if you’re going to do that many frappés in your life.

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Battements fondus Thomas Edur – Chopin Mazurka Op. 67 No. 3 from Les Sylphides

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This is day 9 in my Dance Inspirations Advent Calendar (II)
091206.jpg I think the male solo from Les Sylphides is one of the hardest thing for a dancer to pull off, starting with the bizarre cravat in the costume, and continuing through the wafty poetry of the steps and the unlikely premise of a grown man in a woman’s world getting up to dance in front of a load of sylphs, asserting his masculinity but not being so masculine that he jars with their fluffy white lala-land. He’s got to look noble and strong, but bend to every nuance of the music, a man enchanted by another man’s romantic musical outpourings, brought to life by (mostly) more men in an orchestra pit, but not a bit gay. He’s got to be a dreamer who remembers to put the rubbish out.

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Ronds de jambe à terre Irena Pasarić – Ne vredi plakati

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This is day 8 in my Dance Inspirations Advent Calendar (II)

081206.jpgNe vredi plakati is an ‘old city song’ (starogradska pjesma) that I learnt as a 22 year old student in Zagreb. Three and a half thousand of us from all over Yugoslavia (as it still was then), Central & South America, Africa & the Middle East lived in a kind of Olympic village of 9 ‘pavilions’ built next to a lake at the end of a tram line called Studentski Dom ‘Stjepan Radi? (see earlier entry & gallery). They were very different times – no mobiles, no PCs, no internet, no credit. You’d hang out in your room, people would visit each other, and there were parties every night somewhere. Within weeks of being there, I’d learned about a dozen of these songs by heart, because after a couple of glasses of wine (the one thing we never went without, even if there was sometimes no hot water), that’s what you did – you started singing. There’s absolutely nothing to compare it with in English culture, we just don’t have a repertoire of songs that people know, we don’t socialize in the same way, and we don’t break into song on social occasions.

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Battements glissés Tania Fairbairn – Turkey in the straw

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This is day 7 in my Dance Inspirations Advent Calendar (II)
During a really ghastly period in my personal and professional life a few years ago, only one thing put a genuine smile on my face. Tania Fairbairn’s National Dance classes at Central School of Ballet were just a half-hour class once a week, last thing in the day at about 7.00pm, but I remember them as if it were yesterday, because she and they helped to keep me sane.

Apart from the fact that she’s delightful to work with, exudes calm and has a fabulously dry sense of humour, the children loved doing the dances she taught them so much, they would beg her to be allowed to do them again. When you play music for people who enjoy dancing, it’s fun and rewarding, and their energy feeds yours, and the whole experience is exhilarating.

Turkey in the Straw was the music for the Virginia Reel, and I remember Tania warning me kindly that I was going to know the music extremely well after a while, because you have to play it so many times for one dance. It’s such a simple tune, and yes, I did have to play it many, many times, but I couldn’t get bored watching those children have such a good time, or working with Tania. As soon as I hear the tune, I can see that studio at the top of the school, remember the bright lights inside and the dark November nights outside, and as awful as everything else was at the time, it brings back happy memories.

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Battements glissés David Wall – Rondeau from Les Biches

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This is day 6 in my Dance Inspirations Advent Calendar (II)

It’s a wonderful feeling when you play something for class that you think is a bit obscure or only you would like, and it meets with instant recognition and approval, because dancers know it better than you do, or from a different context. I especially love it when teachers momentarily go off at a tangent because they like the music for an exercise too much to ignore it. David Wall does this every time I play a bit of Les Biches for class at ENB, even to the point of stopping to ask the dancers where the music comes from and who it’s by. It never ceases to amaze me that this kind of on-the-fly music appreciation and education goes on a lot more in companies than it does in ‘dance education’ but that’s another story.

I have Michael Ho to thank for introducing me to Poulenc’s wonderful score: my first job in dance was at the RAD in 1986, and that’s where I met a lot of people on the PDTC (as it was then) course that I still know today. One of them was Michael, who was moving and wanted to sell a lot of his record collection.

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