Another from the incomparable Jackie Barratt, when she was ballet mistress at ENB.
She was rehearsing two principals in Cranko’s Taming of the Shrew, which involves a lot of complex and heavy-duty lifts. In one of them, Kate adopts a position rather like a figurehead on a ship.
“Careful with your shoulders there” said Jackie, “otherwise it looks a bit oven-ready”.
It’s not polonaises that I hate, so much as polonais-ing. Playing a polonaise on the piano is on a par with sanding a dozen sash windows by hand, or scanning 150 pages of articles from books which won’t quite fit on the scanner. If God had intended man to play polonaises on the piano, he would have given us mechanical jack-hammers instead of left hands.
There are some polonaises which I quite like – the one from the end of Theme and Variations (the final bit of the 3rd orchestral suite by Tchaikovsky), but polonaising in the ballet class sense means taking everything that I like about a work like that (starting with the fact that I’d rather listen to it than play it) away from the experience. Gone is the long lead up to the big tune, the orchestral sound, the rubato, the changes in mood and tempo, the developmental bits, the odd phrases.
The grand sweep, the nobility, the spectacle, all emasculated into a RUMP-ti-ti-tum-tum-TUM in the middle of the piano, the left hand barely making it from one repeated chord sequence to the next, the right tripping over notes that were designed to be bowed on a violin, not picked out on a keyboard. It will – in my hands, at least – resemble a ‘polonaise’ as much as a car-park in Dorset resembles Lapland.
I could go on. And I will. Add to that the fact that Polonaises are all about ceremonious, processional stepping in ball attire. And in the ballet class? The purely metrical features of the music are extracted and exploited in order to do an ‘Up and a point and close’ grand battement exercise, like using your child as a draught-excluder because it’s about the size of a door-frame when laid flat.
And so it was that in one of our many classes together, Chris set an exercise, came to the piano and said ‘That’s a…’ and then just ‘tutted’ and rolled his eyes heavenward, meaning – of course – a polonaise. I use that example whenever I teach teachers as an example of how good communication isn’t about uttering more and more words and subject-specific vocabulary.
Following on from the theme of being put right by friends, this one concerns a 7-hour argument with Chris which ended up with me having to rethink space and time. Damn!
It all started with a section from Chris’s ballet Canciones, which had elements of flamenco in it. He was explaining how the dancers had to accent certain counts in a phrase of 12 – let’s say it’s 1, 5, 7, 8, 11. “What a bizarre way of explaining it”, I countered. “Why don’t you just teach them to do this?”, proceeding to copy the rhythmic pattern that resulted from the accents he’d just identified, and repeat it with (dare I say it) consummate ease.
“But it’s not the same” he said. “Yes it is”, I argued back, doing my pattern again.
“No it’s not – you’re viewing time like musicians do, as cyclical. But for a dancer, it’s not, it’s linear.”
Bearing in mind that the argument took 7 hours, I probably can’t do it justice here, but the point on which it hinged was that a dancer needed to know where they were and what they were doing on a particular count in a phrase, it wasn’t enough for that count to be a recurring point relative to a repeating cycle of beats. The argument took place on the little balcony at the back of my old flat in Mandrake Road, and I can’t think of problems in space and time without remembering what it felt like to thrash them out there. If you’ve got seven hours, I could go into more detail.
Oddly enough, this is another topic that made even more sense when I read Raymond Monelle’s The Sense of Music, in particular the stuff about Henri Bergson and his theory of duration. And that’s saying something.
Most of the time, my experience, education, instinct and what I’ve picked up from friends and colleagues serves me quite well when it comes to speculating and arguing about music and dance issues. But I’ve found that it’s the views I am most certain of that my friends have had to disabuse me of.
“Surely”, I said to Dan (left) once, “If ever there was a case for using CD in a rehearsal, it’s for Rite of Spring. With a score that depends so much on rhythmic accuracy and colour, what’s the point of having it played on an instrument like the piano that can’t produce anything like the range of sounds that you need? Much as I would rather protect my own job, and promote live music, Rite seems to be begging for a CD.”
“Well, no, actually.” said Dan, and went on to explain how with a score as complex as Rite of Spring, rehearsing it to piano, at different speeds, and crucially, without the orchestration, gave him (he felt) the opportunity to form mental maps of the music, melodies and fragments as contours, rather than fixed aural images of sounds. So that if one day, an oboe were to play a tune instead of the clarinet, or a bass drum forgot to come in, you’d still know where you were, because your mental image is of the structure of the work, not a mirror image of a recording so precise that if the reality should veer from it but a jot, you might fail to recognise it.
Pondering this for the nth time the other day, my eye wandered to the side of a Nairn’s oatcake packet, which had a line drawing of one of the cellophane packets inside. It’s the kind of drawing that we’re used to seeing all the time, but we don’t question the fact that we need a diagram, not a photograph in order to make sense of what it’s telling us. Is this a parallel to hearing an orchestral score on the piano? And if you take it a step further, is this what a score is? And if you take it even further into what music might symbolise (if anything, depending your philophical bent) is music a kind of wireframe version of emotional states?
There are all kinds of arguments for live music, and all kinds for and against the piano, but Dan’s case for the piano in Rite rehearsals is one that has fascinated me and made me ponder for years. It’s thankfully made me a bit more cautious about assuming I know what works for other people’s heads musically.
Another from Fido.
About two minutes before class began officially, he came to the piano (it was an upright) and stood at it facing me, using the lid as a barre.
In his best mock ‘teacher voice’ he began ‘For my plié exercise, I’m going to do oooone-aaand-a-twooooo. Threeeeee-aand-aa-fooouuuur, fiiiii-ve and a six, sevvvven and ah eiight’ , continuing in plié tempo, right up until the 16th count.
‘Then I’m going to repeat that in second position. Ooone and a twoooo. Threeee-and-a-fouurr….’ and so it went on, until he’d counted the entire exercise diligently, without any shortcuts, speeding up or giggling, in all four positions.
When he’d finally finished, he said ‘And I’d like that on some Indian river music, please’. And then faked his own death by falling to the floor behind the piano.
Nothing makes me more uneasy than the kind of teacher who seems to imagine a music so perfect, so refined and so sublime to accompany their exercise that there is very little in the real world that is likely ever to approach it. Like Georgie and Lucia playing duets in Tilling, they close their eyes and savour a world of refined aesthetic contemplation to which we can only aspire and guess at (usually wrongly, as evidenced by the frowns, the conducting and the furious shaking of the head).
I think I only came across one or two like that, in my whole career. In one case, I realised with horror that he intended to back-seat drive the music all the way through every exercise. At one point during a frappé exercise where he had inserted a demi plié or other feature into the flow of movements, he turned to me like you might shout at a driver to turn left or brake and said ‘The HARMONY is important here!’ – by ‘here’, meaning this precise beat of the bar (I forgot to mention that he insisted on improvisation only for the class, so that you could match every nuance of each exercise with corresponding musical events).
No, I like my teachers to have a down-to-earth and practical attitude to music, and to talk about it in terms I can understand and relate to. Hence, one of my favourite requests in class came from Jackie Barratt, who, having set with exquisite precision, artistry and musicality a rond de jambe exercise with a port de bras on the end, came to the piano and said, by way of a musical indication,
‘Three days of slow mush, please’.
Stravinsky’s Agon is a dastardly complex score, serialist, polyphonic, polyrhythmic, you name it, and Balanchine’s choreography takes no easy ways out. But that’s just the technical challenge of the piece, not its object. As the incomparable Pat Neary tried to explain to dancers at the Deutsche Oper Berlin when she was putting it on there, there’s room for lightness and humour (not her words exactly, but you get the drift). With her inimitable combination of humour and humanity (she describes herself as ‘Bette Midler on pointe’) she came out with this:
“A lot of people think this is a serious ballet because you have to count’.
As well as advice against misconstruing Agon, it’s also the sharpest pin with which to deflate so many works which have pretensions to seriousness on the basis of complexity alone.
I could have picked any number of examples, but this is one that I remember most from the times I’ve worked with Gillian Lynne because it’s so darn simple. Somebody in the studio was attempting to describe the way two steps in the solo that Gillian had created needed to run smoothly together. It was a perfectly rational and articulate description of what needed to happen and why and how and so on.
But in the middle of it, Gillian just offered the single word ‘elision’ without appearing to even think about it, and in a second, there was no point in continuing the explanation, because ‘elision’ was exactly what it was.
I don’t think I’d heard or used the word ‘elision’ since my French O level classes. Once you know that you have to do it, you don’t need to know what it’s called. Out of sight, out of mind. So it amazed me that this relatively obscure, specialized word should have dropped so immediately into her mind quicker than someone else could explain the concept.
And then a few months ago, I found a transcript of a speech by Sir Ken Robinson detailing an interview he’d had with Gillian Lynne about how she started dancing. She describes her first experience of being at a dance school as a liberation, because she was with other people “who had to move to think”. Of course. It’s a wonderful concept (as wonderful as ‘elision’ in reference to movement) and I heartily recommend reading the whole story, which is available online in this pdf – the relevant bit is on pages 35-37, or just search for ‘Gillian Lynne’.
I think you probably have to have a mental imprint of Julia Farron’s voice and demeanour to appreciate this. It was about 20 years ago, at an induction course for a new syllabus at the RAD (when Julia was artistic director). I can’t remember the exact context, but in that assured and re-assuring, husky voice which seemed to have a permanent tinge of irony, she said
‘If in doubt, plié. Like bus conductors on double-deckers. Whenever the bus goes round a corner, they plié to steady themselves.’
It still makes me smile all these years later, because not only was it a canny observation about the function of a plié, it’s a perfect illustration of the wonderful way that dancers view the world through ballet-spectacles.
‘If in doubt’ ought to be followed by something mundane like ‘…check the instruction manual’ or ‘…go to our website’ or ‘…go back to where you started and try again’. What bus-conductor would ever be conscious that he or she had plié-d going round a corner? But it’s the pathologic tendency to see everyday movements as potential steps, or every ballet step as a stylized cognate of everyday movements that I find most admirable in choreographers and teachers.
Since the day she said it (until they did away with conductors) I can’t help checking every time I’m on a bus, and she was absolutely right, that is what bus-conductors do. By contrast, I think the idea of plié-ing as a response to doubt deserves to make a comeback.