Tag Archives: ballet music

Ballet Piano Podcast transcript now available

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Click here to go to the Ballet Piano Podcast (and transcript)

My enthusiasm and admiration for the Ballet Piano Podcast, which I posted about a few weeks ago, continues to grow. Talking to Matt Gregory the other day, I said that I might get round to transcribing one of the podcasts, for some people (I’m one of them) a transcript can be more accessible than listening—particularly, it occurs to me, if English isn’t your first language. Also, if you’ve heard the podcast and want to go back and find a particular passage, it’s much easier to search text than scrub through audio.  I also happen to love transcribing (if you think I’m kidding, see my eulogy to USB foot controls, and blog post on transcribing methods.  That’s one of the reasons I loved Kate Atkinson’s TranscriptionTranscribing is not a simple matter of taking down content by dictation, it raises all kinds of fascinating issues and questions along the way.

So when Matt mentioned that my name cropped up in this week’s podcast, I was too proud not to get straight down to transcribing it. Download the transcript of the latest podcast from the Ballet Piano Podcast here: 

Transcribing this podcast gave me a chance to reflect on just how good Ballet Piano Podcast is. It’s got David Yow as legendary experienced teacher (and also one of the most serene people I’ve ever worked for), three pianists, of whom one (Matt) is also a dancer, so you have a rounded and respectful view of both dance and music. There’s also a wealth of experience from both the vocational school and company side. To be really valuable, you need to know about both fields. 

If I’m really honest, I don’t really share this team’s enthusiasm for adage (see an older post for why) but I learned a lot from listening to (and transcribing) this podcast.  Trying to describe the difference between adage and ports de bras music is quite difficult in musical terms, but hearing David Yow describe it this way, made it so obvious: 

The fuller it [the music] is, the better, because that’s exactly what the movements are like, the biggest, the fullest movement that you can do.

If you’d asked a lot of musicians (or some teachers, who’ve been led to believe that you can categorize exercises by time signature), they’d say “a slow 6/8, like a barcarolle.”  I remember asking a teacher once what she thought adage music should be, and she said “it should express infinite hope.” Try finding that in your musical dictionary, but it’s inspired me for years. 

Ballet piano nerves

There is so much in the discussion that I can relate to. Here’s Akiko & Chris Hobson talking about the sheer physical and mental effort of playing for classes in new situations:

Akiko: I remember when I started, I played for one class, you know, one hour and a half or so. After one class, I was so tired, I was so hungry, and I just wanted to have a nap.

Chris:  I still get nervous now, if I’m going to a new company where I know I don’t know the ballet master and I might not know any of the dancers, I still get nervous, maybe two decades in, I don’t think it’s ever going to leave.

As I heard that, I remembered a time a few years ago when I was playing for a visiting company in London. It was just four days when I had to turn up, play for an hour or an hour and a quarter around lunchtime, and then I was free. In theory, perfect for someone who needs several hours in the day to do a PhD. But no: from when I woke up til when class started, I fretted about what I was going to play, and who for (it was three different teachers over four days, none of whom I’d worked with before). And when I’d finished, I was so exhausted mentally (and already thinking about how to make the next day interesting), that it was difficult to settle to anything else afterwards. It was a long time before I realized that summer schools are so exhausting, even if your workload is light: it’s not the number of hours, it’s the intensity of having to instantly form effective working relationships with several new people. It’s a strain for the teacher as well, who also has to deal with the new group of  dancers in front of them, and sometimes as a pianist, it feels like you’re the lightning conductor for the tension in the room.

A Dance Class Anthology

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A Dance Class Anthology—now back in print, and available from RAD Enterprises Ltd

One last thing: it’s worth mentioning that The Dance Class Anthology, which Chris Hobson mentions towards the end of the podcast, is now back in print again, and available from the RAD Enterprises—though until the Covid-19 lockdown ends, they can’t dispatch any orders. 

 

 

A 19th century quadrille generator

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I remember inwardly eye-rolling when I heard a teacher many years ago claim excitedly that her pianist “never played the same thing twice.” Call me cynical, but if you’re a pianist for ballet class, you know that if you play week in week out for the same teacher and you’re playing repertoire, it’s almost impossible not to repeat yourself. You’d have to have the memory of a vaudeville savant to literally not repeat yourself.

On the other hand, if by “never playing the same thing twice,” the teacher meant that the pianist constantly improvised, and never came out with the same thing twice, then—call me cynical a second time—I still have my doubts. Improvising, particularly for ballet class, doesn’t mean producing infinitely random streams of notes, like a lottery ball machine; it involves producing music that sounds as if it’s something that you’ve heard before (see a previous post for more on this and 18th century composition primers).

The Quadrille Melodist

I had been thinking about this in relation to a brief exchange of comments on a previous post about “fear of repetition” when improvising. Then today, by coincidence, I discovered a fascinating article [full text free to download] by Nikita Braguinski on a 19th century quadrille generator, called the Quadrille Melodist, that promised to provide “428 Millions of Quadrilles for 5s. 6d.” Never one to pass up a bargain, I had to read it. It turns out, this is a box of cards, in principle not unlike Mozart’s dice game (Würfelspiel)—you have a selection box of one-bar fragments that you can combine to make an eight-bar phrase.

From the photograph, the “machine” looks a bit like one of those clocking-in card racks for employees. Instead of employees, you have bars of music on cards that you can arrange, sort, move and shuffle, but with constraints on which slot they can be placed in, to ensure the musical logic of each resulting piece.

This seems pretty close to what a lot of ballet class improvisation is (and indeed, the creation of ballet enchaînements too): the amalgamation of a limited range of permissible fragments into a more-or-less logical sounding phrase, with strict rules. Obviously the best improvisers (and ballet teachers) do more than this, but that’s a handful, in my experience; and the chances are they did their best improvisations by shedding, not on the spot.

Incidentally, Braguinski points out that its inventor, John Clinton misrepresented—perhaps on purpose—the possible combinations by several orders of magnitude: the correct figure is in fact 7,400,249,944,258,160,101,211, or just over 7.4 sextillion. If he’d wanted to to achieve the advertised figure of 428 million tunes, he could have done it with far fewer cards.

More of the same?

At the end of the article, Braguinski asks an interesting question.

At the same time, the assumption that original or new music is desirable for a quadrille is debatable. Wouldn’t the constant variation run the risk of confusing the dancers? (p. 98).

Possibly not. It depends a lot on what you mean by “the same” or “original” or “new” music, and whether you’re using the music to cue particular movements, or as accompaniment for a dance that you already know (see previous posts here and there [see under “pedadogical category” heading] ) for more on those topics).

Looking at the possibilities afforded by Clinton’s quadrille machine, the outcomes would be different, to be sure, but they are literally formulaic, and so pretty much indistinguishable from one another, as well as totally unmemorable—which is perhaps the price of endless “novelty,” if novelty is the right word at all.

See: Braguinski, N. (2019). “428 Millions of Quadrilles for 5s. 6d.”: John Clinton’s Combinatorial Music Machine. 19th-Century Music, 43(2), 86–98. https://doi.org/10.1525/ncm.2019.43.2.86

The Ballet Piano Podcast

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Click to visit the ballet piano podcast

I remember saying to someone a few years ago that the distance between you thinking of an idea for a project, and someone else coming up with the same idea independently and actually  doing it is about twelve months, and today’s find just goes to prove my point. The bastards have only gone and done the thing that I wanted to do more than a year ago, which is to start a podcast series consisting of interviews/discussions with the great and the good in this weird corner of the musical universe, the world of playing for ballet classes. 

The bastards in question are all wonderful colleagues, so I wish The Ballet Piano Podcast the best and warmest of luck with this great venture, and please get on and do some more. The first episode is a roundtable chat with Chris Hobson and his wife Akiko, the lovely Matt Gregory, and equally lovely ballet teacher David Yow. To actually get three pianists AND a teacher talking in the same room, on the record, is a miracle, and it says a lot about  the people involved that they’ve managed to do it. 

Fille mal Gardée: the Gorsky pas de deux music for piano

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The short version

This post started out as a bit of excitement at finding that the source for the Gorsky Fille mal gardée pas de deux male solo was Czibulka’s Scène de ballet Op. 268 (1882), and that it was available, together with the preceding adagio, online at the national library of Spain. (To get the full pdf from that site, click on the green “download” icon third from the left at the top of the page).

Within 24 hours, though, I had found the whole pas de deux (piano music)  available on IMSLP, where all of it is wrongly (I think) attributed  to Hertel. I say “I think” because who the thing is by is a long, and so far never-ending story. 

The long version: how I found it

The strangest coincidence happened on Friday: on my way out to work in the afternoon, I was idly flicking through a pile of old ballet scores that someone had given me a long time back. The first one I looked at properly (because it had no title page, so I couldn’t see what it was) declared itself to be a pas de deux from La fille mal gardée, with “Cziboulka” at the top, and a copyright notice by William McDermott on the bottom. It didn’t look like anything from Fille that I recognized, until I turned a couple of pages, and found a waltz that seemed familiar. Now where had I heard that before? The galop at the end also seemed familiar. It was time to go, so I put it down and left.

An hour later, I had an email from a colleague asking if I could identify and source the music for a variation, as in the video here (with a Youtube link). I clicked on the link: not only was it exactly the music I had just been looking at, but the video was also the one where I (now I remembered) had first heard the music. Had I not picked up the score that afternoon, I would have had no idea what the music might be.

I wouldn’t have known what the music was from the video either, which says it’s Hérold. I hunted around IMSLP for Czibulka scores, but couldn’t find anything that resembled this music. Then on Wikipedia I saw a list of works by him that included Scène de ballet, and wondered whether that might be it. With an opus number (268) the journey to a result speeded up, via an old recording on archive.org, and finally to a digitized copy of the piano score at the Biblioteca Nacional de España.

Czibulka Scene de ballet, first page of the sheet music

Czibulka Op. 268: Scène de ballet (1882), the source for the Gorsky “Fille mal gardée” pas de deux

This isn’t the source for Lise’s variation that follows (see 7:05 in the clip below). One forum poster suggests that it’s a supplementary variation by Drigo for The Harlem Tulip, and cross-referencing this with the Marius Petipa Society’s page on Harlequinade pas de deux, which contains the same music as an interpolation, and cross-referencing that with the video on YouTube, confirms this as true.  There’s no reason to post the video of Harlequinade here really, but the speed  and élan in Ninel’ Kurgapkina’s performance is so breathtaking, it just has to be seen: 

 

The Petipa Society’s page on Fille is wonderfully informative, but they attribute the adagio to  Hertel and the male variation to Drigo (from La Fôret Enchantée). Either they’re talking about a different solo, or it’s not correct. That leaves only the coda as possibly from Armsheimer’s music for Cavalry Halt.

I have a sneaking suspicion however that Czibulka might have just put his name to the Hertel adagio: it looks and sounds suspiciously not like Czibulka—too early, florid, and harmonically sparse. In American scores of this period, arrangers frequently gave their own name as the composer of the piece they’d arranged.  But is that really likely in this case? Hertel (1817-1899) and Czibulka (1842-1894) were contemporaries, and the Scène de ballet was published in Berlin where Hertel’s ballet was composed. Another possibility—since Hertel’s work was based in part on  Hérold’s (1791-1833) earlier score— is that perhaps both Hertel and Czibulka borrowed the adagio from Hérold. But I can’t find a trace of it in the score for the Hérold Fille at IMSLP, and it still doesn’t explain the waltz. 

So much for the classics. With all the power of Google and the WWW and libraries and public funded companies and so on, these musical details of what one imagines to be the pillars of the repertoire are still more opaque than if the ballets had been done by monks in the 11th century. It’s a classic case of what Pouillaude in Unworking choreography refers to as part of the “ontological weakness” of dance—the fact that a ballet like Swan Lake (his example) or Fille mal gardée (mine here) seems to crumble and disappear into different “productions,” and cannot be pinned down as a “work” in any stable sense. It’s one of the most fundamental truths about ballet classics, yet seems to be part of no-one’s curriculum, at least not from a musical perspective.

Retracing my steps

In the previous post, I wondered just how much detail is too much when you’re documenting sources and how you found them. With things like this, I think it’s valuable to retrace your steps. With all my favourite finds (#1 being the Giraud Franz solo), there’s an element of sheer luck, guesswork, and then the grind of leafing through page after page of score in the hope of finding gold. Of course, I always check Matthew Naughtin first of all (but he doesn’t mention Czibulka). Wikipedia and YouTube, and The Petipa Society are invaluable. Spelling variations and opus numbers unlock doors. IMSLP is the most lovable musical resource ever, but sometimes you have to manually check archive.org and the catalogues at big libraries to find stuff that hasn’t been uploaded there. If you’re lucky, you can take search for images, and see the front cover of a piece of music, and a link to a library site. And lastly, there’s Shazam, which helped me to identify the recording that appears so often in these videos: it’s Ballet Gala, original Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra conducted by Georgi Zhemchushin. Don’t look there for musical references, though—the composer is given as Hérold.

After nearly 24 hours on and off trying to identify and locate the missing music (the non-Czibulka pieces) I did what I should have done earlier, which is check under Hertel at IMSLP, where, under the German title of Das schlecht bewachte Mädchen, the entire pas de deux was waiting all the time. No mention of Czibulka, Drigo, or Armsheimer though, even though it’s a Soviet publisher who must have known better, surely? 

The most curious part of this for me is that the score I had with “Cziboulka” written on is dated 1959, which means that the information has been around for at least 60 years. If you search for Czibulka and “Fille mal gardée” you will find an entry on Suzanne Knosp’s inventory of ballet music publications at the University of Arizona. It’s for William McDermott’s book of Five pas de deux (1985), including this one, with the music correctly attributed to Czibulka, Drigo and Hertel. There’s a lesson to be learned there, though I’m not quite sure how to formulate it, but it just goes to show, there’s a lot to be said for keeping a static HTML list of your ballet treasures. 

 

Drigo’s “Reveil de Flore” piano score online

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Thanks to Patty Noel who alerted me to the fact that Harvard now have this available online digitally. We’d both previously searched high and low for it without success, but then it seemed to suddenly appear. As always with Drigo, some wonderful music in there that in my view (shhhh don’t tell anyone I said so) eclipses a lot of Tchaikovsky’s ballet music. 

Link to Harvard University’s digital piano score of Le Reveil de Flore (Drigo)

 

 

Little Humpbacked Horse thesis online

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Great to read Aaron Manela’s masters thesis “Arthur Saint-Léon’s The Little Humpbacked Horse in Context,”  which is available online. Here’s the abstract: 

In this study I examine representations of antisemitism, fantasy, and cultural imperialism in the 1864 ballet The Little Humpbacked Horse, composed by Cesare Pugni and choreographed by Arthur Saint-Léon. As the creative team adapted the story from verse to ballet, they literally morphed the titular character into new fantastical forms. They also added Jewish, Muslim, and other oriental characters and ended the ballet with a parade of the Russian nations. Drawing on the works of Richard S. Wortman, Julie Kalman, and Roger Bartra, I place these transformations in the context of a larger Russian ambivalence around the shift from a rural and woodland economy to an urban one, the inclusion of Eastern provinces in the rapidly expanding nation, and the emancipation – and inclusion of – internal minorities. I then explain how the music, choreography, and focus of the ballet change as the relevance of these mid-nineteenth century concerns fades.

As I’m struggling with a very tricky paragraph about music and representation right now, it’s helpful to read something like this that is so clear about the connection. 

Sources for the “Esmeralda” pas de deux

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One of the oddities about the ballet repertoire is that the more famous and frequently performed the piece, the more tricky its musical history, like the  “Black Swan” Pas de Deux, for example, which does not exist in Tchaikovsky’s original score, at least not in its entirety, as you know it, or where you’d expect to find it. Over time, people like Adam Lopez who writes so much for Wikipedia on the Imperial Russian ballet and its music, and the brilliant ballet music librarians Lars Payne and Matthew Naughtin (see “Black Swan” link above) have solved many of these mysteries.

There is one ballet mystery  which just won’t go away, however, and that’s the question of the source for the “Esmeralda” pas de deux. I don’t mean Pugni’s 1844 ballet, but the one with the famous tambourine solo for the ballerina created by Pyotr Gusev in 1949, and later produced by Ben Stevenson in 1982 for the Jackson International Ballet Competition (see Matthew Naughtin’s Ballet Music: A Handbook). 

Naughtin says that the opening is by Drigo (for a revival of Petipa’s L’order du roi), but by chance, while I was looking to see if there was a scan of Marenco’s Sieba (1880-1881), which is reputedly the source for the tambourine variation, I found a couple of pages of that score (i.e. Sieba) in Matilda Ertz’s doctoral thesis.  Look at example 29 on page 287-288  (pdf page 311-312, the opening of the tempest from Sieba) and you’ll see that the  latter half of it is note for note part of the adagio in the Esmeralda pas de deux. For the full thesis, see Nineteenth-century Italian ballet music before unification: Sources, style, and context” Matilda Ertz, (Univ. of Oregon, 2010).  It might be that some is by Drigo and some by Marenco—it’s certainly a very abrupt cut and bizarre modulation from B major down to A, at the point that the Sieba tempest comes in, and the materials don’t seem to be related at all. Incidentally, Ertz’s thesis is really interesting if you’re into ballet music. 

I haven’t managed to find a scan of the score of Sieba beyond these two pages, but it would make sense that the tambourine solo is from the same piece as the adagio—though if the attribution to Drigo is not correct, or at least, an erasure of underlying sources, then I wonder if we should question the tambourine solo’s origins too, until we see the evidence. I  can’t find the coda of Esmeralda in the source that Naughtin gives, either (Pugni’s The Pharaoh’s Daughter). I have seen that coda in another ballet, but I cannot for the life of me remember which one it is. 

Thanks to Adrian Mathers, the mystery of where the coda came from (see crossed out section above) is now solved. Matthew Naughtin was right, it is from The Pharaoh’s Daughter, and I had seen it before, but I had completely forgotten that where I had seen it was in the violin repetiteur of that ballet, not the piano score. It was Adrian who drew my attention to the fact that it’s in the repetiteur but not the piano reduction. You can see the Pharaoh’s Daughter repetiteur it for yourself, digitized in Harvard Library. The coda of Esmeralda is on pages 125-129. 

If anyone has either a piano reduction of Sieba to send me (there’s a copy available in the reading room of the British Library, I know, but I don’t have time to find it right now). 

Giselle and the Peasant Pas de Deux

While I’m at it, there’s another mystery to be solved—or at least, in my view it’s a mystery. How many times have we heard that the Peasant pas de deux in Giselle is by Burgmüller, and a piece called Souvenirs de Ratisbonne Op. 67? Well, Aki Kuroda has recorded it, and it sounds like this: 

In other words, it’s not the peasant pas de deux in its entirety, but one of the female variations, transposed from its original C major into D. There’s an awful lot more music that needs to be explained.  Now, I’m sticking my neck out here on the basis of not a lot of knowledge about Burgmüller, but from what I know of his music, I find it hard to believe he’s the author of the entrée polonaise, because it’s very polonaise-y, whereas his tend to be waltzes with a funny left hand. The pas de deux? Maybe. But the E major male  solo that begins with the whole-beat upbeat? That’s very Franco-Italian metrically speaking (see my post “compound errors” and the section on Franco-Italian hypermeter in this post for more on that topic) and not at all like the kind of thing Burgmüller writes usually—even one of his tarantellas begins on the first beat of the bar. You find Franco-Italian barring all over Pugni’s scores, but not Burgmüller’s. On the other hand, there’s something I don’t quite trust about the female solo in G major (2/4). That looks like the kind of solo that should begin on the upbeat, like these by Auber but it doesn’t. It looks like a French solo in German clothing. 

Whatever and whoever is behind this story, there is more to it than simply Souvenir de Ratisbonne. Cyril Beaumont in his The Ballet Called Giselle (1945) is more precise: he refers to “a waltz entitled “Souvenir de Ratisbonne” and a suite of dances which used to be performed by Giselle’s friends and their two leaders,” but I haven’t yet come across anything more than that in music scholarship. Contributions very welcome. 

Rudy Apffel’s Czerny For Ballet Class blog

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Rudy Apffel's Czerny for Ballet Class Blog

Click the image to go to Rudy Apffel’s Czerny for Ballet Class Blog

Absolutely thrilled to discover Rudy Apfells’ Czerny for Ballet Class blog  — lovely recordings of huge numbers of Czerny exercises, together with reimaginings/reworkings of them (see here for a description of the project) lots of interesting commentary, and downloadable scores. 

Not content with just one reworking, some exercises, like Op 335 No. 6 have six.

Czerny Op. 335 No. 6

Czerny Op 335 No. 6: reworked in six different versions by Rudy Apffel

In the wrong hands (what a great metaphor for a pianist-related post!) this kind of music can  sound so drab, just the kind of thing that should be banned from ballet classes forever. But Apffel’s reworkings are witty and clever, and hold a mirror back to the original that make you hear it differently. There’s one in the style of Prokofiev’s “Dance of the Knights,” for example, but my favourite is the jazz waltz rendering. If you didn’t know it was based on Czerny, you could believe it had been a No. 1 chanson in Paris in the 1950s. Sometimes when you come to rearrange things like this you realize that the underlying composition is cleverer than you realized, obscured by a patina of tired familiarity. 

This is such a magnificent labour of love, but I fully understand Apffel’s fascination with Czerny.  I think it’s Taruskin who said that there are two Beethovens (or Bachs? Or Mozarts?—I’ll correct this if I’m wrong another time) —there’s Beethoven, and “Beethoven.”  The one in scare quotes is the composer that comes with all the baggage—the music appreciation classes you hated, the feeling that you had to like the music even if you didn’t, the way that people look in concert halls as they’re listening to his music. Without the scare quotes, you might feel quite differently about the music (for good or ill, as it happens, with some of the great names). 

Likewise, with Czerny: there’s Czerny the fun composer, Czerny the man who worked like crazy, with so many simultaneous projects on the go that he reputedly set them all out on different desks in his study, spending an hour at each in succession in order to make progress on them all (even if the story isn’t true, I love it); Czerny whose exercises dance and sing and convey drama. Then there’s “Czerny,” the scourge of young pianists, who are handed the books of exercises as if they were not really music, but “merely” technical machines to improve technique, like those things 19th dancers used to splay their feet in to improve their turnout. “Czerny” the abandoned sheet music in the Oxfam shop, with a stained cover, musty smell, and pencilled ticks and music teachers’ fingerings in.  I feel sick just thinking about it. 

Take away the scare quotes, and there’s a joyful, imaginative composer here with a staggering wealth of material, and that’s what Rudy Apffel is mining with his new arrangements and reimaginings. There’s a danger that you might miss Apffel’s humour and ingenuity if you just turn on a single track and think “I wonder if I could use this for tendus?” Get inside the music, listen to them as a series, compare one with the other, and this is a wonderful musical journey.  One of the things I especially like is the use of technology to do the impossible—freely admitted by Apffel!— as in this Schubert-Impromptu-Meets-Czerny-Op 335 No. 18

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

Bulletin of the Vaganova Ballet Academy — online journal (with English abstracts)

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Am I the last person to have noticed that the Vaganova Ballet Academy has published a serious journal containing the work of Russian dance scholars, Bulletin of the Vaganova Ballet Academy,since 2015, with six issues a year? The articles are in Russian, but all have English abstracts. Given that there’s such a divide in most countries between academic scholarship and practical ballet teaching, it’s astonishing to see both together in the institute most famous globally for producing dancers rather than scholars. 

I came across it by chance, because I was looking up something about airs parlants, and found an  article by Galina Bezuglaya on airs parlants in early 19th century ballet—which will give you some idea of the level of scholarship. A glance through the contents pages reveals a huge breadth and depth.