Tag Archives: Christopher Hampson

Ballet classes and dance calling


I’ve had two conversations with people who play for ceilidhs which have made me think that there’s much more in common between dance calling and teaching a ballet class than we’d like to think.  And now I’ve found a website which has convinced me even further.

The first conversation was with a fiddle player some years ago who explained in two sentences the relationship between marches and single jigs (you can replace one with the other) and how double jigs can be replaced with another dance (can’t remember which one now). The second was with someone recently who was explaining that they were going to do their first gig as a caller rather than just a player. When he gave an example of what he was going to do, I thought “hold on, this sounds just like someone teaching ballet, except with different steps.” It wouldn’t have occurred to me, had I not just transcribed a bit of a ballet class, and seen on paper what teachers say when they mark exercises. Ballet teachers often do what Christopher Hampson calls “giving subtitles”—calling out reminders over the music of what the next step or movement is, as the exercise progresses. 

The assumption that there’s something particularly fancy about ballet blinds us to the similarities between a barn dance and a ballet class, which is what endears me to sociologists  rather than musicologists. In Knowledgeable Women (1989), Sarah Delamont says (following Everett Hughes and others) “[t]he sociologist who fails to make principled comparisons across a wide range of occupations falls into the trap of giving ‘the professions’ exactly that exalted, separate, privileged, ‘sacred’ status which the sociologist should be subjecting to critical scrutiny” (Delamont 1989, p. 208). 

As a result, I think we often make far too much of a palaver out of what music for ballet class involves, because we (by which I mean “the ballet world”) would like to think it’s more classy and distinguished than it really is: elegant smoke and mirrors (literally, in the case of the ballet studio). We worry about whether this piece of music or that will have the right feel and atmosphere for that exercise, but if you look at fiddle books like Kerr’s Merry Melodies, you can see immediately that for a polka, for example, you can use all kinds of music, as long as you can still polka to it – and as the fiddler pointed out, single jigs and marches are interchangeable. Whether the music’s called a galop, hornpipe, reel or whatever is neither here nor there, it’s how it goes that matters; and if nothing else, people don’t always give their tunes correct names (classical ones are the worst at that – like Widor’s so-called Pavane in 6/8).


“It’s a Pavane, Jim, but not as we know it.”

And then I came across this, a “Caller’s Workshop” on the website of Colin Hume, a caller himself.  There, on a page, is about the best introduction I’ve seen to dealing with music in a ballet class – all you have to do is imagine he’s talking about ballet rather folk dance calling. It’s concise, it’s clear, it’s down to earth.  He deals with  Working With Live Music  music in a few paragraphs, without making  a (excuse the pun) song and dance about it:

So that’s one thing to discuss with the band beforehand: who counts?  The other is signals.  “One more time”, so they can go back to the original tune or just give it everything they’ve got.  “Out” — particularly in a patter square where you’re jabbering away.  “Kill”.  “Slower”.  “Faster”.  You think it’s obvious what you mean; they don’t have a clue.  Walt Tingle uses a circular movement of the hand to mean “Wind it up — finish”, but many callers use that to mean “Faster”.  Make sure you know who to give signals to — it might not be the obvious person.  I tend to give signals to the whole band, for safety.

I reckon if ballet teaching manuals were written in this style, no-one would get in such a flap over it. It’s only music, it’s only dancing, but we’d all like to think that it’s something more, something that transcends the everyday. For sure, ballet at it’s best is extraordinary and out of this world, but when it comes to class, “You think it’s obvious what you mean; they don’t have a clue” is what it boils down to (on both sides, in fact).

Playing for ballet class tip #21: Make friends with a notator


If there’s one kind of person in the ballet universe who can really understand where you’re coming from as a musician, and where you need to go, it’s a notator, whether the system they write in is Labanotation or Benesh Movement Notation.

As they have to be able to dance, notate movement, and work out how their movement notation aligns to a musical score, they live in a kind of wireframe version of the world where    everything is provisional until they’ve found a way of writing it all down coherently.  They understand the anomalies and contradictions that  time signatures bring with them in relation to movement, and have ways of marking up musical scores that indicate logically how dancers are moving in relation to them.

They can speak your (notational) language, but also understand things from a dancer’s perspective, so they can help you make sense of the dance world with reference to your own musical background. They’ll show you how to mark up a score in rehearsal so that you next time someone says ‘Can we go from the second time she does the arabesque?’ you don’t have to sit in shame playing bars at random until they shout ‘That’s it!’ (Only to shout two seconds later ‘Oh…No it’s not there, it all sounds the same, doesn’t it?). They can also tell you a lot about the ballet repertoire, and help you to judge when you need to improve, and when someone’s just being difficult and naff in a rehearsal.

Hug a notator

If you ever meet one, grab hold of them and make friends. In my experience, they’re often very happy to help when you want to know why something didn’t work for class, or talk through music and dance problems with you (like I did only yesterday with notation expert Vicki Watts) and from the very beginning, I learned a lot of my trade from the lovely Gillian Cornish, who used to chaînée across the room for me while we tried out different bits of music. I’ve enjoyed sitting in on countless conversations about notation with Christopher Hampson and the person who’s notated so many of his ballets, Caroline Palmer.  I could list many more – Mark Kay, Patricia Tierney, Marzena Sobanska, the people at the Benesh Institute that has its home now at the RAD, and of course the most remarkable of them all, Ann Hutchinson Guest.


Playing for ballet class tips #20: Let dancers make the beat

Ho Wen Yang's example of multiplying rather than dividing the beat in a warm-up jump

Ho Wen Yang’s example of multiplying rather than dividing the beat in a warm-up jump

In the last tip, I said that it was a good rule of thumb to divide by half (in your melody line) whatever pulse rate you can detect in a petit allegro jump – if dancers are jumping on quavers, you play semiquavers. Doing this creates a focus on the tempo of the jump by placing aural gridlines over it, so to speak. Now I’m going to contradict that, and say there are times when you’d want to avoid doing that. Sometimes, letting the dancers’ movements divide your  beat is better, as Ho Wen Yang, one of my favourite fellow dance pianists pointed out when I published yesterday’s post (his example is shown above).

I learned today’s tip  from Christopher Hampson in relation to an exercise in one of his continuous barres that consisted of a long sequence of  fast battements jetés. Those classes are  wonderful opportunities for trying out ideas because there’s a lot of simple repetition, which means you get the chance to test the principles of accompanying particular movements. When exercises combine movements, or are floridly choreographic, you can’t do this so easily. And  as we were working together for several days in succession  we could keep refining and talking about the ideas from day to day.

It turns out that doing what I described in yesterday’s tip for an exercise that has a lot of stamina-building repetition is possibly the worst thing you can do, because it does precisely what I said it would do – it draws attention to the pulse of the movement. If you’ve got to do twenty eight battements jetés, you don’t want someone (the music) shouting “17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23” and so on at you every time you move, emphasising the effort and timing of every single movement.  That’s the musical equivalent of paying for your drinks in 1p pieces.

Letting music ride the beat in a jump - Singing in the Rain, for example.

Letting music ride the beat in a jump – Singing in the Rain, for example.

If, on the other hand, the pulse of the music is slower (think Singing in the Rain, let’s say, where you have three ’empty’ beats on the syllable ‘sing-‘) your attention is directed away from the effort, and the many smaller things are chunked into a larger hypermetrical framework. You’ve got 4 pound coins instead of 400 one-pence pieces. Or it’s perhaps similar to the idea that a watched kettle never boils – the more you focus on the passage of time, the slower it seems to pass. For more on that, see Ian Phillips’ article Attention to the passage of time

If I had to choose between tip 19 and tip 20, which give conflicting advice, I’d usually go for tip 20, because I think the principle of ‘less is more’ is true of ballet accompaniment (see earlier post on making ‘space’ for dancing). But I’d go for 19 if the exercise was not just simple repetition, and the class was for beginners or children, or a complicated exercise where it’s difficult for the dancers to get the rhythm right, and you need to hold the tempo back in odd corners without becoming unrhythmical (which you can do if you’ve got lots of notes to play with).  I suspect that it’s got a lot to do with Boltz & Jones’ theory of dynamic attending – the difference between future oriented attending (less notes) and analytic attending (more notes).

Knowing when to do one or the other is part of the skill and judgement that you need as a ballet pianist, and the key is to have both tools ready to deploy instantly so you can switch if one of them isn’t right for the job.

The perils of video


Two recent conversations have caused me to remember an interview between Christopher Hampson & his long-term notator Caroline Palmer about his ballet Canciones that  I transcribed and posted on the web 12 years ago (see full interview here). If you were around, you may remember that at the last moment, he had to pull the intended score by Manuel de Falla and replace it with something else, because of an issue over rights. It seems like 12 minutes ago.  At the time, I thought the following tale was quite funny – with the passage of time, it seems really rather sad…

CH: I know that people use videos, but a good example of why not to use a video is…

CP: (laughs) Do we have to go down this route?!

CH: We do, because a good example of why not to use a video is that there is one version, which is a rehearsal tape of the Manuel de Falla version

CP: The only one

CH: The only tape, and you know, I just love it dearly because it’s what it was what it was meant to be. I went round, and took Caroline out for her birthday, which… I don’t know if I’ll do again [laughter], because half way through the last section, the jota, she’d taped Lorraine Kelly, GMTV…

CP: Over it…

CH: … interviewing someone from Coronation Street over it. But you know, because the notation is there, that puts my mind at ease.

Ebb and Flow


One of my favourite landmarks by the Thames

To the Peacock Theatre yesterday afternoon to see ENB school’s performance. Well, to be honest, mainly to see my friend Chris Hampson’s new piece for the men, Flow. I always have to remind myself how young these dancers are. When they graduate, musicians can get away with being a bit teenagery, geeky and badly dressed with a slouch even though they can play the oboe rather well, but dancers have to be fully finished human beings as part of what they do, and hell, were they good yesterday.

A single moment stands out and haunts me from the whole show. It was in Ernst Meisner’s joyous piece done to the Rachmaninov two-piano suites. Surrounded by Stravinsky, John Adams & Bach, Rachmaninov on two pianos could have sounded a bit arch and fruity but it didn’t, because the choreography rode the waves of the music so you felt like you were surfing it, not watching it. The single moment in question was when a line of dancers formed stage right, and in unison, turned their heads to watch an imaginary object pass overhead. The ‘imaginary something’ was a musical phrase. It’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen in a ballet, so simple it hurt.

There was something similar in Chris (Hampson’s) piece to the Bach C minor double piano (violin) concerto.  A simple flowing arm movement found the music in the music in a hundred ways, and in the slow movement, the soloist turns his head slowly to the back, then looks quickly to the front when the solo instrument enters, as if he has suddenly ‘seen’ the music.  A security guard in the audience was so taken with what he had seen that I saw him in the lobby trying out the recurring arm movement in different ways, amazed at what it felt like to move to music. Actually, that didn’t happen, I dreamed it last night, but that’s how intoxicating it was to watch.

I’d never really got into John Adams’ music before seeing Hallelujah Junction at the Linbury, which I loved, and Christopher Tudor’s piece to another Adams’ score made me realise this is my kind of music. Just wish there’d been more of it.

It’s no reflection on Michael Corder’s choreography, which is always  musical and sensitive (and the dancers did it excellently), that his piece to Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks annoyed me. It’s not him, it’s Stravinsky, or rather ‘Stravinsky’ (as Taruskin might put it). I’m bored with ‘Stravinsky’, bored with the fawning ideology that presents him as the natural progression of music in the twentieth century, from which there can be no rhythmic going back. I spent the piece trying to work out what annoyed me about it, and concluded that the trouble with music that is consistently unpredictable is that it’s also consistently forgettable. The metrical ambiguity and change and melodic fragmentation leaves you with nothing but a series of passing snapshots, like watching a crowd in an electric storm at night.  It’s not even that I particularly dislike the music, it’s just  more analogous to a painting than to a dance. It has texture and flashes of colour, but no temporal quality. You can only stand as an observer and take in a moment at a time and then pass to the next one.

And so to Giselle Act II, which was the second half of the programme. Again, nothing against the dancers who did brilliantly, and I think the concept of doing a whole Act of a classic is great. But oh lord, this  Giselle of all things needs to be taken apart like an old sports car and put together from scratch.  It’s presented as a classic ballet blanc when even in 1841 it was nearer to Phantom of the Opera or Wicked. Giselle is the gothic ballet par excellence, so has enormous resonance for an era obsessed with  Twilight, but this production  glosses over that in a schoolmarmy, worthy way so that ironically, all the life really is taken out of it – the true corpse is the ballet, not Giselle the person.

There’s also something about listening to a recording of the music (complete with reverberant acoustics that suggest a concert hall a hundred times larger than the Peacock) that gives an auditory  unity to the score which ruins the surprise and melodrama of it.  I’ve  just been re-reading Marian Smith’s excellent Ballet & Opera in the Age of Giselle, and her argument based on utterly convincing evidence, is that we miss the point if we don’t understand how much Giselle borrows from the methods of opera.  The score is in many places made up of recitative-like interjections and abrupt changes suggesting verbal drama, but once it’s been engineered and passed through a sound system, and in the absence of life in the form of an orchestra or conductor it is flattened and straightened out into an acoustic sausage that is 80% sawdust. And what on earth is that darn fugue doing in the middle of this production? There are those wilis, being all 19th century and weird and gothic, when suddenly they do a kind of  Mark Morris style celebration in the forest to a fugue that is surely the most pointless episode in the history of ballet.

But that’s a side issue, a symptom probably of being in the middle of writing a dissertation on relationships between voice, gesture, music & communication. You notice these things when you look for them. In total, it was a magnificent afternoon, and I was in awe of the dancers’ extraordinary abilities and commitment. It’s for this that I’ve preferred spending my life in the dance world rather than music.

On Mendelssohn, Hampson, and ‘musical music’

This has nothing to do with the post, but in the spirit of Mendelssohn, it expresses something about the poetic content

This has nothing to do with the post, but in the spirit of Mendelssohn, it expresses something about the poetic content

Hello world, happy new year.

Though I say it myself, I rather liked my Advent Calendar of 2008. It’s nicely ironic that I should have begun it with ‘Solving Musical Problems’, because as it turned out, that’s exactly what I continued to do for most of the calendar.  One of the reasons I blog is because there are things that irritate me (both in the quotidian sense, and in the ‘sand that makes the pearl’ sense), and blogging is a way of working out those problems on virtual paper. Teachers acknowledge that you learn by teaching, and by the same token, I find it easier to solve problems when I share them with even an imaginary reading public.

My favourite post was the one about music that is too musical, because I surprised even myself in being able to find an advocate in one so erudite as Raymond Monelle for a position that seemed so illogical – that  music that can be  too “musical”.

But I now find that the concept of ‘musical music’ in a perjorative sense is not as recondite as I thought. It turns out that Mendelssohn used the term (I wish I knew where). That’s nice, because elsewhere, I’ve said that it was Chris Hampson who made me appreciate Mendelssohn, and it seems they might well have had stuff to talk about.

I came across this in Susanne Langer’s Feeling and Form. It’s a shame that Langer is dismissed as a bit of a well-meaning also-ran as a philosopher these days, because there are bits of her work which are brilliant.

“If the procedures of the several arts were really analagous, a composer could only translate that form into its musical equivalent.[…] But a shad0w-like following of verse forms and literary concepts does not produce a musical organism. […]Let Mendelssohn speak once more: “I can conceive music [for a poem] only if I can conceive a mood that produces it; mere artfully arranged sounds that aptly follow the accent of the words, forte on strong words and piano on mild ones, but without really expressing anything, I have never been able to understand.  Yet for this poem I can’t imagine any other kind of music than this – not intensive, integral, poetic, but accompanying, parallel, musical music; but I don’t like that sort.”

Langer, Feeling and Form (1953, p. 159)

“What Mendelssohn called ‘musical music’ is something independent of the poem, externally similar in structure, but manufactured out of entirely independent material to “match” the verses, which remain essentially unchanged by it.”  (ibid, p. 160). This isn’t the same thing as Monelle’s meaningless symphonism, but it’s another rather surprising view that music can be ‘over-musical’.  And it makes perfect sense. Well, it will do, after another glass of wine.

A Little Night Music

Boxing Day casting: Me, John, Hampson père, fils & mère.

Boxing Day casting: Me, John, Hampson père, fils & mère.

To the Menier Chocolate Factory for dinner & Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music with Chris & parents and John from Atlanta.  I can’t remember ever walking out of a theatre feeling so thrilled and moved. It was a wonderful production, brilliant cast, in a theatre intimate enough that you can hear every word, and the sound design so good, you didn’t know it was there.

I didn’t realize how many songs from this show that I knew already, but I’d never heard them in context before, and the context makes a huge difference.   Hannah Waddingham’s performance of “Send in the Clowns” was one of the most moving bits of theatre I’ve ever seen (and I’m not easily moved), but the whole cast were strong and great to watch. Needless to say, Maureen Lipman as Madame Arnfeldt was heaven.

Thanks for a wonderful evening!

Advent 12: Being & Time

Spot the choreographer and dancers from Paris & Atlanta in this plastique animé

A game of musical statues. Can you spot the choreographer and dancers from Paris & Atlanta?

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.

Oh Carole!


Carole Gable and me at IlfordTo the Kenneth More Theatre in Ilford tonight to see the opening night of the Ballet Central tour, and in particular Chris’s new ballet Capriol Suite. But even better, it meant that I got to see the lovely Carole Gable again after many years. It so happened that I worked briefly as a freelancer at Central School in what were probably two of the worst years (4 years apart) of my life from every point of view. But in the midst of all that horridness and insanity, Central School was a haven, a place of such warmth, talent, creativity and good humour that I think back on those years happily because of it.

And more than anything or anyone, Carole Gable kept me sane & laughing so much, it makes me smile just to think of her. Gorgeous to see her again. She didn’t want her photograph taken, but Chris and I just kept nagging her until she gave up.

I loved Capriol Suite. There are such extremes of tempo, harmony, metre, rhythm & timbre in a matter of just a few minutes, and Chris being the musical choreographer that he is, knows just what to do with them. There’s a girl’s solo which is a masterpiece of miniaturism or whatever creating miniatures is called – it’s over so fast yet so effectively that the shape of it is left in the air like smoke from a gun.

There’s a duet for two men which is majestic, intense and moving, a completely unclichéd relationship that is so glorious and equal you feel envious of the dancers. In the final ensemble, rhythms in the music, either real or potential, are mapped on the stage like a sonic cat’s cradle.

I was trying to work out why Chris’s musicality does it for me like almost no other choroegrapher, and I think it’s something to do with the way he deals with sustained notes.  Where many would hear a beat, Chris seems to hear the acoustic envelope of the note itself, and a port de bras will play the air like a bow across a string. It’s instinctive, and natural, but it continues the flow of the music just when you’re afraid it might stop. At other moments, he does the opposite – pluck an accent in what appears to be an unaccented place, like a composer arranging a melody for both arco & pizzicato strings, giving a sharp onset to a note without destroying the line.

And (I should have started with this, I know) the dancers look fantastic – adult, dignified, musical, and convivial (like their choreographer, I guess). I’m pretty certain that it’s my favourite piece of Chris’s after Sinfonietta Giocosa). Yes, I know this is unspeakably biased and personal, but that’s what having a blog is all about.

Speaking of biased and personal, I’ll always have a soft spot for Ballet Central. Ever since I worked there, I’ve claimed that I can tell Central students a mile off, because they have a certain unaffected chivalry, generosity and maturity that is unmistakeable, and so far, I’ve never been wrong. Good luck with the tour!