Tag Archives: Intuition

Pirouettes: Souvenir de Bal

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souvenir.jpgThis is day 15 in my 2007 Advent Calendar. This year, I’m giving the
story behind some of the music that I’ve collected for ballet classes.
All the pieces are on Studio Series Vol. 4 published by RAD

For another story behind this piece, see a previous entry.

At first glance, this is just another Victorian salon piece, plucked from obscurity when it was used as an alternate variation in the Corsaire pas de deux (for a history of how it got there, see Mr Lopez’s wikipedia page on the subject).

But only at first glance. Either I’m suggestible, or this piece really does do what the title says.  The simple three-note rising melody is one that appears as a countermelody, rising or falling, in probably thousands of waltzes. Nearly every Piaf waltz-song has one, the waltz from Tchaikovsky’s Evgenii Onegin has one, Marlene Dietrich songs are full of them.

So when that generic countermelody becomes the tune, it might remind us of any number of half-remembered waltz fragments without necessarily remembering what the actual tune was, which is just what a ‘souvenir de bal’ should do.  It’s also stated in a harmonically unstable form, beginning on a 2nd inversion of the dominant, quietly, and with a long anacrusis. It quite literally drifts in to our consciousness.  And that first chord is rather lovely, isn’t it? If any chord said ‘warm, wistful smile’, that’s the one.  Add all this to the fact that hearing the music will bring back memories of the Corsaire variation done by someone you admire at a performance that you really enjoyed, and the whole souvenir de bal(let) thing becomes even stronger.

Beyond that, it’s also a waltz that bears playing slowly, because it’s supposed to be a memory of something rather than the thing itself.  It’s also just very, very simple in construction, and leaves space for dancing, which is one of the biggest compliments you can pay dance music.

Pirouettes: Schön Rosmarin

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This is day 14 in my 2007 Advent Calendar. This year, I’m giving the
story behind some of the music that I’ve collected for ballet classes.
All the pieces are on Studio Series Vol. 4 published by RAD

One of the most enjoyable jobs I’ve ever had was working with Wayne Sleep on his Dash to the Coliseum which ran for a week at the Coliseum in August 1998.  I’d just finished a 44-show tour with him (Wayne Sleep’s World of Classical Ballet, which one dancer quickly nicknamed ‘Wayne’s World’, of course); we got off the bus and threw on a 50th birthday gala at Her Majesty’s, and then it was straight into rehearsals for Dash.

The show included impressions of some of the early variety ballet numbers – the Wilson Kepple & Betty Sand Dance, a Lois Fuller solo, a comedy routine by Little Tich & Anna Pavlova’s  “Dragonfly” solo, created – as in the original – to Fritz Kreisler’s waltz ‘Schön Rosmarin‘. It was one of those ideas of Wayne’s that make you think ‘You want to do what?!” until you see it – and then you don’t know how you lived without it.

I have never seen anyone – even Wayne – work so fast. We were in the old Urdang studios after lunch, with just 45 minutes to put the Pavlova number together. Gary Harris (‘Fido’), now AD of Royal New Zealand Ballet was standing in the corner, notating Wayne’s steps in Benesh faster than a PA does shorthand. After 44 minutes, Wayne said ‘Have you got that? OK, gotta go…’ and he was off to create another number upstairs, leaving Fido to then teach & rehearse the solo again from his instant Benesh. I’d never seen anything quite like it before, nor since. The combined talent, genius, comedy & speed was overwhelming.

Both Wayne & Fido are extremely musical, and so they wove the Kreisler-ish rubato of Schön Rosmarin into the solo in a way which made it possible to play the music with as much expressive timing as you wanted – a wonderful but sadly rather rare experience – probably down to the fact that people so often choreograph to recordings where tempo – even free tempo – is fixed.

I’ve since discovered that if you pick your exercise carefully, this waltz, with all it’s tempo give-and-take, makes a wonderful piece for some pirouettes for the corner.  It’s warm & charming, and just dances itself off the page. It has an infectious rhythm & bounce, but you can entwine all the wayward quavers around the dancer in a way which is beautifully musical; it allows them time and freedom to breathe, but measures that freedom imperceptibly; the fact that the quavers never stop means that there is also always a forward momentum which impels them into the next movement. There are enough notes in the melody that you can fashion each phrase for dancers individually, making it a joy to accompany them. This is just one example of many where dance can look ‘unmusical’ until you find the right piece of music. 

Pirouettes: Redowa from l’Étoile du Nord

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This is day 13 in my 2007 Advent Calendar. This year, I’m giving the
story behind some of the music that I’ve collected for ballet classes.
All the pieces are on Studio Series Vol. 4 published by RAD

One of the worst experiences in playing for ballet classes is when a teacher has set an exercise for which you can find no suitable music, but as a pianist, you can’t just say ‘It’s OK, I’ll sit this exercise out, if you don’t mind’. No, you just have to play whatever bad rubbish you’ve got, hating yourself, the music & the exercise as you go. It’s like being stuck in a queue behind someone who can’t find their Nectar card, but feeling as bad as that person at the same time.

Top of my list of audio nasties is the excruciating slow but butch waltz for pirouettes that some (particularly male) teachers sometimes use – imagine the male solo from Don Quixote slowed down to half speed. How on earth do you maintain any kind of rhythm, momentum, interest, vigour, elasticity in music at that tempo? If you slow a waltz down, it sounds ghastly; yet the exercise is too fast to be replaced by a polonaise, too slow for a mazurka, and even La plus que lente wouldn’t be lente enough, and has completely the wrong feel.

Well, just as Herminia solved my fondu-tango problem, so the Redowa from Meyerbeer’s l’Étoile du Nord, featured in Ashton’s Les Patineurs, solved the ‘waltz’ problem. The problem is that what’s required isn’t a waltz, so as soon as you start thinking ‘waltz’, you’re already on the wrong track. The ‘redowa’, polka mazurka and ländler are what Zorn calls ‘three step waltzes’, and don’t figure in most people’s musical education at all – how can you know that a redowa would fit an exercise when you’ve never come across one or see how they work?

Such things – elaborate, filigree melody lines strung tautly between the main beats of the bar, creating strength and  resilience without the need for force or extra weight – like lily pads, perhaps – are difficult to improvise off the cuff, because there is just too much detail at high speed. The Redowa from l’Étoile du Nord is a wonderful piece, with such variety in each section that it makes a long exercise a pleasure to play for because you can look forward to different parts of the musical landscape. It gives pirouettes much a more interesting dynamic and feel than a bog standard waltz. I only wish I’d discovered it earlier.

 * Zorn, F. , trans. B.P. Coates (1970) Grammar of the Art of Dancing, theoretical and practical. [Burt Franklin research and source works series, 543] New York: Burt Franklin. [Translation of Grammatik der Tanzkunst]

Friedrich Zorn (1820-1905) was a dancing master, who lived – as you can see by the dates – right through all the significant dance crazes of the 19th century, and is therefore an expert eye witness, as well as a methodical and detailed documenter of dances and styles. The Grammatik der Tanzkunst was first published in 1887, and is a fantastic source of just about anything you want to know about 19th century social dance and its music – in other words, the huge gaping hole in most music texts books, despite the enormous influence of these dances on our musical life.

Tendus with pirouettes: ‘Tambourine’ varation from Esmeralda

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museeinsel.jpgThis is day 12 in my 2007 Advent Calendar. This year, I’m giving the
story behind some of the music that I’ve collected for ballet classes.
All the pieces are on Studio Series Vol. 4 published by RAD

I count the day that I first saw this variation as a curious kind of watershed in my experience of ballet.  Given that I’d been playing for dance for about 10 years before I saw it, the shock was on a similar scale to discovering that your partner liked cross-dressing and having cream buns thrown at them when your back was turned.

It was the dancer Yoko Ichino in Berlin who first introduced me to it, and that rehearsal stands out as one of my favourite and most memorable times in a studio. I played a few bars of it (on paper, it’s just a fairly straightforward looking 2/4 in C minor – but that should have been a clue: how many 19th century female variations can you name in a minor key? And what are they?).  Yoko smiled cheekily and said ‘It needs to be….’ and I can’t really remember what she said – stretched? Rubato? Free? Camp? I thought she’d brought the tambourine in for a joke. But then I realised it was part of the solo.

If you haven’t seen it, I promise you it’s the silliest campest, weirdest variation you’re likely to see, and once I’d seen it, I was convinced that every pianist should have to accompany this solo in the first week of working in dance so they know just how much fun ballet can be. I felt like they’d kept this variation hidden from me (and it’s true that you hardly ever see it in England). If all you’ve ever done is accompany Swan Lake pas de trois or Lilac Fairy attendants, you get a very skewed view of what 19th century ballet is, like a history of 20th century film that doesn’t include the Police Academy or American Pie movies.

Ever since I saw the effect that playing this has on a company class (without fail, someone somewhere does ballet comedy – big butch boys do the solo, or the girls add imaginary tambourine slaps to the exercise, for example) I’ve had to restrain myself from playing it for every class. As it happens, it works terribly well for a lot of exercises, because it’s got so much elasticity and weight without being heavy, and it’s one of those solos where the musicality of the interpretation is so important, it makes everyone focus on that whatever you play it for.

Until a few weeks ago, I thought like everyone else that it was by Drigo. The magnificent Mr Lopez who’s done all the excellent work on Petipa & Minkus at wikipedia has shown otherwise – it’s actually by Marenco, of ‘Excelsior’ fame. I might have known….

Stretch (or whatever): Gymnopédie No 1

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jo.jpgThis is day 11 in my 2007 Advent Calendar. This year, I’m giving the
story behind some of the music that I’ve collected for ballet classes.
All the pieces are on Studio Series Vol. 4 published by RAD

[Picture: Josephine Jewkes in Les Sylphides, Photo: Elizabeth Pacey]

When we made the very first Studio Series album back in 1999, we had to arrange two short recording sessions after the main one to add some extra tracks that we hadn’t foreseen at the start. At the end of the second one, there was still some time left, both in the session and on the recording. On impulse, I said ‘Let’s put the Prelude from Les Sylphides on bang in the middle, as a kind of musical transition from barre to centre’.  It was a kind of statement – ballet class albums are so much about ‘functional’ music – music to use, music to do stuff to, music for something, in a prescribed order using long-standing convention;  why not, while we’ve got the chance, throw something in there that will just be there for what it is, that defies ‘usage’ in the normal sense? It might be the track that no-one knows what to do with except listen to it or waft around to, but that would be No Bad Thing.

Although Les Sylphides is one of the ballets which defines ballet for most people – lush orchestrations of Chopin waltzes, wafty tutus and moonlit glades – it achieves this effect through means which are far less conventional than might appear at first, and nowhere more so than in the Prelude. I’ve been worryingly obsessed by this solo ever since I had the privilege of playing it in performance with former ENB & Rambert dancer Josephine Jewkes (see photo above), who, in the words of Woytek Lowski, regularly ‘ruined’ performances of Les Sylphides by doing it so well that it made the rest of the show look pants. It’s not about technique in the traditional sense, it’s about embodying the mystery and other-wordliness of the ballet and drawing an audience into it.  Jo did this so well, that the image of the Prelude was still resonating long after the finale had finished. She very kindly agreed to come to the RAD to teach the solo to my second year music students a few years ago, and that class counts as one of the most fascinating insights into dance and music that I can remember.  Boy, does she know her stuff.

So on to the CD it went, with no explanation, no introduction, and no prescribed usage, and at a speed and delivery that you could only waft, choreograph or dream to.

And in the same spirit, when we came to record Studio Series 4 this year, I decided to put on Satie’s Gymnopédie No. 1 in the same place (between barre and centre), for the same reason. There are times when you want music to just be music. If it weren’t for those moments, no-one would ever choreograph or be inspired to dance, so it seems fitting that in the midst of all those exercises, there should be a chance to dream. And if you want music to stretch to, it ought to be something like a Gymnopédie, whose phrases hang in the air like mist, seemingly never beginning or ending, but with an intoxicating rhythm that is both regular yet pulseless, measured yet free.

Adage: My Way

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cheese_shop.jpgThis is day 10 in my 2007 Advent Calendar. This year, I’m giving the
story behind some of the music that I’ve collected for ballet classes.
All the pieces are on Studio Series Vol. 4 published by RAD

Playing for class is so easy if you just listen to what dancers tell you. They’ve been doing class since they were knee-high to a rosin-box, and if they can’t tell you a few things about what works for them and what doesn’t musically, who can?

When I first started learning my trade (at the RAD, as it happens) I used to find it difficult to know what to play. For one thing, there was a mass of specially written music for class that fell into no genre or style I recognised which I imagined one had to imitate; but then if you did imitate it, you might just as well have been generating white noise for all the effect it had on anyone (including yourself). Then there were some teachers who put on their best ‘inspired’ look (gazing aspirationally at an imaginary dress circle. like Elizabeth Schwarzkopf on a record cover) and say ‘Adage. One and a 2. Three and a 4. Five and a siiiiiiix, seven. Eight. Thank you Jonathan. AND.’, as if those numbers were so replete with meaning, emotion and musical clues that you could not fail but to pluck some appropriate piece from your musical hat.

What a relief, then, when the (then) Laban teacher Michelle Groves walked into the studio, and with a laid-back Australian directness that I have got so used to, I’ve probably forgotten to appreciate it properly, said “Ok. Tendus. [Singing] ‘Old McDonald had a farm, ee-i-ee-i-oh. And on that farm he had some…”. It was the first time that I realised that class didn’t have to involve mental torture while you fished around for music that sounded like ‘ballet class’ music.

I didn’t see Michelle again for about another 14 years when I finally I returned to the Academy, and by chance, she returned the same year. One day, we were talking about adage (probably about a mutual hatred of it, or of adage music) when she said ‘I like setting adage to My Way’. It’s odd that I’d never really thought of this before – but again, it’s one of those things that is so popular and well known, you don’t even consider it: blindingly obvious.

What I like about ‘My Way’ is that for anyone who doesn’t ‘get’ opera, it’s the nearest thing to an aria that everyone knows. It has all the characteristics of an aria without actually being one, so it’s a brilliant way of introducing lyricism, vocal expression & phrasing and drama and the whole concept of adage without really feeling like you’re doing it. It has a direct connection to all the 19th century arias, balletic adages, Chopin nocturnes and other things that people play for class, but has none of the historical baggage. In common with other popular ballads it does its whole emotional display in 32 counts, which is what you need for class. The trouble with serious music (think of the Liebestod, for example) is that as beautiful as it is, you can’t wait that long for the climax when you’ve only got a minute and a half to do the whole exercise.

So there it is, on the CD, for all those reasons, and also as a little tribute to the person who gave me the idea in the first place.

Petits battements: Ich wollt’ ich wär’ ein Huhn

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This is day 9 in my 2007 Advent Calendar. This year, I’m giving the
story behind some of the music that I’ve collected for ballet classes.
All the pieces are on Studio Series Vol. 4 published by RAD

Elizabeth Sawyer, in her book about dance accompaniment Dance With The Music tells a story about Antony Tudor disparaging a pianist who dared to play the theme tune to ‘Around the World in Eighty Days’ in his class. To paraphrase, it was a case of ‘play that vulgar stuff again once more mate, and you’re out’. 

The story doesn’t endear me to Tudor, and if it’s as bad as it sounds, in my view it’s the Shibboleth that refuses him (and others like him) entry to any league that includes Balanchine, Mark Morris, Bob Fosse, Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein, Shostakovich and the friends and colleagues that you’ll find in these advent calendars.  All these people seem to have an easy, earthy connection to the popular – what Constant Lambert, in Music Ho! called ‘healthy vulgarity’ , while being able to create and appreciate the most complex, esoteric and sublime art. My own friend & composition teacher Malcolm Williamson (see previous entries) was a perfect example.

Ich wollt’ ich wär’ ein Huhn is the heartening proof, I think, that you can’t get too serious about music for class exercises. It’s a silly song – silly tune, silly lyrics, silly speed, silly rhythm (all those things need to work together for the full comic effect), but for all that, it usually matches a typical petits battements exercise ‘word for word’.  My point? If you want music for an exercise that goes that speed, with that phrase structure, that articulation, those dynamics and that rhythm, then don’t blame me if you end up with Ich woll’t ich wär’ ein Huhn. Or Stick A Deckchair Up Your Nose. Or My Old Man’s A Dustman. Or Officer Krupke.

If you want anything more subtle or serious, you’ve got a bit of a problem, because everything that implies comedy and popular song is already in the exercise itself. Likewise, Tchaikovsky’s Mirlitons from The Nutcracker was just waiting for someone to write ‘Everyone’s a fruit and nut case’ because everything about that tune suggests ‘comic song’. The fact that people still sing those words to that tune is not proof of 21st century man’s shallowness and lack of respect for art, it’s evidence of Tchaikovsky’s humanity and understanding of the genre he was writing in.

Frappés: Moskva Cheryomushki – The Excursion Around Moscow

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This is day 8 in my 2007 Advent Calendar. This year, I’m giving the
story behind some of the music that I’ve collected for ballet classes.
All the pieces are on Studio Series Vol. 4 published by RAD

I hate being asked who my favourite composer is. For one thing, the kind of people who ask the question usually won’t have heard of the likely contenders. In any case, as a working musician, it’s your duty and pleasure to love whichever composer you’re playing at the moment (see footnote), like an arranged marriage that works out for the best.

But if I had to choose one, I suppose it would be Shostakovich.  He does comedy, tragedy, irony, melody, harmony, structure, pathos, vulgarity and everything that lies between with a voice that feels so direct and familiar, it’s as if this was the music that I would write if I only could.

When I discovered a few years ago that Shostakovich had written, of all things, a musical, I was as overjoyed as someone might be to discover that Shakespeare had written a bodice ripper. Moskva Cheryomushki isn’t exactly a musical, ‘operetta’ or ‘review’ might be nearer, but that’s immaterial – it’s the fact that you could get Shostakovich distilled into a popular stage work that was exciting. 

I thought I’d never get the chance to hear it, but as it happened, it was only a couple of years later that the first recording came out (the one in the picture above) and I bought it immediately, and fellow Shostakovich fan Christopher Hampson & I cracked open a bottle or three of something and played our favourite bits over and over again, one of which was the ‘Excursion Around Moscow’.

A few years later, Russian music expert & composer Gerard McBurney re-arranged it for Opera North at Sadler’s Wells, and I think that counts as one of my favourite nights out in the theatre ever (and I don’t often enjoy them, to be honest).  From the moment the curtain went up, you were just swept up in a whirlwind of Shostakovich madness. Neither Rozhdestvennsky’s recording or the Kirov’s semi-staged production at the Coliseum last year come anywhere near.  It’s what you would expect, really – I’d worked with Gerard on his ballet for ENB, White Nights, and knew him to be one of the greatest experts on Russian music. Go and listen to his programmes on Sleeping Beauty and The Rite of Spring on BBC Radio 3’s Discovering Music – they’re brilliant.

The extract of ‘The Excursion Around Moscow’ on Studio Series 4 must be the longest frappé exercise in the history of ballet (though you could use it for loads of other things too), but the whole point about this piece is the way it just carries on and on and on, unstoppable in its momentum, energy and humour. It’s musical madness. It’s too fast, too long, and to play feels like doing ballet on a trampoline. And Shostakovich’s command of popular music is breathtaking – you bounce happily up and down the scale once, then twice, then all of a sudden, you find yourself thrown into a harmonic double back-flip at the end of the phrase, and crash land back in the tonic to start again. But then you’re thrown into another key, and so on until you’re exhausted; and then there’s more, and more and more. The few times I’ve played this in class, it has an equally exhilarating effect on the dancers, and that’s why it’s on the CD.

Footnote: ‘Herr Still,’  a conductor once said to me with a puzzled sideways smirk as  he conducted me through waved his hands dismissively (like a customs controller who doesn’t want to see the contents of your bag) through  the finale of Paquita in a dress rehearsal one day, ‘You play this music as if you enjoy it. Why?!!’
‘Because it’s my job’, I said under my breath, but the irony would have
been lost on him.  It’s strange but true that ‘serious’ musicians think
that playing popular music in a slapdash, bored way will reflect badly
on the composer, rather than on them. Minkus and his ilk has had this
treatment from most academics and critics for a long time (by
coincidence,  Chris Hampson’s blog entry for today touches on this very point).

Fondu: Herminia (Tango)

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dontdance.jpgThis is day 7 in my 2007 Advent Calendar. This year, I’m giving the
story behind some of the music that I’ve collected for ballet classes.
All the pieces are on Studio Series Vol. 4 published by RAD.

There’s a wonderful bit in Russell Brand’s My Booky Wook (which I couldn’t put down, and read in about a day and a half) where he talks about the delightful, unconsciously strange speech of kids who’ve been bought up by their nan – their turns of phrase have skipped a generation, so they come out with things like ‘we’re in for a cold snap’.

I’ve come to believe that something similar happens in the world of ballet teaching with music – some of the rhythms and tempos of the music that  ballet teachers choose for exercises are part of an unconscious oral tradition. How else do explain that even the youngest teachers almost naturally incline, when setting a pirouette exercises, to the musical attributes of the old ballroom mazurkas or polka mazurkas, even though these are no more part of their immediate experience than gaslight or farthingales?

I used to get annnoyed with ballet teachers who asked for tangos for fondu exercises which were slower than any tango they or I had ever heard. I wanted to say “Go on, find me one like that, and I’ll play it! Bet you won’t, though!”.  But after I discovered things like the Redowa which matched the equally impossibly slow ‘waltzes’ that some teachers wanted, I began to wonder whether somewhere, there was a historical instance of the slow tango which was the basis for the ‘fondu tango’.  I had a theory that  perhaps it was all down to  Godowsky’s  arrangement of the Albeniz Tango (if ever there was a case of ‘hard cases make bad law’ in the world of music, this is it!).  I had another theory that maybe what they really meant was a kind of Czardas (like Monti’s Czardas) – which does work equally well, as it happens.

But then, in the middle of last year, I was in Kensington Chimes, and happened upon a book called Tango: An Album of Brazilian Dances, and in there was the delicious Herminia by the extravagantly named Julio Cezar do Lago Reis, a tango which would bear playing as slow as you like, without losing any of its innate slinky charm. The whole book, in fact, is a revelation (as you’ll read when I come to Tentaçao later), as exciting for me as a new set of Parish records turning up for a genealogist.  Could it be that this is the missing link that connects the ‘fondu tango’ of the ballet class to a real musical tradition? And if so, how did it happen?

Battements jetés: Giselle Act I Galop

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This is day 6 in my 2007 Advent Calendar. This year, I’m giving the
story behind some of the music that I’ve collected for ballet classes.
All the pieces are on Studio Series Vol. 4 published by RAD.

I like this piece for two reasons.

Firstly, it’s another illustration of the Keep It Simple principle – this is one of those pieces that I spent years (nearly decades) avoiding for class because it is so well known.  But it’s precisely because it’s so well known that it’s a good choice.

When you happen on a really good invention (like those mirrors in Japanese hotel bathrooms that have a face-sized rectangle in the middle that never steams up after you’ve used the shower) you tut-tut and say ‘Now why didn’t I think of that?!’ Well, famous bits of famous bits of music are a bit like that. They’re so deeply and clearly etched in everyone’s brain that it’s invigorating. This particular one is so darn simple, it’s almost ridiculous – but it takes courage and flair to be that simple. Think ‘Vindaloo’ or ‘I’m a Barbie Girl’ – they didn’t get to the top 10 because of their retrograde inversions or metrical dissonance.

Secondly, I like the fact that this Galop is a perfect example of what the 19th century galop is, and that those kinds of galops are just wonderful for exercises where other music simply doesn’t do the trick. True galops have a little ‘kick’ on the first beat (diddy-DUH DUH DUH, diddy-DUH-DUH-DUH) which create a forward propulsion at the same time as a very compulsive but steady beat. If you hold the Giselle one up like one of those ultra-violet banknote checkers and test other examples (Gottschalk’s Tournament Galop, for example) you begin to see the family resemblance. And the funny thing is, even though these are little dances from 19th century ballrooms, they still get people going because they have the all the right ingredients of dance music. 

This was just a vague feeling & unformed thought in my mind, until I read a brilliant paper called From Refrain to Rave: The Decline of Figure and the Rise of Ground’ by that wonderful musicologist Philip Tagg   which gave me some clues as to why, possibly, those funny old galops, polkas and other dances still get your juices going. I admire Tagg’s work so much because he studies the things that people spend the most time listening to (which most academics think are too simple, popular or uncool to be worthy of study). We could do worse than adopt the same principle with ballet music – and study Pugni or Minkus, for a change, rather than Tchaikovsky.