Tag Archives: playing for ballet

Confessions of an anxious ballet pianist day #21: The grand battement “march”

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La gazza ladra overture: the grand battement march everyone knows

Overture to “La Gazza Ladra” —the grand battement march par excellence. Horrific.

Ballet classes seem to be full of things that aren’t quite what they should be: polonaises that are really boleros, waltzes that are mazurkas, mazurkas that sound like minuets, rhumbas that are choro. Then there’s the what you might call the “fondu tango,” that thing in habañera rhythm that is so slow, it’s hard to know how anyone ever thought it was a Thing in the first place. Little by little, I’ve managed to collect pieces that will get me out of these messes: you can, for example, play the Monti czardas instead of a “tango,” and it sounds like the kind of thing they want. But when it comes to the “grand battement march,” I still draw a blank.

Is there any music in the whole wide world really goes “aaaaaand a one…” as the marchy grand battement demands? How and when did anyone think that the overture to La Gazza Ladra would “do” for grands battements, just as long as you reduce the speed by about 400% and put accents in places that should be illegal? The trouble is, I can see exactly why teachers want music that goes like this: it wouldn’t be better on a 3/4, or faster, or as a completely different exercise. There’s a point to doing a grand battement like that.

Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s a piece of music in the world that fits the template without ruining it. You’d think that any high-kicking number from a musical would do it, but no. There’s nothing worse than picking your moment for Springtime for Hitler, only to find that by the time the teacher’s flagged down the tempo to the speed of the exercise, you’ve killed one of the funniest moments in musical theatre, right there in your ballet class.  If anyone’s thinking, “Dance of the Knights” from The Apprentice, think again. It doesn’t go like that, trust me, get the CD and listen to it.

I’m still hunting, and still open to suggestions. Until I find something that works, the marchy grand battement is going to make me anxious for a long time yet.

Confessions of an anxious ballet pianist day #5: Playing for the White Swan variation

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I’ve already written an entire recent post about one problem with accompanying this variation (The perils of musicality when you’re accompanying a ballet solo) but that’s not the end of the story.  Oh no. For only a day or so later that episode, another problem came up with another part of the solo. The whole piece is like a slow-motion assault course, and 28 years of playing it for students in vocational schools, candidates in competitions, and dozens of ballerinas hasn’t made it any easier. In fact, the most recent experience, which was with one of the most musical ballerinas I can think of, and the most musically perceptive coach I’ve ever encountered, made me feel I’d had to go back to school and start again.

You say tenuto. . .

The bit in question was the two-note anacrusis at the end of bar six (F# E#) going on to the  two-note slur at the beginning of bar seven (G# F#). Yes, a life hanging on four darned quavers. “Don’t slow down!” said the coach. We tried again. The rehearsal stopped. “Just play it in tempo, don’t go ‘dah dah da dah,’ [exagerrating the anacrusis]  just play it straight. Don’t follow her.” I tried again. The rehearsal stopped again. This time, the ballerina said “Don’t follow me, just play it straight, even if you think it looks like I need more time, because I can catch up, but if you slow down, I can’t do the step.”

Another tricky corner in the "White Swan" variation

Another tricky corner in the “White Swan” variation

This time, I had to speak “I’m really sorry,” I said, “I thought I was playing it straight. I’m trying my best to do it, but I don’t even know I’m not playing it straight any more.” Before I’d even finished, they both said “No, no, it’s fine, don’t worry, it’s natural. With this phrase you want to go “da dah da dah” because that’s what you want to do musically, but you just have to do it straight.”

So once again – how many times is this now? Four? – and this time, finally, I got it right, and do you know what, they were right. It took me that long (28 years, plus four repeats in a single rehearsal) to realise that I’d never played those four quavers straight in my life. I like to think that the explanation is something to do (again) with Justin London’s “many meters hypothesis” that I referred to in the “musicality” post, i.e. that a time signature like 6/8 isn’t a single, arithmetically precise metrical framework for music, but a model that has many variants in a musical culture, each of which can exhibit different types of squeezed and stretched microtiming effects in different parts of the bar: a bit like taking one of those molecular models and bending it in your hands (that’s my analogy, not London’s). In this case, as my colleagues noted, it’s “natural” to want to add a bit of space to the anacrusis, because that’s what this particular model of 6/8 always seems to do.

I hope that is the explanation, and it’s not just that I’m incapable of playing in time any more. This solo is difficult because it’s often so slow that you begin to lose your sense of when the last quaver happened.  Added to that, the older you get, the more ingrained your habits become unless someone points them out, not to mention the fact that types of expressive timing go in and out of fashion too.  

Another day, another dolour 

That’s not the end of the story, however. The next day, armed with my squeaky clean and fresh timing, I played for a different ballerina, who – yep, you guessed it – wanted the expressive timing put back in. “Can you just watch me there…” she said. I’ve since watched several videos on YouTube, and noticed that some ballerinas want that anacrusis slowed up forever, but then the tempo switches back to something that’s faster than the opening, because that was slow because they can hold the extension in the ronds de jambe. 

As a musician, you look at this music on the page, and it looks light, capricious, free; dainty and thin. Whether it was ever that in the ballet, I don’t know, but now, in some performances every movement in the solo seems to drag the music along behind it like a huge family checking in excess baggage, and then there is a moment of release where the orchestra catches up the tempo they would have preferred to play all along. 

I could write another four posts as long as this on another four awkward bits in this solo, and there are probably more, but that’s enough White Swan for one advent calendar. The trouble with this solo is not just that it’s difficult for the ballerina, and difficult to accompany, but also that it’s so replete with meaning: it’s Swan Lake, the ballet that almost defines the art form, and defines the ballerina. I’m not sure that there’s a single work in the musical repertoire that you can compare that to.

If you’re thinking “You think White Swan’s difficult? Black Swan’s even worse!” hold that thought – that’ll be tomorrow’s post.