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Undetected Melodies: what ballet and classical music might give each other

Scene from Bach Partita (Misty Copeland and Craig Salstein center). Photo: Gene Schiavone

Some years ago, I heard a concert in which the work in the second half was a panoramic symphony, gripping in its almost-documentary sweep. It was preceded by a ballet which, to my mind, never quite got out of gravity’s pull. And it occurred to me to ask if there is a difference between conducting or playing for ballet and other sorts of conducting or playing, since the second half of this concert was so contrastingly effective.

That led me to other thoughts. ‘Am I right in thinking that the classical music critic will cover opera but rarely ballet?’ ‘Is there an unreasonable divide between classical music and dance?’

I also found myself wondering if ballet dancers hear music differently and how that might help a musician. Stravinsky spoke of choreographer George Balanchine finding ‘melodies’ in his music that he himself hadn’t suspected. And I noticed in a video of The Royal Ballet’s rehearsals of Alistair Marriott’s The Unknown Soldier, that leading dancer Matthew Ball counted what sounded to me like a series of 4/4 bars in a way that musicians would not: “And a 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9, and a 1-and 2-3-4-5, and a 1-2-3, and a 1-2-3…’. What was the relationship between these lengths and the phrasing? Do musicians need to care? And, given Stravinsky’s observation about Balanchine, might musicians benefit from acknowledging that the emotional content for the audience occasionally lies in something other than the sounds we normally listen to?

I’ve found that conceptions of ballet conducting itself often relate to the way it supposedly limits the development of a conductor’s repertoire. In a 2006 New York Times article entitled Dance Conducting: Good for the Nerves, if Not the Career, author Roslyn Sulcas quotes James DePreist, then head of conducting and orchestral studies at Juilliard, as saying, ‘If one presumes that one of the goals of becoming a conductor is to deepen your interpretation of the repertory…conducting for ballet does not do that, because it’s about suiting the dance and the demands of the choreographer.’ [1]

I wonder how unrewarding it might be to play this ‘suiting’ role. Or even if it’s a true reflection of the situation. Admittedly Sulcas is quoting DePreist to counter choreographer Peter Martins’ jesting ‘Conductors!…We are at their mercy’, quoted earlier in her article. But I guess if you’re conducting the same works in the pit for weeks and weeks, you may not have time to learn the standard concert repertoire (which is a problem only if standard repertoire is the ultimate satisfaction for a conductor).

But early in my research for this piece I kept coming across statements from the ballet world that refreshed my thinking about music. Australian dance critic Lee Christofis told me about the Queensland Ballet’s founder Charles Lisner helping his dancers ‘find the real shape of the music for the dance’. I loved the phrase and figured that such skill could easily be another tool in a musician’s kitbag. Working with dance must be good for something, I thought, being deliberately provocative.

Anthony Zediker, rehearsal pianist for American Contemporary Ballet and at the University of Southern California’s Glorya Kaufman School of Dance told me that, ‘Playing for dancers forces me to realise that what I’m playing needs to have an element of leading the listener on. When I play for dancers, I need to have an element of groove the dancers can latch onto.’

Ormsby Wilkins, Australian-born Music Director of the New York-based American Ballet Theatre told me that he started out at the Australian Ballet initially as a rehearsal pianist and ‘used to play class every day. And I think over time you get to understand – almost by osmosis – how dancers themselves view music, how they hear it and what they need in terms of rhythm and spring. You need to understand how the dancers need that support. The important thing is to find that balance between obviously wanting the orchestral performance to be of the highest standard within the parameters of what’s going on, onstage. And you never want to lose the orchestra by spending too much time worrying about what’s going on, onstage.’

‘But playing for dance also helps me in how I think about music,’ says Anthony Zediker. ‘If I see a tempo marking at the top of the piece “minuet”, I have a picture of a step and a movement that goes along with that, so I play it a little more dancingly. There’s a lilt to it.

‘I feel very strongly that more classical musicians need to have this experience and this knowledge because, even if you take it all the way back to Bach – his French Suites, his English Suites, his Cellos Suites – so many of the famous pieces that he wrote were inspired by dance.’

Of course, this is talking about impulse, not programmatic portrayal such as you might find in an epic symphony. And ballet repertoire these days ranges to abstract canvasses, so to speak, while incorporating the old Russian-style storybook ballets. But if, as Zediker thinks, musicians could do with more of a sense of movement, how conscious of music are dancers?

‘I think dancers often get so caught up in what they’re doing physically and emotionally that sometimes in performance they disconnect a little bit from the music,’ says Ormsby Wilkins. ‘But there are dancers who always have that sound in their ear. They are listening all the time and being driven by that. ‘

By way of explaining what he means by needing an element that the dancers can connect with and latch onto Zediker says, ‘I actually improvise. If I play Bad Romance, they realise that I’m playing a Lady Gaga tune. They have no choice but to connect to that. It’s a little bit of my attempt to say, “Listen to the music! Listen to what the music’s doing.” If I can play something they actually recognise, it brightens up the room.’

Asked to name a dancer who is particularly musical, Zediker nominates Misty Copeland, principal ballerina of the American Ballet Theatre.

‘She’s always struck me as being naturally at one with the music,’ says Ormsby Wilkins. ‘I’ve conducted her in Swan Lake. You’re doing the White Swan Pas-de-deux which is a violin solo and the violinist – as much as you’ve rehearsed – will phrase sometimes slightly differently, take a little more time here, not so much there, and I’ve noticed always that Misty will go with that phrasing even it’s different from one night to the next. That’s a collaboration.’

As for choreographers, Wilkins compares Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet with John Cranko’s, ‘I always thought – they were both very good storytellers – that Cranko had an ability, in the pas-de-deux in particular, to hear the line of the music really well.’

Surely, I think, developing an ability to discern the musical difference between a Cranko and a MacMillan ballet will help a musician. But in fact I myself can think of an instance where I felt I discovered an eloquence beyond the music. To see Robert Bolle carrying the limp Copeland around at the end of MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet and her subtle placements of foot, head or arms moves me more than Prokofiev’s great score ever has on its own. [2] An instance of ‘emotional content…lying in something other than the sounds’?

I’m reminded of something Australian conductor Brett Kelly said to me at the very outset of working on this article, about ‘a perfect world in which there would be an ‘“organic” interdependence between dance and music – with each element bending and stretching to achieve a perfect kind of synthesis.’ He admitted there are ‘[l]ots of possibilities between theory and reality though’, and it strikes me that the degree of collaboration is a sliding scale.

How does it relate to ‘suiting the dance and the demands of the choreographer’? And about that being a reason for not achieving a depth of repertoire?

I think of ABT’s guest violinist Charles Yang getting to play Bach’s great D minor Partita and choreographer Twyla Tharp at one stage asking him to align his own interpretation with that of Jascha Heifetz. When he turned to face the stage he realised that Heifetz’s chordal attack of a passage made more sense than his arpeggios given that Twyla Tharp’s dancers at this stage were jumping.

‘What credence do you give to musicians who might say that playing music for ballet or conducting for ballet inhibits a musician’s or conductor’s expression of their own creativity?’ I ask Lee Christofis. ‘I think that’s a furphy, frankly,’ he says. ‘Conductors and pianists in recitals will adapt music to the needs of the singer.’

Mention of Twyla Tharp’s use of Bach’s Partita in D minor also brings up the issue of ballet using pre-existing repertoire and whether music, that started life on its own, profits from such use.

Ormsby Wilkins mentions Las Hermanas (The Sisters) a ballet based on García Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba, which he’s just conducted in Sarasota, Florida. ‘It’s a real distillation of a full-evening play down to about 23 minutes, partly because choreographer MacMillan chose a piece of music that was only that long. He chose the Harpsichord Concerto of Swiss composer Frank Martin, who doesn’t get played much these days. Now you would think “What has that got to do with a Spanish subject about a mother who rules over five daughters in her house and declares seven years’ mourning because their father has died?” To me, it worked beautifully. When I watched it, I thought, “This music could have been actually written for the ballet.” And, for the ballet audience, it’s not music that would be particularly appealing. Just generally, it’s not easily digested at first hearing. However, there were people who saw these performances who loved that music.’ Live music benefitted from ballet in this case, I reflect. Frank Martin won adherents he otherwise might not have.

Does ballet benefit from live music? Perhaps dance does not do itself any favors when it uses pre-recorded music even if we can sympathise with its use out of economic necessity. As Roslyn Sulcas says in her New York Times piece: ‘For smaller-scale ballet companies and modern dance troupes, live music is a luxury for special occasions.’

As a musician, though, I feel disappointed if I hear that the company is using pre-recorded music. I realise now that I’m looking forward to a certain give and take between stage and pit. But Lee Christofis sees some advantages: ‘I would argue that dancing to a recording allows you the freedom to dance “through the music” – stretching a phrase, holding a pose longer, for instance, because you’ve absorbed the duration or a musical passage in many rehearsals….Furthermore, using recordings gives a choreographer access to a lot more music than just the standard rep.’ Mind you, this doesn’t counter James DePreist’s assertion in relation to conductors being able to deepen their own repertoire.

‘What we haven’t done,’ says Christofis, ‘is talk about commissioning. I think the music director of a ballet company can flex their muscles and indulge their own creativity and their sense of contribution to the artform (of music, not ballet particularly) by finding interesting contemporary choreographers and current composers who can work together. Gerard Brophy is very interesting to talk to about that. It was his curiosity about what Semele would be like, how the choreography would look, that was part of the impetus for him to accept The Australian Ballet’s commission.’ (Semele was first performed by The Australian Ballet at the Victorian Arts Centre in 2008.)

‘I think composers could really benefit from paying more attention to dance,’ says Anthony Zediker ‘because it will fill their imagination and it will flush out the catalogue of different tempos and feels, metres and images they create so that when they compose it’s not just music for music’s sake but music that could be in collaboration with something else. When I write for dancers I feel so much more engaged,’ he says.

Have I reached any conclusions? That there is a difference between conducting or playing for ballet and other sorts of conducting or playing? Consciousness of dancers’ needs can make a difference. ‘Is there an unreasonable divide between classical music and dance?’ Seems to be a fluid relationship, but perhaps one that deserves closer scrutiny. ‘Do ballet dancers hear music differently?’ Seems they can.

I haven’t discovered why the classical music critic will ‘cover opera but rarely ballet’. One critic I spoke to, Mark Swed, mentioned time constraints. But Lee Christofis says that once upon a time in the UK and Europe music and dance critics would review the same work, ‘especially where new music was involved. I loved reading both in Dance and Dancers published in London into the 1980s.’

The point is we get a whole other world of interpretation through dance. We may not be getting the standard repertoire in a concert setting, but we’re getting a realm of insight into all sorts of different music and sometimes into the standard repertoire (ABT has done nine ballets based on Brahms). We’re also getting a whole lot of different music we might otherwise never have listened to or which might not have even existed.

Gordon Kalton Williams, © 2019
Gordon Williams is an Australian-born writer on music based in Los Angeles.


[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2006/06/25/arts/dance/25sulc.html

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7AnpPu7j6Dg&t=8860s (from 2’29”01”” mark)