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Lost in music

Posted on May 15, 2017

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George Balanchine said he didn’t require dancers who wanted to dance. The choreographer instead wanted dancers who needed to dance. That imperative desire to move, as urgent as the necessity for oxygen for our unique breed, comes from music. We dance for different reasons on different days – sometimes it’s to prove something; sometimes it’s to forget several things – but the constant in these equations is the music. Everything simply comes back to music: our love for it, and our embodiment of it. I know this isn’t something exclusive to ballerinas and their cavaliers. All people enjoy music; it’s something primordial, uniting and democratising. Here, I want to try and express a little of how music, and musicality, is threaded throughout my day of dancing.

I warm up for my rehearsal day with earphones plugged in to an iPod. I won’t be listening to the same thing every morning; my choices change frequently and rapidly. Sometimes it will be energising pop, or Tchaikovsky, stark minimalism, devastating and earth-shattering Mahler, or singers as diverse as James Blake and Nina Simone. The headline act to my personal juke box sets a tone and a colour to my day and fires my imagination into gear, but hasn’t my relationship with music begun even before I get in to the studio? I open my eyes and the rhythm of my breathing helps tune me up: I know if I’m extra fatigued from the previous day’s rehearsals by identifying how tight my rib muscles feel and how rapid my inhalations are. Focusing in on one’s breathing – as we’re trendily told to do in mindful meditation – anchors your consciousness to your inner metronome.

Ballet dancers have an intimate relationship with piano music. It’s an indescribable connection, almost religious in reverence, yet bold and vital like the blood in your veins. It’s a rapport built up over years of systematically educating your muscles to its particular timbre. Many dancers will agree with me when I say that I often prefer the sound of a piano reduction compared to a score’s fully orchestrated version; Balanchine is said to have hated people resting anything – cups of water, magazines, leg warmers – on top of a piano, or using a piano as a makeshift barre.

I’m incredibly fortunate for some of the accompanists I’ve had in ballet class thus far. Pianists – unbeknownst to them – have a huge amount of control over a dancer’s mood depending on what they play. Countless times have I lost myself in a melody forged to fit a tendu exercise from a famous show tune; I’ve been carried along through strenuous adages by a sympathetic musician; nearly brought to tears when, exhausted from the night before, a pianist played a section of A Month in the Country for pliés. I owe Philip Feeney, composer and musical director of Ballet Central, an ocean of thanks. He was the person who introduced my class to the idea of thinking in paradoxes in both music and dance – and now I see that this skill also applies well in general life. Feeney gave us the knowledge that a dancer has a choice about phrasing. A sophisticated musical sense is nurtured when a dancer takes that instinctive feeling they have for a piece of music, and then experiments with the different ways the body can fill it. It’s what takes ballet out of the realms of gymnastic and athletic pursuits. A dancer is organising the physics of complex forces acting on their joints, and the reality of the sound coming at them from a musician in order to reveal truths in movement that words somehow fall short of describing.

The relationship between dancer and pianist is basic training for their response to orchestra and conductor. It’s a special gift to be on stage and literally feel the music surging up towards you from the pit. The orchestra is breathing with you and it has provided me with huge support in my most anxious of stage moments. It seems to me that a dancer can spend an entire career cultivating the ways in which to “use” live music in their dancing. A great personal lesson was performing Jaeger in Frederick Ashton’s Enigma Variations. You have a titanic piece of music to dance to in Elgar’s “Nimrod Variation”, but only a collection of embellished walks, runs and hand gestures to work with. The temptation is to exaggerate so that the dance reads, but you cannot over emote. Instead, I found my way through breathing, through feeling the undercurrent of the score. The lesson was how to build emotion so it tumbles out at the right points. I’m still learning, but there was one of Ashton’s typical low arabesques – head thrown backwards – in the choreographic passage where I’d like to say I came close to getting it. Who can say?

There is a misnomer to correct. I’m not a dancer who can immediately decipher the counts in a piece of choreography, though I do have friends who have this supernatural ability (one piece of advice for a clever corps de ballet dancer is to identify that friend and make sure you stick with them!). Though I don’t talk telephone numbers in rehearsal, counts are obligatory yard sticks to keep people together, yet this isn’t the flesh and blood of a performance. I will say though, there’s no better feeling then when you’ve cracked the counts to the choreography and it then correlates to your inner, luscious – and personal – sense for the dance phrase. It’s science and art coming together. Music is therapy, soothing everything, not only aching muscles. I can listen to Martha Argerich playing the middle adagio of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major and the full, overflowing tapestry of human life is open to me.

Daniel Pratt was born in south London, and trained with Janie Harris and Stella Farrance. He attended The Royal Ballet School Associates Programme, and then Central School of Ballet. He is a dancer with Sarasota Ballet and has written a number of articles for Dancing Times.

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