Relating Past and Present
Looking back at historical ballet, its forerunners, and its music can be tremendously interesting in itself, even if there is so much we can never know. But aside from expanding our knowledge, such explorations can also inspire us in our present roles whether as performers, creators—or enthusiastic audience members. Something to think about is this advice that the late American composer/collaborator Lou Harrison wrote for students, in his Music Primer:
Cherish, Conserve, Consider, Create
And in reviewing some musical styles from cultures around the world as well as through time, the composer observed that “Anywhere on the planet…always by insensible degrees the music changes, and always the music is a compound, a hybrid of collected virtues.” Also noteworthy is Lou Harrison’s viewpoint that among the best European music traditions was the secular music of Medieval and Baroque times. In his own original compositions, now and then he included sections harking back to Medieval and Renaissance dances in both form and titles, and his dance suite for Mark Morris certainly draws on traditions from the Baroque.
Beyond that is Harrison’s comment that “Someone has said that music is to be recommended because the Angels practice it.” This remark was similar to viewpoints that medieval musicians sometimes depended on when justifying the respectability of their art in the face of widespread repression by the Church. (This was touched on in connection with medieval guild musicians.) Earthly dancers also pleaded (especially to critical Church officials) that because angels danced, that was a good thing for them to do too!
notes and explorations:
quotation: From Lou Harrison’s Music Primer (New York: C.F. Peters, 1971) pp.33-34; 47; 48.
angels and saints:
There are many images online of medieval angels playing instruments. Here are three of the angels: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/574420127465514989/
Carol Lee’s Ballet in Western Culture has a brief informative section on medieval dance, pp. 6-11, including religious footing: “The notion that dancing was the principal pastime for the saints in heavenly regions was a medieval idea lingering from the ancient Greek mystery cults.” p.7.
There are many paintings depicting angels dancing. Here is a link to a famous Renaissance one, by Botticelli: http://www.travelingintuscany.com/art/sandrobotticelli/mysticalnativity.htm
Lou Harrison (1917-2003)
The composer was born in Portland, Oregon, but lived in California during his musically formative years, notably studying with Henry Cowell, from whom he imbibed an enthusiasm for exploring diverse traditions of the world’s music. In his youthful career he accompanied modern dance classes as an improvising musician, using piano, percussion, and flutes. He also collaborated as a composer with many choreographers—including Carol Beals, Marian Van Tuyl, Bonnie Bird, Louise Kloeper, Lorle Kranzler, Lester Horton, Bella Lewitsky, Katherine Litz, Remy Charlip, Melissa Black, and Tina Flade. Sometimes Harrison offered choreographers what he called “kits,” with melodic phrases and other material that could be flexibly meshed with a dance (following the example of Henry Cowell’s “elastic music”). More often he composed exact full scores after choreography was completed. Upon occasion Harrison would perform as a dancer onstage himself! He also attracted attention with his percussion ensemble works created with composer John Cage, and throughout his life many of his dance scores featured percussion—including “found” instruments such as brake drums from cars.
Harrison also studied briefly with Arnold Schoenberg and wrote a number of 12-tone pieces especially during his decade in New York (where he earned his living as one of Virgil Thomson’s staff music critics for the Herald Tribune). But even his Symphony on G first scored in 1947 in 12-tone style and extended in the 1960s included a waltz section and an outlandishly jolly polka. So dance seems to have always been part of his creative impulse.
Former Graham principal dancer Jean Erdman discovered Harrison’s kinetically melodious style as a complement for her myth-inspired dance theater, and commissioned him to write music for her already-completed dance The Perilous Chapel (1949). For the premiere of the two artists’ subsequent 1950 collaboration, Solstice, Merce Cunningham danced the Sun Lion (summer), and Donald McKayle portrayed the Moon-Bull (winter). The story was a myth-like one conceived by the choreographer, depicting the changing of the old year and winter season into warmth and sun. (It should be noted that Jean Erdman was married to Joseph Campbell, the well-known expert on world mythologies.)
In a personal letter to me, Harrison recalled his work with Jean Erdman:
All—if not almost all—of the dances I did for Jean were already completed dances. What I did was to go in, take counts, make notes to myself of what was happening. I used to have a very vivid kinetic memory. I had only to look at a dance and put down the things, and I actually could do parts of it in my house, just by looking and capturing the metrics. That was one of my virtues: I had a kinetic memory. I really did! So I could do that and then go home and write.
In 1965 the choreographer Robert Joffrey presented a beautiful ballet titled Gamelan in New York’s Central Park, set to Harrison’s 1951 Suite for Violin, Piano, and Small Orchestra and featuring outstanding dancers including Ian Horvath, Dennis Nahat, and Trinette Singleton. For those of us in the audience, it was an enchanting evocation of Indonesian styles, using Western instruments.
But before all that, the noisy and stressful city was detrimental to Harrison’s health, and after he moved back to the calmer California scene in 1953 for the rest of his 85-year life, he especially enjoyed creating and performing music with area friends, and exploring Asian traditions as well as various tuning systems. With William Colvig (his life partner for 33 years), Harrison built several Indonesian style gamelan sets comprised of metal gongs and metallophone bars pitched to unique tunings. He also studied traditional Indonesian procedures with the leading expert Pak Cokro, in California. But it was not until 1983 that Harrison (then 66) and Colvig were able to travel to Java, and from then on the gamelan compositions and performances really blossomed.
Harrison’s association with dance also continued. In 1985 he and Jean Erdman totally redid their earlier 1948 Io and Prometheus for outdoor performances in Greece, held at the Acropolis amphitheater as part of the Athens Festival. The following year he composed a new score for Erick Hawkins, titled New Moon. Writing to me in a letter [May 29, 1986] the composer reported:
I just last week completed a ballet for Erick Hawkins and it was a great pleasure to do. I have yet, of course, many hours of putting black spots on paper to complete the final orchestral score, but the composition is done and I must say that I am very pleased with it. Because he suggested no specific subject, though he did specify length, I simply composed out of my vivid memories of his choreographies and his visual and stage presence. I much look forward to hearing it and hope, too, to be able to see it as well. It is in five connected movements and scored for that odd combination that he asks everybody to use. I do understand his wish to keep order in the pit and am happy that he, like Jean [Erdman], always uses live music.
Among memorable live performances of Harrison’s music were those during the summer 1986 Saratoga festival in upstate New York. The entire gamelan Si Betty instruments plus 22 people were flown from California to perform outdoors. Included among the performers were both Lou Harrison and William Colvig. Also featured was the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Dennis Russell Davies in performances of Harrison’s Symphony No. 3, Suite for Violin, Piano and Small Orchestra, Marriage at the Eiffel Tower, and Piano Concerto with soloist Keith Jarrett. During a break in the festival I thanked the conductor for such wonderful presentations of these works…and he commented that he considered Lou Harrison “our best composer.” I continued to agree with that opinion during a 1997 private musical performance of Rhymes with Silver, a suite commissioned by the choreographer Mark Morris for his company. Composer and choreographer were both on hand to offer comments.
As his reputation expanded late in life, Lou Harrison was honored with many performances, awards, academic residencies, and occasions requiring a great deal of travel. One time of sharing that delighted members of the International Guild of Musicians in Dance was the participation of both the composer and William Colvig during the multi-day conference at Arizona State University in Tempe, hosted by music director for dance, Robert Kaplan in 1997.
The composer’s legacy is being carried on by Eva Soltes with concerts and other events at Lou Harrison House—the straw bale structure that Harrison had built in Joshua Tree, California near the end of his life. (See information below.)
Luckily, both The Perilous Chapel and Solstice choreographed by Jean Erdman with music by Lou Harrison can be viewed by visiting http://www.jeanerdmandance.com Then click on Events to access
Dance and Myth: The World of Jean Erdman, part 2 introduced by the choreographer herself (also explaining the development of her technique). Produced for the Foundation for the Open Eye by Nancy Allison—who can herself be seen as one of the performing dancers. Recommended. For further information about both Nancy Allison, director, and the continuing company, go to http://www.jeanerdmandance.com/about.html
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DmTZPPNok0Y For those unfamiliar with this composer, here is a beautiful introduction: Lou Harrison’s Suite for Violin and American Gamelan. The second vigorous movement is titled Estampie, which is the Medieval dance form covered in the first essay of this website. The last movement is titled Chaconne, a form which goes back to Renaissance and Baroque courtly dance. Included on the New Albion CD La Koro Sutro.
Another Harrison estampie is in his piano concerto, on New World Records with Keith Jarrett, soloist. CD also includes piece that Robert Joffrey set as Gamelan, Harrison’s Suite for Violin, Piano, and Small Orchestra. The original beautiful 1951 recording with Anahid and Maro Ajemian, soloists, with Leopold Stokowski conducting can be heard online: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aysxKvnhZn0
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FSxpDy7BUX4 Northern Illinois University gamelan group performing one of Harrison’s pieces, with oboe and French horn. Gives viewers an idea of what such instrumental groups look like!
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f7IwH01YFAI For now, available to hear online. Gamelan Music, on Music Masters. Lovely audio recording of Harrison’s late works, produced by Gregory K. Squires. You may be surprised to discover such combinations in timbre as gamelan with solo saxophone!
Amazon has some 90 listings of recordings of music composed by Lou Harrison!
Among the composer’s enthusiastic colleagues was Gregory K. Squires, formerly a hornplayer at Radio City Music Hall and faculty member of the Manhattan School of Music Prep Division. He carved a new career as a Grammy Award-winning recording producer/engineer for classical music, and taking his normal equipment of microphones, wires and so forth, he would fly cross-country in his own airplane to record Harrison’s symphonic, gamelan, and chamber music, with the composer always on hand. Some resulting recordings are listed below, and it can be noted that in reviewing the 2000 recording of Harrison’s orchestration of John Cage’s oddball 1948 Suite for Toy Piano, Raymond Tuttle observed in Classical Net that “production and engineering were by the always-excellent Gregory Squires.”
In Retrospect on New World Recordings. 1990 disc includes Harrison’s early ballet music for Jean Erdman’s Solstice, conducted by Dennis Russell Davies. There are excerpts from Ariadne, for flute and percussion, which the composer wrote for dancer Eva Soltes. (She had studied Hindu temple dance; later went on to assist Harrison with business arrangements and paperwork—and continues her dedication now at the Lou Harrison House.) Also quite wonderful to hear is the performance of Strict Songs. Produced and recorded by Gregory K. Squires.
Harrison’s music for Jean Erdman’s dance Solstice can also be heard on a Music Masters disc, conducted by Dennis Russell Davies. Another Squires recording.
On the New Albion label is a recording by the San Francisco Contemporary Chamber Players of The Perilous Chapel, the score for Jean Erdman’s modern `dance. Also on a New Albion disc is Rhymes with Silver, the 1997 suite commissioned by choreographer Mark Morris, for cello, violin, viola, piano, vibraphone, and percussion. The traditional dance forms included are ductia, gigue and musette, a romantic waltz, fox trot and round dance.
On a 1999 Koch disc are many pieces based on dance forms—including Harrison’s Western Dance (a piano version of a score originally written for Merce Cunningham’s dance titled Open Road); plus the early 3 Waltzes; Gigue & Musette, and Jarabe—played by pianist Michael Boriskin; the Suite for Violin and Piano; and the lovely Suite for Violoncello and Harp.
Not intended for dance, but nevertheless among the composer’s outstanding later works, is the 1985 Piano Concerto on New World Records, featuring pianist Keith Jarrett, plus the earlier Suite for Violin, Piano, and Small Orchestra, with violinist Lucy Stoltzman (the piece used by Robert Joffrey for his ballet).
Representative of Harrison’s later concert pieces is the 1992 CD of Gamelan Music on Music Masters (mentioned already as mounted online). Begins with calm and peaceful unfolding of countermelodies between solo violin and the gamelan. Daniel Kobialka, violin. Produced by Squires.
Also intended just for listening is another recording engineered by Squires, Complete Harpsichord Works by Lou Harrison, performed by Linda Burman Hall on harpsichords and tack piano. New Albion 2002 CD.
A recording of the 1989 revised Canticle #3 is included on the disc Drums Along the Pacific, which was completed by Squires before the composer’s passing, but not released until afterwards. Also New Albion. Written for the unusual combination of ocarina, guitar, and five percussion (including brake drums and water buffalo bells). It can be noted that all Harrison’s complicated percussion music was totally written out—nothing improvised.
Musical Heritage Society’s 4-CD set issued in 2005 contains both traditional and experimental works by Lou Harrison, Alan Hovhaness, Peggy Glanville Hicks, and Terry Riley. Dennis Russell Davies, conductor; produced and recorded by Gregory K. Squires. One disc includes a suite from Solstice. On another disc among the dance-based movements are a reel, waltz, and estampie and a stampede from the Third Symphonie, plus a polka from the 1988 Grand Duo for Violin and Piano. This last piece was set choreographically by Mark Morris in 1992.
A 1948 piece that was immediately choreographed by Merce Cunningham (for a dance titled Diversions) was John Cage’s Suite for Toy Piano. A rendition on toy piano by Margaret Teng Lang can be heard on the EMC disc The Seasons (works of John Cage), followed by the delightful transformation as orchestrated by Lou Harrison and performed by the American Composers Orchestra conducted by Dennis Russell Davies. Produced by Squires.
CRI American Masters has reissued its original CRI LP recording of Harrison’s early Symphony on G on CD performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Gerhard Samuel. (Titled “on G” because although the work uses 12-tone techniques, it still sounds tonally centered around the pitch G.)
Beyond these CDs mentioned, there are others available from among Harrison’s 300 compositions. Go to amazon and search recordings.
For Jean Erdman’s comments about her collaborations including with Lou Harrison, see my earlier book Music for the Dance, pp. 55-59.
https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/06/arts/dance/jean-erdman-dead.html Obituary for Jean Erdman, written by Margalit Fox after the choreographer’s passing at age 104.
https://louharrisonhouse.org/ Information about ongoing programs at the Joshua Tree, CA straw bale house that the composer had built late in his life. Website includes trailer for the beautiful film made by Eva Soltes, Lou Harrison: A World of Music. Features not only biographical story but also many performances. The film is available on DVD from the Lou Harrison House. Highly recommended. https://www.harrisondocumentary.com/ Same trailer for this DVD.
https://www.nytimes.com/1992/04/26/archives/the-lasting-allures-of-gamelan.html An article by the composer himself, offering a concise history of Indonesian gamelan orchestras going back to the third century A.D., and commenting on the introduction of this music to the U.S. in the 20th century.
https://www.nytimes.com/1990/11/01/arts/a-west-coast-composer-looks-to-the-far-east.html Article by John Rockwell based on his personal interview with Lou Harrison before the premiere of the composer’s Fourth Symphony (which includes another Stampede plus a section originally intended for Erick Hawkins’ dance New Moon). Offers a nice short introduction to the man and his work!
For an earlier profile based on one of my visits with Lou Harrison in Aptos, see Katherine Teck, Music for the Dance, pp. 59-63. And for one of his own essays, see “Music for Modern Dance: Meditations on Melodies, Modes, Emotion and Creation” in my collection Making Music for Modern Dance, pp. 251-256.
For extended information, see Leta E. Miller and Fredric Lieberman, Composing a World: Lou Harrison, Musical Wayfarer (University of Illinois Press, 2004) especially chapter 4 “Music and the Dance.” And a shorter book by same authors, Lou Harrison (University of Illinois Press, 2006).
Both volumes include a CD offering a representative sampling of music by Lou Harrison. The longer book was originally published in 1998 when the composer was still alive and includes lengthy lists of works—by title, by genre, and chronologically. Introducing chapter 11 on Harrison’s compositional process (that certainly related past and present) the authors generalized [p. 205]:
He has absorbed one musical influence after another: Handel, Rameau, Cowell, Ives, Ruggles, Schoenberg, Thomson, Partch; percussion, tuning systems, Gregorian chant, Amerindian song, Korean court music, gagaku, gamelan, Chinese opera; Medieval, Baroque, modern, Indian, Turkish, and Javanese dance styles….He dives headfirst into an in-depth study of each new discovery; learns to imitate it; and then shapes the technique to fit his personal language.
For a more recent and more detailed biography of this openly gay composer plus an analytical consideration of his musical works, see Bill Alves and Brett Campbell, Harrison: American Musical Maverick (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2017). Both authors have performed with gamelan groups in the U.S. and so offer a particularly unusual introduction to the instruments built by Lou Harrison and Bill Colvig, plus very specific information about the tunings and procedures used by the composer for his later works. The biographical account is based on interviews with Harrison over the course of eight years beginning in 1995, as well as extensive writings and contacts with those close to the composer. Alves himself has composed for gamelan, and teaches at Harvey Mudd College. Campbell performs with a gamelan, has many published articles, and has taught journalism at several Oregon universities. Highly recommended, especially for musicians (though there are a few accounts of specific collaborations with dance artists, including in chapter 5). Pointing to the importance of such collaborations, Alves and Campbell stressed [p.49] that:
…the lessons he learned from the inside during this [early] intensive period of composing and choreographing for dance, working with dancers, and even dancing himself would inform most of Harrison’s music for the rest of his career.
As an example of the authors’ descriptions of the composer’s personal style, here is their comment about the 1952 Suite for Violin, Piano, and Small Orchestra commissioned and premiered by Anahid and Maro Ajemian at Carnegie Hall (and later used by Robert Joffrey for his ballet Gamelan). The authors wrote (p. 171) that Harrrison:
…did not feel the need to whipsaw between tonality and atonality, between angularity and lyricism. His ability to make modal experiments and influences from Asia cohere so tightly and beautifully would define Harrison’s best music for the rest of his career. In many ways a culmination of the seductive sound he had been developing in his Erdman ballets (which it resembles), the Suite stands as the pinnacle of Harrison’s East Coast sojourn and one of the most surpassingly beautiful American musical creations of the 1950s.
And musing about the composer’s later way of using various pitch modes, the authors observed [p. 372]:
After all, he was not Javanese and had no desire or pretensions to copy their traditions, only to respect them as he invented his own compositions. Just as he often had no misgivings about creating unique, nontraditional forms in his compositions, he in essence created his own modes that sometimes differed sharply from those traditionally used in Java.
https://louharrison.blogspot.com/ The two authors created this blog spot which has a subsection devoted to the harp (including a few lovely performances online) at https://louharrison.blogspot.com/2018/08/ Other dated entries feature photographs and biographical information about the composer’s Oregon roots, his opera Young Caesar, centennial celebrations, instruments, various performances, and also John Cage. Well worth a visit!
For many pictures and more information about gamelan, do an online search.
Mark Morris choreographs to Harrison:
https://www.nytimes.com/2003/03/23/arts/dance-mark-morris-the-making-of-my-dance.html Article by choreographer Mark Morris about the dance he started to choreograph to Lou Harrison’s Serenade for Guitar just before the composer’s passing, for a performance scheduled at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
Stephanie Jordan devotes an entire chapter to “Going West: Morris Meets Lou Harrison” in her book Mark Morris: Musician-Choreographer (Binsted: Dance Books, 2015) pp. 359-381. Also comments on Henry Cowell’s “elastic form” for dance purposes.
Trained in both dance and music herself, the author presents a fully packed chronology of the choreographer’s art as dancer, choreographer, conductor, coach and teacher—and of his use of music from the 1970s up to 2014. See her introduction and chapter 1, “Setting the Scene: Morris’s Career as Musical Journey.” She proceeds with a consideration of his creative procedures in chapter 3, “Choreomusical History…and the Question of ‘Musical Visualisation,’” and finally offers some personal insights and detailed analysis of specific works. Geared for advanced students and scholars, the book does include some technical terms and musical notation. Here is one of Jordan’s general opinions, [from p. 87]:
In the final analysis, Morris’s project has been to question the foundations of choreomusical practice (for a broad music-and-dance audience). He asks us to think about our habits and history, what we have grown to accept as rules, then to be open to his surprises, to develop our musicianship as well as our dance literacy, to think beyond the norms of western high art dance, and to listen and watch more closely.
And reflecting on the choreographer’s extensive use of pre-existing music, which included some scores by Lou Harrison [see listing on p.360] Jordan suggested: [p. 57]:
The importance of collaboration has often been over-stated. It is as if a kind of myth has evolved about the meeting of minds, although it can push an artist into new, unexpected and potentially fruitful directions.
As many other choreographers discovered, she continued:
…the use of existing music is not necessarily any less challenging or more conservative a mode of inquiry. With existing music, there is more time for un-pressured, intensive private study, the chance to get to know and use the detail of a full, completed score and to listen to a range of recordings….With Harrison…for Rhymes with Silver….he playfully subverted the whole concept of collaboration, providing Morris with a “kit” of possibilities so that he could edit, select and determine the order of events and overall length himself.
For brief clips from Harrison’s Rhymes with Silver and Grand Duo, plus from other dances covered in Jordan’s book (including Mozart Dances), go to http://markmorrisdancegroup.org/jordanbookclips
For up-to-date information about the company, school, workshops, community programs, and repertoire in reverse chronological order, go to: https://markmorrisdancegroup.org
Choreographer Mark Morris responds to audience questions at Jacob’s Pillow in 2019, covering the outdating of limiting stylistic labels, his work with composer Lou Harrison, changes in his own style over the years, how he makes musical choices, the challenges of touring and providing live music, and the important effects of lighting design.
https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/lou-harrison-and-mark-morris-a-grand-partnership-of-music-and-movement/2019/03/02/94aaf97e-3d20-11e9-aaae-69364b2ed137_story.html A 2019 review by Sarah L. Kaufman, with a good description of how Morris used some of Harrison’s music.
https://vimeo.com/136467112 Brief 3-minute clip of Mark Morris Dance Group performing Rhymes With Silver to the 1997 score commissioned from Lou Harrison. (Silver was the composer’s middle name. Nothing rhymes with it!) A CD recording was made, but you can purchase MP3 listening online. It was scored for violin, viola, cello, piano, and percussion.
Mark Morris with Wesley Stace, Out Loud: A Memoir (New York: Penguin Press, 2019). An engaging account of the dancer/choreographer’s life, career and the building of his company, with many observations about different styles of music. He has always performed to live music, and among the composers he most delighted collaborating with was Lou Harrison. (See chapter 10 titled Grand Duo.) But he has also set many dances to music from the past. And despite his disparagement of elongated “program notes” at dance concerts, he does offer some very interesting insights into how he works with dancers and music.
The Mark Morris Dance Center is located in Brooklyn, NY. The company and the school have become major cultural resources for the community. Among their offerings are workshops to train accompanists. For more information, go to https://markmorrisdancegroup.org/dance-center/
They honor their accompanist musicians online with portraits and bios! Go to https://markmorrisdancegroup.org/dance-center/about-the-dance-center/?filter=accompanist
For information about the Mark Morris Dance Group go to https://markmorrisdancegroup.org/ which includes links to their digital offerings during the pandemic. Their website is further unusual in mounting pictures and bios of all their musicians starting with their music director Colin Fowler. Goto: https://markmorrisdancegroup.org/the-dance-group/about/?filter=musicians
The Joffrey Ballet—an extraordinary American company:
Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance, 2012, Lakeview Films, released in 2019 as a DVD on docudrama films label. Recommended. History of the company plus clips of some of their many new ballets with contemporary music.
Brief biography of the choreographer/director (1930-1988).
Biography of the co-founder/dancer/choreographer/later artistic director of the Joffrey Ballet. Includes list of his ballets with an extraordinary range of composers’ music.
Includes brief history of the company, which suffered several dreadful financial periods, including the raiding of his trained dancers by formerly patroness Rebekah Harkness. Their dancers and their repertoire were most unusual—and most “American.” Musical choices were tremendously varied and sometimes daring—as in the decision to present music by the pop/rock singer Prince. Eclectic especially for a company so rooted in classical ballet technique. And a reminder: this is the company that revived repertoire from the Diaghilev Ballets Russes, including Afternooon of a Faune and Petrouchka with Rudolf Nureyev in the lead roles; The Rite of Spring; The Green Table choreographed by Kurt Jooss with music by Frederick Cohen; Léonide Massine’s outstanding ballets Three Cornered Hat and Parade.
The Green Table as performed by the Joffrey Ballet is available on a 2013 Kultur video. Highly recommended! The 1998 VHS tape of the Joffrey’s Tribute to Nijinsky with Rudolf Nureyev is still available—for a price, but unique.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Billboards_(ballet) Info about the ballet to music by Prince.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BVpBgLc5gIo Comments about Billboards by Gerald Arpino and clips with the dancers. https://vimeo.com/331697405 Performance of Billboards. 1 hour 15 minutes. Warner Bros. released a VHS tape, but there is currently no DVD. At the time of its premiere, the ballet was subject of some controversy precisely because of its joining classical ballet technique inherited from past traditions with popular music of the time. Certainly an example of relating past and present!
http://www.joffrey.org/about Current information about the company, now located in Chicago. Fall 2020 as with many companies, the virus forced cancellations, but in a welcomed announcement for their 2022-23 season, the Joffrey Ballet introduced programs titled Beyond Borders—“a celebration of the company’s maverick legacy.”
Sasha Anawalt, The Joffrey Ballet: Robert Joffrey and the Making of an American Dance Company (Scribner 1996 edition). Covers the company from its inception until the death of Robert Joffrey in 1988. The artists involved, both choreographers and dancers over time, offered an extraordinary range of musical styles. Complete listing of works included with names of composers and titles of music, and indications of commissions.
https://www.huffpost.com/entry/music-and-dance-in-real-t_b_1972487 article “Music and Dance in Real Time: The Joffrey Ballet’s music director Scott Speck” comments on how the orchestra and dancers prepare for performances together.
Challenges for Contemporary Conductors
Previous essays in Appreciating Ballet’s Music were focused on the creative phase and efforts involved in mounting European ballets in the past. But of course the role of conductors was always crucial to the success of what happened onstage with dancers.
This has continued to be true, and it seems pertinent to touch on what happened subsequently in the United States because whether new works or revivals are staged, conductors can either make or break a performance. Some of the articles in the endnotes discuss specific situations and offer general observations about how a conductor can contribute to overall excellence in a ballet performance.
* * *
In 1916, when Vaslav Nijinsky headed up a Ballets Russes cross-country tour of America, he was in charge of 65 dancers and 60 orchestral musicians. What an expense! But there were no recordings of their repertoire in those days, and the advantage obviously was that the conductor and musicians delivered the same music for the dancers in location after location. For the company’s prior U.S. tour, Ernest Ansermet conducted, and as reported in Lynn Garafola’s book, all conductor salaries were paid by Diaghilev. For the tour under Nijinsky, Pierre Monteux conducted, except for performances of Till. The Metropolitan Opera guaranteed the transportation and salary costs of the orchestra.
Subsequently, such an expense would have been unthinkable for other companies, and so what happened is that touring ballet companies would take their conductors along, but hire musicians as needed in each city. Obviously the rehearsals and artistic sympatico and quality of instrumental performance could not always be counted on. Certainly this added to the challenges for the conductors and influenced the quality of the stage performances.
As the 20th century progressed, recordings came to be frequently used to lower costs but also as a way of getting around the uncertainties involved with ever-changing instrumental orchestral players and lack of adequate rehearsals.
* * *
Extolling the difference that live music and good conductors can make to a ballet performance, (while acknowledging the expense), writer Geoff Fallon commented:
Far more than recorded music, live music brings greater depth, intensity and emotion from the dancers and, indeed from the performance as a whole. By definition live music is in the moment, and under the baton of an experienced ballet conductor with a well-rehearsed orchestra, may be instantly adjusted during the performance to allow the dancers to more fully express themselves, or at other times, may push the dancers to the edge of their abilities. Live music produces a richer artistic experience for the dancers and, of course, an enhanced experience for the audience.
Observing the different demands upon ballet conductors in comparison with those in the purely symphonic world, Fallon pointed out that to reach a level of excellence in collaborative artistry, “the ballet conductor must not only know the music, but must also know the choreography as well as the abilities and personalities of the individual dancers.”
At New York City Ballet
One company that has been fortunate in having its own ongoing orchestra and a history of excellent conductors is New York City Ballet. Following the eras of Robert Irving and Hugo Fiorato came Andrea Quinn and Clotilde Otranto. Since 2015, Andrew Litton has been the principal conductor.
To gain an impression of what Litton does in his role, an enlightening program to watch is the Guggenheim “Works and Process” online. (See notes). Speaking with Theodore Wisprud, and with admirable live dance segments by members of the New York City Ballet, the conductor recalled his very first (and amazing) professional work with dancers. As an 18-year old Juilliard student, an opportunity fell into his lap to appear on Broadway as a pianist accompanying Rudolf Nureyev! Subsequently he did a program with Natalia Makarova. And it seems that his familiarity with the specific repertoire of New York City Ballet was gained simply by attending many performances around that time.
Then came 35 years conducting strictly symphonic concerts. Listings of his overwhelming credits for live performances as well as recordings can be accessed online. (Again, see notes.) But after guest conducting Coppélia at New York City Ballet, he was offered the top position. Describing the duties that entails, Litton outlined a typical day: a three-hour morning rehearsal with the orchestra followed by attending all-afternoon studio rehearsals during which the dancers are accompanied by pianists only; and in the evening a full theater performance. For ballets long in repertoire, the onstage rehearsals are usually accompanied only by piano—so for many dancers, the first time they will hear the orchestra will be during the public onstage performance! With brand new ballets, however, there are typically several days of onstage rehearsals with orchestra.
Perennial among conductors’ concerns is tempo. “For 35 years I’ve decided the tempo,” commented Litton. Transferring from being on the podium during symphonic concerts to being in the pit with ballet, the conductor found sometimes tremendous differences. Notably, he spoke of recent scholarly findings that have led to faster tempos for Baroque pieces, while for dancers the tempos may be slower. And together with dancers he demonstrated the different impression made with George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue when he performed it on the piano at his preferred tempo—and then at the slower speed chosen by choreographer Christopher Wheeldon (more suitable for the dance). “Yes, I win!” Litton exclaimed gleefully after the fast version. There was a tremendous difference for both dancers and audience. Litton referred to the fabled saying of conductors asking dancers: “Tonight do you want it too fast or too slow?”
The conductor spoke with enthusiasm about the enormous musical repertoire at New York City Ballet: how, for example, so many more works by Stravinsky are heard there than in purely symphonic concerts, where the repertoire sometimes seems to get in a “rut” with audiences hearing certain classical favorites season after season. For New York City Ballet’s “Here and Now” festival, as an example, the orchestra and dancers presented 43 different pieces in two weeks!
And finally, Andrew Litton spoke with admiration about the musicality of the dancers themselves and the way they know details of the music. For example, he cited how the ballet mistress Rosemary Dunleavy would sing or hum any passage where she wanted dancers to pick up during a rehearsal. Typical!
The notes below offer a link to this intriguing program plus some sources for information about how other conductors work with ballet dancers.
Ballets Russes tours:
For financial details of the company’s tours in America, see Lynn Garafola, Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes (Da Capo Press edition, 1998 reprint of the work originally published by Oxford University Press in 1989) p. 206:
The Metropolitan assumed responsibility for all administrative, travel, and orchestra costs, along with Nijinsky’s $60,000 salary, and the cost of two new productions, Till Eulenspiegel and Mephisto Valse, both to be choreographed by the star. Diaghilev’s financial commitment was limited to salaries of the dancers, conductor, chief machinist, and company managers….
Unfortunately for Diaghilev, the tour was a fiasco. Despite generally good notices and occasionally good houses, the Metropolitan lost a quarter of a million dollars.
In a personal email dated August 28, 2020, Lynn Garafola kindly took the time to clarify some facts about the conductors:
The Ballets Russes made two tours of the U.S. in 1916. The first began in New York at the Century Theatre on January 17, was followed by a tour of sixteen cities that began on January 31 and, finally, a season at the Metropolitan Opera House that began on April 3. Diaghilev led the tour, with Ansermet as the conductor. (Nijinsky rejoined the company at the Met.) The second tour, which was under Nijinsky’s direction (Diaghilev had elected or was forced to remain in Europe), opened at the Met on October 16 and was followed by a very long tour that ended in Albany, New York, in February 1917. When Monteux arrived in New York in September 1916 he announced that as someone who had fought in the trenches he would not conduct “Tyl Eulenspeigel,” which had music by Richard Strauss. Anselm Goetz was thus hired to conduct “Tyl” in New York.
By Nijinsky’s granddaughter, Kinga Szakats Nijinsky Gaspers, Nijinsky in America: The American Tour of the Ballets Russes, 1916-1917. (Biblio, 2013). p. 200 includes a review from Pittsburgh indicating that the conductor H. H. Heidelberg conducted Till Eulenspiegel. It seems he also conducted in at least San Francisco and St. Louis.
Another source suggested by Lynn Garafola is Nesta Macdonald, Diaghilev Observed by Critics in England and the United States 1911-1929 (New York: Dance Horizons/London: Dance Books, 1975). p. 208 mentions that Monteux did—apparently on an emergency basis—conduct Till once, in Cincinnati in February 1917. The book traces tours in the U.S. and England, with reproductions of programs, photographs, and a multitude of critical reviews from regional newspapers. Nijinsky’s tour, pp. 199-212.
A related CD is Ansermet and the Ballets Russes, on Decca/Eloquence label. With a booklet by Francois Hudry that mentions that on the American tour, Ernest Ansermet conducted 105 performances in 105 days.
Later in America:
A disheartening but very interesting article about what happened later in the 20th century in America is this report by John Rockwell. The critic suggested that “you can’t have a really great overall performance of most ballets without a genuine collaboration between pit and stage,” and concluded that “great music is a prerequisite for great dance.”
A more positive story is that of San Francisco Ballet Orchestra. For information drawn from interviews with the conductor Denis de Coteau, see report of how he changed the quality of the orchestra, in Katherine Teck, Music for the Dance, pp.127-132.
For a succinct article about the history of San Francisco Ballet’s Orchestra since de Coteau took the baton in 1975 up to the present (including their recordings of ballet music) see https://www.sanfranciscoballetorchestra.org/about/
New York City Ballet:
The New York City Ballet Orchestra is often held up as an example of good ongoing support for the dancers. Again, for an interview with the late conductor Robert Irving, see Katherine Teck, Music for the Dance, pp. 124-127.
https://www.nycballet.com/discover/our-orchestra/andrew-litton/ Brief profile of conductor for New York City Ballet since 2015, Andrew Litton. A longer bio plus covers of his more than 130 recordings and reviews of orchestral concerts. https://andrewlitton.com/
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wrjYdjfmxGs The Guggenheim Works and Process program.
https://www.nytimes.com/2006/06/25/arts/dance/25sulc.html A 2006 article by Roslyn Sulcas, “Dance Conducting: Good for the Nerves if Not for the Career,” drawing on interview with Andrea Quinn, who for five years conducted the New York City Ballet Orchestra. Several other conductors were also interviewed for the article.
Widely applauded as an exceptionally “musical” dancer, former New York City ballerina Suzanne Farrell offered some pointed observations about tempos and conductors, in her memoir Holding On to the Air (2002 University of Florida edition, pp. 152-153):
It is perhaps only a personal truth, but I believe that a dancer who tries to analyze the music, to interpret every note physically, to accentuate the obvious climaxes, will bypass what music is really about. It is a definition of time, and that can only be spontaneous. Moving with music is not an intellectual feat; it is an emotional, physical, sensual response to a given moment of time. Tempo, the speed with which the score is played, is not a stable element of musical production and therefore can never be relied on in performance. To me, being able to adjust to the tempo of each separate occasion is essential to one’s sanity as a dancer, because no two conductors are alike. Expecting one tempo guarantees you won’t get it.
I have danced fast Symphony in C’s and slow ones and hundreds in between; no two have ever been alike, and that is what is exciting about tempo. It is open to interpretation by the conductor (within certain confines), and it is the dancer’s job to respond appropriately. One of Balanchine’s most important innovations in dance was to declare—and insist—that music be the first priority to a dancer.
This law was truly revolutionary in a craft where so often the tempo is established by the dancers while the conductor merely tries to follow their needs and adjustments. In Balanchine’s world the dancers were in service to him, but everyone, including him, was in service to the music. Even today this priority more than any other single element separates the New York City Ballet from other companies.
About other conductors:
For a slice-of-life with the freelance orchestra for American Ballet Theatre preparing to perform at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York in 1986, see Katherine Teck, Music for the Dance, chapter 7. Chapter 6 focuses on instrumentalists themselves.
For a current roster of orchestral players and profiles of the ABT conductors, go to https://www.abt.org/the-company/orchestra/
From 2015, “What are Ballet Conductors For” by Joe Horowitz, about U.S. performances by the Marinsky Ballet (which brought its own orchestra all the way from Russia), conducted by Valery Gergiev.
From the danceus website, here is a good article by Geoff Fallon in which he asks “What does the ballet conductor really do?” and then gives a reply, after first commenting on what regular symphony orchestra conductors do. Comments on advantages of live music. Quotations are taken from this source:
Here is an appreciative article by Sarah L. Kaufman from The Washington Post of April 29, 2020 about what conductors and their musicians can do to adjust to what is happening onstage. “Ballet conductors are the hidden heroes of the art form,” she wrote in connection with classics like Swan Lake and Giselle.
And finally, this is a very long hyperlink but here is a spread of images of ballet conductors. If you click on each picture, online sources pop up. (Including information about Robert Irving, Constant Lambert, John Lanchbery, Barry Wordsworth, Riccardo Drigo, Emil deCou, Pierre Monteux, and Nicolette Fraillon of the Australian Ballet.) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pFE-8KFo_ZE Fraillon explains what she does.
Paul Taylor’s Music Director:
Although considered a “modern dance company,” and his dancers performed barefoot, yet it is not misplaced to pay tribute here to the late choreographer Paul Taylor (1930-2018) and his music director Donald York (1947-2021). Taylor ranged far and wide in his choice of music, and valued live musical performances whenever finances permitted.
Donald York had a rare talent for collaborating with dancers as both composer and conductor for the Paul Taylor Dance Company. As their music director for decades, he led the orchestras that performed for the eagerly awaited spring seasons in New York City. On tour the company usually had to use recordings, but York did conduct some out-of-town engagements with live orchestras.
The original scores that York composed for Paul Taylor include Polaris; Diggity; Lost, Found, and Lost; Snow White; Last Look; Syzygy; Of Bright and Blue Birds and the Gala Sun; and House of Joy. In addition, he arranged many works for the company, and for some dances performed as pianist (for instance for Taylor’s Rehearsal, set to Stravinsky’s two-piano version of The Rite of Spring). His versatility extended to arranging music for shows and conducting on Broadway, including a revival of Sweet Charity and Bette Midler’s Clams on the Half Shell.
The musician was also a warm and imaginative human being. I had the pleasure of interviewing Don York for my book Music for the Dance: Reflections on a Collaborative Art (see pages 69-72 and 95-99). He participated in the unusual conductors’ panel presented by the International Guild of Musicians in Dance, at Marymount Manhattan College, saying goodbye by declaring “California, Here I Come!”
And indeed, York based his subsequent career on the West Coast, though he continued to work with the Taylor company. Additionally, he did national tours as conductor for major musicals including Chicago, Beauty and the Beast, The Producers, and Fosse, and of course dance was an important part of such shows. Closer to his new home in Temecula, California, he was music director and musical performer for a show called Songs for a New World, and performed with the musical Bandwagon presented at the Old Globe in San Diego.
As an arranger, early on Don York had done work for children’s television specials, and during his career he had various interesting projects. One, in 2000 was to both compose and conduct his “Song of Old” for the lighting of the national Christmas tree when Bill Clinton was there as president, with the Navy band accompanying singers from the Fosse touring company. Near the end of his life he composed The Quarantine Quintet for the American Brass Quintet. It was premiered at the Aspen Music Festival in the summer of 2021, with the three movements titled Loss; Grief; and Hope. And it seemed that York never stopped making music. He left unfinished a musical he was working on about a child prodigy. (He himself had in fact been a child prodigy, going on to become quite skilled as a jazz pianist).
But it was as a conductor that endeared Donald York to many colleagues. Instrumentalists who worked with him in various pits would remark not only about his collaborative theater skills, but also about his appreciative and considerate way of dealing with musicians.
Some years ago, speaking with me in a private interview, Paul Taylor had remarked:
Don is the best conductor I have ever worked with. His sense of timing is absolutely marvelous; it’s a miracle. He has a God-given sense for what is right. He knows what our tempos should be; we’ve decided on that. He doesn’t usually vary his tempos unintentionally. But for some evenings, just for the night, it might be better to move things along more, not drag or take time here, because it’s working for the audience, or for the dancer. With Don, there are intentional variations.
https://paultaylordance.org/discover/repertory/taylor/ See repertoire at the company website. The music is listed for each work, and for some there are audio samples.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qyGWsGl7Ezo an old recording, but with Donald York conducting Bach for Paul Taylor’s Esplanade performed by his then very young company! This link is part 1 of 5; the rest follow one after the other.
Highly recommended is the Docurama DVD Paul Taylor Dancemaker, a film by Matthew Diamond that was nominated for an Oscar. Provides glimpses into rehearsals, touring in India, the hard work and incredible artistry of the dancers, with clips of repertoire, including two with scores by Donald York: Polaris and Last Look. Also suggests variety of music used—by Bach, Handel, Offenbach, Astor Piazzola, plus surprising mix for Cloven Kingdom (Corelli, Cowell, Miller). One stellar dancer, Patrick Corbin, is filmed remarking “You completely lose yourself and become part of the music.” Another is heard referring to the dances as “ballets,” and they certainly do impress one as the highest “art” possible! Donald York was listed as music director at the time the film was made (1998). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K07lVisGJSw This is an upload of the DVD.
Unfortunately, there seems to be currently only one other available DVD of the company. Paul Taylor Dance Company in Paris was filmed in 2012 and is on Bel Air Classique label. It includes an exhiliarating non-stop performance of Brandenburgs set to Bach, and the deeply emotional Beloved Renegade, set to Poulenc’s Gloria and offering a general tribute to the American poet Walt Whitman. Michael Trusnovec gives a stunningly beautiful sculpted portrayal as the lead; Laura Halzack is the guiding angel.
See obituary of Donald York, written by Penelope Green in The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/06/13/obituaries/donald-york-dead.html
https://paultaylordance.org/ For current information about the Paul Taylor Dance Company. Michael Novak is artistic director; David LaMarche is music director. And since 2015 the company has partnered with the St. Luke’s Orchestra based in New York City, now conducted by Bernard Labadie.
For Paul Taylor’s essay “Why I Make Dances,” see Katherine Teck, Making Music for Modern Dance. pp.244-47.
https://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/03/13/cue-the-protest-musicians-union-objects-to-taylor-dance-companys-use-of-recorded-music/ A report from 2012 of the difficult decision the dance company had to make to use recorded music. Those audience members who objected, however, apparently did not help enough to raise the half-million or so dollar cost of hiring union musicians. Some conductors in other dance companies have suggested the solution of ear-marking some fund-raising for the option of live music. An ongoing challenge.
https://www.local802afm.org/allegro/articles/dancing-to-live-music-together/ The viewpoint of union Local 802. Reports the solution found for funding live music was that Paul Taylor himself provided a sizable amount personally by selling some of his art collection, and then his board chipped in.
Instrumentalists in the Pits
Now for a few words about the performing orchestral musicians directed by all those conductors! Until the latter part of the 19th century, if you were an instrumental musician in the United States, you were pretty much on your own when it came to economic and contractual arrangements. You didn’t even have any associations the equivalent of those medieval guilds.
Generally considered the first musicians’ labor union in the U.S. was the Musical Mutual Protective Union formed in New York City in 1860 by what was at first a social club of German musicians. A national organization was formed in Philadelphia in 1871, and it is interesting that one of its thrusts was to counter the competition from traveling musicians and road shows—a concern seen previously among the medieval guild members! By 1896 the American Federation of Musicians was chartered for “any musician who receives pay for his musical services.” And in 1921 Local 802 of the AFM was chartered for New York City professional musicians. Their initial admission requirement was a two-dollar fee. Other locals were formed throughout the U.S., and nowadays anyone who wishes to may join online (and subsequently pay the going rate of dues depending on which local is involved).
Unlike the requirements of the medieval Paris guild, aspiring AFM members do not have to audition or serve years as apprentices. It is considered that anyone who wants to join is already a competent professional performer—and most likely one who has had years of music lessons. Competition for the highest-paid positions (for instance with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra or Radio City Music Hall) is fierce—and instrumentalists may have to audition for specific organizations, nowadays often behind a screen to insure there will be equal opportunity focused on talent alone. For ballet orchestras, arrangements differ: auditions may be required for more long-term positions; in the case of a basically free-lance orchestra, the orchestra’s contractor may simply recruit union players considered good for the open positions, perhaps only for a single season.
The AFM is mainly focused on financial matters and working conditions, yet the union affirms some fundamental values in its mission statement: working so that members can live and work in dignity and find their work compensated fairly; recognizing the importance of members having the opportunity to develop their talents and skills. They also assert commitment to treating each other with respect and dignity regardless of ethnicity, creed, age, gender, citizenship, disability, marital status, family status, national origin, or sexual orientation.
This last standard is a welcome change. Earlier on, women and African-American musicians were subject to enormous prevailing prejudice. There were social barriers as well. At least one fine 20th-century musician for American Ballet Theatre left the company precisely because on a tour of the South, she could not stay in the same hotel with the white dancers because of segregation.
Before that, there was a noteworthy report that had an unexpected outcome. The very popular ballroom dance artists Vernon and Irene Castle had a favorite musician: James Reese Europe (who had an enormous reputation not only with his dance orchestras but also because of his stellar Army band that served in Europe during World War I). During one Broadway engagement, the Castles found that union rules then did not allow black musicians to play in the pits of Broadway theaters. They got around that by having Europe and his instrumentalists perform onstage!
The restrictions due to racial prejudice have changed considerably by now. Similarly, in regard to women musicians. For one example: Julie Landsman has been widely recognized as one of the outstanding hornplayers in the world. For 25 years she was principal horn with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra—considered the highest accomplishment for an orchestral instrumentalist. The way she made her “breakthrough” was by playing behind a screen during the audition so that the opera committee could not see her. As a finale, she played the long call from Wagner’s opera Siegfried (one of the most difficult passages in the repertoire), and when she came to the final last high note, she held it and held it beyond what anybody ever expected. Putting down her horn, she could hear the committee gasping—and she knew she had won the position. For a quarter of a century she performed beautifully with the orchestra to accompany not only singers but also the dancers onstage.
notes and explorations:
https://www.local802afm.org/history/ brief history of New York City AFM Local 802, written by Bill Rohdin.
https://biography.yourdictionary.com/vernon-and-irene-castle This includes report that the Castles were the first popular dance artists to hire black musicians.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Reese_Europe Brief bio of leader of Harlem Hellfighter’s Band in World War I, later of the Clef Club orchestras that played for social dance engagements and dance performances.
Reid Badger, A Life in Ragtime: A Biography of James Reese Europe (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995). A must-read book about this remarkable musician, especially for those interested in the history of professional African-American musicians for dance.
Brief profile of the late outstanding accompanist Marjorie Landsmark-DeLewis, in Katherine Teck, Movement to Music: Musicians in the Dance Studio, pp. 31-35. Includes her comments on playing for American Ballet Theatre, and their tour of the South.
The AFM did not and does not enter into contractual arrangements for studio pianists—who are considered soloists who accept individual financial arrangements in professional companies. Similarly, in colleges and private dance studios, pay for accompanists is considered an educational matter, with arrangements made by each school.
For information about the Met horn player, see http://www.julielandsman.com/ By clicking on her “Music” section you can hear her play the long call from Siegfried and a number of other excerpts plus the entire beautiful Brahms trio with piano and violin.
The International Guild of Musicians in Dance
Unlike the AFM union which has a primarily economic purpose, the International Guild of Musicians in Dance does not enter into contracts or become involved in financial arrangements. Rather, as highlighted in its mission statement, its goal is to “promote artistic excellence and develop education in the field, cultivate and encourage increased communication between and within the worlds of music and dance, and create a forum for the sharing of ideas, information, and resources among its members.”
This unique organization was founded in 1991 by the late William Moulton—then director of music in the dance department of SUNY Brockport, later at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. Membership has never entailed any requirement other than the desire to learn more skills and share information about how musicians and dancers can collaborate successfully. No apprenticeship is necessary, and membership is open to musicians and dancers in many styles, to students, teachers, and professionals alike.
Here is a sampling of experiences at Guild conferences.
The Guild has held conferences that have included formal public dance concerts. But also highly valued by members have been the workshop sessions: musicians accompanying dance students in studios; outstanding dance artists lecturing and dancing in improvisatory performances; experienced collaborators sharing their insights into composing and teaching; dancers explaining the music and instruments used in styles from various cultures around the globe; teachers giving tips about how to structure courses in music for dancers.
As just one example of conference offerings, for its 1995 workshop in New York City (hosted by Saul Spangenberg at Marymount Manhattan College), the Guild threw a spotlight on the important role of conductors who are more usually down in the darkened pits. The experienced panel included Donald York of the Paul Taylor Dance Company; Stanley Sussman of the Martha Graham Dance Company as well as the Cleveland/San Jose Ballet; David Briskin of the Erick Hawkins Dance Company; David LaMarche of the Dance Theatre of Harlem; and Robert Sirota of the Carlisle Project and Peabody Institute.
Summarizing his appreciation of this unique opportunity for specialist collaborative musicians to gather and talk about their work, Donald York wrote in a thank-you note:
It was wonderful to be a part of your conference. Inspiring to be in a room where everyone shares in the same madness. The Guild represents a small corner of the universe, but a wonderful, magical corner where the spirit can soar. I’m glad to have been there.
Musicians who dance and dancers who are also musicians
Participants at Guild conferences over the years have featured artists with multiple talents. Particularly outstanding was Maria Tallchief, considered “America’s first prima ballerina” when she danced for Balanchine. Later director for ballet at the Lyric Opera in Chicago, as a young girl she had studied piano and at one point had even considered becoming a concert pianist. She gifted a Florida Guild gathering with recollections and opinions about music for dance.
Among many others who have shared their talents in talking and performing and demonstrations, here is a sampling:
- Ben Hazard, not only a composer and dancer with the Atlanta Ballet.
- Lou Harrison, composer of many scores for ballet and modern dance.
- Musician/dancer Andrew Warshaw demo of motor movement and kinetics.
- Viola Farber, pianist then dancer for Merce Cunningham; then choreographer.
- Vernon Windsor, musician/dancer for 15 years with Co’ Motion troupe.
- Marcello Cofini, musician from Italy not only lecturing about tarantellas but also giving a breath-taking performance as a dancer!
Outstanding collaborative musicians
- John Colman, former pianist for Balanchine and Kurt Jooss,
- Jess Meeker, composer/pianist for Ted Shawn.
- Lucia Dlugoszewski, composer for Erick Hawkins.
- Gladys Celeste, pianist at American Ballet Theatre.
- Pianist/composer Larry Attaway former music director for Bella Lewitzky.
- Philip Hamilton, jazz singer, percussionist, and studio accompanist.
- Douglas Corbin, pianist/associate professor at Florida State University; formerly in New York pianist for David Howard studios, American Ballet Theatre, Merce Cunningham, the Ailey School.
Musicians playing varied instruments
- Ron George, with his unique percussion setup.
- Cellist Gwendolyn Watson from Stanford University.
- Khalid Saleem, master drummer for the Chuck Davis Dance Company.
- Pianist Galina Bezouglaya of the Maryinsky ballet in Russia.
- Elina Lampinen of Finland leading a group demonstrating “body percussion.”
- Christopher Landau, pianist for Martha Graham’s “Maple Leaf Rag,” performing.
- Marjorie Landsmark-DeLewis, pianist for Agnes de Mille and other artists. accompanying class and also performing her arrangement of “Balm in Gilead.”
Unusual performances and events
- Modern dancer Sara Rudner performing to the sounds of her own heartbeat.
- Choreographer Donald McKayle talking about his life in dance.
https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/10/obituaries/donald-mckayle-87-broadway-and-modern-dance-choreographer-dies.html Obituary of Donald McKayle (1930-2018).
- David Karagianis, from Loyola Marymount University in his “Dance Scorathon” presentations offering a number of alternative, and generally highly contrasting, scoring approaches to illustrate musical possibilities for original choreography by his students. “I almost always attempt to score or rescore these dances with a variety of contrasting meters and tempos,” he emphasized.
- In Urbana, host musician John Toenjes exploring multi-media methods and impelling often sedentary musicians to get up and improvise physically.
- Showings of video interviews with choreographer/musician Alwin Nikolais and Ruth Lloyd, pianist from early days at Bennington dance summers.
- Natalie Gilbert (music director of the American Dance Festival) leading a demonstration of instant vocalizing techniques.
- In Tempe, Robert Kaplan spearheading a performance leading people around the beautiful campus of the Arizona State University.
- In Florida, a dancer from Ghana demonstrating and a dancer from India explaining the tala method of teaching rhythms vocally.
In dance studios
- In California, pianist Alan Terriciano improvising for class of dance students..
- Norman Beede, another master of pianistic improvisation.
- Master accompanist John Childs from New York.
- In Florida, Ray Brooks and Greg Presley demonstrating “This Sound Always Works!”
Among the favorite sessions of attendees have been “round robin” studio classes in which dance students keep moving while musicians slip on and off piano benches to show how different styles can appropriately accompany the same movement combinations. And then there were sessions where one musician would choose another at random to improvise duets together for the first time.
- Janet Soares, author/dancer, assistant to Louis Horst (musician for Graham).
- A panel of leading arts managers spoke about fund-raising.
- Guild president Bill Moulton and Alan Terriciano of the UNC at Irvine suggested ways to improvise impressions of historical musical styles.
- Stephen Rush of Michigan explained how with state-of-the-art equipment he could literally overnight present audio and print samples of possibilities that could be expanded for a choreographer’s work in progress.
- Manjunan Gnanaratnam described his innovative Open Source Dance project in Minnesota where artists could come together to explore multi-media trends.
These are only a small sample of the topics and variety of music and dance events open to attendees at the Guild conferences. In recent years, the Guild has held joint conferences with the National Dance Educators Organization (NDEO), which has enormous membership and enormous conferences.
Related efforts and materials
For a number of years, Suzanne Knosp of the University of Arizona was unflagging in her efforts not only as president of the organization, but also in initiating a masters degree in accompaniment of dance as well as hosting workshops in Arizona and arranging for gatherings at other locations.
All the Guild conferences from 1991 through 2021 are listed in notes below as well as on the organization’s website, and the complete articles for the first seven years of the Guild’s published journal are also available online. The Guild’s archives of documentary films, interviews, recordings, and writings are in the process of being assembled, with some materials planned to be digitalized.
Under leadership of Jeff Zahos, the Guild had initiated enhanced online options: Zoom meetings and online discussion groups to share questions and information about their specialized skills and concerns, as well as to post announcements about performances, recordings, technology, and various employment positions.
Moving on, in 2023 Mariana Palacios of Spain became president of the Guild and has already expanded participation internationally. One of her first presentations was for Il Corpo nel Suono, a project begun in 2015 at the Accademia Nazionale di Danza, Rome. Their conferences and journal have as a focus the interaction between music and dance in training, choreography, and performance—exploring aspects of the past, present, and future. The latest symposium was in Glasgow, Scotland in April 2023, with the International Guild of Musicians in Dance represented by current president Mariana Palacios, Bill Patterson (vice president) and Suzanne Knosp (a former president). For information about the Italian conferences and publications, go to https://www.ilcorponelsuono.com/
notes and explorations:
For both information and membership in the International Guild of Musicians in Dance, go to https://dancemusician.org. For information about the current Guild president Mariana Palacios and her online videos and training for pianists, go to marianapalacios.com
For information about the Minneapolis project innovated by Manjunan Gnanaratnam, go to http://www.opensourcedance.org/
Conferences to date, International Guild of Musicians in Dance:
Date, Location – Host
1991 Brockport, New York – Bill Moulton
1992 Brockport, New York – Bill Moulton
1993 Miami, Florida – Natalie Gilbert, Max VanderBeek
1994 Tallahassee, Florida – Greg Presley and Ray Brooks
1995 New York, New York – Saul Spangenberg
1995 Sibelius Academy, Finland – Elina Lampinen
1997 Tempe, Arizona – Robert Kaplan and David Karagianis
1998 Stockholm, Sweden – Lars Dahlman
2000 Columbus, Ohio (Meeting) – Natalie Gilbert
2001 Columbus, Ohio – Natalie Gilbert
2001 Salzburg, Austria – Elina Lampinen
2002 Columbus, Ohio – Natalie Gilbert
2004 Irvine, CA – Alan Terriciano
2007 Urbana, Illinois – John Toenjes
2009 Tallahassee, Florida – Doug Corbin
2010 Tucson, Arizona – Suzanne Knosp
2011 Minneapolis, Minnesota (concurrent with NDEO) – Suzanne Knosp and Manjunan Gnanaratnam
2012 Los Angeles, California (concurrent with NDEO) Suzanne Knosp
2013 Brockport, New York – Tamara Wilcox
2015 Phoenix, Arizona (concurrent with NDEO) – Robert Kaplan, Suzanne Knosp
2018 Durham, North Carolina (Summer retreat) – Natalie Gilbert
information on some of the featured artists:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maria_Tallchief bio of America’s first prima ballerina.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Donald_McKayle bio of the dancer/choreographer.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Viola_Farber bio of Viola Farber.
https://archives.jacobspillow.org/Detail/entities/2234 Jess Meeker’s bio at the Jacob’s Pillow Archives.
https://www.nytimes.com/1995/03/11/obituaries/john-colman-dies-pianist-was-82.html Obituary of John Colman.
https://www.nytimes.com/2000/04/13/arts/lucia-dlugoszewski-68-composer-directed-hawkins-dance-troupe.html Obituary of Lucia Dlugoszewski, written by dance critic Jennifer Dunnning.
Women Collaborators in Modern Times
A common concern nowadays in both academia and the professional world is to draw attention to accomplished women artists of both the past and our own times. For those interested in learning more about women who worked as accompanists and composed scores for 20th century ballet, modern dance, and musicals in the United States, here are a few starter suggestions for exploration.
To gain a sense of what it was like to accompany classes and compose music for performances at the seminal modern dance summers at Bennington College in the 1930s, highly recommended is Elizabeth McPherson, editor, The Bennington School of Dance: A History in Writings and Interviews (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2013). Quite a few were women and are introduced by name, the classes they accompanied, and the scores they composed. Especially in the section drawn from the unpublished memoir by pianist Ruth Lloyd, one can glimpse both the creative work and excitement of the collaborating musicians then. Additionally, McPherson assembled Facts and Figures sections to indicate not only the faculty, but also individual dance students and what they did! A few of the summer students were coached to provide music for dance.
Further information about accompanist musicians in the 20th century can be found in my book Movement to Movement: Musicians in the Dance Studio. In chapter 3, I drew from a personal interview with Ruth Lloyd (whose career had continued for 20 years working with dancers at Sarah Lawrence College). She shared details such as the fact that in the early years, wages for musicians ranged from 85 cents to $1.25 per class hour! Other sections in the book offer reports about both women and men who served dancers doubly—as accompanists and composers—including Ruth Lloyd’s husband Norman Lloyd.
More collaborators who will be introduced briefly here pursued a variety of career paths. Some got their start as accompanists in dance studios, but later on their careers encompassed roles as music director for professional ballet and modern dance companies; commissioned composer for symphony orchestras; journalist writing newspaper reviews as music critic; composer and arranger for Broadway shows; producer of operas and purely instrumental concerts; administrator with not-for profit organizations; and as teacher in colleges and universities.
Vivian Fine (1913-2000). Her notable collaborations included composing for Martha Graham, Charles Weidman, Hanya Holm, and José Limón. To read her own essay on “My Scores for Modern Dance: Tragedy and Comedy,” go to Katherine Teck, Making Music for Modern Dance, pp. 64-68.
https://www.vivianfine.org/ The composer’s family has kept up this dedicated website that includes a brief biography plus extensive listings of her compositions by category, plus information about scores and recordings. The website offers a complete article on “The Music of Vivian Fine” by Wallingford Riegger (a composer also known for his outstanding dance scores), from American Composer’s Alliance Bulletin.
Trude Rittmann (1908-2005) was outstanding as a composer/arranger for dances within Broadway musicals. Much in demand, she worked with Agnes de Mille, Jerome Robbins, Hanya Holm, Joe Layton, and other choreographers for Broadway shows—including The King and I (for which she wrote original music for “The Small House of Uncle Thomas”). Her collaborations involved creating dance music for Carousel, Brigadoon, South Pacific, My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music, and other highly successful productions. After her retirement, I interviewed the composer for my book Music for the Dance (pp. 45-49).
Rittmann, who had studied with Ernst Toch and Philipp Jarnach, fled the Germany of her birth in 1933, when Nazis were persecuting Jews. In England she began dance collaborations at the Kurt Jooss School of Dance. By 1937 she was in the United States working first as concert accompanist and then musical director for Balanchine’s American Ballet Caravan—also composing scores. But the heart of her career began with her association with Agnes de Mille, and I recall how the composer declared with enthusiasm how much she had loved working in the theater!
For an obituary of Trude Rittmann that is informative about her main credits, click on https://www.nytimes.com/2005/03/10/theater/trude-rittmann-an-arranger-of-broadway-favorites-dies-at-96.html
For an extensive listing of Trude Rittmann’s collaborative work for Broadway, go to https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/trude-rittman-12294 [Here and in listing below, spelling Ritman is used.]
https://archives.nypl.org/mus/20167 Overview of the materials in the archives for Trude Rittmann held at the New York Public Library for Performing Arts.
Betty Walberg (1921-1990) was another bright light for both Broadway and college dancers. Born in Nebraska, she was among those Bennington students and professional musicians who had early experience with the likes of modern artists Martha Graham, Anna Sokolow, Erick Hawkins, and Hanya Holm. Later she lent her talent to the world of ballet, serving as company pianist for Jerome Robbins and his Ballet USA. She was the first piano soloist to be onstage for the premiere of his revised version of his comic ballet The Concert, and in later years she was crucial to both the stage and film productions of West Side Story. Her credits included composing dance music for Fiddler on the Roof, and doing arrangements for Gypsy, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and other hit shows.
An excellent article written in 2021 by Spider Kedelsky provides an overview of “Betty Walberg: the One and Many.” It can be found online at: https://www.ohio.edu/news/2021/11/betty-walberg-one-and-many
The writer also describes Betty Walberg’s contribution to student choreographers who attended her workshops at Ohio University, and her work at The Juilliard School, where she developed the curriculum related to music for dance. In her later years, Walberg taught in California.
Though she suffered illness toward the end of her life, Betty Walberg was still able to contribute her thoughts for my book Movement to Music: Musicians in the Dance Studio (pp. 112-14). The comments that she made then are very worthwhile thinking about now, especially for her advocating that aspiring composers play for technique classes. Touching upon that in a 1968 panel for Impulse, she emphasized: “That is where I got my inspiration for my life’s work, playing for dance classes. I didn’t just jump into composing for dance.”
https://archives.nypl.org/mus/20303 An introduction to the archive for Betty Walberg’s scores held at The New York Public Library for Performing Arts.
https://oralhistoryportal.library.columbia.edu/document.php?id=ldpd_4074780 About the Columbia University Library’s Oral History project for Betty Walberg, including both a recording and a transcript. Done in 1979.
https://www.nytimes.com/1990/10/09/obituaries/betty-walberg-69-a-musical-arranger-for-choreographers.htmlObituary written by Jack Anderson.
For information about other musicians who worked as arrangers (including for the dance sequences) a fascinating source of credits and brief biographies is Steven Suskin, The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations (Oxford University Press 2009).
Norma Reynolds Dalby Freestone (1923-2006). Born in Sanford, Colorado, she studied composition with Karel Husa and the specialty of music for dance with Louis Horst. A pianist/percussionist/composer/teacher/accompanist, during the course of her career this musician collaborated with over 200 dance artists, starting with being music director and composer for the Repertory Dance Theatre in Salt Lake City. Later moving to New York she was on the faculty of Sarah Lawrence College and composed scores for multitudes of student performances as well as for professional choreographers including Lucas Hoving, Don Redlich, and Kei-Takei’s Moving Earth.
The record of artists with whom Norma Dalby worked as a musician in both ballet and modern technique classes reads like a list of who was who in dance at the time, including Merce Cunningham, Martha Graham, José Limón, Pearl Lang, Alwin Nikolais, Glen Tetley, Dan Wagoner, Jennifer Muller, and Todd Bolender.
Norma was my mentor in improvising for studio dance classes, and I also had the unusual experience of performing on horn in a small ensemble for one of her performances, sitting precariously on top of a very narrow lighting bridge looking down at the dancers! She suggested “It would be interesting to know how other people do this—compose music for dancers.” So later I interviewed her formally for my books Music for the Dance: Reflections on a Collaborative Art (pp. 52-55) and Movement to Music: Musicians in the Dance Studio (pp. 192-98).
A brief article by Norma Dalby is “Rhythm Lies in the Seed,” Dance Observer, December 1963.
This composer was featured at professional conferences and festivals. British writer Judyth Knight wrote her report “Norma Dalby at The Place” for Dancing Times (Spring 1974) and commented on the musician’s teaching a Sound and Movement workshop at the London School of Contemporary Dance:
Indeed, she pursues relentlessly the cohesion of these elements, and although she is first and foremost a musician, she never allowed the perception and analysis of sound and movement to become separated….
Although Norma Dalby obviously possesses a vast knowledge of the technical resources available to the contemporary musician, whether in a creative, interpretative or teaching situation, it is equally certain that her interest is focused on an unceasing search for original means of expression, and that she constantly seeks to stimulate a similar open-mindedness and imaginative response through her classes….
I would even venture to suggest that to some extent it was Norma Dalby’s unquestionable artistic integrity and the rich human qualities which so entirely pervade her professional outlook that were the most highly valued features of her visit to The Place; and which accordingly made her such a warmly welcome guest.
https://www.deseret.com/2006/5/9/19750834/obituary-norma-reynolds-dalby-freestone Local obituary in Utah.
https://archiveswest.orbiscascade.org/ark:/80444/xv89804 Information about the composer’s archives now in Utah, including papers and original scores.
Peggy Glanville-Hicks (1912-1990) was born in Melbourne, Australia, where she grew up and attended the conservatory. She continued her training in London with Ralph Vaughan Williams and Constant Lambert, then subsequently in Paris with Nadia Boulanger. Later the composer moved to New York City and became a U.S. citizen. She had a wide range of projects—including composing some beautiful and dramatic ballet scores for choreographer John Butler. Also known as a music critic, she wrote for the New York Herald Tribune for eight years, and was active as a promoter of contemporary music by other composers, notably in her work with Composer’s Forum. Seeking a calmer less expensive place to live and work, she made her home on a Greek island, yet still pursued contacts and projects with outstanding artists and patrons in other locations.
As Deborah Hayes observed in her listing for Oxford Music Online (accessed in 2008):
As a composer she had an affinity…for tonal music, consonant and often non-diatonic harmonies, and modal melodies such as are heard in traditional or folk musics. Her melodic writing is distinctive, as are her clear textures and rhythmic patterns, often reinforced by a variety of percussion instruments.
These very kinetic attributes can be noticed in her ballet scores such as for Butler’s Jephthah’s Daughter (preserved in a b&w film available at the New York Public Library for Performing Arts) featuring the dancer Carmen de Lavallade.
Biographer Suzanne Robinson (on the faculty of the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music) offers results of her detailed researches in Peggy Glanville-Hicks: Composer and Critic (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2019). She chronicles the life and career of this artist, who found challenges in simply supporting herself especially as a woman composer. Though Glanville-Hicks did garner crucial fellowships, grants, and commissions, she had quite a few years of fragile finances, as documented in one of her letters quoted by Robinson [p. 138]:
There [is] no composer of even half my ability who has not had backing at critical points in his career, (men too, most of them) and when I think how it’s a hundred times more difficult for a woman to make a way alone with NO help from anywhere, I must say that I think it unspeakable that I’ve been left to struggle with it all this time.
https://glanville-hicks.info/about/ Suzanne Robinson’s online blog that includes a sampling of pictures and intriguing documentary information about the composer, her family, and colleagues.
A book that focuses on the creative output and style of the composer’s works is Victoria Rogers, The Music of Peggy Glanville-Hicks (Farnham,UK: Ashgate, 2009, available through Routledge). The author met Glanville-Hicks, played cello in the orchestra for a recording, and later had the opportunity to interview the composer. At the time of writing, she was Honorary Associate Professor at the Western Australia Academy of Performing Arts.
Though Victoria Rogers gives a chronological introduction to the styles of the composer’s specific compositions, unfortunately the collaborations with Butler and the ballet scores themselves are not discussed. Just a few paragraphs about Drama for Orchestra (p. 183), a reworking of the tense score that John Butler had commissioned in 1958 for the Spoleto Festival for his ballet Masque of the Wild Man. Also (p. 179) a few words about Tapestry for Orchestra, the reworking of the 1959 score for Saul and the Witch of Endor. Similarly (p. 234) about Tragic Celebration, the reworking of the score for Jephthah’s Daughter. However, the author’s commentary on the general aesthetic views and practices of Glanville-Hicks is of interest (pp. 87-96), emphasizing the composer’s sparse textures of melody and rhythm (with harmony subsumed), and the influence of non-Western traditions. Rogers makes the telling generalization (p. 244):
Where the music of the dissonant avant-garde of the 1950s and 1960s was never seriously intended for concert-going audiences and has survived largely as an intellectual relic for connoisseurs and musicologists, Glanville-Hicks wrote music directly for an audience.
To hear music by this composer for yourself, CD recordings are available via amazon—including songs, orchestral works, and instrumental pieces. Her operas Nausicaa,The Transposed Heads, and Sappho are all available now (with the last one not even performed during the composer’s lifetime). A sampler of vocal scenes from the Athens premiere of Nausicaa starring then-young soprano Teresa Stratas was conducted by Carlos Surinach, reissued in 1995 by CRI.
http://www.soundslikesydney.com.au/reviews/cd-review-sappho-the-opera-by-peggy-glanville-hicks/10360.html An enthusiastic review of the premiere recording of Sappho in 2012.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I46BxEwavto A 1960 recording of Drama for Orchestra (the composer’s reworking of the 1959 ballet Saul and the Witch of Endor) with Alfred Antonini leading the NAACC Festival Orchestra.
https://www.nytimes.com/1993/09/13/obituaries/john-butler-74-choreographer-and-a-versatile-dancer-is-dead.html An obituary of choreographer John Butler.
https://glanville-hicks.info/john-butler/ Brief online information about the collaborations between John Butler and Peggy Glanville-Hicks.
Choreographers might explore whether some of the purely instrumental works by Glanville-Hicks (such as the kinetic outer movements of Etruscan Concerto, plus its lush Meditation) could offer attractive possibilities and be available for grand rights performance. Here is a link to the fine performance of the four-minute first movement with Keith Jarrett as piano soloist and orchestra conducted by Dennis Russell Davies. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rjSQ8qHzR3M There doesn’t seem to be a CD, but Jarrett’s 20th Century Piano Concertos is available as MP3 from amazon. Or for something a little different just to hear, the harp sonata: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a3rJqdSMCR4
Lucia Dlugoszewski (1925-2000). Although far from traditional ballet styles, yet the collaborations of this Detroit-born composer with modern choreographer Erick Hawkins (1909-94) should be spotlighted as outstanding among 20th century partnering of sylized music and theatrical dance. And it can be noted that Hawkins himself had not only performed at Bennington, but also taught some classes in ballet there. After a short marriage to Martha Graham, he found a life-long love and collaborator in pianist/composer Lucia Dlugoszewski.
A most welcome recent biography is by Amy C. Beal, Terrible Freedom: The Life and Work of Lucia Dlugoszewski (University of California Press, 2022). The author set out to present her researched focus on the life and cultural times in which the composer worked, including mentioning some of the obstacles needed to be overcome by women composers in general.
Drawing on the extensive personal papers, letters, diaries, and scores of the composer now in the Library of Congress, the biographer introduces a student of wide-ranging interests who was considering medical school; the subsidized gestation of a self-described “brash” young artist immersed in the avant-garde New York City scene of the 1960s; her long personal and professional collaboration with choreographer Erick Hawkins (with their romance beginning in 1951, their marriage in 1962, and intertwinings extending until his death in 1994—and actually beyond, when Dlugoszewski took over as director of his dance company and also presented choreography of her own).
The biographer brings together for readers some near-ecstatic reviews of both Dlugoszewski’s collaborative scores for dance and of her purely concert works especially from the 1970s on, when she received major commissions from the New York Philharmonic and the National Endowment for the Arts, Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society, Mikhail Baryshnikov’s White Oak Dance Project, and other outstanding presenters.
A sampling of reactions include a Village Voice critic calling Dlugoszewski’s music “dazzling examples of American music here and now” (p. 111). And on p. 123 the composer Ned Rorem is quoted as calling her “The Queen of the Dance,” and claiming that she was only one of two American composers—Leonard Bernstein being the other—to have come up with memorable ballet scores in thirty years.” Beal also quotes the composer Virgil Thomson (p. 121):
Calling her “an artist of great originality, of very high musical and intellectual powers,” he made the extraordinary claim that “there are very few composers of her quality anywhere in the world.”
And San Francisco Chronicle critic Heuwell Tircuit is quoted (p. 118):
There is intelligence and originality in her work…astoundingly balanced in form….Clearly, this is one of America’s most commanding composers, one you should know.
Amy C. Beal’s book helps us precisely to know more about the composer as a person, but importantly, also about the specifics of her dance collaborations, her touring and performing with the Hawkins dancers, her methods of notation, her musical styles and exploration of varying timbres with her invented percussion instruments, plus her aesthetic outlook as often presented in her concert program notes.
For easy access to two essays by the collaborators, see my collection Making Music for Modern Dance, which includes Lucia Dlugoszewski’s early 1957 article “Notes on New Music for the Dance: Choices Open to Collaborators at Midcentury” and the essay by Erick Hawkins: “My Love Affair with Music” written a decade later, in 1967.
Online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=enl_G5Oq8rk is a recommended presentation by Libby Smigel (dance curator at the Library of Congress, where the composer’s archives are preserved) and Kate Doyle (then a student at Case who was researching music by Dlugoszewski) discussing the collaborations between Dlugoszewski and choreographer Erick Hawkins. Filmed at the Library of Congress in 2017, the program includes samples of scores and charts.
https://blogs.loc.gov/music/2021/04/erick-hawkins-lucia-dlugoszewski/ A 2021 note about the new materials for Hawkins and Dlugoszewski now in the Library of Congress.
The American Dance Festival released a DVD filmed in 1988 titled Erick Hawkins: Poet of the Modern Dance, which includes both his eloquent thoughts and Lucia Dlugoszewski’s observations about creating music and dance for the theater. It can still be seen in some libraries.
To hear samples of music by this composer, do an online search for Lucia Dlugoszewski You Tube. Among the works available online at this time is Disparate Stairway Radical Other performed by the White Oak Ensemble (a string quartet) at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PdYxYf5TcJU
And for viewers today the good news is that you can now purchase the Dance Horizons sampler film Erick Hawkins’ America, on DVD. Go to https://www.dancehorizons.com/product-page/erick-hawkins-america
For current event information as well as some stunning photographs and videos of the Erick Hawkins Dance Company (which is continuing to perform under the direction of Katherine Duke), go to https://www.erickhawkinsdance.org/ Included is a film of Cantilever with music by Lucia Dlugoszewski, performed for the American Dance Guild in 2009.
Tania León, (b. 1943). This Cuban-born composer/conductor was chosen as one of the prestigious Kennedy Center honorees in 2022. She came to the United States in 1967, settled in New York City, became an American citizen, and carved out a wide-spanning career working with theatrical dance, composing and conducting concert music, teaching at the college level, and spearheading festivals of contemporary music. Her many notable achievements are listed on her website at https://www.tanialeon.com/ and include a 2021 Pulitzer Prize for her composition Stride, commissioned by the New York Philharmonic in celebration of the 19th amendment granting women the right to vote.
But for our purposes here, the important thing to know is that she was the first music director for Arthur Mitchell’s Dance Theatre of Harlem. Her first score for ballet was Tones, for piano and orchestra, which was among the first choreography that Mitchell presented with Dance Theatre of Harlem, in 1971. Her musical projects for the company included working with Geoffrey Holder on Dougla (1974) and Belé (1981); arranging Judith Hamilton’s music for The Beloved (originally choreographed by Lester Horton) for a new staging by DTH; and an original score for Haiku choreographed by Walter Raines. For the Dance Brazil, she wrote Inura in 2009 for choreography by Carlos Dos Santos.
https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/30/arts/dance/dougla-dance-theater-of-harlem-geoffrey-holder-carmen-de-lavallade.html Writing about rehearsals for a 2018 revival of Dougla under the direction of the choreographer’s son Leo Holder, and coached by his widow Carmen de Lavallade, critic Gia Kourias referred to “Tania León’s shimmering, percussive score, created with Holder” and quoted de Lavallade as saying that “the music is just divine and it’s very exciting.”
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qD1pWqMQTxQ Dance Theatre of Harlem’s stunning performance of Geoffrey Holder’s Dougla in 2021. Even the curtain calls were choreographed! The musical instrumentation by Tania León was mostly percussion, but also featured several flutes.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IqG3P80NOOU Dougla through the Years, filmed in 2020, a Zoom discussion between generations of Dance Theatre of Harlem performers. Dougla refers to people in Trinidad of both African and South Asian descent, and the onstage story depicted a traditional wedding.
https://exhibitions.library.columbia.edu/exhibits/show/mitchell/dance-theatre-of-harlem–compa/repertory-list Repertory list for Dance Theatre of Harlem, 1969-2004 with details of credits, compiled by Lynn Garafola for an exhibit at the Columbia University Library. The range of music used for dances performed by DTH under the leadership of Arthur Mitchell was just extraordinary.
Over the years León’s work with dancers included conducting ballet and dance music by a number of composers–including for the Broadway hit musical The Wiz (directed by Geoffrey Holder, with music by Charlie Smalls and choreography by George Faison). And for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater she prepared musical reconstructions and conducted the full-evening program “The Magic of Katherine Dunham.” More recently, she conducted a new score by Jessie Montgomery, commissioned by the Virginia Arts Festival for Dance Theatre of Harlem’s Passage, choreographed by Claudia Schreier to mark the 400th anniversary of the first enslaved Africans to arrive in Virginia in 1609. And in 2012 Pedro Ruiz choreographed a work for Dance Theatre of Harlem to Tania León’s Homenatge, which was dedicated to the pianist Adam Kent, who performed live for the dance as well as for the earlier musical premiere in Carnegie Hall. The music can be heard on the 2022 Albany CD titled Teclas de mi piano, on which Kent offers virtuoso performances of this piece plus Tumbao and nine other works by León.
For brief information about Tania León’s earlier professional involvement in dance (and her thwarted desire as a girl to take ballet lessons), see my write-up based on a personal interview, in Music for the Dance (pp. 72-75).
Now considerably more well-known in the concert world, Tania León has numerous recordings available, and there are many clips of performances of her music if you do a search on You Tube.
https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/07/arts/music/tania-leon-new-york-philharmonic.html William Robin presents fact-filled profile of Tania León.
A most informative and fascinating 2021 “Chat with Tania León” is available for viewing at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-p48FXcSaE4 with Sebastian Danila for The Orchestra Now of Bard College.
In the filmed interview, the composer describes her youthful musical training in Cuba as focused totally on classical piano repertoire. Her conducting experiences began for DTH at the Spoleto Festival in Italy! She went on to study conducting formally (including with Leonard Bernstein at his Tanglewood workshops), and in addition to study composition with Ursula Mamlock; to earn academic degrees; and to teach composition herself. Toward the end of her career in college academia, she was named a Distinguished Professor at the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music. At present she continues her advocacy of contemporary music as director of the organization that she founded in 2010: Composers Now.
Regarding her own styles of new music, Tania León recalls that when her late father heard some of her early composition (created under academic influences including 12-tone techniques), he said it was very interesting, but asked pointedly where was she in the music. Subsequently she became much more free and diverse in how she arranged sounds. And touching upon how physical movement can inspire even concert music, she recalls how her father walked, and her composition titled Tumbao.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tk0JBu_ryAw Full 14-minute performance of Ácana by Tania León, performed by The Orchestra Now at Bard College, conducted by Leon Botstein in 2021. This is the piece discussed in the “Chat” above, and the title refers to an ancient kind of tree that is particularly strong. Not one of her dance scores, but very inviting for anyone just to listen to as a sample of Tania León’s concert music.
For those who want to know more about this composer, there is a highly recommended recent biography: Alejandro L. Madrid, Tania León’s Stride: A Polyrhythmic Life (University of Illinois Press, 2021). The author was, at the time of his writing, professor of musicology at Cornell University and subsequently joined the music faculty at Harvard University.
Of particular interest are chapters 3 (dealing with her dance collaborations and earlier composition of concert works) and 4 (which presents information about Tania León’s conducting). Summing up his own emotional reaction to this aspect of her musical work, Alejandro L. Madrid commented (p. 98): “León’s conducting style is sober and pragmatic, yet breathtakingly precise, elegant, and communicative.” And generalizing about her artistry, he wrote (p. 180);
Tania León’s music is more than the wonderful aesthetic beauty she has created; it is her deeply personal statements about tolerance, openness, fluidity, and the power of freedom and dreams. The story of her life is an example of love, integrity, determination, independence, and struggle to succeed against all odds.
The only English directory of women concert composers in the Western world seems to be The Norton/Grove Dictionary of Women Composers, edited by Julie Anne Sadie and Rhian Samuel (New York & London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1995).There are listings and brief biographies for 875 women composers through the ages, and out of these you can find 64 with at least one “ballet” indicated in their works. Most entries do not include information about choreographers or performances. Indeed, for a large number of the brief biographies, there are no listings of “Works” at all. Obviously in this older book you won’t find entries about composers of newer theatrical dance scores that we may hear in our own times. But the directory can be at least a place for those interested to start exploring.
Subsequently, for information about how some unusual late 20th century commissions for collaborations came about (involving both men and women), see my related journal article: Katherine Teck, “Meet The Composer’s Composer/Choreographer Project: A Bold Vision with Far-Reaching Results,” in the Journal of the International Guild of Musicians in Dance, Vol. 1, 1991, pp. 4-16. This project—which was spearheaded by John Duffy—included 45 nonprofit dance companies, 60 composers, and 46 choreographers! With funding from both the Ford Foundation and Pew Charitable Trusts, grants totaled $1,200,000. My report can be accessed via the Guild’s website at https://dancemusician.org/
Despite the success of some primarily concert-oriented musicians (both men and a few women) it can be pointed out that the number of their scores for choreography may seem limited in comparison to the collaborative output of music directors nowadays within college and university dance departments. Over their academic careers, a number of such specialty musicians have created dozens of soundscores (some even upwards of a hundred) for student performances, dance faculty, and professional choreographers.
As mentioned already, quite a few contemporary composers dedicated to theatrical dance started out learning their craft simply by accompanying studio classes in ballet or modern styles. And that aspect of collaboration will be explored next.
Exploring Professional Opportunities
For pianists who may be wondering how their talents could be put to use professionally: there is still a place for the traditional studio dance accompanist. Basically the same role filled as in ballet studios going back a long time. (Although for centuries, a solo violin was used in teaching dance—usually played by the dance master.) As an example of the skills called for nowadays, here is an excerpt from a posting made by the Richmond Ballet in 2019, and this is how many musicians for dance get started in the field. It should be noted that for studio musicians accompanying modern dance or jazz dance, perhaps the most important skill is being able to improvise in many styles. But for ballet, this is typical:
The School of Richmond Ballet is seeking to hire a part-time accompanist for weekly ballet classes as scheduled. Accompanists support The School faculty in presenting ballet classes by providing inspirational accompaniment for dance classes. Pianists with prior dance accompaniment experience are preferred…Applicants need to possess a strong classical piano technique, good musicianship, and have the ability to follow musical direction. A ready grasp of classical repertoire is essential and sight-reading, while not entirely necessary, is very helpful….Requirements include choosing music with appropriate rhythms and tempos by observing the movement of the dancers, having the ability to adapt/improvise in order to support the quality of the movement, always being prepared and consistent in the studio. Must be diligent, reliable, and maintain cooperative working relationships with faculty, staff and students.
Online classes to view:
Especially for those who have never seen a ballet class, the following websites from the annual “World Ballet” events provide some excellent examples of what pianists are expected to play in the studio class. Professional dancers do not want to hear repertoire when they are working out!
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SurwomMzEI4 From the World Ballet Day 2021 here is the Dutch National Ballet in a full company class taught by Charlotte Chapellier, accompanied by pianist Paul Lewis. Viewers thought this especially beautiful—both dancers and music.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M8zytT-8uuI Royal Ballet for 2019 taught by Brian Maloney with pianist Robert Clark. A number of viewers particularly appreciated the pianist, one saying that “The main thing of ballet class is an accompanist!” Another viewer remarked on the fact that Clark did not use music—but with professional accompanists, this is normal!
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FySuVhmb-OY And this is 2018 class taught by Olga Evreinoff and with again pianist Robert Clark, identified further by words like “fantastic.” Witness to how in touch the musician must be with the teacher and class, here is an amusing comment by viewer Stephanie C: I love how the teacher basically says “ok so you’re going to bfisbalfbkfofhwiwbfkfownwos got it?! Ok let’s go” and the dancers are like yup ok got it!
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-TYUCUcT41I Artistic director Carlos Acosta introduces soloists and principals of the Birmingham Royal Ballet showcasing their onstage class for World Ballet Day 2020. Ballet master Dominic Antonucci sets the combinations for the dancers, and Mathew Drury is the pianist—starting out with his variations on “Amazing Grace.” A particularly nice class to watch, since the ballet master provides tempos and style with his voice plus some physical demonstration, and at times the camera films from above. Then there are the extraordinary dancers!
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OgfCdj-jYso Bayerische Staatsoper class, taught in English by Yana Zelensky. Pianist, Natalia Rysina. 2019.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VIYn7W0mfuE Paris Opera Ballet class led by Andrey Klemm (partly in English). Pianist, Nanko Tsuji (partly some repertoire).
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FoF3xeWObD4 Staaatsballet Berlin, 2020. Yannick Sempey teacher; Nodira Burchanowa, pianist. She includes some music from ballet repertoire—just another example of different ways of playing for class.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y-gz55Gdi0M Joburg, South Africa class. Viewers found this awesome! Teacher is Thabang Mabaso. Unfortunately no live pianist.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Th-7Fjb1Jdo Hong Kong Ballet, 2019.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HcBqr9nyIRc Scottish Ballet 2019. Teacher: Oliver Rydout. Pianist, Brian Prentice. Especially nice! Lovely progression from gentle plié music to warming bodies further at the barre. Teacher is terrific in giving the expected rhythms and meters and tempos by the way he vocalizes the exercises. Pianist tastefully injects some jazz sounds now and then, beautifully supports dancers doing slow arabesques etc. up to men’s vigorous turns in second and ladies’ leaps. Good example of dancers’ amazing abilities to remember complicated center combinations immediately! One viewer commented: “Great class! Great teacher! Fab pianist! Gorgeous dancers!”
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xBxGXQhc_4E Australian Ballet. Included practice for little swans from Swan Lake, excerpts from Cinderella, etc.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S5Z-7_aIhQU Wendy Whelan guest teaches the trainees at Ballet Met. Tyrone Boyle is the pianist. Unfortunately Ms. Whelan’s voice can barely be heard, but still worth watching.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KGN9O0NFyM0 Artistic director Peter Boal leads three dancers of Pacific Northwest Ballet, May 2020 during time of virus, in an hour class. Pianist is Natasha Pinelis.
training for accompanists:
https://markmorrisdancegroup.org/community/professional-development/mark-morris-dance-accompaniment-training-program/Highly professional intensive workshops in accompanying dance, at the Mark Morris studios in Brooklyn, NY.
https://www.postgraduatesearch.com/royal-conservatoire-of-scotland/52670842/postgraduate-course.htm The Scottish Ballet in conjunction with the Scottish Conservatoire offers a program in Piano for Dance
http://www.ilcorponelsuono.com/home.html International conferences at the Accademia Nazionale di Danza in Rome. Journals. Focus is on many aspects of collaboration, including both practical explorations of music for studio and performance, as well as scholarly research.
https://www.esbq.ca/en/accompaniment/ Another workshop—week-long, in Quebec.
https://www.nbs-enb.ca/en/professional-development/musicians-mentoring Canada’s National Ballet School mentoring for musicians program.
https://marianapalacios.com/ballet-pianist-course/ A unique online course in ballet accompaniment, by the Spanish pianist Mariana Palacios (who has worked in ballet studios for over 15 years, including for the Swedish National Ballet School and the Royal Danish Ballet). As a young girl, she studied both ballet and piano; as a teen she focused on piano—eventually combining her talents to accompany ballet classes and write a Masters thesis on the subject. So she has been developing her understanding of this demanding art for many years.
After traveling around Europe to observe other musicians and after working in different venues herself, Mariana can offer a sense of what is going on in the continent. In addition, she is president of the International Guild of Musicians in Dance and has already expanded the interchange of experiences and ideas of collaborating musicians from different parts of the world.
The course offered by Mariana Palacios is recommended for pianists curious to know what is involved in ballet accompanying, but it is also informative as training for novices and inspiring for those who have been at it for some time. Though her focus is on classes for advanced professional dancers, she also explains what musicians may expect to experience in other levels of classes. She presents the French terms, the purpose and character of specific exercises, suggests what musical characteristics are appropriate…then offers demonstrations by two different dancers, followed by segments of her accompanying. In downloadable pages, she analyzes what is involved for each exercise: the meter, tempo, structure, character, and plays musical examples to go along with the videos.
Perhaps especially helpful for classically-trained pianists is the section demonstrating how musicians could begin to practice improvisation in not only classical styles, but also jazz and modal veins–starting with left hand patterns alone, and then adding new melodies based on motifs. Also provided are links to entire classes that viewers can see online, plus advice about protocols and challenges that ballet teachers face in studio classes. As part of her package, Mariana Palacios offers one-on-one coaching for those who have further questions after completing the course on their own. Finally, she points out that there can be variety and many possibilities of style in musical accompaniment that can help dancers to execute difficult movements and repeated exercises.
https://www.dancemagazine.com/dance-accompanist-2569116256.html a light-hearted article from Dance Magazine May 2018 by Jonathan Mathews-Guzmán about what it was like to start out dancing and then turn to accompanying.
As an aspiring musician gains skills, another career possibility might be as a full-time (ten-month) “principal musician,” at a college or university, with responsibilities such as the following (taken from several actual calls for employment ):
Accompanying dance classes in ballet, modern, and jazz; hiring other musicians and scheduling part-time hours to cover all studio classes; mentoring less experienced musicians; composing original music for faculty and student performances; securing legal “grand rights” permissions if extant music by other composers is used; maintaining pianos and percussion instruments; maintaining sound systems; teaching students how to use sound systems; teach classes in fundamentals of music within the dance department; teach classes in history of music, including not only European works but also “world” and popular American styles; sight read music; provide sheet music for particular works requested by dance teachers.
In my article “Rosenella, or the Princess Musician” published in Attitude: The Dancer’s Magazine, I reported (with only a few exaggerations) about academic calls for employment, in order to point out just how much was expected and demanded of musicians who filled higher level positions as directors of music for dance:
Qualifications: MFA in music composition; demonstrated excellence in accompanying ballet and modern dance classes; strong classical piano technique and personal library of ballet scores; ability to improvise in all contemporary jazz, medieval, Renaissance, Romantic, Baroque, Classical, and world music styles; extensive experience in collaborative composing of music for professional dance productions; creativity in teaching music courses for dancers; excellence in performing at public concerts; technical expertise in state-of-the-art theatrical sound and recording equipment; thorough knowledge of dance technique and styles; proficiency with Latin, African-American, and Asian percussion instruments; means of transport and personal collection of drums; expertise in keyboard synthesizers and computerized composing; working knowledge of arithmetic and sewing; ability to count the right way.
Duties: teach undergraduate dance department courses in musical theory and musical literature; develop related curriculum; play 20 hours a week of accompanying studio classes in ballet and modern dance plus sessions in choreography and improvisation—using piano, percussion, synthesizers, recording equipment and other available instruments; audition, train and supervise staff accompanists; consult with faculty and student choreographers; serve on department committees; serve on university committees; supervise junior student choreography projects; supervise senior dance student choreography projects; supervise graduate student choreography projects; compose original music for dance projects; rehearse evenings and weekends; provide all aspects of sound production, including editing and mastering of performance master tapes; supervise musicians for performances; negotiate with musicians’ union; maintain sound equipment; maintain library of recordings; maintain activity in scholarly writings to insure tenure; maintain personal professional activity in performance, research, and composing; maintain sanity. [Attitude, Spring 1993, pp. 68-70]
Hats off to the professional collaborating musicians who in reality add so much to the efforts of dance students and teachers!
Musicians in Professional Ballet Companies
For any music student or aspiring musician who is even thinking about a possible career with a professional ballet company, highly recommended is Matthew Naughtin, Ballet Music: A Handbook (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2014). Though it has been published for some years now, this book is informative as background, and also offers observations that may be of practical use. It briefly covers the history of this collaborative art; defines technical terminology; suggests the common structure of professional ballet companies; and explores finances plus legal concerns. Speaking authoritatively as a long-term music librarian with the San Francisco Ballet, the author offers brief descriptions of what the technical staff does, and what the daily schedules of dancers are like.
More pertinently for musicians, there is a chapter about the specific skills needed for behind-the-scenes studio and rehearsal pianists. Then the author outlines the duties and concerns of conductors, composers, and music librarians—which are so different from those of people in positions with symphony orchestras.
Following this very practical information, Part Two presents an alphabetical guide to most-performed repertoire, with brief remarks about each ballet, and indications of current sources plus lists of the usual order of dance sections for each theatrical work (and in some cases, for alternate choreographed versions). Included is a useful listing of ballet companies around the world, with websites and emails (also the 2014 music directors, though obviously one would have to check on current names). And finally, there are sample letters of request for performing rights.
To give a taste of the author’s insights, here from p. 80:
Of all the unglamorous behind-the-scenes tasks that go into facilitating the smooth functioning of ballet companies and the creation of great dance performances, that of the company pianist is perhaps the most crucial—and the least visible. Occasionally…pianists enjoy a fleeting moment onstage in the spotlight and a solo bow, but the daily reality is one of physically and mentally demanding work rewarded by the gratitude and affection of the dancers and the satisfaction of participating in a vital creative process.
The author goes on to speak of conductors, on p. 81:
Ballet conductors are a uniquely specialized species within the luxuriant flora and fauna of the musical landscape. They must serve three masters with equal dedication and concentration—the dancers on stage, the composer’s score, and the musicians in the orchestra pit—and they must keep dancers and musicians in perfect unity while giving the score its best chance to shine.
And as a composer of ballet scores himself, Naughtin observes (p. 87) that:
…the experience of “seeing” one’s music translated into movement has kept composers coming back to the ballet studio….The response of a choreographer and dancers to music does reveal hidden possibilities and wonders the composer, submerged in the minutiae of the score, rarely envisions.
Finally, in chapter 7 Naughtin offers insights from his own experience as one of that “rare breed,” about what music librarians do if they work with large ballet companies. All in all, the book can be a helpful reference for musicians in professional ballet or anybody even thinking of becoming one!
Teacher of Music at SAB
Affiliated with New York City Ballet, the School of American Ballet (SAB) located in New York City has long been considered the apex of professional ballet training in the tradition of Balanchine technique. Obviously the hope of many students there is that someday they might be accepted into the corps of New York City Ballet—and from there, who knows?
In addition to the many seasoned pianists who accompany daily classes and occasional showcase performances by students, there is one unique musician: since 2021, the composer Aaron Severini (b. 1981). The background he brings is most unusual because even before he earned undergraduate and master’s degrees in composition at The Juilliard School, he trained in ballet first at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. Subsequently, he himself was a student at SAB from 1995-1998 and went on to dance professionally in the corps with New York City Ballet from 1998 to 2009. Probably especially pertinent for his later teaching was his work with the company’s education and outreach programs.
Deeply aware of the unusual musical heritage from George Balanchine, Severini teaches courses covering the history of both classical music and dance as well as ear training and the fundamentals of music. Making the studies more personal, special attention is given to music that students may have heard in recent performances of New York City Ballet—or which they themselves may have danced to either in class or SAB programs. Their doubly-talented mentor hopes that this musical training at SAB will serve the aspiring dancers beyond their student years—whether they become professional performers, choreographers, ballet masters, or teachers themselves some day.
As a composer now himself, Aaron Severini’s recent projects are not limited to the world of dance. He has written scores for concert groups, television, and film—including music for the documentary Baryshnikov Arts Center: Fifteen Years +1 (“The House That Curiosity Built”). This can be seen complete online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MQFhBq053Gw
To see and hear a video clip of Pom/Pom, Portrait of Man, an intriguing collaboration between Aaron Severini and the choreographer/dancer Marcus Jarrell Willis (with text by Tomos O’Sullivan), go to https://www.aaronseverini.com/ and click on the Music/Dance tab. Available also are audio samples of some very kinetic and attractive music that the composer wrote, including “R1703A” plus scores specifically for dancers: “10” for Kiyon Gaines formerly of Pacific Northwest Ballet and The Monarch for former New York City Ballet soloist Adam Hendrickson.
What Music Directors in Academia Really Do
To learn about the wide-ranging work done by music directors for dance in colleges and universities, a good way to start is by exploring the personal website of Jeff Zahos, recent president of The International Guild of Musicians in Dance. Formerly for five years music director for dance at the University of California in Riverside, he is now based in San Jose, California. From his home page, click on “Music and Dance” and you will find squares with short introductions about designing sound, setting up instruments and musicians’ areas in dance studios, what dance musicians do, how making music for dance is different, designing soundscapes for dance performances, playing percussion, improvising for dancers, working with technology…and more! Additionally, his online resume lists academic courses he taught as well as very specific skills now expected in relation to digital audio production. Highly recommended. https://www.jeffzahos.com/
Profiles of a few other outstanding music directors follow here, as suggestions of what skills musicians might expect to offer if they aspire to positions at this level —as well as samples of related collaborative experiences some have had.
Robert Boston not only works as director of music for dance at Barnard College in Manhattan; he also heads up the workshop program to train accompanists for dance, given annually at the Mark Morris Dance Center in Brooklyn (where he was formerly principal pianist). A composer and performer of jazz, contemporary classical, and electronic music, he has recorded and performed with numerous groups in addition to creating music for a spectrum of choreographers’ styles. For further specifics, go to https://barnard.edu/profiles/robert-boston
And for some fascinating soundclips sampling the variety of music by this musician, go to https://soundcloud.com/rbostonzeit
In the Mid-West, John Toenjes staked out a long-term career as director of music for dance at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2001. Though earlier in life he both made harpsichords and played with the San Francisco Symphony, his more recent activities have included unusual investigations with his Laboratory for Audience Interactive Technologies—far removed from styles expected from classically-trained musicians! To see some intriguing samples of his more than 30 soundscores with dancers in action, his unusual instruments, and much more, go to his personal website at https://sites.google.com/jtoenjes.com/cv-works/home John Toenjes is a founding member and past president of the International Guild of Musicians in Dance. His website suggests some amazing possibilities that collaboration can provide for musicians in dance nowadays!
Douglas Corbin is another leading musician for ballet and modern dance. You can hear his piano music on more than 20 recordings geared for dance (with many now available streaming via amazon). Originally from Omaha, Nebraska, after moving to New York and earning degrees at Hunter College, over decades Corbin worked there with well-known professional dance artists, companies and schools, including the American Ballet Theatre, Alvin Ailey School, the late ballet teacher David Howard, Twyla Tharp, and Merce Cunningham. In other locations, he was at the American Dance Festival, and for many years in the dance department at Florida State University—where as Professor he also taught courses in rhythmic analysis and music for choreography. Currently, he modestly says “I still live this work, wherever I turn up!” And that includes international workshops in dance training: in Copenhagen, Zürich, Amsterdam, Stuttgart, Havana, Caracas, and Hiroshima as well as entire seasons with the Ballet am Rheim in Düsseldoft, and the Ballet Compagnie Oldenberg in Germany. An unusual way to get to see the world! In the U.S. his talents have taken him from working with Suzanne Farrell, Lorraine Graves, the Houston Ballet, and the West Virginia Dance Festival to his current position as professor and musical director for the School of Dance at the University of Utah.
To get an idea of the rigorous courses required for degrees in ballet, modern dance, teaching, and screendance at the University of Utah’s School of Dance, go to https://dance.utah.edu/about-us/school-of-dance
Alan Terriciano is a long-term professor and musician for dance—also associate dean—at the Claire Trevor School of the Arts, University of California in Irvine, California. Creative as composer and improvising pianist, his original music in technique studios is like aural sunshine. He delivers an amazing variety of styles. Not all serious: on TV evening news he was once shown playing his original music on the spikes of cactus plants! He is among the composers in academia indicated previously who have indeed composed more than 100 scores, including for orchestras and instrumental groups in addition to his music for dance. As an indication of the esteem in which the area community has long held him, Terriciano was named Orange County’s “Outstanding Individual Artist of the Year” back in 2005! For profile and credits: https://dance.arts.uci.edu/alan-terricciano
Christian Cherry is not only music director but also head of the dance department at the University of Oregon. An unlikely direction from his undergraduate degree in zoology! However, his career as a collaborator for dance unfolded at universities in Ohio, Florida, and Illinois prior to his move to Oregon in 2001. An important part of his work with students is teaching fundamentals of rhythm, music and accompaniment for dance, aesthetics, and workshops for choreographers and composers. As composer and multi-instrumentalist himself, Cherry’s music has been heard at festivals around the U.S. as well as in Europe and Asia. For brief info go to: https://musicanddance.uoregon.edu/directory/profiles/all/cerise It includes a link to Cherry’s personal website, which offers a very impressive list of credits for his earlier scores for dance. Though not yet documented here, his more recent creative output continues to grow. So this report also is to be continued!
For musicians speculating about working with dancers in academia, it may be helpful to consider the number of students in a department, and the overall aesthetic approaches. Here is the view of the University of Oregon’s department, which is quite different from company ballet schools that have the major focus of preparing students technically for professional performance.
The primary aim of the Department of Dance is to enrich the lives of majors, non-majors, and the Oregon community with diverse dance experiences. Dance is explored as an art form and as one of the humanities in a liberal arts education. Study in dance as an academic discipline integrates inquiry and theory to develop skills in performance, creative practice, observation, critical thinking, problem solving, and evaluation. In addition to the academic components, dance students experience the rigorous professional discipline that is inherent in studio classes. The department explores diverse idioms in dance: African dance and drumming, ballet, contact improvisation, contemporary, jazz, hip-hop, modern, partnering and Salsa.
For Karen Follett, her work as music coordinator for dance at Shenandoah University’s Conservatory in Virginia has led to having two of her scores premiered at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC! After 30 years, she has garnered other credits for both her compositions and her live performances in concerts. Branching out as a composer, she created three background scores for films produced by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. And yes—she is among those who started out as accompanist in dance studios. Go to: https://www.su.edu/faculty-staff/faculty/karen-follett/
Toby Twining currently is also a music director and accompanist for dance students in a beautiful part of Virginia—at James Madison University. Though born in Oklahoma, his upbringing was split between Rockland County, NY and Texas—where he imbibed some traditions from his grandfather who was a Texas Swing musician, and his grandmother who played Gospel piano. He moved to New York City in 1987, and that is where I experienced the delight of observing him play instruments and sing for a modern class led by the well-known modern dance artist Ruth Currier. She had been a lead and subsequently director of the José Limón Dance Company. My description of that particular class can be found in my book Movement to Music (pp. 99-103). Suffice it here to mention that he threw various items onto piano strings, incorporated the radiator as percussion, played harmonica, and most unusually, sang and put a very young boy to work imaginatively as collaborator.
As a performer, Twining played for rock and jazz bands early on, but has over the years developed a remarkable range of vocal styles including country and gospel. He has composed scores for some leading dancers, and his collaboration as accompanist in New York included time with The Juilliard School, Marymount Manhattan College, and New York University. For more recent details and information about his recordings, see the links at the university website, https://www.jmu.edu/theatredance/people/all-people/twining-toby.shtmland his own website www.tobytwining.com
Robbie Kinter surprisingly earned his BFA in sculpture at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, where he has been accompanying dance on drums for more than 28 years and is now music director of dance and choreography. “My greatest joy is playing drums and watching people dance,” he comments; “It is a symbiotic relationship.” As a composer, he has created over 40 scores for dance, nowadays mostly using computer technology. He has also choreographed some works himself in addition to teaching contact improvisation! This brief film tells his extraordinary personal story when he received outstanding faculty award in 2022: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NH35jmsLrd4
You can see videos of some works by Robbie Kinter at: https://vimeo.com/user18609808?embedded=true&source=owner_name&owner=18609808 and for recordings go to https://consciouspilot.bandcamp.com/
Years ago I first saw Natalie Gilbert at the piano improvising fresh sounds for legendary modern dance artist Lucas Hoving (who had danced with José Limón), during a studio session at the American Dance Festival held at Duke University. Later on for 32 years she served as music director for the entire summer festivals, and continues to play for the dance department at Duke (strictly ballet now), as well as for summer intensives with the Carolina Ballet. In the 1990s she both played and taught at the New World School of the Arts in Miami. And at the The Ohio State University she taught both BFA and MFA candidates in several music and choreography classes—in addition, again, to playing for classes and teaching private piano students on the side. Before all that this musician had freelanced in New York City for 16 years, in addition to being on the faculty at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. For more information about Natalie Gilbert’s past career and the dance artists for whom she has composed scores go to: https://www.nataliegilbert.com/music/dance.html
Growing out of her unusual second career, this musician feels that her work as a massage therapist has greatly affected how she teaches piano to students of all ages. Not surprisingly, she also strongly encourages and teaches improvisation. And as I recall her own refreshingly stylized playing of music by George Gershwin for her Guild colleagues one evening, I can say Natalie Gilbert continues to practice what she teaches!
Though the Duke University campus continues to host the American Dance Festival with its historical connection to early modern dance—and though it continues to offer classic ballet technique—yet its university department offers a widened spectrum of styles. The website introduction to their dance department quite clearly distances their current program from any exclusive focus on classical ballet or earlier modern dance styles of technique and performance:
The Duke University Dance Program focuses on dance as an integral part of the human experience and a medium for rigorous intellectual creativity. Our program prepares exceptionally aware, creative and socially responsible individuals. Our aim is to engage students in the profound potential for dance as embodied knowledge in the service of society. The Dance Program curriculum is designed to encourage the exploration of dance from interdisciplinary perspectives: historical, cultural, aesthetic, literary, technological, musical, scientific and creative.
Percussionist John Hanks is currently coordinator of musicians for the dance program at Duke, where for over 20 years he has also served on the percussion faculty in the music department. His music-making for students includes playing not only percussion but also piano and electronic instruments for studio dance classes in many styles. Since the early 1980s he has been a regular part of the American Dance Festival. To hear a brief clip of Hanks accompanying a modern class at the festival, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OSDT1nty6oY For two brief bios, see https://danceprogram.duke.edu/john-hanks and his personal website, focused on his percussion experiences that have involved international travels, at https://drumjazz.com/index.html His unusual recording Percussion Music for Ballet Class is available streaming at https://www.amazon.com/Pre-Pli%C3%A9-in-4/dp/B09RP85SY8 And his CD with dance music for other styles, Here Come the Drums, is available at https://www.amazon.com/Here-Come-Drums-John-Hanks/dp/B001NH4J1A
Commenting about the dance program at Duke, John Hanks said: “I really love where the Duke Dance Program is going! It is still pretty small, but with the addition of the energy has multiplied. I started when they had just gotten out from under the PE department 35 years ago.” He went on to point out that at Duke in addition to the formal dance program there are popular dance clubs (which seem to attract members who do not have time to also take dance department courses). For a list of the impressively diverse dance courses offered at Duke, go to: https://danceprogram.duke.edu/courses
And an excellent description of what musicians in dance are expected to teach, (and what dance students are expected to learn) is this one of a course that John Hanks taught. Other musicians embarking on teaching such courses themselves at other locations might well consider these practical goals—then figure out ways to achieve them!
- Develop the ability to play rhythms and improvise with the voice, body percussion, or percussion instruments.
- Inspire listening and the ability to effectively communicate observations.
- Develop the dancer’s communication skills as they pertain to musical issues.
- Create an awareness of the parameters of a dancer’s musicianship within the technique class and in choreography.
- Establish a common language between music and dance by attaining a working knowledge of music notation and meter.
- Strengthen the breath-voice-body connection.
- Develop the ability to vocalize appropriate musical accompaniment that enhances movement by bringing out the rhythmic, qualitative, and structural aspects of the phrasing.
- Become proficient in recognizing and performing a variety of beat subdivisions at different tempos.
And just for comparison, here are outlines of the required courses that musicians Thomas Cabaniss and Jerome Begin have taught in the dance division at The Juilliard School:
Introduction, full year: Overview of fundamentals of music, including rhythm, meter, texture, counterpoint, and formal structure. Introduction to musical instruments and diverse repertoire. Development of basic skills in score analysis, musicianship, and sight singing; project-based work in musical creativity.
2nd year builds on the skills and concepts explored, with strong focus on the interrelation of music and dance, incorporating the following: developing a sophisticated vocabulary with which to speak about and collaborate with music; in-depth rhythmic training; a survey of classical music history with a strong focus on the 20th and 21stcenturies; listening to and analyzing musical works in a variety of genres in a way that is relevant and meaningful to dancers; developing musicality in dance by integrating musical concepts discussed in class into the dancer’s technical practice.
All that should offer a convincing suggestion that music courses aimed at dancers need to be quite different from the typical “Music 101” courses offered within liberal arts colleges and universities—or within music conservatories! So prospective musicians for dance need to be prepared with different approaches, and different materials. What I recall from my own minimal experience teaching dancers quite some years ago was the delight of seeing them improvise physically to demonstrate “analogies” to aspects of music, or to convey a sense of style with regard to various historical musical classics or contemporary genres. Not at all like “Music 101” students sitting sedentary at their seats in a lecture hall!
Decades ago I was bowled over by the hand drumming of Khalid Saleem as he accompanied the riveting presentations of the late Chuck Davis’s African American Dance Ensemble outdoors during the American Dance Festival held in Durham, North Carolina. (See brief write-up in my book Movement to Music, pp.84ff.) Subsequently witnessing this musician with his own ensemble in several locations, one could only respond with increased admiration and deeply spiritual feelings. For some credits that have taken him around the world, see the bio on the website for the Appalachian University Department of Theatre and Dance at https://theatreanddance.appstate.edu/faculty-staff/mr-khalid-abdul-nfaly-saleem His appointment there (in Boone, NC) is indicative of how academic dance departments have expanded their offerings beyond European-based ballet and American “modern dance” styles. Nowadays, looking at Khalid Saleem’s background, it does seem that percussionists can expand their opportunities to collaborate as musicians for dance if they can improvise, compose, and perform for several styles and traditions.
Richard Schenk joined the Connecticut College Dance Department in 1995. His own academic training had included a BM in Music Composition from Oberlin Conservatory of Music and an MM in Music Composition from Ohio State University. Along the way he discovered a love for working with dancers and playing for ballet, modern and other dance classes—using piano, cello, guitars, accordion, banjo, percussion and laptop-based electronics. As a composer, Richard Schenk has composed and performed dozens of dance scores for choreographers. He served as the first Music Director for Ohio State University Department of Dance. There he taught dance courses related to music and technology, as well as at Connecticut College, Ohio State University, and Wesleyan University. Working with student musicians who want to learn and practice musical accompaniment for dance is also an important part of his responsibilities. He invites readers who want to hear excerpts of his music, to contact him at email@example.com
Connecticut College is historically very important to modern dance in the U.S. After the pioneering beginnings of the American Dance Festival at Bennington College, those summer gatherings and performance events were hosted at Connecticut College for 30 years. (In 1978 the festival moved to Duke University, where it continues.) For a brief indication of earlier artists involved, go to https://www.conncoll.edu/dance/history/ For an indication of the variety of dance styles students at Connecticut can consider nowadays, go to: https://www.conncoll.edu/dance/ In addition to ballet and modern technique, students are offered courses in post-modern styles, jazz dance, ballroom, hip-hop, tap, West African styles, as well as Afro-Caribbean dance. And the comment that the dancers explore “in the broad scope of society and the world” points us to the next topic considered in this website: Drawing From Widening Traditions.
Robert Kaplan was trained as a classical pianist but learned to improvise in various styles, and to compose for specific use. In 1984 he became Music Director in Dance at Arizona State University in Tempe, AZ, and has had over 70 of his musical scores performed nationally and internationally—including both works for dancers and compositions for instrumentalists alone. His department has developed in unusual ways, leading him to become professionally involved with healthcare. But early on, he worked with the national Craft of Choreography Conferences, various festivals, and growing out of his teaching, authored an interactive book to help dancers understand rhythm. He is a founding member and past president of the International Guild of Musicians in Dance. For more information about this musician, go to: https://searchasu.edu/profile/256893
Looking back on how things have changed for musicians in dance during the years of his career, Robert Kaplan mused about how “traditional” musical training for dancers in both ballet and “modern dance” used to encourage skills in fundamentals of the collaborative art, according to Western traditions. But in the 21stcentury there was a change in curriculum, with administration trying to give equal status to other styles such as hip-hop, Bharatnatyam, post-modern contemporary and more. The university departments were also reorganized to form the School of Music, Dance, and Theatre, with some dance students also being affiliated with the Herberger Institute for Studies in the Arts.
Interesting as an indication of course requirements is this description in the ASU Tempe offerings:
Musical and Kinesthetic Communication in Dance
Brings basic principles of rhythmic awareness and theory to life through movement and breath. Develops listening skills to ‘hear’ movement and to ‘see’ sound, providing a foundation of skills and knowledge to perform and aurally recognize beat patterns, subdivisions, grooves, textural and qualitative subtleties in different styles. Practical application of concepts and abilities for teaching dance musically–connecting to students’ personal movement practice, somatic and pedagogy classes as well as linking rhythmic theory concepts with aural and kinesthetic listening skills and life.
Also of interest is the following link that describes degrees offered that involve interdisciplinary connections—for instance the use of multi-media for dancers.
As an indication of where such training might lead in our time of increasing digital technology, the website suggests:
Dance artists, educators and media specialists who complete the Master of Fine Arts program in dance with an emphasis in interdisciplinary digital media and performance are prepared for work in a variety of settings and industries, including higher education dance, digital media and arts programs, commercial dance venues, media production companies, community arts organizations, and dance production and performance settings.
Dance interdisciplinary media artists have a wide range of international opportunities for work as independent multimedia artists and performers, digital media consultants and specialists. In addition to working in traditional performance spaces and venues, dance media artists are finding employment opportunities in rapidly evolving global digital performance and entertainment spaces.
Making Music at an Independent Ballet School
Finally, here is an example of what it is like to work with dance students of all ages nowadays at an independent ballet school. Composer/pianist/teacher Bruce Lazarus has been music director at the Joffrey Ballet School in New York City since 2016. The school, a private business, is no longer affiliated with the Joffrey Ballet—which is now located in Chicago and has its own Academy there. But the New York school, like a number of independent centers for dance training across the country, offers a comprehensive program for teens and young adults that includes not only ballet technique but also contemporary dance, jazz, hip-hop, and even contact improvisation. Their programs for children are for as young as two-year olds, and continuing youth classes emphasize ballet training. In addition, there are classes for adult beginners.
Back when he was a composition student at The Juilliard School, Bruce Lazarus had initial experiences in collaboration, with two dance students who later went on to become distinguished choreographers: Jeanette Bolding and Susan Marshall. Since then, over his more than 35 years as a professional musician for dance, he estimates he has accompanied as many as 30,000 ballet and modern dance classes! Lazarus was not only a studio musician in academic settings, but also for a time company pianist for the Dance Theatre of Harlem and music coordinator for the Mark Morris Dance Group. Subsequently he also worked at the New World School of the Arts, and with the New Jersey Ballet, as well as at various venues in New York City.
Working so closely with students in classes, Lazarus certainly became attuned to what kinds of music impels dancers to move in different ways. And working with choreographers, he has composed over two dozen works for performances. Starting in 1980 he was composer in residence at Northwestern University, where he and dance artist Mary Ittelson co-taught a course listed as Dance and Music: The Collaborative Process. In later years he taught courses in music for dance within several university dance departments—and continues to do so at the Joffrey Ballet School.
For one video sample of music composed by Bruce Lazarus and used by dancers, go to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5SWTYNC7B6w The work was choreographed by Mary Seidman and in the context of all the telescopic developments in our time, this program note is of unusual interest too:
Composed between 2004 and 2011, Musical Explorations of the Messier Catalogue of Star Clusters and Nebulae is Bruce Lazarus’ series of fourteen piano pieces based on the work of Charles Messier (1730-1817), a French astronomer who compiled a list of approximately 110 diffuse objects in the night sky, objects which in Messier’s day were often confused with comets but now are recognized as familiar objects such as as the Andromeda Galaxy, The Pleiades, Orion Nebula, and the Globular Cluster in Hercules. Recent Hubble telescope photos of Messier Objects reveal vistas of extraordinary beauty and also great variation in energy patterning – spiraling, floating, exploding, diffusing – which strongly suggest musical variations in rhythm, texture, formal design, and melodic elements.
Outside of his dance-related work, Lazarus has kept up creative composition for piano and chamber music, as well as for some interesting optical video filming with Robert Mertens, such as: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lNb7fYzT5mk
Another facet of a music director’s job is administrative: hiring and supervising other musicians, and sometimes training newcomers. Bruce Lazarus says he is open to musicians with a variety of stylistic talents (including classical, jazz, show tunes and even rock) but obviously prefers those who are experienced in studio accompaniment. He says that gets easier after 20 years! But commenting on the ability to improvise, he suggests that musicians for ballet:
Be willing, able, and flexible enough to re-configure the phrasing of any piece of music to make it suitable for dance classes; play introductions of varying lengths; and be prepared to tack on extra measures or a faster piece without advance notice. The highly-trained classical-only pianist with a beautiful technique and devotion to the printed page is ideal for rehearsals and RAD [Royal Academy of Dance] type classes with a strict music syllabus, but not for dance technique classes at the Joffrey Ballet School.
And for those hoping to play for modern dance classes, Lazarus especially values “the ability to make up new pieces on the spot. This is also an extremely useful skill for ballet class as well.”
He goes on to observe: “This isn’t make-or-break, but I like when musicians have a distinct style, the ability to bring something special into the dance studio whatever that might be.” Lazarus recalls that when he was starting out as an accompanist himself, it was helpful to sit in and observe other musicians who were “first-rate,” including not only pianists, but also guitarists and percussionists. But then he would work hard to develop his own individual style.
Beyond musical aspects, as a director Lazarus comments that it helps for musicians to be generally good-natured and be able to handle stresses that can arise in technique classes. He tries to pair musicians with compatible teachers. And for those about to work with children’s classes, the director suggests that they “find nothing demeaning in playing in an extremely simple, direct style when needed. They’re okay with playing songs like ‘Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes’ and ‘Pop Goes the Weasel’ over and over again for class sing-alongs.”
Regarding musicians who do not do well as accompanists, Lazarus mentions some unfortunate attributes—but something for those starting out to keep in mind. Punctuality is very important, and a professional attitude of respect (not having a “chip on their shoulder.” But speaking of those who do succeed, this music director expresses an attitude of support that obviously is important in finding and keeping accomplished musicians:
It’s hard to express how proud I am of our present music staff, an “elite squad” whose professionalism can be counted on week after week. In return, I take a keen interest in their outside activities – performances, commissions, recordings, touring, grants and awards – and have their photos and bios posted prominently in the hallway. We have excellent pianos, regularly tuned and maintained. When musicians encounter difficulties in choosing repertoire or understanding a particular teacher’s needs, I’m there to help.
https://www.joffreyballetschool.com/about/ For information about the wide-ranging offerings at the Joffrey Ballet School in New York. For further credits of the music director, go to https://www.joffreyballetschool.com/bruce-lazarus/
https://joffrey.org/education/academy/ Founded in 2010, this is the official school of the Joffrey Ballet in Chicago. As they inform, they have “something for everyone,” including pre-professional training, and classes for children, youth, and adults.
Drawing from Widening Traditions
An anonymous reader for the initial draft of these essays (then contemplated as a print book without convenient hyperlinks) commented that they seemed very “Euro-centric.” And that certainly was true, since of course ballet as a distinct theatrical style was developed in Europe and used European music. Consequently, the history of earlier ballet’s music presented in these essays shows a clear tradition of European art music.
A delightful reply to anybody who expects ballet stories and music of the past to be less “Eurocentric” and more in line with current “world music” and “world dance” academic views, can be found in this quotation from ballet critic Robert Greskovic’s book Ballet 101 (New York: Limelight Editions 2005 republication of the work originally published by Hyperion in 1998) p. 361. He is commenting specifically on La Bayadère with music by Minkus and choreography by Petipa:
Critics looking for ethnographic or anthropological accuracy around the time of Bayadère’s premiere carped about the anomalies and, to put it kindly, “artistic liberties” found in the ballet. Those critical sentiments, however, pale in comparison to some of our own day’s harsh accusations of crimes against everything from India’s culture to women’s rights. But however off the mark of historical accuracy Petipa might have been, he was on the mark for creating a Romantic kind of ballet theater. All I usually say to ethnographical, anthropological, and sociopolitical carping at works like Bayaderka, is a modified refrain of what Balanchine said to the complainers who found his Union Jack, a Scottish Tattoolike ballet inauthentic as a military parade: “If you want the real thing, go [elsewhere.]” In Balanchine’s case the specific answer was “Fifth Avenue” where you could see a real parade; in Bayaderka’s case, I suggest you go to India on a package tour.
However, as theatrical ballet styles have changed and as there have been more cross-over styles with modern dance and jazz, so too the music used has drawn from wider possibilities. In regard to specifically Indian-related styles, an amazing dance to see is Robert Battle’s Takedeme! originally performed by a soloist from Battle’s own dance company, to the musical syllabic vocalizing of Sheila Chandra (with the syllables being the way Indian dancers learn their rhythms in real life). After Robert Battle became artistic director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, he remounted it for several dancers. Here are some brief clips: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Do9IuS4ynyE
In recent years there has been a considerable expansion in the kinds of music that audiences are hearing for ballet and other theatrical dance styles—no longer drawing so completely from European concert styles and composers of the past.
Some of this musical diversity was reflected in the first-hand essays collected in my book Making Music for Modern Dance: Collaboration in the Formative Years of a New American Art. One of the articles is by the late composer Henry Cowell, who urged musicians to “explore the whole world of music.” It would seem that nowadays professional choreographers and musicians for theatrical dance are certainly putting that advice into practice! Just a few examples will be introduced in this section. But first: in a purposeful effort to widen creative possibilities, academic institutions are offering some unusual opportunities for both music and dance students and artists to explore new ways of collaborating.
One example of global sharing is the Translucent Borders project directed by Andrew Teirstein of the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. The project explores ways that dancers and musicians can act as catalysts for creative engagement across geographic, cultural, and economic borders. Since 2015, Translucent Borders has facilitated interaction between dancers and musicians in the Middle East, Greece, Cuba, and Ghana through interviews, knowledge-sharing circles, master classes, improvisatory lab work, and collaborative performance. The project is a Working Group of NYU’s Global Institute for Advanced Study. An online video introduces some extraordinary music, instruments, dancing, and thoughts of people from many countries. http://www.translucentborders.com/
One of the many intriguing interviews with participants in the project is with the American choreographer Donald Byrd, talking emotionally about his first trip to Ghana, and about the music and dance experiences he had there. http://www.translucentborders.com/donald-byrd
Andy Teirstein, composer and Arts Professor in dance at Tisch, has himself experienced traditional music of different cultures from around the world. And this is often reflected in his compositions. One year he took his family on a journey across the entire United States. Another year he caravaned in the Middle Eastern desert with a Bedouin family and camels and became entranced by sounds of instruments such as the oud.
Both of these travel experiences were among the inspirations for the music included in Teirstein’s 2022 CD titled Restless Nation (on Navona Records). The sounds themselves reflect the title, with often a restless undercurrent of string patterns, played by string quartet and for one work, full orchestra. Featured along with familiar instrumentation are not only the oud but also the unusual nyckelharpa plus the composer himself performing on mountain dulcimer and harmonica—resulting in some very sweet timbres indeed. Intended purely for pleasure through the ears, it would yet not be surprising if dancers also had a kinetic response—and to many more sections than just the ones titled Polska, Sarabanda, Dance of the Camel Drivers, and simply Dance! For more information, go to: https://www.andyteirstein.com/andy
European student collaborations
“Motion, Emotion – Seven Days in Copenhagen” https://vimeo.com/51442015 Brief documentary. Executive Producer, David Yoken, an American composer/percussionist who at one point was music director for Laura Dean’s modern dance troupe. Moving to Finland many decades ago, he has had a varied career working with dancers and becoming involved in international exchanges. He is Professor at the Turku University of Applied Sciences, where his wife Tarja Yoken has long been a dance teacher. In January 2021, David Yoken was awarded the Cross of Merit of the White Rose of Finland by the country’s president. One of Finland’s highest honors, it recognized David Yoken’s work in promoting dance and music in the Nordic region, and for promoting climate activism through artistic exchange.
The film linked above follows a group of some 70 dance and music students from Iceland, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, the United States, and Belgium during a week-long workshop at the Danish National School for the Performing Arts. Explorations and choreography were in post-modern styles.
Longer video, “A Sound of a Movement,” filmed in Lithuania. Yoken spearheaded such exchanges from 1998 until 2019 under the umbrella name of Explorations and Collaborations in the Arts. Everybody speaks English. Music and movement were collaborative creations by participants. “A “new kind of art form?” asks one. Many intriguing moments of playful creative interaction. For one: look for cellist and dancer’s fingers. A long way in time and style from the theatrical dance of the Sun King, Lully, and the Ballet de la Nuit!
Expanding his sights after composing, accompanying, and teaching Choreomusical Analysis for 30 years at the Turku University of Applied Sciences in Finland, starting in 2023 David Yoken is leading a project funded by EU Creative Europe, titled Professional Media Presence/PMP. Briefly described, it seeks for a better understanding of different media forums and for ways European artists might harness new technology in their creative professional lives. The consortium involves participants from seven countries. For information, go to: https://www-turkuamk-fi.translate.goog/fi/tutkimus-kehitys-ja-innovaatiot/hae-projekteja/professional-media-presence-pmp/?_x_tr_sl=fi&_x_tr_tl=en&_x_tr_hl=en&_x_tr_pto=sc
Another organization: https://musicmanagementfordance.com/ an international collective of dance musicians, teachers and choreographers who work towards enhancing music and movement interconnections.
NYCB and Colombian/Canadian singer/songwriter
At professional levels, increasingly ballet companies are making efforts to include talents of dancers with diverse personal heritage. Additionally, to reach out to women composers and choreographers from cultures other than European.
For one stunning example, for its fall 2021 fashion gala opening up after a long COVID pause, New York City Ballet featured a new ballet by choreographer Andrea Miller with music commissioned from Colombian/Canadian singer/songwriter Lido Pimienta. Titled sky to hold, the new work spotlighted not only the dancers’ costumes designed by Esteban Cortázar, but also Lido Pimienta herself onstage to the side, performing her own music with the orchestral score transcribed and arranged by Canadian composer Owen Pallet.
There is no film just now, so those of us at a distance cannot see and hear sky to hold with its departure from New York City Ballet’s predominately classical art music. But to get a sense of this singer’s voice and colorful performance, a link to her Grammy-nominated 2020 album Miss Colombia is provided below.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MFmvrBmki-U Brief introduction by Lido Pimienta with her musicians, talking about “The Road Home.”
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wB4rSQmtgeo Miss Colombia Live. A little over an hour. One can be reminded of how the medieval singer/composer Hildegard encouraged the beauty of female voices in telling stories. Now, in her music video, Lido Pimienta begins gently singing alone in Spanish, and a track of percussion instruments enters little by little. She expressively alters the timbre of her voice, while moving conservatively with her hips and hands. The songs she offers include one about giving birth to her daughter followed by her humorous “Lido Home Shopping” and her artwork. Then come songs “Coming Thru” and “Nappy Hair,” and especially lovely wordless vocalizing in her finale. Electronic effects incorporated effectively. Amusing take-off on “credits.” As she suggests, if we want to understand more, we need to learn Spanish. This is definitely a musical style new to the world of classical ballet.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2azy1D-yyWc A taste of Lido Pimienta with dancers of the Grupo Kumba in Eso Que Tu Haces. Under 5 minute film. Seen by nearly one and a half million viewers.
https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/28/arts/dance/lido-pimienta-andrea-miller-new-york-city-ballet.html Unusual long preview of the collaborative ballet in the October 4,2021 issue of The New York Times, written by Roslyn Sulcas. Includes several photos of both musician and choreographer, and their comments.
https://www.gallim.org/andreamiller Information on the website of the choreographer Andrea Miller’s dance company, Gallim.
Argentinian music for Alonzo King LINES Ballet
The choreographer Alonzo King, based in San Francisco, feels strongly that his company Alzono King LINES Ballet, “looks like the world.” Thank goodness for us more sedentary members of his audiences, he doesn’t suggest there is any way we could begin to look like his virtuosic dancers performing onstage! Rather, he is referring to diversity in the physical heritage of his performers—that they are not look-alike people of European heritage. His longer statements about classicism in Western theatrical dance, and about race, can be accessed with this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tj5rpArWTHQ
Artistically, this choreographer/director also provides his audiences with diversity in some music that is both unfamiliar to most people, and tremendously interesting. For example, in December 2021, PBS presented Alonzo King LINES Ballet in a riveting performance with the San Francisco Symphony under Esa-Pekika Salonen, set to Estancia by the late Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera. At this time there is no film, but for the music only, performed by the London Symphony, go to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JJPTA8ibzqQ
https://blogs.loc.gov/music/2019/05/goodwill-and-ballet-the-story-behind-the-original-score-to-ginasteras-estancia/ Library of Congress information about the creation of Ginastera’s ballet score Estancia.
For further information about Alonzo King LINES Ballet and some online videos of a few performances, go to the links below.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vHpdvLDp8O0 clip from documentary about Alonzo King, Poet of Dance.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vC67mWXKW5w There is no Standing Still. Beautiful solos by Alonzo King LINES Ballet dancers outdoors during the pandemic. Part I music, Edgar Meyer.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0jmAa-bKIxo Part II; music, Jason Moran.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UY5owE6LrGc Part III music, Lisa Fischer & JC Maillard.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ysERfLpHl5U A 1999 documentary about Alonzo King, 28 minutes, titled Artist i. Includes brief clips of his dancers. He is quoted as saying “When I look at anyone move, I always see music.”
Alonzo King LINES Ballet on Art Haus DVD includes Triangle of the Squinches (with ambient soundscape created by percussionist Mickey Hart, who is well-known for his worldwide explorations for his Planet Drum); Scheherazade (score with references to Rimsky-Korsakov, by tabla player Zakir Hussain); and Dust and Light (to mostly calm and introspective adagio and largo movements from various concerti grossi composed by Baroque composer Arcangelo Corelli for strings and harpsichord, plus excerpts from several religious choral works by 20th century composer Francis Poulenc).
https://www.britannica.com/technology/squinch Explanation of squinche!
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mvhk8q0o_tk Excerpt from the ArtHaus Musik DVD, Act II Triangle of the Squinches—the part with the cardboard wall.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jTzMNNvgKAo A sample of the DVD, including briefly Dust and Light. One viewer commented: “This is perfection.”
https://linesballet.org/ For up-to-date information about the company.
Revelations over generations
Even though Alvin Ailey’s Revelations is considered “modern dance” rather than ballet, it is such a classic by now that ballet audiences have also long enjoyed performances. Revelations, which draws so deeply on the religious music of African-Americans, was among the first major theatrical dances in America to feature such music, and over several generations of performers, the dancers maintain its vitality and extraordinary power to touch audiences emotionally.
There are earlier DVDs of Revelations, but in 2016 C Major label released a performance by Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater for Lincoln Center at the Movies, along with Chroma choreographed by Wayne McGregor; Grace, by Ronald K. Brown; and Takedeme by Robert Battle. Recommended.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kDXerubF4I4 A mounting of Revelations from the same 2015 performance as on the above DVD.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UCsv5QlFo2Q Mounting of the entire program on the DVD, which includes comments from some of the dancers and artistic director Robert Battle.
Alvin Ailey, documentary shown on PBS in January 2022, available from amazon to rent or purchase. Directed by Jamila Wignot. It was originally released in 2010 by ArtHaus and includes Judith Jamison’s famous performance of Cry, along with company performances of Revelations, Divining, and The Stack Up.
Beyond the Steps, a 2007 Docurama DVD, gives a backstage and onstage look at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater when Judith Jamison was artistic director, documenting the company’s move to a brand-new glass building in mid-town Manhattan, and following a new work from rehearsals to performance in Russia.
Judith Jamison, outstanding dancer for Alvin Ailey for fifteen years, later artistic director, wrote her autobiography Dancing Spirit with Howard Kaplan (Doubleday, 1993). Her early dance training was in ballet, but she subsequently embraced other techniques—especially Horton, which was Ailey’s training. The book offers insights about music and the process of making dances—for instance p.112 where Jamison talks about moving to phrases rather than counting beats. She introduces prominent dance artists along the way, and musing about how repertory is handed down to younger dancers, she observed: [p. 163]
You can back up and celebrate what came before, but comparisons don’t make any sense. It’s a different era. You don’t sit there and go, “We didn’t do it that way. It’s wrong.” I always say I hope I never grow up in dance and look back on another generation and look forward to another generation and say what they’re doing is not valuable. What they’re doing is terribly valid because they’re doing it and they’re doing it their own way. Each generation is different.
For further information, in my collection of essays Making Music for Modern Dance, chapter 32 is Alvin Ailey’s poem “Instructions: How to Play the Drums.” Chapter 33 is Jennifer Dunning’s essay on “Alvin Ailey’s Revelations,” followed by Ailey’s own account written with A. Peter Bailey, “How Revelations Came to Be.” The last is an excerpt from Alvin Ailey’s autobiography written with A. Peter Bailey, Revelations: The Art of Alvin Ailey (Citadel Press, 1997).
“Concert dance today is the art dance of a world community of artists and audiences,” wrote Carl Wolz in his essay “From a World Dance Perspective.” He observed further:
Whenever people learn a style of dance distinct from their own culture, they have touched the universal in mankind’s experience. Students from the West going to India to study Kathakali Dance or Asians studying classical ballet and contemporary dance, are just two examples. These activities all promote international connections, creating an invisible network that reinforces the idea of one world, with all people as one family of infinite variety…..We are all enriched by these wide varieties of dance experiences, and our differences are to be celebrated….
All of these images suggest that two processes are happening simultaneously. On the one hand, we have fusion, interculturalism, and other labels being used to describe an emerging global style, and on the other hand, there is a pendulum swing back to a recognition and celebration of ethnic and national identities….
Multicultural learning broadens a person’s world view….It is not an easy task to balance one’s self-esteem and ethnic identity with an assimilation of something different, new, and perhaps even strange.
[From the readings in The Dance Experience: Insights into History, Culture and Creativity, third edition edited by Myron Howard Nadel and Marc Raymond Strauss (Hightstown NJ: Princeton Book Company, Publishers, 2014) pp. 111-113.]
https://www.nytimes.com/2002/01/12/arts/carl-wolz-69-dance-scholar-who-bridged-east-and-west.html Obituary of Carl Wolz (1933-2002). He taught both ballet and modern dance, but his career unfurled with his organizing activities related to Asian dance, including in Hawaii, Hong Kong and Japan.
In our own times there has been increasing diversity not only in the dancers who perform, but also in the international aspect of choreographers and composers. One example of international collaborations and training of future artists is the work of composer Claudia Howard Queen, formerly Professor of Music for Dance at the University of North Texas. Among her many awards are three International Fulbrights as guest artist at the Taipei National University of the Arts. She also performed with the Taiwanese improvisational dance company Ku & Dancers at the Taipei National Theater. Back in the United States, she has taught rigorous master classes to help dancers choose music for their choreography and to train musicians in how to work with dancers. The photo on her website suggests how many composers work with computer setups. www.claudiaqueenmusic.com With musical samples and information on her master classes.
a star performer from China
This is not about collaboration, but it is about the fact that ballet is no longer “Eurocentric.” Perhaps the most surprising story about a young boy rising from poverty in rural China to being chosen for training in the country’s ballet school in Beijing to becoming a principal dancer with the Houston Ballet under Ben Stevenson is told in the autobiographical book Mao’s Last Dancer by Li Cunxin (New York: Berkley Books, 2003). His unusual career was portrayed by the gifted dancer Chi Cao in the 2010 Samuel Goldwyn DVD distributed by Mongrel Media. It is an emotional true story full of family love, political stress, deprivation, defection, determination, artistic support, physical work, and sheer talent. Li Cunxin danced for 16 years mostly as principal with the Houston Ballet, then moved to Australia and danced as principal with the Australian Ballet for a few more years. Both the book and the DVD are highly recommended!
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uoDikmSoox4 For now, you can view this entire amazing film online.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chi_Cao To learn about the dancer who starred in the film: He was born in China and trained at the Beijing Academy, where his father was the director. But from 1995 he had a position as dancer with the Birmingham Royal Ballet in England. In 2002 he was made a principal.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=adHizgE-d3w Reflections of the dance artist Li Cunxin about his legacy, near his 60th birthday.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VzJ0n_8snH0 The “true story” of Li Cunxin, who went on to become artistic director of the Queensland Ballet in 2013.
Richmond Ballet goes to China
The Richmond Ballet enlisted Chinese-born Ma Cong as choreographer for a work that the company would perform not only at its home in Virginia, but also on tour in China: his specially choreographed ballet titled Lift the Fallen. Unfortunately this is no longer available to view online, but worth mentioning that scenes from their tour included clips of the elegant modern theaters, in Shanghai, for example. One is reminded that the famous ballerina Margot Fonteyn had early ballet lessons in that city. As decades went on and the “Cultural Revolution” took hold in China, participation in Western arts was punished. Now, it seems that artistic exchanges criss-cross the Pacific.
https://richmondballet.com/company/#artistic-directors Biographies of Richmond Ballet’s founding artistic director Stoner Winslett, and Ma Cong, who was named associate artistic director in 2020.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TNDM-zRpVSY Ma Cong discusses his Lift the Fallen for the Richmond Ballet, with pre-existing music by Max Richter.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-ZaLpMzjjcQ brief clip from Lift the Fallen.
https://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/18864-max-richter-memoryhouse/ A review about the album from which Ma Cong drew for his ballet. The writer commented:
The new reissue of German-born composer Max Richter’s Memoryhouse serves as a jolting reminder of just how much classical music has broken outside of its shell and into other realms during the last decade.
Though born in Germany, composer Max Richter grew up in Bedford, England, attended the Royal Academy of Music, and has maintained his career as a British musician. His first album Memoryhouse is not available at this time. But in 2020 a CD of his Voices was released on Decca, which includes a reading of the post-World War II Declaration of Human Rights. In a December 2020 program shown on PBS “Direct Talks,” the composer looked forward to a kinder world.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Max_Richter See brief bio and info about his work on several ballets.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eIizN1JwFvU Brief talk by Max Richter on how he composed a ballet score for the Royal Ballet.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EU5hal28aS0 clips of the ballet itself.
So! Going back to Richmond, here we have a Chinese-born dancer who mastered European-style ballet, moved to the U.S. to choreograph recognizably classic work for American companies, in this case drawing music from a German-born British composer of “post-classical” music blending electronics with orchestral sounds—all to be showcased on the Virginian company tour to China. Quite a journey through time and space from the early ballet performances of 16th century France!
Vancouver artists nod to history, explore possibilities
Even in a city hosting vibrant contemporary dance activity, Vancouver choreographers do not forget ballet’s European beginnings. In My Vancouver Dance History (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2020), author Peter Dickinson includes a description and photograph of James Gnam in a dance in which “Atop his head is an immense coiled crown of white tulle that evokes the grand ostrich-plumed aureole of the god Apollo that Louis wore in Le Ballet de la nuit in 1653.” The author goes on to note (pp.31-33) that “such representational doubleness is one example of pof’s [the company named plastic orchid factory] sly burlesquing of Western dance history, from its Baroque origins to its digital present.”
Peter Dickinson is Professor at the School for Contemporary Arts at Simon Fraser University, and also Director of the Institute for Performance Studies there. With wide ranging interests including film, the author brings to his reporting a background as playwright and even brave untrained dancer in some performances—with aches and pains as proof! Dickinson’s personal introduction to the diverse aesthetic styles showcased in his city is highly recommended. Because of his unusual talent for describing non-traditional movement, theatrical story-telling, and emotion, he leads readers to consider performances ranging from First Nation dancers to ballet and butoh and multi-media experiments. We come away—as the author tells us he did in his own explorations (p.105) with “a way for me to imagine another way I might move in and through the world.”
To see a sample of what paths dance has taken in Vancouver, viewers can click on videos at https://videocan.ca/welcome Among the current offerings is a film of The Objecthood of Chairs, a hybrid theatre-dance work scripted by Peter Dickinson. In his book (pp. 220-34) he shares personal insights into his collaboration with choreographer Rob Kitsos, stage director DD Kugler, and the two performers Justin Reist and Victor Mariano. Music was by Martin Gotfrit.
Turning to contemporary ballet, the author offers this opinion (p. 265ff) about the company Ballet BC after Emily Molnar became director:
Going to the ballet has once again become an established custom for dance aficionados in Vancouver because…the company has transformed [itself] into an affirmation of spectators’ own cutting-edge tastes. That those tastes have been affirmed by some of the most respected institutions in the international dance community has been a welcome reassurance.
For a brief history of the British Columbia ballet company (founded in 1986) plus their ambitious strategic plan, click this link: https://balletbc.com/company/vision/
Notably the plan includes mention of the need to increase the budget for live music, and to “push the boundaries of our practice,” suggesting:
We are inspired to work as a collective force in making dance that brings together ideas that are shaping new perspectives on art. As a creation-based contemporary dance company Ballet BC is focused on investigating and developing a diverse repertoire of works at the forefront of contemporary ballet that communicates and contributes in meaningful ways to the future of dance, dance artists and audieces in Vancouver, Canada, and internationally. We strive to be welcoming, collaborative and imaginative in a way that is relevant to our time, place and history.
Dance and social activism
Turning attention away from European-based ballet styles, Dickinson hosted the 2022 Dance Studies Association conference on “Dancing Resilience: Dance Studies and Activism in a Global Age.” With performances and talks by artists from around the world, the gathering turned attention to past heritage, diverse contemporary styles, and ways that dance might address societal problems. Much mention was made of “decolonizing,” with a reminder that for quite a time so much of the world was dominated by European nations.
Many of the presenters drew positive attention to the way dancers can embody land itself, and express a unity with nature. Among the most stunning in their effect were the events given by Canada’s own indigenous dance artists, who reminded everybody that for some 70 years it had been illegal for their people to dance their dances, sing and play their music, tell their stories, and even speak their languages. At the opening ceremonies, the Eagle Song Dancers of the Squamish Nation offered an extended welcome. A masked dancer then performed their eagle dance, symbolically portraying a creature particularly sacred to their traditions. For information and a video clip of a performance that includes part of the eagle dance, go to:http://eaglesongdancers.org/
Dancers of another indigenous company, Red Sky, offered a sample of Trace, which can be seen at https://www.redskyperformance.com/ Their artistic director Sandra Laronde explained how dance can tell origin stories dealing with sky and stars, people, and earth itself. Several of their soundtracks are available on CDs.
Santee Smith, director of Kaha:Dance Theater based in Toronto is from the Turtle Clan of Six Nations of the Grand River. Surprisingly, she spoke about her six years of early ballet training at Canada’s National Ballet School, then of how she returned to her family and has been delving into her heritage ever since, presenting contemporary dances that are evocative of traditional values. At the conference she shared an opening blessing, invoking first in her own language the Great Energy that lives in all of us, reminding us of our responsibilities to care for the world and express gratitude. In both her talk and a later event, a traditional reverence for matriarchs was also expressed. For more information about the company, go to https://www.kahawidance.org/ Their full-length film The Cycle of Life including rehearsals, performance clips, and comments from the director can be seen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b02Qjd0SDhE
In a live program, the Dancers of Damelahamid presented excerpts from Spirit and Tradition, choreographed by Margaret Grenier and including several grandchildren, according to their emphasis on passing along traditions. The company’s key themes are worth attention by, actually, the whole world! “Reciprocity, ecological sustainability, balance, interconnectedness, and community.” And there is in the dance itself a calmness and dignity in the grounded steps. Drum and rattle accompany the movements. Go to the company’s website: https://damelahamid.ca/ to see their Spirit and Tradition.
One speaker, Zab Maboungon (of French and Congolese heritage) questioned whether “diversity” has become an overworked concept, but went on to stress the importance of knowing about different traditions, as part of our learning to live together globally. To find out more about this artist/philosopher and her Montreal-based company, go to their website https://www.nyata-nyata.org/homepage/zab-maboungou/?lang=en
A shining model of “diversity”
For anybody who might question whether not only the word, but more importantly the concept and reality of “diversity” have been overworked, in regard to just classical ballet alone, I would again recommend the 2021 book Dance Theatre of Harlem: A History, A Movement, A Celebration by Judy Tyrus and Paul Novosel (New York: Dafina Books, Kensington Publishing Company). It includes some exraordinary photographs. (My favorite is on p. 137, the one in which Martha Swope caught nine men performing Robert North’s Troy Game—all unbelievably identically poised at precisely the same height in the air!) The text covers the history of Arthur Mitchell’s original inspiration to found a school and a ballet company, through the onset of the COVID crisis.
For information about Tania León, the first music director for Dance Theatre of Harlem, see above section on Women Collaborators in Modern Times.
For updates on the company, go to https://dancetheatreofharlem.org/ The website includes a tribute to Virginia Johnson, whose association included 28 years as a dancer and later as artistic director.
She retired in the summer of 2023, and her position was filled by Robert Garland, who for some years had been directing the school.
https://www.dancemagazine.com/dance-theatre-of-harlem-2/ May 2023 article about both Virginia Johnson and Robert Garland.
Regarding diversity, the book quotes Virginia Johnson (p. 269):
While the world has changed in many ways, there is still a distance to go. Ballet is a complex and beautiful human endeavor, the experience of which can change lives. Yes, ballet does have a color. It is the rich color of humanity—in all its shades. That’s what Dance Theatre of Harlem is about—opening minds to what is possible.
Also quoted was this inspirational observation (p. 279) made in 1978 by Karel Shook (who with Arthur Mitchell had founded the school):
The Dance Theatre of Harlem is classical ballet that speaks with eloquence to all who have witnessed it, leaping across the artificial barriers of race and ethnicity, of politics and place, of ways and words. The Dance Theatre has transcended all of these. Because this vivid, vital company speaks a special language, a language that our hearts understand well. And it has emerged into a world where achievement is a passport, where talent is nobility, where meritocracy is the only structure acknowledged.
Back to conferences
For those unfamiliar with the Dance Studies Association, it was formed through the merging of the Congress on Research on Dance with the Society of Dance History Scholars. Membership is open to all interested, including students, and there are special rates depending on income. Students are eligible for awards based on scholarship projects, and some grants are available for student travel to conferences. For information: https://www.dancestudiesassociation.org/ The next international conference will be held in Buenos Aires in 2024.
Another organization that offers opportunities to explore different dance traditions is the National Dance Educators Organization (NDEO). I would recommend that it is not just for teachers and dance students, but that also music students and professional musicians would enjoy attending their unusual conference events and learn things one wouldn’t elsewhere. For updated information, go to www.ndeo.org
introducing young dancers to global styles
Writing in his autobiography a decade or so before his death, dancer/teacher Jacques d’Amboise reflected:
What culture does classical ballet come from? It really derives from dances the Italian/French aristocracy developed in the courts, with folk influences, but is unique in the world because it jumps national barriers. Danilova once told me, “You are American boy—but when ballet dancer you are international, belong to the world, representing high art.” [I Was a Dancer, p. 80.]
Even for students and teachers who in their own lives may be focused on ballet, a wonderful organization that seeks to expand horizons and appreciation of other styles from around the world is daCi: Dance and the Child International.
Founded in 1978 in Edmonton, Canada, the organization hosts live workshop conferences every three years in different countries, offering opportunities for very young students, teens, and their mentors alike to take part and and share in workshop explorations, demonstrations, and performances. Participants learn about not only traditional dance forms and music, but also about current creativity in different lands.
For what is happening with the organization now, go to https://daci.international/ Their website includes contacts for 18 individual countries. The link for the United States organization (founded in 1998) is https://daciusa.org/
World Ballet Day
All the performances described in these essays and shown on film certainly underscore the fact that today dance artists may come from many countries around the world, and similarly, that the music for present-day theatrical dance (including contemporary ballet) may be inspired by or drawn from diverse traditional and brand-new musical styles emanating from around the globe. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in the annual World Ballet Day events streamed live and for free.
For a brief historical introduction about World Ballet Day, go to:
https://enfacemagazine.com/blog/2022/11/01/anthoula-syndica-drummond-on-producing-world-ballet-day-and-its-inclusive-evolution/ Interview with Anthoula Syndica-Drummond, producer/director for the Royal Opera House that will give you some information about the roles which The Royal Ballet and Tom Nelson had initiating and organizing these interesting World Ballet Days. Written by Thomas Baker and Alanna Love for En Face Magazine, the report starts out:
World Ballet Day is co-produced by the Royal Opera House and The Australian Ballet and has become one of the most celebrated events in the ballet community. Funded in 2014 as a collaboration between 5 of the globe’s most elite and well-funded ballet companies, this event has grown into an inclusive platform that allows ballet companies, large and small, near and far, to share their work.
The original five collaborating companies were the Australian Ballet, the Royal Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, the Bolshoi Ballet, and the National Ballet of Canada. Nowadays working out schedules with 60 companies in world-wide time zones is tricky!
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8864chxNRII Even during the pandemic, there was a stellar ballet created specifically for World Ballet Day in 2021. James Whiteside of American Ballet Theatre introduced the work he created in a “bubble” in upstate New York, here shown in the outdoor performance. Titled City of Women, it has the appropriate theme of how ballet is passed down from dancer to dancer, celebrating what we owe to those who have come before us. Simply lovely performance, to the andante from Schubert’s string quartet “Death and the Maiden.”
Welcoming the possibility of giving public performances once again, in 2022 many companies seemed to showcase their revivals of “tried and true” classical repertoire plus contemporary choreography that had been premiered in past seasons. Understandably, missing were large numbers of newly commissioned musical scores and choreographic works. And one negative departure from past World Ballet Days was that no Russian companies were invited, since their country was so intent on harming Ukrainian neighbors, including ballet dancers. However, on the positive side, there were many wonderful performances and classes to see given by other artists and students around the globe!
Because of the time zone, this World Ballet Day began with four hours hosted by the Australian Ballet (celebrating its 60th anniversary) at their 11 in the morning class in Melbourne, led by artistic director David Hallberg. Taking class were the company’s stars plus members of the corps. The pianist was Emma Lippa, who before joining the Australians had played for the Bolshoi for 30 years. Her accompaniment could be said to epitomize all the techniques that aspiring studio musicians try to include: uppermost, a really steady beat, strong dependable sounds, “meaty chords” with lots of doubling in octaves or as appropriate, peppy and sparkly light staccato; a variety of classical-sounding improvisations and tunes from standard piano pieces juxtaposed with a light jazzy touch; changes of keys; surprise silences; clear textures and nuanced phrases; now and then some familiar melodies (such as the popular slow aria sometimes translated “Oh my papa” from Puccini’s opera Gianni Schicchi) but arranged so as to sound fresh; or the 2/4 march-like favorite excerpt from the ballet Don Quixote; or a little gem from one of Shostakovitch’s ballet scores; different tempos for large leaps and pirouettes by males…and so on. One viewer commented: “Loving the fantastic sound of the music from the pianist. She is wonderful—makes me want to dance.” And obviously, that is what pianists are there for!
Director Hallberg was interviewed afterwards and expressed the satisfaction of seeing dancers develop as technicians and artists. The preview of classic ballets scheduled for the company’s season included quite a few covered in this website precisely for their musical scores. Some luminary artists from the company’s past were introduced, as well as the head of the Australian Ballet’s education efforts touring to smaller towns around Australia. What followed was a behind-the-scenes look at a rehearsal of Romeo and Juliet in choreographer John Cranko’s version (including the sword fight), and practice for other repertoire.
For brief information on the earlier career of David Hallberg (who is from South Dakota) go to https://davidhallberg.com/About
Next featured in Australia was the Queensland Ballet in Brisbane, celebrating the tenth anniversary of artistic leadership by Li Cunxin AO. He began the segment by introducing views of the company’s renovated headquarters—which originally had been a shoe factory! (This 3-minute clip can now be seen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XkHwYg9vZVU )
Then Li Cunxin shared his “story and heart” by showing clips from their 2022 season, and “Li’s Choices.” Recalling his own performances (which had included many seasons with Ben Stevenson and Houston Ballet), the director highlighted works of “big dreams” such as Kenneth Macmillan’s Manon, ballets with music ranging from ragtime for Elite Syncopations, to the minimalist scores of Philip Glass, and music featuring cellist Yo-Yo Ma and his Silk Road Ensemble.
Viewers of the live streaming could see a rehearsal of the Queensland Ballet’s new version of Swan Lake.Their introduction announced “A Western Australian Story” as follows:
We proudly present a breathtaking new classical production of ballet’s greatest masterpiece. This unique Western Australian telling, set in 1880’s Fremantle Harbour, weaves ancient music and dance performed by Noongar artists into the iconic classical ballet Swan Lake. Created by master choreographer Krzysztof Pastor with the team who created the award-winning Dracula, this is a significant World Premiere you will be proud to experience.
For a brief introduction to the indigenous Noongar people of South-Western Australia, go to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noongar
The company class under the guidance of Li Cunxin was filmed and can be viewed now at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NRlQyzn8iQU Comments about the more gentle style of the pianist Stefanie Gumienik included: “Especially loved the artist’s music choices” and “How good is the accompanist? *Swoon*” One could recognize that old English war-horse Country Gardens, fitted to tendus or “Memories” from the musical Cats for slow stretches at the barre. Other selections and improvisations were obviously encouraging to the dancers.
Purely as an aside: Country Gardens was recast as a virtuoso piano arrangement by Australian-born composer Percy Grainger. You can read his bio at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Percy_Grainger and I happened to come across an online performance by Australian pianist Daniel Le (now with Queensland Ballet) at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p2q2Zqhe0Yg
https://www.balletnews.co.uk/queensland-ballet-hits-a-high-note-by-signing-daniel-le/ announcement about Daniel Le joining Queensland Ballet in 2022, with comments from company leaders emphasizing the importance of live music.
https://www.queenslandballet.com.au/news/qanda-with-academy-pianist-and-teacher-gary-dionysius Interview with Queensland Ballet Academy musician Gary Dionysius, by Cassandra Houghton. Good general explanation of what is expected of studio pianists nowadays, and what dancers can benefit from learning about music, based on this musician’s 26 years with the Queensland dancers and students.
Going back to World Ballet Day: the West Australian Ballet followed from Perth. Coming the day after Halloween, it was interesting to note that the company had performed a ballet based on Dracula, with music by Wojciech Kilar. Members of the West Australian Symphony Orchestra spoke briefly about the special effects, and dancers spoke of what it means to them to perform to live music. For an introduction to the soundscore to the ballet (which had also been performed by the Queensland Ballet in 2021) go to https://www.queenslandballet.com.au/news/the-music-of-dracula
Among Asian company classes that could be visited online was the one in Hong Kong, led by artistic director Septime Webre, who counted out loud quite a bit, over the inviting music being played on an upright piano by Nicholas Lau. What was a nice touch in this streaming was that sometimes the dancers were shown from above. Go to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bo5dZQFIuO0
Then on to rehearsals and performances! The Bangkok City Ballet from Thailand had not been able to function during COVID and so were glad to be back in their studios, though some dancers continued to wear masks. But an impressive rehearsal in costume was shown, to Prokofiev’s music for Romeo and Juliet. They also have in their repertoire the classic ballet Giselle to music by Adam.
Other European classics have found their way around the world: for instance Coppélia with music by Delibes, as presented in Singapore, or the “Javanese” Swan Lake as given in Jakarta.
The Indonesian segment was unusual in streaming clips from both classes and performances. In class, pianist Astrid Lea had arranged original music by Ismail Marzuki (an Indonesian composer—but his music sounded quite “normal” for ballet classes elsewhere). This was followed by a sampling of area dance companies, some moving to electronic music that suggested traditional gongs, but also erupted into rock-style percussion. “What is Indonesian ballet?” the mistress of ceremonies asked. Many things—as shown, including a few moments of gamelan-style music to modern choreography. Dancers in clothing ranging from pants and shirts to traditional costumes with feathers.
While North Korea was shooting off 23 missiles, the same day the Korean National Ballet under the artistic direction of Kang Suein was calmly letting the world see its onstage morning class in Seoul. One viewer commented that the pianist was amazing. Nice to hear from half-way around the world! On their season’s agenda were the European classic ballets Giselle and Nutcracker.
And while the Houston Astros were winning their no-hitter baseball game in the World Series, the Houston Ballet was showcasing the skills of its dancers, both company and from their academy. As elsewhere in the world, Nutcracker was also a center of attention in Texas, where the children’s cast was rehearsing the march section, here involving their moving furniture and clapping. Also shown were terrific class moments of the adademy and professional dancers, with the pianist April Zhi-Li-Thompson being roundly applauded and acknowledged afterwards. The class led by Rachel Rawlins can still be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Dmp7sW7clY Most unusual and really nice to see was the way dancers paraded past the pianist and individually applauded her accompaniment! This was the second year that the company had participated in World Ballet Day, which continued with a rehearsal of the pas-de-deux and corps section from Swan Lake.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qw228DAfvWU This is an interview with the Houston Ballet pianist April Zhi-Li-Thompson (questioned by Jerry Pollio) in which she tells of her journey from China to New York and finally Texas, and then describes what she does as both class and rehearsal accompanist.
Moving on to Europe. In Stuttgart: American Tamas Detrich was shepherding one of the world’s many other performances of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, this one choreographed by Edward Clug in Romania in 1973. But the Stuttgart had not done any Nutcracker for 50 years, so this classic was new to them! A clip of the rehearsal for the mouse battle was a good example of how pianists are expected to give a reasonable reduction of the complex Tchaikovsky score, keeping perfect time while also suggesting nuances and appropriate phrasing.
London’s Royal Ballet was impressive as a main host of World Ballet Day 2022, coming from the Royal Opera House and introduced by Kristen McNally and Alexander Campbell.
During their sessions, in addition to the company’s stellar dancers, the children from the Royal Ballet School were also seen in rehearsals for the Nutcracker party scene. They were certainly delightful, accompanied on piano by Constant van Dorp. The company class was led by Brian Maloney (who, born in California, trained at the Kirov, first joined the Royal Ballet as dancer in 2000). The exquisite professional dancers were accompanied on the piano by the suave improvisations of Grant Green—who as one viewer commented “brings magnificence and immaculate smoothness.” Lyrical slow waltz for pliés, brisk snappy 4/4 for tendus, lyrical adagio for stretches, slow tango for fondu…class continued with familiar patterns, a familiar Italian tune for grand battement, a little jazzy snatch from Leonard Bernstein before dancers progressed to center and then across the floor, with grand finale for men’s turns in second and circular leaps, as with so many pianists, to Don Quixote march by Minkus.
Also included was a talk by Kevin O’Hare, artistic director who had shepherded World Ballet Day from its early days. He touched upon how the pandemic was the impetus for the company to start streaming programs for their audiences.
Among the brand-new works featured on World Ballet Day was was Prima, choreographed by Valentino Zucchetti as a tribute to ballerinas, using the third movement of the Violin Concerto No. 3 by Saint-Saëns. What was most unusual was that the Royal Ballet rehearsal was shown with live music played from memory by violinist Vasco Vassilev, along with pianist Thomas Ang, and with music director Koen Kessels conducting and setting the tempos for the musicians and the beautiful dancers alike!
Another new work discussed was Sleepwalker choreographed by host Kristen McNallly and directed by her co-host Alexander Campbell for the wheelchair dancer Joe Powell-Main. Together they made a short film which can still be seen on the World Ballet segment.
Also in the UK the Northern Ballet was featured, under the direction of Federico Bonelli. Rehearsal of a new contemporary ballet titled Wailers was shown, choreographed by Mthuthuzeli November (from South Africa) with 12 dancers. The orchestra music was composed by the choreographer himself and recorded by the Northern Ballet Symphonia. Mr. November offered the insight that the ballet is meant to “give thanks for life.” One viewer gave thanks indeed: “November! Your work, voice, presence, chant, and method reverberate so much with who we are as Africans!”
And then as another contrast to classic moves and older European music, there appeared black choreographer Joseph Toonga wearing a T shirt imprinted on its back with “Born to Protest.” He counted out the beats and patterns for dancers from the Royal Ballet to rehearse his new work See Us, to music by Michael “J” Asante. (This occurs just before hour 4 on the You Tube film).
Still in the UK, the Birmingham Ballet included a panel led by dance critic Graham Watts at Sadlers Wells questioning three young choreographers on the subject of how to develop creative crafts and promote opportunities for women choreographers. The three were Norgan Runacre-Temple, Olive Hardy, and Stina Quagebeur. Among their concerns was the need to have conversations with people who have the power to commission new works. It was pointed out that small informal workshops are especially helpful. And I would add that the inclusion of collaborative composers is also important!
quick flicks of other companies
Also wonderful to watch: a class by the American Ballet Theater Studio Company on tour. One viewer commented: “Ahhhhh beautiful!” In this case, it looked as if the piano accompaniment had been recorded and was being provided via big electronic equipment. On tour, after all, and still beautiful. To see these younger artists, go to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ahAFk3yppjc
Jean-Guillaume Bart of the Swedish National Ballet touched upon the company’s felt responsibility to continue classical traditions. Among the clips shown was one from Bart’s setting of Debussy’s rarely mounted La boîte à joujoux [which is described briefly in chapter 17 of this website]. Also shown were clips from an intriguing contemporary style ballet: Cacti choreographed a decade ago by Alexander Ekman, but still stunning with its lighting and dancers starting out standing on individual squares. Done to classical concert music by Schubert, Haydn, and Beethoven. The Swedish segment can still be seen at
Another new ballet spotlighted was Robert Garland’s setting of Mozart’s classical Haffner Serenade, seen in rehearsal with San Francisco Ballet.
Robert Garland (resident choreographer at Dance Theatre of Harlem and also director of their school) shared his aesthetic views on the classic and the new:
I believe in the idea of legacy. There is an African term Sankofa, which means you have to know the past in order to move forward into the future. Part of my intention is getting dancers to experience what a standard is within the classical canon. There are elements to some of the older music that retain what I feel are very African and African-American rhythms and syncopations that you do not get in contemporary classical music….There is nothing like reinventing the old for a new audience….and Mozart brings you joy!
For another sample of a contemporary style, the San Francisco Ballet streamed Future Paper choreographed by Dana Genshaft, with new music by American composer Kamran Adib. The surprise subtitle alerted viewers: “Calm music.” It was a score like an ambient blanket of electronic sound, sort of minimalist, but with percussive aspect and a slow cello-like melody. Mounted for 12 trainee students who wore flesh-colored close costumes, what viewers saw was an intriguing mix of classical lifts and moves juxtaposed with non-traditional poses and patterns. The company (now under the direction of Tamara Rojo) had not been able to present the ballet live during COVID, so this streamed film was in fact a premiere. One viewer commented: “Nowadays dancers have to be able to do it all or they won’t be hired.” Even dancers with strict classical training also have to be able to work with all kinds of music!
Some welcome live musical accompaniment among all the company offerings was the drum ensemble for an Afro-Cuban folklore class in an outdoor garden, led by Yohane Dusatz and presented under the aegis of the Acosta Danza banner. There, class began not with bending knees in pliés, but rather with necks and heads ever so gently nodding up and down then swaying side to side—everybody in unison. Progressing downwards, then the shoulders, chest and the whole upper body, all nonstop, to the knees and legs…then gradually taking steps all to the ongoing rhythmic patterns, finally moving forward together line by line. This really was just beautiful and calm!
The Alvin Ailey American Dance Company celebrated World Ballet Day by streaming a special one-day showing of their film Revelations through the Decades, which began with a 1952 film of the “I’ve Been Buked” section.
The long day ended in South Africa, with the Joburg Ballet showing a class led by Ian Macdonald and clips from their productions of European classics Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella.
The Cape Town Ballet also drew on European classics: Giselle and Les Patineurs. More modern, they were performing Falling Angels by the Czech choreographer Jiri Kylian, which uses the repetitive percussion 1989 score by Steve Reich titled Drumming. But since there are so many ballets “out there” with so many companies, many 20th century scores are “new” to audiences.
Most presentations were conducted in English. Otherwise, efforts were made for English as an alternative. For example, the São Paulo Companhia de Danca had an aural English/French translation, or viewers could access everything in Portuguese. To see their class plus yet another rehearsal of Nutcracker, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kgPosVXFchE )
dancers sum up
Among the offerings presented in their home language was a lovely film from leading artists of the Sofia Opera and Ballet in Bulgaria. Individually they shared (with English subtitles) their personal pre-performance rituals and feelings about being onstage, then mentioned how they took to ballet in the first place. Each was shown in rehearsal and performance video clips, starting with artistic director Marta Petkova, who commented:
When I dance I feel most brave, most confident, most free. This is my life. These are the moments that give sense to my everyday life, to everything. The dance. The difficulties are part of the road we have to travel….they are something that make us stronger….and we laugh a lot!
Among the observations from principal and solo dancers was one male dancer’s glee in reporting the help of eating spaghetti before a performance! Other dancers identified less practical things associated with going onstage:
Getting to experience feelings and things other people do not….An escape from reality: magical for two hours!…Feeling the emotion of the audience—which is not there to judge us, but to enjoy our dancing….Happiness!…Passion!…You feel free to dance your soul!
And when speaking of what attracted them to the classic ballet some mentioned:
Its beauty. Beauty is a perfection to which we all aspire….Every role has its own character, and it is interesting to get into the various roles.
Poignantly, the company’s répétiteur (who had earlier been a principal dancer) said: “I wish that all artists could feel what I have felt. It is something from above: something heavenly.”
Various other November 2, 2022 World Ballet presentations can be accessed via the main website at https://worldballetday.com or by doing a search for specific companies. Looking ahead, when a future annual World Ballet Day is announced, viewers might want to clear their calendars because many of the events are streamed live and not accessible later on.
Finally, in the context of all these online presentations, the remark that ballerina Alexandra Danilova made to Jacques d’Amboise years ago becomes increasingly true: ballet is indeed an international art! In addition, we can observe, so is its music…at least in peaceful times and places.
Ballet in Time of War
In all this website’s essays and notes, the art of many fine musicians and dancers through the years has been discussed, including those patronized by kings and dictators in times of both peace and war. But then in spring 2022 came the Russian invasion of its peaceful neighbor Ukraine, and it quickly came about that the brutality had repercussions around the world even in the gentler realms of music and ballet.
Obviously through the centuries, some of the most outstanding dancers, choreographers, and composers for ballet either worked in Russia or were born in that country. What would classical ballet be without Tchaikovsky and Petipa, Glazunov, Prokofiev, Ivanov, and Nijinsky? Plus all the artists who left Russia—including Fokine, Nijinska, Balanchine, Danilova…and up to our own times, Baryshnikov, Nureyev, Makarova and currently Alexei Ratmansky?
The devastating events in Ukraine during the spring of 2022 bring to mind a comment quoted from a viewer of Le Coq d’or online: “Music lives in the Russian soul throughout every kind of historic trauma.” That may be so, but for whatever excuses, the Russian populace did not mobilize to stop their dictator and his soldiers from killing, bombing, raping, and in general creating hell for their neighbors. Precisely because the performing arts and education are so important in the cultural lives of most people, among the very first targets for destruction by the Russians were concert halls, theaters, and libraries—in addition to schools, hospitals, and apartment buildings.
What happens to ballet when peace is shattered?
Reports from spring of 2022
The articles below report early cancellations especially of conductor Valery Gergiev, for whom Putin had been a long-time benefactor. Also cancelled were appearances of the Mariinsky orchestra and the Bolshoi Ballet. All that happened only two days into the invasion, and more would follow in the days immediately after. A few days later, Russian invaders bombed the opera house in Kharkiv—later, cultural centers in other cities as well. Certainly a strong reason for concert halls around the world to cancel any performances by Russian artists. And it must be noted that a few Russian dancers and musicians themselves began to flee their own country and speak out against the brutal invasion.
In his news report headed “Valery Gergiev Faces Removal From Podiums Over Support for Putin,” Javier C. Hernandez wrote:
Mr. Putin has been critical to Mr. Gergiev’s success, providing funding to his theater and showering him with awards. Mr. Gergiev has emerged as a prominent supporter of Mr. Putin, endorsing his re-election and appearing at concerts in Russia and abroad to promote his policies. The two have known each other since the early 1990s, when Mr. Putin was an official in St. Petersburg and Mr. Gergiev was beginning his tenure as the leader of the Mariinsky, then called the Kirov.
https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/valery-gergiev-and-the-nightmare-of-music-under-putin Alex Ross, providing informative background about Russian ballet’s leading conductor, began his article in The New Yorker:
For years, the conductor Valery Gergiev, Russia’s most powerful classical musician, avidly embraced Vladimir Putin and suffered nothing for it.
https://pointemagazine.com/how-the-russian-invasion-of-ukraine-has-affected-the-ballet-world/ And in Pointe magazine, Amy Brandt chronicled current events and reactions, observing:
To say that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is affecting the dance world is an understatement. Ballet is both a major Russian cultural export and a highly international artform. In a matter of days, tours of Russian companies have been canceled, and the international dance community has rallied on social media to speak out overwhelmingly against the invasion. Meanwhile, the fate of dancers in Ukraine hangs in the balance.
The young dancers of the Kyiv City Ballet were in France when the invasion took place, and most could not return home. People in the world of ballet outside of Ukraine stepped up to help with shelter and support. There were efforts to offer work, but a few dancers determined to try and return home to fight or work in aid.
https://www.nytimes.com/2022/05/12/arts/ukraine-ballet-war.html Article about Ukrainian ballet students and women professionals leaving the country after the invasion.
https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/15/arts/olga-smirnova-ballet-bolshoi-ukraine-war.html Alex Marshall’s report about a leading Bolshoi ballerina leaving, saying “I never thought I would be ashamed of Russia, but now I feel that a line has been drawn that separates the before and after.” Marshall also commented:
The departure of Ms. Smirnova is a blow to the pride of a nation where, since the days of the czars, ballet has had an outsize importance as a national treasure, a leading cultural export and tool of soft power. Her move is one of the most visible symbols of how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has upended ballet, as prominent artists shun Russia’s storied dance companies; theaters in the West cancel performances by the Bolshoi and the Mariinsky; and dance in Russia, which had opened up to the world in the decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union, seems to be turning inward again.
And reporting moral support for the Ukrainians, after an ABT performance of Don Quixote on April 1st at the Kennedy Center, Sarah L. Kaufman of The Washington Post noted the joy within the theater contrasted to the real-world concerns about war outside the theater, and wrote:
ABT has dedicated this series to the people of Ukraine, starting each performance with the Ukrainian national anthem. Speaking to the audience before the performance Thursday, Kevin McKenzie [artistic director of ABT] mentioned how intimately the war affects members of ABT. It was a reminder of how international the ballet world is, and how widespread the Russian and Ukrainian diaspora within it.
https://www.washingtonpost.com/music/2022/02/26/carnegie-hall-valery-gergiev/ Documenting the cancellations by leading organizations such as Carnegie Hall and the Metropolitan Opera in the U.S., reporter Kelsey Ables also mentioned that there were at least a few Russians who recognize what their country is doing out of choice. For example, the director of the Garage Museum in Moscow was ceasing to work on exhibitions, saying that the institution “cannot support the illusion of normality when such events are taking place.”
Alexei Ratmansky: somber news and Songs of Bukovina
In concern for the Russian preparations to invade Ukraine, Alexei Ratmansky (long-time resident choreographer with American Ballet Theatre) left Russia, where as a guest choreographer at the Bolshoi Ballet he had been preparing rehearsals for his setting of Bach’s Art of the Fugue. He had also been slated to reconstruct The Pharoah’s Daughter with the Mariinsky Ballet, but the news report below provides information about his Ukrainian family members and the fact that although born in St. Petersburg, he had grown up in Kiev—where during the Russian invasion his family was having to take take shelter underground. The choreographer was quoted as saying: “Both of these projects are very close to my heart. But at the moment, the only thing that matters is that Ukraine survives, keeps its independence, and that our families stay alive.”
Those of us in peaceful situations would agree. But following the grim news in the next linked report are some links to an article and an event looking back on an earlier ballet that Ratmansky had created, titled Songs of Bukovina (which is a mountainous area of Ukraine).
https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/27/arts/dance/alexei-ratmansky-leaves-bolshoi-ballet.html Report by Marina Harss.
https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/17/arts/dance/alexei-ratmansky-leonid-desyatnikov-songs-of-bukovina.html Article by Marina Harss interviewing both the composer and the choreographer for Songs of Bukovina. Titled “Alexei Ratmansky’s Elective Affinity, Musically Speaking.” They touched upon politics, and in hindsight, the composer’s closing comment has particular significance, that “the experience of the Soviet era is always a trauma.”
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=weWuuqzixuM In 2019 Jennifer Homans led a most informative panel at Lincoln Center, co-hosted by American Ballet Theatre, the Center for Ballet and the Arts, and the Remarque Institute (both at NYU), featuring the choreographer Alexei Ratmansky talking about his Songs of Bukovina that was just about to be performed by American Ballet Theatre. Also on the panel were one of his dancers from ABT and the music scholar Mike Beckerman, who spoke about the piano preludes by Ukrainian composer Leonid Desyatnikov and the folk songs upon which they were based. Also participating was the historian Larry Wolff, who provided relevant background about Bukovina (a mountainous area now split between Romania and Ukraine). Finally, ABT principal Christine Shevchenko (who was born in Odessa) talked about how the new ballet brought her back to her roots in Ukraine, and about the music.
The published piano preludes by Leonid Desyatnikov that Ratmansky used are available from amazon. And if you do an online search for Songs of Bukovina, a number of the preludes were mounted on You Tube in March 2022 just in piano performance. For the premiere of Ratmansky’s ballet, Alexei Goribol was the soloist.
During the panel discussion, the choreographer made it clear that his ballet was not a portrait of Bukovina, though he also spoke of the beauty of that area. His main inspiration for the ballet was the music by Leonid Desyatnikov, and on the panel he shared a great deal of his experiences and procedures in merging music and physical movement.
Particularly striking now was the mention that some of the songs were dark—but something that might “give you peace in a time of troubles.” One of the photos shown was a part of the ballet depicting a soldier on the run. And Ratmansky in passing remarked how when he lived in Kiev the Russian language TV would even then refer to Ukrainians as “the enemy.”
Well! But looking to the future, here is a cheerful announcement that New York City Ballet made in early January 2023 about adding the highly experienced choreographic talents of Alexei Ratmansky as artist in residence starting in summer 2023! Read the article by Javier C. Hernández in The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2023/01/05/arts/dance/alexei-ratmansky-new-york-city-ballet.html
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bukovina Quite a lengthy history of Bukovina. Does not bring events up-to-date about the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine, but does include information about Russian invasions starting in 1914, resulting in great losses of life to the citizens, and how the Russians themselves were driven out by 1917, only to return in later years and cause tremendous suffering on the part of people in the area.
a profound observation
While reflecting upon how many positive descriptions and references to so many past and present Russian musicians and dance artists are included in this website, I did at least delete some recent credits for the conductor Valery Gergiev. In conclusion, I can only agree with the profound way David Brooks ended his March 10, 2022 column in The New York Times:
Speaking as one who deeply admires so much in Russian culture, I think it is a great crime that a nation with so many paths to dignity and greatness chose the path that leads so viciously to degradation.
I am sure we all hope that this war will not go on too long, and that children growing up now will have a more peaceful civilized future, with ballet and its music once again becoming a welcome part of life.
looking towards the future:
Even after his passing, Jacques d’Amboise continues to be a great inspiration, and this excerpt from his memoir (I Was a Dancer, Alfred A. Knopf, 2011, p. 367) seems even more pertinent now than when he wrote it:
I don’t believe there are any untalented children. But I fear there are many whose talents never get to flower. Perhaps they were never encouraged. Or no one took the time to find out how to engage them.
The single most terrible thing we are doing to our children, I believe, is polluting them. I don’t mean just with smog and crack, but by not teaching them the civilizing things we have taken thousands of years to develop. You cannot have a successful dance class without good manners, without respect. Dance can teach those things.
I think of each person as if they had a trunk up in the attic. What are you going to put in your trunk? Are you going to put machine guns, loud noises, foul language, violence, greed, and ignorance…lies? Because if you do, that’s what is going to be left after you, that’s what your children are going to have, and that will determine the world of the future. Or are you going to fill that trunk with music, dance, poetry, literature, science, discovery, generosity, caring, magic, good manners, respect, sharing and loving friends? Fill your trunk with the best that is available from the wealth and variety of human culture. Those treasures will nourish you and your children.