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:
Lou Harrison (1917-2003):
Quotations, from Lou Harrison’s Music Primer (New York: C.F. Peters, 1971) pp.33-34; 47; 48. Unusual in composers’ backgrounds, Harrison not only accompanied dance classes but also was called in to perform as a dancer. with modern groups.
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 collection. 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!
Amazon has some 90 listings of recordings of music composed by Lou Harrison! People who have not experienced live performances of these works may be especially pleased to discover the vast and varied recorded output of this composer who was particularly skilled in making music for dancers!
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lou_Harrison Brief biography of the composer with list of his concert works. Does not include his many collaborative scores done for dance.
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 film made by Eva Soltes, Lou Harrison: A World of Music. The film is available on DVD from Harrison House. Highly recommended.
For a report on one of my visits with Lou Harrison, 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 more 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).
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, good description of how Morris used some of Harrison’s sweet music.
https://vimeo.com/136467112 Brief 3-minute clip of Mark Morris Dance Group performing Rhymes With Silver to the 1997 score commisioned from Lou Harrison. (Silver was the composer’s middle name. Nothing rhymes with it!) A CD recording was made, but you may have to just 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 in Brooklyn is amazing simply by existing. 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 even 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. Go to: 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 has forced cancellations.
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.
angels and saints:
There are many images online of medieval angels playing instruments. Here are three of the angels:
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:
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.
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://www.ptamdinfo.org/artists-dances/taylor-repertoire-chronologically/ 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://www.ptamd.org/ For current information about the company, now called Paul Taylor American Modern Dance. Since 2015 they have partnered with the St. Luke’s Orchestra based in New York, 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.
- 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 Jeff Zahos the Guild has initiated Zoom meetings. Additionally, the members make use of discussion groups online to share questions and information about their specialized skills and concerns, as well as to post timely announcements about performances, recordings, technology, and various employment positions. Past, present, and future: all considered and celebrated!
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 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.
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://stdk.edw.ro/portal/the-danish-national-school-of-performing-arts/centre-for-acting-dance/musical-accompaniment-for-dance?filters=SearchableText%3D The Danish National School of Performing Arts offers a two-year post-graduate program in accompaniment.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QBJ3N2SSmeM The first of wonderful online videos by Spanish pianist Mariana Palacios demonstrates how to accompany ballet. She has delightful sense of humor but plays a wide spectrum of improvisations, repertoire, and her own compositions. She is intending to mount an online formal course, but meanwhile one of her You Tube videos also offers information about places where one can receive training and information (including via instagram). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LMq-I8Zw39A
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kex8tBaR2Rc her video of benefits of accompanying for class!
https://www.dancemagazine.com/dance-accompanist-2569116256.html a light-hearted article from Dance Magazine May 2018 by Jonathan Mathews 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!
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!
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/nycb 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).
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!
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2-SeqQCyTwg A most interesting 20 minute interview with dance artist Monica Mason celebrating her 54 years with The Royal Ballet, questioned by Alan Titchmarsh. Near the end, she considers the future of ballet and suggests using the expanded term of “dance,” then points to what she considered fine classical training and unusual creativity coming out of the Far East, especially China and Japan.
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.]
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. In October 2021 viewers could watch 50 dance and ballet companies in daily classes, rehearsals, performances, and filmed documentaries, in an astounding array of styles.
What stood out most were the ways in which the various companies responded to the challenges of the COVID pandemic. For some there had been lockdowns. Most companies had not been able to give public theatrical performances for well over a year. As the director of the Cuban Ballet noted, there were enormous challenges for dancers to keep up their abilities, both physically and mentally.
Yet what developed in the preceding year were many interesting and positive innovations. The Royal Academy of Ballet, for instance, showed clips of how their teachers were using virtual tools to keep in touch with students and even bring in new ones as far-away as China and Japan. New Zealand teachers combined skateboarders and young dancers for a unique outdoor show. Children of all ages were all smiles as they were able to come together and dance outside in both grassy and cement locations.
Professionals themselves somehow managed to take classes and rehearse while wearing masks—some even performing in masks. Some companies were delighted to announce they had been able to resume their public performances just that fall. Some had worked on new choreographed ballets, using electronic music, but also—for example—a solo dancer in Sao Paulo performed to the music of a single guitarist (who respectfully was himself masked).
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8864chxNRII Summing up the challenges of the pandemic, on World Ballet Day 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.”
For a glimpse of around-the-world in 40 hours, World Ballet Day offered opportunities to see the studios and theaters in which companies worked. (See some links to classes, in the previous section on Exploring Professional Opportunities.) The famous Mariinsky Ballet held its entire class on the stage of its historic theater in St. Petersburg, giving a glimpse of dance artists at their daily quiet workouts the year before their country started bombing theaters, concert halls, cities, and people in Ukraine.
Elsewhere, the faces in ballet companies are no longer Euro-centric. Chinese-born Li Cunxin (Mao’s Last Dancer) was shown leading a class for the Queensland Ballet. According to its director, the Birmingham Royal Ballet regularly welcomes dancers from Australia. The Asian participants on World Ballet Day included companies from Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan and Korea. And the Bangkok Ballet presented dances that were contemporary in a universal way, as well as some that harked back to traditional styles.
Both the movement styles of the dancers around the globe and their music have become diverse. Barcelona Ballet offered their version of Swan Lake, followed by a modern work titled Tongues. In New York the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater offered clips from their repertoire including Revelations plus a few moments about Kanji Segawa’s Future, with which the choreographer intended to suggest the unity of all human beings. In Sao Paulo, dancers rehearsed an adaptation of Petipa’s ballet set to The Carnival of Venice. In Houston, ballet master Steven Woodgate led company class accompanied by pianist William Marsden, just as Ivan Cavallari was leading his dancers in Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montreal, also with piano: preserving classical traditions but also being inspired by the past to create fresh movement and music.
One noteworthy development was the fact that so many companies deprived of giving live performances turned their attention to what can be considered a new art in itself: dance created specifically to be presented not onstage, but as a film. One example was the black and white film The Burning Building with two very young dancers, offered by the Birmingham Royal Ballet. A more extensive example was the hour-long presentation by the Cape Town City Ballet. Interspersing glimpses of the land and seascapes was a multi-racial company, with performers introducing themselves: black dancers not only from Cape Town, but also from Kenya, Paris, the UK and Brazil; white dancers from Europe and South Africa itself. Coming together in filmed performances ranging from a contemporary ballet danced to Massenet’s Meditation from Thais; to a grim work titled Ingoma with its highly percussive score by Peter Johnson; to an interesting ultra-modern finale filmed in an art museum, with the dancers at the end becoming part of an abstract sculpture.
And so viewers were treated to an amazing slice of ballet life. For people who were unable to savor the 2021 World Ballet Day when it was streamed, some of the 50 companies are (as in the past) mounting a few of their offerings via You Tube. For links, go to https://worldballetday.com/ Included are access links to additional company videos that were not shown on World Ballet Day.
The next World Ballet is currently slated for October 1, 2022. Something to look forward to! And in this context, the remark Danilova made to 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.”
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.