A Question on Counting in Ballet
Posted 30 August 2003 - 11:33 AM
I was wondering if one of the choreographers or dancers on this board could give me a quick course on Counting 101. When did it start? It is more likely to be found in ballets using atonal or twelve tone music, i.e. is is more likely to be found in a ballet with Stravinsky's music than with Tchaikovsky's music? Can you give me some names of ballet that use counting extensively and one which do not. I have a lot of book on ballet and not much, if anything, is said about this. Maybe I'm making too much of this. Any comments would be appreciated.
Posted 30 August 2003 - 11:53 AM
Posted 30 August 2003 - 11:54 AM
What "difficult to count" means, I think, is that it's not a simple waltz, say (1, 2, 3) or eight-bar phrase (1, 2, 3, 4, etc.) It may go 1-and 2, 3; 1, 2, 3, 4; 1 and a 2 and a 3 and a 4, 5, 6. The pattern of counts may not be easy. ALSO a dancer may not make a movement on each count, but if, say there are three days, Dancer A moves on 1; Dancer B moves on "and a"; Dancer C waits until 3. So this would be more difficult to remember. "Agon" is notoriously difficult to count, especially for companies new to it.
Regarding Kyra Nichols' comment, I've heard that from dancers, too. For some, it seems to be a matter of pride that they "don't have to count," the implication being that it is their less "naturally musical" fellows who do. By this they mean (again, I think) that they "feel" the music, have a natural kinetic response to it. I've also been told by someone who staged ballets (and I don't think this is idiosyncatic) that someone who isn't musical can be made to look musical by counting; that way their body will be moving correctly in time with the music, even if they might not move that way if left to their own devices.
Some choreographers don't use counting. Ashton didn't. (In "Repertory in Review," Nancy Reynolds note that this confused the dancers when he was setting "Illuminations" becuase they were used to counting. Kronstam said, of working with Ashton in "Romeo and Juliet," "He didn't care whether you did the movement on 1 or 4, as long as you were with the music." )
I hope Mel or Victoria, Leigh, Glebb, mbjerk, et al will see this thread and respond.
Posted 30 August 2003 - 12:31 PM
Posted 30 August 2003 - 01:25 PM
Another thing that often happens is that someone has to be the designee to play off of -- to cue from. This is where dancers have to be keenly aware of each other.
But again, listening over and over and over again is often the only means to an end, especially for our "Western" ears.
Posted 30 August 2003 - 02:49 PM
Stravinsky is a special case -- for his music IS rhythmic. "The Rite of Spring" is a famous case, with Nijinsky standing in the wings calling out the counts to the rattled dancers as the audience rioted.
A lot of real folk music has rhythms that are not based on 8 counts. Even the blues has a 12-bar structure, and in Russia and Hungary, not to mention the Balkans, there can be 7s or 13s or varying phrase-lengths. "Rite" is based on Russian folk songs -- Millicent Hodson tells the story that when she recently went to Russia to set her version, they came to one passage in the music and everybdoy started to cry and sing along, the dancers ALL knew that music from their childhoods, but didn't know it was in Rite of Spring.)
I THINK Kyra Nichols would be able to dance much of Stravinsky’s music without having to count -- certainly in Apollo she doesn't look like she's counting. And in the adagio of Agon, it did not look like Allegra Kent was counting, nor did it look like Violette Verdy was counting in the pas de trois; on the other hand, in the last movement, they've GOT to count.
Thing is, if the rhythm is regular, you feel the difference between 8 and ONE without having to think about it. If you're doing Scottish dancing, and you're in a figure in reel-time where the top man chassees down the center and meets the lady from the bottom and they swing in the center and go back to place, for a total of 8 counts -- once you've gotten familiar with it, you don't really have to count that -- for the melody has the counts built into it, and you really have to let yourself FEEL the swing of it and make the natural adjustments you have to, to get yourself onto the right foot. On the other hand, UNTIL you get familiar with it, you've absolutely got to count it.
But if you're dancing Mark Morris's "Gong," which is set to some minimalist music that's modeled on Gamelan, where both the rhythm and the meter are unfamiliar, counting is like landing an airplane in fog, your life is going to depend on minding your co-ordinates.
Maybe the issue at bottom is the distinction between rhythm and meter -- in some music (and in some dances) the rhythm is more in the foreground than the meter, and vice versa.
Meter is like the geometry of time -- it sets the measures. Let's use an example from poetry, since it uses words, which can be written out.
Ballad-stanza is a simple meter --
duh DUM duDum duDUM du DUM
da DUM da DUM da DUM
duh DUM duDum duDUM du DUM
da DUM da DUM da DUM
Arise, arise, Mary Hamilton,
Arise and say to me,
what thou hast done with thy wee bairn
I saw this morn weeping by thee.
I put him in a little boat,
And put him out to sea,
That he might sink or he might swim,
But he'd never come back to me.
The rhythm is a more primitive thing that coexists with the meter, which pulls against the regularity of the meter (without which it would be too chaotic) and puts the muse in the music -- and tells the ballerina when to step out ahead of the downbeat and when to dawdle or nail it.
Here's another example, I can't resist it:
Iambic pentameter is a meter and the following 2 and a half lines are iambic pentameter, but they have very different rhythms:
"Absent thee from felicity awhile,
And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain,
To tell my story "
Another pentameter with a very different effect, also from Hamlet (after he's stabbed Polonius): "I'll lug the guts into the neighbor room"
Posted 31 August 2003 - 02:50 PM
My next step is to go back and read all I have about Agon. I took a course from Juilliard this Spring on Diaghilev partially because I wanted to understand Stravinsky's music better. When asked why I was there. I mentioned reading Jopseph's Stravinsky and Balanchine and noted that the chapters on Agon went right over my head. I think I may also head over the The Library of Performing Arts to watch Music Dances again to see what went by me the first time I watched it.
Posted 31 August 2003 - 02:57 PM
Mark D since you asked for a course in counting, let me recommend Ear Training for the Body by Katherine Teck, pub. Princeton/Dance Horizon.
Posted 31 August 2003 - 08:36 PM
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