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A Question on Counting in Ballet


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#1 Mark D

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Posted 30 August 2003 - 11:33 AM

I've known about the need for counting in ballet for years now. I have assumed that when groups of dancers are moving at different times they need to have some way to manage that process and move at exactly the right time. I have assumed dancers need to know when to do something when there is no musical cue. However, in the past year I've begun to wonder if there is more to understand than I am aware of. A year or so ago I saw the documentary Music Dances and became more aware of just how integral counting is to some ballets. A few weeks later Kyra Nichols gave a talk and she said she liked the more musical ballets and did not like the ballets where counting was involved. I did not know ballet could be divided that way. Then Thursday I was watching The Elusive Muse (for about the 5th time) and heard Jacques d'Amboise say that Balanchine's ballet Movements for Piano and Orchestra had very difficult counting. I'm not familiar with that ballet so I'm not sure what he means. What makes counting more difficult?

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.

#2 Victoria Leigh

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Posted 30 August 2003 - 11:53 AM

Mark, I'm not going to try to "give you a lesson in counting" on this format, however, to answer your question, YES, Stravinsky music usually needs to be counted and Tchaikovsky often does not! There are many examples, but works like Swan Lake, Nutcracker, Sleeping Beauty, as well as many other very classical ballets have the type of score that is just very easy to hear and most of the melodies are clear and the phrases relatively even. With more modern composers, like Stravinsky, Bartok, Poulenc, etc., one often must count. Try counting Stravinsky's Les Noces, for example :)

#3 Alexandra

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Posted 30 August 2003 - 11:54 AM

I'm sure someone will be able to give a more detailed answer, but for starters, two thoughts.

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.

#4 citibob

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Posted 30 August 2003 - 12:31 PM

We danced to Beethoven's "Great Fugue". The counts are absolutely irregular. You can't just "feel along" a 1-2-3 1-2-3 or 1-2-3-4, etc. You have to KNOW how the music goes. At first we counted it all; graduatlly, we came to just know what was happening in the music without counting it out. I would say this isn't so much different from easy music, except that the process of learning the rhythm of the easy music is accomplished in about 5 seconds rather than a year or more.

#5 Funny Face

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Posted 30 August 2003 - 01:25 PM

And then, sometimes the music takes on such an intricate rhythm (interpret "Non-Western") that counting seems almost impossible, and you go back to "feeling," as with waltzes or polonaises, etc. Such a case for me was music from Uzbekistan. The initial part was fine for almost everyone, but the music and dance break into a kind of 'whirling dervish' -- the only thing you can do is take a tape of it and listen, listen, listen, and listen again until it works its way into your physical and mental anatomy.

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.

#6 Paul Parish

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Posted 30 August 2003 - 02:49 PM

Counting is an issue for musicians as well as for dancers. I remember for my senior piano recital, when i was playing the adagio from Beethoven's Pathetique sonata, even though it's very songlike, it was very important to count. (The temptation was to rush the sixteenth note accompaniment, for it is difficult to play all those little notes quietly enough so the melody sings out about them -- they need to be very even.)

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"

#7 Mark D

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Posted 31 August 2003 - 02:50 PM

Thanks everybody for your coments. I realize this was a pretty basic question for you but I do understand it better now. I also got my copy of Rep in Review back today (I loaned it to someone)and read the section on Movements for Piano and Orchestra. It all makes better sense now.

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.

Thanks again.

#8 Cabriole

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Posted 31 August 2003 - 02:57 PM

Another difficulty comes when 'dancers' counts' are differ from what is written in the score. Often dancers who do not have a musical background have to be taught to count the rests :wacko:

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.

#9 Funny Face

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Posted 31 August 2003 - 08:36 PM

The rests, yes. Wasn't it Martha Graham who said the most important count was "and?"


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