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Leigh Witchel

So what's "musical"?

18 posts in this topic

I'm sure we've discussed this one before, but we could argue about it until the cows come home!

What do you mean if you call a dancer "musical"? Who do you think is musical? What do you think is "musicality"?

Personally, I think there are many kinds of musicality, but let me save my observations and let others start this off.

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I agree about there being many different kinds of musicality. But, speaking as a musician, I'd say a dancer has musicality when s/he moves in such a way that the music seems to ooze out of all pores. And when, even if the technique isn't perfect, my eyes are riveted to that dancer who isn't dancing TO music but IS the living, breathing embodiment of it.

Suzanne Farrell had musicality. Cheryl Madeux, whose career includes Joffrey Ballet, Hartford Ballet and ABT, has musicality. Alesandra Ansanell. Among men, Baryshnikov certainly. And Victor Malakhov, my favorite.

[ January 24, 2002: Message edited by: vagansmom ]

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Leigh,What a great question to ponder!As a pianist I see many technicians-meaning perfect technique, but darn it-put some soul into it!Some ain't got it!Do you know what I mean?Same could be said of dancers.Have you seen someone with great,precise footwork,etc,but something just doesn't spark?That's it.It's that little extra quality. wink.gif

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I'm going to chime in to try and encourage some quantitative answers - I know how vaporous the idea is and I'd love to see if we can get beyond "that little extra something" to examples of what that little extra something is.

For me, musicality resides in a response to what's being played, but I do think that response doesn't necessarily has to be "soulful" nor, alas, do I consider everyone who is soulfully responding to the music to be musical! I'm going to use Miranda Weese, Darci Kistler and Kyra Nichols as examples of musical dancers and differing types of musicality.

Darci Kistler has a sort of musicality, much like the ones people describe above, where someone seems to be inhabiting the music. Her timing varies, and is very much about an immediate response to what she's hearing. I've always loved how subtle her musicality is - she never calls attention to it. An example for me is the first variation in Mozartiana. Kistler and Nichols shared the role for several years. Nichols would play with rubato; when she did a passe, when she would come to plie, always teasing the audience and daring to be late. She had real control over her musicality, but too much rubato is like too much wit; after a while I find it arch, and preferred Kistler's more straightforward and innocent phrasing in the role. Rather than playing with the timing she would hit moments (like when she throws up her hands with her back to the audience) directly on the music.

I consider Miranda Weese to be one of the most musical dancers I have ever seen, so razor-sharp in her timing that it becomes wit. In her variation from who cares she stops on a dime just as the music comes to a resounding slam and one just chuckles from the congruence. Her musicality lies in its accuracy and precision.

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To me it's when the dancer seems at one with the music -- meaning, I suppose, that my eye is not fighting my ear as I watch. There are times when a dancer is inside the music -- completely at one with it, as though he IS the music -- that I see the choreography more clearly. It also refers to phrasing -- which, in music, is the same thing as it is in singing or speech. A musical dancer doesn't break in the middle of a phrase, so it's "Oh, what a lovely time I had last night at your party" instead of "Oh! What alovely (pause) timeIhadatyour PARTY!!!!!)

For me, musical dancers I've seen live were Fonteyn, Kirkland, Lis Jeppesen and Rose Gad of the Danes among women. Nureyev, Arne Villumsen and Alexei Fadeyechev among men. Viviane Durante, too -- in Swan Lake and Scenes de ballet. Cojocaru in Symphonic Variations.

I'm sure there are others, but those are the ones I can think of off the top of my head.

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I had a feeling someone would think that my comments were merely general frown.gif Despite that, as a musician, I stand by them and fully intended to not pick the dancer apart to find what movements constitute musicality because that is precisely what makes the difference between a dancer with musicality and one without: the one who has it is so much an embodiment of the music that it cannot be picked apart. It's all musical - every gesture, every placement. If a flow is required, the flow oozes. If staccato stops are required, well, they are sparkling, diamond-edged staccatos. (Forgive my possibly non-ballet terms).

The dancers lacking in musicality go through the motions and do what they think, rather than FEEL, should be done. So you may find robotic, albeit perfectly placed motions instead of legato and you may find staccato where legato is required. I've seen dancers with the most perfect placement be so perfect yet so lacking in musicality that they appear to be those little windup ballet dolls. Everything's there, performed to exactly the correct beat but not the COLOR of the music: no attention's been paid to crescendo, decrescendo, legato, tranquilo, delicato....everything that makes the music lush and rich.

I think a more interesting question would be - Can the same dancer have musicality in one performance yet not another?

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Forgive me, Vagansmom, I meant no denigration of your comments. I don't consider them invalid at all. I've seen enough times where one person's "she embodies the music" is someone else's "I don't think she's musical at all" and part of the joy of good dance writing is describing the ineffable so I feel the closer we get to a clear description, the more useful to others trying to understand what we admire.

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The only comparison I can think of is for someone who's not musical. Which is like watching someone lip syncing a song and there mouth is moving at one speed and the words at a different one (kind of like the old Godzilla flicks)

I'll second the Miranda Weese nod and add Jenifer Ringer to it.

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There is the famous quote from someone (Denby?) who was asked what is musicality, and said "Watch Allegra Kent". It is a question I find can only be answered by example, and the best one I can think of is Nicol Hlinka. She was dancing Who Cares once, a ballet I suspect most people in the audience had seen many times, and which held no real surprises. Hlinka just flicked her wrist on the downbeat so perfectly that the audience burst out laughing, it was so witty and perfectly timed, it seemed like new. I have seen that moment many times afterwards by different dancers, and that moment has usually gone unnoticed. To me a musical dancer is one who can make the audience feel the music, who seems to be dancing for the music, not using it as an excuse for steps.

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I think examples are the best illustration we have. What's fascinating to me is that we can look at dancers people are calling musical - Allegra Kent, Darci Kistler, Nichol Hlinka, Jenifer Ringer, Miranda Weese and they are all musical, and all musical in completely different ways.

Two stories about the intersection of artistry and musicality I recall from watching performances. Judith Fugate debuted in the lead in Divertimento No. 15 and when I watched it I swore she had simplified steps and wondered why. Two days later I saw Ashley again in the role and realized Fugate hadn't changed a single step, she had smoothed out all the musical accents and the role looked much diminished in impact. By the second performance Fugate restored the accenting.

The same problem from the opposite end: In Ballo della Regina Miranda Weese took the "tongue twister" step from the coda and strongly accented it so we could see exactly how it was made. It was as disappointing in a way as when a magician shows you how a card trick is done. Ashley did those steps completely unaccented, so they were all a marvelous stream of babble.

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There is the famous quote from someone (Denby?) who was asked what is musicality, and said "Watch Allegra Kent".

Hmm. Perhaps that famous quote was spawned by a favorite anecdote of mine. Back when I was rediscovering ballet as an teenager, I wondered what all this "musicality" thing was all about. I'd met the former New York Times dance critic, John Martin a few times, as he'd either moved to Saratoga or was vacationing there a lot, so I asked him, and that was his reply to me. I know I've posted this once or twice here or on aab, so either my cute little story has become transmorgified into something famous (in which case I'm quite flattered), or Martin was simply repeating something that had become common wisdom at the time. What do I know?

Anyway, it's not possible to follow Martin's advice anymore (although you can always catch a glimpse of Kent taking class at Steps and looking very much as if she could grab a nightie and a candlestick and breeze through Sonnambula at a moment's notice), I'd like to suggest a slightly different exercise, brought to mind by the old joke about how to make a sculpture of an elephant (get a block of marble and chop away anything that doesn't look like an elephant). I have found that in contemplating Paloma Herrara, who seems not to have a musical bone in her body, I've gotten a better idea of what I consider to be musical, simply by realizing just what it is she does that's so wrong. Watching Herrara dance Balanchine, particularly her recent attempt at the First Movement of Symphony in C, I noticed that she never really seemed to notice the music at all, but pounded along in blissful oblivion, except for making a concerted effort to finish up a phrase more or less at the same time the orchestra did. For the rest of the time, she could have been dancing to a metronome ticking away inside her head. But it wasn't just that she didn't seem to notice the music that bugged me, but that her phrasing was so monotonous and uninflected. Kind of reminded me of the old joke about the restaurant with lousy food and small portions.

So what's musical for me? I don't necessarily think of a dancer becoming as one with the music, although when I'm watching an extremely musical dancer like Kyra Nichols (love the rubato -- if you've got it, flaunt it, I say), I tend to think of her as wearing the music like a garment.

First of all, a dancer needs to be able to use her body musically. She needs to understand all the subtle modulations of phrasing and affect that can make a movement breathe. That's one thing I love about Nichols: she shows me more places between point A and point B, even in an itty-bitty glissade, than any other dancer I've ever seen. I honestly don't know how this gets instilled in dancers. I don't think it would be a bad idea for them to have regular musical training like, well, Balanchine. (It's interesting to note that in her interview in the NYCB program, Andrea Quinn mentions that one reason she was eager to work with NYCB was because Balanchine was a musician as well as a choreographer.) So a dancer needs to know how to produce all those musical effects with the delicious Italian names mentioned previously in this thread.

In this case, the music accompanying a dancer can be almost irrelevant. This thought often occurs to me when watching the works of Merce Cunningham, which are designed to be quasi-independent of the music, when I'd find myself thinking "so-and-so is looking very musical." Heck, a musical dancer doesn't need music at all, as we might see occasionally in Robbins' Moves, if it weren't so cute.

But all the kinesthetic acuity in the world won't do a dancer any good if she has a tin ear, like poor Herrera. A dancer isn't an island, or an instrument, to herself, but a participant in a great whole, like any instrument in an orchestra. (I do think it a wee bit affected to refer to a dancers' body as her "instrument," though.) A dancer who can phrase musically also must not just dance "with" the music, but to complement it. To play with it. Sometimes underscoring or adding emphasis to a passage, sometimes going her separate way only to make a greater effect when she rejoins the music. I like to think of a really musical dancer as playing with the thrust and beat of the music much as a porpoise plays with the bow-wave of a ship: sometimes leaping ahead, sometimes falling back, sometimes in perfect synchronization, but always aware of, and drawing propulsion from, the onrushing wave (whether of water or sound).

Well, that's enough metaphors for one post.

Not surprisingly, the dancers I consider the most musical are pretty much the ones I consider personal favorites, past and present: Nichols, Farrell, Tomasson, Kistler (alas, I missed most of Hlinka's career!), McBride, Verdy, Van Hamel, Kirkland, etc. It is not at all surprising that so many NYCB dancers are on this list (well, I've SEEN so many of them, too). Balanchine's works demand musicality, and are quite merciless in exposing its lack. Look at all the comments about Abi Stafford. And, as flat as it may have been, Stafford's First Movement was a paragon of musicality compared to Herrera's.

[ January 25, 2002: Message edited by: Manhattnik ]

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To harp - so to speak - on one of my favourite themes - one of the reasons we're getting such a lot of unmusical dancing, is because choreography has become too treacherous, the whole thing has got to be overly-demanding, in terms of technique, people are tired, and only the brilliant, the highly motivated, have time to study music at all, or even just go to recitals and concerts.

Off the top of my head, and speaking only of the current generation, those that I have seen in person, and who most would consider to be exceptionally able, from a musical standpoint, I would think of:

Stéphane Phavorin of the POB (started out in life as a concert pianist, switched at age 16 to the ballet)

Emmanuel Thibault of the POB (a cellist, and, like Phavorin, reads scores like a book)

Lloyd Riggins of the Hamburg Ballet (plays the piano)

Johann Kobborg at Covent Garden (violin, piano, voice - nearly became a singer)

Margaretha Trofil-Bittencourt, soloist at the Duesseldorfer Staats Theater (family of musicians)

and of course Lis Jeppesen (the lady herself yet again !), who started out singing, and was I believe, married to an opera singer for some time.

Of course there are so many other musically-gifted people, but I mention these here as "case studies", if I may.

As for Nureyev, his dancing may not have been my cup of tea, as Estelle would say, but his attitude to music was, to put it mildly, serious ! Intense study of music (where did he find the time ?), taught himself to play the piano, harpsichord and clavichord, taught himself to read scores properly and then to conduct...

[ January 25, 2002: Message edited by: katharine kanter ]

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Isn't most classical music that's not written for a ballet, changed (tempos, phrasing) to suit the choreographer's/dancer's need?

And sometimes the dancer, if I recall correctly reading something about Suzanne Farrell coaching Larissa Lezhnina (at the time Kirov) in "Scotch Symphony" and Lezhnina kept saying it was too "fast".

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Originally posted by Leigh Witchel:

An example for me is the first variation in Mozartiana. Kistler and Nichols shared the role for several years. Nichols would play with rubato; when she did a passe, when she would come to plie, always teasing the audience and daring to be late. She had real control over her musicality, but too much rubato is like too much wit; after a while I find it arch, and preferred Kistler's more straightforward and innocent phrasing in the role. Rather than playing with the timing she would hit moments (like when she throws up her hands with her back to the audience) directly on the music.

I consider Miranda Weese to be one of the most musical dancers I have ever seen, so razor-sharp in her timing that it becomes wit.


Thank you so much, Leigh. This is why I love this site. yet, again, someone has articulated that which I have been unable to articulate for years! I think one of the reasons I have never really cared for Nichols is because I don't enjoy

the *flaunting*, as Manhattnik called it. I didn't enjoy the daring to be late. Perhaps, it goes against my own personal musicality.

As far as Weese goes, her musicality, as described by Leigh, is exactly why I like her as a dancer. I've never found her particularly warm... soulful. But, I have seen tremendously exciting performances from her because of her musical precision. At one Cortege Hongrois so-so performance, she ended so *in sync* with the music that it felt like a rush of energy-- a perfect moment where the music and the dancer were one?

Another to add to the list... Ashley Bouder. One of those aforementioned perfect moments came, for me, and I think the entire audience, when she does her first jump (the one in an attitude-like pose where the leg is facing upward? what's it called). That's why I find her jumping so... beautiful. It's not b/c she jumps high (that's a bonus!), but she really becomes the music embodied. I don't think I find her performances so energizing simply because she is so energetic but because her *interaction with the music* creates an added energy. I did have to laugh when she did her first diagonal of jumps in her Raymonda debut last Friday. I really did start giggling. (well, that might also have been b/c of the contrast b/w that debut and that of the ballerina that night)

it is in the musicality or lack thereof that I find the key difference b/w Weese and M. Tracey. They both have solid technique, but, to me, the former has musicality added to it. Tracey dances to the music and doesn't really generate any heat, as a result.

It's all about that extra energy/passion that is generated from the dancer meeting the music in perfect moments... for me.

Well, and soulful and *pretty* dancing. :-)

-amanda

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Okay........."dumb" question of the week! What exactly IS "rubato"?? I've seen the word mentioned many times in print (especially in conjuction with Kirkland), but what, precisely, does it mean?? confused.gif

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Yvonne - here's the literal definition fromt he dictionary: a fluctuation of tempo within a musical phrase often against a rhythmically steady accompaniment

Here's an example of it - say a dancer is doing something that would usually be done at a steady tempo (like maybe the passes in the Raymonda variation) and opts to vary the tempo slightly - do one very slow and speed up another to compensate. That's rubato.

Did that help?

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You could distill the "Watch Allegra Kent" answer into: "What's musical? I know it when I see it."

Also, at the risk of being a obscure, a strong argument can be made that what is most "music" is precisely what most evades verbal definition -- that the essence of "musicality" is the thing which most refuses to be pinned down in words. By virtue of that fact alone, it is most what is worthy of being irreducibly called "music". You can't catch the movement in the stream as it flows by, you will be left with a handful of water, not the flow.

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"Watch Allegra Kent" may have been a variant of "Listen to Elisabeth Schumann sing Lieder," which Schnabel used to say to his students...

Kent WAS – from many accounts still IS—a hauntingly musical dancer… the excerpts of her dancing Agon, and especially Symphony in C, shown on the “Dancing for Balanchine” video make those roles unmisunderstandable… When the big tune wells up in Symphony in C, and she dives into that adagio arabesque turn, a big emotion wells up in me; I always cry when I watch it.

Very complex things like musicality are much easier to illustrate by example than to define --

Musicality and timing are almost the same thing.. dancers, singers, pianists who have a deep understanding of the kind of music they’re performing tend to know where to elide and where to separate, where to slide in early and where to stretch the phrase out long. The kind of rubato you’d use for Debussy (Claire de Lune is MARKED “tempo rubato”) is different from that you’d use for, say, the Rosenkavalier Waltz (“Mit mir”), and that’s way different from the kind you’d use for “Mack the Knife” (“The cement’s just for the weight, dear”).

Balanchine’s leotard ballets all have a lot of African-derived steps – he’d worked with Katherine Dunham’s company on Cabin in the Sky (not to mention the Nicholas Brothers in Babes in Arms) and in fact, there’s lots of jazz, according to Marie Jeanne, in Concerto Barocco. When I learned Lindy hop, which is vernacular jazz dancing, I found my teachers, even in the elementary classes, showing us how to find the front of the beat and hte back of hte beat, since so much of the pleasure in Lindy is in the "play" –

“Play” has always been a highly prized feature of the styles of the best Lindy dancers, from Shorty George on, since they’re improvising as they go and may well reshape the whole curve of a familiar step to stretch it onto a saxophone phrase – that’s what makes your partner laugh and the crowd go wild…

The most musical dancer in hte jazz world may be Dawn Hampton, who was playing saxophone in the house band at the Savoy Ballroom back in the 50's and is thus a dancer now of a certain age, but she still wins the Lindy hop "interpretive" championships pretty much all the time, for the authority and wit of the steps she chooses to do, the things she makes you hear in the music, and hte way she plays with the onslaught and the aftertaste of the phrasing are just revelations....

All this comes to mind in thinking of Kyra Nichols’s playing with the end of the beat…. I love the way she dances. She was for a long time kind of a tomboy with fastidious accuracy and wonderful feet -- It's been great to see her temperament come into bloom. It's such a pleasure to me to see her phrasing like a jazz dancer (though re Mozartiana, I still think only Farrell's Preghiera really understands what’s going on in the music there – I've watched her performance on that video many times, and only grow more admiring -- she's really penetrated to the heart of the music. Mozart was setting a prayer, a devotion to the body of Christ, and though it’s just strings playing in Mozartiana, there are words to that tune, written by Thomas Aquinas – and that particular melody is a setting of the word death, the sentence is about the uncertain passage from this world into the next – and the way Farrell took those piques – as she said in her book, like stepping from steeple to steeple -- made me feel like shouting "Holy" – my kinesthetic identification was it was like walking in a river, against running water, that she was crossing over into Jordan and as she pulled in from arabesque into passe, she dramatized the precariousness of thie journey into the next life each step was like an act of faith….. of course, Farrell and Balanchine shared this kind of religious feeling, which I think is the key to the role, and other dancers who don’t have it may execute the steps very well, and keep in some harmony with the music, but not be really MUSICAL unless they feel the life-and-death importance of the the IDEA expressed in the music.)

[ March 10, 2002, 03:54 AM: Message edited by: Paul Parish ]

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