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ChoreographersHow do you describe their "musicality"


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#1 innopac

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Posted 05 June 2009 - 02:03 PM

"I've decided, somewhat regretfully, that there are so many different conceptions of what musicality is out there that at best we can make personal "I know it when I see it" definitions for it. I've heard choreography I considered to have an absolutely pedestrian use of the music (getting the counts, but not the architecture of the score) be called "luminously musical" by others. Try as I might, I couldn't figure out what was meant."

"In choreography, as I implied earlier, for me musicality means getting beneath the skin of the music. If a choreographer is musical, I'll know why s/he used that piece of music to set a dance; the dance will have made me understand its relation to the music. If after watching the dance I still have no idea why the choreographer chose that music, even if the dance fits the bar lengths, in my mind, it isn't musical."


I have seen choreographers described in posts as musical or not musical. This may be a rash conclusion on my part but the descriptors seem to correlate with whether one has an affinity with that choreographer's work or not.

I am struggling with understanding what musicality means in terms of choreography...

Is it possible to not like the choreography and still judge the choreographer's treatment to be musical?

Is it possible to not like the musical work the ballet is set to and still describe the choreographer's treatment to be musical?

Are the needs of choreographic "musicality" different for story and abstract ballets?

What specifically do you look for when you are considering the musicality of a choreographer's work?



#2 Helene

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Posted 05 June 2009 - 02:57 PM

I think a lot of "I'll know it when I see it" starts with "I'll know it if it isn't". If what the dancers are doing has a jarring relationship or a little relationship to the music -- rhythm, structure, atmosphere -- it's usually recognizable, and a struggle to watch.

There's was a DVD called "Ashton to Stravinsky: A Study of Four Ballets with choreography by Frederick Ashton" by Stephanie Jordan and Geraldine Morris that is still available from Dance Books in London in PAL VHS. (I bought it because there are excerpts of Beriosova's in "Persephone"). I haven't watched it in a while, and my copy is in storage, but in one chapter, Jordan and Morris contrast Ashton, Balanchine, and MacMillan's choreography to "Le Baiser de la fée". In their analysis they find Balanchine's response too simple and literal and Ashton's much more musically sophisticated. Their highest praise is for the way in which Ashton portrays Stravinsky's complex rhythms, particularly in "Scènes de ballet". The film shows each section broken out, and then put together as a whole. While I can appreciate the individual sections, I find Ashton's approach cacophonous when put together, the opposite of the filmmakers' view.

If you can get your hands on it, though, it is a fascinating analysis of of musicality in ballet, it addresses most of questions you've raised directly and indirectly, and you do get a few seconds of Beriosova.

As for the question "Is it possible to not like the musical work the ballet is set to and still describe the choreographer's treatment to be musical?", I would say absolutely: I don't particularly like most of Paulli, Helsted, Gade, Lumbye, or Lovenskiold, but I love the musicality Bournonville. I don't love any Gounod, but think that Balanchine's "Walpurgisnacht Ballet" and the dreaded "Steadfast Tin Soldier" are quite musical. Balanchine's criteria was whether the music was danceable or should be danced to.

#3 sandik

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Posted 05 June 2009 - 04:02 PM

Have to think at more length about this question, but Helene's response reminded me that Stephanie Jordan has written cogently and at length about musicality (especially in terms of Stravinsky) -- worth looking for.

#4 Anthony_NYC

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Posted 05 June 2009 - 04:13 PM

Jordan also made a brilliant video called Music Dances: Balanchine Choreographs Stravinsky. It really sheds light on how much more intricate and complex Balanchine's treatment of music is than is even customarily recognized. Thoroughly engrossing. It's available (still only on videocassette) from the Balanchine Foundation.

#5 LiLing

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Posted 05 June 2009 - 05:21 PM

I think frequently when a choreographer is labeled musical, it is just a matter of how closely they mirror the musical elements, rhythm, phrasing, overall structure. If the musical score is fairly complex and the movement vocabulary sophisticated, this can be very satisfying, if not it becomes what is called Mickey Mouseing, and can be almost comical. (In a cartoon, the character goes up stairs, the music goes up the scale, he falls, the music crashes etc. whence the term.)
For me, a musical choreographer doesn't do the obvious, the choreography is an added voice, sensitive to the music, but not slavishly tied to it. I'm afraid I can't explain myself very well, :) but this is an interesting topic.
I'd love to hear Alastair Macaulay's thoughts. He pays more attention to the music that the average dance critic, which I appreciate.

#6 Amy Reusch

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Posted 05 June 2009 - 06:50 PM

Well, there are choreographers who prefer to ignore the music or not be constrained by it.... so I suppose describing a choreographer as musical/not musical isn't always a case of personal affinity... and there are choreographers who prefer not to be too obviously musical.

I've found myself disagreeing with friends about musicality itself... with some friends thinking dancers who are precisely on the beat as being musical, where as I find dancers who play with leading/chasing the beat to be more musically sensitive and therefore more "musical"... And then there are choreographers whose work reflects the complex structure of the music while others reflect the force of it; which one then is more musical? The one who choreographs like a composer or the one who choreographs like a groupie?

I need to get reading glasses so I can stop accidentally paraphrasing others more eloquent.

#7 Hans

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Posted 06 June 2009 - 08:07 AM

This might sound strange, but although I often find myself jarred or annoyed by Balanchine's choreography, I can see where he is going with it, and I do think he is musical in his own way, even if it's not what I would have done.

#8 Ray

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Posted 06 June 2009 - 09:41 AM

This might sound strange, but although I often find myself jarred or annoyed by Balanchine's choreography, I can see where he is going with it, and I do think he is musical in his own way, even if it's not what I would have done.


It does sound strange, only because people who dislike Balanchine find his musicality too slickly or simplistically mimetic--i.e., "visualizing" the music in obvious or (merely) clever ways ("Mickey Mousing," as per LitLing above). Some say this about Mark Morris too.

I find his musicality neither jarring nor slick, however--no accounting for taste, I guess!--but I can understand the criticism. Can you elaborate on your sense of annoyance?

#9 papeetepatrick

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Posted 06 June 2009 - 09:54 AM

Well, there are choreographers who prefer to ignore the music or not be constrained by it.... so I suppose describing a choreographer as musical/not musical isn't always a case of personal affinity... and there are choreographers who prefer not to be too obviously musical.

I've found myself disagreeing with friends about musicality itself... with some friends thinking dancers who are precisely on the beat as being musical, where as I find dancers who play with leading/chasing the beat to be more musically sensitive and therefore more "musical"... And then there are choreographers whose work reflects the complex structure of the music while others reflect the force of it; which one then is more musical? The one who choreographs like a composer or the one who choreographs like a groupie?

I need to get reading glasses so I can stop accidentally paraphrasing others more eloquent.


This is GREAT. I don't see how you said it all in so succinct a way. I like the description of 'leading/chasing the beat', even though I've known what that means for a good while now, I didn't when I first started seeing ballet and dance.

This might sound strange, but although I often find myself jarred or annoyed by Balanchine's choreography, I can see where he is going with it, and I do think he is musical in his own way, even if it's not what I would have done.


It does sound strange, only because people who dislike Balanchine find his musicality too slickly or simplistically mimetic--i.e., "visualizing" the music in obvious or (merely) clever ways ("Mickey Mousing," as per LitLing above). Some say this about Mark Morris too.

I find his musicality neither jarring nor slick, however--no accounting for taste, I guess!--but I can understand the criticism. Can you elaborate on your sense of annoyance?


Balanchine is extremely musical IMO, no two ways about it. Sometimes there is a strong sense of 'visuaiizing the music', but that's cool, totally legit. You see a lot of it in 'Davidsbundlertanze'. Much rather see it there and in 'Chaconne' than over-visualizing one of the Minkus Magnum Opus Masterpiece-Masterworks :) And for all I think the Balanchine/Farrell collaboration is sometimes hyped, you can't get around that this is a whole matrix of danced musicality--can even make the vibrato of stringed instruments come to mind, seeing the vibrato of, say, a mellow viola.

I think Amy's great synopis also shows how musical choreographers like Graham and Humphreys can be very musical in quite different and previously unexplored ways, though, as well. And there's just no such thing as Petipa being 'unmusical', of course. And Fokine! How can you GET more 'depth of Chopin' than in 'Les Sylphides'. I swear I think 'Les Sylphides' is one of the greatest masterpieces of any kind in all history--pure magic in both music and dance--and did Rudolph Nureyev ever know how to really hear Chopin--an incredibly sensitively musical dancer. (Forgive my Morning of Hyperbole....)

#10 SandyMcKean

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Posted 06 June 2009 - 04:39 PM

Patrick,

Since you mentioned Chopin........what's your opinion on Chopin/Robbins/Dances at a Gathering/musicality/??

I ask because I am in the midst of discoving Dances for the first time during the last couple of weeks by seeing it several times at PNB (including tonight).

#11 Simon G

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Posted 06 June 2009 - 05:44 PM

Balanchine is extremely musical IMO, no two ways about it. Sometimes there is a strong sense of 'visuaiizing the music', but that's cool, totally legit ... a whole matrix of danced musicality--can even make the vibrato of stringed instruments come to mind, seeing the vibrato of, say, a mellow viola.



Papeetepatrick,

This is also one of the most damning criticisms of Blanchine and from the anti-Balanchine lobby proof that he isn't a "great" choreographer and a criticism which is continually and very often rightly levied against choreographers. The monkey see, monkey do, approach to constructing dance so that all it is, is a visualisation of musical notes.

Stavinsky was highly censorious of Balanchine's use of his music in Agon, where indeed it literally is a movement a note almost and the vibrato viola of Concerto Barocco where the ballerina is lifted on her partners hip in lilting curves to accompany the solo i beautiful, indeed, but again it conversely can be argued that as choreography it's weak. Ditto the high kicking ballerina quartet in Melancholic.

That's why I love Balanchine story ballets and in that I include Apollo, because the music is so dramatically interpreted it breaks free of the step for note exchange.

Increasingly I do find myself questioning my love of Balanchine and how inventive some of his ballets are for me. Certainly I find myself appreciating more and more the genius of Ashton and his musicality it's like quicksilver and so seamless, I love him.

#12 papeetepatrick

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Posted 06 June 2009 - 07:46 PM

Patrick,

Since you mentioned Chopin........what's your opinion on Chopin/Robbins/Dances at a Gathering/musicality/??

I ask because I am in the midst of discoving Dances for the first time during the last couple of weeks by seeing it several times at PNB (including tonight).


And I am seeing for the last time some 35 years ago! so not the most precise words will come from me, I hope someone else will chime in on this one. I did see it a few times in the mid-70s at NYCB, and thought it very charming, and yes, surely musical, but too long ago and I knew much less then; so I have to leave it at that general level of 'yes, musical' and thought it was thoroughly charming in many, if not all, its pieces of Chopin/Robbins.

Oh yes, Simon G, I love the way the Balanchine works with the music in 'Apollo'. Interesting what you've said about Stravinsky and 'Agon', I really think I saw it only once, and that was long ago. Yes, in 'Concerto Barocco', you can see both some movements that 'accompany the music', as I recall from 2004, when last I saw it again, and some very 'musical choreography' that reminds one of the music but is choreographic music rather, that resembles in dance form what the style of the music is, but without following it so closely (I have an image in mind on this piece, but it's a little vague, so I may be being imprecise.) But whether or not this image from Concerto barocco is exactly right, there are many examples in Balanchine of movement that 'looks like musical phrase' in form of choreography (will look like counterpoint, for example), but is not in that moment 'imitating the music' or being overly dependent on it. This is a little hasty and rough, but I hope the gist is there.

#13 Jack Reed

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Posted 07 June 2009 - 06:35 AM

Stavinsky was highly censorious of Balanchine's use of his music in Agon


Simon G, can I ask you to to explain how you come to say that? Maybe point me to your source?

I'm not contradicting, I just don't know, and I've long thought the two men got along famously, with IIRC Stravinsky saying -- though maybe not of Agon -- that he was most satisfied with Balanchine's choreographies of his music, and Balanchine saying that if he could compose, he would like his music to sound like Stravinsky's. And they worked together on Agon in contrast to most instances of Balanchine's choreographing something Stravinsky had written independently. So I was surprised to read that. Of course both of them were intellectually restless, saying somewhat different things at different times, but it would be interesting to read the context(s).

#14 Simon G

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Posted 07 June 2009 - 07:14 AM

Hi Jack,

I think it was this book:

http://www.amazon.co...n...266&sr=1-14


Or it may have been this one in one of the recollections:

http://www.amazon.co...-...457&sr=1-28


Or possibly this one:

http://www.amazon.co...n...551&sr=1-24


Sorry, all I can really remember is how surprised I was too when I read about it and the way it made me look at Agon differently when I next saw it.

Hope that help?

#15 papeetepatrick

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Posted 07 June 2009 - 10:17 AM

Here's another aspect of musicality that I think i figured out when discussing Graham with someone last night. You can see it very easily in both of her big filmed dances, 'Night Journey' and 'Appalachian Spring'. It has to do with the compositional process primarily, in that it's extremely fugal, contrapuntal, with movements in 'several voices' like a Bach fugue--you have in several scenes, independent dance-actions going on in 'Appalachian Spring', except in the solos, when the other dancers are frozen and remain motionless. Right before the Bride and Husbandmen kneel at the altar for the brief blessing by the evangelist, there had been a whole quick series of interactions, between the husbandman and the preacher, the Bride and the Pioneer Woman, and as they walk to the altar, the 4 followers all whisk through as a final breezy punctuation with their adorable petticoats and tilted heads to be still and respect the little ceremony. Likewise, in 'Night Journey', you have all sorts of simultaneous movements in the Chorus, with Oedipus and Jocasta twisting and writhing, doing grotesque movements here then there, getting the images in sometimes 3 discrete locations on the stage, complicating it still further when they're tying themselves up in the rope and forming yet more geometric shapes, while the Chorus marches in royal fashion, not one detail of which, no matter how small, has not been carefully thought out.

INteresting Simon G pointed out the actual viola in Concerto Barocco, I hadn't even been thinking of that. At the moment of dashing off that about Balanchine/Farrell, i was thinking about a viole (or it could have been a violin or viola, or maybe even sometimes a 'built instrument' like Harry Partch made; was thinking more of certain kinds of vibrato-like movement I saw in performances of 'Mozartiana' live, and which you can still see even on the DVD of 'Tzigane', where Farrell's body seems to extend beyond its already lengthy frame--this gives a quality of continued vibrato that you can see in her body in that piece (and surely elsewhere, I just remember that image in particular a few times on viewing that video) seem to vibrate, because of course it does not materially extend to 10 feet, etc., it's a matter of a sense of movement even when the body is still, that would be like the vibrato I was thinking of (but interested to hear about the 'real viola passage', need to see CB again.)

Anyway, two very different kinds of 'musicality choreographing'. and primarily writing now because once I hit upon the word 'fugal', i could understand that that was a Bach-like way of musical thinking that Graham was fully capable of in seeing her many different kinds of movement all saying different things simultaneiously. It's not an exact paraller to a Bach Fugue, because each voice has to be more closely allied in terms of material character to not be discordant, whereas discord is not a jarring thing when several non-harmonious kinds of dance action are taking place in 'Night Journey'. Also, Graham had so many scores written for her by important young composers of her modernist day, that you have a built=in collaboration with her choreography and the music of Dello Joio, Menotti, Barber, Copland, etc., and it often works beautifully. I would be interested to know how Diversion of Angels was put together. The Woman in Red can dance against the music a lot, and yet you see the Apollonian Woman in White dancing in an almost ballet feeling to more lyrical and flowing music early on in the piece.


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