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"Musicality": what is it and can you define it?

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The concept of musicality has only clicked into place for me recently. I would say attending NYCB more frequently has opened my eyes to it. Balanchine's ballets, even when danced by dancers less renowned for their musicality, are very educational. The way he counterpoints his steps to the music opened up a vista for me—the choreography does not just happen pasted over the music—it chases it, or circles around it, or tunnels through it, and on and on. So I realized that Petipa ballets could also be danced that way, and that some of my favorite performances had been. Lately I have seen very musical performances by Ana Sophia Scheller, Ashley Bouder and Megan Fairchild. I became conscious of a sense of play, and surprise. Seeing different dancers in the same role is instructive, as is watching videos or performances with dancers who are known to be very musical, such as Margot Fonteyn, Violette Verdy, or Gillian Murphy. It seems that that something extra, the sense of seamlessness in a role, is often generated by playing with the music. Finally, today I found an interview with Gelsey Kirkland in the Sept. 2005 issue of Dance Magazine.

K: How does a dancer become more musical?

G: A person's body first has to learn to sing in silence. Then you can talk about what you are going to do with a phrase. First and foremost, anticipation. Then, where to rob and steal time: You might delay one part of the phrase, and catch up later. But the extent to which this is done is defined by the character you are portraying. For example, innocence moves in a certain way, and that affects how you use the music. If you are doing a character who is struggling between opposing forces, the movements need more resistance and weight. For example, in Act II of Giselle, Giselle is caught between Myrta, who is trying to pull her into the dark world of the wilis' bitterness, and her own need to save Albrecht from destruction. Mastering a binding quality in the transitions between the steps is essential in order to see the struggle, and this becomes a musical challenge as well.

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Obviously, delighted to see this thread unearthed. Very different kinds of musicality all through dance and ballet. You can see it in Nureyev's sensitivity and gentleness in 'Les Sylphides,' you can see other kinds in Ghislaine Thesmar in the wonderful old tape of 'La Sylphide.'

As a musician, it's common enough to be most attracted to Balanchine, and I'm no exception. There were many musical dancers, and Melissa Hayden was one of the most musical. Her remarks in the '6 Balanchine Ballerinas' film are the most articulate I've ever heard on the issue, including about when dancing without the music, the rhythm that is produced and 'heard' even then.

As the furthest extension of this 'pure musicality', you find a dancer who can become like another musical instrument of the orchestra itself, just as the prima donna does become the primary instrument of the orchestra in opera (Maria Callas said this perfectly, but I can't remember where), and thus creates a new voice of music him/herself. This is the area in which the Balanchine/Suzanne Farrell collaboration reached a special kind of grandeur, and in this realm I think Farrell is peerless. This goes beyond being expressive and sensitive to the music, and the body vibrates with the music from the orchestra as well as bringing in new dimensions of pulse, carving out new musical shapes, and I think Farrell was the master (of those I've seen), because she was definitely doing this all the time. It is as if you really could see music. Of course, there is then a lesser emphasis on the theatrical aspect, but then that's why there are all sorts of artists and all kinds of dancers. In all of the most musical dancers, though, there is a sense of long line that is exactly parallel to the line that must be drawn through a musical composition, and while a great dancer is not precisely parallel to a great opera singer, since dancing is a 'becoming-music' (even at its pinnacles, it is not literally music, as poetry is not either), whereas the voice is actually music in the literal sense.

Martha Graham must have been an astonishingly musical dancer, as her works most certainly are, and Virginie Victoire Mycene is especially musical in a most rare way as the Bride in 'Appalachian Spring.'

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Thank you, beck_hen, for exhuming this thread and for posting Kirkland's illuminating comments. (And yours too, papeetepatrick.)

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Yes. Thank you both, very much.

We read a lot about "musicality" in the work of certain dancers. Sometimes, the statement that a certain dancer is "musical" seems just another way of saying that he or she is "one of those dancers I like, moving gracefully, to music I also like." :)

beck_hen, papeetepatrick and the other posters on this thread are more ambitious. I especially like beck_hen's evocation of Balanchinian musicality (when danced by the best):

[T]he choreography does not just happen pasted over the music -- it chases it, or circles around it, or tunnels through it, and on and on.
I can SEE that, just by running through memories of particular Balanchinian sequences (from 4 Temperaments, for instance, and Agon) in my mind.

Similarly, papeetepatrick's evocation of Farrell,

[T]he body vibrates with the music from the orchestra as well as bringing in new dimensions of pulse, caraving out new musical shapes ...
I can see that as well. I especially like the metaphor of "carving out," as the body moves through space. For some reason, those late-in-career Vienna Waltzes comes to mind.

Gelsey Kirland's statement, if you look at it closely, is full of hints about the strategies that a dancer can use to increase this kind of living relationship with the music.

... G: First and foremost, anticipation. Then, where to rob and steal time: You might delay one part of the phrase, and catch up later. But the extent to which this is done is defined by the character you are portraying. For example, innocence moves in a certain way, and that affects how you use the music. If you are doing a character who is struggling between opposing forces, the movements need more resistance and weight. For example, in Act II of Giselle, Giselle is caught between Myrta, who is trying to pull her into the dark world of the wilis' bitterness, and her own need to save Albrecht from destruction. Mastering a binding quality in the transitions between the steps is essential in order to see the struggle, and this becomes a musical challenge as well.

Great stuff!

P.S. Papeetepatrick, thanks for that memory of, and memorial to, Melissa Hayden. :P

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I am also glad to see the old and new imput on musicality--so difficult to define; so interesting to try!.

I am a new member, parent and fan. I asked my dks* sometime ago to explain to me the relationship among musicality, movement quality, and artistry. We had talked previously about these issues separately. Upon reflection I realized it might help me to sort through things if I had these things distinguished from one another. Our discussions over the next several days and weeks proved useful. I'd like to share just some of the highlights of those discussions as well as other observations using a mix of relevant things I have noted over the years. I should say I danced myself years ago (absolutely recreationally!) and played an instrument. My dks have danced many styles in addition to ballet (their primary training) one does more singing, the other has played an instrument, and we have all observed many classes and performances.

My dks pointed out to me that while there is a lot of overlap among artistry, movement quality, and musicality, it is possible to make some distinctions. Artistry encompasses everything else, at least potentially. Movement quality can be expressed even without music and is a particular way of mobilizing the body. Musicality involves how a dancer "feels" it. In addition, I would add, artistry goes beyond musicality and movement quality to include the artist's particular sensibility and the choices that inform that sensibility. This would encompass obvious things like timing and phrasing as well as not so obvious things like the study and reflection that some dancers invest in their way of inhabiting a character or executing a variation (the more dramatic or acting part of their craft). Coaching and the legacy of others who have danced and /or choreographed the part could enter in here. Inspired partnering might appear here as well. This is also one of the many specific entry points for "magic!"

After much thought, I believe musicality has to do wth a performer (any performer) and their particular relationship with the music. Here I think the dancing "to," "through," "with," "carving," etc. earlier comments are all apt. What helps me here is to make a contrast with dancers who aren't musical. Sometimes the negative instance can help to clarify. For example, some people just dance and almost belatedly notice that there is music playing. I call this dancing "by" or "near" the music while acknowledging this can be not very near at all. I overheard a student struggling with this and describing to a teacher how hard it is to focus on the music and still keep in mind all the other things (counts, placement, the combination, etc.) necessary to make it possible to dance. It was very difficult for me even to understand this, being (if anything) over controlled by the music myself.

This made me think about consistency and the availability of performers to their audience. Some people become so internally focused they are no longer very tuned in to ANY external stimuli (sadly even the even music, and more sadly sometimes even their audiences). After noting (rather uncharitably) some dancers lack of generosity in performance and trying to reconcile this with knowing what nice people they are, I realized it is simply their way of working. They access their performance from somewhere so personal and so deep they are no longer easily available to an audience when they dance. Some of these dancers go so deep they are barely relating even to the music (especially all dimensions of the music). Alternately other dancers are so unimaginitively (but consistently) related to the music that counts become everything. It's more math than music, and, ironically, this mechanistic dedication to the music can also become a lack of musicality.

One of my dks' favorite teachers is truly old school, very performance oriented, and an octagenarian. He encourages dancers by telling them to "sing with their bodies." This phrase is, I think, one of the most compeling descriptions of musicality. What makes it so compelling as an analogy for me is that it also allows for the full range of relationships to the music--from the tone deaf to the most extreme virtuoso; from ballads to spirituals; opera to rap; yodelling to folksongs; singing in the shower to performing for 100,000 in a huge concert space. It also allows for the diverse of ways of relating to different aspects of the music: rhythym, melody, counterpointe, amplitude, genre, context, dynamics, etc.

This can explain why one person's musicality yields consistency and another's the opposite. It also explains why people can disagree so radically about who does and does not have musicality as well as how this affects performance quality and stage presence. It also explains how a performer's artistry and personality may be very different (for ex. the shy individual who is transformed on stage into an irresistible phenomenon), and why classroom quality is so different from performance quality. It never ceases to amaze me how teachers try to get show quality/stage quality out of students in a classroom. I've noticed often the best performers need a real audience to get to real performance level, as well as how otherwise dedicated dancers who rely too heavily on the studio mirror often fail to impress in performance.

Obviously technique figures into this whole discussion although I haven't focussed on it or even mentioned it. My idea is that technical expertise is absolutely essential. Without technique nothing else can happen. Having said that however, I believe technique, while necessary, is not sufficient. It must always be lower priority than everything else or dancers become mere technicians. Maybe you have athletes or gymnasts or contortionists or posers, or some combination of the above maybe, or something else entirely, but not artists. Dancers must subordinate everything to their art IMHO.

This post is too long :flowers: (always one of my many failings), but I hope some will find something to relate to along the way. :blush: Thanks for being here Ballet Talk. :) I am excited to come out of the shadows and would be very interested in any feedback on my ruminations offered here for your consideration. :)

PS Someday (many, many posts from now), I hope to have a blog of my own...

Moderator's note:

*For those who don't read BalletTalk for Dancers, dks=Dancing Kids.

Edited by carbro

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One of my dks' favorite teachers is truly old school, very performance oriented, and an octagenarian. He encourages dancers by telling them to "sing with their bodies." This phrase is, I think, one of the most compeling descriptions of musicality. What makes it so compelling as an analogy for me is that it also allows for the full range of relationships to the music--from the tone deaf to the most extreme virtuoso; from ballads to spirituals; opera to rap; yodelling to folksongs; singing in the shower to performing for 100,000 in a huge concert space. It also allows for the diverse of ways of relating to different aspects of the music: rhythym, melody, counterpointe, amplitude, genre, context, dynamics, etc.

I was just re-watching the documentary From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China the other day. There's a scene where he's teaching a master class to students in front of a packed auditorium. He was teaching a young (10-12?) girl, who had played a passage dutifully. Her playing was technically "correct" in that the notes were the ones on the page with correct spacing, and even somewhat dynamically correct in terms of relative volume. But what was missing was the connection between the notes: they sounded mechanically produced, with no breath between them.

In front of this entire crowd, he made her sing the phrase out loud. While he could make his musical corrections clear by imitation and example, this request needed translation, and her very first reaction, before she looked mortified, was as if he had asked her to stand on her head. Very much like the story Farrell tells where Balanchine asked her to keep extending her fourth position preparation for pirouette into a virtual lunge. After taking a few seconds to gather her courage, she sang the passage, and almost miraculously, played it with the same beautiful phrasing with which she had sung it. It had life and breath. She had been given permission to use her musical imagination and apply it to the score.

His explanation was that the violin was an extension of the voice. At best, in my opinion, dancers use their bodies to sing. (As a fan of 20th century and contemporary music, I know that the singing might not always be sweet, a la Pierrot Lunaire.) That doesn't in itself mean that a dancer is musical -- many people who sing are tone deaf, and others have bad taste -- but it's a great start.

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Helene, I enjoyed your thoughts on musicality and sinigng and playing and dancing (I am still a bit confused on how to use the quote function...sorry). Made me think too.

I wonder what you and other members think about the increased dancing in silence that preceeds, punctuates, and follows some (usually contemporary) choreography. In addition, some modern/contemp pieces especially in modern dance, but creeping into ballet as well is choreographed to ambient sounds or seemingly unmusical "music." Maybe I'm going off track, but I am stumped by the even occasional but increasingly frequent estrangement I see between music and dance. How does musicality fare, and how much do we value and/or train for this as the parameters of what we call "music" expand in a post modern sensibility???

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To me a musical dancer must have 3 characteristics.

1. to have music within

2. to be able to internalize and feel the external music

3. to have the technique to match the rhythm of the internal or internalized music to the rhythm of the external music.

If any of those 3 is missing the dancer is not musical in my opinion.

About the dancing in silence I think when a dancer has music within himself/herself the audience will feel the music even if there is no music actually being played.

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2dds's and omshanti's posts got me thinking. A quick Google to Wikipedia turned up this discussion of music as a "subjective experience."

A subjective definition of music need not, however, be limited to traditional ideas of music as pleasant or melodious. Luciano Berio defined music as, "everything one listens to with the intention of listening to music." This approach to the definition focuses not on the construction but on the experience of music. Thus, music could include "found" sound structures--produced by natural phenomena or algorithms--as long as they are interpreted by means of the aesthetic cognitive processes involved in music appreciation. This approach permits the boundary between music and noise to change over time as the conventions of musical interpretation evolve within a culture, to be different in different cultures at any given moment, and to vary from person to person according to their experience and proclivities

According to this contemporary mode of thinking, conventional music, noise, and even silence -- as exploited by John Cage, to great acclaim -- qualify as versions of the same sensory experience.

I don't really buy this myself, though the theorizing is clever. But there can be power in the experience of a curtain opening on an empty stage, in silence, with th dancer(s) entering, positioning, and preparing silently for the music to begin.

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In discussing the silence issue offline, one of my own dancers (who has also choreographed) offered the opinion that silences in the beginning, end, or placed at strategic points in a piece are like taking a breath and it opens up the piece in the sense of letting it breathe.

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Depending on the music and the choreography, I think breath may be even more important than rhythmic precision.

For me, a musical dancer understands the ebb and flow of energy within a phrase. In some performances, the emphasis may be on the step that begins on count one, while in others, the emphasis may be on the step that closes the phrase (or connects this phrase to the next), and each can be equally valid.

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Musicality is essential. Dancers can be naturally musical (or not) but very often it is down to the choreographer or the ballet masters to teach them what is required precisely. Hours of studio work usually ensure a professional dancer will perform a faithful interpretation of the choreographer's musical views...

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I beg to differ, Joel.

While many dancers can develop their musicality, it is fundamentally there or not. The matter of hitting a beat (if that's what your describing) is very basic, and from what you wrote, the musical expression of any particular phrase will be the same from one dancer to the next. This has not been my experience in over thirty years of watching many companies from many different traditions -- even with as famously exacting a choreographer as Robbins.

To me, musicality is the ability to connect -- or disconnect -- the movements within a phrase (and then one phrase to/from the other). Yes, there are important moments that must occur at a specific time, but it's those little in-betweenies that define musicality for me.

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I agree with you, carbro, and I think you misunderstood me: Musicality, to me, could never be reduced to "the matter of hitting a beat". Also, I do agree that the musicality of a dancer is, in most cases, a natural talent (as I wrote in my earlier post), but this was already very well explained by other members on this thread and I am trying to focus on another aspect of musicality in its relation to dance. I hope I can make my point clearer.

The interpretation of music differs a lot from one choreographer to the next and therefore it is obvious that musical sensibility is part of a choreographer's style and personality. Some have a looser approach of timing than others, but in general choreographers are musically very specific. It does not mean that dancers have to move in a robotic fashion and not have their own "space" within the music but they do have to respect a style, both in the movement AND in the musicality.

I personally think that it is important to mention this perspective. Many dancers will admit that it sometimes takes hours of rehearsals to get familiar with a choreographer's musical demands, because it isn't simply about being "on the beat". Every nuance in the music has to be illustrated and this is what often makes a performance so moving.

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Very well stated, Joel. Thanks!

I completely agree.

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Many dancers will admit that it sometimes takes hours of rehearsals to get familiar with a choreographer's musical demands, because it isn't simply about being "on the beat". Every nuance in the music has to be illustrated and this is what often makes a performance so moving.
This is particularly true for ballets where counting is critical, like in Agon and Rubies, particularly for dancers who admit to hate to count and prefer a more immediate response to the music.

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I've just re-read this thread (great stuff!) and have some nuts-and-bolts questions.

2dds's reference to a "struggling" student who seemed to experience a definite distinction, or even contrast, between absorbing the music and dealing with other things like counts.

Last winter I had the chance to watch Rite of Spring being set on a company that had not danced it before. It was clear that the dancers, at an early stage of incorporating the choreography, had a great deal of complicated counting to do. You could even see some of the dancers' lips moving.

Do most dancers have to get the counting first, and then the musicality? Or is this intuitive with some? What's the balance? Are the most "musical" dancers also those who can absorb the counts most easily?

EDITED TO ADD: Helene and I were posting at the same time and -- coincidentally -- addressing the same issues.

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I must start with a disclaimer because I am no expert, but IMHO here are my 2 cents...

I think dancers differ as Helene states. Some like to "just go" and only count when forced to by the choreography, or sometimes the combination of the choreography and the music. Often this more demandong choreography is subtley (buy beautifully) violating certain conventional rules and or expectations. This demands a more active concentration than moves that are more predictable. Extensive rehearsal or familiarity with the particular style makes even these more demanding ones a bit more predictable and more easily danceable. Sometimes different parts of the choreography (for ex. the counts and moves for porte de bras when combined with the moves for the footwork) work together in unexpected and potentially confusing ways that also make it necessary to keep counts very clear.

Some dancers seem to be more comfortable with counts all the time. I'm less familiar with this, both my dancers being the "just go" kind, but thinking about the mathematical nature of music, it's easy to see the appeal of the counts for performers with this sensibility. There are so many different ways of inhabiting the music, as well as so many different places to go in the music beyond just "the beat."

I have also heard dancers in many different styles--not only ballet-- (and many moons ago, I myself remember) feeling/expressing/interpreting the different nuances of the music (polyrythms, opposing melodies, volume dynamics, themes played by different instruments, etc.) in different parts of the body. I think it is possible to move the feet to one theme, use the back/spine/head and shoulders to another, while working the arms through the fingers and invoking yet another aspect of the sound. It's almost as if the music is beating with /residing in / inspiring the physical response with or without actual explicit mental counting.

I hope this isn't just hearsay (or ancient history) since much is based on observation. Does any of this begin to speak to your question bart?

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I have also heard dancers in many different styles--not only ballet-- (and many moons ago, I myself remember) feeling/expressing/interpreting the different nuances of the music (polyrythms, opposing melodies, volume dynamics, themes played by different instruments, etc.) in different parts of the body. I think it is possible to move the feet to one theme, use the back/spine/head and shoulders to another, while working the arms through the fingers and invoking yet another aspect of the sound. It's almost as if the music is beating with /residing in / inspiring the physical response with or without actual explicit mental counting.

This is an exceptionally intriguing idea. Having watched very good dancers in classes that were way over my head (+ feet, arms, body and everything else), I have the feeling there's much truth in it, though I never actually thought of it in this way. I wonder what those who've danced seriously, or taught, think about this insight?

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I also think (as many have mentioned all throughout this post), the transitions, the spaces, the inbetweens, this is often the location of special artistry, inspiring musicality, magic, the rare things that come into full bloom with the maturity of a trained dancer after many years of technical training. The visual artists refer to something analagous, I believe when they speak of negative space.

Significantly though, the sensibility that inspires how the artist handles these "inbetweens" is often innate and recognizable to the trained eye even in the very youngest dancers. I also find the nature of transitions to be especially important in choreography--maybe more so than in dancing. This one of the most valuable pieces of advice--to pay attention to the transitions--that my dk got as a fledgling choreographer.

This may be another piece of bart's puzzle...

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I am curious. Do dancers generally use musical scores when learning their roles? are they generally well-versed in reading music? or do they work with recordings of standard works, or just the rehearsal pianist? I am much more a musical person than a dance person, and as it happens I have two study scores sitting besides my desk at the moment: one is a complete Sleeping Beauty, which just arrived in today's mail, and the other is my old copy of Stravinsky's Agon.

Obviously much of the Sleeping Beauty music can be heard in clear 8-bar phrases that are easily memorized; I don't think it would be a huge effort to memorize a section from a recording. But Agon is a whole other story rhythmically: to the "naked ear" on hearing a recording you might think the opening pas de quatre starts on a downbeat with the first chord and continues to the next downbeat with the next. But in fact the first chord is syncopated, an offbeat to the third beat in a 4/8 measure; the next chord is an offbeat to the first beat in the second measure. And then there all the meter shifts - 4/8 to 3/8 and back throughout the movement. Later sections of Agon are even more complicated, perhaps the most difficult being the Bransle Gay, where the castanets are written in a steady 3/8 rhythm and the flutes, bassoons, and harp shift between 7/16, 5/16, and 3/8, only occasionally in synch with the percussionist. Just how does a dancer learn such rhythms and how to coordinate his or her movements with them? The Stravinsky Movements for Piano and Orchestra is if anything worse.

Another question regarding musicality. Do dancers - who everyday experience some of the gretest classical scores, like Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Bach - tend to take a greater interest in classical music than the public at large? or are these scores "what they do at work," and they have other musical interests when they're not dancing?

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Klavier (great screen name, by the way!) I have never seen or heard of a dancer using a musical score to learn a role. They just work on it in rehearsal with the pianist (or a recording if it's the one to which they'll be dancing). Some can read music and others cannot--it depends on whether the school where they were trained offered music lessons or if they studied music elsewhere.

As far as learning complicated music goes, the answer is "Rehearsal!" They (usually) rehearse over and over and over until they know the music and the movements that go with it backward and forward--basically, it's learning by rote. Once that is accomplished it is possible to start "feeling" the music more and being more expressive.

Whether dancers take a greater interest in classical music than most, I couldn't say; I'm not sure it's been studied. There are certainly dancers who are also musicians, but it has not been my experience that they know much more about classical music than anyone else. Many dancers are interested in other types of music (in addition to or instead of classical) for personal listening.

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I don't know whether there's any evidence to support this, but it seems reasonable that since ballet dancers are exposed more than the population at large to classical music from a quite early age, they are more amenable to it. It's difficult to imagine a person who has little interest in music becoming a dancer -- or at least succeeding as a professional. So my guess is that yes, dancers probably like classical music more than the general population, partly because they make a self-selected sample, and partly due to frequent exposure and familiarity.

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Another question regarding musicality. Do dancers - who everyday experience some of the gretest classical scores, like Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Bach - tend to take a greater interest in classical music than the public at large? or are these scores "what they do at work," and they have other musical interests when they're not dancing?

Great question. I'd love to hear from others who are more knowledgeable about this than I am.

Dancers do seem to like all kinds of music. However, I suspect that few would listen to Minkus-Pugni, or even Adam-Delibes or Tchaikovsky, on their time off.

On of our local companies is Ballet Florida, classically based, but now mostly contemporary in rep. They dance to Bartok, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Richard Strauss, Prokofiev, Stravinsky, and high-brow contemporaries. But what music would the dancers themselves select if they had the chance?

To quantify as much as possible, I turned to the last 5 years of programing for Step Ahead, a choreographer's workshop which the dancers themselves create and produce at the end of each season. Most of the work is by current or former company members. In these 5 years they produced a total of 29 dances.

Classical

Only 4 out of 29 would be considered "classical music" by most of us: Ravel (Bolero), Beethoven, Mozart, and Lizst (Liesbestraum).

Non-classical, but I've heard of them.

There were 11 in this category. Yo Yo Ma (with our without the Silk Road Ensemble) led this pack with 3 works. Among others were Aretha Franklin, Queen, the Beastie Boys, Pink Floyd (performed by the Royal Philharmonic), Clint Mansell (performed by the Kronos Quartet), Harry Connick Jr., John Williams, and the film score from Frida.

I don't remember whether I've ever heard of these, and don't really know the terminology for their kind of music, but they certainly sounded vaguely "international," "new age," souply, rhythmic, and/or world etthnic.

14 dances fit into this category. Among the names are Michael Nyman (twice), Peter Gabriel, James Asher, Jaz Coleman and Hinewehi Mahi, Pants and Corset, Oynstein Sevag and Lakki Patey, and Depeche Mode.

So, there it is -- just one company, just 5 years. The music was simple, film-score-ish, rather exotic, with long lines and fairly predictable rhythms.

I wonder whether this kind of music would be chosen by dancers today in other companies and other parts of the world.

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Dancers do seem to like all kinds of music. However, I suspect that few would listen to Minkus-Pugni, or even Adam-Delibes or Tchaikovsky, on their time off.

I don't think I would listen to Minkus-Pugni, or even Adam-Delibes on my time off! (Tchaikovsky is another story.)

But part of what I'm getting is that I would think to dance many of the more demanding scores in at least a repertory like that of NYCB - which includes complex 12-tone pieces like Webern's Concerto and Symphony (for Balanchine's Episodes) and Berg's Violin Concerto (for Robbins's In Memory Of), one does need an above-average understanding of some quite difficult music. These are scores that many classical music lovers and even some musicians I know find completely opaque ("atonal crap," in the words of one friend of mine). I wonder if there are dancers who would throw up their hands given such an assignment and say, "I can't make any sense of this music at all! I'd rather do 64 fouettés in Swan Lake than dance to this noise!" (Of course they may not have a choice.) Do pieces like the ones I've named tend to be more difficult for dancers to learn and perform as a direct result of the musical context?

I'm not sure where I'm going with any of this, but it does strike me that if a dancer is to manage such an assignment, they have to have some grasp of the music beyond the ordinary. And it would seem that at least at SAB, there is some attempt to educate students in understanding music, and perhaps to include some of the difficult scores they might have to deal with as professionals:

Each student's progress toward professionalism is inextricably related to his or her understanding of music. The School's music curriculum (for levels B1, B2, C1 and Intermediate Men) develops and strengthens not only students' musical skills but begins effectively to cultivate musical sensitivity and understanding. In the first year, students learn basic rhythm training and the harmonic system. In the second and third years, students begin developing musical sensitivity by listening, learning musical terminology and history; and they become familiar with composers, especially those associated with dance.
http://www.sab.org/wt_curric_music.htm

Kind of a rambling, inconclusive post, I know - but just trying to see if it sparks some interesting replies.

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