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


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#16 Hans

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Posted 10 November 2003 - 08:36 AM

This is going to sound really vague, but as a dancer, I think musicality is dancing with the music as opposed to dancing to the music. Let us not forget that the musician needs to be involved here too, which is why taped music is so unsatisfying.

#17 carbro

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Posted 10 November 2003 - 10:33 AM

I think musicality can be different things in different ballets. In some ballets, it means dancing to the music. Sometimes it means dancing with it, and sometimes there's an extra, undefinable quality. I remember Judith Fugate dancing the second woman in Concerto Barocco and knowing that she was dancing to a violin (or at least a bowed string instrument) just through the quality of her movement. That kind of musicality you don't see too often.

When I do see it, I think of the dancer as being inside the music.

#18 Cliff

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Posted 10 November 2003 - 10:09 PM

As someone who likely lacks any sense of musicality, I'm a bit confused by the discussion so far. When one watches a performance, what exactly indicates musicality?

#19 Alexandra

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Posted 10 November 2003 - 10:16 PM

That's a very good question (as your questions tend to be :ermm: ) And it makes a very good point -- if a viewer is concerned about musicality, whether he/she is a musician, or has a highly trained ear, or sense of rhythm, or simply listens to a lot of music, s/he is going to be more aware of musicality than someone who never listens to music or is tone deaf. (If you're color blind, you won't be as excited about color as someone who can see the full range of colors.)

I think, like a lot of things, one can train one's ear and eye -- if you want to. It's being aware of the music. How do the dancers' movements relate to the music? Sometimes, to me, it looks like the music is doing one thing and the dancer another (and, of course, that might be what the choreographer wants). Sometimes there's an obvious musical cue -- a loud crashing chord, say -- and the dancer waits a second before making the loud, crashing leap. Sometimes you have to SEE a sequence you've seen before danced musically and then you get it. (I'd seen the first act pas de trois in Swan Lake dozens of times before I saw a man who timed his jumps with the music in the coda. What had previously been music + dancing became music/dancing, two separate things were suddenly one. That's an inadequate explanation, but the best I can do at the moment.)

As this thread has shown, there are different viewpoints on musicality -- for some, it's rhythm, for some it's melody, for some it's analyzing a score. It might be interesting, the next time you see a ballet you've seen before, or whose music is familiar, to pick one part and listen to the music as hard as you usually watch the dancing, find the dancing through the music -- I hope some of this makes sense :)

#20 Funny Face

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Posted 11 November 2003 - 07:59 AM

My experience is that musicality is extremely rare. I just don't see it very often. I've heard a number of conjunctions throughout this thread -- the one I would be inclined to use is dancing THROUGH the music. There should be a sense of sound and movement interweaving.

I also believe it combines skill with feeling. In other words, even though I have been trained as a musician and had musicians as parents, when I dance, I do not count. It's a matter of having something so ingrained in you that you can actually 'forget' it and let instinct take over.

If you think about it, the highly trained dancer doesn't say to herself while on stage, "Okay, I've got to remember to take a deep plie here, then stretch my legs out, oh, and yes, land through the foot." Not only is she not focusing on her technique, she's not focusing on the actual combination either. "Okay, this is where he enters and I've got four counts to reach him, and then he's going to place his hands just so, etc." At this point, the skill is at the level that things become instinctual. I know some may disagree with me on this, but I think instinct often follows solid training. It's true that some people have inherent gifts, but you'll often discover that they picked up a great deal via osmosis in their early environments.

#21 Alexandra

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Posted 11 November 2003 - 10:24 PM

Cliff, is any of this useful? If not, speak up! (And others, too.)

Another thought is that if you ever had social dance lessons, whether it was counting ONE two three ONE two three for a waltz, or if you found yourself moving to the music and then the rhythm changes and you have to change the pace of your dancing -- that's musicality. A reaction by the dancer to the music.

#22 Cliff

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Posted 11 November 2003 - 11:30 PM

Sometimes (less often than I'd like) a segment of ballet is exceptionally beautiful. The dancer sort of flows in a way that seems both elegant and natural. I'm guessing that this is what is meant by musicality. Yet, to me, music doesn't seem to be a factor. It is wallpaper.

Music has precise timing. So is musicality another way of saying that a dancer dances with precise timing?

#23 Alexandra

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Posted 12 November 2003 - 07:02 AM

Others might answer differently, but I'd say that precise timing isn't necesarily musicality. Precise timing might let a dancer who wasn't musical SEEM musical. But to people who are musical, music isn't wallpaper -- great phrase; it means you're not really conscious of the music, something that's shared by many people, I'm sure. It's the impetus for their dancing.

Cliff, if you don't enjoy music, then this aspect of dancing might elude you, at least for awhile. If you start listening to music, especially ballet music or symphonic music, you might become more aware of it, and it might add to your enjoyment of a performance. I grew up with music -- we played at least one album every night, and I was told who the composer was, and something about him -- and I played the piano, so I was lucky in that respect. (And I liked music, which helped!) But I did have huge holes in my music education, and I bought the Time-Life series of albums (this was right when I got out of college, years ago, when there still were albums). It was bits of this composer and that, but it exposed me to a lot of music with which I was unfamiliar. I think if you listen to music, and when it starts to become familiar, you might even begin to try to move to that music -- walk to it, find the rhythm, have the experience of matching your own movement to what you're listening to -- that might help. It also might be way too much work :) But to me, one of the great pleasures of watching dance is its relationship to the music, so becoming more aware of it may bring great rewards.

If you're going to delve into music, start with something you like, and branch out from there. If you hate Tchaikovsky, then making yourself listen to the whole "Swan Lake" 6 times probably won't make you like him more. I'd want to be systematic and start with Bach and work my way through the centuries, but I do not love Bach, try as I may, and I'd probably never move on. So I'd suggest if there was one ballet you heard, where the music wasn't wallpaper, get that CD and listen to it. Then more by that composer, then others in that time period, then something a bit before and a bit after. Balanchine, especially, will mean more, I think, the more you're aware of music.

Thank you for bringing this up -- I'm sure there are a lot of people who feel the same way and have the same questions.

#24 Funny Face

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Posted 12 November 2003 - 08:03 AM

I'd also suggest signing up for a basic course in music lit -- if there is a public college nearby. It would be well worth it. Such courses emphasize being able to absorb both with the mind and the ear. And -- to be aware of what was happening in the other arts and with the world in general at the time various compositions were written. That helps a great deal as well.

Precision is a starting point, but not the be all and end all. It's important to be able to 'feel between the lines.' Teachers can help facilitate this by emphasizing how important this aspect of training is to students. We don't want to take away that universal excitement about getting the first pair of pointe shoes, but they simply have to understand that to make their mark in this business they are going to need a lot more than pulled up thigh muscles. We can do this by such things as pushing them to keep the foot out in frappe until the last possible moment before bringing it back in, or to emphasize the stretch and sensuality of a rond de jambe en l'air. To take the deepest possible plie before chasse. Or by ensuring they really BREATHE prior to grand plie or doing cambre forward. We can give regular exercises where they are required to hold 2, 3, 4, 5 counts and so forth. Or during jumps all together in center, have the pianist strike one chord every 8 beats and challenge them to feel in sync with each other. We should certainly be demanding that they hold their ending positions until the last faint note of music, but how often is this really done?

When we give musicality the same emphasis as other parts of training, it will happen. I simply don't believe it's stressed enough here (in the U.S.), but rather left more to chance that a few naturally gifted (or trained) will display it as the rare quality it currently is.

#25 Rachel

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Posted 18 December 2003 - 04:39 PM

When I listen to any good music: good soul, good classical, good ragea, good rap, good pop, I respond. The music triggers emotions within me. Some symphonies make me feel empowered, some make me feel small and isolated, others make me want to go out and do something good with my life. I think that to be musical, one's body must translate for the audience how the particular music makes them feel. If a certain phrase makes one want to take a deep breath, I want to see that reflected in the dancer. If another phrase makes one want to raise one's arms in reverance to the sun, I want the dancer to convey that somehow. I want to see the dancer projecting, radiating from within them how the music makes them feel. That's all that matters.

Rachel

#26 beck_hen

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Posted 06 July 2006 - 10:55 AM

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.

#27 papeetepatrick

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Posted 06 July 2006 - 02:06 PM

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.'

#28 dirac

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Posted 06 July 2006 - 04:09 PM

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

#29 bart

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Posted 06 July 2006 - 05:57 PM

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

#30 2dds

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Posted 08 July 2006 - 06:41 AM

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...

[size=1]Moderator's note:[/size]
*For those who don't read BalletTalk for Dancers, dks=Dancing Kids.

Edited by carbro, 08 July 2006 - 11:02 AM.



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