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


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#31 Helene

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Posted 08 July 2006 - 07:09 AM

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.

#32 2dds

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Posted 14 July 2006 - 06:52 AM

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???

#33 omshanti

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Posted 14 July 2006 - 11:17 PM

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.

#34 bart

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Posted 15 July 2006 - 04:11 AM

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.

#35 2dds

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Posted 17 July 2006 - 07:13 AM

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.

#36 carbro

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Posted 17 July 2006 - 10:05 AM

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.

#37 Joel

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Posted 22 July 2006 - 09:07 PM

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...

#38 carbro

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Posted 23 July 2006 - 01:07 PM

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.

#39 Joel

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Posted 26 July 2006 - 04:38 AM

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.

#40 carbro

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Posted 26 July 2006 - 07:54 AM

Very well stated, Joel. Thanks!

I completely agree.

#41 Helene

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Posted 26 July 2006 - 07:58 AM

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.

#42 bart

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Posted 26 July 2006 - 08:03 AM

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.

#43 2dds

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Posted 05 August 2006 - 01:39 PM

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?

#44 bart

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Posted 05 August 2006 - 02:16 PM

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?

#45 2dds

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Posted 06 August 2006 - 09:33 AM

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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