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Ballets done without music


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I am curious. In one of today's links it mentions a work by Mark Morris, "his only work performed in silence" -- “Behemoth” (1990)....

How common are ballets without music? Do you enjoy watching them or are they more a curiosity? How are they to dance? Why do choreographers choose to create movement without music?

This 1948 article from TIME mentions David Lichine's ballet The Creation, another silent ballet. Lichine is quoted as saying:

What was the point of a ballet without music? Said Lichine, "I have tried to show the public what goes on in my mind when I am creating a new ballet . . . The problems of getting people to dance without music are tantalizingly difficult . . . instead of dancing by ear they have to dance by eye ... I will not create another one ... I love music and I hate silence."

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They are still not ordinary in any company's repertoire. With the growth of abstraction since the 1920s, ballets have been made which were all about the scenery, or all about the music, or all about ballet technique, dissecting the unified art theory of all these elements uniting to make an artistic whole.

Jerome Robbins had "Moves, a ballet in silence about relationships". I don't think that any, save that one has survived more than thirty years.

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It still sounds like an interesting idea, though, even if it has gotten nowhere. I'm not sure why, though, either why it sounds like something good could be done like this, or why it's never been very successful. I can imagine a choreographer thinking both a musical composition and a piece of choreography at the same time, and therefore being able to leave out the aural music, leaving only the choreography, which would therefore 'look musical' no matter what, if the talent is high enough in both domains. I'm sure Balanchine could have done this--yes, he's the one that unquestionably could have although there are surely some others--but just didn't find it that attractive an idea. I wonder if he ever thought of it.

Mel, would be interested to know what you and others feel about 'Moves'. As the one that has survived, do you think it, at least, is succesful? Do you put it up there with Robbins's other great works?

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I recall Moves in a mid-80s performance at NYCB. My only memory is of rather athletic ensembles: abrupt moves, etc. Somehow everything seemed more effortful than it would have been if supported by music. I was aware that there must have been a lot of mental counting going on.

This was not at all like watching dance on dvd and turning off the sound. That can be glorious.

Here is a brief clip showing a rehearsal in 2008. The noise of toe shoes striking the floor isn't exactly "silence." It reminded me of how striking the ambient noise was in the theater -- from audience more than stage. As with group meditation, it took a while for me to tune out the ambient noises and focus on the movement.

It would be interesting to hear from others who have seen this work.

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Farrell Fan, permit to say something about this too, and I'm sure Bart will answer as well. I think we had talked about this before, but I also have thoroughly enjoyed doing this, because both see the dance movements in a different way, more nakedly perhaps, but you also learn the music that goes with it, because sometimes you can't remember exactly where you are in the music. So it's a very good exercise in several ways. I especially loved doing this with that old RB recording of Ashton's 'La Valse'. I thought it would be much easier than it is to 'hear' all the music in your head with the volume down than it was, which proves how passive we can be as listeners and viewers.

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I recall a documentary about the Paul Taylor company several years ago. They were performing somewhere on tour (Italy?) when suddenly mid-performance they lost the audio. The dancers kept on dancing without the music, didn't miss a beat, literally. I remember it being quite thrilling but of course it wasn't planned to be that way.

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The idea of ballet without music makes no sense to me, though obviously it is possible. Dancers seems to be like a visual musical instrument, but the require the rest of the "orchestra" to complete the music. To my it would be no different than playing a duet with one instrument, simply because it's possible. This might even sound interesting.

We can watch ballet or dance with the sound off, and it still looks beautiful or wonderful simply because movement done so well IS beautiful and looks musical. Contained in dance is rhythm tempo some of the unheard (at times) structure under the music. I would consider ballet or dance without music mostly a gimmick or a curiosity and incomplete.

Would I attend a staging of a ballet danced without the music? I would to experience it? How about without the music and without the costumes and sets? Interesting too. These are the kinds of things modernists have done to make us see dance and movement differently, much the way minimal artists asked us to look at art, shape, form, color differently.

One of the most interesting things to be about ballet, is the notion that it is set/established and each production/cast/staging attempts not only to reproduce the work perfectly, but allows brilliant artists to carve out something individual - interpretation??? It's the same reason I can listen to classical music repertoire over and over again performed by different musicians, as there is always something new to hear.

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I recall that rather a while ago, Eliot Feld had choreographed a ballet to Richard Strauss' "Four Last Songs". At the very last moment, lawyers for the Strauss Estate came in and proclaimed the use of the music as contrary to the composer's wishes, as he had left a "Curse of the Cat People" clause in his will that none of his music should be used for dance save that which was composed expressly for dance. The company went on with the program as scheduled, but a front-row set of plants were armed with SONY Walkmans (Walkmen? I said it was a while ago!) and played the music into their headphones rather loudly, so that a sort of breathy near-subliminal of the music could be heard in the house, and onstage.

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This is a wonderful topic, with so many ramifications. More, please!

Bart, I'm curious about your remark concerning watching DVDs with the sound off. Why can that be glorious?
Patrick has already said most of it for me. I'd add an important ingredient: the dancers in these dvds, as opposed to those created without music, WERE hearing the music as they danced. They are supported by the music and can respond to it. Their performances are truly "musical." What we see is a kind of distillation of what mkusic has helped them to do, but in movement terms only.

Barbara's story about Paul Taylor's dancers is a propos. These dancers learned and rehearsed the parts to music. The music remained in their heads. They were, in a sense, still dancing to the music, even though the audience could not hear it.

This is in no way a substitute for the full productionl As Patrick says, watching dance -- especially Balanchine, for me at least -- is "a good exercise in several ways." Nowadays I typically watch an MCB program 3 or 4 times in a single weekend. Most often the program is composed of works I have not seen for a long time, frequently for decades. Watching a video twice -- once with the music, once without -- is very helpful in bringing back my visual memory. The second viewing -- the one without the music; the one that demands most of the eye -- is the one that most often makes me realize just how miraculous the human body's flow of movement through space and time can be.

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I saw the Joffrey dance "Moves" a couple of times in the 70's, and NYCB brought it to the Kennedy Center -- in 2007 I think it was. What I remember is that once the intial drama of half wondering "can they really pull this off?" passed, the ballet became dramatic in another way. The lack of music threw into sharper relief the cooperation between the dancers, so that the dance did seem, as Robbins originally put it, "about relationships." I loved it!

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I saw the Joffrey dance "Moves" a couple of times in the 70's, and NYCB brought it to the Kennedy Center -- in 2007 I think it was. What I remember is that once the intial drama of half wondering "can they really pull this off?" passed, the ballet became dramatic in another way. The lack of music threw into sharper relief the cooperation between the dancers, so that the dance did seem, as Robbins originally put it, "about relationships." I loved it!

I see your point about "relationships." I guess I did see relationships ... among working dancers, each of whom must have had to have been very alert to cues from others on stage. For some reason, this did not work for me. (I admit to seeing it only once.)

I wonder how dancers feel about this. I wonder how pacing is handled, and whether some performances turn out much longer than others.

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Thanks for putting up the clip, bart. It's really too short and mainly too dark for me to have any real impression of any kind, other than that one really does hear the toe shoes, as you noted. That doesn't bother me at all, in fact might be the one kind of sound that really does give a kind of 'percussion-only music' sound to it. Made me think of the Tiresius's staff in 'Night Journey', which really does add an unexpected, and very effective, percussion instrument to the William Schuman music.

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Moves (1959) by Jerome Robbins.

As Time Goes By (1973) by Twyla Tharp.

many sizable chunks of Petit Mort (1991) by Jiří Kylián, might as well include all of the Black and White Ballets.

Making Ballet (1993), Half an Hour of Our Time (?), Almost Mozart (2006) by James Kudelka.

Haiku (2002) by Albert Evans.

I feel iffy about including Merce Cunningham in this list, but he used silence so much . . .

It's worth mentioning moments like the end of Balanchine's Orpheus, where he and Stravinsky decided to cut off the music at the point of Eurydice's death (for gravitas).

I am doing a project on silence in dance, and totally appreciate the help here.

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