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Having Confidence in Conductor and Orchestra

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Thanks to Ballet Talk, my appreciation of ballet has gone up by orders of magnitude. I only wish my confidence in making posts would similarly improve. With all that erudition around the place,I can't help but feel a right chump asking rather silly questions. Having said that, I'll still put my next pension cheque on the validity of asking about the relationship between dancers and the conductor and his orchestra on a given night. I always marvel at the final flick of a finger to coincide with the last beat of a career-defining piece of performance. Even in recorded performances that I've watched a zillion times, I still sense a tension that I feel must exist on stage.

Can anyone tell me what goes on before, and during, a performance that minimises risk in the co-ordination between dancers and music? I am serious about this, but how does anyone on the boards know that the conductor hasn't succumbed to the effects of good Western Australian wine during the interval, let's say, and won't produce precisely what they have been led to expect in rehearsal? Is it a white-knuckle ride for dancers during every performance? Even given great professionalism, and all the desire in the world to get things right on the night, is there not a perpetual tension out there on the boards, or is it that the tension actually works in favour of getting it all right?

I suppose I've maybe got the example of Aleksandr Sotnikov and the Shinsei Nihon/21st Century orchestras in mind. I won't go OT and wax ecstatic about some of those performances, but it seems to me quite remarkable that they were so good in those particular circumstances. To which party do I take my hat off? (The orchestras did seem a tad rough round the edges at times.) Maybe someone will disabuse me of the admiration I have for what I reckon was one hell of an achievement by all concerned, and the ability of Mr Sotnikov to direct the orchestras so brilliantly in particular. The sheer professionalism in ballet is, for me, one it's attractions, but there must be times when there are unavoidably adverse, and unexpected, elements which can jeopardise dancer/conductor/orchestra co-ordination in a performance. How on earth did sublime perfection, as I believe there was in at least parts of the the Perm Ballet et al Japanese tours, happen,or am I wildly wrong about what I see as a certain inherent precariousness in those particular performances?

Can anyone give me a dancer's-eye view of how it all works? In fact, a variety of perspectives would be terrific.

Should I be out of order with this post or any part thereof, can I be forgiven if I say that Ballet Talk and it's members have been key factors in raising my love of the art form to what is now an abiding passion, with many moments of profoundly spiritual experience?

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Great question! I'm writing on an iPad and will thus be brief, but a few thoughts. I hope others will add to this.

The short answer is --it varies, varies by conductor and by company and company tradition ( and finances; many companies now are forced to use taped music). Some conductors attend rehearsals and are very aware of dancers' individual tastes and talents. Other conductors don't seem to care and will gallop, or drag, through a score if that's what they want to do (conductors may well protest that). Some conductors follow the dancers, allowing for moment to moment inspiration. Some companies have several days of dress rehearsals with full orchestra; some performances sound, to me, like sight reading.

Hope that's a start.

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As a former dancer, most of my experiences with a ballet conductor(connected with a company) were very positive. He knew us all quite well,was very present in the rehearsals learning the tempi with which the ballet was to be performed,and when on stage I could see him watching us (in Concerto Barocco) very intently. We were fortunate to have him as our resident conductor. On the other hand, while on tour in Europe, we would have a different conductor with an orchestra that was connected to that specific theatre. I don't remember disasters but the frustration of dancing a variation(on which you have worked very hard) not being at its best, because of the wrong tempo, lack of rehearsal time, or the conductor just doing what he wants.

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Alexandra's response covers the gamut of my own first- and second-hand experience very succinctly. Never a dancer myself, I can add a little from the dancer's point of view from some things I've seen and heard.

A few times, I've seen dancers dance together but well ahead of the beat! Plainly, they weren't listening closely. This was usually, but not always, dancing to recorded music, probably the same recording they rehearsed to, and so familiar, they no longer really heard it, but moved from memory, and maybe "muscle memory" at that. I've heard of companies using more than one recording in the studio just to prevent this from happening. But this leads me to something else second-hand, that dancers prefer "live" accompaniment because they like the freshness of some difference from what they've been hearing, provided those differences are within limits of course -- differences, yes; surprises, no!

I'm reminded of an exchange between a conductor and a dancer New Yorkers may be able to check me out on, because videotape records have been publicly available there. Granted, both these individuals may be regarded as atypical: At a panel held in October 1983 in the Museum of Broadcasting in New York, panelists were asked what it had been like to work with George Balanchine (who had died six months before), and Suzanne Farrell, casting a meaningful look along the row of people toward Balanchine's principal conductor, Robert Irving, said, "Well, we never knew what the tempos were going to be..." "Horses run better under rein, Suzanne!" Irving shot back. So here is an instance where the dancer is to "follow" or conform to the tempos set by the conductor, but also, from the sound of it, evidence for the existence of that "white knuckle" tension you wrote of, hunterman0953.

One other anecdote: It's my custom to see several performances in a row of something I really like, not just because, not being a dancer -- dancers see so much more in one look! -- I don't begin to see everything at once, but also because with the performing groups who achieve the freshness I mentioned it's usually a little different each time, even when the tempos are pretty much the same. So, when I asked a dancer whom I had seen perform a role several times in a row and noticed subtle differences that didn't seem to me to be aiming at one concept what her approach was -- whether she was perfecting one way of performing it -- I wasn't too surprised to have her answer with a laugh, "Oh, no, I hear the music differently each time!"

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A very interesting topic, and one I'm looking forward to learning more about.

From my own uninformed observations, I've noticed that some ballet conductors seem to have the ability to pay close attention to the score, to their players AND to what is going on onstage. It's quite pleasurable to watch them. Their field of vision and their ability to multi-task are large.

Other conductors, while glancing from time to time at the stage, seem to lack a sense of rapport with what is going on there. Some don't even appear to be aware of it, though I am sure they must be.

Jack, your story is priceless. Artistic temperament at work!!! Talk of Irving makes me think of another issue connected to hunterman's question. The NYCB orchestra has always been required, to play a large and rather ambitious range of difficult, more or less contemporary musical rep,. In Irving's day, much of this music was not as familar to musicians or to audiences as it has become.

Irving is credited with having improved and expanded what the ballet orchestras COULD play, which is the ballet conductor's first job. I have strong visual memories of Irving at the podium, looking closely at the stage, and tend to think of him as a ballet conductor who was than usually responsive to the needs of dancers. His task was certainly more difficult than the work of conductors working for companies (in those days) who focused on a diet of Tchaikovsky, Tchaikovsky, Chopin, Adam, Glazunov, Minkus, Delibes, Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev and maybe a little more Tchaikovsky.

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Ninette de Valois has a funny story in her memoir when she is talking about her music hall experience. In her view the orchestra was in the habit of taking charge of the conductor.

"... there is the true story of an aggrieved old orchestral player who reprimanded a zealous new conductor at a London music-hall with the following: "Hi, guv'nor, with us--if you please.'"

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This is a fascinating topic. Having studied music and attention in considerable depth, I can say with confidence that conducting a ballet or opera is a supreme divided attention task, as Bart observes, one that requires ongoing monitoring of multiple channels of information in visual, auditory, and kinesthetic modalities (pardon the terminology!). It's not only the dancers who face a big challenge. When there is little rehearsal time, it doesn't surprise me that some ballet conductors wave the stick and let the orchestra carry them, but that's not how it's supposed to be done! Jack Reed observes that even with live music sometimes dancers are considerably ahead of the beat, but some conductors habitually conduct ahead of the beat too, so where does that leave us?

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Four hours ago, I came home with a copy of 'Essential Ballet', being the Kirov at Covent Garden/ Red Square. In the latter, Alexander Sotnikov has his back to the action! I haven't watched beyond the first excerpt, and decided to make a post now because even if I persisted with the whole thing, I probably still wouldn't be able to offer a personal comment on the success or otherwise of the performances.

I am naturally keen to have others, infinitely more informed, share their views on this. Mr Sotnikov can be seen taking the odd look behind - to see if the dancers were still there?

I had previously decided against asking if the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra had ever/could ever play for ballet. It seemed like a daft question, but I'm not so sure about that now.

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I've been listening to a San Francisco Opera podcast of a pre-performance Q&A with Maria Kochetkova from 27 Apr 10. One of the audience members asked how important the conductor was to her performance, and her answer, starting at ~ 19:00 mark was:

I feel it's very important. A conductor can ruin your performance, and a conductor can save your performance. So I feel like...I pay a lot of attention to that. I want to make sure that...I usually discuss with the conductor by saying "This part I do a little bit slower, and can you maybe slow down because I'm going to do this or"...It's a...I do care about it. If feel it's important, and it really helps...conductor...We're really lucky here. We have Martin: that's just amazing. If you start doing something slower or he'll wait for you.
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Only yesterday I was reminded of another aspect of this I don't think we've mentioned so far: Dancers sometimes pay little or no attention at all to the music being played! While this seems to me (and other observers - such as the person in charge of the rehearsal or class, who usually stops it) to do unacceptable violence to the integrity and consequently the beauty of the dance being realized, one also has to sympathize with the dancers sometimes, as yesterday, when the place in the measure where the accent was placed kept shifting. Pragmatically, the dancers counted instead of listening - and got ahead.

A performance won't get stopped, of course, and if there's no conductor - some companies are driven by circumstances to get by with recordings - one may see something like the odd sight I saw a few years ago as the corps of eight began Balanchine's Raymonda Variations: Seven of the girls danced exactly together but off the beat, while the eighth, conspicuous on the right end, as it happened, danced with the music - not only within its rhythm but in sensitively nuanced phrases, as well - the whole time. Now, Glazunov's way with placing the accent is not so tricky as Stravinsky's sometimes is, so I couldn't be otherwise than dismayed by those seven. What makes the difference? I feel certain that eighth girl is a musician, too, as well as a dancer.

Anyway, what we've got here runs the gamut - from conductors who don't even see the dancers most of the time, through those who do but are instructed that the dancers are to follow them, through situations where the dancers don't listen anyway, to conductors accommodating dancers' needs through negotiation. (I this last arrangement is capable of disintegrating if a dancer and conductor try to follow each other...)

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