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cyclingmartin

What is "Musicality" in a Dancer?

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First, apologies for such a long post (my first in Ballet Alert!). The nature of my question calls for detailed evidence, rather than opinion.

I wonder if folks on the forum can help me understand ballet better by telling me whether my thoughts on this topic are sound. I’m a musician, yet a novice in serious thought about ballet — though I have known the ballet music of, for example, Tchaikovsky, Delibes, Prokovief and Stravinsky for decades.

One of the things that I have found most interesting —and sometimes most frustrating — about online discussions of ballet are fights over a dancer’s “musicality” or lack of it. Too often, praise or insult comes without defining what the terms mean.

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So about a year ago I looked up some dancers about whom the term “musical” has often been used. Among younger dancers, the most interesting to me has been Yulia Stepanova.

On Ballet Alert! she has a huge number of replies under her name in the “Dancers” section — FAR larger than that of any dancer except Misty Copeland (Stepanova 476 as of 28 September 2018.  Copeland 781 — but that’s no surprise). Although not all these replies relate directly to Stepanova, it is clear that she raises strong opinions, and “musical” or “unmusical” are pretty frequent references.

So, wondering what folks mean by musicality in a ballet dancer, I started watching everything by Yulia Stepanova I could lay my hands on. (There’s a lot of it, especially on YouTube.) And I followed this up by watching other dancers who have been widely praised as “musical.”

 

In no particular order, here’s a selection:

1) Yulia Stepanova (Swan Lake Act 3, with Jacopo Tissi)  (Spartacus Act 3, with Alexander Sergeyev

2) Rudolf Nureyev (Swan Lake Act 4, with Margo Fonteyn in 1966)   (Swan Lake Act 3)

3) Cynthia Gregory  (Rose Adagio)

4) Mikhail Baryshkinov (Solo from La Bayadere)

5) Natalia Makharova (Swan Lake Act 3, with Anthony Dowell)

6) Margo Fonteyn (Rose Adagio)

7) Svetlana Zakharova (Rose Adagio)

8) Anna Nikulina (Spartacus, Adagio)

9) Aurélie Dupont (Entrance of Aurora & Rose Adagio)

10) Sylvie Guillem (Swan Lake Act 3, with Manuel Legris and Cyril Atanasoff)

 

Of course, these are variable in how persuasively they express the character or the dramatic context. For example, I understand why some folks find that both Aurélie Dupont and Svetlana Sakharova are too “ice maiden” for the role of Aurora. But that’s not the main point for my purpose here.

(If I had to take one of these scenes and leave all the rest, it would be Fonteyn and Nureyev in the Act 4 pas de deux from Swan Lake.)

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These dancers are all very different from one another. So what do they have in common that has made so many people describe them as musical? I suggest the following:

1) Their dancing is not concerned primarily with the beat of the music — though sometimes they must be “on the beat."

2) Rather than reflecting the beat, they are far more likely to shape things by the full bar or the phrase.

3) Crucially (and I suspect this is the most important thing of all), their physical movements fill the temporal space and tension of the metre. I mean the temporal tension that, in the music, comes between the beginning of one bar and the beginning of the next bar, and also spans the musical phrase. In “musical” dancers, that musical tension is reflected in the speed and shape of physical movement.

 

One or two people in Ballet Alert! have touched on some of these points. For example, on 4 August 2016, forum member SFCLeo said about Stepanova “To my eye, there is a sophistication in her dancing - a lack of ‘beatiness' -- that may be mistaken by some as not being ‘on’ the music.” On the same day, and in reply, senior member MadameP reinforced the point that musicality includes “being able to phrase a sequence of movements appropriately with the line of the music”. Both these comments seem to be close to the essence of the issue.

And yet there are places where being “on the beat” is essential. The infamous fouéttes from Swan Lake strike me as a good example. As Alistair Macaulay said in the New York Times (13 June 2016), “The rare artist is not the one who does the most turns but the one who makes them interesting and, above all, musical.”

How to make such a thing musical? It seems to me that Sylvie Guillem does just that — superbly! Her double turns fill the musical space at the end of each phrase; and her timing is impeccable. So does Yulia Stepanova here in Corsaire.  She places double turns according to the place in the phrase — in this case they come immediately before the strongest pulse in the phrase, so her movement seems to drive into that pulse.

(And please, can someone tell me the name of that type of turn in Corsaire? It looks a bit like a fouétte; but it’s different from the Swan Lake ones. Is it harder? Yulia Stepanova makes it look like a stroll in the park. Are the double turns written into Petipa’s choreography; or is that a detail that the dancer can choose?)

Most tellingly, some dancers can get very “out”, creating a tension between their physical movement and the metrical patterns of the music. That is what Fonteyn does towards the end of the Rose Adagio linked above. But it’s calculated; and it all falls back into line after a few bars of music. Superb dramatic sense!

I’d be very interested to hear the reactions of folks who understand ballet better than I do — which is not very well at all!

Thank you

Martin

(P.S. I saw Stepanova in London on August 29 last, with Alexander Volchkov, in St Petersburg Ballet Theatre’s Swan Lake. Neither the production nor the soloists disappointed. Charisma is one of the most mysterious of human qualities, especially when it’s quiet, which it is with her. But that’s another topic!)

Edited by cyclingmartin
Smiley where there should have been a number!

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Hello cyclingmartin--I'm not able to take on your very interesting post in any kind of detail at this time--studying each video etc.--but I am struck that your list of dancers doesn't include any from New York City Ballet--of course I know you can't list dancers from every company in the world!  I mention NYCB because I think they include some of the most musical dancers in the world; and they are dancers who are consistently challenged by a very wide range of scores and sometimes dauntingly complex ones. The company as a whole is usually characterized as dancing slightly ahead of the beat which can give them a very energized look and, at its best, makes it seem as if they are bearing the music in their dance phrases. (I know that's a slightly "subjective" formulation.) I find their best ballerinas can slow down and speed up within a phrase in a very interesting way as well. Meeting the music at crucial times but playing with and against it at others (eg among today's ballerinas Tiler Peck).

One common subject of debate is to what degree dancing the score at the "original" tempo matters. I think for some fans, when one sees performances in which conductors slow down to accommodate dancers, the dancer's musicality and/or the choreography itself loses some of its appeal. I'm not a purist on these matters and I loved Makarova, but her musicality was constantly slammed for distortions of tempo. As a counter example: in Ratmansky's Sleeping Beauty he seemed to insist the fairy variations be done at faster tempos--I'm not expert enough to say the tempos were exactly as Tchaikovsky dictated, but from what I read that was behind his choices as he thought it got closer to Petipa's intentions as well.   I found the results very effective for making those variations come across charmingly...

To my knowledge Petipa choreographed 32 single fouettés:  that was a "trick" Legnani (Petipa/Ivanov's Odette-Odile) was known for...I agree with you that dancing them on the beat can be very effective--especially with a ballerina who doesn't require that the music dramatically slow down.

(Regarding video: I have to admit I'm always a little uneasy about youtube for discussions of musicality in particular. If the audio and visual are not perfectly coordinated the representation of the dancer's musicality is always going to be a little off. In ballet the difference between "very good" or "just about" and "great" or "exact" can be a big difference.  Like you and others, I do try to learn from videos including on the subject of musicality--but ...I also know a dancer's musicality resonates very differently in the theater.)

Edited by Drew

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Thank you, Drew and Quinten.

I'm not attempting to flatter when I say that I was especially hoping that either or both of you would reply to my post. Your contributions to the debates about Yulia Stepanova implied that you'd understand the issues I'm trying to talk about.

There's plenty for me to think about in both your posts. And that's exactly what I was looking for.

Two points, Drew. Incidentally to this topic, I passionately agree with your statement (Stepanova, 19 September) that ". . . the measures of Tchaikovsky’s score that the current production cuts have also always seemed to me among the most transformative and moving ever written for ballet...."  Secondly, I take your point on NYCB. To be quite honest, as a newbie to thinking about these things, I haven't nailed down the characteristics of various companies except, perhaps, for some elements of the most obvious one -- the Mariinsky/Vaganova style. So I'm going to look at this some more; and I'll especially follow through on your recommendation of Tiler Peck among contemporary ballerinas. Any further recommendations of that kind, relevant to this topic, are welcome.

Quinten -- I'm naturally inclined to tilt towards the general position epitomised in your last sentence: "Or it could be a delight to see these contrasting approaches, both of which can work, in my opinion." In exploring this topic I've come to suspect that some ballet folks can be like some musicians. They have such strong opinions about how things ought to be done that the opinions become an artistic equivalent of a religious creed or body of dogma. Anyone or anything that goes against the grain is seen as error or even as artistic heresy. You summarise what I've been trying to do over the last year or so: "to get the full effect the observer has to be attentive to the whole body, not just the feet." I find that so hard, because, for me, it's a new way of looking. I find reading a score a lot easier. HeeHee! But I'll keep going.

Thank you both!

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The point Drew makes about judging video recordings is a valid one. The sound and picture are often off – for instance the music for the Cynthia Gregory Rose Adagio is not only flat sounding but seems to warble which means it's not being played at the right speed. I think Jack Reed has pointed out how the PBS City Ballet DVD reissues of City Ballet performances are less reliable in syncing sound to picture than the earlier video tape offerings. (There's also the problem of playback, say sitting close up by a computer or 10 feet back in a proper listening room with books and curtains, in both of which the sound and picture have slightly different times of arrival.)

And often times if we've seen a performer live, we have all sorts of clues – the "unrecordables" – that we fill in as we watch the same dancer in a You Tube offering.

That said, I'll add Violette Verdy as a fabulously musical dancer – in the film and video recordings offered by Dominique Delouche – in Jerome Robbins' Dances, in Emeralds and in Liebeslieder Waltzes. (Verdy seems to pick a place in the music which anchors everything else, all the smaller currents, sometimes even retroactively so.) Of performances I've seen live, I'd say that Kyra Nichols in Mozartiana ca 1993 was especially musical, Taras Domitro in Four Temperaments and in the Lensky duel in Onegin at San Francisco Ballet, Maria Calegari in general, Kozlova also in that era, Joseph Gordon in the recent Dances at a Gathering video clip (and how he describes the negative spaces around him and his partner). I was going to mention some Symphony in C performances but I think that with that ballet, the musicality is written into the choreography, everything happening a little before it should and right on the heels of the last choreographic proposition. And the elasticity of Ratmansky's Seven Sonatas makes everyone look musical.

Farther afield, I thought early Mark Morris in some Purcell pieces made interesting musical choices as did Merce Cunningham in his last onstage appearances. And Valda Setterfield always had a kind of wry Cagean musicality (Cage and music that shifts terms as it goes along, like that of the contemporary Italians, adds another consideration).

But I don't know how to define the musicality that particularly appeals to me – whether it's a beat too fast or not ,etc. It's more that the dancer is thinking out loud with her or his movements and sectioning them in odd ways – and neither we nor the dancer knows where it's all going to end up (no matter how many times we've seen the part). 

 

 

Edited by Quiggin

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The Paquita variation I had of course seen before, but not the one of Lopatkina rehearsing the port de bras.  Just exquisite... thank you!  

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Thank you @Quinten for that analysis of what Lopatkina does with her port de bras in the Paquita variation ... Cyclingmartin requested no merely subjective declarations of admiration but analysis often fails me with Lopatkina. One quality she has that I don't know how to analyze technically with any exactness is how she seems to respond to the texture of the music. Ratmansky once praised a very different ballerina (Plisetskaya) saying her musicality was such that she was able to dance the orchestration. When I saw a 2013 Lopatkina Swan Lake that was exactly how I felt, as if her movements subtly took on the colors of the instruments. But one thing I think I can sort of grasp is that she both articulates the phrases and yet also connects everything in one flowing whole -- any good ballerina does that to some extent, but the few times I saw her (and in video I have seen) Lopatkina seems to me to fully realize that ideal ... And though you can see the accents, she doesn't punctuate her dancing the way some ballerinas do--the beauty is mesmerizing.

Edited by Drew

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Part of understanding musicality in ballet, in my opinion, is understanding the intent and context of the work and style.  You can watch companies perform ballets in their own style, with their own emphases on phrasing, legato, up- or downbeat, in- or out- in given steps, spacing, before or after the beat, and that's not even counting the musical interpretation, including the tempi, the latitude for solo or Principal performers, the dynamics, etc.  They can look quite musical as stand-alones, until you realize that the choreography was meant to do and show something else.  This often happens when classical ballet companies perform modern dance works, even works made by modern dance choreographers directly on ballet companies, where the relationship to the floor is entirely different than what ballet dancers are trained to do.

 

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On 9/28/2018 at 7:07 PM, cyclingmartin said:

I wonder if folks on the forum can help me understand ballet better by telling me whether my thoughts on this topic are sound. I’m a musician, yet a novice in serious thought about ballet — though I have known the ballet music of, for example, Tchaikovsky, Delibes, Prokovief and Stravinsky for decades.

One of the things that I have found most interesting —and sometimes most frustrating — about online discussions of ballet are fights over a dancer’s “musicality” or lack of it. Too often, praise or insult comes without defining what the terms mean.

A great question, and a very difficult one. But then that gives us all something to talk about.  😉

As other's have mentioned, the Balanchine 'style' (for lack of a better term) is intensely focused on musicality. No other choreographer to this day, has had a closer relationship to the music he was creating to and with. The subject has been written on in depth (for example: the Charles Joseph book, Stravinsky and Balanchine )

Balanchine made the not-so-obvious realization that what happens between 'positions' is at least as important as what happens in position, that in fact, how the dancer gets from one position to another IS the dance. Static poses are not dancing. So it's possible to think of the NYCB repertoire as an experiment in enhancing the musicality of classical ballet, to emphasize the dancing aspect over the storytelling aspect of classical ballet. That doesn't mean that all the dancers graduating from the SAB school are going to appear to us as musical dancers - artistry and musicality remain very difficult things to teach or coach. But each of Balanchine's favorite dancers over the years had a unique musicality - no two alike. Dancers like Marie-Jeanne (Pelus), Maria Tallchief, Tanaquil Le Clercq, Diana Adams, Allegra Kent, Violette Verdy, Suzanne Farrell and Patricia McBride all had "musicality" of one type or another.

It's been tough to find video of modern era NYCB dancers like Tiler Peck and Sara Mearns, although recently the NYCB Paris tour was recorded for the DVD market (thank goodness). I personally find it easier to ascertain a dancer's "musicality" in andante passages rather than allegro dancing. That said, this video of Tiler Peck and Joaquin De Luz dancing in Balanchine's Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux gives you an idea of Peck's speed and precision, if nothing else.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N_IOSmswrx4

Musicality is a tricky thing, because the musicality of a great classical musician like pianist Glenn Gould (just to pull a name out of a hat) isn't really the same as a great "pop" musician like drummer Bernard Purdie. The individual's relationship with music can vary considerably.

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17 minutes ago, pherank said:

As other's have mentioned, the Balanchine 'style' (for lack of a better term) is intensely focused on musicality. No other choreographer to this day, has had a closer relationship to the music he was creating to and with.

Those are fighting words.  Ashton had a very close relationship to his music, and in a very pricey DVD, "Ashton to Stravinsky  a study of four ballets with choreography by Frederick Ashton," Geraldine Morris, who also wrote "Frederick Ashton's Ballets," and Stephanie Jordan argue quite strenuously that Ashton's choreography interpreted the music in a far more sophisticated way than Balanchine, whom they felt simplified it. 

The choreographers who famously ordered music "by the yard" to very tight specifications were also highly close to their music, as was Bournonville, even if the music wasn't the most complex, and I can't imagine how Ivanov's choreography for the White Act could have been more wedded to Tchaikovsky.

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35 minutes ago, Helene said:

Those are fighting words. 

And that's OK with me.  ;)

Balanchine was trained in musical composition and performance, and played music throughout his life with friends. And he did his own piano reductions of orchestral scores. He was close to the music. Were Ashton and Bournonville 'musical'? Yes, and Balanchine, I believe, said so. And so was Fred Astaire (by Balanchine).
Any suggestion by Morris and Jordan that Ashton's Stravinsky interpretations were more 'sophisticated' is just their opinion. Balanchine choreography is as sophisticated as the viewer likes it to be - it's all about the  mind doing the interpretation.

I never understood the insecurity of Ashton fans. Obviously there are going to be cultural preferences - Ashton created dances that seem to suit the British artistic taste well. And Balanchine, as many of us know, created works with American cultural references, so his choreography may 'fit' better to an American viewer, but one's mileage may vary.

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If we Ashton fans are insecure it's because in the UK he appears to be relegated to the status of a minor figure.  Only outside of Britain can we see the heartening signs of a growing interest in his work.

I've always considered the NYCB and RB the home of dancers with the best musicality, not sure if it is innate or whether it can be taught.  Having said that if I had to nominate the most sublimely musical dancer around it would be a Russian: Osmolkina.

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On 10/3/2018 at 3:03 AM, Mashinka said:

If we Ashton fans are insecure it's because in the UK he appears to be relegated to the status of a minor figure.  Only outside of Britain can we see the heartening signs of a growing interest in his work.

Thank you for that information, Mashinka. I didn't realize that Ashton had been fading from the audience's mind in the UK.

"Fans" may have not been the best word choice - I was thinking of the various dance writers who have celebrated Ashton by explaining how this or that aspect of his ballets/choreography is, essentially, "better than Balanchine". Tearing down one person to build up another is always a bad approach to art appreciation. It reminds me of a convention of the Pop music world - for the last 40 years or more it's been typical to hear that a band or individual musician is better/sells  more/is more famous/ than The Beatles. No matter how inappropriate the comparison, writers continue to beat the dead horse. Balanchine, like The Beatles, is no longer an artist, he's an icon. And icons are mostly worshiped or abused, but in either case, dehumanized.

There's an NYT article by Gia Kourlas about recent coaching changes at NYCB which hope to address 'musicality' issues with the repertoire. The news is both encouraging, and troubling, since the implication is that things have gone a bit awry over the years.

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/05/arts/dance/new-york-city-ballet-coaches-ballet-masters-patricia-mcbride-edward-villella.html
 

Quote

As she [Patricia McBride] helped the dancers, it became instantly clear that the most paramount — and fragile — part of a Balanchine ballet is its musicality. Heading into City Ballet’s fall season, which continues through Oct. 14, Ms. McBride worked alongside Edward Villella, her long-ago “Rubies” partner, to put the choreography back on its beat.
“I just have to think of it differently, but I love it,” Sterling Hyltin, a principal dancer, said during a coaching session. She was struggling but avid: “I have to get all of this in my body. I need to practice it.”

 

Edited by pherank

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Thank you everyone for all the posts of the last ten days. As I had hoped, they are helping a musician understand more about ballet, especially about relationships between balletic technique, artistic expression  and music. Also, I've found that when one person replies to another, rather than directly to my original question, all kinds of unexpected avenues open up helpfully.

I can't respond to every point; but here are some of the ones that have made the strongest impression in answering my questions.

1)    Quinten. Thank you SO much for that analysis of Ulyana Lopatkina rehearsing. As a newbie, it's fascinating to see the choreography "dismantled" in tht way, analogous to the way musicians might dismantle a score when practicing. I've learned a lot by looking closely, with your point in mind that "the melody is in the upper body, lyrical and continuous." It's amazing to see how it all comes together in the live performance. And WOW! I've played that performance over several times, especially that extraordinarily expressive passage from 1.26 onwards. I can now see something of what you say about the relationship between upper and lower body. And I think that's the first time I've understood this point -- as distinct from just finding the general effect beautiful.  Thank you!

2)    Drew. Your response to that Lopatkina posting expresses so much of what I would have liked to say, but didn't have the words or the technical know-how to do so. Thanks.
    Also, your point about the dangers of video and synching is well made.
    Since you and a couple of others mentioned NYCB I've looked up some of those dancers with your points in mind. Having done that, I'm beginning to see what you mean about dancers such as Tiler Peck. I was struck by her commentary on this page, about the Act III pas de deux in Sleeping Beauty (sixth video down on that page). I was VERY confused -- until I realised that the partners were Tiler and Tyler!  HeeHee! (It's not a common name in my part of the world.)
    Of her you say "Meeting the music at crucial times but playing with and against it at others". It seems to me that her dancing of the Ratmansky "Pictures at an Exhibition" linked on that NVCB page I've just mentioned is a good example of just that.
    Also, the excerpts on the NYCB page of Pictures  https://www.nycballet.com/Ballets/P/Pictures-at-an-Exhibition-New-Ratmansky.aspx make your point about the character of a company.

3)    pherank. I find your comments about Balanchine especially interesting, because so much of his work was involved with what some have called abstract ballet. I'm not sure that's an entirely appropriate word because, as Helene said, "They can look quite musical as stand-alones, until you realize that the choreography was meant to do and show something else," and there is always some kind of concept behind them, even if the dancer is freer than in classical ballet to put their own interpretation onto the concept. But that musical emphasis comes across very strongly in just about every piece of Balanchine choreography I've come across, including classics such as The Nutcracker and more recent pieces such as Agon. When watching Agon, I always experience the most extreme tension between musical interests and visual interests. Even more than in Tchaikovsky, the music nails itself into my brain in the experience of the moment. So music always wins! But that's my problem.
    Thanks for the link to this Tiler Peck Pas de Deux. As with Drew, who suggested her as an epitome of a specific kind of musicality in dance, your last comment

On 10/2/2018 at 11:40 PM, pherank said:

Musicality is a tricky thing, because the musicality of a great classical musician like pianist Glenn Gould (just to pull a name out of a hat) isn't really the same as a great "pop" musician like drummer Bernard Purdie. The individual's relationship with music can vary considerably.

nails so many of the challenges of the question we're discussing. That's why we need, as best as we can, to spell out the meaning of terms -- AND to acknowledge that viewing something as valid or invalid can have authority only if it is measured against a defined baseline.
    Elsewhere there's a thread discussing classicism in dance, and "musicality" crops up quite a bit there. I don't want to open up that subject here; but here's someone else who is musical in the sense I'm wrote about in the initial question. Aurélie Dupont and Hervé Moreau do Pas de Deux in a way that strikes me as more "classical" than the NYCB -- not better, just different. Yet even within that, Dupont takes risks -- of a different kind and perhaps a bit more targeted for the moment than Peck. (Again, different but not necessarily better.) For some reason I find this both quite exhilarating and amusing -- pressing at the margins, but musical. I'm sure that if she could have gone round again, she would have.

So, it seems to me that I need to learn to LOOK differently. That's not as easy as it sounds, because seeing something happen is merely the surface, and I generally don't have a very strong visual awareness. It's a bit analogous to a challenge with which a former composition pupil presented me. She had a superb ear for pitch. But she had never learned properly to sift out instrumental timbre, such as exactly what instruments are playing if, say, a violin line is doubled at the unison by flute and clarinet. Eventually she learned to do it well -- after quite a bit of prodding and suggestion from me. Essentially it meant she had to listen and to think differently, with a different part of her mind's excellent ear fully engaged. But it didn't come easily for either of us.

Thank you all.

So, as James Taylor has sung — "That's why I'm here". Thanks everyone.

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Perhaps it isn't so obvious (but it should be) - the best dancers and choreographers pretty much always have a great love of music. Not just one type of music they heard in high school, but music generally.

Fred Astaire - I'm Putting All My Eggs in One Basket
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8hTLZz2hUOA

Edited by pherank

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At the risk of saying the Emperor has not clothes, I would venture that, Musicality at the very basic level, to me, is being in sync with the music.  Dancing with the music.  In the most musical dancers there is a brilliant "illustration" of the music by the dancer. 

 

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I am extremely sympathetic to your position, balletforme. I often wonder how "playing with the beat," namely, not sticking to it, became the sine qua non of ballet musicality. A few years ago a New York City Ballet dancer posted videos of some the company's male dancers dancing Balanchine's Dewdrop in rehearsal. At one point Amar Ramasar held on to a balance for a very long time and then raced to finish the phrase. This parody brought roars of laughter from the dancers present and illustrated for me why this practice, now quite common, comes perilously close to being a mannerism rather than a legitimate form of musicality.

I do admire the underlying skill. On occasion, when confronted with a conductor who was racing through the music, I marveled at how some singers or dancers veered off the beat to fit in everything they had to do, made it work and still finished on time, but these adaptations were necessitated by difficult circumstances.

Often in these discussions one person will write, "X is unmusical," and another person will respond, "you don't understand, what X is doing it so much more sophisticated than dancing on the beat." But when I look at the videos in question, a perilous enterprise in itself, I often see dancers deviating from the established rhythm for purely technical reasons: because they couldn't hold a position for the required length or turned too slowly, so they were forced to make adjustments. In the case of someone with truly mind-boggling technical abilities such as Tiler Peck, I can see clearly that her "playing with the beat" is a deliberate choice. For mere mortals it's more likely to be an unintended necessity. This is hardly a mortal sin. Dancers are not machines, and their balance is not perfect at every moment. But I would be very wary  of confusing technical glitches for preternatural musical insight.

For my money, there is too much "playing around" with music in ballet today, and I find it gimmicky and tiresome, whereas being fully in sync with music and "illustrating" it, as you say, never grow old.

Edited by volcanohunter

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Some Friday night post-Halloween party thoughts: I think musicality is a dancer who makes you "see the music," to use Balanchine's phrase. This can come in many different forms. 

For example, whoever did the muppet dance for the "Kate Pierson" character in this Sesame Street rendition of "Shiny Happy People" was very musical -- the way the muppet bopped her head and then started shimmying at 2:03 made you really see REM's song. I actually like this rendition better than REM's actual single. And these aren't even dancers. Just muppets.

This is another example of musicality: the way Gelsey Kirkland delicately raises her leg in penchee while softly rolling from pointe to flat-feet makes me "see" the delicacy and youthfulness that is a part of this variation's music. Many Giselles raise their leg way too fast, or too slow. Kirkland also accelerates her menage of pique turns around the stage with a frenzy that foreshadows Giselle's initiation as a Wili.

Then there's Uliana Lopatkina in the White Swan adagio. Her frappes at the end of this adagio are surprisingly fast and timed to the music. She dances with such stillness and tranquility but the speed of her frappes suggest a heart that is beating faster and faster. So you not only "see" the serenity of Odette as she surrenders herself to Siegfried, you also "see" that her heart is flush with the excitement of being in love for the first time.

A final example: it wasn't until I saw Ratmansky's reconstruction of Harlequinade that I realized the second act pas de deux was supposed to resemble a lark flying over a nest. But the gentle flutter of Patricia McBride's arms during this performance gave a hint about the avian nature of this variation. This was McBride's last ever performance with NYCB. I;m sure in 1965 her pirouettes were more secure. But she still made me "see" Colombine's music.

 

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Ha!  Thanks everyone!

I'm learning a so much from things I never expected to encounter when I asked the question. (I know we're answering one another, not necessarily me; but such discourse is a benefit of an informed forum like this.) That includes those very-accomplished mash-ups of Beyoncé and Stravinsky, that very thought-provoking clip of Yulia Stepanova "dancing" to a single piece of Chopin — especially thought-provoking because this was very the dancer who induced me to ask this question.

Of all the others, I'm as struck by some of your comments as I am by a priceless line-up of video clips. Canbelto's point about Gelsey Kirkland is an especially interesting one because it raises issues about the interaction of acting, dancing and musicality.

5 hours ago, canbelto said:

Many Giselles raise their leg way too fast, or too slow. Kirkland also accelerates her menage of pique turns around the stage with a frenzy that foreshadows Giselle's initiation as a Wili.

Yes!  A point all the more striking because the Wilis are such ambiguous characters -- beautiful on one level, sinister on another. I'd never thought of the cross-act connection before. But what you say feels right.

And as for that point about Lopatkina -- I've just watched the whole of that act in this performance, Mariinsky in 2006(?), with the ways of thought everyone's raised in mind. Oh my goodness. Everything about it is at such a high level -- from that orchestra (surely, along with the Met in NY, one of the two best theatre orchestras in the world), to Lopatkina's frappés which, unless you'd mentioned them, canbelto, I don't think I would have noticed.

Finally, and in the light of all that, I'm left with a sense that volcanohunter has hit right on the head a very important nail about musicality in a dancer. 

18 hours ago, volcanohunter said:

I often see dancers deviating from the established rhythm for purely technical reasons: because they couldn't hold a position for the required length or turned too slowly, so they were forced to make adjustments. In the case of someone with truly mind-boggling technical abilities such as Tiler Peck, I can see clearly that her "playing with the beat" is a deliberate choice. For mere mortals it's more likely to be an unintended necessity. This is hardly a mortal sin. Dancers are not machines, and their balance is not perfect at every moment. But I would be very wary  of confusing technical glitches for preternatural musical insight.

Thanks!

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Here's another example, and a very personal one at that:

 

This is a group of kids I used to teach in high school. (Don't worry, they've all since graduated, and they're all over 18, and they asked me to film them.) But this was a makeshift "talent show" after school one day. The music system was experiencing technical difficulties so they improvised this. And none of them are great or even good dancers. However I think the first boy (the one in the red hoodie in the beginning and later in the gray T-shirt and ripped jeans) is very musical. His dance is making you see the rhythms of hip hop. His moves aren't flashy but they do have an exuberant energy. 

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Thank you!

I think I see what you mean about the boy in the red hoodie etc. One of the most interesting things about what he does here is that, while the energy is all a bit raw, and the moves even more raw, there's an underlying sense for metre -- as if he's not just counting pulses, but is very aware of the moves from one bar to the next, and even in groups of bars. That was one of the issues I raised in my original question.

When I was teaching compositional techniques -- and I was blessed by having some of the brightest and best which that country (Ireland) had to offer -- I was always especially fascinated by abilities of that kind. Raw, sometimes eccentric, often opinionated about their own ideas -- they might be all those things and more. But that inherent ability meant there was always something with which they and you can work.

I have a strong suspicion that many of these issues to do with "musicality" in a dancer must have some kind of innate aspect. They can be taught, they can be honed; but I suspect they are there from a very early age -- a bit like a discerning ear in a musician.

I read somewhere that Riccardo Drigo said a conductor's worst nightmare was a dancer without an ear -- or words to that effect. Sorry, I know I shouldn't post unattributable things; but I'm certain that it was he, and that this was the substance of his comment. Maybe I read it in a book?.

Perhaps someone here knows where it is recorded in an authoritative source.

Edited by cyclingmartin

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1 hour ago, cyclingmartin said:

I have a strong suspicion that many of these issues to do with "musicality" in a dancer must have some kind of innate aspect. They can be taught, they can be honed; but I suspect they are there from a very early age -- a bit like a discerning ear in a musician.

I read somewhere that Riccardo Drigo said a conductor's worst nightmare was a dancer without an ear -- or words to that effect. Sorry, I know I shouldn't post unattributable things; but I'm certain that it was he, and that this was the substance of his comment. Maybe I read it in a book?.

Perhaps someone here knows where it is recorded in an authoritative source.

I think musicality is innate. Some things can be coached. But you don't even have to be much of a dancer to be a musical dancer.

Take this example:

No one would ever say Zero Mostel was a good dancer. However in the limited dance moves he does do, his character makes a clear arc from the milder fantasy that starts "If I Were a Rich Man" to the almost surreal, bizarre center of the song as his dreams become more and more extravagant, to the final moments of the song when he is bursting with exuberance thinking of all the things he dreams for but doesn't have. The way he shakes his body to the rhythm of the song makes you "see" this music. I've seen "If I Were a Rich Man" countless times sung my many different artists, many of whom were better singers than Zero Mostel. 

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22 hours ago, Quinten said:

I agree with the consensus here that dancers should not vary the tempo or make accents simply as a matter of convenience or as a way of dealing with technical problems. But how much variability is ok?  In this clip Gelsey varies the tempo a lot, slowing down, pausing, rushing ahead in a very improvisational manner. This amount of rubato is ideal for a romantic ballet, which is a sort of battleground of classical form/discipline vs romantic freedom/personal expression, but it might not be for ballets from other eras.

I wonder if the performances in which the dancer takes the most liberties with a role are not the most memorable ones for us. At least when the dancer draws out and develops implications in the choreography we've always felt were there, as in the Gelsey Kirkland Giselle clip. So the progession might be – 1) standard fine performance technically perfect, 2) "musical" performance, and 3) performances where the dancer takes greater liberties, like Suzanne Farrell with Mozartiana, adjusting time and angles, almost falling off point, or Mikhail Baryshnikov in Fancy Free who seemed to be inventing new things for the in-between moments. (Though of course Mozartiana was set on Farrell and Kyra Nichols' later performances were the more orthodox ones, but quite musical.)

Regarding the second point if you mean the present era, I don't think you'd be able to borrow (and repay) time with Phillip Glass's compositions, which sound to me like an endless series of hard arpeggios, nor with Wayne McGregor (or if so, how could you tell), but with the solos in The Four Temperaments you might have some leeway. 

Edited by Quiggin

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One more example of musicality:

Johnny Weir times every movement, every jump, to something in the music. He's never just "doing the steps" over music. You can see that in the way he accelerates his final set of spins as the music speeds up, or he lands from a jump just as the music ends a phrase. Again, I think this is innate. There are many remarkable skaters who do not have this musicality.

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