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Ballet to Popular Music

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The news that ABT's fall City Center season will include ballets to music by George Harrison and Richard Rodgers has led me to wonder how people feel about ballets set to popular music.

In the thread in the ABT subforum (click here to read it), at least one post was critical of these plans. Do you think that classical ballet should be set only to classical music? If not, how do you think a choreographer should approach a popular score? Should s/he choreograph the piece as if it were being set to a classical score, and use strictly classical language (à la Who Cares)? Or does the less formal structure of popular music demand a similarly looser choreographic structure? In Deuce Coupe II, set to songs of the Beach Boys, Twyla Tharp mixed classical choreography with her own looser dance style. So did Jerome Robbins in I'm Old Fashioned, whose music was an adaptation and orchestration by Morton Gould of a song by Jerome Kern. (Many ballet scores based on popular music have to be arranged and orchestrated.) Another Kern ballet, Kent Stowell's Silver Lining, was mauled by the London critics; apparently it relied heavily on ballroom dancing rather than ballet, and the consensus seemed to be that the PNB dancers couldn't do it well. Tharp has choreographed many ballets besides Deuce Coupe to popular music—think of her many Sinatra ballets—and so has Gerald Arpino. They've had mixed success.

Another thing to consider is that many choreographers grow up listening to popular music, and perhaps having the freedom to choreograph to music that they know very well could have a liberating effect on them. I often feel that Peter Martins is really a rock choreographer in disguise—so many of his ballets have a rock sensibility to me. I think his partiality to certain kinds of contemporary classical music stems from the fact that they often sound like rock bands. (This may be my ignorance of modern music talking, but that's how it sounds to me.) I even think he hears Stravinsky this way.

I won't get into the accessability issue (that audiences might be attracted by music they know and like) since it's been discussed here before.

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True, but although the "modern" classical music was different in style and method, it was not different in kind. Pop music, whether it's Rodgers, the Beatles, or Nine Inch Nails, is another thing altogether. Folk art as opposed to high art, let's say (and not necessarily inferior).

I don't think that a ballet set to pop music requires a style that refers directly to the kind of music to which it's set , but some kind of acknowledgment from the choreographer that this is classical dancing not set to classical music is needed. The form that acknowledgment takes is pretty much up to him, I'd say.

I missed that post about ABT paying tribute to George Harrison -- thanks, Ari. I'm afraid this sounds very much like opportunism on ABT's part, and rather pointless opportunism at that. I think it's okay for a classical company to pay tribute to Rodgers on the occasion of his centenary, but Harrison -- I do not mean to be disrespectful of someone recently departed, but just because Harrison is dead doesn't make him all that good. As for the choice of songs -- I'm amused that ABT would choose to pay "tribute" to Harrison by selecting a song that isn't even his own tune. (A court decided "My Sweet Lord" was a plagiarism of the Chiffons' "He's So Fine." )

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dirac wrote:

although the "modern" classical music was different in style and method, it was not different in kind.  Pop music, whether it's Rodgers, the Beatles, or Nine Inch Nails, is another thing altogether.

I like that definition. The notion that, as Peter Sellars would have it, "Prince is a modern day Mozart" is baloney. Beethoven was once "modern" , as was Stravinsky. Prince is in a different room.

Unfortunately, "classical" is as ghastly a term in music as it is in ballet. "serious" music, "concert" music -- not much better. I would disagree, though, that pop music is folk art. To me, popular music is manufactured music, while folk music really does come from the people and has roots so ancient they're untraceable. And while there is horrible classical music and good pop music, I also feel very strongly that there is a hierarchy of genres (and that serious music, by its aspirations, rules, and form, heads it).

I think a ballet can be made to any kind of music, or even to no music, or to words or to bird calls -- a great choreographer can get away with anything. But "Who Cares?" isn't a permission slip for the less talented to put on a few tunes and have the dancers bop around. Usually, the very form of pop music means any dances set to it risk being banal. The four-bar phrase, the repetitiveness, the tendency to "act out" the verse. But again, someone with a great talent can get around that. (I liked some of the "Sinatra Songs" but I do consider Twyla Tharp to be a ballet choreographer, even though she, at times, says she is. She doesn't use the language like a native. She's just after the technique of it, not the linking steps, not the form. I don't consider her a great choreographer in any genre, but that's a different story.)

A view from the modern dance side on this, and a local one at that. When I first started goinig to dance concerts in the mid-70s, this included attending concerts at local universities. It was mandatory for students to choreograph to "serious" music. This came, I was told, from the 1930s to 1950s period in modern dance when modern dancers felt that they had to justify their art form, that they were always being compared to ballet, and, by some, judged to be not as serious. One of the "rules," then, was to use serious themes and serious music. (I don't think this was a concern of Martha or Doris, but we were several generations away from them, by the mid-1970s.) By the mid-1980s, one of the lesser schools here was permitting rock tunes -- and the dances really were execrable. Do wah do wah oh, baby baby type stuff. Not a comment on the song, just put it on and jiggle. Other dance departments were shocked. Their students wanted to do the same kind of pieces. The students won.

As for the ABT George Harrison piece, again, one can never prejudge something. I've been surprised more times than I can count by something I thought would be awful that turned out to be interesting. That said, when I read it -- not just the "concept" but the choreographers involved -- I thought it was one of our joke threads, the "How Bad Can It Get? Let your imagination run wild" one.

I think Ari's comment that there are choreographers who seem to have rock music sensibilities is very true -- all too true, perhaps. One of the things hindering the development of ballet, I think, is the lack of contemporary classical music with feet. (i.e., that's both listenable and danceable)

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I can prejudge it. It's going to suck. Since I'm out west, you New Yorkers will have to confirm it for me. Go ahead, ABT -- prove me wrong! I'll be happy to eat crow. But even Tharp wouldn't be able to do anything with "My Sweet Lord." And.....Ann Reinking!?!

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I remember Joffrey's Billboards "hated it"

in today's NY Post they pan Twyla Tharp's latest Broadway attempt to Billy Joel music (it's so bad they're sending it back to re-work it)

For me, I don't mind Gershwin, Kern, Rodgers & Hammerstein.

But the Beatles?!

Sometimes there are songs that aren't meant to be scores, when the words often outweigh the music, so much so that you can't separate them.

And there is music that you know the words but almost sway while singing them anyway ( I always think of Fitzgerald singing Gershwin's songbook while watching Who Cares and it's okay, she was known as being "part of the band").

That probably doesn't make much sense, but seeing a tribute to George Harrison from ABT was a bit bizarre to me. I most likely will not see it. To me it's like drinking milk with pizza, it just doesn't go.

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Guest Ballet Dad

Having been in the audience for a couple of ballets set to non-traditional music and themes, specifically Joffrey’s “Billboards” and the late Cleveland San Jose’s “Blue Suede Shoes”, I will admit that although not on my top five favorite ballets, they were an enjoyable evening of music and dance.

That said, I would hope such productions accomplish the objectives of bringing in much needed revenue and live dance exposure to an audience that might previously not considered entering a theatre for dance performance. If only a percentage of these newcomers return for a future presentation of a more traditional ballet, would it be worth it? I would say yes.

Moreover, if these productions provide extra weeks of work (read paychecks) for the dancers and production staff, all the better.

An interesting side note to Blue Suede Shoes – although this production provided CSJB its first full house in years, the production costs did put a significant ding in the budget. Although Nahat requested, and the board approved, Bob Mackie costumes, I feel more prudent production cost restraint would not have hindered the potential box office receipts and would have resulted in more cash to the bottom line.

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IMO, music is THE issue.

Bournonville said that "ballet is the first-born child of music".

Could I change but one thing in ballet training today, it would be to bring in rigorous training in music, similar to that of the youths at the Leibzig Cantorei: sight-reading for singers, singing, possibly an instrument, and music theory. That alone would relaunch the "factories to produce genius".

What distinguishes all classical dance forms, including most especially those of the Indian sub-continent, from the rest ? The turn-out. The turn-out is a scientific breakthrough. It was, dear readers, INVENTED by some genius, at a certain point in history, perhaps 2500 years ago or more, as ancient Indian sculpture shews. It corresponds to the debate about temperament and scientific pitch, in classical music. Equal temperament was already being experimented on in China in about 600 BC, as sets of temple bells from that period attest. That would roughly CORRESPOND TO THE DEVELOPMENT OF TURNOUT ! Is that not amazing ?

As anyone who has danced classical ballet knows, there is something inevitable about the correspondence between the turn-out with the ancient, but ever-new, forms it calls up in the body, and classical music. It wells up from the sub-conscious mind. I am not quite sure how it operates, but it does. This will require more thought.

Alexandra is right when she says that pop music today is a manufactured product. It is a purely mechanical piece of goods. When one sees the likes of Peter Schaufuss up at Holstebro putting up one "ballet" after another on rock music, and raking it in, one may perhaps be so bold as to form a view regarding his motives, from fields other than the artistic.

Incidentally, the two ablest fellows in the POB corps de ballet, Messrs. Thibault and Phavorin, are both skilled musicians ('cello and piano, respectively). The POB étoile Manuel Legris has been an opera freak for decades. The Hamburg Ballett principal Lloyd Riggins plays the piano. Why do those gentlemen all stand out in a crowd ? Because they UNDERSTAND MUSIC.

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I heartily agree that dancers should be taught music -- they still are, at some schools. (A young choreographer in Washington, trained in Bulgaria, studied violin as a child. When he got to high school, at the ballet school, he had to switch to piano "because the girls took all the violins." He doesn't choreograph to pop music.)

Studying music not only gives them a sense of structure -- which, gosh, just might be useful in choreography! -- but teaches them the classical repertory so that when they come to make a ballet they'll have something to choose from.

One of the saddest -- and bravest -- things I've ever seen on this subject was a PBS show on Christopher Dean (the skater, and a fine choreographer, IMO, who did some very sophisticated skates to pop music) in a sound studio, with CDs of classical music from floor to ceiling, devouring them, playing one after the other. He looked quite tired, as though he'd been doing this, without much sleep, for weeks. "I have to catch up," he said. He'd been brought up without music. At the time, he wanted to do choreography seriously, and realized that to express what he needed to express, he needed more depth in the music he chose.

This is not to say, again, that it's not popular to create a great work to mediocre music, or a serious work to popular music. But such works COMMENT on the music.

As for "Billboards," the argument that Ballet Dad makes is often made. Program ANYTHING, just to get 'em in, and that will make a lot of money and then we can do other, great works. But it doesn't work that way. I was surprised to read -- we posted about it several months ago -- that in arts management (not just dance, but theater too) there is now something called "the Billboards model" and it's a "don't go there" model. Programming a ballet to rock music and touting it as such, announcing you're doing it to bring in the young A) drives away some of the older audience membes who, whoops!, are the ones who actually have a habit of theater going and are willing and able to fork over high prices for tickets. And B) if it doe attract people who've never seen a ballet before, and what you show them isn't a ballet, well, it follows logically that if they like it, that's what they'll want to see in the future. They either won't come back, or they'll want to see only that. The long-term consequences of "Billboards" were rather dire. The company lost dancers who were sick of performing in it, and, although it did bring in a lot of cash, the question of, wouldn't something else have done the same thing?, will always be an open one. And shortly after the Billboards era, the company was in very bad straits financially. It didn't last -- and the company is still fighting to come back, both artistically and financially.

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Guest Ballet Dad

I can’t disagree with Alexandra’s observation that ballets set to rock music are not the answer to a company’s financial straights. Certainly the two examples I used, Joffrey and Cleveland San Jose, clearly are companies that were forced to make substantial changes in location and direction to survive another day.

However, I don’t believe the problem was the creation of a dance that utilized non-traditional concepts. The situation became problematic when the management of these companies looked at the new works as their salvation. While I can’t speak specifically about Billboards, I do recall Blue Suede Shoes being part of the Cleveland subscription series for three out of four years.

My point was to take a work that could potentially draw new patrons, promote the heck out of it, and then put it away for a few years. Hopefully the people you attracted with the new work will stick around and enjoy other pieces that you have to offer.

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Guest rhythmicgymnast

I believe ballet should be danced to classical music. It is the way it is meant to be. I've seen ballets to music with lyrics (not neccessarily pop music), and it doesn't work as well. Unless there is some deeper meaning in the lyrics, choreographers are better sticking to the classics.

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although some people may remember michael smuin's ballet 'to the beatles' badly, i remember liking a great deal of it, especially what i thought was a rather nice pas de deux to 'the long and winding road'. however, i also recall a ballet for which i think he commissioned music from stewart copeland of the police, (he later wrote the background music for the television show 'the equalizer') for 'king lear' in a triple bill of ballets on shakespearean themes, another of which was val caniparoli's first try at 'hamlet and ophelia' (i think the music for that was martinu). anyway, this was some years ago, but although in some cases, copeland's name got them into the theatre, it was essentially "classical-type" music (i.e,. orchestral, no lyrics, etc.) and i recall rather well (i only saw the program once and it was a good 17 years ago). so there might be ways to be popular and still be classical.

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Originally posted by rhythmicgymnast

Unless there is some deeper meaning in the lyrics, choreographers are better sticking to the classics.

Paradoxically, that's actually when I think a choreographer should tread most carefully.

There are many ways to deal with music in choreography; music visualization is only one of them. Balanchine's examples of that include taking the knottiest serial music of Webern and Stravinsky and mirroring it onstage. It's interesting to note that although Balanchine has done some notable ballets to sung music (Liebeslieder Walzer) the one thing he doesn't try and do is show the lyrics onstage. It would be too literal.

When selecting music (or any other accompaniment), I feel a choreographer needs to ask him or herself, "Does this music need me? Is there a reason for this music to be danced?" It's not enough to be moved by the lyrics. Is this something that can be told by movement as well? Are you asking the music to do the work the dance ought to?

Say someone decided to to set a dance to a very emotional narrative (apologies in advance for an extreme example, but for instance the cell phone conversations from September 11). I'm sure the work would be emotionally devastating to most of us, but was it the dance, or was it just the accompaniment. Did the dance add anything? Does it have a structure and meaning of its own, or is it just along for the ride?

There are some choreographers who have used both text and lyrics with success - Neil Greenberg has used projected narratives to accompany his works and in the realm of pop music, Christopher Bruce has done a series of works (Sergeant Early's Dream, Moonrise, Rooster) that use pop music rather literally and succeed on their own terms.

To bring this back to popular music and ballet, I'd also note that ballet in its most abstracted form (the ballets blancs, for instance) succeed because they step outside of time and exist simultaneously in the time of their creation, the moment they are being performed and in their own self-contained context. One could always do a more topical ballet, but it would take work to find pop music that could exist in the same non-topical realm as classical ballet.

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While the Joffrey has been cited for "Billboards", nobody has detailed the importance of the earlier "Deuce Coupe" and "Deuce Coupe II" in which Twyla Tharp took Beach Boys music, made one of the first remixes in public-performed pop music and presented good dance theater, both delightful and poignant in the same work (If you can make 'em laugh AND cry in the same show, you can run forever!)

Granted, Beach Boys were kind of classic geezer pop, even by 1970, but the works were poetry from a dance standpoint.:)

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That's admirably broad-minded, but it only makes me think immediately of pop music highly unsuited to such adaptation. "Metal Machine Music: the Ballet," springs to mind, and many, many others. A potential thread, there.

Mme. Hermine, it's interesting that the pas de deux to "The Long and Winding Road" was effective -- I'd have thought it would be a perfect example of the kind of vocal accompaniment described by Leigh -- with the Cute One giving his all to an overtly emotional lyric, and Phil Spector tossing everything but the kitchen sink into the mix -- that doesn't leave much for the dancing to do. Nice to hear that it worked.

Mel's mention of "geezer pop" brings up another point -- that strictly speaking, most of the music under discussion wouldn't attract an audience that much younger than the usual ballet crowd, because these are artists familiar to aging white folks from their youth, although the Beatles do have a certain cross-generational appeal possessed by no other band. (I read an account of Sir Paul's recent nuptials to Lady Heather that described a guard pointing out Ringo Starr to a teenager, one of the locals gathered to have a look at the crowd, only to have her respond, "Who's he?")

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Mel, I love that expression "geezer pop"!:) ;)

Speaking of "The Long and Winding Road", I believe Stanton Welch choreographed a ballet to that last year for ABT's Studio Company. And just for the record, I saw them perform it out here in the hinterlands of Westchester County at Purchase College and quite enjoyed it. :)

I hope for both ABT's and George Harrison's sakes they're successful with this new "Beatle" related ballet.

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