Sunday, April 6, 2008

Name That Tune

Someone wrote in to ask a really interesting question about music:

I have wondered what it's like for a dancer to have to dance to music that they don't like. Does that ever happen? And if it does, what does the dancer have to do to make the ballet convincing? (It happens to musicians, but if it's a job you gotta play it, and if you want another job you'd better play it well...)

First of all, it's pretty much the same deal for us dancers-- it's a job, you gotta dance it even if you don't like it, and if you want to keep your job you'd better do it well! I don't mean to sound to harshly businesslike about it, but the nature of the art world here, today, means that it IS a business. The possible analogies are endless. (What kind of business? Factory, farm, sports team, public service, charity?) As dancers in a 21st century American ballet company, we sometimes feel like cogs in a wheel and sometimes like superstars. To weather those weird fluctuations in the persona expected and required of us, we (and I speak collectively because I know of no successful dancer who's not this way) keep a solid sense of personal self-image, humility, reality, and humor. Mostly humor.

Ok, back to the question about music. What happens when a ballet comes up in the rep with a musical score that really grates? Doesn't matter! You just do it. And it's not that bad--it's not like there's nothing else going on and you're just sitting there listening to it over and over. Sometimes there is so much going through my head during a piece that the music almost becomes like another tool I'm using to get through the steps. If it's discordant or atonal, the dancers are probably intently counting the music throughout the piece, which means we're not hearing it in the same way a passive listener is. And if it's one of those melodies that gets stuck in your head... that's just an occupational hazard, I guess. Actually, a pretty cool aspect of being a dancer is how familiar we become with a huge variety of pieces of music. I love that I can turn on the classical radio station and at least once a day hear a piece that I've danced to. And more often than not it's something fairly obscure! (It's certainly not all classical music, of course. A couple of the dancers became resident experts on Cole Porter when we did Eyes on You).

As far as "making it convincing", well, again I have to say that that's what we are paid to do. In addition to training our bodies to physically execute steps, a big part of a professional dancer's skill set is being an actor. Interestingly, that aspect of our art form isn't usually taught in ballet schools. It's a trait that an ambitious dancer has to have in order to progress in their career, but it can't really be developed without opportunities to get onstage and perform--- to put on a show. The sensation of being onstage in front of an audience, under lights, under pressure and scrutiny, either makes a person shrink into themselves, or they open up, grow larger than they really are, and perform generously. So, having said that, whether or not a dancer personally enjoys the music they are dancing to (or the choreography, for that matter) has little impact on the kind of performance the audience will see. The dancer may feel like it's a little more like work and a little less like a purely joyous romp, but there have to be ups and downs to keep it real. And there is always, always, something to enjoy about any ballet or music. Sometimes it takes longer to discover or is less obvious, but it will be there.

A final very important point to make is that some of the most gorgeous pieces of music I've ever heard are ones that I felt no appeal towards at first. But after hours and hours of rehearsal, listening to them millions of times, and (most importantly, perhaps?) hearing them played live, by a high-quality orchestra, in close quarters (just a few feet away down in the pit), I heard such beauty that I'd not recognized before. Dancing to a piece of music makes you pay attention to it in a way that a casual listener won't. You have to listen for the un-obvious elements in it, the undertones and subtlties that give the piece as a whole its color and sound. It's in those details that the real beauty lies, I think.

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