April 28, 2013 at 6:30 AMBasking in the lingering applause of an enraptured audience, two dancers take a final, triumphant bow and depart the stage. The female enchants with elegance and effervescence, the male commands with princely deportment. Six feet under, a haggard pit orchestra flips the page to the next number. Shaking out a tight hand, shifting a bit to alleviate a sore bottom, one senses a hint of resentment among these players. “The audience is really only clapping for the dancers, right?” “They might as well have stuck in a CD!” “My stand partner smells worse than usual tonight...”
I paint a sorry scene. Apart from the last complaint, which could sadly be accurate, the first two qualms are quite untrue. I am fortunate to attend a school with a strong dance program, and spent much of last week playing in the orchestra for Butler Ballet’s production of “Giselle.” I think these performances comprise some of my more valuable experiences at university thus far. I have gotten to know several ballet scores including the practically pops-ish “Nutcracker.” I expect I will be playing that holiday classic for some time to come, but I hope to revisit others as well. I have a basic background in dance which gives me a bias of course, but working with dancers is something I always look forward to.
There’s no getting around the fact that audiences will spend much more time focused on the visuals of the ballet performance, but that is not to say the musicians aren’t appreciated. True, sometimes the choreography outshines the music, but more often the two entwine to form a cohesive whole. I think Tchaikovsky’s ballet music does a good job of this, and it could be said that Stravinsky’s scores even surpass the dancing at times (“Rite of Spring” is better known as a concert piece nowadays). Overall I think Stravinsky was another composer who struck an effective balance. It was a special time for music and dance when he and George Balanchine collaborated (a New York City Ballet principal dancer discusses this a bit here), where both disciplines informed and elevated the other.
I have yet to play a Stravinsky ballet, but the learning opportunities from the ones I have done so far have been numerous. The constantly shifting tempos in ballets are tricky to catch at times and require a good deal of focus and eye contact with the conductor. This is probably the most important reason why my hypothetical pit orchestra musician is mistaken in preferring a recording over live music. Often principal roles are performed by different dancers and the diversity of body types already makes a recording inadequate- taller dancers will probably want some tempos slower than their more petite counterparts. Dancers are susceptible to the same problems as musicians, such as fatigue (more so, in this case). If Odile seduced Siegfried with a bit more energy than she intended, she won’t be pleased to have to go on and execute thirty-two fouettes to the perversely swift tempo on the CD.
Recently I have been performing 19th-century French ballets, “Giselle” a week ago and “Coppélia” last season. The style of these scores, composed by Adolphe Adam and Léo Delibes, respectively, require a certain delicacy and refinement. Near-constant lightness in the bow arm is a challenge (at least for me at the moment) to sustain and required me to examine my right hand technique and make sure my bowing remained supple and efficient. While not as lengthy as something like an opera by Wagner, some ballets tend to meander (“Sleeping Beauty” is pretty long even with cuts) and raise the issue of stamina. Again I have to take a close look at my technique to make sure I’m not expending unnecessary energy. Ballet music has provided me with several musical and technical challenges. Next year Butler Ballet is performing Prokofiev’s “Cinderella” which I’m sure will provide many more opportunities for growth.
Playing in the pit can seem unsavory to an outsider, but the close quarters are small price to pay for a chance at interdisciplinary collaboration, something that can be very rewarding for both performers and audience members alike.
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