Recently in Dance Category

"Murder on Swan Lake"

swanlake_small.jpg the headline in the Wandsworth Borough News, I noticed at the local garage.

Swan Lake usually brings on thoughts of suicide with me (especially in Act II), but it takes all sorts, I guess.

More sundays like these

crisiswaht.jpgTo the ROH again to work with Ballet Black. It's days like these that I love my job, to the extent that I almost envy myself doing what I do. Imagine being paid to play on a glorious grand piano in a cavernous studio at the Opera House with a studio full of gorgeous dancers doing lovely balletic things to the music that's coming out of the piano.

Imagine, on a bright Sunday morning in February, being able to play music that you've always loved in an almost perfect acoustic, to a discerning but appreciative audience. Imagine drifting along briefly afterwards to the top floor cafteria at the top of the world in Covent Garden, and bumping into David Fielding (left), and a host of other people you know and love (going back over 20 years, in some cases) as well as meeting new people, who will undoubtedly be part of that wonderful constellation of friends & colleagues that sees you through the next 20 years as well.

Imagine cycling back down the Strand and through a demonstration in Trafalgar Square (incidentally, I didn't know what the demonstration was about, but I was staggered to hear a folk song that I have on a very arcane cassette of Albanian folk music that I bought in Zagreb 25 years ago blasting out of a car on the Strand. It all makes sense now I realise that the demo was to do with  Kosovan independence), and up the Mall towards Buckingham Palace on one of the most glorious sunny days of the year so far (see pics).

Imagine being able to stop off at Clapham Junction on the way back, to have coffee with another old friend & colleague, in which work, pleasure & friendship are so mixed up, there are just no lines anywhere.

Not bad for a day's work, I reckon.

Simon Jaymes nominated for the Indy Awards

It's a funny old world. It must have been 3 years ago or more that I bumped into Simon Jaymes (as he now is) outside the Sadlers Wells in the interval of a dance performance, and got talking to him about the music he was making. I'd known him from a youth ballet company as a dancer: mesmerizing to watch on stage, because he was a brilliant actor as well as dancer, with terrific stage presence, and an intelligent, creative, articulate person as well. When I heard he was songwriting, I knew instantly he'd be good, and I asked him if he'd ever be up for collaborating on a project that I knew would be coming up where I'd need a collaborator. It was tricky just then because he was with K ballet, but we agreed to chat sometime when he was back. As it turned out I had to shelve that one because another came up, but I've had his number in my phone ever since, and meant to ring. Well you know how it is. And then today - on the day that the other recording project finished -  I get a text from Simon to say that he's just been nominated for the Indy Music Awards 2008. Congratulations, Simon - you have my vote!

Do your bit for music (and dance, of course) and vote for Simon at the Indy Awards site. And for all you South Londoners, he's going to be doing a gig at the Bedford in Balham on 20th March.

The picture is of the King's Head in Tooting this morning. Never seen it looking so clean & shiny, but that's probably because I usually see it after a few pints.

Christopher Hampson interview

Lovely interview with Christopher Hampson over at published today. I'll be late for work if I start going on about how much I love reading interviews with him, so I'll let you find out for yourselves.

Left is the sky over Tooting this morning at 7.20ish when I went off to start ramping up the lengths for the Swimathon.

Russian music

There's one benefit of insomnia (which I'm suffering from at the moment) and that's being able to read books that you don't have time to finish during your waking hours, which in the case of the one pictured left, is hugely frustrating.

From the very first page, I discovered with some embarrassment that my mental construct of Russian music was a completely unconsidered acceptance of the project of concert promoters and propagandists. I suppose it's worse when you think you know something about your subject.

Try this for size, on page 49, speaking of the success of Firebird, the Rimsky-Korsakov ballets and Balakirev's Tamara:

"For the French, and later for the English audiences of Diaghilev's Saisons, Russian music was forever associated with its colourful packaging, and this image was passed along to later generations. This music was itself heard as bright, decorative, exotic and fantastic; no Russian tragic soul was in view."

She goes on to say "It is important to realize that the Saisons Russes were entirely conceived for the export market; no such venture could have been undertaken in Russia..."

There's hardly a paragraph without insights like these, and as I read on, it's like someone drawing the curtains to reveal that the room I've been standing in is altogether different to how I imagined it.  This is the music I grew up with, the music I earned my living from, and the building where I now work is steeped in paraphernalia of this period. I guess it's not too late to take a critical look at your surroundings, but it's a weird (yet wonderful) feeling.

By bizarre coincidence, Marina Frolova-Walker was giving a lecture on her subject at the RA on the very day and at the very time when I was visiting the From Russia exhibition (see previous entry). I wish I'd known.

Norwich reunion

To Norwich with Chris to take another look at the Johann Strauss Gala that he choreographed dances for.  The trip was not entirely unconnected with the fact that gorgeous friends Alice & Andrew live in Beccles, which is on the way, so we all (Alice, Andrew & family, Leigh & Fran) went out to lunch at Prezzo, a cinema converted into a very classy Italian restaurant. That's my pizza in the picture (left). Chris & Fran caught up on knitting news, as Beccles is the spiritual home of knitting in our world, for reasons you can read about here.

And so on to Norwich and the Strauss Gala which looked and sounded lovely. The theatre has been completely revamped (and has secreted a shopping centre around it) so memories of ENB tours didn't flood back immediately. But then suddenly at the stage door, I remembered vividly trying to defend some poor sod in the corps de ballet who was about to get a second warning letter, having first omitted to put elastics on his shoes in a performance, and then forgotten where the theatre was and missed a rehearsal.

Tea in Beccles, and so home - where I arrived, miraculously, at just after 10pm.

Silent Dancers

dan_saki.jpgTo South Ken for the second time in one afternoon, this time to meet Dan & Kei for sushi, ramen & teriyaki at Saki in Old Brompton Road, which I only discovered last week with Susie Cooper, who should have been there really, as the four of us have done some happy theatre trips together. 

Dan recently made a beautiful short film about dance, and I'm thrilled that he's uploaded it to Youtube. He's got an extraordinary ability to get people to just talk about stuff and be themselves on camera, and this is a prime example. The film's called Silent Dancers (click to see it), which is quite funny if you know him, since Dan is the least silent dancer I've ever met, but then I guess the film's not about him.

I meant to take the picture in flagrante, while all the wonderful sushi and other stuff was so much in evidence that the photo would have just screamed 'this is me and my mates in a Japanese restaurant', but unfortunately I forgot, so all I can offer is this rather beguiling photo of Dan with what looks like a miniature teapot. Behind him, if you could but see it, is a pictorial glossary of all the different types of sushi.

And by the way, today is definitely a day for listening to Madeleine Peyroux, which is what I'm doing now.


Up the Opera House (twice in one week, my goodness) to see Sylvia. I bought the ticket off a student who couldn't go, so I had a £59 seat right behind the conductor in the front row of the stalls for £20. Delibes is one of my favourite composers, and I love what I know of Sylvia, so it was a great way to spend an evening. What I didn't know about the ballet was that it had two big solos for the alto saxophone. Amazing what you learn.

It's an odd world Ashton & his costume designer have created - the girls have not an inch of flesh showing, all betighted and swathed in wafty skirts like maidens at a victorian picnic, while the boys are pretty much naked apart from mini-skirts and strange cutaway socks. There's enough leaping and turning to leave nothing to the imagination. I'm not complaining, but I've seen less homoerotic floor shows at The Fridge. In fact, it was a cross between Julian Clary's campest Sticky Moments, and the kind of vaudeville campery that you get on the Graham Norton show. I half expected to see punters stick ten-pound notes in the boys' shorts when they were far enough downstage. I shouldn't be unfair - it's ballets like Sylvia that provide the model for that kind of stuff, not the other way round, I guess. Or is it?

I hadn't a clue what was going on or who anyone was, because I forgot to get a programme, but It was all just too silly and gay to matter, frankly. I loved it.

Sundays like this

To the ROH studios today to play for the Ballet Black class as a result of a late night last-minute phone call from BB director Cassa Pancho who was one of my students back in the day, though I think I probably learned more valuable stuff from her than she did from me, especially about the Language of Hair in women - what changing your hair during the day really means, how much Hair Product is too much, and the peculiar importance of sparkly things & Bacardi Breezers.

As I was on my bike, it took five minutes to get to Regent Street (where the Salvation Army band were marching and playing wonderfully - see left) and the Apple Store to buy an Eyetv for my lovely Macbook. It works like a dream. Sailing down Regent Street, Haymarket, Trafalgar Square, Parliament, and along the embankment past the Tate, I thought, as I do nearly every day, that having a bike in London is the best and only way to travel. You relive the excitement of seeing London for the first time, every time, quite apart from being able to get everywhere quickly and easily.

Leo Kersley interview

kersley.jpgFind of the day (through the forums at was this fantastic   interview with Leo Kersley .  It's an amazing account of ballet in England right from the earliest days of the 20th century, full of extraordinary insights. It's hosted by the Theatre Archive Project, well worth visiting in its own right.

In case you don't know, Leo Kersley is amongst other things the author of my favourite ballet dictionary. I love dictionaries, and unlike most people, I tend to read them from cover to cover like normal books, or at least spend rather more time browsing them than normal humans.

That's how I discovered that my favourite ballet dictionary was the one pictured left. Now there's a dictionary with real style, personality and humour, and with the kind of insight and knowledge in it that is hard to achieve through normal lexicographic routes. He knows what you need to know as both and insider and outsider, and there are words, concepts and comparative definitions in there that I've not seen equalled elsewhere. When I read the interview at the Theatre Archive Project, I recognised the voice instantly. Wonderful stuff, and what a brilliant project the TAP is.

This is day 25 in my 2007 Advent Calendar. This year, I'm giving the story behind some of the music that I've collected for ballet classes. All the pieces are on Studio Series Vol. 4 published by RAD

One of the highlights of my Desert Island First Notes would be the opening top E natural (and of course the C in the bass that accompanies it) that the solo piano plays in the slow movement of Shostakovich's second piano concerto (the one in Macmillan's Concerto).  When the movement opens, Shostakovich envelops you in a world of C minor muted strings, getting lower and lower, sparser and sparser, sadder and sadder, until you are left with a unison low G.  It's like night falling.

And then, just when you'd forgotten that there had ever been a piano in this piece, that major keys or high notes existed, in comes the piano with a single note whose appearance is so beautiful and unexpected, it's like one of those evenings where the sky is so cloudy, you think you won't see the sun until tomorrow, and then suddenly there's a break in the clouds just as the sun hits the horizon, and you go all biblical on yourself. It doesn't matter how many times you've heard it, that moment is prepared so carefully and cleverly, it never loses its effect, just as that feeling of seeing the sea for the first time when you drive to the coast is always a magical moment. The whole of that opening section is a preparation for that single note; yet the preparation is also a musical episode in itself, so you don't sit there watching the arrival boards to see what time the tune is due to land.

That's also why the waltz from the second act of Prokofiev's Cinderella is so unusual, special and lovely to put on a CD of music for ballet classes.  Introductions in class usually serve the function of setting a tempo and giving time to get ready; a necessary but essentially meaningless routine. Prokofiev cleverly subverts the routine: you get what graphically looks like an eight-bar vamp, but is in fact a delicate harmonic kaleidoscope of chords that sets a scene and tells a story and establishes a mood. When the first note of the tune comes in, it's been so carefully prepared it's like threading a needle; it's the only note that the tune could possibly begin on, but also feels completely unexpected. It's an introduction, Jim, but not as we know it.

When a piece of music for class can convey so much wide-eyed wonderment and expectation before the exercise has even started, I think it probably deserves to sit at the top of the table.

Happy Christmas!
This is day 24 in my 2007 Advent Calendar. This year, I'm giving the story behind some of the music that I've collected for ballet classes. All the pieces are on Studio Series Vol. 4 published by RAD

poppies.jpgThe way I've been banging on about trying to avoid the waltz for class, you might think that I've got something against waltzes.  Nothing could be further from the truth. I love them, and in fact yesterday I spent a lovely morning playing class for Christopher Hampson and his happy band of dancers for the Raymond Gubbay Strauss gala, and stayed to watch a bit of Chris's choreography for the exquisite Sphärenklänge by Josef Strauss. If you want to know what I do when I'm on holiday, that's it. My point about avoiding waltzes is that they're gorgeous for waltzing to, or to listen to, but it's rarer than you'd think that a waltz is really a good choice for an exercise, particularly in grand allegro.

It's Denzil Bailey that first made me aware of this, coming over to the piano during allegro in an ENB class and saying very diplomatically and helpfully that what I was playing would be nice for pirouettes, but not really for allegro. I was quite
surprised, because until then, that's what teachers had always seemed to ask for.  But at the risk of being shot down by my teacher colleagues, dancers are often much better than teachers at saying what works and what doesn't, because they're the ones actually doing the darned exercise, and they're the ones you're doing it for, so their feedback is rather more urgent & expressive.

You won't be surprised, after all this, to hear that the reason why "Valse des Bluets & des Pavots" from Glazunov's The Seasons works so well is because it does a lot of things that waltzes don't normally do.
  • Principally it frequently displaces the accent off of the first beat, which has the effect of steadying the tempo, and offering a natural prophylactic against becoming one-in-a-bar with a Viennese swing.
  • The harmonies often change significantly on each beat. This tends to push the melody in a forward, narrative direction rather than bouncing it up and down on a metrical trampoline.
  • It has all kinds of chromatic and dynamic journeys & diversions, which lend drama and emotion to even the simplest repetitive movements
  • Through a variety of means, it retains a nice fat accent on every bar, should you want it, rather than every other bar.
But this is ridiculous - valid and true though all those reasons are, the main thing is that it's one of the most sumptuous, glorious waltzes I know, and in just three pages, it goes on a musical journey that makes you feel you've gone round the world to get home. The turnaround from the middle section into the reprise would be one of my first choices on Desert Island Modulations. Far from thinking 'Oh god, how many more groups are there?' during the exercise, you hope that there will be enough groups to allow you to do the whole thing, favourite modulations included. And if you can, it turns what is superficially a repetitive exercise into what seems like a wonderful story. 
This is day 23 in my 2007 Advent Calendar. This year, I'm giving the story behind some of the music that I've collected for ballet classes. All the pieces are on Studio Series Vol. 4 published by RAD

Christmas picture quiz: What London landmark is pictured left? Click on the pic for answer.

Waltzes for ballet class have a number of inherent problems (see? I told you this would be a recurring theme).
  • They are nearly all one-in-a-bar, so if anything steppily significant happens on any other beat, the chances are the beat won't be there in the music to support or give impetus to it
  • They are nearly all effectively in 6/8, and hence tend to waddle and sway (which is why people in Bierkellers sway inanely from side to side). Not much use if you want something to happen on 2, 4, 6 & 8 as well as 1,3, 5 & 7.
  • They tend (and indeed, are intended to) convey the kind of Gemütlichkeit you'd feel if you were an upperclass Austrian in the 19th century. Not much use if you want to be a swashbucklng pirate or contemplate a crime passionel while you jump.
  • They are subject to so many formal constraints that it's difficult to depart from well-worn harmonic paths
That's why this dance with mandolins from Prokofiev's Romeo & Juliet is such a wonderful piece. It's in 3 and in 8 bar phrases, but it avoids all of the problems I've noted above.  Best of all, Prokofiev's harmonic language creates moods and emotions which (excuse the pun) strike a chord, but at last, after all that waltz schmalz, it's a different damn chord.

There's something so clean and edgy about this music, to play it is like opening a window, or taking off a layer of clothing on a hot day. Suddenly, a sissonne isn't just a sissonne, it's a gesture, part of a story. This music gives dignity and style to steps, and to the dancers dancing them - and what more could you ask of dance music?
dawn_in_tooting.jpgThis is day 22 in my 2007 Advent Calendar. This year, I'm giving the story behind some of the music that I've collected for ballet classes. All the pieces are on Studio Series Vol. 4 published by RAD.

By the end of this Advent calendar (sorry to jump back to the barre, by the way, but I forgot this variation ealier), I think there'll be a recurring theme of 'things which are in three but aren't waltzes are much better than waltzes, most of the time'.

This is a prime example.  Instead of just lumbering from one oom-pah to another, this gorgeous, magical variation writes its tune in the air like sparklers swirled by  invisible hands on firework night.  It's so rhythmical and stylishly articulated, you can't help but feel impelled to do things on the music (like a rond de jambe en l'air or two, for example). And yet the metre is all implied by the rhythmic gesture, not by chords which serve the function only of establishing metre (i.e. an 'oom-pah-pah').  It makes your average waltz look like a building where the builders never turned up to take the scaffolding away.

There are a hundred other reasons to include this: it's another example of a piece which is so well known you're tempted not to play it for class, but when do, you wish you'd done it before.

But I have to own up that Coppélia is also a score that I love unconditionally and eternally, as it was one of the first records I ever heard as a child.  I could listen to it and play it every day for the rest of my life, and I wouldn't tire of it. The mazurka happened to be in my  Standard Album of ballet tunes as a child, and I played it so many times that I can still play it from start to finish from memory today. In Music & Movement at school, we had to jiggle around being washing machines to the 'musique des automates' in Act II, which I thought (and still think: I can't help it) was the most thrilling and magical music I'd ever heard, even though it was coming out of a mono speaker on the school radio at 11 o'clock in the morning. There were fleeting chords in the Dawn solo which seemed to express everything I wanted in the world at that age, and if I had to choose eight chords to take with me on Desert Island Chords, I'd be happy if six of them came from this piece.

Medium jump: The Hole in the Wall

This is day 21 in my 2007 Advent Calendar. This year, I'm giving the story behind some of the music that I've collected for ballet classes. All the pieces are on Studio Series Vol. 4 published by RAD.

In my kitchen cupboard I have, or have had, a set of Hungarian chocolate moulds in the shape of hazelnuts; some individual Madeleine moulds, a coconut scraper, an iddly steamer, a packet of petits fours cases, a julienne slicer, a melon baller, a pasta machine, a džezva, a hot-water crust game pie mould, an easter egg mould. Whenever I'm in the kitchen section of a foreign department store, particularly a central European one (they are by far the best), I get an uncomfortable yearning to buy every strange mould, device or implement I can see, just in case.

I'm a bit like this with music for class, too.  When you find something like Purcell's 3/2 Hornpipe from Abdelazer (recorded in the 9th edition of Playford as 'The Hole in the Wall'), you snap it up and put it in the cupboard for those occasions, however rare, when you want to make iddly, bake a Gugelhupf or eviscerate a fresh coconut.

Through lack of use, we have become unaccustomed to the metrical and rhythm patterns of this kind of dance, so you scrabble around trying to make do with ill-fitting polonaises or triple jigs. That's when it's great to be able  to open that bottom drawer, dust off your 3/2 hornpipe and say 'There. I knew I had one somewhere'.  The other way of looking at it is that having a muffin tray is an incentive to make muffins - and having a 3/2 hornpipe to hand (on this CD) might inspire someone to make an enchaînement in 6 on a rainy Sunday afternoon.

It's a pretty tune with an infectious rhythmic bounce, but it's the metric/rhythmic design that I love. It's like the rose window of Winchester Palace in the picture above, which is essentially a triple structure (a star of David) but it seems to conceal its own tripleness the more you look at it. Put that structure with an enchaînement in a six, and you have a little formal miracle in front of your eyes and ears.
This is day 20 in my 2007 Advent Calendar. This year, I'm giving the story behind some of the music that I've collected for ballet classes. All the pieces are on Studio Series Vol. 4 published by RAD.

Medium jumps are, for my taste, the most difficult things to accompany in class. While a medium sized jump for a dancer requires considerable effort, skill & preparation, 'medium' in music is a potentially deadening adjective. Moderato, moderation, moderate, it's like someone saying 'I think we'll just order a small glass each, shall we?' when you're ready for at least a bottle.

Worse still, when it comes to things in triple metre, a 'medium' waltz is just about the worst thing you could play for allegro. It will, quite literally, never get off the ground, and why should it? Waltzes are about turning and gliding, not jumping.

Look in the opera-ballet repertoire of the 19th century, and you find what we were looking for all the time - a nice, bouncy dance in triple metre, at a moderate tempo, but with the same kind of strength & elevation as the jumps that it accompanies.  It's a combination of a lot of factors. Look at this one from I Vespri Siciliani and you see, for example:
  • A solid floor (pedal note in the bass) for the melody to bounce off, rather than the 2-bar shuffle between tonic & dominant you get in a waltz
  • A leaping melodic contour with a large tessitura & and an anacrusis that has considerable welly
  • Occasional implied or real accents on the second or third beats of the bar, which prevents the bass from 'walking'
  • Lots of little acciaccaturas to spice up the melody line
The second half (which no-one ever seems to play) is very ingenious too - the 'cadence' of the first part becomes the beginning of the second tune, so that you feel as if you've suddenly lost a beat, but it all gets paid back in the end, and once you've heard the whole piece, that bar becomes a kind of trompe l'oreille - you can never say whether it's the beginning of something or the end of something - and as it happens, the piece never ends, because it goes straight into

Batterie: Tentação

This is day 19 in my 2007 Advent Calendar. This year, I'm giving the story behind some of the music that I've collected for ballet classes. All the pieces are on Studio Series Vol. 4 published by RAD.

prague_window.jpgTentação by F.L. da Silveira is one of many terrific musical discoveries that happened through force of circumstance. The circumstance here was that I originally wanted to record one of my favourite tangos ever, El Firulete, by Jose Basso in the place now occupied by Tentação. I first heard El Firulete on the The Story of Tango (it's fantastic - still one of my favourite tango CDs), and spent a long time, as always, taking it down by dictation from the CD ( in Prague, summer of 2004 - mid-dictation I noticed the sun setting on the church outside my window, and took the picture you see on the left) and working out a version on the piano, trying it out in class, until I was happy.  It works brilliantly for the kind of batterie that needs what Chris calls 'hot potato' music - in other words, everything just off the beat, or barely touching it; edge of the beat, edge of your chair.

When it comes to a recording, although there are variations according to genre, you need a score, otherwise you run into problems of potential copyright infringement. Weeks before the recording, I located a shop in Buenos Aires that had the sheet music, and ordered it over the internet. It didn't come. I emailed them, they apologised, said they'd send it again, it still didn't come.  Tragic - one of the only internet transactions I've ever known that didn't work out. 

So only days before the recording, I needed to replace this wonderful piece with something similar. But where from? The whole point about El Firulete is that it's got a tempo and a character all of its own, and I'd chosen it out of hundreds.  But then, as I described under Herminia, I found this book of Brazilian Tangos, and a whole world opened up that I didn't know existed. As it happened, it was a world full of pieces like El Firulete to the point where it was difficult to choose at first, though Tentação soon became a favourite.

I'd never quite got the connection between ragtime, tango & quadrilles until I saw this book, and nor had I (to my shame) encountered the terms cinquillo & tresillo until I read them in the introduction; and that opened up yet another wonderful avenue of research.  I still love El Firulete to bits, and will keep trying to get the score in time for the next recording, but I have to be grateful to the postal service for failing to deliver this time, because Brazilian Tangos was such a fantastic find.

Petit allegro: Czerny etude

karlovmost.jpgThis is day 18 in my 2007 Advent Calendar. This year, I'm giving the story behind some of the music that I've collected for ballet classes. All the pieces are on Studio Series Vol. 4 published by RAD

Riisager's Etudes, a gorgeous, colourful orchestral score based on Czerny studies, and composed for Harald Lander's ballet of the same name, has come to be one of my favourite ballet scores.  I don't think I know a single dancer who doesn't love this music, and I think I'm probably right in saying that if there were such a thing as the perfect music for class, this would probably be it. Hearing dancers talk about why Etudes works, and why they like it has been one of the most instructive experiences as a ballet accompanist.

It's also helped me to appreciate Czerny as someone who's a lot more fun than I used to give him credit for. That's the genius of Riisager's score. He unveils Czerny as someone with a sense of humour, with dance and fun bubbling through his musical veins even in the most gruelling technical exercises. 

One of the reasons that Czerny works so well for class is that once he's started a rhythmic pattern, he's like a child on a spacehopper, lurching around the place bumping into things and setting off in another direction, gaining dangerous momentum until he comes to some crashing finish.  As good as other music might be for class, most composers think that there's a virtue in avoiding repetition, and hence go off in new directions which might be interesting musically but doesn't help for a dance exercise.

The Etude Op. 335 Book 1 No. 19 (E major) is a perfect example. It does in music what feet do in little jumps, and so you get a hundred little landings on the piano keyboard just as you do on the studio floor. I don't know any other music that works quite like this. The glorious thing is that Czerny wrote enough of this stuff to make another 100 ballets like Etudes, as I discovered when I dug out four volumes of studies I'd never seen before at the University of London a few years ago [see previous entry  'The joy of libraries & My mate Czerny']
This is day 17 in my 2007 Advent Calendar. This year, I'm giving the story behind some of the music that I've collected for ballet classes. All the pieces are on Studio Series Vol. 4 published by RAD

Some enchaînements, particularly pointe ones, seem to need music which is potentially rather dull -  carefully articulated, restrained and with a constant feeling of being 'under tempo'. This little mandolin number from Prokofiev's Romeo  & Juliet saves the day, because all those qualities are part of what makes it special.  Hot and sour Thai chicken soup is delicious; a hot and sour milkshake is a catastrophe.

There's something endlessly satisfying and engaging about playing music like this. It's so simple that any minor carelessness - lapses of timing, articulation or dynamics - show up immediately, like trying to eat spaghetti bolognese in a wedding dress. In fact it's a lesson in the value of simplicity and understatement, and waiting for the right moment to slip in something unusual; in having the courage to write E major chords if E major chords are what works (rather than thinking 'E major's so last year'). There is such clear, pure, cool air in this music that you can feel yourself creating the atmosphere Prokofiev wanted after only half a bar of the introduction.

That's what perhaps makes this music most effective for class - it has the capacity to create instant magic and atmosphere, like stepping outside on a winter's day and taking your first intake of bracing cold air.  So much in class conspires against that happening, that when you find a key to that door, you use it.
daria_nutcracker.jpgThis is day 16 in my 2007 Advent Calendar. This year, I'm giving the story behind some of the music that I've collected for ballet classes. All the pieces are on Studio Series Vol. 4 published by RAD

I first heard this piece on an LP that I bought from a mechanical music museum in Cornwall when I was a teenager.  Having a passion for the music made by pianolas, reproducing pianos, orchestrions, fairground organs and so on, I listened to it over & over again, until I knew every section of every song - including this one - by heart. In those pre-iPod days, if you had one album like this you were lucky, and you listened to it until you'd worn the grooves into a trench.

And so whereas most people only know how to shriek the 'RAOUL ART THE BOWEL' bit of the chorus, I'm afraid that right from the start, I knew the entire preamble, which is in fact about three times the length of the chorus, and just as worth listening to. The truth is that it originally never was a chorus, and never was a cockney pub song, but the final section of a brass band piece by the Czech composer Jaromír Vejvoda  called Modřanská Polka (see my earlier entry for a history of the song).

The motoric jollity of Vejvoda's music makes for good diagonal turn or fouetté music, and for UK dancers has the additional comic effect of being the kind of thing they sing around the piano at Christmas in the Queen Vic. I might have thought twice about putting it on this album were that the only layer of meaning attached to it, but it so happens that a few years ago I played this for a company class at the National Theatre in Prague and all the Czech dancers who'd been relatively quiet and focused for the barre suddenly turned round with a huge smile. 

It was Daria Klimentová who explained that the reason for this was not because they'd all got satellite TV and tuned into the Eastenders Christmas special every year, but because Škoda lásky (as Roll Out the Barrell is known in Czech - though the Czech song, about 'wasted love', isn't the barrel of laughs that the English lyrics portray is a very famous Czech song, and indeed, in 2000, was voted the most popular Czech song of the 20th century. You play this music with a different kind of love and attention when you know that. It turns out the Daria knows all the Czech words, too, which is one of the less obvious reasons why her picture graces this blog entry.

Pirouettes: Souvenir de Bal

souvenir.jpgThis is day 15 in my 2007 Advent Calendar. This year, I'm giving the story behind some of the music that I've collected for ballet classes. All the pieces are on Studio Series Vol. 4 published by RAD

For another story behind this piece, see a previous entry.

At first glance, this is just another Victorian salon piece, plucked from obscurity when it was used as an alternate variation in the Corsaire pas de deux (for a history of how it got there, see Mr Lopez's wikipedia page on the subject).

But only at first glance. Either I'm suggestible, or this piece really does do what the title says.  The simple three-note rising melody is one that appears as a countermelody, rising or falling, in probably thousands of waltzes. Nearly every Piaf waltz-song has one, the waltz from Tchaikovsky's Evgenii Onegin has one, Marlene Dietrich songs are full of them.

So when that generic countermelody becomes the tune, it might remind us of any number of half-remembered waltz fragments without necessarily remembering what the actual tune was, which is just what a 'souvenir de bal' should do.  It's also stated in a harmonically unstable form, beginning on a 2nd inversion of the dominant, quietly, and with a long anacrusis. It quite literally drifts in to our consciousness.  And that first chord is rather lovely, isn't it? If any chord said 'warm, wistful smile', that's the one.  Add all this to the fact that hearing the music will bring back memories of the Corsaire variation done by someone you admire at a performance that you really enjoyed, and the whole souvenir de bal(let) thing becomes even stronger.

Beyond that, it's also a waltz that bears playing slowly, because it's supposed to be a memory of something rather than the thing itself.  It's also just very, very simple in construction, and leaves space for dancing, which is one of the biggest compliments you can pay dance music.

Pirouettes: Schön Rosmarin

This is day 14 in my 2007 Advent Calendar. This year, I'm giving the story behind some of the music that I've collected for ballet classes. All the pieces are on Studio Series Vol. 4 published by RAD

One of the most enjoyable jobs I've ever had was working with Wayne Sleep on his Dash to the Coliseum which ran for a week at the Coliseum in August 1998.  I'd just finished a 44-show tour with him (Wayne Sleep's World of Classical Ballet, which one dancer quickly nicknamed 'Wayne's World', of course); we got off the bus and threw on a 50th birthday gala at Her Majesty's, and then it was straight into rehearsals for Dash.

The show included impressions of some of the early variety ballet numbers - the Wilson Kepple & Betty Sand Dance, a Lois Fuller solo, a comedy routine by Little Tich & Anna Pavlova's  "Dragonfly" solo, created - as in the original - to Fritz Kreisler's waltz 'Schön Rosmarin'. It was one of those ideas of Wayne's that make you think 'You want to do what?!" until you see it - and then you don't know how you lived without it.

I have never seen anyone - even Wayne - work so fast. We were in the old Urdang studios after lunch, with just 45 minutes to put the Pavlova number together. Gary Harris ('Fido'), now AD of Royal New Zealand Ballet was standing in the corner, notating Wayne's steps in Benesh faster than a PA does shorthand. After 44 minutes, Wayne said 'Have you got that? OK, gotta go...' and he was off to create another number upstairs, leaving Fido to then teach & rehearse the solo again from his instant Benesh. I'd never seen anything quite like it before, nor since. The combined talent, genius, comedy & speed was overwhelming.

Both Wayne & Fido are extremely musical, and so they wove the Kreisler-ish rubato of Schön Rosmarin into the solo in a way which made it possible to play the music with as much expressive timing as you wanted - a wonderful but sadly rather rare experience - probably down to the fact that people so often choreograph to recordings where tempo - even free tempo - is fixed.

I've since discovered that if you pick your exercise carefully, this waltz, with all it's tempo give-and-take, makes a wonderful piece for some pirouettes for the corner.  It's warm & charming, and just dances itself off the page. It has an infectious rhythm & bounce, but you can entwine all the wayward quavers around the dancer in a way which is beautifully musical; it allows them time and freedom to breathe, but measures that freedom imperceptibly; the fact that the quavers never stop means that there is also always a forward momentum which impels them into the next movement. There are enough notes in the melody that you can fashion each phrase for dancers individually, making it a joy to accompany them. This is just one example of many where dance can look 'unmusical' until you find the right piece of music. 

Pirouettes: Redowa from l'Étoile du Nord

This is day 13 in my 2007 Advent Calendar. This year, I'm giving the story behind some of the music that I've collected for ballet classes. All the pieces are on Studio Series Vol. 4 published by RAD

One of the worst experiences in playing for ballet classes is when a teacher has set an exercise for which you can find no suitable music, but as a pianist, you can't just say 'It's OK, I'll sit this exercise out, if you don't mind'. No, you just have to play whatever bad rubbish you've got, hating yourself, the music & the exercise as you go. It's like being stuck in a queue behind someone who can't find their Nectar card, but feeling as bad as that person at the same time.

Top of my list of audio nasties is the excruciating slow but butch waltz for pirouettes that some (particularly male) teachers sometimes use - imagine the male solo from Don Quixote slowed down to half speed. How on earth do you maintain any kind of rhythm, momentum, interest, vigour, elasticity in music at that tempo? If you slow a waltz down, it sounds ghastly; yet the exercise is too fast to be replaced by a polonaise, too slow for a mazurka, and even La plus que lente wouldn't be lente enough, and has completely the wrong feel.

Well, just as Herminia solved my fondu-tango problem, so the Redowa from Meyerbeer's l'Étoile du Nord, featured in Ashton's Les Patineurs, solved the 'waltz' problem. The problem is that what's required isn't a waltz, so as soon as you start thinking 'waltz', you're already on the wrong track. The 'redowa', polka mazurka and ländler are what Zorn calls 'three step waltzes', and don't figure in most people's musical education at all - how can you know that a redowa would fit an exercise when you've never come across one or see how they work?

Such things - elaborate, filigree melody lines strung tautly between the main beats of the bar, creating strength and  resilience without the need for force or extra weight - like lily pads, perhaps - are difficult to improvise off the cuff, because there is just too much detail at high speed. The Redowa from l'Étoile du Nord is a wonderful piece, with such variety in each section that it makes a long exercise a pleasure to play for because you can look forward to different parts of the musical landscape. It gives pirouettes much a more interesting dynamic and feel than a bog standard waltz. I only wish I'd discovered it earlier.

 * Zorn, F. , trans. B.P. Coates (1970) Grammar of the Art of Dancing, theoretical and practical. [Burt Franklin research and source works series, 543] New York: Burt Franklin. [Translation of Grammatik der Tanzkunst]

Friedrich Zorn (1820-1905) was a dancing master, who lived - as you can see by the dates - right through all the significant dance crazes of the 19th century, and is therefore an expert eye witness, as well as a methodical and detailed documenter of dances and styles. The Grammatik der Tanzkunst was first published in 1887, and is a fantastic source of just about anything you want to know about 19th century social dance and its music - in other words, the huge gaping hole in most music texts books, despite the enormous influence of these dances on our musical life.

museeinsel.jpgThis is day 12 in my 2007 Advent Calendar. This year, I'm giving the story behind some of the music that I've collected for ballet classes. All the pieces are on Studio Series Vol. 4 published by RAD

I count the day that I first saw this variation as a curious kind of watershed in my experience of ballet.  Given that I'd been playing for dance for about 10 years before I saw it, the shock was on a similar scale to discovering that your partner liked cross-dressing and having cream buns thrown at them when your back was turned.

It was the dancer Yoko Ichino in Berlin who first introduced me to it, and that rehearsal stands out as one of my favourite and most memorable times in a studio. I played a few bars of it (on paper, it's just a fairly straightforward looking 2/4 in C minor - but that should have been a clue: how many 19th century female variations can you name in a minor key? And what are they?).  Yoko smiled cheekily and said 'It needs to be....' and I can't really remember what she said - stretched? Rubato? Free? Camp? I thought she'd brought the tambourine in for a joke. But then I realised it was part of the solo.

If you haven't seen it, I promise you it's the silliest campest, weirdest variation you're likely to see, and once I'd seen it, I was convinced that every pianist should have to accompany this solo in the first week of working in dance so they know just how much fun ballet can be. I felt like they'd kept this variation hidden from me (and it's true that you hardly ever see it in England). If all you've ever done is accompany Swan Lake pas de trois or Lilac Fairy attendants, you get a very skewed view of what 19th century ballet is, like a history of 20th century film that doesn't include the Police Academy or American Pie movies.

Ever since I saw the effect that playing this has on a company class (without fail, someone somewhere does ballet comedy - big butch boys do the solo, or the girls add imaginary tambourine slaps to the exercise, for example) I've had to restrain myself from playing it for every class. As it happens, it works terribly well for a lot of exercises, because it's got so much elasticity and weight without being heavy, and it's one of those solos where the musicality of the interpretation is so important, it makes everyone focus on that whatever you play it for.

Until a few weeks ago, I thought like everyone else that it was by Drigo. The magnificent Mr Lopez who's done all the excellent work on Petipa & Minkus at wikipedia has shown otherwise - it's actually by Marenco, of 'Excelsior' fame. I might have known....

Stretch (or whatever): Gymnopédie No 1

jo.jpgThis is day 11 in my 2007 Advent Calendar. This year, I'm giving the story behind some of the music that I've collected for ballet classes. All the pieces are on Studio Series Vol. 4 published by RAD

[Picture: Josephine Jewkes in Les Sylphides, Photo: Elizabeth Pacey]

When we made the very first Studio Series album back in 1999, we had to arrange two short recording sessions after the main one to add some extra tracks that we hadn't foreseen at the start. At the end of the second one, there was still some time left, both in the session and on the recording. On impulse, I said 'Let's put the Prelude from Les Sylphides on bang in the middle, as a kind of musical transition from barre to centre'.  It was a kind of statement - ballet class albums are so much about 'functional' music - music to use, music to do stuff to, music for something, in a prescribed order using long-standing convention;  why not, while we've got the chance, throw something in there that will just be there for what it is, that defies 'usage' in the normal sense? It might be the track that no-one knows what to do with except listen to it or waft around to, but that would be No Bad Thing.

Although Les Sylphides is one of the ballets which defines ballet for most people - lush orchestrations of Chopin waltzes, wafty tutus and moonlit glades - it achieves this effect through means which are far less conventional than might appear at first, and nowhere more so than in the Prelude. I've been worryingly obsessed by this solo ever since I had the privilege of playing it in performance with former ENB & Rambert dancer Josephine Jewkes (see photo above), who, in the words of Woytek Lowski, regularly 'ruined' performances of Les Sylphides by doing it so well that it made the rest of the show look pants. It's not about technique in the traditional sense, it's about embodying the mystery and other-wordliness of the ballet and drawing an audience into it.  Jo did this so well, that the image of the Prelude was still resonating long after the finale had finished. She very kindly agreed to come to the RAD to teach the solo to my second year music students a few years ago, and that class counts as one of the most fascinating insights into dance and music that I can remember.  Boy, does she know her stuff.

So on to the CD it went, with no explanation, no introduction, and no prescribed usage, and at a speed and delivery that you could only waft, choreograph or dream to.

And in the same spirit, when we came to record Studio Series 4 this year, I decided to put on Satie's Gymnopédie No. 1 in the same place (between barre and centre), for the same reason. There are times when you want music to just be music. If it weren't for those moments, no-one would ever choreograph or be inspired to dance, so it seems fitting that in the midst of all those exercises, there should be a chance to dream. And if you want music to stretch to, it ought to be something like a Gymnopédie, whose phrases hang in the air like mist, seemingly never beginning or ending, but with an intoxicating rhythm that is both regular yet pulseless, measured yet free.


This is day 9 in my 2007 Advent Calendar. This year, I'm giving the story behind some of the music that I've collected for ballet classes. All the pieces are on Studio Series Vol. 4 published by RAD

Elizabeth Sawyer, in her book about dance accompaniment Dance With The Music tells a story about Antony Tudor disparaging a pianist who dared to play the theme tune to 'Around the World in Eighty Days' in his class. To paraphrase, it was a case of 'play that vulgar stuff again once more mate, and you're out'. 

The story doesn't endear me to Tudor, and if it's as bad as it sounds, in my view it's the Shibboleth that refuses him (and others like him) entry to any league that includes Balanchine, Mark Morris, Bob Fosse, Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein, Shostakovich and the friends and colleagues that you'll find in these advent calendars.  All these people seem to have an easy, earthy connection to the popular - what Constant Lambert, in Music Ho! called 'healthy vulgarity' , while being able to create and appreciate the most complex, esoteric and sublime art. My own friend & composition teacher Malcolm Williamson (see previous entries) was a perfect example.

Ich wollt' ich wär' ein Huhn is the heartening proof, I think, that you can't get too serious about music for class exercises. It's a silly song - silly tune, silly lyrics, silly speed, silly rhythm (all those things need to work together for the full comic effect), but for all that, it usually matches a typical petits battements exercise 'word for word'.  My point? If you want music for an exercise that goes that speed, with that phrase structure, that articulation, those dynamics and that rhythm, then don't blame me if you end up with Ich woll't ich wär' ein Huhn. Or Stick A Deckchair Up Your Nose. Or My Old Man's A Dustman. Or Officer Krupke.

If you want anything more subtle or serious, you've got a bit of a problem, because everything that implies comedy and popular song is already in the exercise itself. Likewise, Tchaikovsky's Mirlitons from The Nutcracker was just waiting for someone to write 'Everyone's a fruit and nut case' because everything about that tune suggests 'comic song'. The fact that people still sing those words to that tune is not proof of 21st century man's shallowness and lack of respect for art, it's evidence of Tchaikovsky's humanity and understanding of the genre he was writing in.
This is day 8 in my 2007 Advent Calendar. This year, I'm giving the story behind some of the music that I've collected for ballet classes. All the pieces are on Studio Series Vol. 4 published by RAD

I hate being asked who my favourite composer is. For one thing, the kind of people who ask the question usually won't have heard of the likely contenders. In any case, as a working musician, it's your duty and pleasure to love whichever composer you're playing at the moment (see footnote), like an arranged marriage that works out for the best.

But if I had to choose one, I suppose it would be Shostakovich.  He does comedy, tragedy, irony, melody, harmony, structure, pathos, vulgarity and everything that lies between with a voice that feels so direct and familiar, it's as if this was the music that I would write if I only could.

When I discovered a few years ago that Shostakovich had written, of all things, a musical, I was as overjoyed as someone might be to discover that Shakespeare had written a bodice ripper. Moskva Cheryomushki isn't exactly a musical, 'operetta' or 'review' might be nearer, but that's immaterial - it's the fact that you could get Shostakovich distilled into a popular stage work that was exciting. 

I thought I'd never get the chance to hear it, but as it happened, it was only a couple of years later that the first recording came out (the one in the picture above) and I bought it immediately, and fellow Shostakovich fan Christopher Hampson & I cracked open a bottle or three of something and played our favourite bits over and over again, one of which was the 'Excursion Around Moscow'.

A few years later, Russian music expert & composer Gerard McBurney re-arranged it for Opera North at Sadler's Wells, and I think that counts as one of my favourite nights out in the theatre ever (and I don't often enjoy them, to be honest).  From the moment the curtain went up, you were just swept up in a whirlwind of Shostakovich madness. Neither Rozhdestvennsky's recording or the Kirov's semi-staged production at the Coliseum last year come anywhere near.  It's what you would expect, really - I'd worked with Gerard on his ballet for ENB, White Nights, and knew him to be one of the greatest experts on Russian music. Go and listen to his programmes on Sleeping Beauty and The Rite of Spring on BBC Radio 3's Discovering Music - they're brilliant.

The extract of 'The Excursion Around Moscow' on Studio Series 4 must be the longest frappé exercise in the history of ballet (though you could use it for loads of other things too), but the whole point about this piece is the way it just carries on and on and on, unstoppable in its momentum, energy and humour. It's musical madness. It's too fast, too long, and to play feels like doing ballet on a trampoline. And Shostakovich's command of popular music is breathtaking - you bounce happily up and down the scale once, then twice, then all of a sudden, you find yourself thrown into a harmonic double back-flip at the end of the phrase, and crash land back in the tonic to start again. But then you're thrown into another key, and so on until you're exhausted; and then there's more, and more and more. The few times I've played this in class, it has an equally exhilarating effect on the dancers, and that's why it's on the CD.

Footnote: 'Herr Still,'  a conductor once said to me with a puzzled sideways smirk as  he conducted me through waved his hands dismissively (like a customs controller who doesn't want to see the contents of your bag) through  the finale of Paquita in a dress rehearsal one day, 'You play this music as if you enjoy it. Why?!!'
'Because it's my job', I said under my breath, but the irony would have been lost on him.  It's strange but true that 'serious' musicians think that playing popular music in a slapdash, bored way will reflect badly on the composer, rather than on them. Minkus and his ilk has had this treatment from most academics and critics for a long time (by coincidence,  Chris Hampson's blog entry for today touches on this very point).

Fondu: Herminia (Tango)

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dontdance.jpgThis is day 7 in my 2007 Advent Calendar. This year, I'm giving the story behind some of the music that I've collected for ballet classes. All the pieces are on Studio Series Vol. 4 published by RAD.

There's a wonderful bit in Russell Brand's My Booky Wook (which I couldn't put down, and read in about a day and a half) where he talks about the delightful, unconsciously strange speech of kids who've been bought up by their nan - their turns of phrase have skipped a generation, so they come out with things like 'we're in for a cold snap'.

I've come to believe that something similar happens in the world of ballet teaching with music - some of the rhythms and tempos of the music that  ballet teachers choose for exercises are part of an unconscious oral tradition. How else do explain that even the youngest teachers almost naturally incline, when setting a pirouette exercises, to the musical attributes of the old ballroom mazurkas or polka mazurkas, even though these are no more part of their immediate experience than gaslight or farthingales?

I used to get annnoyed with ballet teachers who asked for tangos for fondu exercises which were slower than any tango they or I had ever heard. I wanted to say "Go on, find me one like that, and I'll play it! Bet you won't, though!".  But after I discovered things like the Redowa which matched the equally impossibly slow 'waltzes' that some teachers wanted, I began to wonder whether somewhere, there was a historical instance of the slow tango which was the basis for the 'fondu tango'.  I had a theory that  perhaps it was all down to  Godowsky's  arrangement of the Albeniz Tango (if ever there was a case of 'hard cases make bad law' in the world of music, this is it!).  I had another theory that maybe what they really meant was a kind of Czardas (like Monti's Czardas) - which does work equally well, as it happens.

But then, in the middle of last year, I was in Kensington Chimes, and happened upon a book called Tango: An Album of Brazilian Dances, and in there was the delicious Herminia by the extravagantly named Julio Cezar do Lago Reis, a tango which would bear playing as slow as you like, without losing any of its innate slinky charm. The whole book, in fact, is a revelation (as you'll read when I come to Tentaçao later), as exciting for me as a new set of Parish records turning up for a genealogist.  Could it be that this is the missing link that connects the 'fondu tango' of the ballet class to a real musical tradition? And if so, how did it happen?
This is day 6 in my 2007 Advent Calendar. This year, I'm giving the story behind some of the music that I've collected for ballet classes. All the pieces are on Studio Series Vol. 4 published by RAD.
I like this piece for two reasons.

Firstly, it's another illustration of the Keep It Simple principle - this is one of those pieces that I spent years (nearly decades) avoiding for class because it is so well known.  But it's precisely because it's so well known that it's a good choice.

When you happen on a really good invention (like those mirrors in Japanese hotel bathrooms that have a face-sized rectangle in the middle that never steams up after you've used the shower) you tut-tut and say 'Now why didn't I think of that?!' Well, famous bits of famous bits of music are a bit like that. They're so deeply and clearly etched in everyone's brain that it's invigorating. This particular one is so darn simple, it's almost ridiculous - but it takes courage and flair to be that simple. Think 'Vindaloo' or 'I'm a Barbie Girl' - they didn't get to the top 10 because of their retrograde inversions or metrical dissonance.

Secondly, I like the fact that this Galop is a perfect example of what the 19th century galop is, and that those kinds of galops are just wonderful for exercises where other music simply doesn't do the trick. True galops have a little 'kick' on the first beat (diddy-DUH DUH DUH, diddy-DUH-DUH-DUH) which create a forward propulsion at the same time as a very compulsive but steady beat. If you hold the Giselle one up like one of those ultra-violet banknote checkers and test other examples (Gottschalk's Tournament Galop, for example) you begin to see the family resemblance. And the funny thing is, even though these are little dances from 19th century ballrooms, they still get people going because they have the all the right ingredients of dance music. 

This was just a vague feeling & unformed thought in my mind, until I read a brilliant paper called From Refrain to Rave: The Decline of Figure and the Rise of Ground' by that wonderful musicologist Philip Tagg   which gave me some clues as to why, possibly, those funny old galops, polkas and other dances still get your juices going. I admire Tagg's work so much because he studies the things that people spend the most time listening to (which most academics think are too simple, popular or uncool to be worthy of study). We could do worse than adopt the same principle with ballet music - and study Pugni or Minkus, for a change, rather than Tchaikovsky.

Glissés: Don Quixote overture

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This is day 5 in my 2007 Advent Calendar. This year, I'm giving the story behind some of the music that I've collected for ballet classes. All the pieces are on Studio Series Vol. 4 published by RAD.

There's a certain kind of a 6/8 which doesn't grow on trees. It's not exactly a jig; it's quadrille-like, but maybe a bit slower, and more articulated. It's simple, but not simplistic; it has space for dancing, but a driving rhythm nonetheless. It's repetitive, but in a good way.  It will be old-fashioned, because this rhythm belongs to the social dances of the 19th century, but it will retain it's fun and vigour, and it will sound like a dance, rather than a twee piano piece. But it will also sound balletic or operatic, and have a sense of drama.

Enter Minkus, the composer the critics despised until jollity became fashionable again. Minkus is another composer that Suki Schorer says was favoured by Balanchine for class - because he's simple & appropriate.  I was quite surprised to read that at first, but it makes perfect sense - Balanchine knew what he was talking about when it came to music.  So it didn't come as any surprise when Christopher Hampson, another choreographer of musical genius, suggested the overture to the second act of Don Quixote for a glissé exercise - I didn't know it (who but a choreographer listens to an overture?), but once I did, I found it was the magic answer to many, many exercises that had seemed problematic before. It is the finest example of that elusive  6/8 I described in the first paragraph. It's interesting that Prokofiev got this feeling so right for the Ugly Sisters quadrille-like dance in Cinderella. I think he knew who to parody.

Incidentally, you might like to read Chris's own Advent Calendar over on his blog. Each day, he reveals one of his favourite ballets, and explains how it got on to his top 25 list. Fascinating.

Tendu: Giselle pas de deux

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This is day 4 in my 2007 Advent Calendar. This year, I'm giving the story behind some of the music that I've collected for ballet classes. All the pieces are on Studio Series Vol. 4 published by RAD.

I used to think Giselle was a stupid  score - boring, sub-Beethoven, too slow, harmonically dull, and childish.  It only took me 20 years to love and cherish it, and to understand just how hard it is to play effectively.

It was Nina Brzorádová at the International Ballet Masterclasses in Prague who first suggested to me the famous D-major pas de deux music for, of all things, a tendu exercise.  Very Balanchine, very articulated and very musical.  It had never occurred to me to do it before, but it works like a dream. Space, elasticity, different articulations, expectation; it's well known, and well loved.  You can play with it, the dancers can play with it. It's quiet, it's controlled, gentle, with boundless possibilities for phrasing and tempo changes. 

It's the space, above all. Like most musicians, I came to ballet wanting to play as many notes as I could to show that I could play and to keep my fingers occupied. It took years to realise that you have to leave space for the dancing to happen. This is the perfect piece - there's more space than notes! -  and that's why Adam knew what he was doing when he wrote it.

Pliés 3: Mon Dieu

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This is day 3 in my 2007 Advent Calendar. This year, I'm giving the story behind some of the music that I've collected for ballet classes. All the pieces are on Studio Series Vol. 4 published by RAD.

It took me quite a while to work out (and I'm grateful to the dancers who explained it to me) that the reason that dancers look so pissed off during pliés is not because you're playing so badly (though it could happen) but because they've got worries of their own, like a hangover from the night out after the show; the fact that they hate class, or at least starting it; they're sore; they've had an argument with the director. Basically, that sour-faced look is to do with everything except the music or the pianist.

That's why plié music has to be so full-on in one way or another - funny, sad, aspirational, glorious, famous, too loud (no, actually that's not on, think of the hangovers), too soft  - if it's going to lift anyone out of their stupor. 

I always promised myself that I would one day record Mon Dieu (written by Charles Dumont and  Michel Vaucaire and sung by Edith Piaf) as a tribute to my friend and mentor Woytek Lowski, who of all people would have appreciated the choice.  It's so completely bursting at the seams with helpless, hopeless passion verging on madness, that it's totally 'wrong' for an exercise so traditionally associated with creaking knees and rolling eyes. Which is why it's so totally right, too. It took me nearly 10 years from having the idea to getting it on CD, not least because I could never quite tell whether it was in 3 or 4. 

There's an odd rider to the story. On a recent trip to Tokyo, they were showing the recent film about Edith Piaf, La Vie en Rose. As a gushing Piaf fan, I fully expected to be a heap of jelly by the time the opening credits had finished, but as much as I enjoyed the film, it wasn't quite the tearful apotheosis of my Piaf-adoration that I had expected.  Searching through the other films on offer, there was one I was certain I wasn't going to watch, Flying Scotsman, about the cyclist Graeme Obree.  But then I ran out of things to watch, and so I started to give it a go because it had Jonny Lee Miller in it.  And strangely, Flying Scotsman, this bizarre film about a Scottish cyclist that promised so little on the page moved me to tears and goosebumps more than any scene or song from La Vie en Rose.

Advent calendar 2007

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If you can call three years running a tradition, then I'd like to welcome you my traditional 'Advent Calendar'.  This started in 2005 as a little project to acknowledge the people of the dance world that I variously admire, love, or owe something to, and want to push up in the Google stakes - as I've said before, it's a terrible and misshapen world where people think that if they can't find you on Google, you don't exist, or don't matter. In 2006 the advent calendar took the form of a ballet class, with each piece of music relating to one of my dance heroes from the year before (and related to the Christmas Day Menu).

This year, I've decided to give a guided tour through some of the music that I've selected & played on the Studio Series CDs that I've contributed to at the Royal Academy of Dance where I work. Someone once told me that I wasn't like the dance musicians she knew, because most of them tended to be quite quiet, insular people who kept themselves to themselves whereas I was more talkative.  It's a terrible habit for a ballet pianist, but I just can't help myself. When Susie Cooper asked for something from Coppélia the other day, I couldn't help myself saying 'Did you know that St Léon lived with Minkus in a flat in St Petersburg?'  I even had the cheek to delay the start of one of Mark Morris's exercises to tell him that Meyerbeer's Le Prophète, part of which I had just been playing, was the first opera to incorporate roller skates (although I note that they were used in a ballet in Berlin in 1818).  It's one of the reasons I love playing for him and his dancers that they found this interesting.

But not everyone does, and so in an effort to shut myself up and let people get on and dance, and for those who like the back-story to what they're dancing to on some of the CDs I've made, here it is, Advent Calendar 2007.

This time last week, I was lecturing in Tokyo, but it already feels like two months ago. It was such a lightning visit (oh, how I loved telling people I was going to Tokyo 'for the weekend') that I hardly had a chance to take any pictures at all. However, for those who want all the details, no matter how trivial, go and have a look at my Tokyo 2007 gallery

Prague 2007

DSC02575.JPGIt's that time of year again, and I'm no less surprised by the joy of waking up to the view on the left from my appartment window in Prague. I'm here for the 5th year running for the fantastic International Ballet Masterclasses in Prague. My next door neighbours are Maina Gielgud on one side and Sofiane Sylve on the other, so I guess I'd better behave myself.

Enjoying lots of books while I'm here. I finished Kate Atkinson's One Good Turn in a day and half, and feel like I could devour everything she ever wrote - it's the best book I've read in years. Nice to have time to mull slowly through the newly published Cambridge Companion to Ballet, not such a page-turner, but does what it says on the tin - a good companion. It's the appalling irony of academic books, that the target audience usually only has time to skim-read them (and it's an accepted mode of academic life to do so these days, even for students), whereas if they're good, it ought to be illegal not to take a week off on a Greek island to do them justice. Still wish I'd bought another Kate Atkinson, all the same.

Article 19

article19.jpgAlthough it's not a site I read regularly, I've always rather admired the contemporary dance focused Article 19 for being maverick and edgy. On a day like today when I'm updating links on my dance links page I look to see what they're up to.

I'm heartened to see that they haven't lost their nerve. The site keeps growing and uses shiny technology. Their authors speak their mind on arts issues: they've got it in for ACE in particular, and reading between the lines, have annoyed a few people there and other places by refusing to shut up and be pleasant. I don't agree with all the content or style of argument, but there's also plenty that I think desperately needs saying, and they say it loud and clear. Article 19 hits hard, and often below the belt, which might be dangerous and ill-advised, but it's a damned sight more interesting to read, politically engaged and of-the-moment than most dance journalism (to see what they think of some other sites, see Danger Danger Danger).

Their responses to some of the letters to the editor won't make them any friends, but some made me laugh, particularly one to the ACE Arts Debate website, a representative of which invited Article 19 to go and post stuff on their forums. Article 19's response?
"Just by writing the piece Article19 is contributing to supporting the arts along with the several hundred other pages that this particular website has published over the years supporting dance. If you want to have a real debate you know where to find us." (Full letter/response here)

Playing for Mark Morris

Just back from what's turned out to be an annual stint for the last three years, playing for The Mark Morris Dance Group company classes on their flying visits to London. As always, it's the nearest thing I know to music & dance heaven. What a great company. What nice people. What a genius. And how nice to be appreciated - thanks, guys, & looking forward to the next time.

For more on why I love working with Mark Morris, see my old advent calendar entries for 2005 & 2006.

souvenir.jpgFor year's I've been intrigued by the music for the female variation from Le Corsaire (the one with the Italian fouettés at the end), noting that just very occasionally, you see it attributed to Anton Simon (1850-1916) rather than Riccardo Drigo who is the acknowledged as the composer of the pas de deux as a whole. How could one of the most famous solos in the ballet repertoire be so frequently misattributed?

When I wanted to refer to this solo in an article I wrote in 2000 ("Can I have the wrong music please?") I just risked it and called it Anton Simon's Souvenir de Bal, even though I had never seen any proof that this was true, just a single reference on a CD inlay card. The British Library has a book of parlour pieces by Anton Simon which would have settled it one way or another, but it's now 7 years since I wrote the article, and I've never found the time to go there, and search as I might, I've never come across a single piece by Simon anywhere.

And then, I just stumbled across it, literally, as I was sorting some books out at home. (To the torment of friends, family and significant others, I hoard second hand music. I started when I was about 6, and I still can't stop myself). I'd spread the contents of my shelves on the floor to put it into rough alphabetical order, and tripped over an album containing a number of pieces by East European composers, published around 1916 by Edwin Ashdown. Flicking through it to see whether this was a centimetre of shelf-space that I could reclaim for something better, I noticed a Berceuse by Anton Simon. Was there any chance, I thought, that the Souvenir de Bal was in here too? And blow me down, there it was - it's been on my shelves since I was a child - I probably played it once before I knew what it was, if you see what I mean.

So here's a scan of the first page, for the two or three other people in the world that might be as interested as I am to see the proof on paper at last. All credit to the people who've created some marvellous pages on Amazon and Wikipedia and given Simon his due.

Ballet on CD: A guide for performance and listening
MrLopez's pages on Petipa and other topics at wikipedia
Another page by me on things I'm glad I didn't throw away

Another top-drawer entry from Dancerdance: an in-depth interview with Barry Wordsworth (hitherto mainly unpublished material) one of the greats of the ballet conducting world who has recently been appointed Music Director of The Royal Ballet, Covent Garden (see news on

Lots of interesting insights, and a nice change to see someone daring to express an opinion or six about ballet, music and ballet companies in print. For example, here's Wordsworth commenting on the perhaps overwhelming legacy of Constant Lambert:

...there have been other conductors since him [Lambert] who have been equally good. I think of Robert Irving, who got so distressed with the way things were at the Royal Ballet because of this whole thing of” Oh it will ever be as good as it was when Constant was here” so he went off to New York. He found himself a job as a music director. [...]I think that a lot of the frustration that musicians find when working for ballet companies, is this total lack of support from ballet managements. That is why a great many good conductors do not want to touch it with a bargepole."

Buy A Class

buyaclass.jpgI get quite a few people sending me links to add to my Dance Links page. Most of them haven't taken time to read the bit where I say what kind of links I'm looking for, so they just end up in the trash can.

But in the 7 years that I've had that links page, Buy A Class is quite definitely the most interesting, innovative, and future-hugging site I've seen, and I've very grateful for the tip-off to Gunleik Groven who's behind it. It's got everything I love about Web 2.0 and the professional dance world rolled into one, and I wish them every success with it.

pbb_small.jpgIt's been a weekend of coincidences and spooky connectedness. The coincidence is that I spent all day Saturday with Dan as he cheered me on in the Swimathon and helped me celebrate afterwards, and Sunday playing for Rachael Hunt's class at the Phyllis Bedells Bursary. Chris Hampson was one of the judges, and Lynn Wallis (Artistic Director of the RAD) oversaw the whole event. Now who could have foreseen all that when, 14 years ago, Dan, Rachael, Chris & I (among others, of course) were all larking about in the sea off a Greek Island and in the pool of the Hilton in Athens when we were on tour there with ENB? Or that having just done the Swimathon for the first time in the previous year 1992, when all those people sponsored me, I wouldn't do it again until 15 years later, and then see them all on the same weekend?

The Rite of Springing

daffodil.jpgBy happy accident, I stumbled across a wonderful blog entry by Brendan McCarthy on the ritual of ballet class (Thoughts during a ballet class). This expresses eloquently precisely why I have found so much fulfilment from playing for class over the last 20 years. How refreshing to discover that someone so erudite is capable of saying ""I am pleased to surrender to my teachers (of whom more in later blogs), to the counts, to the music, to the shared sense of good work being done."

If there was a secret to the wonderful atmosphere in the classes of John O'Brien, I believe it is because of his attitude which was 'this thing [i.e. dance & music] is bigger than all of us' - in other words, class is not a place for everyone to jostle for position or importance, but somewhere to join in the celebration of something bigger and greater. Those who claim that ballet classes are all 'command style' teaching and therefore automatically bad and un-PC, fail to understand the ritual nature of class, and that the great teachers surrender to the music and to the expectations of the art form as much as their students in a process which can be selfless and democratic. By contrast, those who congratulate themselves on being good 'teachers' in the conventional sense of the word, leave out one vital part of being a good ballet teacher, which is humbly to be part of the class themselves.

The Condors

p2.gifBriefly: To the Sadler's Wells last night to see The Condors, a Japanese all-male dance troupe with the reputation of being the Japanese Monty Python of dance. For once, a show lived up to its publicity. I'm not exagerrating when I say this was the funniest, strangest, most entertaining, novel dance show I've ever seen. I laughed til I cried almost without a break, and we all left the theatre bubbling with excitement and enthusiasm. I even gained a new enthusiasm for Guns N' Roses. There were elements of Monty Python, but the humour was more contemporary than that - they were like the Green Wing, South Park and Smack the Pony of dance.

"By injecting humour into contemporary dance they have gone somewhere most western choreographers fear to tread." says the Sadlers Wells blurb about them. It's the age old question - why can't contemporary dance have a sense of humour? Well now it has (though I now fully expect some contemporary dance person to say the Condors aren't a contemporary dance company).

The Condors Website (in Japanese)

Dance accompaniment in the news!

Keys to the ballet: Ramona Pansegrau takes her seat as music director of the Kansas City Ballet.

Heartening to see an article devoted to the joys, skills and triumphs of a ballet accompanist. Ramona sounds like our kinda girl.

Young classical choreographers

As some of my dancing friends reach their early thirties, I often wonder at what point the press will cease to call them 'young' or 'upcoming'. But I've discovered that if you want the secret of eternal youth, subscribe to the Dancing Times. For the princely sum of £1 (which was a lot of money once, I guess) you can get a 'Dance Study Supplement' from their bookshop called "Young Classical Choreographers". The list in full comprises David Bintley, Michael Corder, Ashley Page, Graham Lustig, Susan Crow, Jennifer Jackson, Jonathan Burrows, and Michael Pink.

Without wishing to be ageist or insensitive to those stellar figures of the dance world, I am sure that last time I looked most, if not all of them, were quite definitely pushing 40 from the wrong side.

To order your copy of this fascinating document, visit the Dancing Times Education page. "Dancing Times makes every effort to keep abreast of changes in dance in education", they assure us.

Music to have a coup d'état by

"During the 1991 coup attempt in Russia...Moscow TV programmes gave way to a looped broadcast of Swan Lake. [...] the coup collapsed two days later amid mass protests and divided military loyalties" Fun facts about music for coups from the New Statesman.

Raymonda revisited

"From Saracens to Socialites" is an interesting article in The Australian about Stephen Baynes' new production of Raymonda for Australian Ballet which opens in Melbourne on Tuesday. Corrie Perkin in The Australian very astutely explores the many contradictions of this can't-live-with-it / can't-live-without-it ballet. I've loved and hated it in almost equal measure, so the idea that someone has the courage to rescue it from its problems is good news.

Hello Kitri

There are machines selling cold drinks like these on almost every street corner. They'd be vandalised or be covered in corporate logos if they were in London (and of course, they wouldn't work)Hello from Tokyo, where I landed this morning to give a course on dance accompaniment. Of the many things that I'm already liking about the city, it's these colourful machines on nearly every street corner that sell an appetizing variety of cold drinks.

I haven't been on a long haul flight since seat-back inflight entertainment was invented, so it was all very novel. I was delighted to find that The Ballets Russes film was available on it, one which I've wanted to see since it came out. It's an extraordinary, special and magical world that the film evokes (and I was so proud to have worked with Freddie Franklin and Markova, after I'd seen it) so seeing it 36,000 feet up in the air in the dark was the perfect setting. Which indeed it was also for Alien Autopsy which I watched next as we passed over Vladivostok. (So that's where it is). Having just seen such a heartwarming and vivid recollection of the wonder years of dance by people who were actually there and still relish the fun that it all was, it struck me that, by contrast, 'alien autopsy' was a great way to describe some of the life-defying analyses of dance works that pass for 'dance scholarship' these days.

Anna Raeburn on Tamara Karsavina

Very pleasantly surprised to hear Anna Raeburn choosing Tamara Karsavina as the person of her choice in Radio 4's Great Lives series [click listen again in the next couple of days before they take it off the website]. Of all the people to choose a ballerina for such a programme, Anna Raeburn - with her no-nonsense, tell-it-like-it-is, wake-up-and-smell-the-coffee advice seems quite an unexpected champion - and of all the people that Anna Raeburn could have chosen, Karsavina is an unlikely candidate. But it's a nice thought that someone who generally looks love in the eye and calls a spade a spade, should have such generous, intelligent and heartwarming things to say about a ballerina, when it is so fashionable for male critics and blue-stockings to rubbish ballet & its proponents without having any real insight into what it is. On the subject of what makes a dancer 'lyrical', she says:

I think for me it was a face and a body and an ability to live, to realise, through her…the body, something romantic; and what has always fascinated me about ballet is the tension between what you are shown as the audience and the reality for the dancer. So I knew, even at that age, that if what she made you believe was that she floated, and was pale, romantic and white, that she had something very, very strong as an instrument: feet, legs, muscles, the ability to hold, to balance the body…

Telescopic squeegees

One of the side-effects of being an obsessive web-searcher is that after a while, you find it ever easier to second-guess manufacturers' names for things that before you would have called a thingummy-you-know-what-I-mean-kinda-thing until the man in the shop told you otherwise. Hence I managed to name & locate in a single pass a 5 metre telescopic squeegee similar to the amazing one pictured below (or here, if you're reading an archive of this page). At only £49.99 it's got to be cheaper than a window cleaner, and safer than a ladder.

Ljubjlana, Music & Dance & a Martinovanje

An old restaurant in Ljubjlana where I had lunch on Sunday Just back from the very beautiful city of Ljubljana where I was lecturing on a seminar on music for ballet teaching. On Friday I learned a new word, Martinovanje, which - to cut a long story short - is the day in Slovenija where they celebrate the day that all that grape juice starts turning into wine. My host said that we 'have to baptise the new wine' which sounded like a very good idea to me, and about 11.00 on Friday night, in a scene that could have been straight out of Giselle, we processed into an ancient wine cellar and did just that.

As part of the post-seminar proceedings, I've posted a page of useful links for teachers/pianists which, even if you weren't at the seminar, you might find interesting.

Ballet turn board

At last, I've found it online, a version of the board which all my favourite Cubans practise turning with. For those who thought I was making it up, this TurnBoard is what I was talking about

1841 and all that

Longham Congragational Chapel - now United Reformed Church, near Hampreston in DorsetI finally made the effort to park my car in Longham Post Office on the way back to London this morning and photograph Longham United Reformed Church, something I've meant to do for years.

It's not that it's beautiful or even picturesque - on the contrary, it's a rather bland and frumpy adornment to a small roundabout in the middle of nowhere in particular, which reminds me only of traffic jams on a Sunday evening.

What shouts out "photograph me!" every time I pass, however, is the foundation plaque just below the tower, with the year 1841 on it. Ever since my job has involved memorizing the first-production dates of ballets, I've become a little obsessed with buildings that were constructed in the same year. 1841 was, of course, the year of the first production of Giselle, and down the road there are two cottages built in 1870, the year of Coppélia. My local pub, significantly, served its first pint in the year of the Nutcracker.

My fascination with ballets and buildings comes from a sense of failure with regard to history: I give up on most history books after a dozen pages, and on music or dance history books after the introduction. The kind of sentence which is destined to make me pick up a Ruth Rendell instead goes something like this:
The wave of Romanticism which swept Europe in the early 19th century gave rise to a number of phantasmagorical ballets and operas, including Giselle. Tired of the inexorable pace of the industrial revolution, audiences sought escape in the realms of fantasy, Germanic forest-glades, fairies and love beyond-the-grave.

Whenever I read stuff like this, I imagine Romanticism as a kind of airborne disease which could strike you or your next-door neighbour at any time; one minute you'd be weaving carpets or mending shoes, the next you'd be calling in sick and booking tickets to Robert le Diable. It's because the idea is so absurd that I have such difficulty with history books - I can no more believe in Romanticism as something which 'happened' or 'swept' than I can believe that postmodernism is a 'condition' that affects anyone outside of the universities which promulgate it as a subject.

1841.jpgBuildings, on the other hand, I can cope with. I look at Longham United Reform Church with its handy 1841 date stamp, and I feel I know something about the year they laid the foundation stone. Does this look like a village which was swept by Romanticism? Did the architects tear up the plans mid-way and say "sod it, let's build it like a faux-ruined castle in a Germanic landscaped garden - now where's that Caspar David Friedrich book?" It seems not - for all the Romanticists pining for nature and sylphs, there were also many rather less volatile people around in 1841, building congregational chapels in rural English villages and singing Wesleyan hymns.

I'd much rather have been at the première of Giselle in Paris than at the laying of the foundation stone of Longham congregational chapel - but I reckon it's worth noting that the two happened in the same year. Any historians who want my readership will need to explain this clearly as they go, for bumbling yokels like me who need buildings to remind them of what the historians gloss over.

My first online crossword


My new toy - a crossword creator that can create do-it-online crosswords as well as the paper stuff. Go on, make my day, play with my first attempt at an online crossword.

Italian ballets

That old party game 'name five famous Belgians' is a little unfair on the Belgians. A more difficult game is 'name five Italian ballets', I've discovered. Until, that is, I found this wonderful catalogue of Italian Ballet Plot Synopses, 1816-1933 . I first came across Manzotti & Marenco when I read Giannandrea Poesio's paper on Galop, gender and politics in the Italian ballo grande
(20th annual conference of the Society of Dance History Scholars, 1997). Before that I had never heard of Amor, Excelsior and Sport, let alone the others. The only time I have ever seen any of Romualdo Marenco's music is when the archivist Jane Pritchard lent me her precious copy of the score for Excelsior. An Italian wiki entry on Marenco shows just how prolific he was, and if the other scores as much fun as Excelsior, he must count as one of the most underrated and under-acknowledged ballet composers around. I'm only sorry I missed the 3rd international conference on Romualdo Marenco e il ballo grande italiano. There isn't a single item by Marenco on either Naxos or Amazon, apart from the DVD of Excelsior, and I am still trying to find a recording on an Italian site.

Skip, change of step

I often feel extraordinarily privileged to have such illustrious friends in the ballet world, particularly when I want an answer to a simple question, and can just pick up the phone and ask someone whose knowledge and experience is of such an order that it would be like asking Einstein to change a fuse on your vacuum cleaner.

But it has always been my experience with geniuses that they put their great minds to the most humble of subjects; thus my composition teacher, Malcolm Williamson, for example, in time off from being the Master of the Queen's Musick, offered suggestions as to how I could improve the music I had written for the RAD Intermediate syllabus, and surprised my parents by knowing all the details of an argument my grandmother had had with one of her oldest schoolfriends. Wayne Sleep once lent me a pair of his socks when I had none to wear in the pit.

Last night, however, I felt - as Tony Blair would say - the hand of history on my shoulders, when I was trying desperately to accomplish skip change of step from instructions on the Internet. I was trying to write a paragraph on why one piece of music was more suitable than another for this step, when I realised I didn't really understand what I was talking about.

I googled 'Skip change of step' and tried to follow the instructions on the screen. Try as I might, I couldn't do it. I considered ringing colleagues at the RAD, but then decided this would be like asking a plumber friend if they'd help you out with your blocked toilet on a Saturday night.

Then chance intervened. As I hobbled round the room, my mobile rang, and there on the screen was the name 'Chris Hampson'. If anyone should understand skip change of step, a choreographer should. Before he could even utter a word, I was in full flow "Look, how do you do skip change of step?". I explained my dilemma, and that I couldn't interpret the instructions on the internet.

"Read them out to me," Chris said, "And I'll try and do it".
"I hope you're not anywhere public" I replied
"Just so you know how public I am," Chris responded "I'm outside the National Theatre in Norway at the premiere of the Taming of the Shrew."
"So", I said, beginning to feel the index finger of ballet history on my shoulder, "Take a little hop on the left foot...."
"OK. Yup. Yup. OK, got it."
Miraculously, I also got it too. What the instructions didn't tell you is that it's your left foot which propels you, not your right.
"Oh, the ballet master of Royal Swedish Ballet's here now. He's doing it with me."
Well, of course he is. The ballet master in question, the extremely lovely Krzysztof Nowogrodski, formerly of BRB, the PDTD course, and now in Sweden, was there with Mr Hampson, practising skip change of step at a premiere outside a theatre in Oslo, from instructions on the internet conveyed by mobile phone from Tooting. As if that were not all, I even got corrections "Oh no, it's all very small in Scottish Dancing" said Chris wisely, as I explained how I had been trying to jump the step (impossibly) with the non-working leg.

So when you read your guidebook to the Alternative Music for Grades 1 -5 have some respect - I suspect that it's rare that so much balletic weight has ever been brought to bear on the first exercise in RAD Grade 1.

Search me!

Looking through the activity log of this weblog, I see a number of people searching for things about music and dance. The best place to find this is on the general search page for the whole site, not the weblog search.

I'm not spying on visitors, I just wanted to see how many spammers had been blocked automatically by MT-Blacklist . Quite a few, it seems - MTB is a fantastic plugin, and saves hours of painful de-spamming.

A home for Blandine

Some of you may know about Blandine's Wonderful World of Ballet, a site that was second to none in many ways. Sadly, Blandine passed away two years ago, and it is only now that the pieces of her life are beginning to fit together.

Blandine's webmaster contacted me some time ago to see if we could keep the site alive, but unfortunately there was no funding. The Blandine estate could not support the website, but I'm delighted to say there was a work around - we've managed to negotiate hosting Blandine on my site, until her finances recover. Most appropriate, and I don't know why we didn't do it earlier.

Dancing in Leicester Square

Last Saturday (12th June) was a "West End at War" weekend in Leicester Square, with all kinds of goings on to celebrate and remember D-Day. The Guards Association Band played wonderful 40s swing and dance numbers, and some people - including these two ladies pictured left - couldn't keep still when they heard the music.

The reason for going was to see my niece, who's as a member of the FANY, was there to recruit new members, and be part of the fun (in 1940s FANY uniform). For more pics of the day, see the FANY Gallery. After 18 months of wondering whether I'd be able to make it work or not, I've finally installed a photo gallery on my site (courtesy of Menalto Gallery). Work? It's a dream. And having suffered a computer crash and a camera theft in the recent past, on the web is probably the safest place for the pics.

Farewell Drinks

So that's it for a while - on Wednesday we did the last performance (for the foreseeable future, at least) of Mark Morris's Drink to me only with thine eyes in the New Theatre, Oxford. Packing away my tails on the weekend, I felt just a little wistful. The weird thing about performing is that it's a strain to keep yourself on the edge, but at the same time, on the edge is a great place to be. It's been a great year, lovely to be working with fabulous dancers and the famously wonderful ENB crew; I don't know a more supportive lot of people anywhere. There aren't many pieces like Drink, so it'll be a hard act to follow. As it was the last show for a while, I was going to ask Daria Klimentová for some photos for the album (the one on the left is hers, too) - but I didn't have to, she was there before the show went up, and hopefully I'll have a nice souvenir for the wall (as well as Daria's 2004 Dance Calendar)

Dance Education and the Tomato

So nice to see that even a humble tin of tomatoes can be educational, as witnessed by this delightful example. This is the learning route:
1. Go to Asda because it's there
2. Buy tinned tomatoes, because you never know when you might need them
3. Buy one can of Tarantella Tomatoes, because the label's nice
4. Look for a handy link about Tarantellas and tomatoes on the web to pad out this weblog entry
5. Be gobsmacked as I find this magnificent page on Italian music, including the Tarantella

6. Find out that Naxos has released a CD by Alessandra Belloni called Tarantelle & Canti d'Amore, which, given the dearth of tarantella CDs in my collection, will be next on my Amazon wish-list.
7. Wonder how long it would have taken me to find out the information above on the web, had I not added the word 'tomato' to my search term "tarantella".
8. Decide to see if I can match the picture on the can (left) to one of the 19th century prints in the RAD library, and then do a joint history of the tomato and the tarantella, since the history of recipe-travel is another pet subject of mine.


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Just back from the very wonderful Odeon of Herod Atticus where ENB performed Double Concerto, Drink to me only with thine Eyes and Rite of Spring at the Athens Festival.

As much as I am amazed by modern technology, I am much more in awe of the stunning acoustics of this open air theatre which is almost 2000 years old; well, 1839 years old in fact, according to this short history.

Mark Morris blogs for a week

Just came across this - Mark Morris By Mark Morris - which is one in a series of weeklong diaries of the great and the good hosted by MSN, called 'Slate'. Morris's was in 2000, but it's a good read: my favourite lines so far are "Charlotte Church makes me nervous" and "I left my apartment once today, for about 20 minutes, to buy a dead chicken", both on Wednesday 19th January.

If you could see me now...

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A busy week ahead at the Academy, with daily trips to English National Ballet (thank goodness for bikes - otherwise I'd be travelling for about 6 hours a day), and up to Durham for Congregation on Wednesday. Mark Morris's ballet to Virgil Thomson piano Etudes Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes is on again at the Sadler's Wells and a few weeks later in Athens at the Herodes Atticus Then it's back to London for 4 days, before going to Prague and the International Ballet Masterclasses

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