Play Me The Music

December 15, 2015

A dancer’s partnership with the conductor is far more complex than asking for a faster tempo.

Boston Ballet in Balanchine’s Coppélia, with Jonathan McPhee and the Boston Ballet Orchestra. Photo by Ernesto Galan, courtesy Boston Ballet

During a memorable performance
of The Sleeping Beauty, conducted by San Francisco Ballet music director and principal conductor Martin West, principal dancer Yuan Yuan Tan experienced one of those exceptional “on” performances in the Rose Adagio. “I held my attitude and didn’t come down,” she recalls. “Martin was there and helped me. He continued to stretch, stretch, stretch out the music—and the audience went crazy.”

Arriving at that remarkable moment of perfect musical and technical synchronicity, however, requires years of honed craft and artistic collaboration between the stage and the orchestra pit. A ballerina’s ability to effectively communicate with her conductor—and vice versa—often determines the security of her performance. The proper wording or nonverbal demonstration of tempo, as well as a mutual trust, come crucially into play.

Collaborating in the Studio

In most major American ballet companies, the conductor spends a substantial amount of time in the studio with as many casts of principal dancers as possible. “At ABT, we’re brought up on the idea that we have to be in the studio,” says Ormsby Wilkins, American Ballet Theatre’s music director. “There should be a dialogue.” Often that discussion also includes choreographers, ballet masters and directors.

The musical rendition, nonetheless, rests with the arm that holds the baton. With various casts in the studio, says West, “you see the different interpretations of the music, you see what they’re trying to achieve in the music. You always have to remember that they don’t speak our language and we don’t speak theirs. I make it my job to be the translator. Sometimes they’ll ask for something and I’ll say, 
‘Think about the implications that will have on the music that will affect something else along the way.’ I just make them aware of the consequences.”

Isabella Boylston (here with James Whiteside) consults with the music staff to try various approaches in Giselle. Photo by MIRA, courtesy ABT.

Tan says that the elongation of her limbs often requires a lengthened musical phrase. “I need a little more time to get ready for a preparation than another dancer who is more compact,” she says. “The conductors understand our body language, so I ask them to watch me do my movement to set the tempo.” Then the pianists can make notes on the score with a code name, like “fish lift,” to mark what each ballerina needs.

ABT principal Isabella Boylston tries a different tactic. “Sometimes I try to sing the music to the conductor to describe what I want, even though I have a terrible voice!” she says. “My dad is a professional drummer, so I learned a little bit about music from him.”

But communication can sometimes get dicey when dancers try to take on music terminology. “I think a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing,” says West. “Dancers have a different way of expressing, because the movement is in their body. It’s more of a breathing thing. I’ve learned to try to work out what they’re trying to tell me.”

Some of the most common problems crop up with dancers’ oversimplified requests. “Most of the places you have musicality issues are not in the main body of a section, but in the transitions,” says Boston Ballet’s music director and principal conductor, Jonathan McPhee. “Usually the number-one misunderstanding happens when a dancer will say, ‘That’s too fast.’ That doesn’t help. The problem is usually about seven bars earlier. They’re not in trouble yet, but they’re going to be in trouble because they’re heading into the transition section.” McPhee tries to mitigate the music/movement problem by fashioning transitions that flow smoothly while retaining the music’s integrity. “It might be a little juicier rubato here or there or a slight breath at the corner and then you can move forward,” he says. “There’s almost always a musical solution to a dancer’s problem.”

Coordinating From the Stage

When performing, a dancer needs to have a partnership with the conductor. For example, at the end of the central pas de deux of Balanchine’s
, Tan knows she has to coordinate perfectly: She bourrées backwards into the arms of her partner and hits an attitude devant with her spine flexed forward, arms curving overhead, followed by a pause in the music. “When I stretch my leg, I hit the subsequent note on the first step,” a timing essential to the somber transition in tone of the music.

In one of her first performances of
Theme and Variations
, Boylston’s nerves ambushed her, causing her to forget to read the baton’s upbeat signal before her solo began. “I started way ahead of the conductor and it ruined my whole performance,” she says.

Martin West rehearses the SFB Orchestra. Photo by Erik Tomasson, courtesy SFB. 

Over time, ballerinas and conductors learn to collaborate and intuit, much in the way that male dancers and their ballerinas develop a sixth sense in partnering. For Giselle’s consecutive entrechats quatre in Act II, Boylston deliberated whether to decelerate the tempo to emphasize the elevation of the jumps or to focus more on the speed and precision. With consultation from the music staff, she’s tried it both ways in performance. “That’s one of the fun things about performing the classics during a career,” she says. “There isn’t just one right way to do things, and your choices evolve.”

As in many companies, says Wilkins, “it’s always traditional at ABT for the conductor to go onstage before the performance,” to check in on agreed-upon tempi with the principal dancers and confirm if a variation begins on- or offstage. “They might even say, ‘I’m changing my step slightly, I’d like a little more time,’ ” he says.

That brings us back to the Rose Adagio, which can amount to a thrilling sequence or a visual disaster with grand accompaniment. The conductor not only has to set the correct tempo for the ballerina, but also must intuitively read what she needs within a given phrase. West uses the analogy of a driver approaching a pothole without diving into it: “You see it coming and gently change lanes so no one is aware anything has happened. If you wait until the very last minute to try and change something, it’s very uncomfortable—not a very nice ride.”

For dancers, engaging in the process helps to witness the larger picture. “Conductors are trying to make the music work
for you, even if they can’t necessarily do what you want,” says Tan. “You need to have respect for the conductor’s relationship to the musical score and to the entire orchestra. I’ve learned, because when I was young I’d say, ‘Oh, it’s too slow.’ The conductor has to conduct the whole orchestra, and it’s not that easy. It’s an artistic collaboration.” 

The Mad Scene, Three Ways

Photo by Ernesto Galan, courtesy Boston Ballet

During his long career as a conductor, Boston Ballet music director
Jonathan McPhee
has learned from questioning ballerinas about their concept of Giselle that there are three ways to conduct the ballet’s mad scene.

• First option:
She’s hearing the music in her head, which is instrumental to her emotional unhinging.

• Second option:
She’s not hearing the music. The audience is hearing the music and she’s going insane, and it’s more about the audience’s emotions.

• Third option:
The music provides the framework with everyone hearing it; then Giselle departs from it and weaves in and out of the music.

“If you don’t understand that as a conductor,” he says, “she can’t do what she wants to do, and it won’t read to the audience.”

Photo: Rosalie O’Connor.

What are the hardest ballets to get right?
The classics, with their razor’s-edge technical challenges and the combination of making the music sound convincing to the audience while allowing the dancer expressive freedom. “La Bayadère is full of tricky tempi that don’t seem to bear a lot of relation to what you see on the page,” says ABT music director Ormsby Wilkins. “Every ballerina needs it slightly differently.”