In a ballet company, music ignites and sustains the day. Each morning begins with the ripple of piano. In this heartfelt article about the dancers' symbiotic relationship with the company's uniquely talented pianists, Soloist Christopher Rodgers-Wilson tells us what it's like to be “carried forward on the swell of their notes”.
31 May 2019
Each morning at The Australian Ballet starts with the familiar hustle and bustle of pre-ballet class rituals, dancers waking up their bodies in preparation for the day ahead. Chatter settles as one of our ballet staff sets out the first class exercise. There is a brief moment of silence, then one of our company pianists sets their hands on the keys, and beautiful music fills the studio. The Australian Ballet employs four full-time pianists [the fourth, Kylie Foster, joined the company after this article was written], and we have the privilege of being accompanied by live music almost constantly; it inspires and facilitates our every step. The day may start with anything from a heart-lifting medley from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, a romantic Irving Berlin jazz standard, or a soaring rendition of John Williams’ theme from Stephen Spielberg’s , to a jiving Beatles tune, Survivor's ‘Eye of the Tiger’ set to a march, even a ballad version of Miley Cirus’ ‘Wrecking Ball’. And this is just during our morning class. As the day progresses, our company pianists Stuart Macklin, Duncan Salton and Brian Cousins will play literally thousands of notes as we work together through ballets composed by Stravinksy, Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev and Ravel, to name only a few. While it is truly magical hearing the full force of an orchestra in performance, there is an intimacy and purity that comes from working with solo piano. We have the pleasure of rehearsing to distilled musical arrangements of orchestral scores, which are seldom experienced by audiences in a theatre. The incredible musicians behind the piano keys are the unsung heroes of our organisation, providing us with a musical life force and inspiration six days a week.
From accompanying our daily training, our pianists not only know their instrument intimately, they also have an inherent knowledge of what it is to be a ballet dancer. They accommodate the ever-changing combinations and enchainment of ballet steps with their own individual style, and adapt in turn to the different styles of our teachers. Stuart will often inspire a collective sigh from the whole studio, dancers and teacher alike, as he launches into Debussy’s exquisite Reverie for our first port de bras and pliés. He says that to play for a ballet class, one must have the ability to think quickly. There are existing balletic and musical structures that are the same for each class; however, the exercises change daily, making improvisation essential. Duncan has an iPad stored with a vast catalogue of music from which he draws his inspiration. He discovered early on that jazz music provided a supple framework within which to create class music that is adaptable, enjoyable to play and engaging for dancers. He sings the lyrics in his head as he plays, the natural breathing points shaping his musical phrasing and corresponding with linking moments in the enchainment. Brian’s repertoire will often surprise and delight music fans in the room: it includes his arrangements of Fleetwood Mac, Radiohead, Amy Winehouse and Beyoncé. He aims to provide music that will complement the day-to-day needs of the dancers, whether it be an upbeat tune to increase energy levels or something calmer and more focused for an opening-night warm-up. All three musicians highlight the importance of clear rhythmical demonstration by the teacher. This allows them to select the optimum tempo for what each exercise aims to achieve, whether it be pushing the dancers to move at speed with clarity, or at a slower tempo that challenges their control and balance. Equally, it affords the musicians the freedom to be agile with their arrangements, adapting them with efficiency and adding the flourishes that keep the music spontaneous.
An immense variety of music is covered in class, but it’s daily rehearsals that make up the bulk of the pianists’ playing. Stuart will launch into the beautifully regal first chords of the Rose Adagio from Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty with a refined perfection from day one of our rehearsals for that ballet; but that doesn’t happen without a lot of work behind the scenes. He explains that familiarising oneself with upcoming repertoire through private rehearsal is crucial: preparation can begin anywhere from six to twelve months in advance. Familiar ballets such as Giselle, The Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake return to our repertoire regularly and are easier to bring back; however, new scores, such as Joby Talbot’s incredibly complex Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, are more challenging. Duncan has arranged over 40 ballet scores in his time at The Australian Ballet; he finds this process helps him to learn and memorise each ballet. He also finds watching archival films of the upcoming ballets to be an important step in his preparation. The pianists will then notate the choreography into the piano score and create a system of counts, establishing the common language between pianists, dancers and artistic staff that is integral to efficient rehearsals. Once rehearsals start, the musicians will make further notations on the score, including nicknames for various choreographic moves as well as the principal dancers’ preferences in tempo. When our rehearsal staff say that we’ll be starting from ‘the clump’ or ‘the big wheel’, the pianists know exactly where to play from.
You may well have heard our pianists performing with the orchestras that accompany The Australian Ballet’s performances. Some of my own most memorable experiences have been dancing to César Franck’s serene Symphonic Variations, played by Stuart; Tchaikovsky’s rousing Second Piano Concerto, which is the score for George Balanchine’s Ballet Imperial, played by Duncan; and Maurice Ravel’s complex and beautiful Piano Concerto in G, the score for Graeme Murphy’s Beyond Twelve, played by Brian. They also play parts like the famous celeste melody in The Nutcracker. Performances present an additional challenge for the pianists; the piano part within an orchestral score often differs significantly from the arrangement they have been playing in studio rehearsals. However, Brian says that being present for both ballet and orchestral rehearsals enables a more intimate knowledge of the score, which allows him to play with more nuance and to enjoy the score more thoroughly during performances (especially during a bar or two of rest!) He also has a greater knowledge of precisely what is taking place on stage. Duncan adds that memorisation of a score is often crucial, as it enables him to watch the dancers. In the case of Ballet Imperial, he had a tiny television screen with him in the orchestra pit so that he could watch the principal ballerina dancing her opening solo as he played the cadenza. Stuart says that playing for a show requires a sensitivity to whichever dancers are performing, and all three musicians agree that a concerted effort must be made to be as consistent as humanly possible in rhythm and tempo. Whether the tempo is allegro or adagio, this consistency enables dancers to instinctively predict how it will play out, without a surprise shift that may result in a missed step or a loss of coordination. The resounding challenge is to find musical phrasing that will complement dancers while staying to true to the score.
Although verbal communication between pianist and dancer during the working day is often minimal, there is a subconscious communication and connection that is remarkably powerful in its ability to inspire mutual creativity. Playing and dancing could be compared to speaking two different languages. Although we may not always understand the exact words of the other, the sentiment is innately clear as the two art forms combine. Brian speaks of the moment in the morning when he feels the studio finding its breath together, describing this synergy as “a gift we can offer each other”, the movement and music fusing as one. Duncan adds that watching dancers is a source of inspiration from which to shape his playing for ballet, and Stuart highlights the satisfaction that comes from seeing a dancer across the room harnessing an accent or rhythm in his music.
The music we hear every day informs our movement; the information we receive through it is as vast as an ocean. It gifts us pace and rhythm, within which we can channel our energy and dance – whether individually, with our partners, or with colleagues in the corps de ballet. It facilitates the coordination of difficult steps, tells us when to breathe, cues significant moments in choreography and fuels our emotions, enabling us to achieve new heights of technical and artistic achievement. In times of personal struggle, it can be the tonic that helps you through emotional or physical pain. Music has the power to transform your day and capture your imagination. This is potently evident in the magic moments at work when smiles appear as dancers recognise a favourite melody; their breathing becomes more expansive, movement is instantly more inspired. It is a true privilege to listen to Stuart, Duncan and Brian in their element, whether in class, studio rehearsals, performance, or even catching a ripple of notes in the corridors as they practise. We are so fortunate to have the benefit of their passion for and long commitment to music and dance. Every day, their hard work and artistry lifts us up and carries us forward on the swell of their notes.
Thank you to our Official Piano Partner Kawai, who supplies the superior pianos that accompany our dancers in class, rehearsals and performances