Teaching and Cultivating Musicality

I have continued to take classes throughout my entire career and I have written extensively about why I am still taking class. One of the things that I have noticed about the open classes that I take New York City is that, for most ballet teachers and most ballet dancers, there seems to be a loosey-goosey approach to rhythm and musicality.

Combinations presented in most ballet classes tend to be rhythmically very straightforward: “a-1 and a-2 and a-3 and a-4, a-5 and a-6 and a-7 and a-8″. And even given the simplicity of the choreographic rhythm, the dancers seem to be completely oblivious to the music which is filling the space around them. I remember seeing a beautiful dancer, en pointe, float an absolutely exquisite pique arabesque…that went on FOREVER; as if the music wasn’t even there. She then, after finally rolling down, sped through the next phrase of music in a sloppy, hap-hazard fashion to try to,”catch up”. Similarly, I saw a dancer in class who is in the corps of ABT toss off five pirouettes, neat as a pin. There was barely enough time to accomplish two turns; leaving him hopelessly behind the phrase and again, sloppily rushing through the rest of the choreography.

And the teachers say nothing.

Nobody understands the economic difficulties surrounding teaching open classes in New York City better than I. There are many dancers who do not want to be corrected; and many of them will not come back to class if they have been singled out. But without singling out dancers, if ballet is going to continue as a vibrant, evolving, growing art form, we must start teaching and cultivating musicality. Otherwise I fear that our great and beautiful art form will devolve into a vulgar athletic display.

Firstly, I believe that we should be choreographing ballet combinations that have interesting, more complicated, and even syncopated rhythms. (I believe this is even more important for jazz, where I see most classroom choreography constructed squarely “on the beat” with one step or movement for each count.) Dancers need to understand music. And if our work is going to be interesting, intriguing and engaging, then our choreography should be musically complex. This is essential, both for the training of the dancers as well as generating new and interesting choreographic ideas. And this rhythmic complexity should not mirror exactly what is going on in the rhythm of the music. Rather, the choreography should have its own unique rhythmic voice that fits into the fabric of the orchestration/arrangement of the music.

I have always tried to construct my choreography in this way. And I do not ask my students to dance to the music. I do not ask my students to dance on the music. Rather, I implore my students to dance inside the music. I tell them: “Let the music fill your body. Let the sound guide what you do. Feel the music and the choreography from INSIDE your body. Take the complex rhythms that I have given you and fit them into the fabric of the music. Don’t dance the steps, dance the SOUND and make the dance and the music “one”.

I have found that with this approach, dancers are less likely to show off with multiple pirouettes or endless balances. They are too busy concentrating. They are too busy feeling. They are too busy connecting with the music. And when they are feeling what they are doing in a very profound and honest way; when they are fully concentrated, and completely connected to the music, and the choreography, and the space around them…THEN they begin to have the tools they need to truly reach out and touch an audience. I don’t want to train dancers that can impress and audience. I want to train dancers that can move an audience. Another relentless pursuit of an unachievable perfection.

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