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Conducting for Ballet
Music Matters on Radio3
A discussion on conducting for dance and ballet between Ivan Hewett, Ismene Brown, Barry Wordsworth and Thomas Edur
BBC Radio 3, 23 June 2002
Ivan Hewett: How many of you could name a famous ballet conductor? There are one or two Russians like Fedotov and of course Valery Gergiev. But in the West it is hard to think of any. One very distinguished conductor of ballet at the Royal Opera House was Barry Wordsworth, but he was never musical director there. That post always goes to whoever is in charge of opera. So why does ballet conducting have a lowly status compared to opera? And is the second rank status being offered to second rank performances in the pit? Iíve been discussing those questions with Barry Wordsworth, the principal dancer of the English National Ballet, Thomas Edur, and the dance critic of the Daily Telegraph, Ismene Brown.
Ismene Brown: I certainly donít think that ballet music is in any way inferior to opera or to symphonic music. In fact some of the best bits of music ever written are ballet scores. I think there is a genuine problem with the standard of playing at many top ballet companies, including some of our own dear ones here in Britain, partly because, I think, there is a
Ivan Hewett: Barry Wordsworth, you made most of a career out of conducting ballet. Did you feel sometimes that you were making your way in a form of conducting that wasnít very well regarded? That, as a ballet conductor, you werenít somehow up there with symphonic conductors or opera conductors?
Barry Wordsworth: Yes. I think as a general statement that is very true. I wouldnít for a moment want to sound as if I regretted anything Iíve ever done. Iíve enjoyed every second of it. But itís probably fair to say I enjoy it more, now that I do rather less of it. Which is a
Ivan Hewett: And yet, I would guess, the technique and the responsiveness to the stage action must be just as vital. Thomas Edur, let me bring you in here. As a dancer, what is it you need and look for in a ballet conductor?
Thomas Edur: Someone who understands what dance is all about and really follows us in a way, but not too much! Itís a very difficult job, to lead a dancer. You almost have to conduct three dimensionally, to see what they do. Many conductors spend a great deal of time in the studio with the dancers and then they learn all the steps themselves. Then we can give a good performance.
Ivan Hewett: Itís interesting that you say they should follow you, but not too much?
Thomas Edur: If they try to play into your legs, sometimes they can spoil your performance. We are all human and we can go a bit faster, a bit slower, and sometimes dancers ask for too much and it is not possible. So if you play within a frame, I think there wouldnít be any problem.
Barry Wordsworth: My good friend John Lanchbery put it better than I could possibly ever put it when he said that, when it comes to the performance, if the preparation has been done well in the studio, then neither the dancer nor the conductor is aware of either leading the other, but it just happens as a result of the work they have done together through the preparation period. But of course the conductor does need to assimilate all sort of things in a discipline, which is quite different from the one he has spent all his life studying. This is one of the reasons why we tried to start up a competition all those years ago, to give young musicians an opportunity to learn what it is like actually to do a ballet. Because most people are landed with it without the faintest idea of what they have to do and of course they find it extremely difficult.
Ismene Brown: But surely part of the problem is that dancers themselves lack confidence when it comes to music. There are many of them who are trained to dance on the beat and to count and many many of them, Iím sorry to say, you can see them virtually on stage counting their way through their phrases. Alicia Markova, when she was being taught by Balanchine and Stravinsky, she was taught not to count, but to listen to the instrument and to dance to their sound. Thatís what actually people do when they listen to music and dance in the normal way. It bothers me that too many dancers donít really listen to the music thatís there. At New York City Ballet, thereís a very interesting attitude. Peter Martins, the director, says that nowadays people conduct Balanchineís ballets too slowly. Basically you have to put it in the hands of the conductor. The conductor plays the music as it should be played and the dancers should have to keep up. Thatís a completely reversed attitude really. I think itís a little extreme. But thereís something to be said for it.
Ivan Hewett: Thomas Edur, are you counting when you dance or are you listening?
Thomas Edur: No I never count. The old Russian tradition in which I was trained at ballet
Ismene Brown: But ballet isnít just the classics. Some of the long full-length classics, you could say, havenít got particularly distinguished music, but it comes together in the
Ivan Hewett: Gosh that is extraordinary. Iím wondering how things can be improved? Barry, you were mentioning a competition, which now no longer exists, do you think there are certain steps that need to be taken to bring up the status and the quality of ballet conducting?
Barry Wordsworth: I think, first of all, that the whole art of ballet conducting needs to be better understood; also that companies, bear in mind that as a ballet conductor you are