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About the Change

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

Ismene Brown Reviews

Edur in reviews

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

"I think there is a genuine problem with the standard of playing at many top ballet companies"
Ismene Brown

perception among conductors that ballet music is inferior and that they are less likely to get the big jobs Ė letís put it that way Ė if they do ballet and will become known as a second-string conductor. Very few opera conductors cross over. Partly that is, I think, because they may not be very suited to ballet and there is definitely a different technique between the two. I think partly also there is a fear that some of the younger more talented people donít step forward for ballet and the result is you get very few really outstanding ballet conductors.

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

"Itís far less involving for an orchestra to be accompanying the tap-tap-tap of the dancersí feet, rather than the coloratura of some wonderful soprano, who they can all hear"
Barry Wordsworth

slightly cack-handed answer to your question. But I think when Ismene says there is a great deal of very good ballet music that is of course true. The regretful fact is, from my point of view, that itís in a minority. Most of the well known ballet scores donít stand up very well musically on their own and, therefore, orchestras playing in the pit who feel less part of the performance than they do in opera, they only have second-rate music to play by and large. That is for us one of many of the problems. Itís far less involving for an orchestra to be accompanying the tap-tap-tap of the dancersí feet, rather than the coloratura of some wonderful soprano, who they can all hear.

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

"When I was learning Apollo, I was told; 'You must count here because itís a difficult beat.' And I said: 'But you can hear everything so clearly.'"
Thomas Edur

school in Estonia, I remember being told when I was eight years old; ďIf you can sing the melody, then you can dance it.Ē I would try and sing in rehearsal and never count. When I was learning Apollo, I was told; ďYou must count here because itís a difficult beat.Ē And I said: ďBut you can hear everything so clearly.Ē It depends on the individual. I believe that counting is more for the corps de ballet so that they stay together on a special count. But for the principal dancers, I think that they should be let to interpret the melody themselves.

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

"I was amazed to see a poll on a ballet internet site not long ago, in which they asked people to rate the factors that made them enjoy ballet most, and music was something like ten percent."
Ismene Brown

Here are the final poll results
that we recorded!...

Balletco Poll
Which is the most important element of ballet/dance for you?

Choreography 60.0%

Music 16.7%

Casting 13.3%

Other: 10.0%

Story 0.0%

Design 0.0%

by CgiScripts.Net
theatre. MacMillanís Manon score, for instance, is Massenet, which has been stitched together into a rather lovely score, but it is very common for people to pour cold water on it. The triple bills, the mixed bills, can contain music of the absolutely highest class. Last year, or the year before, there was a mixed bill of Mahlerís Song of the Earth, and Mendelssohnís The Dream; weíve had Stravinsky bills; weíve had Ravel bills; Daphnis and Chloe, La Valse. There is so much great great music played in these triple bills; but when the triple bills shrink, and this is a common factor in all the ballet companies of Britain, the musical interest diminishes. Now if people were aware that actually ballet is a hugely musical event and not just a spectacle and one was able to push more resources and more interest and more emphasis on to the musical aspects of ballet, then you would get more mixed bills, and people would reduce this awful ignorance they have about music. I was amazed to see a poll on a ballet internet site not long ago, in which they asked people to rate the factors that made them enjoy ballet most, and music was something like ten percent.

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

"I think the London critics, by and large, let down the musical side of the ballet very very badly indeed"
Barry Wordsworth

always working for either dancers or ex-dancers, and when the chips are down and you really need the support of your management, thatís frequently when you get the carpet pulled from under your feet. A conductor, to have the respect of his orchestra, actually has to be able to do his job with as much conviction as possible. We do need a great deal more understanding of what ballet conducting is about and what makes a good ballet conductor, and a rather less distinguished ballet conductor. I think, in that regard, that it is very interesting that Ismene is on the programme, because I think the London critics, by and large, let down the musical side of the ballet very very badly indeed. They frequently donít mention the performance and it is unthinkable, if you think of opera for example, that you would have a critic who did not mention the conductor, but that happens a lot with ballet.

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