Relating Past and Present

Looking back at historical ballet, its forerunners, and its music can be tremendously interesting in itself, even if there is so much we can never know. But aside from expanding our knowledge, such explorations can also inspire us in our present roles whether as performers, creators—or enthusiastic audience members. Something to think about is this advice that the late American composer/collaborator Lou Harrison wrote for students, in his Music Primer:

Cherish, Conserve, Consider, Create

And in reviewing some musical styles from cultures around the world as well as through time, the composer observed that “Anywhere on the planet…always by insensible degrees the music changes, and always the music is a compound, a hybrid of collected virtues.” Also noteworthy is Lou Harrison’s viewpoint that among the best European music traditions was the secular music of Medieval and Baroque times. In his own original compositions, now and then he included sections harking back to Medieval and Renaissance dances in both form and titles, and his dance suite for Mark Morris certainly draws on traditions from the Baroque.

Beyond that is Harrison’s comment that “Someone has said that music is to be recommended because the Angels practice it.” This remark was similar to viewpoints that medieval musicians sometimes depended on when justifying the respectability of their art in the face of widespread repression by the Church. (This was touched on in connection with medieval guild musicians.) Earthly dancers also pleaded (especially to critical Church officials) that because angels danced, that was a good thing for them to do too!

notes and explorations:

Lou Harrison (1917-2003):

Quotations, from Lou Harrison’s Music Primer (New York: C.F. Peters, 1971) pp.33-34; 47; 48. Unusual in composers’ backgrounds, Harrison not only accompanied dance classes but also was called in to perform as a dancer. with modern groups.

performances: For those unfamiliar with this composer, here is a beautiful introduction: Lou Harrison’s Suite for Violin and American   Gamelan. The second vigorous movement is titled Estampie, which is the Medieval dance form covered in the first essay of this collection. The last movement is titled Chaconne, a form which goes back to Renaissance and Baroque courtly dance.  included on the New Albion CD La Koro Sutro.

Another Harrison estampie is in his piano concerto, on New World Records with Keith Jarrett, soloist. CD also includes piece that Robert Joffrey set as Gamelan, Harrison’s Suite for Violin, Piano, and Small Orchestra. The original beautiful 1951 recording with Anahid and Maro Ajemian, soloists, with Leopold Stokowski conducting can be heard online: Northern Illinois University gamelan group performing one of Harrison’s pieces, with oboe and French horn. Gives viewers an idea of what such instrumental groups look like!

Amazon has some 90 listings of recordings of music composed by Lou Harrison! People who have not experienced live performances of these works may be especially pleased to discover the vast and varied recorded output of this composer who was particularly skilled in making music for dancers!

information: Brief biography of the composer with list of his concert works. Does not include his many collaborative scores done for dance. Information about ongoing programs at the Joshua Tree, CA straw bale house that the composer had built late in his life.  Website includes trailer for the film made by Eva Soltes, Lou Harrison: A World of Music. The film is available on DVD from Harrison House. Highly recommended.

For a report on one of my visits with Lou Harrison, see Katherine Teck, Music for the Dance, pp. 59-63. And for one of his own essays, see “Music for Modern Dance: Meditations on Melodies, Modes, Emotion and Creation” in my collection Making Music for Modern Dance, pp. 251-256.

For more extended information, see Leta E. Miller and Fredric Lieberman, Composing a World: Lou Harrison, Musical Wayfarer (University of Illinois Press, 2004) especially chapter 4 “Music and the Dance.” And a shorter book by same authors, Lou Harrison (University of Illinois Press, 2006).
Choreographer Mark Morris responds to audience questions at Jacob’s Pillow in 2019, covering the outdating of limiting stylistic labels, his work with composer Lou Harrison, changes in his own style over the years, how he makes musical choices, the challenges of touring and providing live music,  and the important effects of lighting design.  A 2019 review by Sarah L. Kaufman, good description of how Morris used some of Harrison’s sweet music. Brief 3-minute clip of Mark Morris Dance Group performing Rhymes With Silver to the 1997 score commisioned from Lou Harrison. (Silver was the composer’s middle name. Nothing rhymes with it!) A CD recording was made, but you may have to just purchase MP3 listening online. It was scored for violin, viola, cello, piano, and percussion.

Mark Morris with Wesley Stace, Out Loud: A Memoir (New York: Penguin Press, 2019). An engaging account of the dancer/choreographer’s life, career and the building of his company, with many observations about different styles of music. He has always performed to live music, and among the composers he most delighted collaborating with was Lou Harrison. (See chapter 10 titled Grand Duo.) But he has also set many dances to music from the past. And despite his disparagement of elongated “program notes” at dance concerts, he does offer some very interesting insights into how he works with dancers and music.

The Mark Morris Dance Center in Brooklyn is amazing simply by existing. The company and the school have become major cultural resources for the community. Among their offerings are workshops to train accompanists. For more information, go to  They even honor their accompanist musicians online with portraits and bios! Go to  

For information about the Mark Morris Dance Group go to which includes links to their digital offerings during the pandemic. Their website is further unusual in mounting pictures and bios of all their musicians starting with their music director Colin Fowler. Go to:

The Joffrey Ballet—an extraordinary American company:

Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance, 2012, Lakeview Films, released in 2019 as a DVD on docudrama films label. Recommended. History of the company plus clips of some of their many new ballets with contemporary music.
Brief biography of the choreographer/director (1930-1988).  (1923-2008).
Biography of the co-founder/dancer/choreographer/later artistic director of the Joffrey Ballet. Includes list of his ballets with an extraordinary range of composers’ music.
Includes brief history of the company, which suffered several dreadful financial periods, including the raiding of his trained dancers by formerly patroness Rebekah Harkness. Their dancers and their repertoire were most unusual—and most “American.” Musical choices were tremendously varied and sometimes daring—as in the decision to present music by the pop/rock singer Prince. Eclectic especially for a company so rooted in classical ballet technique. And a reminder: this is the company that revived repertoire from the Diaghilev Ballets Russes, including Afternooon of a Faune and  Petrouchka with Rudolf Nureyev in the lead roles; The Rite of Spring; The Green Table choreographed by Kurt Jooss with music by Frederick Cohen; Léonide Massine’s outstanding ballets Three Cornered Hat and Parade.

The Green Table as performed by the Joffrey Ballet is available on a 2013 Kultur video. Highly recommended! The 1998 VHS tape of the Joffrey’s Tribute to Nijinsky with Rudolf Nureyev is still available—for a price, but unique. Info about the ballet to music by Prince. Comments about Billboards by Gerald Arpino and clips with the dancers. Performance of Billboards. 1 hour 15 minutes. Warner Bros. released a VHS tape, but there is currently no DVD. At the time of its premiere, the ballet was subject of some controversy precisely because of its joining classical ballet technique inherited from past traditions with popular music of the time. Certainly an example of relating past and present! Current information about the company, now located in Chicago. Fall 2020 as with many companies, the virus has forced cancellations.

Sasha Anawalt, The Joffrey Ballet: Robert Joffrey and the Making of an American Dance Company (Scribner 1996 edition). Covers the company from its inception until the death of Robert Joffrey in 1988. The artists involved, both choreographers and dancers over time, offered an extraordinary range of musical styles. Complete listing of works included with names of composers and titles of music, and indications of commissions.  article “Music and Dance in Real Time: The Joffrey Ballet’s music director Scott Speck” comments on how the orchestra and dancers prepare for performances together.

angels and saints:

There are many images online of medieval angels playing instruments. Here are three of the angels:

Carol Lee’s Ballet in Western Culture has a brief informative section on medieval dance, pp. 6-11, including religious footing: “The notion that dancing was the principal pastime for the saints in heavenly regions was a medieval idea lingering from the ancient Greek mystery cults.” p.7.

There are many paintings depicting angels dancing. Here is a link to a famous Renaissance one, by Botticelli:

Challenges for Contemporary Conductors

Previous essays in Appreciating Ballet’s Music were focused on the creative phase and efforts involved in mounting European ballets in the past. But of course the role of conductors was always crucial to the success of what happened onstage with dancers.

This has continued to be true, and it seems pertinent to touch on what happened subsequently in the United States because whether new works or revivals are staged, conductors can either make or break a performance. Some of the articles in the endnotes discuss specific situations and offer general observations about how a conductor can contribute to overall excellence in a ballet performance.

* * *

In 1916, when Vaslav Nijinsky headed up a Ballets Russes cross-country tour of America, he was in charge of 65 dancers and 60 orchestral musicians. What an expense! But there were no recordings of their repertoire in those days, and the advantage obviously was that the conductor and musicians delivered the same music for the dancers in location after location. For the company’s prior U.S. tour, Ernest Ansermet conducted, and as reported in Lynn Garafola’s book, all conductor salaries were paid by Diaghilev. For the tour under Nijinsky, Pierre Monteux conducted, except for performances of Till.  The Metropolitan Opera guaranteed the transportation and salary costs of the orchestra.

Subsequently, such an expense would have been unthinkable for other companies, and so what happened is that touring ballet companies would take their conductors along, but hire musicians as needed in each city. Obviously the rehearsals and artistic sympatico and quality of instrumental performance could not always be counted on. Certainly this added to the challenges for the conductors and influenced the quality of the stage performances.

As the 20th century progressed, recordings came to be frequently used to lower costs but also as a way of getting around the uncertainties involved with ever-changing instrumental orchestral players and lack of adequate rehearsals.

* * *

Extolling the difference that live music and good conductors can make to a ballet performance, (while acknowledging the expense), writer Geoff Fallon commented:

Far more than recorded music, live music brings greater depth, intensity and emotion from the dancers and, indeed from the performance as a whole. By definition live music is in the moment, and under the baton of an experienced ballet conductor with a well-rehearsed orchestra, may be instantly adjusted during the performance to allow the dancers to more fully express themselves, or at other times, may push the dancers to the edge of their abilities. Live music produces a richer artistic experience for the dancers and, of course, an enhanced experience for the audience.

Observing the different demands upon ballet conductors in comparison with those in the purely symphonic world, Fallon pointed out  that to reach a level of excellence in collaborative artistry, “the ballet conductor must not only know the music, but must also know the choreography as well as the abilities and personalities of the individual dancers.”

At New York City Ballet

One company that has been fortunate in having its own ongoing orchestra and a history of excellent conductors is New York City Ballet. Following the eras of Robert Irving and Hugo Fiorato came Andrea Quinn and Clotilde Otranto. Since 2015, Andrew Litton has been the principal conductor.

To gain an impression of what Litton does in his role, an enlightening program to watch is the Guggenheim “Works and Process” online. (See notes). Speaking with Theodore Wisprud, and with admirable live dance segments by members of the New York City Ballet, the conductor recalled his very first (and amazing) professional work with dancers. As an 18-year old Juilliard student, an opportunity fell into his lap to appear on Broadway as a pianist accompanying Rudolf Nureyev! Subsequently he did a program with Natalia Makarova. And it seems that his familiarity with the specific repertoire of New York City Ballet was gained simply by attending many performances around that time.

Then came 35 years conducting strictly symphonic concerts. Listings of his overwhelming credits for live performances as well as recordings can be accessed online. (Again, see notes.) But after guest conducting Coppélia  at New York City Ballet, he was offered the top position. Describing the duties that entails, Litton outlined a typical day: a three-hour morning rehearsal with the orchestra followed by attending all-afternoon studio rehearsals during which the dancers are accompanied by pianists only; and in the evening a full theater performance. For ballets long in repertoire, the onstage rehearsals are usually accompanied only by piano—so for many dancers, the first time they will hear the orchestra will be during the public onstage performance! With brand new ballets, however, there are typically several days of onstage rehearsals with orchestra.

Perennial among conductors’ concerns is tempo. “For 35 years I’ve decided the tempo,” commented Litton. Transferring from being on the podium during symphonic concerts to being in the pit with ballet, the conductor found sometimes tremendous differences. Notably, he spoke of recent scholarly findings that have led to faster tempos for Baroque pieces, while for dancers the tempos may be slower.  And together with dancers he demonstrated the different impression made with George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue when he performed it on the piano at his preferred tempo—and then at the slower speed chosen by choreographer Christopher Wheeldon (more suitable for the dance). “Yes, I win!” Litton exclaimed gleefully after the fast version. There was a tremendous difference for both dancers and audience. Litton referred to the fabled saying of conductors asking dancers: “Tonight do you want it too fast or too slow?”

The conductor spoke with enthusiasm about the enormous musical repertoire at New York City Ballet: how, for example, so many more works by Stravinsky are heard there than in purely symphonic concerts, where the repertoire sometimes seems to get in a “rut” with audiences hearing certain classical favorites season after season. For New York City Ballet’s “Here and Now” festival, as an example, the orchestra and dancers presented 43 different pieces in two weeks!

And finally, Andrew Litton spoke with admiration about the musicality of the dancers themselves and the way they know details of the music. For example, he cited how the ballet mistress Rosemary Dunleavy would sing or hum any passage where she wanted dancers to pick up during a rehearsal. Typical!

The notes below offer a link to this intriguing program plus some sources for information about how other conductors work with ballet dancers.


Ballets Russes tours:

For financial details of the company’s tours in America, see Lynn Garafola, Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes (Da Capo Press edition, 1998 reprint of the work originally published by Oxford University Press in 1989) p. 206:

The Metropolitan assumed responsibility for all administrative, travel, and orchestra costs, along with Nijinsky’s $60,000 salary, and the cost of two new productions, Till Eulenspiegel  and Mephisto Valse, both to be choreographed by the star. Diaghilev’s financial commitment was limited to salaries of the dancers, conductor, chief machinist, and company managers….

Unfortunately for Diaghilev, the tour was a fiasco. Despite generally good notices and occasionally good houses, the Metropolitan lost a quarter of a million dollars.

In a personal email dated August 28, 2020, Lynn Garafola kindly took the time to clarify some facts about the conductors:

The Ballets Russes made two tours of the U.S. in 1916.  The first began in New York at the Century Theatre on January 17, was followed by a tour of sixteen cities that began on January 31 and, finally, a season at the Metropolitan Opera House that began on April 3.  Diaghilev led the tour, with Ansermet as the conductor.  (Nijinsky rejoined the company at the Met.)  The second tour, which was under Nijinsky’s direction (Diaghilev had elected or was forced to remain in Europe), opened at the Met on October 16 and was followed by a very long tour that ended in Albany, New York, in February 1917.  When Monteux arrived in New York in September 1916 he announced that as someone who had fought in the trenches he would not conduct “Tyl Eulenspeigel,” which had music by Richard Strauss.  Anselm Goetz was thus hired to conduct “Tyl” in New York.

By Nijinsky’s granddaughter, Kinga Szakats Nijinsky Gaspers, Nijinsky in America: The American Tour of the Ballets Russes, 1916-1917. (Biblio, 2013). p. 200 includes a review from Pittsburgh indicating that the conductor H. H. Heidelberg conducted Till Eulenspiegel. It seems he also conducted in at least San Francisco and St. Louis.

Another source suggested by Lynn Garafola is Nesta Macdonald, Diaghilev Observed by Critics in England and the United States 1911-1929 (New York: Dance Horizons/London: Dance Books, 1975). p. 208 mentions that Monteux did—apparently on an emergency basis—conduct Till once, in Cincinnati in February 1917. The book traces tours in the U.S. and England, with reproductions of programs, photographs, and a multitude of critical reviews from regional newspapers. Nijinsky’s tour, pp. 199-212.

A related  CD is Ansermet and the Ballets Russes, on Decca/Eloquence label. With a booklet by Francois Hudry that mentions that on the American tour, Ernest Ansermet conducted 105 performances in 105 days.

Later in America:  

A disheartening but very interesting article about what happened later in the 20th century in America is this report by John Rockwell. The critic suggested that “you can’t have a really great overall performance of most ballets without a genuine collaboration between pit and stage,” and concluded that “great music is a prerequisite for great dance.”

A more positive story is that of San Francisco Ballet Orchestra. For information drawn from interviews with the conductor Denis de Coteau, see report  of how he changed the quality of the orchestra, in Katherine Teck, Music for the Dance, pp.127-132.

For a succinct article about the history of San Francisco Ballet’s Orchestra since de Coteau took the baton in 1975 up to the present (including their recordings of ballet music) see

New York City Ballet:

The New York City Ballet Orchestra is often held up as an example of good ongoing support for the dancers. Again, for an interview with the late conductor Robert Irving, see Katherine Teck, Music for the Dance, pp. 124-127. Brief profile of conductor for New York City Ballet since 2015, Andrew Litton. A longer bio plus covers of his more than 130 recordings and reviews of orchestral concerts. The Guggenheim Works and Process program. A 2006 article by Roslyn Sulcas, “Dance Conducting: Good for the Nerves if Not for the Career,” drawing on interview with Andrea Quinn, who for five years conducted the New York City Ballet Orchestra. Several other conductors were also interviewed for the article.

About other conductors:

For a slice-of-life with the freelance orchestra for American Ballet Theatre preparing to perform at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York in 1986, see Katherine Teck, Music for the Dance, chapter 7. Chapter 6 focuses on  instrumentalists themselves.

For a current roster of orchestral players and profiles of the ABT conductors, go to

From 2015, “What are Ballet Conductors For” by Joe Horowitz, about U.S. performances by the Marinsky Ballet (which brought its own orchestra all the way from Russia), conducted by Valery Gergiev.

From the danceus website, here is a good article by Geoff Fallon in which he asks “What does the ballet conductor really do?” and then gives a reply, after first commenting on what regular symphony orchestra conductors do. Comments on advantages of live music. Quotations are taken from this source:

Here is an appreciative article by Sarah L. Kaufman from The Washington Post of April 29, 2020 about what conductors and their musicians can do to adjust to what is happening onstage. “Ballet conductors are the hidden heroes of the art form,” she wrote in connection with classics like Swan Lake and Giselle.

And finally, this is a very long hyperlink but here is a spread of images of ballet conductors. If you click on each picture, online sources pop up. (Including information about Robert Irving, Constant Lambert, John Lanchbery, Barry Wordsworth, Riccardo Drigo, Emil deCou, Pierre Monteux, and Nicolette Fraillon of the Australian Ballet.)  Fraillon explains what she does. AF4AIABN4gBN5IBATGYAQCgAQGqAQdnd3Mtd2l6wAEB&sclient=psy-ab&ved=0ahUKEwidw6jG2ITrAhWqhXIEHfTQBjwQ4dUDCAw&uact=5

Paul Taylor’s Music Director:

Although considered a “modern dance company,” and his dancers performed barefoot, yet it is not misplaced to pay tribute here to the late choreographer Paul Taylor (1930-2018) and his music director Donald York (1947-2021). Taylor ranged far and wide in his choice of music, and valued live musical performances whenever finances permitted.

Donald York had a rare talent for collaborating with dancers as both composer and conductor for the Paul Taylor Dance Company. As their music director for decades, he led the orchestras that performed for the eagerly awaited spring seasons in New York City.  On tour the company usually had to use recordings, but York did conduct some out-of-town engagements with live orchestras.

The original scores that York composed for Paul Taylor include Polaris; Diggity; Lost, Found, and Lost; Snow White; Last Look; Syzygy; Of Bright and Blue Birds and the Gala Sun; and House of Joy. In addition, he arranged many works for the company, and for some dances performed as pianist (for instance for Taylor’s Rehearsal, set to Stravinsky’s two-piano version of The Rite of Spring). His versatility extended to arranging music for shows and conducting on Broadway, including a revival of Sweet Charity and Bette Midler’s Clams on the Half Shell.

The musician was also a warm and imaginative human being. I had the pleasure of interviewing Don York for my book Music for the Dance: Reflections on a Collaborative Art (see pages 69-72 and 95-99).  He participated in the unusual conductors’ panel presented by the International Guild of Musicians in  Dance, at Marymount Manhattan College, saying goodbye by declaring “California, Here I Come!”

And indeed, York based his subsequent career on the West Coast, though he continued to work with the Taylor company. Additionally, he did national tours as conductor for major musicals including Chicago, Beauty and the Beast, The Producers,  and Fosse, and of course dance was an important part of such shows. Closer to his new home in Temecula, California, he was music director and musical performer for a show called Songs for a New World, and performed with the musical Bandwagon presented at the Old Globe in San Diego.

As an arranger, early on Don York had done work for children’s television specials, and during his career he had various interesting projects. One, in 2000 was to both compose and conduct his “Song of Old” for the lighting of the national Christmas tree when Bill Clinton was there as president, with the Navy band accompanying singers from the Fosse touring company. Near the end of his life he composed The Quarantine Quintet for the American Brass Quintet. It was premiered at the Aspen Music Festival in the summer of 2021, with the three movements titled Loss; Grief; and Hope. And it seemed that York never stopped making music. He left unfinished a musical he was working on about a child prodigy.  (He himself had in fact been a child prodigy, going on to become quite skilled as a jazz pianist). 

But it was as a conductor that endeared Donald York to many colleagues. Instrumentalists who worked with him in various pits would remark not only about his collaborative theater skills, but also about his appreciative and considerate way of dealing with musicians.

Some years ago, speaking with me in a private interview, Paul Taylor had remarked:

Don is the best conductor I have ever worked with. His sense of timing is absolutely marvelous; it’s a miracle. He has a God-given sense for what is right. He knows what our tempos should be; we’ve decided on that. He doesn’t usually vary his tempos unintentionally. But for some evenings, just for the night, it might be better to move things along more, not drag or take time here, because it’s working for the audience, or for the dancer. With Don, there are intentional  variations. See repertoire at the company website.   The music is listed for each work, and for some there are audio samples. an old recording, but with Donald York conducting Bach for Paul Taylor’s Esplanade performed by his then very young company! This link is part 1 of 5; the rest follow one after the other.

Highly recommended is the Docurama DVD Paul Taylor Dancemaker, a film by Matthew Diamond that was nominated for an Oscar. Provides glimpses into rehearsals, touring in India, the hard work and incredible artistry of the dancers, with clips of repertoire, including two with scores by Donald York: Polaris and Last Look. Also suggests variety of music used—by Bach, Handel, Offenbach, Astor Piazzola, plus surprising mix for Cloven Kingdom (Corelli, Cowell, Miller). One stellar dancer, Patrick Corbin, is filmed remarking “You completely lose yourself and become part of the music.” Another is heard referring to the dances as “ballets,” and they certainly do impress one as the highest “art” possible! Donald York was listed as music director at the time the film was made (1998). This is an upload of the DVD.

Unfortunately, there seems to be currently only one other available DVD of the company. Paul Taylor Dance Company in Paris was filmed in 2012 and is on Bel Air Classique label. It includes an exhiliarating non-stop performance of Brandenburgs set to Bach, and the deeply emotional Beloved Renegade, set to Poulenc’s Gloria and offering a general tribute to the American poet Walt Whitman. Michael Trusnovec gives a stunningly beautiful sculpted portrayal as the lead; Laura Halzack is the guiding angel.

See obituary of Donald York, written by Penelope Green in The New York Times. For current information about the company, now called Paul Taylor American Modern Dance. Since 2015 they have partnered with the St. Luke’s Orchestra based in New York, now conducted by Bernard Labadie.

For Paul Taylor’s essay “Why I Make Dances,” see Katherine Teck, Making Music for Modern Dance. pp.244-47.  A report from 2012 of the difficult decision the dance company had to make to use recorded music. Those audience members who objected, however, apparently did not help enough to raise the half-million or so dollar cost of hiring union musicians. Some conductors in other dance companies have suggested the solution of ear-marking some fund-raising for the option of live music. An ongoing challenge. The viewpoint of union Local 802. Reports the solution found for funding live music was that Paul Taylor himself  provided a sizable amount personally by selling some of his art collection, and then his board chipped in.

Instrumentalists in the Pits

Now for a few words about the performing orchestral musicians directed by all those conductors! Until the latter part of the 19th century, if you were an instrumental musician in the United States, you were pretty much on your own when it came to economic and contractual arrangements. You didn’t even have any associations the equivalent of those medieval guilds.

Generally considered the first musicians’ labor union in the U.S. was the Musical Mutual Protective Union formed in New York City in 1860 by what was at first a social club of German musicians. A national organization was formed in Philadelphia in 1871, and it is interesting that one of its thrusts was to counter the competition from traveling musicians and road shows—a concern seen previously among the medieval guild members! By 1896 the American Federation of Musicians was chartered for “any musician who receives pay for his musical services.” And in 1921 Local 802 of the AFM was chartered for New York City professional musicians. Their initial admission requirement was a two-dollar fee. Other locals were formed throughout the U.S., and nowadays anyone who wishes to may join online (and subsequently pay the going rate of dues depending on which local is involved).

Unlike the requirements of the medieval Paris guild, aspiring AFM members do not have to audition or serve years as apprentices. It is considered that anyone who wants to join is already a competent professional performer—and most likely one who has had years of music lessons. Competition for the highest-paid positions (for instance with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra or Radio City Music Hall) is fierce—and instrumentalists may have to audition for specific organizations, nowadays often behind a screen to insure there will be equal opportunity focused on talent alone. For ballet orchestras, arrangements differ:  auditions may be required for more long-term positions; in the case of a basically free-lance orchestra, the orchestra’s contractor may simply recruit union players considered good for the open positions, perhaps only for a single season.

The AFM is mainly focused on financial matters and working conditions, yet the union affirms some fundamental values in its mission statement: working so that members can live and work in dignity and find their work compensated fairly; recognizing the importance of members having the opportunity to develop their talents and skills. They also assert commitment to treating each other with respect and dignity regardless of ethnicity, creed, age, gender, citizenship, disability, marital status, family status, national origin, or sexual orientation.

This last standard is a welcome change.  Earlier on, women and African-American musicians were subject to enormous prevailing prejudice. There were social barriers as well. At least one fine 20th-century musician for American Ballet Theatre left the company precisely because on a tour of the South, she could not stay in the same hotel with the white dancers because of segregation.

Before that, there was a noteworthy report that had an unexpected outcome. The very popular ballroom dance artists Vernon and Irene Castle had a favorite musician: James Reese Europe (who had an enormous reputation not only with his dance orchestras but also because of his stellar Army band that served in Europe during World War I). During one Broadway engagement, the Castles found that union rules then did not allow black musicians to play in the pits of Broadway theaters. They got around that by having Europe and his instrumentalists perform onstage!

The restrictions due to racial prejudice have changed considerably by now. Similarly, in regard to women musicians. For one example: Julie Landsman has been widely recognized as one of the outstanding hornplayers in the world. For 25 years she was principal horn with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra—considered the highest accomplishment for an orchestral instrumentalist. The way she made her “breakthrough” was by playing behind a screen during the audition so that the opera committee could not see her. As a finale, she played the long call from Wagner’s opera Siegfried (one of the most difficult passages in the repertoire), and when she came to the final last high note, she held it and held it beyond what anybody ever expected. Putting down her horn, she could hear the committee gasping—and she knew she had won the position. For a quarter of a century she performed beautifully with the orchestra to accompany not only singers but also the dancers onstage.

notes and explorations: brief history of New York City AFM Local 802, written by Bill Rohdin. This includes report that the Castles were the first popular dance artists to hire black musicians. Brief bio of leader of Harlem Hellfighter’s Band in World War I, later of the Clef Club orchestras that played for social dance engagements and dance performances.

Reid Badger, A Life in Ragtime: A Biography of James Reese Europe (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995). A must-read book about this remarkable musician, especially for those interested in the history of professional African-American musicians for dance.

Brief profile of the late outstanding accompanist Marjorie Landsmark-DeLewis, in Katherine Teck, Movement to Music: Musicians in the Dance Studio, pp. 31-35. Includes her comments on playing for American Ballet Theatre, and their tour of the South.

The AFM did not and does not enter into contractual arrangements for studio pianists—who are considered soloists who accept individual financial arrangements in professional companies. Similarly, in colleges and private dance studios, pay for accompanists is considered an educational matter, with arrangements made by each school.

For information  about the Met horn player, see By clicking on her “Music” section you can hear her play the long call from Siegfried and a number of other excerpts plus the entire beautiful Brahms trio with piano and violin.

The International Guild of Musicians in Dance

Unlike the AFM union which has a primarily economic purpose, the International Guild of Musicians in Dance does not enter into contracts or become involved in financial arrangements. Rather, as highlighted in its mission statement, its goal is to “promote artistic excellence and develop education in the field, cultivate and encourage increased communication between and within the worlds of music and dance, and create a forum for the sharing of ideas, information, and resources among its members.”

This unique organization was founded in 1991 by the late William Moulton—then director of music in the dance department of SUNY Brockport, later at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. Membership has never entailed any requirement other than the desire to learn more skills and share information about how musicians and dancers can collaborate successfully. No apprenticeship is necessary, and membership is open to musicians and dancers in many styles, to students, teachers, and professionals alike.

Here is a sampling of experiences at Guild conferences.

Workshop sessions

The Guild has held conferences that have included formal public dance concerts. But also highly valued by members have been the workshop sessions: musicians accompanying dance students in studios; outstanding dance artists lecturing and dancing in improvisatory performances; experienced collaborators sharing their insights into composing and teaching; dancers explaining the music and instruments used in styles from various cultures around the globe; teachers giving tips about how to structure courses in music for dancers.

Conductors’ panel

As just one example of conference offerings, for its 1995 workshop in New York City (hosted by Saul Spangenberg at Marymount Manhattan College), the Guild threw a spotlight on the important role of conductors who are more usually down in the darkened pits. The experienced panel included Donald York of the Paul Taylor Dance Company; Stanley Sussman of the Martha Graham Dance Company as well as the Cleveland/San Jose Ballet; David Briskin of the Erick Hawkins Dance Company; David LaMarche of the Dance Theatre of Harlem; and Robert Sirota of the Carlisle Project and Peabody Institute.

Summarizing his appreciation of this unique opportunity for specialist collaborative musicians to gather and talk about their work, Donald York wrote in a thank-you note:

It was wonderful to be a part of your conference. Inspiring to be in a room where everyone shares in the same madness. The Guild represents a small corner of the universe, but a wonderful, magical corner where the spirit can soar. I’m glad to have been there.

Musicians who dance and dancers who are also musicians

Participants at Guild conferences over the years have featured artists with multiple talents. Particularly outstanding was Maria Tallchief, considered “America’s first prima ballerina” when she danced for Balanchine. Later director for ballet at the Lyric Opera in Chicago, as a young girl she had studied piano and at one point had even considered becoming a concert pianist. She gifted a Florida Guild gathering with recollections and opinions about music for dance.

Among many others who have shared their talents in talking and performing and demonstrations, here is a sampling:

  • Ben Hazard, not only a composer and dancer with the Atlanta Ballet.
  • Lou Harrison, composer of many scores for ballet and modern dance.
  • Musician/dancer Andrew Warshaw demo of motor movement and kinetics.
  • Viola Farber, pianist then dancer for Merce Cunningham; then choreographer.
  • Vernon Windsor, musician/dancer for 15 years with Co’ Motion troupe.
  • Marcello Cofini, musician from Italy not only lecturing about tarantellas but also giving a breath-taking performance as a dancer!

Outstanding collaborative musicians

  • John Colman, former pianist for Balanchine and Kurt Jooss,
  • Jess Meeker, composer/pianist for Ted Shawn.
  • Lucia Dlugoszewski, composer for Erick Hawkins.
  • Gladys Celeste, pianist at American Ballet Theatre.
  • Pianist/composer Larry Attaway former music director for Bella Lewitzky.
  • Philip Hamilton, jazz singer, percussionist, and studio accompanist.
  • Douglas Corbin, pianist/associate professor at Florida State University; formerly in New York pianist for David Howard studios, American Ballet Theatre, Merce Cunningham, the Ailey School.  CDs.

Musicians playing varied instruments

  • Ron George, with his unique percussion setup.
  • Cellist Gwendolyn Watson from Stanford University.
  • Khalid Saleem, master drummer for the Chuck Davis Dance Company.
  • Pianist Galina Bezouglaya of the Maryinsky ballet in Russia.
  • Elina Lampinen of Finland leading a group demonstrating “body percussion.”
  • Christopher Landau, pianist for Martha Graham’s “Maple Leaf Rag,” performing.
  • Marjorie Landsmark-DeLewis, pianist for Agnes de Mille and other artists. accompanying class and also performing her arrangement of  “Balm in Gilead.”

Unusual performances and events

  • Modern dancer Sara Rudner performing to the sounds of her own heartbeat.
  • Choreographer Donald McKayle talking about his life in dance.
  • David Karagianis, from Loyola Marymount University in his “Dance Scorathon” presentations offering a number of alternative, and generally highly contrasting, scoring approaches to illustrate musical possibilities for original choreography by his students. “I almost always attempt to score or rescore these dances with a variety of contrasting meters and tempos,” he emphasized.
  • In Urbana, host musician John Toenjes exploring multi-media methods and impelling often sedentary musicians to get up and improvise physically.
  • Showings of video interviews with choreographer/musician Alwin Nikolais and Ruth Lloyd, pianist from early days at Bennington dance summers.
  • Natalie Gilbert (music director of the American Dance Festival) leading a demonstration of instant vocalizing techniques.
  • In Tempe, Robert Kaplan spearheading a performance leading  people around the beautiful campus of the Arizona State University.
  • In Florida, a dancer from Ghana demonstrating  and a dancer from India  explaining the tala method of teaching rhythms vocally.

In dance studios

  • In California, pianist Alan Terriciano improvising for class of dance students..
  • Norman Beede, another master of pianistic improvisation.
  • Master accompanist John Childs from New York.
  • In Florida, Ray Brooks and Greg Presley demonstrating “This Sound Always Works!”

Among the favorite sessions of attendees have been “round robin” studio classes in which dance students keep moving while musicians slip on and off piano benches to show how different styles can appropriately accompany the same movement combinations. And then there were sessions where one musician would choose another at random to improvise duets together for the first time.

Lecture/demo highlights

  • Janet Soares, author/dancer, assistant to Louis Horst (musician for Graham).
  •  A panel of leading arts managers spoke about fund-raising.
  • Guild president Bill Moulton and Alan Terriciano of the UNC at Irvine suggested ways to improvise impressions of historical musical styles.
  • Stephen Rush of Michigan explained how with state-of-the-art equipment he could literally overnight present audio and print samples of possibilities that could be expanded for a choreographer’s work in progress.
  • Manjunan Gnanaratnam described his innovative Open Source Dance project in Minnesota where artists could come together to explore multi-media trends.

These are only a small sample of the topics and variety of music and dance events open to attendees at the Guild conferences. In recent years, the Guild has held joint conferences with the National Dance Educators Organization (NDEO), which has enormous membership and enormous conferences.

Related efforts and materials

For a number of years, Suzanne Knosp of the University of Arizona was unflagging in her efforts not only as president of the organization, but also in initiating a masters degree in accompaniment of dance as well as hosting workshops in Arizona and arranging  for gatherings at other  locations.

All the Guild conferences from 1991 through 2021 are listed in notes below as well as on the organization’s website, and the complete articles for the first seven years of the Guild’s published journal are also available online. The Guild’s archives of documentary films, interviews, recordings, and writings are in the process of being assembled, with some materials planned to be digitalized.

Current concerns

Under Jeff Zahos the Guild has initiated Zoom meetings. Additionally, the members make use of discussion groups online to share questions and information about their specialized skills and concerns, as well as to post timely announcements about performances, recordings, technology, and various employment positions. Past, present, and future: all considered and celebrated!


notes and explorations:

For both information and membership in the International Guild of Musicians in Dance, go to

For information about the Minneapolis project innovated by Manjunan Gnanaratnam, go to

Conferences to date, International Guild of Musicians in Dance:

Date, Location – Host

1991 Brockport, New York – Bill Moulton

1992 Brockport, New York – Bill Moulton

1993 Miami, Florida – Natalie Gilbert, Max VanderBeek

1994 Tallahassee, Florida – Greg Presley and Ray Brooks

1995 New York, New York – Saul Spangenberg

1995 Sibelius Academy, Finland – Elina Lampinen

1997 Tempe, Arizona – Robert Kaplan and David Karagianis

1998 Stockholm, Sweden – Lars Dahlman

2000 Columbus, Ohio (Meeting) – Natalie Gilbert

2001 Columbus, Ohio – Natalie Gilbert

2001 Salzburg, Austria – Elina Lampinen

2002 Columbus, Ohio – Natalie Gilbert

2004 Irvine, CA – Alan Terriciano

2007 Urbana, Illinois – John Toenjes

2009 Tallahassee, Florida – Doug Corbin

2010 Tucson, Arizona – Suzanne Knosp

2011 Minneapolis, Minnesota (concurrent with NDEO) – Suzanne Knosp and Manjunan Gnanaratnam

2012 Los Angeles, California (concurrent with NDEO) Suzanne Knosp

2013 Brockport, New York – Tamara Wilcox

2015 Phoenix, Arizona (concurrent with NDEO) – Robert Kaplan, Suzanne Knosp

2018 Durham, North Carolina  (Summer retreat) – Natalie Gilbert

2021–virtual conference from Urbana, Illinois,
           hosted by John Toenjes and Manjunan Gnanaratnam

information on some of the featured artists: bio of America’s first prima ballerina. bio of the dancer/choreographer. bio of Viola Farber. Jess Meeker’s bio at the Jacob’s Pillow Archives. Obituary of John Colman. Obituary of Lucia Dlugoszewski, written by dance critic Jennifer Dunnning.

Exploring professional opportunities:

For pianists who may be wondering how their talents could be put to use professionally: there is still a place for the traditional studio dance accompanist. Basically the same role filled as in ballet studios going back a long time. (Although for centuries, a solo violin was used in teaching dance—usually played by the dance master.) As an example of the skills called for nowadays, here is an excerpt from a posting made by the Richmond Ballet in 2019, and this is how many musicians for dance get started in the field. It should be noted that for studio musicians accompanying modern dance or jazz dance, perhaps the most important skill is being able to improvise in many styles. But for ballet, this is typical:

The School of Richmond Ballet is seeking to hire a part-time accompanist for weekly ballet classes as scheduled.  Accompanists support The School faculty in presenting ballet classes by providing inspirational accompaniment for dance classes. Pianists with prior dance accompaniment experience are preferred…Applicants need to possess a strong classical piano technique, good musicianship, and have the ability to follow musical direction.  A ready grasp of classical repertoire is essential and sight-reading, while not entirely necessary, is very helpful….Requirements include choosing music with appropriate rhythms and tempos by observing the movement of the dancers, having the ability to adapt/improvise in order to support the quality of the movement, always being prepared and consistent in the studio. Must be diligent, reliable, and maintain cooperative working relationships with faculty, staff and students.

Online classes to view:

Especially for those who have never seen a ballet class, the following websites from the annual “World Ballet” events provide some excellent examples of what pianists are expected to play in the studio class. Professional dancers do not want to hear repertoire when they are working out! From the World Ballet Day 2021 here is the Dutch National Ballet in a full company class taught by Charlotte Chapellier, accompanied by pianist Paul Lewis. Viewers thought this especially beautiful—both dancers and music.  Royal Ballet for 2019 taught by Brian Maloney with pianist Robert Clark. A number of viewers particularly appreciated the pianist, one saying that “The main thing of ballet class is an accompanist!” Another viewer remarked on the fact that Clark did not use music—but with professional accompanists, this is normal! And this is 2018 class taught by Olga Evreinoff and with again pianist Robert Clark, identified further by words like “fantastic.” Witness to how in touch the musician must be with the teacher and class, here is an amusing comment by viewer Stephanie C: I love how the teacher basically says “ok so you’re going to bfisbalfbkfofhwiwbfkfownwos got it?! Ok let’s go” and the dancers are like yup ok got it! Bayerische Staatsoper class, taught in English by Yana Zelensky. Pianist, Natalia Rysina. 2019. Paris Opera Ballet class led by Andrey Klemm (partly in English). Pianist, Nanko Tsuji (partly some repertoire). Staaatsballet Berlin, 2020. Yannick Sempey teacher; Nodira Burchanowa, pianist. She includes some music from ballet repertoire—just another  example of different ways of playing for class. Joburg, South Africa class. Viewers found this awesome! Teacher is Thabang Mabaso.  Unfortunately no live pianist. Hong Kong Ballet, 2019. Scottish Ballet 2019. Teacher: Oliver Rydout. Pianist, Brian Prentice. Especially nice! Lovely progression from gentle plié music to warming bodies further at the barre. Teacher is terrific in giving the expected rhythms and meters and tempos by the way he vocalizes the exercises. Pianist tastefully injects some jazz sounds now and then, beautifully supports dancers doing slow arabesques etc. up to men’s vigorous turns in second and ladies’ leaps. Good example of dancers’ amazing abilities to remember complicated center combinations immediately! One viewer commented:  “Great class! Great teacher! Fab pianist! Gorgeous dancers!” Australian Ballet. Included practice for little swans from Swan Lake, excerpts from Cinderella, etc. Wendy Whelan guest teaches the trainees at Ballet Met. Tyrone Boyle is the pianist.  Unfortunately Ms. Whelan’s voice can barely be heard, but still worth watching. Artistic director Peter Boal leads three dancers of Pacific Northwest Ballet, May 2020 during time of virus, in an hour class. Pianist is Natasha Pinelis.

training for accompanists:  professional intensive workshops in accompanying dance, at the Mark Morris studios in Brooklyn, NY.  The Scottish Ballet in conjunction with the Scottish Conservatoire offers a program in Piano for Dance  International conferences at the Accademia Nazionale di Danza in Rome. Journals. Focus is on many aspects of collaboration, including both practical explorations of music for studio and performance, as well as scholarly research. Another workshop—week-long, in Quebec. Canada’s National Ballet School mentoring for musicians program. The Danish National School of Performing Arts offers a two-year post-graduate program in accompaniment. The first of wonderful online videos by Spanish pianist Mariana Palacios demonstrates how to accompany ballet. She has delightful sense of humor but plays a wide spectrum of improvisations, repertoire, and her own compositions. She is intending to mount an online formal course, but meanwhile one of her You Tube videos also offers information about places where one can receive training and information (including via instagram). her video of benefits of accompanying for class! a light-hearted article from Dance Magazine May 2018 by Jonathan Mathews about what it was like to start out dancing and then turn to accompanying.

academic positions:

As an aspiring musician gains skills, another career possibility might be as a full-time (ten-month) “principal musician,” at a college or university, with responsibilities such as the following (taken from several actual calls for employment ):

Accompanying dance classes in ballet, modern, and jazz; hiring other musicians and scheduling part-time hours to cover all studio classes; mentoring less experienced musicians; composing original music for faculty and student performances; securing legal “grand rights” permissions if extant music by other composers is used; maintaining pianos and percussion instruments; maintaining sound systems; teaching students how to use sound systems; teach classes in fundamentals of music within the dance department; teach classes in history of music, including not only European works but also “world” and popular American styles; sight read music; provide sheet music for particular works requested by dance teachers.

In my article “Rosenella, or the Princess Musician” published in Attitude: The Dancer’s Magazine, I reported (with only a few exaggerations) about academic calls for employment, in order to point out just how much was expected and demanded of musicians who filled higher level positions as directors of music for dance:

Qualifications: MFA in music composition; demonstrated excellence in accompanying ballet and modern dance classes; strong classical piano technique and personal library of ballet scores; ability to improvise in all contemporary jazz, medieval, Renaissance, Romantic, Baroque, Classical, and world music styles; extensive experience in collaborative composing of music for professional dance productions; creativity in teaching music courses for dancers; excellence in performing at public concerts; technical expertise in state-of-the-art theatrical sound and recording equipment; thorough knowledge of dance technique and styles; proficiency with Latin, African-American, and Asian percussion instruments; means of transport and personal collection of drums; expertise in keyboard synthesizers and computerized composing; working knowledge of arithmetic and sewing; ability to count the right way.

Duties: teach undergraduate dance department courses in musical theory and musical literature; develop related curriculum; play 20 hours a week of accompanying studio classes in ballet and modern dance plus sessions in choreography and improvisation—using piano, percussion, synthesizers, recording equipment and other available instruments; audition, train and supervise staff accompanists; consult with faculty and student choreographers; serve on department committees; serve on university committees; supervise junior student choreography projects; supervise senior dance student choreography projects; supervise graduate student choreography projects; compose original music for dance projects; rehearse evenings and weekends; provide all aspects of sound production, including editing and mastering of performance master tapes; supervise musicians for performances; negotiate with musicians’ union; maintain sound equipment; maintain library of recordings; maintain activity in scholarly writings to insure tenure; maintain personal professional activity in performance, research, and composing; maintain sanity. [Attitude, Spring 1993, pp. 68-70]

Hats off to the professional collaborating musicians who in reality add so much to the efforts of dance students and teachers!

Drawing from Widening Traditions

An anonymous reader for the initial draft of these essays (then contemplated as a print book without convenient hyperlinks) commented that they  seemed  very “Euro-centric.” And that certainly was true, since of course ballet as a distinct theatrical style was developed in Europe and used European music. Consequently, the history of earlier ballet’s music presented in these essays shows a clear tradition of European art music.

However, as theatrical ballet styles have changed and as there have been more cross-over styles with modern dance and jazz, so too the music used has drawn from wider possibilities. In the United States, the Joffrey Ballet can be singled out as having had an especially diverse repertoire, drawing greatly from American concert composers and even from rock stars.

Dancers and choreographers who perform in “modern” or “contemporary” styles have widened their choices of music even further. Some have been drawn to African and Caribbean heritage (one thinks of Alvin Ailey or Garth Fagan), and also to American jazz and experimental music involving electronic technology. Certainly among the most interesting musically have been the choreographic works of Paul Taylor and Mark Morris for their respective companies.

Some of this musical diversity was reflected in the first-hand essays that I collected for my book Making Music for Modern Dance: Collaboration in the Formative Years of a New American Art. To see the names of the choreographers, dancers, composers, instrumentalists and others who were included in this spectrum of 20th-century artists, go to the complete table of contents in the publisher’s website indicated in the notes below.

One of the articles is by composer Henry Cowell, who urged musicians to “explore the whole world of music.”  It would seem that nowadays musicians for dance are certainly putting that advice into practice! Just a few examples will be introduced in the following notes.

For a list of artist/authors, see the table of contents, Oxford University Press book of readings edited by Katherine Teck, Making Music for Modern Dance, go to:

A delightful reply to anybody who expects fantasy ballet stories and music of the past to be less “Eurocentric” and more in line with 21st century “world music” and “world dance” academic views, can be found in this quotation from ballet critic Robert Greskovic’s book Ballet 101 [New York: Limelight Editions 2005 republication of the work originally published by Hyperion in 1998] p. 361. He is commenting specifically on La Bayadère with music by Minkus and choreography by Petipa:

Critics looking for ethnographic or anthropological accuracy around the time of Bayadère’s premiere carped about the anomalies and, to put it kindly, “artistic liberties” found in the ballet. Those critical sentiments, however, pale in comparison to some of our own day’s harsh accusations of crimes against everything from India’s culture to women’s rights. But however off the mark of historical accuracy Petipa might have been, he was on the mark for creating a Romantic kind of ballet theater. All I usually say to ethnographical, anthropological, and sociopolitical carping at works like Bayaderka, is a modified refrain of what Balanchine said to the complainers who found his Union Jack, a Scottish Tattoolike ballet inauthentic as a military parade: “If you want the real thing, go [elsewhere.]” In Balanchine’s case the specific answer was “Fifth Avenue” where you could see a real parade; in Bayaderka’s case, I suggest you go to India on a package tour.

Petipa’s India, and that of the ballet’s composer Ludwig Minkus, remains European in flavor, with a strong Russian tone.

Ask just about any young person: do fairy tales and fantasies have their own “truth” and the answers will likely be yes. As with the Bible, after all, there are different kinds of “truths” available even when the stories presented are not factually accurate historically speaking! And in the case of ballets, after all, the whole point is that we enjoy seeing spectacular dancing in the theater, sometimes framed by a made-up story, sometimes performed entirely for itself in relation to any music that the choreographer might choose. So in the case of La Bayadère  for one example, right: the music is not at all Indian; purely European in stylistic content and orchestral performance. Not what artists would do nowadays, but representative of its time and place of origin. And so we can still  enjoy it as that and be drawn into the story as we watch!

If people nowadays want to see a dance with more culturally-related music, I would suggest Robert Battle’s solo Takedeme! I first saw it performed by a soloist from Battle’s own dance company, to the musical syllabic vocalizing of Sheila Chandra (with the syllables being the way Indian dancers learn their rhythms in real life). After Robert Battle became artistic director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, he remounted it for men. Here are some brief clips:

another organization: an international collective of dance musicians, teachers and choreographers who work towards enhancing music and movement interconnections. 

Translucent Borders:

An example of global sharing is the exciting Translucent Borders project directed by Andrew Teirstein of the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. The project explores ways that dancers and musicians can act as catalysts for creative engagement across geographic, cultural, and economic borders.

Since 2015, Translucent Borders has facilitated interaction between dancers and musicians in the Middle East, Greece, Cuba, and Ghana through interviews, knowledge-sharing circles, master classes, improvisatory lab work, and collaborative performance. The project is a Working Group of NYU’s Global Institute for Advanced Study. The online video introduces some extraordinary music, instruments, dancing, and thoughts of people from many countries sharing their creativity.

One of the many intriguing interviews with participants in the project is with the American choreographer Donald Byrd, talking emotionally about his first trip to Ghana, and about the music and dance experiences he had because of the Translucent Borders project.

European student collaborations:

“Motion, Emotion – Seven Days in Copenhagen”  Brief documentary. Executive Producer, David Yoken, an American composer/percussionist who at one point was music director for Laura Dean’s modern dance troupe. Moving to Finland many decades ago, he has had a varied career working with dancers and becoming involved in international exchanges. He is Professor at the Turku University of Applied Sciences, where his wife Tarja Yoken has long been a dance teacher. In January 2021, David Yoken was awarded the Cross of Merit of the White Rose of Finland by the country’s president. One of Finland’s highest honors, it recognized David Yoken’s work in promoting dance and music in the Nordic region, and for promoting climate activism through artistic exchange.

This film follows a group of some 70 dance and music students from Iceland, Norway, Denmark, Swedem, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, the United States, and Belgium during a week-long workshop at the Danish National School for the Performing Arts. Explorations and choreography are in post-modern styles.
Longer video,  “A Sound of a Movement,” filmed in Lithuania. Yoken spearheaded such exchanges from 1998 until 2019 under the umbrella name of Explorations and Collaborations in the Arts. Everybody speaks English. Music and movement were collaborative creations by participants. “A “new kind of art form?” asks one. Many intriguing moments of playful creative interaction. For one–look for cellist and dancer’s fingers. A long way in time and style from the theatrical dance of the Sun King, Lully, and the Ballet de la Nuit!

NYCB and Colombian/Canadian Singer/songwriter

For its fall 2021 fashion gala opening up after a long COVID pause, New York City Ballet featured a new ballet by choreographer Andrea Miller with music commissioned from Colombian/Canadian singer/songwriter Lido Pimienta. Titled sky to hold, the new work spotlighted not only the dancers’ costumes designed by Esteban Cortázar, but also Lido Pimienta herself onstage to the side, performing her own music with the orchestral score transcribed and arranged by Canadian composer Owen Pallet.

There is of course no film, so those of us at a distance cannot see and hear sky to hold with its departure from New York City Ballet’s musical styles of the past. But to get a sense of this singer’s voice and colorful performance, a link to her film of her Grammy-nominated 2020 album Miss Colombia is provided below. Brief introduction by Lido Pimienta with her musicians, talking about “The Road Home.”  Miss Colombia Live. A little over an hour. One can be reminded of how the medieval  singer/composer Hildegard encouraged the beauty of female voices in telling stories. Now, in her music video, Lido Pimienta begins gently singing alone in Spanish, and a track of percussion instruments enters little by little. She expressively alters the timbre of her voice, while moving conservatively with her hips and hands. The songs she offers include one about giving birth to her daughter followed by her humorous “Lido Home Shopping” and her artwork. Then come songs “Coming Thru” and “Nappy Hair,” and especially lovely wordless vocalizing in her finale. Electronic effects incorporated effectively. Amusing take-off off on “credits.”  As she suggests, if we want to understand more, we need to learn Spanish. This is definitely a musical style new to the world of classical ballet. A taste of Lido Pimienta with dancers of the Grupo Kumba in Eso Que Tu Haces. Under  5 minute film. Seen by nearly  one and a half million viewers. Unusual long preview of the collaborative ballet in the October 4,2021 issue of The New York Times, written by Roslyn Sulcas. Includes several photos of both musician and choreographer, and their comments. Information on the website of the choreographer Andrea Miller’s dance company, Gallim.

Asian connection:

Another example of current international collaborations and training of future artists is the work of composer Claudia Howard Queen, formerly Professor of Music for Dance at the University of North Texas. Among her many awards are three International Fulbrights as guest artist at the Taipei National University of the Arts. She also performed with the Taiwanese improvisational dance company Ku & Dancers at the Taipei National Theater.  Back in the United States, she  has taught rigorous master classes to help dancers choose music for their choreography and to train musicians in how to work with dancers.  The photo on her website suggests how many composers work with computer setups. With musical samples and information on her master classes.

a star performer from China:

This is not about collaboration, but it is about the fact that ballet is no longer “Eurocentric.” Perhaps the most surprising story about a young boy rising from poverty in rural China to being chosen for training in the country’s ballet school in Beijing to becoming a principal dancer with the Houston Ballet under Ben Stevenson is told in the autobiographical book Mao’s Last Dancer by Li Cunxin (New York: Berkley Books, 2003). His unusual career was portrayed by the gifted dancer Chi Cao in the 2010 Samuel Goldwyn DVD distributed by Mongrel Media. It is an emotional true story full of family  love, political stress,  deprivation,  defection,  determination, artistic support, physical work, and sheer talent.  Li Cunxin danced for 16 years mostly as principal with the Houston Ballet, then moved to Australia and danced as principal with the Australian Ballet for a few more years. Both the book and the DVD are highly recommended! For now, you can view this entire amazing film online.

To learn about the dancer who starred in the film: He was born in China and trained at the Beijing Academy, where his father was the director. But from 1995 he had a position as dancer with the Birmingham Royal Ballet in England. In 2002 he was made a principal.

Richmond Ballet goes to China:

At a highly professional level, the Richmond Ballet enlisted Chinese-born Ma Cong as choreographer for a work that the company would perform not only at its home in Virginia, but also on tour in China, including his specially choreographed ballet titled Lift the Fallen. Unfortunately this is no longer available to view online, but worth mentioning that scenes from their tour included clips of the elegant modern theaters, in Shanghai, for example. One is reminded that the famous ballerina Margot Fonteyn had early ballet lessons in that city. As decades went on and the “Cultural Revolution” took hold in China, participation in Western arts was severely punished. Now, it seems that the artistic exchanges criss-cross the Pacific.  Biographies of Richmond Ballet’s founding artistic director Stoner Winslett, and Ma Cong, who was named associate artistic director in 2020. Ma Cong discusses his new work Lift the Fallen for the Richmond Ballet, with pre-existing music by Max Richter. brief clip from Lift the Fallen. A review about the album from which Ma Cong drew selections for his ballet. The writer commented:

The new reissue of German-born composer Max Richter’s Memoryhouse serves as a jolting reminder of just how much classical music has broken outside of its shell and into other realms during the last decade.

Max Richter is a contemporary composer (though born in Germany he grew up in Bedford, England, attended the Royal Academy of Music, and has maintained his career as a British musician). His first album Memoryhouse is not available at this time. But in 2020 a CD of his Voices was released on Decca, which includes a reading of the post-World War II Declaration of Human Rights. In a December 2020 program shown on PBS “Direct Talks,” the composer looked forward to a kinder world, though he was speaking in pandemic times. See brief bio and info on works, including commissions for several ballets: Brief talk by Max Richter on how he composed a ballet score for the Royal Ballet.  clips of the ballet itself. A most interesting 20 minute interview with dance artist Monica Mason celebrating her 54 years with The Royal Ballet, questioned by Alan Titchmarsh. Near the end, she considers the future of ballet and suggests the expanded term of  “dance,” then points to what she considered fine classical training and unusual creativity coming out of the Far East, especially China and Japan.

Going back to Richmond: here we have a Chinese-born dancer who mastered European-style ballet, moved to the U.S. to choreograph recognizably classic work for American companies, in this case drawing music from a German-born British composer of “post-classical” music blending electronics with orchestral sounds—all to be showcased on the Virginian company tour to China. Quite a journey through time and space from the early ballet performances of 16th century France!

Writing in his autobiography a decade or so before his death, dancer/teacher Jacques d’Amboise reflected:

What culture does classical ballet come from? It really derives from dances the Italian/French aristocracy developed in the courts, with folk influences, but is unique in the world because it jumps national barriers. Danilova once told me, “You are American boy—but when ballet dancer you are international, belong to the world, representing high art.” [I Was a Dancer, p. 80.]

World Ballet Day

All the performances described in these essays and shown on film certainly underscore the facts that today dance artists may come from many countries around the world, and similarly, that the music for present-day theatrical dance (including contemporary ballet) may be inspired by or drawn from diverse traditional and brand-new musical styles emanating from around the globe. 

Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in the annual World Ballet Day events 

streamed live and for free. In October 2021 viewers could watch 50 dance and ballet companies in daily classes, rehearsals, performances, and filmed documentaries, in an astounding array of styles.

What stood out most were the ways in which the various companies responded to the challenges of the COVID pandemic. For some there had been  lockdowns. Most companies had not been able to give public theatrical performances for well over a year. As the director of the Cuban Ballet noted, there were enormous challenges for dancers to keep up their abilities, both physically and mentally. 

Yet what developed in the preceding year were many interesting and positive innovations. The Royal Academy of Ballet, for instance, showed clips of how their teachers were using virtual tools to keep in touch with students and even bring in new ones as far-away as China and Japan. New Zealand teachers combined skateboarders and young dancers for a unique outdoor show. Children of all ages were all smiles as they were able to come together and dance outside in both grassy and cement locations.

Professionals themselves somehow managed to take classes and rehearse while wearing masks—some even performing in masks. Some companies were delighted to announce they had been able to resume their public performances just that fall. Some had worked on new choreographed ballets, using electronic music, but also—for example—a solo dancer in Sao Paulo performed to the music of a single guitarist (who respectfully was himself masked).  Summing up the challenges of the pandemic, on World Ballet Day James Whiteside of American Ballet Theatre introduced the work he created in a “bubble” in upstate New York, here shown in the outdoor performance. Titled City of Women, it has the appropriate theme of how ballet is passed down from dancer to dancer, celebrating what we owe to those who have come before us.  Simply lovely performance, to the andante from Schubert’s string quartet “Death and the Maiden.” .

For a glimpse of around-the-world in 40 hours, World Ballet Day offered opportunities to see the studios and theaters in which companies worked. The famous Mariinsky Ballet held its entire class on the stage of its historic theater.

The faces are no longer Euro-centric. Chinese-born Li Cunxin (Mao’s Last Dancer) was shown leading a class for the Queensland Ballet. According to its director, Birmingham Ballet regularly welcomes dancers from Australia. The Asian participants on World Ballet Day included companies from Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan and Korea. And the Bangkok Ballet presented dances that were contemporary in a universal way, as well as some that harked back to traditional styles. I can’t help marveling at all these changes, for I can remember how a friend (whose uncle was director of the traditional Pakavahli troupe) invited me to watch  from backstage during a lavishly costumed performance at New York’s City Center in the early 1960s.) 

Both the movement styles of the dancers around the globe and their music have become diverse. Barcelona Ballet offered their version of Swan Lake, followed by a modern work titled Tongues. In New York the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater offered clips from their repertoire including Revelations plus a few moments about Kanji Segawa’s Future, with which the choreographer intended to suggest the unity of all human beings. In Sao Paulo, dancers rehearsed an adaptation of Petipa’s ballet set to The Carnival of Venice. In Houston, ballet master Steven Woodgate led company class accompanied by pianist William Marsden, just as Ivan Cavallari was leading his dancers in Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montreal, also with piano: preserving classical traditions but also being inspired by the past to create fresh movement and music.

One noteworthy development was the fact that so many companies deprived of live performances turned their attention to what can be considered a new art in itself: dance created specifically to be presented not onstage, but as a film. One example was the black and white film The Burning Building with two very young dancers, offered by the Birmingham Ballet. A more extensive example was the hour-long presentation by the Cape Town City Ballet. Interspersing glimpses of the land and seascapes were multi-racial dancers introducing themselves: black dancers not only from Cape Town, but also from Kenya, Paris, the UK and Brazil; white dancers from Europe and South Africa itself. Coming together in filmed performances ranging from a contemporary ballet danced to Massenet’s Meditation from Thais; to a grim work titled Ingoma with its highly percussive score by Peter Johnson; to an interesting ultra-modern finale filmed in an art museum, with the dancers at the end becoming part of an abstract sculpture.

And so viewers were treated to an amazing slice of ballet life. For people who were unable to savor the 2021 World Ballet Day when it was streamed, some of the 50 companies are (as in the past) mounting a few of their offerings via You Tube. But in any case, something to look forward to are such amazing gifts of sharing in future years. The remark Danilova made to d’Amboise years ago becomes increasingly true: ballet is indeed an international art. 

I like to remember an aunt and uncle of my husband’s. They loved to travel, and made a point in their journeys to eat in a local Chinese restaurant wherever they visited. Although the cooking shared traditions from a common source,  yet the travelers found that what was served in each country had its own distinct “flavor.”

Similarly with ballet today!

The End!