Tom Parsons - Confessions of a Ballet Junkie - Part 3 - The Music

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Everything in class is done to music. In early times, dancing masters might provide the accompaniment themselves, scraping away on a tiny portable violin known as a kit or pochette. These days, in studios where they can afford one, they have a pianist; otherwise they use music recorded on tape or compact discs. (Miss Hamilton played 78-rpm records.) The quality of the music depends on the quality of the pianist and the taste of the teacher.

Accompanying classes is a high art and one that is greatly undervalued--and underpaid. The accompanist must have rock-steady tempo; he must be familiar enough with ballet classes to know what kind of music is used for the most common exercises at the barre; he must have a copious repertoire at his fingertips so that he can always come up with something suitable on no notice at all; and he must be ready for the unexpected--for example, if the teacher requests a sudden increase in speed. He must be able to play while keeping an eye on the dancers, and must be able to watch beginners dancing off the music without losing the beat himself. Above all, he must be a musician, with impeccable taste.

He must also have good musical taste. In my experience, some have and some haven't. Traditionally, only fine music was played for classes; this is clearly most in keeping with the spirit of ballet. Antony Tudor was very particular about this; a dancer who studied under him told me that he insisted on the classics. A pianist once played the theme from "Around the World in Eighty Days," which would seem relatively innocuous, but Tudor blew up. Either improve your repertoire, he told him, or get out.

I sympathize with Tudor. You are learning a classic dance form, very likely the noblest in the history of the human species, and it is only fitting that it should be accompanied by music of comparable stature. Now, however, this emphasis on quality seems now to have gone the way of other standards--like not sitting down in back when you do grand pliés. You hear every kind of music in classes these days, including, of course, selections from actual ballets; we have danced to Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin, Fauré, Glazunov, Handel, Liszt, Mendelssohn, Mozart, Prokofiev, Rameau, Satie, Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky, and many other composers. But I've also heard many pop pieces, and these seem to be more numerous than the great classics that ballet cries out for.

A piece will occasionally catch me by surprise. One afternoon I suddenly realized we were dancing to Floret sylva nobilis, from Carl Orff's Carmina Burana, and I laughed aloud. (This frequently happens; they must think I'm nuts.) Another time I heard a class in the neighboring studio doing something to what was obviously Bach; it took me some time to recognize it as the Erbarm dich mein' aria from the St Matthew Passion. They were doing adage to that infinitely sad lamentation. Many selections seem to have been composed specifically for ballet classes; these are frequently very good, of a quality easily equal to much ballet music and better than a lot that was written in the romantic era.

One of the principal weaknesses of romantic ballet, in fact, is the rotten music. It is mostly hackwork by unknowns like Adam, Drigo, Minkus, and others of whom nobody outside the ballet world has ever heard. I once saw a performance of Harlequinade at NYCB, with music by Drigo. When you hear a piece of unfamiliar music, you try to anticipate what the composer is going to do next. A great composer surprises you by going somewhere you didn't expect but that is exactly right; Drigo also went somewhere I didn't expect but that was always somehow off the mark. (How lucky for me that that wasn't my first exposure to Balanchine!) Elizabeth Sawyer, who has written the definitive book on accompanying ballet, cites the saying that Giselle has survived in part because its music (by Adolphe Adam) is so much better than that of the ordinary run of nineteenth-century ballets. From that, she says, you can judge how appalling the others must have been.* Compared with such fourth-raters, the few good ballet composers of that era, like Delibes, Glazunov, and of course Tchaikovsky, shine like stars.

*In case you feel Sawyer is being unnecessarily harsh on Adam, here is dance critic Arnold Haskell: "The banal, tuneful a definite emotional handicap." (Balletomania Then & Now.)

This comes as a shocker to the balletically naïf twentieth-century music lover. It certainly did to me. I said I didn't know much about ballet as a teenager and wasn't interested in it; but at least ballet to me meant composers like Barber, Bernstein, Copland, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and Stravinsky, as well as Delibes, Glazunov, and Tchaikovsky. And then to see some of those famous romantic pieces...! I was amazed that dancers should go to the arduous labor of learning to perform pieces choreographed to such tripe. No wonder ballet is not more popular; it is remarkable that it has gained as much in popularity as it has in recent years.

We have Diaghilev to thank for that; he had a vision of ballet done to music by first-rate composers and scenery by first-rate artists. He had a deep understanding and appreciation of the Western cultural heritage, and it is said that he used to drag his dancers to museums to make sure they were conversant with the work of the best artists worldwide. And he had Stravinsky, who was his high card. He set a precedent: in this century ballet was going to go for the best music that could be found. Massine even did a ballet to Brahms's fourth symphony. The result was not a great success, but it shows how people had come to think. (And it was ultimately from this policy that Balanchine one evening enchanted me with The Four Temperaments.) I said what a revelation Balanchine was for me; Balanchine could have happened without Stravinsky, but I wonder whether he could have happened without Diaghilev.*

*Balanchine himself said he could not have.

The Teaching 

As a teacher myself, I have thought a great deal about the art of teaching ballet. It differs considerably from the technical teaching that I do for a living. Both kinds require patient, clear, detailed exposition and an ability to put yourself in the student's place and appreciate his problems. But beyond that, I think there's a basic difference. I believe that, if you persevere long enough, you will eventually be able to do most of the basic steps, just as I ultimately found I could do a tour jeté. But I doubt whether some of my students will ever be able to do certain kinds of math, even if they persevere until retirement age. The ones who can, succeed right away. So on the one hand, I have to learn to live with hopeless cases and to struggle with the occasional borderline case; on the other hand, ballet teachers have to develop endless patience, at least in beginners' classes, telling us the same things over and over, in class after class, until eventually one day they sink in, reach the muscles, and come together. There's a long-standing tradition of testy ballet teachers; this is no doubt one of the reasons for it.

Another, more fundamental, difference lies in the organization of ballet classes. They are almost always "drop-in" classes. That is, with a few exceptions, like academic programs and special children's programs, which require a set period of enrollment, there is normally no beginning of term or end of term. Anyone can walk in and start at any time. Teachers have told me that they cannot make a go of a class that follows the normal academic model--i.e., extending over a term with a definite beginning and end, tuition paid in advance, attendance expected at every session. Most adult students have too many competing obligations to be able to commit themselves to such a course. This creates serious problems for students and teacher alike.

 If you are the teacher, you're confronted with students of all levels of competence and experience, particularly in a beginners' class. It's as if, in a single math class, some of your students needed to learn arithmetic, some, algebra, and a few still had to learn how to count. And you have to find some way of accommodating all these levels and providing instruction that will be useful to them all.

If you are a beginning student, it's like walking into an academic course half way through the term: everyone else already has background that you haven't, and it seems that nobody has time to stop and tell you what's going on. You have no idea of what to do and are told little or nothing. And it comes as a shock when you find out how difficult ballet is. People think they would like to try ballet, take a class, run into this situation, and give up in disgust--or, worse, in despair. This is a distressingly common occurrence. "I didn't know what was going on," one woman told me. "All I got was a lot of French, and at the end they all said I had done very well." Apparently if you don't give up and walk out in the middle of class, you've done well.

This problem arises, in part, from the fact that you have to have classes: private instruction is prohibitively expensive. Studio space has to be rented and accompanists must be paid; in a big class these costs are distributed among all the students, but in a private class they fall on the one student. A fee of $60 or more is not unreasonable, but that's for one class, and at four classes a week you will begin to feel the pain. (And you have to take classes; practise at home and you'll develop bad habits.)

The introductory course I took at David Howard's was an attempt to follow the academic model, and such a course is a good compromise, provided there is enough enrollment to support the class. (Teaching ballet is not a lucrative profession.) Its strength lay in the fact that everybody in the class was presumed to be an absolute beginner, and everybody started together at that level. The course was five weeks long, with two classes per week; ten weeks, or even three months, would be better, if only one could get people to sign up for that long.

A great deal also depends on how the teacher handles the stranger who shows up in her class. I have never heard of a newcomer being interviewed before a class to determine his level of proficiency. And in many classes, when a student obviously doesn't know a step, the teacher doesn't take the time to show it but apparently just hopes he will pick it up by watching. Perhaps she doesn't want to hold up the rest of the class; but that is not good pedagogy.

Individual correction, in my experience, is the exception rather than the rule (although I have been lucky in at least two of my teachers), again because it is usually not practical in a large class. The teacher will admonish the class as a whole, describing some fault she has observed and how the step, or the exercise, should have been done, and everyone in the class will be wondering, like the Disciples in the St Matthew Passion, "Lord, is it I? Is it I?" If you think ballet classes might be good to try, I recommend going to a number of different teachers at the start and seeing how much guidance each one provides. 

I find that really good ballet teachers, at least for beginners, fall into two categories. Some teachers push you hard--that is, they give you new and difficult steps and combinations to do, always trying to get you to do more--while other teachers don't push you very hard but are highly exacting and particular about what they do give you to do. I think of them as the Pushers and the Fussers. Miss Hamilton was a Fusser; the teachers at David Howard's all seemed to be Pushers. I personally prefer the Fussers, because I never feel I know a step until I've worked on it under the minute scrutiny of a Fusser, but I don't believe you can give absolute preference to either category. Each type, the Pusher as well as the Fusser, offers too much of value to be dismissed out of hand. Probably the ideal course would be to take classes with one teacher of each school of thought, concurrently, so that you move ahead as fast as you can but are checked and corrected repeatedly along the way.*

*At the risk of belaboring the obvious I suppose I should observe that either type can run to an undesirable extreme: the Pusher who constantly loses people in her class, and the Fusser who is so insistent on perfection that you never learn anything new, or who is so discouraging that you never learn to dance. But we're talking about really good teachers here.

Musicians learn difficult pieces by slow practice. Rachmaninoff made great use of this; Abram Chasins describes hearing him practising Chopin's Étude in thirds at a snail's pace, with seconds elapsing between consecutive notes. (At tempo, that piece goes like the wind.) I have found this a powerful way to conquer a difficult piece: start slow and speed up gradually by tiny increments, using a metronome to keep you down to tempo. I've seen this approach used in ballet class on rare occasions, but never routinely, and I have often thought, "Why can't we do this combination slowly the first time around?" Alas, the only time we do it slowly is when we're marking it beforehand--if then. I doubt if you can learn jumps or pirouettes slowly, but many steps done with the feet on the floor (terre-à-terre steps) might well yield to this attack. The main argument against slow practice is probably the limited time available in a class; if I taught ballet, I would want to make my beginners' classes a full two hours long.

Feedback is another important matter. I give exams and lots of quizzes in my courses, so my students can monitor their own performance by noting their grades and the comments I make on their papers. There are no exams in ballet, unfortunately. In professional schools like Juilliard, or in university programs, there may be periodic formal evaluations, but elsewhere you are told nothing. You may be told specific things, to be sure--for example, that a certain step or movement has improved--but you have no idea of how you are progressing generally. It takes a great deal of courage to go to your teacher and ask, "How am I doing?"--particularly when you're afraid the answer may be "Badly." It takes more courage than I have ever been able to muster, and the only general evaluation I ever got (which was better than I would have expected) popped out of my teacher by accident.

I believe this is typical, and you just have to get used to it. A piano teacher won't tell you how you're doing, either, but you can listen to yourself and get a reasonably good idea. Much the same applies to writing; you can read over what you used to write and see how much you have improved since then. But in ballet I find that I usually know when I am doing badly, but not when I'm doing well, and the mirror, which should be telling me how I'm doing, tells me nothing. The only way I can tell I'm making progress is by finding that I can do something that, two or three months previously, eluded me. This, too, I believe is typical. There may be teachers who take time occasionally to talk to students and give them some indication of how they are progressing, but I have never encountered them.


In writing all this, I set out to put you into a ballet class and to enable you to feel the experience for yourself and to understand why perfectly ordinary men, men having no ambitions to become dancers or performing artists of any kind, can get hooked on ballet. (I have addressed myself to men, because ballet for women is not considered unusual in our culture and needs no justification.) I don't think I've succeeded. Coming back from a particularly good class one afternoon, I thought how enjoyable it had been and what a good time I had had laboring away at the barre and afterward in the center, and I reflected on how refreshed I had felt coming home after class--and then, reading over what I have written here, I didn't sense that I had conveyed any of that. I don't know whether it can be conveyed. Perhaps I've conveyed at least some of it, however. 

Ballet is the hardest, most demanding, most exacting art I have ever encountered. It is a continual struggle, and even professionals take classes daily. Most of the steps are difficult, and all of them are tricky, and there are so many of them. And you must be able to link them into combinations at short notice, which means that they have to be "in your muscles"--that is, in some sort of kinetic memory. You have to be able to do them, and to do them well, almost without thinking. In a way, this is a strength: difficulty in an art commands respect.

It also means that you mustn't feel bad about yourself when you find you can't do something. It takes a certain amount of native ability to become a dancer, but it also takes sheer, dogged persistence. Progress is normally very slow; you have to be willing to try and fail, and try again and fail again. (Chesterton: "Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.") It takes time and experience to learn that when you fail, it isn't the end of the world. The rest of the class will not be snickering at you behind your back; they've been through it, too, and tried and failed, many times. (I once saw a dancer in a professional class, clearly a professional himself, who got lost in one combination every time he tried it.) And the feeling, when the time ultimately comes when you try and succeed--as I finally did with the tour jeté--is rewarding beyond the power of words to express. Life offers few greater satisfactions than discovering that you can do something you never thought you would be able to do. 

The entire experience has left me with an awareness of the harm your culture can do you if you let it. In English-speaking countries there is a pervasive feeling that dancing is somehow unmanly. This stigma, which sometimes seems even to attach itself to ballroom dancing, and certainly does to theatrical dancing and most especially ballet, was something I absorbed as a child. Nothing was ever said, but it was "in the air." It is clearly part of the reason why I never learned ballroom dancing; it's the reason why I--and all the boys--resisted the folk dancing they tried to teach us in grade school; it's the reason why I would have screamed bloody murder if anyone had tried to make me take ballet at, say, the age of 10; and it's the reason for the stunned silence that greeted me once when I happened to let fall to my colleagues that I was taking ballet classes.

This silly and destructive attitude cost me--and has cost countless other men--years of innocent pleasure. I related how Anton had to push me into taking classes; even he wouldn't have succeeded if I had not matured enough to be at least somewhat free of these prejudices and more confident in my own sexuality. But how wonderful it would have been if I could have started at, say, 14. I could never have been a dancer--I don't have the body for it, just as I don't have the body for athletics--but I could have already known, at that age, the pleasure that has so enriched my adult life.

What does one hope to get from taking ballet classes, anyway? Not a professional career, certainly, except for the gifted few. The rest of us take classes for their own sake. They offer exercise, no doubt, but mostly delight. And where's the delight? For me it arose from three things: the consciousness that we were dancing gracefully and yet with dignity, as though we were kings; the awareness of being in touch with history and a tradition going back so many centuries; and the pleasure of motion: the serene and noble exaltation of a good adage and, in allegro, bounding about the studio and flying through the air. But it also comes as one progresses through what I think of as the three stages of any step: doing it at all, doing it right, and doing it beautifully.

On the other hand, you never do it really right, unless you are of star quality, and I suspect that even if you're of star quality you find you could always have done it more beautifully than you did. This brings one up against the fundamental frustration that I believe infects the practice of any art: the more you know, the higher your standards become, and (unless you're impossibly vain) the more you are tormented by your own shortcomings.

This is nothing new; someone whose name I should know but don't once said, "A poem is never completed; it's only abandoned." So it is with this more evanescent art. I call it an infection because it eventually vitiates one's enjoyment, particularly if one is an amateur. Pat is an accomplished draughtsman with a beautiful style, but she has pretty much stopped drawing because, she says, "My standards have outstripped my ability." The same thing is gradually happening to me and playing the piano. As a child, as a boy, I was delighted at hitting the keys and hearing sounds come out, and I was especially delighted to try to re-create the beautiful sounds I had heard in others' performances. But part of learning to play is developing more and more exacting standards, so you can hear your faults and correct them. And eventually there comes a time when your standards have been educated to such a pitch that you can't correct your faults: correcting them is beyond your powers.

Perhaps the moral is that if you're an amateur, and you know in advance that you will never attain to professionalism, you should take care to avoid raising your standards--the way I've always avoided developing a palate for fine wines so I won't drink my way into the poorhouse, moderate drinker though I am. But that seems a slovenly way to practise an art.

This suggests that there could be another danger lurking in ballet. With the passing years, one's body will eventually give out on one (I myself am dancing on borrowed time); but what happens if, before then, you become so knowledgeable about placement and épaulement and all the fine points of execution, of many of which I'm currently still blissfully unaware, that you lose all pleasure from dancing because you're so painfully alive to your faults? There goes the delight. Well, for me this is probably an idle worry; no doubt my body will give out long before that happens to me. I got a laugh one evening when I told someone that if I ever get to the point that I can take advanced classes, they will have to be in a place that's wheelchair-accessible.

In the mean time, I'm continually alive to what a privilege it is to take these classes, and how good it is of them to them to let a stumblebum like me attend them. I suppose my money is as green as the next fellow's, but I wonder whether they look at it that way. I come into the studio, take my place at the barre, and sometimes I look about me at all these young dancers and think how lucky I am to be a part of all this. Then class begins, and we start doing these beautiful exercises, most of which date back 300 years, and again I think how fortunate I am, and again what a privilege it is to be in contact with all this history and tradition. I've had an adult life full of lucky breaks, some big and some small, but among the smaller ones, few as delightful as this.

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Revised Apr. 5, 1999; saved here 17 December 2015.