I wish I could remember her name! That quintessential ballerina, a petite woman with dark hair drawn back into a tight bun, coming and going from the ballet school she created in high, high heels (because they felt just right after so many years en pointe) had been denied her burning desire to learn ballet as a child, so ultimately created in the Rockville School of the Ballet, her own little sanctuary where she could teach all those little girls (and the occasional little boy) who like her wanted to be a ballerina. She was the one who introduced me to the concept of using music to create dance. But so many years have passed since then that try as I might, I simply cannot remember her name, so I’ll simply refer to my dance benefactor as Miss Clara.
Entering the final year of my master’s degree program in piano performance at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., I was offered a part time job playing piano at this ballet school in one of D.C.’s suburbs. It seemed like an easy way to make some needed cash, since after all I was practicing piano all day long anyway.
The Rockville School of the Ballet had one modest studio, surrounded by mirrors and barre, of course, but it also had an upright piano back in the corner, accompanied by shelves of printed piano music collected over the years. Miss Clara’s was very strict with her students. They all wore powder blue leotards with pink tights and shoes. No leg warmers, skirts or tutus among her students, since they obstructed the view of the torso (potentially hiding minute errors of body placement).
For my first classes she directed me to some of the printed music that had been successfully used in the past to accompany the series of exercises that constituted each class, and invited me to bring in my own to use as well (as long as the music I played fit neatly and precisely into the 8-beat format of ballet exercises – even the most exquisite piano piece by Chopin or Liszt either had to come in 8-measure phrases or be chopped down to size). She explained that it would be the sound quality of the music I played that would propel and inspire the students to move in just the right fashion for each of the ballet exercises. Whether it was the slow, flowing plies and ronds de jambs, the crisp degages, or powerful grand battements for the section of class taking place at the barre, the choice of music and the quality with which each piece was played would allow the dancers to create just the right movements with torso, legs and arms. Even more, once the “center” work – away from the support and balance of the barre – and “traveling” – when dancers would move across the studio in combinations of energetic leaps, turns and generally propulsive motion – parts of the class began, the sounds coming from the piano could actually compel the dancers to find the appropriate energy to complete their sometimes-daunting tasks! This was all new and rather confounding to somebody for whom music was always simply music, whose responsibility was entirely the creation of sounds for their own sake.
Over time I began to comprehend the nature of the movements that the dancers made with each different exercise, and so could begin to try to create sounds on the piano that reflected what they were doing. There was often a lightness required, even for the most rich and viscous music, in order to somehow leave room for the dancers to move within the sounds emanating from the piano. To this day it all seems rather mystical to me.
So as the members of the East Metro Symphony Orchestra have been preparing a variety of dances from Tchaikovsky’s beloved Nutcracker, for performance with ballet students from the Woodbury Dance Center, we too are trying to find that magic sensation in our music making, where we create sound that will compel and propel the dance, doing this in a way that actually leaves room within the sounds we produce for the dancers and their movement. Likewise, when I visited the ballet classes at WDC where students are preparing to dance the various movements from Nutcracker, I knew that there was no way for them to comprehend, working with recorded music played through a “boom box,” what the visceral, rock-your-world experience was going to be when they finally become embedded in the full, rich, multi-dimensional sounds of a full symphony orchestra. For those of us who have heard and/or seen Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker many, many, many times, it is easy to dismiss all that pretty music as just more pretty music. But if you listen with great care to the specific combinations of instruments he engages in constantly shifting variety throughout the ballet, you can truly begin to grasp not just the pretty tunes or the pretty dancers in costume, but the precise nature of sound, movement and intention that makes this such a sublime artistic experience.
Please join us if you can. There are certainly all too many Nutcracker options to choose from during this holiday season, and ours – presented by community musicians and ballet students – will certainly not be the most perfect one to behold. But I guarantee that it will be one embedded with the most poignant discovery among the performers, of the alchemy that happens when dance and music compel and propel each other.
Elizabeth Prielozny Barnes
Music Director and Conductor
Visions of Sugar Plums, a holiday celebration of music and dance
Presented by the East Metro Symphony Orchestra and Woodbury Dance Center
Sunday, December 9, 2012, at 3:00 p.m.
Stillwater Junior High School
523 West Marsh Street