In this episode, David discusses the importance of barre work and how it prepares the dancer for the centre, and how many of the steps and exercises from the barre can be done in the centre.
The team also talk about the centre work being more performance based as if being on stage, with the freedom to move and change direction and transfer weight.
As with most of the barre exercises, the pianists discuss the importance of playing with a little rubato as you begin to accompany dancers in the centre, helping them achieve the steps and exercises without the constraint of music in a strict metre.
The pianists also reveal to the listeners some of the tricks they use to keep their repertoire fresh and interesting, and to avoid repeating themselves musically, along with some funny anecdotes as usual.
David poses many questions to the three pianists, about how they keep the flow of class going through the musical interpretation, what they think about when they aren’t playing, ways to keep the dancers entertained and inspired, as well as personal challenges involving technique and broadening repertoire.
We learn from this episode how mischievous Chris can be during class, always pushing the envelope and testing the teachers and dancers, to keep them listening and learning!
Transcription of this episode by Jonathan Still
MG: Matt Gregory CH: Chris Hobson AH: Akiko Hobson DY: David Yow
[MUSIC: Ballet Piano Podcast ident]
V/O: You’re listening to the Ballet Piano Podcast: Lifting the lid on dance accompaniment.
CH: Hello podcast fans and welcome back to the Ballet Piano Podcast. I’m Chris Hobson, and always in the studio with me is: Matt Gregory
CH: Akiko Hobson
DY: Hashtag David Yow of Instagram
CH: And this week we’ve got a special guest sitting on my knee is my miniature Schnauzer called Winston. So if you hear a little bark or a little scuttling around, that’s the dog. I’ll try and keep him as quiet as I can, but I can’t promise anything. So this week, we are discussing centre practice, so we’ve done our port de bras in the centre, we’ve got rid of the ballet barres, we’ve had an extra shot of espresso, and now we’re in centre practice. So David, so centre practice, it’s basically, it’s reviewing and repeating the exercises from the barre, is that correct?
DY: Exactly. So without the barre, centre practice can be anything from the barre, and usually, time limits what you can do. So often after the port de bras you will do a tendu, perhaps an adage, combine a grand battement maybe with a pirouette. And that will be your centre practice. But realistically you should be able to anything, so for me, what I tend to do is I build up the class on a weekly basis from Monday to Friday and for four days we’ll be at the barre, and on the fifth day, I’ll say, OK, no barre, we start from the beginning of the actual barre, exercises without the barre, and we do the whole barre in the centre.
CH: That’s tough isn’t it!
MG: That’s, erm, yeah that’s very challenging.
CH: That when the faces drop on a happy Friday!
DY: The faces drop
AH: Happy Friday
MG: That’s when only half attend on a Friday
DY: But the benefit of actually doing that, for the dancer it’s a test for them, have they done their homework throughout the week to build up the strength to stand in the centre without the barre, because in reality, when you’re on the stage, there is no barre.
MG: And lots of these solos and variations are very technical, very tricky, so it’s in preparation for that, isn’t it.
DY: Exactly, the purpose of the barre for me, personally, other people have other reasons, but for me, it is just to practice the actual actions of what you’re going to do in the centre, and you have the security of having the barre to hang on to, but once you get into the centre, you need to be able to stand on your own two feet or one supporting leg, as you were, and be able to do these movements. And so, Friday is that test day for that dancer, really, that’s what we do, and it’s very revealing; it’s for the dancer. You cannot hide, there’s nowhere to hide.
CH: That’s interesting. So, I mean, in the next episode we’re going to discuss adage in the centre, adagio in the centre just because that definitely does warrant its own episode, but on the way up to adagio we’re going to have tendus, glissés,
DY: Tendus, you could have glissés yes.
CH: Ronds de jambe, possibly.
MG: Battements fondus
DY: Fondu. Ronds de jambe en l’air, loads of things. And whilst you haven’t got the barre there, it means that you can transfer and move around. [T: 13:12:15, on tape 3:07] much more freely, but you need to be able to transfer your weight quickly and securely from one leg to the other, that’s the challenge now.
CH: So, a lot of these exercises, when you set them, you know, the tendu, a glissé a jeté a rond de jambe, are going to be set and include very similar movements to what we have at the barre, yeah?
DY: Yes, or, because there’s such a huge vocabulary of movements that you can do, there may be movements at the barre that you haven’t covered, so that you would come into the centre and yes you would be doing a tendu exercise, but it might be with some of those tendu movements that you haven’t been able to fit in at the barre, you would do in the centre.
CH: OK. And you can have more changes of direction of the body, are you going to be starting at looking stage left, and then moving en face or to the centre, and over to stage right and things? Ooh, I just heard the dog growl as soon as we said moving to the second side.
MG: He’s currently eating me.
CH: Lucky you! Yes, so you’re going to use more changes of the body
DY: Changes of direction
CH: It’s starting to become more performance-based, is it now, as well?
DY: Exactly, yes, yes. So now you’re starting to think about how you would project this to the audience if you were standing in the middle of the stage, and yes you would be using different . . . the focus is on how you would dance, and enhance the movements that you’re doing by changing your direction, or changing your weight.
CH: Do you find it helpful to use a mirror? Because I know some teachers will face away from the mirror, or some face towards it, is it just, is that just a personal preference, this is just my own question. I don’t know the answer.
DY: Good question. It’s a double-edged sword really. The mirror helps us to understand what you think you look like, and it helps you to sort of like, to hold on, to produce the detail in the work, because you can see it, so you become your own teacher in a way, but the down side of having the mirror in front of you, you become magnetized to what you’re seeing in the mirror, and because it’s a two-dimensional view, there are times when you think you look OK and actually you don’t, because you can’t see three dimensionally beyond the mirror, and so I tend to use the mirror to help the students understand where they are, standing and placing in space in terms of proprioception, and then I turn away, when we actually start to do the exercises, from the mirror so that they actually have to feel internally what they’re doing.
CH: OK. That’s quite interesting. How do we . . . What do you guys think about centre practice, Matt and Akiko? How do you approach it? Do you approach it differently from barre, or is there a different thought process that you put into what you’re playing.
CH: Musically, yeah, because musically it’s going to be similar to what we’ve had a the barre isn’t it, you know, the exercises [inaudible]
MG: It obviously depends what steps are in the exercise, but yeah, generally, they’re similarly to what the barre exercise was in terms of music, but I know as well, in some centre practices where there’ll be a simple pirouette, it might just be a relevé in passé, I’m always looking, I always just sort of stretch out between the first side and the second side, because they might be coming from passé and have to get into fifth to then do something else, and so, yeah, this is, I’ve sort of observed the whole way through, but this is where I’m really sort of looking at the dancers, and really trying to help them out.
CH: Yeah, just giving that extra little breath at the end of a phrase
CH: Which you’re not going to be asked for but it’s going to make people’s lives easier, isn’t it, but that’s up to you, you can then start to draw on your experience and understanding.
AH: And also the dancers start to become more demanding towards the speed of the music, or some rallentando and things like that.
MG: At company level, as well, I find centre practice always slightly under in terms of let’s say they’re doing some battements jetés à la seconde or . . . because they want to find those fifth positions that you know we talked about in previous episodes . . . and so I find all the centre practice generally under. Even like doing grands battements in the centre, because then it might go, you know, into a grand pirouette in attitude, or something, and they just need more space in that, but on the other–, on the flip side, it can’t sound sludgy. You know, it’s a fine line, isn’t it, in the centre, between helping them, and sounding like I’m hindering them.
[MUSIC: Ballet Piano Podcast ident]
CH: When you were dancing, did you love the centre, or did you hate it, or did you grow to love it?
DY: No, I loved it.
MG: Can I answer this?
CH: Yeah, Matt
MG: I imagine David would love it
DY: I did love it, I did. Because I mean, starting off with, you know, beautiful tunes in the port de bras as we’ve talked about, and then the contrast between something like a tendu, like a sharp, sort of like a march type, kind of thing, then going back into something beautifully stretched out and emotional in the adage, and then something brilliant and very sort of show-offy in terms of pirouettes, those kind of things, those are things that when you’re performing, that’s what you want to show off, you know.
CH: The whole centre, if we take the whole thing as a whole, is very up and down in terms of tempo and feel and time signatures, isn’t it, you know.
DY: Just like the barre, really. But as you said, Matt, because you don’t have anything to hang on to, the dancer tends to need a little bit more time and space just to find where their balance is, and to maintain that.
MG: I love the showy-off element of centre, and you know, you see it, more so at the companies, I would imagine, you know, the men are trying to outdo each other on the big pirouettes
AH: Yeah, men on pirouettes
CH: Especially towards the end of seasons, you start to get competitions, don’t you
AH: Especially men, they’re so obsessed with pirouettes aren’t they
MG: And the big jumps
CH: Is it a little bit like #whosgotthebiggest . . . car. [laughter] I’ve got a bigger car than you, or something like that, isn’t it.
CH: It’s just showing off and
MG: And musically that’s really nice to play for
CH: Yeah, it’s fun
MG: Because I like to sort of accompany the individual dancer who’s doing the exercise at that point, and if they’re coming from the corner, we’ll get on to pirouettes, but I always like try and accompany the dancer and try and give them musically their wants and needs.
DY: We get such a buzz out of this part of the class, because it’s starting to get you know, more virtuosic
MG: Yeah, and the ante is up slightly, isn’t it, the stakes are higher.
CH: It’s starting to become real. I always try and play opposite repertoire as well as what I’ve played at the barre, so if, let’s go back to tendu at the barre, if I’ve played a tango for that, I’m not going to play a tango in the centre, I’m going to play, I dunno, more of a jazz standard, or
MG: What if they sing a tango?
CH: I’m . . . probably just ignore it!
AH: Gosh, I didn’t know you were so organized.
CH: I’ve become more organized.
CH: I think it’s also as a personal challenge to myself, it’s to not get stuck in a rut playing the same repertoire all the time. So I’ll try and mix it up, it doesn’t mean, that just because I haven’t played it, sorry, you know, I’ve not playing something then and maybe doing it differently the next day, but just so it’s the same choreography but it’s got a different musical essence behind it, so therefore that can give a different intention behind the movement. That’s what I think, anyway, for what it’s worth.
MG: It’s worth a lot
AH: It’s nothing to do with you know, accompanying for ballet, but once I challenged myself as a musician, from centre practice, I started from C major, and every group, each exercise, I started a semitone up, semitone up, to see, I just thought C major, C# major
MG: With a different tune in each key?
AH: Yeah, but I just had to go up a semitone each. It was quite challenging for myself, but I think nobody noticed
DY: Was it fun?
AH: It was fun for me, because it was quite challenging, but I don’t think anybody noticed.
CH: Or going around a circle of fifths, and then trying to get repertoire that goes with that, just for games to play behind the piano as well, isn’t it, because as enjoyable as it is accompanying ballet, it sometimes can get repetitive so you’ve got to give yourself little things to keep yourself going.
DY: And what do you do between, when the teacher is giving corrections, what do you do? Between one group and the next?
CH: Go on Akiko, what do you do?
AH: Ah, day-dreaming
CH: Depending on what studio I’m in, there’s one at the moment, where, if I look out the window to my right, there’s some trees, and it’s spring, and there’s a squirrel that plays on the trees, so I tend to look at the squirrel a lot.
AH: I saw like one of the studios that, where, it used to be where the piano was located, I could look out the window, and there was a flat across the street and at certain times I see people there walking around in a quite exciting non-outfit. So in between exercise groups, I just suddenly see outside the window
MG: So you’re both daydreaming?
CH: Not always, if I know something’s going to be said, and it’s not applicable to me in the slightest, then I might switch off.
AH: And you know, if you’re playing for the company class, it’s quite quick, so you know, you don’t have time but in a school situation, sometimes, especially the centre practice, sometimes the teachers stop and give a very long correction, that’s the time when you look out the window.
DY: Because what’s amazing is, as a teacher, when we go, OK, we’ve talked about this, and then we go, and let’s do the other side, generally you’re always there.
CH: Generally we’re there, because I know I’ve not been there a couple of times. [12:28]
AH: [laughing] But do you . . . I have a like allergy to this “and,” and any “and” I hear even outside a ballet class, I just react with this “and” and you just feel that you have to do something. [all laughing]
MG: Yeah, I know what you mean
CH: I remember once daydreaming in a class, and I heard the teacher say “and,” and I started playing and the “and” was part of their sentence [all laugh]
CH: It was like sort of confessions from behind the piano “I’m sorry!”
MG: What do you do, Matt?
MG: Yeah, pretty much. I always try and think of what I’m going to play next. If they repeat the exercise, I will try not to play the same thing, unless it’s specific and that’s what they want, and I might give each group their own tune, their own bit of music
DY: Oh right
MG: And sometimes it’s eight counts in, you know, eight or four counts between groups if it’s, and then that’s your time to change up your key, change up your tune, change up the feel
AH: It’s a great time to think about the tune, isn’t it, while they’re doing the exercise, because you know, as much you can do your own research at home, but when you are in a class, you are actually given the exercise, so you have a specific accent and specific speed, so you can actually concentrate on what else you can play and I think, you know, you’ve got an iPad Chris, don’t you, so we can you know, go into your iPad
CH: Going through the 2/4 database or the 4/4 database
AH: Yes, yeah, you can go through the database, not your brain, but, also you know we have the app Scribd, and we can try to find last minute new tunes
AH: That’s the time that you’ve got two minutes or so, and then, “What else can we play?” no?
MG: Sometimes what I do, I, for an introduction for a tendu let’s say, I’ll just play eight crotchets in the left hand, and then the tune is going to fit into, I’ve got to fit it into that, so [singing crotchets] bom-bom-bom-bom-bom [then sings In the Hall of the Mountain King by Grieg, then theme from Raiders of the Lost Ark by John Williams, joined by CH and AH] or, you know, and then [CH and AH sing Colonel Bogey March by Frederick Ricketts while Matt is speaking] that’ll be the intro between groups, and then they’re not going to know what they’re going to get, if I’ve played something different for every group, they’re going to be listening, OK, so what’s next, and it keeps them listening, keeps them interested
DY: That’s really good
MG: Keeps them entertained I suppose.
CH: On the groups thing, if you’re playing, and the teacher’s shouted there’s eight counts in between or four counts in between and then you’ve got a group that misses their introduction, does that irk anybody else, or is it just me being a grumpy old sod?
DY: That irks me. I can’t stand that!
CH: Coz then I’ll find that if a group misses it, I’ll become this stroppy little child in the corner, and I’ll do the obvious four counts in, and it’ll involve at least one glissando and one key change, and a “AND” to start
MG: I mean what if you as the musician miss the four counts
AH: We can always make it like you know, you start a new tune, but you just pretend that you didn’t, you know, you can just improvise.
MG: Oh God. Sometimes you miss it.
CH: I was told a story about somebody accompanying company class on tour, I think it was with Matthew Bourne company, and it was eight counts in between whatever it was, and he’s mixing it up and just before he’s about to start playing, he shouts “KEY CHANGE!” across the stage
MG: Please tell us who that was.
MG: It wasn’t me
CH: No, it wasn’t anyone who’s based in London
AH: Chris, I have never met any ballet pianist who is as vocal as you
DY: It’s very entertaining
AH: We are normally very quiet behind the piano
CH: I’m not overly vocal, am I?
DY: No, but you can’t ignore you at the piano, at your peril do they ignore you!
CH: It’s not all about me when I’m accompanying ballet. [silence] Silence! [laughter]
MG: You’ve got to be the unsung hero.
CH: OK, can I get an Uber for Chris please [all laugh]
DY: But you know, on that sort of, like, note of thinking OK, in the centre, and you’re between one group and the next you want to keep the energy going so you’re going to ask for a four or eight in, or something, what does that feel like when you’re going on and on and on.
AH: I actually like it
MG: In many ways it’s nice.
CH: Because you’re not stopping and stuff
MG: Because you gain momentum, you gain your strength, you can pull on your aces
DY: I just wondered
CH: If you’ve got forty dancers, and you’re doing it two by two, then, if the exercise is 32 bars long and eight in between, it’s going to get tiring, but, it does keep the class moving, doesn’t it, and like you say, you can build it up in terms of tempo
MG: You can build.
CH: . . . repertoire, dynamics, and just, start to get more and more fun with each one.
AH: Yeah, you can do more variety of stuff if the music keeps going, whereas if you stop after 32 counts, and then do it again, and again, it just sounds the same.
MG: If we stop between groups, I’m more inclined to play what I previously played, whereas if we keep going, that’s when I’m more inclined to change it up
CH: Your creative juices get flowing, don’t they, and it’s nice. Well, on the introductions thing, I just remembered, I was playing on a Saturday class once and the kids were quite good, the students were quite good, so to confuse the teacher, I would stick my right hand in the air with however many counts introduction I was going to give them before the next group, so it was either two, three, four or five, but musically it made no sense, but because the students were looking at me, and I was sticking two or three fingers up at them [all laugh]—I was going to say “sticking two fingers up at them” that sounds very rude!—I was indicating with my fingers how many beats they were going to have, they were on it, and the teacher was sort of looking at them, and looking at me, and going “what the heck is going on here!”
AH: So the teacher didn’t even know?
CH: No! It was brilliant. That was the same teacher who set the pliés for mazurka
AH: Oh, that one.
CH: That was that teacher, yeah. So that was good fun.
DY: And when you’re sort of like, you’re changing your tunes and everything, how often do you have to refresh your repertoire, you know, you learn a new tune, or something?
CH: I try and do as often as possible
MG: Yeah, I put things in all the time, if I hear of something, I’ll try and put it in
AH: Like, I’m sure you have like a little memo book on your phone, or you have, like, you know, every day, you go out somewhere you hear something, and you think you can use it for ballet class, you just write it down somewhere
DY: Oh right.
CH: I do make notes of what I want to play in ballet class, and then on times like that when we said, and in between if I’ve got the iPad there, I’ll think, oh maybe this would work for that and I’ll try it out, and if it fails, I’ll just improvise but I do try and stick new stuff in as much as possible.
AH: Put something
CH: Because otherwise, it’s easy to get stuck in a rut, isn’t it.
MG: And I know I’ve just had time off, as well, obviously, being away, you know, I’m back to playing class now, four weeks, five weeks, my old tunes are still coming back to me that I haven’t played, because there’s . . . and it’s like oh God, I do know that, and you know, it’s still coming back to me. Like the first class I played back from being away, I just did my go-tos, because I couldn’t remember anything that I could play without music or off the top of my head, but even now, five, six weeks later, music is still coming back to me.
CH: I do the same thing, after a summer vacation or a winter holiday, I’ll, the first week certainly, couple of weeks . . .
AH: Nothing challenging, yeah?
CH: It’s not going to be anything challenging, it’s going to be the greatest hits, or the go-tos, usually, and I think that’s just where you’re comfortable, isn’t it, but it’s trying to, I’m aware, and I probably don’t do it as often as I should do, I want to keep increasing my go-tos or changing the go-tos, but I think that comes with, it’s how you learn your repertoire, isn’t it, do you learn it from muscle memory, from mental memory, or a mixture of both, or do you associate things with certain exercises and certain tempos and time signatures. So, as often as possible, David, hopefully.
DY: And do you rely on, like, the sheet music, or do you just . . . by ear, your playing?
MG: I learn things at home and then, because I won’t read in class.
MG: Because if it’s something I’m having to sight-read, I feel like I’m distracted, and I’m not with the class, but if it’s something like you have the iPads, both of you, you’re not sight-reading stuff, it’s just for your, just to jog your memory, isn’t it.
AH: Yeah, yeah, just some chords and things.
MG: And so you can have it in front of you and not be distracted from the class, whereas if I’m learning something, I’ll learn it at home and get it sort of 80% in the fingers, and then try it out in a student class, or—I wouldn’t take something to the company that I was unsure of.
AH: I sometimes rely on my ear because, you know, I’m just lucky enough to have perfect pitch, but I do make sure that the tune is square, it’s eight count phrases, before I try out, you can’t just come and play and then, oops it was four counts more.
MG: Something I do is, between exercises, I’ll put the soft pedal on, and quickly just have a little go at it
DY: Oh right
MG: . . . if there’s something that I’ll think, oh I can play that, but I’m not quite sure of it, because I’ve had the time off, I’ll just quickly put the soft pedal and have a little play around, before we then get to it
DY: Because in reality, of course, you can’t practise in the middle of a class!
DY: Yeah, I just wondered. Interesting.
MG: I know a pianist that did, though.
DY: I bet that person was popular!
MG: You may know him, a real, real jazzer, and a gorgeous pianist for ballet class, but he used to play for us for tap as well, at college, and erm, while the teacher was correcting us, he’d be there just doing all these little jazz licks and jazz fills
AH: It’s disturbing, no?
MG: It was distracting, yeah.
DY: Wow. OK.
MG: There we go.
CH: OK, so we’re going to say, don’t practise the piano whilst corrections are being given!
MG: Put the soft pedal on, have a little go, but
CH: Stick the soft pedal down, at least. Well, on that note, I’m going to stick the middle pedal down on this episode, we’re going to quieten it up a little bit, just before we go, if you’re listening on iTunes, it would be great if you could give us a little review on there, or give us a star review, five if you’re feeling generous, just because it helps us increase up in the findability factors, and the new and noteworthy section, so if you’re able to do that, that would be great. Thank you so much in advance, it’s goodbye from me
MG: Goodbye from me
AH: Bye bye
[MUSIC: Ballet Piano Podcast ident]
. . . ENDS. . .
© 2020 Ballet Piano Podcast | Producer: Chris Hobson
Transcription by Jonathan Still 21/4/20