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Below are a few of the outstanding accompanists whose piano recordings add richness to our classes.
For 15 years A. Katarina Batist accompanied the influential teacher Stanley Williams (who you may remember from "turn don't turn," "over big toe," etc.). When Williams died in 1997 Batist collaborated with student Aaron Severini to create an album of music in the style of the master's class. The tracks are short and numerous, but the specific musicality expresses how the subtle efforts of a dancer (and the movements they produce) should be circular and counterbalanced.
Special thanks to Penny Askew of Askew Ballet Academy for sending me this hard-to-find treasure of an album.
In 1979 Bill Brown began working with teacher Finis Jhung in New York. In his memoir, Finis writes about working with Brown:
"He plays exactly what I like: ballet music that is mellow, but confidently and strongly played with a beat that is crystal clear. Truly it's music that makes you want to dance. Because he can improvise on the spot, he watches the dancers and plays what they need to hear. Teaching is such a pleasure with Bill because he is always tuned in to my thoughts."
Their partnership led to Brown writing The Ballet Book in 1982 with his original compositions for ballet class. Eventually, they made an album of Brown's music entitled New Music for Your Ballet Class. The record was originally released in 1986, and the 1995 digital restoration is still available on Apple Music and Spotify.
The recordings are featured in the following videos by Finis:
Miro Magloire accompanied Willy Burmann and made five albums of ballet class music that impeccably support his exercises. The music makes the steps feel inevitable and the tempos require the dancer to really move, tapping into the body's deep bodily intelligence to succeed.
You can read Magloire's exquisite words about their partnership in this Broadway World interview.
When I observed Willy teach for the last time in 2019, one of his students was trying to make sense of a step by doing it in slow motion. I heard Willy say, "That step can't be slowed down." The assertion epitomized Willy's tempo-sensitive teaching. Without saying so explicitly, Willy's teaching underlined the connection between tempo and physical constants of the natural world (such as the acceleration by gravity on earth's surface, g=9.81m/s^2). That is to say, lowering the leg to sous-sus and dropping the thigh across to arrive sous-sus are two contrasting physical approaches because of their disparate speeds. For Willy, to get the physicality of the latter correct, there was only one tempo.
Lynn Stanford played for many master teachers, and published many albums. Longtime students in my ballet class will recognize Music For Ballet Class and In Private, both of which were collaborations with the renowned teacher David Howard. A third album, Adagio and other Dances, begins with the recording many of my students have come to know as "the golf ball song," to which we undertake our ritual of massaging the intrinsic muscles of the feet giving sensory information to the central nervous system. This uncomfortable activity seems more tolerable while Stanford's brilliant improvisational melodies wash over us.
To see the principles from technique class in action on the stage, watch closely this video of Sara Mearns, principal dancer at New York City Ballet, performing Balanchine's Walpurgisnacht.
(If you open in a browser you can watch in full-screen HD).
First, in 0:34-0:49 there are nine examples of Ms. Mearns reaching out of the supporting side wrist/arm to create counterbalance—either to sustain the equilibrium over the pointe shoe or locomote more efficiently in coordination with pressing the ground away with her toes.
Then, at 0:50 Ms. Mearns begins a series of piqué turns. The first four alternate between en dedans turns attitude derrière and en dehors turns attitude devant, followed by two standard piqué turns, two "lame ducks" (sometimes called step-over turns), and one more piqué turn. In all nine turns, the principle of the leading arm and shoulder going back to turn the body is evident.
This exquisite video demonstrates the fundamentals we work on in elementary classes applied to dancing at the highest level. When turning (whether in pirouette or a simple facing change like battement tendu en tournant), let the leading arm start taking the spine around and don't lose the integrity of the supporting side.
For beginners applying this to your work: instead of pushing the shoulder of the second side into the turn (which often spoils the balance by sending too much weight in one direction) reach out of the arm on the supporting side to make and maintain a muscular connection between the upper and lower body, as well as keep your weight off the heel. Once you've learned to pirouette with the arms in second position—like a birds wings energetically soaring—you can start moving the arms to other positions.
Eventually, to increase speed for multiple turns one can practice pulling the arms in, which decreases the moment of inertia and increases velocity (as one goes down the other goes up to conserve angular momentum). This action, however, is a trick for increasing speed after you've already set a turn in motion, not the the technique for starting the turn.
Thanks to Finis Jhung for steering me to this video.
Sara Mearns performing Walpurgisnacht. Movement with opposition creates equilibrium.
In his 2018 book, Finis Jhung describes the conflict between his love of Madame Perey, his 'Imperial Russia personified' and 'magnificent' teacher, and his realization that his dancing ability was declining as he tried to contort his body to meet her demands. This period of his career seemed to be the start of his vehement adherence to the principle that dancing from the feet—and feeling the interaction with the floor—is far more important to technical achievement and well-being than creating textbook positions.
This was 1960 yet these were not new ideas. Years before, Willam Christensen had taught Finis an intelligent way of moving that worked within the natural limitations of his body without ever demanding perfect fifth positions or using the easy-to-misinterpret cue pull up.
The concept of dancing from the feet is often absent in the teaching I observe. I hear from students it is missing from the classes they have taken as well.
Perhaps there is something about naming bodily shapes that allows them to persist with less effort than muscular engagements identified by proprioception. I hope to hear your thoughts.
The account of dancing for Madame Perey begins on page 68. Although the book is out of print, it is available as an eBook through Amazon.
In a 2020 interview with Georgia Canning, Finis Jhung tells stories from his life in ballet.
Click the image above to find the Balanced Ballerinas Podcast on Spotify and iTunes, then find Episode #42.
The podcast celebrates grace and grit, and is always worth a listen.
"Providing space and content for people from all walks of life to experience and enjoy the many benefits of ballet"
—Georgia Canning, writer, podcaster, entrepreneur, ballet teacher and founder of Balanced Ballerinas