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Ballet 101: Tempo

About suffering they were never wrong, the old Masters…
-W. H. Auden.
I might add, “About TEMPO they were never wrong, the ballet masters.”

NEVER argue with a choreographer or ballet master about tempo. They are ALWAYS right.

You may think the tempo is the same as it was yesterday or the same as on the recording or even the same as the metronome you just consulted. But if the tempo is not working for the dancers in that moment, then it is the wrong tempo, plain and simple. Ballet is not a symphony concert in which you can freely choose your own tempo, nor an opera in which you can organically guide a singer’s tempo, it is crucial that you let the choreographer be in charge of the tempo. If you cannot do this, then you must never conduct ballet.

Many conductors can’t deal with this

One German conducting professor once announced to his class in a rather disgusted tone, “Ballet has nothing to do with music.” This is because he viewed the dancing as incidental to his performance. He was unwilling to compromise his own musical vision for the sake of the choreography, about which he knew next to nothing. This led to some explosive shouting matches in rehearsal between him and the choreographer while the orchestra cowered helplessly in the pit.

As a new ballet conductor, spend as much time in the ballet studio as you can before you have to conduct. Watch the dancers. Learn the choreography. The ballet master often makes a video recording of key rehearsals. Request a copy of the footage to study with your score. For each number, choose a specific step to memorize. This will be the step you visualize right before you give the upbeat in the pit. If you know how the step is supposed to look and feel, then you will know the right tempo. If you don’t, then you’ll be stabbing in the dark.

The easiest way to avoid tempo conflict is to contact the choreographer as soon as you find out that the two of you will be working together. Recommend one or two recordings of the ballet at hand. This will prevent her from rehearsing with a sluggish 1950s German recording when you much prefer the style of The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. If you do not speak up at this stage, you forfeit the right to comment on tempo when you are in the pit. Once the choreographer has spent months developing her ideas in private with a particular recording and even more time teaching the steps to the company, she will not be willing to adjust the pas de deux (duet) from MM 58 to MM 72 during stage rehearsals just because you think it’s too slow. If both of you can agree upon a recording long before rehearsals start, however, it will ensure that the tempi feel right for everyone involved as opening night approaches.

Once the performances are underway, I always ask the ballet master for tempo feedback in the wings to make sure I haven’t drifted off the right path. This is especially important in repertoire houses where weeks or months may pass between individual performances of a given ballet. The only time I don’t want to hear it is after closing night. There’s nothing worse than finding out you ruined the Sugar Plum Fairy’s coda and can’t fix it.

There are other benefits to establishing contact with the choreographer as soon as possible. When I found out I would be conducting a new Shakespeare ballet in 2013, I managed to get a dinner invitation with the choreographer and her family. She told me she didn’t know very much about Shakespeare and was open to my input. So I went to their place with my Oxford Edition of the complete works under my arm and told them everything I knew. As midnight approached, her very patient husband said, “I think we need to take his book away now.”

In the end, the choreographer was so fascinated by what I had to say that she asked for my opinion about which Shakespeare character matched which dancer in the company. She had me quote Hamlet and Oberon from the pit at certain junctures in the ballet and even let me teach the dancers themselves a few passages by heart to recite from the stage. I’ll never forget the choreographic rehearsal several months later when she turned to me and said, “What do you think the three witches should do in this part?” She actually wanted to know how I thought they should move. I gave her a few spontaneous ideas, which she promptly incorporated into the choreography. I was beaming, but I got a little carried away. In that same rehearsal I piped up and said, “Actually Juliet kills herself with a knife, not with poison.” “I don’t care,” she said with a twinkle in her eye. “Poison looks better.”

All of this applies to new choreography, but things aren’t quite so easy when you are dealing with traditional choreography. Often the individual steps are as old as the music itself and require a very specific tempo and rubato. The best example of this is the pas de deux from Act II of Swan Lake (“No. 4 Scène” in the suite) featuring solo violin and harp in 6/8. The wind interlude is marked più mosso in the score, and it’s precisely the part where you want to speed up to a flowing 2 in concert. The music is repetitive and has no melody; also the first horn is starting to turn blue from nine straight measures of E-flat. But the traditional choreography has dozens of swans in the corps de ballet (chorus of supporting dancers) doing a tiny little one-legged hop on every single eighth note of the music. This is only possible in a slow 6. If you look at the score, it feels unbearably glacial, but if you watch the swans, it’s pure magic. When dealing with traditional choreography, ask the ballet director to recommend a recording for you to study—preferably a video recording so you can understand why the tempi are what they are.

Occasionally you are paired with a choreographer who hasn’t yet chosen the music. If you develop a good rapport with her, she might just let you pick. Congratulations: you just hit the jackpot!

May 12, 2020


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