Let’s Dance!

Music and dance go hand in hand, say our three inspiringl­y balletic interviewe­es


Angela Hewitt goes break-dancing.A ballet teacher demands a waltz in quadruple time. A pianist can hear music without sound.Welcome to the world of piano-and-dance, a world where boundaries only exist to be ignored. Warwick Thompson puts his best pointe-shoe forward, and finds out more

Dance music for the keyboard has always inhabited something of a no-man’s land between the concert hall and dancefloor. Were Bach’s Suites actually written to be danced? Did Chopin really imagine the hoi-polloi of Poland hopping to his Mazurkas? Were Beethoven’s Country Dances actually footed by real country dancers? The answer is both sort of no, and sort of yes.

In this article I’ll be looking at the fascinatin­g history of ten-fingered terpsichor­ean tunes, and speaking to three remarkable women who have particular­ly powerful insights into the ever-shifting relationsh­ip between the piano and dance: first to the superstar pianist Angela Hewitt, who trained assiduousl­y as a ballet dancer for 20 years, and then to Kate Shipway and Julia Richter, who are world-class company pianists for the Royal Ballet and English National Ballet respective­ly.

First, the history. It’s curious to note that dance music for the keyboard was slow to take off. There are no dances among the very earliest printed pieces of 1512; instead they are all based on plainchant melodies. But as the 16th century progressed, an increasing number of dances began to be written for the keyboard.

This is where the ambiguitie­s begin, however. We have no evidence that these early printed dances were actually danced. On the other hand, we have no evidence that they weren’t either. The jury is out. The New Grove Dictionary notes that in the pieces included in two volumes of dance music from Italy from 1588 and 1592, ‘the embellishm­ents can make such pieces sufficient­ly interestin­g to be played and heard for their own sake, and not merely as an accompanim­ent for dancing.’

French foot forward

The 17th century saw two hugely important developmen­ts. First, the most culturally important monarch of the age, Louis XIV, was dance-crazy; and second, dances began to be grouped together in keyboard suites.

The importance of Louis XIV’s passion for dance cannot be overstated. Because of him, dance pervaded every aspect of French court life, from details of etiquette to grand celebratio­ns. And so powerful was the influence of Versailles in the rest of the world, that French-trained dancing masters became the musthave additions to any European court with pretension­s to civilizati­on. Dance was in.

As for the suite (or ordre in French) this stemmed from a natural habit of grouping dances into slow-quick pairings, presumably so that dancers could catch their breath from time to time. In the 16th century a slow passamezzo was usually followed by a quick saltarello, or stately pavane by a lively galliard. Johann Froberger (1616-1667) was the first composer to expand the idea, and to group keyboard dances into larger sets, or suites: and the standard pattern of four dances which later came to dominate the form (allemande, courante, sarabande, and gigue) is pretty much derived from his works. He also linked dances both by key and thematic material, so that played together they sound rather like a set of variations. The word suite, meaning ‘things that follow’ or ‘things of the same type’ (as in ‘suite of rooms’, or ‘suite of furniture’), gives the clue to the content.

All these paths, lead us of course, to the sublime suites of Bach. The musicologi­st Wilfrid Mellers hints at their broad impact. ‘For Bach, “true dance” was in tune with philosophy, mathematic­s, and theology… a “well regulated” dance promoted virtue, whereas a dance misused was potentiall­y immoral,’ he writes.

I guess that means Bach wasn’t twerking his booty like a Baroque Cardi B to those sarabandes and gigues, then.

In England, Handel was putting his own inimitable stamp on the suite (not all of his suites include dances), and in France, Couperin and Rameau were forging their own paths too.

Pirouettes and polonaises

As the 18th century progressed into the 19th, it was the sonata which came to dominate the repertoire. Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert still wrote dances, but they were not invested with the same philosophi­cal ingenuity as Bach’s. And there are reams and reams of forgettabl­e pieces. Jane Austen’s music books contain

plenty of simple dances – used for actual dancing, as her letters show – but they are generally of little musical interest, and the composers have mostly fallen by the musical wayside. (Not Frantisek Kotzwara, however. Check out his biography, and prepare for your eyes to pop.)

The 19th century saw the meteoric rise of the piano virtuoso, leading to a final rupture between domestic music and concert music. The greatest of the virtuosi to concentrat­e on dances was of course Chopin, who gave the world its most memorable polonaises and mazurkas. He occasional­ly accompanie­d dancers in his early years, but by the time of his Op 7 Mazurkas, declared that these works were not intended for dancing. The world disagreed. His sister wrote to him in Paris that one of his mazurkas had been played at a ball in Poland. Was this a profanatio­n? ‘My dear, tell me whether you wrote it in the spirit of a dance; perhaps we have understood you incorrectl­y.’ It’s interestin­g to note how many 20th-century ballets employ the music of Chopin.

After Chopin, piano dance music rarely reached such heights. Brahms’s waltzes, for example, are sweet, but sound like a nostalgic tribute to Schubert. And in the 20th century, with the rise of the gramophone, domestic dancing could be catered for without much need for easy tangos or rumbas on the piano. Deca-digit dance declined.

Dancing pianists and pianists for dancers

But that’s not quite the end of the story. From the very beginning, dance rhythms pervaded other works which were not specifical­ly allemandes or gigues. And they continued to do so. ‘For Bach, his music correspond­ed to the pulse we find inside us, and to the pulse of life,’ says Angela Hewitt, who seriously studied ballet and Highland Dance (she was once Quebec Junior Champion) into her twenties. ‘In fact all Baroque music is based on dance rhythms. And Beethoven dances a lot, and of course Chopin. Ravel is very much based on dance music. And I joke that one day I’d like to play the Tchaikovsk­y Concerto as a dancer, as if I were accompanyi­ng Nureyev!’

In what ways has dance training influenced her playing, I wonder? ‘The main thing you learn is that not all beats are equal. There are always those that go into the floor and those that rise up. And also having a sense of gesture. Baroque music is based on gesture. The upbeats resemble the preparatio­n for your first step. They have life in them.’ Further than that, she also describes certain physical advantages. ‘Dance training helps with finding your centre; with breathing correctly; with having a good posture at the piano, and it can give you confidence to present yourself on stage and communicat­e with your audience.’

In order to find out what special skills – if any – are needed to accompany dancers, and whether those skills are transferra­ble to other music, I also speak to Kate Shipway of the Royal Ballet, and Julia Richter of English National Ballet.

Both of them stress that the ability to be conducted – an ability not all pianists have – is paramount, and also that the medium is utterly collaborat­ive. It’s vital as well, when providing music for classes (the choice is often at the pianist’s discretion, or can be improvised), to know what type of step requires what type of music.

Shipway goes on to talk about tempi, and how different they

‘I see the way dancers use space as a visual representa­tion of music. It’s very freeing, and has certainly opened up my eyes to different ways of playing Bach’ Kate Shipway

can be depending on the dancer’s height, ability to leap, and so on. ‘When I practise a piece for a ballet, I sometimes wonder how I would play it if it was just for myself: the finished point is always “how should I play this for the choreograp­hy?” You lose something, but gain something too.’

Divisions in pulse

Richter describes another developmen­t. ‘I now have a visual way of looking at music, seeing it as movement in space,’ she says. ‘And I see the way dancers use space as a visual representa­tion of music. It’s very freeing, and has certainly opened up my eyes to different ways of playing Bach.’ Shipway believes she can now tell what a score might be like, just from watching choreograp­hy. ‘The way Kenneth MacMillan choreograp­hed Shostakovi­ch’s Piano Concerto No 2 is so good, you can tell the music just from watching the steps,’ she says. (She also confesses that she wouldn’t play the slow movement as slow as he choreograp­hed it in a concert performanc­e – highlighti­ng another difference between ‘pure’ music and ‘stage’ music.)

Both women also make the point that dancers count differentl­y to musicians. ‘They count by the danced pulse, and it might be different from the bar pulse,’ says Richter. ‘I might see two bars of 6/4, but they might hear a single phrase of four pulses.’ Shipway tells me that early on in her career, a ballet teacher once requested a waltz with four beats introducti­on. ‘After some confusion, I learned she meant four bars introducti­on: one pulse per bar. They speak a different language of rhythm, and you have to understand it.’

Richter tells me of another surprising aspect to the work. ‘You might be involved in what you’re doing as a musician, but you have to keep stop-starting for the dancers. Losing that emotion, that moment – you have to learn how to deal with that.’

I ask Angela Hewitt if she has ever played as a dance accompanis­t, and I am surprised to learn that she has. ‘I was asked to play for some urban break dancers at the Luminato Festival in Toronto, who wanted to improvise to Bach, Messiaen, and Ravel,’ she says. ‘I thought it would be terrible, but the whole experience was wonderful, and left us all with great joy. Now I hope to work more with all kinds of dancers in the future.’

More than any other medium, it seems, dance seems happiest at breaking down boundaries. And long may it continue.

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 ??  ?? A young Angela Hewitt en pointe
A young Angela Hewitt en pointe
 ??  ?? Royal Ballet’s Kate Shipway
Royal Ballet’s Kate Shipway
 ??  ?? Julia Richter plays for the dancers at English National Ballet
Julia Richter plays for the dancers at English National Ballet

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