The advent of the coronavirus pandemic, has ushered in a large offering of streamed performances, allowing dancers and musicians to continue to perform during these challenging times and delighting audiences with much-needed artistic sustenance.
This new accessibility has allowed many of us to admire the work of companies all over the world, to revel in the talent of artists we would otherwise not have had the chance to discover. It has also brought to light a troubling tendency: ballet companies seeking collaborations with conductors who have no experience conducting for dance.
No major opera company would ever hire conductors who have no experience working in the opera world or with singers. They, rightfully, consider that opera requires a special set of skills, a certain amount of training that is not always a part of the basic training of conductors. And yet, opera is an artform where what happens on and under the stage is rooted in music, something every conductor understands.
Dance is the wonderful marriage of two artforms. When that marriage happens, the energy reaches its pinnacle and sparkles fly in the room (sometimes literally!). This can only happen if the conductor – the person who maintains the link between stage and pit during the performance – thoroughly understands both artforms. Otherwise, they cannot possibly make the real-time microadjustments that transform a good performance into a great one.
One may ask: can the dancers simply not adjust to the music? Yes, and they should. But using the analogy of the soloist in a concerto, who would ever think that a great performance can be achieved if the soloist adjusts to the orchestra, without the orchestra ever reciprocating? A great performance requires a conversation between soloist and orchestra, hence the word concerto, which comes from the Latin concertare (to fight) and conserere (to unite), and results in the Italian concertare (to devise jointly). The same holds true with dance and music; the most powerful performances happen when both artforms feed each other.
This may sound familiar to many: as a child, I spent my time between school, music lessons and ballet class. When the time for college came, I chose music and conducting. But all those years of ballet training, of immersion in the repertoire, of feeling music in my body as much as in my ears, stayed with me and shaped the conductor I became. As a professional conductor, it was all too natural to think of working in the ballet pit. After all, both artforms have shaped the musician I am.
Where most conductors see tempo restrictions, submitting the music to the needs of dance, and relinquishing artistic freedom, I see the rewards of collaboration, the incredible artistic power of the combined artforms and the positive technical challenges of a truly live performance; its variety and surprises.
There is nothing more exhilarating than a performance in which dancers and musicians connect, and a real exchange takes place. Imagine the dark and silent house; the ballerina walks onstage and takes the pose. She and the conductor exchange a glance. She gets ready to start, takes and breath which is the impetus of the movement, the phrase she is initiating. That breath carries all her artistic intentions: speed, atmosphere, line, articulation, shape. The conductor catches that energy and through the baton, communicates it to the orchestra. An intangible current is established between stage and pit. The music emerges and feeds the momentum of the ballerina. From that point, the energy flows both ways and overflows into the house. The audience may not be able to pinpoint why, but they are enthralled by this connection, altogether fragile and powerful, by a sense that they are witnessing a unique performance.
As a conductor, I could spend my entire life in that moment of unique artistic truth. It is not about deciding or relinquishing, about absolutes nor duplication. It is entirely about artistic intention, phrasing, music, movement, line, the unique qualities of the artist you are working with and abandoning yourself to the moment… A moment of complete engagement in which everyone feels truly alive.
Conducting for ballet is not just another job. It has to be about artistic identity. Conductors need to approach dance with the same level of real comprehension and attention to detail they bestow on every musical aspect of the piece. And in the wake of the pandemic, as artists bounce back from the challenges our industry is facing, it is incredibly important that companies choose their musical artists with the same self-care they use when casting their dancing artists. Because after however long the artistic drought will have lasted, we will all be yearning not just for good performances, but for fireworks!