The role of a Ballet Pianist: What it takes to accompany The Royal Ballet
Jette Parker Young Artist Helen Nicolas on what it takes to work with The Royal Ballet.
Young Artist Helen Nicholas taking a ballet class for staff of the Royal Opera House © Andrej Uspenski
Musicians working in ballet often have to find their own way into the very specific musical world of dance. The Royal Opera House’s Jette Parker Young Artists Programme is one of the few places offering expert coaching and the unique experience of working with The Royal Ballet.
‘The young conductors or pianists that come to us may decide after six months that ballet work is not for them, but at least that will be an informed decision,’ explained The Royal Ballet’s Director of Music, Barry Wordsworth. ‘I could give endless examples of talented musicians being quite unnecessarily put off working in dance just because of a bad first day.’
Both conducting and playing for ballet, Barry explains, involve inside knowledge, not least the awareness that dancers don’t work by bar numbers. ‘Instead they’ll say “let’s go from my pas de chat”, so the musicians who don’t know their pas de chat from their entrechat six are completely flummoxed.’
23-year-old Jette Parker Young Artist Helen Nicholas began the programme at the start of September 2012 and, after a period of observing what went on in the studios, now finds herself working alongside the ballet music staff, playing for rehearsals and coaching sessions. She cut her teeth on the music for Liam Scarlett’s ballet Viscera, and was been heavily involved in The Nutcracker. The baptism of fire that is Company class is imminent.
Improvising at the keyboard for daily class is a challenge for any pianist, and Helen is typical in feeling that nothing in her previous training has prepared her for it. ‘You can have the best technique in the world, and that won’t help you. You can be a good jazz improviser, but that’s not going to help in a roomful of ballet dancers. This is all about producing music that fits the steps – not only in tempo, but also feel and mood. It’s got to motivate the dancers to do that particular step, and you have ten seconds, at most, to decide how you’re going to do that, from the moment the person taking the class announces the next exercise.’
So far, she says, it’s been a case of trial and error in the staff classes she has volunteered to play for. But for her first full Company class she will prepare plenty of options, ‘including one tune for pliés in 4/4 and another for pliés in 3/4 – you never know which they’ll want.’
Another of the skills Helen has acquired in a few months on the programme is speed-reading. There’s no time to spend days on end practising a score, as she might for a solo recital, so she has learnt to prioritize: ‘Locate the danger points – usually tempo changes – and adapt any technical challenges to something more manageable. What’s important to keep in mind is that this isn’t about you giving an artistic performance, it’s about giving the dancers what they need.’
New technology offers another useful shortcut. ‘In the office we have access to a database of all the ballets we’re doing. Although I know The Nutcracker well, I watched it again on film, and discussed with Robert [Clark – Royal Ballet Head of Music and Helen’s mentor] the bits I’d probably be doing, and with which dancers. That way I can mark up my score in advance. As a new person, I don’t want to hold up the rehearsal while I fumble for the right page. The dancers will have done it a million times, and I need to be up to the speed of everyone else.’
Helen is currently the main rehearsal pianist for the New Ratmansky ballet, and is also working in rehearsals on the New Wheeldon. Both will be performed in a Mixed Programme with Apollo, opening on 22 February.
The Apollo/New Wheeldon/New Ratmansky mixed programme runs from 22 February to 14 March. Tickets are still available. The Jette Parker Young Artists Programme is supported by Oak Foundation.
This article was adapted from a piece in About the House, the quarterly magazine received by the Friends of Covent Garden.