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What makes a good dance score?

Graceful Tchaikovsky, vivacious Stravinsky, angular minimalist music - or something else? We explore what makes the best music for ballet and beyond.

By Paul Kilbey (Content Producer (Ballet))

11 April 2017 at 11.18am | 4 Comments

There are certainly two composers most indelibly associated with ballet: Tchaikovsky, the composer of Swan LakeThe Nutcracker and The Sleeping Beauty; and Stravinsky, the man behind The FirebirdPetrushkaThe Rite of Spring and so many others. In the second and third parts of Jewels, choreographer George Balanchine turned to these two musical greats, but he did not use ballet music: he used music they had written for the concert hall.

There is still something about these scores, however, that makes them perfect for dance, from the graceful lilt of Tchaikovsky’s polonaise to the vivacity of Stravinsky’s finale. And there are certain other composers, too, whose music seems to attract choreographers particularly often: Rachmaninoff, Chopin, Bach… not to mention the minimalists.

What it is, then, that makes music suitable for dance? What makes good ballet music? We asked people from across The Royal Ballet and the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House what they thought.

Hear from:

  • Romany Pajdak, First Artist of The Royal Ballet
  • Koen Kessels, Music Director of The Royal Ballet
  • Liam Scarlett, Artist in Residence of The Royal Ballet
  • Nigel Bates, Music Administrator of The Royal Ballet and former Principal Percussionist of the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
  • Peter Manning, Concert Master of the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
  • Zenaida Yanowsky, Principal of The Royal Ballet

Romany Pajdak, First Artist of The Royal Ballet

There is so much soul and feeling in Tchaikovsky's music, from joyous ecstasy to heart-rending sorrow and all the shades in between.

I’m not sure there is a definitive answer, nor a particular set of rules that one could follow for the ideal score. Tchaikovsky did write some of the most iconic ballet music in direct response to detailed scenarios. His Serenade for Strings, however, was not written with dance in mind and yet Balanchine’s response to it is my all-time favourite work to dance. The joy of dancing to Tchaikovsky comes from the emotional depth of his work.

For me there is so much soul and feeling in his music, from joyous ecstasy to heart-rending sorrow and all the shades in between, that I only know how to acknowledge through moving. The work I most respond to as a dancer tends to have this emotional resonance.

However, the great joy of dancing with The Royal Ballet, with such a vast repertory and versatile orchestra, is that one experiences so much different music. The rhythmic playfulness of Stravinsky, the melodic complexity of Shostakovich and the use of space and time in Max Richter’s work all inspire and challenge choreographers in different ways. Pieces of music I had never thought of dancing to, when seen and heard through the eyes and ears of a choreographer, suddenly become accessible, and a new realm of appreciation opens up. Just as in the wider world, it takes all kinds.

Koen Kessels, Music Director of The Royal Ballet

The relationship between choreographer and composer is key for a good ballet score.

The relationship between choreographer and composer is key for a good ballet score, whether it is written for ballet or not, and whether the composer is alive or dead.

The music of Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky, always theatrical, suits choreographers so well because it gives them the imaginative freedom to explore everything from form, to emotion, to narrative. Their ballet music is symphonic, and their concert music is born out of their theatrical passion.

Tchaikovsky pored over scores borrowed from the Moscow theatre library, and Stravinsky, born in the ‘wings’, started out making orchestrations for Les Sylphides (from Chopin’s Nocturne op.32 no.2 and Grande Valse brillante op.18) – his reward was writing a new ballet, The Firebird. Both were rather unimpressed by the limitations imposed by the ballet masters of the Russian Imperial theatres (lists of dances, indications of tempi, describing the narrative...). They even initiated the concept for ballets and insisted on working collaboratively with choreographers on the scenario and the dramaturgy. And both gained the respect of choreographers in the creative process, meaning that they did not have to adapt their scores that much to specific requests.

Today, such composers as Thomas Adès (with his cataclysmic Polaris from 2011, choreographed by Crystal Pite in 2014) and Esa-Pekka Salonen (Nyx, 2012, choreographed by Wayne McGregor in 2016) may not be so obsessively dance-minded, but both are conductors working in the theatre, and both use a truly communicative language. Hence their fruitful collaboration with choreographers.

Meanwhile, Bach’s music, with its supreme structure and architectural perfection, still sounds contemporary, and it’s no surprise that he continues to inspire new ways to express emotion and movement.

Liam Scarlett, Artist in Residence, The Royal Ballet

Scarlett is currently working on a new work for The Royal Ballet, Symphonic Dances, to music by Rachmaninoff.

The more you listen to Rachmaninoff's music, the more you realize its complexity.

It’s up to a choreographer to know when something can be choreographed, and when it can’t. Symphonic Dances is the fourth time I’ve used Rachmaninoff’s music, but I think I’ll always steer clear of the concertos and the symphonies, which are just so epic, so huge.

With Symphonic Dances, I think Rachmaninoff imagined that there might be movement associated with it – it’s in the title. All of his music is so beautiful and lavish; it has a very Russian opulence to it, and it’s huge in scale. I think he was very aware of his heritage and his predecessors, so while Tchaikovsky has some soaring melodies, Rachmaninoff goes even deeper with his.

There are certain pieces of music where the first thing you think is how hard they are, but in my eyes that’s not a good thing. Similarly, with ballet, you don’t want it to look difficult – there’s nothing worse than an audience waiting for the dancers to mess up. In a circus, a tightrope walker might find what they do easy, but they make it look difficult, to keep the audience excited. But in ballet you can’t do that – you put effort into it, but to make it look effortless. It’s the same with Rachmaninoff’s music: while it is technically very hard, for me it doesn’t sound difficult for difficult’s sake. You don’t notice the level of craftsmanship behind it to begin with: the more you listen to it, the more you realize its complexity.

Nigel Bates, Music Administrator of The Royal Ballet and former Principal Percussionist of the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House

Ballet demands from its music the light and the dark, the quick and the slow, the boy and girl variations and the contrast. As George Balanchine said, ‘Dance is music made visible’.

I often suggest to budding dance composers that they work on a ‘Theme and Variations’ if they want their work to be considered for dance use. Ballet in particular demands from its music the light and the dark, the quick and the slow, the boy and girl variations and the contrast. As George Balanchine said, ‘Dance is music made visible’.

One perfect ballet score has to be The Nutcracker, where Tchaikovsky’s music has allowed the ballet to survive when nearly all of its original elements have been lost. Good tunes, wonderful orchestral colours and an incredible variety of styles ensure the musical interest is held from beginning to end. And when this is combined with the staging the whole is so much more than the sum of its parts.

To my mind, ballet music falls into three categories: music created for ballet (such as The Nutcracker), music stolen for ballet (such as Balanchine’s Symphony in C – every note as Bizet wrote it, but not for ballet use) and music adapted for ballet. A fine example of this last would be Manon, where a variety of Massenet’s music was adapted to make a full three-act work. The final pas de deux started out life as a simple soprano aria from his oratorio La Vierge – but we of course know it reworked for full orchestra, with nearly every string player taking the glorious tune and providing the underlay for what is surely one of the most emotional endings in all ballet.

Peter Manning, Concert Master of the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House

To create magic we must always explore style, content, effect, narrative and technical possibility, and the time of the music’s composition.

Conversations with choreographers are vital in choosing ballet music and among the greatest artistic explorations we have. I had the honour of being taught some years ago by a great musician, the violinist Nathan Milstein, whose love of ballet allowed him to form a close relationship with Balanchine. It was this relationship that led to Balanchine’s outpouring of Stravinsky ballets. Those discussions must have been fascinating.

The challenge is to find music that contains the idea of rhythmic dance and shape, alongside flowing and lyric movement. Simply put, there is almost too much music to choose from, and to create magic we must always explore style, content, effect, narrative and technical possibility, and the time of the music’s composition.

In the finale of Schubert’s Ninth Symphony, for example – used by William Forsythe in The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude – we can see the episodic nature of the writing: muscular, with rhythmic punctuation, but also with interludes of pure lyricism, and a long crescendo of intensity, speed and emotion… . In one movement we glimpse another world, and the mixture of forms creates its own dynamic.

As Concert Master I am fully aware that in the musical canon there is an A–Z of emotions and rhythms, and we have 800 years or more of compositions to choose from, as well as music fresh off the press. When music is brought to sit perfectly with choreography, something of great magic and importance can flow. At The Royal Ballet we experience the pure joy of mixing music with dance, and it is a great privilege working to help maintain the classics, as well as exploring the fresh, new and vital.

Zenaida Yanowsky, Principal of The Royal Ballet

I don’t believe there’s such thing as ‘ballet music’.

We like to think that rhythmic music is best suited for dance, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes the movement itself is rhythmic and the music is not, as in Flight Pattern.

Choreographers have a tendency to use more intuitive music to create work and that’s maybe because our brains would have to work too hard otherwise. Having to decipher the sound and the movement at once means you have to make so many fast connections!

I don’t believe there’s such thing as ‘ballet music’, though... more, just the sound that will complement the choreographer’s vision and will intertwine with the movement to create and achieve an emotional goal.

There are some immense pieces of music I would like to see and dance to. Thomas Adès’s Totentanz is one of them.

What do you think makes a piece of music perfect for ballet?
Add your thoughts in the comments below.

Jewels runs until 21 April 2017. Tickets are still available.

The production is given with generous philanthropic support from Julia and Hans Rausing, Sarah and Lloyd Dorfman, Lady Ashcroft, Lindsay and Sarah Tomlinson, Peter Lloyd and The Royal Opera House Endowment Fund.

Symphonic Dances and The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude appear in a mixed programme with Tarantella and Strapless 18–31 May 2017. Tickets are still available.

The mixed programme is given with generous philanthropic support from The Royal Opera House Endowment Fund; Symphonic Dances with generous philanthropic support from Simon and Virginia Robertson, Victoria Robey and the New Scarlett Production Syndicate, with additional philanthropic support from the JP Jacobs Charitable Trust; and for Strapless Christopher Wheeldon’s Position as Artistic Associate is generously supported by Kenneth and Susan Green, with generous philanthropic support from Mr and Mrs Edward Atkin CBE.

This article has 4 comments

  1. H Lennox responded on 13 April 2017 at 9:46am Reply

    From the perspective of a member of the audience watching narrative ballet, I'd say it is important that the music fits the period in which the story is set. You wouldn't do a film of a Jane Austen novel using a modern pop or minimalist sound track, so why do ballets with the wrong period music? Hobson' Choice and Mayerling are examples where the use of the correct historical sound world contributes a great deal to the success of these pieces.

  2. Patrick Buckingham responded on 14 April 2017 at 12:18pm Reply

    There is obviously a difference between music commissioned for a new ballet and existing music on which a new ballet is created. In the case of the former, you'd expect the choreographer to have a large say in the music which would clearly be influenced by whatever they had in mind for the ballet (think Joby Talbot and Chris Wheeldon working on Winter's Tale and Alice). The latter is possibly harder but no less exciting. I've noticed that existing piano pieces often translate well to ballet (Rhapsody and Concerto being prominent examples at the Royal Ballet) and suspect that the showy qualities of Prokofiev's first three piano concertos could work in ballet terms (albeit they are fiendishly difficult pieces to play). Shostakovich's sixth and ninth symphonies (both of which are short) include some sharply contrasting movements (slow/fast) which might also translate to ballet. I'd be interested in understanding whether choreographers are first struck by a piece of music or whether a ballet concept generally comes first.

  3. ML responded on 14 April 2017 at 2:30pm Reply

    I concur with Ms Yanowsky. My choices would be some pieces by Handel, Ravel, Tan Dun, Ginastera and Gillian Weir. There are no rules - as long as the choreography is a good fit, it will be a good choice.

  4. Ross Roberts responded on 17 April 2017 at 1:23am Reply

    I'd place Balanchine's interpretations of Serenade for Strings and Symphony in C, both mentioned above, amongst my favourite ballet scores, as well as Polaris for the marvellous way Crystal Pite interpreted the music. Add in Sinfonietta, Tryst, Carnival of the Animals, Still Life at the Penguin Café, Chopin's music in Dances at a Gathering, and many more...

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