What does the ballet conductor really do? Yes, he or she stands in the pit in front of the orchestra and sets the tempo and cues the dancers, but is that all there is? Does the conductor simply lead the orchestra as an accompaniment to the dancing, or is the conductor a full participant in the creative process?
In order to answer this question a good place to start is the concert hall and the role of the symphony orchestra conductor.
The Symphony Orchestra Conductor
A score is not an engineer's blueprint to be followed precisely. Rather, it is a guide to help the conductor to be the composer's advocate for expressing the ideas and emotions embodied in the piece of music. Each conductor brings his or her own interpretation to a score and has wide latitude to express a musical vision. For example, there are numerous recordings of Beethoven's symphonies by many different conductors and orchestras and each one is unique, yet still a valid interpretation of the composer's intent.
The interpretive tools available to the conductor include such things as phrasing, tempo and dynamic range (volume), but the real emotional experience comes from more subtle and subjective things the conductor evokes from the orchestra to shape the performance.
Talented conductors routinely imbue the music with subjective feelings and emotions that are often the essence of a performance, and every piece of music involves a range of feelings and emotions that the conductor and orchestra try to bring to life through their performance. A short list of the range of emotions a concert performance may evoke includes:
- Brightness to darkness
- Excitement to ponderousness
- Glee to solemnity
- Passion to compassion
- Sensuality to frustration
- Sweetness to violence
- Anxiety to calmness
Seeing and hearing such emotions created in the concert hall is often a transcendent experience for the audience and, quite obviously, is one of the primary reasons people attend live performances rather than listen to a recording at home. This concert hall background is a good platform for beginning a discussion of live music for ballet, which by necessity entails discussing the role of the ballet conductor.
The Ballet Conductor Collaborative Artistry
Everything a symphony orchestra conductor does in the concert hall must be done in the pit by a ballet conductor. Working with the choreographer or person staging the dance, the ballet conductor must make interpretive choices about such things as phrasing, tempo and dynamics, and must assure that the music from the pit has the same range of emotional intensity as in the concert hall. But unlike a concert, the interpretation of the music must be closely aligned with the dancing yet still remain true to the composer's intent. At times a ballet conductor must, quite literally, advocate for the composer when the choreographer, stager or dancers want, for example, a tempo that is not true to the composer's intent.
A pit orchestra does not simply play a concert where the dancers follow along with their steps. To the contrary, there is intense and comprehensive interaction between the orchestra via the conductor and the dancers. This artistic collaboration does not exist with recorded music. A straightforward example: a male dancer must move across the stage, do three fast turns and immediately drop to one knee in front of his female partner. The choreographer wants his knee to hit the ground on a precise beat of the music. A skeptic of live music may say the same beat is heard on a recording so what difference does it make?
A huge difference. What if the dancer is a little slow in his turns? A little faster than last night? An experienced ballet conductor will instantaneously sense this and, with a good orchestra, immediately adjust the music to accommodate the dancer. This could never happen with a recording. Or, assume the male dancers turns across the floor have the narrative element of the male trying to impress the female. If on a particular night the male dancer feels inspired and wants to add an extra turn or a jump between turns, an experienced ballet conductor, who knows the dancers abilities, will instantly sense this and appropriately modify the music to allow the dancer to show his inspiration.
It is exciting for the dancer to have the artistic freedom to be so "in the moment" that he may improvise on the spot. Only live music can do this and the audience will feel this extra excitement and have an enhanced experience that night. It takes considerable artistry on the part of the conductor to instantaneously adjust the music to what the dancers are doing, or in that rare and special collaboration, adjust the music to what the conductor feels the dancer is capable of doing at that precise moment, i.e. knowing when and how to get more from the dancer. To reach this level of collaborative artistry the ballet conductor must not only know the music, but must also know the choreography as well as the abilities and personalities of the individual dancers.
The very nature of recorded music requires the dancers to do the same steps, the same way every night. Without the flexibility of a conductor and an orchestra the audience will never see a dancer go beyond the usual steps. Nor will recorded music ever help to smooth over those subtle lapses when a dancer either falls behind or gets ahead of the music. A good orchestra in the pit led by an experienced ballet conductor who knows the dancers well will enhance the artistic and emotional experience for both the audience and the dancers.
- A conductor provides the dancers with the flexibility to be more spontaneous in particular moments of the performance.
- A conductor tailors the music to the individual dancer. For example, if tonight's ballerina can hold an arabesque on pointe for a longer time than last night's ballerina, only live music allows this enhancement.
- Unlike a recording, every performance to live music is slightly different and all the dancers, including the corps de ballet, must constantly adjust to subtle changes in tempo and mood. With live music the dancers must be more attuned to the music as well as to one another, which enhances the collaborative nature of the performance.
- When a conductor has a clear interpretation of the music the dancers will do far more than simply follow the tempo. They will physically portray the conductor's interpretation through their dancing by subtly changing the emotional range they show that night.
- A conductor may draw more or less emotion from both the orchestra and the dancers depending upon the "vibe" on stage that night. While highly subjective, any performer will readily admit there is a vibe to a performance that varies from night to night.
- Live music creates a "whole" that is greater than the sum of its parts. When a 30-member ballet company dances to recorded music there will be only 30 performers in the theater. But, add 60 musicians and the audience experiences a live performance by 90 artists. Then, as often happens in a well-coordinated group artistic effort, the "whole" is greater than the sum of its parts.
More subtly, a conductor can add tension to the dancing that would not exist with recorded music. For example, it is often harder for dancers to move slowly since they need to hold their positions often difficult, off-balance positions for a longer time. Assume the music is slow and a bit dark in a section where the choreographer is trying to show fear and anxiety. The recorded music has the same tempo night after night, but if a conductor senses the dancer has the skill and desire to show more anxiety and inner turmoil, but is not doing it to the maximum extent possible that night, the music may be played more slowly and darkly to push the dancer to give more. The audience will see, feel and sense this increased tension, which would not be possible with a recording.
Many dancers will happily state they feel extra energy when they come to the stage and hear the musicians meticulously warming up. They too have just meticulously warmed up. The dancers not only get a creative lift from the presence of live musicians but also feel an exciting edge because they know the music will not be the same as it was the previous night. Thus, even before the performance begins the dancers get a bit more pumped than they would be with recorded music.
Far more than recorded music, live music brings greater depth, intensity and emotion from the dancers and, indeed, from the performance as a whole. By definition live music is in the moment and, under the baton of an experienced ballet conductor with a well-rehearsed orchestra, may be instantly adjusted during the performance to allow the dancers to more fully express themselves, or at other times, may push the dancers to the edge of their abilities. Live music produces a richer artistic experience for the dancers and, of course, an enhanced experience for the audience.