As musicians who do not, themselves, produce sound, conductors are a mysterious breed in any circumstance. At the helm of a symphony orchestra, a maestro is an authority figure, virtually the surrogate of the composer. To the stereotypical diva in opera, the man with the baton (or on rare occasions the woman) is merely there to follow her tempi, to accompany, and to make her sound good. And in ballet?
Who better to ask than American Ballet Theatre's three practiced hands in their specialized art? They are Charles Barker, Principal Conductor; David LaMarche, Conductor and Music Administrator; and Ormsby Wilkins, Music Director and Principal Conductor of the National Ballet of Canada, who also serves as Guest Conductor with ABT. Two of them‹LaMarche and Wilkins‹trained as pianists, growing naturally into their current positions from work with dancers in the rehearsal studio. Barker, whose early experience also included opera, gravitated to ballet for its visual brilliance and dynamism.
All three adore their work. "In ballet things go very fast," Barker says. "The speed and electricity on the stage infatuate me. It's wonderful to sit back and listen to Parsifal"‹Wagner's last music drama, notoriously slow to unfold‹"but there is so much more to watch at the ballet." And La Marche tells of a colleague who took a symphonic job and kept feeling that something was wrong: "Then it came to him. 'I looked up from the score. I was staring at a blank wall.'"
Most viewers who start thinking about the interdependence of dance and music quickly jump to the conclusion that the crux of the matter is tempo. Especially in ballets to music not conceived with dancers in mind (Tchaikovsky's Concerto No. 2 in G for Piano and Orchestra, 0p. 44, for instance, to which George Balanchine made Ballet Imperial), certain passages will simply be too fast for dancing. Conversely, there are adagios in the great romantic ballet scores (Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, say) that to some ballerinas' tastes cannot be played slowly enough.
"Sure," says LaMarche, "some steps can only be done within a small range of tempi. But a lot of the time, dancers will talk about tempo but really mean something else: the accent, the dynamic. In the coda of the Black Swan, some ballerinas want you to keep a steady rhythm for the fouettes and they stay right on it. With others, you start together and you end together, but along the way, they have their own rhythm going on, especially the ones who do doubles and triples instead of all single turns."
To Wilkins, the key issue is not tempo but musicality, a notoriously difficult quality to define. "It's not about a dancer putting a particular foot on a particular note," he says. "It's a matter of playing with the musical pulse. There's body language, there's phrasing that seems to mirror the music. As a conductor, you need to feel you know where the dancer is going, so you don't have to watch them all the time for fear of things that surprise you‹in a bad way."
Barker goes so far as to call tempo "a minor consideration." "Natalia Makarova would slow things down," he says. "And why not? If a ballerina can do something with the extra time, making choreography brilliantly recognizable at that tempo, who cares? If she's going for a particular emotional gesture and can pull it off, tempo doesn't matter. What matters is what the audience perceives.
"There's always accommodation," Barker continues, "because each dancer is different. As a rule of thumb, a taller dancer moves slightly slower. The petite ones tend to move very fast. But a more important thing for a dancer is consistency. Mostly, we make our tempo adjustments in rehearsal, so everyone knows in advance. Of course, there's always the unexpected: a ballerina might balance just that much longer, and if the conductor can hold on to the phrase, everything is enhanced, glorified.
"That happens maybe two or three hundred times a night."
So far the focus has been on conducting for principals and soloists. Conducting for the corps de ballet requires another mind-set. "Dancers aren't happy when they feel rushed," La Marche points out. "In a very fast piece, like the last movement of Balanchine's Symphony in C, which is so hard to pull off, you try to negotiate something not quite so fast. The job is to know where you can give dancers a little room without indulging, without sacrificing the vitality of the music."
Barker adds, "With the corps it's a matter of leading. You can't follow 24 girls. Mostly, everything is already determined in rehearsal. But sometimes you think, 'This is a Saturday matinee. We've already done five shows, and we're a little tired. Maybe we'd all benefit from a little boost of energy.' So that's what you do. Pick it up half a notch! Yes! We're onstage! Performing! We're here!"
Sometimes pushing, sometimes pulling, sometimes knowing when to follow, the ideal ballet conductor is not only the dancers' best friend but the musicians'. "There's a sort of prejudice in our business," Wilkins remarks. "I won't say a myth. But a lot of orchestras performing for dancers feel that the music gets no respect. It's important to counteract that, to get them to understand that I'm there to make the musical side of the equation a coequal part of the entire experience‹for the audience, for everyone." He cites a mentor: the conductor, composer, and arranger John Lanchbery (1923-2003), whose extensive credentials included the top music positions with the Royal Ballet, the Australian Ballet, and American Ballet Theatre, to name just a few.
"You want the two forms of art to come together in the best way possible," Wilkins continues. "If you can't convey that to the orchestra, what's the point? You won't get the performance you want. That's what Jack was all about. Dancers he conducted for felt they were getting something extra. Even if it was faster! His brio and excitement gave them the ability to deal with that."