by Allan Greene
The first thing is, something always has to be moved. The piano, the seat, where to put the tea to keep from knocking it over, do I need to see this teacher’s feet or can I rely on her cadence… A quick look around the studio to see if there are any interesting visitors, if any regulars are missing. Once I know who my audience is, I can think about how to break the aural dryness. Often the choice is like a steakhouse menu, steak or non-steak, or, in this case, Chopin or non-Chopin. This presupposes, of course, that the teacher doesn’t decide to lead off with foot warm-ups or something. I almost always react to avant-pliés non-Classically. If a teacher wants to start a class Pawn-to-Queen’s-Knight-4, I feel it’s my duty to let the students know they’re no longer in Kansas. But it’s just going to be pliés, and pliés music must be a satin blanket that can never crease. Can the students handle drama, or will it have to be Bel Canto? Let’s try drama. Can they handle humor, or surprise? If they’re disciplined enough, I can really have fun with them. Let’s save that for the second side, after I’ve relaxed them. Okay, it’ll be a Chopin nocturne, no, a Liszt Consolation, no the Goldberg Variations aria, no, we’re about to begin, CHOOSE! “Préparation…” Hands on keys, oh, I’m playing D-flat arpeggios, Opus 9 No.1, D-flat Consolation, Berceuse, need a melody: an E-flat! It’s a V9 chord in G-flat major, and yes! the Schubert G-flat Impromptu, and we’re off! Second side, can we integrate the Well-Tempered Clavier into this? It should work.
I can’t speak for any other dance accompanist, so don’t draw any conclusions. But the above is precisely the way I think from the moment I walk into the dance studio through to the end of the class. It’s a 90-minute interior monologue interrupted by commands to start and stop, repeat, change the tempo, change the music, play more, play less. I have to make the whole thing sound improvised, yet intentional. It’s my job to reinforce whatever the teacher is teaching that day, never step on his message. Ninety-nine percent of the time I don’t want to draw attention to myself, even if the effect I choose is a Lisztian ocean of sound. Sometimes my choice doesn’t come off, sometimes I switch in mid-combination, or even in mid-phrase. But almost always, the result, after ninety minutes, is an artistic workout, the satisfaction of structural completeness, and the heightened sensitivity that serves as the emotional foundation for dance artistry. Or so I like to think.
Consider this column as my préparation for my future commentary on the relationship between dance and music. Some of my pieces will unlock the magic of great ballet choreography, looking at the symbiosis between the steps and the music. (Shall we tackle Swan Lake?) Some will cover my experiences working with the famous and the not-so-famous. (Interested in what it was like working with Agnes de Mille after her stroke?) We will undoubtedly get into the gnarly but indispensable subject of synesthesia, the study of how some peoples’ brains vividly cross-process sensory information. (I have arrived at the conviction that the truly great artists were all wired this way to varying degrees.) We might mix in a music lesson here and there. (Ever wonder what the significance is of the difference between 4/4 and 2/4?)
I can’t wait to share with you a few of those thoughts that rattle around in my mind, like dancers awaiting the curtain’s opening, for that Pavlovian word, “And…”
BIO: Allan Greene has been a dancers’ musician for nearly forty years. He is a composer, pianist, teacher, conductor, music director, father to Oliver, 9, and Ravi, 6, and husband to Juliana Boehm. He has also been an architect, an editor, a writer and a boiler mechanic. He lives and works in New York City. His ballet class music can be found on www.BalletClassTunes.com.