Photo James Braund
Humans are the only creatures who naturally respond to music. It’s something we’re born to do. Children will readily clap along with the beat, without being taught. Every culture in every country has produced some kind of rhythmic thing – a song, a dance, an instrumental pattern.
As the doctor and writer Oliver Sacks put it, an alien from outer space who came to a concert (or indeed a ballet) wouldn’t be able to understand what all the fuss was about. Music to them would be a meaningless series of sounds. Humans are the only ones, or so we think, who like to move ‘in time’ with each other. We also like watching other people move in time, whether they’re a well-practised corps de ballet, marching soldiers, or a couple of synchronised swimmers.
However, watching people do that in silence is not quite as enjoyable as watching them do it while there is music playing. We usually (but not always) agree on whether a piece of music is sad or happy, or makes us feel something else, perhaps excited, or comforted. This is the power of ballet – we respond to watching movement, and the experience is even better if we can respond to hearing the music too.
Music and movement don’t always need to be deeply connected – Music Director and Chief Conductor Nicolette Fraillon has said she enjoyed watching the powerful cyclists in the Tour de France on TV while having ballet music on in the background. But she also says that for her, the very best ballet performances come from having dancers and musicians working together and understanding one another’s needs.
“The great composers for ballet,” she says, “are those who learned ballet, understood theatre, understood their role.” The composers Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky were like this. They both wrote music for concerts, but also worked closely with dancers and choreographers to create music especially for ballet. When they were putting a new ballet together, they would go into the rehearsal studio with the dancers. Stravinsky might sit at the piano; Balanchine, the choreographer, would be nearby. Together they would tweak the flow of the music to suit not only the emotional effect, but also the physical needs of dancers.
So, good composers and choreographers work together to plan the ballet in a very practical way. There is the emotional and dramatic side: for example, when should the prince and princess meet? And there is the practical side. “A minute of intense dancing is like running several hundred-metre races in a row,” Nicolette explains. “It is so intensive they have to go off and have a breather.” A lead dancer might have an important solo, and then disappear off stage for a while to recover. This gives some other, usually more junior, dancers a chance to be in the spotlight for a while. But audiences need to recover too – the ballet can’t always be incredibly emotional and dramatic, or we’d be worn out before the story was over. Sometimes it’s nice to just have someone funny or sweet come on for a while.
“Good ballet composers take all that into account,” says Nicolette. “In reality, it’s about setting the scene. We are part of the whole world. The story isn’t only about the principal couple and their love story; it’s about creating the context for all of that. Film music does exactly the same. It sometimes carries the action forward; they’re not saying anything, but the music can create the entire dramatic and emotional sphere in which we’re operating.”