Southbank Sinfonia works in partnership with the Royal Opera House to provide opportunities for our players to develop performance skills and learn from one of the world’s great arts organisations. Performing side-by-side with the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House at their Covent Garden HQ, a recent project saw our musicians working with singers from the Jette Parker Young Artist programme and dancers from The Royal Ballet.
But what’s different about accompanying dancers? Rebecca Crawshaw and Stefano D’Ermengildo reveal all…
STAGE → CONDUCTOR → ORCHESTRA
Imagine an orchestra performing, a conductor waving his or her arms around and the musicians obeying. Although us musicians have a pretty important role to play too, it’s the Maestro who sets the tempo and shapes the music in a normal orchestral performance.
So what’s different when you throw dancers from The Royal Ballet into the mix? It changes everything.
It was an entirely new insight for us as musicians to see how Barry Wordsworth, Music Director of The Royal Ballet, combined the movement of dancers with the music we were playing. Instead of conducting metronomically, his gestures translated and communicated the actions on-stage into the music we were playing.
Having watched the ballet piano rehearsal during the afternoon – something we never normally get to see – we were suddenly very aware of what was happening on-stage and how it relates to the music that accompanies it. Even the subtlest change of tempo makes a dramatic impact as to how the dancers move.
FEELING THE MUSIC
But speed is only part of it. ‘Feeling’ is just as important, something we don’t have to think about in quite the same way when playing symphonic repertoire. For example, if you were to play a movement marked as ‘andante’, many conductors would get out their metronome, say “not too slow, not too fast”, pick a speed and set off.
But actually, what ‘andante’ means is ‘going’ or ‘moving’ – and that’s a feeling, not a tempo. It could be slow or it could be fast, but it’s crucial to get across in the music a feeling that it has moved somehow. When you’re supporting someone on-stage who physically has moved, matching their interpretation of a feeling becomes incredibly important.
Similarly, the physical qualities of each dancer resulted in subtle changes to the way we needed to play in the pit. For instance, one dancer was particularly musical which made it relatively intuitive for the conductor and orchestra to translate their movement into music. For others dancers it was their technical excellence that shone through, which in turn meant that our musical interpretation felt more precise and structured to match it.
Even the nationality of the dancers could be felt in the way we were playing music, with each bringing a distinct influence or flavour to the art. Just as within Southbank Sinfonia, different cultural backgrounds mean we bring our own languages to the collaboration, not only verbally but also in the way we approach music and dance. But from the perspective of the orchestra, it was fascinating to see how we had to adapt to the nuances of the dancer’s own character to create a cohesive performance.
So the next time you watch ballet, just think of the constant chain of interpretation and communication taking place between the stage, the conductor and the orchestra. There’s more to it than meets the eye!
Find out more about Southbank Sinfonia’s partnership with the Royal Opera House here.