In technique class I make it a goal to catch the eye of the pianist.
We start our days with ballet class to focus on technique and to warm up before rehearsals. This is unique to classical and contemporary dance- musicians don’t take class before they go on stage, painters don’t warm up with a technique class, and neither do sculptors.
I play this little game with myself where I try to get the accompaniment to match my tempo. They are supposed to keep their own tempo, but they often glance up as they are playing, and even the most experienced pianists will sometimes follow. If they see a group of men start the grande allegro, they will inherently slow down a bit to accommodate the mens’ higher jumps; if they see a second group run in to take the floor after the first group goes they will play an eight-count introduction instead of starting the new phrase right away; if they notice a certain jump they might accent it with a strike of chord.
I do this because the pianist isn’t a dancer. They don’t know if I’m more or less turned out, or if my elbow should be lifted higher or if my foot sickles sometimes on the way up to an extension. They play music, and we should still be performing even here with only our colleagues and coaches as the audience. The pianist will always know a good performance when they see one.
A photo shoot cancelled the other day, so I snuck into a technique class with the intention of getting lost in it. From the start, the pianist, lengthy and fully bearded, was completely immersed in his work. He played the most beautiful, rich and embodied music, and there was no getting him out of it. I delayed the beginning of the rondes des jambes a bit with some syncopation; he didn’t follow. I hastened the petite battements and lingered in a balance; still nothing. My focus was constantly beyond the walls of the room as if reaching to an audience in the fifth balcony. I exhaled with each plie, and stretched each note of his melodies, and I still couldn’t catch his eye.
We put the barres away and came to centre floor to work through some straightforward, just-to-get-on-your-leg type exercises. Then came our full-blown adagio. I kept an eye on him the entire time, and could have sworn that this semi-performance would have made him at least glance up, but I was wrong.
We continued on; small jumps, medium jumps, sweat and more sweat, heavy breathing, pirouettes, a fast-moving waltz, grande allegro. The rhythm of class was in my body. I didn’t know the time, or the fact that my leotard was by now a much darker, sweat-induced, shade of green; I wasn’t paying attention to the ping in my right knee or the fractured toe that hasn’t quite healed, but my focus lay instead on dancing through my center, lifting my hips in the jumps and holding on to air time that comes naturally for me. It was snowing outside, but it could have been the middle of a hurricane. Sometimes in dance you have to push through to get through the day. And then other times, it can feel like you are flying, and it’s as if you could be on stage in five and still take their breath away.
The final round of the grand allegro: just two of us left. I soared and hung on to each note. I finished on “eight” and felt warm with the realization of how natural that seemed. It was longer and much harder than most of the barre work from earlier, yet less “breathy”, and, at least I hoped, looked effortless. As I glanced up at the end to start the applause toward the coach, my eyes met his and he nodded: “Beautiful work”.
It was only when I completely immersed myself in the movement that our melodies were authentically synced up. Sometimes one must get a bit lost in order to discover, no?
The pianist will always know a good performance when they see one.