Do Dancers Need To Be Musical?

Transcription and commentary
by Deborah Brooks

July, 2003


                                                                                                                                                                      Catherine Bott

On July 6, BBC Radio 3’s Music Matters , with hosts Tommy Pearson and Dermot Clinch, aired a segment about the relationship between dancers and music. The participants were:

Catherine Bott ( CB ), singer

Siobhan Davies ( SD ), Artistic Director, Siobhan Davies Dance Company

Jonathan Cope ( JC ), principal dancer, Royal Ballet

David Bintley ( DB ), choreographer, Director, Birmingham Royal Ballet

Barry Wordsworth ( BW ), conductor, Music Director of the Birmingham Royal Ballet (among other posts)


Host: People often think that, being musical, I should be able to dance; worse, that being a drummer, and therefore skilled at coordinating four limbs at once, I should be a really good dancer. Not true. So, does it work the other way round? Do people who really can dance, like ballerinas, need to necessarily be musical? What is the true relationship between dancers and music? Catherine Bott, a singer, whose dancing skills are unknown—at least to me—investigates:

CB: Whenever I get some time off, I go to the ballet. I love watching dance of all kinds, partly because of the sheer beauty of it, partly because with dance, I have no professional knowledge or judgments to get in the way of simple pleasure.

Many music lovers dismiss dance as a frivolous art form. I think they are missing something. Movement to music is fundamental to all of us and has meaning in our social, spiritual and sexual lives. Even if you’ve two left feet, watching dancers telling a story or just displaying their artistry is one of the most exciting things I know. Conjure up almost any film of dancers in rehearsal and you’ll hear the count: “And five, six, seven, eight.” Do dancers really just count? Are they different from singers? What do we have in common? Do dancers have to be musical?

DB: Every dancer has been working with music, of whatever degree of complexity, all their lives, most of them since they were four years old, so there’s a lot of instinctive knowledge about music which they bring to the rehearsal.

JC: From an audience point of view, when they watch a dancer and they think that particular dancer is great, sometimes the reason that that dancer is great is because they’re very musical, but the audience doesn’t necessarily know that. They don’t know they’re a musical dancer, they just think, “Wow, that’s wonderful!” The movement just relates exactly what the music is saying.

BW: In a successful ballet performance, neither side is actually aware of leading the other, because you’ve grown up with this common experience in the rehearsal studio. Therefore the thing is just ready to happen. So that’s, I think, when it really gets… you get lift off.

CB: Conductor Barry Wordsworth, and before him choreographer David Bintley and dancer Jonathan Cope, three voices from the world of ballet. But here’s contemporary dance choreographer Siobhan Davies on a paradox that simply hadn’t occurred to me:

SD: One of the interesting things about dancing to music is that the body makes the music, but it’s the quick parts of the body. It’s the tongue and the fingers and the feet that play the flute, play the piano, help with the drum. So then what parts of your body are going to address which parts of the music at a given time, and then that’s what starts getting interesting, about how you can apply the length of your limb, the power of your torso, to a rapid piece of violin music.

What dancers deal with, apart from many other complexities, is time and space. That’s their language. Timing in the body is probably dictated to by the heartbeat, the breathing rate, the rate of walking, running — all the natural things that happen in your body are probably natural rhythms that are inherent in your body. So then you use those as a platform, but then you need to be as complicated as an extraordinary piece of bark in order to make all those choices.

CB: Thought-provoking comments there from Siobhan Davies. But surely, even the most musical dancers need to adopt a more mechanical approach and sometimes simply count the beats. Jonathan Cope, principal dancer with the Royal Ballet:

JC: It really depends on the piece of music. I think certainly with a lot of classical music, when there’s a very strong melody, there is no need to count at all because the melody will take you from step to step, as it were. But the problem arises when you have modern scores or a single beat just repeating, then there’s no option other than to count.

SD: The counting is there a little bit like underpinning. It’s the nuts and bolts with which the music hangs itself in different ways with different kinds of complexities, different kind of architecture. Occasionally it’s useful for the dancer to know the nuts and bolts, but at a certain point they need to be an artist, in the same way as the person playing the piano, or the orchestra, or a group of artists.

CB: But in ballet, often with live orchestral music to be integrated with the movement, there’s another crucial person in the mix. Doyen of ballet conductors Barry Wordsworth:

BW: I must say there are times when you really feel that you are piggy-in-the-middle, and as such that you’re not really going to keep anybody happy, because the conductor is the one person whose major responsibility, it seems to me, is to balance the needs of two disciplines which don’t necessarily sit side by side happily.

BW: Some people like to be driven by the music, pushed. Other dancers who prefer to be a little bit like a surfer riding a wave. They just want to be there on the top of the wave and they don’t want to be either pushed or pulled. It’s not frequently a question of changes of tempo, but it’s a question sometimes of conducting either with drive or without drive, and I think that frequently that small difference can make a huge difference to a ballet performance.

CB: All artists who interpret music have more in common than I’d realized. A pop singer-dancer like Justin Timberlake works instinctively and spontaneously. Jonathan and I have to train ourselves to be able to bring out the best in the material we’re performing, sometimes using the mechanical process of counting the beats in order to get music into our systems. But music comes first, always. Having watched the Royal Ballet doing their morning class recently, I’d have to confess that dancers work harder than singers, every day.

And though I said I like watching dance because it’s a beautiful mystery, my pleasure has been enhanced by what I’ve learnt from talking to the experts. Last word to David Bintley, director of Birmingham Royal Ballet, who puts it better than I ever could:

DB: When you first go into the ballet, when you see the little girls with their pink leotards, and they might have a frilly skirt on, or something like that, then that’s how it starts. There’s nothing that would intimate to you what it can be in the end, what dance is about — the blood, the sweat, the tears, the injury, the pain, but also the absolutely devastating, magnificent beauty of seeing two dancers — especially close to it — seeing how it works, seeing what they can do. And just the fearsomeness of dance! When you watch a really top-class, superb athlete male dancer doing a variation, you see those guys taking off, leaving the floor. This is . . . this is like motor racing. This is like a rock band. This is the same, and this is so far away from the frilly skirts.

Host: There you have it. That report for Music Matters was from Catherine Bott.

* * *

Deborah Brooks writes:

While I’m always glad when dance is considered worthy of notice by the media, and while the topics discussed in this program were all interesting, I would have preferred a few points discussed in more depth, rather than so many, touched on so briefly. The question of whether dancers need to be musical was never really answered (although I think “yes” is the obvious answer), partly because musicality was never defined. How important are instinctive musicality and a passively acquired knowledge of music, compared to the structured study of music?

I was intrigued by Siobhan Davies’ statement: “Timing in the body is probably dictated to by the heartbeat, the breathing rate, the rate of walking, running — all the natural things that happen in your body are probably natural rhythms that are inherent in your body.” The fact that women’s voices, on average, are about an octave higher than men’s voices is considered a significant factor in the common perception that pitches separated by octaves sound “the same.” Similarly, dancing to certain rhythms and tempi feels comfortable to many people because they are familiar — they are the rhythms of running and walking. It would be interesting to make a study of the sort of movement that is inspired by the more subtle rhythms of heartbeat and breathing.

In the program, music was used for illustration, usually effectively. But I think the excerpt from The Rite of Spring that followed Jonathan Cope’s remark about the need to count modern scores was not the best choice. Despite the apparent complexity of meter — due to the irregularly accented beats — that section of the music is actually written in simple 2/4. Counting “1 and 2 and” over and over wouldn’t be very helpful in learning the accents. But musicians can be appalled by the way dancers decide to count the music (as I learned in a recent conversation with a dancer and a musician), even though that way of counting might serve the dancers’ purposes.

The final choice of music was ironic: David Bintley’s comments about the excitement and power of men dancing were followed by a strong, powerful section of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet — which happened to be Lady Capulet’s thrashing and gnashing scene after Tybalt’s death.

A spirited discussion of some of these topics developed in our forum.

Edited by Stuart

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