by Linda on June 9, 2011

A few months ago we wrote about what makes a dancer graceful. When looking at elements of Grace, we mentioned  musicality as a quality in dancers that “will trick you into forgetting about the orchestra pit and thinking that his or her movement is creating the music.” Musicality is a common discussion theme between balletomanes and critics, who often mention it in their reviews. Like Grace, it is also a subjective concept, as some might find a dancer extremely musical, while others not so.

It’s a hard task to come up with a precise definition of what makes a dancer musical, even though we may recognise it when we see it. Unsurprisingly, the greatest dancers in the history of ballet have been renowned for their musicality and, in this post, we look at some of them. In an interview with Dance Magazine in 2005, American legend Gelsey Kirkland shared her advice on musicality:

A person’s body first has to learn to sing in silence. Then you can talk about what you are going to do with a phrase. First and foremost, anticipation. Then, where to rob and steal time: You might delay one part of the phrase, and catch up later. But the extent to which this is done is defined by the character you are portraying. For example, innocence moves in a certain way, and that affects how you use the music. If you are doing a character who is struggling between opposing forces, the movements need more resistance and weight. For example, in Act II of Giselle, Giselle is caught between Myrta, who is trying to pull her into the dark world of the wilis’ bitterness, and her own need to save Albrecht from destruction. Mastering a binding quality in the transitions between the steps is essential in order to see the struggle, and this becomes a musical challenge as well.

While musicality in ballet has to do with the ability to become one with the music (seamlessly blending movements to it), it shouldn’t be merely understood as a dancer’s skill to observe a specific count or to execute steps flawlessly. Some key elements are:

  • The ability to perceive the various layers in the music, melody, harmony and rhythm which is instinctive and personal. Two “musical dancers” might have very different ways of responding to the same music. Some dancers are incredibly sharp when it comes to following counts and beats, but this doesn’t automatically translate to a musical quality. Alastair Macaulay referred to certain aspects of this in his recent review of ABT’s Giselle. Alina Cojocaru, he noted, adjusted her dancing to arrive “after the beat” – a signature of “Romantic responsiveness” – whereas Diana Vishneva “unlike many Russians, danced a few steps on the beat, pingingly”.

Now compare these two Giselle clips.  First, Alina Cojocaru has a very naturalistic, instinctive take on the role. See her solo towards the 5.40 mark:

Contrast with Diana Vishneva’s more mannered, yet not less musical rendition of the same solo:

  • A combination of gift and technique. Some dancers are born with the talent of responding to the music, but this gift can be perfected with time in the studio; finding a way to elongate a phrase here, or to cut it short there. Watch this clip of (again, we know!) Alina Cojocaru in The Sleeping Beauty‘s Rose Adagio. Observe how she employs her arms during the developpés to make the choreography sing:

  • There are dancers who, despite not having the most beautiful port de bras or footwork, are wonderfully musical, so the overall effect is harmonious. Musicality is different from quality of movement. For example, while Baryshnikov might be considered the more technically flawless dancer, Rudolf Nureyev had the edge on musicality, which was very much part of his renowned artistry. Here he performs Prince Desiré’s Act III variation from The Sleeping Beauty.

From an audience perspective, one can also look for signs in the choreography:

  • Some choreographic works might be intrinsically musical, but this has little to do with the dancers being musical themselves. For instance, Balanchine focused on musicality and form over plot and character. However, certain dancers will know how to find space in the music to give a personal interpretation on top of what may already be a “very musical work”.
  • Phrasing, emphasis and pauses – Consider a specific choreographic phrase. Some dancers might emphasise the initial steps, others the later ones, with pauses inserted to produce a “breathing effect”, with very different results, as we saw with the Giselles of Cojocaru vs. Vishneva. In the same review quoted above, Macaulay notes of Cojocaru’s dancing and phrasing:

    Connections and contrasts continually illumine her dancing. In Act I a series of small, quick to-and-fro jumps suddenly arrive in a lingering arabesque; in Act II the series of soubresauts is crowned by another arabesque that becomes a moment of release, and the diagonal of entrechat-quatre is topped by a succession of impassioned arabesques in which she opens herself up to the night air.

Here are additional examples of dancers renowned for their musicality. Feel free to post your own list!


Gelsey Kirkland (ABT)
Margot Fonteyn (The Royal Ballet)
Merle Park (The Royal Ballet)
Suzanne Farrell (NYCB)
Violette Verdy (NYCB)
Allegra Kent (NYCB)
Kyra Nichols (NYCB)
Viviana Durante (ex-Royal Ballet)


Ashley Bouder (NYCB)
Sara Mearns (NYCB)
Ekaterina Krysanova (Bolshoi)
Maria Alexandrova (Bolshoi)
Aurélie Dupont (POB)
Miyako Yoshida (ex-Royal Ballet)

Video examples:

Legend Galina Ulanova was recognised as being an exceptionally musical ballerina. In fact, she once described dance as “the embodiment of music in movement.” Here Ulanova and Mikhail Gabovich dance the Bedroom Pas de Deux from Lavrovsky’s Romeo and Juliet:

The Danes are reputed for their musicality and Lis Jeppesen, here in a variation from Bournonville’s Napoli – though we also recommend her Sylphide – is lovely to watch:

Anthony Dowell was one of the Royal Ballet’s most elegant and refined dancers, with full command of the music. Here he performs Des Grieux’s Act I solo from MacMillan’s Manon, a role he created:

Further Reading:

  1. Balanchine: through the eyes of choreographers now – Balanchine Lives by Wendy Perron. Dance Magazine, January 2004.
  2. Interview with Liam Scarlett. In the name of Auguste Vestris. May, 2008.

With special thanks to Eric Taub and Laura Cappelle for their help.

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mills June 10, 2011 at 6:29 am

I’m sure that you have just errantly missed one of the most, if not, the most musical dancers of recent times, Evelyn Hart. Although video evidence is scant….let me just point you to this little clip of “Nuages” –


I only wish there was a video of Evelyn Hart’s Giselle. I have never seen anything like it. Watching Alina and Diana, although inarguably beautiful women and prima ballerinas – they just don’t compare…..anyone who’s seen EH perform it, I have no doubt would agree.

Raymund Flandez (@raymundf23) June 10, 2011 at 7:44 am

Lovely. RT @theballetbag: For those of you who missed it yday, new post: how to understand "musicality" in #ballet http://bit.ly/iC5Dro

Anneka Roberts (@AnnekaRoberts) June 10, 2011 at 9:56 am

Good article for beginners! RT @theballetbag: Newbies: how to understand the concept of "musicality" in #ballet http://t.co/Fx9JJ9J

LC_CivicBallet (@LC_CivicBallet) June 10, 2011 at 11:35 am

#LCCB READ “@theballetbag: For those of you who missed it yday, new post: how to understand "musicality" in #ballet http://j.mp/iC5Dro”

TenduTV (@tendutv) June 10, 2011 at 2:58 pm

Looking for something to show someone who is seeing dance for the first time? Try this highly engaging post from… http://fb.me/ZeYIRp5z

Manoj Nayak (@manojnayak) June 10, 2011 at 7:14 pm

Musicality http://zite.to/mnaznu via @Ziteapp

TheStudioDCFA (@TheStudioDCFA) June 10, 2011 at 8:37 pm

Some notes (ba-dum-bum) on musicality. http://fb.me/13rsi0J7L

Manhattnik June 10, 2011 at 8:51 pm

Uhm. You never saw Nureyev dance Bournonville, did you? I have a Konservatoriat with Festival Ballet burned on my retinas, and not in a good way. If a guy chopping wood with a dull axe is musical, then, yes, I guess his beats were musical.

Emilia June 10, 2011 at 9:43 pm

We’d wager that is probably because of the style. Of course we can’t comment on Nureyev’s case but, from the current crop, we always think Mariinsky dancers look really odd dancing Bournonville…

David June 11, 2011 at 12:36 am

This was a wonderful post. Isn’t it wonderful that YouTube has so many ballet videos to help illustrate and augment what we are trying to say.

I must admit that, being a realist, I have never forgotten about the orchestra and felt that the dancer is creating the music. I experience it the other way where the music has created the dancer. The dancer and the music have become one but they are still seperate to me.

However, it is a great fantasy to imagine that musical tones and pressure as well as a stellar light show and some other super powers could eminate from a dancer when they are in their special place.

Michelle June 11, 2011 at 12:55 pm

A conversation about musicality would not be complete without mention of Alessandra Ferri.

Romeo & Juliet:


NYIBC (@NYIBC_Inc) June 13, 2011 at 3:01 pm

Enjoy reading this beautiful article on musicality and how it shapes a dancer’s performance from @theballetbag http://goo.gl/CNNtz

Jonathan July 7, 2011 at 9:42 am

Interesting. I’m looking at those two clips of the Giselle variation (Cojocaru & Vishneva) and what I see is this: in the second part (around 6.00 onwards), Cojocaru’s arm seems to do what the violins do: if that arm was a bow across a string, it would make the same sound. It traces an arc which extends to the end of the note, and floats ‘off the string’ at the end. Look at Vishneva, and she gets to the end of the movement quicker, and on one note in particular, the line through the wrist is broken while the violin note is still continuing. It’s hard to say, but I think it’s possible that the music itself in the Cojocaru clip affords this kind of movement more, so it’s not just down to the dancer. If you hadn’t posted these clips, I might never have noticed it, but I think sometimes you notice these things in your peripheral vision without registering them consciously.

Don Caron September 9, 2011 at 5:08 pm

The subject of musicality is one of my favorites. Having played piano for ballet classes for decades, I’ve many times had the fun of witnessing that rare and delightful event that occurs when a ballet student one day transforms into a dancer – characterized, at least to my eyes from behind the piano lid, by suddenly “getting” the music. Those were always the dancers that I then watched while I played, to let the music be shaped by their motions. That is where the symbiosis of music and dance begins – when the dancers inspire musicians and the musicians return the favor ten-fold and so it continues, back and forth. For the pianist, that’s as good as it can get.

Fak Farrar April 26, 2012 at 1:58 am

Very interesting article. To my mind the most musical dancer of all was Margot Fonteyn. I find both clips-Cojocaru and Vishneva to be mannered and lacking in emotion. The over extensions distort the whole line of a dancer and the entrechats have no sharpness or finesse to them.
Take a look at the pas de deux as danced by Fonteyn and Nureyev-sublime.

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