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