There are a great deal of parallels between being a dance accompanist and a vocal accompanist. Both dance and the voice use the body as expressive instruments. Substitute choreography for words and the differences between singers and dancers start to narrow. Having a basic vocabulary of dance steps would be the equivalent of having a working knowledge of French phonetics or German diction.
Before becoming involved in the ballet world, I worked as a vocal accompanist and spent much time accompanying singers in French Song, Lieder, or Italian arias. As I was born and bred in Malaysia , European languages were not what I left school with. I spoke a basic Cantonese by virtue of being born into a Chinese family, had passable Bahasa Malaysia from being schooled in the national language, and thanks to books and American TV had decent English as well.
So, when I started accompanying singers as a young student at music college, there was a very steep learning curve for me to add French and German to my repertoire. Mind you, there was no need to rapidly become a fluent speaker, but it was expected for serious vocal accompanists to have a working knowledge of various languages and the ability to coach singers in those languages. For example, a good accompanist would be well equipped with an arsenal in the form of German, French, and Italian phonetics as well as an understanding of vocal technique.
As well as learning the accompaniment to a song or aria, the best accompanists would also study the text of the songs , translate if necessary, anticipate where to allow time for tricky words/ breaths, or anticipate any technical needs which might arise from singers needing to use the chest voice , perhaps, or to float a high note – all the kinds of considerations which have nothing to do with playing the piano but had everything to do with being a specialist in vocal accompaniment.
So for me, it was not too great a transition to make from accompanying singers to working with dancers. I fell back into the habit of ‘getting to know the text’. It wasn’t a strange thing to be told by my mentors at Scottish Ballet was that I needed to understand the dynamics of dance steps.
One of the things I picked up on during my year at SB was the importance of having rehearsal marks in the musical score. Simply being able to follow what the dancers were doing was like being able to follow the of plot of Strauss’s lieder Für Fnfzehn Pfennige and allow a little time for different emphatic pronouncements of ‘für fünfzehn pfennige’ (not always marked in the score how one should do this, but it comes with an understanding of the text and working in partnership with the singer). So when dancers say the music for their solo variation is too fast, they might mean that they don’t have time to properly articulate their footwork /do five pirouettes/ hold an arabesque at a particular point in their solo. Just because choreography isn’t notated in a way which is readily understood by most musicians, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t offer less artistic support .
Lucia Popp singing “Für fünfzehn Pfennige” R. Strauss