Monthly Archives: April 2014

No marks – Part 2: Adage

In  my previous post, I mentioned that it was usually warm up/plié that were exercises which were frequently unmarked. WRONG! Shortly after writing that article, I played for two classes with hardly any marking from the teacher. A bit of finagling got me through the classes, but I ran into trouble with the adage.

In these situations, I aim to be like a plumber with a toolbox – not knowing what tools you need for the job, one must be prepared with a selection of the most commonly used ones. A single adjustable wrench can be far more useful than a few of fixed sizes.

With no choreography to help me choose music, I whipped out my ‘adjustable wrench’: a bog-standard  nice adage tune  of medium tempo,   suitably useful harmonic progressions to support a variety of muscular tension and releases, …..AND one which I could play in different keys! (Never underestimate the importance of this. An unseen adage could go on for 32 counts on each side. If you pick a tune that is only 16 counts long and have to carry on for a total of 64, the fourth repetition of the same tune in the same key will have dulled dancing ears and minds, and feel heavy. Horror of horrors, what if there is a second group straightaway after the first…)

It didn’t work.

As I played, I could see that the choreography called for an interesting variety of sharp and strong dynamics set as highlights amongst the usual soft movements.  My adage music (a barcarolle-like tune) was like a gentle creature of no great convictions. What was needed was more along the lines of a charismatic revolutionary with rousing oratorical skills. I changed the music to Monti’s Czardas and things finally fell into place.

Teachers frequently set steps purely from a technical point of view without reference to any particular music. They then ask for a piece of adage music in the hope that what they’ve set fits the dynamics suggested by the music . As Tamara Rojo said in the recent BBC documentary ‘Good Swan, Bad Swan: Dancing Swan Lake’- both Odile and Odette do arabesque and pirouettes. It is HOW the steps are done that differentiates one character from the other. (Perhaps another reason to practice stronger port de bras if nurturing potential Odiles…..). In this case, the same adage exercise done every day to different pieces of music should be an invaluable way to develop the dancers’ artistic responses. Vocational schools do this all the time by setting the exercise on Monday and then adding to it as the week goes on.

Other times, teachers want inspiration from music and wait to hear a musician’s offerings before setting a combination. If we know this to be the case, we musicians should rise to the challenge.  Try choosing music from different styles and eras. If you’ve already tried the usual Romantic era suspects like Quando m’en vo and O mio babbino caro, how about exploiting the stillness of the slow movement theme from Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata, the nobly elegant qualities of Grieg’s Sarabande from Holberg Suite, or the improvisatory and exotic sound world of Bartok’s Buciumeana from  Roumanian Folk Dances?

Not all adage music are equal and there are finite amounts by which you can speed up/slow down a piece of music.  There will come a point when too much slowing down makes the music laboured and the thread of melody gets lost. Too much speeding up and dynamics/harmonic tension become ironed out of the texture. The essence of a particular piece of adage music often lies in its harmonic content. The ear needs time to perceive tensions/resolutions created by dissonances resolving to consonances. Most teachers do not know this and assume that they can simply ask for any piece of music, adjust tempi accordingly while the hapless pianist is in full-flow and then complain that the music doesn’t feel right.

Harriet Cavalli in her book Dance and Music mentions that if she is asked to play an adage before the teacher sets one, she usually asks “What size – gentle, medium, or huge?”  I love this idea so much and have adopted it.  If the teacher is distractedly trying to remember the combination, answering that simple question almost always tells me what dynamic is needed. Ms Cavalli also discusses adage and its related issues very effectively in the same book and I thoroughly recommend it as a very illuminating guide.