So… I’ve got a burning question. Why do teachers always ask for ‘pretty’ port de bras music? Why not …..mysterious? Or slinky? Or regal? Or something with a bit of attitude? Is it the great British tradition of ‘soft arms’ at work here hence the call for ‘pretty’ music? Fair enough, teachers may want to keep it simple when teaching the basics to young students, but for older students or experienced dancers would it not be more useful to have music which inspires an urge to interpret?
For me, ‘pretty’ says ‘nice but non-descript’. Think nice tune and bland harmonies. Non-descript music is often the worst thing a musician can produce for class (mind you, bland flavours are often very useful as a contrast to over-rich Wagnerian harmonies, for example. Like a cool breeze after one emerges from a muggy hot house). We are called on to make music that urges dancers to stretch their feet more, plié more deeply, jump higher, rap out sharper frappes. Why not enrich our music to help them be more generous with a circular port de bras, give them a poignant and sorrowful tune to help make ‘sighing’ arms, or something elegantly masculine for boys’ to help them practice princely arm gestures?
Last summer, I played for Ruth Brill’s women’s class at a summer school. She marked a port de bras exercise and was expecting a stereotypical nice adage tune. However, I had been desperate to use an Indian Classical scale as a basis for improvisation since hearing one several years ago. So, I decided to go ahead with Plan A, committed myself to some Carnatic flavouring and hoped for the best. She was startled but used the music (phew, thanks Ruth!). At the end Ruth said it made her think of the Arabian Dance from Nutcracker. She then asked the students to try it again, but this time to take on a personality that the music suggested to them. They did, and…wow!. By responding to the mood, she saw personalities emerge from the dancers that hadn’t been there before. They just came alive!
I wonder – how often do inexperienced pianists watching class come to the conclusion that port de bras music should just be pretty? For a long time, I did. So long as the music helps dancers to create fluid carriage of the arms, let’s not stop at…pretty.