Tag Archives: dance musician responsibility

Young beautiful dancer in beige swimwear dancing on lilac background

Developing My Creative Practice: Cunningham Technique

The first part of my DYCP activity kicked off with learning  about the Cunningham dance style from Rosie Price  at the Kings’ International Ballet Academy. And quite a shock to the system it was! After 15 years of being a ballet musician and tailoring my music to fit the dynamics of the steps, the Cunningham aesthetics challenged most of what I knew about music for dance:

…”counting is an aid toward freedom, rather than a discipline towards mechanization. A use of time-structure also frees the music into space, making the connection between the dance and the music one of individual autonomy connected at structural points. The result is the dance is free to act as it chooses, as is the music. The music doesn’t have to work itself to death to underline the dance, or the dance create havoc in trying to be as flashy as the music.”  Merce Cunningham (Space, Time and Dance - Trans/Formations 1, pp. 150-151, Wittenborn & Co, 1952)

Yes, Merce is giving dance musicians a carte blanche. No pre-conceptions for mood or dance dynamics needed, only some co-incidence of tempo and counts. Dancers were challenged to jump, create sharp accents or fluid movements often without the aid of musical support - a polar opposite to the relationship between movement and music in ballet.

I have spent some time over the years collating ideas that dancers and dance teachers have about what they consider to be suitable music for contemporary dance class. These range included:

- something totally different to what you hear in ballet class

- NO tunes

- some tunes are OK

- I don’t want to feel like I’m doing ballet.

As a musician, this used to stump me.  Being at Kings, I made more progress in simply by learning about the Cunningham aesthetic itself and not worrying about the genre of music used. According to Cunningham, ANY genre of music was fair game  and therefore usable – but every dancer  / teacher / choreographer will have their personal preferences. In Merce’s own words:  “I don’t care what you play as long as the rhythm and phrase …is clear”

My 2022 New Year’s resolution is to spend 20 mins every Monday watching a video from this very useful series “Mondays With Merce”Video #5: Company Class  has helpful takeaways to dispel myths about what music is suitable for Cunningham class and we get to hear from both Merce Cunningham himself as well as Pat Richter, his long-time pianist.

For those who are interested there are some enlightening articles about Cunningham Technique on Merce Cunningham Trust website.




Button Pusher, Moi?


It is an uncomfortable position to be in when one realises how easily a live musician can be replaced by recorded music. However, I like to think that it doesn’t automatically reduce any musician present  to the role of Button Pusher. Both Christa Hugo and I might have pushed buttons on many an occasion for MTB, but we also kept a time track (starting from the écarté position? That’ll be at 1’07’’), took down choreography marks, helped the teachers navigate through odd counts (yes, the introduction was a long 14 counts or an 4+10, if that helps) and tricky corners (no, your ears aren’t playing tricks on you, the music has changed from 3/4 to 2/4 ) .

If you can’t provide live music, you can still BE a musician and provide expertise which will smooth out potential bumps in the rehearsal process. The reassurance that this gives a teacher is HUGE and helps engender trust in working partnerships between dancer and musician.

Helping dancers navigate through tricky music is one of the main responsibilities of a rehearsal pianist and no CD can ever replace the help a live musician can provide