Tag Archives: tempo

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.




No marks – Part 1: Pliés, please. AND…..

How often have dance pianists been in the situation when the only instruction given by a  teacher is “Warm up/Plié, please.”?

This normally happens in company/professional class and not usually in training classes for younger students. I have only ever encountered it during warm ups and/or plies.  It is usually  a chance for the dancers to do their own combination of warm up or plié according to their individual needs, an opportunity  to try out muscles and focus before the class gets under way full steam.

Try to capitalize on each occasion when the teacher provided only the bare bones of an exercise.  It is a HUGE compliment to us musicians when this is all the instruction we get. This means total trust and responsibility has been handed over to us even if it is just for one exercise. Hurrah! This means that we can choose the tune, the key, the style, and……. gasp! Surely not the tempo as well!? Ok, maybe we have to keep a weather eye out for frantic signals from teacher.

Show off all the hard-earned knowledge you have about class: Can’t go far wrong with a nice stretchy tune for warm-up. As for plies, a bog-standard structure seems to start with  two demi-pliés followed by a grand. Dynamic is squeezy and smooth. In these circumstances, the odd boo boo will probably be forgiven  as long as you try to provide a generally acceptable tempo and dynamic.

Whatever you do, DO NOT spoil it by resentful whinging (“Should’ve marked the tempo if you wanted it that slow”) when they ask for subtle changes. DO NOT plow on at your own tempo and expect the dancers to keep up. All this illustrates is ego and disrespect for the purpose of class. Return the compliment instead by seeing how fast you can respond to their request for tempi changes.  Speed of response and generosity of spirit are both high on the brownie point list for many teachers.

Be a lean mean tempo machine, be James Bond’s Aston Martin prepared for all eventualities, or the Batmobile (here to save the day at a local dance school near you)……not a wheezy 1.0 litre Micra who can barely make it up the hill. I say this with great fondness for Micras having been the proud owner of one but …they just have NO go in them.

All this only works if you DO know what typical dynamics and combination of steps are to be found in warm up/plié. Teachers should be made aware if they have an inexperienced pianist playing for a class in which case they do need to provide marking.

Coming next :  No marks – Part 2: Adage