The rewards of Music & Dance working in synergy

by Ernst Meisner

The Artistic Coordinator of the Junior Company at Dutch National Ballet as well as the Artistic Director of its school Dutch National Ballet Academy, Ernst was a dancer with The Royal Ballet (2000-2010) as well as Dutch National Ballet (2010-2013). He has guest taught in many places internationally including Youth American Grand Prix, The Royal Ballet School Summer Programs and English National Ballet School. As a choreographer Ernst has created works for The Royal Ballet New Works Program, Dutch National Ballet, Dutch National Ballet Junior Company, New English Ballet Theatre, Encore Dance Company and New York Choreographic Institute amongst others. 

The starting point for me being asked to write this blog was the recent Online Ballet Classes I have been teaching for Dutch National Ballet together with pianist Rex Lobo, during the current Covid-19 crisis in which dancers around the globe are unable to train in their normal studio environment.

Ernst Meisner, artistic coordinator of the Junior Company, and pianist Rex Lobo

Although all these dancers are now adapting to small spaces in their kitchen, living room or sometimes even gardens and teachers are changing ballet combinations to fit into tiny spaces, one aspect of the ballet class really has not changed for me. And that is the music!

I have also believed that a great ballet combination in class will not work for dancers if the music doesn’t match. The other way around a mediocre ballet combination can feel spectacular when the music is amazing!

In other words, it is really the pianist that is leading the ballet class for me, although sometimes this might not be too obvious, as the musician can be quite (in words that is!) for the whole duration of class.

When I was still dancing myself we would sometimes be offered two or three ballet classes in the morning by the companies I worked for. All with great teachers and it would be a difficult choice sometimes. In many cases I would look which pianist would be accompanying the class and go to my favourite!

A ballet class is about rhythm, syncopation and breath amongst other things. Although these three words aren’t necessarily technical aspects of ballet training, they are very much what makes your technique work.

If you don’t breath properly movement can’t connect. If you put rhythm in your turn you will suddenly find yourself doing more pirouettes. Through syncopation one forces muscles to work at different speeds and in different ways and train for all different movement qualities necessary.

So it is rhythm, syncopation and breath that lead and who could better guide this throughout the exercise than the musician that is accompanying your class?!

Very often in a ballet class is not about the actual notes, but about the space in between: the timing between taking off and landing from a jump, the speed of a take off or the connection from one step to another through. This again comes down to breath and the best performances happen when the musician and the dancer breath the same way.

That goes for the pianist in the ballet class, but can be taken further into performance where very often the conductor is leading and can be seen as the matchmaker between the orchestra and the dancers.

Sometimes it is the musician that leads, pushes and starts movement and sometimes it takes the dancer to go ahead, knowing that through feeling and breathing the music, rhythm and syncopation the same way as the musician, you will achieve the top of, for example, a high jump at exactly the same time as the musical climax.

This timing is vital for optimal performance and takes courage, feeling, trust, experience and understanding amongst other things.

It is the best feeling though when all these aspects come together and when they do you will see as a spectator that the dance looks effortless.

Moreover, it gives a sense of great fun to work completely together with the musician like this. Rex and me could have a great laugh, challenge each other and when I couldn’t think of an exercise Rex would just play music and I would be inspired by what he came up to make a new routine.

And that exchange is forever rewarding!

Ernst Meisner – image: Sebastien Galtier