Listening to Music, Seeing the Movement

Over the past week, I’ve heard two pieces of music for dance on WYNC, New York public radio: John Adams’ The Chairman Dances, which Peter Martins used for a 1988 ballet of the same name; and Georges Bizet’s Symphony No. 1 in C major, which is the score for George Balanchine’s 1947 Symphony in C, one of his finest and most purely classical ballets.  In both cases, I actually tuned in shortly after the pieces started, so I didn’t hear the introductions and therefore didn’t know exactly what I was listening to.  But I was struck by how quickly I identified both pieces of music, not because I was familiar with them (Until now, I’ve only heard them at New York City Ballet performances), but because I identified them with their respective choreography.  I easily “placed” the music within the context of each ballet.  Adams’ minimalist score reminded me of the sweeping arm gestures of the corps of women in The Chairman Dances and their red and purple Chinese costumes.  Bizet’s 1855 symphony (which he composed when he was just 17 years old!) clearly defines four sections of music, which Balanchine translated into four distinct movements of ballet.  Each movement features a different principal couple and a large corps de ballet.  I still remember seeing an electrifying performance by Ashley Bouder in the third movement, which is an upbeat allegro with myriad jumps and rapid footwork.

What was most striking to me about listening to these pieces on the radio was the music-movement connection that I established – that is, listening to music and almost immediately recollecting the movement that “goes with it”.  Furthermore, I recalled the costumes, mood of the piece, the dancers’ formations, and at times, which dancers were performing in the lead roles – all from simply listening to the music.  Has anyone else had this experience?  I almost always associate sound with some sort of movement.  But in the case of a choreographed dance, it seems that one aspect of the ballet – the sound, or music – is enough information for me to pull all of the other pieces of the ballet together. 

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3 Responses to Listening to Music, Seeing the Movement

  1. Philip says:

    Yes, this happens to me all the time. I cannot listen to music that has an established dance interpretation without seeing the choreography, costumes & setting in my mind.

    Interesting to think of Balanchine’s genius for ‘showing us the music’ and that Peter is also often successful at doing the same thing even though without usually achieving the same level of success that Mr. B usually did.

    The other aspect of listening to music is, I always imagine what kind of dance might be made out of a given work. Oddly, if I have trouble envisioning choreography, I sometimes lose interest in listening to the piece!

    I remember reading once that someone said Stravinsky would be largely forgotten as a composer if it wasn’t for Balanchine. Surely many of his works are rarely heard at the symphony but are thrice familiar to NYCB audiences. It’s interesting that Stravinsky’s most ‘popular’ work, RITE OF SPRING, apparently never attracted Balanchine.

  2. Evan says:

    I agree with you completely about considering how “danceable” a piece of music is. It’s fun to think about what a choreographed piece might look like, and even more fun to share your idea of the dance with others who have heard the same music. The beauty of this exercise is that people tend to have entirely different interpretations and ideas about “good” or “suitable” choreography for the music.

  3. Philip says:

    When I was working at Tower I tried to “sell” the Prokofiev Piano Concerto #1 to several choreographers – I think it cries out to be danced to but they were indifferent. Maybe I’ll have to do it myself!

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