Preparation is Nine-Tenths ….

As previously mentioned, one of the great aspects of living in New York City is easy access to both New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theater. NYCB was co-founded by George Balanchine, and Misty Copeland is the first African American female Principal Dancer at ABT. One benefit of a membership is the opportunity to observe rehearsals. I recently attended one of the final orchestra rehearsals for A Midsummer Night’s Dream at NYCB.

The experience begins with a short lecture by one of the volunteers, in this case, Frank, with 10 years under his belt. He explained how Balanchine had developed the score for this ballet by borrowing music from multiple sources and, in effect, cutting and pasting them together with Mendelssohn’s 45 minutes of original music set to the story, so that in total there was enough music for the dancing.

When admitted to the theater, the rules are made very clear: once the rehearsal begins, no talking, texting, applause, photography, recording. Violations will be met with immediate expulsion. There were about 50 attendees and they all got the message. Throughout the rehearsal they seemed almost spellbound by the music.

Now for my usual disclaimer. I am not qualified to judge musical performance. I know what I like, of course, and while I learned a lot about the construction of music during my futile 4-year struggle to play the classical guitar, that effort ultimately failed. That said, I can say without fear of contradiction that the orchestra at NYCB is every bit as good at what it does as the dancers are in their craft.

By the time of this rehearsal, near to performance date, the musicians well know what is expected of them, but as a collective with different roles at different times, they need a conductor to keep time, tempo and, partly through body language, to guide the expressive power of the parts and the whole of the ensemble. This power is more than just volume – it’s timing and something else, as well, something … mysterious, at least to me.

The conductor, Daniel Capps, had postponed the start time for the rehearsal by a half-hour to 10:30, and exactly at time, he said, “here we go.” He takes the entire orchestra through various parts, commenting after each, requiring some replays, directing some changes: “Strings, at 320….” I cannot make out much of what he is saying. This is serious work and it’s just between him and the musicians. The musicians are at the top of their game and can start and stop anywhere the conductor chooses. He’s like a coach, urging his team to execute complicated plays. In some sense he resembles a magician, with the wand in his right hand keeping time/tempo and his left hand directing/beseeching variations with a fist, an open hand gesture, a pointed finger or splayed fingers for different sections of the orchestra.

Two women sit directly in front of the orchestra, but outside the pit, with sheet music, making notations as the orchestra moves along. I believe they must be notating the changes the conductor is mandating, but I’m not sure.

A musical orchestra is an ultimate example of how cooperation and collaboration can produce something entirely new and special that could not exist otherwise. The conductor hears things (e.g., “sluggishness”) that likely few others hear and when he calls for more pace or more power, the collective gives it to him immediately. This is not a debate; it is a performance and the conductor alone is in charge. On a few occasions he speaks to the orchestra while they are still playing. One of the deepest mysteries for me is how each musician can block out what is going on around her and concentrate on what she must do and exactly when, a talent I never acquired but must be essential to keep playing while the conductor is commenting on what is happening but not stopping for evaluation. Obviously, he won’t do this in the actual performance.

The overarching principle here is that the music is being performed so that dancers can dance to it. There are expectations about pace and timing of pauses that are critical to everything synching up in the final realization of the ballet. This is not just another music concert – it is music in concert with dance before the discerning eyes of ballet cognoscenti who have paid a lot to see everything be done perfectly. And it almost always is.

We had been told at the outset that there would be no dancers on stage during the rehearsal, but in the event a number of ballerinas appear from the sides and cruise across the stage silently. During the famous Wedding March, a male dancer appears, going through steps, and then doing hand stands. More dancers appear and cross the stage. The males reappear, doing pirouettes and other moves, clowning to the music.

I don’t think this activity can be pleasing to the conductor and, indeed, after a short break, we return to the theater to find the curtains closed.

I had forgotten how familiar many of the themes from Midsummer Night were familiar. I’ve always liked Mendelssohn’s music, the New Hebrides Overture in particular. The price of the membership that enabled this unique experience was tiny compared to the value received. This Saturday we will see Le Corsaire at ABT and it’s going to be great.

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