Christmas and Dance

Nutcracker

English National Ballet’s Nutcracker. Photo by Annabel Moeller via eno.org

We’ve all heard of and most of us have seen the infamous Nutcracker – the festive ballet that follows protagonist Clara’s journey around the world, culminating in her arrival at the Land of Sweets – and for many, this is as far as it goes when it comes to Christmas related dance. But what about contemporary dance? Does modern dance’s stereotypical serious façade exclude it from exploring Christmas as a theme and embracing the most wonderful time of the year?

There is one example that immediately springs to mind when considering Christmas and modern dance, which happens to relate to the old ballet favourite. Matthew Bourne’s Nutcracker! (1992) was created to mark the centenary of the famed ballet, and aims to be a contemporary re-imagining of Tchaikovsky’s ‘glorious’ score – an ambition Bourne definitely fulfils. Whilst elements of the movement language are arguably still relatively classical and stylised, the re-configuration of the traditional storyline creates what the company describes themselves as “a fresh, hip and charmingly irreverent interpretation of the traditional Christmas favourite”. So, how is Christmas presented in this work? Is there still a towering, tinseled, twinkling tree centre stage? Is there an abundance of presents and candles and festive foods? Not one bit. Bourne turns our perception of Christmas entertainment on its head by inviting us to view it from a different perspective, specifically from the perspective of protagonist Clara and her fellow urchins.

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Matthew Bourne's Nutcracker! via Londondance.com

Matthew Bourne’s Nutcracker! Photos by Bill Cooper via londondance.com

Despite offering us a darker, more sinister setting than the upper class family Christmas of the Nutcracker ballet, Bourne’s work is by no means lacking in festive fun and references, with the orphans bouncing across the stage in multicolored paper hats, and an entire scene dedicated to the theme of wintry ice-skating, the dancers clad in white furs and the stage covered in smoke and fake snow. Whilst the rest of the work moves on to focus on Clara’s journey into a fantasy land and the colorful array of characters she meets during her travels, the opening to the piece firmly establishes that Christmas can be a credible subject for high profile contemporary choreographers.
However, is exploration of the yuletide theme restricted to theatrical, humorous choreography such as Bourne’s? Or can it be utilised as a stimulus in more abstract, solemn work? Richard Alston’s A Ceremony of Carols (2012) does exactly this, by setting his trademark Cunningham-inspired style of choreography to Benjamin Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols (1942) score (sung live on stage by the Canterbury Cathedral choir) which expresses images of the Christmas story through the medium of reconfigured medieval English carols.

A Ceremony of Carols by Richard Alston. Photo by Chris Nash

Richard Alston’s A Ceremony of Carols. Photo by Chris Nash via richardalstondance.com

Alston’s choreography reflects the musical accompaniment, not by trying to narrate but rather “to portray the poetic imagery of the mediaeval words” (Alston, 2012) for example, one scene is centred around an image of the Virgin Mary having an insight/premonition into the troubled future that lies in store for her child.
Although there is a very brief history of the association of Christmas and contemporary dance, both Nutcracker! and A Ceremony of Carols are evidence of the success the festive theme can achieve – Nutcracker! is celebrated as one of the most popular dance productions ever presented in the UK; Judith Mackrell heralded the work as having captured “the soaring ecstasies and dark mysteries of Britten’s musical vision”.

Will other modern dance choreographers embrace the December festivities as Bourne and Alston have? The future looks bright, for only this year Arthur Pita brought his The Little Match Girl to Sadler’s Wells, based on the Christmas themed story by Hans Christian Andersen. We can only wait in anticipation to see what future Christmases will bring to the world of dance.

Emily May

BA (Hons) Contemporary Dance student

Masterclasses: what’s in it for me?

Wihan Quartet_2_photo credit_Marklik.cz

The Wihan Quartet

“You’re not going to convince me, Heather, I’m not going.”

“C’mon, it’ll be good! You might find it useful.”

“No, I really won’t. I don’t even play the instrument. I’d rather just practice instead.”

This is one of the many (short) conversations I had with friends during my undergraduate degree. Studying in Manchester, I was right next to the RNCM where many masterclasses were put on and open to Joe public like me.

I often had trouble getting friends to come to these classes. When brass players couldn’t make it (I’m a trumpet player), I’d ask flautists, percussionists, harmonica players, zitherists, Theremin virtuosos…just about anyone. Once, out of sheer desperation, I asked a medic.

Out of all those people I asked, the only person who came was the medic. With all the work we were given, instrumentalists couldn’t justify spending a couple of hours away from the practice room to attend a masterclass that wasn’t on their instrument.

“I don’t play the instrument, so what’s the point?”

“I’m too busy, I need to practice.”

“Stop talking to me, crazy woman, I only stopped to give you directions.”

So what’s the point watching a masterclass? Is it more useful to practice instead? And can you gain anything from them even if you don’t play the instrument?

Being a newbie to Trinity Laban, I was keen to experience the music events they had to offer, which included masterclasses. And as there were no brass classes, I decided to attend the Wihan String Quartet and Sir John Eliot Gardiner vocal masterclass. It was time to see whether my friends were right, or if they were just fobbing me off.

Despite the obvious differences between strings, the voice and the trumpet, it was surprising to see similar themes. This was because the masterclasses looked less at the technical aspects of the instrument but the musicality.

One of the interesting things Sir John Eliot Gardiner focused on was finding the important notes to emphasise in the phrase. Obviously as a singer, this is essential as words are naturally emphasised when spoken and the music needed to reflect this. It’s a good technique to know on whatever instrument you play, especially when learning a new piece. Deducing the important notes in a phrase can help shape a work in a musical way and enables you to see how the music naturally evolves.

Another great thing about the vocal masterclass was the theatricality. Working on opera arias meant that the class looked at the idea of narrative and expressing this to the audience. Although not all music may have a storyline to it, all music has a narrative, and it’s our job as performers to realise this. It highlights that contextual research can really help build this narrative and the attention to phrasing, articulation and dynamics can create theatricality.

The Wihan Quartet on the other hand allowed you to think of phrasing from an instrumentalist’s perspective. Leoš Čepický, the quartet’s lead violinist, put a lot of emphasis on levelling. Whether this was levels of dynamics, or levels of articulation, Leoš used this visual image to help you understand the peaks within the music and when to bring these moments out.

The fact that the Wihan Quartet worked on repertoire by well-known composers as well – in this case Haydn – stylistic elements of the music were easily transferable. Leoš’ focus on visual shapes meant that the overall structure of the piece was easily shown. This became more obvious to me when I was practising Haydn later that evening – Haydn’s style seemed clearer and it ultimately helped me interpret the piece in an informed way.

Although watching a masterclass cannot give you specific advice, what it can do is give you techniques which can be used in your practice regime. I would even go so far as to say that learning from someone who doesn’t know the technicalities of your own instrument can benefit you as they focus more on musicality than technicality.

Jakub Čepický, violist of the Wihan Quartet said to me that “it doesn’t matter what instrument you play – sometimes you gain much more because teachers who play a different instrument to you have a different perspective,” and I think this summaries the whole concept of a masterclass well. They’re to give you a different perspective on things.

So, were my friends being genuine when they thought they wouldn’t learn anything from a brass masterclass?

Long answer: Of course masterclasses cannot give you specific advice, but that’s not the point of them. They focus on stimuli to incorporate into your practice. So it’s easy to see how it can’t help you, but it’s surprising what it can help you with.

Short answer: No, they were just fobbing me off.

…I need new friends.

Trinity Laban released its International Masterclass Series this week. Berlin Philharmonic’s principal bassist Matthew McDonald, and Slovenian violinist Volodja Balzalorsky are just some of the artists visiting the Faculty of Music over the next few months. All masterclasses are open to both students and the general public. To find out more information, please click here.

Words of Wisdom: Professor John Wallace CBE

Professor John Wallace CBE, the outgoing principal of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, has been awarded an Honorary Fellowship by Trinity Laban. Professor Wallace was a distinguished orchestral and solo trumpet player, serving as principal trumpet for the Philharmonia Orchestra for almost two decades. In Trinity Laban’s Faculty of Music graduation ceremony on 10 December, Professor Wallace gave some words of wisdom to our music graduands.

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Professor John Wallace CBE

What we all need to do with our own careers is to conjure opportunity out of thin air.  Just as composers like Beethoven, Berlioz, Wagner, Mahler, Stravinsky and Stockhausen (to name a few) revolutionised the use of musical instruments and orchestrated them into a team construct we call today the ‘orchestra,’ so we need to conjure coherent and orderly musical notes out of the very same jumbled atmosphere of nothingness.

Fill the void. Fill it with your humanity. Fill it with your notes, trillions of them. If 12 notes an octave are not enough double them to 24 by using quarter tones. If 7 positions are not enough on your trombone use all 174 positions that great innovators like Christian Lindberg seem to have found. You all possess the urge to make music and to communicate great abstract ideas about the universality of humankind through your music. I would suggest you can do that in well over a trillion diverse ways. As a student of a Conservatoire like Trinity Laban you will have learned how to think for yourself, and if you manage to swim against the tide of cloning orthodoxy which afflicts all of our art forms in the present day, then you will be able to create a great career for yourself.

They will call the history of Trinity Laban over the first decade of this millennium ‘How to achieve the impossible’, and that must be how most of you perceive your immediate future – how on earth to turn your potential into a viable career. Christmas is approaching, and far from fattening up the geese, most of you can only look skywards at the migrating geese making a faintly ironic v-sign in the sky.

Yet you are poised on the threshold of… what? What are your choices? Do you have any choice? Is it a gateway, a launchpad, a germinating pod? How do you see it? What does the future hold for each and every one of you?

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It’s becoming very popular to see the contemporary world as devoid of choice. What chance do you have of exercising any free will whatsoever? Are the constraints of modern society with all its HMRCs and UKBAs and sister regimes of governmental control just far too strenuous and overbearing? We also have net immigration of just over a quarter of a million people annually at the moment into our wee island making it one of the most competitive labour markets in the world.

In fact all of these people are coming here because this is a tremendously inventive land of opportunity. When I signed on at Peckham Labour Exchange at Christmas 1971, 43 years ago and they didn’t have any jobs for musicians I just went and practised 9 hours a day till I got a job as a musician. It sounds simple minded, doesn’t it? But we all know from our earliest musical experiences how being simple, and being that simple is really hard, but really effective.

Your future career all boils down to this: what sort of a world do you want it to be, both for yourself and for others? Stephen Hawking talked last week about his fears of Artificial Intelligence overtaking human intelligence. Now, Artificial Intelligence is much better at being boring even than humans. So unless you want it to be a super boring world in future – where artificial intelligence is telling you what to do all the time – you have to retain your human spark, which is imbued with eccentricity and unorthodoxy. Places like this, and academic institutions in general, thrive on divergent thinking, on unorthodox thinking, on eccentric notions, and start to flounder once groupthink and perceived wisdoms take over. The great thing about Trinity Laban is you, the students. You are such an unmanageable lot, and you are encouraged in your wildly divergent artistic way of thinking by your teachers, who are masters of the art of thriving in contra suggestive multiple adversities.

You cannot go wrong. You are the musical future of our great country, which has a musical culture going back 1000s of years, and I look forward to listening to your music coming at me on every platform and on every present and future retrieval system known to humankind from the comfort of the surround sound system I have installed in my allotment in Glasgow. Your music will be the aural fertiliser which will help my plants grow and keep the world going round.

The best of luck.

As we say in Glasgow, “you’re dead brilliant, so you are”.

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Class of 2014

Professor John Wallace CBE

Being plunged into the depths of Jazz solos

Grace Buttler

Grace Buttler

In your third year at Trinity Laban, you can choose two classes to go towards your end of year mark. I decided to do arranging as one and jazz as the other. I knew nothing about jazz and took it because I liked the sound and wanted to know more. Although I find the lessons very hard, I feel like I’ve learnt a lot about how jazz pieces are structured in terms of chords. This has also helped with my Arranging course.

One of the jazz assessments was to choose a solo and then transcribe and play it from memory. I chose ‘Tiny’s Tempo’ by Charlie Parker and I used the 3rd take. I like this solo because it is upbeat and the saxophone improvisation wasn’t too unrealistic to play on the violin. We were instructed to learn the head (the unison tune at the start) and then the solo so you had approximately 3 choruses (all 12 bars long).

To aid with the transcription I used a computer program called ‘Transcribe!’ which allows you to slow down the track to hear all the notes more clearly (without altering the pitch). I started by writing out a rough version and then re-wrote it, to make the rhythms more accurate. Then I had to learn it from memory. Memorising isn’t really my strong point, so this was the most challenging task for me.

I started by taking small sections and playing them slowly along with the recording, repeating over and over. Gradually I made the sections longer and sped them up. By the end I could play it up to speed and without any music. This was a huge achievement for me, as I managed to memorise the piece in only a week and it wasn’t a standard piece of violin music, making it more awkward to play (as saxophones don’t have to deal with string crossings, position changes, a fixed low G…).

I think the assessment went alright. Nerves got the better of me at first, and I ‘fell off’ the recording, but the second time through I got it. After doing this I’m more comfortable with memorising and I’ve been practicing small memory exercises. If you ever have trouble memorising I’d recommend doing this. Like anything, memory improves with practice so if you aim to learn a few bits from memory (script, poetry, revision, music etc…) every week, you’ll gradually build up the skill to do it quickly and efficiently.

I hope you’ve enjoyed the above track and this blog. Hopefully if you need to memorise anything, the above technique might work for you too.

Grace Buttler

BMus 3 Violin

gracenotes.wordpress.com

Seasonal sharings at the Laban Building

Well, it’s nearly the holidays and the first term of my internship is almost up. The term may be winding down, but the Laban Building is lively as we celebrate the work of many of our programmes through sharings.

IMG_1081 Nick K Dec 2014 blog 3 IMG_1082 Nick K Dec 2014 blog 1

Festive decorations have now spruced up the L&P Dance office

Kicking us off in Learning and Participation (Dance) we had a mini-sharing with our Retired Not Tired Dance for Health group followed by a scrumptious Christmas dinner cooked by the wonderful café staff at the Laban Building. The Dance for Health group is comprised of 25 people over the age of 60, who are keen to keep moving. They are led by the fantastic L&P Dance practitioner, Stella Howard.

This term, I have had the opportunity to work with this vibrant group, teaching them some fundamental basics of contact improvisation. This form of movement was pioneered by the great Steve Paxton in the 1970s, looking at how bodies can move with each other. It has been very exciting to see the group’s new sense of kinaesthetic empathy. This is a topic of research that Trinity Laban research fellow, Dr Kate Wakeling is delving into, by looking at our Dance for Health group specifically and discovering how people develop a sense of relationship and affinity for each other through the arts. The use of contact improvisation and somatic practice is also something that I hope to begin to research during my time at Trinity Laban, through my own creative and teaching practice.

In our final session, we brought some of these skills together as the group performed Barmy on the Crumpet, a work choreographed by Stella and the group, which was first performed last summer as part of Trinity Laban’s eclectic weekend of music and dance in partnership with, and taking place at the Horniman Museum, called Horniman’s Curious Tea Party. You can see what happened during this fantastic weekend by watching the video. Since then, Barmy on the Crumpet has been performed on Sunday 30 November at the Brighton Dome Studio Theatre as part of their Winter Festival – a platform of dance works showcasing a collection of pieces with older people. Here, Dance for Health performed alongside the likes of Sadler’s Wells based Company of Elders and Three Score Dance Company, both of which have established worldwide interest and opportunity in dance for older people.

At the end of our mini-sharing, I showed them a film that I produced using choreography that they had composed before half term. The new perspectives provided by the film left them all overjoyed! It was a lovely end to the autumn term.

Next week we are looking forward to sharings across our Youth Programmes and Adult Short Courses, set to make for a cheerful end to all that has been achieved in such a short space of time.

I wish you all a happy holiday and New Year, and please stop by my personal blog to catch some reviews of work that I hope to see over the Christmas period, including DV8’s new piece: John.

Nick Kyprianou

Graduate Intern for Learning and Participation (Dance)

@nickyprianou

Review: Contemporary Jazz Ensemble at London Jazz Festival

Contemporary Jazz Ensemble_image by jk-photography_600x250

Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre. Despite the fact that it’s only 6pm on a Monday, the foyer is absolutely packed. The chairs are filled and crowds of people are squeezed in at the back, peering eagerly at the stage waiting for the Trinity Laban Contemporary Jazz Ensemble to perform their set for the London Jazz Festival.

London Jazz Festival is a weird and wonderful time, where jazz enthusiasts like myself come out from hiding (and if we’re being honest, from listening to a Kind of Blue  on repeat). This was a gig where the beret wearing, goatee loving, scat singing jazzer was few and far between. In fact, the foyer sampled an array of people – teenagers, school children, young professionals, OAPs, students…you name it, they were there.  And despite the slight hitch when the presenter accidently called us Trinity Lay-ben  (naughty presenter), the band was greeted onto the stage with whoops and cheers from the audience.

The Ensemble performed a set influenced by the counterpoint of the Gerry Mulligan Concert Band in the early 1960s. Gerry Mulligan was a leading baritone sax player renowned for his light and airy tone.  His piano-less quartet with trumpeter Chet Baker was probably one of the most important groups in the Cool Jazz  style.

“Gerry Mulligan’s music sounds as current today as it did back in the 60s,” exclaims director Mark Lockheart, of Loose Tubes  and Polar Bear  fame. It was interesting to see how music that is half a century old is relevant today.

From the get go, the overall ensemble playing from the band was phenomenal – it was hard to believe this wasn’t a professional band. Articulation was particularly detailed, a really important factor when playing in a big band, and the sections moved together as a single entity which immediately conveyed an air of excitement.

This first piece – entitled Blueport  – also gave the opportunity to hear some improvising from the band.  Trumpeter Harrison Cole particularly stood out, not only for his highly technical and virtuosic lines but for his dark and velvety tone which emphasised the Cool Jazz  feel. Many an audience member took a double take during this, expecting to see a flugel horn instead of a trumpet. It reminded me of Clark Terry and instantly made me grin from ear to ear.

Another great solo was by alto player Reiss Beckles. Reiss juxtaposed long and fluid licks with outrageous interval leaps and tri-tones. It really brought Mulligan’s music to the 21st century and created a lighter side to the programme. Tenor Ruben Fox also captivated this style well in the final piece, Little Rock Getaway,  which left many audience members having to pick their jaw off the floor once he had finished.

Despite the fact there were a lot of upbeat, highly technical pieces in the set, the band’s excellent musicality shone through in the slower pieces. Sweet and Slow  by Harry Warren was a particular favourite of mine. The sustained notes could easily sound tired and dull, but the band put the right amount of swells in the note which created a sumptuous feel and complimented the rich harmony perfectly.

Overall, the band was nothing short of outstanding and it was shocking to think these performers were only in their late teens and early twenties. If I am being particularly picky, it would have been great to hear more about the pieces themselves and why Gerry Mulligan was the focal point for this gig. What prevailed throughout though, was the advanced musicality of the performers and mature soloing throughout. I don’t think the presenter will be mispronouncing their name in a hurry!

Trinity Laban Contemporary Jazz Ensemble will perform these and other works at Blackheath Halls on Wednesday 10 December. To find out more and to book tickets, click here.

Heather Stephenson

Marketing and PR Intern