Where are the Dancers?

August 3, 2016

A friend, who was a professional ballet dancer for many years, was taken as a child by his mother to a symphony orchestra concert. Up to then, his musical experience had been largely limited to the piano accompaniment provided during his dance classes and the ballet performances he occasionally attended. He sat patiently for a short while as the conductor waved his baton and the orchestra played on, but finally, puzzled, he turned to his mother and asked, “Mom, where are the dancers?”

My childhood view was quite the opposite of my friend’s. Learning the violin, I had to first practice modest little melodies and in time mature concert works, but I had little awareness of the dance world or that it might have a connection to music. I, too, was taken at a young age by my parents to symphony orchestra concerts, but music served as an abstract messenger that encouraged my heart and mind to roam freely without any specific restraints, visual or otherwise.

Yes, growing up I began to love such disparate things as Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake and Gershwin’s American in Paris, wonderful creations that combined dance with music, but what did ballet or Hollywood musicals have to do with the repertoire I began to tackle as a teenager—works such as Henri Wieniawski’s virtuoso Scherzo Tarantelle or Johann Sebastian Bach’s moving Partita in D Minor? It came as a surprise to eventually learn that the Wieniawski work drew on the Tarentella, a rapid whirling dance originating in Southern Italy, and that the Bach’s five movements all came from ancient dance forms.

Traditional orchestral repertoire, for one, is filled with music that at some point lost its fraternal twin, the dance, but no matter how well those works might thrive on their own, my friend would probably be unhappy at any performance:

“Where are the dancers?”

Once, on tour in Riga, Latvia, some years ago, I was invited on a free evening to a ballet concert in which Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, and Igor Stravinsky’s Firebird and Petrushka were performed. I’ve known and loved these ballets as purely orchestral music for much of my life. As a young man, I even had the privilege of once performing Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite with the composer conducting. But that night in Riga I heard and saw those works for the first time in their original setting—the twins of dance and music joyfully reunited. It made me feel as if my musical training had intentionally kept the dance element out of sight all these years, almost like an embarrassing relative.

On that night, the dancers emerged before my eyes, joined with music, choreography, and costumes to create a breathtaking event.

Music and dance. Or is it dance and music? You choose. Either way, the examples pour forth so easily: Natalie MacMaster dancing as she fiddles Cape Breton style, a floor full of couples swaying to Benny Goodman’s swing band, country folks exuberantly do-si-doing at the local square dance, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in formal attire dancing ever so stylishly to George Gershwin’s music, a couple almost obscenely entwined as they do the sultry tango, and whirling couples enticed by the music of Johann Strauss, the waltz king.

Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire

Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire

But isn’t all music, even music never intended to be danced to, danceable? Fast, slow, or in-between, all music has a pulse, a sense of motion.

Last April, I attended a concert billed as CelloPointe* that combined chamber music and contemporary ballet. In various exhilarating combinations, the dancers performed to music originally composed without dance in mind: the Violin Duo of Sergey Prokofiev, the Elegy by Gabriel Fauré, Variations on a Russian Song by Alexander Borodin, and finally, Johann Sebastian Bach’s Goldberg Variations arranged for string trio by Dimitry Sitkovetsky. These works need no dancers. Each is complete and a universe unto itself, especially the epic and moving Goldberg variations based on the harmonic structure of a lovely melody, the Aria, which begins the work.

The Goldberg Variations, with the suspect back story of having been written by Bach as a kind of sleeping pill to help poor old insomniac Johann Gottlieb Goldberg nod off each night, has no apparent relationship with dance. Still, the musicians performed in such a compelling manor, the dancers exhibited such imagination and deeply felt connection to the music, that I was for the moment seduced into thinking that it could be done no other way but with music and dance inseparably wedded together.

But I was wrong, or at least a little wrong. The beginning Aria upon which the entire Goldberg Variations rests turns out to be based on an old dance form, the Sarabande. Officially then, the noble Goldberg Variations might now be reclassified as dance music.

That gets me thinking once again about my own corner of music and the old dances that inhabit and inform the five movements of Bach’s D Minor Partita for solo violin. Those dances have dropped out of sight and mind for most of us who study and eventually perform this monumental work. But If I’m able to infuse the graceful Allemande, the lively Corrente, the lilting Sarabande, the high jinx Gigue, and the lusty Chaconne with a feeling for their original dance gestures, the path to a successful performance becomes clearer. And if I dare to imagine a performance to end all performances, members of the audience would spontaneously spring from their seats and dance rapturously in the aisles as I fiddle away at the Partita.

Up to now it hasn’t happened.

 

*CelloPointe

Dancers: Riccardo Battaglia, Tracy Finch, Chiwan Kim, Kate Loh Demarco, Shannon Maynor, Claire Mazza, Dona Wiley.

Musicians: Ida Kevafian, Jessica Lee, violins, Steven Tenenbom, viola, David Wiley, Peter Wiley, cellos.

Choreographers: Miro Magliore, Deborah Wingert, Elena Comendador, Dona Wiley.

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Comments

  1. From Lincoln Hui on August 3, 2016

    As a choral musician, this reminds me that we rarely hear sacred music of Josquin, Bach, Haydn, Bruckner etc. in their context anymore.

  2. From Tanjam Jacobson on August 3, 2016

    Funnily enough, this very subject came up at a Bach Retreat I attended in June at the Levine School of Music in Washington, D.C., where we were playing the 4th Orchestral Suite. Apart from the Ouverture (which itself contains a jig), all the movements are named for dances, and one of the coaches gave an enlightening talk on dance and Baroque music. She referred us to a book called “Dance and the Music of J. S. Bach”: a difficult but fascinating read. (Turns out the Sarabande was once as sultry–or more–as the Tango.) The terms in which 17th- and 18th-century writers spoke of rhythm shares much with their contemporaries in architecture, which, of course, is art in space, as is dance.

  3. From Brendan Joyce on August 4, 2016

    Well, for me it will have to be Music and Dance (M n D) in that order, because the other way round — D and M — as I know it, refers to a conversation you have, usually late at night, perhaps at the end of a date, in which you talk till the wee hours of the morning and deconstruct (or construct!) the world as we know it, and that kind of chat is called a “Deep and Meaningful” ;-)

  4. From Marco Misek on August 7, 2016

    In order to get a little more volume from the second violinist, Steinhardt reminded her that “you’re two yards back from the first violin, so you have to push just a little harder.”

  5. From Lisa Lai on August 11, 2016

    On YouTube, Bach’s Goldberg Variations choreographed by Jerome Robbins: https://youtu.be/0mB94lRQqm4

  6. From Harvey Zirofsky on August 12, 2016

    I have heard you play but now want to see you dance. Any chance?

  7. From Arnold on August 14, 2016

    Nah.

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September 6, 2010

Psssst

I hear a lot of griping from my friends these days about travel. Trains are much more luxurious and dependable in Europe. Japanese taxi drivers wear white gloves and decorate their cars with curtains while in New York City, taxis are, well, let’s not even talk about it. And the deluxe plane travel of years [...]
In a Sentimental Mood

August 2, 2010

In a Sentimental Mood

I recently heard an all-Stravinsky concert performed by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. A few days later, a review of the evening by Anthony Tommasini appeared in the April 23, 2010 edition of the New York Times. A comment he made about the orchestra’s rendition of The Firebird Suite caught my eye: “The Firebird’s Lullaby, [...]
Dinner Music

July 1, 2010

Dinner Music

Uncharacteristically early for an appointment, I slowed my pace up Manhattan’s Lexington Avenue. Better early than late, I thought, but what on earth was I to do with myself for the next 30 minutes. As I approached 86th St., the answer appeared almost by magic in the form of Papaya King, a hot dog stand [...]
Disney Hall

June 2, 2010

Something New, Something Old

I happened to be performing in Los Angeles just as the city’s new and glittering Disney Hall opened several years ago. A week earlier, I called my mother who was living in Southern California to tell her of my arrival. “Oh, wonderful,” she said. “You can take me to Disney Hall.” That was fine with [...]
Joe Vita

May 4, 2010

Joe Vita

I left the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University last year after having taught a graduate violin class there for over two decades. Among other things, I miss the lively conversations I often had with colleagues at student recitals, oral exams, juries, or over a pizza at the local Italian restaurant. Topic [...]
Twelve Note Story

April 23, 2010

Twelve Note Story

Take a deep breath and try to settle down. I know, I know. The task is daunting, but you’ve worked hard. Just be relaxed. Be focused. And now get practical. For starters, think of a good tempo. Not so easy based on the first two or three notes that are slow and deeply personal. Better [...]
News Alert

March 30, 2010

News Alert

The United States Bureau of Weights and Measures has just announced at a national news conference that chamber music may cause global warming. The issue first came to the bureau’s attention when directors of several distinguished music conservatories notified it of alarming and unexplained rises in temperature at odd times of the school day. Government [...]
Sophisticated Traveler

February 28, 2010

Sophisticated Traveler

I planned to take the 2 PM Eastern Airlines shuttle from New York City. That would have gotten me into Boston by three with plenty of time to grab a bite, take a taxi to Jordan Hall, change, practice some, and relax a bit before the Guarneri String Quartet concert at 8 PM. But an [...]
Grammy Award

January 18, 2010

Grammy Awards

The Guarneri String Quartet was nominated for a Grammy Award in the category of Best Chamber Music Performance this year for our Hungarian Album on RCA Red Seal. The CD consists of Ern? Dohnányi’s Quartets Nos. 2 and 3, and Zoltán Kodály’s Quartet No. 2, three works of striking beauty. The Grammy Awards (originally called [...]
Shall We Dance?

January 4, 2010

Shall We Dance?

Many years ago, I had occasion to play a Bach Partita for the pianist and scholar, Arthur Loesser. When I finished, Loesser asked me whether I knew how to dance the partita’s five movements. I vaguely knew that the movements were based on old dance forms, but I had assumed that the dance steps themselves [...]
Looking for Work

December 1, 2009

Looking for Work

The Guarneri String Quartet retired, yet Arnold Steinhardt continues to perform in public. Photo by Dorothea von Haeften. Violinist in Recently Retired String Quartet Looking for Work * Skills Proficient in chamber music. Works best with people willing to overlook occasional lapses in intonation, phrasing, and tone. Performs virtuoso solo works, but no higher than [...]
Birth Pains

November 4, 2009

Birth Pains

Mozart’s String Quartet, K. 421 in D Minor, occupies a special place in the hearts of the Guarneri String Quartet. It was the very first music we read through after deciding to form as a group. Why that work? Hard to remember after all these years, but I would guess that its emotion charged and [...]
The Guarneri Quartet

October 6, 2009

For the Very Last Time

On June 12, 2007, the Guarneri String Quartet sent out the following announcement: Dear Friends, We, the Guarneri String Quartet, have decided to retire at the end of the 2008-9 season, our forty-fifth year before the public. This has not only been a long journey, but a deeply satisfying one as well. What could be [...]
Gray's Papaya

September 1, 2009

Gray’s Papaya

“We’ll drive you home,” said Frank Salomon, an old friend and long-time presenter of the Peoples’ Symphony Concerts at Washington Irving High School. The Guarneri String Quartet had just finished a performance there, the last ever on the series before our retirement. Moments later, Frank behind the wheel, his wife Martha, my wife Dorothea, and [...]
Second Concert

August 3, 2009

Second Concert

The following is a slightly extended version of Second Concert, that appeared in the June publication of the new magazine Listen: Life with Classical Music. Our string quartet played a concert at Emory University in March of this year. Whenever I’m in Atlanta, I stay with my friends, Murphy Davis and Ed Loring, ministers who [...]
Arthur Rubinstein

July 7, 2009

Really

A member of the audience, somebody I’d seen backstage more than once before, came up to me recently after a concert I had just played. He smiled broadly, shook my hand enthusiastically, and said, “Great concert… really.” In the midst of thanking him, that last word, “really,” finally registered. Really? Excuse me sir, but what [...]
Life, Death, Music

June 13, 2009

Life, Death, Music

Last summer, Emily Hsiao, a teenager whom I’d never met, e-mailed me. She asked whether the Guarneri Quartet would have time to listen to music students in her high school when we played in Ann Arbor, Michigan that winter. Only hours after my visit to the school, a brutal attack on one of those students [...]
Almost on the Riviera

May 11, 2009

Almost on the Riviera

Did you always believe what your parents told you when you were young? I certainly did. I may not have always had the good sense to obey them or heed their advice but their wisdom was unquestionable. Take education, for example. My parents believed mightily in the importance of formal knowledge and therefore the need [...]
The Abode

April 1, 2009

The Abode

Alter Bock, a dedicated amateur string quartet player, has just announced plans for the creation of a home for retired chamber musicians. “I’m concerned that these wonderful musicians I’ve heard and admired most of my life have a nice place to spend their golden years.” He spoke to me from the music room in his [...]
Yehudi Menuhin

March 5, 2009

Genie in a Bottle

I ran into the violinist, Jennifer Koh, not long ago. Jenny is a highly gifted young musician who happens to have a keen interest in string players of old. At some point, our conversation turned to Yehudi Menuhin, one of the great violinists of the twentieth century. We talked about Menuhin’s instantly recognizable style, the [...]
A Brush with Fame

February 8, 2009

The Brush With Fame

Ah, Los Angeles! So-called city of angels, a place where the sun shines almost always, where palm trees flourish, a place that knows no winter-in short the city where I was born and raised. But in my adolescence, Los Angeles was much more than a hedonist’s playground. Thanks to the movie industry, the balmy weather, [...]
New Years Thoughts

January 1, 2009

New Year’s Thoughts

A drawing in the New Yorker magazine several years ago depicted a tawdry back alley with a few empty cans and bottles strewn about. The caption above read: Life without Mozart. Its message apparently affected many of us. I saw the drawing on peoples’ desks, walls, and refrigerator doors for years afterward. As a member [...]
The Swan

December 1, 2008

The Swan

When I was eleven years old, my violin teacher assigned me The Swan by Camille Saint-Saëns. I had no idea that The Swan was a famous cello solo or that it was part of a much larger work, The Carnival of the Animals. I had never even heard of its composer, Saint-Saëns, or seen his [...]
Mr. Oliver

November 10, 2008

Mr. Oliver

I enrolled in a music appreciation class when I was a high school student. Near the beginning of the semester, the teacher of the class took ill and a substitute, Mr. Oliver, replaced him. Mr. Oliver knew his subject well. He played us everything on the school record player from Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony to Peruvian [...]
Tooth Talk

October 8, 2008

Tooth Talk

I was having my teeth cleaned by the dental hygienist the other day when she offhandedly asked whether my children were also in the music industry. Fortunately, with my mouth wide open and filled with dental gear, I was only capable of answering with a few rather inarticulate and muffled noises. Otherwise, I might have [...]
What Good is Music

September 11, 2008

What Good is Music?

[Originally written and published in September 2002]. I lost no loved ones on 11 September 2001, nor was my home destroyed or my work affected in any palpable way by the tragic attack on our nation; and yet, the events of that morning have prodded me to look inward and take personal inventory. As a [...]
A Tale of Three Violinists

August 10, 2008

A Tale of Three Violinists

I stood in the artist’s dressing room, warming up nervously before my sole rehearsal with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. For a twenty-two-year-old violinist just starting a career, performing Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto with this distinguished group of musicians was an important engagement. My palms were sweating, my heart beat rapidly, and I began to pace back [...]
Last Words to a Son

July 11, 2008

Last Words to a Son

Andrea, the head nurse at the assisted living home where my mother has lived for many years, called last month to tell me that mother had stopped eating, that she was drifting in and out of consciousness, and that she was failing rapidly. The next day, my son Alexej and I flew to Southern California [...]
A Dog's Tale

June 12, 2008

A Dog’s Tale

I’m a wonderful teacher. I know, you don’t have to tell me. It’s not nice to brag. But truth above all, I always say. Here. Let me show you why I’m so good. We have a dog named Tessa. As far as I can tell, Tessa doesn’t have much feeling for music one way or [...]
Remembering Izzy

May 10, 2008

Remembering Izzy

Photo by Allen Cohen Every one of us has to die. We know that. We also know that sooner or later all of us will be forgotten. Even Einstein. Even Beethoven. Nevertheless, we humans doggedly strive for meaning in our lives and harbor the secret (or not so secret) wish to accomplish something of sufficient [...]
A Noteworthy Day

March 2, 2008

A Noteworthy Day

I heard a great deal of music yesterday. Let me rephrase that. Yesterday, I heard a multitude of sounds—some longer, some shorter, higher or lower, louder or softer—as I made my way through my waking hours. The sounds appeared sometimes as individual tones and sometimes in groups of two and three. They often repeated themselves [...]
Solo Bow

February 2, 2008

Solo Bow

The Guarneri String Quartet played a concert in Wisconsin several years ago. Why do I remember that this particular concert was in Wisconsin? Probably because Wisconsin is a cheese-making state and a delicious selection of cheese was set out at the after-concert party. It’s funny what details remain vibrant in one’s mind, especially in light [...]
In the Key of Strawberry

January 1, 2008

In the Key of Strawberry

An unexpected thought interrupted the sentence I was reading in the morning newspaper, followed by several other thoughts in quick succession. I had just remembered last night’s dream: My wife, Dorothea, and I were riding on a bus in a foreign country. Through the window we espied an open-air flea market with an array of [...]
Hiroshi Iizuka

December 1, 2007

Cousin Sam

“How much time you giving me today, maestro?” This was more or less the way Sam began most of our phone conversations. Sam Schloss was my cousin, more specifically: my mother’s mother’s sister’s son. I would usually call him during a break in one of the open rehearsals the Guarneri String Quartet held during its [...]