Three Dance Musicians in Conversation

London-based dance accompanist Nick Williamson interviews three musicians about their life in dance and music.

Kevin Darvas spent 13 years as a full-time pianist at English National Ballet until he retired in 2012. Martin Cleave has worked at RAD headquarters since 1988, and is now full-time staff pianist and music administrator. Richard Nicholas plays at Rambert (school and company) and plays percussion for ballet classes.

How and where did you start playing for dance?

Martin: My first experience of playing for ballet was covering for the brother of an old school friend with a teacher in Blackheath. It was a one-off and only included syllabus work, so I didn’t get much insight into the potential role of the ballet pianist. It was really just an epic sight-reading exercise!

Kevin: I auditioned successfully for a répétiteur vacancy in the ballet of the Bavarian State Opera. I figured that if I were working in Munich I would learn German and that would naturally be a big help in opera work. I had not expected to find this new world of dance as fascinating as I did.

Richard: Over some beers at a pub in Stoke Newington I got into conversation with the greatly respected drummer and accompanist Eric Frajira. He described the job to me and said he was getting too busy and needed someone to dep for him occasionally. I began learning the djembe and sat in on classes at The Place. I ended up working there for just over two years.

What was it you enjoyed that made you continue as a dance accompanist?

Richard: Previously I had predominantly worked in the structured and rehearsed world of bands and artists, but when playing for class I was suddenly all alone and that freedom felt really good.

Kevin: Two things, primarily. After being bound up in the world of sound I was now learning that art could be seen in action, and not merely heard. It seems so obvious now but then I was stunned to see what bodies were capable of achieving. I am still stunned. The second thing is: dancers themselves. On the whole they resist the hothouse pressures of theatrical life and manage to remain down-to-earth individuals. This makes them good to be around and good to work with.

How and why did you make the progression from those first experiences to making dance accompanying a major part of your professional life?

Martin: I didn’t particularly think of making a career out of playing for dance until towards the end of my musical studies when I spotted an advertisement on the noticeboard at the Royal College of Music for two pianist posts at the RAD. With the inviting words ‘no previous experience necessary’ I thought it was worth responding. I had always enjoyed accompanying other instrumentalists and singers at college, so I thought this could possibly be as rewarding (the second pianist post went to Jane Lennard Suff).

Richard: The challenge and responsibility of creating a particular vibe and mood as a solo instrumentalist really excited, and continues to excite me. As I worked my way up into playing for companies the professionalism of the working environment was also something I took pride in.

What skills do you think are important for a dance (and especially ballet) accompanist to have?

Kevin: For ballet class you need to have a repertoire of pieces that covers a wide range of character and rhythm, a willingness to improvise, or both. Improvisation is worth aiming for because it allows you the flexibility to respond to any idiosyncrasies of rhythm, tempo, or phrase-length. To play the ballet repertory you need a good ability at the keyboard (good sight-reading helps) but you don’t need to be a virtuoso. Some ballet scores can be an awkward fistful to manage but you can adapt the notes to your comfort and ability. The tune with a good supporting rhythm is more important than being slavishly true to the text. Develop an eye for the dancers’ movement. If you adapt what you play to what you see you may be led on a strangely shaped musical journey but at least you will both arrive happily together at the double bar line!

Martin: Empathy with movement. Be aware and respond to the needs of the dancers – when to drive and when to follow. Also, potential monotony can be avoided by altering styles of music throughout the class – visiting different countries, eras and idioms, repeating pieces in a different key, or changing the register or texture of the melody. It’s amazing how you can make a little go a long way.

Richard, you are rare in that you exclusively play percussion for ballet. What challenges does this bring and what advantages does it have over the usual piano accompaniment?

Richard: I often find the hardest part of playing percussion for ballet is that a lot of the movement tends to be more subtle and over a longer period of time than in contemporary dance, for instance. Therefore it can be more of a challenge to latch onto pushes and accents to propel the dancers forward. Unlike a piano I don’t have a sustain pedal so through some of the slower pieces I can play a busy rhythm, but the spaces where you don’t play are often the most important (usually an alien concept for drummers!).

Kevin, what challenges does playing full time for a professional ballet company bring?

Kevin: Two immediately come to mind: communication and compromise. Dancers and pianists appear to speak the same language, English, let us say, but that is no guarantee they will understand one another. Subtle differences in the ways that a dancer and a pianist, differently conditioned as they are, use the same word can (and do) lead to frustrating misunderstandings. Often it is more useful to bypass words entirely and simply have the dancer silently demonstrate to the pianist the nature of her difficulty; the pianist may also demonstrate the nature of the difficulty from his side. At this point the issue will often find a quick resolution.

Occasionally though, this leads to the second of my two challenges: artistic compromise. It may seem the solution to a dance problem requires an unmusical treatment of the music, and the pianist (not to mention the conductor) may balk at this. When they are both pushed against the dance/music interface and a difficulty on one side threatens artistic integrity on the other then what is required is tact, sensitivity, respect, good will and faith rather than logic-solving abilities. At times like these the need for a musical compromise may have to be acknowledged. But that may only be for today: in the fluid environment of a performing art the issue may have vanished by tomorrow.

Do you have any advice for other people starting out playing for dance or looking to find dance accompanying opportunities?

Martin: With an increasing number of teachers and companies opting to use recorded music, it becomes increasingly important for musicians looking for opportunities in dance to promote themselves as being able to offer something extra to enhance a class or performance. While a recording may be of the best quality and provide a wealth of sounds to respond to, the combination of two live elements and the rapport and spontaneity that comes from that is hard to replicate artificially.

Kevin: Go and watch some dancers working out. Many companies are pleased to have observers at their classes and rehearsals. See how the dancers work; hear how the pianist plays. Imagine yourself in that situation. If you like what you’ve experienced speak about it to someone, the pianist, most likely, before you leave the room. You will need to learn how to play class for dancers and a school may be willing to take you on. Contact them, sit in with willing pianists. Ask dancers what music they like to hear for tendu, adage, and so on, and why they like it. You will get diverse, even contradictory, answers. Accept all of them, provisionally. It took a long time for me to sort out what I was being told, and even now I know that the ultimate mysteries of dance have not been revealed to me. But neither have the ultimate mysteries of music. It is not a reason to lose heart.

If you have skills and are looking to advance your career in the dance world you will probably be pestering, in the nicest way possible, of course, everyone you know in the business. You will be presenting yourself to studios, schools and companies. I can’t say anything about this part of the search that isn’t going to sound simplistic. Opportunities are there, and if they are going to yield then they will yield to perseverance.

What is the best thing about playing for dance?

Kevin: Imagine you are rehearsing a variation, say, or playing a performance, and you and your dancer know you have both done well, and when you come to the end of the piece each of you looks over to the other with a beaming smile on your face: that is the best thing about playing for dance.

Martin: It’s the closest you get to dancing without all the sweat and exertion!

Richard: Tricky one! For me, it’s probably that every class is different. Something different comes out of you every time you play. When you and the dancers get lost in what you’re doing, there becomes an energy, but at the same time, a complete effortlessness – and that’s when it all makes sense.