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Music and movement

Artistic intersection brings dancers and pianists together

By Mandy Cook

There’s a difference between “dancers’ talk” and “musicians’ talk”, according to a piano major and recent participant in a unique partnership between the School of Music and Kittiwake Dance Theatre.

Alison Clarke, a fourth-year bachelor of music student at Memorial, says that’s just one of the concepts she learned while taking part in an experiential training program bringing together current piano students and recent graduates, and professional dance accompanists.

“It was amazing to have the privilege to attempt to provide a musical backing that would bring out the best in their dancing,” said Ms. Clarke, who is from Burin, N.L., of the experience.

Kittiwake Dance Theatre’s Cassandra Pippy and Stephanie Campbell practise with Ms. Clarke on piano at the School of Music.
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

It is rare for dancers in the ballet and contemporary ballet genres in Newfoundland and Labrador to experience live music accompaniment because of the limited availability of trained accompanists, says Martin Vallée, artistic director of Kittiwake, the province’s leading and oldest dance performance company.

“The dancers simply love having live music accompaniment,” said Mr. Vallée.

Martin Vallée
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

“Recorded music can be repetitive and potentially boring. With live music a conversation unfolds between dancers and musicians. We have an abundance of private dance studios and of course, Kittiwake, all of which could use dance accompanists for classes, rehearsals and performances.”

To that end, Kittiwake offered an intensive ballet and contemporary ballet training program in St. John’s last summer, with two visiting dance instructors from Montreal, Mr. Vallée and others, including David Troya, a collaborative pianist with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet and an alumnus of the School of Music’s master of music program. A pianist from the National Ballet School led a second session in November.

A large part of the collaborative pianist’s job is to teach participants the importance of customizing a piece of music to match the dancers’ movements – typically in a tight timeframe, says Mr. Troya.

He says most ballet instructors “chant” through their explanation of a new exercise, from which piano accompanists must glean important information regarding the tempo, time signature, rhythmic patterns and mood of the music.

David Troya
Photo: Submitted

“In a matter of seconds we have to come out with a piece of music that could fit those characteristics . . . so we have to either improvise or make a lot of modifications,” he said.

“Also, dancers talk about phrases and counts in a rather different way than we musicians. The musicians must adapt to the dancers’ language.”

Two art forms

The experience allowed Ms. Clarke to do exactly that, as well as improve her sight-reading skills, her sense of musicality, ability to think quickly and to adapt to her surroundings.

She also recommends her peers to sign up for future workshops as part of their development from student to new professional.

Mr. Vallée says the partnership has been successful in receiving funds from Memorial’s Public Engagement Accelerator fund to expand the program for August 2019.

During Kittiwake’s summer dance intensive, Ed Squires, a Memorial alumnus and former collaborative percussionist with Toronto Dance Theatre and current musician with the In Studio program at the National Ballet of Canada, as well as pianist and composer Craig Wingrove of the National Ballet School, will come to St. John’s as instructors.

“This partnership presents opportunities for knowledge exchange between these two art forms,” he said. “We hope to build capacity of trained musicians to engage in the very popular dance sector in the province.”


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