Instant Expert: Arranging Music for Ballet


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Which came first: the ballet or the score? Like the chicken and the egg, this question may be more complicated than it seems. For some ballet choreographers, the answer is the score: their process begins with the music and they choreograph to the music as it is written. But for others, the answer is the ballet—or, at least, an idea of a ballet. In this case, the music, either preexisting or created for dance, must be adapted and changed to suit the choreographer’s idea.

Program 03, entitled In Space and Time, features three ballets with three scores that have been expressly arranged for dance, but each in a different way. For The Fifth Season, SF Ballet Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson wanted to use Karl Jenkins’ String Quartet No. 2. However, he knew he wanted six sections in his ballet, and it only had five. So Tomasson added in a section from another piece Jenkins wrote.

In Snowblind, choreographer Cathy Marston wanted to create a soundscape that matched the story she had to tell about New England in the early 1900s. She worked with composer Philip Feeney to select music by Amy Beach and Arthur Foote—composers working in Boston during the period—as well as Arvo Pärt. Feeney arranged those scores together, and added in some music of his own.

Finally, for Etudes, the inspiration actually came from the arranger: Knudåge Riisager, a Danish composer, had the idea to orchestrate a series of Carl Czerny piano etudes for full orchestra and choreographer Harald Lander ran with the idea, creating this iconic ballet.


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Header Image: Sarah Van Patten and Tiit Helimets in Tomasson’s The Fifth Season // © Erik Tomasson

Your Ultimate Guide to In Space & Time

What is it? A chance to see three very different takes on ballet: from modernist abstraction to narrative drama to classical virtuosity.

Who’s it for? Anyone who likes minimalist music, 19th-century literature, or Degas paintings.

THE FIFTH SEASON

Yuan Yuan Tan and Tiit Helimets in Tomasson’s The Fifth Season // © Erik Tomasson

What am I seeing? The Fifth Season, choreographed by SF Ballet Artistic Director and Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson in 2006, is a study in contrasts. Cool, sophisticated movements and simple costumes coexist with passionate interludes; minimalist music with romantic melodies. Divided into six movements and featuring six principal dancers who dance together in different combinations, this ballet creates an abstract landscape of shifting moods.

What am I hearing? Karl Jenkins’ String Quartet No. 2 and the largo from Palladio. Tomasson knew he wanted to choreograph to the String Quartet, but wanted six movements in the ballet, so he added in the largo.

What should I look for? Look for the central pas de deux to the Palladio largo—it’s full of lyricism and longing. And note how different each of the sections of the ballet are—how do these contrasts make you feel?

SNOWBLIND

San Francisco Ballet in Marston’s Snowblind // © Erik Tomasson

What am I seeing? British choreographer Cathy Marston’s unique blend of literature, movement, and emotion. Known in Europe for her narrative ballets inspired by literature, Marston decided to use an American story as the starting point for this ballet: Edith Wharton’s short story Ethan Frome. For those of us who never read Ethan Frome in high-school English here’s a quick synopsis: Married man in New England falls in love with his hypochondriac wife’s cousin—who also happens to be his maid.

What am I hearing? A mix of music from Amy Beach, Arthur Foote, and Arvo Pärt arranged by composer Phillip Feeney. Beach and Foote were both part of the “Boston Six,” a group of composers working in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in New England. Working at the same time as Edith Wharton, these composers were key to the development of American classical music.

What should I look for? Look for the way that the main characters’ movement is driven by their emotions—Marston starts her process more like a theatrical director, letting the character’s thoughts dictate the movement language. And watch the corps de ballet in this work; they alternately represent the cold and snow of New England and the central characters’ emotions.

ETUDES

SF Ballet’s Joanna Berman and Vadim Solomakha in Lander’s Etudes, 1998 // © Marty Sohl

What am I seeing? Choreographed in 1948 by Danish choreographer Harald Lander, Etudes is an ode to classical ballet’s history and form. A series of studies, or “études,” this ballet puts its dancers through their paces. Beginning with exercises at the barre, then foraying into ballet’s Romantic Era past, the ballet ends with a spectacular display of virtuosity and technique.

What am I hearing? A variety of piano études by Carl Czerny, arranged and orchestrated by Knudaage Riisager. These piano pieces were created to challenge and train students, making them a clever match for a ballet about ballet training.

What should I look for? The central ballerina who flits in and out throughout the ballet, sometimes in a short, classical tutu and sometimes in a longer, Romantic-era one. And for the way that the steps you see later in the ballet—the jumps and turns—relate to the earlier exercises you saw at the barre. If you can make that connection, it may well change how you watch all ballets.

Your Ultimate Guide to In Space and Time

What is it? A chance to see three very different takes on ballet: from modernist abstraction to narrative drama to classical virtuosity.

Who’s it for? Anyone who likes minimalist music, 19th-century literature, or Degas paintings.

THE FIFTH SEASON

Yuan Yuan Tan and Tiit Helimets in Tomasson’s The Fifth Season // © Erik Tomasson

What Am I Seeing? The Fifth Season, choreographed by SF Ballet Artistic Director and Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson in 2006, is a study in contrasts. Cool, sophisticated movements and simple costumes coexist with passionate interludes; minimalist music with romantic melodies. Divided into six movements and featuring six principal dancers who dance together in different combinations, this ballet creates an abstract landscape of shifting moods.

What Am I Hearing? Karl Jenkins’ String Quartet No. 2 and the largo from Palladio. Tomasson knew he wanted to choreograph to the String Quartet, but wanted six movements in the ballet, so he added in the largo.

What Should I Look For? Look for the central pas de deux to the Palladio largo—it’s full of lyricism and longing. And note how different each of the sections of the ballet are—how do these contrasts make you feel?

SNOWBLIND

San Francisco Ballet in Marston’s Snowblind // © Erik Tomasson

What Am I Seeing? British choreographer Cathy Marston’s unique blend of literature, movement, and emotion. Known in Europe for her narrative ballets inspired by literature, Marston decided to use an American story as the starting point for this ballet: Edith Wharton’s short story Ethan Frome. For those of us who never read Ethan Frome in high-school English here’s a quick synopsis: Married man in New England falls in love with his hypochondriac wife’s cousin—who also happens to be his maid.

What am I hearing? A mix of music from Amy Beach, Arthur Foote, and Arvo Pärt arranged by composer Phillip Feeney. Beach and Foote were both part of the “Boston Six,” a group of composers working in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in New England. Working at the same time as Edith Wharton, these composers were key to the development of American classical music.

What should I look for? Look for the way that the main characters’ movement is driven by their emotions—Marston starts her process more like a theatrical director, letting the character’s thoughts dictate the movement language. And watch the corps de ballet in this work; they alternately represent the cold and snow of New England and the central characters’ emotions.

ETUDES

SF Ballet’s Joanna Berman and Vadim Solomakha in Lander’s Etudes, 1998 // © Marty Sohl

What Am I Seeing? Choreographed in 1948 by Danish choreographer Harald Lander, Études is an ode to classical ballet’s history and form. A series of studies, or “études,” this ballet puts its dancers through their paces. Beginning with exercises at the barre, then foraying into ballet’s Romantic Era past, the ballet ends with a spectacular display of virtuosity and technique.

What am I hearing? A variety of piano études by Carl Czerny, arranged and orchestrated by Knudaage Riisager. These piano pieces were created to challenge and train students, making them a clever match for a ballet about ballet training.

What should I look for? The central ballerina who flits in and out throughout the ballet, sometimes in a short, classical tutu and sometimes in a longer, Romantic-era one. And for the way that the steps you see later in the ballet—the jumps and turns—relate to the earlier exercises you saw at the barre. If you can make that connection, it may well change how you watch all ballets.