Key Insights: Interview with the Pianists

As much a part of the competition as the dancing and choreography, is the music. We asked seasoned competition pianists, Jonathan Still and Richard Norriss, to share their experiences of the final.

Image: Richard Norriss and Uyu Hiromoto at the Genée Final in London, 2015. Photo by Elliott Franks.

How much preparation goes into your performance for the final – do you experience stage fright or is everything on autopilot?

Jonathan: In terms of being able to play the music, obviously you have to be able to do that, so you’ve prepared well before the competition. I spend a few minutes a day keeping the tricky stuff ticking over in the run-up to the final, but there’s not a lot of time or energy left for much else. In one sense, you’re so well prepared technically that the music is on autopilot. But accompanying those solos on the night is like walking a tightrope. You have to try to remember everything about the way that each dancer does their solo, watch them like a hawk, make them look as good as they possibly can, as well as playing the right notes nicely. It never gets easier, because every dancer and every performance is different. What I get stage fright about is only 10% about the music. 90% of the fear and adrenalin is about the sequence of candidates. This is because, with nerves, you can look at your list and suddenly think “Have I just played that or not?” By the time you’ve seen the number of the candidate on their costume, it’s too late to fix an error.

Richard: All of the rehearsing that happens during the week before the final is done with the final in mind. Each day, every dancer gets to rehearse their variations with their pianist for 5 or 10 minutes. Apart from dancing the steps accurately and being able to portray each role well, each dancer moves their own way, with their own quality of movement. This means that depending on the candidate, I may need to be mindful when accompanying ‘colla parte’ where tempos may require slight adjustments at certain points. This is one of the things we prepare together in rehearsal, under the guidance of the repetiteur, teacher, or artistic director. The aim is to help the dancers to produce their best possible performances on the night. I do nearly always experience nerves, but I believe that it usually helps me to perform well. Knowing that I have prepared adequately at this stage is a psychological advantage though, and this means getting to the point at which I feel confident that I can play the music accurately, and that I am able at the same time to observe each dancer’s timings and tempos throughout. I don’t think that the term ‘auto-pilot’ is quite applicable in this instance, however. No matter how familiar I am with the music, I still need to be switched on and as attentive as possible in order to attempt to play at the required level for the occasion.

Do you just focus on the music on the page, or do you take cues from the dancers?

Jonathan: You’re barely focusing on the page at all. It’s all about the dancers and creating the right atmosphere for each solo.

Richard: No, I don’t just focus on the music on the page, and yes, I take cues from the dancer – it is one of the main things we cover in rehearsals. We make marks at various points in the score to remind us when to follow the dancer’s cue, and even more specifically, if a dancer might want to stretch the music to allow for a bigger jump or more turns. I suppose you could sum it up by saying that part of my preparation is about learning when to look at the page, and when to look at the dancer.

What has been the most challenging piece to learn for the competition?

Jonathan: For me, possibly the male solo from Danses Concertantes, but at least once you’ve learned it, it’s done. The one I dread more is the ‘Falling crumbs’ solo from Sleeping Beauty. What you need to do to make it sound right requires three hands, and even then, it depends so much on orchestral timbre that it will never sound right on a piano. There’s not a way of playing it that doesn’t involve compromise, danger and disappointment.

Richard: Definitely, without question, the most challenging piece was Between the Lines by Sayo Kosugi – for the girls’ commissioned piece by Ricardo Amarante in Antwerp in 2014. A close second place was Beyond This, for the boys, by the same composer. When I received both pieces of music, I was quite surprised at how demanding they were, both technically and interpretatively. I confess that I was a little worried that I wouldn’t be able to learn them on time. Even though it was the most challenging, the music was truly fantastic and, once I’d learned it, it was such an exciting experience to perform it.

Which pieces do you think are the most challenging musically for the dancers?

Jonathan: I’m not sure you can talk about musically-challenging solos. Dancers just get on with whatever music they’ve got. The difficulty is in the movement. There are a few bars in the Ashton Summer that always cause problems in terms of coordination with the music, but I think this is more about the movement. If you can do it, you can do it on the music.

Richard: I think any music that is difficult to count is probably more difficult to dance to. Much 20th and 21st-century music, featuring a constantly changing time signature, is difficult to count and hard to pre-empt, due to the lack of a regular beat. It is probably a lot of fun to interpret, but at times the music can be like a constant stream of notes, which might be difficult for the dancers to find something to latch on to.

In ballet, it is unusual for pianists to be on stage in a performance setting. Does being ‘visible’ change how you approach playing?

Jonathan: The only thing I’d say I’ve noticed is that I’m a lot more careful about what I do with my hands at the ends of pieces, particularly slow ones. The dancer moulds the atmosphere for the audience with every move they make. If you take your hands off the piano and let the sustain pedal hold the notes, you’ve broken the spell. Conversely, you can enhance it by matching the tempo and timing of your ‘release’ gestures at the end of a piece with the mood that the dancer has created. Your role is supportive, so you don’t get the sense of performing on a big stage at all. I’m just happy that I’m on the stage with the competitors; I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

Richard: It is such a huge honour to be asked to play for the Genée, and such an enormous pleasure to be a part of the occasion – it really is a uniquely special event. As far as I’m concerned, being on-stage with the dancers adds so much to the occasion. Their very high standards and professionalism are always so evident, and it really is such a privilege to be accompanying them in this situation, and at this stage of their careers.

What is your most memorable Genée experience?

Jonathan: Without a doubt, playing for Leroy Mokgatle in 2015 when he danced the MacMillan/Stravinsky Danses Concertantes solo. He did it so well, and with such abandon and joy, he looked as if he had written the music and choreographed the dance himself. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like it in 30 years of playing for ballet. He did it in the first rehearsal and kept on doing it until he got the gold. It was a joy and a privilege to be part of it.

Richard: That is a very hard question because everything about the Genée is memorable. What makes it exciting and all the more special is when the judges award a gold medal, especially if the candidate is someone whom I have particularly enjoyed playing for.

This article originally appeared in the 2017 Genée International Ballet Competition programme.