Archives for posts with tag: Martha Graham

As a musician for dance, you must understand the need, purpose and function of a dance class. Here I am attempting to give the general environment that you may well experience from a contemporary class.

Essentially, a dancer takes a class in order  to develop the body and mind enabling them to perform incredible athletic feats or subtle movements while at the same time not becoming a broken wreck (over the last 30 years so much more care has gone into developing  dancers training, allowing  an increased work span and much less injury). A standard class usually has  warm up exercises, centering exercises which lead to small jumps, movement across the floor and more jumps. Other class exercises that a musician may play for include choreographic sequences, improvisation and a warm down (I will cover these elements singularly in due course). A class is usually around one and half hours.

A musician has to ‘work out’ what music suits a teacher best on the first few classes working together, attempting to build a relationship of mutual taste towards the music.You should be able to communicate with spoken word, occasionally it is necessary to judge from the body language of the teacher if they enjoy the music you play or not. There are three elements or protagonists within a class situation, Teacher, dancers and accompanist.  It`s the musician`s ( accompanist) job to give the rhythm and atmosphere that the teacher requires in order to communicate their lesson to the dancers. Usually, I find when that works the dancers enjoy the class and can give more focus to their bodies.

There are four main class based techniques ( contemporary dance) for which each require a completely different approach to the musical accompaniment style. That is not to say there are no other movement techniques that have  developed, but these really are the main four used to describe class style. Many teaches these days are combining ideas from different techniques and styles to suit their own work and doctrine towards a dancers health.

Graham Technique : a passionate, spiritual and physically strong technique based on the original method developed by Martha Graham ( see http://marthagraham.org/center/ ).

Cunningham Technique : an architectural style of movement through space developed by Merce Cunningham ( see http://www.merce.org/about/ ).

Limon Technique : developed upon the work of Jose Limon this technique demands  the use of gravity, weight and energy ( see http://www.limon.org/About/History.html ).

Release Technique : uses breath and fluid movement to minimise muscle tension and many exercises associate with therapeutic movement research ( see a great British exponent of this work  http://www.siobhandavies.com/dance/company/vision-mission-values.html ).

The adjectives used above for the movement styles can also be applied to describe the musical style of accompaniment. I will go further into describing my thoughts and experience on playing for these different techniques in later blogs.

What I am about to write is off the top of my head and as much as I can remember from the facts. It’s certainly a close enough version of the truth to give you an idea.  I would recommend that  you dig around on the net should you require absolute accuracy with dates.

Robert Cohen, an ex-principle dancer from the Martha Graham company, with the financial support of Robin Howard, formed London Contemporary Dance Theatre School ( the PLACE) in 1966.  They placed an advert in the Evening Standard, a London newspaper, looking for any pianist that might be interested in playing for a contemporary dance class (I believe they may even have advertised nationally). There was  one single response by a woman called Judyth Knight who had previous experience in playing for church and arranging music for choirs.  She attended the Graham studios, New York, to gain some knowledge of class playing and then continued to play and manage the accompanists at the PLACE  for many years. Apparently, although I have never found them, she  notated two books on how to play for a Graham Class and composed music for at least one choreography. I think its fair to say that any dance student, teacher or fellow accompanist that ever came across Judyth, was left with a lasting impression!

I should mention that a very important British company and school, Ballet Rambert, although founded in the 1920`s, started to change from classical repertoire to more contemporary choreographies in the 1960`s and they have always performed and work with live music. Many other companies and schools began to immerge from the 1970`s  and this led to a need for more musicians who could play with an understanding for dance. There were ballet pianists who turned their hand to play for modern class and pianists, guitarists and percussionists  were able to find work playing for a contemporary class.

I think the height of popular demand, as far as Contemporary Dance goes, was  during the 80’s where companies were performing everywhere to full theatres. Nowadays, there are fewer supported companies but dance schools always have a contemporary dance programme and so there does remain work for an accompanist.

here is a  clip of the late Judyth Knight  playing for a class of very early dance technique

http://youtu.be/pHM2Ecs1eY4