A few weeks ago, I lived the second life of a musician playing in a pit. The “pit” refers to the area typically below the stage where the orchestra sits when playing for an opera or ballet.
What happens first is that the orchestra gets together to “note bash”. Learn the notes, rehearse playing together, identify and practise problem areas, especially those that require co-ordination between different sections. It’s also a time to find out what the conductor wants and the style and tempos they want us to play.
The next stage is the dress rehearsals with the dancers. By now, the orchestra can play the music and the focus is on co-ordination with the dancers, staging, lighting, logistics of program order, etc. With ballet, we have to be flexible as a lot of timing depends on the dancers, the steps they are doing and the choreography. For example, some sections had to be played slower because it was physically impossible for the dancers to spin, twirl, etc that fast!
And then it’s the start of the actual shows. This time round, and I think it’s pretty normal, the best audience responses were on the opening and closing nights. In between shows, applause was good, but not as boisterous or spontaneous. Luckily the season wasn’t too long this time, only 5 shows – but still, I love the excitement and buzz of the closing night performance. It’s finally all over.
For me, it was a great chance to pick up my violin again and play with others in a professional environment. I think the orchestra did really well.
The strangest part of the whole experience however was that we, as musicians, never actually saw the dancers doing the dances. I find this most strange. I believe that the way we (musicians) would have played would be very different if we knew what was happening on stage. How different? Not really in tempos as we rely on the conductor to set these, but just general interpretation, emotion, feeling and appreciation for what’s happening – the “bigger picture”. My wifey went to one performance and gave me the lowdown on the dances – and I was surprised that the choreography for one of the pieces matched various parts, as well as the overall Sonata Form of the whole movement in general. I’m not sure how this would work logistically though – would we get all the musos to watch the performance to pre-recorded audio? What do other companies do?
I know that in the swing dance world, dance bands (from back in the Harlem days in the Renaissance and Savoy Ballrooms) actually worked off the dancers and the dancers off the musicians in a self perpetuating energy cycle. This makes current classical ballet performances very lacking in comparison! Maybe the number of musicians needing co-ordination is a factor here – we rely on our conductor to be the conduit.
Here’s a photo of my view of the theatre:
Notice the nets? This made me smile – I’m guessing that they are there to catch the dancers in case they stray too far forward and accidentally fall into the pit! Now that would be something to remember! But maybe something not to laugh at – a quick Google shows several times when this has happened before…
2007 – Ballet dancer injured in Atlanta Ballet production of The Nutcracker – http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/11/arts/dance/11arts-OSHAINVESTIG_BRF.html, http://www.accessatlanta.com/atlanta-holiday-guide/holiday-events/after-nutcracker-fall-dancer-240391.html
1998 – Ballet dancer died in Dutch National Ballet production of Romeo and Juliet – http://www.heraldscotland.com/sport/spl/aberdeen/ballet-dancer-died-trying-to-save-director-in-orchestra-pit-fall-1.234032
More info here of the WA Ballet Gala show here: http://www.waballet.com.au/whats_on.php?id=57