Monday, January 2, 2012

the beat

Mo was one voice in a group of girls who had the honor of singing in the snowflake scene in the Philadelphia Ballet's production of George Balanchine's Nutcracker at The Academy of Music. It's a phenomenal production. The Philadelphia Boys Choir usually sings during the scene, but they cannot make it to all the performances. Mo's school choir director has a long standing arrangement that this group of high school girls will sing when the Boys cannot. She was in the group three years in a row. I was able to go see the show her first year and her last year. The first year, when she was a sophomore, I also got to go along as a chaperone for one of the performances.

Backstage at the ballet felt homey and also foreign to me. I was a gymnast when I was a girl and I experienced a different kind of backstage, yet there were many familiarities. There is a lot of visible action and there is also a palpable stillness - waiting readiness. Ballerinas wear ridiculous makeup that looks completely unnecessary up close (as an aside, I struggled with the spelling of unnecessary and ended up with 'unnecescary', which I love!), yet from afar, the makeup is perfect. One ballerina sat gracefully on the floor, needle and thread in hand, mending the costume she was wearing. The sounds are more hushed the closer you are to the stage. There are a lot of ropes and wires leading to seen or unseen things. And there is a lot of staring, I suppose it's because we, the unfamiliar, were on the move through their well oiled backstage gears. The singers have to make their way through the backstage area, including a gauntletesque hallway filled with dancers and crew, to a box just off stage where they crowd together and sing before the audience.

The choir performs - the lyrics are one word, "Ahhhhh" - for just a few minutes right before the intermission and then they are done. It's glorious!

(Pardon a second aside - The whole time backstage I was scared I would trip over a wire or an outstretched leg and break the whole show. I move through life like that, I've realized recently. Perhaps I've always known that about myself and just didn't want to face it. I am backstage ushering perfectly capable people to where they already know they are going and I am trying to follow in their wake without screwing something up from behind - and thank you for your indulgence because when I started writing, I thought this really didn't have anything to do with me and it turns out it has everything to do with where I turn my eyes. Turns out, I am a singer even if I'm slightly out of tune.)

Mo told me something interesting last year, after her last performance as one voice in a group of singers in one scene in the Nutcracker ballet. If you've seen the show, you know that besides professional dancers and young dancers and young singers in that one scene, there is also a live professional orchestra.

Now, on to what Mo said.

It's a temptation for the singers - having just prepared their voices, having waited at the ready, and having trekked backstage and through the dark - it's a temptation for the singers to watch the well lit, decorated, masterful dancers.

If the singers do watch the dancers, they will ruin everything.

The dancers listen and rely on the singers for the beat. The singers must look to the conductor for the beat so they will be with the orchestra. The singers have to keep their eyes on the conductor. If the singers ignore the conductor and watch the dancers, the singers might take the beat from the dancers.

The show only works if all those people, young and old, students and professionals, keep the beat of the conductor who is only slightly elevated and dimly lit there in the pit.

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