Thursday, 12 February 2015

Cross-discipline work in performing arts

Philharmonia Voices
Philharmonia Voices in Irina Brown's staging of ravel's L'Enfant et les Sortileges. Photo: Philharmonia

As singers we can find ourselves providing music for dancers. Many of us have recorded music as the soundtrack to the action of a film or even performed live during a play. However, short of the movement or dancing incorporated into an operatic production, the disciplines are often segregated.

This week I have been working (as part of an ensemble of singers, above) with a choreographer to work basic movement into a semi-staged operatic performance. The experience has been a good and artistically fruitful. However, I was interested to note my initial reluctance to embrace this part of the rehearsal process. There was a rather more fundamental rubicon than simply not wanting to pose or act out a role. After all, I am like many of my colleagues in having had a fair bit of operatic experience, an art form which is predicated on performers integrating dance, movement singing and acting.

Five minutes of head-scratching later (not a stage direction - I was thinking) and it occurred to me that the difference is the musician's reliance on the score, or the printed music. This is especially the case for the session musicians that make up the majority of London choral singers, where ability to process music from the standing start of reading off a printed sheet is valuable. So there's the issue of a prop, a distancing prosthetic (equivalent to the pseud-classical-singer microphone, but that may be another blogpost).

Moreover, there's the issue of being bound by the score. Not only are classical session singers used to interpreting sheet music quickly but we do it very accurately too, often to a fault, arguing over dynamics, the length of a rest for a breath and achieving a grumpy consensus over just how open foreign vowels should be. So in a rehearsal situation where the choreographer doesn't want to give a cut-and-dried answer to the question 'do we walk in time to the music?' there's spawning ground for mistrust, as if the individual giving direction doesn't understand how this performer works. Worse, it seems so second-nature to the singer that apparently equivocal answers suggest that an alternative-discipline director might not know what they're talking about.

In this week's rehearsal situation it quickly became apparent that the choreographer had a clear idea of what they wanted. It just didn't pertain principally to the score in front of us but rather to impulses in the narrative of the drama and the swell & texture of the music.

This may seem rather obvious. After all, the sheet music is simply the initial guide that will be rehearsed and shaped into the autonomous, nebulous artform that music is. Yet it's difficult under the (severe) constraints of time. It helps to have immediate reassurance that the person in charge understands the needs of the performer that they're rehearsing - in our case gaining the necessary familiarity and mastery of the notes on the page so that we can move on to reproducing the music without the copy.

Yet that understanding must cut both ways and that's the reason I'm spilling a thought here. An increasingly valuable facet of performing arts professionalism is exposure to the working methods of other performing disciplines.

I took part in a workshop for a new lyric-drama about two years ago and got very frustrated by the apparent lack of focus in an actor-led session. it was only later in the process that I recognised the establishing of character and impetus was structurally fundamental and that the score was a moveable feast. Even the conductor was required to suspend his indications in order to engage with the tourettish demands of ensemble character.

Similarly, for all the structural rigour of rhythm, dancing places high value on shapes and the fluidity of movement, a fact which occupies the working sense of the choreographer. At least this is what my limited but attentive observation of such a working practice identifies. This observation can be a useful discipline in itself to make the best use of time as well as to maintain professional trust between artists. I'd also argue that it's increasingly important where the 'triple threat' professionalism of music theatre is increasingly admired - and where opera is having to re-model itself anyway as the properly integrated artform it claims to be to survive the scrutiny of the modern audience.

No comments:

Post a Comment