I recently rediscovered an old article published by the New York Times back in June 1986. it features an interview with Rachel Chapman, an Polish born dance musician who played for ballet classes, rehearsals and performances from approx. 1938 onwards.

I had this article saved in my ‘favourites’ and thought it was definitely worth sharing.

The digitised version of the article can be found here

Audiences may not often think of pianists as being principal figures in dance companies. Nevertheless, a company’s pianists may be as important as the dancers for whom they play. Until the late 19th century, classes and rehearsals were usually accompanied by violinists; indeed, teachers and choreographers often played the violin themselves as they worked with their dancers. Today, the piano is the most commonly used instrument for accompanying dance. Unlike conductors, who may not appear upon the scene until a production’s final rehearsals, pianists work daily with teachers in the classroom and with ballet masters and choreographers in the studio. And if a score contains a big piano part, they may find themselves playing in the pit during performances.

One pianist who was particularly devoted to dance was Rachel Chapman, who died in Israel on April 25 at the age of 81. Mrs. Chapman was the staff pianist of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, one of the most important touring companies of our time, from its inception in 1938 to its demise in 1962, after which she was employed as accompanist for the dance attractions imported by Sol Hurok. She retired to Tel Aviv in 1974. The Ballet Russe toured incessantly and Mrs. Chapman went everywhere with it, playing grand pianos in opera houses as well as rickety uprights in high school auditoriums. ”I’m the queen of the uprights,” she once said of herself.

Born in Warsaw, Mrs. Chapman came from a musical family, and her brother was a founding member of the Palestine Orchestra, today the Israel Philharmonic. In 1933, she settled in the United States, where she married Philip Chapman, who was killed while serving in World War II. Flamboyant in manner and fiery in temperament, Mrs. Chapman ”looked and acted like a Polish lioness,” Agnes de Mille has written. When, in 1948, a New York Times reporter was sent to do a backstage story about the Ballet Russe, he was startled to find Mrs. Chapman angrily slamming down the piano lid and berating dancers during one rehearsal. And when someone left personal belongings on the piano, she exclaimed, ”This is my territory. Nobody puts anything here but me. This is not a garbage dump and it is not a clothes closet and it is not a bookcase. This is my piano. This is my territory.” Small wonder, then, that the Times story was headlined, ”Temperamental Blonde Bombshell Smites the Keys for Ballet Troupe.” Despite her outbursts, dancers loved and respected Mrs. Chapman, who was always called by her first name alone, pronounced in Continental fashion, ”Rah-SHEL.”

She was blessed with the virtues good pianists for dance ought to possess. Yet, like many accompanists, she got into the field almost by accident. Wishing to earn extra money, she filled in for an indisposed pianist at a rehearsal of Col. W. de Basil’s Ballets Russes. Her playing was liked so much that she was invited to join the troupe’s staff and when a dissident faction formed a new company, the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, she allied herself with it. In this respect, her career parallels that of Gordon Boelzner, a pianist and conductor for the New York City Ballet, who never thought of playing for ballet until, as an impecunious music student, he accepted a job as a dance accompanist. In both cases, a job taken for practical reasons opened up a whole new artistic career.

It can be a satisfying career, provided pianists are versatile and resourceful. For rehearsals, they must be able to read piano transcriptions of complex orchestral works. Should they play for classes, as well, they must have a wide repertory at their command so that, if a teacher says, ”Give me such-and-such a piece at such-and-such a tempo,” they will immediately come up with appropriate music. And they must be good enough musicians to give acceptable public performances of the concertos to which ballets are often set.

Over the years, the Ballet Russe required Mrs. Chapman to play Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1, Bach’s Keyboard Concerto in F Minor, Franck’s Symphonic Variations and Tchaikovsky’s first and second piano concertos. Because George Balanchine’s ”Ballet Imperial,” to the second of those concertos, was for many years a popular part of the repertory, Mrs. Chapman once speculated she may have performed that concerto more often than any other pianist. Perhaps the only other pianist who could equal her record is Mr. Boelzner, for ”Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2,” as ”Ballet Imperial” has been renamed, is now danced by the New York City Ballet. This spring, City Ballet’s pianists have also had to play Hindemith’s Kammermusik No. 2, Morton Gould’s ”Interplay,” Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Stravinsky’s Concerto for Two Solo Pianos, Gershwin’s Concerto in F, Schumann’s ”Davidsbundlertanze” and the Chopin pieces used in Jerome Robbins’s ”Dances at a Gathering.”

Several of those scores are real challenges to pianists. And they must all be played in a certain way – the choreographer’s way. In a sense, ballet pianists need to be musically self-effacing, for they may have to eschew certain tempos, dynamics and effects of rubato that they might employ if they were giving a recital. Rather, what choreographers – and, in some instances, what dancers – want is what they must provide. At the same time, a good rehearsal pianist can act as a musical conscience, cautioning against lapses in style and taste. In some companies, star dancers are allowed to set their own tempos and musicians are expected to follow the stars’ whims. At its worst, such a practice results in extreme musical distortion with the score rushing ahead one moment and slowing almost to a standstill the next. A good pianist can caution against this. According to many of her colleagues at the Ballet Russe, Mrs. Chapman was particularly skilled at finding a proper balance between musical strictness and tempos that would display dancers to their best advantage.

Accompanists also need to be patient. Thus, when working with a choreographer in the creation of new ballets, they must repeat phrases over and over until suitable steps have been devised for them. Mrs. Chapman often struck dancers as indefatigable, particularly when playing for such a notoriously meticulous choreographer as Leonide Massine, who turned rehearsals into marathons and, before the days of strict union regulations, would rehearse far into the night. Though dancers might flag, Mrs. Chapman played on.

However, she had absolutely no use for choreographers who were mere ditherers, the sort of choreographers who would either invent several alternate steps for each musical phrase and be satisfied with none of them, or who could think of no suitable steps whatsoever for a phrase, even though they asked to hear it again and again. To such choreographers, Mrs. Chapman would sometimes say, ”I’ve played this passage quite enough. I’ll only play it twice more. So you’d better get it right, because I won’t play it again.” Somehow, that announcement always caused choreographers to be inspired. It is, of course, an announcement no novice accompanist would dare to make. But Mrs. Chapman was wise and experienced enough to know when she could profitably deliver such ultimatums.

Working with dancers, pianists get to know much about choreography as well as music. Once, at the Ballet Russe, when the dancer Meredith Baylis had to learn the Black Swan pas de deux and the role of Myrtha in ”Giselle” at short notice, it was Mrs. Chapman who gave her valuable coaching in interpretative details. Other veteran accompanists may also be experts on certain aspects of ballet style. Wherever dancers are, accompanists are usually with them and, by being omnipresent and ever-resourceful, accompanists do much to make dance performances possible. In fact, a good pianist can be a dancer’s best friend.

Similar Posts