Episode 11 – Music for Port De Bras

Transcription of this episode by Jonathan Still

Taking part: 

MG: Matt Gregory CH: Chris Hobson AH: Akiko Hobson    DY: David Yow 


[MUSIC: Ballet Piano Podcast ident] 

V/O: You’re listening to the Ballet Piano Podcast: Lifting the lid on dance accompaniment. 

[Music ends]

MG: Welcome listeners to this episode of the Ballet Piano Podcast, with me, Matt Gregory and the rest of the podcast team: Chris Hobson

CH: Hello

MG: Akiko Hobson

AH: Hello

MG: And hashtag David Wow of Instagram [laughter] 

DY: Hello 

AH: Is this a new one? 

CH: For one week only 

MG: He’s Yow by name, wow by nature 

DY: [pained voiced] oh!  

MG: So last episode, we finished the barre exercises, and this episode we’re moving into the centre. So, David, now there’s nothing to hold on to, is there? 

DY: Absolutely, just your own legs! 

MG: The dancers just have their own two legs, and torso. 

DY: Absolutely, totally. 

MG: And what are the challenges, as they move from barre into centre? 

DY: Well, there is a habit of just because you’ve been at the barre for at least half an hour, if not more you become, you know, you’re reliant on that barre. It’s like a third leg, you’re standing there with something else to hold on to. [laughter]

MG: OK. . . 

DY: So now, you have to stand on your two legs, and, you know, this is what it’s really all about. All the barre work is about preparation for the centre practice. So port de bras often could be the first thing. 

MG: Yep. 

DY: Or we could start with an adage, or a tendu. 

MG: Usually something slow

DY: Something slow, just to get you on your legs, just to feel where your balance is really. 

MG: And so usually, it’s port de bras, would you say? 

DY: I start with port de bras because a lot of the time at the barre you’re focusing on the legwork in different ways, so to come into the centre now you’re not hanging on to the barre with one arm, you’ve got two arms free, and in the centre at the end of the class, you’re going to use the power in your arms to co-ordinate with your legs to get you off the floor to jump. So it’s always a good idea to start like that, to start bringing the students’ awareness up to the fact that they’ve got two arms and they’re going to use them in very different ways. 

AH: I just remember a long time ago, I came to work, and we were sitting in the staff room, and at that time, we had this little camera on one of the studios so that we can monitor from the staff room, which the students didn’t know, and that particular morning, the camera was on, so we were just looking at a student on the monitor, stretching nicely and warming up nicely. And the teacher was like, hm, OK, Akiko, let’s go to the studio and he literally walked into the studio and said “I just saw on the monitor that you’ve been warming up very nicely, so let’s start from centre.” And you should have seen all the students’ faces! And the shaking body when we started centre tendu for first exercise. 

MG: That’s a bit unfair

DY: It’s really useful. 

CH: It must have taught them a lesson, yeah? 

AH: Yeah, I think next day we were watching on the monitor and everybody was warming up, like seriously. 

MG: And so for the port de bras exercise which is the first exercise, can you talk us through what steps you sort of might include, or what sort of port de bras movement you would use? 

CH: Hang on, before we get into that, what is a port de bras? For the uninitiated amongst us. For the centre ballet class virgins, what is a port de bras. 

DY: Port de bras means carriage of the arms, and generally what you’re thinking about is how does the torso that you’ve been working on at the barre, and the legs, how do those things in terms of your posture, support the way you use your arms? And it’s quite challenging actually, because it’s something that we don’t often think about when we’re actually doing barre work. So, often you’re working in symmetry, so both arms are mirroring each other, so they’re doing the same thing on both sides of your body, but there are other times when your one arm is moving faster than the other and the challenge is to make them both arrive actually in a position, or pass through a position at the same time and that takes great concentration. 

MG: It’s called coordination, right? 

DY: It’s all about coordination 

MG: This is one that is about coordinating those arms. 

CH: I’m just thinking about, is it what’s it called, rubbing your . . . doing circles on your tummy and tapping your head

DY: Yes, yes. There are times when you have to do that

CH: I’m trying to do it now. I can just about do it. I can’t reverse it though. 

MG: And so is this exercise about finding all those arm positions that they’re then going to use in the centre, in the rest of the class? 

DY: So just like there are positions of the feet and the legs, for second, third, fourth and fifth, so there are similar positions with the arms. And they all have different names depending on where you are in the world, and what perhaps, what kind of exams you take, shall we say. So if you put both your arms down, and just let them hang, and let gravity pull them to the ground, and then you just like bring both your sets of fingers closer to each other so there’s just a little gap between them, and you imagine that you’ve got a tennis ball under each of your armpits, that position often people call this bras bas, “arms down,” or “fifth en bas” or “the preparatory position.” Those are just three examples, and there are lots more, but those are the three main ones. 

MG: Would you mind just sort of setting us a port de bras exercise? 

DY: OK, so if I was to say, I’m going to do what I would term the “1st port de bras.” The 1st port de bras describes a plane of movement, so from this preparatory or bras bas or fifth en bas position, you would then raise your arms up to almost like your breastbone height, in the same shape, and then you would open your arms to the side of your body, just in front of your shoulders and then come back to the starting preparatory position. So those were the positions that you would pass through, but port de bras, the carriage of the arms, doesn’t necessarily just mean just those positions, it’s actually how you get from one position to the next that makes the biggest difference. 

MG: Yep. 

DY: So, it’s the pathway, really, and how you phrase that with the music, so I’d say, let’s say, if we start this 1st port de bras on a 3/4, and we just go, let’s say four bars in, [in rhythm] five and a six, seven and a eight. And we might take one bar of music to get up to the breastbone, 1 2 3, we might hold there, hold in that position, 2 2 3, and then we might open our arms to second, 3 2 3 hold it there 4 2 3 come back down to the preparatory position, 5 and a 6 and stay 7, and a 8. That would be your 1st port de bras, in a very very rudimentary way. 

[MUSIC: Ballet Piano Podcast ident] 

MG: And so, what about music, for the 1st port de bras. 

AH: So, 3/4, 4/4? Can be 4/4 no? 

DY: 3/4 is helpful because there are so many more notes and time between the notes, so you have more time to actually flow from one position to the next as we were saying, and perhaps, contrary to that, if you were talking about just making those positions, and feeling those positions, maybe you would use a 4 or something like that, just to find where those positions are, it’s very square and structured

MG: And would we say slightly more legato, and smoother 

AH: Very floating music, isn’t it. 

MG: Yeah, on the slower side. 

CH: I tend to not go heavy, musically. It’s something that’s full, and usually something that people will know, so that we’re not, because obviously, you just said David, the concentration that it takes to move your arms either symmetrically, or in different directions, or at different tempi, is a lot, so I don’t want people to be focusing on music, I just want the music to be there for support, so something very basic for me, would be, port de bras, “Flower Duet” from Lakmé, the British Airways advert. 

DY: Oh I love that 

CH: It’s simple and it’s basic, but it’s supportive and it does 

AH: Not too dramatic, but just beautiful and smooth 

CH: Yeah, we’re not talking adage here, are we, we’re talking just being supportive and much less indulgent than you could be. 

MG: And I would imagine dancers really enjoy doing it, because it’s not heavy legs in the air. It’s something that they can find their arm positions, and epaulement, or head and neck positions with the arms as well, and it’s something they can sort of really indulge in as well without worrying about heavy legs or turnout or any of those things. 

DY: It’s an extremely useful part of the ballet class, which is often these days ignored, and often to the dancers’ peril. Sir Frederick Ashton, one of the famous choreographers of British ballet, he said, if he had his way, he would ask, he would get the dancers to do port de bras every single day, because it teaches you so much about how you move, and I agree with him. It makes a great difference, when the students have actually spent time focussing on just moving their arms, the rest of the class is very different compared to if they don’t do that at all. 

MG: And it all comes from the back, doesn’t it. 

DY: Exactly. 

MG: Arms move from the back. 

DY: Or from the trunk. 

MG: That’s going to help you in jumps, and pirouettes, and all sorts of things. 

DY: Exactly, so when we describe how you hold your body, if you talk about the trunk of a tree, the trunk of a tree has roots that go in and underneath the floor, but the branches grow out of the trunk of the tree, they’re not separate from it, so you’re absolutely right. And when we talk about the carriage of the arms being a definition of port de bras, the theory of port de bras, we usually say we use smooth and continuous movements to get from one place to the next, and we go through a set of balanced positions, so we either stop in a position, or we pass through it. But as we said, sometimes one arm may have to move faster than the other so that they both arrive or pass through a position together. 

AH: Yeah, port de bras makes the dancer look more musical if you use it right. 

DY: Definitely, yes. And you know, we use our arms every day of our lives, whether we dance or not, whether, when we’re talking, we’re using our gestures and everything like this, and often we forget that it’s a natural thing to do, and gravity is one of those things that helps us, when we’re thinking about grands battements and swing your arms, if you think about, if you look at, let’s say, this year it’s the Olympics isn’t it, you know, people who are going to do the high jump, and if you think, if you watch them running up before they jump over that bar, what do they do with their arms? They naturally swing their arms, so we’re teaching the dancer to become more aware of how they use their arms when they’re dancing. 

CH: Melodically, when we’re doing a, when we’re playing for a port de bras, do you make your melodies follow the choreography, so if the arms are going up to the top, do you do that melodically, or would you go opposite? Or do you mix it up? Because I sometimes like to follow it pretty prescriptively, or I like to do the opposite, you know, if the arms are going up I’ll try and play something that’s going down or vice versa, for when the arms are going down. 

MG: I don’t necessarily do that, I find I’m going to play something that’s really going to invoke some artistry. That’s sort of how I approach the port de bras. Because I think it’s from the waist up, and it’s épaulement, it’s head, it’s neck, it’s eyeline, as well as the arms

DY: [inaudible “. . . upper part of your body”] 

MG: It’s the upper body

DY: Yes

MG: And I think that’s sort of, the most expressive part, you know, it’s all those, yeah, it’s the upper body, so I’d choose something that’s, you know, that I can invoke some artistry into the dancers 

CH: Artistry and emotion 

AH: More like overall movement, than like arm up or down 

DY: Yes

AH: I would follow

DY: Yeah, I agree. Matt are you saying that because of your previous experience as a dancer? 

MG: Yeah, no, I do love port de bras, yeah. I just know I used to really enjoy doing it. It was the one thing, you know there might be little temps liés in there, or little, you know, pas de basques and things, but I was always finding those arm lines, and using the back, and épaulement and shouldering to find those lines, and I just really enjoyed the shapes that I was making in the mirror. And you see it when dancers do it as well, and I always they sort of really exploit those lines, and really, you know, and that’s what I want the music to help them to do that. 

DY: That’s really interesting

CH: Playing for you, David, for the Cecchetti examinations, it’s not just the port de bras, it’s also using the different directions of the body in the port de bras exercise. 

DY: Yeah, and the different kind of accents that you would you put into the music make such a big difference to the way that we actually describe what we’re doing with our arms. 

AH: You sometimes shock me with this “no introduction,” or one chord. And by that point, we get like on autopilot, so we just do the four in, four in, four in, so I say “Oh, OK, no introduction,” and you play four in! 

DY: But the whole point of that is to actually make the students listen to what you’re playing, so they’re not going into automatic pilot, which you’re quite right, if you just hear, let’s do the four in every time you do something, you start, they start to switch off, and I think it’s so important that they actually, music being the lifeblood of ballet, you really need to open your ears and listen. 

CH: It’s not taking for granted all the instructions, it’s making everybody listen to everything that your saying, and you’ve put that instruction right at the very end

DY: Totally 

MG: Musically, there’s a teacher that teaches the open classes, who will sometimes ask for a mazurka for the port de bras. And the reasoning is, because he’s doing a bit of a temps lié, en avant, à la seconde, and en avant the other side, and as he wants that quick fifth position, you know, demi-plié, extend en fondu, and then that fifth position on demi-pointe. And so, not a crazy fast mazurka, but something with a bit more accent that’s not so adagio. 

AH: More like a minuet, kind of. 

MG: Yeah, or something like that. And so it’s got that little bit of accent, to find those definite positions. 

DY: I think that’s great 

MG: And then the arms on top. 

AH: Sometimes teachers say “Play something.” And then just start to choreograph on your music. And I feel extremely nervous if somebody says “just play something.” Because I just feel like I’ve got full responsibility for entire choreography and exercises. 

DY: [inaudible] It then transports the responsibility of the class, not just to the teacher, but also to what you’re playing. It’s really important that, because that makes the student then suddenly realize, oh, I remember there’s a person there, they’re playing, and they’re giving me this, you know, whatever it is, this feeling, this energy, through their music, and for them, it just kind of makes them listen a lot better. 

CH: A colleague on the circuit once told me that a teacher said, “Darling, play me something.” So the pianist played something, and he was like “No, no, no, not that I don’t like that.” So the pianist turns round to the teacher and says “What do you mean, you don’t like it? Even I don’t know what I’m going to play yet, because I’m improvising so far.” 

MG: If that ever happens to me, and a teacher says to me, Oh let’s play something, and I’ll choreograph it to the music, I just think, what am I going to enjoy dancing to? For this port de bras exercise, or what am I going to really enjoy doing. And then I sort of take it from there really. 

CH: I think I think, what have I seen people smile, people smile and enjoy that I’ve played previously, OK, that’s a greatest hit, that’s a golden go-to. 

MG: So what sort of things do you play. 

CH: It varies, it depends on, it depends on the level, a go-to is going to be the British Airways, always [i.e. the Flower Duet from Lakmé] for me, I don’t know, Intermezzo, from Cavalleria Rusticana, I quite like, send it in to David Bowie for the second side. 

MG: It’s just something light, generally, isn’t it. 

CH: Something light, but indulgent and emotive. 

AH: I play the tune from Lord of the Rings which is quite nice. 

CH: Can you sing it, I don’t know that. 

AH: Oh gosh

MG: No, I don’t either

AH: Oh my God! 

CH: You can also tell us to shut up Akiko and go on Google and look for it

AH: Just go on YouTube and [inaudible/laughter] 

DY: I love that tune that you play, Chris, what’s that film with Meryl Streep and Robert Redford

CH: Out of Africa. 

DY: Out of Africa! Ah that’s [inaudible] 

CH: I try and save that for adage. 

DY: Ah. 

CH: Because, centre adage for that one, I think, works really well. 


MG: Have you ever been asked to play anything, sort of unusual? That’s not adagio? For port de bras

CH: I’ve been asked to do something chordal, so leave a lot of space, so don’t have a flowing melody, and try and let dancers find their own melody and interpret the chords, so I was just giving a very basic pulse, you know, at the start of each bar, so, on a three, “One [quietly] two three Dum . . . “ and so there was nothing in the middle, and it was just held chords. 

MG: Sometimes I play the Handel Sarabande. And that’s really chordal. And there’s no, there’s not a lot of movement in the accompaniment, but really resist from putting that in it, really just play it as it’s written. 

CH: Well the sarabande from Sleeping Beauty would work well, actually, for an adage, sorry, for a port de bras, wouldn’t it? 

DY: Yes. 

CH: There you go, you’re going to get that next week, David! [laughter] 

DY: Thank you. 

MG: So, podcasters, that is all we have time for for this episode. Next time, we explore Centre Practice, so look out for that episode on all major podcast providers. We are also on Instagram and Facebook @theballetpianopodcast, so feel free to connect with us there, and share your thoughts with us. And until next time, it’s goodbye from me

CH: Goodbye

AH: Bye bye

DY: Goodbye 

[MUSIC: Ballet Piano Podcast ident] 

. . . ENDS. . .

© 2020 Ballet Piano Podcast  | Producer: Chris Hobson 
Transcription by Jonathan Still 21/4/20 

In this episode, David ‘Wow’ talks us through what dancers experience as they transfer from barre to centre, with this first exercise which is a centre port de bras.  

He educates us on the literal translation of port de bras, and how port de bras enhances the footwork to create a complete look for ballet. David teaches verbally how to find the basic arm positions, and talks through some standard port de bras sequences.  

The pianists discuss how they adapt their repertoire for this particular exercise and how they sensitively help dancers find coordination, épaulement, and head alignment through music.

The podcast team reference the late Sir Fredrick Ashton, who was famous for port de bras and David uses a ‘tree trunk’ analogy to explain how imperative the back is for aiding port de bras.

Musically, the pianists discuss their different approaches to this exercise, and listen out for some anomalies, such as unusual introductions, and even a Mazuka for port de bras!       

Music Referenced in this Episode

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