Episode 9 – Music for Adage and Rond de Jambe En L’air

This week we’re lifting the lid on Adage and Rond De Jambe En L’air.

As always, David educates us about what the exercises are for and how they’re executed. We discuss our favourite pieces and genres of music for adage – how we can be inspirational and indulgent at the same time and quickly deviate into other discussions!

Music Referenced in this Episode


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. 

MG: Hello listeners! Welcome back to the Ballet Piano Podcast, and to this episode, featuring one of my favourite barre and centre exercises. But first, I’m here with the whole of the podcast team, Chris Hobson 

CH: Hello Matt

MG: Akiko Hobson

AH: Hello 

MG: And hashtag David Yow of Instagram 

DY: Hello Matt. 

MG: So, this episode focuses on the adage and the ronds de jambe en l’air at the barre. If we take the adage first, then musically we’d say it’s adagio, which is Italian for slowly, just in case you’re not familiar. But in dance terminology, we call the exercise, or the sequence, “The adage.” Is that right David? 

DY: It is, because it’s slow. What you’re trying to do is build up big, big positions, and the movements. . . how you get into those positions slowly. The slower you do it, the more you have to be efficient about the way that you get from the start position, through the centre to the end position: what you’re trying to do is develop strength and control. 

MG: And this point of the barre is extreme facility, this is the point where the dancers are at, you know, they’re most warm, they’re extreme sort of flexibility in the slow style. . . 

DY: That’s right, and so you can . . . what tends to happen is the exercise gets quite long, if you’re trying to also train stamina, just to keep going and going and going, and teaching them that they have to learn how to breathe, just like you have to do when you’re playing piano, you have to know when to actually phrase something to a certain number of bars, or counts or things, so that’s what we tend to do: everything is very steady and slow, and kind of included in adage movements could be ronds de jambe en l’air. Ronds de jambe en l’air—rounding of the leg, remember, rond de jambe; en l’air means “in the air.” So this action would be like you stick your. . . [laughing at the turn of phrase] stick your leg out!. . you battement your leg [all laugh] and you’re going to hold on to the thigh muscles, but only. . . from the knee downwards, you’re going to move the lower leg, so you’re going to bring a full extended leg to the side, you’re going to bring your toes to touch, almost, your supporting leg, roundabout, just underneath your knee, and then go straight back out again. But instead of just going in and out in a straight line, you’re going to make a shape, although there are different shapes; there are two different ways you can do this, you can make a capital “D” in the air, so you can go straight into your knee and then slightly forward and around in a half circle, in front of your supporting leg to the side. That would be a rond de jambe en l’air en dehors—outwards. Or, you can make the same movement in an elliptical, like an egg shape. So there are two ways to do this, it’s all about holding on. . . how do you hold on to your turn-out to just move the lower leg. That’s the whole point of this exercise, to try and hold the thigh and move the lower leg in a different . . . a different kind of work, a dynamic, shall we say. 

MG: Yep. And would you separate the exercises? Adage and rond de jambe en l’air

DY: You can. But if you’re time-constrained, what tends to happen with all the barre exercises, you tend to just pair things up that can go together, or that contrast. Ronds de jambe en l’air and adage could go together because when you initially start anything, as you said before, you’re going to start slowly, so that kind of flows with the adage, and the more proficient you get, the faster you get to those movements, so if we start a rond de jambe en l’air movement slowly, let’s say we choose a 3/4 [three-four time signature], so we’ve got four bars in: [spoken in musical rhythm] 5 and a 6, 7 and a 8. And on the first and beat, “and a,” like an anacrusis, you battement your leg out to the side of your body, and then you almost like feel as if you’re swinging your leg towards the supporting leg, and then resisting, as if you’re pushing through water, you’re swimming—[in musical rhythm] and a ONE and ahold the extension. And you could do that again—three and a four—three times—five and a six—and close in fifth [position], and battement your leg out—and a eight. And that would be half the exercise for rond de jambe [en l’air]. Now you could do that separately, or you could mix that thereafter, on that same tempo and that same kind of feeling with some développés. “Développer” means to unfold, so you might start from a closed fifth position, and you might draw a line up your supporting leg with just your big toe, and extend either front, side, or back—and that might take four counts to get to the extension back again, so you could go up to your ankle, and then your knee, and then you extend your leg as if it’s almost an unfolding flower or something, and you extend fully as if the petals are opening on the flower, so you might do [spoken in triple meter rhythm] cou de pied and retiré and attitude and extend to the front, and tendu to the floor, and close in fifth and a four. So that’s how long it would take musically. 

MG: And so for the adage exercise, is it primarily about finding the maximum extension. 

DY: Yes, and that doesn’t just mean the height. It also means just you’re extension, what you can hold, maintaining the classical form, and that’s very difficult, especially when you’re growing, because you need to find out where all those muscles are, and how to control those muscles. 

MG: And what steps would you include in the adage at the barre? So obviously, just now you said développé. 

DY: Yes, [and] you might do rond de jambes as we said 

MG: Ronds de jambe en l’air 

DY: What we call doing a slow lifting of the leg, relevé lent, so you might extend your leg as if you’re going to do a tendu, but then you might extend it so, so far, and stretch it so far that the actual toes come off the floor, and you keep going until you may get up to, let’s say, hip-height, or above hip-height. 

MG: And grands rond de jambe. 

DY: Grands ronds de jambe, that’s a big rounding of the leg, so at 90º you might extend your leg, and lift your leg up to 90º and then move it from that position, let’s say to the front, all the way to the side, all the way to the back, that would be a grand rond de jambe en dehors—outwards, away from the centre. 

[MUSIC: Ballet Piano Podcast ident] 

MG: And so, what are our thoughts on music for the adage and rond de jambe en l’air

AH: Before that, why is it your favourite exercise Matt? 

MG: Because it’s a chance to indulge, same as pliés is. It’s, I know that even though the dancers are working really hard to get their legs to maximum extension, and just know that I’m sort of maybe possibly helping them do that, gives me great satisfaction. 

CH: Indulgence. It’s always about indulgence! You said a couple of weeks ago you enjoyed playing for class and being that unsung hero in the corner that’s supporting everything, but at the same time, we can be quite selfish, can’t we, because it’s what we love to do, and we’re doing it, and we’re getting a big thrill out of doing this as well, and getting such enjoyment out of supporting. 

MG: I do enjoy my job a lot. 

CH: I love my job. I especially love adagio. Whether it’s at the barre or in the centre. 

AH: And the music we play in adage is just very nice, isn’t it, indulgent. 

DY: More than just being indulgent for us, it’s very inspirational as a dancer, because it’s a really difficult exercise to do, you’re really holding the full length of your leg in the air, and that’s really quite difficult to do, but to have this beautiful music just rolling around over the top is really helpful. 

CH: It’s a different sort of indulgence from what we’ve talked about in pliés or you’ve mentioned it briefly in tendus, because now you’re starting to get artistry, aren’t we, choreographed into the exercise as well, and I think that makes the difference, and maybe when you can see performances starting to come into the class now, not just technique. 

MG: That big anacrusis before a penché let’s say, that big upward stretch, back and leg, and then into that tip of the penché, there’s something lovely about that. 

CH: It’s a similar thing in the build-up, adagio from Spartacus, you know, just two bars in, four dancers’ counts in, [in rhythm] five and six and seven and a eight and a, and the ascending scale, the big pull-out at the end of the introduction which you wouldn’t do normally, but because it’s so famous that, you know, you hit that top A flat, and if it’s choreographed well with it, or you’ve been doing it for an assessment or something, it’s special, it’s magic. I know when I’ve played it for auditions, at a place that I worked at previously, the panel look over at you and smile. It never fails. 

DY: It never get boring

CH: You can get so much emotion out of that 

MG: It’s a chance to throw in all your semiquavers as well, isn’t it [AH laughs], just fill up that keyboard and really use every note possible, and every dynamic possible. 

CH: And the range of repertoire, I know, again, we’ve briefly spoken about this but almost anything can go, from, you can be incredibly traditional and stick with Minkus and things like that, or you could pan forward and play Adele, and pretty much everything in between. As long as it’s of the right sort of “flavour” it will work. 

AH: I try to match the melody, like matching with the movement that they’re doing, whatever the accent, and also the movement of the notes is matched with the movement of the leg, and that tends to be good for them, you know, to help them. 

CH: I don’t know, I pick up some of the choreography, but also, I’m going for the intention behind everything, so I don’t think it always has to match because it’s not a lot of accents in the adage, is it, it’s. . . I mean, it’s not wishy-washy really, it is set, but 

AH: In between is important 

CH: It’s the in-between things, the melodies over the top. What do you like to play, Akiko? You still haven’t answered the question, you’ve brushed it off onto something else! Come on, give us your secret! Tell us why you’re good at what you do! 

AH: I’m not very good but 

MG & CH: Yes you are! 

AH: I like playing Morricone’s music, it’s always inspiring, it’s the film that everybody loves, and I think I love. . . I enjoy it, and I hope, I think the dancers also enjoy it.  

MG: I mean I think it should look expensive, and it should sound expensive, the adage. You know, going from fifth position in that développé, you want that foot to really sort of lick up the leg [others laugh] before it unfolds. And it’s the precision of all those positions, and then passing through fifth, and then all of the développés and the extension, it’s got to be one continuous movement. But . . . 

DY: It’s just the emotional content that makes the difference, it really does, between just a plain old tune, something that’s really going to inspire you and carry you. 

MG: And that’s why I always fill it out, because hopefully that sounds more expensive and luxurious. 

CH: It’s like you said it previously, Matt, that turning on a dime, I think it was in the tendu episode, and we talked changing of the styles, and I will quite often, obviously keep the same pulse and the same style, but jump decades across from repertoire, or centuries across, from repertoire, so I’ll start with something, you know maybe Mozart to start off with, and then end up, you know, playing Stereophonics for the second side, and just going from one to another, and watching the different reactions, it’s exciting. 

DY: It’s great, because when you change, the whole flavour of the actual exercise changes with that, and that’s what’s really important for the dancer to understand, and get used to. 

CH: And the range of dynamics that we use, as well, when we play for adage, is much greater than any of the exercises that we’ve had so far, isn’t it, because it’s not just quiet, and it’s not just loud, it’s from pianissimo to fortissimo. And every single increment in between. 

MG: Absolutely 

DY: The fuller it is, the better, because that’s exactly what the movements are like, the biggest, the fullest movement that you can do. 

MG: I always play the Tchaikovsky piano concerto No. 1, because it’s got, it’s got each beat in the bar as well. So even though it’s adagio, it’s got that little bit of structure, and then if I choose to kind of take out each beat and then make it more legato . . . I do things like that. But then you know, it’s always there as well. 

CH: Where do we stand on 4/4s and 3/4s around the table. 

AH: Oh yeah, I forgot about that [all laugh] 

DY: I like the structure of the 4/4, but I love the fullness of the 3. 

MG: I mean, I enjoy playing it in both time signatures

CH: I used to really enjoy 3s and dislike 4s, and in the last few years, I’ve changed my mind. I like them both equally now, for different reasons, but maybe that’s because I’m specifically going out and trying to learn and change my repertoire, so that I’ve got a bigger variety of 4/4s, because it’s standard that it’s going to be on a 3, usually, isn’t it? I think most people set adage on a 3. 

AH: Most people do it on three, yeah. 

MG: And also in these slower tempos, it’s very easy to play something that is in three, put it into four, and vice versa, which is something I do all the time. I can just play any tune, in either 2, 3, or 4, in this slow adagio. 

AH: Yeah, I play Jurassic Park in three and four. 

CH: Yeah, but you can also play it for [as] a polonaise as well, can’t you 

AH: Yeah! I like that tune! 

CH: I know you do! Do you remember once a few years ago, I threw you under a bus to play, was it, a révérence on a polonaise a few years ago, because I was going for a haircut. 

AH: Oh yes! 

CH: And I came back and you’d played Jurassic Park! You were so mad at me that day. 

AH: Yeah, I was very mad! 

MG: And what about the music for rond de jambe en l’air? Let’s say it’s a separate exercise? You could probably ask for a waltz, couldn’t you? 

DY: There’s a different kind of feeling, there’s a lightness that you need, so that it doesn’t become really heavy because it’s quite a difficult movement to do repetitively on the thighs, so the lighter the tune, or the feeling feels, the easier it is to do. 

MG: Because you said when you were setting it, that you do “and a ONE” and the extension is the “one.” Now if I’m playing a rond de jambe en l’air at the barre, I’ll take out the “two, three” and sort of leaving it hanging, because I know they’re really fighting that extension to second, and then on the rond de jambe, you know, the actually circling of the toe at the knee, that’s when I put the music back in, and as they’re extending, sort of

AH: To help them 

MG: Yeah. 

CH: The en l’air is going to be lighter, isn’t it 

DY: It is

AH: Definitely 

CH: And the one that springs to mind, I can’t actually remember what it’s called now, so I’ll gloss over it, but the theme tune from Up, I know we’ve been quite theme tune heavy recently, so let’s go easy, but it’s light, and I’ve realised I do actually what you’ve said, in the left hand I don’t go um-chah-chah, I go, “um chah — um chah—” and then the melody will fill in the third beat, so it’s automatically lighter and just a little bit quicker as well. It gives it that lighter feel. 

DY: But even on a 4/4 you’d still need that lightness, whatever you’re going to play, just to help the dancers to get through it. 

MG: Because they’ve got their leg ultimately in passé position so their thigh’s already heavy, and then the lower leg is working really hard, so it can’t be too heavy, can it. 

CH: Matt, what do you like to play for adage? Just nipping back, because we never asked you. We asked why you love it. 

MG: I’ll play anything, from. . .  I’ll play Misty 

AH: I love Misty 

MG: Or any jazz standard, any musical theatre, anything that. . . Phantom of the Opera, or Sunset Boulevard, any of those poppy MT stuff, they work great. 

CH: It’s like the repertoire that’s personal to you, isn’t it, and the repertoire that’s emotive for you that we play. Somebody once told me that if you’re playing stuff, you’ve got to get your own bible of ballet music, because if you just nick somebody else’s, you’re faking it through. You can take inspiration from other people but you’re never going to be a hundred percent in the room if you’re trying to play like somebody else. You can use other people as inspiration, use their repertoire as inspiration, but you’ve got to play it as Chris Hobson accompanying this ballet class, you can’t play it as Matt Gregory or Akiko. Because you’ve got to be true to you. 

AH: No, because we could potentially play the same tune, but it’s how you play it for each exercise. 

MG: And we do cross over in our tunes, don’t we, the three of us. 

CH: We’ve learned that so far a lot in this podcast series! 

DY: But do you get territorial about some tunes, “That’s my tune”?

AH: I have a few tunes  that Chris, you play, and I know it’s your speciality, so I don’t touch, although I know that I can play them. 

MG: You can’t really, because, I mean, if it’s music that’s existing, you can put it in your repertoire . . 

AH: You can still, yeah . . . 

MG: . . . and what can anyone else do about it? 

CH: Maybe it’s different for Akiko and I because we work in the same building . . . 

AH: . . . in respect of . . . 

CH: So we’re slightly, I’m slightly conscious to not play stuff that Akiko plays

AH: [coughing pointedly] Hmmm! [all laugh] 

CH: But if I’m working somewhere else, in a different school, or a different company, or I’m recording a CD, or I’m doing something else, then all that respect goes out of the window, because we’re not in the same building together, so it doesn’t matter, the dancers don’t know how our repertoire crosses over, or how our life crosses over. 

MG: I think that as well, I think, well, I played this class this morning at a school or a company, and I think I’m going on to do something else, and these dancers in the afternoon haven’t heard what I’ve done this morning, so I can repeat myself. That’s my playlist for that day as it were. 

CH: When I was covering you a lot I did that a lot! [all laugh] I was doing 45 hours, sometimes more, classes a week, which was. . . but I didn’t have to think of 45 different classes! [laughter] 

MG: I always use the, you know, the World Ballet Days, I always use that, and watch the ballet class from a musician’s point of view, and obviously listen to the music, to gain inspiration of what those sort of Royal Ballet pianists do, or you know, the companies around the world, what they play, for each exercise. And I, you know, I learn from those people as well. 

DY: But when you’re starting out, I mean that’s a good like, to just top up what you’re doing, but when you’re starting out, what are your thoughts on that say, of playing set music for exams and things like that, learning the trade through that way? 

AH: Well, I started actually working for local RAD syllabus classes, and I did that for a couple of years, so I actually memorized all grade 1 to 8 tunes. 

CH: Wow! 

AH: And it actually did help me understanding what the steps are, and what sort of music is required for each, like, you know, whole ballet class. So it was helpful at the beginning as a ballet pianist, and then you have to develop your own at some point, anyway

CH: I think as a novice pianist, I would say go on to YouTube, watch these World Ballet Day classes that are out there or, you know, a full ballet class from any company, doesn’t matter, and you can go on iTunes or Spotify and look at what people have recorded for ballet classes, you know such as Modern Ballet Studio Melodies by Christopher Hobson [all laugh] but you know, to gain ideas off other people, like Akiko said, for the rond de jambe episode, everyone was playing Moon River so I knew I had to find something that was like Moon River, and you might have started off playing Moon River, but then you quickly thought, everybody’s playing this, so I want to do something else, and there’s nothing wrong, I don’t think, with going and listening to what other people are doing. Especially if you’re new, and you won’t know what a step looks like, you start to become familiar with the names, but you don’t know what the choreography of the step is, so to me, for donkey’s year’s ronds de jambe signified a slow waltz on a 3/4 until I’d learned properly what it was, and then, so I knew it was, like, the Moon Rivers or the Gymnopédies, and that’s a good way, I think, to build your repertoire, and it’s not stealing from others, that’s definitely learning from others, and there’s very few courses out there that teach you what to do and how to do it, and I think that’s a good way. And then it comes back to what we said earlier about, you’ve got to play a ballet class in your own way, I can’t play a ballet class like Akiko on that gig, because it’s personal, it’s like teaching, isn’t it, everything that you do is so unique to you, it’s like you’re putting your, you’re playing a ballet class with your heart on your sleeve, because. . . 

MG: Absolutely 

CH: It’s the most honest, really, if you’re fully into the class, and you’re just doing what you enjoy doing, it’s the most honest you can be without opening your mouth, you’re just communicating your honesty with your fingers, aren’t you. 

MG: And going back to playing the syllabus stuff, that is very useful for how music is structured for a ballet class exercise. And the introductions, learning different intros, because they’re all in, you know, four counts, or two counts, but it’s really useful for learning introductions. 

DY: And there’s a difference between like, playing for an examination, and then you’re playing for an open class, or you know, a professional company, there’s a complete difference, when you hear the kind of music that you would choose to play. 

CH: Jonathan Still once produced a book, didn’t he, I think it was when he was still at the RAD, was it called A Dance Class Anthology? It was about a hundred-page book, a maximum of 90 pages, and it talked you through a ballet class. I think the last time I spoke with Jonathan it was definitely out of print, but I know there were copies hanging about on YouTube and things like that, or maybe the RAD library’s got a copy that they can send you for a small fee. I’m not sure, but that helped me out a lot when I started, because it talked through each exercise, and the different examples from classical rep, from musical theatre, from ballet rep, and that was a good place to start. 

MG: I mean, I was talking to Jonathan Still just this morning, and he will be on the podcast listeners [AH: yay!]

CH: I can’t wait for Jonathan to come on. 

MG: I know. I mean, we think our knowledge is all right, but he is. . . we call him the Godfather of ballet class playing, he really is. But he said something to me, so useful this morning, because he coaches at the Opera House, and he says, being thrown into a ballet class, and feeling that adrenalin, of whether something’s working or not, is worth 10 coaching sessions. 

AH: Definitely

MG: You can learn your repertoire in isolation

AH: You need to be in this situation, to be nervous for one and a half hours 

MG: To get to the nerves you know we’ve all experienced, there’s nothing like it, knowing whether something’s going to work or not 

AH: I remember when I started, I played for one class, you know, one hour and a half or so. After one class, I was so tired, I was so hungry, and I just wanted to have a nap. 

CH: I still get nervous now, if I’m going to a new company where I know I don’t know the ballet master and I might not know any of the dancers, I still get nervous, maybe two decades in, I don’t think it’s ever going to leave. 

MG: Well I played for a certain #DavidYowOfInstagram just two days ago

DY: That was bliss, thank you Matt 

MG: And I felt very nervous! 

DY: Oh it was gorgeous. 

MG: David in teacher mode is something else 

AH: Because David is so scary when he’s teaching 

MG: I mean he’s wonderful as a person, but he’s wonderful as a teacher, and I was like . . .

AH: I’m not sure if I can cope with David teaching me as a teacher, I get really scared! 

DY: I have high aspirations, I’ll have you know, for my students! Aim high! 

MG: It was wonderful 

CH: What did you come up with, Matt, “Yow by name, Wow by nature”? 

MG: It’s Yow by name, and wow by nature! 

DY: I’m blushing there! 

MG: [to CH] What did you say? He’s the nicest person in the Western world? That also rings true. Well, that’s it podcasters, for another episode, we hope you found this useful, and insightful. In the next episode we get to the final barre exercise, a grand battement

AH: Yay! 

MG: So please look out for that next week 

CH: Can we bring fireworks, to celebrate the end of the barre? 

MG: If you want, bring a sparkler. Please also follow us on Instagram using the handle @balletpianopodcast and like us on Facebook. So until next time, it’s goodbye from me [Matt Gregory] 

ALL: Bye! 

[Music: Ballet Piano Podcast ident] 

. . . ENDS. . .

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