Music for Class: Keeping Classical (But Not Conventional)

Duncan Cooper's music choices engage competition-oriented students in ballet center work.

Cooper’s parents were musicians and inspired his love of classical music.

For a ballet teacher, facing a room packed with competitive dancers can be nerve-wracking. One age group can cross a wide range in technical levels and skill sets, and a jazz-focused student may find the repetition of barre work tedious. “Most of these kids at conventions don’t have the intention of being ballet dancers,” says Duncan Cooper, who teaches at New York City Dance Alliance, is on faculty at Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet School and directs Moving People Dance Schools in Santa Fe, New Mexico. “My biggest goal is that when they go back to their studios, they appreciate it a little more.”

With younger levels, Cooper emphasizes the correct use of ballet terminology. For more advanced dancers, he tries to create challenging and engaging combinations, while reminding them that they can carry ballet technique into other dance forms––cleanly executing transitions, playing with musicality and fully finishing lines and positions. “In order to have a full and long career, you have to be pliable,” says Cooper. “A lot of these kids are jacks-of-all-trades. I’m very much open to that, but I want them to see how ballet can really enhance other disciplines.”

Cooper’s favorite music may be classical in genre, but it’s not the typical piano works you might expect. “My objective is to play something orchestral––not what you’d usually see in a ballet environment, like Coppélia or Don Quixote,” says Cooper. He stays true to the structure of ballet class, but varies the music to make  it lively. “They’ve been listening to popular and upbeat contemporary music all day, so when we get to center work, I want to leave the traditional behind,” he says. “At the end of the day, your class has to be fun and engaging.” DT

 

Maurice Ravel

String Quartet, Sonata for Violin and Cello: assez vif, très rythms

“I tend to use this for younger kids. It’s light and it doesn’t sound at all like traditional Ravel. It’s also easy to listen to repetitively, which is important when we are nitpicking and repeating the same sections. When I’m at NYCDA, most of my combinations are not longer than two minutes.”

 

Robert Schumann

Scenes From Childhood, Op. 15

“This whole album is fantastic. It’s even-paced, which is great for the smaller kids. Nothing gets too crazy, and they will be able to follow the music, so they can enjoy both the movement and what they’re dancing to.”

 

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Major, 3rd movement: allegro con fuoco

“This is great for medium-level students. It’s beautiful, grand and gets them moving. I want this age group to know that they can really build something out of the 5,000 tendus they do every day.”

 

Johann Strauss II

Frühlingsstimmen (Voices of Spring), Op. 410

“My parents were musicians, so I grew up with music like this. This piece shows that classical really does have the possibility of being just as impressive as the rap or electronic music the dancers were just listening to in previous classes.”

 

Antonín Dvorák

Serenade for Strings in E Major, Op. 22, 2nd movement: tempo di valse

“For the sake of learning a combination, I sometimes edit and fade out tracks to make the dancers feel like the choreography is a finished piece. This has nice pauses where you can find moments to do that.”

 

Sergei Prokofiev

Symphony No. 1 in D Major, Op. 25

“If there are a lot of men in class, I like to give them their own combination. I like pieces from Romeo and Juliet because they’re more calming than most music men dance to. The variations from Don Quixote and La Bayadère rile them up too much. This tricks them into relaxing, but it still has a sense of masculinity.”

 

Photo: Cooper’s parents were musicians and inspired his love of classical music. (by Paulo Tavares, courtesy of Duncan Cooper)

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