Ask a hundred people what musicality is, and you're likely to get a hundred different answers. "Musicality is where an artist's personality shines brightest," says Smuin Contemporary Ballet member Ben Needham-Wood. For American Ballet Theatre soloist Skylar Brandt, "it's what distinguishes one dancer from another. It helps me express myself more vividly and emotionally."
Teachers encourage it, directors seek it out and dancers who possess it bring choreography to life in compelling ways. But what exactly is musicality, and how can dancers get more of it?
Putting Musicality Into Words<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzQyOTYxNS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzNzMyNDMyNX0.ufIhcrrxZQf6zHyfJUAoEgu8WDcNfP4GRq7HJUKc6rU/img.jpg?width=980" id="f452d" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="c365b87f75ff74801bf1946e179de394" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="David Morse, wearing a blue sleeveless T-shirt, is shown from the waist up making gestures near his face with his hands." data-width="666" data-height="811" />
David Morse rehearses one of his ballets at Cininnati Ballet.
Jenifer Denham, Courtesy Cincinnati Ballet<p>Musicality could be loosely described as a dancer's unique emotional and intellectual relationship to a piece of music, as expressed in their execution of choreography. "I connect musicality to rhythm, phrasing, tonality and mood—all these elements that allow the body to inhabit music from the inside out," says Atlanta Ballet choreographer in residence <a href="https://www.pointemagazine.com/search/?q=claudia+schreier" target="_blank">Claudia Schreier</a>.</p><p>Comparing two dancers in the same role can help make it clearer, says <a href="https://www.pointemagazine.com/search/?q=david+morse" target="_blank">David Morse</a>, a Cincinnati Ballet soloist, choreographer and class accompanist. He cites Royal Ballet principals <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3SKLSOGtayE" target="_blank">Natalia Osipova</a> and <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j9UFQtoy8NA" target="_blank">Marianela Nuñez</a> in the Black Swan variation as a good example. "Natalia has this punch behind everything," he says. "When she goes from Point A to Point B, there's power on the front end and then a suspend. With Marianela, there is an airiness in arriving at the next position, more like a sustain across the beat. They could not be more different, in large part due to those small increases and decreases in speed."</p>
Claudia Schreier rehearses her ballet Passage with Dance Theatre of Harlem.
Rachel Neville, Courtesy Schreier<p>Most of those choices are made in rehearsal, but sometimes they reflect a dancer's spontaneity. Miami City Ballet principal soloist <a href="https://www.pointemagazine.com/search/?q=lauren+fadeley" target="_blank">Lauren Fadeley</a> remembers feeling caught off guard when MCB's orchestra played unexpectedly slowly during Balanchine's <em>La Valse</em>. "But our rehearsal pianist came up to me afterward and said, 'That was one of the most musical performances of that ballet I've ever seen,'" says Fadeley. "You have to listen to the music and just dance. And enjoy it—that's what will really shine through."</p><p>These examples demonstrate a deeply personal element that each dancer can find within themselves. "The dancers we look up to are the ones who bring their true selves to every step through their musicality," says Schreier. "What we really get drawn to is that freedom. And that comes from exploring their relationship to the music and falling in love with it in their own way."</p>
The Building Blocks<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzQyOTY1MC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxNTAxNjg2N30.naY_gY5jxYi3TEceqFSibHYKERs0cuVlLIe4KSRBsyk/img.jpg?width=980" id="c6831" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="205ffcf1ca24a75cafa270b5c8e72b97" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="Wearing white skirted costumes, Ben Needham-Wood crosses his arms and lifts Terez Dean by the shoulders as she extends her left leg straight in front of her and tucks her right leg underneath her." data-width="3724" data-height="3624" />
Ben Needham-Wood and Terez Dean in Amy Seiwert's Renaissance
Chris Hardy, Courtesy Smuin Ballet<p>Paradoxically, dancers reach that level of musical freedom through deliberate, dedicated practice. "It has to start from barre," says Brandt, who describes herself as "rigid" about doing combinations at the ballet master's prescribed tempos because "it trains your body to handle the demands of a faster dégagé than you're used to, or a slower adagio, when you get onstage." Having so much command over her musicality, she says, "makes me feel like I can get lost in what I'm doing—like I can be an embodiment of the music, versus the music being a separate entity." On the other hand, deliberately playing with the rhythms and patterns at barre can lead to equally important insights, says Brandt.</p>
Be Your Own Maestro<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzQyOTYzMC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTMwMTUwMn0.RiDWrOoSvpsc0ZUUu0LfCHVgAaAMj8j1uJ4etZTtzQI/img.jpg?width=980" id="c7b2f" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="5d79b0c3c4f88666f75cc97eee31adad" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="Chase Swatosh, in lack tights and a white T-shirt, tosses Lauren Fadeley into a grand sissone. She wears a black leotard, pink tights and pointe shoes." data-width="5612" data-height="3678" />
Lauren Fadeley and Chase Swatosh in Balanchine's The Four Temperaments
Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy MCB<p>Dancing at home is ideal for exploring your own sense of musicality and artistic voice, because you can turn off the Zoom camera and take some risks, free of any feedback but your own sense of what feels authentic. "This is not about proving anything to anyone. This is about taking an opportunity to discover what you're able to do," says Needham-Wood.<br></p>