In the corner behind the mirrors – ballet pianist. Interview with Nataly Dirvuk and Gill Civil

28 Oct

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Inta Balode

Article was first published in the music magazine “Mūzikas saule” in August 2012

Nataly Dirvuk and Gill Civil don’t know each other. But they are linked through specific, almost nowhere to be studied profession – ballet pianist. I must confess that I have also sometimes thought that pianists who choose to sit in the ballet studio most likely cannot find another job or maybe there are too short or tall or with too un-straight legs or arms to become dancers themselves. This is very wrong, because Gill never wanted to dance and she is not only pianist but also composer. In its turn Nataly not only dances herself but also since the school years is very successful in her work in chamber ensemble. So it’s not right that ballet pianists only sit in the corner behind mirrors and in the evening with their backs bent take the yellow from being often used sheets of music and unnoticed leave the ballet studio in order to somehow live their grey lives till the morning class.  

Nataly Dirvuk is linked with ballet since very childhood when she was performing her own choreography with her mother as accompanist. Later she studied classical pas in Liepaja with the excellent pallet pedagogue Leonīds Brunovs. E.Dārziņa music school where she learned piano is located right next to the Riga Choreography School. Even more tightly she got linked to the ballet after she finished master studies when, while searching for extra jobs, she got invited to work at the ballet studio of Zita Erss. And now already for more than five years Nataly plays for the Latvian National ballet and works at the Latvian Music Academy.  It’s the same for Gill Civil who also got friendly with dance (in those days the leading modern dance company in New Zealand- Limbs Dance Company) while looking for half-time job. She never wanted to become ballet dancer however she loved music that much that since the age of seven Gill imagined hersslf as a composer. When at the age for fourteen she was so lucky to meet Leonard Bernstein in Auckland where he was conducting New York Philharmonic orchestra, the wish to become a composer became even stronger. The belief in the possibility of ballet accompanist carrier came from the invitation to play for the classes led by famous New York choreographer John McLaughlin (student of the legendary choreographer Merce Cunnigham) and also from the job offer which she got 1984 from The Victorian College of the Arts in Melbourne – those days the leading arts education institution. Gill Civil is happy that while working as accompanist she has played both for modern and ballet classes.

Gill tells that in the beginning the job was like jumping into the darkness, the challenges followed one another, she was asked to offer long improvisations, with different length of phrases, often changes in tempo and rhythm. Also Nataly Dirvuk remembers that in the beginning it was very complicated. Playing beautifully and correct doesn’t necessarily fit, because the accents, tempo and melodic lines not always coincide with the movement and its character. For a long time she couldn’t understand how to play the preparation right? Nataly stresses that the profession of ballet accompanist is very specific, and nobody gets trained in it. Only thanks to the talented ballet teachers and choreographers as Zita Erss she started to understand and feel what and how should be done. Not all the pianists can learn to be accompanists for dance.

Is it possible that being ballet accompanists is the only job? Gill Civil not only plays for dance but also composes and records the original ballet/dance music. She just finished recording her Dancing Keys 3, which will come out in September 2012. Information about music by Gill Civil can be found on When at the end of eighties she arrived to Vancouver in Canada, modern dance companies were get state subsidies so they could afford long term contracts both with dancers and musicians. Unfortunately now the state support has almost run out, so dancers and accompanists lack in jobs.

Also the musicians in Latvia have to look for solutions. Nataly Dirvuk has travelled a lot, however those are mostly the performances with chamber ensemble, solo concerts or workshops with singers. She is sure that in the similar way as it is for musicians and dancers also the seminars, courses and exchange trips for the ballet accompanists are much needed. Unfortunately she is not involved even in the guest performances of the ballet company she works for.

What’s the difference between dancers and musicians?

Nataly Dirvuk: Dancers for me are like actors – they play a role. During all they life they spend very much time in front of the mirror. Their artistry is external, it’s visible from outside, i.e., they show their arts through the aesthetics of body and movement. It’s different for the musicians. All the emotions should come through the music, i.e. shouldn’t be visible from outside. That’s why dancers’ life is the continuation of their stage roles. Dancers also have a little different sense of music. I feel it myself when I do jazz dance. To put in simple way – musicians first hear the music and then see dance it’s vice versa for the dancers.

How it is to work with ballet dancers?

Gill Civil: I absolutely love it! I’m sure I was a dancer in a past life or something because when I watch ballet I imagine myself doing all the moves – which is laughable as I could never pull off the amazing physical feats that professional dancers can perform! I love providing a soundtrack that best supports the dancers – not only to give them impetus by keeping the rhythm steady but to inspire them with evocative harmonies and melodies.

Do you feel like artist during the class or like CD player in the corner?

N.D.: I try to perceive ballet classes not as a routine. I love improvisations and that is why I experiment a lot during the classes. I use different folk, jazz, rock, even pop melodies; I try making the accompaniment interesting and colorful. And I don’t actually think it is accompaniment. May be that’s why I get support from my colleagues dancers and sometimes I even feel they „accompany” and support me playing. Sometimes I want to play significant role because my primary job are chamber music concerts, where I am on stage. I have a dream for long time already – to have a common concert with dancers. Chamber ensemble and chamber ballet – it’s double ensemble on the stage.

G.C.: These days I feel like an artist most of the time because I only play for a small handful of teachers whom have the greatest respect for me – which is nice! They allow me enormous amounts of freedom to improvise during class time and trust that I’ll always be able to come up with the right sounding music for all of their exercises. However, I have had the experience often enough in the past, of teachers treating me like a CD or cassette player. Once or twice when I was in my 20s I actually walked out of the studio midway through the class in order to make a statement about not being noticed. I would never do that now as I’m not as impetuous as I once was

Is it fun to repeat the same phrase over and over?

N.D.: If very many times then, of course, it is tiring. But sometimes it’s even very useful to repeat something for several times – first, you learn it by heart, second, it’s a chance to “play out”, to exercise the fingers.

G.S. I don’t mind too much as you can always play each repeated phrase in a different way each time. The only difficult situation is when you are required to play a grand allegro or poses exercise over and over and the teacher doesn’t realize you might be getting sore hands after 5 minutes of continuous energetic playing. In that situation I would probably just stop playing – it’s most important for an accompanist to look after one’s hands and ensure one doesn’t get repetitive strain injury!

How carefully you watch dancers, do you know the names for all the steps and know exactly how they should be performed?

N.D.: I know all the ballet terms in French (except may be couple complicated double elements), because I have been doing ballet myself. I am always very curious about the premieres. When the new ballet gets stage, especially contemporary one, and the music is played form the recordings, very often I memorize the moves and sequences and try to do some of them myself. I think I am able to evaluate dancers’ performance better than a person from outside. Recently I had a choreographic experience. A ballerina from our company was choreographing a jazz dance piece for the evening of young choreographers. So I participated in it not only as a pianist but also did some jazz dance.

G.C.: I watch dancers all the time if I can. Generally I’m playing my own music, which is in my head, so I don’t have to look at the sheet music. However, if I do have to read the music I still try to keep an attentive eye on the dancers as much as possible. As for the steps – I think I know mostly all of them by now. I’ve been playing for dance for more than 30 years, so I reckon I’ve seen each exercise performed at least a million times!

What are the most rewarding moments in your work?

N.D.: Of course, those are premiers, dress rehearsals on the stage with piano accompaniment. It is not easy but is very important. And, of course, if during the premiere I’m playing in the orchestra and not only in run-throughs, then this direct participation in the premiere is a great enjoyment.

G.C.: For me these days, creating a permanent record of my piano music in the form of my DANCING KEYS CDs is my most rewarding activity. It’s wonderful when dancers tell me they love my music. It inspires me to write more! Also I’m enjoying making videos to match my music

Do you think some other musical instrument would fit as well as piano for ballet class? Which one is the closest competitor?

N.D.: Often during the ballet classes I would like, and here I’m repeating myself again, play something with the chamber ensemble or together with my beloved saxophone (for many years I have been performing in duet with classic saxophone). It would be also good to add voice to the piano (sometimes I feel myself like starting to sing). Also a violin fits well together with dance.

G.C.: I think the piano is the best for ballet because it can be used to sound like a whole orchestra. Unlike percussion which provides mostly just rhythm, piano uses harmony and melody. It’s very versatile that way. I’m not sure there’s a better instrument out there for ballet class!


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