Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Einstein of Ballet Class: Pianist Ai Isshiki

               Imagine the minutes before the start of ballet class. The dancers are lying on the specially-surfaced gray floor, the contours of their thin bodies hidden by baggy warm-up wear, limbs radiating out in all manner of stretching positions. Those who know each other talk quietly. Those new to class just stretch, and wait. An unusual figure appears in the studio, not dressed for class, and walks across the floor in street shoes. Soon, the character makes his identity clear: he sits down at the piano and begins his own method of warming up, which is strident and loud. It is the ballet pianist, the sole musician in a room full of dancers, at once essential and alienated.
Ai Isshiki is a ballet pianist. She is also a composer. She has been accompanying classes for four or five years, first in Boston, now, in New York, at such studios as the Mark Morris Dance Center, in Brooklyn, and Ballet Arts, in Manhattan. No archetype, Ai does not represent ballet pianists as a group; however, I know from dancing in classes she has accompanied that she is a remarkable individual, and I wanted to try to see ballet class from her perspective. I interviewed her in a café before Kenny Larson’s intermediate ballet class at Ballet Arts. These are my impressions, those of a sometimes dancer, of ballet pianists and of my time with Ai (pronounced like eye). 

          Ballet class is the bread and butter of dance, a daily ritual that underpins the athleticism and artistry that we see onstage. Class depends, in turn, on music. While some classes use recorded piano music, in cities, a live pianist is a standard and essential component of every class. It’s also a role that’s easily overlooked. The dancers watch and listen to the instructor, the only one who talks during the lesson; they watch, gesture and whisper to each other. Though they hear the piano, their only real interaction with the pianist may be a curtsy or bow during the clapping at the end of class.*

Class is a living, panting, grinning, sighing, sweating thing. The pianist's beat holds it all together, leading synchronized motion in a room of otherwise independent bodies. Body to body, class to class, sameness and individuality coexist. The sequence of combination types—pliés, tendus—is the same for every class, but the details vary. The teacher shows each combination, saying the steps in rhythm, and while the dancers try to memorize the routine, the pianist decides what to play. Then the dancers do the exercise on each side, and the process repeats, from combination to combination, barre to center, culminating with leaps from one corner of the room to the other, the “grand allegro.” Within the 90-minute ballet class, Ai may play 15 to 25 different pieces.

How does the pianist choose the music? It can be quite simple: There are books of ballet class music, with songs eight or 16 bars long and organized by exercise, and Ai bought one of these when she started playing for ballet classes. She was not content to play by the book for long. Ai is determined not to play the same thing twice throughout the day—a tall order when you play up to four classes daily, as Ai does.
“For a musician like me who doesn’t wanna repeat—anything—I just needed to have thousands of repertories. I went to the library every day—I worked at the Harvard library before this free score Internet developed—I went to the library and I copied.”  
Ai is attuned to how dancers respond to her music and chooses what to play based, in part, on her sense of the energy in the room. “I see air—it sounds creepy—I see air sinking down or spinning up whenever I play and then however dancers react to it.” As we talk, I start to see the studio as more than a floor to dance on but as this rectangular prism of energy in four dimensions: dancers move through three-dimensional space according to the meter of the pianist.
Different music “gives different feelings to the space,” Ai says. She remembers one teacher calling her, the pianist, “the Einstein of the place.” That teacher was Marcus Schulkind, dancer, choreographer, teacher, and founding director of Green Street Studios in Cambridge. I asked him about this phrase, and he explained that the pianist, by setting the tempo, determines the relation, or relativity, between time and space.
            “Maybe I can tell you how I got hooked,” Ai says, “the first time that I thought, ‘this is really cool.’” The class was going okay. The energy in the room was low. It was time for the grand allegro. Ai, who is also a composer, decided to try something: she started scoring the movements, playing a different motif for each step, instead of playing a tune. “The dancers, the energy came up and the air, I don’t know how you say, sparkled?” Ai tells me, clasping her hands to her chest in that classic pose of glee. “It was very good. The first time in the ninety minutes that the music and dance got in tune or gave each other something to inspire.”
This interaction with other people is something Ai craves as an artist. 
“I never wanted to be a ‘pianist pianist.’” Ai tells me.  It took a little while for her to explain to me what that meant.“You can do everything on piano. It’s not supposed to be an issue. You can cover the whole range of orchestra, which is wonderful but which is horrible because you don’t need anybody to play with you.” Ai, who also plays in a band and composes, likes to play with other people. Though in a dance class, Ai is the only pianist in the room, she isn’t exactly playing alone—she’s playing with the dancers. They are interdependent. Her music—time—affects their movements through space and, the reverse is also true.
"ai is a very wonderful accompanist," Marcus told me in an email. "good range of music and styles, very in the moment attentive and caring; very connected to the process and very sensitive to the structure and process of training.”

Ai is is seated, barefoot, at an upright piano made of blond wood in a rectangular room full of ballet dancers.

There is a handwritten sign on the piano:
“PLEASE Do Not play the piano so Hard
Be Gentle.”

On the piano’s stand, in place of a paper score, is an iPad.

Barre is over, and center is underway in Kenny’s class at Ballet Arts, which began right after our interview. It is time for the “petit allegro,” a series of foot-twisting small jumps.
“We’ll mark it with music,” Kenny says, snapping his fingers to indicate a tempo. “And.” Ai begins to play after Kenny gives the upbeat. “Two groups this tempo, two groups a little faster.” With a jump on every beat, a dancer can bounce up and down the whole time with what’s called “ballon.” If you don’t quite get the steps though, you feel stuck to the floor. After the dancers had all done the combination at the first tempo, Kenny claps a faster beat, and Ai immediately speeds up. It is a bit fast for the dancers, but that’s the point.

The pianist, sometimes in contrast to the dancers, is a professional. One of the reasons that it’s possible to overlook the pianist is that the pianist rarely messes up—noticeably.

The dancers gather in the back corner. Ai starts to play, and in groups of five or six, the dancers begin running, jumping, bouncing across the room. It is the grand allegro. Ai plays a piece so rousing that it looked like her left hand is bouncing up and down on the piano as the dancers leap; her hand completely flops over at the wrist as it comes high off the keys. The music rumbles with anticipation as one group finishes, with a split leap toward the front corner, and the next group gets into position.
At the end of the class, Ai puts on her sandals, walks across the studio past the dancers, stretching or going over tricky steps, and goes on to her next engagement.

* Of course, the ballet pianist is not always overlooked. Many teachers and students do acknowledge the pianist at the end of class. One teacher I know signals the start of each combination by thanking the pianist by name. Ai is greatly appreciated by the teachers and students she works with. Yet a coupling of mystery and necessity still hangs over my impressions of the ballet pianist as a figure. I'm lucky to have gotten to know Ai a little bit better.

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