In Tempo: Tonight’s MSFO, School of Dance collaboration provides new challenges for musicians, dancers


Benjamin Kay and Laine Habony pose for a portrait at Carnahan-Jackson Dance Studio. They are Festival and Apprentice dancers from the Chautauqua School of Dance. Photo by Demetrius Freeman.

Leah Rankin and Taylor Rogers | Staff Writers

Playing in the orchestra for last Monday’s performance of Giacomo Puccini’s opera Gianni Schicchi was a new experience for many of the musicians in the Music School Festival Orchestra.

The added dynamic of singers from the Voice Program created the opportunity for these student musicians to learn how to be flexible to nuances in phrasing and tempo.

Tonight’s MSFO concert will require the exact opposite of these students. At 8:15 p.m. in the Amphitheater the MSFO, under the batons of MSFO Music Director Timothy Muffitt and David Effron Conducting Fellow Sarah Kidd, will combine artistic forces with the Chautauqua School of Dance.

“When you play for classical ballet, you need to play with a higher degree of articulation,” Muffitt said. “The dancers need to feel clearly the subdivisions of the beat.”

Dancers need a solid musical undercurrent, Muffitt said. Unlike singers, who can bend and flex music depending in some way on words they would choose to emphasize, dancers require precision and strict tempos to support their steps.

“The tempo has to be spot-on to make sure the dancers are in their comfort zone,” Muffitt said.

The dancers have performed these pieces previously, though not in full and not with live music, at the July 17 student gala in the Amphitheater. This has been the tradition in past seasons, and Ballet Mistress Glenda Lucena said the first gala is often a time of preparation for the dancers.

The show will open with “Place Montmartre,” choreographed by Michael Vernon. The dance is set to several movements from Dmitri Shostakovich’s “Ballet Suites.” The piece is a look inside a busy French square. From an argumentative couple to an ominous man on the run, Vernon said the Festival students all play different roles.

“It’s a ballet about characters,” he said.

Another section was added to Vernon’s piece for tonight’s performance.

Following Vernon’s ballet will be “Noble Sentiments.” Mark Diamond, associate artistic director of Chautauqua Dance, choreographed this lyrical piece, which is made up entirely of waltzes, to the orchestral work “Valse nobles et sentimentales” by French composer Maurice Ravel.

“Noble Sentiments” has both Festival and Apprentice students. Diamond said the piece is a chance for them to gain relevant experience in more modern dance.

“They’ve all been really interested in (contemporary movement) because they know they’re going to need that when they work in different companies, because everybody is doing contemporary movement now,” he said.

And adding the live music alters the piece for the better, Diamond said.

“That should really give it a whole new dynamic,” he said.

After intermission will be Gaetano Donizetti’s “Donizetti Variations,” a Balanchine work staged by Master Teacher Patricia McBride for Festival and Apprentice dancers.

This ballet is a high-energy piece, which the choreographer created in 1960 on soloists and principal dancers from the New York City Ballet. McBride said it’s a challenging ballet for the students, with fast footwork characteristic of many Balanchine pieces.

McBride added this group of students has the exceptional talent needed for “Donizetti.”

This evening is an extraordinary opportunity for many of the School of Dance students. It isn’t often that they get to perform with an orchestra, Lucena said.

For those who are hailing from smaller ballet schools, this could be their first time.

This also will be a first for many of the MSFO musicians. Violinist Ryan Meehan, who will perform as tonight’s concertmaster, said he has no idea what to expect but that he will concentrate on keeping a strict tempo for the dancers.

“We have to keep pretty strict meter,” Meehan said. “Otherwise, (the dancers) will fall on their faces.”

Muffitt will dictate that precision is dictated to the MSFO. He spent the past week observing dance rehearsals and learning just what the dancers require from the orchestra.

“In rehearsals, I’m watching what (the dancers) do so I can come back and translate that to the orchestra,” Muffitt said. “It’s leading that’s informed by the dancing.”

And although it’s an exciting experience for a dancer, it can be intimidating as well.

“It’s much easier to dance with a tape,” Lucena said. “You already know what’s going to happen and what the tempos are going to be like, but with an orchestra, there’s always an expectation to be great, but sometimes you have to adjust your mind and your emotions.”