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Martin Pyne's
Spirits Of Absent Dancers

by Howard Lawes



Martin Pyne Spirit Of Absent Dancers


A recently released album by percussionist Martin Pyne called Spirits of Absent Dancers is essentially a lament for the loss of dance in particular and performance arts in general during the restrictions imposed in response to the covid-19 pandemic. Like many musicians and composers Pyne has turned his hand to a variety of musical styles ranging from freely improvised music Martin Pynethrough jazz to some really exquisite original song structures, but his 'day job' (in a manner of speaking) is working with contemporary dancers during training and rehearsal by providing arrangements that fit a particular piece of dance. 

Having graduated from Royal Holloway College, Pyne became interested in the three dimensional nature of ballet and attended the prestigious International Course for Choreographers and Composers which elucidated for him the special connection between music and dance and provided the basis to develop his skill as an accompanist. It is almost impossible to have dance without music of some sort (even deaf dancers who can't hear music can feel it) and for many the form of music is of great importance. Classical ballet is danced predominantly to classical music and while Martin Pyne does not restrict himself just to jazz he must be one of very few jazz musicians accompanying ballet dancers.


Martin Pyne



Jazz has influenced so many forms of ballet and dance and this article can only touch on some of them. Jazz itself in its early forms was very much accompanied by dance in the black communities of America, as we all know, but it is worth looking back for a moment to see how it has also been reflected in other dance forms.

Classical ballet has its roots in the royal palaces of France and Italy with the first ballet school established in the 17th century but it was perhaps in Russia during the 19th century with ballets such as Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake and music by Tchaikovsky that classical ballet achieved its zenith. The Russian, Sergei Diaghilev, established the Ballets Russes in Paris in 1909, and not only brought ballet to a wider audience but also, with the help of some wonderful choreographers and composers, began to move away from the prescriptive regime of classical ballet.  Early examples from the Ballets Russes repertoire, both choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky included L'Apres-midi d'un Faune with music by Debussy and in complete contrast The Rite of Spring with music by Stravinsky.  In 1917 Eric Satie was commissioned to write the score for a ballet called Parade which epitomizes the avant-garde and verged on surrealism;  the music included elements of Dixieland jazz and ragtime while the costumes and sets were designed by Picasso. In this clip we cannot see the Dixieland element, but the avant-garde, the move away from classical ballet and the use of percussion is clear:




Ballets Suedois, another ballet company based in Paris at the same time, performed a ballet called La Creation du Monde in 1923, with music by Darius Milhaud very much influenced by the jazz music Milhaud fell in love with during a visit to New York. During his all too short career Diaghilev worked with Russian emigré George Balanchine who subsequently travelled to America before having a huge impact on ballet and dance in the USA, and two women - Marie Rambert and Ninette de Valois - who between them foundedBallet Russes poster the best ballet companies and schools in Great Britain, Ballet Rambert (now the Royal Ballet with a sister ballet company the Sadlers Wells Theatre Ballet). Diaghilev had started a revolution in dance at about the same time that Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington started a revolution music ... but none of this would have been possible without the contributions of the brilliant artists and composers of the time.  

Actually Ballets Russes had little impact in the USA where another type of dance revolution was taking place and this quickly spread to Europe and beyond.  At the turn of the century ragtime dancing had begun the process of change from formal to informal social dancing but the pace of change quickened considerably during the Jazz Age as dance bands playing jazz and then swing saw huge popularity.  Big bands such as those led by Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Paul Whiteman and many others played to huge crowds of dancers in halls and clubs.

Stage shows on Broadway and in London and then on film had a huge impact with stars such as Fred Astaire and his sister Adele starring in Jerome Kern's 1922 show, Bunch and Judy and the 1924 Lady Be Good by George and Ira Gershwin. Around the same time many of today's ballroom dances such as the upbeat Charleston and Quickstep as well as the smoother Foxtrot were codified so that a consistent pattern of steps became established for teaching and competition. The Jazz Age was  truly a period of amazing dance music and song and one of the best composing / songwriting teams was George and Ira Gershwin. In 1924 Paul Whiteman commissioned George Gershwin to write a jazz concerto, Rhapsody in Blue, and although the piece included elements of ragtime and Afro-Cuban rhythms it was was not initially intended to be danced to which allowed Gershwin to incorporate frequent changes of tempo unlike another outstanding piece inspired by a journey, in the opposite direction to Darius Milhaud, to Paris and called An American in Paris composed in 1928.



Here's a clip from An American In Paris with Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron






Gene Kelly and Vera Ellen


The social dance phenomenon continued from the 1920s into the 1930s driven by advances in music recording technology, theatre and films although economic recession at that time would take its toll.  The first talking picture was The Jazz Singer released in 1927, famous also for featuring the white Al Jolson playing a black jazz performer.

In the 1930s, musical films such as Busby Berkeley's Gold Diggers released in 1933 which had incredible sets influenced by German Expressionism; and the 1936 films Swing Time with music by Jerome Kern and outstanding dance from Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and Born To Dance with music by Cole Porter and star dancer Eleanor Powell, entertained the population during the Great Depression and provided material for the Great American Songbook which in its turn became an invaluable resource for jazz bands everywhere. 

Another 1936 Broadway musical, On Your Toes produced by Rodgers and Hart featured two ballets choreographed by George Balanchine called La Princesse Zenobia and Slaughter on 10th Avenue. Balanchine had also been busy founding the American School of Ballet.






Here is a video of Vera-Ellen and Gene Kelly dancing Slaughter on Tenth Avenue from the 1948 movie On Your Toes.




In the UK, social dance was equally popular with London being very much the centre of the scene; featuring orchestras rather than bands such as Bert Ambrose and his Orchestra, Geraldo and his Orchestra and Victor Silvester and his Ballroom Orchestra and with dancers eagerly adopting American dance imports such as the Conga, Swing, Lindy Hop and the Jitterbug.  A very popular home-grown dance was the Lambeth Walk which featured in the 1937 musical, Me and My Girl with the song performed by Lupino Lane. The Lambeth Walk had the distinction of being the subject of a headline in The Times in October 1938: "While dictators rage and statesmen talk, all Europe dances — to The Lambeth Walk." (Nicholson, 2009).  The tune was covered by Duke Ellington in 1938 as the A side of a 78rpm record with A Prelude to a Kiss on the B side. 


Listen to Duke Ellington and his Orchestra playing The Lambeth Walk.




In the ballroom Latin American music became popular with first the Rumba and later the Samba, Tango and Cha Cha Cha being recognised by the Official Board of Ballroom Dancing.  Film star Carmen Miranda, famous for extravagant headwear laden with fruit, had a lot to do with the popularity of these dances and although what her films portrayed was something of a pastiche of Latin American music and dance, this mattered little to her many fans in America and Europe.  Dancing continued throughout wartime Britain when London and other cities were being bombed, with one of the many casualties of bombing being a jazz and swing band called the West Indian Orchestra led by Ken "Snakehips" Johnson.  In a paper called  "The dancing front: dancing, morale, and the war effort in Britain during World War II" (2016), James Nott discusses how  dancing and dance halls proved to be vital in helping the British population endure the hardships and turmoil of war – providing an important means of escape, relaxation and sociability.

 A style of dance called 'jazz dance' became popular, particularly in Broadway musicals and night clubs in North America. While the style has origins that are contemporary with early jazz music and steps that also occur in tap dancing, the popularity of the style in later years was mainly due to a choreographer called Jack Cole who worked on Broadway and in films during three decades from 1940. He is perhaps most famous for his work with film stars such as Rita Haworth and Marilyn Monroe. As a theatrical dance style it became the foundation for very many stage and screen productions although in many cases there was no jazz music involved, however it was adopted by choreographer Alvin Ailey who founded the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre and reintroduced the jazz element. In 1963 the company performed with Duke Ellington and in 1974 Ailey created his dance tribute to Ellington using Ellington's own music.  In 1980 Alvin Ailey choreographed a classic jazz dance called Phases with the music from each of five sections composed by significant African American jazz musicians.  


Here is a video of clips from Alvin Ailey's jazz-influenced ballet works.




Dance and jazz influences had been evolving. The choreography of Astaire and Kelly, of Hermes Pan and others moved on and it is worth just mentioning Bob Fosse whose choreography (All That Jazz, Sweet Charity) has become part of many forms of dance - he influenced Michael Jackson and you will still see the hunched shoulders, the hands to the hats and splayed hands in Strictly Come Dancing today. Here is a video from Fosse, The Musical where the dance is percussion-based at 1.46 minutes before moving into Bye Bye Bye Blackbird:






Snowboy UK Jazz Dance book



In the UK a different style of jazz dance evolved and has been described in a book "From Jazz Funk and Fusion to Acid Jazz" by Mark 'Snowboy' Cotgrove.  The dance was called UK Jazz and involved individual dancers attempting increasingly complex and athletic moves egged on by their companions and with a DJ playing the music.

Initially the mostly black dancers would dress in clothes reminiscent of the 1930s and the music was from the bebop era and beyond stretching into jazz fusion with bands such as Azymuth, Dizzy Gillespie with Chano Pozo and Herbie Hancock’s disco-funk. The most successful DJs included Gilles Peterson and Paul Murphy.

The dance style soon reached a wider audience and diverged into various forms of street dance that have become extremely popular today.








A video documentary looking at UK Jazz Dance introduced by Snowboy (45 mins).




The dance companies and schools founded by Rambert, de Valois and Balanchine have prospered and they in their turn have trained and inspired others to establish more dance companies. The style has come to be known as 'contemporary dance' and in some ways it has similarities to jazz music, although choreographers use a wide range of music from classical through avant garde to pop for their dances.  Contemporary dance places the emphasis on movement rather than narrative, following the lead of Balanchine and Frederick Ashton, and the dance pieces often use contrasting rhythms, directions, relationships and postures.  Some contemporary dance has been choreographed using jazz music either existing or specially written, examples from the New York City Ballet include NY Export Opus Jazz (1958) with music by Robert Prince and choreography by Jerome Robbins, Modern Jazz : Variants (1960) with music by Gunter Schuller and choreography by George Balanchine and Six Syncopated Movements (1993) with music by Wynton Marsalis and choreography by Peter Martins.  In the UK productions have included It's a Raggy Waltz (1986) with music by Dave Brubeck, arranged by Nicholas Carr and choreographed by Lucy Bethune, Four Elements (1990) with music by Gavin Bryars and choreography by Lucida Childs and Goat (2017) with music by Nina Simone and choreographed by Ben Duke.


Percussionist Martin Pyne's new album is accompanied online with videos for two of the pieces.Here is the video of Eidolon featuring choreography by Abigail Attard Montalto.




Martin Pyne Spirits Of Absent Dancers album


Martin's album is a very personal statement, while some of the 19 pieces are titled with words for spells or enchantments, others are named with various words for spirits and ghosts. Pyne says, "As I was playing, each piece was in fact not a solo, but a duet with a dancer in my head. The album as a whole is dedicated to all the dancers I’ve ever played music for before, and there are also some specific personal dedications to people who have helped along my way". 

He goes on to say, "The majority of my professional life is spent working with dance: it’s something I love deeply, in all its many forms, and I remain in constant awe of the dedication of dancers. When the 2020 lockdown kicked in, I felt the loss of the time usually spent in dance studios very keenly. I found myself imagining a lone musician in a deserted theatre, like a kind of medicine man, throwing sounds into the space in an attempt to conjure up the ghosts of dancers no longer present, to breathe movement into stillness. I set about creating a sequence of music based around this idea, and ended up with this set of nineteen largely improvised short pieces."

"The music begins with a simple theme (played on Japanese temple bowls and toy piano) which featured in a ballet score I made for choreographer Mikaela Polley and Images Ballet Company for a tour in 2019."


Listen to the opening track, Conjure.




"The pieces that follow include seven vibraphone solos, effectively variations on that original theme, and ten other percussion pieces, all played sitting at a small drum kit (though they don’t all sound like that). The sequence closes with a return to the toy piano. I’ve named the vibraphone pieces using various words for spells or enchantments, and the other pieces after words for spirits or ghosts. Much of the music is very quiet and mysterious but there are plenty of more energetic and playful episodes"


Here is a video of Banshee choreographed and performed by Jordan Ajadi




Having recorded the pieces Pyne continues, "The wonderful dance company, Yorke Dance Project, called me and we figured out a way of playing company class online, everyone scattered. The first one was very emotional for me I have to say. They have thrown their support behind this project and have been filming a number of dance films using music from the album." 

Listeners to Spirits of Absent Dancers will make of each track what they will, maybe they will imagine a dancer or maybe the music will suggest a colour or emotion, each piece differs from the next in terms of rhythm and type of percussion instrument, vibraphone (mallets and bow), drum kit (hands, sticks and brushes) and gamelan all used and while the music may not readily fall into a jazz category Pyne says "it could not have existed without jazz".

Exactly the same sentiment can be applied to dance with Tap, Jazz Dance, Ballroom, Latin, Broadway, UK jazz, Neoclassical ballet and Contemporary dance all indebted to jazz music and yet both jazz and dance continue to develop and grow. Jonty Claypole, Director of Arts at the BBC, said of dance, "Dance is merging traditional notions of high art and popular art, and attracting mixed, diverse, multi-generational audiences".  Exactly the same is happening in jazz and Martin Pyne's album is a poignant and eloquent link between two dynamic art forms, dance and jazz music, that have much in common.

Click here for details of the album Spirits Of Absent Dancers and to listen to the music : Click here for Martin Pyne's website


Martin Pyne Spirits of Absent Dancers



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Rob Luft - Life Is The Dancer
Trypl Time - Latin Jazz
Video Juke Box
Jazz As Art

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