Boston Ballet Studios, Boston, MA
In 2010, Canadian Geneviève Leclair was named assistant conductor of the Boston Ballet Orchestra (BBO). A recent graduate of the Boston University Doctor of Musical Arts program in orchestral conducting, Leclair also holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in flute performance from the Université de Montréal. Last season I was in the audience for her impressive debut performances of “The Sleeping Beauty” and “Coppélia,” and after the season ended, we met at the Boston Ballet Clarendon Street studios, where we spoke about the profession of ballet conducting and her role in it.
CD: How did you become assistant conductor of the BBO?
GL: I was studying conducting at Boston University (BU), and I was interested in ballet conducting because I started taking ballet lessons when I was two years old, and although I didn’t have what it took to be a professional dancer, I loved it and kept doing it. It’s always been part of who I am. When I decided to become a conductor, the ballet-conducting avenue was something that interested me.
During my first year at B.U., I went to a Boston Ballet performance. I think it was “Jewels” at the Wang Center, and I thought, “Wow. This is a fantastic company; it would be so great to be able to observe rehearsals or somehow get in touch with the medium.” I contacted Jonathan [McPhee, BBO music director and principal conductor] and asked if it was possible to come and watch rehearsals. When you’re doing a conducting program, you’re exposed to symphony and opera conducting, but ballet is not something that is taught anywhere because no university has a professional dance company with a live orchestra that you can be trained on. When I was thinking about ballet conducting, one of the things that came to mind was – how do you get into it?
I figured the best way would be to see what’s happening behind the scenes at Boston Ballet and find out how it’s done. Jonathan invited me to observe rehearsals for “Giselle,” which they were doing that year. That’s where it all started. After “Giselle,” I came back and watched rehearsals for “Paquita,” which was the next production, then it was on to “The Nutcracker.”
Around this time, Jonathan said it was a pity that Boston Ballet didn’t have a relationship with BU because maybe I could get credit for what I was doing. So I went to BU and asked whether I could organize some kind of independent study in ballet conducting. And it got done. For the spring semester of 2010, I did an internship in ballet conducting, and for the 2010-2011 season, Jonathan hired me as assistant conductor.
CD: In addition to conducting your scheduled performances, is one of your responsibilities as assistant conductor to cover for Maestro McPhee when he is indisposed?
GL: Yes, ballet is one of the media in which it’s very hard to find a substitute conductor. If you’re doing a symphony concert playing Beethoven Five, and you get sick, just about any conductor in town will be able to come and do it. In the case of ballet, you have to know the choreography, the dancers, and what the ballet masters are expecting. When a ballet conductor gets sick, it’s hard to get a conductor to fill in if they haven’t done that particular production because there’s a lot of information that’s not written in the score. It’s harder to find someone to cover for ballet than it is for pretty much any other musical context.
CD: The late James DePreist, former director of conducting and orchestra studies at Juilliard, stated that ballet conducting does not allow conductors to “deepen [their] interpretation of the repertory” (Roslyn Sulcas, “Dance Conducting: Good for the Nerves, if Not the Career,” “New York Times,” June 25, 2006.) What do you make of that?
GL: I think there’s a historical component to that perception of ballet conducting. Part of it has to do with the history of the medium. For the longest time ballet music could be played from beginning to end or vice versa; you could chop it up, change the tempo, play it upside down or inside out, and it would still work. Up until Tchaikovsky, ballet music was merely a background for the dance; you could change it however you wanted in order to make it work for the choreography.
Tchaikovsky changed all that. He loved ballet, and he thought it could be a greater art form if it had not only great choreography and dancing, but also great music. Starting with Tchaikovsky, suddenly you have ballet music that’s fully symphonic, nearly like a through-composed opera. That’s why “Swan Lake” was such an abysmal failure when it first came out. It had never been done, and they didn’t know what to do with it. Tchaikovsky revolutionized the way ballet music was written.
Many ballets followed that were more symphonic, for example, “Cinderella” and “Romeo and Juliet.” Then you have Stravinsky, who composed wonderful ballets, and choreographers like Balanchine, who choreographed for all kinds of classical music. It was Balanchine who broke down the barriers between the symphonic and ballet repertoires. Now we’re getting to the point where there’s not that much difference between the two. I think that’s going to help change the way ballet conducting is perceived.
CD: How does conducting for dance enhance your appreciation of or response to the music?
GL: It adds a visual element. It forces you to conceive of the music in a different way by considering how the choreographer perceived the music and built his choreography on it. It also helps you consider different ways the music can move and breathe. I had that experience with “Serenade” this year. The way that Balanchine understood that music and choreographed on it is magical. It will forever affect the way I hear the music. That was one of the highlights of the season for me. I heard breaths in the music that I had never heard before, and it all made sense.
That kind of experience enhances creativity; it doesn’t impede it. It allows you to bring new elements to your performance, and you carry that with you even when you perform in the symphonic context. To those who say that ballet conducting impedes your creativity, I say the opposite is true.
CD: What about the problem of repetition and limited repertoire?
GL: There’s repetition in the symphonic world also. I’m thinking about symphonic conductors: how many times will they conduct Beethoven Five in their career? Probably, quite a few. It’s just that you may not be doing 30 of them in a row, as we do with “The Nutcracker.” That’s the difference. In terms of the variety of repertoire, we now have many fantastic ballets. Balanchine was responsible for a lot of this. He choreographed not only to ballet music, but to all kinds of classical music, as witness his choreographing to music by Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky, Glinka, Mendelssohn, Gounod, Bizet, Donizetti, Brahms, Fauré, Ravel, Schumann and many others, most of which was not first intended as ballet music.
Ballet was also responsible for the creation of quite a bit of great American music in the 20th century: for example, Copland’s “Appalachian Spring,” “Rodeo,” and “Billy the Kid.” These pieces actually made it as concert music because they’re so good. Suites made from this music are regularly presented in concert halls.
The American school of composing pretty much started with Copland, and he composed for ballet a lot. This came about because there were creators like Martha Graham who were commissioning ballets. Other 20th-century composers, such as William Schuman and Leonard Bernstein, also wrote ballets.
CD: That’s still relatively few ballet composers.
GL: It may be in terms of number, but not in terms of quality. Composers will often write for ballet if there’s an opportunity for it to be performed. So it doesn’t mean the interest is not there. “Chroma,” which we did this spring, was choreographed to a new score by Joby Talbot, as was “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” So there are new ballets being written and commissioned today. If we want to keep the medium alive, we have to keep doing new things.
CD: Is there much interest in ballet conducting among the younger generation of conductors?
GL: When I went to the annual conference of the League of American Orchestras in 2010, there was a panel discussion about career development. Some of the younger audience members were asking about how to gain experience in opera and ballet conducting. The consensus among the panel was that you have to learn from someone who knows the medium since there’s no academic training available. I think the interest among young conductors bodes well for the profession.
CD: Tell me more about how dance can change one’s perception of music. When I saw Adiarys Almeida in “Sleeping Beauty” last season, for example, her performance taught me that the Act II Variation d’Aurore was the sound of Aurora weeping. It came as a revelation to me.
GL: This kind of enhancement happens when the performance clicks: when the dance and the music fit together. What you’re seeing, if there’s a real discourse happening, adds another layer of creativity and another layer of information. Suddenly the dancers can start playing with their phrasing, and that makes the performance come alive. When you’re dancing to live music, you don’t know exactly what’s going to happen in each performance. This is different from dancing to a recording, which is always the same. Live music brings a level of excitement, and a bit of the unknown, to the performance.
CD: How do you support individual dancers during the performance?
GL: That’s when you have potential for great communication. When the performers are completely engaged, I can help bring out the quality the dancer is trying to express. With Aurora, for example, the ballerina may be trying to portray someone who is more fragile, or someone who is growing into an adult. All of these things are in the music. Depending on the dancer, it may mean that tonight I’ll be a little crisper on the articulation to bring out more energy; maybe another night I’ll bring out the dynamic changes a little more.
Every dancer has a unique physicality, way of moving, and artistic process. If you are open to it, working with different dancers allows you to see aspects of the performance under a constantly changing light. Some of the dancers play with the phrasing more, some react to the beat, some anticipate the beat. From a musical standpoint, I try to respond to whatever information they’re giving me. I guess one could say I find the diversity itself interesting.
CD: How do you communicate with the musicians?
GL: Through your gestures, your eyes, and your whole body. The members of the Boston Ballet Orchestra (BBO) play at an incredibly high level. In fact, they have to be even more flexible than musicians who play in other settings because ballet performances change more from night to night. The BBO is able to turn on a dime. Whenever a change is necessary, they’re right there with me.
CD: When you became assistant conductor of the BBO, was your age a factor in how the musicians related to you since you are younger than most of them?
GL: I’ve encountered situations in the past where my age was a factor, but not here. The orchestra has been supportive from day one. It’s an extraordinarily nice group of people. They’ve been extremely trusting, and it’s important to make it possible for the musicians to trust the conductor so that they can focus on what they have to do.
CD: Speaking of trust, don’t you also have to gain the trust of the dancers?
GL: Trust is an essential part of a great performance, and it is something that is earned over time and through consistency. I spend about 30 hours a week in the studio during the season [from August to the end of June], conducting the piano and getting to know the dancers, the choreography, and the wishes of the ballet masters. Because of the time I’ve spent in the studio, I have quicker reaction time now than I did three years ago and can make more subtle adjustments in the music. By balancing the requirements of the choreography and the music, I can help foster a dialogue between the dancers and me. This dialogue creates unity in the performance. The dancers’ trust is not something I take for granted; I constantly strive to be worthy of it.
CD: Isn’t it true that when the curtain goes up, the ballet masters, choreographer, and artistic director fall away, and it’s just you and the dancers creating the performance?
GL: Physically, yes, but at the same time, the wishes of the artistic staff are still there. During the performance, the conductor (as the representative of the musicians) and the dancers convey those wishes to the audience. The challenge of communicating with both the dancers and musicians is a really good thing about ballet conducting. It forces you to develop an extremely clear technique.
With a symphony orchestra, most of the time you’re rehearsing what you’ll be performing; there’s not much change between the dress rehearsal and the concert. With ballet, you never know. Something is going on in addition to the music, and that affects what you do. As a ballet conductor, you need to hone a technique that allows you make changes, sometimes drastic ones, without confusing the orchestra. That requires a special set of skills because the orchestra has to be able to react immediately. Once you’ve conducted a ballet orchestra, you can pretty much do anything in terms of technique. That’s why I think every conductor should experience ballet conducting.
CD: Boston Ballet spent a lot of money to renovate the Opera House pit. What do you think of the result?
GL: They did a fantastic job; it sounds wonderful. Of course there are challenges to playing in any pit. When you’re playing on a stage, you have more space, and the sound spreads out. When you’re playing in a pit, you’re playing between walls. Part of the sound goes out into the house, but part of it comes back at you. It’s a louder environment, and one in which you don’t hear as well.
So whereas musicians normally rely mostly on their ears to communicate with each other, they can’t do that in a pit. That’s because they may not be able to hear the person who’s playing on the other side of the pit. Also, because of the reverberations between the walls, there’s going to be a delay. If they rely only on their ears, they may be late. So they need to rely more on the conductor. Conducting in a pit is a good experience because it’s so different from conducting on a stage.
CD: To whom is your first loyalty: the dancers, the musicians, the artistic staff?
GL: To the performance as a whole. One has a loyalty not only to the musicians who are in front of you, the dancers who are counting on you, and the artistic staff, which prepares the performance, but also to the composer and the music. My first loyalty is to giving the best performance possible.
CD: Do you think that there should be more flexibility in going from ballet to symphony conducting and vice versa?
GL: If we could move easily from one to the other, that would be the best of all possible worlds. There are challenges on the business end of things, but I’m hoping they’re not impossible to overcome. Maybe it’s naïve, but I’m optimistic.
CD: What’s in your future?
GL: I want to do everything. At this point I’m not closing any doors. I want to do symphonic conducting; I love opera, and I love ballet. I don’t know what the future holds, but whatever opportunities are coming my way, I’m excited about them.