Music to dance to

Gavin Sutherland, music director of the English National Ballet Philharmonic, tells IAM what it takes to conduct for dance – and whether he himself can make some moves. 

“Who leads? Who follows? Can you dance?” As music director of the English National Ballet Philharmonic (ENBP), these are the kinds of questions that the public ask me at every opportunity.

I have a very wide remit of activity: overseeing administration, attending rehearsals and, of course, conducting the performances. I have been conducting for dance for about 25 years now, and have always loved the theatre music environment – the buzz of an expectant audience, the noodling instrumentalists in the pit, the last-minute instructions/requests/crises/support from colleagues in the creative team.

Even with all these years of experience, though, when I’m standing at the pit door I could run a mile – a thousand miles – in the opposite direction. In fact, this feeling lasts right up until I give the first upbeat to the orchestra.

Gavin Sutherland
Gavin Sutherland © ENB

I’ve experienced this feeling ever since my first public engagement, deputising for an absent glockenspiel player with mumps in the school nativity, aged five. First comes panic, but then an inner calm as the music starts and the performance is underway.

A ballet conductor has to be able to read bodies – it is like accompanying a concerto soloist, only the soloist makes no sound (even in heeled peasant boots!). I have to make millions of split-second calculations to show the dancers off to the best of their ability.

A symphony orchestra conductor can impose total musical and creative control over the players, while an opera conductor has major control over the interpretation by singers and musicians. Ballet, however, requires a far more collaborative process.

Within ENB our artistic director, Tamara Rojo, undoubtedly takes the lead. Still dancing with the company, she is an incredibly dependable artist to accompany thanks to her exceptional care in interpretation and her vision of how the music fits into that. This influence is clearly channelled through every dancer in the company, from the lead principals to the back of the corps de ballet, show upon show, week upon week, venue upon venue.

And what of the musicians in all of this? Well, our orchestra, the ENBP, has the unique skill of being able to match, with painstaking precision, the dancers’ interpretation of the choreography, be it standard classical repertoire or new commissions. Each player has a very particular contribution they bring to the score, and there’s a certain unique sound that I strive for so that the drama of the ballet is reflected in the dramatic flow and pace of the score.

I also find it interesting to bring my ballet-conductor mindset to conventional orchestras (which I do very often, both on the concert platform and in the recording studios). It brings an efficient clarity to the projects there, reducing the theatrics of the concert platform maestro. The aim? To better serve the music and its players.

A while ago an interviewer noticed my FitBit watch and asked if I’d ever used it to measure the workout I got whilst conducting a ballet performance. After one performance of The Nutcracker, I had looked and was rather alarmed that my peak heart rate for one performance was about 138 beats per minute, and I had burned around 1700 calories in that one “workout”. Good for the heart, and in many respects it feels like I am dancing with the company, albeit from the waist upwards.

Away from the pit, as a company executive I have to ensure that the musical part of our organisation is strong and confident (and available for any work to supplement our ballet pit playing). We are so lucky to have the largest ballet orchestra in Europe, with many of the UK’s finest musicians. The loyalty they show to the company and the great pride they take in the end product is always so touching to me.

However, the marketplace is always challenging and being an ambassador for the company is vital to maintaining our profile. Industrial relations are important too, and the union relations have to reflect our commitment to live music alongside our company vision of bringing ballet to the widest possible audience.

Can I dance? Not at all – there are professionals onstage who do that, thankfully. Reading dancers is far more important a skill for me, rather than trying to copy them.

English National Ballet Philharmonic
English National Ballet Philharmonic © ASH

However, I leave you with a question I got from a small girl whilst doing a talk in Belfast last year. She asked me “Is it fun?”, catching me off guard! I have essentially been doing what I love for over 25 years, and that love has never diminished. So yes, it is fun, and here’s to the next 25 years of reading bodies, dancing along, making music and communicating!

Gavin Sutherland is conducting ENBP at the London Coliseum between 13-30 December 2018.