Under cover at The Royal Ballet

Conductor Karin Hendrickson shares her experiences as a first-time cover at The Royal Ballet

“Tombé … piqué … relevé . . . and release!” The ballet master demonstrates a slight adjustment in the timing for the assembled dancers. He then turns and nods to the music director of The Royal Ballet on my left. “Let’s take it from the diagonal, please. Thank you, Maestro.” A roomful of the best dancers in the world quietly gather their thoughts and take their positions. Then the music director raises his hands, and the music starts

I’ve spent the last eight weeks in my first assignment as a cover conductor for The Royal Ballet, Covent Garden. My days are spent either in one of the five possible studios with the dancers, ballet masters and a piano; with the orchestra during their rehearsals in the pit; out in the hall during wider company rehearsals; or, like today, in the music director’s office during a performance, standing by for the unlikely situation that he cannot perform.

While in the office, two screens show live video feeds, one of the stage, one of the conductor in the pit. The stage manager can reach me via a speaker in the office so that if I am needed I can be called without the performance being disturbed.

Conducting can be inescapably complex. But after these two months, I can tell you that conducting for ballet is only for the strongest of heart. My training is an intricate array of multiple studio sessions, specialised ballet terminology, and a challenging, ever-expanding mix of contemporary and traditional repertoire. It is not something for beginners – you need to prove you have great control of an orchestra before being handed the responsibilities and intricacies of conducting for ballet.

And, as with opera, you must believe in the effort of accompaniment, because the dancers are at risk every night. Some days they feel strong, some days they feel tired. Each one has a different musicality that needs supporting. As the conductor for a ballet company you must be able to intuit when dancers are struggling, and know how to help them.

With opera, you can hear the sound and vocal production and know immediately if a singer is short on air and needs you to move on, or if they are having a great night and want to stretch a line. With ballet, you have to be able to tell this from a moving body that is perhaps 20 metres away from you. It’s difficult, and requires a completely different musicianship. Yes, musicianship.

Ballet conducting can prove to be a testing job – in fact, as I approached this work, I was warned by individuals in the wider conducting field about the lack of professional respect shown to ballet conductors. Personally, I have yet experience this – although leading my first production is still in my future – but in my opinion the idea that ballet conducting is a second-rate service seems to stem from either a misunderstanding of the tasks at hand, or from placing the wrong conductor in the pit.

The regard for the work of an opera conductor (something at which I do have experience) is never underestimated, and it should be the same for ballet. Ballet conductors are asked to help the most musical athletes in the world thread the needle of live performance. If we aren’t spot on in our work with the orchestra, and our second-by-second collaboration with the stage, we can quickly undermine the artistry and eloquence of their highly-trained bodies.

As conductors, it’s our job to provide a spotlight for the dancers’ talents and that can only happen if we do great work on multiple levels. If you put the wrong conductor in the pit – someone without collaboration skills, exceptional musicianship abilities and the ability to control an ensemble – then the performance is liable to be poor on all levels.

Some say to experience music is to experience the divine: the orchestral experience provides one aspect of this divinity, the opera another, and the ballet yet a third. None should be discounted.

I have just concluded my work here at The Royal Ballet, as well as an overlapping placement with Bloomsbury Opera. Now I’m returning to the orchestra world as assistant conductor to Marin Alsop and the Britten-Pears Orchestra for their two-week Easter tour; I will lead performances as conductor for the Southbank Sinfonia, and then take part in an educational project with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.

Ballet is an art form that I am deeply committed to supporting. It has been a complete joy to be part of The Royal Ballet for two months. And, very soon, I hope, you will come to a ballet performance somewhere and find me in the pit.

Karin Hendrikson is a freelance conductor, currently on tour with the Britten-Pears Orchestra.