Beatrice Jona Affron – Interview 2007

Beatrice Jona Affron

Music Director and Conductor
Pennsylvania Ballet

PCM:What instrument did you study?

Beatrice: Violin.

PCM: Did you always have an interest in conducting?

Beatrice: No, I came to it late actually. It wasn’t until I was about to graduate from college that I started to think about conducting. Some people know from a young age that they want to be conductors. I was not one of those people. I thought I was going to be a chamber musician or play my violin somewhere. I started to take an interest in it in college and by the time I was done I was pretty certain that is what I wanted to do. The thing is most conductors decide to be a conductor before you have much experience. Where do find an orchestra? You can’t take an orchestra home and practice everyday like you can an instrument. So you kind of make this decision without really having had that much time in front of a lot of players. That comes later and then I went to graduate school and have been working ever since.

PCM: Is there a difference in the education of a dance conductor compared to a non dance orchestra conductor?

Beatrice: Yes, they don’t talk about dance conducting in conductor programs or at least in any of the programs I was in. They do talk about operas more. When you’re conducting opera of course you’re conducting musicians on stage, you have the singers on stage. I had hardly been to the ballet before I became the assistant conductor which is how I began there in 1993. For me it was an education from scratch in terms learning the language of classical ballet, understanding the relationship between dance and music and dancers and conductors.

PCM: That was the Pennsylvania Ballet in 1993?

Beatrice: Yes, my whole professional life has been spent at Pennsylvania Ballet.

PCM: That’s a great place to grow up.

Beatrice: It is a great place to grow up. That’s exactly what happened. Anything I’ve learned about conducting I’ve learned with the help of that orchestra. I’ve conducted other places but that was my first real professional engagement as assistant conductor. I was the chorus master of the Bronx Opera soon after I graduated from graduate school and I conducted youth orchestras but this was different.

PCM: Then does it become your child?

Beatrice: It’s the other way around. I was the child. I was really green both as a conductor and certainly as a conductor for ballet.

PCM: You said earlier that they don’t teach conducting for the ballet. Why do you think that is?

Beatrice: I think a lot of conductors haven’t had a lot of experience with dance. I’m not sure how they talk about it. That’s an interesting question because now I have to think what would I say to conducting students if I was teaching them. I think one of the things I might say is conducting for dance has some significant similarities to conducting for opera (which I also do) in the sense that in opera you’re really paying attention to the singers’ breath, in dance it’s not that different. You can not only see them breathing but you can see in their gestures they do something analogous to breathing. When they prepare for a step, that is their breath. As it turns out that is probably the most critical piece of information in both genres for conducting. What I had no idea about when I first started was the terminology of what distinguishes this step from this step. That for me was really an important education.

PCM: When you are conducting and watching the dancers and sense a dancer might not be preparing right do you make adjustments?

Beatrice: There are two major concerns. The first any dancer will tell you is tempo, not too fast not too slow and these are things you work out in rehearsal. I work with the dancers starting about ten days before opening night. I go to Philadelphia, I conduct the piano rehearsals with the dancers and I study a video tape before that and I work with them to understand what the tempos need to be, what the tempos need to be for one cast vs. another cast. Most dances are at least double cast and the Nutcracker is quintuple cast. I work on that for each cast. Tempo is of course a huge concern for the dancers. The other is phrasing, those are the two things I’m looking out for. Yes I do make adjustments, hopefully imperceptible to the audience.

PCM: Flamenco rhythms are counted in twelve’s and fours- what do ballets dancers count?

Beatrice: Eight. Most classical music is eight so the really classical stuff goes by 8ths and 16ths. We do a lot of Stravinsky and other music of the 20th century which is not always organized according to 8th’s or even four beats in a bar. Stravinsky has a lot of mixed meters. That’s pretty fascinating to me. For musicians learning to play the music that has mixed meter it is harder when you’re a kid and learning it. When you get to be more experienced it is easier to play music with 7/8 and 5/8 time signatures. When you’re a dancer, it doesn’t’t really make a difference. They have no problem counting nines, sevens, elevens, and thirteens.  Sometime they count these odd numbers even in an eight bar phrase with a 4/4 time signature because the phrasing might fit into an odd number as opposed to the notation. They naturally count hemiolas instead of beats.

PCM: My introduction to the ballet was Franklin Court two seasons ago. I use the term introduction because that was the piece that make me realize how amazing the Pennsylvania Ballet is. It was at that time that I heard a very interesting story about a performance that the PA Ballet did with a conductor who had no understanding of dance and performed the piece at a non dance tempo.

Beatrice: They went to the Edinburgh Festival and danced with a Russian Orchestra. The poor guy had never conducted for dance before. I would never wish that on anyone: to do a piece like Swan Lake, a full length work which is so well-known and so tricky. The more classical a ballet is, usually the trickier it is to conduct. In real classical ballet like Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, Giselle, there tends to be more variation of tempo within a given number then in something more contemporary. That’s where the collaboration between conductor and dancer, especially a female dancer, is so critical. The conductor in Edinburgh was a very good conductor but he had never conducted for dance before – he had a crash course. It is more of a credit to our dancers because they did so well under the circumstances.

PCM: That brings up something I wonder about. Do you think it is a marketing challenge to find new audiences for the ballet. I’m surprised by the response of people, some who are even in the arts when I mention that I really like the ballet. The ballet is like “extreme art” to coin the phrase from extreme sports.

Beatrice: They are in fact athletes, they are artists but they’re using there bodies in such an athletic way. People don’t see that. This brings up something I found problematic when I was starting. When they dance they are always in character so usually they’re smiling or they’re acting in some other way. From where I am, I can see their faces because I have the best seat in the house. In the early days all I saw were smiles.  I did a lot of Nutcrackers in the beginning. I could never tell from the expression on their faces if it was going well or if they felt comfortable with the tempo. You can’t tell because they have this smile and they’re trained to make it look easy. It’s not like football, where the players are grunting and the sweat is flying off them. That’s because that is the demeanor of a ballet dancer. They are either acting, as in Romeo & Juliet or smiling, as in the Nutcracker. They make it look easy and people might have the misunderstanding that something impressive isn’t going on.

PCM: Do you work primarily for dance and opera orchestras?

Beatrice: Actually, these last few years I’ve conducted exclusively for dance and for opera. Not because I was on a mission to do so but I love working in a pit, being in a show.

PCM: How about your work with Philip Glass?

Beatrice: Conducting Philip Glass’s music is such a great treat for me, whether it be dance or opera. I had a great experience touring with him in 1997.  We did an eleven-week tour of a piece which was called an opera but which was directed Susan Marshall, who is a choreographer. There were dancers and singers on stage and Philip Glass performed in the pit. It was amazing to us that he would even do that.
Why would he schlep for eleven weeks with us?  Certainly he didn’t need the money.  His explanations was, “this is how I get to know my music”. This way he relives it and experiences from a whole new perspective as a player. It says so much about him as an artist. He was such a good colleague, never bossy at all. When I went into it I barely knew the man and I thought, how an I going to conduct the composer?  He was so easy to work with. Of course I should have known that, since he’s spent most of his career collaborating with musicians from all over the world and genres. That attitude extended towards me.