Alister Grant on playing the music for ballet class: “The whole point of being there is to make people feel good about what they’re doing”

Alister has left the building. And down at the Walsh Bay wharf in Sydney, we’re all the worse for his departure.

A week ago, the dancers who go to the open classes at the Sydney Dance Company studios said goodbye to Alister Grant, a pianist whose link to the building at Pier 4 goes back decades, to the time when the SDC trio of Graeme Murphy, Janet Vernon and Janine Kyle ran the company.

Now that Alister is returning to his home state, Tasmania, Sydney has lost one of the Australia’s best ballet pianists.

That matters at a time when live music in a dance studio is slip sliding away.

Ballet pianists aren’t an extinct species yet, but there seem to be fewer and fewer ever year. *

Of course professional ballet companies have pianists to play for class and rehearsals but dance students of all ages can’t always expect a pianist to be sitting in the studio corner, watching, adapting, improvising, knowing how to accompany every part of class, from pliés to grand allegro.

When that happens it’s a bonus especially if the pianist plays music to lift the dancer’s spirits, drive their movements and make them smile.

In the lead up to his departure Alister dived into his favourite music for class, including the best of the great American songbook of the 1930s, ‘40s and early ‘50s, such as Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend, Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man, My Heart Belongs to Daddy, The Continental, Lullaby of Broadway and Fever, as well as snippets from Offenbach’s Can Can, Prokofiev’s Romeo & Juliet and Les Sylphides.

But that exhilarating potpourri, he told me, was because “I’m leaving town. I’m kind of throwing stuff out there I haven’t used for a long time. I’m being a little bit loose with my repertoire”.

A few days before his last class we met at the SDC café to talk about his life with dance.

He began to play the piano when he was five, and, after high school, took private music lessons with Graeme Buchanan, the former Dean of the Tasmanian Conservatorium of Music and studied as well at the (University of Tasmania) Tasmanian College of the Arts.

Alister’s nomadic life began when he moved to Sydney where he studied at the National Art School and then the University of Sydney, where he majored in German and Latin.

But art and languages gave way for music, specifically dance music, when his mentor and former piano teacher, Maggie Drake, helped him find his first job as a dance pianist for the ballet teacher, Kim Traynor.

Alister followed close on Maggie’s footsteps. She played for Traynor, Opera Australia and the Sydney Dance Company. So did Alister.

“I knew nothing about dance but Maggie was great because she gave me a scrapbook of things she put together, a little scrapbook of pieces”, all of which helped him understand what kind of music went with what dance steps.

There are no classes for ballet pianists. They learn on the job, by trial and error and “it took me years to understand certain things”.

In 1987/88 Alister was in demand, playing not only for SDC and Opera Australia’s ballet corps, but also for a mega dance school in Goulburn Street run by Traynor, Christine Keith and Lois Strike.

Those were the days when dance teachers marked the steps with a cigarette dangling from their hand (Valrene Tweedie at her school at Railway Square) and, Alister remembers, Lois Strike, who wore “stiletto ankle boots while she demonstrated fouettes” with a cigarette in her hand. Even the Cirque du Soliel crew might have trouble with that!

In the evening, he played at a piano bar attached to the gay pub, the Albury, where the co-owner, Nanette Theakstone, instructed Alister: “Don’t give them any of that arty stuff. Just play show tunes!”

A the end of 1988 he moved to New York where he played for the Alvin Ailey company – “that was great training” – until he was spotted by Pearl Lang, a protégé of Martha Graham who was teaching at the Graham school.

Lang was “nice to me to get me there but then humiliated me by asking for a goddamn Indian raga.

“She just made me sit there while she banged on a tiny little drum while the dancers looked at me in pity because I didn’t know what a raga was”.

As it turned out, New York was his home for only a year, then, after working briefly in Paris and Berlin, he moved to London “where I worked all over the place all the time” from London Contemporary Dance Theatre, to the English National Ballet, Rambert Ballet Company, Danceworks and, from time to time, the Royal Ballet.

One teacher he’ll never forget is Madame (Sulamith) Messerer who coached the ENB.

“I played for her at Festival Hall and I was down in the orchestra pit and she was about 2 kilometres away. She was more or less a cripple, and all I could see was her hunched back. I could barely see her hands and I could hear something that I thought was ‘plié’. At least I thought it was a plié. I started playing something that could be a plié, so I start, four counts in, and she waddles over and said ‘nyet, nyet, nyet’ to me then waddled back to the dancers on the stage, pointing at me and told them ‘this music is no good!’ I just sat there aghast”.

He spent most of his time in London as accompanist for the classes at Danceworks taught by Anna du Boisson, Laverne Meyer, Michael Beare and Marian St Claire.

Alister returned to Sydney in 1994 where he has worked ever since, often playing for SDC classes taught by Cathie Goss (both the open classes and the SDC company) and Andrea Briody.

The View From the Studio Corner: Q&A

How do you choose the music for class?

“You look at the class and you think ‘how can I lift the mood?’ The whole point of being there is to make people feel good about what they’re doing.

“You can’t guarantee people will like your music but if you kind of like it the chances are other people are going to like it. So what I try to do is play things for me that have a good harmonic progression because when you have cadences or modulations of some sort that works on people subconsciously.

“With a class often, around about half way through, you get this exhalation, you can see people breathe out somewhere in the class, and you realise they’re at home with what they are doing … people start smiling”.

What music do you think works best?

“I used to play ballet stuff to start with (but) it’s so well known. It’s a bit twee in a ballet class unless you play it in a funny way.

“Teachers all say ‘don’t play Tchaikovsky’. They don’t want Nutcracker.

“Some ballet music is great. Coppelia is fantastic at the right time, but you’ve got to play things that really get people going without being boring, and that depends on what the dancers are looking like on the day…

“Certain things really help focus and placement. Mozart’s great for that kind of stuff”.

And choices for different steps?

“A fondu is one of the hardest steps of all time because when you look at the outside it’s completely different from what’s going on the inside for the dancers.

“One of the reasons they (the teachers) ask you to play a tango is because it needs a real push, it looks smooth and soft but it’s not for the dancer. That took me years to work out.

“Another one that’s hard to play for is an assemble because an assemble is up but it’s slow. You need to play something that needs vitality and lift but it’s slow.

“There’s so much tension to hold that stuff together”.

The best decades or eras of music for class?

Much of the music is “before my time… ten times older than me” but he likes old songs such as Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man “because that’s all major chords which is really nice without being twee and it’s rhythmic as well. That’s nice for dancers”.

Tell me about your recent choice of A Whiter Shade of Pale (1967) for a tendu at the barre.

“I love that stuff. The 1960s is my favourite decade, but the trouble with the ‘60s and ‘70s is that the rhythms tend to be four counts and they tend to be syncopated and that tends not to work for ballet classes.

“The 1930s’ stuff has got that squarer kind of feeling to it, whereas if you played California Dreamin’ it’s not going to work for a ballet step”, first because ballet exercises usually last 16, 32 or 64 bars, and secondly in terms of rhythm.

What goes on your mind, as you sit down to play for a 90-minute class?

“Sometimes you feel very beautiful and musical in your soul and you play horrible things, and often, when I’m really angry, and I often am, I play really well”.

You play loudly. Why?

“Yes, I bang for a dance class, I definitely bang. That’s partly because I want to get under your skin, one of the secrets of my success is playing loud”.

Do you usually look around the studio at all the dancers?

“I used to look at dancers a little bit more.

“Maggie Drake said ‘you sit in the corner and there are all these beautiful creatures. You just sit in the corner getting older and older like and a big fat toad sitting on your lily pad while everyone else is beautiful.

“That gets truer and truer when you get older. When I started playing I was 22 and now I’m 53.

“I still look at the dancers and I think everyone stays young and beautiful and you just get older. It’s like the reverse of Dorian Gray, you look in the mirror an go Oh!”

And do you ever feel like dancing yourself?

“I learned flamenco classes in London and I thought I’d be fantastic with my paso doble. It turned out, no, I wasn’t that good. I think ballet would be even harder”.

If you were 30 again what would he love to do?

“To write and record. I was never motivated by classical music, it would have been pop music, inspired by the 1960s”.

Alister’s most loved song is Summertime.

“I rarely play it for class. It would be alright for a slow tendu. It’s the greatest song of the 20th century, perfectly crafted”.

And the perfect song for Tasmania where the livin’ is going to be a lot easier than it is in Sydney.

Still, I think – I hope – he won’t stop playing for class, somehow, some day, somewhere.

* Luckily the Sydney Dance Company still has the excellent Philippe Klaus to play for open ballet classes.