Margaret Mullin and Steven Loch in Balanchine's "Emeralds." Lindsay Thomas, Courtesy PNB.

5 Things Your Conductor Wants You To Know: How to Avoid Misunderstandings When Performing to Live Music

Pacific Northwest Ballet soloist Margaret Mullin will never forget one of her first big breaks as a young company member: a debut as Bluebird in The Sleeping Beauty alongside Jerome Tisserand. At the time, she recalls, PNB was auditioning different conductors, so she hadn't had much time to get to know who would be leading the orchestra. They talked to the conductor about the coda's tempo, "because we both liked it really slow," she says. "That night, however, he ended up doing the polar opposite. It was the fastest I'd ever heard the music, and I couldn't finish the turns."


While Mullin may never understand what got lost in translation, she knows the tempo mix-up wasn't an attempt to throw her off her game. In fact, conductors and dancers are working towards the same goal: to present the best performance possible. "Music and dance are so intertwined," says Ming Luke, a conductor who frequently works with San Francisco Ballet and Boston Ballet, among other companies. "We all want to create a performance that inspires the audience." Still, it can be quite daunting to approach any member of the musical staff—and how do you know if or when you should? Pointe spoke with two conductors to find out what they want dancers to know.

1. Live music sounds different from a recording. 

Hearing the orchestra for the first time can be jarring, especially if the score is one that you've heard a million times on a recording or from the rehearsal pianist. Mullin's advice? Get used to it. PNB's musical director and principal conductor Emil de Cou agrees. "When you've been listening to music in earbuds," he says, "suddenly hearing a 64-piece orchestra play Romeo and Juliet will be different—but a good different. You'll feel the energy, and it'll sound better than any recording—passionate, energetic, alive. You can't replicate that."

2. Don't be afraid to communicate your needs…

Emil de Cou conducting the National Symphony Orchestra

Scott Suchman, Courtesy PNB

"We love it when dancers talk to us," says Luke. "It's great to hear if you love how something is sounding, or if something should be heavier. Some dancers might be hesitant to make requests because they don't want to step on any toes or they're afraid of coming off as diva-like." At PNB, de Cou believes an open-door policy is best. "I want to break down any barrier between the dancers and the orchestra," he says.

3. …but go through the proper channels. 

In almost all cases, you should first relay any musical concerns to the ballet master, who'll then communicate with the director or choreographer and conductor. But in a frantic rehearsal process, Mullin says, it can be up to you to politely advocate for your needs. If you're unsure about approaching the conductor directly, ask a veteran dancer for advice, since the chain of command can vary between companies.

Keep in mind that a conductor is likely getting musical requests from all sides. "Sometimes it feels like I have nine different bosses," jokes Luke. "There's a ballet master in charge of the corps, another who's in charge of soloists and principals, a choreographer, an artistic director, a violin soloist—everyone is bending your ear. In the end, though, there is a hierarchy, and I'll ultimately follow the choreographer or artistic director." De Cou learned this lesson early on at American Ballet Theatre: "The company was performing a Twyla Tharp piece, and after one rehearsal, Cynthia Gregory approached me about taking a tricky part slightly slower. I was pretty starstruck; it was Cynthia Gregory—a total goddess—so I'd do anything she said! But after our next rehearsal, Twyla found me and ripped into me for changing the tempo."

4. Be specific.

Ming Luke leading an orchestra performance

Bill Hocker, Courtesy Jamie Benson

"Misunderstandings may happen," says Luke. To ease some of the frustration, let the conductor know what you're trying to achieve. "Why is something 'too fast'? Did you not have enough time to get to a first step, so everything afterwards is rushed? Or maybe you want to make sure each position is seen clearly before moving to the next, or you need more suspension. It helps to know the 'why,' so we can fit the music to your intention."

De Cou encourages dancers to attend orchestra rehearsals if it fits into their schedules. "It helps to hear how the music comes together," he says. "You can see how each score gets dissected."

5. We're there for you.


Over time, conductors will get to know dancers' preferences and performance qualities. "We'll know which dancer's adrenaline kicks in onstage, or who does the opposite," Luke says. "As conductor, you can react to those differences each night. Tempos can have micro-nuances. Part of the fun is having that flexibility to help create a musical performance that matches whoever is dancing. Otherwise you'd just stick on a recording and it falls flat."

In essence, conductors have your back. "I like to check in with my dancers before each performance, to make sure everything is okay and to let them know I'm with them," says de Cou. "I want to make sure the dancer knows she has a friend in the pit."

Latest Posts


Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem

Cicely Tyson and the Enduring Legacy of Arthur Mitchell’s Dance Theatre of Harlem

Cicely Tyson, the legendary 96-year-old Black actress whose February 16 funeral at Harlem's Abyssinian Baptist Church was attended by, among others, Tyler Perry, Lenny Kravitz, and Bill and Hillary Clinton, is remembered for performances that transcended stereotypes and made an indelible impression on a nation's heart and soul.

Among the most fondly remembered is her breakout role in the 1972 movie Sounder, which depicts a Black sharecropper family's struggle to survive in the Jim Crow South. The role catapulted Tyson to stardom, winning her an Academy Award nomination and a reputation as someone committed to enhancing Blacks' representation in the arts. Throughout a seven-decade career, countless critically acclaimed, award-winning roles in films, onstage and on television reaffirmed that image. Yet one role reflecting the depth of that commitment is much less visible—the supporting one she played working with longtime friend Arthur Mitchell when he envisioned, shaped and established the groundbreaking Dance Theatre of Harlem.

Keep reading SHOW LESS
Getty Images

As Ballet Looks Toward Its Future, Let's Talk About Its Troubling Emotional Demands

As a ballet student, I distinctively remember being told that to survive ballet as a profession, one must be exceptionally thick-skinned and resilient. I always assumed it was because of the physically demanding nature of ballet: long rehearsal hours, challenging and stressful performances, and physical pain.

It wasn't until I joined a ballet company that I learned the true meaning behind those words: that the reason one needs thick skin is not because of the physical demands, but because of the unfair and unnecessary emotional demands.

Undoubtedly, emotional and physical strength go hand in hand to some extent. But the kind of emotional demand I am talking about here is different; it is not the strength one finds in oneself in moments of fatigue or unwillingness. It is the strength one must have when being bullied, humiliated, screamed at, manipulated or harassed.

Keep reading SHOW LESS
Artists of the Australian Ballet perform the "Kingdom of the Shades" from La Bayadère. Lynette Wills, Courtesy Australian Ballet.

Catch the Australian Ballet’s Livestreamed Season Premiere This Weekend

After a yearlong hiatus, the Australian Ballet is ready to return to the stage. The company's season opener, titled Summertime at the Ballet, packs a great deal of firsts: It marks the ballet's first performance before a live audience since the start of the pandemic; the first time the company takes the stage under the leadership of its new artistic director, David Hallberg; and the first time Australian Ballet performs at the Melbourne & Olympic Parks Margaret Court Arena. Another important first: The performance will be livestreamed not only in Australia but all over the world. Summertime at the Ballet will be broadcast February 28 at 11:45 am AEDT (that's 7:45 pm EST on February 27 here in the U.S.), with bonus features, such as interviews and commentary. It will be accessible for 48 hours to accommodate all time zones.

This livestream will be provided via the Australian Ballet's newly launched digital platform, Live on Ballet TV. "One of my main goals is for the company to be seen by as many people around the world as possible," says Hallberg, the American-born international star who took the helm at the Australian Ballet in January. "Which is why Live on Ballet TV is such an integral part of my vision artistically."

Keep reading SHOW LESS

Editors' Picks