I have a terrible time with complex music. Are there any tricks for improving musicality? —Claire
Throughout my career, I performed to difficult, dissonant scores. Often, I'd struggle to keep counts straight during the early rehearsal process because it's much easier for me to associate steps with sounds. But an unclear sense of the counts can come back to haunt you, especially when you're in a group dance or there's live music involved.
It helps to talk through the music with your colleagues so you can get on the same page and find cues. For instance, when I learned the "Gaillard" duet in Balanchine's Agon, my partner and I spent one rehearsal with the ballet mistress just confirming counts. For one particularly tricky passage, I learned to identify a specific step (an arabesque) with its corresponding count (9) and note. It acted as a benchmark if we ever got lost, but the process itself helped me grow more comfortable with the music.
The best place to sharpen your musicality, of course, is in class. Prioritize accuracy; no matter how fast or slow something feels, resist the temptation to finish late or to schlep through positions. Pay attention to rhythmic syncopations or accents, and practice emphasizing them during combinations.
However, your accompanist isn't exactly going to break into Stravinsky or Schoenberg for tendus. If you're learning choreography to a complex score, you need to spend some extra time outside of rehearsal familiarizing yourself with it. If the phrases aren't square—a 9-count followed by a 17, for instance—write them down to remember the order. Then, listen to the score as you read along—over and over again.