Interview with Mladen, Composer, performer and interpreter
What does a ballet pianist do?
The ballet pianist’s job consists of playing the piano for ballet classes, that is to say accompanying the dancers in their daily workout and rehearsals in the ballet studio and on stage. Furthermore it is the key figure assisting the choreographer in the creative process from the musical point of view.
Please explain the creative process and tell us about the key figure
Some of the great choreographers of the last century were working closely with musicians to understand at best the thinnest detail of the musical material. Successful outcome had the matches Balanchine-Stravinskij, Cunningham-Cage or Robbins-Bernstein. From the other point of view the orchestra follows the conductor and a conductor is not always familiar with the world of ballet. My job would be to explain, why and where to slow down or speed up or how to articulate a melody in order to support at best a specific dancer’s movement. Last but not least, dancers don’t know the proper meaning of some musical terms and vice versa. That’s why this key figure stands between the two parties and supplies wherever there is lack of knowledge or need to communicate the same “language”.
What would be a typical day as a ballet pianist?
First thing in the morning is playing for the ballet class, one hour and a half of training, warming up and working on pure technique exercises which is often followed by a lesson of point shoe technique for the girls. Next comes the rehearsal of a new choreographic work or a reprise of an old piece. The performance takes place in the evening. In a ballet company the performances are several per year and the musical skills of the “Maestro” are used to coordinate scene movements and sometimes also lights. The demands of high commitment are though lightened by the magic of the stage and the opportunity to work with great names of today’s world of ballet. While I was working at the Teatro alla Scala in Italy I had the honour of rehearsing with renowned dancers such as Roberto Bolle, Svetlana Zakharova, Marianela Núñez, Misty Copeland and many more stars of today’s ballet scene!
Right now I am working at Tanz Akademie Zürich which is led by other two stars of the ballet world Oliver Matz and Steffi Scherzer. Supported by a great team of teachers and pianists they are preparing the new generations of dancers for the challenges of the future.
Tell us more about your musical skills? What do you coordinate during a performance?
The elements composing most of the great theatrical performances are music, dance, stage and light design, costumes and everything else that combined together creates a unique and intense experience for the audience. It is impossible to picture a successful combination of all these components without proper coordination. My role is to give specific indication to the whole team working backstage on how and when to change the light setting, prepare the stage for the next act or sometimes even rotate the whole stage; finally one of the most exciting things of all: lift the curtain and let the performance begin!
How do you choose which song to play?
Mostly I have the liberty of playing my own music, or improvise something different every day. Some of pianists prefer to play everything by score but I personally find this creative liberty vital in keeping high the spirits in the ballet studio!
How do you support and motivate the ballet dancers through your music?
By playing the right rhythmical or melodic pattern to support the movement and constantly adjusting to what is the need of the dancer. Above all of this the music needs to be beautiful! So I play a variety of tunes, from big classical repertoire to contemporary music, I adapt my style according to the teacher I am partnering with and try to create a positive atmosphere so that everyone can have the optimal environment to overcome personal technical difficulties.
Why is the piano best suited for classical music in ballet class?
As the ballet was born the ballet exercises used to be accompanied by the teacher him-/herself with a violin. The limit of it is that you can play only one melody at the time. However, with ten fingers on the piano you can pretty much recall the whole orchestra.
How do you work in times of covid?
During the first lockdown in April 2020 we were all sent home and forced to do ballet classes online which was challenging for the teachers, students and of course also for the pianists. The difficulties were many; not everybody had the adequate technology equipment or enough space to dance and sometimes it was hard to find the right time as many students were sent back home all over the world.
In all of this the music was somehow a constant need. The use of it was clearly not limited to the ballet class, it became a fundamental help to go through this not easy time.
You started the project THE BALLET PIANIST during the pandemie.
I felt the urge of creating something new to fulfill this need and so THE BALLET PIANIST was born. With the help of my partner Claudia we started streaming music for ballet classes live from our home all over the world, created a website, transformed our living room into a photo studio, collected ideas for the CD POP EDITION 1, arranged the songs and made them fit the demanding structure of ballet exercises. We managed to record them just before Xmas, received the hard-copy CD’s and published the album on several online platforms such as Spotify and Apple Music. POP EDITION 1 is an album full with famous cover songs from Billie Eilish, Lady Gaga, John Legend and many more.
You are also a composer, performer and interpreter. What is that all about?
I studied composition and have been writing music ever since. The engagement with the ballet world made me write mostly for that field. I had the luck to work and write music for great dancers like Massimo Murru, famous partner of Sylvie Guillem and one of the muses of Roland Petit. (If you have patience for a week or so I can get a video of the solo he did on my music). At the moment I am collaborating with a choreographer from Zürich, Marie Alexis, on a whole evening piece and we are looking forward to it’s debut.
Have a listen to Mladen’s music on: https://www.mladendabizljevic.com/theballetpianist
Mladen Dabizljevic is a Switzerland based pianist, composer and conductor of Montenegrin origin. Completed his Academic formation in Italy he won international piano competitions and performed solo and with orchestra on stages of great fame.An important part of his career is his work in the field of dance. Engaged as accompanist and assistant conductor at important institutions of the ballet world including the Arena di Verona and the Teatro alla Scala he collaborated with several world-famous choreographers and ballet masters such as Coleen Neary, Julie Kent, Monique Loudières, Mauro Bigonzetti and Massimo Murru.
In 2019 he was appointed as president of the foundation “Cultura Classica”, an organization that enriches the Montenegrin cultural scene.
Photo on Top: © enscene.ch