KOEN KESSELS: 'THERE'S A JOKE IN BALLET WE ONLY HAVE TWO TEMPI' The Belgian conductor on composers, conducting Swan Lake, and helping young musicians in the dance world
Koen Kessels is on a mission to change the culture around music in ballet. Anyone who has heard the Belgian conduct will know that he is the right person for the job: Kessels makes the classic scores come alive in the pit like nobody else I’ve heard. I will never forget a performance of Swan Lake with Birmingham Royal Ballet in which he had us all pinned to our seats with excitement, shaping every phrase of the familiar music as if it had never been heard before. This gift has brought him the top music job at two of Britain’s major ballet companies, the Royal Ballet in London and Birmingham Royal Ballet, as well as frequent invitations to guest at the most prestigious ballet venues in the world.
The qualities that make Kessels such a superb conductor are obvious as soon as you meet him: he is considerate, genuine, passionate about his work, and an irrepressible communicator. As he showed me through the winding corridors of the Royal Opera House to his office, where our interview took place, he was already talking animatedly about his favourite composers, enthusing about the Ballet Now project he is involved in with Birmingham Royal Ballet, and greeting everyone we met on the way with a flow of cheerful small talk.
During our conversation, the same themes recurred again and again. Kessels’ love for the theatre, his respect for the craftsmanship of the great ballet composers, and his preference for an empathetic, collaborative way of working are patently sincere. So is his commitment to nurturing a new generation of conductors and composers who have the skills to work with ballet companies. Underlying this commitment seems to be a conviction that both the performance and the commissioning of music for ballet has lost something since the glory days of Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky and Prokofiev, although with characteristic and obviously innate courtesy, Kessels never criticises anyone directly, instead explaining energetically how he thinks things could be improved. With equally characteristic modesty, he doesn’t declare himself the main agent of this improvement, but it’s evident from both his commitment and the position he occupies that he stands a very real chance of being just that.
HANNA WEIBYE How did you come to be a ballet conductor? Was it deliberate or a happy accident?
KOEN KESSELS I started as a concert pianist and when I was very young, 22, I got involved in the Brussels Opera House as a répétiteur. Conducting was not in my mind; I wanted to work with singers. I stayed for four years and after that became an assistant conductor at the Antwerp Opera. The orchestra there worked on a regular basis with the Royal Ballet of Flanders, and one time when the music director wasn’t available they asked me to conduct a production of Cinderella (pictured below right: Birmingham Royal Ballet in Cinderella). That was my first big production and it went very well: I had lots of support from the orchestra, and they didn’t say never again! Every year the ballet company did a two-week run with live orchestra, so I did other productions with them – Giselle, La Fille mal gardée etc – and I travelled with them too.
For ten years after that, I think, I didn’t do any ballet. I did a lot of opera, mainly big stage productions and had accepted the music director position at a summer opera festival, Zomeropera Alden Biesen. My career planning was rather unorganised until I started working with an agent. She encouraged me to follow up my contacts at the Paris Opéra, and as a result of that, they invited me to conduct Le Parc by the French choreographer Angelin Preljocaj, a Mozart score with contemporary electronic music in between. The ballet company accepted me, and so the next season I was engaged for two productions. Gerard Mortier, the general director at the time, warned me to me to be very careful: he said, if you get accepted by the ballet you could get completely taken in. I wanted to go back to opera – to mix between the two. But my ballet career took off quite quickly after that: I was invited permanently in Paris for more than 10 years (300 performances), as well as by Manuel Legris in Vienna, by Kader Belarbi in Toulouse, by José Martinez in Madrid, all three former Paris Opéra étoiles who knew me from my work with the company. It happened organically, as people trusted me.
How did you end up at Birmingham Royal Ballet and the Royal Ballet?
I had worked with the Royal Ballet Sinfonia [the orchestra of Birmingham Royal Ballet] on a Swan Lake production at the Edinburgh Festival. They knew me from that, so I was on the shortlist when Birmingham Royal Ballet was looking for a music director and was offered the job in 2010. Barry Wordsworth from the Royal Ballet came to see me in Paris doing Cinderella – that was the second time that Cinderella was very important for me – and he asked me to conduct in London. The first production I did at the Royal Opera House was Nutcracker (pictured left: the Royal Ballet's production of The Nutcracker) with the Royal Ballet Sinfonia in 2008: a careful introduction and a first step towards being accepted by the dancers. The next season I was re-invited for the same production but with the house orchestra. They invited me back every season after that, and in 2015 I was offered the music director job in London, which I took on the condition that I could still be the music director in Birmingham and would be allowed to continue freelancing as well.
Why did you want to stay at BRB? What’s special about the company?
Specifically their live music policy with the Royal Ballet Sinfonia – if they decided one day to cut that down, then I am not sure I would stay. The way that I can develop things like my work with young conductors [HW: on which more below] is also very important for me. Also the very friendly family atmosphere. This is something very strong and it’s true of the orchestra, the stage management, the crew, the dancers, the administration, the technical staff, the management, of everyone. The programming focuses more on the classical repertoire, but it’s great to conduct Swan Lake (pictured below right) 40 times without any stress!
Ah, that answers a question some music fans might have wanted to ask: don’t you get bored of conducting the same small handful of scores over and over?
I have always different dancers in front of me, and different orchestras. And as for the music... well, if you love eating a steak or halibut, it’s not like if you had halibut 10 times you wouldn’t like it the eleventh time! When it’s quality, you can't get enough of it.
And it is fantastic is to perform in different places. I think it’s so important that BRB travels all over the UK and brings classical ballet to the public in all these different cities, like Southampton and Salford. I believe culture will only survive if we go to the peripheries as well as the metropoles, and that’s one of the strong elements of BRB: it’s a touring company. I went to Sunderland, for example, and I talked to a taxi-driver who said to me, look, we’re still taxi-driving, generations after the mines shut down. And the theatre was full. It’s so easy in culture to be elitist, to think that the only good things happening are in capital cities, but it’s not true. Someone asked me in a panel the other day, how can you maintain these astronomical prices for ballet tickets? The answer is to go to Sunderland: you will pay much less for a very good performance.
Who inspires you? What were the important influences in your formation as a ballet conductor? Apart from Prokofiev, obviously.
Working for a company – London, Birmingham, Paris – it’s everyone in the house: the orchestra, the pianists, the coaches, the dancers, the choreographers. I learned a lot from observing the trust between the dancers and the ballet coaches. I work very intensively in the studio: I’m there for two or three weeks before the stage calls. Once the dancers see a conductor in the studio, once they know that you’re interested in what they’re doing and it’s being recorded, they start trusting you.
You’re building up a pictures of yourself as a collaborative worker. Is it fair to say that conducting, for you, is about being part of the whole creative process, as opposed to being just about the performance?
Absolutely. I still have my ensemble for contemporary music in Belgium and it’s the same thing. I had a few experiences with orchestras only on concert platforms and it never felt the same as working in this collaborative way. You know, I wanted to be an architect: this notion of working together to construct something useful is important to me. For example, I didn’t want to use the piano to be a pianist: I always looked to play chamber music, not to be a soloist. It was always collaborative. Working together is the main thing, and then the last thing is the performance.
It’s interesting that architecture would have been an alternative career for you. Do you think that’s another reason why you’re attracted to ballet and opera rather than concert performance? That these genres involve making music visual and spatial?
I have always been intrigued by those people – those composers – who wanted to collaborate on theatrical projects rather than making music abstractly. Stravinsky (pictured left), for example, was practically born in the wings; he worked with his parents, who were theatre people. Tchaikovsky always worked in the theatre. Those composers loved the theatre and I think that’s why I’m attracted to them.
What are the attractions and pitfalls of ballet for a conductor?
When the great opera houses – Paris, London, Vienna – offer you the chance to conduct incredible scores like those of Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky (who I call the Big Three) it’s very difficult to say no.
Barry Wordsworth once told me: being a ballet conductor is weird because you’re always hired by an ex-dancer and therefore not really trusted by the music world. And I do hear from some colleagues, "Oh you’re a ballet conductor, so you must be bad!" But then I once had an hour alone with Maris Janssons in a taxi and I couldn’t ask anything because he wanted to know everything about ballet conducting. And he said he really admired those people who can do it, because he had tried it and he couldn’t.
Why not? What's so hard about conducting for ballet?
Put simplistically, in opera you come in as a conductor and everybody follows you. As a ballet conductor you come in and for the first two weeks you don’t conduct; you observe, you listen, you ask lots of questions. You just sit there and maybe you whisper very quietly to the pianist that this is a little too slow or too fast.
But you can build it up gradually to different tempi, just like you would with a singer: you see the coloratura, the phrasing and you work together. For a good opera conductor, it’s about the singer and the collaboration. It’s exactly the same in ballet. You impose [your opinion] maybe even less than in opera. But you can’t impose at all unless you spend the time in the studio.
That’s not the only way. I also do research into the choreography, the context, and historic performance tempi. I go back to the tempi that the choreographer installed at the work’s creation. When I started at the Paris Opéra, for example, the usual tempi in Romeo and Juliet were 20-30% slower than Prokofiev’s. And the dancers were saying they couldn’t dance at the faster tempi I was proposing. So I went back to records of the original general rehearsal of 1989, with Pierre Constant conducting and Nureyev in the hall, and they were, apparently, using nearly the same tempi as Prokofiev. It’s just not true that Nureyev’s tempi were too slow. It was tradition that made them slower and people wanting to fit in all the steps in comfortably. Well, Nureyev (pictured above right) only started enjoying himself when the steps were on the edge of possibility, not in the comfort zone where they fit in easily.
Getting to know what the house can do helps you to feel where you can go. The trust you build with the dancers, they give you back and then many things are possible and you get out of this trap of being always too fast or too slow. You must have heard the joke that in ballet we only have two tempi, too fast and too slow?
Tell me about memorable performances. What makes the performances that stick in your mind. Chemistry? Particular performers? Particular works?
The first time on every stage with every company: the first intimate rehearsals with the choreographer and dancers in studio, the first time in front of the Paris Opéra orchestra, the first contact with Vienna Philharmonic playing Tchaikovsky (without rehearsal, because there is no rehearsal time there; it’s a dry rehearsal in studio with the dancers), the first rehearsals with the Royal Opera House Orchestra. To make a performance happen in these mythical places which have suddenly become your daily workplace is quite special. And you stand there, perform and feel the symbiosis – it gets very organic. So it’s not a specific performance really, but being impressed by the combinations of all these elements. And this happens on more than one memorable moment: it’s nearly every performance!
Everything you’re saying there is about connecting with other people. Clearly you really see yourself as part of a larger team, rather than a Romantic kind of lonely artist on a mountaintop.
I like being part of something. I see how all the people here work backstage, not just the dancers, but the technical crew, costume department and set and light design team as well. In an opera house you depend much more on everyone else than you do in a concert hall. And that’s why you want to be in an opera house!
You are working on helping young musicians get into the world of ballet music. Could you tell us about that?
A young conductor came to us in Birmingham with a BBC programme and some money that meant we were able to create a mentoring scheme, which is on its second beneficiary now. The young conductors get coaching from three conductors in Birmingham – Phil Ellis, Paul Murphy, and me – plus Gavin Sutherland from English National Ballet. They get to do rehearsals, they work in the studio, they are coached through the ballet rehearsals by the ballet staff and David Bintley [Director of BRB]. We had 30 people audition for the second place in the scheme. We were looking for really accomplished conductors, conductors with potential and who already had experience of working with an orchestra, though not necessarily any experience of ballet. The orchestra [Royal Ballet Sinfonia] was absolutely keen. They were not at all frustrated by young conductors; in fact they acknowledged that we need to help them. You need to know where the next generation is coming from – you need a succession plan.
It was Barry Wordsworth who initiated a scheme of cover conductors at the Royal Opera House. In Birmingham, we took his idea forward: cover conductors can go on the mid-scale tours and get some performance experience (pictured above left: Brandon Lawrence performing in Jessica Lang's Wink on one of BRB's mid-scale tours). Jonathan Lo [the second beneficiary] finished his apprenticeship and he conducted some performances – he was coached intensively and is now ready for the job. He was on the right startng level and he had the trust from the company and from David Bintley. We asked him back this season as a conductor and I got him put down on the London cover conductor programme. Now he can develop and see both sides of the profession – in Birmingham he can see it on a more quiet, less stressful level and at the Royal Opera House he can see it on the more complex level. It’s complementary.
Those people were very lucky. At the moment the BBC isn’t running that programme any more. So I’m trying to get together funding from the Royal Opera House, Birmingham Royal Ballet, Rambert and English National Ballet to run something similar, providing a position for a young, accomplished conductor who would like to learn the world of ballet. Barry Wordsworth would coach as well. Working with the four companies together would be amazing, but it’s difficult to find the right funding.
When you coach these young people, what do they need to learn? What advice do you give them about working with a ballet company? Does it help to have a technical grounding in ballet?
I try to tell those young conductors to keep thinking as a musician, but also to be very pragmatic. You should always be at the service of the stage. But being at the service doesn’t mean you’re a slave. You can find a way of being free yourself as a musician and meeting the dancers’ needs. You have to be willing to discuss and be open-minded. It’s not so much about imposing [your opinions] but rather about taking and giving back. And you have to engage with everyone in the house: if you don’t know the name of the guy who opens the door for you, you don’t have the right to tell anyone else what to do!
There are some very practical things to know. Normally, tall people are a little bit slower so they need some more time. Or if you see someone coming in and you don’t know exactly where you are, under normal conditions you would [gestures conducting an upbeat] but if you do that in ballet, half the time you will be too late. It’s a different way of handling conducting. But the main thing is to try to understand and read the stage.
I was educated in Paris not to know exactly how every step is done and what every step is called but to trust the musical flow that you build up during the rehearsal time in studio. So I don’t think you need to have super-technical knowledge of ballet. If a dancer asks me, is it on this developpé we start, I sometimes have to check with the pianist where to start exactly. Of course I must have done over 1000 performances in the last 10 to 15 years, so now I can see, I can follow, I can start to conduct the ballet like I would the opera. I can feel the breathing of the person instead of seeing exactly every step and every beat. I can translate it to breathing, to an organic language.
Let’s talk about new music and new composers in ballet. As a music director you’re more than just the guy who conducts the Tchaikovsky, you have a say in the musical policy of the company, don’t you – or do you?
I don’t have a veto. Neither positive nor negative. In ballet, if the music doesn’t suit the choreographer, he can’t do anything. And there is a very sensitive balance between the musical and the choreographic strength of a piece. For me, a ballet score is successful not necessarily when it’s played back on the concert platform but when another choreographer is interested in taking on the score. Then you can see that there’s a story, there’s a scenario, there’s a world around it. When it’s done in concert, fine, but you can’t judge if it’s successful as a ballet or not.
Still, in some of the best ballets the decisions were made by the musicians. For Sleeping Beauty it wasn’t Petipa who decided, Tchaikovsky (pictured above left) did; for Romeo and Juliet, Prokofiev decided. When we go back to the Big Three it’s not the choreographer who decided. The scenario was strong, the idea was strong – and it came from the composers. And there are still choreographers who are intrigued by those pieces. How many versions of Swan Lake are there? And everyone wants to do a new Sacre du Printemps, still. But it wasn’t the choreographer who had the idea – it was Stravinsky and Diaghilev and Nicholas Roerich. Nijinsky was just given the score, though of course his choreography was incredibly important.
What do you think about the kind of music that you see contemporary choreographers choosing?
I had a very interesting dicussion with Twyla Tharp once. She said, when will choreographers realise that it’s finished with minimalistic music? It’s been going on for 40 years; when will they realise that it’s been done, and they should stop? That’s what Twyla Tharp said, but I quite like this kind of language too!
How could music in contemporary ballet be improved then?
The key to success in a ballet with new music is close collaboration between the choreographer and the composer. The choreographer needs to trust the composer and the composer has to have open ears. For me, it’s problematic when composers want commissions but they don’t know anything about ballet. I would advise the people who want to write music for ballet to read extensively about how the Big Three did it.
The first thing Stravinsky did in ballet was the instrumentation of two movements of Chopin's Les Sylphides. As he was already an experienced composer, he didn’t feel his ego at all compromised by doing this transcription. His father was an opera singer so he was always in the wings, he knew the art-form. The next piece Diaghilev commissioned from Stravinsky was Firebird – what a step up! Tchaikovsky had six months to work on his Sleeping Beauty, 40 days’ work, very intense. In the correspondence you can find Petipa’s daughter describing Tchaikovsky when he came to Petipa’s house. It’s intriguing. He knew all the ballet scores, he knew Minkus, he was a reputed composer, but still he was there all the time to collaborate, asking Petipa (pictured above right), how many bars do you need? 32? 16?
So availability from the composer and openness from the choreographer is the ideal. The result of this good collaboration between Tchaikovsky and Petipa, of having a good score, was that ballet didn’t go back to the Petipa/Minkus days of good ballets but less strong music.
Knowing the tradition of the craft is important, too. Tchaikovsky would never have been able to make his Sleeping Beauty without knowing exactly how it’s done in ballet – without Minkus's example, in fact. He devoured the scores of the Imperial State ballet; he was interested in the form and practicality of writing for ballet. And the same goes for Stravinsky and Prokofiev.
For a counter-example, take The Prince of the Pagodas (pictured right) – this was one person’s enterprise where Britten finally accepted the challenge without knowing exactly how to compose for ballet. Perhaps he didn’t study Tchaikovsky enough. Or perhaps the demands of the choreographer were so specific that Britten didn’t want to deliver any more than he had to, but just finished the job. I mean, I like the piece, it’s marvellous music, but there’s better Britten, and there’s better ballet. Daphnis et Chloé is also problematic – perhaps the best music ever written, but it didn't inspire a really good ballet. Daphnis is good in the concert hall, it doesn’t need the stage. You can feel that the collaboration between the composer and choreographer wasn’t on the right level to ensure a future for either of those pieces as ballets for the stage.
Do you have a big dream project? Something you’d really like to do in the future?
I’m still very much into educational plans. I want to be able to guide young composers and young conductors to understand how to function in the ballet world, and to help choreographers trust the musicians more when they’re making their choices. I won’t say there will be a next Big Three, but I think it’s very important to set up better collaborations between musicians and choreographers. We actually have a really exciting project coming up with Birmingham Royal Ballet and Sadler’s Wells, called Ballet Now. Over the next five years, we will commission 10 new dance pieces, two per year. The choreographer, composer and designer of each piece will each receive support and mentoring from people in the industry, and a panel of experts – people like David Bintley, Alastair Spalding, Cassa Pancho, Sally Beamish – will oversee the whole thing. Hopefully that will produce some really good new pieces, promote proper collaboration, and help some young artists to get into the industry.
- Koen Kessels is Music Director for Birmingham Royal Ballet and conducts The Royal Ballet Sinfonia in Coppélia at Birmingham Hippodrome (13-17 June) and Bristol Hippodrome (28 June-1 July). For details visit www.brb.org.uk/whats-on
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