“My mother first put me into dance classes because she would watch me hear music and literally try to become it,” says Kathryn Morgan, former soloist with New York City Ballet and Miami City Ballet.
True to Balanchine’s famous adage, “See the music, hear the dance,” musicality was the cornerstone of Morgan’s training at the School of American Ballet. “It was ingrained in us from the day we got there,” she says. “We didn’t change the music to fit our movement; we had to adapt to it.” This was particularly true when it came to dancing with live accompaniment. “I remember one time, we had a guest Nutcracker conductor who played my solo in Marzipan at warp speed,” Morgan recalls. “My fellow dancers were laughing and cheering from the wings as I matched the fast tempo.”
Moving on to the corps and eventually soloist at New York City Ballet, Morgan continued to refine her understanding of musicality. “The older I got, the less I worried about whether the live accompaniment onstage was the same as what I rehearsed,” she explains. “I learned to truly listen both onstage and off, and that allowed me to embody those little notes and phrases that I believe make a dancer look truly professional.” Morgan points to Argentine Royal Ballet dancer Marianela Núñez as a prime role model for musicality. “She’s a rock-star performer that hits nuances as subtle as lifting her eyebrows on a certain note.”
So what are Morgan’s tried-and-true favorites when it comes to music? “I love Tchaikovsky, but my favorite will always be Romeo and Juliet; I think it’s one of the most beautiful scores ever written.” When it comes to teaching ballet, however, Morgan gravitates towards songs that everyone knows, from Disney anthems to Broadway tunes. “I find that’s really helpful when teaching young ones,” she explains. “It’s easier for them to stay with the music when they already know the melody. Pianists Steven Mitchell and David Plumpton are also her go-tos: “Both of their albums include well-known songs at very danceable tempos.”
Morgan’s number-one rule is to keep students on their (physical and auditory) toes regardless of what music she plays in class. “As a ballet student or professional, you’re going to be doing pliés and tendus every day for the rest of your life,” Morgan says. “It’s so easy to go into autopilot mode and stop listening, so I like to keep things fresh. I have no shame in doing themed bars, like Halloween, Christmas and different musicals.”
To help her students develop their musicality, Morgan focuses heavily on accents. “Hitting specific accents is an easy way to look like you know what you’re doing,” Morgan says. “I often do tendu or jeté combinations and switch between ‘out’ and ‘in’ accents to make dancers actively listen to the music.” Finding and emphasizing the downbeat of a melody is also very important, especially for her Zoom students. “There’s always a delay on Zoom, but as long as all my students can find that ‘one,’ they stay together,” she says.
The reason Morgan is so adamant about musicality is simply because, to her, it’s the sole component that distinguishes dance as an artform. “I don’t really care how many turns a dancer can do if there’s no musicality or artistry involved. If the movement isn’t in conjunction with the music, especially if it’s live music, it’s all just tricks,” she says. “But when I see a dancer literally speaking with their feet, listening and embodying what they hear, it’s truly incredible.”
Morgan put together a Spotify playlist of songs performed by her favorite music artists and composers:
“My absolute go-to! David is amazing with his options for ballet class. He has everything from Broadway to pop music to TV themes! His tempos are incredibly universal, and his music is very danceable.”
An absolute legend! Steven sometimes played for company class at New York City Ballet, so that’s when I fell in love with his music. The day I knew he ‘got’ the dancers was when he played ‘Cruella de Vil’ during a class where we had a particularly strict guest teacher. His albums are incredible!”
“Nate’s arrangements are some of my favorites. He has a way with music that is unlike anyone else. He also has everything from Broadway to movie themes, and I particularly like his The Great Ballets and Disney albums. (See my Disney classes on YouTube!)”
“I recently discovered Trisha, and she’s amazing! She’s one of the few pianists to have holiday and seasonal albums—everything from Halloween to spring and summer themes. Her choices of songs for various exercises are so clever!”