Rhythm Is It!

Post by , April 29th, 2014

In the Education section on The Music Trust website, there is mentioned a German film called Rhythm Is It! [1] This marvellous film documents a project hosted by the Berlin Philharmonic. It involves 250 kids mostly in their late teens, drawn from neighbourhood schools in Berlin. They are from every social class and many countries; a good number are refugees, “exiles” as they say.

The orchestra, led by Simon Rattle, performs Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, and we are privileged to see moments from the rehearsals and to hear Simon Rattle talk about his life and art and this work. The kids learn to dance it.

They learn to dance it, mostly beginning with no previous experience of dance or even of classical music. The project begins from zero, getting the kids into the room and quiet. (A choreographer speaks at one point of “the power of stillness”. Stillness does not come for weeks and, as she points out when it arrives, is transformative.)

The man in charge, English choreographer Royston Maldoom, brings great authority. In a couple of sequences he tells of his own isolated and dangerous childhood and how, when he was 17, by chance some friends took him to the ballet in London. “48 hours later, I had enrolled in a dance school.” He is another of those people who was saved by immersion in an art form. Working with kids such as these is clearly familiar territory and he traverses it with strength and subtlety.

Incidentally, he speaks to these purportedly disadvantaged German kids over the weeks-long project in English. And they understand. That was impressive to this islander.

In one of the first sessions, Royston has the class stand with their arms stretched vertically, looking upwards – a position/gesture both strong and aspiring. He invites the class members to look around the room and find from what they see the people they think are most likely to succeed in life. He moves up to one young fellow. “This man,” he says, “will be able to do anything he wants in life.” And the boy is clearly easily erect with a steady upward gaze. Royston moves to a couple of others whose head or eyes are more downcast. “This young woman,” he says, will be able to do anything she wants in life but she doesn’t know it yet.”

Royston must of course teach his students the dance, this particular dance. But his most difficult task is not technical: it is to get them to commit themselves, to take it seriously. At one point, well into the project, he says “Some of you are not as serious as I am.” This is not a simple put-down. He is telling them that they do not actually know what it is to be serious. Royston: “The idea that you might have to work hard to achieve something is not part of their experience.” [2]

Discipline is crucial. Dance is movement and when you are dancing, every movement you make becomes part of the dance. You must make the exact movements required, and nothing else. Royston explains to another teacher that at the beginning, the teachers must firmly impose discipline from the outside. Later, they can move away, give more space, as the discipline begins to come from the inside.

This parsimony of movement does not come naturally to many of the kids. Some continually talk among themselves, are distracted, unfocussed. Royston’s choreographer colleague says they have very little confidence, no strength, very little “articulation” and they talk to distract themselves from this knowledge. Some friends have to be separated because they use each other to avoid the task. “You must learn to do it by yourself, without your friend.” Royston speaks to the kids about friends who belittle you for your failings. “There is fear inside.” But “Your friend is someone who helps you to go higher. Are people who try to bring you down really your friends?”

I have seen a version of this film with English subtitles. Non-German speakers can understand much of the film available on video (no subtitles) because Royston and Simon Rattle speak English. The students, however, speak about their experiences in German. So it was from the conversations in that previous viewing that I recall being struck by a lack in many of them of any comprehension of artistic purpose – or perhaps I could expand that: of intrinsic purpose.

As musicians, good or bad, we understand that we are committing ourselves to creating a work or a performance that will find the essence of a musical “idea” and give it its best form. There probably are more elegant ways to express that but the point is that there is a purpose that is held within the artistic activity and outcome. Is this the best possible art I can make, right now?

Well, that’s what I think we are doing. Whether the music gets a lot of applause or sells a lot of copies is secondary, a downstream effect that may be gratifying but is not a part of the core intention. I know the world may not be that pure but I reckon that that is what Royston means by “serious”.

In their conversations, it seemed clear to me that the students simply did not know this thing that we as artists, good or bad, know in our core beings. They did not know the idea of creating art, for its own sake, according to its own particular values, or the discipline and immersion that is simply a part of living that purpose.

And so they did not know about it in the rest of their lives either. Discipline and immersion works for science or sport or even, I suppose, making money. Immersion in the arts is probably more powerful because it encompasses every aspect of a person: emotions, intellect, spirit, interactions with other artists or indeed, audiences, in music physical expression and of course, imagination, creativity.

Royston to the students: “You can change your life in a dance class.” And that, of course, is the main point of the project.

I once found myself a new dentist. He was a cheery fellow and his assistants smiled a great deal. He several times told me how pleased he was that I was there because he and his staff were very proud of his business and I was helping to make it a success. This did not produce the desired effect in me. I had gone there to get my tooth fixed, not to make him a successful businessman. I wondered whether in his spare moments he was reading dental journals or marketing books. If he were a good dentist, people would go to him and he would earn a good living. If he focused on good marketing, he needed only to avoid being a bad dentist.

Epilogue. The film ends with excerpts from the performance. Simon Rattle is very excited by this project and it shows: the orchestra is absolutely superb.

Behind the orchestra is the dance. Usually there might be 20 or 30 dancers for this big work. Here, there were 250! You have never seen such a dance. It’s quite brilliant. We are not talking Bolshoi here but the movement does everything it has to do.

And the kids get their pay-off: together, discovering the reward of being serious.


[2] Some of my quotations are approximate.

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