Artist Spotlight: Company Pianist Yoland Collin

From studio rehearsals to the orchestra pit at the theatre, PBT Company Pianist Yoland Collin needs to understand the choreography nearly as intimately as the dancers do. And this month at the August Wilson Center, PBT’s Unspoken program will spotlight Collin’s virtusoic accompaniment in Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes, a live piano solo for this Pittsburgh premiere. Here, Collin discusses the unique demands of accompanying dance.

Click here to view a video segment of Collin playing one of Virgil Thomson’s Etudes for Piano, Double Glissando.

Mark Morris is known for his “undeviating devotion to music.” As a pianist, how do you think the choreography reflects this music?  

When you watch Drink To Me you quickly realize that it is based on what I  would like to call “visual vignettes.” Each vignette consists of a distinctive step or a short series of steps that Mark Morris uses throughout the ballet in various combinations to create a complete work of art. I see a similitude between Piano Etudes and these vignettes in the sense that they are also distinctive technical or musical elements which are purposefully isolated to be worked on and conquered; “technical vignettes,” if you will, that are ultimately used in various combinations to create a more elaborate work. Also, and this might be pure coincidence, I noticed that there are 12 dancers dancing 12 Etudes accompanied by a piano which has 12 tones in a chromatic scale.

Mark Morris’ choreography ideally reflects the style and atmosphere of Virgil Thomson’s Etudes; nothing is overly aggressive or utterly expansive. The piece conveys a sense of (fake) simplicity with a dose of originality and a pinch of humor here and there.

Many of the piano etudes have witty titles that seem to suggest an underlying quirkiness to the music. How would you describe the mood and technique of this piece?

Each Etude (or Exercise) is actually titled after a very specific difficulty of piano technique. Oscillating Arms, Fingered Fifth, Broken Arpeggios, etc., are all part of the standard pianist lingo.

Virgil Thomson’s music always seems to have a certain quirkiness to it. He was a rather eclectic and definitely individualistic composer who always marched to his own drum. He seemed to be totally impervious to the trends and likes of his colleagues and contemporaries.

Balanchine’s Serenade & Tudors’ Jardin Aux Lilas – also on the Unspoken program – are also noted for their intense musicality. Are there any particular parts of these ballets that you note most as a musician?  

Serenade is one of my favorite ballets because the genius and the beauty of  Tchaikovsky’s music are thoroughly matched by Balanchine’s amazing choreography.  It is one of those ballets that is as beautiful and relevant today as it was the day is was created.

Lilac Garden is choreographed using Ernest Chausson’s marvelously expressive Poème op.28 which is one of the pillars of the classical violin repertory. I look forward to seeing the piece more and more as I am new to Tudor’s style. No doubt this is a masterpiece and the PBT dancers do an amazing job at conveying all the wide range of emotions that appear in this 17 min story ballet.

Describe your rehearsal process to prepare for a live piano solo like this?

I start working on a piece several months before the dancers. I like to come in the studio well prepared so no time is wasted on me trying to figure out the music while they learn the steps. Once the rehearsals at PBT have started, I keep track in my score of key steps and/or sections. This allows us to stop and start more easily. Throughout the learning process, I research and familiarize myself with the best way to interpret the piece so the dancers can feel comfortable and always look their best. All of this is done while respecting the vision of the choreographer and the integrity of the music. I also enjoy reading about the composer and the choreographer, and watch or listen to some of their other works. It gives me a better perspective on the ballet we are working on.

In addition to accompanying many PBT performances, you also play the piano every day for the company’s two-hour ballet class. Describe the parameters that you use to determine the music you’ll play each morning.

A ballet class follows a certain structure. Exercises (or combinations as they are called in ballet) are done in a certain order to allow the dancers to progressively warm up their bodies while working on their technique. Each combination varies in length and tempo, but is always done in phrases of 8 counts with a very clear beat. During class, while the teacher demonstrates an exercise, it is my job to find on-the-spot music that will incorporate all of these elements of rhythm, tempo and phrasing. In order to avoid monotony, I like to include different styles of music to my classes by playing show tunes, jazz, popular songs, etc. Being able to improvise is also a big savior when the right music for a combination is not at hand.

What are some of the unique challenges and rewards of accompanying dance? Do you alter or adapt your playing in any way?

I like to think that playing for dance is like playing for chamber music. There is a certain symbiosis that has to take place between all of the players in order to create a pleasant and successful experience. After all, dancers’ bodies are their instruments.

It is most rewarding to me when I feel that we are all on the same page; that the music and the dance all work hand in hand. Nobody is pushing or dragging anyone. It is all flowing naturally and in harmony.

I also try to be very attentive to the different types of dancers we have in the Company: some move faster than others, some jump higher than others, and some are more expressive than others. Those differences all call for constant and minute adjustments in my playing.

Outside of the ballet, what are your favorite composers or pieces to choose for recreational playing?

I don’t have much time for recreational playing unfortunately. Rachmaninoff’s music remains my all-time favorite because it has all of the elements that I like in music: structure, depth and range of emotions, virtuosity and, of course, sheer genius!