• Collected
  • Article

Dance On Air

How I put ballet on the radio


‘How can you put ballet on the radio?’ everyone asks me. I became a radio producer and I love dance. I had to try.

My first attempt was to make a radio version of the 1928 one-act ballet Apollo, which was choreographed by George Balanchine to a score by Igor Stravinsky. In it, the young god Apollo learns how to make music then invites three muses to perform for him. They are Calliope and Polyhymnia, muses who use epic poetry and mime to tell stories, and Terpsichore, who simply dances. Apollo selects Terpsichore as his ideal partner, and they ascend to Mount Olympus. The work asks: what is essential to ballet? It answers: dancing to music. Its tone is playful and ideal. Its look has absolute clarity. Although it incorporates music and movements from the baroque to the jazzy, the ballet feels uncluttered and simple.

Apollo — A Ballet For Radio, which was first broadcast on BBC Radio 3 in 1995, describes Apollo from start to finish, in the present tense and in time to the music. Like the ballet, the programme has a small cast: two dancers and two writers. Four speakers for a 45-minute programme (five, including the music): unusually minimal but I learned from the simplicity and eliminations of Balanchine and Stravinsky. I wanted to bring the ballet to life in the mind of the listener in a meaningful way, conjuring up not just the central images (in order), but also the belief system of the world on stage — a place of openness and optimism, both divine and funny.

Radio is bad at abstraction. Whatever the subject, we need to put specific pictures into the listener’s mind. Speech BBC Radio stations feel to me like they follow journalistic structures and many programmes are forms of critical argument. Description usually gets minimised in the edit (just as readers leap over descriptive passages in novels, for the plot). But description – of the dance – would be central to my programme.

Obviously, it would have to be intelligently done and not step-by-step like in a comedy sketch. I felt inspired by the dance writing of the critic Edwin Denby, an American poet, and by the New Yorker’s Arlene Croce, whose 1978 article ‘News From the Muses’ is a wonderful study of Apollo. Croce and Denby developed a distinctive style of dance writing by using metaphor, imagery and rhythm, and by being deeply informed about dance. Their dance writing was sufficient in itself, and a kind of art of its own.

The casting of the programme was essential. I invited the Radio 3 broadcaster, Christopher Cook, to be the interviewer (whose questions I would edit out). I approached two former New York City Ballet dancers who had been taught their stage roles in Apollo by the choreographer Balanchine: Suzanne Farrell and Edward Villella would ‘be’ Terpsichore and Apollo, and would describe their characters’ journeys scene by scene.

Arlene Croce (of the New Yorker) would illuminate the view from the stalls and Stephen Walsh, Stravinsky’s biographer, the music. So when the ‘dancers’ described how they made the shape of a sunburst on stage, Croce would (as if whispering to us from the stalls) relate that sunburst to the birth of ballet at the court of the Sun King, Louis XIV, and Walsh would point out that we were listening to Stravinsky’s version of a seventeenth-century pavane.

I wanted the programme to ask the listener, ‘Did you notice…?’, as the critic, Edwin Denby, did in his Dance Writings: ‘Did you see,’ Denby wrote of a 1938 US performance of Apollo, ‘the way Balanchine shows you how strangely tall a dancer is?’

‘The three muses are coming from different corners… walking as if he [Apollo] were a magnet to them. There are wonderful triangles…’ began Farrell, on the radio. The ‘dancers’ were similar in character to the roles they were portraying. Farrell described Terpsichore as ‘unperturbed, unflustered, kinda like quicksilver’ — as is she. Once, she digressed in praise of the naming of a part of West 63rd Street in Manhattan as ‘George Balanchine Way’ (and not George Balanchine Boulevard or Street): ‘It is a way… but getting back to this particular performance… She does an arabesque…’ I love that moment, as the music (which had been quiet while she digressed) sets back off with her and her dance.

Eddie Villella’s Apollo was wild boy, soccer-player, eagle and matador — a young god rather than a figure of portent or grandeur. Villella, on his digression from actually ‘dancing’, remembered Balanchine despairing of him during rehearsal: ‘Dancers are poets of gesture and there’s no poetry in your gesture!’

We were trying to do what poets do, dealing in image and rhythm. For example, early in Apollo’s solo, Arlene Croce talked about circles on stage as we heard them in the music: she related the big circling arm of Apollo as he plays his lute to the musical notation for unstopped strings at that moment in Stravinsky’s score — which is represented by a circle. And the circle, she said, is a symbol of perfection.

Apollo and its successor programme, Agon, went well. BBC Radio encouraged Christopher and I to make profiles of important modern and postmodern American choreographers. We met William Forsythe, Mark Morris, Trisha Brown and Paul Taylor.

When trying to bring choreographers’ stage works to life, I find it helpful to describe the landscapes that they actually live in and are inspired by. Taylor (macabre and joyful) pauses in the interview, because he’s seen a sudden burst of fireflies on his Long Island shore; insects are a serious hobby and influence his work. Hearing his reaction to the flying beetles, the listener is in effect seeing his work, which can be like a burst of fireflies; it has the same kind of weird light.

Or we open Brown’s window in Manhattan and hear the difference between the noise outside the building and the quiet inside, the kind of transition that might fascinate her and be transformed into a component of a Trisha Brown piece; at least, it galvanises the listener to be alert to that kind of sensuous detail. We gaze at the high buildings that are like the ones a Brown dancer walked down the side of in her 1970 dance, Man Walking Down the Side of a Building; we are at the window that she ran to, in 2001, when a plane flew past heading for the Twin Towers, which people fell down the side of. So simply being in Brown’s high-up home in Manhattan makes us feel the vertigo that her formal dances manage, with their tight structures.

Architects and naturalists are good metaphor providers, when trying to characterise dance in this way. To cover the radical off-kilter moves of William Forsythe’s choreography, we asked the architect Daniel Libeskind, designer of off-kilter buildings, to evoke the impact Forsythe’s work had on him.

Mixed well, the whole profile blends into a dance. Radio itself doesn’t have physical scenery; I can elide sound worlds — mixing music and traffic, for example, or bringing birdsong indoors. And there’s no ‘on stage’ and ‘off stage’ — no need to alternate pedantically between interview and illustration.

I also try to edit in the musical spirit of the choreographers’ work, from jump cuts to leisurely charm. ‘This is so boring!’ Paul Taylor says, drolly — I’ve asked him to describe, as it happens, the opening of Esplanade, his classic of running and leaping. While watching a video of the performance, he inhales smoke and blows it out again. Soon our programme is breathing in time to the dance. Voice is a great dancer too.

The character of the choreographer, properly elicited in interview, will help bring their work to life. When Christopher Cook and I sit in a small hotel room with the choreographer, Mark Morris, we can’t help but describe his multi-coloured shoe collection. Or another Morris image comes to me: young Mark in his Seattle warehouse, smoking, alternately playing Erik Satie’s Socrate (a 1919 work for piano and voice that quotes Plato) and Thai pop music on record players at either side of his bed, on some hopeful trip amongst the polyrhythms. Given this picture, the listener grasps the musicality and optimism of Morris’s work.

I have been describing my work as a producer, not as a writer. But these programmes were nonetheless inspired by the dance-writing tradition that developed in America in the second half of the twentieth century. It was writers, and sometimes poets, who helped me find answers to the question: ‘how do you put dance on the radio?’ I make programmes that sound like the dance pieces they’re about. I use image, rhythm, breath, landscape, personality and the present tense in a perennial ‘quest for the moment’ — as Arlene Croce once put it.

Frances Byrnes produces radio documentaries and writes radio drama. Her next radio drama is a two-part adaptation of Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, for broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in April 2017.

You might also like:

Unfinished apartment block in Spain. Photo: bridgendboy, Canva Pro.
Collected Article


Catherine O’Flynn – once described as ‘The J. G. Ballard of Birmingham – on broken utopias and the realities behind…

Writers from the WritersMosaic/Hawthornden writing retreat, May 2024, in Emilia-Romagna, Italy
WritersMosaic Article

A love letter to the writers who will come after me

Writer Saima Mir reflects on her experience at the inaugural WritersMosaic/Hawthornden Foundation retreat, which took place in May 2024 in…

June 24 RLF Fellows publications
RLF News Article

RLF Fellows’ News: June 2024

Publishing RLF Fellow Lucy Caldwell’s new volume of short stories, Openings, was recently published by Faber. John Self, who reviewed…

Royal Literary Fund Substack

View our Substack. All our articles are free to read and are written by either the RLF team or our contributing writers.

Subscribe on Substack