Analysing aural accompaniment for A-Level Dance with examples from the Independent Contemporary Dance Scene in Britain.

Vertical Road, performed at Leicester Theatre in 2010, choreographed by Akram Khan.
Photo: Laurent Zielgler,

Welcome to part 2 of analysing aural accompaniment within A-Level Dance. Part 1 focused on Rambert examples, which you can find here. As mentioned before, I am not a music teacher, and there are many approaches to tackling aural accompaniment examples within the context of Dance. I do believe that an aural accompaniment essay question is imminent, and so recently I have spent some more time focusing on how to describe the aural accompaniment in a range of works, which my students tend to struggle the most on. When describing music for evidence, I tend to focus on one or more of the following:

  • Identifying the instruments we can hear
  • Pace/speed of the music
  • Pitch of the instruments
  • Volume and layering of instruments to create highlights/climax
  • Rhythm/melody, and whether it is repetitive or not
  • Found sound e.g. footsteps, breath, voice/speech
  • How it makes you feel, and by extension, how it connects to the themes of the work
  • Musical relationships evident e.g. direct correlation, music visualisation.

Using this as a base, I will analyse the aural accompaniment for the following works, identifying the key features and analysing the connections between music and themes, and music and the development of the area of study it sits in.

  • Dust (2014) by Akram Khan
  • Xenos (2018) by Akram Khan
  • The Car Man (2000) by Matthew Bourne

Dust (2014) by Akram Khan

Point, Evidence, Explanation

  • Connection to starting point/themes:
    The aural accompaniment heard in section two of Dust supports the starting point of how women’s roles changed during World War 1. This section uses the aural accompaniment to support the imagery of the females as they become factory workers, making weapons for the war. During the female ensemble, the English National Ballet Orchestra play a repetitive, deep bass drum with two beats per count for a standard count of 8. This is overlapped by a quick rattling drum in the last 4 counts which increases in volume then stops suddenly. The dancers perform heavy, repetitive hammering and chopping gestures on a low centre of gravity. The drumming motif is then developed multiple times, where many moments echo the sound of a traditional marching band, and the rhythm becomes much less predictable. The choreography directly correlates by adding transitions such as turns, and developing the facings, timings and order of the gestures. Firstly, this suggests the idea that the female dancers were incredibly adaptable to the unpredictable and fast-moving changes that occurred at the start of WW1, as they were able to step up from their housewife roles to become Britain’s main workforce, with very little training and support. Secondly, the instruments used are synonymous with marching bands which are typically associated with the army, reinforcing the idea of hard work, manual labour, and having to work together. By combining this music with the female ensemble, Khan has made a statement about female empowerment and shedding light on the difficult roles women played during WW1.
  • Connection to the ICDSIB:
  • The collaboration between Akram Khan and the composer, Jocelyn Pook, led to a deeply haunting and unique use of aural accompaniment to connect the audience to the emotional relationships of the work, in combination with the movement vocabulary and the dancers performance skills.
  • Overlapping a woman’s voice and high pitched string instruments, we hear crackling and a man repeating “we’re here because, we’re here because, we’re here because we’re here” over and over again in a pattern where he sings the line twice, once increasing in pitch and once decreasing back down in pitch in a steady-paced and rhythmical manner. The voice is that of a real soldier from WW1 who recorded an interview to discuss how the soldiers kept up their spirits in long and gruelling marches, this chant being one of the songs they would sing. The soldier passed away not long after the recording was made. The recording quality is faint and the voice sounds distant, emerging through the crackling sounds. This creates a haunting, emotional effect and connects the audience to the subject matter on a human level. The male-female duet hold each other close, forehead to forehead, as they turn and step across the stage holding hands. They close their eyes every so often, and when they are open we can see love, loss and pain on their faces. The music builds slowly in tension and volume until the woman lets go and begins dancing on her own, with her arms held up as if she is dancing with an imaginary partner. Here, the music comes to a dramatic climax and we can hear deep drums and an increase in pace in the high pitched melody, suggesting that the moment she lets go and continues alone is an important moment in delivering the subject matter to the audience. The female dancer lives in the memory of her husband, lost to a war where the only hope and reason for it was simply fate – ‘we’re here because we’re here’. Together, Pook’s haunting and historical choice of aural accompaniment combined with Khan’s emotionally charged choreography creates an intensely emotional scene between two victims of war. This collaboration led to a unique and very human approach to the sensitive subject matter, supporting the ICDSIB’s characteristic use of challenging their audiences in experimental ways.

Xenos (2018) by Akram Khan

Point, Evidence, Explanation

  • Connection to starting point/themes:
    Xenos uses live Indian classical music in the pre-set of the show to challenge audiences cultural understanding and introduce the solo characters background before he is taken away from his home to fight for the British in WW1. The show opens with live solo vocalist and a musician, playing a pair of Indian Tabla drums which are placed on the floor in front of him. The Bayan (meaning left as it is played with the left hand) creates a deep pitched sound, forming the bass. The Dayan (meaning right and is played by the right fingertips) overlaps with a higher pitch. The musician plays a quick paced and rhythmical beat which varies at times, but maintains a consistent tone. The vocalist accompanies this with a series of long, held notes and quick rise and falls. The scene is meant to represent a traditional party. Khans first entrance onto the stage is that of being thrown heavily onto a thick rope he is clutching to his chest, and the sound instantly becomes muffled and distant. Khan looks around the stage, remaining on the floor for some time, appearing confused and disorientated to represent the way that the Indian soldiers were taken from their homes and thrown into war. During the creation of Xenos, the sound was conceived with the idea of shellshock and disorientation of the Indian soldiers in mind, so this opening scene not only sets a cultural reference of being in India, the distorted edit of the classical music is used to support the subject matter by making the audience feel just as confused and as though the dancer thrown on the stage is ‘out of place’ or ‘lost’.
  • How does this link to the independent contemporary dance scene in Britain?
    In an interview with Akram Khan and the composer, Vincenzo Lamagna, there was a discussion of accessibility and cultural differences, two key components of the independent contemporary dance scene today. Despite the heavily cultural references it was important to them that the work could also be accessible for non-Indian audiences, as a way to educate and challenge. It was mentioned that by starting this way Khan had noticed that white audiences often followed the lead of Indian audience members and revealed huge culture differences through the way in which they engaged with the musicians during the pre-show. Furthermore, by performing this work to school students they noted that they were able to reach audiences which would have never heard this style of music before. There was a balance to be made between the idea of making an accessible piece which was easy to follow and understand, whilst also wanting to challenge audiences on the history and emotional turmoil of the individual where there should be an expectation that audiences are educated and want to continue their research on this important topic.

The Car Man (2000) by Matthew Bourne

Point, Evidence, Explanation

  • Connection to themes and the ICDSIB:

Music influences Bourne’s structure of the narrative and the phrasing of the section by changing the pitch, tone and the mood of music to highlight darker storylines happening amidst the party. The engagement party scene begins with Shchedrin’s Carmen Suite: VIII. Bolero which has been edited to a faster pace. The orchestra play an upbeat, light, repetitive melody with percussion and string instruments such as a vibraphone, glockenspiel and the bongos which layer and repeat with different pitches. The accompaniment sets a playful and light mood, supporting the engagement party scene. However, there is a clear contrast as the music is broken by an ominous, deep, drawn-out sound which decreases in pitch as Dino witnesses his wife touching another mans leg, in correlation to the lights changing to a dark blue, spotlighting on the couple. After a few seconds the music returns to the upbeat composition, returning the audience back to the party. This happens three to four times with different scenes that depict adultery, jealousy and domestic violence, building up the tension in the scene, before the music abruptly stops and an argument breaks out between Dino and his wife. Bourne’s ability to very clearly establish a complex narrative through the structure of the music allows the audience to enjoy and interpret the film-score style music and subject matter in an entertaining and accessible way.

  • Connection to themes and the ICDSIB:
    Bourne has an alternative approach to aural accompaniment in the opening scenes of The Car Man, which sets the scene and continues to develop the ICDSIB. In the garage scene, the accompaniment is played by an orchestra and has a European feel. It is rhythmical and repetitive, and throughout the section the music builds in speed, volume and intensity. Edited on top of the composition we hear sounds that would be naturally heard in a garage such as drilling, bells and other machinery. There is also an emphasis on found sounds such as landing jumps whilst wearing heavy work boots and shouting or whistling to get their colleagues attention and be heard over the loud machinery. This makes the scene feel more realistic, supporting the dancers in fully embodying their character in the opening scene and immersing the audience into the world of a working-class Italian-American citizen. The effect is film-like, pushing the boundaries of dance as a way to communicate a cultural or social narrative without words, in a way which is entertaining, accessible, and experimental.

I hope that they provide some alternative interpretations and a good base to gain confidence in analysing accompaniment.


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