Barbara Hannigan's Got Rhythm

On Thursday 17 February conductor and soprano Barbara Hannigan returns to the Barbican in a transatlantic celebration of all things theatrical with music from Copland, Offenbach and Weill.

The performance is tied together by dance rhythms and stage motifs, transporting us from the racy burlesque and can-can, to the waltz and habanera. Read on to delve deeper into the origins of just some of the dances and styles which will be featured on the night.


The Can-can was born in the 1840s in the music halls of France. It was originally danced by couples but is now traditionally associated with one chorus line of female dancers. The dance is characterised by its high-energy and risqué style which has the dancers performing high kicks, splits and cartwheels.

In popular culture, the can-can dancers of Paris were immortalised in the sketches and paintings of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and other 19th century artists.

In music, it is Jacques Offenbach who is most closely associated with the can-can. His music for the operetta Orpheus in the Underworld (1858) mocks the classical tale of Orpheus and Eurydice and is famous for containing a can-can in the ‘Galop’ in Act Two. Offenbach’s can-can became synonymous with the dance when, some 15 years later, the Paris nightclubs the Moulin Rouge and the Folies Bergère adopted it as the regular music for their can-can. In 2001, Baz Luhrmann based his musical romantic drama Moulin Rouge! (starring Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor) around the famous can-can club with settings of the dance to modern pop classics.

Moulin Rouge // Can Can Can


Many dances are named after their characteristics – be they style, personality or movement – and the waltz is no different. The waltz gets its name from the German walzen meaning to revolve. This is a very neat description of the ballroom dance hailing from Southern Germany and Austria.

So, back to where it began. It was in the 18th century that the waltz evolved from the folk dance the Ländler which was made up of a step, slide and step in three time. At first the waltz shocked high society as couples embrace very closely throughout, however it soon became the ballroom dance par excellence of the 19th century and distinct versions of the dance, like the Viennese and Boston Waltz, made their way onto the dance floor.

The waltz was a great source of inspiration for many composers, particularly in the 19th century. The Austrian Strauss dynasty were the waltz superfans of the day and Johann Strauss the Younger, who composed the famous Blue Danube Waltz (1866), gained the nickname ‘the Waltz King’ because he was such an enthusiast. The waltz also transferred well for solo instruments such as the piano. Composers like Frédéric Chopin and Johannes Brahms wrote very pleasing waltzes for the instrument.

 viennese waltz
Vladimir Pervunesnky The Viennese Waltz (1957)


Unlike many of the other styles present in the programme on 17 February, burlesque crosses many artforms. The term can be applied to literature, art, dance and music. Burlesque derives from the Italian noun burla meaning a joke or mockery, and when applied to artforms it denotes a type of caricature.

For many people burlesque is most closely associated with female chorus line dancers, scantily-clad and with large feather cover-ups. The modern-day icon of burlesque performance is Dita Von Teese whose party trick is performing in a martini glass. In essence, burlesque aims to entertain by teasing as the performer allows the audience glimpses of nudity in comical and flirtatious ways. Burlesque performance is as much about storytelling and comedy as it is sensuality and anticipation.

In music, it was from the early-18th century onwards that the label burlesque could readily be applied to music. It featured mainly in the operetta form – short, comic operas. Composers like Igor Stravinsky were particularly successful at injecting burlesque motifs into their music, for example in his one-act ballet Renard (1916) and in the ballet Petrushka (1911) which was subtitled ‘a burlesque in four scenes’. However, the use of burlesque was not limited to classical music. Well-known ragtime melodies mock famous pieces of classical music for example George L Cobb’s Russian Rag which travesties Serge Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C-sharp minor.

 Petrushka c The Rudolf Nureyev Foundation
Rudolf Nureyev dancing in Petrushka 


The polka is a dance rooted in Eastern Europe, and, more specifically the territory of Bohemia, now part of the Czech Republic. The folk dance is characterised by three quick steps and a hop, danced in 2/4 time. It is thought that the dance got its name from the Czech word půlka, which means half, and is thought to refer to the lively, jumpy nature of the dance.

The polka remained a provincial folk dance until the 1830s when it made its way into the popular ballrooms of Prague, and then later Vienna and Paris. The dance also moved with Eastern émigrés to their new territories – most notably the US. It grew in popularity in the US and particularly came to the fore after World War II, as many American soldiers enjoyed dancing the polka in continental Europe.

Generally, the polka was written for orchestra, with many composers writing music in the style of a polka – Bedřich Smetana includes the dance in his opera The Bartered Bride (1866), for example. As with the waltz, the Strauss family were partial to a polka. Johann Strauss II’s Tritsch-Tratsch-Polka (1858) is a famous example and well-known tune. This piece appears in a chase scene in the James Bond film Moonraker (1979), where Bond drives a gondola through St Mark’s Square in Venice. Although the polka is generally written for orchestra there are examples for solo piano too, such as Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Polka Op 39.

Habanera (Contradanza)

The story behind the Habanera begins in France and not Cuba. In the 18th century a form of folk dance called the contredanse grew in popularity in France and Europe. The dance then travelled over to the Americas through trade becoming popular across the continent.

However, it was in 19th century Cuba that the dance became important. In Havana, Cuba’s capital, the contredanse collided with African rhythm patterns. Soon enough the dance blended into something else entirely – the habanera. The name comes from the adjective habanera which in Spanish describes someone or something from Havana. From the habanera came other Cuban dances too such as the mambo and cha-cha-cha.

The newly formed habanera travelled back to Europe through Spain and found its way into classical music. Famous examples of habanera in music include Bizet’s Carmen, Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole and Camille Saint-Saёns’ Havanaise.


The tango is a distinctly Argentine dance. It comes from the docks of Buenos Aires in the La Boca district. After a hard day’s work sailors and dockyard porters went in search of a way to let off steam … and ended up in music halls and brothels. But what was there to keep them entertained? The simple and cheap answer – dance. Many of the occupants of these places could not afford to capture the attentions of sex workers and so dancing with them was off the cards. The next best alternative was to dance with one’s fellow working men. This is how the tango came to be born – two men dancing side-by-side.

Characteristically the tango is a passionate dance complete with fluid movements interrupted by sudden, sharp movements. It grew in popularity and was brought back to Europe where it was neutralised and shaped into a more palatable (for European audiences of the time) ballroom dance.

Tango music was originally played on solo guitar or guitar with voice and accordion. In the 20th century it became a rich source of inspiration for popular musicians like Carlos Gardel and composers including Astor Piazzolla, Heitor Villa-Lobos and Victor Villadangos.

LSO musicians Germán Clavijo (viola), Sam Walton (percussion) and José Moreira (bass) perform Astor Piazzolla's Oblivion

On Thursday 17 February Barbara Hannigan shows London she’s got rhythm. Join us in person at the Barbican or watch  the livestream on Takt1.

For a taste of what’s to come watch Barbara Hannigan performing Weill’s Youkali here.

Thursday 17 February 7pm (Barbican)

Copland Music for the Theatre
Haydn Symphony No 90
Offenbach arr Rosenthal Selections from ‘La Gaîté Parisienne’
Weill arr Elliot Youkali; Lost in the Stars

Barbara Hannigan conductor & soprano
London Symphony Orchestra

Tickets: £60 £48 £35 £24 £18
£3 online booking fee, £4 telephone booking fee per transaction - click here for more information on booking fees




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