Sign in to follow this  
Followers 0
Yvonne

"The Great American Ballerina" (or.... what's in a name, anyway?)

31 posts in this topic

Many times when I am reading a book or magazine article about ballet that was written in the late 70's or early 80's, I am struck by the number of times that either Patricia McBride or Cynthia Gregory is mentioned as "The Great American Ballerina"! (personally, I would be more inclined to go with either Farrell or Kirkland)

What really interests me about this topic is how LITTLE McBride or Gregory are ever mentioned on this board when we are all discussing who our favorite dancers are and/or great performances that we remember. There are many of you that have seen a lot of the "greats" in ballet - what do think about these two dancers?

Even a great dancer like Martine VanHamel (who probably never got half as many opening nights as Gregory or McBride), is discussed and posted about on this board much more than McBride or Gregory.

Any thoughts about these two (seldom discussed) ballerinas? Who do YOU think was the "Great American Ballerina" of the 50's, 60's, 70's or 80's?? Perhaps, to an extent, Darci Kistler was the American ballerina of the 90's.....

[This message has been edited by Yvonne (edited March 06, 2001).]

Share this post


Link to post

Interesting question. I can't ever remember reading that McBride was the "great American ballerina" (in the popular sense; she certainly was beloved by NYCB fans.)

Gregory got a lot of press in the 1970s, but, unfortunately, it was mostly along the lines of "Giant Ballerina in Fruitless Search for Tall Partner. Cynthia Gregory, who stands over six feet tall when on pointe, is perhaps America's greatest ballerina. . . "

I do remember reading that if you asked Mr. and Mrs. America to name an American ballerina in the 1960s, it would be Melissa Hayden. Before that, it would be, I think, Danilova or Alonso.

As far as McBride and Gregory as dancers, I think they were both very highly regarded. Personally, I didn't know how much I liked McBride until Heather Watts started taking over her roles; then I became a rabid fan. smile.gif Gregory, to me, was an excellent technician, and I saw a few performances of Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty that were absolutely perfect. (She did the turns in Swan Lake Act II more beautifully than anyone I've ever seen; it was as if she were sliding effortlessly over glass.) I admired her, but she never once moved me. I didn't think she had a sense of who she was as a ballerina. She was the first Sylphide that I saw and in that, and Giselle, her size and style were just dead wrong. Alan Kriegsman wrote of her Giselle, "She bounds out of her cottage looking all the world as though she's ready for Wimbledon."

Others?

Share this post


Link to post

I only saw Gregory perform live a few times, and it didn't make that much impression on me, but I think there is a good record of her on film in the late '70's telecast of Sleeping Beauty with ABT. As Alexandra mentioned, it's a fine role for her and the production is solid.

I remember not being interested in seeing ABT in the classics when I was studying in the mid-80's, but y'know, when you look at the productions from the late 70's on film and compare it to what we've got now, I feel very ungrateful. They may not have been the best in recorded history, but they were conceptually solid.

------------------

Leigh Witchel - dae@panix.com

Personal Page and Dance Writing

Dance as Ever

Share this post


Link to post

I loved Gregory. She had the most glamorous, 'snooty European princess' countenance on the stage. Very UN-American...and, hence, a true 'Prima Ballerina Look', IMO. No apple pie-and-milk-toast in her style. When she performed the Clapping Solo from RAYMONDA, Act III, she spared no prisoners.

Share this post


Link to post

Different perceptions are so interesing. (I agree she was grand in Raymonda, Jeannie.) I always thought Gregory very unglamorous, American and without a style -- beautiful body and beautiful technique, but a plain Jane as far as style was concerned. I've given a lecture several times at local universities, showing clips of videos, several versions of the same performance, to show students how the same choreography can look different danced by different people (something that often, especially university level modern dancers, have never considered) and I use that Sleeping Beauty: Gregory, then Fonteyn, then Kolpakova.

I always thought Gregory was an unawakened dancer -- absolutely pure, a clean slate, textbook technique, just waiting for someone to create ballets for her and awaken her dancing personality.

I think that Gregory and Van Hamel (both big women fighting over those tall partners, both dancing with the same company in the same roles at the same time) were "either/ors" for many people.

Share this post


Link to post

Agreed, Alexandra. These differing perceptions are amazing, aren't they? I remember when you once wrote (or told me face-to-face?) that a certain Ballerina-x is wonderful but so small-scaled in approach. I nearly fell out of my chair, as I consider this same Ballerina-X to be a veritable Gargantua in both style & physique!

Back to Gregory. Tall, true...but, to me, she was so fine-boned and elongated that I would never, ever have compared her to Van Hamel. Regarding Prima-Donna Style, I only saw Gregory "live" in the 1980s; perhaps she wasn't quite as grand in the 1970s? I only remember Gregory in all of her "kick-ass-prima-donna" glory! I often thought of her 1980s contemporaries at ABT -- especially Cynthia Harvey & Susan Jaffe -- as merely going through the motions & trying really, really hard to be as queenly as Gregory. - Jeannie

[This message has been edited by Jeannie (edited March 06, 2001).]

Share this post


Link to post

I think there were lots of great American ballerinas, who did different things well. MacBride was a wonderful wonderful dancer, who I think had a capacity to look different in different roles, always with a special charm, but was more of an artist than a superstrong personality. (I mean that as a compliment.) But I think it is limiting to try to rank dancers to try to come up with the BEST whatever, in this case American ballerina; that might be nice for PR but isn't necessary for anyone who goes often. I also think it is bad for ballet in general to stress stars too much. Ballet is so much more, and if ABT, for instance, in the 70's and 80's when there were real stars, had worked to develop a real company and a less star-struck audience, it might have been better off when the stars disappeared.

Share this post


Link to post

I saw Gregory late in her career and her "Swan Lake" was a marvel. I have her on tape in "Sleeping Beauty" and I think it's one of the best I've seen. She has stated that she felt overlooked during her career because of the popularity of foreign/guest dancers (read that Makarova). She enjoyed dancing with Bujones (very short) because the two of them egged each other on to greater performances. One of my favorite quotes from her was a reply to a question about could she do such-and-such a step; she said, "Give me 5 minutes and I can do anything!", and I think she could.

Giannina

Share this post


Link to post

Cargill, I agree about not ranking dancers to see who is the "best", but often when reading about ballet, some authors seem determined to do just that.

Perhaps what they are attempting to do is put a lable (in this case "The Greatest American Ballerina") to whoever they felt best "embodied" a certain feel and style of the times. smile.gif That term seemed to be used a lot in the 70's and 80's, when there were a lot famous Russian dancers in the big American companies - maybe for some, it was important for this country to also have a "great" "home-bred" American dancer as well and to some writers Gregory and/or McBride fit the bill! smile.gif

Share this post


Link to post

Giannina, I think Gregory had a case when she said she was overlooked because of Makarova (as Bujones did, because of Baryshnikov). It seems odd now, but in the 1970s there was either patriotic, or xenophobic, feeling about ABT. I remember one performance -- the premiere of John Neumeier's "Hamlet Connotations" for Baryshnikov, Marcia Haydee, Erik Bruhn and Gelsey Kirkland; it was soundly booed -- when people started to leave, a group of fans, mostly young men with very loud voices, blocked the aisles yelling, "Stick with the River!! Stick with the River!!! This is AMERICAN Ballet Theatre." Gregory and Bujones gave many interviews where they expressed the opinion that they should have pride of place in an American company. (This was a time when the European companies didn't allow Americans to dance with them. You could dance with the Royal Ballet if you were from a Commonwealth country, and, later, from the EEC, but not from America.) So in that context, they had a case. On the other hand, Makarova and Baryshnikov were Makarova and Baryshnikov.

Yvonne, I agree about the "best." I think there's a "top rank," there's a certain top level, but there are so many factors in "the best" that it seems fruitless -- but people are always asking for it. "Who's the best? Who's the greatest?"

Share this post


Link to post

Mcbride was a sensational Swanilda in the Balanchine/Danilova Coppelia. Just brilliant in her allegro dancing -- fast, sharp, vivid -- and wonderful in the pantomime as well. At one point, she had a series of brises that were about as stunning as Barshnikov's in Act II of Giselle! For years, I could not see this production without recalling her performance...As already said above, though, she was terrific in a range of roles. There is a black and white film of Tarantella with Villela and Mcbride in which their speed and exuberance appear unmatchable -- but I don't know if this has been made available on video. I never saw her in Tchaikovsky pas de deux but an old acquaintance once claimed that in the finale, when the ballerina leaps into her partner's arms and he (more or less) immediately dips her head downwards into a quasi fish dive, Mcbride jumped so daringly that she was already plunging head downwards. (This would probably have been with Villela or Tomasson.) Didn't see this myself...but saw enough of Mcbride to know she had that kind of quality on stage. Balanchine set quite a few roles on her...

Gregory doesn't live in my memories as other dancers do, but I'm don't know if that's a reflection on her...I certainly admired Gregory when she was dancing -- including performances of the Russian classics, especially Swan Lake. Towards the end of her career she danced a surprizingly "take no prisoners" performance of Fall River Legend.

I did sometimes wonder if Gregory's failure to find an ideal partner was merely a matter of height. She didn't seem dramatically different to me whether she was dancing with Kivitt or Meehan or Godunov etc. (Croce once wrote that she responded well to Meehan, but Meehan's partnering triumph at ABT always seemed to me to be with the much smaller Kirkland, especially in Three Preludes, but Kirkland was a ballerina who often really responded to her partners.) However, I never saw Gregory with Bujones, and I admit that by the time she was dancing with him, I had become more interested in other ballerinas.

Gregory sometimes complained in interviews that ABT exploited her sheer technical ability -- casting her in flashy pas de deux etc. Yet Peter Anastos claimed in an interview that when he tried to choreograph something more lyrical for her, she was unhappy with that...(Of course, she may have been unhappy w. it for other reasons.) I did see her once in Giselle and thought that far from looking as if she were ready for Wimbledon in Act I, she had subdued herself unnecessarily -- and danced with a rather pretty and softer than usual quality, though the mad scene was not memorable. (Perhaps she was responding to criticisms of the kind Alexandra quoted!) However, Act II seemed very stylistically "off" to me, very unsuited to her strengths as a dancer. At her best, she had an authority and technical confidence on stage that a lot of the principal women at ABT today lack. In this regard -- though I sound a bit critical -- my overall opinion is closer to Jeannie's...

[This message has been edited by Drew (edited March 07, 2001).]

Share this post


Link to post

Drew, thanks for the interesting comments about McBride. For being such a well-known dancer, she hasn't been mentioned very much on this board (at least not since I've been hanging around) - it was nice to read something about her! smile.gif

Share this post


Link to post

Yvonne, there was at least one McBride thread and she has been discussed, but I can't remember when (and I'm not sure it made it through our several emergency prunings-for-space.)

Share this post


Link to post

About Cynthia Gregory: I has first heard about her because she was mentioned in books about the former POB principal Michael Denard, who had partnered her at ABT in the early 70s. Did some members of this board see them together?

Share this post


Link to post

Estelle, that's how I first heard of Denard -- that he'd been brought in to partner Gregory smile.gif I didn't see them, but I did see her perform with another POB star, Charles Jude, when he was only 19. They did Giselle. I never liked Gregory in Giselle, but I liked Jude very much and always wish I had seen more of him.

I haven't even seen Denard on film for more than a few seconds. He certainly *looks* as though he were one of the rare, true danseur nobles.

Share this post


Link to post

I wish I had seen more of Jude too, I saw him only in the last few years of his POB career and he didn't dance often. Now he's leading a company in Bordeaux, and I think he still dances from time to time.

About Denard: haven't you seen the tape of "La Sylphide" filmed with Thesmar and Denard around 1971? (Paradoxially, it's unavailable in France, but I managed to get it thanks to a Japanese friend of mine). As far as I know, this is the only long video of him.

Why was it so difficult for Cynthia Gregory to find a suitable partner in her company? Was it just a question of height? (Denard was tall, but not exceptionally tall, I think).

Share this post


Link to post

The artistry of Denard lives on in his videos/telecasts, including the complete "original" LA SYLPHIDE (Lacotte, after Taglioni - Schneitzhoffer music) and MARCO SPADA (Lacotte, after Mazilier - Auber music). In both cases, he partnered Ghislaine Thesmar, who appears to be a rather tall ballerina (long & thin, like Gregory). - Jeannie

Share this post


Link to post

Estelle - I believe that you posted concurrently with me. The MARCO SPADA is a full, VERY long ballet. I'm not sure if it was commercially available in France but was telecast over the RAI network in Italy a number of times in the 1980s. Denard danced the "young romantic" male lead, Federico...but had the unenviable task of having to share the stage with Rudolf Nureyev in the title role of the "older father figure"! Somehow, "old papa" managed to dance the leading pas de deux with his "stage daughter" Thesmar! - Jeannie

Share this post


Link to post

Estelle, yes, of course, I'd forgotten about *that* "La Syphide" smile.gif

I think Gregory really did need a tall partner. I saw her a few times offstage and she was model thin (rather looked like a fashion model, I thought) but on stage she was big, and she danced on a very grand scale. I don't mean that she was at all heavy, but she wasn't delicate, and if she was really six foot one on pointe (and I have no reason to doubt that) then she needed a man who was either six foot three (good luck) or at least had a very commanding presence.

I have never understood why some dancers look bigger or smaller on stage than they do off; I suppose it's partly body proportions and partly personal magetism or projection.

One of the magazine's fantasy pairings at that time was Gregory with Martins. In a way, it would have been wonderful -- all that power -- and in another, they were perhaps a bit too similar. I think they did dance together at galas or special occasions (perhaps only once; I don't recall the number).

Share this post


Link to post

How did Gregory look next to Godunov? I don't know how tall he was, but he looked over six feet in the photographs I've seen.

I don't know how well they danced together, or how long they were a "partnership", but he left ABT, didn't he? Or did Baryshnikov or the other "powers that be" give him his walking papers?

Did Gregory ever dance with Patrick Bissell (quite tall), or was that a little before his time?? smile.gif

Share this post


Link to post

How interesting that I should find this thread after posting about Gregory on the "who do you miss" thread. And McBride! What a strong, appealing and versatile artist. I should've mentioned her in that thread, too. McBride certainly owns Swanilda for me -- I've never seen another dancer come close.

It was interesting to get so many takes on Gregory. I think she certainly did get lost in the shuffle of the Seventies and Eighties, as did Marianna Tcherkassky, another beautiful and gifted ABT ballerina.

I don't recall Gregory and Godunov together, but I did think he looked smashing with Martine van Hamel. While tidying up a closet, I found a program from an old gala at the Met which lists Gregory as dancing the Corsaire pas with Peter Martins. I must've been there, yet I remember nothing of it. Oh well.

Grizzled veterans of BA and aab will forgive me for bringing this up again, but since we're on the subject, I have to say I've never seen any other woman dance the killer solo from Grand Pas Classique while smoking a cigarette with quite the panache of Gregory.

Share this post


Link to post

Estelle -- when you started a thread on Thesmar and Denard some time ago, I posted something about seeing Denard and Gregory dance a contemporary ballet pas de deux, "Unfinished Symphony." I was very young -- so I can't vouch for my judgement -- but I thought they were very beautiful together. However, nothing came of that pairing...Denard did not, say, become a regular visiter with ABT.

Godunov was the right "height" for Gregory, and when he first appeared with ABT she gave interviews full of optimism about dancing with him. One rather gathered she was also looking forward to the attention dancing with one of the "defectors" would get as well. (N.B. I do NOT blame her for this.) However, they never became a special "partnership" though they did dance together. I saw them at one of the first performances (if not the very first) of Makarova's full length Bayadere. Gregory was dancing Gamzatti and in the sequences in which she and Godunov had to dance together they were entirely out of sync. At one point in the choreography Gamzatti and Solor are side by side facing the audience and then leap forward jointly towards the audience -- they did not once jump on the same beat. I'm pretty sure I saw them after that...I remember Gregory in Giselle and I remember Godunov in Giselle, so I'm guessing that I saw them dance it together. Certainly I never saw them dance together as awkwardly as that Bayadere which, to be fair, was their first pairing together.

Height was, of course, the main problem for Gregory in finding a partner -- but Gregory also didn't have what I would call a porous temperament onstage. That's what made me wonder occasionally (as mentioned above) if she was really open to the sheer "chemical" or "elective" affinity that seems part of what makes a great partnership.

[This message has been edited by Drew (edited March 08, 2001).]

Share this post


Link to post

Gregory always seemed to me to be "selling" herself to the audience in the worst possible way. She never gave the audience a chance to discover her on their own. She was always "in-your-face". To me, she seemed to be saying "Look at me! Here I am! Did you ever see anything this great!"

Gregory's complaint about being overlooked because of Makarova is nonsense. As young ballerinas Alicia Alonso and Nora Kaye managed to have a devoted audience (and Press!) despite the guest appearances of Toumanova and Alicia Markova.

Share this post


Link to post

"The Great American Ballerina"? I don't know how it was while she was dancing, but I would think in retrospect the title, if we have to award it, belongs to Maria Tallchief.

Share this post


Link to post

I would vote for Maria Tallchief, without a doubt! :)

Share this post


Link to post
Sign in to follow this  
Followers 0