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Johansson's letters


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#1 Alexandra

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Posted 07 November 2003 - 03:58 PM

As I noted on another thread, I've uploaded articles from the 1999 issues of DanceView. Three in particular might be of interest to ballet history buffs and I wanted to link to them here, one on each thread, on the off-chance that there's some discussion :wacko:

The first are Pamela Moberg's translations of some early letters by Christian Johansson to his teacher, August Bournonville:

Pehr Christian Johansson;
Portrait of the Master as a Young Dancer

A selection of letters from Pehr Christian Johansson to his teacher, August Bournonville, and a picture of ballet during the transition from neoclassicism to romanticism.

Translated by Pamela Moberg
copyright 1999 by Pamela Moberg


[Editor’s note: Christian Johansson is well-known to many balletomanes as a great teacher in St. Petersburg during Petipa’s reign at the Maryinsky Theater. He taught the men’s classes, and Petipa is said to have watched those classes and borrowed enchainements from them for use in his ballets. He also taught the “class de perfection,” the class that turned girls into young ballerinas. Karsavina was one of his pupils, and writes about these classes in Theatre Street.

And so we think of Johansson as a crusy old man. In this article, Pamela Moberg gives us, through her translations of Johansson’s letters written when he was a young dancer, a fascinating glimpse of the young man: opinionated, passionate about his art, bursting with ambition, and not above a bit of backstage politics. Scattered through these letters are portraits of Jenny Lind; (not to mention Johansson’s glowing accounts of his own dancing, including his double air tours!); Johansson’s dislike of teaching (!); a very unflattering description of Lucile Grahn (Bournonville’s pupil and the first Sylphide in Copenhagen) from a Swedish critic; complaints about a balletmaster the young dancer detested, calling him “shamless and tasteless” (and whose ballet Bachan, which Johansson describes, sounds very close to Le Corsaire), and who had the temerity to dance Fanny Elssler’s famous La Cachucha in drag.

Johansson's Letters

Pamela has a site with some very interesting historical articles:

Classical ballet - past and present

#2 Amy Reusch

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Posted 07 November 2003 - 08:58 PM

My apologies, Alexandra, the following is probably not the kind of discussion you were hoping for, but...

What did Johansson mean when he said

every ecol was applauded

? What is an ecol?

#3 Alexandra

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Posted 07 November 2003 - 09:40 PM

It's a very long article -- could you give the context? Maybe Pamela will see it and can answer.

#4 Paul Parish

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Posted 07 November 2003 - 10:42 PM

Allow me to put hte same question -- it's in the first paragraph of hte first letter, regarding his first triumpjhs on his return to Stockholm: " I danced my Pas de trois, as you know in The Marriage of Figaro. The public saw me with pleasure, every ecol was applauded, and I was quite pleased with myself....."

Yeah, I'm wondering too, what is an ecol?

#5 Mel Johnson

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Posted 08 November 2003 - 06:15 AM

I wonder if it's Johansson's shorthand for danse d'ecole, as opposed to pantomime?

#6 Amy Reusch

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Posted 08 November 2003 - 07:23 PM

He uses the phrase 3 times and always phrased the same way....

January 10, 1837 letter to Bournonville:
1st paragraph:

I danced my Pas de trois, as you know in The Marriage of Figaro. The public saw me with pleasure, every ecol was applauded, and I was quite pleased with myself; because it went very well.

2nd paragraph:

I also saw the happiness glow in all the eyes of the premiere sujets; the Prince has been ill, and thus had not been able to see me dance before, came expres for my sake and went home immediately as the pas was over. Every ecol was applauded more than in my first debut.


April 16, 1837 letter to Bournonville:
3rd paragraph:

I danced and was much applauded, for every ecol I was applauded and for every manifestation I thought of you.


I wondered if an ecol was some sort of virtuostic step (that required schooling to produce?)...

#7 Alexandra

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Posted 08 November 2003 - 07:29 PM

I took it to mean variation, or classical steps (as opposed to character) but that was just a guess from context. Pamela doesn't check this site every day, but when she comes again, I'm sure she'll see the thread and can tell us.

#8 Pamela Moberg

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Posted 09 November 2003 - 02:14 PM

Dear Alexandra, Amy, Paul and Mel,
Thankyou all very much for your interest in Johansson!

And Alexandra, I do visit most nights, mostly very briefly - five minutes or so - then I just read the news and do not log in. Sometimes I read everything and log in. Sheer laziness on my part, I apologize! Maybe you would prefer me to log on even if the duration of my visit is only a few minutes.

Well, now to Johansson. When I started translating his letters to Bournonville I was immediately struck by the difficulties. His language was very varied, always correct (both spelling and grammar). My God, where did he acquire that education? My problem was to translate it into a language that didn't seem quaint but yet conveyed the feel of that epoch. Another point here, Swedish has changed much more over the years than English - I had some help from an old dictionary printed in 1890.

Going back to 1700 or thereabouts, educated people peppered their Swedish with French expressions - not so educated people did the same - often with hilarious results. Then French fell out of fashion and German became the craze (that ended in 1945). Now it is English, likewise hilarious results. People buy one "scarves" or they send "mejl" (phonetic spelling of mail).

About Johansson I really do think that Mel has hit the nail on the head. Ballets in those days sometimes contained folksy clog dances and as opposed to this real classical ballet. In other words pas d'ecole. Johansson also uses the word "pas" a lot; "Selinder could not arrange pas" - in stead of saying that Selinder could not do choreography.

But this word ecole is still used in Swedish today, but now properly translated into "skol", no, nothing to do with "Skål" (notice sp.) which means "cheers". F.ex. today we talk of "skolmedicin" as opposed to "alternativmedicin". I have not bothered to translate those two words as they can be easily understood by everybody.

It is very interesting to trace a word and see how it first entered a language and then either disappeared or in some cases changed meaning over the years. The linguists today are very worried that Swedish is dying out fast to be replaced with American English - 200 or so years ago they said the same thing, only then they feared the French language.

There was also another word, used a lot by both Johansson and Bournonville. This time Italian "furore". That meant raving success, the audience almost exploding.

Again, I want to thank you all for taking such an interest! If any more things like this will crop up, please ask me, I will be only too glad to discuss it. And think of what Johansson will feel up there in his heaven, a world wide conversation going on about him...

Off topic, but this is strange. Johansson made his formal debut in Marriage of Figaro, act III.
So did I at age 15...

#9 Mel Johnson

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Posted 09 November 2003 - 06:11 PM

On the other hand, I enjoy Skål-medicin very much! :unsure:

#10 Amy Reusch

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Posted 09 November 2003 - 07:57 PM

My God, where did he acquire that education?


And you have suggested that his mother may have been illiterate...

It really makes one wonder who "found" him and how...

#11 Alexandra

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Posted 09 November 2003 - 08:48 PM

Bournonville's mother was his father's housekeeper (second wife), and he had virtually no schooling. Yet he was widely read, in French and German and English as well as Danish. Home schooling, you might say.

Pamela, "pas" is used all through the 19th century, in the sense of "dance". It's not only "pas de deux" but "oh, please, can't I dance my pas in the next ballet."

#12 Amy Reusch

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Posted 09 November 2003 - 09:07 PM

Bournonville's mother was Johansson's father's housekeeper? I thought the article said Johansson was illegitimate... You must mean Bournonville's father... oh right, where's my grammar training.... you did mean Bournonville's father. But the quesiton was how did Johansson get his education? Do you mean from Bournonville? Very logical.

#13 Alexandra

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Posted 09 November 2003 - 09:17 PM

Yes, Bournonville's mother was his [Bournonville's] father's housekeeper -- point raised as another example, since you asked, I thought, how Johansson was educated when his mother "may have been illiterate." I don't think that was unusual for theater people at that time -- and much later.

#14 Amy Reusch

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Posted 09 November 2003 - 09:20 PM

I see, you are saying that you suspect Johansson's father might have been someone in the theater? (I'm feeling a little dense today)

#15 Alexandra

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Posted 09 November 2003 - 09:45 PM

No, Amy. I'm saying that people can learn even if they don't go to school or their parents are illiterate.


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