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The English Ballet - WJ Turner


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#1 Lolly

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Posted 25 February 2002 - 03:30 PM

My aunt gave me this book she found in a second hand book shop, it was published in 1944. Has anyone seen it? It has some lovely pictures in it and is quite detailed in places. What is really interesting to me is how views on ballet have changed now we have got further along in the history of ballet, the differences between what was significant then and what is important to us now. For example, Massine is cited as the best dancer since Nijinsky, whereas now it seems it is Nureyev who is talked about in this way. Also Lilian Baylis is credited for being a "remarkable woman", as opposed to Ninette de Valois.

There is a long description by corps dancer Amabel Farjeon, of the 1940 European tour. I have to copy out this very funny part!

"We were halfway to England in the hold of a cargo ship. The ballet, combing straws out of its hair, shaking the creases from its clothes, wandered on deck and, in the grey green light, girls dabbed lipstick and powder over their worn and dirty faces. This gave one a sense of coming back to normal, despite its sordid incongruity with the situation. Constant Lambert appeared out of the luggage piles, looking most dramatic with a large bandage round his head; but this was not the result of the heroism one immediately suspected - a burning cigar ash had fallen into his eye while he lay smoking."

It also brings up an interesting point with the current discussions about choreography and direction of the company here. The book says in 1939 there was a scheme of development for the company with three points.

a) An enlargement of the Sadler's Wells school and formation of a second company.
B) Invitation to a new British choreographer every year to produce at least one experimental ballet.
c) Invitation for a two-year period of some eminent choreographer to introduce new ideas.

"Such a plan is essential to the prosperous development of ballet in this country and it is to be hoped that it will quickly be put into operation as soon as the present war is over."

Food for thought, with new directors for both the school and the company now.

Anyway, I recommend the book if anyone wants something to read! smile.gif

#2 Alexandra

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Posted 25 February 2002 - 03:46 PM

Interesting reading, indeed. The dancers were in the hold of a cargo ship, I suspect, because they were on their hurried way back from Holland; they'd been dancing when the Germans invaded and had to pack up and leave immediately. They left costumes and sets behind -- several ballets were lost.

It is interesting to read the 1939 prescription for the future. What a difference a war makes. In 1939, the company was "competing" with the Ballet Russe in its Salvador Dali phase, and there was a lot of pressure to come up with something avant-garde every season. The War gave the company a break from competition, and it's often been mentioned that this allowed the company to develop in its own way -- de Valois really wanted to have a company modeled on the Maryinsky, with its traditions and full-length ballets.

Lillian Baylis gave de Valois her start and was immensely important to the performing arts in Britain in the early third of the 20th century. Massine was not only the great dancer, but the great choreographer. Massine did not have a company, nor did Fokine, and that, I think, is the main reason why they are now memories.

#3 Helena

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Posted 26 February 2002 - 05:28 AM

I have this book, in a slightly revised edition from 1946. W.J.Turner was a fairly well-known English poet - I know some of his poetry from other books, and he includes several of his poems in this book.

What strikes me about it now is how serious (not in a bad way) and scholarly the approach to ballet was then. It is taken for granted that a knowledge of music and art (painting specifically) is essential for a true understanding of the ballet scene. Although music is still stressed, painting seems to be now much more neglected. The Diaghilev ideal was still very much alive in mid-20th century Britain. The book says at one point "Modern ballet is a combination of dancing, music, plot and decor." This is the definition of ballet that is deeply ingrained in me - in fact I think we may have had to learn something like it for ballet exams in the 40s and 50s. I think this is why I have always had some difficulty in coming to terms with plotless, decor-less ballet - well, plotless I don't mind, but costume-less (leotards) and scenery-less I find difficult to accept. To me it's a bit like having music-less ballet - which has been discussed, I think!

Margot Fonteyn also described that journey out of Holland in her autobiography, and her description is included in Harriet Castor's anthology "Ballet Stories". It says a lot for the dancers' sense of humour in this dire situation that it can be seen as funny!

#4 Lolly

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Posted 26 February 2002 - 06:16 AM

I can see I have a lot more reading to do! I didn't know that ballets were lost because of the war... that's sad. Can anyone point me in the right direction to read more on this?

I agree about the idea of ballet being an artistic whole, composed of dancing, painting, plot and decor. Now it seems to have been separated so if you want to see plot you go to watch a play, if you want painting you go to a gallery etc. The Diaghilev ballets are overwhelming as soon as the curtain goes up, before anyone has danced a step. The stage is a riot of colour and the music, WELL!

But the changes are good in a way, we are now able to see new ballets from their first stages of ideas and improvising, drafting and rehearsing before the ballet gets anywhere near the stage, because the focus has been taken off ballet as a finished product that must only be seen in a grand opera house. Maybe we now have the best of both worlds as (some of) the earlier works are still in the repertoire and we have new things too? confused.gif

#5 Helena

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Posted 27 February 2002 - 03:06 AM

I was hoping someone else would come in on this one, as I don't feel I can point to further reading - I have read so many books over so many years that I'm not usually sure where I get information from. Books on or by key figures of the time - Ashton, de Valois - are useful.

When the company had to get out of Holland quickly because of the invasion, they could only take with them what they could carry. As a result they had to leave scores, orchestral parts, costumes and scenery behind. They didn't have the money to re-stage everything when they returned to England, but did manage to do Ashton's Facade and Dante Sonata. I think his Horoscope was lost for ever.

It is odd that Turner cites Massine as the greatest male dancer - he mostly did character roles, often in his own ballets, and was not known as a classical dancer as far as I remember.

Yes, of course we have to have new ballets as well as the old ones, but I still think the combination-of-arts idea can be applied. Experimentation is always necessary - after all, the Diaghilev ballets were definitely experimental. I'm just stating my personal preferences!

[ February 27, 2002, 03:12 AM: Message edited by: Helena ]

#6 Alexandra

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Posted 27 February 2002 - 09:34 AM

There's also a biography of de Valois by Kathrine Sorley Walker. David Vaughan's "Frederick Ashton and His Ballets" (I always recommend reading that BEFORE Julie Kavanaugh's "Secret Muses") Fonteyn's Autobiography. And Alexander Bland's "The Royal Ballet, The First 50 Years."

I'm sure there are a lot of books published in the 1950s and '60s that had a short shelf life and that I don't have. The War Years were as important to British ballet, I think, as they were to the world in general smile.gif

#7 Lolly

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Posted 27 February 2002 - 06:23 PM

Thank you both for giving me some ideas for extra reading! Ballet is sometimes just as interesting to read about as to watch! But I do love books with pictures in, it really brings everything to life. smile.gif

#8 Michael

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Posted 27 February 2002 - 11:08 PM

Heading into what is sure to be an overdose on The Diamond Project, present, past and future, this spring in New York, I wish someone could deliver a reminder about the "combination of dancing, music, plot, and decor" business. This Spring would be a lot more entertaining, and the work we see would have a lot more "content," if they did.

#9 Helena

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Posted 28 February 2002 - 03:23 AM

Lolly, I agree with Alexandra's choice of books, but I have always found the Sorley Walker book quite hard going, though informative. The Fonteyn autobiography is out of print, but available second hand quite often. It is very interesting about her childhood, and the life of a dancer in England in the last (!) century, but take all the stuff about her private life with several pinches of salt. It omits a lot, and idealises her relationship with her husband.


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