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British Beginnings RememberedJohn Percival's recollections


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#1 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 13 November 2007 - 12:16 AM

Thanks to John Percival for graciously contributing this piece - John, if you have time, can you recall anything about "Noir et Blanc?"

*

Like thousands of others, I first saw ballet during World War Two. British ballet had built itself up during the 1930s but was overshadowed then by the Ballet Russe troupes; now these had settled in America and our local companies were performing far more often than prewar, year-round and traveling to many unexpected venues. My own debut was in an open-air theatre in a London park, July 1943. I went because a chum at school had been taken and said “It's not bad; you should try it”. First on the bill was “Les Sylphides” – more or less what I expected; OK but unexciting. Then “Nutcracker” Act 2 – boring. It was Ashton's “Facade” that hooked me: nobody had said ballet could be funny. Next time that was announced, on an otherwise different bill, I went again, and I never stopped.

What I saw then was mostly Sadler's Wells Ballet in a fairly wide repertoire; there were various cheapo troupes of which I heard little, but I did go once to Mona Inglesby's International Ballet (my first “Giselle”!) and also visited my first modern dance: Kurt Jooss's company, settled in Britain since fleeing nazi Germany. Then I came across Ballet Rambert, re-formed after a wartime closure necessitated by lack of funds. The big year came in 1946 when I left school. The Wells company opened the Royal Opera House Covent Garden and was replaced at Sadler's Wells by a small new company designed to perform in the operas, build up promising young dancers and put on new ballets, many of them by new would-be choreographers.

The other big events of 1946 were that we started receiving companies from abroad. France was first, led by Les Ballets des Champs-Elysees. They brought a huge star, Jean Babilee, with his absolutely dazzing Bluebird, also “Le Jeune Homme et la Mort”. That was a wonderful dance drama invented by Jean Cocteau, former assistant to Diaghilev and the Ballets Suedois. Other visiting French companies brought fine dancers but poor programmes, except for Ballets de Paris – who premiered Petit's sensational “Carmen” in London, starring Renee Jeanmaire.

In 1946 too we had a long Covent Garden season by American Ballet Theatre. Imagine: ballets new to us by Tudor, Balanchine, and the hitherto unknown Jerome Robbins who also danced (brilliantly funny he was). Alicia Alonso and Nora Kaye were the chief ballerinas, plus young Melissa Hayden; Andre Eglevsky, Michael Kidd, John Kriza and Hugh Laing among the men. Happily, in those days they came often over the Atlantic, and from 1950 we also had visits by New York City Ballet. What nationality had the Grand Ballet du Marquis de Cuevas? Call it just European, and note that the programmes were sometimes feeble; but it had a leading woman of unequalled virtuosity, Rosella Hightower, and Yura Skibine's style and technique were irresistible in “Night Shadow” or “Noir et Blanc”.

Modern dance? After Jooss's return to Germany, only a few of us appreciated Martha Graham's first London season, 1954. Not until the 1960s did we get visits by Ailey, Cunningham, Taylor, and open a contemporary school. And I want to concentrate just on the first postwar decade; that takes us through to the Royal Ballet's charter and new title. It sees Ashton create wonderful ballets including “Symphonic Variations”, “Scenes de ballet”, “Daphnis and Chloe” and “Birthday Offering”, also his three first full-evening ballets. The Royal's best postwar choreographer, John Cranko, was amazingly busy, and Kenneth MacMillan began creating. Director Ninette de Valois achieved her long-term wish to bring in Leonide Massine but he no longer maintained the standards that had earlier made him the most admired choreographer of his prewar day.

Two of Britain's greatest stars, Alicia Markova and Anton Dolin, returned from overseas and formed a new company of high quality, Festival Ballet (still existing but renamed English National). Its early years brought in many famed dancers from abroad; they also rejoiced in the all-time finest of all British male dancers, John Gilpin. And let's mention Metropolitan Ballet, a small troupe brilliantly led by Svetlana Beriosova and Erik Bruhn; short-lived (1947-49) for lack of funds, but creating several interesting works. Another brilliant small company, Western Theatre Ballet (later Scottish Ballet) with its superbly inventive director Peter Darrell, started just too late for my chosen dates. And that was likewise when Soviet ballet first influenced us.

During these years I decided that I was going to write about dance (reading reviews, I often thought “I could do better than that”). Happily, I could find out about earlier days from the writings of historian and book-seller Cyril Beaumont, and of Arnold Haskell. And there were a few critics well worth reading: Richard Buckle, editor of “Ballet”; A. V. Coton – who had worked for Tudor; and newcomer Alexander Bland – pseudonym of journalist and art critic Nigel Gosling and his ex-ballerina wife Maude Lloyd. These gave a standard to aim at; did it matter that others were not so good? After all, I wouldn't argue that there are many very fine dance reviewers today. The important thing is to go on trying.—John Percival

#2 Alexandra

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Posted 13 November 2007 - 11:55 AM

Thank you, John. That really does give a sense of place, and a wonderful sense of how exciting the post-War years were. I'm trying very hard not to be jealous of you for having seen the premieres of nearly every ballet Frederick Ashton created :) When I first started going to the ballet (in the mid-70s) I remember trying to see as many star dancers, many of them past their prime, as I could, just so I could SEE them. (One day it occurred to me that this wasn't nearly enough, and that there were people who had actually seen Fonteyn, Petit, Massine, etc. many many times.)

It seems to have been a time where experimentation was encouraged (or it just bubbled up naturally) while companies were able to maintain past works to a high standard -- and works between Petipa and Now. There was a real range. I wonder why it's so difficult to do that today.

#3 Estelle

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Posted 13 November 2007 - 02:04 PM

Leigh: "Noir et Blanc" actually was the name of a version of Lifar's "Suite en blanc", see for example:
http://www.australia...jects/4261.html

#4 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 15 November 2007 - 02:41 PM

John - If you don't mind, I'm going to ask you a few of the same questions I asked my Mom, just for comparison.

Where did you live around that time, and how much did it cost monthly?

What kind of salary did people earn at that time (monthly or yearly)?

And also, if you know, who were the dancers studying with, and how much did it cost? (Do you feel those classes influenced the choreography?)

#5 ViolinConcerto

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Posted 18 November 2007 - 08:22 AM

What about the War years? I faintly recall reading an article in Ballet Review about "Dancing Under the Bombs" which I think was from an audience members' point of view.

They DID dance under the bombs -- what did that feel like? I can't imagine.

#6 Mme. Hermine

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Posted 18 November 2007 - 08:29 AM

Well there was this exchange from an interview that was on the site courtesy of Daphne Productions (Dick Cavett's production company), which I hope falls under some sort of fair use:

Ashton:...During — in the war, when there were air raids, we went on just the same, without stopping.

Cavett: You mean even when the signal went to take cover?

Ashton: Yes, when the shooting was going on and everything, we still went on.

Cavett: Really?

Ashton: Yes.

Cavett: That isn't foolhardy?

Ashton: Well possibly, but I mean, what are you to do, if a bomb falls it falls, and could fall anywhere. You might as well go on; you might as well die doing the Dying Swan or something.

Cavett: You'd call it the Really Dying Swan.

#7 rg

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Posted 18 November 2007 - 08:59 AM

the following NYPL cat. entries note the series of articles in BALLET REVIEW by pat stone about dancing during the war.
pat was a longtime balletomane and kept a regular diary for the better part of her life in london.
i actually met pat through jennifer dunning who learned of pat's diary about life in the ballet world of london during her era.
jennifer had put a little notice in a mimeographed british ballet newsletter of some sort asking if anyone would like to exchange clippings w/ a nyc balletgoer for clippings (or cuttings as the brits say) about english ballet.
pat answered with some clips and included some bits of her diary, which jennifer liked even better than the published 'crits' and asked for more diary; so they began to correspond and became friends. i met pat in 1970 when jennifer encouraged me to do so, even before she herself met pat in person, when i went to london to see the kirov for the first time. i did this and we hit it off and became friends as well.
her diary wasn't only about ballet, but as pat went regularly, it was about ballet in good measure, especially during 'high' season - the portions of her daily diary that most related to the war years and dancing 'under the bombs' were edited as such by francis mason (or other BR editors).
she adored fonteyn, and earlier sally gilmore, and along with one of her 'regular' friends david wall. she admired both ashton and macmillan. she was a member of london ballet circle and got me a place on the group's day trip to greenwich with the kirov in '70 on one of the company's days off.
the final NYPL entry below notes a little rememberance of pat by jennifer d. who wrote it for francis mason after pat died.
pat was a generous and jolly balletomane who visited here a few times and who would welcome nyc balletgoers when they traveled to london. one of my favorite lines of hers was her noting that she felt the programs offering AGON left off the Y in the title!

Stone, Pat.
Dancing under the bombs, part I.
Ballet review. New York. v 12, no 4, Winter 1985, p 74-77.
A balletomane's London diary for June through September 1940

Dancing under the bombs, part II.
Ballet review. New York. v 13, no 1, Spring 1985, p 92-98.
January-November 1941 in London.

Dancing under the bombs, part III.
Ballet review. New York. v 13, no 2, Summer 1985, p 90-95.
January 14 through December 31, 1942

Dancing under the bombs, part IV.
Ballet review. New York. v 14, no 1, Spring 1986, p 90-97.
January 20-December 28, 1943.

Dancing under the bombs - V.
Ballet review. New York. v. 15, no 1, Spring 1987, p. 78-90.
Diary of ballet performances in London during World War II.

Dunning, Jennifer.
About Pat Stone.
Ballet review. New York. v 15, no 1, Spring 1987, p 86-87.
Brief profile of Pat (Florence Ellen Jeanette) Stone.

somewhat off-topic, this photo, bought by me at dancebooks in july, '70, showing OLGA VTORUSHINA in a 'stulchik' lift supported by VITALY AFANASKOV on the london ballet circle's trip w/ the kirov to greenwich. they are posed so that vtorushina's legs are on either side of the prime meridan marked in the cobblestones by the metal line.

Attached Files



#8 JohnP

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Posted 18 November 2007 - 03:33 PM

Leigh: "Noir et Blanc" actually was the name of a version of Lifar's "Suite en blanc", see for example:
http://www.australia...jects/4261.html


As I remember, the only difference between Suite en Blanc, as created by Lifar for the Paris Opera Ballet, and revivals under the title Noir et Blanc, is that originally [and still at the Opera] everyone wore white, and that subsequently the men wore black tights ...
The music was taken from Lalo's long story ballet Nanouma. Hence some of the solos have titles (e.g. Cigarette) which relate to the original context but not to the present plotless divertissement.
It's worth watching -- and of how many Lifar ballets can you say that?

Now, ballet under the bombs. When the war began my school was evacuated to the country and by the time I came back to London the air "Battle of Britain" between the Royal Air Force and the Luftwaffe over southern England had finished, so I must rely on other people's accounts for that. I do remember the "barrage balloons" intended to impede German planes.
There were still some attempts to bomb London so we had air raid warnings given by electric sirens. Theatres carried
a notice saying that audience members could leave if they wished but please do so quietly and not disturb those who chose to stay -- the performance continued.
Later there were "secret weapons" -- automatic aircraft which crashed and exploded after travelling s certain distance, and rocket bombs aimed at the London area. Luckily our side foujd out about these in time to bomb the sites they were fired from, so the attacks were fewer than intended.

#9 Helene

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Posted 24 November 2007 - 09:59 AM

From [url=http://www.telegraph.co.uk/arts/main.jhtml?xml=/arts/2007/11/24/sm_berylgrey.xml]The world of Dame Beryl Grey, ballerina, published today in the Telegraph.

During the war There were often air raids while we were performing. Towards the end of the war I was dancing Swan Lake at the Prince's Theatre in Lambeth. As the Black Swan I did a series of turns on my own and finished backwards; my partner caught me, I leant back and there was a drumroll and a crash of cymbals. At the same time a bomb went off. After a moment of absolute silence we continued dancing.



#10 bart

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Posted 24 November 2007 - 03:31 PM

Ashton: Well possibly, but I mean, what are you to do, if a bomb falls it falls, and could fall anywhere. You might as well go on; you might as well die doing the Dying Swan or something.

Cavett: You'd call it the Really Dying Swan.

That's both funny and oddly insensitive. I wonder how Ashton responded?

About "ballet under the bombs": am I right in assuming that male dancers were in short supply. How was that handled? Were less experienced young people brought in? Was the rep changed to emphasize ballets with largely female casts? And how about audiences: was ballet something that appealed to servicemen on leave?

How about the choice of ballets? I assume that Swan Lake and other ballets which depict worlds far from wartime reality would be popular. Was there generally an escapist, everything-is-beautiful-at-the-ballet emphasis to what was chosen to be danced?

#11 Lynette H

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Posted 29 November 2007 - 03:34 AM

Ashton: Well possibly, but I mean, what are you to do, if a bomb falls it falls, and could fall anywhere. You might as well go on; you might as well die doing the Dying Swan or something.

Cavett: You'd call it the Really Dying Swan.

That's both funny and oddly insensitive. I wonder how Ashton responded?

About "ballet under the bombs": am I right in assuming that male dancers were in short supply. How was that handled? Were less experienced young people brought in? Was the rep changed to emphasize ballets with largely female casts? And how about audiences: was ballet something that appealed to servicemen on leave?

How about the choice of ballets? I assume that Swan Lake and other ballets which depict worlds far from wartime reality would be popular. Was there generally an escapist, everything-is-beautiful-at-the-ballet emphasis to what was chosen to be danced?

There was an exhibition at the Cabinet War Rooms in London earlier in 2007 called "Dancing though the war", which covered this period. This featured a film with recollections from Beryl Gray and others. I don't know if this will become available at some point. There was an evening viewing of this plus a talk from (among others) Julia Farron and Jean Bedells. As I recall from that evening, they did Les Sylphides a great deal because it needed only one man.

Some details about this are still availableat the Telegraph site
http://www.telegraph.../btballet05.xml

#12 Mme. Hermine

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Posted 29 November 2007 - 04:17 AM

Ashton: Well possibly, but I mean, what are you to do, if a bomb falls it falls, and could fall anywhere. You might as well go on; you might as well die doing the Dying Swan or something.

Cavett: You'd call it the Really Dying Swan.

That's both funny and oddly insensitive. I wonder how Ashton responded?



I'd have to look at the video again and it is not of the greatest quality, but on paper at least it seems that he deflected it, as this is what followed immediately. If there had been a lot of laughter I would have noted it in the transcript.:

Cavett: You'd call it the Really Dying Swan.

Ashton: Yes.

Cavett: I don't think anyone has ever been killed on stage, have they, that I could think —

Ashton: Not that I know of, I think they've been injured, they've been stabbed and trodden on and things have fallen on them, but I don't think they've actually been killed.

#13 bart

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Posted 29 November 2007 - 08:32 AM

What a wonderful link, Lynette. Thank you so much. The Fonteyn letters would be wonderful to read in full.

The article draws some interesting conclusions as the the effect of the war:

It took them into great danger. They danced as bombs fell outside the theatres; and in 1940 Fonteyn and the rest of the company were sent into Holland on an ill-advised British Council goodwill venture just as the Germans invaded. They escaped by night, shut in the hold of a boat, dodging mines as they silently crossed the Channel.

But, on the plus side, despite the privations and the shortage of male dancers, dancing through the war was also the making of the company. They expanded both their repertoire and their audience on their endless trail to theatres and halls up and down the country; the ferocious schedule – with three performances on a Saturday by the end of the war – turned them into fit and versatile dancers, and performing to American troops set the scene for their post-war triumph in New York, part of the making of the modern international company.


Mme. Hermine, thanks for that additional research. Cavett's propensity for tongue-in-cheek and self-amusement seems to have led him astray here. Ashton's response is one more victory for British reticence, in my opinion.

#14 Mel Johnson

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Posted 29 November 2007 - 03:46 PM

I did find it amusing, in Kavanagh's Secret Muses to learn that during the "great Sadler's Wells bug-out" Ashton was unable to fit his tuxedo jacket into available luggage, so it was saved by someone with the right shoulder-breadth (once she had her overcoat on), Ninette de Valois!

#15 JohnP

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Posted 30 November 2007 - 03:53 AM

About "ballet under the bombs": am I right in assuming that male dancers were in short supply. How was that handled? Were less experienced young people brought in? Was the rep changed to emphasize ballets with largely female casts? And how about audiences: was ballet something that appealed to servicemen on leave?

How about the choice of ballets? I assume that Swan Lake and other ballets which depict worlds far from wartime reality would be popular. Was there generally an escapist, everything-is-beautiful-at-the-ballet emphasis to what was chosen to be danced?


Male dancers -- yes, they were definitely in short supply because of conscription. Some of the mature experienced men remained available because they were foreign (Helpmann from Australia, Rassine from Lithuania via South Africa, etc.), had a medical disability or admitted to the recruiting board that they were homosexual. But it's true that students were put on stage quite young, some even in solo roles.

Changing the rep -- I know that The Sleeping Beauty was dropped, presumably because it needed too many men, but otherwise the standard repertory seemed to continue, and new ballets were produced using plenty of male dancers. There seemed to be a habit of starting mixed bills with either Sylphides or Swan Lake act 2, but I always assumed that was audiences were thought to want a "white ballet" as part of the show.

Yes, service men on leave were among the audience (one point is that you could buy tickets on the day of performance).
I remember the ballet historian Ivor Guest telling me that was how his interest started.

Choice of ballets -- Swan Lake for instance was always popular, war or no war. But there were ballets such as Ashton's Dante Sonata (good versus evil) or The Quest (based on Spenser's poem The Fairy Queen), or Helpmann's Comus (a treatment of Milton's masque -- including some speech) or Miracle in the Gorbals (Christ returns to earth and is killed).

A point worth mentioning is that some people argued that all male dancers should be exempted from call-up so that their special skills could entertain the public, but Ninette de Valois was vehemently opposed to this.


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