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ABT in the 60's


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#1 Victoria Leigh

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Posted 16 November 2007 - 05:09 AM

ABT in the 60’s



Looking back at my years in American Ballet Theatre, during the 1960’s, the first thing that comes to mind is what an incredibly different era it was! It was a great time for ballet, and certainly the greatest time in my life. We were a company of about 40 dancers, maybe a few more when we were in New York City. We traveled by bus and truck except when we went out of the country. Most of our performances were one night stands and we played many, many small towns all over the country. I was in every ballet, every night, even after I was a soloist. I loved it, and I even loved the bus tours!

We had such love and joy and commitment to what we were doing, and felt very privileged to be earning a living doing it. And while we were a part of AGMA, the dancer’s union, it was not the same as it is today. Yes, we wanted to make a living, and we did. The union was not very strong then, and even if we did fight, it was kind of a lost cause. We worked 6 days a week. On tour our day off could be the day of a performance night, and our night off could be a day of travel. That was normal then. I don’t think it even occurred to me that it was not quite right! My years in ABT were special because of the great people who worked with us.

In addition to the large classical repertoire, we worked with choreographers such as Antony Tudor, who I will discuss in depth next year during his centennial. In addition, there was Agnes de Mille, Eugene Loring, Jerome Robbins, Harold Lander, Glenn Tetley, William Dollar, and Herbert Ross. I worked with all of them except Tetley and Dollar. It has been a very long time, but I have distinct memories of things involving Tudor, de Mille and Robbins. Not quite as much about Loring, Lander and Ross. But, the sense of awe and respect that I still have for these people, and for the fact that I was able to work with them, has never left. I don’t think you will find any alumni from ABT, from that era, or before, who would feel any differently.

Agnes de Mille was brilliant, eccentric, sometimes delightful and sometimes quite crazy, but “crazy,” meaning just really different. We were working on a new ballet she was choreographing that involved a lot of running. She didn’t like the way we ran. So, she had us in the studio doing absolutely nothing except running for a solid hour. Not fun, but we learned. The ballet was in the rep only one season, and it was called “The Wind in The Mountains.” Evidently not one of her masterpieces, but I had another experience with this ballet.

The ballet required someone whistling two long notes twice from the wings. When we premiered it in New York, she hired someone to whistle. But then we went on tour and she was not there. We got to the first night and the ballet master, Fernand Nault, suddenly realized there was no one to whistle. It had to be loud and on pitch. He auditioned all the boys and was beginning to get very upset. I told him I could whistle. He was quite skeptical, but he said to go ahead. I did it. It was right on, and he said “Okay, you’re on!” I had to stand in the wings at the beginning of the ballet, and on cue whistle two times. No problem, except the musicians in the part of the orchestra that could see me in the downstage right wing, knowing I could not whistle while laughing, worked very hard at trying to crack me up!

I had to be in the wings for that ballet even when I was not in it. One night somewhere in upstate NY, we did that ballet, followed by “Theme and Variations.” Agnes was there, and she came charging backstage in the intermission after her ballet, demanding to know who did the whistling. I was standing there in my tutu, and very sheepishly, said “I did.” She looked astounded, and then cracked up! She LOVED it!

I was not in de Mille’s “The Four Marys,” but I was the understudy for one of the leading roles, the wife of the plantation owner. The leading Mary was Carmen de Lavallade. One of the other Marys was Judith Jamison. Carmen was already a major star, but Judith was a young dancer that no one yet knew. All I remember from those rehearsals was that I never really learned my role because I was so totally fascinated by Carmen de Lavallade and the other Marys, especially this very tall, most interesting looking one named Judith Jamison!

Jerome Robbins choreographed “Les Noces.” for our first season at Lincoln Center. The opening night was very special, as we had Leonard Bernstein conducting on stage with the orchestra and choir, and Jacqueline Kennedy was in the audience. But the rehearsals for that work were something else. I have no clue how I ever lasted in that ballet; I thought he would throw me out almost every day of rehearsals! Dancing in tennis shoes was not exactly my thing, and this kind of work was something totally new and different for me. Somehow or other I was kept in it and I loved it, eventually. It was very difficult, both because of the kind of dancing and the difficulty of the music,often almost impossible to count. But having the orchestra and choir on stage was amazing!

Herbert Ross gave me my first dramatic role in the company. I think I was still in the corps, but don’t remember the year. The ballet was “Caprichos.” It starred Johnny Kriza and Ruth Ann Koesun. I played the “burning girl”. It was not dancing, it was acting, and I really loved that! I got to do weird make up, and be like Joan of Arc! The ballet was episodic, and based on the paintings of Goya, with music by Béla Bartok. Each episode was a different painting, and there were 7 of them. The most memorable was the pas de deux depicting a man dancing with the dead body of his wife. This was danced by Johnny Kriza and Ruth Ann Koesun, and it was very different and very beautiful.

Harald Lander staged “Etudes” my very first season with the company. The ballet never left the repertoire during my tenure. I danced “black girls,” “white girls,” and “sylphides.” I don’t really remember a lot about Mr. Lander, but I remember a lot about his wife Toni Lander. She was my role model in the company, the one I most identified with because I was a similar dancer and body type. I watched every move she made in every ballet she danced. When we did “La Sylphide” a few years later, Toni staged it and Harald came towards the end of rehearsals. We premiered it in San Antonio, following the South American tour. I was a soloist by then, and I danced the sylph who comes out at the beginning of the second act and does the promenade ending in arabesque penchée, with dry ice fog swirling all over the stage. That was NOT fun! The fog made me dizzy, and the penchée very tricky.

I also worked with Anton Dolin but not in a ballet. He used to teach pas de deux classes at the school. I always took them when I could, and he would use me to demonstrate with him. What an incredible partner he was! That was great fun.

Eugene Loring came to rehearse us in “Billy the Kid” when we danced at the White House in 1962. He was there for the performance, along with Aaron Copland. There is a photo of all of us on stage, the tiny stage in the East Wing on which we somehow fit that whole ballet, with both men in the photo. Kriza was Billy, Koesun was the mother, Bruce Marks was Alias, and Sallie Wilson was the lead Dance Hall girl. It was the end of my first year in the company, and I was just in the gun battle, but what a great honor to be in it at all, and especially for that occasion! We were flown to DC in an Air Force jet, given rooms for the day at a beautiful hotel a block away from the White House for the time between our rehearsal on the stage and the performance, which was after the State Dinner. The dinner was for the President of the Ivory Coast and his wife, who was one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen in my life. Following the performance, Jacqueline Kennedy took us all, still in costume, on a tour of the White House.

During these years we also had the great privilege of working with Freddy Franklin. He taught classes sometimes, and he rehearsed us in several ballets. My favorite one was “Grand Pas Glazunov,” which is the Pas de Dix from “Raymonda.” I danced 3 of the 4 soloists in that, and loved doing all of them. The second variation was my first solo with ABT, when I was still in the corps. Later, I danced the third and the fourth, but never the first, which was always a smaller girl. My favorite was the third, and I did that the most.

Working with Freddy was always a joy! He was not only brilliant, he was so incredibly upbeat and positive. He really inspired dancers and made them happy to be there and doing what they were doing even on a bad day. He was like a gentle wave of sunshine, with a great love for his art. He is a very special man, and still working today, bringing he knowledge, memories, and obvious love of his work to dancers everywhere.



Our ballet masters during those years were Fernand Nault and Dimitri Romanoff. Fernand was always a joy, but Dimitri, though he got wonderful results, was another story, especially for new dancers in the company. Sometimes I think he felt he had to break them in by screaming at them and telling them how awful they were! There were lots of tears following “Les Sylphides” rehearsals every year during the first weeks of rehearsal. I think every female dancer in the company would remember those first days of that ballet. But, we all got through it, and we came to love him and respect him just as much as we did Fernand. When he rehearsed that ballet, it was rehearsed to the eyelash, and I’m not sure it has ever been quite the same since then. Dimitri gave attention to the tiniest detail. He would not give up, and he would rehearse it until it was right. He treated “Les Sylphides” with such incredible respect, not like it was routine but like it was a treasure and it had to be preserved with great care. Sometimes we hated those rehearsals. Most of the time, honestly. But, we also knew when we performed it that we were doing it as well as it could be done. Although it is often done very well, I have not seen the ballet quite that well rehearsed since then.

It was an incredible education, especially with Tudor, and a great time to be in the company because we were traveling constantly, both in the States and in other countries. When we had more than one night in a city it would be only in places like Chicago, LA, SF, maybe New Orleans and Dallas. Not very many cities. We went to South America in 1964 and danced in nine countries. There we danced for a week almost everywhere in a three month tour. In 1966 we went to Russia for six weeks, and that was amazing. It was a wonderful era of ballet and a wonderful era of ABT. It was an enormous privilege to be a part of that, and certainly one that I have treasured all of my life.

#2 SanderO

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Posted 16 November 2007 - 05:52 AM

What an incredible essay. Thanks for sharing that. I only wish it was accompanied by some pictures.

#3 Farrell Fan

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Posted 16 November 2007 - 08:48 AM

Thanks for the lovely reminiscences, Ms. Leigh. :wub:

#4 atm711

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Posted 16 November 2007 - 12:56 PM

Dear Ms. Leigh---after that wonderful description, the least you can do for us is a performance photo :clapping: :wub:

#5 Victoria Leigh

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Posted 16 November 2007 - 01:00 PM

Thank you, everyone, and I would love to put up a photo, but I didn't think that was allowed. I also don't know how to get one on here, as I don't have a scanner to copy one into the computer. I have a wonderful photo of all of us on stage when we did Billy The Kid at the White House.

#6 SanderO

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Posted 16 November 2007 - 01:57 PM

I think Kinkos can scan something for you and save it to a CD or thumb drive. You can then upload it to photo bucket and place a link on BT. PM one of the mods who know about these things and might guide you through the process.

ABT has changed... When did it happen? What drove the changes? Was it gradual?

#7 innopac

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Posted 16 November 2007 - 03:58 PM

If you click on this search button for the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum you can find two images from the occasion at the White House using the image numbers ST-225-31-62 and KN-C21922.

ST-225-31-62 22 May 1962 Dinner for the President of the Ivory Coast and Madame Houphouet-Boigny. President and Mrs. Kennedy congratulate American Ballet Theatre cast of "Billy The Kid". White House, Cross Hall. Photograph by Cecil Stoughton, White House, in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

KN-C21922 (crop) 22 May 1962 Dinner for the President of the Ivory Coast and Madame Houphouet-Boigny. Mrs. Kennedy and cast of the American Ballet Theatre production of "Billy the Kid". White House, Cross Hall. Photograph by Robert Knudsen, White House, in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

#8 vrsfanatic

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Posted 16 November 2007 - 04:42 PM

So very fascinating Victoria. Thank you for sharing such wonderful memories and experiences. :thumbsup:

#9 Victoria Leigh

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Posted 16 November 2007 - 06:36 PM

innopac, thank you for that information! I did not know that those photos would be there. :thumbsup:

Leigh, can we post photos here, or, if I can put it online, do I need to post a link to it?

#10 Tiffany

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Posted 16 November 2007 - 07:28 PM

Thanks, Ms. Leigh, for writing about your time dancing with ABT. I love reading about the lives of professional dancers.

#11 glebb

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Posted 16 November 2007 - 07:31 PM

Thank you Victoria!
Reading your words prompted me to remember watching you teach at Martha Mahr's studio in Coral Gables.
You were completely inspiring and I can still picture you teaching the Raymonda Variation.
I also clearly see you dancing Aurora's Wedding Pas, Clair de Lune, Walpurgisnacht and Farewell.
You were incredibly gorgeous!

#12 Helene

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Posted 16 November 2007 - 07:40 PM

innopac, thank you for that information! I did not know that those photos would be there. :thumbsup:

Leigh, can we post photos here, or, if I can put it online, do I need to post a link to it?

We'd love it if you would post photos. I'll send you the steps.

#13 Victoria Leigh

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Posted 16 November 2007 - 07:42 PM

Thank YOU, glebb! I can't believe that you remember all that.....I think you were maybe 12 years old??? :thumbsup: Those were all very special performances for me, though, and the memories are quite wonderful.

Helene, thank you, that would be very helpful! :)

#14 glebb

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Posted 16 November 2007 - 08:09 PM

It is for me to thank you Victoria.
I'm certain that you were the first incredible dancer I saw.
You had extra gorgeous legs/feet and strong, perfect technique.
You were fearless and beautiful.

#15 Victoria Leigh

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Posted 17 November 2007 - 12:51 PM

Billy the Kid on the East Wing stage at the White House, May 1962. This is half the photo, which is what they sent me. It is totally amazing how many people we had on that postage stamp stage! Front center is Basil Thompson as Billy, Sally Wilson as Lead Dance Hall Girl, and Bruce Marks as Alias. Next to him, but cut off in this photo, is Ruthann Koesun. I am standing behind Basis, in cowgirl costume, in between Ted Kivitt and Rusty Nichols. This was my very first person in Billy, at the end of my first year in the company. Later on I did the Lead Dance Hall Girl, which was great fun! They flew us from NY to DC in an Air Force One for the day and back that night. [Note: photo comes out very large, and you have to scroll down and sideways to see it all.]

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