That Nureyev Video
Posted 11 August 2000 - 06:37 AM
In my Copious Spare Time, I've been taking night courses in how to be a computer geek at Columbia. Doubtless I will become proficient in C++ and Java at the exact moment when these languages become as obsolete as FORTRAN. Story of my life. It's been rather heavy going, but nothing I've run into has changed my firm belief that if you can understand ballet technique (and I'm not claiming to have more than a rudimentary knowledge of technique), everything else is easy. I did have a chuckle when one of my teachers, in the throes of explaining the perverse necessity of counting in binary, octal or hexadecimal, repeated this doubtless hoary computer-geek joke, "Programmers can't count past eight." Where have I heard that one before? So, Intuviel, if the dancing thing doesn't work out, you can always fall back on something simple like learning assembly language.
But I'm digressing. I have indeed been to the ballet a few times, well, a few dozen times since I last posted on here. Now that I have the take-home final for my class in Object-Oriented Design tucked firmly into my backpack, what better time to pound out a few thousand words on some of the things I've seen (and, yes, I did see the Bolshoi -- they rocked). But, being the hopelessly linear thinker that I am, I need to write about The Nureyev Video before I can address more recent events.
Awhile ago, while wandering through Tower Records with a friend, I made the mistake of bringing my credit card along. One of the things that manage to stick to my hands on the way out was a recently released video, by Kultur, of Nureyev's four appearances on The Bell Telephone Hour, a variety television show from the early sixties. This discovery was enough to counterbalance a sure sign that the end of the world is nigh -- the fact that one can now buy a set of poseable (shudder) Bettie Paige action figures. (I'll take two, in a plain brown wrapper.)
I was intrigued by this video, and wanted very much to see what Nureyev looked like in the rosy afterglow of his defection in 1961, even before his legendary partnership with Margot Fonteyn. My own memories of Nureyev from decades later, as I've written about here from time to time, are not the most flattering, as age and injuries had caught up with him at just about the time I began to see him regularly. I was also excited about getting a chance to see the renown ballerinas he danced with, ones I'd never seen live, and either very little on film (Maria Tallchief) or not at all (Lupe Serrano, Svetlana Beriosova). I'll let the cat out of the bag now -- Beriosova completely stole the show, and I can understand now why she was so loved in England for so many years.
Although any dance film or video is a bit of a time-capsule, these Nureyev tapes offer a fascinating glimpse at the state of the art at the very beginning of the late, lamented "Dance Boom," which seems now, in its way, as distant and quaint as Petipa's disarmingly chaste chorus-girls in last year's reconstruction of the "original" Sleeping Beauty by the Kirov. In fact, I don't think there'd be much argument that said dance boom actually began with these very broadcasts, so they're a record of art forms (ballet, and how it was presented to the television-watching public) at the beginning of a time of tremendous change and (one would like to think) improvement. Where, for example, the Dance in America videos of the New York City Ballet from the late Seventies look almost contemporaneous (they leave no doubts that the Suzanne Farrell or Merrill Ashley of 1978 could step out of the TV and into today's State Theater and do quite well in Diamonds or Ballo della Regina), the Bell Telephone Hour performances look much more dated -- standards for ballet technique and broadcast changed more in those intervening fifteen years than they have since, and not always for the better. I, for one, wouldn't mind seeing a return to the days when the world of high culture was brought into our living-rooms every night, introduced by disarmingly sweet young models in scarlet evening gowns, as with Beriosova and Nureyev in Diana and Acteon. Of course, it wasn't just dance that changed so dramatically after the early sixties, and it's hard not to look back at those times and imagine them as far more innocent and less jaded than our own. Certainly sophistication has proven to be a double-edged sword.
The tape's first pas de deux, and the West's first look at Nureyev after his defection, is the Flower Festival pas de deux, danced with Maria Tallchief. The first thing I noticed were the ikky sets - trellises and flowers everywhere. While today's taste might be to present the dancers on a simple stage with little embellishment, back then, perhaps because of television's notorious flattening of space, the Bell Telephone Hour producers must have decided that they needed to provide dancers this ... stuff ... to move in front of, behind, and through, in order to establish some illusion of three-dimensional space - either that or they just abhorred the thought of a studio bereft of tacky adornments. Or a costume, for that matter, as Maria Tallchief's dressed in a voluminous and relentlessly pink monstrosity which recalls the poodle skirts of the day, except, of course, that it's festooned with embroidered flowers, most noticeably the huge blue one plastered on the front of her bodice. I awarded it my own personal prize for The Ugliest Tutu I've Ever Seen, but, as we'll see, that award was short-lived. At least Nureyev wears the traditional sailor-suit.
It is striking to see how young Nureyev looks here. Yet, despite his youth, he's a fully formed artist, showing the contrasts between extremes which came to mark his style. Perhaps due to the late start of his training, there's a tension between his tremendous natural facility, and his physique which, though quite exceptional in its own right, with its sharp angles, defiles and promontories, most notably those celebrated cheekbones and lips, sometimes betrays him - at least when compared to today's standards. For instance, his line in arabesque leaves something to be desired - he must dive forward and downward with his chest to get a decent lift to his working leg. In his brilliant turns à la sèconde, his working leg is often not quite straight, or not quite turned out, and I couldn't help but notice the way he hunches his shoulders when he from one gorgeous double assemblé turn to the next in his solo from Diana and Acteon.
There's often a sense that, beneath his surface poise, he's fighting to assert his will, via his profound natural facilities, on a body which isn't quite stretched, elegant or polished enough. And yet this struggle makes his dancing so much more compelling than it might have been otherwise. This is not to say that his virtuosity and demeanor wouldn't have commanded attention even if he were to have been more consistently polished, but that he might not have been as interesting. It's interesting to note that Nureyev's great contemporary super-virtuoso, Eddie Villella, also didn't have the luxury of long and uninterrupted schooling. I'm reminded that ancient Greek artisans would deliberately add flaws to their works since only the gods could produce perfection, and Nureyev without his flaws wouldn't be Nureyev. I'm not going to argue that today's most brilliant dancers should be kicked out of school for some of their formative years to make them more seasoned, but it is food for thought.
There is a sort of frozen courtliness between Nureyev and Tallchief, and it's not hard to imagine the stresses they both must have been under, performing live in a cramped studio with what looks to be a concrete floor, in front of an audience of millions. Tallchief has a fixed smile which changes not one millimeter throughout, while Nureyev approaches her with an almost exaggerated deference. While most of the steps are the same as what we're familiar with today, what Tallchief and Nureyev dance is hardly recognizable as Bournonville. While Tallchief manages all the technical challenges with ease, she dances heavily, with little ballon or buoyancy. She's not helped by some poorly chosen camera angles, including one which has her finishing a variation almost on top of the camera. She and Nureyev omit the "peek-a-boo" sidelong glances at each other at the end of the adagio, which, I think, is just as well.
Nureyev's solos are quite airborne and flashy (with some spectacular beats and big, clean double tours in both directions), but his style is like using a pile-driver to crack walnuts. We see an early look at what could be a signature move of Nureyev's - a beautiful and cleanly finished pirouette followed by one in which he covers up a missed finish by falling into a big balancé (there are a few tense moments in this live performance, and I wonder how much rehearsal time Tallchief and Nureyev had together). Although inappropriate for Bournoville, Nureyev's grandeur remains impressive today, although I found myself more entranced with his demeanor - his constant attention to Tallchief, and the way he'd present and guide her with the most subtle and delicate gestures of his hands and fingertips. A study in contrasts, indeed. It's a lesson that there's much more to partnering than simply mechanically supporting one's ballerina, and shows Nureyev embodying a great tradition, as well as extending it.
The next duet has Nureyev on more familiar ground, dancing the pas de deux from Le Corsaire with Lupe Serrano. On a set even more cluttered with scaffolds and hanging stuff than for Flower Festival, Nureyev enters, in gold-belted white tights, bare-chested except for a golden mesh bikini-top, and surmouted with a tasteful gold headband. This was my first look at Serrano in action, and my first impression was that she'd snatched the Ugliest Tutu Ever award from Tallchief, for her canary-yellow number with what appears to be crumpled cellophane draped over the top of her tutu, and festooned like bunting over the top of her bodice. Scary stuff. Serrano had the reputation of being an iron-sinewed jumper and turner, and her performance here more than lives up to that reputation, with, perhaps, the corollary that she wasn't always concerned with refined placement of her feet, or carriage of her arms.
This brings up the question of how style has changed over the years. I'd expected to see these ballerinas use much lower extensions than we're used to today - low penchèes and developpès to the side which don't rise much higher than 45 degrees above horizontal. What I hadn't expected was that retiré seems to have been lower back then. When I first saw Tallchief and Serrano doing pirouettes with their working leg at some indeterminate location around mid-calf, I though, "Hmm. They were much sloppier back then, weren't they?" Since then, a few Authorities have informed me that back then retiré, particularly in partnering work, was indeed lower than the at-the-knee level that's standard today. Similarly, I noticed a certain carefree nature to Serrano's use of her arms (I suppose one doesn't say that a ballerina flings her arms!).
In this rendition of the slave, Nureyev is more restrained than in his famous film of this pas de deux with Margot Fonteyn. Despite the awful costumes, obscuring sets and questionable camerawork (could they have picked a less flattering, up-from-below angle for the soaring grandes jetes with which he opens the coda?), Nureyev looks far more at home with this slightly overblown, melodramatic style than with the ostensibly pastorale Bournonville. If there's little chemistry between him and Serrano, they at least approach each other as respectful professionals, despite a few iffy moments, as in the first hoist of the big overhead lift in the adagio. It's clear that Nureyev could indeed be a great partner, when he wanted to be.
After their workmanlike adagio, Serrano performs the "Dryad Queen" variation showing off her great strength and technique. Strong-jawed and with feet which seem unimpressively arched and pointed by today's standards, Serrano does the big écarté developpés in relevé with admirably full phrasing and control, staying fully on pointe until she's finished each developpe, as if to say, "Yes, I could stay up here all afternoon if I really wanted to." Then she's up (literally) and off with a soaring jeté a la séconde (she seems to have been a fine jumper), then repeating the écarte in the other direction. The crowning flourish of her solo comes in her sequence of Italian (or grandes) fouéttes, where, between each fouétte, she pulls her working leg into that early-Sixties indeterminate retiré, throws in two quick turns on rélevé, then continues by swinging her leg up and into the start of the next fouétte. In this clip, it looks difficult, impressive, and ugly. Perhaps it worked better on a live stage. In the coda, the pair trade fireworks, Nureyev with dizzyingly rapid multiple turns in second and big double saute de basques (imagine their effect on audiences who’d never seen them before), and Serrano with lightning fast chaines, as if saying, "I’m a bravura dancer too!" and multiple fouéttes where it looks as if her foot had been nailed to the studio floor. Impressive technical performances from both, but with none of the erotic tension which made his Corsaire with Fonteyn such a classic (here, he doesn’t throw himself at Serrano’s feet, but poses himself, carefully).
Next is the high point of the tape, Nureyev’s performance of the Diana and Acteon with Svetlana Beriosova. I’d read various eulogies for Beriosova after her death a few years ago, and was familiar with some pictures of her, but this was the first time I’d seen footage of her dancing. While Tallchief and Serrano looked stylistically dated, Beriosova, except for her lack of sky-high extensions, perhaps, looks as if she could have a great career starting tomorrow. Like Nureyev, she’s a study in contrasts – petite and beautiful in an Aubrey-Hepburnish way, her waiflike persona is belied by the strength, authority and power of her dancing. Although Russian-trained, Beriosova dances with a characteristically English limpidity which beautifully complements Nureyev’s more-exotic sensuality, and foreshadows his long and famous partnership with Fonteyn.
This is the first time I’ve seen this pas de deux appear as anything other than overblown kitsch, thanks in great part to the the grace and authority of Beriosova’s goddess, wielding her golden bow like it’s a magical wand, as well as Nureyev’s utter conviction and devotion as Acteon. Again, the Bell Telephone Hour set designers have had a field day, invading the studio space with tree-like abstractions which look more like tall Sequaro cacti. Beriosova wears an appropriately Grecian mini-dress, and Nureyev’s quite fetching in a one-shouldered, bare-legged leotard. Such design foibles matter little in the face of such magnificent dancing. Nureyev’s first entrance is a masterpiece, a huge leap from the wings (such that they are) into a deep lunge and one quick glance at Beriosova before averting his gaze from the goddess behind his forearm, going from great speed to utter motionlessness in a heartbeat. The two look beautiful together in their adagio, where Beriosova regally accepts Nureyev’s awestruck adoration as her due, as he charms the bow right out of her hands, but it’s in the solos and coda that they really shine.
Here, Nureyev is nothing short of spectacular, showing huge elevation as the solo starts with big sisonnes and assemblés, and then showing just the right combination of flamboyance and restraint in the celebrated enchainement of repeated double tours in retire, sinking down to one knee on the landing with a huge backbend, then springing into razor-sharp chaine turns (and doing it all over again). In the coda, he treats us to five gorgeous, arrow-straight double-assemblé turns (I remember him cramming seven into Solor’s solo from La Bayadere, ages ago), and magnificent turns in second, and with his working leg changing position. Beriosova starts her solo beautifully, diving into the plunging-over-a-precipice pique into arabesque penchée with as little fuss as if she were stepping off the curb to hail a cab, and tossing off the rest of her difficult solo with noblesse one expects of a goddess. I liked the honesty and respect both brought to this duet, which shone with a sweet, naïve innocence so unlike the carnival bluster with which it’s performed today.
After this little bit of heaven, or at least Olympus, the grainy, jerky footage of Nureyev and Beriosova in the Black Swan pas de deux is a letdown. It’s possible to admire how Nureyev can drape himself in classical princeliness like a mantle, or how Beriosova’s arms remain utterly pure and radiant, even as her Odile is busy being quite the opposite, but this rendition seems most notable for yet another bizarre set (didn’t those haystack thingies kill a lot of people in The Day of the Triffids?) and the strange liberties both take with the choreography. Nureyev’s solo is a lesson in What to Do When You Run Out Of Studio (answer: arm-flapping soubresauts. Lots of them), and, in the coda, he tosses off his pirouettes a la seconde faster and faster, like a helicopter taking off. Beriosova is a delightfully evil Odile, even if she made the bizarre decision to conclude the coda with a bunch of quick little echappes. One sees something new every day.
I paid twenty-five bucks for this tape. Put down the computer and go out and buy it. Or better, follow Alexandra’s link to Amazon and order it. Right now.
[This message has been edited by Manhattnik (edited August 11, 2000).]
Posted 11 August 2000 - 07:02 AM
Posted 11 August 2000 - 07:34 AM
Posted 11 August 2000 - 09:14 AM
Posted 11 August 2000 - 09:44 AM
Posted 11 August 2000 - 11:40 AM
I've heard stories about how much fun it was to dance on these shows. The floors really were concrete, the rooms were tiny, and sometimes, just to make everything perfect, the nice people would wax the floors twice to make sure they were shiny. There often had to be adjustments to the choreography to accommodate camera placement.
I wish there were a few variety shows around now, too. It gave dance a presence on the American consciousness. It wasn't just Nureyev, famous for his defection, who got on these shows, but almost every star dancer. You didn't have to be hot, just good. I think there were a lot of young dancers who were inspired by these shows. I know I've read several interviews with British dancers who said it was seeing Nureyev on television that made them want to become dancers.
Alas, I remember watching a Bell Telephone Hour once. I had to report periodically, when I was watching television without adult supervision, what was happening on the screen. "It's ballet dancers." To which came the command: "Turn it off. That's just a lot of silly people jumping around." It might have been Nureyev.....
Posted 11 August 2000 - 11:54 AM
Yikes. And what would they have said if you told them "It's soldiers shooting each other?"
Posted 11 August 2000 - 12:42 PM
TV variety shows.) Other than that, she generally approved only of the evening news, the Sunday talk shows, Omnibus, and the (brogueless) plays that were often broadcast regularly then.
[This message has been edited by alexandra (edited August 11, 2000).]
Posted 13 August 2000 - 04:14 AM
All of which is off topic, of course. I really enjoyed the review, Manhattnik, must go buy that video.
Posted 13 August 2000 - 01:46 PM
I can relate to your career change as I'm doing somewhat of the same thing. After years of arts related/non-profit employment I am now in the grand world of the big C- corporate. Hang in there, in the end it's been interesting and it makes my trips to the ballet/opera/theatre all that more enjoyable.
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