emilienne

Fan Oral Histories of Ballet?

31 posts in this topic

I lurked for quite a while before deciding to register and to chatter incessantly on BT. One aspect that I particularly enjoyed were various fans sharing their reminiscences of old theatre-going experiences. For example, from one thread - which I've asked about before - I found out that there may have been mime in front of the diamonds pas de deux. Jack told me about something showstopping at the Ravennia Festival on Firebird (was it?) that Balanchine later took out. I think various people have mentioned partnering disasters (Bonnefous dropping McBride but got the girl anyways, thanks popularlibrary!). Stories about the NYCB alone would fill several volumes.

I know that various foundations have produced oral histories by dancers, but what about from the fans' perspective? Have there been an attempt to gather stories from the fans? Granted, ballet fans comprise somewhat of a specialized population, but such a volume would be fascinating! Where are they hiding?

emi

(in her imaginary successful secret hero life _before_ she became a graduate student, emi had aspirations to being something of a hack writer)

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I lurked for quite a while before deciding to register and to chatter incessantly on BT. One aspect that I particularly enjoyed were various fans sharing their reminiscences of old theatre-going experiences. For example, from one thread - which I've asked about before - I found out that there may have been mime in front of the diamonds pas de deux. Jack told me about something showstopping at the Ravennia Festival on Firebird (was it?) that Balanchine later took out. I think various people have mentioned partnering disasters (Bonnefous dropping McBride but got the girl anyways, thanks popularlibrary!). Stories about the NYCB alone would fill several volumes.

I know that various foundations have produced oral histories by dancers, but what about from the fans' perspective? Have there been an attempt to gather stories from the fans? Granted, ballet fans comprise somewhat of a specialized population, but such a volume would be fascinating! Where are they hiding?

I am a great admirer of oral history and am regrettably of an age, when I can recount what some now consider to be historical events.

When carrying out a study of oral history in an area which I thought I was reasonably well informed, I shamefacedly to this day remember being brought down to earth as if I was a

twelve year old, by a good number of octogenarian ladies, all of whom had been ballet dancers when younger and were participants in distant past events about which I was enquiring.

At the same time I also placed and advertisement in newspapers requesting memories of a particular person and many though not all recorded impressions that were vivid and powerfully personal. This for me, was confirmation of the importance of oral history as I was later able to speak to them at a tea-party I arranged..

I am sure a number of ballettalk contributors consider quite rightly that they are contributing to ballet history when they post and I personally keep a record of what to me are the most important, as an historical source.

PS

I wish another descriptive rather than fan (short for fanatic) could find universal usage when talking about a deep interest in a ‘high art’. In London among people I know, I find fan is now used in a pejorative sense to describe people who ‘love’ particular dancers rather than the art form. But then sometime, some of us are rather snobbish when we talk about ballet, because we deeply admire the form and are protective of its status as a "high art".

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leonid,

Thanks for replying to my question. What I had in mind were more publicly available and more easily searchable resources. For example, there are invaluable resources here at BT, but it often requires that a person knows exactly what details they are looking for. Or, on the boards, knowing the identities of the best person when ask for reminiscences of, as an example, the Ballet Russes? Among regulars it's more obvious, but it's much harder for beginners when it's not apparently that the resource even exists.

I for one would love to catalogue the older BT posts to make the more informative among them more easily accessible.

emi

ps - I am all for finding an alternate term if a better one exists; but speaking as a member of a younger generation for whom the term 'fan' has long lost its pejorative connotations, it has served its purpose for the lack of something better. Otherwise I shudder to think of being forced to rely on deeply unhelpful sentences such as "I attend the ballet quite a lot, yes" or "Mr Balanchine was a fine choreographer" or even "hm, I think that last soviet lift in Corsaire may be verging on excess" in order to convey a depth of judgment or sentiment.

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emilienne and leonid, you raised a number of extremely interesting points. Since all of us on Ballet Talk are, in some form or other, engaged in creating a kind of oral history, I hope others will join the discussion.

The extensive oral histories of the French Revolution (relying on written sources, often collected at the time) or the Civil Rights movement (often relying on interviews) could be models for what you're talking about.What's needed is a focused set of questions (as leonid says), trained interviewers, and probably -- alas! -- a grant.

One problem with gathering oral history today is the enormity of the evidence. We are not as dependent on written accounts or the memories of octegenarians as historians are in the past. The internet has become a repository for so MUCH opinion and information (a great deal of it in the form of spur-of-the-moment thoughts) that no single individual could even make a dent. Most of this is ephemeral and, frankly, not worth dwelling on.

But there IS stuff worth preserving. emilienne, the archives of Ballet Talk are selective and focus on certain kinds of topics and a certain level of subject-matter only. I imagine that this is a matter of storage space. I hope that one of the technically-skilled Moderators can address your concerns on this.

We need some ideas. :wub:Does anyone know of repositories of oral history relating to ballet and the dance? Or of any projects undertaking such work? Does anyone have any suggestions? Or access to funding!

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:wub:Does anyone know of repositories of oral history relating to ballet and the dance? Or of any projects undertaking such work? Does anyone have any suggestions? Or access to funding!

Now we're in my ballpark! I don't know of anything specific, but I can certainly ask our Field Services Bureau for guidance when I get to the "day job" tomorrow. Information about this kind of work (and a lot more) is what they deal in.

We've visited this topic before, not all that long ago:

Oral history

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I wish another descriptive rather than fan (short for fanatic) could find universal usage when talking about a deep interest in a ‘high art’. In London among people I know, I find fan is now used in a pejorative sense to describe people who ‘love’ particular dancers rather than the art form. But then sometime, some of us are rather snobbish when we talk about ballet, because we deeply admire the form and are protective of its status as a "high art".

The term, of course, is connoisseur! (Yet like emi, I embrace the term "fan.") And connoisseurs are vital to scholarship in many fields, including colonial American history, to name one (in addition to Bart's examples of the French Revolution and the American Civil Rights movement). Connoisseurs sometimes have the passion, the means, and the time to amass a viewing history that many scholars could only dream about experiencing. So taking oral histories is vital, I think, to preserve the centuries of viewing experience among all of the connoisseurs.

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Great topic. Oral history is vulnerable, hard to gather and prompt to disappear in front of our eyes in a blink of an eye. This is why every time one of this old honorable members of the old ballet times dies, i know that something is lost forever. Even if they have written autobiographies while still alive, or they've been recorded coaching younger generations, that's only a little tiny part of their vast knowledge. In Havana there's a whole museum that Mme. Alonso opened a while ago with everything on earth that she possessed-(costumes, videos)-and during the 40 plus years that she's been leading the Cuban school she has make sure of being recorded, hundred of times, speaking about her memories, ballets, choreographies learned, specific steps, EVERYTHING. That's all preserved in tape. I know that Frederick Franklin has been very active also in trying to spread all his knowledge in every single way, including orally, but i also know that there are still some of this dancers hiding out there and dying without having the opportunity to do so.

As per the term, "balletomane" is the most popular in Havana-(in its spanish translation, "balletomano")

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Mel, on the earlier thread you make the important point that oral history is a specialized skill, not an informal collection of anecdotes. It's a time-consuming (both in preparation and execution) and systematized collection of information that requires trained specialists to produce results of lasting value. Thanks for that clarification.

As per the term, "balletomane" is the most popular in Havana-(in its spanish translation, "balletomano")
The English, at any rate, is an abbreviation for balletomaniac. Not the most flattering term, and certainly not preferable to "fan." When referring to one of our kind, my ballet circle tends to use the term "balleto." "She's a long-time balleto." "Just a bunch of meshuggah balletos." etc.

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Mel, on the earlier thread you make the important point that oral history is a specialized skill, not an informal collection of anecdotes. It's a time-consuming (both in preparation and execution) and systematized collection of information that requires trained specialists to produce results of lasting value. Thanks for that clarification.
As per the term, "balletomane" is the most popular in Havana-(in its spanish translation, "balletomano")
The English, at any rate, is an abbreviation for balletomaniac. Not the most flattering term, and certainly not preferable to "fan." When referring to one of our kind, my ballet circle tends to use the term "balleto." "She's a long-time balleto." "Just a bunch of meshuggah balletos." etc.

Still, an "informal collection of anecdotes" can, and SHOULD- be passed on-(and it certainly does, as it happens with regular family elders, like my grandmother, who was an excelent oral source)-and be of great value if trained specialists are not available. If history has to wait for people to be specialized in order to gather oral info, many important sources will be six feet under by the time these professionals exist. I strongly believe things can be done before that happens...

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Still, an "informal collection of anecdotes" can, and SHOULD- be passed on- . . .
Check out BalletTalk. :thumbsup: I've found atm's blog particularly valuable in recreating the New York scene a generation or more before I arrived. It would be wonderful if we could have an atm in each of our ballet centers. In the meantime, there are the contributors to BT who individually and collectively reflect the zeitgeist and trends, the personalities, and their own experiences.

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Still, an "informal collection of anecdotes" can, and SHOULD- be passed on- . . .
Check out BalletTalk. :thumbsup: I've found atm's blog particularly valuable in recreating the New York scene a generation or more before I arrived. It would be wonderful if we could have an atm in each of our ballet centers. In the meantime, there are the contributors to BT who individually and collectively reflect the zeitgeist and trends, the personalities, and their own experiences.

Wonderful! thanks Carbro.. :clapping:

If there's something i truly enjoy from BT is atm711's posts with their so many sharp and wonderful reminiscences...(oral history, right...?)

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If there's something i truly enjoy from BT is atm711's posts with their so many sharp and wonderful reminiscences...(oral history, right...?)
I agree with Cristian about atm711's marvellous blog and posts. (Not to mention envying her her memory.)

But are these oral history? I've always thought of oral history as a response to interview. In other words, the speaker is responding to someone else's questions. Possibly atm711's blog belongs more in the category of "memoir."

Mel, you''re our expert on this. What's the correct use of the term?

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There are at least two major divisions in the type of oral history recorded. In one sort, inner-directed or anecdotal, the tale-teller has his/her own agendas to fulfill, and goes about recording recollections solely according to those lights. In the other sort, other-directed or journalistic, the discussion is led by another person, who has agendas to pursue, too. A skilled interviewer will elicit more information from the testators than they might do on their own. Whichever form is used, it's primary source, and must be respected as such. There are also differences which occur when a story is only spoken, or when the witness writes it down, with or without assistance! Still primary source, though.

One of my projects involved Malcolm X (el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz), and people who recalled him. He left rather few written statements about his philosophy, his "autobiography" was ghosted with Alex Haley, but things seemed to take a dramatic turn after his hajj. His "Letter from Mecca" is a wellspring. People who had only known him before or only after the hajj sounded like they were talking about totally different people! People who had known him both before AND after saw (perhaps because they wanted to see that) a flowering from early promise. I learned the value of "non-evaluative listening" while I was on that project! ("I see! And then what happened?")

Whether anecdotal or journalistic, spoken or written, it's useful to historians to have ANY kind of primary material to work with!

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The Performing Arts branch of the New York City Public Library houses extensive interviews with a wild variety of dance artists. While not all of these are designed to elicit historical materials specifically, put together they make one of the premiere collections of dance historical information anywhere.

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Whether anecdotal or journalistic, spoken or written, it's useful to historians to have ANY kind of primary material to work with!

Amen.

And then, having seen Alberto Alonso demonstrating to his american class how Fokine tought him how to do a grand jete for "Petroushka", or Mme. Alonso on her cuban troupe about how curious Mr. B observed-(and approved)-hers and Youskevitch own pseudo-romantical characterization of the Pas de deux from "Theme and Variations" is so wonderful, and helpful to understand that sometimes this gods/choreographers were as human as her dancers, and results were beautiful even if the original idea hadn't been fallowed 100 %. These stories should be gossiped, talked about, recorded, filmed, written, and everything possible so they run away opposite the saddest case scenario: oblivion...

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Whether anecdotal or journalistic, spoken or written, it's useful to historians to have ANY kind of primary material to work with!

Amen.

And then, having seen Alberto Alonso demonstrating to his american class how Fokine tought him how to do a grand jete for "Petroushka", or Mme. Alonso on her cuban troupe about how curious Mr. B observed-(and approved)-hers and Youskevitch own pseudo-romantical characterization of the Pas de deux from "Theme and Variations" is so wonderful, and helpful to understand that sometimes this gods/choreographers were as human as her dancers, and results were beautiful even if the original idea hadn't been fallowed 100 %. These stories should be gossiped, talked about, recorded, filmed, written, and everything possible so they run away opposite the saddest case scenario: oblivion...

Mmm. You are right. The tradition is essential. Notation cannot record that which you have written about and yet it is part of the history of the performance of the ballets mentioned. When I read that a ballet has been staged by a notator without a former cast performer involved, I have to think twice whether or not I want to see the performance.

The problem most arises with 19th century works where I believe the performing tradition links broke a long time ago. Sorry to turn this into a British tract but both Markova and Fonteyn who had the advantage of a direct contact with Nikolai Sergeyev and older Russian dancer/teachers, were not in in turn used enough to assist in the performance style of these ballets when they were re-staged. I have heard and read of both of these distinguished dancers recording events of working with choreographers and heritage performers, but I doubt if current performers have any awareness of the clues to performance that they gave.

As Mel states, "Whether anecdotal or journalistic, spoken or written, it's useful to historians to have ANY kind of primary material to work with!"

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I agree, Leonid. I'm a strong believer that many things are to be done. Mme. Alonso and Sir Frederick Franklin are still around, and it's a blessing that they are very active and clever. Both of them have a marked interest in passing all their knowledge, and they are very eager to tell and teach. Is their eagerness being addressed enough? That would be the experts task. I read some type of work was being done with Franklin's collaboration-(either oral recording sessions or written, can't remember), but what about other old timers..? Did we give Hightower the chance to do so...? Zurith? Tallchief? Did Baronova or Krasovska had it?

On and on I know i go over the same, but i'll say it one more time, i don't care. If there's something i admire about Alonso's work is her interest in the creation of a whole system and school with a primary goal of PRESERVATION, and the only weapon she had to do so in the beginning was her voice and body. As per 2008, Nijinska's Fille, Fedorova's Sugar Plum PDD or Balanchine's Waltz Academy are spread out to hundreds of new students via older teachers that vere Alonso's pupils during the late 50's and 60's-(Mendez, Araujo, Bosh, Pla), and more than that, the most beautiful thing is some of this knowledge and tradition has even crossed the ocean back to US-(where Mme first got it)-in the form of Magaly Suarez, ex teacher in Havana and a fierce defendor of preservation, now leading the Cuban Classical Ballet of Miami. And guess what. I'm sure that Suarez has recordings and tapes with her, but is her MEMORY and her VOICE what have made the miracle possible. This is oral tradition at its best. (By the way, her new Nutcracker production this year is Alonso's staging after Sergueiev/Fedorova, whole PDD included, which i believe is the only Company in South Florida to do so)

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well to give you an idea, this link will show a listing of audio material featuring frederic franklin:

http://catnyp.nypl.org/search/X?SEARCH=fre...;SORT=D&m=i

and this is a summary of the first listing:

Cassette 39, side A (ca. 46 min.). The recording includes Frederic Franklin's comments made in reference to selections from the correspondence files of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Franklin speaks about the dancer Nina Novak, focusing on Sergei Denham's relationship with her, and the problems this caused in the company; Novak's strengths and weaknesses as a dancer; Novak's brother Edmund; the régisseur Mischa [Michel Katcharoff] and his relationship with Nina and Edmund Novak; the wardrobe mistress Sophie Pourmel; describes various elements of the dancers' costumes at that time, including the wool tights, the shoes, and the tutus; Pourmel and the union [American Guild of Musical Artists]; an anecdote about meeting Mr. Capezio; the company's experiencing a train wreck on tour in the U.S.; more on Pourmel.

Cassette 39, side B (ca. 50 min.). Franklin speaks about Ruth Page; Page's and Bentley Stone's ballet Frankie and Johnny; the ballet's cast, set, score, and choreography; Page's ballet Bells, including Isamu Noguchi's set; Page's personal background; her husband, Tom [Thomas Hart] Fisher; Page's ballet Billy Sunday, including her coaching of Franklin and Alexandra Danilova in their roles [Franklin reads a letter from Page to Danilova critiquing Danilova's performance as Potiphar's wife in Billy Sunday]; problems with the score; Franklin's revival of Billy Sunday with a new score and new finale; his and Page's revival of Frankie and Johnny; Page's friendship with the writer Louis Bromfield; Page's ballet The merry widow; the founding of the Chicago Ballet; Page's and Stone's opening night performance of Frankie and Johnny; speaks briefly about Page's ballet Love song and other subsequent ballets and ideas for ballets.

Cassette 40, side A (18 min.). Frederic Franklin continues to speak about Ruth Page, including her personality; her long-running production of The nutcracker in Chicago [short gap]; Danilova's difficulties with her role in Billy Sunday.

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I think that many great oral histories are those that are done and published in other mediums:

  • Foremost is Barbara Newman's "Striking a Balance: Dancers Talking about Dancing", in which Ms. Newman's extensive interview materials are edited and fused into a streamless narrative format. She also captures "voices" although it is a printed work. This is one of my all-time favorite books of any kind.
  • All of the Balanchine Foundation tapes of coaching sessions are oral histories
  • "Ballets Russes"

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I think that many great oral histories are those that are done and published in other mediums:

I agree with Helene on this, but wanted to add a caveat -- while the histories of prominent dancers and dance institutions are at least partially documented, the real dearth lies on the local/regional level. Small ensembles and local schools are an integral part of the larger dance community, and are often underrepresented in available archives. For a concrete example -- the Ballet Russe companies have been the topic of many historical projects, but the schools and companies their alumni founded are not documented nearly as well.

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Yes. The two videos I posted earlier in this thread, of Sydney Leonard, were part of an effort a few years ago to produce a detailed history of the beginnings of ballet in New England, since Miss Leonard was there at the beginning. I don't know what happened to it.

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...Sir Frederick Franklin...

Although Freddie was created Commander of the British Empire (CBE) a couple of years ago, that's still one grade short of Knight of the British Empire (KBE) or Knight Commander of the British Empire (KCBE), which would give him the "Sir". He's still just Mr. Frederic Franklin (CBE). I've often wondered what kind of thinking goes on behind the scenes when it comes to Birthday Honours and such. I asked somebody in the Garter King of Arms' office one time, and he said, "Well, it has a lot to do with what the Government wants. Sir Anton Dolin was, after all, Irish, and had an American passport, and there was some to-do about what kind of a precendent that would set, especially from the Tories. Besides, he did most of his work outside of Britain, and they didn't like that either, especially when it came to the War!" Politics! :thumbsup:

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The oral historian (like the reader of memoirs) must listen carefully, and somewhat skeptically, and then check as many facts as possible. This is something that amateurs, even the best-intentioned, cannot always do consistently.

For example, here's something I just came across from Keith Money's biography of Anna Pavlova. Money is explalining how difficult it was to locate and substantiate statements about Pavlova's early life and career. For example her obituary in a Russian-language magazine in Paris -- published at a time when she was famous all over the world -- gave her age and date of death incorrectly and even misspelled her name.

To take another instance from that same week: her partner of thirteen years, Alexandre Volinine, when asked how they came to work together, replied:

"In 1910 Diaghilev took me to London in the Russian Ballet along with Nijinsky and Lydia Lopokova. At the same time Pavlova and Mordkin were dancing for Charles Frohman at the Globe Theatre. A year later Mordkin was ill, and Gatti-Casazza took Pavlova and me to the Metropolitan Opera."

It is hardly giving things away to say that in Volinine's statement there is only one correct fact -- Mordkin was ill -- and even that is not in its correct context.

The historian's job is NOT a simple one!

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