Our community blogs
Recent EntriesLatest Entry
PRINCIPAL TEXT - UNFINISHED
MEMORIES OF MY BALLET TEACHERS
Practically all of my ballet teachers were émigré Russians. Some had been in this country since long before I was born. Others had newly arrived from the Soviet Union. Being acquainted with them, even if from a distance, was a lifetime experience I shall never forget.
Rather than just an alphabetical LIST of these teachers, I thought it might be better to introduce them as individuals; their personalities, how I came to be a student of these remarkable people in the first place and how they came to influence my life so greatly. To do that it was necessary to include, briefly, parts of my own life's journey through dance as it related to them. Some of these teachers were impoverished and barely able to keep their studios operating. Some even lived in their studios.
HOW IT STARTED
At the tender age of twelve I never went to a public library without carrying home an armload of books, most of them far beyond my understanding. Philosophy, religion, metaphysics, geometry, orchestration, (I played the piano) and just about everything that caught my eye.
One book happened to be the biography of VASLAV NIJINSKY - the one by his wife Romola. I found it so intriguing I read it from cover to cover then read it again and decided then and there I would be a ballet dancer just like Vaslav; ignoring the fact that he became totally insane by the time he reached thirty!
There were no ballet teachers in the town of Braintree where I was growing up. Even if there were there would be no money to pay for lessons, besides, in New England at that time, boys simply did not dance. Even my love of music was considered, well, peculiar.
All the same, I wanted to know more about ballet and found a little book; not a textbook but an introduction to ballet for ballet enthusiasts It had drawn illustrations of a few ballet exercises and steps. By imitating these pictures with my own body I was able to achieve a rough semblance of dance.
I wanted to be exactly like Nijinsky, who was born in St. Petersburg, Russia; a long way from Braintree, Massachusetts. I began to learn the Russian language by myself with a Russian/English dictionary and Tolstoy's "War And Peace"). I combed my hair in the Nijinsky fashion of 1910, imitated the turned out walk of a dancer and even thought myself already a dancer!
In search of a teacher I went into Boston and found Senia Russakoff and his School of Russian Ballet.
Russakoff, born in St. Petersburg, had come to the USA in 1907 and joined a vaudeville circuit as a member of a troupe of Russian dancers. He eventually settled in Boston and opened his 'school of leaps and bounds' as they called it. Ray Bolger had been among his students, later of course to become famous as the Scarecrow in "The Wizard Of Oz".
If my dysfunctional family were curious about my piano playing, how could they ever accept me as a dancer, let alone a ballet dancer, which they knew absolutely nothing about?
Russakoff and his wife Regina seemed exactly what I was looking for but there was the question of how I would be able to pay for lessons.
At that time it was quite easy for a teenage boy to find a job as a theater usher. The Metropolitan Theater was the most opulent movie palace in Boston (now the Wang Center). Lying about my age, (still only 14) I went and asked for a job and was hired on the spot.
Soon after my first paycheck I somehow got up the courage to go for my first lesson at the Russakoff School. It was a ½ hour private one, given by Russakoff's wife Regina. She showed me the five positions of the feet that I already knew but I didn't think Regina Russakoff knew much about ballet to start with because next came "prisyadkis" (a Russian folk dance step where you squat down and throw your legs out one after the other). She had me doing hundreds of them while holding on to the "barre" and that was it - the entire lesson! I left feeling my legs had gone forever and the next day I could barely walk but still had to go to my evening job as an usher, hobbling up and down the theater aisles.
As if in a regular school, I continued going every day to Russakoff's studio, basically just hanging around, absorbing the Russian atmosphere and pretending it was the Imperial Ballet School in St. Petersburg. As the Russakoffs, being more or less impoverished, actually 'lived' in the studio, sleeping on cots and not in a house on nearby, fashionable Beacon Hill as Regina claimed, it must have been an invasion of their privacy having me always around from early morning on. Regina once asked if I came from a "broken" home. Little did they know.
Russakoff was a kindly man and said nothing when I harbored myself at his studio most of the day. Probably to get rid of me, he somehow got me a day job modeling for Boston artists and gave me his gold, red braided rubashka (a Russian shirt) and boots, no doubt from his own dancing days in vaudeville. I always wore this outfit while posing and there must still be hundreds of portraits around somewhere of this 'virtual' Russian boy.
Russakoff's once a week class started with a routine barre. It never varied. I don't remember any center adagio or allegro, only basic steps done diagonally across the floor, one by one; ballonnes, jetes, pas de basque, pas de chat.
After a few months Russakoff took me with him to Providence, Rhode Island where he taught once a week. I was to be in his annual recital there. I found I was the only boy in this recital, dancing in a gypsy camp scene of some sort. Russakoff had me doing the squat kicks on top of a table then jumping off and touching my toes in mid air. The following week I did the same in his Boston recital, this time on top of two tables! As Russakoff's token Russian dancer, the two tables soon became three!
I wanted to know more about actual ballet technique and found a proper ballet textbook by Legat in the Boston Public Library. One day as I sat watching Russakoff's class and holding this book prominently, I was rudely shaking my head and rolling my eyes as if everything he was teaching was totally incorrect. Finally he whispered that I was acting very ill-mannered and he was right. Basically I was a little teenage twit with a lot to learn.
Adolph Robicheau's grand ballet studio was actually on Beacon Hill, just across from the Boston Common: one of the most exclusive areas of Boston. Not much is known about this Boston teacher except the much publicized battles that went on with his neighbors who resented a "ballet" school anywhere near their homes on "The Hill". Due to injunctions and possible lawsuits, students had to surreptitiously enter the grand house as if they were merely visitors. I can only tell of my one brief experience of a single class. I went along with two of Russakoff's former students who were in town with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Mr. Robicheau was certainly the popular image of a ballet master but I remember nothing about the class, though I must have shown some ability because after class he took me aside and said that after two years 'we will send you to New York". This half promise of a future as a dancer in New York was no doubt an enticement to continue his classes but they were far too expensive on my little salary from the Metropolitan Theater.
WILLIAM T MURPHY
After leaving Russakoff I went to William T. Murphy. His basement studio was just behind the Boston Public Library and he held morning classes every day. He was obviously not a ballet dancer but a ballroom dancer and taught ballet exercises and steps from the Cecchetti manual that he obviously had studied in detail. This provided him with at least a virtual technique and he was able to give corrections. I felt I was actually learning something but Mr. Murphy was unable to demonstrate properly. I had never seen a ballet and there were no professional male dancers around for me to copy. Dance is basically imitative and you learn first by imitating those who know how.
There was one other boy in the class; an odd boy who was a bit older and more advanced. As the only male model, even if an imperfect one, I imitated him so perfectly that Mr. Murphy said I was turning into a replica of Billy and not just in dancing but in everyday behavior. I soon stopped using Billy as an ideal.
The Metropolitan Theater where I worked was showing "Escape Me Never". Near the end of the movie there was a ballet; a rather extensive one with the dancers Mlada Mladova and George Zoritch. Every time the scene came on I would rush to the bottom of the aisle to watch, undisturbed by patrons. It was typical Hollywood choreography but I didn't know or care; it was the first time I saw a proper male ballet dancer, George Zoritch.
I bought a copy of the VAGANOVA ballet textbook and cut out the step illustrations and carried them in the pocket of my usher's uniform, determined to learn 2 steps every evening. When in a more or less deserted part of that immense theater I would try to imitate the steps exactly – fortunately never caught by the management.
About this time The Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo came to Boston. Alexandra Danilova herself came to Murphy's studio and gave a guest class. The class was full of Boston's best dancers but in no way was I able to participate. I only watched and later went to a performance.
It was Scheherezade, Nutcracker Grand Pas and Night Shadow, (later known as La Sonnambula). These were the very first ballets I ever saw on a stage. After so much reading I'd done about the glamorous Diaghilev/Nijinsky Scheherezade, I was so disappointed I wondered why I was even studying ballet. They all looked so tired and bored.
Years later, when I became a friend of Michel Katcharoff, who was the ballet master for Ballets Russe during all those years, I mentioned this experience and he said they actually had "just started out" on that tour.
Fortunately, Night Shadow kept my interest alive.
During the 1950s and 1960s, in and around Carnegie Hall and West 56th Street (known as 'Ballet Alley) private ballet studios started by Russian émigrés were flourishing. "The little Bolshoi on 56th Street" was the studio of Madam Anderson-Ivantsova, on the second floor of an old brownstone.
When I decided at age 16 to quit my job at the Metropolitan in Boston to go to New York City (with a cardboard suitcase, $20 in my pocket and knowing no one there) I bravely first went to Madam Anderson's morning class. It was an advanced class and I obviously was struggling to keep up. After class Madam told me I belonged in her beginner's class. Feeling rejected I went one flight up to the studio of George Chaffee.
Mr. Chaffee had the two top floors of this building. His apartment was directly above Madam Anderson, as well as dressing rooms, (one which he later rented out to a modern dancer, Matti Heim, who, unbelievably, walked daily all the way from Brooklyn) a kitchen with a view of the back of the Russian Tea Room on 57th Street and a foyer with a spot lighted bust of Anna Pavlova. The studio space was on top floor. I had the impression Madam Anderson and Mr. Chaffee did not get along too well.
After my first class Mr. Chaffee gave me a kiss! Being a naive lad from Braintree, Massachusetts, I supposed this was not at all unusual in New York City and innocently mentioned it in the dressing room to the other boys. This indiscretion soon was found its way to Mr. Chaffee, who soon forgave me. After all, I was as green as they come and seeing me blush in embarrassment, he offered me free classes in exchange for emptying the garbage dumpsters and cleaning his studio walls and floors.
Mr. Chaffee's classes were very French. He was born in Oakland, California but spoke French fluently and adored France. In fact he was awarded the Legion d'Honneur. He gave his star pupils French names. One was re-named Madelaine Le Jeune. He always taught in tights with a bandana around his head and combed his hair forward to conceal his baldness. His loyal assistant, Adelaide Vernon, took a lot of abuse but virtually worshipped him. Once while demonstrating a lift he got so angry he threw her clear across the floor. When I rushed to the dressing room in tears of sympathy for her plight he literally dragged her to me to show her what she had done.
Then somewhere in his 40s, he demonstrated every enchainment himself. His adagios were what I remember most. Lyrical, with lots of port de bras, often ending with a balance on one knee with the other leg lifted in arabesque and in that position, a full promenade. His style was rather mannered and outright chichi, especially when he had us dancing minuets and galliards in costumes from Louis the 14th period. He was a collector of these costumes as well as being an authority on French dance of the 16th and 17th Century. He was an iconographer too and had written many monographs on ballet history and had a fantastic collection of manuscripts. Much of it is now in the Harvard Theater Collection.
Unfortunately, during the 80s, like many NY ballet teachers with private studios, his building was torn down to make way for skyscraper condos. He ended up in a small, 5th floor, cockroach infested tenement apartment on 10th Avenue (Hell's Kitchen). Adelaide was still with him. He died in 1985. His memorial was in a church just off of Times Square. Many of his former students came and I was asked to speak.
Tanya, of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo had a studio at 200 West 57th on the 2nd floor in an office building. Every once in a while, if the landlord was coming by, she quickly re-arranged everything to disguise the fact that she actually lived in a room just off the studio.
Class was $1 that you handed to Madam on your way out. It was a mixed class and basically of all levels. I was still little more than a beginner so I must have struggled to keep up as my classmates were several Broadway dancers, among them JAMIE JAMISON, already a star on Broadway in "Brigadoon". In those days it was the custom for ballet students to carry everything in a small satchel, unlike the bulky shoulder bags of today. I was impressed to notice in the dressing room that Mr. Jamison carried his dance clothes folded neatly in a brief case. This habit of having everything in its proper place must have come from his youth in a military school. I tried to imitate his tidiness.
(A few years later I auditioned for Jamison when he was choreographer for a winter stock company in St. Petersburg. I was accepted and with this job came the opportunity to join Actor's Equity and to become a fully-fledged professional).
Margaret Curtis had headed the Metropolitan Opera Ballet School for generations. (The old Met at 39th and Broadway was nearly 100 years old). Her sidekick Kathleen Harding was class pianist and took in the money. BORIS ROMANOFF was resident choreographer and company class was taught by ALEXANDER GAVRILOV who had been with the Diaghilev Ballet. A rumor was that, while on tour, he sometimes replaced Nijinsky, unknown to the audiences who thought they were actually seeing Nijinsky as advertised.
Open class was every morning at 10 o'clock. Entering the Old Met stage door you made your way on an ancient elevator, then a dark staircase up to the roof stage and the ballet studio, overlooking 7th Avenue.
Marina Svetlova and Leon Varkas were the soloists in the triumphal ballet in AIDA. One Saturday afternoon I was a walk-on. Being vertically challenged (my way of saying I was on the short side) I maneuvered myself on stage to a position where I could see it all.
The Met Opera decided to have Ballet Theater take over the entire Met ballet company and school. Margaret Curtis somehow disappeared and Lucia Chase and Antony Tudor auditioned the Met dancers, selecting only one or two to remain. Sallie Wilson was one. Another boy student and myself hid among the costume racks high above to watch this audition and realized that everything was going to change.
I managed to take a few classes with Margaret Craske. Somewhere in her 60s, she had once danced with ANNA PAVLOVA and was a protégé of Cecchetti himself. She had gray hair tied back and wore tweedy skirts and sensible shoes and looked more like an English governess. She also had a little potbelly. I have no doubt she was a wonderful teacher and had written a book on the Cecchetti technique, but I wanted to learn fast and not spend ten minutes on a battement tendu or some other exercise which was her custom. After class one evening, while going down in the elevator with her I recall her saying that entrechats should be done with a "rebound". It was her only correction that I remember.
Many years later, well into her 90s, she was still teaching at The New York Theater Ballet studio on 31st Street, sitting on a high stool and often went to sleep during class and fell off once or twice.
When I was staging Fokine's "Le Carnaval" for same company, she did some coaching, as she had danced this ballet as a girl. I also invited Mr. Chaffee to watch a rehearsal because he had danced the role of Harlequin and was taught it by Fokine himself. I was particularly interested in any pointers he might have on Harlequin's spin into a sitting position, made famous by Nijinsky
I did not last long in Antony Tudor's class. So many ran from his classes and rehearsals in tears I was waiting for some acid remark he would make to me. It finally came when he had me, in the middle of class, sit down on the floor and show him the bottom of my feet, goodness knows why. It somehow became a tradition in his classes, at that time at least, that whenever he stopped to single someone out to correct, the entire class would rush over to absorb whatever he had to say, surrounding the unfortunate one. I forgot what the correction was and only felt embarrassed, which was his purpose I suppose. He had a cruel, razor sharp tongue and loved to use it to cut you down to size. When I ran out of money I asked Miss Harding to ask him if I could come to class anyway. I stood by and watched him take one look at me and shake his head no.
(Tudor was to come into my life years later when I was resident choreologist at ABT. I even staged one of his ballets for the Met Opera Ballet.)
Feeling sorry for me, Miss Harding sent me downstairs to be a regular supernumerary in the operas . For a whole season I did that. ZACHARY SOLOV was the house choreographer and in "Alceste" he used a few girls and boys from the school as 'extra' dancers, Even though I was no longer a student at the Met school I somehow managed to be included.
About this time I returned to Chaffee who was very angry that I had gone to other teachers. To make up, I brought along two other boy students from the Met and he took all three of us into his Concert Ballet group. I was able to get time off from the Roxy to go on out of town tours with them.
BRONISLAVA NIJINSKA, 1891-1972
When Lucia Chase decided to open her own Ballet Theater School she chose Bronislava Nijisnska as Director. It was a rather small studio on 56th Street with Ballet Theater offices on the 3rd floor. I mustered enough courage to go to Nijinska's class and I think it might have even been on her first day of teaching there. I was the only boy and she seemed to show an interest in me. I was by this time Russian speaking to a degree and after class I bravely asked her (in Russian as she spoke nothing else) if I could continue to come, even though I couldn't pay. Scholarships were not as freely given then but she agreed with a matter of fact, "Da Da, Konyeshno" (yes, certainly).
WHAT WAS SHE LIKE
So much has been written about Bronislava Nijinska. All have described her basically the same. She always wore what I think was a black pajama suit and brandished a long cigarette holder. She spoke only Russian while her husband sat in a corner and translated: "Madam wishes you to straighten your legs more, etc." She demonstrated her combinations herself. They were always bouncy, clever and interesting. I adored her classes. Sadly, after a short while she left. The rumor was studio politics of some kind between her and William Dollar.
After a few months, Madam Balieff, the formidable school director, sent me upstairs to see the comptroller who asked if I could pay at least something. I could only say I would try, knowing there was no way I could. In any case, I continued going to classes for the next two years or so, and no one stopped me.
Many years later, at a teacher's convention in the Roosevelt Hotel Ballroom in NY, Kyra Nijinska (daughter of Vaslav and Romola Nijinsky) was to give a class. She appeared on the teacher's platform dressed in a Japanese komona, took one long look at over 100 teachers assembled and waiting, then turned and walked off and didn't come back. Some said she was even crazier than her father.
WILLIAM DOLLAR, 1907-1986
I don't remember much about William Dollar's classes other than he always wore sunglasses. Mr. Dollar was one of, if not the first, American premiere danseur with BALANCHINE'S American Ballet. If you can get hold of a video of it, he can be seen in the 1938 film 'Goldwyn Follies" (uncredited) dancing with VERA ZORINA in Balanchine's ballet with Zorina rising out of a pool.
His former wife, Yvonne Patterson was always in class, as was his protégé, Hubert Farrington who was dancing at the Met and who was still there when I joined. He tragically died in Jamaica, his home country in 2008 by a hit and run.
When Mr. Dollar was going to choreograph summer stock in Dallas I went to his audition at Steinway Hall, but was not accepted. He was a kindly man so afterwards, feeling sensitive for my feelings, said that he really wanted to take me but it was not up to him but the directors.
Sadly, he was alcoholic and ended poorly, living at the YMCA on 63rd St. He died at age 78 of lung cancer in Flourtown, Pa, where Yvonne lived. Remarkably, she was still teaching at age of 100.
ANATOLE VILZAK, 1896-1998
Flamboyant and always immaculately dressed. His classes, and those of his wife, Ludmilla Schollar, were regulars at the Ballet Theater School. I found his classes precise and he was often a bit sarcastic, but in an amusing way. He always wore a kerchief tied around his neck, a fashion I copied for a while when I became a teacher. He taught at the San Francisco ballet school from 1965 to the mid 1980s and died at age 102 having imparted the Diaghilev traditions of his early training to members of the San Francisco Ballet and students at its school.
LUDMILLA SCHOLLAR ? - 1978
She always wore black slippers with white socks over her pink stockings. Once, after class, I ran into her at Woolworth's on 6th Avenue, at the counter where my girl friend at that time was working. After introducing them I mentioned that Madam had once danced with Nijinsky himself. Madam's reply stunned me so that I nearly fell backwards hearing her say that I danced even better than he did. I believe she made this amazing statement to impress my girl friend, yet for weeks I walked on air.
EDWARD CATON, 1900-1981
He was a unique, odd ball type character, tall and thin. With a raspy voice due to a former throat operation, Mr. Caton would say to the class pianist, Valya Vishnevskaya, at the Ballet Theater school, "Valya, valse pozhalusta" (a waltz please) and Valya would start a lilting, dancy, Soviet style waltz. Mr. Caton, or "Eddy" as many called him, though American, was born in St. Petersburg, Russia. He never had a home of his own but always stayed with friends and while in New York it was usually at Lucia Chase's apartment on Park Avenue. Rumor had it that when his underwear got dirty he would just throw it away. He sometimes stuck his head out a window of Ballet Theater school and shouted curses down at passers by on 56th Street. He was hardly exclusive and often took several of us boy students across the street to a tavern in the back of Carnegie Hall where we sat and joked; or rather they joked as I was far too shy. His language was more like a sailor's than that of a ballet teacher.
But he was sensitive and kindly. Once, after I auditioned for Lucia Chase - unfortunately alongside another boy who was far more the type she was looking for - I was heartbroken when she didn't take me. "Might I someday have a chance?' I asked Miss Chace. "Oh yes dear, of course" she said, but I somehow realized this would never happen. Seeing this, Mr. Caton comforted me by saying it was only for a series of performances Ballet Theater was doing at the Strand Theater over on Broadway, mixed with a movie, four times a day. (This unusual engagement by ABT along with a movie was a disaster and never attempted again). Even so, I would have wanted, and needed the job. Then he asked if I "would be interested in Ballet Russe?" Apparently he had connections but nothing came of it. I believe he was still performing in amateur ballet productions during his 90s.
He was the only well-known teacher of character dance in New York City at that time and was on the faculty of nearly every major ballet studio in and around Manhattan, shuttling from studio to studio in a never ending round of classes. One morning it may be at the Metropolitan Opera house, than a rush over to Ballet Theater school to teach an afternoon class. I could hardly wait for his Tuesday and Thursday classes.
Russian dancing boots were required for character classes. These were very expensive, especially for a struggling young student. I managed to acquire cast off boots from the Met Opera production of Moussorgsky's opera "Khovanschina". Bright red ones!
Lazovsky was the kindest of men. I can still see him carefully explaining to every newcomer - and there was always a new girl or boy in class - each exercise as we regulars patiently stood by. It was an hour and a half class, starting with a 'set' barre (routine exercises while holding on to a rail) followed by Russian, Polish, Hungarian steps done in center or on a diagonal. He was wonderfully supportive so long as you showed precision and care about these steps. If not, he just let it pass and never shouted. I never saw him once angry or disturbed. Always quietly correcting or demonstrating how.
He was impressed by my enthusiasm and before long took me into his short-lived Polish/American dance company to go on a tour with the Polish National opera "Halka". Colorful new costumes were made for a Polonaise, a Mazurka and a Krakoviak. The tour opened at the Academy Of Music in Philadelphia and I seem to remember it was on a Thanksgiving day because we dancers went to eat at a cheap diner between performances. Mr. Lazovsky himself was the lead dancer with us boys and girls behind him. He danced with a lady who was actually the opera's benefactor. She was not a very good dancer and we all assumed her starring role was due to an agreement that went along with her angel backing. In each city, after the performance there would be a party in the Polish community. As hungry dancers we naturally looked forward to these but also the singing and dancing that usually went well into the early hours. Lazovsky died in 1980 at age of 63.
When she first came to the USA she worked in a Philadelphia factory of some sort and ended up teaching for a studio in Carnegie Hall. Some ABT dancers went and liked her class so asked Lucia Chase to hire her for the Ballet Theater School. She stayed there for the rest of her life.
She actually wanted to dance with Ballet Theater but did not have the figure and was a bit too old.
She was a small, roundish lady and taught in slacks, usually a Ukrainian blouse and heeled shoes with hair piled high on top of her head, obviously to make herself appear taller. She demonstrated the steps or marked them. She never sat down but continually walked around correcting the students; pushing up legs, adjusting shoulders. She taught briskly, screaming out counts and corrections in a heavy accent. She taught at ABT for many years and eventually many stars came to her classes, including Nureyev. She taught Vaganova technique.
Not too long before she died, my friend NINA BRITO invited her and myself to dinner at the Russian Tea Room. Nina knew mostly everyone in the ballet world. She was Mexican but spoke perfect Russian. Through her I met YURI GREGOROVITCH and many of the Bolshoi dancers including NATASHA PAVLOVA, VYACHESLAV GORDEEV, helping them to buy video and audio equipment in Manhattan to take back to Moscow.
She had danced with Diaghilev Ballet Russe during its last days. An exceptionally tall lady, statuesque one might say, and taught always in a skirt and silver pumps. She never asked me to pay for classes as she knew I was penniless. I mention this only to show how kind and generous Madam Branitzka was. I often didn't have a place to sleep in those days so she allowed me to stay in her studio over night and sleep in a chair. I slept on many floors during that period.
She choreographed a dance number for a ½ hour version of the opera "Carmen" for TV and used her best students. It was supposed to be a regular series of these ½ hour operas but the producers didn't like it so weeks of rehearsals went for nothing.
Her studio then was on West 57th Street on a high floor. After her evening class she didn't like to walk down the dark and empty flights of stairs alone so would ask me to accompany her. I believe she died by being hit by a car while crossing a Manhattan street.
It was in her evening class that I met a girl and fell in love. The affair didn't last more than a few months and ended when I left with a dancing job in summer stock at the St. Louis Municipal Opera, choreographer ANTHONY NELLE.
She was tiny and birdlike, weighing only 98 lbs. Like a Russian mother to me, often sharing her meager lunch and allowing me to use her Carnegie Hall studio to teach notation classes. She shared the studio with VLADIMIR KONSTANTINOV. It was a small studio on the 6th floor, overlooking 56th Street. Her classes were small as well, never more than 7 or 8, usually less. She was then in her 80s but was able to mark the steps. During class she often would get hung up in the flowerpots in the windows so probably was bored. She often invited me to dinner at her tiny apartment on West 51st St with her husband. Both had left the Soviet Union when he became politically suspect. This was sometime back in the 1920s. She had danced at the Bolshoi under Gorsky. She did have a school in Nice, France, where ANDRE EGLEVSKY had been one of her students. I still have piano scores of various ballet she had given me, marked with Eglevsky's name.
Years later, while I was with the Harkness Ballet, I got the devastating news that she had been mugged in her studio and died two days later of injuries sustained in the attack. The studio was locked when students arrived for morning class but they could hear her moans through the door. It was impossible to determine how many times she was struck. Missing from her purse was $20 she had brought to pay the pianist. Five hours had passed at Manhattan's Roosevelt Hospital before she was examined. Left in a hallway to die, a hospital spokesperson said, when asked about this neglect, "I don't know what all the fuss is about, she was just a ballet dancer". It was all over the News. Her funeral was at the Russian Orthodox church.
I remember when she was mocking a student for being a bit scatter-brained. confiding to me, in Russian, "Nye vsyo doma" (nobody home or, not all there) while pointing to her head. It's impossible to imagine how this could happen in the renowned Carnegie Hall. Security must have been very lax.
METROPOLITAN OPERA BALLET
DAME ALICIA MARKOVA and KATHLEEN CROFTON
Dame Alicia Markova was the Director the the Ballet company at the Metropolitan Opera. Soon after my graduation from the London Institute Of Choreology, she came to the Institute to audition me privately. All of my fellow graduates were being hired by dance companies in England and Europe. I believed I was to being considered for the Metropolitan Opera in my own country. When the contract came it was not for a choreologist but as a dancer. I was not about to give up the chance to go home and be part of the Brand NEW METROPOLITAN OPERA HOUSE in LINCOLN CENTER, so signed the contract. The following year I did become resident choreologist for the Met and for the next 3 years.
At the same time Dame Alicia Markova also hired Kathleen Crofton. Miss Crofton was a well known London teacher and I had watched her classes at her studio in Leichester Square. Before she arrived, the other dancers asked me what she was like. When I mentioned that she whistled while she taught they didn't believe it until they saw. She never gave counts but instead whistled while demonstrating steps by waving her hands or arms. A grand battement en croix was shown by swinging her right arm forward, sideway, backwards, along with loud whistles as counts. A swooping grand ronde de jambe en l'air was accompanied by a wooshing sound with her right shoulder nearly going out of its socket. She once asked the class how to say 'stop' in American.
She had danced with Pavlova's company but it was hard to place where her training had been or which method she used, Russian, Italian or French. It was certainly English
She once invited me to her apartment for tea and to show her the Swanilda variation from "Coppelia" which I was delighted to do. She was a nice English lady and I liked her but I don't think the other dancers much did. After a year, rumor had it she married a millionare and started the Buffalo Ballet and school. She became director of the school. Dame Alicia sent me there to dance in a production. The Buffalo Ballet did not last very long.
Around this time I had classes with other teachers on a one or two class basis.
Some were guest teachers at ABT school. Others were itinerant teachers about town.
AGNES DE MILLE
In her class she had us doing some kind of diagonal. When my turn came I heard her mumble as I danced by, "looks like melted butter". Not very encouraging.
A regular at Ballet Arts Studio in Carnegie Hall. Agnes was often in the class and forever stopping to ask a silly question about whichever exercise we were doing.
Stern, commanding, barking out something sounding like 'sheragsoup' came to find out meant 'second group'. Once I found a wad of money in the dressing room and being honest, promptly brought it to him, saying 'someone must have lost this'. He grunted and stuffed it in his pocket.
Actually can't remember one thing about his class other than his monumental ego.
There was a huge Russian Borzoi dog always in the corner. Mr. Yazvinsky barked out Vun, Too, Tree Fourrr, while beating the floor with a cane. He was fierce.
One class in his short-lived studio on West 54th St.
A flamboyant and jolly character. He beat a bass drum as you did grands battements. 3 or 4 classes in his top of Carnegie Hall studio.
Another Borzoi dog, or maybe the same one. Smoked continually and wielded a long cigarette holder while he cobbled out an adagio. He was tall, stern and unsmiling. His interesting autobiography "Borzoi" tells how he left Russia alone, traveling across Mongolia and sneaking across border to Harbin, China, eventually ending up in NYC.
IGOR AND MAMA (ANNA SCARPOVA) YOUSKEVITCH.
Mama, as she was called by those most familiar, taught in a cockroach infested studio on 7th Ave. later taken over by Hari Krishnas. I went to her morning class, also taken by old timers like Jimmy Starbuck, James Mitchell, Bambi Lynn, Gemze de Lappe. I can't say her classes were at all unusual or even interesting. Sort of routine with very little corrections. Basically just a workout for those "has been" star dancers present. I choreographed my first 'Firebird" on students from this studio. I asked the Madam for pointers on the Russian costuming but she was more interested in the girl I chose to dance the Firebird.
Igor (on a break to NYC from teaching in Texas) taught a class once, a class of only one other man and myself. This was very odd for a former star dancer of his stature. One would think the class would have been filled to capacity. Of the two of us, he singled me out for attention to male bravura steps. Why? when I was of an age most unlikely to audition for a ballet company!
A week after my first arrival in London I found the studio of Andrew Hardie in South Kennsington. Though totally English, he taught Bolshoi style. His classes were often filled with dancers from West End musicals and he sent many students to jobs with European ballet companies. He gave me lots of corrections, which was probably normal with a newcomer, and foreign. Memorable to me was his remark, "very handsome" as I did some step en diagonal. Through his studio I got a dancing job with Ballets Minerva, a touring company. For the following year, whenever this company hit London I went to class with Mr. Hardie or his assistant, Valerie Swinnard, who was also very popular with the students. In the late 1970s he suffered a couple of severe strokes but his indomitable spirit saw him through for a long time. Towards the end of his life, he continued to teach classes from a wheel chair. He died in 1979.
The movie and musical "Billy Elliot" was based on his life. A small and energetic teacher and choreographer. His classes were at The Studio Center, then located near Covent Garden. They were large classes with many ballet stars. Once, after class, Errol Addison (a well known London teacher who was once a student of Cecchetti himself) cornered me and advised me to switch from Mr. Gilbert's class to his own; a suggestion I felt was highly un-professional. I politely refused and walked away. Mr. Gilbert asked me if I would like to join an opera company in Whales, probably the Welsh National Opera that he was choreographer for, but I had already signed a contract with the new Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center.
TEACHERS IN TUCSON, ARIZONA
When I semi-retired to Tucson, Arizona, I had vowed never to be involved in dance again. However, dance, being my life, I soon became embedded in Tucson's local schools. I took the odd class and choreographed for their starting up companies.These fell far sort of New York and London professionalism but at least served as a minor creative outlet for me. Not suprisingly, I found them to have just as many intrigues as the professional schools and companies I had worked with, if not more..
The first male ballet dancer I'd ever seen as a lad, if only in movies. Imagine my surprise to find him in Tucson, and my neighbor.
We soon became friends. He had already retired after 18 years of teaching at the University of Arizona. We took morning classes together at a local school where he sometimes taught. I knew him until he died after a fall at age 92.
(see my further postings about Zoritch on Ballet Talk web site)
I was a teen-ager when I started ballet lessons in New York in 1944; all it took for me to start was one performance of Ballet Theatre at the old Metropolitan Opera House on 39th Street. (I have written in more detail of that performance on my Blog "Ruminations".) My very first teacher was Lisan Kay who taught at Ballet Arts in Carnegie Hall. At the time she was a partner of Yeichi Nimura; she would shortly have a featured role in the musical "Lute Song". Ballet Arts was run by the indomitable Virginia Lee. A card of ten lessons was purchased for $15 and she would dutifully check off each lesson as you entered. A few of my friends were studying with George Chaffee and I left Ballet Arts to join them. Part of the reason was financial. For $20 a month I could take as many classes as I wanted. I stayed with him (and his assistant, the very capable Adelaide Vernon) for four years. I found I much preferred a small studio and small classes--most of the time a dozen students.
Chaffee danced with the Fokine and Mordlin ballets. He gave a beautiful interpretation of the male mazurka in "Les Sylphides"--which, he liked to say, was taught to him by Fokine. When he was in a good mood after class we would cajole him into performing it for us. We were also fortunate to have some first rate class pianists, Allen Tanner and Francis James Brown, a recent graduate of the Eastman School of Music. First and foremost, though, Chaffee is renowned for his ballet collection of prints, sculpture and drawings of the 16th to 20th centuries. He had a town house in Greenwich Village (if my memory serves me it was 109 Grove Street) not more than ten feet wide. On first entering I shall never forget the sight of being greeted by a sculpture of Fanny Elssler in her Cachuca costume standing blithely on a staircase newel.
I met Ben Harkarvy at the ballet when he was a few months short of his 14th birthday; even at this tender age he had thinning hair and a portly figure. He was so articulate and knowledgeable that we assumed he was a college student, although he had barely started high school. (I was a year older) He joined us for ballet lessons.
Gore Vidal also came for class--he wore white tennis shorts--and took morning class for a year. (This was before his second novel 'City and the Pillar' was published.) He was part of a large group of returning GI's who were studying under the GI Bill. We had no idea he was a writer, and we called him Gene.
We were more than 'just students'; we were balletomanes. There were only two companies regularly in New York at the time; Ballet Theatre and Ballets Russes. Each had a spring and fall season, Ballet Theatre at the old 'Met' and the Ballets Russe at the City Center. The standing room at the old 'Met' was excellent. Unlike today, we did not stand in the rear of the orchestra behind the last row of seats. There was a circle of seats around the horseshoe shape of the theater which meant we could be fairly close to the stage. It was 'first come, first served' and there was a comfortable brass railing to lean on. Standing room was $1.80 but rather than wait on the standing room line we purchased a balcony ticket for the same price and could enter the theater early and scramble to our favorite spots. Very often the crowd was three deep. We were a varied group of a dozen people, all ages. Nora Kaye's parents (Mr. & Mrs. Koreff) were among the regular standees.
The Ballets Russe appeared at the City Center on 55th Street. We sat in the second balcony. The rows went from A to H and I always purchased Row H Seat 1 for $1.10. I liked that particular row because I could lean forward and raise my seat for a clear view; the upper part of that section was not in use.
There were a few other companies that appeared sporadically: the deCuevas Ballet International on Columbus Circle; Markova-Dolin which was reorganized in 1945; the Paris Opera Ballet came in 1948 amid nightly pickets outside the theater against Lifar--but what a revelation to see Chauvire and Kalioujny. We saw Petit's Ballet de Paris with Jeanmaire and a few days later the first appearance of the Sadler's Wells with Fonteyn.
As heady as this scene appears, in between the regular visits of Ballet Theatre and Ballets Russes, we felt it to be a wasteland. To compensate we formed a group called 'Balletiana' (I opted for New York Ballet Club but the cutesy name won out). Our aim was:
"the education of its membership and the promotion of the interest of others in the place and function of ballet amongst the Arts. It provides a medium for the exchange of information and knowledge of the ballet"
--a fore-runner of Ballet Talk?
We met once or twice a month in a rented studio in Carnegie Hall and had an impressive guest speaker list: Alexandra Danilova, Frederic Franklin, Hugh Laing, Edwin Denby, Walter Terry, Anatole Chujoy among others.
To my surprise most of the students did not go to see many performances, and rarely read or discussed ballet's long history. In those days it was easy to drop into the Vilzak-Shollar studio or School of American Ballet and sit and watch a class. Over to V-S whenever Svetlana Beriosova had a PDD class (a finished dancer at 14) or over to SAB hoping to catch Doubrovska give a class. I often wondered if the SAB students knew much of the backgrounds of their teachers. There was one SAB student who knew all these things, Bob Joffrey. I knew Bob through my friendship with Ben. Bob had a good technique with particularly brilliant batterie. Coupled with an outgoing personality there was a real liveliness in his dancing.
Ben had a much harder time. He was very much overweight, had flat feet and a weak back. He also had parents who did not take too kindly to their exceptionally bright son of not wanting to go to college. He did placate them by agreeing to take courses at the New School on 12th Street, which didn't last very long. He did manage to lose weight at one time and got down to 150 lbs. I would look at these two young men who were so devoted to ballet and wonder what would become of them if they did not have a ballet career. Ben and Bob both had physical problems. Bob, with all his ebuillience did not have a dancer's body.
We all know what Bob accomplished. He gave us the Joffrey Ballet and because he was a balletomane we got Fokine, Massine, Jooss, Tudor and Ashton. Oh, that we had another Bob Joffrey. Ben capped off his career as the Director of the Dance Division at Juilliard. Before that he established the Netherlands Dance Theatre and was Artistic Director of Pennsylvania Ballet.
I returned to Ballet Arts and studied with Edward Caton and also Mme. Anderson-Ivantsova. Caton was a tall, lean man and walked with a distinctive slouch. His long legs preceded him and the rest of his figure caught up slowly. Most of the time he was dressed in brown from head to toe and wore an 'Indiana Jones' hat pushed back on his head--long before 'Indiana Jones'. He was a shy man and an affliction caused him to speak in a low raspy voice. While waiting for class to begin Ben and I sought him out and engaged in conversation. I saw him in the Ballet Theatre production of 'Giselle' as the Duke of Courland. He was every inch the aristocrat as he walked slowly and deliberately with two Russian wolfhounds. Most of the other 'Dukes' I have seen look more like supers. He encouraged me to take class with Margaret Craske which I did, but she was too dour for me and I stopped. I also studied with Mme. Anderson-Ivantsova, a former Bolshoi ballerina. Everyone took the same class, beginners to professionals. She never stopped to teach Barre. As a new student you followed the person in front of you and hoped they knew what they were doing. Barre was non-stop for 20 minutes or so. Her husband would bang out a tired ditty on the piano at her command: "Music! Mr. Ivantzov". I was amazed at the strength I gained from her classes. Her lessons were $2. I weep at her last years. Widowed, ill and financially bereft she had to depend on others for her needs.