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.
][attachmentid=18]Riabouchinska and Kriza in 'Les Sylphides'
This scratchy old photograph was taken during a performance of 'Les Sylphides' during the 1945 season of Ballet Theatre at the old Metropolitan Opera House in NYC. Riabouchinska's performance was legendary in this ballet; less known is the performance of John Kriza. He remains my favorite in the role and was the most Byronesque of anyone I have seen.
The Early Days
Listening to the clip of Maria Tallchief talking about how delighted she was to be a part of the Ballet Russe, together with all the excitement about the new "Ballets Russe" film set me to thinking about her early years with the Company. She had been in the Company a short time when I began seeing her in 1944--ah, we were both so young! She was a dancer you noticed right away; her innate musical sensitivity was evident even in her small solo roles. As she led the can-can in "Gaite Parisienne", I will never forget her ferocious manege around the stage ending in a triumphant split. In "Le Bourgeoise Gentilhomme" she alternated in two of the divertissements--a charming American Indian dance and the leader of the pas de sept. She also led the czardas in "Coppelia".
It is easy to see why Balanchine singled her out so quickly. She often spoke despairingly of herself as a dancer in those days when comparing herself to Balanchine trained dancers Mary Ellen Moylan or Marie-Jeanne. Moylan, indeed, had beautiful legs and feet and Marie-Jeanne's sharp-footed technique was easy to appreciate---but Tallchief had something else---a commanding stage presence that could not be ignored. The finely honed technique would come.
She was an exciting dancer on stage, no matter how small or large the part. She came into her own with the soloist lead in "Ballet Imperial"---a performance hard to top, although I did see the same technical spark and attack in Monique Meunier's recent performance.
Her dramatic bent was fully revealed as the mysterious Fairy in "Baiser de la Fee" and as the tempestuous Coquette in "Night Shadow" (later, "La Sonnambula"). Although she did not speak too highly of working with Antony Tudor, I often wished she had come under his influence---she had it in her to be a rival to Nora
It was this dramatic undertone that I found so attractive in her performances. Later, it was her Eurydice ("Orpheus") and Firebird that I found so memorable. Most Firebirds I have seen are more bird than woman; Tallchief exuded a womanly sensuality. When watching her in "Scotch Symphony" I always feel it is a forced romanticism. It doesn't seem to come naturally.
It seems to me that nowadays when people write of upcoming 'corps' members or soloists they usually emphasize technical prowess--but that will take them only so far on the road to ballerina-status.
This is a photograph of Tatiana Riabouchinska in one of her most famous roles--performing the Prelude in "Les Sylphides". It was taken live during a performance at the old "Met" Opera House in New York during Ballet Theatre's 1945 season. It beautifully captures the dreaminess of her interpretation.
And--dreamy it was. One Sunday afternoon during this Season, I attended a performance which opened with 'Les Sylphides'--I was late in getting to the theater and managed to be at my favorite standing room spot (behind the Orchestra Circle) just as the curtain was rising, and did not have a chance to read my program. I had no problem recognizing the male lead and his two ballerinas (can't remember who they were) but I could not identify the blonde at his feet of the opening tableau. Riabouchinska was a guest artist for the season, and generally, guests did not perform at matinees. I thought it might be Maria Karnilova, since she was a blonde.---but when this person started to move to the lovely strains of the Prelude, I felt as though I had been transported to that 'sylvan glade' (a phrase often used at the time in program notes for Les Sylphides). The sudden shock of applause brought me back to reality and I knew I had just seen Riabouchinska.
This is a photograph of Alexandra Danilova and Nicholas Magallanes taken during a performance of the Denham Ballet Russe at the "City Center" in New York.,...about 1946. I think it's from "Raymonda".
A Personal Memory
To say that Hugh Laing was unique as a dancer would be a considerable understatement. No one performed as he did. The only other dancer of his generation who had the same impact on the stage as he---was Leonide Massine.
He had the same intensity and dynamism. As the Gypsy Boy in "Aleko" he was favorably compared to Massine and it was thought that he would be well suited to other Massine roles, i.e., the Young Musician in "Symphonie Fantastique" or as the Hussar in "Le Beau Danube".
But what of his technical side?
This is how Leon Danielian assessed him:
"Here was someone touted as a premier dancer. Yet he had
no elevation, no pirouettes, no plie, and could only rise to
half toe. He was brittle. But he was brilliant on the stage.
He understood every gesture and could magnify it so that
the audiences sitting high in the galleries got the full power."
Danielian goes on to say that nothing attests to Tudor's brilliance more than his ability to choreograph around Hugh's deficiencies. Implying, perhaps, that he could dance for no other choreographer?
Well, not quite. He did many non-Tudor ballets. He portrayed Petrouchka, was a droll Husband in deMille's "Tally-Ho", a Spanish lover in Fokine's "Bluebeard", the Grandfather in "Peter and the Wolf", Robbins "Facsimilie", and one performance I missed but badly wanted to see, his Albrecht to Tamara Toumanova's Giselle. I missed that performance because I was a high school student at the time, it was a school day, and I had exams the next day and my family put their 'foot down' and I could not leave the house. I never studied that night, though. At 8:30 (the starting time then) I lay down on my bed and for the next two hours envisioned what was happening on the stage of the old 'Met". A friend of mine took a photograph of him taking a bow in front of the gold curtain holding one long stemmed red rose. I believe it was the only time he danced the role, I could never find a reference to it anywhere. To this day I wonder how he got through the technical demands---but oh!, his interpretation must have been beautiful. When necessary he could be appealingly tender.
John Martin (NYTimes) said his Petrouchka "was a figure of essentially tragic dignity...giving a lift to the tone of the work as a whole and endowing the ending particularly with the significance of catastrophe."
His most famous role, undoubtedly, is the Young Man in "Pillar of Fire". His portrayal of the Young Man has often been described as vulgar, but I never thought so. Conceited, self-centered, egotistical--oh yes--in abundance, but his elegance never left him even when he was playing a degenerate heel. (With his successors, the Young Man has become coarse and common)
Sono Osato, in writing of Laing's famous 'walk' after leaving Hagar prostrate on the ground said, "His walk alone spoke volumes, expressing at once his indifference to her shame and a passion devoid of tenderness." I can recall the Young Man's first encounter with Hagar----as he walks across the stage at a normal gait, he pauses ever so briefly, and with his feet planted firmly on the ground does a step which I can only describe as a ronde de jambe of the left knee while looking slightly over his left shoulder at Hagar---subtle and erotic.
In an interview with Selma Jeanne Cohen he said:
"He (Tudor) never set my final walk--now a quite famous
one--in "Pillar of Fire". I knew there had to be something
vulgar and nasty in it, and something of the arrogance of a
strutting sailor. So I just walked with hips tight and
shoulders up, and Tudor said it was just right."
Quite a contrast was his role in "Undertow" as the psychotic Transgressor. He
looked small and thin and appeared to be a shy and gentle adolescent. Fernau Hall said: "This little boy should look like a 'Picasso Blue Period Boy'---skinny and sensitive, bedraggled and unwanted." This is the effect Laing achieved; and wisely did not try to gain sympathy for the character which would not be too welcome for a homicidal maniac. The ballet was not well received---most audiences found it to be too obscure. But the performances of Laing, Alicia Alonso and Nana Gollner made it memorable. (Nana Gollner was the big surprise. She had the glamour, beauty and innate sexiness of a Hollywood star. I would think Tudor wanted her for the part of Medusa, over Nora Kaye, because of these attributes. Later Diana Adams danced the part but was not suited to the role; her beauty was soft and lady-like.)
Laing's technique, or lack of it, was never mentioned in any review I have come across---the reviews spoke of his "Superb pantomimic dancing which has given distinction to every Tudor work" (George Amberg) Donna Perlmutter wrote "....throughout his two decades on stage and since, no one, according to consensus, has ever matched his theatrical splendor in the Tudor ballets."
In the summer of 1950 Ballet Theatre visited London without Hugh Laing, and CWBeaumont, Himself, wrote at the time:
"The dancer one misses is Hugh Laing, because no one knows
Tudor's conception of ballet better than he does, since the
principal roles of so many of that choreographer's works have
been worked out upon and created by him. I think it would be
generally agreed by all who saw Laing in these roles, that he is
unmatchable as Romeo and as the Young Man in 'Pillar of Fire'"
Edwin Denby almost touched on his technique:
"Hugh Laing is, of course, among the men the special star of
the Company, and, in his style, in a class by himself. His
exactness of gesture, his fine intellectual fervor, and his
almost Sinatralike suggestion have been as compelling as
ever,---and his balance has improved."
"His balance has improved"...??...it comes across as an afterthought. It seems to me that Denby would have liked to say more about his technique, but left well enough alone. Perhaps it was like the way the White House Press Corps refrained from writing of John F. Kennedy's peccadillos; concentrating instead on the essence of the man---and in this case, the dancer.
One of my fondest memories of Hugh Laing is the time he came to talk to our ballet group--'Balletiana'. This was a group formed by balletomanes as a way of staying in touch in between the ballet seasons. (This is what we did before the Internet). We met twice a month in a rented studio in Carnegie Hall, and had many notable guests, among whom were Edwin Denby, Walter Terry, Anatole Chujoy, Alexandra Danilova, Frederic Franklin, Ruthanna Boris, Harold Lang, Nana Gollner and many more. One of our most memorable and hilarious guests was Hugh Laing. Our Moderator, R.E. was an attractive blonde in her late 20's; more worldly and sophisticated than the rest of us. She and Laing sat on two chairs facing the group, with a bottle of whiskey and two glasses next to her on the floor.
In between the questioning she plied him (and herself) with drinks. She would bat her eyelashes at him, and he mustered up his considerable charm. By the end of the session they were both delightfully potted. He came back for a second visit.
I am currently reading Deborah Jowitt's biography of Jerome Robbins---the third book I have read about him in the past three years. The other two were the Greg Lawrence biography, "Dance With Demons" and Christine Conrad's "That Broadway Man, That Ballet Man".
Whenever I read about Robbins my thoughts go back to Wilma Curley. I knew she had passed away but didn't know when. I found an obituary on the Web and learned that she had died on October 16, 1999; her married name was Harrison; she had two sons and two grand-daughters. She was 62 years old. She was invaluable to Robbins as a dancer and later as an assistant and friend.
I knew Wilma as a child when she studied with George Chaffee in the late 1940's. Wilma's mother, who brought her to class three times a week, was the absolute antithesis of the pushy ballet mama. She was a modest woman, and was friendly and well-liked by the other students. Having known her as a child, the qualities that later made her a favorite of Robbins were very much in evidence. Technically, she could 'do anything' and 'try anything'. Her slim long legs were well proportioned and she could go on pointe with very soft shoes. But what was really unique about her was her matter-of-fact attitude to Dance. Her view of ballet was unsentimental; she was not the little girl who dreamed of a pink tutu with a tiara on her head. As a youngster she could appear to be lackadaisical. I think it was this very quality that enabled her to get along so well with Robbins. Greg Lawrence in his Biography says "...she (Wilma) is one of the few who were never intimidated by him..." This quality of indifference enabled her to cut through the pomp, even as a child.
As can sometimes happen in a small ballet studio, the private life of the teacher can interfere with the stability of the class to the detriment of the students. This was the case at our Studio in late 1948. My friend and fellow student Ben Harkarvy and I were planning to leave and we both approached Mrs. Curley and urged her to take Wilma to the School of American Ballet. Mrs. Curley was reluctant at first; she was fearful of offending the teacher. But we did convince her that Wilma had a great talent that would be wasted if she was not in a more competitive atmosphere---and in a place where her gifts would be ultimately realized. (I, too, went to SAB,---but that's another story which I might tell some day.) Whenever I read of her in a Robbins biography, I smile a little when I think of how I helped bring her to his attention.
Actually, some one in the Robbins family did come in contact with Wilma in January of 1948. Robbins' sister Sonia was at a ballet concert given by George Chaffee in Manhasset, Long Island. She danced under the name of Wilma Frances and performed a solo in a Chaffee ballet to Handel's Alcina Suite, "Vignettes". (One of the dancers in the group was a nanny to Sonia's two children; I also took part in the performance). 09/18/04
Postscript: I was thrilled to receive the following comment on the above:
On a lark today I went and googled my mom's name and this little blog came up. It told a story about my mom that I didn't know. There are many stories of course because she had a rather busy career in dance. And she told me many of them. Anyway thanks for a very nice memory of my mom.
I have an anniversary, of sorts, coming up this month. It will be 60 years since I saw my first ballet performance on Saturday evening April 22, 1944. Accompanied by my sister Marie and her friends we went to the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City to see Ballet Theatre. Our seats were in the first row of the balcony around the curve of the horseshoe shape of the theater---and 4 levels up. I had a fairly good view of the stage by leaning over the brass railing. The program was Fokine's 'Les Sylphides", Robbins "Fancy Free" and Lichine's "Fair At Sorochinsk". To this day, I feel the only way to truly appreciate Fokline's masterpiece is to see it from this perspective. Normally, one likes to sit up close but the height was a distinct advantage: it made it easier to see the movements and groupings envisioned by the choreographer. Alicia Markova and Anton Dolin danced the leads.
This was followed by "Fancy Free" (with Leonard Bernstein conducting---my schoolgirl crush at the time.) The ballet had its premiere a few days before on April 18; this was probably the second or third performance of the work. It received a raucous reception, and the old Opera House erupted in waves of enthusiasm. Robbins masterfully captured the personalities of his original cast to perfection. Robbins was the 'rhumba' sailor, John Kriza the 'dreamy one' and Harold Lang, the 'show'off'. The pas de deux that Robbins danced with Janet Reed was in the best tradition of the Hollywood World War II romance movies at the time---casual relationships could quickly become immediate. Muriel Bentley was deliciously insoucient as the 'girl with the red pocketbook'. At the end Shirley Eckl slithered hesitatingly on to the stage, and Rex Cooper was properly bored as the bartender.
The last ballet was David Lichine's "Fair At Sorochinsk" to music of Moussorgsky---a colorful work that has probably not been seen since. Anton Dolin appeared as the Devil and danced the role 'on pointe' and Andre Eglevsky was most appealing as the lover. I always thought he was shown to best advantage during his Ballet Theatre days. A Hopak was a high point of the work; I cannot recall who danced it, although in retrospect it might have been Nicholas Orloff.
Before this performance my other encounters with ballet had been mainly in operettas, i.e., "The Chocolate Soldier", "New Moon" and the Warner Bros. films of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in "Capriccio Espagnol" and "Gaite Parisienne". The year before I saw Agnes deMille's "Oklahoma". But this first encounter with a ballet company had a profound effect on me, unlike the other performances I saw. I went on to study ballet for seven years and although I was in my teens, I had a natural flexibility which eased my way. Ever since that first performance so many years ago, ballet has been a big part of my life. 04/13/04
My current favorite Swan Queens have come from the ranks of American Ballet Theatre, the Bolshoi and the Kirov and not from the New York City Ballet. Recently a poster on Ballet Alert enthusiastically wrote about Miranda Weese and I thought it was time for me to go back for another look at my video tape of Ms. Weese in the Peter Martin production. Martins has presented the ballet with one intermission; Acts 1 and 2, and then Acts 3and 4---since this appears to be the current trend, I offer no criticism. However, in Act 1 there is an excessive use of the Jester to the detriment of the Prince; he (the Prince) sits in a chair for most of the Act. True, he is there to be entertained by the Courtiers, but he is too disengaged. The very least the choreographer could have done for his Principal Dancer is to give him a solo at the end of the Act, much as Nureyev did in his version. It was a beautiful lyric, melancholy solo which reflected the Prince's state of mind and set the tone for Act 2; and it also gave the "star" dancer something to do.
Miranda Weese is a dancer with lovely shapely legs and a strong technique. She was a high-strung Swan Queen with few moments of serenity, which made for a gripping performance. My reservation is with her port de bras. The upper arms and shoulders were mostly stationary; she interrupted the flow of her line by 'breaking' her wrists and fanning the air with her splayed fingers. This was constant; she NEVER stopped fluttering her hands---in all three acts; her hands appeared to have a life of their own. Could this be a style encouraged by the New York City ballet?
The sets were too cold and icelandic. (I missed the warmth of the German forest). The Act I backdrop could have been an abandoned fort instead of a castle, and the later set was reminiscent of a monastery. I found the Martins ending to be very poignant----Odette was doomed to be a Swan forever and the Prince (who did not die, or go through a convulsion) had a lifetime of regrets---not unlike "Giselle". 01/12/04
Alicia Alonso had a diverse range as a Ballerina. She excelled in romantic, classical and contemporary works, and she was equally accomplished in performing Coralli, Petipa, Balanchine, Tudor or deMille. In this respect she outrivaled most of the ballerinas of her generation. When I ponder her technique, it is not the bravura that comes to mind, although it was profuse. Alonso was known for her rock-solid balances, dazzling footwork and fast, light floor skimming bourrees. It is her careful attention to detail, the small transition steps that were clearly delineated and a turnout that was worthy of a technique book illustration. She did not 'fudge' steps; the choreographer's intent was clear. All this was accomplished with a clarity of style: her Odette, Odile, Aurora or Princess Florine bore no affinity with Giselle, Pas de Quatre or Les Sylphides. Although renowned for her Romantic Classicism, she was a supreme Classical ballerina. There were no airs, no pretensions---just a beautiful adherence to a pure Style. She had a noble carriage of the head and she approached these roles with a mature bearing and a hard, diamond-like brilliance. Her arabesque was particularly striking in its fulfillment of this Style. In these classical roles she had a stately, calm exterior coupled with the sheer pleasure of dancing.
This joy in dancing was in evidence from the very beginning of her career as a 'corps' member with Ballet Theatre. She said: "I remember the old corps de ballet of Ballet Theatre---Nora (Kaye), Marusia (Maria Karnilova), Muriel (Bentley), Donald (Saddler), David (Nillo), Michael (Kidd)---we were so good and were so proud of being Ballet Theatre dancers---we were not just 'hired' dancers in a company, we 'were' the Company. We were Ballet Theatre."
The epitome of her classical dancing was Balanchine's Theme and Variations which he created for her and Igor Youskevitch in 1947. In his book "Complete Stories of the Great Ballets" Balanchine wrote the following about the pas de deux: "A solo sounds the melody, and a pas de deux begins...the dancing is noble and tender. To this theme of open joy and romance the Ballerina, supported by her partner, executes slowly and perfectly movements...that display her full beauty." It was precisely this joy and romance that permeated the partnership of Alonso and Youskevitch. People who saw them together thought they were in love, so compatible was their partnership which had a sensuous undertone. While they were not romantically involved off-stage, their performance shows something extra not easily found when performers are of a different sexual orientation. Youskevitch said of their partnership: "When we dance, we'd flow together. It was the best partnership I ever shared. We felt we were important." He went on to say: "Her feet were not just doing a required step, they were expressions on their own."
Anton Dolin, commenting on Alonso's first Giselle (as a replacement for the ailing Alicia Markova) said: "I have always thought of Alicia as a coming Giselle, ever since I gave her an audition for Ballet Theatre...I found that extraordinary intensity and that almost eerie insight into every little detail." Dolin also choreographed Cerrito for her in "Pas de Quatre", although later she would dance Taglioni.
Alonso and Youskevitch were the definitive Giselle and Albrecht of their generation; they performed the ballet for eleven years. In Act I there was a sweet flirtation between them, and his ardor appeared genuine. Her Giselle of Act I had a girlish innocense about first love. In her own words of the mad scene she said: "She comes out of the mad scene and faces the truth. She sees Albrecht, she looks at him and she forgives him. She says: I forgive you."
In Act II Albrecht obtained absolution from Giselle for his wrongdoing. Interestingly, Alonso had said that she looks upopn Act II as Albrecht's. Youskevitch saw it as a feat of Albrecht's imagination. They also added an innovative detail to the 'lillies scene'. While performing Grand Jetes, Alonso threw the lillies backwards over her head and Youskevitch caught them in mid-air while he was doing his own Grand Jetes. It was exhilarating to see and never looked like a mere technical trick in the hands of these two artists.
As to the critics (Walter) Terry found a 'Latin passion' and a 'peasant lustiness' in Alonso's Act I---two qualities I never saw. Passion? Lustiness? No. A sweet yearning for one she loved? Yes.
In writing of Alonso's performance in 1946 Edwin Denby said---"Alonso bows 'in character' (Act II) are unfortunate". I find this puzzling coming from Denby. It is true, she did hold on to the character and mood while taking a bow; people who saw her performance from the wings said she always remained in character and mood even when she was out of the public view. It was a small detail in the beauty of her Act II.
It took John Martin (NYTimes) ten years to finally admit Alonso was a great Giselle. I still have the original review of April 15, 1955. In it he said: "Miss Alonso had long been a first-rate Giselle, but with the passing of seasons she had deepened the colors of the role, broadened its range, and found justifications for all its bursts of bravura. It is not too much to say, indeed, that on this occasion she proved herself a great Giselle". Youskevitch also received high praise, as did Lupe Serrano as Myrtha.
In her book "Portrait Gallery" Agnes deMille wrote of their last appearance together on the occasion of Youskevitch's retirement at the University ofTexas in 1982.
"At the end of the program (Walter) Terry announced there would be a surprise. The whole proscenium of the theater was filled with a giant movie screen on which was projected a home film that Tina, Igor's wife, had shot of 'Giselle' at the Hollywood Bowl in 1945 with Igor and Alicia doing the pas de deux from the second act. It was a silent film, and the orchestra accompanied it softly in the background...the image was frozen on the screen and the lights came up slowly on Alicia and Igor standing in the identical pose in the same costumes...you could hear an enormous gasp as 4,000 people caught their breath simultaneously...as Igor led Alicia forward for bows (she) clung to his hand...then she stepped back and apart from him and made a royal obesience to the floor, laying her head in the dust at his feet. There followed absolute silence (which) was shattered and pandemonium broke as Igor gathered her up."
Alonso's varied repertoire included Apollo(Terpsichore); Lilac Garden (Episode from his past); Gala Performance (Italian Ballerina), Fall River Legend (Lizzie Borden) and Undertow (Ate).
Gala Performance revealed her delicious wry sense of humor. Her poor hapless Cavalier was none other than Himself, Antony Tudor. In Fall River Legend her Lizzie Borden was distinct from Nora Kaye's. With Kaye's Lizzie, there was a definite paranoia and she more than likely committed the deadly act; Alonso was a sympathetic Lizzie who appeared to be a victim of her step-mother and father. Both interpretations were valid. Her performance in Undertow as Ate (who was a Greek goddess of amorality) was riveting. She looked like an angel in her short, white, softly flowing dress, but this was quickly dispelled. Judith Chazin-Bennahum said of her performance: "When Ate re-enters alone the Transgressor accosts her. One of the most moving episodes in the original production centered on Alicia Alonso's predatory, insalubrious characterization of Ate, especially the moment when she is almost choked by the Transgressor but manages to get away."
Alonso said of Tudor: "I was lucky to work with him. He had a marvelous sense of theater; Agnes deMille was a strong influence on me, but I think my work with Tudor was more important. I was impressed with the way he approached a ballet, how he studied every detail. He taught me---and Agnes did, too, later, to use my whole body to express emotion, mood, the drama of the moment. My Latin emotions had been centered on my face..."
I have written about Alonso in her prime---my memories still vivid after so many years. Because she danced well into her advanced years, there are many films of her later work. I have generally tried to avoid them, especially the Cuban 'Giselles'. Much of her artistry is still evident in these films and I do feel it is a good thing for people who did not see her in her prime to still grasp something of what made her so great. 11/25/03
Before there were glossy brochures for upcoming ballet seasons there were 'snakes'. They were long sheets of plain white paper approximately 5"X18" on which was printed, in two long columns, the programs for the coming season. They hung on a hook in the theater lobby. I still have the original 'snake' of the Sadler's Wells Ballet first American tour in 1949 in New York City at the old Metropolitan Opera House. It is somewhat smaller than the usual 'snakes'---5"X12", and as befits such a fine occasion, it has a gold background with black lettering. "First Time in America!" boasts the headline. "Introducing the World Celebrated Dancers"---Margot Fonteyn, Robert Helpmann, Moira Shearer, Pamela May, Beryl Grey, Violetta Elvin, Alexis Rassine, Harold Turner, Michael Somes, John Hart. Robert Irving and Constant Lambert were the Conductors.
Violetta Elvin was a former Soviet dancer named Prokhorova; she was married to an Englishman, hence the name change. (She was the first Soviet dancer I ever saw.) Prophetically, in her book "Soviet Ballet" (pub. 1945), Iris Morley said of her": "My favorite has always been Prokhorova who is taller than most and brings a lovely long-limbed pliancy to the swans, brides and willis. Sometime in pure wish fulfillment I envisage a kind of Anglo-Russian lend-lease (her term) whereby some of these younger dancers might dance for a season in English companies where they would be instantly hailed as Prima Ballerinas."
The season ran from October 9 to November 6. The price range was $1.20 for Family Circle to $4.20 for Orchestra or Box seats. By purchasing a Balcony ticket ($1.80) one could enter the Opera House at the Orchestra level and use the ticket for standing room. (The Family Circle had a special entrance and a terrible maze to encounter to go down to a lower floor) Standing room was excellent at this old opera house. The horseshoe arrangement of the seats made it possible to have an excellent side view which brought you closer to the stage; unlike the present "Met" where standing room is in the back of the Orchestra behind the last row of seats.
On the reverse side of the 'snake' is a listing of the complete programs. There were thirty-three performances: 10 of "Sleeping Beauty", 5 of "Swan Lake" (or, as listed, "Le Lac des Cygnes") and 6 "Cinderellas". "Swan Lake" was presented in four acts and was followed on the program by either "Facade" or "Hamlet". (Amazing :--compare that to today's truncated versions---and another ballet, too) There were 10 mixed programs of shorter works. On one evening (October 13) there were four American premieres: "The Rake's Progress", "Symphonic Variations", "Facade", and "Hamlet". On October 25 there were three more American Premieres: "Miracle in the Gorbals", "A Wedding Bouquet" and "Apparitions". These were followed with premieres of "Checkmate" and "Job". In all, Sadler's Wells premiered twelve ballets.
At the bottom of the sheet there is a small mail order blank. There is only room for ordering tickets to two performances. I attended half of them.
At the time I saw Sadler's Wells I had been a ballet-goer for five and a half years. This season, combined with performances of Ballet Theatre, Ballet Russe and the beginnings of New York City Ballet was the best introduction imaginable. Those truly were the "glory years".
When I began to learn about ballet, the period that held the most interest for me were the Diaghilev years. There was a vast amount of his ballets still being performed in the 1940's and 1950's. During my first few years of attending performances I saw 'Prince Igor', 'Les Sylphides', 'Carnaval', 'Scheherazade', 'Firebird', 'Spectre de la Rose', 'Petrouchka', 'Afternoon of a Faun','Le Tricorne', 'Apollo', and 'Prodigal Son'. Later I would see 'Les Noces', 'Parade', and 'Rite of Spring'. It is no wonder that I immersed myself in those remarkable twenty years, and the few years preceding it in Russia. The first books I read were the Haskell/Nouvel and Lifar biographies and Alexandre Benois' Reminiscences of the Russian Ballet.
My favorite source was the New York Public Library's "Music Library" located on East 58 Street and Lexington Avenue in Manhattan; this was many years before the Performing Arts Library at Lincoln Center was built. There was also a Dance Collection at the Main Branchof the Library on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, but it always seemed like a hassle to request an item. The Music Library was more accessible and cosier; there were mahogany bookcases with glass doors that had to be opened with a key. Here you could use a set of headphones and listen to music while you had a 'hands-on' experience with their memorabilia---and what memorabilia! There were original souvenier programs, newspaper articles about the Diaghilev tours in the United States and human interest stories about the dancers. (Alas, no latte; Barnes and Noble and Borders were still to come)
All this brings me to Alexandra Danilova. She was my link to the Diaghilev years and the Maryinsky.
I saw a great deal of Danilova with the Ballet Russe from 1944 until her re- tirement in the 1950's. At that time, the Ballet Russe had two seasons a year in New York, from four to six weeks. (I had a very good upper balcony seat at the City Center--Row H Seat 1. It was the last row and I could put the seat up and have a clear view, tickets were $1.10). During those years I saw Danilova perform 'Swan Lake' (Act II); 'Pas de Deux Classique '(Act III), 'Le Beau Danube', 'Gaite Parisienne', 'Coppelia', 'The Red Poppy', 'Scheherazade', 'Danses Concertantes', 'Mozartiana','Baiser de la Fee' (bride); 'Pas de Quatre' (Cerrito), 'Night Shadow' (sleepwalker),'Raymonda', 'Giselle' (Myrtha), 'Paquita', and a few prosaic ones---'Billy Sunday', ;Lola Montez', 'The Bells', 'Cuckold's Fair'.
Danilova has been celebrated for her 'Champagne' roles--'Gaite Parisienne', 'Le Beau Danube', and 'Boutique Fantasque', and rightly so. More than mere technique, she had the womanliness and sophistication for these ballets, and her interpretations were quite varied. In the one ('Gaite Parisienne') she was delightfully flirtatious, and there was a fragility in her Street Dancer ('Le Beau Danube')---here was a woman who was bruised by the vicissitudes of life. How unfortunate it is that the Warner Bros. film of 'Gaite Parisienne' in 1940 did not include her performance as the Glove Seller. Leonide Massine and Frederic Franklin are in the film, but she was considered "not photogenic". She was replaced by a soloist in the Company, Milada Mladova. (There is a black and white film that was surreptitiously recorded during many live performances, but it only works as a curiosity piece.)
Her Swanilda (Coppelia) had just the right amount of sensitivity and whimsey. She was the proper village girl in Act I; in Act II she was alternately stubborn, conniving and playful to poor Dr. Coppelius---her pantomime incomparable (especially in giving life to Coppelia when she batted her eyelids furiously); in Act III she was transformed into the resplendent Ballerina, no longer was she the Village girl. Her performance as Myrtha (Giselle) changed the dynamics of the ballet. Her unearthly phantom had the stature befitting a Queen, a quality too often missing in most interpretations. The role Balanchine created for her in 'Danses Concertantes' (Ballet Russe, 1944) captures the essence of her dancing--the musicality, wit, sophistication, playfulness. He exploited her sparkle and wonderful sense of rhythm in this work. A later version by New York City Ballet in 1972 failed to evoke the original work. Leon Danilian (who alternated partnering Danilova with Frederic Franklin in this work) said: "There's something of the feeling--not of the steps, but the atmosphere--of the old 'Danses Concertantes' in the Rubies section of 'Jewels'. I heartily agree. Danilova was a Balanchine dancer with "Soul".
It was her Odette that enraptured me. (she nurtured my conception of what the role should be) If, indeed there are few great Odettes, surely Danilova is in the top tier. Her portrayal was one of deeply felt emotion and a resigned sadness to her fate. In her 'Memoirs' she said, "Diaghilev had Balanchine make new choreograpy for Odette, with droopy hands and sloping shoulders to show that she is unhappy and in mourning...her dancing subordinated to one idea--her sorrow". The celebrated symmetry of her legs created a particularly beautiful line. She could be very fast in allegro. Her Act II Coda was very sharp and fast and she and the music were one. (Wendy Whelan's performance of this Coda brought Danilova to mind.)
Anatole Chujoy states: "Her virtues included elegance, simplicity, dignity, correctnesss of style...an absence of mannerisms and ostentation..." Edwin Denby said "...it is her feminine presence, her air of dancing for the delight of it..."
The heart of her dancing was, indeed, her lack of ostentation and above all, her femininity. She showed us the meaning of the phrase "Grand Manner":.
"Degas: Dancers Practicing At the Barre"
The original painting is square in shape, approximately 36"X36", painted with mixed media on canvas, and framed with a clear glass covering.
It portrays two dancers in extended positions at the barre: the one on the left stretching in Arabesque, and the dancer on the right, with her back to us stretching forward in a Developpe. Their supporting legs are beautifully turned out at a 90 deg. angles, as are their extended legs. Impressive, also, is the "aplomb" of the dancers, i.e., stability; they stand straight on the leg so that they could release the hand which holds the barre at any moment and not lose their balance.. These dancers are technically proficient and know the important part that the back plays in aplomb.
The dancers' skirts are filmy gauze with blue and grey shadows offset by gold sashes around their waists. They stand firmly embedded on a dark shadowed floor highlighted by the gold and orange with olive walls. The dancers reflect the warm sunshine coming from the unseen windows on the opposite side of the studio; their gauze skirts set off by their dark grey shadows on the wall. There is a gray watering can on the extreme left side of the painting. As many have noted, the can emulates the position of the dancer on the right, but the watering can's function is not only one of emulation; it is a necessary asset in a dance studio and has a two-fold purpose. A light sprinkling on the floor gives the dancer a better grip, and it also keeps down the dust from the rosin the dancers use on their slippers.
The filmy gauze material of these Paris Opera dancers of the 1870's, while beautiful to behold always reminds me of the many tragedies connected with this type of costume in the era before the electric light. A young dancer, Emma Livry, who was standing in the wings during a performance when her costume touched an open gas jet. In her horror, she ran across the stage with her costume ablaze. The poor girl suffered for many months before she died. There were flame protecting chemicals available at the time, but dancers hesitated using them because it made the costumes look stiff and dull. The remains of her costume are in the Paris Opera Museum.
I am attracted to this painting by the sharp geometric angles of the floor line, the angles of the dancers' supporting and extended legs and the sharp angle of the upward sweep of the floor, and also the feeling of space begging to be occupied in the bare foreground. Half of the canvas is occupied by that bare floor! The center floor beckons the dancers from their languid concentration at the barre to fill the space with their art. Our faraway glance across that bare floor leading up to the dancer (whose face we can see) echoes the faraway look on her face. The dancers' bodies and costumes are modeled and although both are in close proximity to each other on the canvas, each appears to be in her own world of concentration. The dancer on the left, in Arabesque is like a sculpture. I feel she could be turned around and viewed in a different perspective; such is her beautiful line. The two dancers occupy the upper right hand of the canvas on a diagonal. The huge form of the floor occupying the bottom half of the canvas also acts as a barrier to the dancers. We dare not intrude on their concentration. We can only stand back and admire.
The colors used on the wall which is bathed in sunlight, are gold and orange and blue-grey shadows. The gold is echoed in the dancers' white gauze skirts and their sashes. The floor is a mass of black and grey. The grey is reflected in the watering can. The lightness of the wall adds to the ethereal feeling of the dancers.
Line is used as a directional movement. The floor rises on a diagonal and is set off by a broad upward swept baseboard and echoed in the barre. The floor boards in their upward diagonal sweep are accented by thin black lines. The baseboard and barre are also outlined in a thin black line, as is the watering can and a fine line outlining the body parts of the dancers. While the black lines on the floorboards and baseboard tend to be loose, those on the dancers and barre are taut. The upward diagonals lead our eye upwards towards the dancers, but the counter diagonals of the shadows on the floor draw us back to "terra firma" and the firmly planted feet of the dancers.
The source of light on this canvas is implied. The wall behind the dancers is drenched in the gold and orange hues of sunlight and there are sharp shadows of the dancers on the wall and floor. The light is coming from the right side of the room across from the dancers; perhaps from tall French doors which might explain the long dark counter diagonal of the darker floor shadows.
The clear glass covering on the Metropolitan Museum's original canvas made it a bit difficult to closely observe the brushwork. The clear glass reflected the light in the room and one had to squint very closely to observe any real texture. From what I could determine, the brushwork on the floor and baseboard is smoother than that of the wall and figures. While the floor has a dull, smooth finish, and the brushstrokes seem to flow in one direction, the back wall is made up of shorter brushstrokes moving in horizontal, vertical and diagonal lines. The dancers' legs and slippers are finely etched and look like a lithograph.
I was drawn to this particular Degas work because of its lyricism and quiet feeling. I like the long flowing lines of the dancers' bodies and the way Degas echoes this in the long flowing lines of the many diagonals. I admire the quietness and the calm and the introspection of the subjects. 9/29/03
I recently acquired a DVD player and before buying a disc I have been previewing it by borrowing the discs from the New York Public Library. (I am fortunate to have such a good source.) I have had pretty good luck so far; I look up titles on Amazon and request them from the NYPL and then decide if they are worth buying. The most recent was a 'Swan Lake' choreographed by Nureyev, with Margot Fonteyn and the Vienna State Opera Ballet, recorded in 1966. I don't recall seeing this on a videotape so I cannot comment on its clarity, but this DVD is sharp and clear. Nureyev is in top form (28 years old) and Fonteyn belied her age.
I liked what Nureyev did with Act 1; there wasn't a jester or a drunken tutor in sight. He devised a pleasant pas de quatre for two couples, 2 men and 2 women but he could not resist joining in himself and turned it into a pas de cinq at some point. His real mistake was in using (half of the time) the same music Balanchine used for 'Tchaikovsky PDD'. In comparison, Nureyev's choreography looked simplistic and mundane. However, he added a beautiful melancholy solo for the Prince at the end of Act 1; it was most appropriate and set the mood for Act II.
Our first glimpse of Odette in Act II was startling. The first time we see her she is being held aloft in a prone position by unseen arms or mechanical device. The effect is a swan (a rather large one) floating on the lake. Finally, we see her entrance in the normal manner. He gave us a distinctive Black Swan in Act III
He did not use the familiar music but went back to the 'Tchaikovsky PDD' music part of the time, although his solo music was the customary one. The entrance of the adagio is generally exciting, glittery and high-strung. Here it was much more lyric and soft. There was not such a sharp difference between Odette and Odile. I could see where the Prince could be confused.
I sometimes wish choreographers would leave Act IV alone and stay with David Blair's version. But it seems that is the act they like to tinker with. This Act !V had a climax I shall never forget When Rothbart claimed Odette and swooped her up in his cape and carried her offstage he simultaneously caused a flood.
The stage was covered in undulating waves and the hapless Prince could be seen bobbing about; a head rising here; an arm jutting up; flailing arms. (My Kingdom for a life preserver, I thought ) While this is going on the music is reaching a crushing crescendo. (It took him 3 minutes to drown, which can be an eternity on the stage) At one point he managed to scale the bank of the lake to grasp Odette's hand, but slid down again. Odette exited the same way she came in---held aloft again (by an unseen device) and floated away. (Unfortunately, it brought BigBird to mind). It was more comical than tragic. What was Nureyev thinking of---and Fonteyn to be a party to it? I guess he convinced her he knew more about 'SwanLake' than she did, even though she was dancing the role before he was born.
I have decided to purchase the DVD. Nureyev was at the height of his dancing and was a pleasure to see. Having seen other older ballerinas perform I was pleased with the clarity of Fonteyn's technique. It was smooth and effortless (she even did 27 fouettes performed fairly stationary). My reservations about Fonteyn's 'Swan Lake' have not changed over the years. (I saw her Swan Lake for the first time in 1949). It is a satisfying all-around performance, but not inspirational. I guess I would call it 'a good company ballerina performance'
There doesn't seem to be much curiosity about Alicia Markova as a ballerina. The first time I saw her dance was my very first ballet performance, in April 1944 at the old Metropolitan Opera House in New York. She performed 'Les Sylphides' with Anton Dolin. Since she was born in 1910 she was 34 years old--usually considered 'prime time' for a ballerina. At various times I saw her dance 'Giselle', 'Aleko', Tudor's 'Romeo and Juliet', 'Firebird' (the Chagall sets), 'Swan Lake Act 2', 'Nutcracker PDD', and 'Pas de Quatre' (Taglioni).
She enjoyed a good 'press'. The so-called 'Dean of American Dance Critics' (I don't know who bestowed this title on him) John Martin of the NYTimes was besotted with her. He proclaimed "....not only the greatest ballerina in the world, but very possibly the greatest that ever lived". He was a bit carried away! To her credit though, she was quoted as saying: "That's all well and good...it's easy to write that, but it is I who has to live up to it". I suspect she enjoyed ther accolade. One of my reservations about her is that she performed like she believed it.
One balanced assessment of her I have read was written by Edwin Denby---"Impressions of Markova at the Met", (Dance Mag. 12/52) He commends her for her weightless descents, the slender feet, her beautiful phrasing, her mime, her stage presence. All true. She used these gifts to perfecion in Tudor's 'Romeo and Juliet')
The actual ballet technique was another matter. Both Danilova and Fonteyn danced well past their prime, but still had much more than a modicum of technique and did not have to rely solely on reputation. Elevating one's leg to a 45 deg. angle might be OK for a Romantic ballet, but it doesn't work in the 'Nutcracker', 'Firebird', or 'Swan Lake'...all staples of her performances. Denby states: "She cannot keep a brilliant speed, sustain extensions or lift them slow or high; leaps from one foot begin to blur in the air, her balance is unreliable.
When Denby wrote this in 1952 she was 41 years old, but much of this was in evidence when I began watching her in 1944. This was my frustration in watching her perform. But, I had friends who adored her, and were willing to overlook anything." 9/19/03
Here goes--I don't know where this will turn up! There are many times when I start ruminating about all things related to ballet, and I guess it would be fun to see those thoughts in print. As I sit here writing this I have on my wall a 5x7 photo of Tamara Toumanova (Fred Fehl) taken many years ago at an outdoor arena in New York City (the Bronx) called Lewisohn Stadium--which was set up to look like a Greek theatre. Toumanova is in white practice clothes and not wearing makeup, and she never looked more beautiful. I have never seen this photo reproduced in any book. I would guess this photo is from the early 40's. Someday I will get a scanner, I would like to share it with others. She is leaning a against a white pillar in what I have seen described as 6th position (the weight is on one foot, and the other leg is crossed at the ankle, in front). She is wearing a short simple practice tutu and a white short sleeved sweater; knotted under her bosom, revealing her naked waist. This is the only photo of a dancer that I have showing in my home, and I sometimes cannot understand why! I enjoyed seeing her perform, but she is not at the top of my list of favorites. At one time I made an oil painting of this photo (which I still have buried in a closet), but my skills were not too good at the time and I had problems with the face; although I was satisfied with the rest of the anatomy. Well, I am going to post this now---I hope I did it right!! (9/17/03)