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Johansson's letters

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As I noted on another thread, I've uploaded articles from the 1999 issues of DanceView. Three in particular might be of interest to ballet history buffs and I wanted to link to them here, one on each thread, on the off-chance that there's some discussion :wacko:

The first are Pamela Moberg's translations of some early letters by Christian Johansson to his teacher, August Bournonville:

Pehr Christian Johansson;

Portrait of the Master as a Young Dancer

A selection of letters from Pehr Christian Johansson to his teacher, August Bournonville, and a picture of ballet during the transition from neoclassicism to romanticism.

Translated by Pamela Moberg

copyright 1999 by Pamela Moberg

[Editor’s note: Christian Johansson is well-known to many balletomanes as a great teacher in St. Petersburg during Petipa’s reign at the Maryinsky Theater. He taught the men’s classes, and Petipa is said to have watched those classes and borrowed enchainements from them for use in his ballets. He also taught the “class de perfection,” the class that turned girls into young ballerinas. Karsavina was one of his pupils, and writes about these classes in Theatre Street.

And so we think of Johansson as a crusy old man. In this article, Pamela Moberg gives us, through her translations of Johansson’s letters written when he was a young dancer, a fascinating glimpse of the young man: opinionated, passionate about his art, bursting with ambition, and not above a bit of backstage politics. Scattered through these letters are portraits of Jenny Lind; (not to mention Johansson’s glowing accounts of his own dancing, including his double air tours!); Johansson’s dislike of teaching (!); a very unflattering description of Lucile Grahn (Bournonville’s pupil and the first Sylphide in Copenhagen) from a Swedish critic; complaints about a balletmaster the young dancer detested, calling him “shamless and tasteless” (and whose ballet Bachan, which Johansson describes, sounds very close to Le Corsaire), and who had the temerity to dance Fanny Elssler’s famous La Cachucha in drag.

Johansson's Letters

Pamela has a site with some very interesting historical articles:

Classical ballet - past and present

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Allow me to put hte same question -- it's in the first paragraph of hte first letter, regarding his first triumpjhs on his return to Stockholm: " I danced my Pas de trois, as you know in The Marriage of Figaro. The public saw me with pleasure, every ecol was applauded, and I was quite pleased with myself....."

Yeah, I'm wondering too, what is an ecol?

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He uses the phrase 3 times and always phrased the same way....

January 10, 1837 letter to Bournonville:

1st paragraph:

I danced my Pas de trois, as you know in The Marriage of Figaro. The public saw me with pleasure, every ecol was applauded, and I was quite pleased with myself; because it went very well.

2nd paragraph:

I also saw the happiness glow in all the eyes of the premiere sujets; the Prince has been ill, and thus had not been able to see me dance before, came expres for my sake and went home immediately as the pas was over. Every ecol was applauded more than in my first debut.

April 16, 1837 letter to Bournonville:

3rd paragraph:

I danced and was much applauded, for every ecol I was applauded and for every manifestation I thought of you.

I wondered if an ecol was some sort of virtuostic step (that required schooling to produce?)...

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Dear Alexandra, Amy, Paul and Mel,

Thankyou all very much for your interest in Johansson!

And Alexandra, I do visit most nights, mostly very briefly - five minutes or so - then I just read the news and do not log in. Sometimes I read everything and log in. Sheer laziness on my part, I apologize! Maybe you would prefer me to log on even if the duration of my visit is only a few minutes.

Well, now to Johansson. When I started translating his letters to Bournonville I was immediately struck by the difficulties. His language was very varied, always correct (both spelling and grammar). My God, where did he acquire that education? My problem was to translate it into a language that didn't seem quaint but yet conveyed the feel of that epoch. Another point here, Swedish has changed much more over the years than English - I had some help from an old dictionary printed in 1890.

Going back to 1700 or thereabouts, educated people peppered their Swedish with French expressions - not so educated people did the same - often with hilarious results. Then French fell out of fashion and German became the craze (that ended in 1945). Now it is English, likewise hilarious results. People buy one "scarves" or they send "mejl" (phonetic spelling of mail).

About Johansson I really do think that Mel has hit the nail on the head. Ballets in those days sometimes contained folksy clog dances and as opposed to this real classical ballet. In other words pas d'ecole. Johansson also uses the word "pas" a lot; "Selinder could not arrange pas" - in stead of saying that Selinder could not do choreography.

But this word ecole is still used in Swedish today, but now properly translated into "skol", no, nothing to do with "Skål" (notice sp.) which means "cheers". F.ex. today we talk of "skolmedicin" as opposed to "alternativmedicin". I have not bothered to translate those two words as they can be easily understood by everybody.

It is very interesting to trace a word and see how it first entered a language and then either disappeared or in some cases changed meaning over the years. The linguists today are very worried that Swedish is dying out fast to be replaced with American English - 200 or so years ago they said the same thing, only then they feared the French language.

There was also another word, used a lot by both Johansson and Bournonville. This time Italian "furore". That meant raving success, the audience almost exploding.

Again, I want to thank you all for taking such an interest! If any more things like this will crop up, please ask me, I will be only too glad to discuss it. And think of what Johansson will feel up there in his heaven, a world wide conversation going on about him...

Off topic, but this is strange. Johansson made his formal debut in Marriage of Figaro, act III.

So did I at age 15...

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Bournonville's mother was his father's housekeeper (second wife), and he had virtually no schooling. Yet he was widely read, in French and German and English as well as Danish. Home schooling, you might say.

Pamela, "pas" is used all through the 19th century, in the sense of "dance". It's not only "pas de deux" but "oh, please, can't I dance my pas in the next ballet."

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Bournonville's mother was Johansson's father's housekeeper? I thought the article said Johansson was illegitimate... You must mean Bournonville's father... oh right, where's my grammar training.... you did mean Bournonville's father. But the quesiton was how did Johansson get his education? Do you mean from Bournonville? Very logical.

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Yes, Bournonville's mother was his [bournonville's] father's housekeeper -- point raised as another example, since you asked, I thought, how Johansson was educated when his mother "may have been illiterate." I don't think that was unusual for theater people at that time -- and much later.

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Okay. I'd agree with that... But I still think there's an interesting story here that's been lost to history of how this destitute street kid came to be of personal interest to a king:

His mother’s name was Margreta; she was 24 at the time of the birth of her son, and unmarried. That is actually all we know about her. We do not know much about Johansson’s early childhood either, but we can take for granted that it was rather destitute. Stockholm was a very squalid place in those days; one traveler described it ”as almost Siberian in character”.

Schooling was not made compulsory until 1842, and before that poor children normally did not go to school at all. Small boys could, of course, get some kind of apprentice job, the smaller they were the more sought after they were to become chimney sweep assistants. Small children were made to crawl along flues sweeping them clean. Another weird livelihood open to them was “Singing for corpses;” children sang at funerals for a few coppers. But that small boys would want to become ballet dancers was then probably even more farfetched than it is today. So we have absolutely no idea how the young boy Johansson was to be accepted into the Stockholm Opera ballet school 1 July 1829, shortly after his twelfth birthday.

How did he come to audition? I can't help wondering if someone "found" him somehow and encouraged his tuition. Apparently he was extremely gifted, but that alone doesn't explain how he ended up in the theater. Or does it?

I suppose that the opera ballet school attended to it's pupil's education beyond "pas", and that accounts somewhat for his language skills... presumably the opera encouraged a culture amongst it's denizens where more than one language was bandied about. The operas at that time in Sweden weren't all presented in Swedish were they? (that would surprise me).

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I don't think this is that unusual. (I don't know Johansson's story, so can't comment on it.) Children were discovered by ballet masters who watched them dance at fairs. Two other Danish stories -- sorry I don't have any Swedish ones, but I think these are typical of all Europe.

As a teenager, Hans Christian Andersen was determined to be on the stage. He supered, he auditioned for opera, drama AND ballet. He was uneducated, a boy from the provinces. He unabashedly wanted fame. The town fathers, realizing that this guy was not going to go away, took responsibility for him. One family adopted him and paid for him to go to a grammar school -- outside of Copenhagen, where he'd have no distractions. He ended up a writer, not an actor or dancer, of course, but his journey started at the Royal Theatre.

As late as 1920, the young Hans Brenaa was a farmer's son, on a farm far away from Copenhagen. One day a neighbor drove by, his daughter in the cart; they stopped and chatted. The daughter was going to Copenhagen to audition at the Royal Theatre's ballet school, why don't you come too? (Hans was one of ten. Why him? Who knows.)

These were free schools open to anyone with talent -- unusual in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Poor children with ambition and talent found their way to them.

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Lovely to read all your speculations, especially Amy won't let go - she is going to ferret out the truth! Wonderful, I really enjoy this!!!

However, I have my own private ideas about this, which I am not going to put here as it could be read by anyone - yeah, kinda classified...

Anyway, I do not want to deprive anyone of their sleep thinking about this until dawn, so we can do like this. I can send private mails to those who absolutely want to know what I have figured out. Or rather, what I think might be a logical explanation. Any takers on this offer? :ermm:

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Pamela, I would love to hear your theories! Unfortunately, I apparently am "not allowed" to e-mail you via the button on this page. You could try e-mailing me here, or at my own address: eye4dance@aol.com.


Children were discovered by ballet masters who watched them dance at fairs

Could you explain this? I know fairs are different nowadays, but that doesn't help me picture the above without a lot of artistic license. Folk dances? Or would they pull stunts like break dancers used to on the streets of NYC? Or were there actual 'sponsored' dance competitions (like there are pie eating competitions nowadays, or nail hammering competitions, or three-legged races, beauty pagents, etc.)?

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There were lilttle groups of dancers, often families, who went all over Europe dancing at fairs. I don't remember whether they were hired by the fair managers or passed the hat -- perhaps it was both. The Price family was discovered by Bournonville this way -- he saw them dance and brought them into the theater's school. They'd dance ballet variations (there were probably hornpipe dancers, that sort of thing too). They might be the children of a ballet dancer from a small company, with basic training.

Marian Hannah Winter's book, "The Pre-Romantic Ballet," has a lot of wonderful detail of fair performers. There were jugglers and acrobats, too; animal acts -- that kind of thing. A kind of traveling vaudeville. There were children's companies, companies of orphans that did Shakespeare, with five-year-olds as Romeo and Juliet. (Yes, they knew the lines.)

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Good point! Winter spent much of her life going through graveyards in Europe and making genealogies, tracing theater families. She traced the Price family from England, in around 1600, through Europe and to Copenhagen in the late 19th century; there are still Prices at the Royal Theatre there.

The Commedia players were wanderers, too -- I think that some of the 18th and 19th fairground performers were descendants of these players. Why did it stop? I don't know -- because of the advent of the circus? The "gypsies" were institutionalized, joining carnivals and circuses? When you think of how small and closed society in Western Europe was at that time, it's understandable -- it was one of the rare ways to be free, to travel, to live without constraints.

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Sounds like the "run away and join the circus" idea had a predecessor.... (meaning modern not Roman circuses, of course).

Thanks so much for the Hans Christian Anderson story too... Has anyone choreographed a credible "The Little Mermaid"? (I don't really think the one in the film on HCA counts... even if it had some major players in it)... that ballet wasn't performed outside the film, was it?

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