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The Tales of Hoffmann, 1951 movie


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A few more words about Helpmann as a dancer.Clement Crisp gave an interview when he was seventy which covered everything from his early ballet experiences to who was responsible for the RB's failure to produce great dancers and Ross Stretton's programming policy.He said of Helpmann,

"He was so terribly important.He was so funny, so fascinating.Not much as a dancer, but a staggering artist. Very good in Facade....His fascinating face,the mouth, the eyes...".

Classical dance is a peculiar art form.It has a comparatively short history as an independent art ; it is performed by the young and its great exponents usually retire at an age when singers and actors are just getting into their stride as artists and the bulk of its repertory has been lost in the pursuit of the new.That it is still careless about its history is exemplified by the fate of the Massine repertory which is scarcely, if ever, revived. On the rare occasion that a Massine ballet is performed, the Massine role is generally given to a dancer totally lacking in vigour, stage presence and panache so that a ballet created by Massine to display his theatrical skill sags where it should electrify and the whole enterprise justifies the work's past and continuing neglect.

Then there is the Nureyev factor.Whatever we think of Nureyev as a dancer and artist he changed the way that most ballet goers watch ballet and what they expect to see in a dance work. The comments about the lack of dancing opportunities for the prince in ABT's new production of Sleeping Beauty and the limited amount of bravura dancing in it seem to me to support the view that performance practice since the nineteen seventies has increasingly treated a significant part of the nineteenth century repertory as opportunities for technical display rather than opportunities for dancers to use their technique in the service of the ballet as choreographed.We tend to be able to see only what we are used to being shown.Those who have no experience of demi character ballets have as much difficulty in seeing something in them as the dancers have in performing them.The audience tends to notice what they lack rather than what they contain and will complain about the " lack of dancing" when what they mean is that they lack an obvious display of classical technique with male dancers jumping and turning.

.Many of the roles in which Helpmann reigned supreme involved little or no classical dancing,de Valois Satan for example, requires a classically trained dancer with a strong theatrical presence to dance it but the choreography is probably best described as characterisation through movement.The sort of dancer who can carry it off is not necessarily the sort of dancer who gets promoted to principal status today the same is true of the Massine roles. As many companies cast according to seniority rather than suitability, this in itself renders the likelihood of a successful revival of such works even more unlikely.

During the Royal Ballet's 75th anniversary celebrations it was very clear how much the company's early home produced choreography was demi character based.This should have come as no surprise as Massine was the major choreographic influence during the 1930's but no one seems really interested in the history of ballet in the twentieth century and as a result the average ballet goer knows very little about it and cares even less.One of the ballet programmes included an extract from a ballet for each decade during which the company had been in existence.Satan's solo was chosen to represent the 1930's. It was danced at some performances by Samadurov and at others by Martin Harvey both were excellent and it made me think that if a different, more theatrical repertory had been retained or at least dipped into more frequently then the reputation of many dancers in the company, at that time, would have been very different.

The Rake's Progress was also revived at about this time and the approach of the two dancers cast as the Rake seemed to exemplify what we have lost and what we have gained as a result of a change in taste that took place some time in the late 1940's and early 1950's when demi character started to give way to a more obviously classical style.In this RB revival of the Rake's Progress it was very noticeable that while one dancer cast as the Rake concentrated on reproducing the choreography accurately and, as a result, failed to portray the Rake as a character, the other dancer cast in the role treated the steps as the starting point for portraying the Rake as a character and as a result the entire ballet worked.

To end with Helpmann. I find it hard to think of any major dancer today who would be equally effective as de Valois'Satan, Rake or Mr O'Reilly,as Ashton's Dago in Facade,Bridegroom in Wedding Bouquet,lead Child of Darkness in Dante Sonata, and White couple in Les Patineurs and while still performing the princely roles in the classics be prepared to perform Carabosse and Dr Coppelius and end up being the Coppelius against whom all subsequent RB performers of the role are judged.As Gillian Lynn said of him he managed to bamboozle the audience into believing that he had a technique which he did not possess.My mother described him as the prince in Sleeping Beauty walking across the stage at Covent Garden with nostrils flaring as if there was something wrong with the drains, but she said that while he was on stage you had to watch him. It seems to me that the Tales of Hoffman ended up being a fine record of his theatrical skills.

To other posters who wonder about the state of dancing in Britain in the 1940's and earlier you have to remember that unlike Denmark, France or Russia there was no state funded ballet school and no tradition of dancing as a career in a state theatre with a pension at the end of a career. There was considerable prejudice against dance as a career and against male dancers in particular.It probably was not that different in the US at the time.Most fathers would not have wanted their sons to become chorus boys and many fathers today are uncomfortable about their sons studying ballet.Football is far more acceptable as a career, it pays more and it is clearly a very masculine pursuit.

Before Rambert and de Valois established their companies the employment opportunities for dancers were limited to pantomimes, west end shows and the music hall where there were dance routines and adagio acts. Quite a few of the pioneers of ballet in the UK cut their teeth as professional dancers in such circumstances After 1917 Diaghilev was forced to recruit dancers who had not been trained in the Imperial schools among his recruits were a number of British dancers.He recruited Hilda Munnings who he renamed Lydia Sokolova,Alice Marks who became Alicia Markova, de Valois and Patrick Healey Kay who became Anton Dolin. After Diaghilev's death three of them were central to the establishment of ballet in the UK. Dolin was de Valois first Satan, Markova was the Vic Well's first Giselle and Odette/Odile and after an extensive career in the US Markova founded Festival Ballet,now ENB,.with Anton Dolin.

Once de Valois had established her company it began to attract people some of whom had a dance background but de Valois like Rambert had to work with the dancers who came to her and many of the men she recruited were coming to dance far later than is the norm today.It was, perhaps, fortunate for both organisations' development that audiences had a taste for demi character works rather than purely classical ones. Rambert was involved in finding and developing a number of choreographers who were central to the development of ballet in Britain of whom Ashton (born 1904) and Tudor(born 1909) are the most important.

.If you know the Ashton repertory for the Vic Wells company you can watch its progress by the ballets he created and from the roles made on particular dancers you can identify what they were good at doing.Mary Honer could do fouettes so one of the Blue Girls in Les Patineurs does fouettes ,Harold Turner the original Blue Skater and the company's first virtuoso dancer could do things that McRae still can't quite manage.

As far as British male dancers are concerned Dolin (born 1904?) is unusual because he began his dance training while he was young. He seems to have been intended for a stage career,had it not been for Diaghilev it is difficult to know what sort of career he or any of his female contemporaries would have had.It seems to be those boys born later than Dolin who generally had a better opportunity to train. One a certain Frederic Franklin had a rather successful career in the US. But as far as the Vic Wells company is concerned in 1934/35 it could only afford four boys. Michael Somes joined the company in the late thirties. During the war there was conscription and rationing.After the war there was still rationing. When the company made its first tour to New York it is said that the effects of rationing were particularly noticeable among the male dancers of the company. .

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It's interesting about Massine. From viewers' accounts, his own ballets seem to have been best when he was in them, while the Diaghilev ballets were never as good when he was cast (compared to Woizikowski in "Petrouschka" or Shabelevski in "Scheherazade").

Massine's ballets were revived many times in the States and while they were popular when Massine (or Markova, Franklin or Danilova) performed, they consistently drew negative notices from Edwin Denby, John Martin, Clive Barnes and Arlene Croce.

Denby says that Massine's ballets, like Tutor's, were "transposed operas," and both were remote styles for dancers by 1969.

In addition to the overly big themes ("Death as a tense figure in scarlet tights was danced by Beryl Grey"), a common objection is always the endlessly staccato dancing. "The fruitlessless neverous energy" (Croce), "the abstract nervousness that has no point of reference to human feeling" (Denby), "choreographed to the rhythms rather than to music ... that overlooks the spirit of the music": Clive Barnes (to which Igor Youskevitch wrote a letter of protest).

Regarding Ashton, Anna Kisselgoff sees Massine's influence in the arm movements in "Symphonic Variations," and in general in a kind of "walking on air."

And bringing this closer to the topic of Pressburger and Powell, John Richardson, who as a young dance critic saw Massine dance "mesmerizingly" in 1950, recounts the story of the making of "Tricorne." Here Massine transcribed and learned the brilliant flamenco dances of an incredibly intense Gypsy dancer named Felix Fernandez Garcia, whom he and Diagilev brought back with them from Spain. When Fernandez Garcia's role in the "Tricone" was signifcantly reduced, he went mad and, like Nijinksi, was institutionalized. To avoid a scandal, Diaghilev told the other dancers that Fernandez Garcia had died. Richardson in "LIfe of Picasso":

Massine plays the choreographer, as it were himself, as well as the Carabosse-like cobbler in The Red Shoes ballet, whose scenario mirrors the plot of the film ... Moira Shearer, who had starred with Massine in Tricorne in 1947 plays the doomed dancer, a surrogate for Felix. So striking are the parallels between the film and the macabre events of May 1919, it is difficult to decide whether Massine intended to exploit or exorcise his Svengali-like treatment of Felix.

During the filming Shearer confessed to being “tantalized” by Massine’s air of mystery–tantalized by the sense that there was “hint of deeper, more cryptic, and quite unreachable level to him.” Margot Fonteyn … said that his “marvelous eyes … fascinated yet also had the effect of a closed door … “

Footnote: Like Diaghilev, Massine always collaborated with the best visual artists: Chagall for "Aleko", and Matisse for "Rouge e Noir" ("clean, pure-color, unsentimental and impersonal decor and costumes ... unrelated to the ballet") ... and with the two Roberts, Robert Colqhoun and Robert MacBryde, for the 1951 Scottish-themed ballet "Donald of Burthens."

https://www.nationalgalleries.org/collection/artists-a-z/c/artist/robert-colquhoun/object/sword-dancer-costume-design-for-donald-of-the-burthens-gma-1320

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Massine plays the choreographer, as it were himself, as well as the Carabosse-like cobbler in The Red Shoes ballet, whose scenario mirrors the plot of the film

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Massine plays the choreographer and he did do his own dances as the cobbler, but let's note he wasn't the choreographer of The Red Shoes Ballet -- that was Helpmann. Interestingly, Ashton wouldn't do Massine's dances for The Tales of Hoffmann, on the grounds that he couldn't do that for such a distinguished senior choreographer.

I don't question Helpmann's historical importance or theatrical gifts, but I'll always have a hard time accepting him as the premier danseur in The Red Shoes. He could bamboozle a live audience, but the camera was less forgiving.

My mother described him as the prince in Sleeping Beauty walking across the stage at Covent Garden with nostrils flaring as if there was something wrong with the drains,

:)

On the rare occasion that a Massine ballet is performed, the Massine role is generally given to a dancer totally lacking in vigour, stage presence and panache so that a ballet created by Massine to display his theatrical skill sags where it should electrify and the whole enterprise justifies the work's past and continuing neglect.

In terms of stage presence Massine was once compared to Callas. Not so easy to fill such shoes, perhaps - he seems truly to have been one of a kind.

Thanks for the history, AshtonFan. Massine's postwar stagings of Le Tricorne and La Boutique Fantasque at the Royal Opera House were hugely influential, and de Valois brought him in specifically to attend to the development of the men in the company, over Ashton's objections.

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It is interesting to ask whether another Massine would have the opportunity today to obtain the sort of training that he received. A Callas would undoubtedly find a teacher but the pursuit of the physical type which is the current ideal ballet dancer would almost certainly exclude him as it does so many others.Indeed I have seen it suggested that while real choreographic skill is a rare thing the dance world may be making it even rarer by its emphasis on physical perfection.The way that the dance world operates today makes it most unlikely that latecomers like Tudor and Ashton or someone like Massine who had a slightly imperfect leg would obtain training let alone gain entry to a company

It is difficult to understand Helpmann as premier danseur but having seen the early Balanchine recordings and some of the stuff filmed by the BBC it is quite difficult to understand why quite a few dancers enjoyed the reputation that they did if your only experience of them is on film. Most of the ballets that Helpmann danced in were ones where he was playing a character rather than performing a dancing role which required a display of classical technique. He never played the Red Knight in Checkmate which was a dancing role created on Harold Turner and once Michael Somes arrived on the scene the content of Ashton's works seems to change with greater emphasis on what we would all identify as dancing roles rather than ones relying on characterisation. In the company's pre- war production of Sleeping Beauty Turner danced the Bluebird and Helpmann's would have had little classical dancing to do as the Prince. The thing that he would have been required to do really well would have been to partner and present his ballerina. After all the five nineteenth century classics which de Valois acquired were either created to display the ballerina or adapted to do so long before they arrived in the west.We have to remember that it was Nureyev's

influence that led to interpolations in the late Petipa works to give the prince more to do.

I suspect from what I have read and observed in performance that many people today do not really understand partnering skills and do not rate them very highly when they assess the abilities of a male dancer. Most people seem to be more concerned with how high a male dancer can jump than whether he lands perfectly and how grand his grand jetes are than how he partners. I think that we must try to get into a pre Nureyev mind set where the man is there to support, carry,mirror and echo rather than to compete with the ballerina in the third act set piece. Then Karsavina's comment to Fonteyn that she was so lucky to have Michael (Somes) as her partner because she only had Nijinsky to partner her sounds less like an unnecessary compliment and more like an assessment of their comparative skills as partners. On a local note fine partnering skills are expected and admired by many here. This helps explain why dancers like Macleary and Pennefather are held in high regard in some quarters and why Putrov was not that well thought of. He seemed to have worked his way through all the female dancers who were not too tall for him. I saw him at a matinee of Cinderella in which he nearly dropped his partner twice in the same lift in the ballroom scene. After that he danced two performances of Fille with a first soloist who should have been offered danger money and then he left. I think that Ashton's Ondine is as much a ballet which treats partnering as an art form in itself as it is a tribute to Fonteyn.But there is no doubt that some members of the audience scarcely notice partnering skills. One evening l overheard a couple of ladies discussing a performance of Ondine in which Ed Watson had been dancing Palemon to Yoshida's Ondine which went along the lines of "Well he did not do much did he? I can't see why they cast him, such a waste of his talents.They could have cast anyone from the corps but I suppose it's an easy evening for him."

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Partnering is like IT Operations to much of the audience: everything is expected to go smoothly, so no credit when it does, but heads roll when it doesn't.

In a Seattle Q&A Peter Boal said to a much-missed ballerina who was returning from parental leave after almost a year, "I gave you the best partner in the house." Since Karel Cruz is both tall in a company of tall women and has unsurpassed skill as a partner, ie, is in high demand, this was a thoughtful pairing on Boal's part. If things were fair, he wouldn't have had to point out why this was special: much of the audience would have recognized this on their own.

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It is interesting to ask whether another Massine would have the opportunity today to obtain the sort of training that he received. A Callas would undoubtedly find a teacher but the pursuit of the physical type which is the current ideal ballet dancer would almost certainly exclude him as it does so many others.Indeed I have seen it suggested that while real choreographic skill is a rare thing the dance world may be making it even rarer by its emphasis on physical perfection.The way that the dance world operates today makes it most unlikely that latecomers like Tudor and Ashton or someone like Massine who had a slightly imperfect leg would obtain training let alone gain entry to a company

They probably wouldn't, since companies aren't as desperate for men as they used to be, but on the other hand the training is in some ways more easily accessible now, and given improvements in nutrition and physical education, possibly the body shapes they had then would be different now. Massine's legs were bad even by the standards of the day - Diaghilev made nasty remarks about them after Massine left the troupe. But backs then there were many more character parts then where he could wear trousers, and of course as a choreographer he could custom-build roles on himself. Even so, he might still find work as a dancer and choreographer, although perhaps not in ballet. And as, say, a modern dance choreographer he could still find himself working with ballet companies.

Partnering skills are indeed underrated but not totally unrecognized - Peter Martins was recognized as a superlative partner while he was dancing, and not only by his ballerinas. He was, however, also a great soloist. Certainly this is an area where audiences can and should be educated.

Among the company of the unsung, Balanchine had Conrad Ludlow, to whom he entrusted Farrell in "Don Quixote."

In defense of Nureyev, it should be said that in spite of all his stage hogging and fiddling with the choreography, many of the ballerinas he danced with found him to be a uniquely challenging and stimulating partner, if hardly the old ideal of the self-effacing porteur.

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I do not think that it is enough to say that Massine like Callas was a one off. All great artists are unique but there are experiences and stimuli that can be made available to students that can be the difference between mere competence and true creativity . Rambert discovered an amazing number of choreographers de Valois did not. Was that a matter of luck on Rambert's part or was it something to do with her wide cultural experience and the encouragement and support she gave? She supported Tudor while de Valois doubted his professionalism. This reveals a very different and more open approach on Rambert's part. Who we are and who we are capable of being is a very subtle mixture of nature and nurture, this is true whether we are talking about the development of a child or an artist.

While it may be true that Massine might, even today, obtain some sort of dance training he would not have got into the Bolshoi school. His training is particularly interesting since during his time at the Imperial School at Moscow he received a thorough training in ballet and obtained stage experience in the straight theatre as well as dance and had the opportunity to play character roles in the theatre and ballet This is not the sort of experience that is available to anyone now.It has been suggested that Massine's approach to ballet creation was a natural offshoot of Gorski's approach to staging ballets. Gorski was the man who, according to Petipa, had destroyed his Don Q by destroying the floor plan.The description of Gorski's approach to ballet, placing greater emphasis on character than classicism; breaking up the symmetry of the corps;introducing character steps and expressiveness sounds very much like a description of Massine's works.

The suggestion being made by someone with far more knowledge of ballet than I have was that the emphasis on physical perfection of the currently fashionable type is in itself a factor that reduces the possibility of finding great choreographers. Somewhere I read a comment that most choreographers are dancers who for one reason or another find that they can no longer dance very few go into dance with choreography in mind, By reducing the size of the pool by only training the fashionably physically perfect we are inevitably reducing the chances of finding great rather than competent choreographers..

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