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Stars, Genius, and Making Scenes


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[Note: This began as a comment on the Quotable Quotes thread, a quote from Sylvie Guillem about posing for Vogue in a rather outrageous manner. I thought it turned into an interesting discussion, and so moved it here.]

I wish more dancers had the fun inside to make scenes. This is missing from the art these days - larger than life stars. One reason in my opinion for the decline in popularity. Not many personalities to interest the mainstream, non-dance audience.

Margot and Rudy arrested -

Natasha throwing her fan and the violinist suing -

Gelsey - gws -

Dowell and Sibley - for the refined taste -

I miss those - perhaps it is my jaded memory, but the theater had personalities and stars then.

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I think there's a link between larger than life behavior offstage and on, not only because, as mbjerk points out, it puts dance in the public eye, but because the big classical ballets, especially, need larger than life dancers to bring those roles to life. Doing crotch shots for Vogue, though, does seem to be a bit more "look at me! me! me!", superficial attention-geting behavior than the real thing. When Nureyev threw that plate of spaghetti, it was from the heart :)

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Not to mention all those shattered wineglasses. :) Yes, there's a definite difference between flamboyance and exhibitionism. And it must be said that Fonteyn and Nureyev didn't go to the Haight intending to get busted, although I agree, mbjerk, that it was venturesome to go in the first place, – it wasn't a neighborhood in which you saw too many prima ballerinas. Also, I'm sure if Fonteyn could have avoided being arrested for gunrunning, she would have. I imagine she's the only ballerina with such an impressive and colorful rap sheet.

I do miss The Spats, however – Makarova announcing dramatically "I will never dance with that man again," after Nureyev dropped her or pushed her or tripped her or whatever the hell he did, and then Nureyev ungallantly blaming Merle Park in public for a pas de deux gone awry. Rudi, you are missed. Sigh.

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Or perhaps Sylvie was looking for something different than the past. I do agree that genuiness is important, and I believe (in the minority) that Sylvie is genuine in her way.......

Dirac - I think you are onto something with Margot's willingness to experiment - how many of today's principals have that outlook in their performances; each one to find a difference from the last, with abandon and no worries on the technical side? My memory is when the technique got scary for these artists, the character/personality came out more versus today where the technique seems to become the personality.

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Political correctness is much more in evidence these days. (Just look at the Ross Stretton thread....)

Anyone who doesn't think all this hasn't been going on for years has on blinkers (and I am not just speaking of Balanchine, so please don't slap my hand)....

I don't particularly mind if Guillem poses in whatever/however she wants...she is an artist and however she comports herself offstage is her business. We hear a good deal less about theatrics in this country...I always enjoyed reading Viviana Durante's comments, for example--not particularly PC, but her opinion is her business.

Dancers work exceedingly hard; their time offstage is their own, their behaviour their responsibility and not ours. There are people there under those tiaras, and I say the more personality evident the better--certainly less boring! Sensationalism is one thing, personality another.

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I hope this does not qualify as hand-slapping, but in the past women in the workplace -- and the theatre is a workplace -- had to endure outrageous behavior that "went on for years" – only now women can do something about it, and it's no longer shrugged off. (I should reiterate that I’m speaking generally, and not of the Stretton matter.) If it's "politically correct" to be pleased about the change in attitudes – well, I plead guilty, and I'm happy to do so. (This isn't to say that the trend has swung too far in the opposite direction in some cases.)

Guillem is certainly entitled to do what she wishes on her own time, and if she chooses attention-getting activities such as appearing on the cover of fashion magazines, it's okay to comment on it, IMO.

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Well, I remember that one or two years ago, Guillem caused a scandal at the end of some kind of some dance festival in Monaco- she was awarded a prize, and when receiving it made a rather violent speech against "commercialism in the dance world" (the scandal was mostly that in that sort of gala everybody is supposed to say positive things...) I might have agreed about her, but a few years before she had toured in many French cities with a program including mostly solos (and which didn't receive good reviews in general, partly because of rather low production values), and at that moment one could barely open a magazine without seeing Ms Guillem's photos, reading her interviews, she even appeared on the evening news of TF1 (France's most popular private channel- verrrrry commercial), did advertisements for Rolex, etc. So well, her positions didn't seem very coherent.

mbjerk, what does "gws" mean (about Kirkland)?

And what did happen with Dowell and Sibley?

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Nureyev did a nude photo spread for Vogue -- so Guillem remains within ballet superstar 'tradition.' (I too believe she is "genuine" and a genuinely great ballet dancer, though -- with another thread in mind -- I would add that she wouldn't be my choice to head the Royal Ballet).

It does seem as if artists who take risks off-stage are, sometimes (not always) the ones who take risks onstage -- and that can make for more exciting performances...

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I don't think there's been a true "star" for a while. Heather Watts at NYCB was certainly 'unruly" but... nowadays media is used to making them, as opposed to just reporting on them.

I think all of the dancers named so far on this thread have been "role models" of sorts for other dancers, so when this behavior was exhibited it was newsworthy. I don't think we have that anymore....sigh....

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Drew's mention of the Vogue spread also reminds me of those unfortunate Blackglama ads. So, no, earlier generations were not perfect.

I don't agree, however, that exhibitionism offstage necessarily indicates risk taking onstage. Suzanne Farrell is the example that springs to mind first. (Her career was not without its dramatic moments, of course, but they were largely not of her making. If she had been in the Guillem mold, her departure from NYCB in 1969 would doubtless have been accompanied by nude photo spreads in fashion magazines with captions like "Balanchine's Bad Girl." ) :D

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I used the word risk-taking, not exhibitionism in part because I had more dancers and more activities in mind than Nureyev and Guillem's photo shoots...Actually, I was also thinking of Farrell.

In the early part of her career, Farrell was by no means cautious in her 'off stage' actions, though she may have been naive and, perhaps, subject to manipulation. The involvement with Balanchine, followed by a secret love affair/marriage -- I'd put that under the rubric of risk-taking. If there was no 'risk' involved, why keep it secret? For that matter, Balanchine's marriage was NOT a secret...And, when she and her husband left NYCB, they did, for example, make an appearance on the game show "To Tell the Truth" -- HE was the one, the panel wasn't expected to recognize -- so, they weren't above trying to do something in the publicity department if only to help their 'real' artistic careers.

It was also risk-taking to join Bejart, decidedly not a choice approved of by many NYCB fans. And Bejart was not, even among his admirers, known for his work with female dancers. And finally, Farrell's interviews, including several after Balanchine's death, have shown someone very much willing to put herself on the line in public. Arguably, some of her pronouncements aggravated the atmosphere that led to Martins' dismissing her. I do NOT say this in defense of Martins, but rather to emphasize that Farrell the risk-taker on stage HAS been a risk-taker off stage up to and including starting a new ballet company.

Guillem may not be a Farrell, but she is not just an exhibitionist and her production of Giselle (which I have only read about)counts, at any rate, as trying something less than perfectly cautious. In and of itself that's neither good nor bad, but I suspect that there is some give and take between the kind of attitude that goes into these off- (or behind-) the stage decisions, and the attitude that goes into at least some of what made/makes these performers exciting.

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Drew, those of us who aren't crazy about Guillem's taste in still photography weren't necessarily decrying her as "just" an exhibitionist in all things – but it is fair comment, I think, to observe that this kind of thing doesn't help her credibility.

Regarding Farrell, please note that my original phrase referred to exhibitionism as opposed to risk taking, and was not meant to imply that Farrell has never taken a risk in her life. I hope the distinction is reasonably clear. I agree with you that colorful behavior offstage is often linked to vivid performing on the stage. And it's useful, if nothing else, to have people around who go "too far" – if only to define to the rest of us what we think "too far" really is.

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I think the word missing from this discussion is "passion." Some dancers (e.g. Peter Martins in his performing days) lack it on stage. Some focus theirs on their work and can confine its public display to that outlet (generally Makarova, Farrell, the young Kistler). Some simply can't contain it. It is an issue that is expressed differently by different individuals.

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Olga Spessivtseva is perhaps the most shocking example of what we appear to be discussing here.

There are little-known facts about Spessivtseva, ones that do not appear in all the blurbs about her life. At an exhibition somewhere or other, I stumbled across a biographical note, as follows.

It seems that immediately after the Revolution, as she was rocketing back and forth between Russia and Western Europe, Spessivtseva became "romantically involved" if that is the word , with an NKVD operative.

He would get Olga up in the dead (!) of night, take her down to the Liubianka or whatever it was called, line up prisoners in front of her, and ask her which she thought should be shot. And he would have them shot. Other times, he would take her to the morgue, and present her heaps of the dead.

I believe that it was in 1919 that she suffered her first mental breakdown - what a surprise ! - and was interned out in the countryside for several months.

Now, few know such facts about Olga Spessivtseva, and perhaps, one were better off not to. She nevertheless enjoyed, and still enjoys, the highest reputation amongst other dancers, higher even than Pavlova.

Because she could dance.

Would one be so bold as to say that about a certain self-enraptured amateur photographer, whose interest in her own bod and its various hidey-holes, recalls an eleven-month old disporting itself in the bath ?

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Those more or less macaber rumours and stories about Olga Spessivtzeva were frequent in Russian emigré circles in the West. Her frequent journeys in and out Soviet Russia made the emigrés very suspicious of her. She was called a bolshevist and even a Soviet spy. She left Russia in 1924, for good as it turned out, with a proper permission from the authorities to reside abroad. All this spiteful gossip probably added up to her nervous breakdown later.

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It is always simplistic to attribute the onset of mental disorders to a single cause. In cases as extreme as Spessivtzeva's -- or Nijinksky's -- there must be an inate predisposition that is aroused by external events.

At any rate, the brief film clip I saw of Spessivtzeva in action showed her to be an extraordinary dancer, a fascinating bridge between 19th and 20th century sensibilities. Her illness and eventual dementia were tragic, and the untimely loss of her talent left the art poorer than it might have been.

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I had the pleasure of meeting Spessivtzeva while she was living at Countess Tolstoi's in Valley Cottage, NY. We talked a little bit in mixed French and English, but mostly we discussed Giselle by marking and humming the music, and even dancing some surprisingly vigorous sections, so I guess I can say I danced with Spessivtzeva. She was entirely lucid and cogent, and charming throughout the whole afternoon. (She told me I wasn't right for Albrecht - not yet, maybe not ever [she was right!], but peasant pas de deux, ç'est parfait!)

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i went to visit spessivtseva twice in valley cottage. i guess one could say that on the first occasion she was having a good day and on the second she wasn't. she wasn't speaking in english at all at that point, so i spoke to her in french, she answered in russian and the nurse translated into english. i remember thinking that she might remember things from long ago easier than more recent things, so i asked her to tell me about nijinsky. she said (via the nurse) "I remember, Nijinsky and his wife, they had a coupe. She would come to take him from rehearsal and while she was waiting, she would feed the baby in the car." i brought her gifts and a long letter from anatole vilzak, who had danced with her (the gifts included a photo of the two of them together in swan lake). the nurse read her the letter and by the time she was finished she was in tears. she was sitting in a wheelchair, though i did see her walk, wearing brightly-colored legwarmers that someone had brought her. i had brought flowers too and the nurse and i put them in her room, where the walls of her side (she shared with one other person) were covered with pictures of her dancing. i asked her how she felt about taking a picture with me and she said she didn't want it, so i didn't do it. years later, after she died, i asked the Foundation where she was buried and they told me on the grounds of a nearby convent.

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Great story, and I'm glad that she was able to get visitors regularly. I went to visit her in '68 with Anton Dolin, and he could always brighten her up. While I was there, a really elderly Russian gentleman passed by as we were "dancing" and said, according to Dolin, "Ah, you pretty girls can always attract the young men!";) It made her blush and smile.

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