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Ballerinas back in the day....

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Most of the time when I venture to sample the riches of film and video viewable for the asking at the Dance Research Collection of the NY Public Library at Lincoln Center, I never get past the astonishing films of Gelsey Kirkland (yes, she really was That Good, if not Better). Recently, I decided to see what films could be found of the late Mia Slavenska, moved both by her recent death, and Alexandra's comment that hers was the best Don Q to be found in those archives (strong praise, of course!).

So I found myself looking at a number of things: a long video assemblage of film bits by Ann Barzel (I think) of various Ballets Russes dancers doing odds and ends (among them some clips of Slavenska doing bits of the Black Swan, and Baronova looking gorgeous posing for the camera); two films of Slavenska dancing Vincenzo Celli's staging of the Don Q pas de deux: an older black-and-white version with Freddie Franklin, and a more-recent one in color with a very young Royes Fernandez. Then I stumbled on, and just had to see, a long film assemblage put together in honor of Igor Youskevitch, with footage (everything I saw had no sound!) of Andre Eglevsky dancing Apollo, with Alicia Alonso as Terpsichore; Alonso and Youskevitch in Theme and Variations, Black Swan, Giselle, Nutcracker, Tudor's Romeo and Juliet, and a few things I've probably forgotten. What a way to spend an afternoon!

It's interesting to look at these clips and think of how much our whole perception of what ballet is all about, and ballerinas, has changed over the years. In lthe Ballets Russes clips, I could certainly see where the phrase "Ballet-Russing it up" came from. Sometimes these dancers would look very, very sloppy by today's standards, yet never without a sense of grandeur and importance so noticable by its absence today. A dancer might hurl herself at her partner in a wickedly fast and horribly off-balance supported pirouette; said partner would rescue her from disaster as she tilted farther and farther off balance while spinning like a demented top, and when he'd pulled her back upright, BAM, they'd pop up and fling their arms into some suitably dramatique pose as if waiting for the flashbulbs to go off (arms always to die for, especially Baronova's, and our current generation certainly did NOT invent the Dreaded Wrist-Flick), as if to say, in unison, "This is a BALLERINA, and don't you forget it, buster!" Because I'd neglected to print out the catalog listing of what I was viewing, I wasn't always sure who was doing what, but I really was impressed by the guttiness of these dancers, especially Slavenska, who, even when something she tried didn't turn out quite as prettily as perhaps she'd have liked, always tried, like a good ballplayer, to stretch singles into doubles, and doubles into triples. I like that strength and bravura; there's not enough of it in these days of boringly proper or india-rubber "ballerinas."

I also was gratified to see something I'd heard about -- that at the very end of the Black Swan pas de deux, ballerinas back then would do the backwards hops in arabesque on pointe! Yikes! I can't imagine the audience reaction if anyone tried it today; would it drive them crazy, or just look like a painful trick?

Slavenska's Don Q's seem quite different from what we know today, but who wouldn't be impressed by her supported promenade in arabesque penchee (on pointe), or her jaw-dropping balances. I thought Cynthia Gregory was the Queen of Balances, but she's a piker compared to Slavenska, and I loved seeing how Franklin and Fernandez would play up her strength by putting her on pointe in arabesque or attitude, then flinging up their arms and BACKING AWAY. Yes, sometimes she'd wobble a bit, but she looked like she'd try to stay up there even if it killed her. I admired her fan-handling in the version with Franklin (she does those cutesy-poo echappes to pointe with an awe-inspiring conviction), although she omitted it with Fernandez. No matter, her travelling fouettes on a diagonal with her hands planted firmly on her hips were more than enough compensation! They'd bring down the house today, would anyone but try to pull them off (Gillian Murphy, are you there?).

The Youskevitch/Alonso footage is also astonishing. Youskevitch is indeed dashing and strong, and a fabulous turner. He would write of how he'd try to launch into double tours or pirouettes without much of a visible preparation so the motion would appear organic and seamless (I don't really have a problem with preparations, myself, but that's another story), and you can certainly see this in the clips from Giselle and Theme. As with most men of his era, Youskevitch is much more casual about niceties such as pointing his feet than we like today, and, while the big pirouette solo in Theme (from what little can be seen of it) looks a bit sloppier than I'd hoped, his big double-tour/pirouette solo is every bit as magnificent as I'd imagined it to be. Even with the silly feathered cap he had to wear. He just wooshes up into those turns like a geyser suddenly sprouted underneath him. Amazing.

As for Alonso, seeing these clips was a real eye-opener for me (yes, I saw Alonso dance Giselle in the Seventies, but there were only glimmers -- albeit brilliant ones -- of the dancer she must have been). If Youskevitch looks wonderful but dated, Alonso looks as if she could dance Theme tomorrow just as she did in the Forties and give away nothing at all to today's ballerinas. In fact, she'd bring the house down. Such speed, elevation and clarity! In clips from a Nutcracker pas de deux with Youskevitch she fires off some double fouettes which would look impressive indeed on any dancer today.

Despite Alonso's fireworks, and her magnificent Giselle (such soubresauts! such a Mad Scene!) the moment that most took my breath away, even over so many decades, was a brief segment of her and Youskevitch in bits of Antony Tudor's beautiful and greatly missed Romeo and Juliet. At the very end of the ballet, in the crypt, after Youskevitch's Romeo has died and fallen to the foot of the bier, Alonso's Juliet contemplates killing herself. In this footage shot from the stage-right wings, you can see the stage-left wings filled with dancers, all with their eyes raptly following Alonso's every move as mimes stabbing herself in the chest. You can see the heaving of her back as the blade enters, and it's chilling, even in this silent, grainy footage, as is the slow desperation with which she collapses and pulls her dying body over Youskevitch's. I got the sense that every one of those dancers in the wings was holding her breath; as was I, so many decades later.

Anyway, I'm going to have to go back and watch these again; they were quite an education.

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Thank you for that, Manhattnik. That was beautiful, and eye-opening even to those who haven't seen the films.

I wanted to clarify that I've never seen Slavenska. My praise of her Don Q was second hand. A friend of mine went with a friend of his, years ago, when not that many people knew about the Dance Collection and you could spend hours there, apparently, and decided to have a Don Q contest, and watched every film they could find -- and gave the "gold medal" to Slavenska. I believe ATM also posted once that Slavenska was an unusually fine -- unusual AND fine -- Giselle.

(Wrist-flicking has probably been with us since Noverre, unfortunately. There's those that do, and there's those that don't :) )

I've seen Youskevitch's double air tours in Theme and if I had to pick one film, one dancer of the past, that absolutely knocked me for six it's that. I've never seen such power. What were the rond de jambes like!!! I saw him as one of those automatic battery-powered screwdrivers that you see on late night TV: ZOOMWHIRZOOM, ZOOMWHIRZOOM, etc.

Next time, watch the corps. I remember reading very early in my ballet-going days someone complaining that "dancers of today" (the '50s? the '60s?") had no personality, and that "you could recognize every girl in the corps of the Ballets Russes from the top balcony by her elbow." Yes, ma'am. :)

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Oh, right, Alexandra. I'd gotten a few details of that Dance Collection story mixed up in my memory. You can still spend hours at the Dance Collection. While I'm not wild about the new layout there at all, there are a lot of video-watching stations (but not many, alas, for films).

After seeing the slam-bang combo of five, count'em, five, double tours with which Youskevitch ends his little solo in Gene Kelly's silly Invitation to the Dance, I had an idea what his turns in Theme would be like, and I wasn't at all disappointed. The ronde de jambes were more than fine (only shown briefly), but many dancers today could match or even exceed them; I don't think any dancer I've seen could equal Youskevitch's double tours. I've seen some spectacular turners in Theme (Damian Woetzal is no slouch, to put it mildly), but none with Youskevitch's nonchalent mixture of speed, power and, well, ease.

The footage of Eglevsky's Apollo was also fascinating, but far too short. And what a trio of muses! Alonso, Nora Kaye and just a bit of Barbara Fallis (taking her class was one of the [very few] high points of my recreational ballet-dancing days).

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This has been a real trip down Memory Lane for me! I saw that Apollo with the cast you mentioned--Diana Adams also gave "birth" to Eglevsky--and I can still see his slow pirouettes as he untangled himself from his swaddling clothes. Having seen Alonso's "Giselle" in the 40's and 50's---I stay far away from the later videos of her--but I am sure it's better than not seeing it. As glorious as these dancers were, their famous roles have been well taken care of by later generations--particularly Farrell's 'Terpsichore' and Asylmuratova's 'Theme & Variations. Youskevitch is the hard one to replace. He did not have the elegance of a Bruhn or Malakhov--nor the macho heroic style of a Vasiliev or a Mukhamedov--he fell somewhere in between. He was at ease with his masculinity---you never felt he was shouting "Look At Me"! He had a charming habit of tilting his head to one side (I always loved this about him and thought I was the only one who took note of this, but Edwin Denby also mentioned it). Danseur Noble is a phrase written for him.

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if you come to new york and have any kind of time to spare, you should make a visit to the library part of your trip. i've spent countless hours there and always walked away wanting to see more. one film i enjoyed discovering was, i think, one of ann barzel's, of nureyev dancing 'theme and variations' with lupe serrano. the catalog is searchable on line, at www.nypl.org

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Thanks for posting that link, Mme. Hermine. It's good to search the catalog BEFORE you go, so that you don't have to waste time when you get there, but can hand them a list of what you want to see.

I haven't been to the library since it reopened, but when I did go there several years ago, you had to sign up for a time -- I believe it was two hours? -- and that time included fetching the films. So go prepared!

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I remember it used to be that you had to sign up to see stuff days in advance. Now you can just make a request, and usually you can see whatever you like in a matter of minutes (if it's video -- you might need to wait for a film viewer to free up, as they don't have many). While you may only request two hours worth of media at a time, I don't think there's any rule against making a new request when you've finished with your current request.

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Fraildove, the library at Lincoln Center is special, but many university libraries have some performing arts videos not available at stores, especially schools with a strong performing arts department. Try calling around to the biggest libraries and universities in your state. And if you're looking for historical ballet performances on tape/dvd, Video Artists Internation (www.vai.com) puts out a series that includes Nureyev, Tallchief, Erik Bruhn with several partners of the age.

For those of you in New York. The Museum of Broadcasting has some things that the Lincoln Center library doesn't. I seem to remember seeing a performance of Ballet Imperial with the original cast from the Ed Sullivan show.

Manhattnik, your thoughtful descriptions goes into something that isn't considered often today - performance practice. It's something I got into at music school after taking a class where we analyzed recordings of the same piece from the earliest, to the 30s, 50s, 60-70s and 80s. Kind of like that piano show on WQXR. You can hear that performing didn't get better later on, just styles changed. There is a feeling that dancers in the 40s aren't as good as those later because they don't lift their legs to their ears, but they had other strengths (even if they could, it wasn't the style), such as Fonteyn's glorious backbend that Alexandra has alluded to recently on another thread. The first time I saw it was on the tape An Evening with the Royal Ballet in the Le Corsaire. She didn't have the high extentions that you see today during the adagio, but she had that backbend that you hardly ever see now.

And I've seen those backwards hops on point on the tape "Alicia." I just recently bought it and when that part came up and said out loud, "My God." I had never seen it. In the recent Erik Bruhn release on VAI, I saw Sonia Arova for the first time. I thought she was miscast for the Sawn Lake "Black Swan pas de deux" but hops on point appear to have been her specialty because she got them in her variation, and in the one from Coppelia. Today we seem a bit more hidebound to tradition when we see the variations in Don Q. or Black Swan than in the Ballet Russe's time.

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Dale, you're getting at something else that's changed, in an age where everybody has to do everything, and that is that dancers had specialties. The Danes who were over 40 used a phrase I loved "my steps," "those were his steps". It must have been a thrill to wait for that, to wait to see someone do something so perfectly -- the deep backbend, the hops on pointe, Youskevitch's air turns -- that was identified with their bodies and personalities.

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