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Erik Bruhn


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Since there's a new DVD out with several of Bruhn's TV appearances from the 1960s, I thought it might be appropriate for Bruhn to have his own thread. (Suggested by Drew, who on the Dancers of NY Golden Age poll said she had first come to this site to talk about Bruhn.)

I only saw Bruhn on stage in mime roles, and since there are many people here who saw him in dancing ones, I'll defer to them to start.

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I saw Bruhn as Albrecht and as Frantz -- he was partnering Fracci both times. The Coppelia was at the very end of his career; I believe it was, in fact, the second to last time he danced in a 'classical' role. I had tickets to see him dance James about a week later, and he canceled. Shortly after, I read of his retirement after a performance of James given just a few days before the one I was scheduled to see. Later, I saw him as the villain in Nureyev's Raymonda and as Madge in Sylphide.

The truth is that my actual memories of his classical dancing boil down to a few images and a strong sense of the reaction I had -- even quite young -- to what I was seeing. Very, very simply, that reaction was...that I was seeing classical ballet and I had never really seen it before that night. That is, that everyone else gave one an approximation and Bruhn was doing the real thing. (I have thought a lot about how much I was influenced by the adults around me, but on other ballet occasions around the same age I decidedly did not share their enthusiasm.)

Specifics? Well, even as a grown up fan I don't have the most technical eye in the world...but one thing I do recall, he genuinely landed his jumps. I do not just mean that he was 'neat' or 'clean' or even 'light' (though he was all three I suppose) -- he really landed, so you saw the entire movement from beginning to end completely controlled, except it didn't look 'controlled' to me, it looked like classical ballet. When people talk about Bruhn they always use the word perfect or perfection. I think one of things they mean is that every movement had this quality of 'finish.'

He also had the most extraordinary line -- absolutely classical, absolutely pure, and at every moment. It didn't seem like posing, and in a way it didn't even seem like, say, Erik Bruhn's beautiful arabesque. I felt as if I were seeing, so to speak, 'the' arabesque. In a vague sense I think that I also felt that he was entirely inside the work he was performing. (I had more puritanical tastes as a child than I do now and slightly disapproved of both Villella and Nureyev the first time I saw them because they didn't seem to me to have this quality! I like to think I would be a little more open-minded now.)

And, something one doesn't hear that much about Bruhn, he was very funny as Frantz. In a bit of mime that I do actually remember, he really seemed to play with/against his ultra elegant handsomeness as he goofily adjusted his clothes before going off to visit Coppelia.

The later dancer whose style most recalled Bruhn (to me) was Anthony Dowell. Many others have said this, though I spoke to one fan who loved Dowell and disliked Bruhn as I recall on the grounds that Bruhn was 'precious.' He never seemed that way to me, and his mime performances were, in my opinion, unashamedly vivid. (The young Ib Anderson, too, very occasionally made me think of Bruhn in some of his first NYCB performances where he seemed to sustain an incredibly pure, classical line while dancing with great fleetness.)

The above is not very precise and rather obviously written through a thick haze of memory and hero worship. But that is more or less Bruhn's place in my ballet-going life. I saw him very young, and I don't so much remember the specifics of the performances, as I feel that those performances became a part of my intuitive ballet ideal. I remember them without remembering them whenever I am really deeply engaged by classical dancing.

I would very much like to hear from people with more precise memories though!

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One only needs to see the DVD of the Bell Telephone Hour performances to see it. And this is amazing, since those things were filmed in an impossible space on a more impossible floor! Some of the performances by others, including Nureyev, are totally underwhelming, however Erik Bruhn is absolutely gorgeous in every one of them! Even the first one on the DVD, which is a totally dreadful Don Q, horribly staged and using some most unattractive and unnecessary extra dancers to fill the spaces between sections of the pas. Really bad idea, which I understand was Erik's. And Tallchief in this one I won't even discuss. HOWEVER, HE still dances brilliantly! :)

Take one look at the close up of him as the La Sylphide section opens. Here is the epitomy of the classical prince. No question. I'm not even putting "IMO" here, 'cause I just think it is so completely obvious :) Then he dances! I agree with everything Drew said. Every position is clean, every jump beautiful and perfectly landed, line and elegance and musicality and an ability to get totally into the character he is portraying. He is also a most beautiful partner! This is classical technique as it is supposed to be, executed by a most exceptional artist.

I think what is most impressive about this is that what he did then would totally hold up today, whereas most of the other performances on this DVD show the major differences in technique then and now.

One other thing about Erik Bruhn that I must add, and it relates to another thread going in Aesthetic Issues about real artists or geniuses and whether they can be decent people or not. I worked with Erik. He was as beautiful a person as he was an artist.

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Just bumping this up before it gets buried. I'm surprised there haven't been more comments -- atm? You would have seen Bruhn when he took over "Theme" from Youskevitch! Tell tell!

Also, since the new DVD is out, even those who didn't see Bruhn on stage might have some comments? (I haven't yet seen the DVD.)

From the snatches of film I've seen, I agree that he was an absolutely beautiful dancer -- not only a pure technique, but a beautiful technique, because everything was so perfect and so harmonious. As I wrote above, I only saw Bruhn in mime roles and there I thought he was very stiff, both physically and dramatically, but as an actor-dancer, in his best roles (Jean in "Miss Julie" and Don Jose in "Carmen," say) he was, by all accounts, extremely effective.

I have a few Danish stories about Bruhn :) One is that when he was young, and still exploring outside opportunities, "Giselle" was in repertory and he wanted to dance Albrecht, a role that was owned, in the custom of the day, by Borge Ralov, who was the company's big star. According to Kronstam, Volkova was working with Bruhn on Albrecht and thought he was quite ready and deserved a chance to dance it, and approached Ralov asking if he would give Bruhn one out of his ten performances. Ralov mulled it over for several weeks and finally said no. Kronstam thought this was why Bruhn finally left to go to ABT (I think he's wrong; I think Bruhn would have left anyway), and very shortly afterwards he danced an Albrecht with Markova that became legendary -- and very different, from what I read, from what we would see today, as both were light, cliassically pure dancers. Quite a contrast to Alonso and Youskevitch! Yet ABT could have two such couples then.

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I saw Erik Bruhn on stage several times, long ago, and I must say, that as an interpreter, he did not "speak" to the audience. He lacked warmth. But that's purely subjective.

At Paris last year, at the Cinemathèque, the author of a film on Erik Bruhn entitled "I'm myself, only more so" presented it to a large audience including many in the trade.

I remember pinching myself, thinking I had imagined some of the feats of derring-do I had, in point of fact, actually just seen. Bruhn had a truly scientific approach to classical dancing, and he could do fiendlishly difficult things, with style, that no-one has done since. This scientific approach can be seen in his analysis of Bournonville's Etudes Chorégraphiques, that he wrote with L. Moore.

The most remarkable section of the film is that shewing him in the studio with R. Nureyev. Leaving aside all issues of personal preference, theatricality, etc. etc. , the contrast between the elegant, apparently effortless, "least-action" principle in Bruhn, and the straining, forced, over-turned-out Nureyev, is quite a shocker.

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