Metropolitan Ballet (1946)

After a small session with the Sadlers Wells Ballet, appearing in the first Coppelia at Covent Garden, then a stint with the junior company at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre, I joined the Metropolitan Ballet of London. My first taste of touring in the British Isles in post war Europe.

Rationing had ended in Canada right after the war–WW2. The British were still living with it. On tour you took your ration book and your clothing book in case you happened to have a few pennies left over.

We performed for a week in each city, eight performances, matinee on Wednesday and Saturday.

You stayed in digs, boarding houses ,who, if you were lucky supplied breakfast and an evening meal in the price. The ration book was given to the landlady when you arrived so that she could buy the rations for the week. Just occasionally, said landlady would take more than she was supposed to from the ration book. You could recoup your loss, but it was a long process and often was not possible. No egg, next week, no meat next week.

Not being familiar with the British provinces, I had to depend on my fellow dancers to find said digs. I remember very vividly being with a couple of dancers looking for digs, having problems, and walking for hours until something appropriate could be found. That day I learned about bed-bugs. We would knock on a door, one of the dancers would step inside, take a deep breath, then back away. “No thank you, we will keep looking.” “Why,” I asked. “Because we smelled bed bugs.” came the reply.

I fortunately never did experience bed-bugs, but there was another enemy that could not be smelled–FLEAS. Yes little red creatures that plagued all of us.

After a long tour when I returned to London, there was that dreaded time when having opened the suitcase, I would seen the fleas hop out. It took a few days to get rid of them. How did I get rid of them? I got in to bed at night and waited. When they bit me I grabbed them, and flushed them down the toilet.

This in 1947.

Each Sunday there was the dreaded train journey. The train was always late leaving the station, and the journey, no matter how long or short, took hours. I was told in no uncertain terms that it was–“because of the WAR”

The war that had only finished a short time ago, was still very much in evidence.

London was quite messy. Shattered buildings, huge cavities where the rocket bombs had landed. Building held up by timbers, but just barely. Even to machine gun holes in Street lamps in East Sheen in London where I lived. The German fighter planes had machine gunned the streets. Made me grateful for not having been there during the event.

In central London, St. Paul’s Cathedral, standing unscathed, but everything around it, devastated. The German bombers apparently could not aim their bombs so as to make a direct hit, something to do with the shape of the dome.

This atmosphere does not seem conducive to any kind of theatrical life, but there was so much going on, so much to see, that the rubble faded into the background.

My introduction to London Theatre has started with Covent Garden, where as a student in the Sadler’s Wells Ballet school I was allowed to watch performances for free. None of the other students seemed interested, but I went as often as they would allow.

Endless performances of Sleeping Beauty, with Fonteyn, Shearer, Paltengi. I devoured it.

Eventually the choreography of Ashton, Massine, Helpman.

There were other companies performing in London. Ballet Rambert where I saw my first ever performance of Les Sylphides, and hated it. How I would eat my thoughts later on when I would dance in hundreds of performances of that ballet with the National Ballet of Canada and Festival Ballet of London .

I would see the Original ballet Russe, with Riabouchinska, Jasinsky, Dokoudovsky, Lichine.

The Grand Ballet Marquis de Cuevas company with Hightower, Eglevsky, Tallchief, Skibine.

Les Etoiles de la Danse with Colette Marchand, Serge Perrault, Renee Jeanmaire, Vladimir Skouratoff .

The Ballet Champs Elysées from Paris, with Roland Petit, Jean Babiée, Natalie Phillapart, (nicknamed Fallapart) Zizi Jeanmaire and a young Leslie Caron, later to be featured in a film with Gene Kelly. This company offered a repertoire that was so different than what we were seeing in London. A Young Man and Death with Babilée left a lasting impression. I shall never see another Bluebird pas de deux to equal his. He was indeed the Nijinsky of the 40’s, and then some.

I would see and hear Vaughan Williams conduct his own London Symphony at Albert Hall.

Annie Get your Gun with Paddy Stone -ex Winnipeg Ballet dancer, doing an Indian dance.

I wanted to see and hear as much as I could.

Ballet classes began at the Sadler’s Wells Ballet school with George Gontcharov, De Valois with the senior company at Covent Garden, Peggy Van Praag at the junior company at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre but opened up with some of the teachers that were available in post-was London. West Street was a well known address to all ballet dancers, for there was the studio of Vera Volkova. The list of dancers who studied with her is enormous. All of the Sadler’s Wells principal dancers passed through her studio at one time. Fonteyn owed this teacher a great debt. Class with Vera was quite an experience.

She was a small slim, dark haired woman, with a magnetic personality. You found yourself doing things that you had not imagined.

When I first saw her in her teaching garb I could not help but laugh. She wore a black skirt, but under that she wore blue stockings. The ladies of the night that surrounded the central sculpture in Piccadilly Circus, wore blue stockings. It was the trademark.

Vera seldom stood to demonstrate. It was very verbal, but also demonstrated with those lovely slim long legs. She had a lot to say, and we listened.

A brief session with the International ballet school, exposed me to Nicolai Sergueef. He was credited with teaching the classics, so called ,to the Sadler’s Wells ballet, and the International Ballet.

This man made me work to an extent that I had not known. I lost a lot of weight, but also learned how to move that large body of mine could move quickly.

During the British stint I was told a story about Sergueef, that was kept in the memory bank for years. The story was, that Sergueef had stolen the books containing the choreography of the classics from Russia, and taken them to England. The Swan Lake that he took was not the classic version of Swan Lake, but the version done by George Balanchine as his graduation thesis from the choreographic school. It took until the 1950’s to find out of this was true.

Melissa Hayden came to the National Ballet as a guest artist. She was a member of the New York company that George ran. Millie was going home to New York for a week-end during her time with us. I put the story to her about Swan Lake, and asked her to confront George with this story. When Millie returned she approached me with the answer. George was furious, his response was, “who told you?’ She had not told him, but asked if it was true. George did admit that it was indeed true, but that he was ashamed of the facts. He also made Millie swear that she would never tell the story again.

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