On Choreographers

The true choreographer, creator, is indeed a rare bird.

Monica Parker who operates the Benesh Dance Notation Centre in London England, and who was the chief nottator in my years with the Royal Ballet, says that she believes choreography is a discipline. You put yourself in a state of mind, and concentration and choreograph. I tend to agree with her.

The earlier choreographers worked in quite a different . They wrote copious notes about their work. Noverre wrote books. A new work was not acceptable unless it was explained in full prior to rehearsals and music being written.

Petipa wrote endless notes with full instructions to Tschaikowsky for each of the ballets they collaborated on. Some work by Petipa was written in long hand prior to rehearsals, by that I mean the steps.

The stories I got from Nicholas (Papa) Beriosoff about how Fokine worked , were quite frightening. When Fokine choreographed, everyone who was to be in the ballet, plus the understudies, was in the rehearsal room. You sat there, on a chair, hands folded on your lap, watching. You were silent, not a word or you were thrown out.

At any moment he might call on one of the dancers to get up and perform what he was working on.

The dancers admired this man like a God, but were also terrified of him. Those people remembered the choreography for each of his ballets in full detail. Thus the restaging of Fokine ballets by Papa.

I only saw one choreographer who brought notes to rehearsals, and that was Gweneth Lloyd. This woman wrote down every move, every pattern, every musical nuance in detail, in long hand. Her books were amazing. To learn a new role you just picked up the appropriate book and learned the ballet. Unfortunately most of those books were destroyed in the fire that burned scenery and costumes and notes from the early Winnipeg Ballet days.

In London in 1947 I saw Massine teach ballets from film. He had his ballets filmed, and that was how he transferred them to other companies. Tricorne we learned by him showing us each step. I have always been a person who arrives early for any event, I have always done that, so for the rehearsals of Tricorne I was early enough to see Massine doing his barre work before the rehearsal started. Dressed in what we would now call a track suit, he did a very thorough barre, with a lot of very rapid combinations. He changed the barre every day. He was very concentrated.

I saw performances of ballets by Robert Helpmann, which were in the main, very dramatic, very theatrical, but I never saw his process.

Ashton was another matter. I saw the process over many years, from 1947 to 1976. I realised from day one, that this man was not a choreographer in the true sense of that word, but an arranger. He had the ideas, the concepts, the choice of music, but, the actual steps? NO. He would sit in the rehearsal waiting for someone to move, then take those moves and adapt them to his ballet. Other people did the steps. There was one real quirk to his ballets. There was a combination of steps that was included in each ballet that he choreographed, or should I say arranged. This combination had to be there.

John Cranko was a dancer in the Sadler’s Wells Junior company when I was there in 1947, and he was just beginning to do small pieces for the repertoire in that company. He worked in street clothes, never changed for rehearsals.

Celia Franca was working with the Sadler’s Wells Junior company while I was there. 1947. I appeared in her Khadra, which I consider one of her best works. Bailemoswas in progress while I was there also. It was a kind of pseudo Spanish work, not really successful. When she transferred to the Metropolitan Ballet, she was to have choreographed a Deidre of the Sorrows for the company, but we ran out of money. As artistic director with the National Ballet she staged the classics for the company,Coppelia, Giselle, Swan Lake, excerpts from Sleeping Beauty, Nutcracker. As a choreographer, she did not have the success she was looking for.

Frank Staff, who had danced with the Rambert Company did some ballets for the Metropolitan Ballet while I was with them in 1947-48. His work was very carefully constructed with the abilities of the dancers taken into consideration.

John Taras, the first American to work with a British ballet company did a ballet for the Metropolitan Ballet , 1947,that can best be described as a Balanchine influenced work. It was originally called Designs with Strings, but became Design with Strings.John worked very closely with Svetlana Beriosova and myself on this ballet. He took our suggestions without allowing us free reign. It was a combined effort. The ballet was an enormous success for Taras and for Svetlana and myself. The ballet lives to this day.

The Canadian choreographers during the fifties and sixties, had a battle with trying to find an identity. Grant Strate, David Adams, Joey Harris, Don Gillies all tried to find a way to that identity and that Canadian stamp, with their works. So many of their works were discarded after a few performances.

Anthony Tudor made an impression upon the National Ballet dancers through his ballets and his way of working with the dancers. He terrified so many of the dancers in the company through his very direct method of achieving the end product. The proof of his methods was proven through the countless performances of his ballets, especially Lilac Garden and Offenbach in the Underworld. The influence on the company by Tudor carried over in to other repertoire.

Back in Europe, I came in contact with a new group of choreographers.

The Russian, Bourmeister, from the Stanislavski Theatre in Moscow. His production of Swan Lake became a standard for a time with Festival Ballet, plus Snow Maidenwith music by Tschaikowsky.

Bourmeister spoke only Russian, no English. There were people in the company would could translate, but somehow with his actions his was able to put his point over, without translation.

I shall never forget, the rehearsals in Monte Carlo, where Bourmeister was brought in to rehearse both Swan Lake Act 2 and Snow Maiden.

I had become over a short period, the main leads in both of these ballets.

Bourmeister was able through his expression and movement, to take me through both of these ballets and transfer his concept of how they should be performed. All in Russian. He did not want anyone translating while he rehearsed me. My performances changed, and improved. The images that he was able to give to me, lasted until those ballets left the repertoire.

Orlikowski brought Peer Gynt and a new production of Swan Lake to Festival Ballet. I had returned to Canada for a tour with the National Ballet . Orli as we called Orlikowski choreographed Peer Gynt in my absence, so I did not see the initial steps, but Orli came to visit and work with us a great deal after I had been introduced toPeer Gynt.

This time the languages were, Russian, German, French and a bit of English.

Orli approved of me because of my acting abilities. He never corrected a technical moment, he brought out the character that I was portraying, more and more.

I had danced a lot of performance of Snow Maiden, but Peer Gynt outlasted and exceeded Snow Maiden for numbers of performances.

I finally bleached my hair blonde simply because using anything else on my hair to achieve the Nordic look, was harming my hair.

For three years, I was blonde. For three years we performed Peer Gynt all over the British Isles, Europe and the then Iron Curtain countries. For the rest of the repertoire, I was a blonde.

A season in Verona, in the Roman Arena, brought Orlikowski back to stage four acts of Swan Lake.

Orli had an incredible sense of humour and was always a joy to work with.

One rehearsal on the Arena stage stands out as quite an event. The stage was 250 feet wide, and 100 feet deep.

Orli and I, plus the company pianist, spent a couple of hours on the stage, working on my entrance in the fourth act of Swan Lake. I had to run from upstage right, to the left downstage corner, in X number of bars, in fact a drum roll. It eventually happened, and I think that I broke a world record for sprinting. Throughout this time Orli never lost his sense of humour. We were laughing all the time, but succeeding.

My opening performance of Swan Lake in the Arena, was the first Swan Lake of the season. It was a moment to remember. In this production of Swan Lake the prince was alone on the stage, reading a book. What he was reading was acted out high up on the steps of the Arena.

On that night I stood there in the dark, during the overture. There were 30,000 people in the audience.

My Swan Queen for that performance was Genia Melikova. She was the first western dancer to be partnered by Nureyev when he did his jump.

There was a problem with Genia at this Verona performance–she outweighed me.

My eight years with Festival Ballet ended, thanks to Beryl Grey–sore subject.

The Royal Ballet came over the horizon.

Kenneth MacMillan was now the central choreographer in my life. Kenneth had asked me to appear in Romeo and Juliet as Tybalt , it did not happen. Instead I became Paris, but I did get a fantastic review in New York for those performances.

As a choreographer, Kenneth was one of those count people. Every second of each of his many ballets was counted.

I found that it was impossible to work without the counts, you had to learn them, as a reference point .

It drove me crazy, but I had to comply.

When we started working on Anastasia, I asked Lynne Seymour if she counted. Oh yes. So I had to submit, and count. It destroyed so many compositions for me . I could not just listen to the music for years after I had performed in the ballets, without automatically counting. Can you imagine counting from the beginning of theRite of Spring to the finish?

In thinking back over the many choreographers that I have made contact with, one thing stands out–how the audiences reacted, not how the choreographer worked. That is the ultimate test. They have no inside information, they probably do not know the mechanics of what goes in to a performance, but they react, and give their final judgement at the end of the performance. It is, after all is said and done, the reason for going through the process.

The choreographer has a theatrical sense, or not.

Comments have been made over the years about educating an audience. I question that!

Bums on seats, and good reactions is what it comes down too.

This entry was posted in Ballet Professionals. Bookmark the permalink.