Setting an Example
“Never Far from Dancing: Ballet Artists in New Roles”
204 pages, b/w illustrations
by Ilona Landgraf
Copyright © 2014 by Ilona Landgraf
Dancers have two lives. One is on stage in the limelight, and the other follows their final curtain call. Out of sight, out of mind – being no longer in the spotlight often means sinking into oblivion. What becomes of former stars? Do they experience a transition? These were the questions that fueled Barbara Newman setting out to interview some of the 20th Century's most luminous ballet stars. Newman’s recently published book “Never Far from Dancing: Ballet Artists in New Roles” is a compilation of her conversations with retired ballet performers. It makes intriguing and enriching reading.
Already in the 1980s and early ‘90s, Newman had investigated how dancers thought and felt about their work. The results can be found in her first book, “Striking a Balance”. Now, thirty years later, she spoke with eleven of her then twenty-seven interviewees again. Each of them remained dedicated in one way or another to their chosen art.
Four of them – Alicia Alonso (the oldest), Monica Mason, Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux and Nina Ananiashvili (the youngest) – were at the helm of ballet companies when these interviews took place in 2008 and ‘09. Four others, former ballerinas, were connected to dance to a certain degree - from full-time engagement involving a packed schedule (Beryl Grey) to minimal involvement (Lynn Seymour). Still others (three men, all Brits) varied: Donald MacLeary had just stopped being répétiteur at the Royal Ballet, whereas Desmond Kelly was embarking as Elmhurst School of Dance's artistic director in Birmingham (he retired from this post in 2012), and David Wall (who died last year) was transmitting his knowledge as ballet master for English National Ballet.
Newman, a renowned writer on dance topics and author of several books on ballet, took a back seat in these conversations and let the former dancers’ words dominate. Except for short introductions, covering biographical data and summarizing the respective careers, no single question interrupts texts that read like memory sessions. Most of the interviewees were admirably forthright. Readers can gain insight into their personalities.
Most sympathetic, truly heart-warming for example, was how Antoinette Sibley's decision came about to continue dancing while pregnant. It all started when Anthony Dowell asked her to appear in his gala. Sibley agreed to read a poem clad in ‘a tent dress’. Then, the birth of her son happened prematurely. Meanwhile, unperturbed by any eventuality, choreographer Frederick Ashton had prepared a pas de deux for Dowell and Sibley. Thus she quickly found herself back in pointe shoes and it just happened that things moved forward again. 'If you can do that', Robert Helpmann said to her, 'you can certainly go to New York and do Ophelia' (in his “Hamlet”). All 'these wonderful personalities' - Ashton, Dowell, Helpmann - simply winked at her hesitancy and off she went!
Lynn Seymour's comeback, by contrast, was tortuous. It happened after her marriage had failed. She 'really hated dancing then' and 'didn't want to be there' but had no alternative. There were three sons she had to support. Seymour also hasn’t forgiven certain teachers and coaches who weren't being helpful. Other interviewees, too, didn't hide their displeasure with things that happened to them. Compared to Seymour, however, they managed to push things in positive directions.
Donald MacLeary - refreshingly outspoken – barges through all obstacles when there is a role to be tackled. Once, when rehearsing a dancer as Romeo who responded with a lot of ‘I can't do this and I can't do that' MacLeary finally told the to-be Romeo: 'There's no such thing as can't'. Getting what he wants might be toil and sweat but MacLeary won't let the dancers 'try and cut out things because they're hard'. He 'won't let them cheat'. Being a teacher myself, I know how exhausting it is to bring the best out of someone who isn't fully dedicated. I am familiar with situations, similar to what Merrill Ashley experienced with a principal dancer. Though it was the third year in a row that she had worked with this dancer on "Nutcracker", they had to almost start from scratch. 'If you want to grow', Ashley said, 'you have to take responsibility for yourself and not only maintain what we give you in Ballet A, but apply it to Ballet B, C, D, E and F'. In fact, however, 'they're all waiting for you to tell them how to do it', and 'if something goes wrong, I'm the one who has to get it right' declared MacLeary.
Despite not romanticizing the good old days, things were better for most of the interviewees in the past. That’s partly due to problems inherent in the educational system. To become a teacher now, for example, one only has to pass an exam, MacLeary pointed out, 'and then they're responsible for teaching people of the next generation, and they've never been in the theatre and they've never danced in a company'. The upcoming generation of dancers, raised by such teachers, may do beautiful grand jetés, but they don't carry the audience off with them. They only meet expectations for getting their legs up - a development MacLeary totally disapproves of. Referring to “Giselle”, he told a dancer 'I want to see you make me cry. I don't care what height your leg is'. Dancing is an art form. It's not going for gold in athletics but going for the heart!
Mason’s remarks about her path to becoming the Royal Ballet's artistic director were fascinating. How to do the casting (who would be an apt Mercutio?), how to accomplish doing 135 shows and 12 different programs per season, which – and that's crucial – sell. Furthermore, the audience has to be educated along with the dancers. Being obliged to take care of dance history - Massine's ballets, for instance, or Nijinska's “Les Biches” - means facing a predicament. Every successive generation of dancers is further away from the period. Regardless how much effort is spent on providing information to the dancers about these ballets’ meanings, qualities, nuances and, moreover, confronted with limited rehearsal time, we never really come to grips with the past according to Mason. However, she views the life she has had as a 'most privileged, blessed and wonderful' one.
Passion and enthusiasm for dance speak from almost every interview. Far from just getting a job done, these artists fulfilled a vocation.