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Subject: "ROH Stravinsky Staged Study Day 7th April 2001" Archived thread - Read only
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Brendan McCarthymoderator

09-04-01, 11:10 PM (GMT)
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"ROH Stravinsky Staged Study Day 7th April 2001"
   I was lucky enough to get a ticket for Saturday’s ‘Insight Day’ at the Linbury Studio at the ROH. The programme was compiled with the Royal Ballet’s forthcoming ‘Stravinsky Staged’ programme in mind, and it garnered many different insights into the ‘Slav soul’ as depicted in the collaborations between Stravinsky and the choreographers Fokine, Nijinkska, and Balanchine. At the outset, John Drummond, the noted dance historian (and former Controller of Radio 3) reminded us that “memories are the invaluable living history of dance”. The day brought ample evidence of ballet’s fragile heritage and of the critical importance of properly documenting its ‘folklore’.

The three ballets, Firebird (Fokine), Les Noces (Nijinska) and Agon (Balanchine) span almost 50 years from 1910 to 1957, and each has been preserved differently. Because there was no reliable notation (still less a filmed record) of Firebird and Les Noces, everything relied on the memories of individual dancers. In contrast, the Balanchine ballets are clinically preserved, and the Balanchine Trust insists on strict conditions for their performance.

John Drummond began the day by setting Firebird and Les Noces in the context of the new interest by Russian composers at the beginning of the 20th century in pan-Slavism and its folk roots. Next, in a working rehearsal, Monica Mason coached Mara Galeazzi, First Soloist, in Firebird. Mason had been taught the role by Michael Somes, but had been coached in crucial detail by Fonteyn, who had learnt it in turn from Tamara Karsavina, the original Firebird. While there were inevitable echoes of the recent BBC2 Masterclass, Mason had more time and space to discuss the difficulties of reconstructing the work:

“We have no idea how high the Diaghilev dancers jumped. People say we take things slower now. Naturally we move differently to the way people did ninety years ago. Dancers are taller. However the temptation is to move slower, to show ‘beautiful feet’. But then you lose touch with the music. It’s vital to keep the pace up. The challenge for us is to communicate this old magic to these young dancers with their mobile phones!”.

The Royal Ballet was crucial to the survival of Les Noces, which came perilously close to being lost altogether. When the Diaghilev company performed it in London in 1926, it made a powerful impression on Frederick Ashton, who was in the audience. When he became Artistic Director of the Royal Ballet, he was determined to bring Romola Nijinska to London to reconstruct the work. According to John Drummond, Nijinska had all the demeanour of “an elderly peasant woman”. Monica Mason described the company’s reaction:

“Sir Fred said we were to do exactly what Nijinska said. Those of us who were in the early productions were mystified as to how we learnt the ballet. It was amazing to see someone like Nijinska from a different time and sensibilility. She was from the Diaghilev period, so foreign and she spoke in a combination of French, Polish and Russian. On top of that, she had hearing difficulties, was elderly, and couldn’t show the steps”

Whatever the comprehension gap with Nijinska, there could be room for very little misunderstanding with Patricia Neary, one of the outstanding principals with New York City Ballet in the 1960s. She danced the pas-de-deux from Agon with Arthur Mitchell, in one of the earliest casts to perform the work. While Balanchine created few major roles for her, he did see her as a teacher who could be relied on to keep his heritage intact and to restage his ballets with fidelity. Indeed Balanchine trusted her alone to teach Agon, while he lived.

Neary is feisty. When she came to London in 1972 to teach Agon to a cast that included Anthony Dowell, Wendy Ellis and Alfreda Thorogood, she famously stormed out of a rehearsal studio at Talgarth Rd. after a violent disagreement over tempi with George Balanchine, who had come to watch. This time she is in London to teach the ballet for the 44th time and her determination has not withered with the years. She wore pointe shoes at rehearsal (appropriately for a Balanchine ballerina), and was alarmingly ready to demonstrate complex steps ‘full-out’, despite the fact that she is 59 and has had a hip-replacement. On Saturday she rehearsed Christina Arestis and Johannes Stepanek from the second cast in a pas-de-deux (Arestis then left to join the cast of Giselle playing in the Main House), and Marianela Nunez in one of the solos. She soon halted the dancers to reassert the great Balanchine credo:

“Stop! Mr Balanchine did not want a story. Just the steps. Don’t get all lyrical and moody. There is no story!”

She has had a powerful voice in the selection of the casts to dance Agon. “Anthony Dowell puts up ideas for casts – and I choose”. She suggested that she had compromised somewhat with Dowell on the selection of the first cast (Carlos Acosta and Johan Kobborg had been her preferences), but that the second cast was entirely of her choosing.

One member of the audience asked Patricia Neary about her experience of staging Balanchine for different companies around the world, and whether the choreography could take on distinctive regional flavours. Neary, as earlier with the dancers, insisted on a ‘strict reconstructionist’ approach. There was simply the movement, nothing else. When she taught it, she was just “doing Mr B”.

A common thread to the three ballets is the challenge for dancers presented by Stravinsky’s rhythmic complexities. Marianela Nunez spoke for her colleagues. “We find ourselves counting, counting, counting all the time”. Neary, who describes Agon as “a challenge to technique and musicality”, has given tapes of the score to her dancers so that they do not internalise a version for rehearsal piano, that sounds altogether different when played by a full orchestra. John Carewe, who will conduct the Stravinsky programme, is sitting in on every studio rehearsal. Earlier in the day, John Drummond had criticised Balanchine’s readiness to choreograph such works as Agon, which had been originally conceived as concert pieces, even when they were inappropriate for dance. But Carewe was sanguine:

“Very often choreographers are completely unmusical. But Balanchine was a pianist, so that when he choreographed Agon, he reflected the music incredibly subtly. I am determined to get the right tempi for the dancers”

Doubtless Patricia Neary will ensure that he does. She intends to sit in on all orchestra rehearsals; in the past, she has been known for her trenchant disagreements with conductors. Carewe is untroubled, and speaks admiringly of Neary’s sense of time. He brings a metronome to every studio rehearsal, and has found that Neary is “always on the metronomic count”, a rhythmic equivalent, so to speak, of perfect pitch.

It was a stimulating day, admirably produced by Mari MacKenzie, the Royal Ballet’s outgoing education officer. ‘Stravinsky Staged’ opens on April 25th. Subsequent performances are on April 26th and 28th (matinee and evening) and May 2nd, 8th and 9th.

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  Subject     Author     Message Date     ID  
  RE: ROH Stravinsky Staged Study Day 7th April 2001 Ann Williams 10-04-01 1
  RE: ROH Stravinsky Staged Study Day 7th April 2001 Alymer 10-04-01 2
     RE: ROH Stravinsky Staged Study Day 7th April 2001 Brendan McCarthy 11-04-01 3
         RE: ROH Stravinsky Staged Study Day 7th April 2001 Alymer 15-04-01 4

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Ann Williams

10-04-01, 10:18 AM (GMT)
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1. "RE: ROH Stravinsky Staged Study Day 7th April 2001"
In response to message #0
   Brendan, I was there too and I agree with everything you say in this very enjoyable account.

A few points of my own:

Sir John Drummond should be declared a national treasure. I don't know how old he is - late 60s? - but his memory goes back to the early forties and he seems to have known nearly everybody in ballet - Karsavina, Balanchine, Stravinsky, de Valois, Fred Ashton, Marie Rambert, Fonteyn, Nureyev et al. (it is just unlucky for us that he was born after Diaghalev died, because had they been contemporaries they would surely have been acquainted and his anecdotes would have been even more fascinating). As it is, I loved his imitation of the great ballerina Tamara Karsavina. She had married a rather grand Englishman and as a result had developed a bizarrely mixed Russian and upper-crust English accent. "She spoke rather like thet" he said, managing to sound like Barbara Cartland with a Russian accent.

I agree with what Brendan says about Patricia Neary. She's formidable. I unfortunately had to miss the first half of her session, but I got the impression that she was loving the opportunity to speak about her experiences directly to an audience. I hope the RB will find an excuse to invite her back soon.

Finally, I'd like to mention the soprano ( mezzo? contralto?) Elizabeth Sikora who took the final session on Les Noces. She got us all singing the bridesmaids' parts (in Russian!), and thoroughly enjoying it, which probably says everything that needs to be said about her session.

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10-04-01, 11:06 PM (GMT)
Click to EMail Alymer Click to send private message to Alymer Click to add this user to your buddy list  
2. "RE: ROH Stravinsky Staged Study Day 7th April 2001"
In response to message #0
   When he became
>Artistic Director of the Royal
>Ballet, he was determined to
>bring Romola Nijinska to London
>to reconstruct the work.

In fact the choregrapher was Bronislava Nijinska, Vaslav's sister. Romola was his wife.

Earlier in the
>day, John Drummond had criticised
>Balanchine’s readiness to choreograph such
>works as Agon, which had
>been originally conceived as concert
>pieces, even when they were
> inappropriate for dance.

Well, that's fine, but in fact Agon was commissioned by Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein as the final work in a "greek" trilogy together with Apollo and Orpheus. The score takes as its point of departure a French baroque dance manual and there exists a scheme written out by Stravinsky which denotes the number of dancers in each movement. I think Sir John is a little off centre with that remark

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Brendan McCarthy

11-04-01, 09:04 AM (GMT)
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3. "RE: ROH Stravinsky Staged Study Day 7th April 2001"
In response to message #2
   I stand corrected. It was careless of me to confuse Bronislava and Romola Nijinska. On the second point, I think I did paraphrase John Drummond properly (according to my notes, he said that both 'Agon' and ' Les Noces' had originally been conceived as concert pieces). Whatever may be the case with 'Agon', his wider point was that Balanchine was over-ready to set choreography to scores by Stravinsky even if this went against (in John Drummond's opinion) the grain of the music.

One final point. Anyone intending to see 'Stravinsky Staged' will find John Drummond's 'Speaking of Diaghilev' to be compelling reading. I think it is still easily available. It is published in paperback by Faber & Faber (£14.99)

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15-04-01, 07:27 PM (GMT)
Click to EMail Alymer Click to send private message to Alymer Click to add this user to your buddy list  
4. "RE: ROH Stravinsky Staged Study Day 7th April 2001"
In response to message #3
   Also worth reading is Stephen Walsh's biography of Stravinsky 'Stravinsky; a creative spring' which was published by Knopf in 1999. I'm not sure who published it in the UK, but I know it is available over here.
This has a great deal of interesting material about Stravinsky's relationship with Diaghilev - who incidentally commissioned Les Noces which, according to Walsh, was always envisaged as a ballet. It's a really good read for anyone interested in the Diaghilev company and in the musical and artistic life of the early part of the last century.

I think Drummond's point is fair enough, but it would carry more weight if he had checked his references properly especially since both the scores he referred to were commissioned and conceived as ballets.

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