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.