Over 30 years ago, Barbara Newman embarked on a series of interviews with dancers about dancing, and for this book she returned to those who were still alive to find out what they had to say about their subsequent choices and their opinions on dance today.  The oldest (Alicia Alonso) was born in 1920, the youngest (Nina Ananiashvili) in 1964;  they work all over the world, from London to New York and from Havana to Tbilisi, and yet their concerns are remarkably similar.

It is common, perhaps fashionable, to talk about the globalization of ballet, but it is clear from these interviews that it does not have to entail homogenization, that the differences between different schools and companies still matter, and that dance is not all about virtuosity.   Lynn Seymour complains about the vulgarity of dancers showing their knickers in Giselle, while Ananiashvili says:  “When I see new modern choreography I just see splits, splits, splits”.  Whether it is Alonso or David Wall, Merrill Ashley  or Donald MacLeary, there is a clear determination to draw out the distinctions between different works and to understand the choreographers’ choices.  At one point, Alonso summarises the different use of head and arms in Swan Lake, Giselle, Sleeping Beauty and Don Quixote;  at another, Wall points out that, depending on the production, Swan Lake’s prince is Gothic and Sleeping Beauty’s Renaissance, while Albrecht is different again.  Ashley takes Balanchine’s style down to the detail of how to perform a battement tendu, while MacLeary describes Macmillan’s protest when a dancer fails to recognise that a lift in Manon is completely different to a lift in Romeo and Juliet (“but Juliet’s a virgin, and Manon’s a whore”).

There are discussion about the merits and disadvantages of using video, the importance of hard work, and the necessity of an openness to learning.  Ashley’s exasperation with dancers who lack humility in class, and MacLeary’s pleasure in teaching receptive dancers, are two sides of the same coin.

As these dancers look back, they give us vivid pictures from the past.  Alonso describes Michel Fokine:  “He was fat, with a little stomach here, and he would change into Columbine …”, and Wall remembers Julia Farron advising him, “Teaching’s actually like performing, because you have to put on a performance for your class”.  Monica Mason describes how Frederick Ashton once asked her to practise a pas de chat in her bikini by the side of a pool, and Seymour talks about watching Margot Fonteyn in class.

There are, of course, contrasting views (for example, Alonso is happy to do without mime scenes in the classics, but Antoinette Sibley considered mime so important that she arranged for the Royal Academy of Dance to create a video about it) but many of the ideas expressed are remarkably similar.  All these dancers are engaged with ballet today and are eager to share and pass on their knowledge.  Beryl Grey’s pride in her outreach programmes for schools, Desmond Kelly’s commitment to the Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Ballet Hoo project and Ananiashvili’s delight in the afternoon performances for children, in which she herself performs, show their desire to share their art with the widest possible public.  It is equally clear though that nobody is prepared to compromise on the quality of their work, and with mentors such as these, it is evident that the present generation of dancers, and ballet itself, should be in good hands.

Maggie Watson

22 March 2013

Newman, Barbara 2014  Never far from dancing:  ballet artists in new roles  Routledge

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