David Bruce: Rehearsals Anecdotes

George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet once needed a leading dancer to perform as Apollo at short notice, and Peter Martins, a young dancer with the Royal Danish Ballet, was called in to dance. Everything seemed to Mr. Martins to go well at the first performance, and the critics agreed, but the next day at rehearsal Mr. Balanchine said to him, “Before we begin, you know, you do it all wrong.” (Mr. Martins says he got the impression during the rehearsal that perhaps the one thing he had done right was to show up for the performance.) Then Mr. Balanchine showed him what he wanted. Later, Mr. Balanchine told Mr. Martins’ teacher, Stanley Williams, that he had been impressed with the young dancer at the rehearsal: “I changed everything, and he remembered everything.” This led to Mr. Martins’ being asked to join the New York City Ballet.

The dress rehearsal for Primitive Mysteries wasn’t going well, although Martha Graham had worked on its choreography for over a year. Finally, she was ready to give up and take the dance off the program. Deeply frustrated, she screamed at her dancers, “That’s enough! Get out of my sight! Go home! Go away!” Fortunately, music director Louis Horst told the dancers to stay, then he went to Ms. Graham’s dressing room and talked to her. She then came out of her dressing room and began rehearsing again. On February 2, 1931, Primitive Mysteries debuted in New York’s Craig Theater. The audience applauded so much that 23 curtain calls were needed, and critics acclaimed Primitive Mysteries a masterpiece.

Sir Adrian Boult once accepted an invitation to conduct British music with a famous American orchestra that was known for a few eccentric qualities. Sir Adrian and the orchestra practiced well together, and he was able to remove the eccentric elements of the orchestra’s performance and replace them with elements of nobilmente. However, at the concert, the orchestra played with all of its original eccentricity and with none of Sir Adrian’s nobilmente. Following the concert, an annoyed Sir Adrian asked the concertmaster why the orchestra had played one way during rehearsal and a very different way during the concert. The concertmaster replied, “The rehearsal’s all yours—but the concert’s all ours.”

Fred Astaire was a hard worker who believed in practicing even things that weren’t likely to appear in his movies. While rehearsing for Funny Face, he was dancing with an umbrella, and director Stanley Donen asked him to open the umbrella and dance with it to see if any moves happened that would look good in the movie. Mr. Astaire opened the umbrella, danced with it, then closed it again—all impeccably. Mr. Donen asked him how he was able to do that so well, and Mr. Astaire replied, “I’ve practiced it.” According to Mr. Donen, that was part of the secret of Mr. Astaire’s success: “He would practice things that didn’t have any immediate connection with anything.”

When it came to his dancing, Fred Astaire was a perfectionist. He sometimes rehearsed 18 hours a day, losing up to 15 pounds in the process. In addition, when his dancing partners rehearsed with him, at the end of the practice, they would sometimes find blood in their shoes. Mr. Astaire once explained why he rehearsed so much: “I wanted to make it good, then make it better.”

Albert E. Kahn spent several months photographing Soviet ballerina Galina Ulanova, always being careful not to interrupt her in her practices, performances, or teaching sessions. Once, he did interrupt. Ms. Ulanova had been teaching 19-year-old Katya Maximova to dance Giselle, and at one point she had embraced her. Mr. Kahn had not caught the moment with his camera, so he asked her to repeat the embrace, saying, “It was such a beautiful moment.” She replied, “That beautiful moment is gone forever. Now you mustn’t interrupt us. We’re working.”

Hans Richter once conducted an Anton Bruckner symphony at a time when the works of Bruckner were seldom played. During the rehearsal, Bruckner himself was present. At one place, Richter ran into difficulty and called to Bruckner, “F or F sharp in that chord?” Flushed with pleasure, Bruckner leapt to his feet and answered, “Anything you like, Herr Kapellmeister; go on, go on!”

Buddy Ebsen is perhaps most famous as Jed Clampett onThe Beverly Hillbillies; however, he and Vera Ebsen were a famous brother-and-sister dance team during the 1930s. Frequently, they rehearsed in hot, unvented, rehearsal halls, leaving pools of sweat on the floor. Other people used to come into the rehearsal hall, look at the pools of sweat on the floor, and ask, “Were the Ebsens here?”

Herbert von Karajan sometimes did the lighting for the operas he conducted. Sir Rudolf Bing felt that frequently his lighting was murky, and after Mr. Karajan once told him that the lighting for a certain opera had required “eight full-length lighting rehearsals,” Sir Rudolf replied, “I could have got it that dark with one.”

Vaslav Nijinsky’s Le Sacred de Printemps was, in the words of critic Cyril W. Beaumont, “an attempt to show the birth of human emotion in a primitive age.” It was very difficult to execute, and when it was unveiled for the first time, it required 120 rehearsals, although only six performances were given.

Gladys Cooper complained that Noël Coward believed that actors should show up at the first rehearsal knowing their lines, whereas she liked to learn her lines during rehearsals. Mr. Coward told her, “I did not expect word perfection at the first rehearsal, but I had rather hoped for it on the first night.”

Peter Ustinov was habitually late for rehearsals. By accident, he once arrived 10 minutes early for a rehearsal. Sir Peter immediately apologized to the director, Denis Carey, “I’m sorry, Denis. Utterly unforgivable. I assure you such a careless mistake will never happen again.” Mr. Carey said later, “It didn’t.”

Anna Pavlova took dance rehearsals seriously. Early in her career, she arrived at the Marinsky Theatre, but discovered that she had forgotten her practice clothes. No problem. She wrapped two towels around her body and practiced—despite the sniggering of the stagehands in the theater.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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