David Bruce: The Funniest People in Dance — Language, Media


• When Pierre Monteux was conducting for Sergei Diaghilev, a champion of new choreography and new music, he sometimes ran into problems with orchestras that resented playing some of the new music. For example, at the Vienna Opera House, the Philharmonic Orchestra rebelled at playing Igor Stravinsky’s music for Petrushka, and so at rehearsals — despite Mr. Monteux’s best efforts — the violins, celli, basses, and violas played pianissimo, while the woodwinds and brasses played fortissimo. Mr. Diaghilev heard the cacophony, and he yelled at Mr. Monteux, “It’s not Petrushka — it’s a funeral march!” The musicians of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, eager for a fight, jumped to their feet and demanded an apology. Mr. Diaghilev agreed to give them an apology, but he knew that they could not understand French when it was spoken quickly, so he proceeded to insult them in the worst and most derogatory terms possible, but he was such a good actor that the musicians thought he was making an apology. The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra accepted the “apology,” the rehearsal went on, but unfortunately, Mr. Monteux says, “The results were dull, uninspired performances because … the great Vienna Philharmonic simply could not play Petrushka.”

• Nicolas Legat was a Russian dancer who lived the last years of his life teaching ballet in England. Unfortunately, he didn’t learn English very well. One day, he spoke to a police officer, using the words that he had learned so he could greet visitors to his dance studio, “Thank you very much, too much, sit down, please.” His lack of English led to some funny sentences. Whenever he wanted to tell a pupil in class to hold her head up, he said, “Keep your football up.”

• Gerald Arpino met Princess Margaret on Oct. 27, 1977, at the Contemporary Dance Foundation Gala at the Hotel Pierre. He had always been told that British royalty are impeccable in their pronunciation, and so he practiced perfectly saying, “I — am — pleased — to — meet — you — Your — Royal — Highness.” The meeting went very well. Mr. Arpino was impeccable in his pronunciation, and Princess Margaret responded, “How d’ja’ do?”

• Alexandra Danilova, from Russia, and Alicia Markova, from England, used to travel throughout the United States and give ballet performances. In the south, waiters often had a hard time understanding Ms. Markova’s British accent, so Ms. Danilova would tell the waiter both of their orders, then say about Ms. Markova, “These French girls — they just can’t learn to speak good English.”

• Andrei Kramarevsky taught classes at the School of American Ballet despite knowing very little English. According to ballerina Darci Kistler, one of his students, he knew only two English words. Dance students who made mistakes, he called “cheap.” Dance students who didn’t make mistakes, he called “expensive.”

• When ballerina Marie Taglioni became pregnant after her marriage, she tried to keep her pregnancy secret by telling other dancers that she had a sore knee. The lie didn’t work. The dancers even began to use the term “mal au genou” (“hurt knee”) as a synonym for being pregnant.

• Alexandre Volinine, the dance partner of Anna Pavlova, did not learn much English. At a restaurant, he would ask for a menu, look intently at it, then point at a random spot on the menu and order, “Ham and eggs.”


• The author of this book once wrote a preview story for an Ohio University School of Dance performance. The only place for interviews during a rehearsal was in a closet, so Ohio University dance teacher Michele Geller told the dance students, “This is David Bruce. He is going to interview you for a story he is writing for The Athens News, so don’t be shocked if he asks you to go into a closet with him.”

• A Sports Illustrated writer once met ballet dancer Edward Villella for an interview. Immediately after shaking hands, Mr. Villella said, “I know the question you’re dying to ask even before you ask it: Am I straight?” (The answer is yes; Mr. Villella is married with children.)

• Loïe Fuller, a 19th– and 20th-century American dancer who took Paris by storm, understood the value of publicity. Whenever public interest in her seemed to be decreasing, she would start a lawsuit or announce that she was suffering from a severe illness.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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