David Bruce: The Funniest People in Dance — Nudity, Old Age, Photographs, Prejudice

Nudity

• When Russian heiress Ida Rubinstein wished to dance nude in the role of Salome in 1908, her brother-in-law, a physician, was so upset that he committed her to a mental institution. It didn’t work. After she got out of the mental institution, she appeared nude in many roles, including that of Cleopatra.

• As Rudolf Nureyev was dancing in Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty at the Metropolitan Opera, a naked man streaked across the stage. Mr. Nureyev — a homosexual — was delighted.

Old Age

• In his old age, dancer Léonide Massine went to San Francisco to recreate his choreography of Le Beau Danube. During his stay at the Valley View Lodge, videotapes of him giving lessons to several dancers were shown, causing some elderly residents to ask, “Did you ever dance, Mr. Massine?” He smiled at the question, replied, “A little,” then taught the elderly residents a few exercises to lessen their pain from arthritis. Shortly thereafter, the elderly residents came to Mr. Massine and thanked him for his help, saying such things as, “I can move now. Thank you so much for your help — it is better than medicine.”

• Modern dance pioneer José Limón once lived temporarily at the Ruxton Hotel on West 77th Street in New York City — a hotel where many retirees lived. As a dancer/choreographer, Mr. Limón was surrounded each day at work by bodies that were nearly perfect, and he was shocked by the bodies of the retirees. Sometimes, he wondered what they had done with their lives to have ended up with such grotesque bodies.

Photographs

• Many dance photographs of Anna Pavlova exist, but people often don’t realize how much work went into taking them. The art of photography was in its infancy, and to get an adequate exposure, Ms. Pavlova sometimes had to hold a pose for 20 seconds. To get a photograph of Ms. Pavlova jumping, the photographer was forced to string her up on clotheslines.

• Gordon Anthony’s book A Camera at the Ballet: Pioneer Dancers of the Royal Ballet did much to give credit to these dance pioneers. Such credit was sorely needed, as a young Royal Ballet School dancer saw a photograph of one of her teachers (a dance pioneer) and exclaimed, “Goodness, were you once a dancer!”

Practical Jokes

• Karen Kain once played a practical joke during a dress rehearsal for Sleeping Beauty. Of course, she was dancing the role of the princess Aurelia, but she dressed herself in horn-rimmed glasses, the witch Carabosse’s fright wig, and bright blue leg warmers for the scene when her dance partner, Frank Augustyn, awakens her with a kiss. The joke amused everyone — except for management, who reprimanded her the following day for not setting a good example for the younger dancers.

• In 1966, while acting in George Bernard Shaw’s You Never Can Tell, Sir Ralph Richardson fooled the younger members of the cast by telling them anecdotes about dancing with Fred Astaire. They believed him until he went too far and told them he had also danced with Nijinsky.

Prejudice

• Sir Rudolf Bing was the major force behind the integration of the Metropolitan Opera. For example, after being hired as general manager in 1950, he immediately hired the first African-American ballet dancer to dance at the Met — Janet Collins, who danced in the triumphal scene in Aida. How did he get around the board of the Metropolitan Opera, which might have opposed the hiring of Ms. Collins? Simple. Sir Rudolf says, “I told the board about it after the contract was signed.” Sir Rudolf also was responsible for signing the first African American who sang opera at the Met: Marian Anderson, who sang the part of Ulrica in Un Ballo in Maschera.

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Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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