David Bruce: Dance Anecdotes

Olga Spessivtzeva once made an unkind remark about Vera Trefilova. Ms. Trefilova had balanced for a very long time on one pointe in arabesque while partnered by Pierre Vladimirov in The Sleeping Beauty in London at the Alhambra Theatre during the 1921-1922 season of Sergei Diaghilev’s ballet company. Ms. Spessivtzeva said that it was a “trick,” adding, “She just balances against Vladimirov’s thigh.” Ms. Trefilova heard about the remark, so at her next performance of The Sleeping Beauty, she repeated the “trick”—but this time Mr. Vladimirov stood far away from her, making it impossible for her to balance against his knee. In his biography Olga Spessivtzeva, Anton Dolin writes, “The audience went wild with amazement, and an audible gasp went through the theatre, ending in a frenzy of applause. I was there, on stage, and saw it myself.”

In 2009, Frederic Franklin at age 94 was still on stage with American Ballet Theatre. In his long career, he danced with many notables, including a half-naked Josephine Baker. For a while, he performed in an ensemble with Alicia Markova and Anton Dolin in provincial music halls. On one occasion, when he came onstage wearing tights, the audience shouted, “He’s wearing his granny’s underwear.” He also became principal dancer with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, and on one occasion their dance concert was received by the audience with total silence. Afterwards, Mr. Franklin said to a member of the audience, “I don’t think you enjoyed the performance—there was no applause.” She replied, “Oh we did, but it was all so nice we didn’t want to disturb the atmosphere.”

Rudolf Nureyev lived in Ufa, a small town but one that had an opera house. When he was seven years old, his mother bought one ticket to a ballet at the opera house and snuck in the entire family—the Nureyevs had little money. Young Rudolf saw the ballet The Song of the Cranes and immediately decided to devote his life to dance. In a review of Julie Kavanagh’s book Nureyev: The Life, Joan Acocella wrote in The New Yorker, “In dance biographies, one hears suspiciously often of these thunderclaps, but I think they should be credited if they are soon followed by intense study.” In young Rudolf’s case, his thunderclap was in fact soon followed by intense study.

While touring in the ballet A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Robert Helpmann and company put on a performance in a sports arena because the town lacked a good theater. Mr. Helpmann was given the umpires’ room as his dressing room, but unfortunately it was badly lit. A friend visited him and saw him standing on a chair that he had placed on a table in order to be close to the sole light bulb hanging from the ceiling so that he could see to put on the elaborate makeup that his role required. The friend asked, “Are you all right?” Mr. Helpmann replied, “Oh, yes, I’m fine, but heaven knows how these umpires manage.”

Rita Moreno started dancing professionally when she was very young, and once in New York she was performing despite being under the legal age for performers in that city. Unfortunately, the club she was dancing in was raided. Fortunately, the owner of the club gave her a mink to wrap herself in and set a drink in front of her so that the police thought that she was older than she really was. By the way, Ms. Moreno once wore a necklace made out of teeth. When a reporter asked her about the necklace, she said that the teeth came from her old boyfriends.

When Balanchine ballerina Allegra Kent was in the seventh grade, she shocked her classmates by asking a boy to dance with her at a school party. He said yes, making her very happy, because he moved well, and she liked always to have good dance partners. Years later, in 1985, when she was a famous ballerina, she wrote, “I’ve danced with Mikhail Beryshnikov, Erik Bruhn, Edward Villella, Peter Martins, Jacques d’Amboise, and David McCrea.” The first five names belong to famous dancers; the sixth name belongs to the boy she danced with in the seventh grade.

Even rock stars get older, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they stop rocking. It can mean that they acquire different kinds of audiences: the younger kids who want to dance in the aisles, and the older fans who want everyone to stay seated. Celebrity interviewer Will Harris’ wife once danced in the aisles at a Tom Jones concert, and an old lady kicked her! And in Wales, a younger fan was dancing in the aisles, and an older woman wanted him to sit down. After a while, the younger fan told the older woman, “Excuse me, grandma, but would you please f**k off?”

Sixteen-year-old Isabella McGuire Mayes of Great Britain is one of the youngest foreign students ever to study at the Kirov’s ballet school in Russia. Her mother sometimes visits her, but for much of the time she is without members of her family near her. Once, when her mother was visiting her, Isabella had a pain in her chest, so her mother wrote a note in Russian for Isabella’s teacher. Unfortunately, being not overly familiar with Russian, she wrote that Isabella had a pain in her “chest of drawers.”

Rudolf Nureyev lived to dance. He ate raw beefsteak so he would have energy to dance, and once when the mother of ballerina Margot Fonteyn served chicken to him, he complained, “Chicken dinner, chicken performance.” Near the end of his life, when he was dying of AIDS, he continued to dance, even with a catheter in his body and diapers around his loins. He once said—and he meant it, “When the lights are extinguished, I die..”

Teenage girls can be incredibly smart. For example, comedian Lewis Black attended both his junior and his senior proms in high school. For each prom, he had a different date. For each prom, he started going with the girl shortly before the prom, and she dumped him shortly after the prom. Mr. Black says, “Coincidence? I think not.”

“The trouble with nude dancing is that not everything stops when the music does.” — Sir Robert Helpmann.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


David Bruce: Dance Anecdotes

At Westside High School in Houston, Texas, educator Sharon Roberts uses hip-hop dance to keep students in school. This can be difficult. She says, “Working with the boys is like trying to put puppies in a box. You get four in, then one jumps out.” Ms. Roberts’ Inertia Dance Company wins — a lot — both in dance competitions and in life. In 2004, the Inertia Dance Company won the prestigious M.A. Dance Company’s National High School Dance Championships — and no student flunked out and all of the seniors graduated. Kirk Beecher, who was 18 years old in 2004, says, “The only reason I passed classes is because of dance. If I didn’t do it, I wouldn’t be happy — and I’d be on the street.” According to Ms. Roberts, “People see the dancing, but to me this is all life lessons. It’s about being successful when you leave.” Andres Flores, 23, who was in the first group of boys whom Roberts invited into her studio, gives this testimonial: “I grew up in Houston’s Third Ward, in the bad side of the neighborhood. People were always breaking into your house. My friends were in gangs. At Lamar High School, one of my friends was going to her dance studio, so I started going there. I started liking it. So every single day I started going to the after-school practices. Sharon’s no-pass, no-play policy motivated me to always pass. I was almost kicked out for smoking in the parking lot. But Sharon went and stood up for me and really helped me out. I’d always hung around with a bad crowd. Dancing got me away from that. Because of dance, my grades improved. Now I am actually the advanced hip-hop teacher at Lamar. That’s one of my biggest accomplishments. Dancing got me a long way in life. A long, long way.”

British dancer Sally Marie had to dance naked in Dear Body, a satire by Luca Silvestrini  of people obsessed with working out to make their body beautiful. Intellectually, she had no problem with this. She said, “I’d been arguing for ages that we needed a greater variety of bodies and ages in dance. It felt like an important statement to be on stage showing my tits.” In practice, she was terrified. She explained, “When you’re in a sauna, it feels completely natural. But on stage, you’re really exposed.” Also, in practice, she was many pounds lighter when she stripped off on stage. Why? She said, “I’d been too frightened to eat.” Ms. Marie does have good advice for anyone who will be dancing naked: “Try to avoid being naked in a photocall. Otherwise you will find pictures of yourself all over the national press and the internet. And they never go away. At run-throughs, keep your T-shirt on. It’s amazing how many extra ‘techs’ show up when they think there may be some tits on show.” When London-based choreographer Arthur Pita had to dance naked in his choreography of Camp after a cast member was injured, he immediately started doing squats and press-ups for a very good reason: vanity. He explained, “I really didn’t want anything to be wobbling for the audience.”

Balletomanes sometimes think that the life of ballet dancers and choreographers is glamorous, but it often isn’t. Early in ballerina Maria Tallchief’s career, she and other lowly paid ballet dancers often played “Ghosting,” aka “That Old Army Game.” One dancer would rent a room, then two other dancers would sneak in and stay there, too. One dancer would sleep on the bed, another on the box springs, and a third on the floor. Because of wartime conditions, however, rooms were not always available, and Ms. Tallchief once saw famed choreographer Agnes de Mille sleeping on a table in a hotel hallway.

Following a performance of Scotch Symphony, in which Maria Tallchief was tossed in the air and then caught by André Eglevsky, two great ballerinas—Alicia Markova and Alexandra “Choura” Danilova—visited her and complimented her backstage. However, Ms. Danilova had a piece of advice: “But, you know, dear, when you’re thrown in the air, back must be arched, head must be up high. Must be unconcerned.” Ms. Tallchief explained, “Well, yes, Choura, I know. I’m trying to be serene, but I’m scared to death André’s not going to catch me. Four of those boys are tossing me, and he’s got to catch me all by himself.”

One must suffer to have the experience to create a credible work of art about suffering. When Gus Solomons, Jr., was a young man, he choreographed his first dance and he put a lot of pain in it. The piece used percussive music, and Mr. Solomons pounded his bare-chested body, exhausting himself in the first three minutes of the dance. When he showed the dance to Murray Louis, Mr. Louis asked, “Gus, what was all that suffering about? What do you know about suffering?”

Creative people suffer ups and downs in their work, but sometimes a creation that at first is rejected is later recognized as a classic—and, of course, sometimes a creator will rework and improve an earlier creation. Someone said to choreographer George Balanchine, “Your last two or three ballets have not been very successful. What do you have to say about that?” Mr. Balanchine replied, “Give me some time, and maybe they’ll be masterpieces.”

Classical dancer Erik Bruhn used to hire a cleaner to come and do his housekeeping, but things did not always work out as planned. For one thing, he would pile his dirty dishes in the sink, but after a while, and before the cleaner came to wash the dishes, he would wash them himself. Why? Mr. Bruhn explains, “Because I can’t stand to see dirty dishes.”

When Anton Dolin first choreographed his “Doll Ballet,” lots of people came to him, requesting something special, such as a solo for a friend. He listened to them — as he says, “like a fool” — with the result that the ballet was very bad, and he had to re-choreograph it, with no special bits, but instead with all the dancers used en masse.

All women were very popular out west during pioneer days. When the first dance was held in Nevada City, California, 300 men showed up — and 12 women.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved