In the Shadow of the Greats

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Marina expected our movements to match the quality of our excellent body placement. However, our ballet training was incomplete. We were not professionals. However, I mistakenly thought that ballet could be learned faster. I failed to understand the difference between a dancer and a dance technician. Mme. Debeljak had nurtured me like a plant and protected me from being destroyed.

After one season with Olenjina’s company, we flunked out and returned to our ballet school, which was really where we needed to be. We incorrectly blamed our failure in her troupe on Mme. Debeljak. Today, I realize that Mme. Debeljak, who was a modern dancer with Vaganova ballet training, was right and had developed her teaching philosophy from a wealth of life experiences. Now, I explain to students that their impressions of teachers are not always correct.

Years after Marina’s retirement, when I was a member of the Belgrade Ballet, with a budding interest in choreography, I asked her about her process. She referred to Léonide Massine’s choreographic approach and described her first experience as a choreographer. She listened to the music for two weeks until her ideas crystallized, and then improvised movements. I distinctly remembered those mesmerizing improvisations that I and the other students raptly watched. We were so enthralled by her that we failed to grasp the choreography and never duplicated the emotion and expression of her movements. She advised me to read books to inspire and expand my imagination.

Like a teenager’s first kiss, working with Marina was my first love affair with dance. It and she had profound effects on my career.

Back at school, I was in Mme. Debeljak’s accelerated class. She was my mentor and encouraged me. She claimed that I was meant to be a ballet dancer, that my instrument was perfect for ballet. I did not believe all that she said, but it appealed to my vanity. Without her guidance, I might have studied medicine, as my father hoped. She convinced my parents that my artistic talent should not be wasted. I have either to thank or damn her, for I have lived my life in dance, with all the glory, suffering, and frustration that this craft has wrought. However, I should thank her for all my successes!

Mme. Debeljak’s friend Jovan Putnik, who was the stage director for Novi Sad’s Serbian National Theatre and a drama teacher often observed our classes. I had infrequent direct contact with him, but recall his encouragement and belief in my capabilities and talent. We crossed paths again in the mid-sixties, while he was working on his doctorial dissertation in Paris. As compatriots, we became close friends and engaged in conversations about the arts. He awakened my interest in the Stanislavsky system, which I had ignored during my schooling. Additionally, he was a hypnotist and put me into traces with a clear goal--I would have my own theater and company to run. I fulfilled his suggestions in the U.S. He was a true friend and an inspiration on my life.

Shortly after rejoining our classmates in Novi Sad, we performed in both Serge Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet and Jakov Gotavac’s Symphonic Kolo. In the former, I was cast as Benvolio, in the latter, danced in the corps. The season concluded with Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov’s Schéhérazade, choreographed by Marina Olenjina. In Schéhérazade, we were extras, knifing the slaves and Zobeide’s friends. I attempted to be ferocious, but with my childish face sporting a big, dark, fake mustache, I looked like a transvestite. We had lots of laughs and never forgot our escapades as Persian warriors.

It was 1959 when I first danced Michel Fokine’s Schéhérazade in Léonide Massine’s company. Then, I portrayed the Shah to Tatiana Massine’s Zobeide and it was I who issued the orders to kill! In the eighties, I re-choreographed this ballet when an opportunity arose for my semi-professional company--the American Dance Ensemble--to perform with the Johnstown Symphony.

During my second year at school, a long-legged, scruffy looking boy--Stevan Grebeldinger--joined Mme. Debeljak’s classes; he too would become my colleague and lifelong friend. Under the stage name “Stevan Grebel,” he won international recognition as a performer and later, as artistic director of San Diego’s California Ballet Company. He was a sheepish-looking boy, a year or two my junior. He looked up to me as an older and more experienced dancer--which naturally, I was not. However, I had mastered a double aerial revolution, known as tour en l’air.

Typically, an examination performance concluded each school year. These, retrospectively are just a blur of disjointed memories. Onstage, we presented our ballet barre, then fifteen to twenty minutes of classroom exercises, in abbreviated form followed by other elements extracted from a standard ninety-minute ballet class--petite allégro, adagios and grande allégro, with the girls executing fouetté turns, and the boys showcasing tour en l’air. Next, we performed a folk or character piece, pas de deux, and variations, which ranged from traditional to contemporary pieces. The second half of the event featured an excerpt from classical repertory.

I vividly remember my first pas de deux, which Mme. Debeljak choreographed to Debussy’s La plus que Lente. My partner was Mira Matich, who became prima ballerina of the Novi Sad Ballet and my lifelong friend. Mira with her small body and extraordinary memory for music and dances was an exemplary dancer. She was academically at the top of our class too and was one of those rare people who infrequently cross life’s path.

We rehearsed that five minute pas de deux for several months. It was frustrating, but onstage, our struggle was invisible, as our acting, dancing, and interrelationship created an aura for the audience. We finished to thunderous applause and everyone raved about our adagio. Frankly, I have no idea how well we danced. We felt very comfortable and anything we did was performed with great passion. This was my first real communication with the audience, a rapport that I recreated with my audience each time I danced a solo or adagio. I sensed what the audience liked and what they did not. I eventually developed a penchant for roles with substance or stories, where I could draw on my acting skills and dance technique.

Fortune smiled. As a dancer, I worked with the greatest dancers in the world and studied with the finest teachers. I was abundantly blessed. My career took me around the world several times as I became a successful dancer. As a teacher/choreographer and ballet director, I count myself among the pioneers of dance development in America.

I returned to Novi Sad for my fifty-fifth class reunion, attended by about sixty percent of my classmates. Our trip down memory lane was enhanced by memorabilia, photos, and a memorial album of before and after comparisons. Graduation photos were traditionally displayed in prominent shop windows throughout the city and I was delighted to discover that photos of me and records of my achievements were part of the archives. My classmates--many whom I had not seen since our student days--were now in their seventies and looked mature (maybe too mature). They had wrinkles; some were overweight, others underweight. Most of us sported gray hair, but we still had a hell of a time that did not spare the Schlivovitch.

Chapter Two: Reaching for the Stars
Belgrade, located in mid-central Europe exuded a heavy Turkish influence, especially reflected in its food. Here, Turkish sweets, the addictively powerful coffee, and delicacies such as baklava, locum, hallava, brochette (shish kabob), cevabcici, and burek, were common and popular. These dishes were unfamiliar, as at home in Novi Sad my mother cooked Austro-Hungarian cuisine. I grew accustomed to this new diet in Belgrade and later in Sarajevo.

My higher education began at the Belgrade Dance Academy and academically at Belgrade University, where I enrolled in language studies, as I was already proficient in five languages. I had a good grasp of Russian. I studied Hungarian in elementary school and English in high school. We spoke German at home, as my mother did not speak Russian and my father did not speak Hungarian. Naturally, Serbo-Croatian, which was the language of the country, was my fifth language.

Study time was limited by my artistic obligations--just as my schedule had dominated my life in Novi Sad. All my friends had girlfriends and sweethearts--I was a late bloomer. (And I was still dreaming of Irina Kisch.)

In Belgrade, I matured from a teenager into a young man and began earning a living as a member of the Belgrade Operetta Theater. My close friend Alimpich Nikola, who had been one grade ahead of me in high school, quit school to join the company and arranged for my audition with Ljalja Weiss, the director. I was unimpressed with the Operetta. I approached the audition with a relaxed and nonchalant attitude, tinged with an air of superiority. This was interim work as I waited for an opening in the Belgrade Ballet. Of course, I passed the Operetta’s audition.

Ljalja was a nice looking woman with a soft figure--not fat; she had the shape of a retired dancer who no longer diets. By comparison to Marina’s stormy character, she was like a velvet glove. I liked her goodness and pleasant working demeanor.

My tenure with the troupe was agreeable and I learned how to stage comedy that incorporated dancing, singing, and acting. However, repeating the same production with the same material for weeks at a time was uninspiring. I happily joined the Belgrade Ballet in 1953.

I was hired by the Belgrade Ballet on the recommendation of my friend Stevan Grebeldinger, a favorite of ballet director Dimitri Parlic. Parlic had cast Stevan as Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet that year. Stevan was a great success and that gave him the clout to persuade Parlic to hire me. My services were really unneeded, as there were plenty of dancers available at the academy--but friendship counts for something! As I was a university student, the older company members regarded me as a junior member. It was a great experience to work with both guest artists and local choreographers including Margarita Froman, Pino and Pia Mlakar, Nina Kirsanova, and Parlic.

Slowly, I learned the company’s repertoire and finally debuted in Coppélia, as Notaire, a character role usually assigned to a young boy. This was actually a mime role omitted in some productions. The character is counterpart to the Burgomaster, assisting him with the wedding and other activities and is costumed similarly to strengthen that tie.

Essentially, I was a gofer. During rehearsals I realized that my activity was minimal, so onstage I decided to make the most of it. I exaggerated so much that Parlic, cast as Dr. Coppelius, shushed me from inside of his house--right on the set! Parlic, who played the aged eccentric quite well, was ardently gesticulating for me to cool down, but I was undisturbed by it, and continued my interpretation. At the end of the first act, he grabbed me and explained that my role was secondary. I was attracting too much attention and distracting the audience from the soloists. At the time, I was not yet aware of how theatrical magic works.

Parlic was a small man, with a receding hairline, whose forehead shone like wax. He was already a little pudgy. His features were more Asian than Greek. He wore a cynical smirk on his face. Generally, he was a very good dancer, but not fully accomplished in classical ballet. As he was an imaginative choreographer, he became well-known and in the fifties, was the reigning choreographer supreme in Yugoslavia. Later he served as ballet master/choreographer at the Vienna State Opera Ballet and Rome’s Teatro dell’Opera. His wife, the diminutive Ruth Parnel, was one of the company’s technically strongest artists.

Parlic had a cynical personality--always ready to crack a joke at someone else’s expense. He was either unimpressed with me or I was not his type of dancer. He dubbed me “Kliker,” which means marble. He wanted to personify me as an aimless guy, who rolled around everywhere. He had a big surprise when he heard that I had settled in America. He attended the opening of my Swan Lake in Pittsburgh. And, he was critical, of course. However, he gave me a piece of advice regarding Act III, “you cannot make the side numbers too strong or they will detract from the leading couple,” he said.

After my departure from Yugoslavia, we crossed paths once in Cannes, France where Stevan Grebeldinger and I were enjoying the beauty of the blue Mediterranean Sea. Parlic was visiting Rosella Hightower, who operated a ballet school there. Stevan and I were eating pan bagna (bathed bread), sandwiches of ham, hard-boiled eggs, and salad, beneath a large, striped parasol that we had rented to shield us from the mid-day sun. Parlic was sunning his ghastly white skin. I quipped that if he continued to sunbathe, he would be unable to appear as a sylph. That was the only time I ever teased him. As I was with Stevan, his favorite dancer, I guess he just dealt with me as people deal with extra luggage--even if it is cumbersome.

About mid-season, guest artists Margot Fonteyn and Michael Somes appeared in Swan Lake. Fonteyn was a charming lady, who was always smiling. She mesmerized everyone with her penetrating black eyes. As very few of us spoke English, I seized this opportunity to practice the language and volunteered as her interpreter. This evolved into a friendship.

Somes, a charming English lad, taught me the original Benno variation choreographed by Marius Petipa for Russia’s Imperial Ballet. This was quite a difficult version of this variation; one that very few dancers chose to do. All the major combinations were repeated three times. It started with sissonne développé coupé assemble, followed by sissonne, sissonne, relevé double tour. From there, the chorography moved into tombé pas de bourrée and pirouette with an arabesque finish. The variation concluded with sixteen entrechat six and a double tour ending on the knee. Today, I still teach that version in deference to Michael. Retrospectively, I realize that Somes was not a great technician, but certainly, Margot loved him as her partner.

In the theater, I watched them from backstage while awaiting my various entrances. In Act II, I was Benno’s friend, a hunter and appeared onstage with Michael for only a few minutes. In Act III, I danced the Czardas. From my obstructed view and from the audience’s warm response, I concluded that they were breathtaking.

Michael always reminded me of Sir Laurence Olivier--he was very elegant and princely (at least in my opinion). Some years later, I had my first opportunity to see Fonteyn and Somes from the audience at London’s Covent Garden. They were still very impressive, but I was less enthralled with the Sadler’s Wells Ballet.

During another season, in yet another Swan Lake, Svetlana Beriosova and John Field also of the Sadler’s Wells troupe were the guest artists. She was a beautiful dancer in her early years, physically very feminine, and possessed of that certain Russian twinkle that I found irresistible. She was probably a better Odette, while Fonteyn, who I had seen previously, was the better Odile. Yet, both women were technically on a par. I was especially sympathetic towards Beriosova because of our Slavic backgrounds. Unfortunately, I had little opportunity to become better acquainted with her. We did have several extremely pleasant chats in Russian, but I had a great deal of competition, as most of our company also spoke Russian! Much later in life, I became a close friend of her father’s--Nicholas Beriozoff, whom we called, Papa Beriozoff. He restaged several ballets for Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, including Petrushka and Polovtsian Dances.
Also during my Belgrade years, I recall the late spring arrival of French actor Gerard Philippe--then reaching popularity akin to James Dean’s in America. He, along with the la Comédie-Française, from Paris’ Theatre Del Odeon, spent a season in residence at the Belgrade Theatre, presenting productions of Cyrano de Bergerac, Tartuffe, and other repertory works. The Belgrade Opera Ballet’s members were invited to greet the French actors at the railroad station. The young girls brought flowers.

I was pushed and bumped by the enthusiastic crowd, which was in the throes of mass hysteria. I later witnessed a similar frenzy in London as rock fans congregated to glimpse The Beatles. Philippe and his group were navigated through the throng by our theatrical management, while the invited guests, including my dance friends and me, slowly followed to the reception hall where our places were reserved for dinner.

Again, my command of English enabled me to strike up conversation. Gerard Philippe was a nice looking young Frenchman, who actually resembled his onscreen persona. Affable and friendly, he clearly basked in all the attention and ado. He had an affinity for dancers and that sparked our conversations. He suggested that I visit Paris, the birthplace of ballet. He had no idea that his words ignited the fire that fueled my career path. I saw him just once, following his performance. Oddly, I was compelled to ask him for his autograph--something I never did. A few years later, I moved to France and was eager to visit him, but he was out of town, filming on location. Unfortunately, word of his untimely death reached me before I had a chance to meet with him. Like thousands of his admirers, I was shocked and saddened by the news.

In 1953, an American touring company spent a residency in Belgrade and presented Porgy and Bess, which was a tremendous hit. I was very taken with the voices, the acting, and production as a whole, which indoctrinated me into American musical theater. I realized that there were other avenues of artistic expression beyond opera, operetta, ballet, and pure drama. It was also the first time that I heard George Gershwin’s music and saw black artists perform in Belgrade. At the time, it was certainly exotic, appealing, and interesting--and the audience agreed, responding with great admiration.

The actors were extremely friendly, and again my English enabled me to communicate with some of the company members. I showed them Belgrade and offered suggestions for their leisure time. Among other gestures of friendship, I brought them cigarettes. My name was difficult for them to pronounce, so they called me, “Cigarette Boy!” They never invited me to visit America, but ironically I have spent many years of my life in this country and am grateful that they provided an opportunity for me to practice my English.

Many years later, I attended an off-Broadway production of Porgy and Bess in New York. By that time, I had already seen a great number of off-Broadway musicals and was unimpressed, as it resembled just another of its genre.

Also in 1953, select members of Le Ballet de France, a Paris-based troupe headed by Janine Charrat, spent a weeklong residency in Belgrade. This was a small, stellar group that offered extremely impressive performances of classical ballets. Charrat danced her famous role The Dying Swan and the company presented Serge Lifar’s Romeo and Juliet, set to the music of Tchaikovsky, Marius Petipa’s “Pas de deux” from Sleeping Beauty, and other contemporary works choreographed by Charrat.

They were extraordinary--René Bon, Jean-Bernard Lemoine, Hélène Traïline, Peter van Dijk, Maria Fris, and the other company members--and all possessed brilliant technique. I had never seen two consecutive double air turns performed onstage. René Bon startled the audience with his twelve successive pirouettes. Entrechat huit, double beaten cabrioles, thirty-two double fouettés, and other virtuosities highlighted each performance. Bravos and awes echoed from the audiences that eagerly rose to their feet, cheering. I realized immediately the sophistication of French ballet technique. I would never have dreamed that eighteen months later I would be a member of this company.

My enthusiasm was as passionate as my fascination with one of the dancers, Maria Fris. I liked her appearance, her personality, and the extreme finesse of her dancing. I rendered myself indispensable--as tour guide, gofer, and translator--just for the opportunity to be with them (and her). I worried that I might be overstaying my welcome, but fortunately, that did not happen. René Bon invited me to Paris. He explained that Janine Charrat liked Yugoslav dancers--Milorad Miskovitch, Milko Sparemblek, and Vassili Sulich danced with the group.

I spent considerable time with Maria Fris, who must have sensed my admiration for her. We walked along Terazije and dined in the Hotel Moscow. We had charming conversations and she responded warmly towards me. We discussed my plans to visit Paris with the hope of seeing each other there, but that meeting never happened.

While in Belgrade, I soaked in all that I could about dance. I never missed a performance--no matter whether it was by a major company or a solo artist. Harald Kreutzberg was a German dancer, whom I saw just once while he was performing at Dom Kulture (which means the culture house) on Terazije.

A native of Czechoslovakia, he was born in 1902 and studied with Rudolf von Laban and Mary Wigman. Kreutzberg was primarily a solo artist, who sometimes performed with Yvonne Georgi and Ruth Page, neither of whom I knew at that time.

He was of medium build and sported the “Kojak” look, long before that television character popularized the bald pate. And it appealed to me. I knew little about German modern dance, yet was impressed by its fusion with mime. Because I did not grasp the challenges and physical boundaries of an evening length solo performance, I was bored by the simplicity and uneven energy of his dances. At the time, I was ballet oriented and not about to abandon classicism. I later became familiar with the works of Kurt Jooss and gained appreciation and new insights into Kreutzberg’s way of dancing and his movement form. This influenced some of my contemporary ballets.

At Dom Kulture, I saw a striking couple from Russia--Raisa Struchkova and Alexander Lapauri. Both were Peoples’ Artists of the U.S.S.R., from the Bolshoi Ballet. They performed the famous Moszkowski Waltz and Spring Waters choreographed by Asaf Messerer. Theirs was a very high level of technique and their partnering was extraordinarily acrobatic. For example, Lapauri propelled Struchkova into the air, way above his head. Her horizontal body rotated twice, before she fell dramatically into his arms, caught in a fish. That created an incredible ovation and convinced me that the Russian ballet dancers possessed tremendous technique. However, in comparison to Janine Charrat’s Ballet de France, these Russians surpassed the French dancers only in acrobatic pas de deux work.

I was a little bit shocked by the thickness of Lapauri’s thighs, which we would call “thunder thighs.” His figure however, was extreme. Most other Russian dancers of that era were only slightly bulky. However, assessing his technical accomplishments, this disproportionate muscle build was forgivable. Yet I thought, “I hope I will not have such ugly muscles when I reach his technical level.”

In the sixties, the Russians refocused their aesthetic attention on the physique. At that time, dancers danced slower. The technique required a great number of repetitions for a specific movement. For example, executing thirty-two rond de jambes en l’air or sixty-four grande battements en croix were common practice. However, this repetition built bulky muscles. After the New York City Ballet appeared at the Bolshoi Theatre and after Bolshoi artists were invited to dance as guest artists in London, the look began to change. The dancers moved faster and adopted Western practice clothes--tights, which revealed heavier thighs.

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