In the Shadow of the Greats

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After that first class, I visited Monsieur Hugo’s crowded café, populated by pianists, dancers, and teachers. A Russian pianist, with whom I conversed, grasped my dire situation and recommended the Salvation Army, which would feed and house me until Charrat’s return. She provided directions. Luckily, the Salvation Army headquarters was on rue Amsterdam, only three streets from rue de Douai.

The nun-like women at the Salvation Army listened to my story and accepted me for two weeks. They offered room, board, and free Metro tickets. They handed me a Metro map and directed me to place D’Italy, where the Maison d’armie de Salut was located. I graciously thanked them and started out for place D’Italy.

At the time, this was very nearly a suburb of Paris, and much less exciting than the St. Germain neighborhood. The Maison was a big brick building with an aromatic cafeteria. I ate a huge lunch--seconds were free for the asking. I was stunned when they showed me to my bed. It was located in a vast salle--a gymnasium-like room with some one hundred beds arranged in five rows. The musty room smelled of winos and unwashed vagrants, who were living there--indigents that the French refer to as the clochard. At night, they snored, talked, and even yelled aloud at all hours. I had no earplugs. It was a sleepless night. It was nothing like home or Vienna. I thought about Charrat’s company, their return, and getting out of there. Although the food was very good, the next day I searched for yet another place to stay.

My teacher, Mme. Debeljak had a friend in Paris. I set out to find her residence in rue Passy, near the Metro station of the same name. It was my lucky day! The lady was at home, and received me very kindly. She offered me the former chambermaid’s quarters, currently rented by a student boarder, who was away for another two weeks. This room was a present from heaven--it was all white. From the window, I could see the Eiffel Tower, place Iéna, and the Seine. It was quiet, clean, and neat. Now with food, lodging, classes, and an opportunity to enjoy the city’s beauty, I awaited the company’s return. I was happy and looked forward to all the new possibilities before me.

During my first two weeks in Paris, I had plenty of time on my hands. One of the Russian pianists suggested that I pay a visit to Serge Lifar, director of the Paris Opéra Ballet. Why not? So, I introduced myself to the great Lifar. He was a good-looking and pleasant man, in his fifties and still quite fit. Although he was born in Kiev, he looked Persian or Asian instead of Slavic.

As my head was filled with hundreds of wonderful stories about his dancing career, I was very reverent. He probably saw in my eyes, the admiration that I had for him. He was very cordial and asked what he could do for me. I explained that I was fresh from Belgrade, flat broke, studying with Preobrajenska, and obsessed with dancing for Charrat’s company. I told him that I wanted to see his company, but could not afford a ticket. He understood. He offered kind words of support, plus an unlimited pass to the box reserved for Opéra dancers! I was really touched and very impressed with his kindness. He knew many of my teachers, and mentioned that I would dance some of his ballets with Janine Charrat’s troupe. And I did--Romeo and Juliet, Noir et Blanc, and Les Créatures de Promethée. It was the beginning of a nice friendship. He wished me much luck and success in France. After he retired from the Opéra, we often met at Studio Wacker, where we talked about old acquaintances.

When Charrat’s company finally returned, I spoke with Miskovitch and Sparemblek, who arranged my audition. Mme. Charrat seemed pleased by my timely arrival, as she had just lost two dancers. My knees shook from fatigue or excitement, diminishing my capabilities and my double tours were off. My audition was--to me--unsatisfactory, yet she engaged me, along with André Prokovsky, a dancer French by birth, Russian by parentage, who would quickly become well-known. In fact, everyone hired for the corps later became prominent.

Among my new cast mates, was Tessa Beaumont, a nice looking girl who later married a tenured dancer of the Paris Opéra--which was a great boost to her career. We frequently danced together in Charrat’s ensemble. (Surprisingly, her sister strongly resembled my last girlfriend in Yugoslavia. As I barely spoke French and she spoke nothing else, we did not become acquainted.) Tessa and I continued to cross-paths at various points of our artistic development, including in Ludmila Tcherina’s and Léonide Massine’s troupe and in television work. After we had retired as performers, I found her teaching in Paris and discovered that the parallel in our lives had continued. She had a daughter, whom I met and who subsequently accepted my offer to visit Pittsburgh.

Charrat’s rehearsals started immediately. Jean-Bernard Lemoine conducted them, plus taught repertory. In six days, I learned six ballets. This was a very radical change. In Belgrade, I was accustomed to working on one ballet for six weeks! In just six days time, we were off on a tour that opened in Lausanne and Geneva, Switzerland with additional stops in Lyon and Strasbourg. The Paris Opéra Ballet’s Peter van Dijk was with our troupe as a guest artist.

In all, there were six étoiles, five soloists, and a corps of nine--all very strong dancers--to perform an impressive repertory that included ballets by Serge Lifar, Janine Charrat, Maurice Béjart, and several of Marius Petipa’s adagios. I was very proud to be with this company. My salary was immense. I was earning forty-thousand francs per month, plus per diem. I learned much from working alongside these great dancers, as I copied their manner and style, imitated their behavior, and tried to duplicate their onstage allure. Our performances garnered accolades, reminiscent of the outstanding public response this troupe received in Belgrade.

In Geneva, Switzerland, we took classes with Boris Kniaseff, famous for his floor barre. I was glad to meet him, as I had heard so much about him from Marina Olenjina and other dancers who knew him when he was a ballet master in Belgrade before the war. He taught in a Geneva casino--a facility that resembled a winter garden, with marble columns and exotic flowers. He carried a big stick--like a shepherd’s staff--and pounded the ground to underline the rhythm of the music. He was very bombastic and that was accentuated by his very deep piercing voice.

Class began with our backs pressed against the floor. We retracted our legs, in movements similar to plié. This was easy to execute on the back, but much more difficult face down, as the floor surface painfully forced the turnout. We were paired face-to-face with partners (ideally of equal leg-length), with whom we reciprocally pushed and pulled to open hips and knees for increased turnout. After class, we felt as though we were walking in plié--and our hips hurt! He proudly presented his students and bragged that in just a few years they had acquired perfect turnout and high extensions. This was really impressive--until they started to jump and turn. The turns were passable but the jumps were very poor. As one-third of the exercises were executed on the floor, the body failed to develop resistance muscles. The muscles that propel the body into the air did not develop to the same degree as those required for adagio, which needs less abrupt effort.

I adjusted to these classes and subsequently, when I visited Geneva, I never missed a class with him. Today, as a teacher, I understand the benefit of Kniaseff’s exercises and recommend a weekly floor barre to my dancers.

I was thrilled with the company and its repertory, but disappointed that Maria Fris had departed for Maurice Béjart’s troupe. In the early sixties, I learned of her suicide. This saddened me very much.

Of the ballets we performed, I especially liked the bravura Le Massacre des Amazones (1951). Here, representing a horse, I caught an Amazon rider in mid-grand jeté on my shoulder and danced with her perched there. In Héraklès and Romeo and Juliet, I stood beside Prokovsky, who turned more easily to the left. As I executed double tours and pirouettes to the right, he spun to the left. He was an amazing turner, who could whip out fourteen pirouettes--in street shoes.

We worked under Serge Lifar, whose Romeo and Noir et Blanc, were already in the repertory and with Maurice Béjart on Haut Voltage. I was pleased to learn different styles from internationally famous choreographers. Lifar sometimes observed rehearsals and provided suggestions to the ballet master or dancers, as he had specific ideas of how a pose should look. Béjart’s creative process included collaborating with the dancers, rather than imposing his own movements on them. At that time, I was still too shy to offer suggestions, but later, after I had taken classes with him and with Mme. Rousanne, I was braver about contributing my five cents.

It was great to see Peter van Dijk in Don Quixote, Milorad Miskovitch in Romeo and Juliet, and Janine Charrat in La Mort du Cygne. When I was not onstage, I watched from the wings, soaking in as much as I could. As Van Dijk was a guest artist, he was with us infrequently. His body was perfectly built, comparable to Nureyev’s or Bujones’. Miskovitch was a blonde-haired, blue-eyed handsome prince, with an air of sophistication. Although elegant and personable, his technique was less sparkling than René Bon’s. Charrat interpreted different roles, but I was most impressed with her Dying Swan. I eventually realized that her technique was not great. (How much my opinions had changed since seeing her in Yugoslavia that first time!)

Janine was typically French--small, cute, charming, and a pleasant person, who always wore a foxy smile. I enjoyed working with her and socializing with her in restaurants. Initially, my French was rudimentary--my friends had to translate for me--but that little smile implied that she understood everything I said.

Much later in her career, during filming for a television production, her tutu caught fire as she waited backstage for her entrance. She went off like a torch and was seriously burned. Her pianist, Jacqueline Emery volunteered for skin grafts. I was shocked to see her after the reconstructive surgery. She became another “Janine,” as the accident affected her physically and mentally.

Seasons were short and periodic, which was the downside of freelancing in French companies. As a neophyte, I worried about pending unemployment. However, between 1955 and 1965 work was abundant. I was never unemployed for more than a month. As freelancers, we floated from one company to another, often returning to the same troupe. This was artistically satisfying and advantageous, as it provided opportunities to work with many groups, artists, and choreographers, plus opened us to a wide variety of repertory. It never got stale. I felt like a bee floating from one flower to another (hoping the next flower would have more pollen that was to my taste).

After the tour with Charrat, I immediately joined Irina Grjebina’s Ballet Russe, a character company à la Moiseyev. I was introduced to Grjebina by Darinka Ilic, whose sister Beba was engaged to Milko. I was impressed by the strong, bravura technique of Grjebina’s dancers. Eight or nine pirouettes were the norm.

I was not a phenomenal turner--but could do six pirouettes to the right and four to the left. I was specifically taking Preobrajenska’s classes to develop my turns (as most of her students could do ten pirouettes). With Grjebina’s guidance, I mastered eight pirouettes to the right, in character shoes.

In Grjebina’s company the prisiadki (Russian squat) was refined to a very high level. I actually hated this step in my character classes back home, but now I had to knock myself out with them. In America, many dancers shun the Russian squats--which they fear will hurt their knees. On the contrary, I think that these character squats strengthened my knees and gave me better pirouettes.

Irina was an older Russian lady, overweight for her short frame, but still a good dancer. She always smiled, but was a bit stubborn and temperamental. She was impressed with my background. As a former member of the Russian Theatre, she had worked with my teacher Nina Kirsanova, plus many of my other instructors. Reciprocally, she became my “older sister,” mentor, and advisor. She was a great lady.

I worked with her for many years. Each time I signed on, I felt like I was back in Eastern Europe. We spoke only Russian, and those who did not, had to learn. Following in Diaghilev’s footsteps, she re-christened French dancers with Russian names like Hokhlova, Lanova, Cejkova, and Barsoukov, just as the impresario created Alicia Markova from Lillian Alicia Marks. This alteration is ridiculous, but if Diaghilev could do it, so could Grjebina. The public loved the bubble of illusion. As only one-third of the dancers were actually Russian, those who spoke Russian fluently were trotted out to greet the public and sign autographs. Although I was born in Serbia of Russian parentage on my father’s side, I played the role well, as my Russian was superior to my French.

The performances received standing ovations. Gigs lasted for only a day or two per city. This gypsy existence was exciting, but tiring. Character dancing itself, consumes a tremendous amount of energy, as it demands full-out execution or the dancer looks lousy. Most of the pieces were pure dance with little or no adagio and mime for respite. Therefore we were at full steam with maximum energy at all times. That physical expenditure coupled with insufficient sleep and traveling (tours sometimes stopped in fifteen or twenty cities in one shot) took a lot out of us. Living out of suitcases also had many drawbacks--it was challenging to always have enough clean underwear and it was exhausting to drag around big, heavy suitcases that felt like you had packed the kitchen sink, plus a couple of barbells.

In Lyon, we got into trouble. The impresario sold us as a Soviet company. When the truth came out, the public, which threatened to invade the stage, responded violently, by throwing tomatoes (and possibly other items) at us during the first part of the performance. Some of the dancers were hit by projectiles that stained their costumes. I was somehow spared--I made an abrupt exit when I saw the public’s reaction.

The show halted mid-performance. The police arrived. We finished the concert--under duress. The second evening was cancelled, as we left town immediately. Only then did I learn about the false advertising scam. It now seems funny. It was our only clash with the public. Our remaining performances (in other cities) were very successful.

We happily retuned to Paris. I spent more time on tour than in the city. I worried about my technique, as I frequently missed daily class. However, one of my teachers at home had said, “One performance is equal to six classes.” I noticed that after the tours my technique improved, even without regular class.
At Studio Wacker, Nikola Artimovski told me that Léonide Massine, then working in Sweden, was looking for dancers. He was in charge of recruiting and asked if I was available to depart immediately for Göteborg (Gothenburg). My heart raced and I could hardly contain my excitement. When I watched The Red Shoes featuring Massine as the shoemaker, I felt a great urge to dance for him. I was inspired by his artistry and attracted to his ballets. Here was the opportunity to realize my dream and to work with the great Massine--and without the agony of an audition! The next day, despite bad weather, I was on a bumpy flight bound for Göteborg. This was my first airplane ride and I was amused by it (not knowing that in the future I would develop a phobia).

I arrived in Göteborg on a snowy winter evening. I was struck with the city’s beauty--the streets of icy white, contrasted to the richly decorated shop windows. These were the equivalent of the most sophisticated stores in Paris and London.

Rehearsals of Massine’s Le Beau Danube (1924) conducted by Madame Massine (Tatiana Orlova) began the next day in Stora Theatern. Mme. Massine was a good-looking middle-aged woman, whose relaxed rehearsal mien was contrary to her husband’s. First, we watched a film of the ballet. Afterwards, she ran about sixteen measures of the music and we had to learn the dance from the film (that was how we revived any of his older ballets). This was a surprise. I did not initially realize that this was Massine’s rehearsal process. In Yugoslavia, the ballet master always taught the ballet using only a notebook for a reminder. Until these rehearsals, I had not realized that it was possible to work from films. I grew accustomed to--and later favored--this restaging procedure for my own works. I was more fortunate, as I had the advantage of video machines, which synchronized the audio and visual components.

I became Madame’s favorite dancer and enjoyed the relaxed environment (but the work still got done), yet continued to wonder when Léonide Massine would arrive. He appeared after the first week of rehearsals. Tension filled the room when he walked in, with an aura a little bit like Napoleon himself. He scrutinized our movements, refining, detailing every nuance of the wrist, finger, eye, and hair--anything, everything that the human body possesses. His specific manner was to yell, “Tickiti, tackita, tickiti, tackita,” and so on. It reminded me of an Indian dance.

He summoned me to his office. I remember his steely eyes and piercing look, as he observed me. I was mesmerized. He wrinkled his brow and stared straight at me--Aha vous etes Nicolas Petrov.

At that point, I forgot about the magical shoemaker from The Red Shoes, but it was a General that gave me chills. In time, he would become like my father, but that moment was utterly formal. I was a bit startled by his statement because it was in French and not Russian. I replied in Russian «Da ya Nicolai» and added that I was Preobrajenska’s student and that Nikola Artimovski had sent me.

He answered in Russian, “Very well I hope you will work hard.” Obviously, I promised it and started to blush.

My future was uncertain, but I sensed his interest in me. This was a turning point, as my life steered onto another path. In time, working with him was very pleasant. He always provided his dancers with several choreographic options, allowing us to choose the steps that suited our abilities, but he suggested what looked best on us. I needed to learn a profound amount of movements to master his new works. These became part of my vocabulary and when I choreographed, I drew from this movement pool, which was ingrained in my muscle memory.

Most of Massine’s ballets had storylines that I could sink my teeth into, not only as a dancer, but also as an actor. I was comfortable with his work. He was fully involved in his productions and insisted on a great number of rehearsals. This work ethic produced the artistic excellence for which he is remembered.

Massine was never warm and gregarious. My relationship with him became more intimate, a few years later, when I rejoined his troupe for a stint in Italy. Generally, he avoided being chummy with his dancers, but was more approachable to veterans, such as Leon Woizikovsky, Harry Haythorne, and Tatiana Leskova. A bond developed between us, perhaps because I was of Russian descent and he felt kinship with me or because Mme. Massine favored me.

In Sweden, I met the friendly and helpful Gabay family. Especially kind was Papa Gabay, who presented me with a handsome wool jacket and often invited me to dinner. His son, Eugene Gabay and Eugene’s wife Nina were the leading dancers at the Stora Theatern Ballet, but I seldom saw them.

Here, I also met Marion (Mary) Brookes, who later became my wife. Mary’s training began at age thirteen in South Africa, but both she and her mother felt that more opportunities were available in London. At about age seventeen, she began studying with Cleo Norde and Audrey De’Voss. She was recruited in London along with Sheilah O’Reilly and another female dancer for the Massine gig, just as I was sent from Paris with Zvonko Potkovac and Nicolas Chkalikoff. The six of us became very friendly, as we resided near each other for this eight-week gig. We often purchased food that I cooked for all of us. Slowly, our group pared off as Mary and I became very close. After the day’s rehearsals ended, we had plenty of time to attend movies and events, but I guess the cold evenings and the warm hugs did the trick.

Mary accompanied me to Paris. We joined Irina Grjebina for a tour and then participated in a film with Janine Charrat, Le Lumier du Soir. I lost my apartment on 21, rue Serpent in St. Michel and moved to Hotel Fiat in rue de Douai, near Studio Wacker. We concentrated on taking classes, until I obtained a summer job--performing Der Zarewitsch in Steckborn, Switzerland--as a Russian character dancer. The choreography was laden with split leaps. Meanwhile, Mary was alone in Paris, job hunting, as we could not afford to be idle for long. However, with her previous experiences in films and television shows, including a three year stint with BBC-TV, she was very employable. She landed an eight-month gig on a boat bound for Cape Town and Johannesburg, South Africa. Her job put our personal plans on hold.
Mary left; I returned from Switzerland, remaining alone in Paris. I did a couple of short films and then signed on as a leading dancer in Verviers, Belgium at the Opera Ballet, which produced ballet and opera every week. This season was very rich. I worked hard, dancing with principal dancer Nicole Martin and a corps of sixteen. The ballets drew from the opera ballet repertory, for example, “Walpurgis Nacht” from Faust, which received an excellent review in the February 26, 1957 issue of Chronique Théatrale and a one-act version of Coppélia. Martin was a good dancer, but less developed as a choreographer. I offered help, but she ignored my suggestions. I suspect that she felt threatened and feared losing her job. She probably did not understand that my stay in Verviers was temporary.

Mme. Debeljak, whom I had not seen since my school days, visited me in Verviers. After my departure from Yugoslavia, she had fallen victim to political intrigue. A jealous competitor reported that she had exported her dancers to foreign countries. There was no foundation for that--in my case, I had departed six years after I had completed school in Novi Sad--we all left on our own. The authorities put her in jail, where she remained for several years, until she proved her innocence. After her release, she traveled in Europe and stopped to see me. It would be another twenty-five years before we would meet again.

My tenure in Verviers was dull, but made tolerable by my landlord--Dr. Hess, a dentist and his family, who made my stay comfortable. To pass time, I frequented the lively night spots in Liege and attended performances of Joseph Lazzini’s prosperous young ballet company. Here, I first saw Ismet Mouhedin, who would become a close friend. At the time, he was an impressive dancer with a great technique, who was guesting from the Marquis de Cuevas Ballet International. He executed chaînés on his knees, which brought down the house. I was surprised by the number of Parisian ballet critics and balletomanes who attended the performance.

While I was residing in Verviers, a revolution erupted in Hungary against Soviet occupation. Many Hungarians fled to Belgium. As one of the few city residents who could speak both French and Hungarian, I was called upon by a humanitarian organization to be a translator for the Hungarian refugees encamped there. It was interesting volunteer work, as I served as a go-between for people who were afraid and uneasy about being in a strange land, yet relieved to be out of their county and away from oppression. I received newspaper recognition for my service.

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