In the Shadow of the Greats



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Before our separation, Mary and I agreed that this parting would provide an opportunity to evaluate our futures. Mary said that if she returned, we would get married. I counted the days until my contract ended. I spent my time writing to her and making plans for our spring wedding in London. I looked forward to re-visiting the city as I needed a little vacation.

Mary and I had initially visited London just before my Belgium sojourn. As I recall, usually foggy London was somewhat sunny that spring. I happily explored the city and took classes taught by Kathleen Crofton, whose teachers had been Nicolas Legat and Olga Preobrajenska, our common denominator. She had been a member of Anna Pavlova’s company, at the same time as Edward Caton.

Miss Crofton was quite different from my other teachers, but her classes were comfortable. She liked to whistle while she composed adagios. And she liked me because I was Preobrajenska’s student. Later, she would become director of the Niagara Frontier Ballet in Buffalo, New York. She also worked at the Chicago Opera Ballet, with Bronislava Nijinska, whom she invited to Buffalo in the early seventies to stage Les Biches (1924). She introduced me to Nijinska.

During this London visit, I also met Cyril Beaumont in his small, narrow bookstore on Charring Cross Road. His attractive window display helped me to spot the shop. He cut a tall, fit figure and there was an aura of aristocracy about him. Personable and talkative, he could converse for hours about everybody and everything that happened in the dance world. He greatly admired Belgrade’s prima ballerina Jovanka Bjegojevic. As I had recently come from Belgrade, he immediately associated me with her. He knew everybody in England and all over the world. Very helpfully, he introduced me to English dancers and choreographers. It was always a pleasure to visit his bookstore, with its long shelves filled with volumes of dance books, and to converse with him.

The year was 1956. Mary and I were having a wonderful time in London, which included a visit to Covent Garden. I brought a big bouquet of red roses to the stage entrance and informed the doorman that I wished to see Margot Fonteyn, who was in rehearsal. He was very helpful, as he immediately placed a call and asked us to wait.

At the rehearsal break, Margot fetched us. She seemed delighted to see me again and thanked me graciously for the roses. She invited us to observe the remainder of rehearsal--but as it was so close to the end, there was not much left to see. I was thrilled to watch the dancers in action, especially Fonteyn and Somes and to observe the Petipa/Ivanov version of Swan Lake. Fonteyn presented us to the company, and spoke very highly of Nina Kirsanova’s Belgrade production. She generously provided us with tickets to that evening’s sold-out performance, which we accepted.

We arrived early and took the two front seats in a box that was always reserved for dancers. It quickly filled with company members, none of whom I knew personally, so I enjoyed the performance without having to make small talk. The stage was somewhat bigger than ours in Belgrade. I liked the costumes and the set design. Its darkly shaded décor captured the Middle Ages ambience, but looked worn. The choreography was very similar to Kirsanova’s.

I certainly enjoyed Fonteyn’s performance, but was disappointed with the corps de ballet. The technical level was substandard, especially for a troupe that was about to be renamed “The Royal Ballet” on October 31, 1956 by a Royal Charter. The corps dancers minced their movements. I was also surprised to see that only two of the men--Michael Somes and Alexander Trunov--were proficient in turns. This is not to say that good technique is based solely on clean, multiple pirouettes, but the Sadler’s Wells Ballet was lacking in virtuosity. Ultimately, I think the company looked restrained.

Later that week, I visited the Royal Academy of Dancing where I met Serge Grigoriev and Lubov Tchernicheva, his wife. I observed Mme. Tchernicheva’s class, and found her students to be very well trained, with very precise and clean movements, in respect to the body’s classical geometry. They were just shy of brilliant technique.

My knowledge of the Russian language always opened doors for me with the Old Russian dancers, who regarded me with familiarity. I met the contemporaries of Tamara Karsavina, Vaslav Nijinsky, and Léonide Massine. Although Grigoriev was lingering in the hallways and Tchernicheva was eager to introduce him to me, ours was only a short conversation and handshake. I never saw either of them again. Their names, however, were constantly brought up in subsequent conversations that I had with other former Diaghilev company members.

London was different from Paris; even the subway had a special odor that emitted from the disinfectants used exclusively on the trains and in the tunnels. I immediately noticed this scent whenever I was in England. I enjoyed browsing the London streets with their unique shops and Old World ambience.

I saw Charlie Chaplin’s film, The Great Dictator which spoofed Hitler. As I was a great fan of Chaplin’s I really enjoyed the film in which he easily created this fantasy role and accentuated the parody with a ridiculous mustache.

I also saw a short film about Anna Pavlova at a kinoteque, a small movie theater that specialized in only one type of film. I was surprised by the style and speed at which she moved in the excerpts from Dying Swan, Bayadère, and short repertory pieces. In one section, about her life, she was seen playing with and feeding the swans in the pond on her front lawn. It was like watching a Greta Garbo movie because it was filmed at sixteen frames per second, the standard for silent films. The institution of talkies necessitated increasing the speed to twenty-four frames per second. Consequently older films looked odd when played at the faster speed, which was the new standard.
Following my stint in Belgium, we returned to London, as our wedding day approached. I had waited a longtime--or at least it seemed so--for Mary’s return from South Africa. Neither of us had family in London. However, Mary’s mom had friends--Mr. and Mrs. Morris--with whom Mary had lived when she initially arrived. They assisted us with our wedding plans. Mary wore a gray gown and I wore a gray suit for our civil ceremony, which was followed by a small gathering. It was very nicely arranged, but nothing like the extravaganzas popular in the U.S. As I did not speak fluent English, much of the conversation passed over my head.

Mary was my interpreter--most of the time, but amid all the excitement, I repeated the wedding vows without really understanding the words. I must have been in some kind of haze. After the event ended, we went off to the Dorchester Hotel for our honeymoon. That was probably the nicest time I spent in London. My future visits were business trips or related to BBC television productions.

Mary and I did not fit into any mold--we created our own. Looking back, I realize that our lives were extraordinary. We were in the same craft, but our relationship was not based on professional association. Mary is petite and I am tall. We were not an onstage partnership and rarely danced together--except socially. We frequently joined the same companies and traveled around the world together, but onstage were worlds apart, cast in different sections of the same ballet. Even in television work, we were often in separate productions--and when I had a television choreography project, she had a gig elsewhere. However, I choreographed certain pieces for her, including the Russian princess solo in Swan Lake. The last time we danced together was in Carmen, which I choreographed for the Pittsburgh Opera in 1969. We were a couple, not bound through dance, but more through friendship and love. Yes, we debated artistic issues and sometimes disagreed. Her British upbringing and my Slavic temperament did not see things the same way, but we never had overheated arguments with swords and daggers.
Chapter Four: Me and My Suitcase

After the wedding, we returned to Paris and joined the newly formed Le Theatre d’Art du Ballet, which had been organized in August 1956 by Evelyne Cournand, a modestly talented American dancer known professionally as Anna Galina. Her Paris-based company specialized in revivals from Diaghilev’s repertory--specifically the ballets of Michel Fokine and Léonide Massine. The company employed Vaganova technique, as taught by Tatiana Piankova, former dancer of the Imperial Russian Ballet. Vitale Fokine, son of the great choreographer who revolutionized ballet, served as our régisseur. There were about twenty-one dancers in the troupe.

I had learned from working with different ensembles that the rehearsal process varied according to the ballet. If we concentrated on perfecting technique, then the rehearsal was boring and repetitive. I hated it. Roles with stories or substance were always my favorites and I could rehearse them tirelessly.

Our rehearsals were long and difficult. We plunged into six Fokine ballets: Les Sylphides (1909), Islamey (1912), Les Elfes (1924), Igrouchki (Les Poupees Russes), Eros (1915), and The Adventures of Harlequin (1922). Two of these, Islamey and Eros, had never been performed outside of Russia. The company commissioned Nathalia Goncharova, Diaghilev’s celebrated collaborator, to design sets and costumes.

The Fokine Festival received mixed reactions from both audiences and critics. Everybody expected more technique and artistry, but the company was slow to acquire these. Galina was a strange lady, who was a late-starter, but had been brainwashed by her mentor Tatiana Piankova that she could rival the talents of Pavlova and Ulanova--hence her stage name, “Anna Galina.” She was fanatic to re-create the Diaghilev era and even opened in Monte Carlo, following in the Ballets Russes’ footsteps. She lived for dance and molded herself after her idols.

Galina was wealthy and could afford the best choreographers, costumers, designers, and dancers. However, she was very careful not to hire any dancers who might outshine her. Echoing Anna Pavlova, Galina insisted on being the troupe’s only prima ballerina, but lacked the charismatic Russian superstar’s power and talent. Consequently, her ego contributed to the company’s mediocrity. We rehearsed very hard to achieve artistic harmony and to improve the company’s quality before starting our intensive 1958 European tour. We presented double programs with the option of offering a third, if necessary. Typically, we performed two or three concerts per city.

Le Theatre d’Art du Ballet spent most of the summer of 1958 in Italy. We performed in big, small, and medium sized towns, each turned out to be one that I loved. Milan, Rome, Padua, and Verona each held its own special charm and left vivid impressions. Naturally, some of the cities were more inspiring than others, and some places even yielded more nerve-wracking experiences than inspirational ones.

In Florence, we stayed in a hotel situated on a typical narrow lane. Any and all sounds echoed through the streets and permeated through the windows. In those days, the most popular vehicle was a “vespa,” or small motor scooter. Their motors were so loud and nerve-wracking, that I was unable to sleep. Whenever I drifted off, that dreadful growling would whiz by again and awaken me. Finally, I purchased my first set of earplugs at a pharmacy. Yet, Florence was one of my favorite cities. The museums, the architecture, and the sculpture were captivating. Italians, in general, were very friendly. I was inspired to learn as much of the language as I could, in order to better communicate. I was a rather quick study, with a previous handle on French and Latin, which I learned in school.

At the time, newly invented soft ice cream machines, just imported from America, were all the rage. Ice cream was readily available and became one of our daily staples. Vendors also sold a delightful mixture of fruit blended with ice and sugar, called “frulatte,” which was another favorite.

Our Florence performances were outdoors on a platform stage in Palazzo Pitti, a park that could accommodate over two thousand people. The park’s perimeter with its tall, leafy Cyprus trees interspersed with tall Grecian statutes of athletes was most picturesque. Rows of wooden folding chairs were placed on the ground and to enhance sightlines; the stage was slightly raised and raked. We won enthusiastic cheers and bravos. The Italians liked Fokine’s ballets very much. We felt very comfortable performing in this venue.

Beautiful Lake Maggiore in Northern Italy was surrounded by private villas. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that one of the most impressive of these had belonged to the Taglioni family (but was then privately owned by another family). It was a large, white house with several white columns surrounding the main quarters. On either side were stonewalls with steps leading down to the water. These were docks for the boats. Adjacent to the right dock was a boathouse. The mountain peak in the background provided a glorious setting.

Again, our stage was outdoors--this time it actually floated on the water. The Taglioni house was our backdrop. We hoped that Marie and her father, Filippo, liked our performance. It occurred to the girls in the company to pay thankless homage to Filippo. Although he did not invent those pink satin torture boxes ballerinas wear, he popularized their use in La Sylphide (1832), as a vehicle for his daughter.

A cool breeze arrived with the evening air, raising goose bumps on our ballerinas’ arms. It heightened the mood of Les Sylphides. As the dancers moved, their long, white tulle tutus blew in swirls. The effect was eerie almost ghost-like and unintentionally enhanced Fokine’s choreography. Maybe Filippo enjoyed having a Romantic ballet performed in his front yard. If he had been “sitting” on his balcony, he would have seen the culmination of his ideas carried into the twentieth century.

William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet was set in Verona. It was also the inspiration and birthplace of my ballet to Prokofiev’s score. Verona is actually a small town of great beauty, with its preserved Gothic and Byzantine architecture. Shakespeare wrote the story of Romeo and Juliet, but the Italians exploited it for all it was worth, and more. For five hundred lira (about a dollar) per site, I was escorted--tourist style--to the buildings that were dubbed Capulet’s house, the piazza Del dojdo, the tomb of Romeo and Juliet, and Lorenzo’s church. I snapped tons of photos that set designer Henry Heymann later used to create scenery for my ballet.

In Verona, I tasted “American” pizza for the first time. The Italians had imported multi-shelved metal pizza ovens from America. The pizza was sensational and tasted very different from traditional Italian restaurant pizza, especially from the square Napoli pizza, which was simply dough and tomato sauce, topped with onions and tomatoes.

Parma, one of our tour stops, was a small, very quaint town with friendly people. We arrived in the early afternoon. As Evelyne was always ready to rehearse, our bus dropped us off at the theater instead of at our hotel, which was across the street. We filed off the bus like soldiers of a defeated army and piled our luggage in the yard. At first glance, the limestone theater appeared to be very old. It may have been built in the sixteenth or seventeenth century. Its metal trimmed doors were five inches thick and resembled those on churches.

A full-figured, middle-aged woman, wearing an apron, welcomed us. She was the caretaker or concierge and lived on the premises. We immediately asked her, «Dovè il posto per cambiare?» (“Where is the dressing room?”)

«Primo guarda la scena,» she replied, while rapidly opening the heavy door. Before we could step inside, a number of ducks, chickens, and turkeys, charged from the theater. We burst out laughing and joked, “Attention, attention, don’t slip on the chicken shit.” Someone added, “The duck runs are even worse.”

Inside the auditorium we discovered that the rods for the décor were totally empty. There were no legs or borders. The two middle stage rods were lowered to the height of five feet and were covered with laundry--clothes, pillowcases, sheets, towels, and funny lace underwear. A couple of roosters--with an aura of superiority befitting of resident actors--were perched atop the rods, as if waiting to execute their lines. One of our dancers quipped that our performance was a “co-production” with the chickens.

The lady grabbed a sizable broom and swinging it, yelled, «Aspetta un’attimo!» as she chased the birds offstage. Then she rapidly yanked the laundry from the rods and prepared the stage for our rehearsal.

When we climbed onstage, we discovered that it was not as slippery as our jokes implied. However, it was hardwood, bumpy, and severely raked. It was an accomplishment to safely execute a circle of consecutive steps without falling into the orchestra pit. Pirouettes were out of the question, and the women were praying for their safety in their pointe shoes. I envisioned that the ballerinas would fall on their noses because of the knotty, uneven surface. As these were the days before portable floors, we had no choice but to perform on the stage the way it was. Clearly this theater was originally built for actors and singers. Despite these conditions, we were a great success with the cheering Parma public and were happy to depart injury free.

The days in Parma ended with a feast of the best lasagna I had ever eaten. We heavily indulged in the local wine, an exceptionally good variety of Lambrusco. Italy was always a pleasure to revisit, as the climate, the people, and the foods were all so appealing. After many return visits, Italy became my second home (after France).

Theaters across Italy were similar to the one in Parma--small, with raked stages and seating for about a thousand patrons. The exception was the stage at Parchi di Nervi, an expanse sixty yards wide by sixty yards deep!

We reached the resort town of Salsomaggiore at the end of our second month on the road. It was just what the company needed. Our program featured the usual repertoire: Les Sylphides, Igrouchki, Le Spectre de La Rose, and The Adventures of Harlequin. The theater here Teatro Nuovo (New Theatre) was built with the tourist trade in mind and was thankfully more modern in design. As the floor was not raked, we could relax knowing the surface was safe.

Towards the end of the tour, we enjoyed downtime along the Adriatic Sea. The first few days were very pleasant, as we tanned. I loved to do summersaults in shallow water. While doing just that, my friend Stefan, called to me. I froze upside down in midair, missing the part where I should have normally turned. I landed smack on my head, nearly passing out from the force. I sported a neck brace for several weeks, and had to endure a most uncomfortable train ride back to Paris.

Subsequent tours took us to Germany, Switzerland, and back to Italy, where we already felt very much at home. In Germany, we performed on the lake. The stage was a bit too mobile. At least it was still summer and a pleasant, experience. Next, we went to Geneva, Lausanne, and Zurich, which were familiar from my gig with Jeanine Charrat. This time, Michel Fokine’s four-year-old grandson accompanied us. We enjoyed snapping photos of each other in front of monuments. I thought, “Hey if I don’t know the grandpa, at least I know his offspring.”

In preparation for our upcoming Far East tour, we launched into an intensive rehearsal period that included polishing Sylphides, and working with Massine, who arrived to stage Ballade, for Anna Galina. I was very happy to see Massine, whom I called “Léonide Fedorovich,” and as usual, he was always so busy that our main conversations took place in the dressing room as he prepared for rehearsal or was changing to depart. He was not generally complimentary to anyone, but I judged from his expression, he was not too enthused with his work. He was very money-conscious and Anna paid him quite well.

As members of the company, we had a wonderful time touring all over the world. The Far East tour was one of those unforgettable, once-in-a-career trips. Paul Szilard, an American impresario, presented us. He exaggerated our brilliance, which raised the audiences’ expectations. They anticipated more than the company could deliver. He booked very comfortable travel arrangements with ideal itineraries that allowed for ample recreation and rest in some of the finest hotels.

We were greeted at the Tokyo airport by local dancers from Japanese companies who offered us bouquets of flowers as hordes of camera-bearing paparazzi, aimed five-inch lenses at us. It was the first time in my life that I saw Nikons and Cannons, as these were not yet available in Western Europe. The camera flashes were nonstop from the door of the plane to the airport exit, accompanied by resounding cheers and bravos.

I doubt that any member of The Beatles rock group was ever better received. We were immediately whisked away to the Imperial Hotel--by far the most luxurious hotel in Tokyo. Needless to say, we were extremely impressed, and yet fearful of how we were going to live up to such grand expectations!

On a more personal level, the Japanese received us very cordially and hospitably. We were invited into the homes of several important people. Among these hosts was Heihachiro (Henry) Okawa, the lead actor in the film, The Bridge over the River Kwai.

I became quite friendly with a professor at Tokyo University, Dr. Fujisava, who spoke thirteen languages and served as our interpreter and guide during our residency. At the time, I had command of seven languages and felt inadequate. He was a wonderful fellow. We often conversed in Hungarian, one of the languages he had little opportunity to use. He was a very good interpreter, as well as a gracious host to the entire company.


We danced in Kyoto, Kamakura, Osaka, and Tokyo, where the tour closed. Kyoto was the most interesting. There, we wore kimonos and slept on the floor, à la Japanese style. We participated in the traditional Japanese bath. En masse, we bathed naked in big wooden barrels, as the hotel’s female servants swatted us with willow-like branches. At first, we felt a little uncomfortable assembled in our birthday suits, but we quickly got over that, because the whole experience was simultaneously invigorating and relaxing. With tingling skin, we retired to our Japanese beds for regenerating naps.

Kyoto’s gardens, in particular were beautiful and meticulously arranged. The artistry of the bonsai gardens with their colors, textures, and detailed arrangements of sand, stones, flowers, and small streams with bamboo bridges, generated an extraordinarily peaceful feeling.


Japan was recovering from the devastating war. Tokyo was still rebuilding, but today’s modern architecture was yet to come. The Ginza and Avenue Zed were nearly completed, while metropolitan life was fairly well reestablished.

As Mary and I were strolling on the Ginza, I glimpsed an enormous box of cornflakes in a department store window. I was longing for a good, old fashioned breakfast and I yelled to Mary, “Look cornflakes!” Mary sort of shrugged, “Oh so what.” But I persisted and she agreed to enter the shop.

Unlike stores in the West, where behind-the-counter assistance is scarce, there were actually too many service girls in this shop’s food section (maybe six workers within a four-yard length of countertop). I slowly articulated “Please cornflakes.” Two of them vigorously bowed and rapidly repeated “Cornflakes, cornflakes, aha,” and one of them disappeared--I assumed to fetch the box. Instead, she returned with her supervisor and I had to repeat my request. He responded as the service girls had, by repeating the name of the product, bowing, and smiling. Mary and I supposed that he understood.


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