In the Shadow of the Greats

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The Corridas were held late in the afternoon. After the event, the crowd carried the victors on their shoulders--and Tcherina as well! The ballerina, famous from films she had made in Spain, was quite the celebrity. Initially, we found it strange--even shocking--to see her honored this way. Later, we found it to be charming. In all, I enjoyed Spain--except for one misadventure that occurred in San Sebàstian.

The curtain fell at 2:00 a.m. I was on a performer’s high and not sleepy. As the arena lacked showering facilities, a group of us decided to hit the beach. At 3:00 a.m., the night was still warm, we were euphoric, and the sea seemed inviting. We dove in. We emerged from our swim, about fifteen minutes later, salty but refreshed. Suddenly, a policeman appeared. He grabbed me. I could not understand his fast and excited barrage. I was laughing--the giggling dummy. He did not take it kindly and gestured that I should follow him. I called to my companions, “Well, I don’t know what’s going on, but you will have to tell Tcherina to find me in the prison if she wants me to dance in the evening.” As dancers are generally yellow chickens, nobody offered to accompany me. They promised to inform our manager about the mishap. Off to jail I went, with a policeman who was barking at me in a language I did not comprehend. At the station, he put me in a cell, locked the door, and disappeared. I was upset, especially since I had no embassy to defend me. I did not want to reveal my nationality. My passport was of course, in the hotel. I had no papers with me.

Over and over I repeated, “Ballet Tcherina, Ballet Tcherina,” but that failed to impress him. Seemingly, he did not like ballet. I sat in the cage for several hours. At seven o’clock, he fetched me and brought me before his superior, who had just arrived on duty. In French, this official explained that swimming in the nude was prohibited on the beaches. From my SAS flight bag, I pulled out my swimming suit, still dripping wet. I explained to him that we were not skinny dipping and as performers with Ballet Tcherina, we did not know that swimming at night was prohibited.

The captain yelled at his constable in Spanish, apologized to me, and said, “No nude swimming,” and let me go. I was back on the street by 8:00 a.m., unsure of my location or the hotel’s. I only knew that rehearsal began at ten in the arena. There was no time to sleep. I needed to find the arena.

“Corrida?” I asked as people directed me towards the arena. I walked slowly, looking for an eatery to buy coffee and a sandwich. I stopped at a shop selling deep fried shrimp in a basket. After my breakfast of shrimp, bread, and coffee, I still had time to spare before rehearsal. I arrived at rehearsal in my street clothes, as I had no rehearsal gear with me. Goubé nudged me--asking about the girl that I spent the night with. My accomplices from the early morning swim burst out laughing. I had to confess. The story amused everyone--except me.

The rehearsal, beneath the beating sun, was really painful. We dripped puddles of sweat. I was ready for my siesta long before it was time.

From San Sebàstian, we traveled to Vigo, a pleasant town near the Portuguese border. Here, we had few rehearsals and more time to browse the shops. Madrid, which was similar to Brussels, was our next stop. I particularly enjoyed visiting the Prado Museum, which houses most of Francisco Goya’s paintings noted for their images of horror and suffering. I could almost hear the cries of the people emanating from the silent canvases. My opinion of Spanish painters was directly influenced by the museum’s collection, as it exhibited different periods of Goya’s paintings, plus a rich representation of works by El Greco, Pablo Picasso, and Diego Velàzquez.

Seville impressed me with its many white houses, black forged doors, and fences. Santa Cruz was a fairy tale wonderland. There were benches, trees, and fragrant roses. One clear, mild night, as I sat on a bench, the moon was shining brightly overhead; I realized that the world possesses so many beautiful spots. When you are fortunate to visit these enchanting places, the memory of them stays with you forever.

In the southern city of Cadiz, I overindulged in my pleasure for paella and Tia-Maria, a pink sweet operative wine, almost like liquor, but a little bit thinner. It reminded me of Tokai, golden Hungarian wine. Paella, a sensational national dish is made from rice, seafood, and chicken. Slowly prepared, it cooks in a pan with a one-foot diameter and a three-inch border. Emerging from the oven, it resembles a pizza minus the dough. As I love it, I was packing it in, when my stomach rebelled. I got extremely sick. Well, after all, I heroically survived in five other cities before it caught up with me.

We traveled to Algeciras, on the border of British-controlled Gibraltar, but could not enter. During the Second World War, possession of Gibraltar had been crucial to the War’s outcome, as it provided access between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. The severe concrete and steel framed walls that formed the channel between the two bodies of water created scary imagery. It resembled a large whale with a gaping jaw, ready to devour the passing boats.

In Malaga, where even with a sea breeze it was quite hot, I saw my first bullfight. The bull ran into the arena, steaming and puffing like a train engine. Then, two to four horsemen--picadors--entered. Armed with long lances, these men prodded the animal. When the agitated bull was near frenzy, the picadors exited. The matador, with his red cape and sword, made his grand entrance, bowing and dancing for the audience. Positioned in front of the bull (Toro) he permitted it to charge at him, as he masterfully swung his cape and sidestepped the rushing beast. With each maneuver, the public roared with exclamations and bravos. The matador projected an air of superiority. He aimed and embedded lances with spearheads in the bull’s neck, drawing first blood. With three or four lances stuck in his neck, the animal was bleeding profusely and was extremely agitated. Tension rose in the audience, as the spectators jumped to their feet yelling. Finally, the matador ran his sword into the bull’s neck, as the animal collapsed.

It was a very gruesome, cruel, and shocking exhibition, which reminded me of the gladiators depicted in films. However, the celluloid did not affect me the way that this bloody spectacle did. The event continued with comic relief--some clowns chasing smaller bulls. Round two followed. The process was somewhat similar, only this matador was less lucky. A bull caught him suddenly. The picadors dashed in to protect him and carry him from the ring. Fortunately, he was not fatally wounded. At the end of the Corrida, the matadors were carried on the shoulders of their admirers.

From Malaga, we traveled to Granada, which was under North African influence. Here, the castles, fountains, and garden pools were Arabic in style. I remember thinking that these are the perfect sets for the ballet Fountain of Bakhchisari (1934). I was also impressed with Alhambra, a castle evocative of the Middle Ages.

With several weeks behind us, and mid-summer approaching, the heat grew unbearable. We were fried and dehydrated. At least my Spanish was improving and I was able to converse with the locals.

I admire Spanish dance--Flamenco and folk forms. In Madrid, we were invited to the nightclub-restaurant where Antonio Ruiz Soler’s group danced every evening. He was not tall, but possessed a great stage presence and electrified audiences with his footwork and solo showcases. That evening, they danced for us, making every attempt to impress us--which they did very well. We were very proud. As their performance customarily ended with mutual applause, we applauded each other.

Valencia followed Granada, with the tour wrapping up in Barcelona. By that time we were ready for a break and to return home.
Chapter Five: Dancing for the Camera
In 1959 there was only one television channel in all of Paris. A sister station--Channel 2--went on the air the following year. As TV was new, it afforded many creative projects. Here, I worked mostly with choreographer Jean Guelis, a former member of Massine’s company, who had especially won acclaim in America. He had been a facile turner--easily whipping out ten pirouettes--and had an excellent jump. He was not handsome, but compensated for it with a sympathetic and easy-going nature.

We did many shows together. He engaged performers on a per project basis and initially, hired me as a dancer. Later I became his assistant and friend. I reminded him of Massine’s dancers and he constantly teased me into speaking with a thick Russian accent, which he imitated. Like me, he was also a Sagittarian. We liked the same things, preferred the same type of dancers, and often thought alike. He created choreography rapidly; it was comfortable enough, as his movement style was influenced by Massine’s, but I was not inspired by it. I regarded him as a brother, not as a boss.

Actually, I shared a brief gig with Jean immediately after I first arrived in Paris. It was in a movie house. We performed a take-off on the cartoon Popeye the Sailor prior to the film and were onstage four or five times daily similar to the Radio City Music Hall format. The screen was enormous and the stage, rather endless. Guelis played Popeye, the sailor. I was one his sailor buddies.

In this classic Popeye yarn, Brutus kidnapped Olive Oyl. Popeye gulped his spinach, shared with two sailor cohorts and we chased Brutus to rescue Olive. The bit was not art, but it was amusing and it served as a basis for our friendship.

Following my tour with Ludmila Tcherina, Jean, who was working in television, invited me to join him. We did a series called “A La Fete Aux Buttes” and also “Music Hall Parade.” When he was hired to choreograph for the murder-suspense film Le Plein Soleil, directed by René Clement, he brought me into the project.
In my first acting role, I was typecast as a dancer. Here, the character was so obsessed with his art that he was oblivious to the intrigue surrounding him. His self-absorption served as a counterpoint to the underlying tension.

Among my cast mates were Alain Delon, Marie Laforet, Maurice Ronet, and Elvire Popesco, who played my mother. Marie and Alain were neophytes, but he became famous and enjoyed a long career that included mature roles. His then girlfriend was well-known actress Romy Schnieder (and, as I recall, they were always fighting). At the time, she appeared in cameo roles, just for fun. Many great actors were taking parts as extras, a fad created by Alfred Hitchcock, which may underscore that there are no small roles, there are only small people.

It was very glamorous to work with these actors. We filmed in Rome and I remember shooting a scene in a posh hotel lobby. I never forgot the gold trims, tapestries, and textile wallpaper. In this ornate venue, which represented a studio, three couples--an ensemble of local dancers and me--simultaneously performed a pas de deux. This scene represented an adagio class and served as a sidebar to the suspense.

Elvire’s character was a ballet teacher, who essentially dragged me around through the proceedings. My lines were so minimal, that it was practically a mime role. When I saw the film, my character almost seemed mute and yet that silence was befitting to the plot.

Brothers Robert and Raymond Hakim of Paris London Film were the producers. They insisted that I had artistic potential and promised to develop my cinematic career. Actually, they wanted to downsize my salary by luring me with a prospective film career. I disliked memorizing lines. Talking is much more difficult than dancing. As dance contracts were plentiful, nothing serious developed from my foray into films, though I appeared in an enormous number of television shows and other films. These were always connected with dance--or I portrayed a Russian spy.

Between shoots, we visited old Roman ruins and museums, plus observed people circulating on Via Venuto. This time, I was living in luxury, as we were lodged in a grand hotel in Via Venuto, quite a contrast to the moderately cheap accommodations booked by ballet companies that would keep within our per diem. I purchased a sweater from an exclusive knit shop in Rome. It was really a fabulous garment. I wore it proudly, to remind myself of my film career. By the time of the movie’s premiere, I was in Paris again. A number of the dancers I knew there were jealous of me and teased, “Here comes the film star.”

Following Le Plein Soleil, I signed on with Irina Grjebina for a tour of small French towns. In Paris, Mary and I did a few short films and a television series called “Café Concert” with Jean Guelis.
Mary and I were involved with Ludmila Tcherina’s famous film Les Amants De Teruel (1959), directed by Raymond Rouleau. Initially, Ludmila hired Dimitri Parlic as choreographer, but disliked the results. Milko Sparemblek re-choreographed it in his modern style, plus played the villain--a jealous circus ringmaster. Milko’s interpretation of modern ballet was somewhat a field from the modern dance of that era. His vocabulary was midway between Maurice Béjart’s and Léonide Massine’s, though he did not like Massine’s work.

This film was extraordinary. We were often painted from nose to heels and wore masks so that it was difficult to recognize us. We were faceless, but the pay was great.

Here, I danced with Maina Gielgud, niece of the famous British actor Sir John Gielgud. Prior to this film, she worked for Roland Petit and subsequently joined the Marquis de Cuevas’ company. I never would have guessed that she would become a well-known ballerina with London Festival Ballet or Maurice Béjart’s Ballet of the Twentieth Century. Much, much later, after my tenure with Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, I applied for the directorship of the Australian Ballet--not knowing that she was a candidate. I suspect her pedigree gave her an edge.

Many of my other colleagues in the film, later worked with me in Balletto Europeo di Nervi, which was Léonide Massine’s last grandiose adventure.

Chapter Six: Massine’s Last Grandiose Adventure
After Tcherina’s film, I planned to take a short vacation. However, I received a call from Studio Wacker--Massine wanted me. He needed dancers for his newly formed company--Balletto Europeo di Nervi--based in Nervi, Italy. Mary and I accepted the offer, even with minimal pay. As it was already late spring, we envisioned days on the beach with moderate rehearsals. We were really mistaken. This was one of the most exhausting summers of my entire dance career.

Nervi, a summer resort, is located just beside Genoa. We leased a nice apartment, with a bedroom, living room, and bath in a pensione (a room and board facility). The rooms were pleasant, like a little apartment. We took our meals downstairs in the lounge.

Our schedule was set--class in the morning, a break for lunch, afternoon rehearsals, a dinner break, and evening rehearsals, as needed. Free evenings were the only downtime we had.

Headquarters were in a school, which had a park, where an unusually huge stage had been erected. Generally, theater stages are between thirty-six feet and fifty-six feet wide and maybe seventy feet deep. This one was enormous--180-feet wide and 180-feet deep (approximately sixty yards by sixty yards). This facility seated at least thirty-five hundred to four thousand spectators, plus offered standing room. A string of Cyprus trees, which hid the railroad tracks, served as a backdrop, but not as a sound barrier. Passing trains distracted from our shows. Raised barracks resembling low barns housed the costume and prop shops and gave the semblance of a cinema studio workshop.

The best seamstresses from Paris and Italy were on staff to construct approximately 380 costumes for La Commedia Umana, De Cameron stories by G. Boccaccio. This was a gigantic, three-act production designed by Alfred Manessier, whose décor included castles, horses, and towers wheeled on the stage. We joked that this ballet was Massine’s Trojan horse. It unfolded as ten different stories, from Prologue to Andreuccio, Ginevra, Amore E Morte, Nastagio, Peronella, Elena, Calandrino, and Griselda to a score of fourteenth century music, adapted by Claude Arrieu.

I was cast as Mort. My costume included a skull, that was mounted atop a stick that I held in my hand, which made me appear to be twelve feet tall. It was very impressive. However, my mobility was limited--I had the skull in one hand and a sickle in the other. I merely hovered above the plague victims--writhing dancers, who rolled on the floor.

In Ginevra, I danced Il Saladino, and partnered Duska Sifnios, Belgrade’s prima ballerina who--along with Carla Fracci and Tatiana Massine--was among my favorite partners. This parodied an Arabian Shah. The burlap costumes were painted at performance time. Consequently, they were a little bit stiff and hard to dance in. It created a different look from anything expected in ballet.

Umana was a vehicle for its leading dancers, including Leon Woizikovsky. He was, at the time, probably one of the oldest then living members of the Diaghilev Ballet. He had replaced Massine in the Diaghilev troupe. Retrospectively, I realize that I had the opportunity to share the stage with one of Diaghilev’s leading dancers.

Massine’s roster was pretty spectacular. Among the stars were Carla Fracci, Tatiana Massine (the choreographer’s daughter), Nicole Nogaret, Adolfo Andrade, René Bon, Ivan Dragadze, Alfredo Koellner, Vassili Sulich, Vjera Markovic, Yvonne Meyer, Duska Sifnios, Paolo Bortoluzzi, Harry Haythorne, Léonide Massine Jr., Enrico Sportiello, Woizikovsky, and Milorad Miskovitch. There were also fifteen soloists and twenty-four corps de ballet dancers.

I was hired for the corps de ballet because the soloist positions were filled. I had to explain this discrepancy to company manager Vladimir Augenblick, (who incidentally was related to designer Jean Cocteau). Although I was by contract a corps member, I was consistently cast in soloist roles and therefore appeared to meteorically rise from the ensemble to a leading dancer. I was extremely proud to share the bill with Bon, my friend from Janine Charrat‘s company, who initially invited me to come to France; Fracci, then the leading dancer at La Scala; Miskovitch, my mentor in the Janine Charrat Company; Woizikovsky, who with Tatiana Leskova, represented the past; and the future Italian superstar, Paolo Bortoluzzi.

In the mid-seventies, I hoped to produce Umana for Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre. The ballet was spectacular and Pittsburgh audiences responded to full length story ballets, but unfortunately my plans collapsed.

That summer, we repeated Le Beau Danube and I learned Choréartium (1933), an old ballet which was mounted by Tatiana Leskova, who knew it well. This was a symphonic ballet in four parts with costumes designed by Constantine Terechkovich and a décor by Andre Beaurepaire. The second movement, which projected a sentimental mood, was performed exclusively by the female ensemble. The women circled the stage in a snake-like pattern that reconfigured as a semi-circle, a circle, and a diagonal line.

Michel Fokine’s version of Schéhérazade, with its Rimsky-Korsakov score and Leon Bakst costume design was also revived. I was cast as both the Shah and his brother, roles I shared with Vassili Sulich. Tatiana Massine was Zobeide, and Leon Woizikovsky, who alternated with Enrico Cecchetti in the original version, danced the Eunuch--this time alternating with Enrico Sportiello. The Slave was danced by Gerard Ohn, a tall, athletic man, who did the role very well. In my opinion, Fokine’s version was more subdued and less bloodthirsty than Marina Olenjina’s, which I performed during my student days in Novi Sad.

Massine’s comic Bal des Voleurs (The Ball of Thieves), which had scenery similar to Beau Danube’s was also in production. The libretto was written by Jean Anouilh with music by Georges Auric, who was then the director of the Paris Opéra. I was cast as Lord Edgard, and danced with Carla Fracci, Vjera Markovic, and Yvonne Meyer, while the thieves were portrayed by Harry Haythorne, and Ivan Dragadze.

My role was technically and dramatically satisfying--I prefer ballets with some mime over those of pure dance. Because I had previous dramatic training, I enjoyed acting. It offered a way to comfortably express myself. And, it provided a release from the physical exhaustion incurred when executing a variation. That is the advantage of having pantomime in ballet. As a choreographer, I still prefer story ballets to pure demonstrations of virtuosity which for me are slightly inhuman, unemotional, and produce mechanical results.

While dancing in Bal, my double tours to the right became shaky, but my double tours to the left were perfectly clean. So, I transposed every time; instead of turning right, I turned left. I remain mystified about why this occurred. Now it seems so long ago. During the course of a career, you repeat the same ballets many times. Only the details from those career-building years linger because at that point in your development, you are fighting to improve; applying yourself fully to the role; doing the best of your ability; and proving your value as an artist. That was the time when it happened to me.

Carla was then still quite young, but because of her musicality, it was inspiring to dance with her. She took her job very seriously and adapted herself to her partner, which produced a synchronized partnership. Many years later when I saw her in Washington, we kidded about Juliet, (her role) in Bal des Voleurs. I remember her words, “You know Nicolas, somehow when you get older it is more and more difficult to dance. I always had the impression that as you get older that everything will become easier, but it seems that’s not true.”

Of all the ballets we presented, the most important to me was Il Barbiere di Siviglia (Barber of Seville), which utilized both the story and music of Gioacchino Rossini’s opera. I was reunited with cast mates from Janine Charrat’s company--René Bon, who danced Figaro and Tessa Beaumont, who was cast as Rosina. I also worked closely with Massine, who created the role of Don Basilio for Vassili Sulich and me to share. (As he was on tour with Milorad Miskovitch, the role, which incorporated mime and character dance, became exclusively mine.)

All roles were challenging and interesting because I approached them with full energy and attention. However, I enjoyed the firsthand creative process over learning existing repertoire, in which I felt less involved. Unfortunately, sixty percent of the ballets I performed were revivals and only about forty percent were original works. Working with the choreographer from the outset facilitates communication and the dancer receives that special something that occurs as the choreographer’s concept takes shape. Massine provided insight to movements and eliminated those that were meaningless. The result was that I could communicate through movement the same way that actors communicate with words. With Massine, Jean Guelis, Janine Charrat, and Maurice Béjart, it was an intellectual approach, which led to an emotional interpretation of the role.

In Barbiere di Siviglia, singers in the pit performed their roles, while onstage the dancers personified the roles of the singers. (As I recall, the singers were not pleased with this arrangement.) I studied Italian in order to grasp the lyrics. My character frequently interacted with Don Bartolo, danced by Enrico Sportiello, an Italian demi-character dancer with strong mime skills. We became close friends and often worked together, analyzing movements and developing expressive interpretations of our roles. As the pianist could not sing and play the piece or project the same mood as an orchestra, Sportiello and I worked--with recordings--to interpret the music.

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