In the Shadow of the Greats

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I relished my role and this ballet, which closed our Nervi season. After months of rehearsing and performing, I was in peak condition. In the ballet, I danced a variation while my counterpart--the Don Basilio in the pit--simultaneously sang «la calunia» (“Rumors are starting like a little wind and it grows into a hurricane until finally, it sounds like shot from a cannon”). At the crescendo, I was to illustrate that “little wind escalating into a hurricane” via movement. The music was very loud and very high. With adrenaline surging, I jumped as high as possible soaring upwards, like the cannon ball mentioned in the lyrics. Applause burst from the audience and they cheered.

Following that opening night performance, Massine told Mary, “Mary, your husband is a great artist.”

I was truly surprised by this accolade from the maestro, as he rarely gave compliments and was very stingy with praise. Although indirectly delivered, it was the greatest compliment he bestowed on me. Maybe he felt more comfortable relating it to Mary. This role really justified my abrupt rise in the ranks. Afterwards, my peers regarded me as a leading dancer. I had hoped to revive this ballet in Pittsburgh and purchased it from Massine, but like Umana, the production never materialized.

As the Nervi festival was concluding, I met choreographer Ruth Page and critic Ann Barzel of the Chicago Tribune, both had come from Chicago to attend the event. I never read what Ann Barzel wrote about the festival, if she even wrote anything. I also met Clive Barnes, who was then writing for English newspapers. As I recall, his critique was mixed. However, the Italian critics really enjoyed the festival and highly praised it.

Maurice Béjart staged his Alta Tensione (Haut Voltage), as a vehicle for the still youthful Léonide (Lorca) Massine Jr. This ballet, which I performed with Janine Charrat’s company, was contemporary and typical of Béjart’s style. Jack Carter’s Senora de MaÑara, created as a showpiece for Milorad Miskovitch, was also on the program. It had a Tchaikovsky score and a libretto developed by Irene Lidova, patron, critic, and wife of photographer Serge Lido. As Milorad was her pet project, this ballet was designed by her to showcase his personality and character.

Massine owned a huge, chauffeur-driven green Chrysler, which looked so important and impressive. One day, Miskovitch appeared with an enormous black Ford coupe and allowed Stevan Grebel to drive. I was impressed with these huge American machines. I vowed to have one--someday. On break, Stevan and I cruised through Nervi’s neighborhoods and took a quick trip to Genoa, where we bought a zillion knit T-shirts, which were unobtainable in France.

I had few free days--or even hours--off. Occasionally, I caught a film in one of the two cinemas. I saw an Italian “Spaghetti Western,” with Clint Eastwood, an actor who would eventually become famous in the U.S. Films provided relaxation and honed my Italian language skills. When a guest choreographer arrived from London to stage a ballet in which I was not cast, I found myself with three days of leisure time. I sunbathed and went swimming in the sea, just like a typical tourist. I liked Nervi, with its park and festival ambiance. The presenter, Ariodante Borelli made our stay comfortable.

During our tenure in Nervi, my mother, whom I had not seen in six years, arrived for a two week visit. It is difficult to describe my relationship with my parents, as they were always removed from my schooling, performing, and career. I regularly corresponded with my father via postcards from exotic locales and major cities where I performed--I tended to showoff my fame. My mother attended my early performances in Novi Sad. As I recall, she missed my performances in Belgrade. This was the first time she had seen me perform as a professional leading dancer--how different from the typical American ballet moms. This was also the first time that she met my wife.

Both of my parents visited me in Paris the following year. My father, who spoke fluent French, enjoyed the visit as it fulfilled his youthful dreams. Mother, who preferred Italy and driving through the Swiss mountains, disliked Paris’ bustling atmosphere and the heavy traffic, which made her nervous and fearful of crossing the streets. They realized that I was in no hurry to return home, as I had promised when I departed.

While with us in Italy, Mom cooked our dinner and had it ready when we returned from rehearsals. After the festival concluded, she and Mary vacationed in Rome, while I, unfortunately, rushed to Paris to rejoin Irina Grjebina’s troupe. Mom was very religious. This was her opportunity to visit the Pope and the Vatican. I was relieved that Mom was no longer angry with me for deserting Yugoslavia.

The conversations between Mary and Mom must have hit a language barrier, as Mary did not speak Serbo-Croatian or Hungarian and Mom did not speak English. Together, they took a bunch of photos. Mom looked happy, so I assumed they had a nice time. However, when Mary rejoined me in Paris, she remarked, “Next time you take your mom on vacation.”

Grjebina’s troupe was off on an extensive early autumn tour to twenty locations that included outdoor arenas. During this blur of one-night stands, we arrived in town with only enough time to eat lunch, find a hotel, and take a brief siesta. After the curtain fell, we ate a quick dinner, perhaps napped, boarded the bus, and hit another town. We saw only the city’s main street, a few restaurants, and the hotel. Otherwise, we were too exhausted to enjoy the surroundings.

In unfamiliar cities, we piled into the most crowded restaurant. By rule of thumb, popularity indicated good food at fair prices. Once, I impatiently opted for a chic, but empty establishment. Service was excellent, the food was rather bad, and the price was almost double that of the other restaurant. That was my last independent experiment.

We performed at a horse race track where some youngsters were there feeding the animals. The children’s little faces lit-up when they saw us.Here are the Cossacks!” they said. They insisted that we mount the horses and demonstrate how to ride in Cossack style. We were not horsemen, but the locals said that the animals were very tame. I mounted one that ignored my commands, as I probably held the reins incorrectly. As the horse galloped off, I lost the reins and grabbed his neck. The horse bolted for a grove, where tree branches nearly swept me off his back. I yelled, “Stop the horse!” I was in peril, but the locals rolled with laughter. I vowed never to mount a horse again. I was utterly humiliated by my ridiculous spectacle and my dance performance suffered. With my inspiration low, my dancing was quite mediocre.

After the tour, I returned to Paris and worked on the televisions shows “Rue de la Cle de Sol” and “Music Hall Parade” with Jean Guelis.

In September, Mary and I were off to Edinburgh, Scotland, home of the annual International Festival, where we performed with Massine’s ensemble. Edinburgh was artistically very active and had been since Diaghilev’s time. Richard (“Dicky”) Buckle was presenting a Diaghilev exposition. Buckle had thoroughly researched the Ballets Russes and had interviewed its London-based dancers, among them: Tamara Karsavina, Serge Grigoriev, Lubov Tchernicheva, Olga Spessivtseva, Marie Rambert, Ninette de Valois, and Lydia Sokolova. He also traveled to Paris to broaden his research, edited the memoirs of numerous celebrities, and wrote In the Wake of Diaghilev, an extensive study of Vaslav Nijinsky. I think Buckle did a fantastic job as a dance periodical editor, critic, and writer. He was one of the three important dance writers of his time, along with Arnold Haskell and Cyril Beaumont.

We performed at the Empire Theatre, offering a bill of Schéhérazade, Choréartium, Le Beau Danube, and La Commedia Umana.

I danced in Schéhérazade with Tatiana Massine, who had a soft spot for me. She was a little bit rebellious towards her father. The script required us to fake a kiss. I guess she wanted a realistic acting approach--she gave me such a passionate kiss that I got goose bumps. I was embarrassed, but Léonide, who was in the audience, did not react to this scene. He just shrugged it off but I am sure that he noted Tatiana’s enthusiasm. In life, we end up kissing a great number of people but only a few kisses linger in the memory forever.

By this time, I was quite friendly with Carla Fracci and she knew that I was fond of her sister Italia (Marga) Nativo. Marga was a very good-looking girl with piercing black eyes and an ever-present smile on her lips. I interpreted this as her affection for me--and we eyed each other for awhile. She was still quite young and I was married to Mary, so that was that.

Prima ballerina Katarina Kocka was still with the company. She was a native of Slovenia and had spent most of her career in Sarajevo. Although I facilitated several television gigs for her before she joined the Ballet Europeo de Nervi, she lacked the patience to pursue freelance opportunities in Paris and did not appreciate corps de ballet contacts. If I remember correctly, after touring Scotland she danced in several television shows and then returned home.

I remember little of Scotland, only that some of the people were heavily inclined towards booze. On Fridays, you could get drunk on the breath of the people riding the bus. The Scottish accent differs from the British. To my surprise, people asked if I was from America!

The performances were successful; the offstage time, uneventful, as the towns blurred together. In late September, we returned to Paris, with plans to film some of Massine’s older works in Germany. It was my job to sort out his music. I was becoming like an assistant to him and he depended more on me.
We arrived in Germany to film Massine’s Le Beau Danube and La Boutique Fantasque. The film studios, GaisellGastaig were quite new and comparable to Paris’ television studios and very well organized. They were located in a suburb of Munich and surrounded by a beautiful green pine forest. As it was already autumn, the evenings were a bit damp but still very refreshing. I had no time to tour Munich, as our filming schedule was tight. I remember the hotel was very clean and the food was rather good.

At 6:00 a.m., the chauffeur parked in front of our bed and breakfast. He always arrived precisely at six--not a minute later. It was quite difficult to rise so early in the morning and be ready for shooting. As I was cast as the Russian father in Boutique, I needed to apply extensive make-up--an hour-long process--to transform my appearance with a big beard and large belly. Le Beau Danube was easier, as I was only in the waltz, a corps de ballet part. I already knew my place and could dance it easily. Massine maintained the same casting policy used in Diaghilev’s company. All soloists and premiere dancers had to assume all parts, plus fill-in as needed. I did not mind because my hotel, including board, was paid, we were given per diem, and it was not a difficult assignment. At the time, the German mark was about four to one to the dollar and was already relatively strong and stable compared to the Eastern currencies.

Two decades after the war, Germany was still recouping from devastation, though there had been remarkable improvements since my previous visit. Most of the structures in Munich were rebuilt. Those with minor damaged had been refaced. The Westside of the famous wall had been renovated with new parks and trees. (I visited Berlin after the wall fell and even then, the Eastern part still looked damaged.) From Germany, we returned to Paris for about six weeks. There we resumed regular activities, classes, and television work, plus began rehearsals of Massine’s Laudes Evangelii, a ballet we had toured in Italy and would film in London.

Laudes Evangelii, formatted as a choreo-drama, traced the life of Christ from His birth to His death. Group scenes were transposed into dances, such as the dance of Barabbas, and the dance of the weeping women (after the crucifixion). In general, the dances captured the characters’ moods. The roles were very well chosen to illustrate the Biblical story. I was cast as Saint Joseph to Tatiana Massine’s Saint Mary.

In London, we rehearsed at the BBC studios which were more impressive than those at the French ORTF television station or at GaisellGastaig, the German film studio. The sets were excellently constructed and every detail was carefully planned--I even had a live donkey to act with. In the studio, work paused each afternoon at five. I was puzzled until one of the workers explained that in England that was teatime.

They printed little cards and programs--featuring Tatiana, the donkey, and me on the cover. These were for publicity purposes, but I never saw the show on European television. During my first Easter in America, Laudes Evangelii was broadcast by ABC and repeated annually for another four years, much like The Nutcracker at Christmas. The film is now in the archives of the New York Public Library’s dance collection.

As Laudes is very suitable for a church presentation, I wanted to restage it (with my choreography after Massine’s) in Pittsburgh and proposed this idea to Bishop John Wright. He expressed an interest in the project and envisioned the performance in St. Peter’s church in Pittsburgh, with an orchestra.

My next move was to approach the Pittsburgh Symphony’s director William Steinberg and manager Seymour Rosan. Rosan, a big guy, looked more like a horse trader than an artistic manager. I presented the concept to him. He regarded me suspiciously. His smile was tinged with irony. I later heard that he had remarked,Who is this Petrov, with the guts to ask the Pittsburgh Symphony to accompany his choreography?” The project failed to materialize, but by Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s second season, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of Dr. Michael Semanitzky was playing for my choreography--whether Rosan liked it or not. Needless to say, this guy and his wife never liked me and targeted me for slander. However, I did feel quite superior in the wake of his uninformed remark.

Whenever I could grab free time away from working on the BBC production of Laudes Evangelii, I took class with Kathleen Crofton, visited Mr. Beaumont, and spent time in Piccadilly Circus watching cartoons. London was much less vital than Paris, yet I preferred it to Brussels or Madrid. I regret that I did not forge acquaintances with former members of Diaghilev’s company, who were then still alive. Alas, I was much too involved with the future to be interested in the past. Now, I see so many opportunities lost. Then again, if one knew at twenty-five, what he knows at seventy, he would live a different life--the whole world would revolve on hindsight.

All the choreographers of the day had their own specialties, as did Jean Guelis. His was a contemporary form of ballet, influenced by jazz, but characterized by soft-shoe dancing, which followed in the wake of the tap era. France had only a few American jazz dance teachers offering classes in the Luigi or Matt Mattox systems. Valerie Camille taught a mixture of these two styles. George Reich taught mainly Luigi, while Gene Robinson offered a blend of Katherine Dunham and Luigi.

At the time, we were obsessed with jazz and all wanted to learn it. Initially, I was not aware of many individual styles. Now, it seems that every decade inspires a new form, style, or technique. Luigi’s style was the most comprehensive and systematized. When I met him in New York, he explained that while recuperating from a serious accident he had formulated his jazz system. Later, he published books and made recordings. His teachings attracted numerous disciples, who went on to forge their own systems derived from his.

Mme. Preobrajenska was aging. She was becoming forgetful and sometimes skipped exercises or scrambled their order at the barre or in center. When her veteran students were present, the classes were always more complete, as seeing certain faces jogged her memory.

Margot Fonteyn used to fly over from London to take class or to celebrate Madame’s birthday and would bring her a big bouquet of red roses. On one such occasion, Preobrajenska was sitting by the table in Studio Wacker’s lobby and Margot and I were sitting across from her on a bench. Suddenly Preobrajenska remarked, “Oh my, how fast the time is running. It seems like it was yesterday when I boarded the sled and took off from St. Petersburg to Finland.” She looked at me, pointed, and continued, “And he was a little guy and now look how big he is.” Margot and I exchanged a glance.

I never remember Preobrajenska missing a class or being sick, until she left this Earth in 1962. Sadly, she lived in a small apartment with a cat. Her glorious artistic life and teaching talent were all she had. She was buried in the Russian cemetery in Paris, where other famous and royal Russians were interred.

Dancers switched from Preobrajenska’s classes to those offered by Lubov Nikolaevna Egorova, in her apartment/studio on rue Chaptal, a nice space with a well-to-do ambiance--superior to Studio Wacker’s. Both Egorova and Preobrajenska had studied from the same teachers--Nicholas Legat, Paul Gerdt, and Christian Johansson--and their classes were similar. However, Egorova liked to choreograph one hundred and twenty measure adagios--which I found endless. Learning one of her adagios was like memorizing a whole ballet. These were lovely compositions, but one had to attend every class. Otherwise, a big chunk would be missing. I wondered if she did this deliberately to force students to attend daily or if it was just her style. She was a very nice lady, already in her mid-seventies, already corpulent, but still very elegant.

All Old Russian ballerinas moved and looked the same. They had some distinguished superiority, compared to the average woman. As for Egorova, she was indeed a princess, on and offstage--a princess by marriage to Prince N.S. Nikita Troubetzkoy, whom I never met.

Paris and London were Meccas for dance celebrities, former members of the Maryinsky Theatre, and the offspring of the Ballets Russes of Serge Diaghilev. Here, they lived and taught. These were Russians, trained by Frenchman Marius Petipa, who now were teaching the French. Visitors frequented Egorova’s studio and were recognized by the other students, but not by me. I saw Mathilde Kchessinska a few times before I discovered her identity. I thought she was just an old lady, or maybe a pianist. Later, I learned that Jean-Bernard Lemoine was her student. As I admired Jean-Bernard, I wanted to take Kchessinska’s classes too, but because of her advanced age and for other reasons, I never had the opportunity. After I read her memoirs, I realized her connection to Preobrajenska and Egorova.

In 1962, the Massine ballet dispersed. Only a few remaining members--Lorca, his sister Tatiana, Jean-Jacques Bechade, and Nini Stucki, plus several of my television associates--continued to work as a concert group. We rehearsed in Massine’s Neuilly residence, where he also had a studio. He was planning to launch a troupe, featuring works from his repertory, including those previously presented during a 1942 U.S. tour as Ballets Russes “Highlights.” We rehearsed Les Matelots (1925), which I filmed with his A-reflex camera. In the meantime, I tried to persuade French television stations to produce and broadcast other selections of his ballets.

I was also assisting Jean Guelis in television work and participating in short tours. The winter passed. Mary and I got jobs. There was some advantage to maintaining separate careers--if one of us was unemployed at least the other was earning money.

In the summer, I often visited Cannes in the South of France, where Rosella Hightower taught classes and operated a ballet boarding school that was situated on La Galia Mountain. It had been jointly established with her husband, who had been the costume designer for the Marquis de Cuevas company where she had been prima ballerina. The housing facility offered new and well-furnished rooms, plus access to a swimming pool in the garden. Usually, we took morning or evening class, though some of us took both, and spent the remainder of the day at the pool or at the sea. It was an ideal place to maintain technique while vacationing. She charged much less than any hotel or private apartment.

I knew Rosella from Mme. Preobrajenska’s Paris classes. Stevan Grebel was her partner for awhile, which cemented our friendship.

Edward Caton was then teaching at Rosella’s school. I loved his classes. He was personable and always made the students feel good. Despite his gruffness, he was fond of me and was the first to suggest that I try my hand at teaching.

He also worked for Marika Bezobrazova in Monte Carlo. I chauffeured him to Monte Carlo and sometimes took his class there. At the time, Rudolph Nureyev, who had recently defected from the U.S.S.R., was also taking Bezobrazova’s classes.

I saw Nureyev perform at le Palais de Sport in La Bayadère, with the Leningrad (Kirov) Ballet when it made a rare appearance in France. While the troupe, as a whole, looked outdated in comparison to the Bolshoi, which was already imitating the West, Nureyev was phenomenal. In Act II, he executed a series of double assemblés en tournant, which was then an unusual feat. Everybody tried to imitate him. With his outstanding movement style, Nureyev riveted audiences and won tremendous success. I still have the film shot with an eight millimeter camera, which I sneaked in and used to film his solo.

Caton convinced Bezobrazova to let me teach a character class at her school. Naturally, I was quite shy, but agreed. As I was exceptionally well versed in character technique, it was easier than I thought. However, Rudy invaded my space--he entered the studio, placing himself in the corner to stretch. Although he was visibly inattentive, I was inhibited, especially since this was my teaching debut.

On the return drive to Cannes, Caton proclaimed that my class was a success. He exaggerated, but I was proud of myself, as I had offered a credible class. Later, I taught a few ballet classes, which now seems like an eternity ago. In my career, I have given thousands of classes. Caton’s encouragement positively influenced my career development. Later, when I established Point Park College’s dance department and the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre I invited him to Pittsburgh.

Shortly after Rudy began dancing with Rosella, we--Rosella, Stevan, and I--went to the beach. While Rosella, Stevan, and I conversed, Rudy sat apart from us, throwing pebbles into the sea. I felt sorry for him, as he seemed to be left out. I sat beside him and addressed him in Russian. I was taken aback when he demanded that I speak in French, as he did not want to respond in Russian. Perhaps he feared the KGB or Soviet backlash. He certainly was adamant about it. A good many years later, after he had settled in the West, our conversations reverted to Russian. But at that moment, I felt slighted. I had planned to compliment his Paris performance, but let the praise slide. Instead I made small talk and then returned to my friends. It took me several years to realize that he could be quite a funny guy, but that he was reserved with strangers and seemed unfriendly.

During those twelve to sixteen hour road trips between Cannes and Paris, I tested all the restaurants en route. Just passed Aix-en-Provence, I found a restaurant specializing in frog legs à la Provençale. Anytime I happened to be in that neighborhood, I scheduled a stop at that little eatery for frog legs. These were simply so good.

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