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A Century of Selected Dancers

March 2008

Rudolph Nureyev and Artists of The Australian Ballet in rehearsal for Don Quixote the film 1972. Courtesy of
The Australian Ballet... (Photo Paul Cox)

How fitting, as we venture into a new year in the first decade of this new century, to look to the past as well as the future.  What if you were asked to name the 15 most significant ballet dancers in the past hundred years?  Whom would you choose?  Make a preliminary list before reading on.

In her book, First Position, A Century Of Ballet Artists, Toba Singer selected fifteen, then, giving one chapter to each of her choices, proceeded to present capsule personal bios with significant professional appearances and contributions.  While she does a fine job at this, I was surprised by some of her selections, and even more surprised by omissions.  I wondered how many people would agree with her list.  This well written book did equal justice to each of the 15 dancers it spotlights.  It also appears to be trying to be politically correct, in that it does justice to dancers hailing from many parts of the world.  The full list of dancers in her book include three from Cuba, one each from China, Denmark, Italy, France, Latvia and England, two from the USA and four from Russia and Soviet Union countries.  It certainly makes the point that talent can grow anywhere.  It also seems to imply that in totalitarian countries, training is more intense resulting in many more accomplished dancers.  Or is it that in such countries, the high standards of state funded arts institutions are a way for the dedicated and determined to find creative freedom?

Political inferences aside, was this selection of talents a conscious decision or the result of using votes to select the pool from which people honored in this book were chosen?  She says in her introduction, “I polled choreographers, teachers, administrators, ballet students, active and retired dancers, balletomanes, dance historians and writers.”  That gave her 300 dancers as her nominees. (Incidentally, only one name appeared on ALL lists – Mikhail Baryshnikov.)

Margot Fonteyn and Rudolph Nureyev in Dame Peggy Van Praagh's production of Swan Lake. Guest Artist with The Australian Ballet 1964. photo David Mist.  Photo Courtesy of The Australian Ballet...

She wanted her final list of 15 to say something key about becoming a ballet dancer.

Nevertheless, I was particularly conscious of one omission.

I am presuming your mental list would include Nureyev and Baryshnikov.  Mine certainly would.  Would you also include Erik Bruhn, Arthur Mitchell, Li Cunxin, Lazáro Carreńo and Carlos Acosta?  What about Alvin Ailey, Robert Helpmann, Leonide Massine or Vaslav Nijinsky?  (The first five ‘yes’ in this book, the last four ‘no’.)

My earliest regret as a child was never having seen the legendary Nijinsky dance.  I had read and heard so much about this extraordinary male dancer, I was sorry to be born too late to have seen him in person.  I regretted that even more than having missed Pavlova.

It was claimed that in “The Specter of the Rose” Nijinsky’s entrance leap took him from one end of the stage to the other.  I couldn’t conceive of it, but to me it would have resembled flying.  As a result, all my childhood dreams of flying began with a gigantic ballet leap!  (Later wags remarked that of course, we had no idea of the dimensions of that stage.)

Naturally, I was thrilled to have been alive during the careers of Nureyev and Baryshnikov, two very different Russian dancers.  I can easily imagine future generations wishing they had seen these two brilliant performers on stage.

I don’t believe any male dancer from the time of Nijinsky, until Nureyev caused the sort of furor that rose around both these men.  For that alone, I should have thought Nijinsky would have been included on most lists and in such a book.

On the women’s side, would you quarrel with the inclusion of Alicia Alonso, Margot Fontetyn, Anna Pavlova, Maya Plisetskaya or Gelsey Kirkland?  What about Carla Fracci, Muriel Maffre, Tamara Karsavina or Natalia Makarova? Don’t get up in arms, they are all in the book, except one:  Karsavina.  She coached Margot Fonteyn, and the Karsavina technique lasted beyond her teaching it.  She was vice president of the Royal Academy of Dancing, among other posts.  She would certainly have been in my book!

I remember in my early days as a ballet enthusiast, being blown away by Leon Danieleon, who seemed to leave the stage very early.  He turned to teaching, and had his influence over future stars.  His name faded from most memories. And it is only rarely that it resurfaces.  Rather like a pop star who is all the fashion for a few years, and then disappears from the public consciousness.

In the late forties, Moira Shearer starred in “The Red Shoes,” the film that made many a young maiden take ballet classes.  It popularized the dance for many young men as well.  At the time, Shearer was the talk of the teen world.  If any book had been written then, she would most certainly have been included, not only for her films (she also appeared in “Tales of Hoffman” and a number of other movies) but also for her work with Sadler’s Wells.  She retired in 1963.  Also prominent in the film was Australian born Robert Helpmann, whom I certainly would have included in my century of dancers.

Sir Robert Helpmann, Kelvin Coe and Josephine Jason rehearse 1968. photographer unknown  Photo Courtesy of The Australian Ballet...

That may be why I question including so many of more recent dancers in this sort of book.

It only shows, that as with ball players, movie stars or composers, we each have our own ideas of who should represent the ballet world, who deserves recognition for contributions to the ballet scene, and whose story would be most apt to point the way to how to become a great ballet dancer.  I believe the arts, like science, should be open to all and the benefits shared by all.  It appears from her choices Ms. Singer agrees.

I refer to this book only because reading it, an enjoyable experience and an informative one, raised so many questions in my mind and I assumed it would in the mind of any balletomane.

If we are to cover a century, should so many of the ones included be of the last fifty years?  Are we losing sight of those who inspired so many previous generations of dancers?  Will they as easily fade from memory as Ms. Shearer or Mr. Danieleon?

We can only write what we perceive in our day and time and from our own perspective, which is why Ms Singer had 300 names to cull from.  And, if talking to teachers and ballet company directors, many of those nominations had to be pushing for dancers with whom they worked personally.  Just as my own choices would be biased from those I saw often and admired much.

There’s nothing more exciting than “discovering” a new talent before the critics do.  For this sort of experience, I suggest you attend performances at schools such as Vassar with its serious attention to training dancers. Also go to see new young dance companies where future stars are cutting their stage teeth.

I concede there is difficulty in determining as much about long dead dancers and how they came to their training and prominence.  Still, selecting a list of 15 dancers to represent a century is a provocative task.  I wouldn’t want to tackle it, and Ms. Singer may have had enough land mines in her path with it to perhaps regret she did tackle it.

Then again, if it gets us all considering the greats of the last 100 years, maybe it was a good idea, after all!  Nothing keeps a subject alive so much as controversy.  If we all agreed, how dull the ballet world would be.