Dancing at Lincoln Center with Rudolf Nureyev — my true story

By Caitlin Kelly

A new museum has opened — 20 years after the death, in 1993 of AIDS, of 20th-century ballet’s most famed male dancer since Nijinksy, fellow Russian Rudolf Nureyev. The museum is not in Paris, where he’d wanted it to be, but in Moulins, a three-hour train ride from the capital.

English: Nurevey in his dressing room
English: Nurevey in his dressing room (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A report from The New York Times:

Centre National du Costume de Scène is in the Quartier Villars, an elegantly proportioned 18th-century barracks, renovated and extended after a near-brush with demolition in 1984. After the French government approved the idea of creating an archive for costumes belonging to the Paris Opera, the Comédie Française and the Bibliothèque Nationale, it took almost another decade to renovate the premises and add a section to contain and conserve the vast holdings. The government contributed around 80 percent of the renovation budget needed to install the collection (about $787,000), with the remainder coming from the museum and the foundation.

“It’s an international and important name that clearly draws people here,” Ms. Pinasa said. “The first few weeks have been very good.”

The collection is shown in three large rooms set apart from the museum’s main exhibition space; they were designed by Ezio Frigerio, who created sets for several of Nureyev’s productions. The first room is decorated with painted stage flats and offers spotlighted costumes in glass booths. Some were Nureyev’s own, most touchingly a simple pale blue doublet worn soon after his 1961 defection to the West, in “The Nutcracker.” There are also costumes from the ballets he staged, notably Hanae Mori’s 1920s-style outfit for Sylvie Guillem in “Cinderella,” an enchantment of pale-pink pleated silk, feathers and sequins, and the gold-embroidered blue-green silk tunic that is the warrior-hero Solor’s costume in the Nureyev production of “La Bayadère.”

I had the unlikely — and extraordinary — opportunity to share a stage with Nureyev for eight performances by the National Ballet of Canada in “Sleeping Beauty”, a classic, lush production.

I was then a young, ambitious Toronto-based journalist who knew the publicity director for the National Ballet after writing a magazine profile of one of their dancers. I’d studied ballet for many years, so I understood and loved that world. One day Marcia, (still a dear friend  decades later), called up and said: “How’d you like to come and be an extra with us in New York City at Lincoln Center with Nureyev?”

Who could possibly say no?

I was maybe 23 or 24 years old and had only performed, as an actress, in summer camp musicals. I had taken ballet classes for years and had auditioned (unsuccessfully) for Canada’s National Ballet School. I had never done pointe work, (not required as an extra), nor had I ever performed dance for anyone.

But what a story! I was game.

The Globe and Mail, Canada’s national daily, wanted the piece, and paid my travel expenses and we stayed across the street at the Empire Hotel, (featured in a great song by Canadian singer Joni Mitchell.)

As an extra — a “super”, (short for supernumerary, the civilians who are hired locally by ballet and opera companies to fill stages with bodies in costume) — I’d be needed for every performance.

I was chosen as one of four Ladies in Black, who presage the entrance of the witch Carabosse, who is not invited to Aurora’s 16th. party and who, furious, then casts a spell on everyone — creating the Sleeping Beauty who is Princess Aurora.

We had a few very basic rehearsals, like the artistic director impatiently humming the score, (which I barely knew!) while waving his arms at us distractedly in one of the Center’s rehearsal halls. Supers aren’t worth much attention when you’ve got principals to direct, and a corps de ballet and, oh yeah, Nureyev.

So I didn’t get a dress rehearsal, nor did I see or try on my costume or shoes until half an hour before opening night curtain. The shoes were so tight I could barely walk. My wig, with enormous buns over both ears, resembled a head of garlic. The dress weighed a ton, and I knew was worth a lot of money and I must not, on any account, damage it.

Since I barely knew the music, I wrote my stage directions on a piece of paper and taped it to the underside of my left wrist, hoping to sneak a glance at it while onstage.

On opening night, so nervous I could barely move, I managed to sweep down the wide staircase on stage, followed dutifully by the other three Ladies in Black — about 10 bars of music too early.

Holy shit.

“You came down too soon,” hissed a dancer pirouetting beside me.

The next night, while I tried to climb back up the same wide staircase at the rear of the stage after all the courtiers had fallen asleep under Carabosse’s spell a supine soldier’s sword got stuck in the thick folds of my gown.

I couldn’t move.

I couldn’t get his sword out of that valuable fabric.

And the orchestra played on, as the principal dancers hissed at me from behind “Hurry up!

Holy shit again.

Another night, as Nureyev, in his role as the Prince, dashed through the sleeping figures trying to see if anyone was awake, he stopped, took my chin in his hands and held my face to the spotlight, to see if I really was asleep.

Holy shit. Holy shit. Holy shit!

My chin in Nureyev’s hand.

And I couldn’t, if I was to remain, as I must, in character, open my eyes.

On another night he grew so furious he kicked a garbage can in the wings so hard his foot bled into his slipper. I swear a lot, but have never heard curses like his.

Off-stage, in the wings, he stood regally apart, sliding leather clogs over his slipper-shod feet.

Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn in La Bayadère.
Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn in La Bayadère. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today, decades later, it still all feels like a dream — exiting the stage door and being asked for my autograph (“Margot Fonteyn.” Kidding!), putting on my stage make-up every night, sharing space with one of the world’s legendary dancers.

I live in New York now, and every time I walk up those wide steps toward Lincoln Center, to sit in the audience for a ballet or concert, I think…hmmm, let’s do that again!

Dancing At The White House — Finally!

Cover of "Billy Elliot"
Cover of Billy Elliot

Great story about Michelle Obama yesterday inviting a disparate group of professional dancers — and students — to perform at The White House:

Dancers of all types — ballet, modern, hip hop and Broadway — take over the room, first for an afternoon workshop, during which students from around the country will have the chance to work with some of the biggest names in dance.

Then, after a short break, the students return to see their mentors perform in an hour-long, star-studded show. Even Broadway’s young “Billy Elliot” will be there — four Billys actually, from the show’s rotating cast.

But the main attraction is the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and that’s because its celebrated artistic director, Judith Jamison, soon to retire after two decades in the job, is the honoree of the event.

“What a rare opportunity, to be invited by your country’s first lady to be honored like this,” Jamison said in a weekend interview. “I’ve been to the White House a couple of times before, but this event is totally unique. It’s so terribly important to recognize this art form and to understand how important it is to the fabric of this country.”

I’ve been studying dance — ballet and jazz — for decades. Right now, class is off-limits because of my arthritic hip, and I miss it terribly. Once you have studied dance, the world looks different. You carry yourself with grace and strength. You learn the amazing things your body can do, and its limitations. You hear a piece of music and wonder how you might choreograph it.

I once performed in Sleeping Beauty at Lincoln Center, a production by the National Ballet of Canada, as an extra. It was one of my life’s greatest thrills, not to mention being able to use the stage entrance!

Unlike music, easily and cheaply downloaded on iTunes and available free on any radio or Internet stream, dance remains less visible, less understood and, sadly, less appreciated for the skill, stamina, artistry and dedication it requires.

Watch La Danse, a great new documentary by Frederick Wiseman, a portrait of the Paris Opera ballet company, and you’ll get a great primer in this complex, challenging world.

I loved this recent piece in The Wall Street Journal about one of my favorite ballets, ever, Balanchine’s Serenade:

As the heavy gold curtain rises at the start of “Serenade,” 17 girl dancers in long, pale-blue gowns are arranged in two adjoining diamonds, tethered estrogen. We do not move, grip gravity, feet parallel, pointe shoes suctioned together side by side, head tilted to the right. The right arm is lifted to the side in a soft diagonal, palm facing outward, fingers extending separately, upwardly, shielding as if from some lunar light. This is the first diagonal in “Serenade,” a ballet brimming with that merging line: This is female terrain.

From this opening choir of sloping arms flows an infinite number of such lines, some small, some huge. There is the “peel,” where 15 dancers form a full-stage diagonal, each body in profile, slightly in front of the last, and then, one by one, each ripples off into the wings, creating a thrilling wave of whirling space. In later sections, there are off-center arabesque lunges, drags and upside-down leaps, a double diagonal crisscrossing of kneeling, pushing and turning, and then finally the closing procession heading to high upstage. Ballet is live geometry, a Euclidean art, and “Serenade” illustrates a dancer’s trajectory, a woman’s inclined ascent.

If you have never watched a live dance performance, go! Try modern, tap, ballet, hip-hop. Anything. It will — I hope — change your life as well.

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Five Things I Learned From Frederick Wiseman's 'La Danse'

The Palais Garnier as seen circa 1900
The Palais Garnier, Paris. Image via Wikipedia

I know a fair bit about ballet, but after seeing his new documentary about the Paris Opera Ballet tonight, I learned:

1) French dancers, at least this troupe, are allowed to retire with full state pension at the age of 40 — 25 years earlier than other French workers. Dancers, as most people know, have a tightly limited career due to the nature of their work and very few ever dance much past the age of 40 or 45. The film shows a poignant scene of one older dancer negotiating hard with the company’s tough, chic redheaded artistic director Brigitte Lefevre — “I have to take care of my body. I have to be pragmatic about my choices now,” the dancer argues, asking to be let out of one of her assigned roles.

2) Choreographer Maurice Bejart was cremated.

3) There’s an apiary on the roof of the Palais Garnier, the magnificent Beaux-Arts palace that houses both their rehearsal studios and their theater.

4) French female dancers wear watches in class and at rehearsal — taboo at other companies I’ve watched rehearse, like the Royal Danish Ballet and the National Ballet of Canada. I’ve never taken a ballet class, as a child or adult, where jewelry was even allowed.

5) There’s a subsidized cafeteria in the Palais Garnier, with a full hot meal for 4 euros — about $6.