Back in art school in the 60s, I felt the need to see more artwork and in greater variety than was available to be seen for those of us living on the west coast of Canada. How to make this possible? Well, travel to Europe, that crucible of Western Art was the prescription. I researched and calculated where to travel, and how much this would cost me, and finding the costs daunting plotted how to acquire the necessary finances in order to do so. But I needed a part-time job that payed well enough to allow me to amass the necessary funds over a short period of time. During coffee-time breaks between studio sessions, a group of us mulled over how this could be accomplished. Alex, an older and more worldly student, who worked part-time at the local art centre and theatre as a stage-hand, often regaled us with stories of performers and performances, technical glitches that occurred during the mounting of productions and of life as a back-stage worker. He suggested that I apply to the theatre as an usherette, a job which was unionized and paid well, and which would not interfere at all with my school requirements. So I applied and was hired, much to my pleasure. Thus began my brief career as a theatre usherette. It was by far the most interesting job of my times as a student!
All who worked at the theatre entered by the performers’ entrance, manned by a formally uniformed guard and supplied with a time clock with punch cards for workers to sign in at the beginning of shifts and out at the end. The guard was a paternal gentleman who was very kind and friendly. I prevailed on his kindness often to seek admission to back-stage, where armed with my sketchbook I would try to be as unobtrusive as possible while observing and drawing the activity of performers and technicians. There I had the chance to observe Marcel Marceau silently engaged in blocking in his movements on the stage several hours prior to his performance. So, here was my good fortune to observe his preparation and then later, while on my work-shift, the performance from the front of the house. Prior to Renata Tebaldi’s performance (on her farewell tour) I watched her familiarize herself with the backstage layout and contemplate the enormous empty cavern of the seat areas.
It was however the week-long duration of the British Royal Ballet performances that provided the most wonderful opportunity. Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev were principal dancers in “Giselle”. And, fortuitously for me, they rehearsed every afternoon. My shift to work coincided with every evening performance, and also the matinee on the weekend. So, right after school, I’d scurry over to the cafe to bolt down a plate of carrots, broccoli and cheese, and head over to the theatre to ensconce my invisible self back-stage to witness the practices. And think, observe and draw, draw, draw!
Rudolf Nureyev was very young then, a delicious leonine specimen of youthful malehood. He had the presence of Michelangelo’s “David” as pictured in my Janssen art history black and white photos. He moved with fluid, strong and precise manly grace, completely absorbed in his repetitions of entrechats and wonderful, high leaps where he seemed suspended for more than long moments in space. Light as a feather, but with the tensile strength of steel he seemed!
Margot Fonteyn was an impossibly tiny, sprite-like woman, much older than Nureyev at that time. She had the appearance of a slightly dessicated teen-ager, but a visage of amazing gravity lit by child-like flashes of expression. She warmed up at the portable barre, stretching slowly with great intent, repeating motions over and over again. I got a lot of good quick studies from this activity of hers, and kept drawing like mad. Nureyev would stop and watch her from time to time. He’d stand quite still and relaxed for extended periods and made a good model for many drawings. Busy, engrossed, I tried to keep up with these two marvellous bodies in motion.
After a while, Fonteyn made many passes of chaine turns across the width of the stage. She had the density of a thin strip of paper that quickly rotated from place to place. She seemed to have little mass and basically flickered across the floor.
Shortly they began practising lifts. This was amazing to observe and to try and draw. Neither of these two dancers was tall, and yet they had a size and physical compatibility, and a synergy, that was wonderful to witness. Fonteyn entered into lifts, Nureyev assisted – it was a mutual effort, seamless! Time after time, they repeated variations of lifts that might occur in their pas de deux. Sometimes their timing would be off, and Nureyev winced with added strain, or Fonteyn would make a disappointed moue with her face. And always, they communicated quietly and without disagreement or rancour.
A male partner in a pas de deux is more than a mechanical lift for the ballerina, much more than a prop. He is an integral part of the unit of two bodies interacting in space, carving out form, extending a motion or completing movement, or so I have learned to understand with my limited knowledge of dance. But lifts are so beautiful to see when they are excecuted with precision and in unison. Light as a feather – strong like steel, the male and female principle kinetically united. That was Nureyev and Fonteyn, paired for me as the ideal male and female in the dance. Moving, poignant and breathtaking!
In writing this, I am expressing my wonder and thankfulness about how lucky a young woman and art student I was to be able to witness these two remarkable artists and draw them. It was a little bit like being a fly-on-the-wall backstage.
Surely everyone has experiences of this sort, that give them pleasurable pause in their recollections?