David Bruce: Dance Anecdotes

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Soprano Joan Hammond once appeared on the BBC series Gala Performance on the same program as ballet dancers Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev. Unfortunately, as she was singing, she caught sight of the dancers warming up their muscles at the barre. Normally, this would be OK, but they were warming up using a rhythm that was different from that of the aria that Ms. Hammond was singing, so she had to stop, explain what had happened, apologize, then begin singing again. The aria went well this time, but after the program, the conductor, Malcolm Arnold, told her, “You were lucky, Joan. After Margot and Nureyev moved away from you, they came into my vision, and I had to force myself to keep to Puccini and not follow their timing for the entire aria. I didn’t want to stop and cause you to start yet again.”

Modern dance pioneer Martha Graham stated that when she danced, she became the character whom she was portraying. One of the pieces she choreographed and danced was “Legend of Judith,” based on the Biblical story of a woman who saved her people by murdering a tyrant. One day, she was explaining how difficult it was to dance this piece in Washington D.C. at Constitution Hall: “There are brass rings there for electrical outlets, and you wonder if you’re going to catch your toe and fall or have some sort of accident.” Dance critic Walter Terry said to her, “I thought you said you never thought of anything onstage, that you became the character itself.” Ms. Graham replied, “I do. I looked at those rings and said to myself, ‘One more hazard for Judith to face.’”

William de Mille, playwright of The Woman and The Warrens of Virginia, was the father of Agnes de Mille, choreographer of Rodeo: The Courting at Burnt Ranch and Oklahoma! However, as his daughter was growing up, he let her know that he did not approve of her trying to make a career in dance. One day, he asked her, “Do you honestly think, my daughter, that dancing has progressed since the time of the Greeks?” Agnes asked in reply, “Do you think you write any better than Euripides?” Her father answered, “No, my dear. But we have Euripides’ plays. They have lasted. A dancer ceases to exist as soon as she sits down.”

While teaching a dance class in college, choreographer Martha Graham asked the students to sit on the floor one at a time so she could watch how they did it. After all the students had granted her request, one curious student asked why she had asked them to do that. Ms. Graham replied, “I simply wanted to see which ones of you cherished your genitals. If you crash down to the floor, it means you have no concern for them.” She added, “And if you are indifferent to your creative areas in a physical sense, you will be indifferent to your creative forces in an artistic sense — and you will never become dancers.”

Being a nonconformist sometimes leads to opportunities. In London early in her career, modern dance pioneer Isadora Duncan and her brother Raymond danced in the park. Enjoying their impromptu performance was a woman who invited them to her home, where Isadora again danced. The woman was the famous actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell, who introduced Isadora and her brother to other famous and wealthy people, and soon Isadora was performing in their homes.

When children’s book author/illustrator Tomie dePaola was growing up, he took dance lessons and occasionally participated in a dance concert with the other child dancers. One year, he danced as a pirate, and he wanted to have an eye patch so he could look scary. Therefore, he started giving his dance teacher, Miss Leah, some drawings of pirates. Each pirate wore an eye patch. Miss Leah got the hint, and she allowed Tomie to wear an eye patch during the dance.

Jerome Robbins was a perfectionist. When he was helping The New York City Ballet get ready to perform his West Side Story, he made changes to the end of the “Cool” dance, adding a knee slide and taking out some steps. At one point, he turned to choreographer Alan Johnson and said, “Maybe after 40 years I’ll get it right.” Mr. Johnson was amazed, and he said in an interview later, “While we all thought it was perfect, he thought it could be better.”

On the old Juvenile Jury TV show, emcee Jack Barry asked a young boy, “When you grow up and get married, what would you like your wife to look like?” The boy answered singer Rosemary Clooney because “she’s got beautiful blue eyes, blonde hair, and a nice body.” Then the boy made some appropriate gestures with his hands and added, “Especially up here.”

As a child dancer, Muriel Stuart impressed Anna Pavlova. While auditioning for the great dancer, Ms. Stuart danced to a waltz. Ms. Pavlova asked the pianist to switch to a polka, and Ms. Stuart immediately changed the tempo of her dancing. Because of this, Ms. Pavlova gave the child dancer the privilege of sitting beside her during the remaining auditions.

When Rudolph Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn danced Giselle with the Royal Ballet in Los Angeles, a man in the audience watched Mr. Nureyev dance, then asked his wife who he was. She said, “That is the man who jumped over the Berlin Wall.” He replied, “No wonder he jumped over the wall, if he can jump like that!”

Ruth St. Denis once taught Martha Graham an important lesson when Ms. Graham was just starting to dance. Ms. St. Denis told Ms. Graham, “Show me your dance.” Ms. Graham replied, “I don’t have one,” and Ms. St. Denis advised, “Well, dear, go out and get one.”

Even at age 14, dancer Anna Pavlova had presence of mind while on stage. At her first public performance, she pirouetted with such energy that she lost her balance and fell. She stood up again, curtsied to the audience, then continued her dance.

While Anna Pavlova was touring in South Africa, a male Kaffir dancer named Brandy was told that she was the greatest dancer in the world. He replied, “She hasn’t seen me yet.”

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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