The dance was the first language which people used as an expression of joy, fear or sorrow. When primitive people expressed themselves through the dance, there was first the feeling or emotion then came the rhythm, then music and last the adornment or decoration. So the dance existed for thousands of years and until today. I feel that this is fundamental. A creator of the dance should first know what he wants to express. Then according to the subject and style, he should have the collaboration of the composer to clearly define or choose adequate music. The next step is the designer and painter who must have the understanding of the particular subject, of the period and style. After all this has been defined, I proceed to the plastical medium and the choreography. This is the way I create and work on my ballets.
No music, stage setting or costumes can save the ballet if its subject and dance are not interesting and the expression clear, and I could mention numerous ballets with which this was the case. But the reverse often occurred, even if the music and costumes were not interesting, but the dance was of particular interest. The idea is when all the arts are coordinated logically and perfectly.
My inspirations come from multiple sources – the fascination of the past or the pulse of contemporaneous life.
My most successful ballets were “The Birthday of the Infanta”, music by John Alden Carpenter, painter, Robert Edmond Jones. “The Tragedy of the Cello”, music by Alexander Tansman, the painter, Nicholas Remisoff. “The Factory”, music by Mossolow, which I created in 1930.
In the ballet, “The Birthday of the Infanta” I incorporated all the impressions I have received in Spain, when I performed there with the Diaghileff Ballet. There I lived the intense joys of the day – Museums, Churches and Monasteries. When I returned to America, Carpenter just was engaged in writing “The Birthday of the Infanta”. It was the most perfect collaboration and the result was an important realization and a tremendous success.
In “The Tragedy of the Cello”, I was fascinated by the esprit and humour of the subject and its plastical possibilities.
In “The Factory” I received many impressions while touring with my ballet when we spent many inspiring moments in the Ford factory in Detroit and elsewhere in powerful turbines, in New York in the huge printing rooms of the New York Times. I was delighted in watching the almost human movements of those various machines at work which gave me reactions of whimsicality, sadness and pathos.
All these impressions crystallized in my idea for dance compositions. The extraordinary co-ordination of motion, the intricacies of a machine linked together by one principal, the variety of rhythms formed such an analogy with the various technicalities of the classical dance. A ballet with pistons for dancers, the battements of levers, the pirouettes of flywheels, the glissades of warmgears, fouettes of pendula, jetes, cabriolets and entrechats of springing valves.
I have rarely difficulty with composers, most of them readily accept my suggestions and collaborate. The most difficulty, particularly in the United States lie in the lack of rehearsals, and often the attitude of the conductor, who wants to interpret the music in the way that he feels it. It is true particularly in the case of the Opera conductor. To illustrate one of the experiences I had with one of the most prominent Opera companies, I was staging the dances in “Samson & Delilah”. During the preparation I couldn’t consult the conductor about the temp, as he was on his way from Italy. I decided to conform myself to the temp indications on the score, which I verified on the Metronome. A coincidence – my tempos were exactly that of the Metronome. When the conductor arrived and was able to visit my rehearsals, he jumped with excitement – the tempo was far too fast. At first this troubled me greatly as it would necessitate a readaptation of my choreography to the tempi of the conductor. Then it occurred to me to justify the use of this tempi by showing him the musical score and the indications of the metronome. The conductor’s startling verdict was that “In America one cannot rely on metronomes.”
One night on arriving at the theatre when that dance was just being performed, to my distress I heard that the tempo was twice faster than I originally wanted to stage it. When I looked in the orchestra pit I saw another maestro conducting. During the intermission I asked him why he took such a different tempo from that of the first maestro, which was much slower, he explained that this was ‘his’ tempo. After that I insist that the musical director in the future should not only give the tempo for the balletmaster, which he thinks correct, but should also instruct all other conductors to confirm to the one established, and preferably that the conductors take the tempi from the balletmaster, but alas, this is a very difficult thing to achieve in opera organizations.
Another problem for a balletmaster is when creating a ballet or dances of a style or period totally unfamiliar to the dancers, and especially during the experimental phase. In such cases I explain to the group as much as possible what I am going to do so as to arouse their interest and understanding to that they could visualize mentally the entire production. If possible I show them pictures or reproductions or ask them to read certain works. I also show some of the movements, which in many cases helps them understand. This work requires from the balletmaster great patience, kindness and understanding of the psychology of the dancers. Without this it is very difficult to get happy results.
I have encountered great difficulty in this country to stage new ballets in places which were of unusual size and far from conventional theatre stages. For instance at the Library of Congress in Washington for the Music Festival of Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, who at my request commissioned Strawinsky to write a special work, namely, “Apollo Musagettes”. This was a concert hall used mainly for chamber music, the opening of the stage was about 28 feet in depth, about 20 feet and 14 feet in height. There were no other entrances or exits than a door in the center of the concrete wall.
You readers, imagine, on such a stage a black cyclorama close to the wall for depth and scenery in Piranesi style designed by Mr. Remisoff to create the optical illusion of great ruins of antiquity and from behind which the dancers and myself appeared. To create for and perform on such a small space, and to produce an effect of grandeur was a Herculean task. On this evening I gave three other short ballets of different styles, each one presenting a new difficulty. The ingenuity of the painter Nicholas Remisoff in this case was supreme.
Another problem was the Hollywood Bowl, where the stage is built in an oval size in front of the Orchestra shell. The size of the bowl stage is about 89 feet in width and 51 feet deep. The entrances and exists are on the extreme sides another 15 feet from the stage platform. No curtain, the dancers had to come on either in complete darkness or effectively brought in with the music. In “The Factory” my dancers (60) entered in geometric patterns and units to the sounds of factory whistles and clashing of percussions and powerful lights which at once gripped the audience of 20,000.
As the light effects in this ballet were of great importance, special iron poles were erected about 50 feet high so as not to obstruct the view of the audience. This effect also to create certain shadows other powerful lights were hidden in business and tree trunks so that the audience was not aware from where the lights came.
I came to Hollywood in the hope to have some of my ballets recorded on the screen. An opportunity was given to me to stage dances in the John Barrymore picture “The Mad Genius”, supposedly a story about the Russian Ballet. Alas! I soon realized that the plot was the most essential and the ballet only incidental. After working in the studio I came to the conclusion the ballet could be filmed successfully only if the balletmaster would have carte blanche as to how such a ballet should be filmed. Not as the director of the picture wishes, nor as the product manager decrees, who is above the director, nor by the most merciless person, the cutter, who never asks the advice of practically anyone. Unless this unfavorable state for balletmasters changes completely, there is little hope for the future of the ballet or for the dancer on the screen.
The greatest problem for any ballet organization today is the general economic condition. Even in Europe where Opera and ballet in prewar were supported by czars, kings and Kaisers have much less financial support at present. In America if a ballet organization does not have a sufficiently long season in a town or does not have a tour it is hard to keep it strong and efficient. To gather a new company each time when an occasion presents itself for the creation of a ballet performance, as it happens in the United States, is still a more arduous and superhuman task.
London Dancing Times