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Recollections of Alexandre Volinine
by Liane Daydé

2 January 2013

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At the age of eight, I became a pupil at the Opera School – solely at my mother’s insistence, since I had no wish to become a dancer at the time!

My first real teacher at the Opera was Mauricette Cebron, who also taught Michel Renault. Then, at age twelve or thereabouts, I began to study privately with Blanche d’Alessandri-Valdine (née Blanche Rostand Valdine, 1862-1948), who was by then very elderly. It was she who had trained Camille Bos, Janine and Solange Schwartz, Olga Adabache, Ludmilla Tchérina (…).

Beneath a black silk dress that rustled as she walked, Mlle. d’Alessandri-Valdine still wore the corset, and a snowy wimple. When she was about 28 and on tour in America, her career had come to an untimely end, when she fell through a trap-door in the stage. She then began to teach privately. Shortly before her death, she had me swear that I would be “her last étoile”. She died in my arms. A dreadful temper she had – to this day, I bear the scar from her parasol’s broken ivory handle that slashed me badly. Although I do not recall the enchaînements she gave, I can say that they corresponded to her own training – Cecchetti. Her studio was rue Rodier, very close to where we lived, in Square Montholon.

JPEG

Lydia KYASHT et Alexander VOLININE, cliché BASSANO, vers 1912.
Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery.

On turning fourteen, I became a private pupil of Alexandre Volinine, and remained so until his death.

Why do things suddenly “click” with one teacher, rather than another? In those days, all the Opera dancers “moonlighted” with outside teachers. I had taken lessons from Carlotta Zambelli, Serve Peretti, Nicolas Zvereev, Boris Kniazeff … and it had never clicked. But the very first day I was presented to Alexandre Volinine (1882-1955), I saw in a flash that there stood the very professor I needed.

What was so extraordinary about Alexandre Volinine? Everything! He knew how to put your strengths up front, and let the flaws recede into the background. Where there exist physical shortcomings that resist all correction, something exceptional can nonetheless be made out of them. Nowadays, it’s all about rooting out a flaw here and an error there. Alexandre Volinine saw your qualities first, and although he was rigorous – never neglected technique – the Dance was always uppermost with him.

Though, indeed, there was less research on technique with Volinine than at the Opera, but he made dancers of us. He forced us to think. We came to his studio an idiot savant, and left an artist.

Alexandre Volinine taught me what it means to be an étoile: do not get entangled in technique, but rather play with it. Every step must convey something, even at the barre. To dance means giving, endless giving. Giving of oneself selflessly. At the barre for example, if you do battement dégagé and present the heel, you are giving a gift. Fouettés are not a technical exercise. They must say something. And the job of an étoile is to give more than others.

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Alexander VOLININE, cliché BASSANO, vers 1912.
Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery.

Every day, I would leave the Opera and go straight to his studio. That is where I got my technique, because it was not a technique. What he taught me, was the essence of things. That is why there are masters, and Alexandre Volinine was a master, a soul.
Alexandre Volinine’s studio, not a very large one, was on the first floor of a private dwelling at 132 avenue de Villiers. His mistress was Tamara d’Erlanger, the wife of his secretary Théodore d’Erlanger and mother of Nora Kiss. When his school was first established, neither mime nor character dance were taught. The étoile Madeline Lafon became one of most assiduous disciples.

By the time I came to study with Volinine, he was rather elderly, and invariably taught seated, shewing the épaulements alone. Be that as it may, never would he have stood to teach: he considered that the pupil must use his head above all - so to speak! Alexandre Volinine made one sense all movement; the entire body was to be at its full length, and breathe. Rathern than apply muscular force, he wold have one rely on least action for the greatest efficiency, and thus avoid burdening and clamping the muscles. The breath was given by the music, one was to be “held aloft” by the music, because first and foremost, Alexandre Volinine was extremely musical.

He would say, “It is music that tells one what is the dance, and even in silence, one listens to the music within”. In a word, Alexandre Volinine was the very incarnation of Théophile Gautier’s phrase, “dance, is music that one sees”. And Volinine brought in excellent musicians to play for us, like Pietro Galli.

On occasion, that same quality would occur with Serge Lifar, who might give us an adage on a pizzicato passage – and it worked!

Alexandre Volinine’s class began with exercises that thoroughly warmed up all the muscles, based on those that he had learnt with Anna Pavlova, whose partner he was for many years. On tour with Pavlova, the pair would often find themselves alighting from a train, for a performance that was to start in a bare half-hour. Pavlova had thought up a barre that in a quarter of an hour, got the entire body warmed up through sweeping movements, with cambrés in every direction and particularly sidewards, and many movements with a flexed foot. It was almost a pre-barre, but it a barre it was! And it included every essential movement.

Every step that Volinine gave, was épaulé and when I say épaulé, I do mean in the body, with effacement of the shoulder, not nervous tics of the head. The dancer’s gaze is fundamental, and in épaulementi, it must be properly focussed.

Volinine took care not to drain his pupils. If a certain exercise kept tripping one up, he would give it twice or thrice, without, however, hammering it home. He knew the mind needed time to work it through.

The very next day, he would give that exercise again, and one day, as though out of the blue, we found ourselves soaring over the obstacle. He would say “trust the body. It will solve the problem”. Alexandre Volinine gave séries too, but they were quite unlike those of Carlotta Zambelli. He wanted us to move, move into space! And so for example he would give big diagonals with a great many arabesques and attitudes ... He also gave séries with pirouettes, especially from fifth, a marvellous exercise that puts everything right back in place!

Rather than refer to placement as such, it was the dynamic of movement that he wanted “outward-turned”. For example, the entire leg was to be turned out fluidly rather than blocking the hip-joint to be sure one was “placed”, before even thinking of turning the leg.

Volinine would give us exercises for the hands and arms like those the Indian dancers do. The arm, he said, “is a silken shawl”. When the leading arm is extended in arabesque, the dancer’s gaze must look far out over the middle finger of the hand. As for the hand itself, he told us to study Fra Angelico’s frescos at San Marco in Florence. Neither the hand, nor the thumb, should ever poke out like a thorn. The hand of Fra Angelico’s creatures, is the dancer’s hand.

Alexandre Volinine had a great love for his fellow man. He looked at one, and one knew that one was loved. The pupil needs to find a teacher who will love him! Never would he cry “Rotten! That was rotten! You’ll come to nothing”. No. He would say “where there’s a Will, there’s a Way!” He believed in us. He was a positive human being.

JPEG
Le Couronnement de la Vierge

par Fra Angelico, vers 1440. Couvent de Saint-Marc, Florence.

In the middle, he gave many grands adages and grands ports de bras, rather less petite batterie. He loved jumping, the big jumps, and taught the women almost all the men’s steps.

However, he would say that for the woman, ballon is like a ping-pong ball, not a tennis ball. For example, in the action of the fouetté or of the jump, he wanted a coup de talontalonnage – (quick thrust from the heel – editor’s note), and straight up into the air. For the woman, aware as he was that our muscles must remain long and slender, he avoided an over-powerful thrust into the floor. Frightfully heretical as this may seem, he would often have us take the air with but the very lightest thrust from the heel. In order to achieve the technical prowess we needed without over-developing the muscles, the body was to be worked as a whole, with no clenching, anywhere. There’s Modern Dance for you!

As for pointes, we would put them on at the barre. He taught the Italian “little jump” (snatch) technique. I still prefer it because – as one sees clearly with pirouettes –drawing the foot straight under the body is far more efficient, than allowing the foot to shift away from the axis, a deviation, however slight, that the body will have to “seek out” and set right.

In our profession, there are three fundamentals: placement, technique and The Dance. I would suggest that nowadays, we are very hot over placement, and still hotter over technique, but The Dance has fallen by the wayside. I beg to differ when someone tells me “Fear not. He’ll learn to dance later on”! He won’t. A child must be allowed to dance, really dance, from the very earliest years of training.

After class, Alexandre Volinine would make tea, and stay to chat. He always had time for us. In conversation, he was ever more concerned with us, than with himself. Nor was he a money-making machine. If a pupil had not the means, he would teach him for free. He was very interested in music and painting. It is from him - and from my mother, who was an excellent pianist - that I got my love of music. I know all the operas by heart.

I did not frequent Alexandre Volinine’s studio to work on a role, but to explore the fundamentals of movement.

Paris, 5th December 2011

Born in 1932, Liane Daydé joined the Paris Opera at fourteen, and was appointed étoile at the age of nineteen. There she danced all the major roles. In 1959, she joined the Ballets du Marquis de Cuevas, and from 1963, pursued an international career. She set up her own school at Paris and began to teach in 1979.