An interview with Micheline Carrance of the Centre de dance du Marais
14 November 2009
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A Wellspring to quench all Thirst
When one speaks of destiny in respect of the life of Micheline Carrance, there come to mind Shakespeare’s lines in Othello:
“But he bears both the sentence and the sorrow,
That, to pay grief, must of poor patience borrow.”
The soul of the Centre du Marais, its creator, director and leader, has been branded by great sorrow: her parents and grandparents were deported. An event that has left an indelible mark on her way of being and on her character. Rather, though, than lament, she has kept to herself all sorrow and, no doubt, transformed the sense of revolt that lies buried within to living energy.
My parents and grandparents were deported, and there, died. First my grandparents, who lived in the rue des Francs Bourgeois, were deported, and then, shortly afterwards, my parents. It was they who owned the Hôtel de Berlize; at the time, it was under a manager, who in turn let out to various tradesmen. My grandparents had come to France from Moldavia and had no intention of ever leaving – come what might.
Friends of my parents spirited my sister and I away to somewhere near Limoges, where we remained hidden until the War ended. I was then seven years old, and when, one day, my mother failed to return home, I knew what had happened. Whenever one speaks guardedly in front of a child, one must assume that the child will know … and I heard the words “a mother wrenched from her child (….) will not return”. But my Aunties kept up the writing of letters, make-believe letters, supposed to have been penned by our mother. Those letters, I knew in a flash, could never have been written by her.
After the War, our childhood was rather sheltered. Only very recently, in the past ten years perhaps, have the French realised, somewhat, because earlier no-one cared to discuss what had occurred – whichever side one happened to be on. For my part, I make no attempt to avoid the images of what took place. It proves that it did indeed exist. I feel less alone.
Such is my inheritance, and that is why I have made the Centre de danse du Marais a place open to everyone. I should perhaps mention that I have lived in the Marais for about thirty years. Where I live, in the courtyard, there is a garden, which was intended to be open for the public until six-thirty in the evening. That’s what I wished to see happen. But the other residents had quite other views.
When I took over the Hôtel de Berlize – I was about 35 at the time – it was very run down. But on rock-solid foundations! The first building-expert to whom I explained that there would be dancing lessons held, warned me that the building would age far more quickly, owing to the jumps and vibration. I prefer to take that risk, and we’ll do the repairs as need arise!
There’s also a tiny and rather secretive theatre, the Théâtre Essaïon, with two tiny auditoria for 80 spectators. One can speak easy in such a theatre! The people who run it work night and day – for a small place like that to survive in Paris, you have to!
And so, the Hôtel de Berlize that my sister and I inherited from our parents was being run by a manager who had got quite used to doing as he pleased. There was a big garage, cutlers’ workshops, goldsmiths, other craftsmen … The Labrousse piano firm had even got 150 pianos up there. Labrousse said, fine, we agree to leave the premises, if you will pay piano-movers to get those pianos out! The manager told us that no-one on earth would want to rent there.
In the interval, I had become a pharmacist, pursuing my dancing lessons all the while. One day, a former pupil of Preobrajenskaya’s, no less, told me she needed a studio. To help her, I decided to have work done, and have a studio made up for her. But that teacher found something elsewhere!
As it happened, I had studied with Nina Vyroubova in her studio rue du Bac1. The day I inaugurated the first studio, we threw a party, and Nina came– that was 35 years ago! We served nibbles, and to celebrate the occasion, I bought the loveliest dress, which I’ve kept by the way; it was a Lagerfeld, all hand-painted with images of Paris.
Vyroubova suggested, “why don’t you hold Intensives?” When I said I had no idea how to go about it, she replied “there’s nothing a trained pharmacist can’t do”.
So I had the pharmacy’s number hooked up with the studio telephone, and there’d be dancers ringing into the pharmacy saying “Micheline, I’ve mislaid me slippers!”
But I had no teachers. The only individuals who straightaway shewed an interest were a teacher and his wife, whom I’d met through my secretary – she had actually been the secretary to the Studios Wacker! The following year, when Nora Kiss authorised him to teach elsewhere than for her own studio, Yves Casati asked me to let him studios.
And so, one thing followed upon another … and the only real, standing issue is the noise, that sometimes riles the neighbourhood!
Whatever the case, I have been a true missionary, because I have the impression that dancing, and music, are quite outmoded. Or perhaps another world-famous dancer, a celebrity, might turn the tide?
Early on, when I’d visit studios in London or New York, I saw how shabby, how dingy they were. And at Wacker, the moment one pulled the chain in the loo, one had to leap away, because the water would flood the corridor. No showers, and no carpeting in the changing-rooms.
I had once thought of branching out, finding a second building with really big studios, and letting out the smaller studios in the Hôtel de Berlize for other purposes, but there are no such rooms in the Marais.
Very recently, I made a trip to New York and visited some splendid studios. But there are far more dancers there, far more shows, far more classes. Musical comedy too needs excellent dancers. Tourists come up from the provinces to New York and some will attend three musical comedies in a single day!
Boris Kniazeff taught at the Centre for three years. He virtually died in my arms. When a very old teacher dies, there is no-one left but their pupils to take care of them, because they no longer have an entourage. Kniazeff’s children were all living abroad. He was a friend. He wanted to play the horses, and was used to borrow money from me for a bet, but with the money, he’d first buy me a huge bunch of flowers. Very Russian!
One of his students, René Lejeune, lives at Nice. He has become an antique-dealer, but could have become an excellent teacher. Kniazeff too loved beautiful old things, and collected engravings. He gave me one of Gontcharova …
What attracted me to Kniazeff’s class, is that he’d really push his pupils ahead. Let me say here that I entertain a wish: I should very much like it, were we all to reach a consensus as to how he really taught. Because people who never knew him personally, claim to follow in his footsteps.
For example, they allege that he was very insistent about all his pupils forcing down into the splits. No. It all depended on the actual pupil before him. He adapted his teaching to precisely the individuals before him in class. It was definitely not a codified method.
What I can say, is that he gave 25 minutes of barre au sol, and never a standing barre alone. The standing barre came afterwards, and lasted 10 to 15 minutes. In the middle, he gave more or less the same exercises, always, and ended the class with the most exhausting jumps and manèges. Choreography did not attract him, and he never gave big choreographed enchaînements.
In his day, he was the only teacher who gave a barre au sol. But in the USA, one discovers that it’s become a full-fledged discipline!
Kniazeff liked to show by example. There are instants where what one sees in one’s mind, suddenly and magically corresponds to what one is actually doing, and such lightning may even strike individuals who are not professionals - perhaps not even a very good dancer. Once or twice, in one of Kniazeff’s classes, lightning struck me too, and he cried out: “Just look at that! The girl’s not even a dancer – but there you have it!” I was able to recall those instants, and thereafter, to see what others do in quite another way. Poetry – I see it all about me, unexpectedly.
Paris, 14th October 2009