Auguste Vestris


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Recollections of Nadia Nerina
May 2005

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Nadia Nerina, one of the foremost ballerinas - and greatest technicians - ever to grace the stage at Covent Garden, was born at Cape Town, South Africa, in 1927.

She took her first dancing lessons on medical advice, on account of her weak feet.

At Durban, South Africa, she studied with Eileen Keegan, a former member of the Pavlova company whom she describes as "a very serious person and a most dedicated teacher", and, in the same studio, with a student of Marie Rambert’s, Dorothea McNair, a "brilliant classical mime artist".

Nerina was most gifted as an actress as well, and as a teenager, hesitated as to whether to become an actress or dancer; she studied drama with Elizabeth Sneddon of Durban University, receiving a major award, while pursuing intensive study of classical dance.

At age sixteen, Nadia Nerina decided to go to England to dance, and, this being immediately after the War with scarce civilian sea-traffick, went down to Cape Town "to wait for a boat" for England. Cranko was there at the time.

At forty, Nadia Nerina retired, although at the height of her powers. She is married to the architect Charles Gordon, and has been living in France for many years.

The following passages are taken from a Tribute to Nadia Nerina, entitled "Ballerina", by the Financial Times correspondent Clement Crisp. It was published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson around 1974 (no date appears anywhere on the book) and has been long out of print.

This is Eileen Keegan speaking of Nerina,

"Nadia came to me in Durban as a pupil in 1939 - and my first memory of her is of hard work - she used to be in the studio by 9 o’clock in the morning, and was never still for a moment. (....) she was exciting to teach, always working very hard on any physical problem. It was not just a question of coming to class twice a day, but the thought Nadia put into her dancing, how she took corrections and worked on them."

On arriving at London, Nerina went straight to Marie Rambert, and studied with her at the school at the Mercury Theatre, encountering people like Sally Gilmour, Paula Hinton and Joyce Graeme. Marie Rambert, thanks to her friendship with Dorothy McNair, put Nadia Nerina up at her own house.

At that time, Nerina had never seen a professional ballet performance !

On her father’s advice, she then made the decision to join not Rambert’s company, but Sadlers Wells. There she met and worked with the young Leo Kersley (who became a close friend);, Kenneth MacMillan, Peter Darrell (who was to become head of Scottish Ballet), and Cranko.

In the summer of 1946, she went across to Paris with Elaine Fifield (a brilliant Australian dancer and equally-brilliant pianist ( !), whom some say was as able as Margot Fonteyn) to study with Olga Preobazhenskaya, from whom she learnt the pas de trois solo in Swan Lake.

Nadia Nerina on The Sleeping Beauty

"In the classics I believe that the entrance before a solo or pas de deux is of the utmost importance. It is the ability to walk on and stand perfectly still, with an inner composure before commencing to dance, which gives the artist authority.

"The full-length classical ballets are an enormous responsibility for the performer, far greater than dancing three short ballets in an evening. It is more than a question of stamina; it is one of emotion, of keeping an interpretation running through an entire evening. Responsibility to the company is equally important, and you have to set the tone for a performance as leading dancer.

"If you light up the Rose Adagio, the whole Act and the whole company benefit; your fellow artists are dependent on you as the focus of the work (....) though the physical effort is tremendous, the real reward is this responsibility. The involvement, the thrill of leading a performance cannot be experienced in any other way (....) during my career I danced all the great classics very many times but I never tired of interpreting each of these complex heroines, because however many times I danced them, I continually found that there was something new to say (....).

"It is absolutely essential to find the elegance and dignity that the ’Beauty’ steps demandm you have to be very pulled up and compact (....) ’Beauty’ is so pure, so difficult in style, that it was really the greatest challenge. I always held it in the greatest awe; at first when I danced it, I still had technical problems, but later on the problems were those of the fineness of the steps, because there is a lot that is hidden in ’Beauty’.? It is not ’flash’, except perhaps in those big jumps of the first Act solo; its difficulties lie in the little, tricky steps that may not look anything to an audience but which have to be done absolutely impeccably.

"You have to come on stage in ’Beauty’ like a burst of sunshine, then launch almost straightaway into the Rose Adagio. It is the most difficult entrance in ballet - and as with Swan Lake, you have already been waiting for the whole of the first Act, and have been in the theatre since five o’clock getting ready. Sometimes I would be calm all day, and then take a deep breath as I went through the stage door (because you know you are not going to be allowed out until it is all over.

"It was in ’Beauty’, later on in my career, that something extraordinary happened during the last Act solo. I was doing little steps across the stage, when I suddenly felt as if I were dancing in a bubble, and the whole audience was ’with’ me - I felt as if everyone in the theatre was thinking of nothing but those sixteen little steps. It was a moment of utter magic, quite timeless; I was not conscious of doing anything technically, but afterwards, backstage, people said that something unique had happened. I have seen it and experienced it in the straight theatre, when you forget everything and are totally with the performer. There is no way of finding out what it is, and it comes very, very rarely; it happened with ’Fille, only for a moment, but it is the most exciting experience that can be found on stage, and is unforgettable.

"(...) I think that the most difficult thing I ever had to learn was just to walk on stage and stand still."

Ninette de Valois contributed to the book as well:

"An embryo ballerina has to have a very strange form of stamina which one cannot really label - it is outside the specific powers of strength that dancing demands. It is a special form of stamina that can ’live’ through a whole evening, a very different thing from working in a short ballet where you hit a highlight for only a short time, perhaps for twenty minutes, but no more. The classic ballerina has to sustain a role for a matter of three hours. This depends very much on what we call the ’ballerina type’. Like Nerina, all the young dancers must have it if they are to become interpreters of the full-length ballets, and you can recognise it early on in them. You can find that a ’ballerina type’ does not even come into her own until she has been given a full-length ballet; she may not be as successful in short works as other dancers who never become exponents of the long ballets; it is a completely different world. But you cannot produce the type; it is a quality within the dancer, and is there from the very beginning."

The dancer and teacher Leo Kersley, who lives near London, and is about 85, wrote the following of Nerina for the book,

"Because Michel Fokine has always seemed to me to be the outstanding choreographer of this century, it is perhaps only logical that my favourite dancer of the post-war generation should be Nadia Nerina. Since the days of Karsavina and Lopokova, it is hard to think of another ballerina so ideal in the Fokine roles (....)

"That there was reserve towards Nerina’s work on the part of a proportion of the audience as well as the critics cannot be denied, but it can be easily explained (....) instead of the tragic, dark static ’Beauty’ which has typified so many ballerinas, Nerina has gaiety, lightness, elevation and blonde colouring (...) largely because of her appearance and physical characteristics of movement, Nerina was dismissed as a ’soubrette type’, and it has taken many years of extremely hard work on her part to convince audiences that a classical ballerina need not per se be tragic and dark.

"(...) as the Country Boy in La Fête Etrange, I watched her, standing beside two other ’hopefuls’ in a pas de trois for three girls, perform one movement - a very high développé, taken very slowly with the supporting leg on the flat foot. Although Nerina’s very nearly perfect control was strongly thrown into relief by the desperate wobbling of her companions, there was more to it than mere control. There was the beginning of the kind of wonderful inevitability in placing and timing which characterises the dancing of all great ballerinas. I shall never forget that développé - I can see it now - the beautiful delicacy of the stretched foot, the easy, unstrained arm position, the proud lift of the head and the steadiness of the supporting leg.

"What is the particular quality of Nerina’s dancing which has raised her to her present position (....) ? I think it is the extreme clarity of her dancing. She never blurs or softens or weakens a movement, but is always at pains to make sure that every member of the audience can see exactly what she is doing, though never how she is doing it. It is undoubtedly this quality that makes her what is known as a ’dancer’s dancer’; to anyone trained in the classical technique it is a never failing delight to see a dancer using that technique with ease, pleasure and clarity.

"What came out in all these roles, and was able to come out so strongly because her technique was so flawless that it did not impair or hinder her interpretation, was the completeness of a rounded, mature human being, who had made her way to the top through her own efforts and been spared very few sorrows and sufferings on the way. It is the loss of this complete personality, added to the perfectly tuned and trained instrument, which makes me very sad that Nadia’s dancing does not exist any more except in the memories of those fortunate enough to have seen her on the stage or - more fortunate still - to have danced with her."

Ninette de Valois on the classical repertoire

"If we had not staged the classics right at the beginning - and I insisted upon that - I do not think that the choreographers and dancers would have achieved what they have. There had to be the classics - not just to see occasionally - it was necessary to be in close contact with them, both in their weaknesses and their strengths; And that was why Sergueyev was asked to reproduce them at Sadler’s Wells with the original choreography, as far as was possible with our small company at that time.

"The classics can always be expanded because their structure and form is so good, and I cut them as little as was possible. I used to overcrowd the stage in my effort to preserve the figurations, since you cannot cut the numbers of dancers in the big ensembles without ruining them - so the Sadler’s Wells stage was sometimes awfully cramped ! However I did not think that mattered because what were trying to do was to preserve the whole, before it was lost."

Nadia Nerina was a pioneer for BBC television and appears in the following productions directed by Margaret Dale:

1957 Coppelia
1958 Les Sylphides
1958 Giselle
1962 Petrushka
1962 La Fille mal Gardée
1965 The Firebird

Nadia Nerina on timing

"Timing in passages of elevation has to catch the rhythmic nuance of the music; this not only helps one to jump but also highlights the steps of elevation. Lise’s flying circuit around the stage in the coda of the cornfield duet in Act I takes the form of chassé-coupé-chassé-jeté en tournant - step-step-step-grand jeté - with landings on the musical beat. But when Lise comes to battement devant en temps levé followed by three battements en cloche fouetté en temps levé, the beat comes as the working leg passes through first position and the accent falls on the temps levé, so that there will be an extra beat left at the end of the phrase, and this Lise should use to ’fill out’ the final position in arabesque en l’air.

"There is really a question of tempo rubato here; by the time Lise reaches that final arabesque she will in effect have ’gained’ half a beat, which should be used at the end of the phrase to hold and thus highlight the final arabesque. It is the joy of that final position which Lise feels and which the dancer must show to the audience. Dancers will understand how important this is, and future Lises may even be interested to know how I phrased the steps."

Nadia Nerina in Russia

Most unusual for the day, Nadia Nerina was greatly appreciated in Russia both in the trade, and by the public.

Here are some of her remarks on her arrival in Russia to dance in Swan Lake with Nikolai Fadeyechev.

"On my arrival, I was very honoured that Marina Semyonova (....) was to coach me and take all our rehearsals. I was offered a choice of choreographic ariation. One was Plisetskaya’s, the current one; the other Mme. Semyonova’s. I invariably chose to learn Mme. Semyonova’s, as it appeared that my approach was entirely in sympathy with her reading of the role of Odette/Odile. The first class I attended was crowded and there was marked air of tension and excitement. my technique was regarded with the utmost interest, especially my fast, neat footwork (....) and the quick take-off for jumps.

"(....) at the time, Yuri Fayer, the conductor, was almost blind, so when we worked on the Black Swan, where the tempi and steps were completely new to him, I held his hand and sang him through the choreography. It was incredible how he learned all the steps - like a dancer (...) he was always present at rehearsals. He was a genius among ballet conductors and a very dear man, revered and loved by everyone.

"In the coda they are accustomed to taking calls after each sequence of virtuosity and they were amazed when I wished to run straight through so as not to break the dramatic tension (....)"

"At Saint Petersburg, Nadia Nerina danced Giselle to Konstantin Sergueyev’s Albrecht. He was then fifty ( !) but was "magnificent.... wonderful ballon, and a superlative partner".

She recounts the following episode at a rehearsal for the mad scene:

"Giselle lies dead on the floor, Sergueyev helped me to my feet without saying a word. Then he dismissed the company and they all left the room silently. I was very puzzled and sat with Mrs. Blackwell, my dresser (....) for about twenty minutes before they all returned. Sergueyev then (....) said that they had all been so touched by the mad scene that he had felt it necessary for us all to take a break."

There are astonishing, and technically quite detailed tributes to Nadia Nerina in the book, from Russian dancers and writers such as Natalia Roslaveva, Konstantin Sergueyev and Natalia Dudinskaya inter alia.

Here is Dudinskaya speaking of 1960-61, and Nadia Nerina’s collaboration with Sergueyev,

"Two things surprised me straightaway: how spontaneous Nadia Nerina’s reaction to anything new, and how close the substance of her school was to ours. To my knowledge most of the Western schools pay greater attention to technique for the feet and legs and much less to the work of hands, arms and body. But in the case of Nadia Nerina, she danced with all of her body. Her port de bras was strikingly like that of the Russia school. Among her other qualities I was very much impressed by her ’weightlessness’ when she jumped. It had a unique resilient quality. One often comes across a jump that is light enough, but, lacking ballon, it does not have the bouncy quality of falling and rising, as if being thrown off the ground. Nerina was in full possession of this rare gift, which also made it easier for her to hold a pose in the air - and this is of special importance in the dance patterns of Giselle as we understand it.

"I consider her to be one of the most brilliant members of the constellation of ballerinas produced by the British National ballet, and it is regrettable that the stage lost her much too early. When she came to Leningrad in January 1973 to take part in my jubilee the audience recognised her in the auditorium of the Philharmonic Hall and a great ovation broke out."

Nadia Nerina on the looking-glass

"The correct use of the muscles ensures that no movement ever looks heavy. A leg is light if it is lifted by its own muscles, without displacing any other part of the body. One’s mental attitude to dance is very important; if you think ’tense’ you will dance tensely and an interpretation will be upset. You must be master of your body in order to dance freely; you have to train your arms and legs to hold their own weight, to work with their own muscles. You must learn to move ’in one piece’, quickly and easily, so that nothing is ’left behind’. When you balance you must know exactly what is happening everywhere in your body.

"(....) Working in front of a mirror in class, I always felt that I was teaching and correcting someone I did not know. It was rather like training another person, and when something needed work I would try it time and again and often feel ’why can’t she do it?’ about the dancer seen in the mirror; But there is a danger in working too much to the mirror; one tends to concentrate more on the visual image and less on inward control. Company class was always held in a mirrored studio, but in my private lessons I hardly ever used the mirror. Of course the body is never fully trained; there will always be more to learn.

"(....) I only once decided to show off, and if it was naughty it was also great fun. When Rudolf Nureyev did his first ’Giselle’ in London he caused a sensation by interpolating sixteen superb entrechat-six into the second Act. it was a rare achievement but it caused dismay amongst some of the company, who could do as well but, not being guest artists, would not dare change the choreography (....)

"One night in Swan Lake with Erik Bruhn, when we came to the Black Swan pas de deux, on a sudden impulse I decided to do thirty-two entrechat-six instead of the usual fouettés. I would show our guest artist what the Royal Ballet could do, for I knew that Nureyev was in the audience watching the performance. I always like the music for the fouettés to be slow, and the thirty-two entrechat-six fitted perfectly. Erik was absolutely amazed, and so was the conductor. And so was I, because I just went on beating sixes. If I had thought about it I don’t suppose I could possibly have done them. But the audience loved it - I know I did - and so did the company."

The National Film Theatre at London holds copies of several of the BBC productions referred to above, and I believe the New York Public Library collection at Lincoln Centre does as well. One hopes they will be released on DVD.

K.L. Kanter