Auguste Vestris


27 mars 2010, quatrième soirée : Nora Kiss

Dans la même rubrique
In the same section

L’enseignement de Nora Kiss
Recollections of Nora Kiss
Réflexions sur l’enseignement de Nora Kiss
On the Teaching of Nora Kiss
« Nora était un penseur »
’She was a thinker’

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’She was a thinker’
by Yves Casati

27 March 2010

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Nora Kiss was born in Russia, in 1908 and came to France sometime around 1918, or perhaps it was just before the Revolution. Her mother, the actress Tamara Sarkissian, was the wife of Théodore d’Erlanger – the latter being private secretary to the great teacher Alexander Volinine.

Like her aunt Madame Rousanne Sarkissian, later to become a celebrated teacher as well, Nora Kiss was thus Volinine’s pupil.

Monsieur d’Erlanger managed the Ecole supérieure d’études chorégraphiques at 132 de l’avenue de Villiers, where Volinine taught, inter alia, Christiane Vaussard, Madeleine Lafon and Boris Traïline.

Nora was on stage for a brief time only. Very early on, before the War, she began to teach. And during the War, she lived in Italy.

It was in late 1953 or early 1954 that I turned up in Nora Kiss’ studio. I must have been 18 or 19, and had had only six months’ training, with a Polish teacher at Lyons – how incredible that seems today ! Freshly-arrived at Paris, I knocked on the door of Janine and Solange Schwarz, whose town-house was next door to Yves Brieux. The sisters packed me off to the choreographer Jean-Bernard Lemoine at the Opéra Comique, who in turn told me to study with Nora Kiss.

So Nora put me in with the very beginners, saying: "I shall not utter a single word. You are to start working, and three months from now, we’ll see if you can stay." And indeed, she said nothing for three months, after which, I stayed for a mere thirty years.

Alexandre Volinine et Lydia Kyasht dans First Love, Empire Theatre, Londres
24 septembre 1912
Cliché Murmann Studios

Nora’s classes could scarcely be described as formal: she would change everything, even the barre, every day. Although she refused to teach children, she would take adolescents – even beginners – once they had turned fourteen or fifteen. Nora could make a dancer even of someone who was not built for it, because she could whittle away the flaws. She had a spark of genius, and everything she taught was different and appropriate to each pupil.

For example, despite the fact that she strongly objected to floor-barre, she might have a pupil learn to jump by lying down on the ground! The idea was to get a sense of precisely how the back and head must align in a jump, how the spinal column curves, how the hip-joint is placed, and then we would "push off" agaisnt the wall.

In those days, teachers would tend to say "squeeze the bum, squeeze your legs", squeeze this and squeeze that ! Quite the opposite, said Nora! She was the first to delve into matters of anatomy because she was a scientist, a thinker. And certainly no squeezing, except for the sole of the foot that was to act like a suction cup. Everything had to be free and loose - the back too, and even in arabesque. The Least-Action Principle – put aside all superfluous or parastical effort. The better one dances, the less tired one will be.

Everything she did was carefully thought out, and it was an original idea. But it was not appropriate for children.

Nora was a stickler for discipline– she might even scissor off a sleeve to see how a pupil held the upper arm – but it was a discipline designed for adults who wanted to get where they were going. 

She gave an open class, where one saw not only her own students like Jacqueline Moreau, but the greats of the day - Toni Lander, Kalioujny, Niels Kehlet, Daniel Lommel, Jaudel, Pierre Lefaivre, José Ferrand from the Opéra, Tessa Beaumont, Dirk Sanders, Tania Bari, Jorge Donn, Paolo Bertoluzzi… 

Depending on what Nora saw before her on the day, she might give an hour’s petite batterie and the next day, nothing but grand allegro.

Although some dancers found her overly-scientific and "not dancey enough", Nora’s classes were very "dancey". It wasn’t the steps, as such, that interested her, but what one says with the steps.

In class, she never gave repertory. All the enchaînements she gave in class were original to her, and designed to study a principle or a problem. For example in the middle, she would mix pirouettes with jumps. Apart from grandes pirouettes, she would never give an isolated pirouette exercise, but always integrated them into an enchaînement.
Nor did she break down a step. Her approach to an enchaînement was to go at it slowly at first, but strictly, respecting the rhythm. Musicality came first and foremost.

At the barre, she would start with pliés not in first, but in second. And the pliés were almost always given in some sort of combination. As I said, her approach was un orthodox !

Her feeling for what worked on stage was fantastic, and working on a variation with her was an experience.

Imagine a teacher who would drive 40 kilometres to watch a pupil who’d only been dancing for two years, perform on a small stage out in the boondocks. I can’t think of a single other teacher who’d bother to do that for a rank beginner!

Nora’s anatomical science was unique for her day. She was the first to study the back, and align everything relative to the back - the arm, the hip - and the first to teach a pupil how to place the foot on the ground correctly. She could take someone who was almost a fully-grown adult, and give him a turnout that was acceptable, and a foot that was acceptable not only functionally, but visually. Her work on the foot was very advanced.

Nora used to say things that people smile at today, but that are nonetheless perfectly true, and objectively verifiable. For example, she’d say "Stand on your third leg". Well, if you do a battement dégagé, you are most definitely not propped up on the standing leg: you are standing on your line of aplomb, and THAT is your third leg. It’s objectively verifiable.

Nora Kiss au Studio Wacker (à droite)
Collection Peter Heubi

Similarly, in jumping: in the take-off as well as the landing stage - contrary to common belief - the foot does not actually go through the demi-pointe. The action of jumping, although it does move through the entire foot, will not fold at the metatarsal section, as it does on the demi-pointe. Look closely at what is really happening! The same is true in battement dégagé, where the foot’s action is led by the calf and by the leg.

I cannot ever recall having spoken so much of Nora, but when teaching, I never cease to think of her, and I hear her voice.

As I said, Nora was a thinker.