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14 novembre 2009, première soirée : Nina Vyroubova

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Nina Vyroubova
by Anne-Marie Sandrini

14 November 2009

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The best way to present Nina, is in her own words. The incomparable artist told Jean Laurent, author of Nina Vyroubova et ses Visages in 1958:

“Each ballet is sacred to me. I approach each quite differently, since the characters I am to interpret, are themselves so unlike … Naturally, the Dance itself comes first and foremost, but I take great pleasure in the latitude left for interpretation. One must strive to forget oneself, and identify, to the greatest extent possible, with another character, not only through costume and make-up - that do of course help - but above all by one’s deportment, how one walks and moves, and what the arms, as much as the countenance, convey… To my mind, the Dance is amongst the richest of art forms. All feeling – love, hate, tenderness, joy and sorrow … In some ballets, one feels that one’s entire being sings a hymn of victory, in others, the dance is a prayer. I have truly understood its vast powers of expression, and the boundless joy it can bring.”

Nina Vyroubova dans
La Somnambule
Collection Dominique Dellouche

As a pedagogue, Nina was well ahead of her contemporaries, insisting, for example, that the turnout be natural, unforced. Her former students all speak of her as someone simple, generous but extremely demanding. The importance she gave to the quality of ports de bras, the use of the eye, the gaze, the ports de tête. The barre generally ended with balances. She was very strict about keeping the heels down. They say that one could read the music in her eyes. For a dancer she was to instruct in variations of the repertory, she entertained great respect, and would always say: “Be yourself. Do not copy me.” She strove to bring out the gifts, the abilities, peculiar to each of her pupils. The notes she has left, scribbled onto a schoolboy’s copybook, bear out what we report here. She shewed us how to bring out a child’s artistic vein, his talents, from the very earliest age.

In Nina Vyroubova et ses visages, she acknowledges that what she most enjoyed, was not her success as a performer, but the daily grind in class, and the satisfaction at even the slightest progress day by day, that she wrung from almost superhuman work and courage. She always said that she left class far more exhausted than after performing on stage.

For pre-schoolers and beginners, she wrote: “With children, let the emphasis be on improvising, whether dancing to music on the movements they have learnt, or else artistic improvisation, acting out a character or even a theme. Once a child have lost his shyness, have him invent his own themes. Obviously, one selects a theme suited to his age (…). For an older child, one tries to join expression to acton, for example, have the child read a letter with bad, or good news and so forth.”

To conclude, let us hear Jean Laurent: “By perfecting the classical and neo-classical styles, which in Nina Vyroubova, will never seem cold or monotonous, she has proven with each new ballet that the academic vocabulary will outlive the passing fad, the craze, the fashion.”

The heritage left us by Nina is a precious one. I pray that we may live up to her work, that we shoulder our responsibilities and never allow the fire she lit, to go out.

Interview with Anne-Marie SANDRINI

Q / Nina Vyroubova was your petite mère at the Opera. How did that come about?

AMS / My first recollection of Nina is our meeting in the lift!

We children were strictly forbidden to take the lift in the Palais Garnier. The year was 1952, I was to perform in Act II of an opera, and had to get up to our changing-rooms on the top floor to sign the attendance sheet. I have no idea what got into my head that day, because I was always a terribly good little girl, but I suddenly decided to take the lift up. I pushed the button for the last floor, but the lift stopped thirty seconds later, on the next one. In walked Serge Lifar and Nina. Terrified, I was certain that I would be expelled from the School. Nina whispered into Serge’s ear. He asked my name. When I got up to the changing-room, my face awry, the other pupils all shrieked “You’ll be sent down!”

A few days later, the School monitor walked into our changing-room: “Sandrini, Serge Lifar wants to see you in his loge!” Shaking all over, I went downstairs and knocked on the door, feebly. In I went, to find Nina reclining on a sofa, looking very lovely.

Lifar said “Are you the pupil who was in the lift?” (he always used vous with us). Nina took both my hands in hers and said “You look so much like me when I was little. Would you like me to be your petite mère?”

She was to become part of my life, and present in my mind, always. Whenever it counted, she was there for me.

Q / Why did everyone love her so much?

AMS / People will often speak of Phèdre, or Mirages, where she left such a mark. But she lived every role with the greatest intensity. When I stood in the wings and watched her in La Symphonie Fantastique (I was a bit of coral-reef, and behind my tulle veil, I could just see her …), it was her face, so expressive, her arms that followed a thought out to infinity, her hands, an emotion that one simply cannot express.

I was a mere child when I saw her dance Giselle. Her mad scene remains with me to this day. She was a tragedian.

Above all, she touched the heart by the way theatre, and dancing, were one in her. And her relation to music. As Yannick Stéphant says – one could see the music in her eyes. How she would forget herself to enter fully into a character, an interpretation.

Q / And in class?

AMS / She was trained by Russian teachers, and met Maître Brieux only in 1949.

In a way, it’s thanks to her that I became Brieux’s pupil. If Brieux thought we were might come up to expectation, he would allow us to take class. I found myself at the barre near Nina.

There I saw her working like a schoolchild, although the very night before, on stage, she had been acclaimed.

There I found myself placing my hand on the same wooden barre, as she.
As Brieux spoke, she listened carefully and with great humility.

Such are the things that, when heard at thirteen or fourteen, one never forgets.

The way she worked the foot was very thorough as well.

But what truly matters is how with her, the simplest things enthralled one. How she would use her eyes, the port de tête, that eye that seemed to look out into infinity, the light that radiated from her face. An inner light, manifested outwardly.

As a pupil, one does, because one must, whereas with Nina, whatever it was took on another dimension, because she would be present with her entire being. The very simplest gesture was dance, because it encompassed everything.

When she listened to music, she seemed to be drinking it in every atom.
Her turnout was nothing special, nor could she lift the legs high. But no-one cared.

One year, at the School exams, Nina and Serge Lifar were on the jury. At the time, the examination took place in the classroom, in groups of two or three, executing pas d’école. There was an adage, ports de bras, small jumps. As we awaited our turn, we would stand along the wall and stare at the jury.

Nina watched me carefully. She had her fountain pen in her mouth, and suddenly I realised her mouth was full of ink!

The examination over, I caught sight of her in the courtyard. Since she was my petite mère, I tried to shrink into the woodwork. But Nina walked straight up to me and said: “your examination was exceptional, but we are not moving you up to the next class. It’s for your own good. Monsieur Lifar and I discussed, and we think that if you were moved up, you’d be obliged to do very difficult things, force the musculature, and risk being spoilt.”

That decision not to have me move up a class altered the whole course of my life.

Because when I finally reached the division d’engagement (the class from which the Opera recruits), there wasn’t a single job open, whereas the year before there had been thirteen!

I began to tread water, spending two years in the première division without a job. Maître Brieux was most encouraging, but I began to think that I was unwanted at the Opera.

Be that as it may, I regret nothing. Leaving the Opera broke open a path other than that my parents and grandparents had trod. It gave me a distance on things, and the chance to think things through. By the time a decade had elapsed, I had understood that I was in the profession because I was indeed made for it.

For my communion, Nina gave me a medal of the Holy Virgin. I have kept it. She attended my marriage at Eglise Saint-Roch.

As an individual, she inhabited a sphere quite outside the normal walk of life.

In 1985, we invited her to teach for the Association française des maîtres de danse classique. A simple battement dégagé exercise, as Nina gave it, carried one far away. Every movement revealed the human being she was, one saw her as Giselle, the Swan

September 2009