Interview with Claire Sombert
8 August 2004
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Claire Sombert studied with Maître Brieux, Victor Gsovsky, Alexander Volinin, Mesdames Rousanne Sarkissian and Olga Preobrazhenskaya. She made her début at Lausanne in 1950 and the following season joined the troupe of Janine Charrat. Thereafter, she danced with the troupes of Roland Petit (1953-54), Milorad Miskovitch (1956) and Jean Babilée (1957-59). She worked with Michel Bruel in Russia (1968) and from 1972 to 1974 was étoile at the Ballet du Rhin.
She made films at Hollywood, notably with Gene Kelly, and created a number of ballets with choreographers such as Maurice Béjart and Serge Lifar (created Lifar’s Pique Dame in 1960).
As Inspector of Dance for the City of Paris between 1980 and 1999, Mlle. Sombert sought to adapt the teaching of classical dance to students who could take but two lessons a week, by first developing their musical and visual aptitude, before moving on to a more intensive study of classical technique.
With Marcel Landowski and Yvette Chauviré, she set up Terpsychore, a Society that aims to preserve French choreography, and to set up a Museum for the Dance.
Claire Sombert has also directed thirteen documentary films on the classical dance.
Q/ A few years back, you stated publicly that you felt that a sort of dictatorship has taken over cultural life, that recalls the former USSR.
Whatever did you mean ?
A/ That it has come down to one single form of dance, a form that enjoys lavish subsidy, but that puts forward one vantage point only. Unfortunately, that happens to be the vantage point currently in vogue - starkly ugly, barren, brutal, and intended to shock and stun.
This dictatorship has been imposed top down, thanks to the tastes of a handful of folk who cannot distinguish between so-called "modern" art, and an art form that, for so many centuries, has lived on through our work: the classical dance. We’ve reached the point where one no longer has the right to earn one’s livelihood through that tradition in France. One can only earn a livelihood by adapting to the tastes of the day, i.e. the worst taste imaginable.
Q/ What has changed in technique since you stopped dancing ?
A/ First and foremost, the effort. Previously, one strove to disguise all effort. Now one shoves it up front like a sportsman, those being the people whom the public cheers on: the highest jumper, the multiple turner.
Interesting as virtuosity, perhaps, but a form of virtuosity that should be kept well in the background, while artistic expression, sensitivity, and interpreting the role should occupy the foreground. As for hair-raising deeds of derring-do, there are pas de deux specifically designed for that purpose, so let us stop dishing it up at every course.
We were used to dance in accordance with our own natural morphology. Yes, there were a few off-beat methods around and about, where one would pull on the body to stretch it out, do things like the acrobats, pull out the neck, or whatever, but such practices were very much off the beaten track. They smashed up the students, pulling on the tendons or the arch of the foot, but, I repeat, they were not a common-garden occurrence.
What’s far more serious, is that only those possessed of a most unusual morphology are allowed to ’join in the dance’ at all. One has now got to be ultra-flexible, long-limbed, tall, and have highly-arched feet. And that foot, let’s spill right over on it, because it’s that much more impressive, eh !
It’s just too much. We overdo the turnout in the leg, to a degree that it’s become frankly ugly and unpleasing to see such yawning positions.
Getting those legs up there has become a sacred cow - if one can’t pick up the leg, one isn’t thought to be any good as a dancer.
But the dance starts from the solar plexus, from the back, the heart, the lungs, i.e. from the centre, the torso. The rest is handmaiden to the centre: that is what makes one vital, strong, that’s what makes the dance gutsy (l’on en a dans le ventre), and everything else is an accessory, that allows one to get across the idea, lyricism in the arms (…).
At present, though, it all comes from without, not from within ! We’ve got it on backwards!
Now, the public may feel some sort of emotion - knocked for a loop, as it were - but I’d scarcely call that art. A ballet dancer is not an acrobat.
Q/ Why so many accidents now ? Why has the career become ever shorter ?
A/ We were used to perform in a series, where the body was conditioned in rehearsal to dance a ballet that would be on for three weeks. The dancer would condition himself, physically, and work himself into the right sort of "cocoon" to be in top shape for the role.
The current approach, shifting from one style to another, is wrong. People learn that they’ll be doing Forsythe one day, and Giselle the next. A technical feat that wreaks real harm on the body.
Whereas a violinist conditions himself to play the things he’s worked on. It should be the same in the ballet, but it isn’t !
Sportsmen are spoilt and petted no end, and so are race horses, but not dancers !
At the moment, we’re sawing away at a branch that had grown through long practice and experience. Through experience, we had reached a point where dancers enjoyed a lengthy career, and they would get there by moving ahead slowly, step by step. We were used to build up something solid, whereas what counts now is to pull off some major stunt, and make money. The body breaks down, it falls to pieces early on, despite the fact that for some time now, all dancers have been chosen precisely because they’ve got a most unusual physical potential.
I greatly regret that there is no longer a maître de ballet who is the BOSS, and who can leave his mark. A maître de ballet should work with his troupe for many years. At present, they’re simply there to serve choreographers, who walk in and walk out. The maître de ballet is just a pawn ! And the dancer’s given eight days to adjust to some new style as disruptive to his physique, as it is to his psyche.
Q/ Suki Schorer, in her book "Balanchine Technique" seems to take the view that Third Position is only for five-year-olds.
A/ The Third position is the NATURAL opening of the hips, knees and feet, the opening that allows one to dance turned out without injury, neither exaggerating nor disrupting the body’s central equilibrium.
The Fifth is not a true position. It is anti-natural, and what is more, allows one to do nothing more than what one can achieve with the Third. To the eye, it’s very ugly, because it makes the body look so strange, crumpled up, with the behind sticking out, the whole is really so hard to achieve unless one were born with a natural, and extremely rare, degree of turnout.
Olga Preobrazhenskaya did not want the fifth, because the knee must buckle to close; she felt that such tension was uncalled for. She used the Third for all character dance steps. Character dance is natural, classical dance being a distortion, that one must take great care not to push to an extreme.
To my mind, the only true use for the Fifth is petite batterie à l’italienne: to be light, one must not lock the knee, so one gathers more easily, and then one can cross in Fifth, the more so, as the push-off potential from the ground is far greater in Fifth !
In all events, the fifth should never be crossed beyond the big toe joint; beyond that, it becomes both ridiculous and outright anti-anatomical.
In the fifth, the ankle will roll, and if one over-cross as well, there will be a sprain, the arch will fall in, and so forth.
One has got to know how to adjust what is allegedly formal "correctness", to artistic expression, and allow some latitude in technique.
Maître Brieux, who had something of the tyrannical and outlandish in everything he did, was an absolute stickler for the fifth. Those were the days at the Opera where everyone had to fall into line, or else. To do otherwise would have made one look the complete amateur.
But I was smashed up by Brieux, I could not have been more keyed up, in intense pain and suffering, and whilst I was in Canada doing television programmes with Adolfo Andrade, he saved my life with yoga. I started all over from scratch.
When I got back to Paris, I took up yoga again, and spent a good deal of time thinking about the body, about placement, and about non-violence towards the body, and that’s what I’ve tried to get across to the teachers at the Conservatories I’ve been in charge of.
In yoga, I straightaway found a direct and simple path to the feeling in the body. I stretched fully out, I raised up, whereas Maître Brieux had us crumpled up, he pressed us down into the floor.
What I then began to do, was a little like Markova ! (laughter) but she was right ! She floated, like Rosella Hightower - how lightning-swift, how she pounced upon those steps ! Well, it may not have been of the tidiest, but what emotion she got across, giddy as a flower in the wind, swaying like a tree …
At present, we are heavily, too heavily focussed on DOING things. One should rather think about them, sense them, and then they will become of themselves. One has got to see them in the mind’s eye, without clinging to rigorous or strict positions. The dance must float, it must move, it must be light as though one never needed to push off, the body must be as though suspended at all times. Breathing in, holding one’s breath without letting it escape gives the swiftness.
We’ve taken to jazz movements that make a big effect, violently splitting open the legs in grand jeté for example, whereas a grand jeté is a threefold movement - one takes off, floats through the air, and then returns to earth. Threefold movement. Not a big splash up there, but a progress, rising and gently falling earthwards. A jeté is not that dry SCHLOCK, splits in the air. That’s not classical !
One good example, are the variations from Fokine’s Sylphides. Fokine, by the bye, is quite extraordinary in his subtlety, in finish, in reserved and poetical gesture, and that’s what led to Robbins. In composing his classical ballets, Robbins learnt everything from Fokine, and there’s much of Fokine in Dances at a Gathering.
Q/ What’s the point of the barre ?
A/ The barre allows one to gain the sensation that no effort is called for, and that one need not stand up "quite alone".
This affords one a considerable feeling of security.
As for facing the barre, I couldn’t say who invented that idea, it must be recent, but it’s brilliant.
Preparing the barre by facing the barre allows one to think oneself into it, get one’s bearings, perhaps even with closed eyes. Calm and alone.
Maître Brieux taught a traditional barre.
With Alexander Volinin (1882-1955), one encountered another current.
On occasion, Volinin would have us work with our back to the barre, almost as though we were "sitting" on the back, and we’d go through all the gestures as though to open up, shifting from one to the other leg, which, as we moved to the centre, would allow us to dance without pressing into or off, fluidly, in a way that would seem quite astonishing nowadays ! Volinin had been Anna Pavlova’s partner from 1914 to 1925 and although she did indeed work lifelong with Cecchetti (perhaps because she felt the need to go against the grain ?), that must have been how she danced. The very opposite of Cecchetti !
I studied with Volinin, and filmed his barre.
Without the barre, it may, perhaps, be possible to develop a notion of aplomb, but it will not be CLASSICAL dance. One has got to train the leg, the muscles until the dynamic become sheer habit, as though one were training a horse. When one does thirty battements on each leg, the whole point is for it to become a reflex, so that the muscle react as though it had been "trained ". Without the barre, one may eventually find the pathway, for simpler things, but it won’t do for the great classical technique.
Allow me to stress that the barre lets one think oneself into each and every movement without tensing up, whereas in the centre, one has got to pull it all off, when faced with difficulties two or three times greater. In any event, a child cannot start without the barre.
Q/ At the moment, after a full day’s rehearsal, most dancers have to undergo various forms of re-education, generally Pilates, just to keep on dancing.
Does that strike you as normal ?
A/ No, not normal, not to my mind. The way we are dancing now is very harsh, it eats up the body.
Relaxation exercises, speech as therapy as in Hatha Yoga, to let go and relax, yes. One recovers one’s strength, dispels fatigue, and the body finds its own bearings. That should be quite enough.
But clearly, that is nothing like enough at the present time. The body is become like a worn elastic band, one that’s been stretched out and has lost its elasticity.
Look at Alicia Markova, who had such a long career. She didn’t even do the barre ! She had her own way of warming up. She’d come onto the stage, focus her mind, and use the means she had - she’d literally hover over the stage.
I’ve learnt what I know of the body through trial and error, by doing utterly mad, wild wild things, that made me into a wreck, and I ended up in hospital. There are people who push you to the outer limit, and you end up smashed.
What is want at the present time is for every single joint to be hyper-extended, without there being the slightest artistic motive behind it all. If it’s to shock, or to garner more kudos than the dancer next in line, I, for one, don’t see the point.
And how often is it beautiful ?
Some may insist that there are people like Sylvie Guillem, who muddle through. Well, their morphology is quite unique, they’re made of rubber. And even they end up as wrecks !
Q/ Turning to how the foot is used …
A/ Nowadays we’ve taken to grinding the foot into the floor as though we wanted to screw it right in, as though the supporting leg were not actually supporting anything, but we needed the other as a prop too ! Rather than just placing the foot delicately on the ground. And we’re doing it, because we find it " prettier " to see that great big arch.
Here at Paris, it’s partly due to Nureyev’s influence. Yes, he danced well, but he was firmly anchored to the ground nonetheless. I recall my partner Igor Youskevitch, who rode the airs, whereas Nureyev lived pressed into to the ground, and one sees that very plainly in his ballets.
Now, back to the foot. The more I think about it, the more I realise that Volinin was right when he was used to tell us that the foot is a mere tool that one uses to turn on, or to hover in arabesque, and so forth; but the foot is not a position CLAC CLAC CLAC, to pose and have its picture taken ! Volinin couldn’t give a hoot if one’s feet looked like a pair of clogs ! He’d have us take pirouettes as they come, in full flight, and movement was of the essence ! It was fantastic ! Whereas those of us who’d come from Maître Brieux’s studio, we were plumped down, squatting to prepare a pirouette, just sitting there - it was the world upside down.
Working with Volinin I realised that one can perfectly well dance on a less-than-taut knee, a flexible foot, a slightly relaxed back, provided it flow at all times !
The foot is not an end-in-itself !
Q/ What’s happened to ports de bras ?
A/ Look at these photos of Toni Lander (shews the book Foerste Trin from the early 1960s), how she holds the arm ! Don’t throw them back, hyper-extended behind the shoulder-line, and don’t raise them up to shoulder-height, but let them to decline, and let them be rounded !
With Maître Peretti, and with the old Italian generation in general, we were used to do the grands ports de bras in the centre in round, elliptical forms, moving constantly, and using all the space on all sides. It was an extraordinary exercise. At the moment, we’re living under martial law, it’s all four-square.
Cecchetti did that too, with his grands ports de bras taken to the sides, forward, back, a multitude of forms that made up a real composition. Someone must absolutely write those enchaînements down, unless it’s already been done.