Welcome to my website, I’m delighted you could visit. On my site you’ll find all kinds of information about who I am and what I do. Of note, you’ll find information about my 2009 book, Paris Times Eight, Finding Myself in the City of Dreams. In the coming months, look for news about my latest book, Ballerina, coming out […]
The National Ballet of Canada today posted an image from the photo shoot Fred Lum and I did way back in 1998 for my Globe and Mail review of James Kudelka’s version of The Nutcracker, showing the various ballerinas poised to dance the Sugar Plum Fairy. Here are the words which accompanied it. Several of the dancers mentioned are no longer with the company, among them the wonderful Jeremy Ransom. Too often dancers are forgotten after they stop performing , so I hope this brings a few of them back, if just for a moment.
DANCE REVIEW THE NUTCRACKER
The Arts: Ballet
Stunning Nutcracker keeps on getting better
12 December 1998
The Globe and Mail
All material copyright Thomson Canada Limited or its licensors. All rights reserved.
The Hummingbird Centre in Toronto on Thursday
The only snow Toronto has seen so far this year fell on the stage of the Hummingbird Centre on Thursday night. Even children in the audience were mystified. “What’s that, mommy?” squeaked a small voice in the darkness. “Is that rain?”
While El Nino and his sister are giving Southern Ontario its balmiest December ever, the National Ballet of Canada might be having a hard time convincing denizens of the city that Christmas is just around the corner. A good number of seats were empty on the opening night of the company’s annual performance of The Nutcracker. And this was a shame, because the ballet has never looked better.
National director James Kudelka first unveiled his new version of the Christmas classic in 1995. With sumptuous costumes, sets by award-winning designer Santo Loquasto, and state-of-the art stagecraft that allows quick scene changes and dazzling pyrotechnics, the $2.3-million production — the most expensive in the company’s repertoire — is pure eye-candy. The Sugar Plum Fairy roosts in a large, golden Faberge Egg; the Snow Queen frolics in a winter wonderland of diamond-and-turquoise icicles; costumes are edged in ermine and jewels. This is a ballet for the people that wears the crown of the czars.
The astonishing visuals at first dwarfed the choreography, making Kudelka’s intricate steps seem not to have the dramatic punch of the overall design. But three years later, the playing field is levelling. In a way, we’ve become used to the grandeur, though that doesn’t mean ingenious touches like a roller-blading bear and a dancing horse have lost their charm. Rather it means that we are no longer hypnotized. Released from the spell of novelty, we can start looking more closely at the dance itself. And what we discover is nothing short of brilliant.
Kudelka’s task was to replace company founder Celia Franca’s tired-looking Nutcracker with an up-to-date version that could rival Disney and its bratty offspring, the megamusical. But only a fool would think that simple cosmetic changes could do it. Kudelka knew that to update The Nutcracker he also had to reinvigorate the art of ballet itself. People would come once to see the exploding canons. But they would return only if there was something else to hold their interest.
Kudelka instantly grabs our attention not with lasers but with dance. Peter the stable boy (danced on Thursday by the refined and elegant Aleksandar Antonijevic) opens the ballet with a sprightly solo that gives a hint of things to come. The light and buoyant steps are fast-paced and complicated. And the upper body is loose and expressive, with the arms creating clear-cut patterns. Kudelka lends the body a rhythmic suppleness that is in tune with Tchaikovsky’s mellifluous score. The relationship between the dancing and the music is so intimate that the ballet comes off as a true harmonic structure. Dancing defines character and advances plot. Mime is mercifully scarce.
Kudelka weaves texture into the ballet through symmetry and dramatic contrast. Solos alternate with group dances. Young people follow old. And working-class people interchange with aristocrats. Dancers pretending to be musicians play harmoniously on their instruments and then a boisterous group of children drown them out with their cacophonous playing of toy bugles. In Act 1 there is a snow fight; in Act 2, a food fight. These repeating sequences lend order and balance to the ballet, from its gentle beginning through to its triumphant conclusion.
In between is splendid dancing. Jeremy Ransom’s Nikolai, the wild-eyed magician who makes the fantasy unfold, was a beguiling mixture of madness and magnanimity. Stacey Shiori Minagawa, who dances the bumblebee, indeed created a buzz with her long and sensual lines.
Jennifer Fournier as the sparkling Snow Queen outdanced Icicle attendants Ryan Boorne and Kevin Law, both of whom looked fearful of losing their footing in this most difficult pas de trois.
Greta Hodgkinson, who partnered Antonijevic in the second act, was a delectable Sugar Plum Fairy. Her role demands extraordinary strength and precision, and Hodgkinson delivered all with a smooth and feathery style that masked the effort.
And finally the children. The National Ballet School swells the production to prodigious proportions. Tiny feet are everywhere, from the crowded barn scene through to the red-and-gold glory of the Sugar Plum Fairy’s palace. And they don’t simply look cute. Kudelka works the young dancers hard, giving them expansive travelling steps and complex dances that bestow on them a healthy respect. So bring on the snow. Nothing in this Nutcracker leaves you cold. The Nutcracker continues at the Hummingbird Centre until Dec. 29.
Vera Zorina is the stage name of the Berlin-born Eva Brigitta Hartwig who served as muse to two 20th century choreographic geniuses: Leonide Massine and George Balanchine. The former was her lover when she was not yet 18, becoming entangled in an open love triangle involving Massine and his wife, who for good reason hated Zorina, a natural born beauty with extraordinary sex appeal. The latter she married in 1938, becoming the third Mrs. George Balanchine until their divorce in 1944. Their marriage covers a fascinating period in the choreographer’s life in that he was then struggling to be known. His wife was the bigger star, being invited by Samuel Goldwyn himself to star in a series of Hollywood films that made her a household name. Balanchine choreographed some of the dance sequences for her in particular The Goldwyn Follies, in which he presented her as a nymph in a skin-tight costume that clung to her curves even more tenaciously when wet. Balanchine ingenuously presented her rising out of a pool of water, a kind of modern-day Venus. Her book, written in the first-person, underscores how much she despised being adored for her looks alone. Zorina wanted to be a great dancer. Balanchine coached her, giving her starring roles in his Apollon Musagete and Errante, for instance. But she is better known to audiences as a screen siren who was friends with Marlene Dietrich ( who also found her sexy to the point of wanting to seduce her herself), Balanchine friend and collaborator Igor Stravinsky, and co-star Peter Lorre, among others. Illustrated, the book is a smooth and entertaining read. But it is also highly insightful in showing the very human side of some of ballet’s greatest artists. Zorina died in 2003, at age 86. She write this in 1986. We are so very glad she did.
An excellent novel set in northern Ontario where the harsh natural environment impinges on and shapes the inner emotional landscape of the narrator, recalling her seven year old self from the perspective of a twentysomething tenured zoology professor at the University of Toronto. Kate might have a handle on invertebrates but she lacks understanding of her own kind, which leads almost to tragedy. Shakespearean in its evocation of human frailty and portrayal of an indifferent cosmos that would crush men’s souls as if they were flies, Crow Lake is masterfully written and satisfying in its depiction of life as a labour of love. All the characters are so vivid you can feel their body heat rising from the pages. Poignant too is the presentation of a host of minor figures, all townspeople and farmers who stand heroic amid the banality of their everyday lives.
Following the recent acid-attack on Bolshoi Artistic Director, Sergei Filin, and the scandals unfolding in its wake, the cracks in ballet’s veneer of perfection have never been more visible—or as puzzling—to those outside of the discipline. Dance critic Diedre Kelly’s book Ballerina: Sex, Scandal, and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, by way of a concise, thoroughly researched portrait of the ballerina throughout history, grounds these events in the historically dark underpinnings of ballet’s otherworldly image.
The book begins by laying out ballet’s origins and describes its flourishing under the reign of Louis XVI. As ballet became gradually professionalized (though still under court patronage) women of low birth could use ballet to increase their social influence, bringing themselves into the protection of the court, and more often than not, into the beds of high-ranking noblemen. Kelly provides one juicy historical anecdote after another from this time when ballerinas were “wily creatures who knew how to manipulate their public image for private gain.” She is adamant that dancers during this ballerina-courtesan era were not necessarily exploited, but rather, used their highly trained bodies to gain financial independence that would otherwise have been out of reach. This relative autonomy did not last long, however. She goes on to describe the drastic changes brought on by the shift to private financing of the 19th century ballet during which low-level dancers were little more than the sexual pawns of wealthy patrons.
The remainder of the book details the power shift that occurred as dancers were forced out of the spotlight by rising (male) choreographers. For most ballet fans, myself included, the name “Balanchine” invokes instant reverence. However, Kelly shows us the dark side of Balnchine’s genius, painting a picture of a man who worshiped ballerinas for their synonymy with ballet itself, but simultaneously regarded them as mechanistic, dispensable bodies, useful only in so far as they could execute his artistic vision. Kelly attributes to Balanchine not only the origin of the abstract ballet, but also the industry’s obsession with stick-thin bodies, which has initiated a host of eating disorders that became the status quo.
Within such rigid institutional hierarchies, the ballet world is rife with power abuses and labour conflicts continuing today. Kelly devotes the larger part of a chapter to the 18-month legal battle between US-born Kimberley Glasgow and the National Ballet of Canada. Her abrupt dismissal came in 1998 came after she criticized the company’s allocation of funds. Glasgow eventually won her wrongful dismissal suit. Though an unprecedented victory for dancers, Kelly acknowledges that the mere existence of the case is significant given the rarity of dancers challenging their employers.
Kelly’s perpetual effort to connect the ballerina to the larger social forces of her time creates a book that easily reaches beyond the obvious audience of dance lovers to anyone interested in the historical relationship between art, politics and society. As funding cuts to the arts continue to place artists in increasingly vulnerable economic situations, Kelly’s book has significant resonance. It serves as a reminder about the dangers of regarding artists as ideal, transcendent beings rather than flesh and blood labourers—even Romantic-era stage sylphs need labour laws and job security.
Kallee Lins is a graduate student in theatre and performance studies at York University and is currently interning with the TRB.
Deirdre Kelly has written a compelling and insightful history of the ethereal creature that is the Ballerina herself. It is an intelligent glimpse into the world of ballet, but more precisely an examination of the creation and ongoing evolution of the Ballerina. Whilst you are given an understanding of how ballet was first created in the grand courts of France’s King Louis XIV, Kelly’s main point of focus – her protagonist, is the woman behind what she has highlighted to be a world full of pain and suffering, behind the red velvet curtain.
Ballerina is not a light-hearted read. Nor is it something I would be slipping into your child’s Christmas stocking as a surprise from Santa. Not to be misunderstood – this is an excellent book and worth the read, however the realities that Kelly highlights are brutal and often harsh. In some respects I feel that she has delved too deeply into the darker side of classical ballet – often dwelling on the tragedies that befall some dancers as they pursue their ultimate goal of perfection. Yes, it is important to be aware of the pitfalls, trials and tribulations that dancers have faced throughout the centuries but is it not important to also understand the light that ballet brings to dancers and the reason why ballerinas love their art so unconditionally?
Kelly’s tone throughout her book almost reigns resentment, this undertone of inner-hatred for the torments that ballerina’s once had to endure to survive. It’s like the first five chapters of this book (where there are a total of six chapters) are dedicated to making point the negatives behind this profession. She does offer a silver lining in the end, denoting that ballet is changing for the better, but I feel this glimmer of optimism comes too late.
Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and I recommend anyone (ballet lover or not) to read it because there are some valid historical facts that are both insightful and incredibly fascinating. Occupational hazards that involved one literally going up in flames, as Kelly outlines frequently happened in the 19th Century French theater, where one notable Paris Opera ballerina Mademoiselle Emma Livry’s tutu caught on fire and consumed her entire body, were incidents not so far and few between. Livry survived the flames but later succumbed to her burns. Tales of such dramatic ends to young ballet dancers made one aware that a life in the theater was fraught with danger. This I found fascinating….but also heartbreaking.
This book is not one for the faint-hearted, but it is a compelling portrait of the ultimate slave to her art – the Ballerina. The symbol of utmost purity and the symbol for perfection.
Ballerina: Sex, Scandal, and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection by Deirdre Kelly, Greystone Books, 272 pages
Forget any assumptions you may have about the glamorous lives of prima ballerinas. Deirdre Kelly, a Toronto-based dance critic and journalist, has written Ballerina: Sex, Scandal, and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, which makes Black Swan look like a Disney classic for kids. The cliché of suffering dancers in bloody toe shoes is the least of it in the story Kelly presents. Her version of ballet history is filled with prostitutes, anorexics, and tragic figures like Emma Livry, one of the great Romantic ballerinas of the Paris Opéra, who caught fire in front of a dress-rehearsal audience in 1862 when her skirt got too close to the gaslights; she died months later from a related infection.
Kelly seems to assume that in this age of reality TV, what lovers of dance really want to know is that ballerinas were glorified concubines in the early days of the art form, that George Balanchine ran his artistically groundbreaking New York City Ballet like a sexually abusive despot, and that the careers of today’s stars are becoming shorter and more difficult due to age discrimination and increasing levels of competition — more dancers and fewer jobs.
Every art form is full of tragic tales of lives cut short and brilliant artists who go insane or kill themselves or who are not discovered until it is too late. Ballet is no more a haven for sad stories than is music, the visual arts, or theater. Dancers are perhaps even less likely than other artists to have interesting biographies because their careers are so short. An attempt to rise to the top in dance is, in its essence, a doomed endeavor. In dance, longevity is an oxymoron.
Kelly presents a thoroughly researched and well-presented primer on dance history. She traces the evolution of ballet from a pastime for the ruling elite in 15th-century France — the age of Louis XIV (who choreographed and performed in his own ballets) — to a more egalitarian art form after the French Revolution and to a 20th-century profession. Her feminist perspective cuts out all the saccharine excesses presented in other dance-history volumes, but her tendency to go “shocking” adds its own particular slant to an art form that, no matter what happened backstage, has always involved beauty and the highest artistic expression.
The examples of African-American ballerina Misty Copeland, who has struggled because of her race, and Jenifer Ringer, the New York City ballerina (and mother) accused by a New York Times dance critic of eating “one sugar plum too many,” shed no light on the art form. They underscore the challenges that all performing artists face, which is nothing new.
Join Ronda Nychka, former National Ballet ballerina, in conversation with Deirdre Kelly, the Globe & Mail’s award-winning dance critic and Style reporter, about the often brutal backstage experience of the ballerina.
Deirdre Kelly will be signing her new book, Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering behind the Symbol of Perfection, following the talk and Q&A.
I just came off covering the Fall/Winter 2013-14 ready-to-wear collections at World MasterCard fashion Week in Torontom, and have a few observations to share, starting with this mini review of Canadian designer extarordinaire, David Dixon — Deirdre Kelly
Viva la femme.
Armed with a social consciousness targeting women’s rights, Toronto designer David Dixon presented a strong collection of power suits and sharply tailored dresses triumphing the force of the feminine.
Opening his sleek, fast paced show of 36 looks with a 1950s BBC film instructing women as to their intellectual and social inferiority, Dixon restored the imbalance with a black and white collection – sumptuously rendered in houndstooth, black lace and sequins — in which opposites boldly co-mingled.
These were clothes for real women with jobs, kids, social commitments, said Dixon backstage: “The whole ideas was to keep it simple, strong and elegant.”
Real women love colour and half the collection was in the-sky’s-the- limit blue, seen in a strapless jumpsuit, one of the designer’s personal faves, adorned with broken glass jewellery by Rita Tesolin.
The pièce de la resistance was the finale number, a black hand embroidered tulle and organza gown with a fan bodice and skirt festooned with appliqué flowers in a sun burst pattern. It had queen of the night written all over it.
The first student to join Canada’s National Ballet School — her British-born mother had been a dancer in her native England and so knew more than most Canadian mothers in the 1950s to enroll her daughter in a dance school — she eventually became one of the leading lights of the National Ballet of Canada.
During her almost 20 years with the Toronto-based company, the ballerina known as Super Swan for commanding performances of Odette-Odile in Swan Lake was famously photographed by the great André Kertesz and partnered by Rudolf Nureyev and Peter Schaufuss, among other dance legends.
She told the audience gathered to hear her in conversation with me on the afternoon of March 24 at Toronto’s Extension Room, a ballet workout studio founded by the Quinte Ballet trained Jennifer Nichols, a dancer with Opera Atelier, that Schaufuss was a ballet brat who once threatened to topple her off her pointe shoes when he pulled the arm he was supposed to be supporting back, well past her shoulder, throwing her off-balance.
As wonderful a public speaker as she was a dancer, and still exhibiting the spunk that made her performances as Coppelia sparkle with mischievous wit, the dancer made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1984 stood up from her stool to re-enact, in high heels this time, the near on-stage disaster. She showed how she pulled with all her might her body forward again, as if she were engaged in a tug-of-war with the Danish-born Schaufuss instead of dancing with him, sharply putting herself upright.
“It was the only time in my career that I wanted to do this,” she said, miming a slap to the face of her former partner. “If I had done that all the ballerinas around the world would have sent me flowers.”
The afternoon was filled with juicy anecdotes like this, each illustrating the often unglamorous reality of ballet behind the scenes, a conversation jump-started by a discussion of my latest book, Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, before a paying audience.
Vanessa doesn’t figure largely in my book — I quote her just once — but she did endorse it, supplying a quote for the back cover. She told me she could identify with many of the themes: tyrannical artistic directors, eating disorders, and a career that when it ends often causes depression. “It’s a loss of identity,” she said. “I was always Vanessa Harwood the ballerina, then I had to discover Vanessa Harwood the person.”
I knew some of her story going into the event, but she still managed to surprise me.
Along with other shocked members of the audience, I listened in outrage as she told of being ostracized by her home company for having been one of the few who lent public support to beleaguered ballerina Kimberly Glasco, fired without cause in 1998. Vanessa said that she has since paid the price.
When the company celebrated its 50th anniversary season in 2001, she wasn’t mentioned in the souvenir program and chalked it up to it coming so soon on the heels of the Glasco fiasco, as it was known in the press.
But when in 2011 the company celebrated its 60th anniversary season, and again she was omitted, she wrote a letter to the administration asking why.
The answer she received was that the National Ballet has too many alumni, and that the company can’t be expected to include everyone.
But she’s not everyone. She’s Super Swan!
Still, as she said so herself, the culture of silence is so strong in the ballet world that ballerinas who dare speak out often get punished. I document this phenomenon in my book, citing international, contemporary day examples.
Undaunted, after retiring from dancing when in her 40s, she literally went looking for the voice long denied her. She took voice classes and then joined a choir, even though, as she said, she’s a lousy singer.
Her moment of truth came when her voice teacher asked her to sing a capella before the class. She chose What I Did For Love from A Chorus Line.
“That was it,” she said. “I had done it all for love.”