Guest Teacher, The Royal Ballet
interviewed by David Bain
Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church,
London, 20 September, 2012.
AFTER BEING INTRODUCED by David, Olga said she realised she was preaching to the converted in the love and knowledge of dance but wanted to say before starting that she finds it difficult to talk about what she does – teaching, coaching and setting ballets – as it is about movement and not words and it’s about the end result, which is the performance. What the public sees or feels or senses or what excites or angers them is what it’s all about. Also it’s not just about one day’s work but a long process, day by day, class by class, week on week, year on year which gives the final outcome.
Olga then told us about her background and how she got into ballet. She was always dancing to the radio, and her parents said she should go to ballet school when she was three and a half years old. Her family background was more in the academic world though her maternal grandmother danced and there was a dancer, a singer and a violinist on that side of the family. Her paternal grandfather, a historian by education, had a good voice and sang as an amateur. His cousin, however, was a well-known theatre author and director (N N Evreinov). Eventually for Olga ballet became an obsession and she wouldn’t consider doing anything else. She comes from a Russian family who emigrated after the Revolution and Olga was born in Prague. There she danced and did competitions and was accepted into the national theatre. Olga’s mother eventually wanted to find out if she was good enough to be a dancer and as she was going to Moscow for a conference she decided to knock on the Bolshoi ballet school door to ask if they would assess Olga to see if she was sufficiently talented. The only way to do this was to go through all the auditions which lasted a whole week after which she was told she was talented, but badly trained. First of all she had to remove the awful ‘galoshes’ (thick black leather shoes) which she was wearing, and change into canvas. After three years she moved from Moscow to the Vaganova in Leningrad, so Olga was lucky to experience both schools.
People talk about the Russian style but if you are on the inside you see a huge difference and there is also a big difference between teachers particularly those who teach from the middle school onwards. They have different ways of explaining and insist on a correct way of doing things. Then if you transfer from one teacher to another, suddenly what was black becomes white and vice versa! She was lucky enough to have several wonderful teachers and the opportunity to observe others. Her Moscow teacher was the best for the beginners, and the one who made the biggest impression. Olga Iordan, an exceptional dancer of her generation, was an early pupil of Agrippina Vaganova, like Ulanova and Dudinskaya. Vaganova taught for about 30 years, the last of her pupils being Osipenko and Kolpakova. When Iordan walked into the room, Olga and her best friend said that was what they would aspire to. She influenced many others including Woytek Lowsky, a wonderful teacher and dancer in his younger days. He and Olga were both keen on teaching dance and in the course of conversations they later discovered they had the same experiences and it was the same teacher who inspired them both. Later in Leningrad Olga was chosen for Dudinskaya’s class. Company classes were taken in the school studios at lunch time and they would watch them, including those of Pushkin who taught the boys’ and the men’s classes. They also had a wonderful character teacher who became director briefly of the Kirov, and a wonderful mime teacher, an extraordinary Russian/Greek woman who ran the school museum and was like a fountain of energy and information. She had a cupboard which was kept closed but occasionally she opened it to show pictures of Rudolf Nureyev, who had defected by then.
Olga went back to Prague and started dancing not in the National Opera as she was too tall, but in a second company. She loved dancing but things were not easy and less than two years later in 1968 the Russian occupation took place and the family left for Paris, and then Canada which was where she began teaching. She went to company classes and Celia Franca said she was good but couldn’t use her. Betty Oliphant was Director of the School and, finding Olga very intelligent, asked if she would be interested in teaching and she agreed she would be. Looking back now, Olga felt it must have been disastrous as she’d had no formal teacher training. You rely on what you know to a degree, but it was her first close contact with the Western style. Throughout the first few years in Toronto she ended up working with a wonderful teacher to whom she owes almost everything. Daniel Seillier was a French teacher from the same generation as Jean Babilée. He’d been in the Cuevas Company and not in Paris Opéra because he was small – born in miniature like a little Napoleon! Many of the National Ballet of Canada’s dancers, such as Karen Kain, now it’s Artistic Director, say they owe everything to him. Olga asked him to come and watch class and give her suggestions, criticisms etc. He said ‘shame on you, you mustn’t copy what you see but you must use your own schooling and develop it here’. They worked together for a year or more going through the French system and terminology to which there’s a solid logic. You have to absorb ideas and regurgitate them in your own way. You have to be sure of what you are trying to achieve, what the steps should look like and where the movement comes from and where it’s going. He had a wonderful vision and was critical of the system in Canada, where you learned something perfectly before moving to the next step. When you learn languages you have to learn several words at the same time and though you forget some, others will stick.
Audio clip - Teaching:
It’s hard to teach and Olga has discussed with many people the difficulties involved. Lots of people agree it’s impossible to teach someone to be a dancer – it’s something you’re born with. You can learn to be a good dancer but you can’t learn that ‘special something’. With those lucky ones you have to guide rather than teach. It is so hard to teach people the ultimate goal but you show them the road so that then they can follow it themselves in their own way. It is the same responsibility but in a different way when teaching in school. You can’t insist a dancer does a role precisely one way: you offer guidelines but there has to be a certain element of freedom. They can sense the stylistic boundaries and while the steps might be fine they can mean nothing. There are many aspects which are very important to make a whole – from the way you point your foot, through musicality to style and drama.
Asked how she moved from teaching in school to teaching the company, Olga said Celia asked her to teach the company and for a while she was doing both in tandem. Her special teacher, Daniel, said she should dance as well so she took a contract in Norway to dance and to teach a group of dancers who came from very different schools. In contrast to Toronto, for the first time she had no system behind her and then she understood what her teacher had meant about looking for what was important and understanding the essence of the movement and the steps and variations. Several years later she was invited to come to New York as a guest to teach the ABT Junior Company class. One day Mikhail Baryshnikov took the class and asked her to come to teach the main ABT company the next day. Everybody, including Erik Bruhn, John Taras, Georgina Parkinson and Kenneth MacMillan came to watch and she was offered the job pretty much on the spot. She couldn’t move to New York permanently as she had three children, but she did become a permanent guest teacher for eight years. Misha asked her to rehearse a particular dancer whose interpretation he found rather dry so Olga tried to help her understand the style and found she loved the process. Then they put on one act of Raymonda and best of all she rehearsed Les Sylphides, which Misha considered sacred among all ballets.
She was with ABT again some time later when Natalia Makarova came as a guest dancer. She did class and watched Olga rehearse and then called to ask if she could put on Swan Lake as she was mounting it for London Festival Ballet. It was a problematic production partly because of the sets which were unbelievably bizarre! To Olga’s mind that first production also lacked a certain balance. It isn’t by accident you have the group numbers and little character dances. Natasha said they couldn’t do it and the only character dance was Ashton’s Neapolitan. Ten years later Natasha said she wanted to put it on in Brazil and Olga said they should think about putting back the character parts in Act III to make the balance right. They were the dances Olga had performed so she knew them well and eventually this was the production they mounted in Russia and in China.
After Swan Lake Natasha said she wanted Shades from Bayadère for Festival Ballet. She began with just the Shades and then did the whole thing (due to be premiered in Sweden) which was her first full length ballet and from which she learned a great deal. She’d worked with Rudolf Nureyev in La Scala, and also Misha Baryshnikov and they both taught her a lot but with Makarova she had and still has her longest collaboration. If Olga said she couldn’t do something Natasha asked her to do because she had a contract elsewhere, Natasha would say ‘but this is more important, otherwise who will do the Makarova style!’ Olga knows exactly what Natasha wants and can see the production through her eyes. She carries a vision of her own way of dancing which Olga respects even if she may not always agree with it. But it is her job to deliver the best possible production as visualised by the author. Although the premiere was due to be in Sweden and the Royal Ballet the following season, MacMillan became ill at that time and Pagodas was postponed by a year so Natasha told the director of the Royal Swedish Ballet that Olga must go to London immediately to put it on there. When he protested, Natasha said that London was more important! Olga flew back and forth so when Natasha was there she could be here. John Lanchbery changed the music, reorchestrating and making cuts so the Maryinsky version is quite different. The day after the premier in Stockholm there was a Shades rehearsal here, and she had to re-teach the Makarova version. It was difficult to do right away but after maybe three repetitions it was much as she wanted it. Dancing with props is difficult and has to be done in a certain way so Olga finds ways of describing and demonstrating how it should be achieved. The Company had previously had Rudi’s Shades. There were minor differences but for Natasha they were big. Olga uses her own shorthand, like many do, rather than Benesh notation. Natasha changes little things all the time and then changes back again. Her version has been mounted all over the world mostly by Olga (Argentina, Japan, Hamburg, Milan and the Royal) though in Poland it was Cynthia Harvey and Susan Jaffe, and in Finland the notator from Stockholm started with Olga coming in for the last few weeks.
Olga was at La Scala as ballet mistress for a brief but intense period during the directorship of Robert de Warren. Rudi was at Paris Opera at the time but was like an artistic adviser for La Scala where they did many of his productions. Rudi always came to her class and sent all the boys he cared about to her class as well. His vision was completely different from Natasha’s but she learned so much. His temper was difficult, he would throw chairs in rehearsals and swear badly in Russian and other languages but he had so much passion and warmth in him. If he hated someone it was with passion and if he liked someone he would challenge them and provoke them into doing their best. They put on his Don Q, Beauty, Swan Lake and Nutcracker but not Romeo and Juliet which was the Cranko version.
Olga’s life now is a mixture primarily of teaching and coaching and then of mounting Natasha’s ballets. She set Aurora’s Wedding for Monte Carlo Ballet 20 years ago. In Argentina she did Act III of Napoli, Paquita, and Raymonda. From the years 2000-2010 she regularly put on classical ballets in Arizona. The Director, Ib Andersen, a wonderful Danish dancer in his day, asked her to be part of the project there as he believed in performing the repertoire the correct way and thought it was important both for the company and the public to get to know it and he knew Olga was closer to the Russian style.
With the Royal Ballet she began with Bayadère and now her role has developed. Monica Mason was taking care of guests when Anthony Dowell was director and asked her to teach regularly. Over the years it’s become more concentrated and for longer periods so now it’s two or three times a season. It takes time to get to know dancers, to build trust, to get to know their strengths and weaknesses and the Company style which must be respected. As a teacher and coach you are a guide but you can also learn because you absorb what you see and are influenced by it. Olga has grown to love this Company so when outsiders query it, she says it’s a very young, international and multi-facetted Company. She loves the dancers and respects them particularly as their working life is so hard and short, demanding a huge amount of discipline, strength and many other special qualities. You can’t give your best if you don’t respect people and like them. You can criticise but they will take it if they trust that you love them and know it’s not a put-down or trying to take away something from them. This time (September 2012), it is easy – she’s teaching class and helping with Swan Lake rehearsals. She’s only here for a month so won’t see Swan Lake to the end. Also there’s a new ballet mistress and assistant and it is important that they take on full responsibility so Olga meanwhile can help dancers who are guesting elsewhere and will rehearse ballets that are not included in the current repertoire.
Recently she was in Japan where she’d been asked to stage/coach/teach for the 13th World Ballet Festival, an extravaganza which could only happen in that country. There were 13 performances, plus five open general rehearsals in all, of five different programs, two of which were full length ballets, in less than four weeks. Many of the best dancers in the world were there from New York, France, Russia, and Stuttgart, including Tamara Rojo, Steven McRae, Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg from the Royal. It was insane. They worked on a wide variety of rep almost without exception unbelievably hard without missing a day. Tokyo Ballet provided the corps. After a manic time it was lovely to be back here.
She will return in March after spring break for Bayadère. Asked if she has any influence on casting, Olga said she discussed it with Kevin O’Hare and Jeanetta Laurence but Natasha has to give the final OK, which she’s done with some very minor changes. Olga sees Bayadère through her eyes so knows and respects what Natasha wants. When there are new people Natasha wants to know who they are. Many of the dancers have worked with her before, either here or elsewhere. Alina has just been with her in New York. Olga’s days will be very full – normally about 10 hours. This time there will be quite a few new people to get to know. The first few rehearsals involve setting or resetting or re-teaching. You teach the parts separately and then put them all together, starting with the big classical chunks. Other coaches will be there too and as regards the Corps, the ballet mistress is in charge. Then you work on Demi-solos and then the Principals. There are normally several casts for this ballet (few companies have so many casts) so she can’t do everything herself but she will stay here for the duration of the performances.
In thanking Olga for a fascinating evening, David asked her to return and continue on another occasion. Olga finished by recounting a funny anecdote about when she was putting on Bayadère in Argentina: ‘When I arrived first to Teatro Colon and was asked what I will begin with, I responded in Italian (which I speak fluently, and which – I supposed – everyone understood). I said that, of course, I will begin with “LE OMBRE”! (which is “the shades” in Italian). But “ombre” means “man” in Spanish, of course. When asked how many she wanted she said 24 plus 3 of course and the man was flustered and said that wasn’t possible as they didn’t have that many. Olga retorted that if there weren’t 27 then they wouldn’t do the ballet. Later she went into the grand studio to find it full of male dancers ranging from the school to those who were retirement age and probably hadn’t done a class in years!’ She had learnt enough Spanish while in Buenos Aires, where she had been at least four times setting classical ballets, that soon enough the dancers “voted” that she should speak her Italianate version of Spanish!
Report written by Liz Bouttell corrected by Olga Evreinoff and David Bain ©The Ballet Association 2012.