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I have said elsewhere how much I admire Dame Antoinette Sibley in "Ballerina" on 1 July 2013 and I announced Ivy House Music and Dance's afternoon with her and Clement Crisp in "Sibley" on 17 Dec 2013. Yesterday the great day came and here is what happened.
The event took place in the theatre of the Royal Ballet School in Floral Street. This was the first time I had entered that building and indeed it is only the second ballet school I have ever seen, the other being the Northern Ballet Academy in Leeds. There were photographs, drawings and other exhibits on the walls which I stopped to regard on the way in and out. They included the designs for The Birds, a ballet performed in 1942, the School's coat of arms and lots of photos of all the great names that had been associated with the school. It felt strangely like my old school save that instead of dancers and choreographers our exhibits were of generals, judges, bishops leavened with the a few poets, musicians and actors. These exhibits reminded me that English ballet is part of a living tradition linked through Dame Ninette de Valois and Sir Fred Ashton to Dighialev's Ballet Russes and through then to Petipa, This was a theme that a gentleman who spoke on behalf of the London Jewish Cultural Centre picked up when he proposed a vote of thanks and Dame Antoinette and Clement Crisp referred to it several times in their discussion,
After tea and biscuits we were ushered into a theatre near with barres which presumably also serves as a rehearsal studio. The theatre was packed but I managed to find a seat in the second row. Before Dame Antoinette and Clement Crisp entered we were treated to the pas de deux from Act III of The Sleeping Beauty by Hikaru Kobayashi whom I had last seen dance Myrtha in Giselle on 18 January 2013 and Federico Bonelli. I don't think I had ever been so close to such beautiful creatures even in the stalls as there has always been the orchestra between us. Experiencing that proximity and intimacy alone justified the 200 mile trek form Yorkshire but there was far greater delights than that to come.
After the dancers left the stage a screen unfolded, two chairs were produced and Dame Antoinette and Clement Crisp were introduced. Dame Antoinette wore trousers with a tailored jacket and black shores and bag. She was as beautiful as I had remembered her on the stage, The years simply rolled away to 1970 when I first saw her. Clement Crisp was elegant too in his manner as much as his dress. Urbane and generous, Dame Antoinette called him our greatest ballet critic as indeed he is.
The conversation began with a joke. Sibley's first great role had been as Swanhilde in Coppélia but a misprint in the billing had cast her as Swan Hitler instead. I wondered about the tactfulness of that reference before a predominately Jewish audience as some of them were old enough to have lived through the Holocaust but nobody seemed to mind. The conversation passed on to Dame Antoinette's first appearances on stage which began when she was still at school. The first time she came to the attention of the press when they followed her to her home in Kent where she sometimes worked in her parents' restaurant. Her first tour to South Africa. Learning ballerina's roles in a matter of days before appearing on stage. Cranko's choosing her to dance in Harlequin.
The first clip we were shown was of Sibley dancing Dorabella in The Enigma Variations a lovely ballet which may well have been the first time I saw Sibley. Dorabella is Dora Penny and Elgar himself described the movement as follows in his notes:
"'The movement suggests a dance-like lightness.' An intimate portrait of a gay but pensive girl with an endearing hesitation in her speech."
Well that was Sibley and Ashton brilliantly translated it into movement with short steps on pointe representing a slight stammer. Seeing that footage again after all those years literally brought tears to my eyes, and still more flowed after Crisp revealed that Ashton had nicknamed Sibley Dorabella.
The conversation moved on to Sibley's other great roles in Manon, Cinderella, Thaïs and of course The Dream which was the first ballet Ashton had created for her and Anthony Dowell. Dame Antoinette said that she had been concerned that she had been chosen by all the other choreographers of the day but not by Ashton and she wondered whether there was a reason for that. However, one day a notice appeared calling her and Dowell to learn the part for a new ballet based on Midsummer Night's Dream. She thought she would be one of the lovers but in fact she was to be Titania. She spoke about how Ashton always prodded her with his finger because he remembered Pavlova and he wanted his dancers to move like her. But he never prodded Sir Anthony.
She discussed how other dancers have to get used to each other in a pas de duex. Often a ballerina has to ask her partner to make adjustments to accommodate her centre but with Sir Anthony it was natural like hand in glove. She had been Sir Anthony's first partner and he had thought it was always like that until he found the contrary when partnering other ballerinas.
She talked about her relationship with Sir Kenneth MacMillan and how he had announced his intention of creating a ballet for her by leaving a book for her in her dressing room and Dame Antoinette produced that book and read from Sir Kenneth's note in the cover. She spoke of the difficulties of preparing for that role as the time she had set aside was interrupted by illness and a trip to Australia.
At the beginning of this post I mentioned the tradition of ballet. Crisp described Sibley as a "repository" - which set her giggling - of knowledge. She had known so many of the greats and indeed she had been taught by two of them. The great English ballerina Pamela May who taught at the School while appearing regularly at Covent Garden and Tamara Karsavina whom Sibley adored. Karsavina once invited the young Sibley to her home and she cooked a steak for her. Sibley chose a steak because she thought it might be easy - something you just place under a grill - but Karsavina took the same trouble over that steak as she did with everything else.
As Sibley spoke about her teachers I realized that every teacher represents to his or students every dancer, choreographer and teacher who has gone before. Sibley loved her teachers and I can relate to that because I love every one of mine. Those who have gently corrected my wobbling arabesques and feeble turns. I texted one of them yesterday after the talk from a restaurant where I ordered - guess what - a steak.
"Oh super jealousy" she replied.
"Don't be jealous" I responded "You are also part of the tradition. You live it, I just see it. And you pass on your gift to others."
"Awwwww Thanku xxxx"
"When I go to class you or Annemarie represent every dancer, choreographer and teacher who ever lived".
"Aw Jane! I won't be able to leave the room soon"
"I am only paraphrasing Sibley. She should know. Through you I am linked to your teacher who is probably linked to someone at Ballet Russes who is linked to Petipa."
"xxxxx wise woman!"As indeed Dame Antoinette is. I learned so much from her yesterday for which I shall always be grateful.
As if this was not treat enough I got the chance through the wonderful BalletcoForum and twitter to buy a ticket for the Gala for Ghana but that will be the subject of my next post. I have to teach some law to graduate students before I can turn to that.