Memory Lane: Olga and Dorothy Get It Together

11 Feb

In my endless quest to clean out decades of paper accumulated, I came across  something from 1982,  a time before e-mail, I-Phones, Facebook, Twitter, etc. The story was submitted to a local newspaper but was rejected.  But since the tale is rooted in dance history and fact, I want to send it out with my own chuckles at the memory.  So here goes.

Where Olga Smoak is involved, where does one begin?  Knowing her is a tornado, pleasant variety, intense, an artistic typhoon all her very own. My knowledge of Olga Smoak began at Jackson’s First International Ballet Competition, 1979.  She hovered around the Czech entrants, Jana Kurova and Lubomir Kafka, medalists at Varna, Bulgaria, Tokyo and Prague.  They won the silver and gold medals in the senior women and men’s division at Jackson with an additional prize as best partners in the senior division.

The gossip from the Competition was that this energetic, slender, tiny-boned woman from Panama, with her sharp-nosed oval face was not only their interpreter, but the wife of the Czech juror, Pavel Smok.  The different spelling went unnoticed in the heat and steam excitement at that first competition in Jackson, partly because no one wanted to investigate, partly because there was no reason for anything official to bear Olga’s name at the time, nor the fact that this Vassar graduate listed New Orleans, Louisiana as her home and base of operations.

Everything may have appeared arranged.  Jana and Lubomir lived apart from the other contestants at the International Village at Millsaps College, where San Francisco Ballet entrants David McNaughton, Dennis Marshal and Laurie Cowden were housed.  No one took into consideration the list of awards Jana had acquired, including the famous Prix de Lausanne for aspiring dancers up to age 19.  Lubomir Kafka already had a reputation having been featured prominently in the Princess Grace-narrated documentary Theatre Street.  It seemed natural that the Russian-speaking wife of the Czech juror make herself useful while her spouse was out front on official jury business.  Finish memory, Olga Smoak, 1979.

Enter 1982 and Jackson’s Second International Ballet Competition.  The management was different, the publicists were different and a string of advisers was present providing an emphasis on the regional ballet training in the United States with regional preliminaries; a few of us were present at the Competition for the second time. This 1982 format was a precursory for what is now standard for The Youth America Grand Prix competitions.

Marda Burton, Mississippi belle and stringer for UPI, and I had lunch with Ben and Estelle Sommers.  Ben, “Mr. Capezio”, started his theatre business career at 14 as delivery boy for Salvatore Capezio, toting shoes over to Florenz Ziegfeld and his Follies. In 1982 Ben was a special honored guest at the Competition  along with Jackson’s Pulitzer Prize winner, Eudora Welty.  Estelle was co-chairing the Competition with Richard Englund of American Ballet Theatre II.  Ben and Estelle mentioned a Russian had made it to the Competition as a personal guest of Robert Joffrey and William Leighton, Mississippi Ballet International’s Executive Director.  Marda smelled a feature, and I evinced a mild curiosity since my assignment required I focus on the Houston entrants who emerged spectacularly with six prizes.

At the matinee intermission, Estelle, who had to be the Perle Mesta of the dance world, introduced Marda and me to the sandy-haired, grave-faced Gennadi Alferenko, still a trifle woosey from more than twenty-four houses on successive Aeroflot and American Airlines jets.  We smiled at each other, our first meeting with a Russian from Siberia.  Nineteenth Century Russian novels and their mindset did a double take when focused on this slender stranger from an area commonly considered exile, punishment, the back of beyond.

Since the distractions of Round I and the milling in the auditorium aisle were scarcely the ambiance for an interview I suggested lunch.  My American Express charge slip, saved in memory, reads Scroodges.  The occasion added a double memory;  in a nearby men’s clothing store was a promotional brochure with an image of Johnny Frane, a paternal cousin required to change his name because the clan objected to having a pugilist in the family.  That’s an international competition for you; unexpected connections, stronger by the minute, giddy by the second to the imagination.

George [Yuri] Zoritch, Ballets Russe de Monte Carlo principal, heavier in the chest with good living, sat between Gennadi and myself.  Olga Smoak sat on the opposite side with Marda Burton.  Giggling and exclaiming with her prototypic drawl, Marda flipped through Gennadi’s Russian-English phrase book while Olga turned her focus to me to provide a precise description of why she proclaimed herself “the happiest woman in the world.” Roped, collared, gripped, mesmerized, compliant, I listened.  Captivated as much by her intense energy as by her clarity of purpose and accented speech, my extremes of mood swings and checkered balletic love seemed mild morning dew in contrast.

How could a Russian bureaucrat possibly resist Olga’s combination of charm determination, calculation, intelligence and sheer wiles, simultaneously in the service of balletic art?  There she was, the Mata Hari of the ballet slipper,  conspiring to get the balletic best through West to East and East to West.  Olga is a Napoleona in an international warfare against cultural ignorance in an art form. No pitch of the voice, shrug of the shoulders, head nodding or flood of prose could pretend to convey the strength, depth and effectiveness of Olga’s strategies.  In Jackson’s late June heat, splashy drops of a thunderhead disgorging moisture, it was a double charge, honey chile, with the chorus and punctuation provided by the rise and fall of Marda’s relaxed “you alls.”

To be continued.

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