Tag Archives: Leonid Massine

The Mia Documentary

9 Oct

San Francisco Dance Film Festival opened its 2015 series at the Jewish Community Center’s Kanbar Hall, Monday, October 5 with the documentary
“Mia,” the life and accomplishments of Mia Slavenska. Slavenska died in 2002, believing she had been forgotten though she was lionized at the Ballet Russe Celebration in New Orleans in 2000 and subsequently interviewed for the wonderful Geller/Goldfine production Ballets Russes. This documentary was created by Mia’s daughter Maria Ramos and film-maker Kate Johnson. Their choice of signage seems geared to a television screen and smaller viewing space than the Kanbar.

While the documentary has been aired earlier on television, the chance to see it again was memorable, not just because of her life, but with the inclusion of three dance critics active during the height of Slavenska’s appearances: Jack Anderson,  who for many years co-edited the Dance Chronicle quarterly. Anderson also was one of The New York Times dance critics for many years, a poet who also authored The One and Only Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo.

George Dorris served on the editorial board of Oxford University Press’ six-volume The Dance Encyclopedia, and contributed to the English publication Dancing Times. George Jackson covered Washington, D.C. for Dance News for many years, as well as writing periodically for The Washington Post; he now writes for the website danceviewtimes.

Newspaper accounts from Mia’s early years were quite amazing. She clearly was sure-footed technically and her debut elicited adoration from the audience. As a young adult, she created quite a stir for her advocacy of expressionist dancers like Harold Kreutzberg and Mary Wigman, causing a non-renewal of her contract with the Zagreb Opera House.

Mia and her mother left Croatia, went to Vienna, managed to get Mia into the cultural branch of the 1936 Olympics, which she won. Moving to Paris, Mia found an impresario who changed her name from Corak to Slavenska and got her into the film Ballerina with Yvette Chauvire and Janine Charrat, who played the young girl crippling Slavenska. The French title was Le Mort de Cygne.

The unexpected death of her impresario triggered Mia’s signing with Leonid Massine and the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo where she languished because of a large roster of ballerinas. Here the documentary fails to credit her leading role in Marc Platt’s choreographic debut, Ghost Town, worth at least a photograph.

Also missing was Mia’s decision to spend nearly two years with Vicenzo Celli, the major Cecchetti teacher of the time. and the three seasons she was artistic director of the Fort Worth Ballet. Nor did it touch on the relationship Mia and Rozelle Frey enjoyed, and Frey’s studio where Slavenska periodically taught.

A significant portion of the film concerns Slavenska’s own ensemble, which, for a time, was profitable. Expanding the number of the ensemble proved fatal, causing them to lose their home. A good part of this footage centered around Slavenska and Franklin’s portrayals in Valerie Bettis’ A Street Car Named Desire. Tennessee Williams told Slavenska she was his best Blanche de Bois. Slavenska earlier enjoyed considerable acclaim, dancing Anton Dolin’s Pas de Quatre with Alicia Markova, Natalie Krassovska, and Nora Kaye. An excellent passage of her dancing with Royes Fernandez does not credit him as her partner.

With the fiscal disaster of the Slavenska-Franklin Company, Mia turned to teaching although she spent two seasons as the ballerina at the Metropolitan Opera, concurrently. When she left New York City for Los Angeles, she taught privately and for some years both at UCLA and CAL Arts before her retirement. The retirement years were spent writing her memoir, a copy of which was deposited at the Jerome Robbins Division of the New York City Public Library.

Slavenska attended the Ballets Russes Celebration in New Orleans in 2000; there she was one of the big draws, and is a featured dancer in the Geller/Goldfine documentary Ballets Russes. Unfortunately, she died before the documentary was released.

The film finishes with the touching evidence of the estime with which she is regarded in Croatia. A plaque is embedded in the wall of the house where she was born, and her ashes were interred in a ceremony led by Dido Bogdanovich, the artistic director of the Opera Ballet in Zagreb.

There is only so much footage can cover in an hour’s length; Ramos and Johnson have forged an excellent narrative with just enough actual dancing to fill out what largely are pictures and copies of articles, With this length of time, it only states the environment fostering her, a mother from a prominent family which lost its status and fortune following World War I, a modest father who was a professional pharmacist. Still Brava, Brava, Brava.


Historical Interlude

7 Jul

Anything about Paris – history, memoir, map – is a magnet for me, even though I’ve spent only three brief visits to The City of Light. Browser Books on the west side of Fillmore just before the #1 California bus stop on Sacramento, San Francisco, carries a fair amount of reading enticements. I want to mention one, just finished, because of its unexpected foray into dance history – the Diaghilev Era.

Specifically, the book is Paris at the End of the World; The City of Light During the Great War, 1914-1918, paperback, $15.99, ISBN #978-0-06-222140-7. The author, John Baxter, is Australian, a long-time resident married to a French woman, Dominique by name. He also has authored several other books on Paris, also biographies of several noted cinematographers.

Baxter was interested in World War I because his grandfather, Archie, volunteered for replacement Australian forces in 1916. The circumstances of the enlistment, his return, and later abandonment of the Baxter family became a trigger for his grandson’s tracing his steps in the Parisian world of the time. Each short chapter manages to capture vividly a sense of the times, a paperback to finish in as non-stop as daily routine permits.

I harbored a more personal interest in wartime Paris, also. Beyond the fact that my father joined the Canadian artillery as a replacement, also in 1916, a fact and resulting ambiance that hovered around the family during most of my childhood, I wrote about Josephine Redding, a young American volunteer nurse during the first year of the war, who died in a New York hotel room in 1915. Her diary provided perspective and fuel for Baxter’s descriptions.

Several years ago, I registered that Diaghilev premiered Leonid Massine’s Parade in Paris in 1917, and that World War I was still being fought not so very far away from Paris, some forty miles in fact. This information both thrilled and gave me a shudder. The Russian Revolution had started in February with the abdication of Czar Nicholas II and the effective loss of Russians fighting as the Communists endeavors to solidify their control of the former Russian empire.

On pages 217-219, Baxter records Jean Cocteau and Pablo Picasso’s trip made to Rome to pitch the idea of Paradeto Serge Diaghilev. True to his dictum, Etonne moi, “Astonish me”, Diaghilev bought the idea of a ballet roughly based on a traveling circus.

Chapter 31, “I Love a Parade,” pages 289-299, tells the story of the production. It has just about everything to qualify it for a zany Marx brothers feature; I think it’s safe to say it introduced the particular form of social chaos that came to be known as The Roaring Twenties.

For starters, this is the first account I have read placing Parade’s premiere at the Theatre du Chatelet in the afternoon; it was a charity matinee, wartime conditions ruling electricity and public transportation, even the number of times a theater could be open for performances. The 3K sized venue was jammed, thanks not only to Cocteau and Picasso, but also to Erik Satie; he was morose when horns and jostling milk bottles were added for effect.

The work was startling; Massine had incorporated ragtime, the cakewalk and the “one-step”, placing them on stage with a company noted for oriental exoticism,” Russian folk and fairytales. Anyone seeing Gary Chryst in the Joffrey Ballet’s revival understands some of the impact. Francis Poulenc was shocked and the music critics slammed the production. Cocteau was delighted; he had created a scandale to rival Sacre du Printemps. With the rumor that in certain loges love-making occurred during the performance, Baxter concluded the chapter, “It really was the hottest ticket in town.”

Draw your own examples in the contemporary dance world.