Bob Alton died in 1957 at age 55 from kidney ailments. What happened to you after his death? How did you transition into teaching?
He was a dear, dear man…At his memorial service I sat at the back because I was so upset. Danny Kaye came from the front and sat down next to me and held my hand the entire time. After Bob had passed on Judy did another act for the Palladium and Dick Barstow staged it. He knew that I had been an assistant to Bob Alton and wanted to meet me. And we just clicked, so I assisted him for Judy’s show. For a while I did some choreography for television. Then Mitzi Gaynor wanted me for “South Pacific”. Joshua Logan the director wanted the musical numbers in the film to be exactly the same as in the Broadway show. So he arranged that I sat in the projection room for hours day after day after day, until I learned all the numbers. Once I knew them I had to go to the cast and teach them. I learned the lyrics first and that helped me put the movements to the lyrics. I can’t remember all the names of the numbers now, there were so many. Silly numbers with Mitzi being “5 foot 2 eyes of blue”, and the character of Luther in a grass skirt..and of course the “Bali Hai” number with Juanita Hall, and the “Happy Talk” number with France Nuyen. We had some good dancers, I remember we hired some African American dancers that I had known from years ago with Lester Horton. They were so much fun to be with.
Through Nico Charisse’s studio, this is where we rehearsed with Judy, I met a man named Phil who needed a teacher and I taught at his studio which was down the street for two weeks. During that time I also coached Ed Ames, a big popular singer at that time. Originally there were four brothers and they broke up and he went on by himself. He was a very good singer, wonderful baritone voice. We did all kinds of modern exercises to limber him up and then more balletic type moves, nothing too technical but with the goal of making him move about the stage comfortably and without effort. He studied with me for 4-5 months and then invited me to stage his shows for him which I did. One day I got an offer to start a ballet program at Dance Center West. It was good timing as my daughter was getting ready for college. I had classes everyday, and on Saturdays I started at 9:30am and taught until 4:30pm. My class started with 5 people, and it grew and it grew. And when I finally moved over to the Westside Academy of Dance all those students came with me and that was the first adult class Yvonne Mounsey had at her school, and now they have adult classes mornings and evenings. Yvonne said “When I saw you teaching Adagio I knew that you would be wonderful for my school.” I’ve been at the Westside studio for 22 years. At the studio before I taught for 10 years.
Have you over the years developed a philosophy on teaching, how do you prepare for class?
When I first began teaching I would plan the whole class from beginning to end. And I used to write out the whole class and take it to my memory. Now I don’t do that. Once in a while I think of a combination and think “Oh I must remember that” and write it down on a card. Or if I see a weakness in certain things, “I’ve gotta find something that will help them”. For instance with beats.That’s why we’ve been working on the echappé royal combination, so that people get used to beating from an open position. But I get very upset if I have to rush to class without having time to at least think about the class. I don’t like to talk much in class. I want the class to move, I want it to begin and flow all the way to reverence. It was so good when Ray and I taught class together. I could set the combos and get it moving and Ray would go around and give individual corrections. My whole idea is that I want my students to be exposed to everything. So that when they go to the theater they recognize things “Oh I can do this, oh I know that..” I feel that encouragement is important. That a student improves, no matter how little or small it may be. I tell them “it’s better” or “that’s good”. We know class is hard, it’s hard work. So it’s nice to feel or see that one is progressing.
The adage combination you give us in class are they inspired from Muriel Stewart?
I could never tell you a combination from Muriel Stewart. I don't remember. Sometimes I can recall a Maracci combo and I throw that in once in awhile. Things evolve, there are other people that studied with Carmelita and became teachers. I'm sure we teach entirely differently. I'm sure I teach differently from her because she talked a lot, I don't talk much. I keep the class moving. Because I want them to work, the students should be dancing the hour and half and not lean on the bars and listen.
A number of Hollywood musical stars and actors trained with Russian dancers. Robert Alton studied with Michael Mordkin, an original Diaghelev company member. Muriel Stewart was a student of Anna Pavlova. And you have studied with Anton Vilzak and Pierre Vladimiroff in New York for a time. What is the signature to Russian technique?
Power. But in general it’s hard to say, because ballet is such a conglomeration of things. They got fouettés from Italy but when you think of fouettés now you think of a Russian ballerina doing them.
You go see a performance whenever a company is in town. Do you think the art of ballet has changed?
The level of technique is really the thing that has changed so much. The men for example, I don’t think they did all these double cabrioles front and back as they do now. And 7-8 pirouettes is nothing nowadays. In those days you saw someone do 5 or 6 turns you’d go Wow! But now they pirouette and bring in the arms, and they go faster and then they bring their leg down to coup de pied, and they go faster. And then they end slowly and do a dèveloppé out. It’s remarkable. In those days you did a pirouette and finish! Now I see them do fouettes and they do triples! I mean I did 32 fouettes. Maybe we would finish with the double. Now they do triples every other turn. It’s amazing. And in my days a 90 degree arabesque was the norm, we thought it was beautiful. Now you see these girls with their legs around their ears and do all these pirouettes and bigger jumps than the men even. BUT..all too often the artistry is missing. I’m being very general. Danilova was a bombshell on stage. Dancers of her time had a sense of theater. They really projected and came across.
Are there any dancers of today that you admire?
Well, I haven’t seen her for a long time but Sylvie Guillem is just..Wow! What a dancer! And to have had such a long career. I love some of the Spanish men, like Angel Corella. I love the Cuban dancers! But modern day dancers, they change so fast, I get used to seeing certain people and then they are gone. When I first saw Cynthia Gregory I thought she was very cold, technically fine. She studied with Maracci. But she didn’t thrill me. But she grew, season after season at ABT, finally she was wonderful! Same with Cynthia Harvey. You watched her progress, each season she was better and better. But the dancers now don’t stay long enough for you to see that growth. I don’t see enough of the NYCB out here. Last time they were here I went backstage and got to meet Mr Balanchine. It was only for a short time but it was nice to see him again. I love Lynn Seymour, and I had a chance to watch her teach class at the Ilkley Ballet Seminars in the UK in the 1990’s. There I also got to watch Svetlana Beriosova and Irena Baranova, they were Balanchine’s baby ballerinas. Even at their advanced age they moved so beautifully and had such presence.
Which choreographers do you admire and which ballet is your favorite?
I like MacMillan and Ashton. When you think of MacMillan’s Manon for instance, how many different lifts he does. He’s so creative. He never repeats himself. My favorite ballet is “A month in the Country” with Anthony Dowell and Lynn Seymore. I love Giselle, I love Swan Lake. I don’t like cutesy things..I don’t like Coppelia much. Although I like La Fille Mal Gardée. I like a lot of contemporary work. Ailey did “The River” and I loved it but I never see it anymore. ABT did it one season, I saw bits and pieces here and there but not anymore. I’m not sure if it exists on DVD..It’s a shame to lose some of these things. It’s like with the Maracci stuff, I mean if we had her on film it would be great!