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CHAPTER 6

All That Glitters Is Not Gold – All Who Wander Are Not Lost.

Photo left: All settled in London bed-sitter. Notice map of USA on wall
Photo right: Building where I lived at 25 College Crescent, London. Bed-sitter was three front bay windows with red curtains.


During my first week in London I found a teacher, Andrew Hardy.

His school in South Kensington was populated mostly by professional dancers from London’s West End theaters. He was known also for placing many of his students in European ballet companies.

I felt as if I was starting all over again as a young ballet student, but in a new land. With no idea of British money – it was still shillings, sixpence, half crown, etc. – I simply paid for daily lessons by holding out a hand filled with change and let whoever was in charge pick out what they needed.

I Join A Ballet Company
One day after a class, I went along with some other dancers for tea. One of them, an Irishman named Jimmy Hughes, asked if I would care to join a small, touring company called “Ballets Minerva” as he was about to leave it. I jumped at the chance while he seemed overjoyed at having found someone to replace himself. He gave me directions to where the ballet company rehearsed in Sudbury Town, quite a distance on the underground from central London.
After auditioning me, the director of the company said I had potential.

Well, I was twenty-five, had been dancing since age fourteen and already belonged to two theatrical unions, but I suddenly had ‘potential’. Not a very encouraging evaluation. At any rate, he accepted me at a huge salary of fifteen pounds a week and the ballet mistress began straight away teaching me the repertory. So, after only two weeks in London I had landed a dancing job.

Ballets Minerva was an odd outfit. The director, Edward Gaillard, had been a member of the Vic-Wells Ballet [later to become the Royal Ballet] and after seven years in the army joined The Ballet Rambert. He was also one of the soloists in the magnificent ballet film, “The Red Shoes”. Eddie lived with his mother. The three principal girls of the company lived a kind of sequestered life in a tiny cottage at the bottom of his parent’s garden. There was an older male dancer, Harry. Where he lived I never knew. These five people were the starters of this company, then in its ninth seemingly imperishable year.

Then there were the extra dancers of which I was the newest recruit. Actually, I was the only male dancer. The other male, Harry, only did the character roles. I think he also did the choreography but I never saw him get any credit for it.

There were nine of us in all, so we were compelled to dance mini-versions of the classics such as “Swan Lake” or “Coppelia” while impersonating a cast of thirty. Truly, it was a pint-sized company, or ballet-in-a-nutshell – but they wanted to, and actually did provide more than a pint measure of entertainment for the largely family audiences. It maintained high standards of performance, touring all of England on a bus especially fitted to accommodate all nine of us plus costumes and scenery. It always had enthusiastic and devoted audiences and got good notices.

The company worked for forty-eight weeks every year with three weeks rehearsal in London. One new ballet was produced each year.

As the company was in its three week rehearsal period when I joined, all efforts went into teaching me the repertory. The first ballet I learned was “A Christmas Carol” after the Dickens story. As the single male solo dancer I was weighted with four roles in this, starting as a barrow boy selling hot potatoes with an exhausting variation.

Photo: Opening scene of Christmas Carol - I’m posed, reaching to start my hot potato variation.

A quick change turned me into Marly’s Ghost and another change to Bob Crachet. In the second act, Harry was Mr. Fuzziwig and I danced the ‘Young Scrooge” in a pas de deux.

Photo: As Young Scrooge

Kathleen Gray, the senior dancer took the role of Old Scrooge in male drag. The Prima Ballerina was always Margaret Cameron. Everyone danced several roles including girls becoming boys when needed.

Sonia Sarova was the third member of Eddie’s private harem, as we called it.

“Plat du Jour” was a coy little number about a chef [me] a housekeeper and two kitchen maids. This was the ballet in which I made my debut that I jokingly called “my debut on the British stage”, actually in a small town I believe called Tring.

My second debut in the Pavilion Theater at Bexhill-On-Sea was in a weighted down drama on “Circe And Ulysses” to music by Richard Strauss. Winter had begun and the theaters were icy cold. England is not known for heating, at least it wasn’t in those days. As I was about to make my first entrance I stood in the wings shivering, half naked in my short Greek tunic and bare chest. Eddie, standing on the other side of the stage thought I was trembling from stage fright [I wasn’t] and sent Harry over to calm me. Of course, as Ulysses I had plenty of acting and duets with Circe but mostly it was sitting and watching the drama of Circe and her hand maidens preparing for my death.

“Hamlet” was another dramatic and challenging role.

These were all ballets that the company had done before. The new production to be readied and taken on tour was “Alice In Wonderland” in which I had three roles –Unicorn, the Red King and Knave Of Hearts.

At the London try-out of “Alice”, all the critics were present. I made my first entrance as the Unicorn, leaping out onstage to do battle with the Lion. As I’d never read the book I didn’t know what the battle was about. It was the crown I later found out. I tried to make the leap as high as I could. On landing I felt as if someone had shot me in the calf and hobbled off stage to sit down and watch my foot swell up and turn black. Apparently I had not warmed myself up properly before attempting leaps that I soon found out was absolutely necessary in the cold and damp English climate.

Photo Left: Circe And Ulysses on an outdoor stage in Highgate Park, London
Photos Right: As Hamlet


Photo Left: As the Red King in "Alice"     Photos Right: As the Knave Of Hears in “Alice”

On Tour With Ballets Minerva
We traveled on the company’s twelve seat bus - or coach as it’s called there - including the driver. In the rear were stored the costumes and minimal scenery for the four ballets to be done that season.

I got my first taste of the British class system when I first boarded that coach and began to take a seat beside the leading ballerina who always sat in front. She quickly put me in my place by telling me my seat was in the very back. I was not only a newcomer but a foreigner as well, and an American to boot.

In each city, the five founders stayed in the best hotels while the rest of us were assigned to cheaper digs. I didn’t mind. I was enjoying touring and the chance to see all of England at close range.

Once backstage, Eddie showed me his triple tour en l'air. He just jumped up, without any preparation or warm-up, and spun around three times. As any male ballet dancer will tell you, the skill to do a double tour in the air must be guaranteed, at least to one side. I could do doubles to both sides for sure, but a triple is a feat I had never seen before, except perhaps in figure skating. Eddie must have really been unique doing this.

These tours to various cities usually lasted two or three weeks. One day we would be in some Devon township and the next, looming on the horizon somewhere in the far North, then back to London for a week or so. We always looked forward to engagements in London as not only the audiences were more sophisticated but it was home. During these free periods I was free to take classes at Andrew Hardy’s studio and go to performances by The Royal Ballet and The Royal Opera at Covent Garden, and see the current plays and films.

I acquire a Mentor
Americans were still sort of a rarity in England at that time, that is, those who lived and worked there, not tourists. The accent and customary sayings of Americans seemed to amuse the British and I made many friends all over England. In London, in the building where I lived in Swiss Cottage [an area next to Hampstead] other tenants were actors, writers, musicians. They came from all parts of the British Isles or from Canada or Australia. I was invited to many dinner parties.

By an odd set of circumstances I acquired a Mentor, Charles Menzies. He was a London banker and the proper English gentleman, all for Queen and country and that sort thing. British to the core. He had been in the RAF during the war and was also a supporting member of Covent Garden Opera House. He knew all literature and owned a huge collection of books. In fact, he was a book addict and couldn’t pass a book-store without going inside and purchasing something. He was quite fond of the dance and the fact that I was a dancer and also spoke Russian intrigued him, as he spoke several languages.
 

Photo: Charles Menzies

I suppose he originally thought of me as a naive American for the first time in Europe, alone and vulnerable. In fact, I always knew myself to be guileless and needing guidance. He thought I had a promising career as a dancer in Europe. Taking me under his wing so to speak, he taught me all the social graces that I never had an opportunity to learn before or otherwise. I certainly didn’t learn any of them growing up in Braintree, or while struggling to survive during the tumultuous New York years, or in the hurly-burly of show-business. He introduced me to British manners and customs that later came in handy when I was choreographing my own version of “Alice”, or creating a ballet on “Upstairs Downstairs”, after the British TV series. I received my real education from Charles and he remained my friend, teacher and advisor until he died, rather tragically of a heart attack on a street in Stevenage, Hertfordshire where he had retired.

My First Trip To Russia
After a week’s holiday in Paris I was back at touring until Summer. I had spent nearly a year with Minerva. It was time to go on to other things.

Knowing my fondness for things Russian, Charles suggested a trip to the Soviet Union. This was during Nikita Khrushchev’s leadership, 1953-1964, pursuing his course of reform.
At that time, going with a tour group was the easiest way as everything would be taken care of through Soviet Intourist. A few years later when I went alone to St. Petersburg for a much longer period, I could well understand the convenience of having Intourist’s expert guidance.

We traveled on a completely filled but comfortable tour bus from Amsterdam with two drivers and a tour guide – a job I was myself asked to do many years in the future. The bus took us through Germany, Poland and entered the Soviet Union at Brest, then visiting Minsk and Smolensk before arriving in Moscow.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Photo Above: On hotel balcony in Minsk


Photo Left: The hotel was outside of central Moscow, in Ostankino.

As soon as we got settled in Ostankino, we took a trolley to Red Square and I began practicing my Russian with the Moscovites. Red Square looked like something out of a children’s story-book with St. Basil’s cathedral and the Kremlin bathed in colorful lighting.

Photos: In Red Square and in front of the University of Moscow

 

 

 

Photo: Guards at door to Lenin’s mausoleum

A Short-changed Othello
On another evening, we went as a group to see the ballet ‘Othello’ in the immense Kremlin Palace. It was the company from Tblisi, Georgia, with the great Vakhtang Chabukiani dancing the lead role. The dancers looked like midgets on that gigantic, mile-wide stage located within the Kremlin walls.

Photo: Vakhtang Chabukiani taking a curtain call in the Kremlin Palace

After the performance on leaving the theater, we were surprised to find the coach had already left. Apparently, after the intermission the rest of the tour group had ignorantly thought the ballet was over and had returned to the hotel en masse. Being Russian speaking, although a bit haltingly, I was able to ask directions to a bus that went back to Ostankino. The next morning I thought of telling the group that if they knew Shakespeare’s play at all, which being British they should, they would have known that it couldn’t have ended without Othello first killing Desdemona, but decided it would serve no purpose.
 

At end of that summer I took a brief holiday on the Isle Of Wight. In the resort town of Ventnor, while lying on a hill overlooking the English Channel and reading The Dancing Times, I happened to see a notice that the new Institute Choreology was opening in London.
 

 Photo: On the Isle Of Wight.

 

 

 

 

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