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CHAPTER 23

A Move to “The Bronx”
Rents in New York City were becoming astronomical. Many people were leaving Manhattan for the outer Burroughs; Brooklyn, Queens, The Bronx, where rents were considerably lower.

At Southgate Tower it had been steadily increasing every year. I was not only paying that rent, but for two years had been paying rent for an Indianapolis apartment as well. Now that I was no longer receiving an income it had become unbearable.

The apartment I moved to in the Bronx was in an Italian neighborhood, close to the magnificent Bronx Zoo and Botanical Gardens, a sanctuary in the midst of what was less than a perfect environment. I went there a lot, between weekly visits to the un-employment office.

My unemployment didn’t last long. During August, just as I turned 53, I wrote a letter to Nikita Talin, the new director of Harkness House, to see if it might be possible to return, this time as a teacher.

Harkness House was no longer the whirlwind of activity it had been before, filled with creative people. The company had long ago disbanded. David Howard, the reigning force in the trainee program had left, along with his co-director Maria Veigh. David had opened his own studio on Manhattan’s West side near Lincoln Center and was becoming a much-adored master teacher. Veigh had left for California where she got a teaching job, possibly through claiming credits for the Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty that I had staged for her.

Both had been rude and arrogant to me in the past. I guess it’s the nature of the game in the dance profession, as in corporate business, to step over those who appear less aggressive.

“Bobby” Scevers and Nikita Talin ran what was left of the trainee program. After a brief interview they hired me on the spot and I began teaching classes immediately; one ballet class every evening and two character classes a week.

They both seemed impressed with my answer after they asked if I taught Spanish dance as well as Character. I told them, truthfully, that I had studied Spanish dance, even while in Spain, but didn’t feel I was really qualified to teach it. This endeared me to them, as many, looking for a job, might have claimed to teach everything. They also were in great sympathy when I told them of my bitter experience at Butler.
The daily subway from the Bronx into Manhattan took over forty-five minutes, but was dangerous, especially at night. It was safer to take a bus, even though far more expensive.

To show off the trainees, Nikita had an idea to present various opera ballets, with an invited audience of dance notables. Bleachers were set up in the main studio for seating. I choreographed “The Bartered Bride” as a vehicle for the students that Mrs Harkness said she liked it best of all, but it led nowhere. She was already dying.

I have already in Chapter 14 written at length about this period, which ended with the death of Mrs. Harkness.


.Photo: Me teaching class at Harkness House studio

La Fille Mal Gardée
An old friend in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Alexi Ramov, gave me a call to see if I could stage “La Fille Mal Gardée” for his company, “The Lehigh Valley Ballet”.

He was one of the founders of the Northeast Regional Ballet movement, spearheaded by Doris Herring. I had once auditioned dancers for his company, back during the Elmira days.

Photo: Alexi Ramov

I had of course seen Sir Frederic Ashton’s ‘Fille’ many times in London. It was one of my favorite works of his. At the Benesh Institute we had studied its choreography and how it was put together, even learned some of the dances. Naturally, I wouldn’t be able to stage that version without permission from Ashton. As I had done with the “Cinderella” at Butler, I used the basic concept and inserted into it my own choreography.

The ballet tells the story of the ‘unchaperoned daughter’ of a widowed, rural mother who wishes her to marry an ungainly, country bumpkin for wealth rather than love. The daughter, Lisa, is wildly in love with another, Colas, and they are together at every possible moment, much to the mother’s chagrin.

It is a wonderful vehicle to introduce ballet to the uninitiated. There is as much acting as there is dancing, and a thread of humor and slapstick comedy weaves its way through the entire ballet. When the predictable happy ending unites the two lovers, there is one more chuckle the audience can take along with them.

The company rented the scenery for the two acts from the Boston Ballet production. When it arrived there were no instructions as to how the wagon was put together. The spinning wheel and the maypole also had no directions. We got by without the wagon, even though we had the donkey to pull it, but the loosely put together maypole at the end of Act One, started to topple over during opening night’s performance and the Widow’s spinning wheel in Act two took some maneuvering to make it work

It was a student company, but mixed with professionals. A local girl danced Lisa, who later went on to dance it with the Joffrey Ballet. Michael Haubrich, a graduate of SAB, (School Of American Ballet) danced the role of Colas and Peter Degnan, another local, was Alain, the simpleton.

The Widow Simone is traditionally and always danced comically by a man. His hilarious clog dance is very appealing to audiences and always gets a huge applause. A young man living in nearby Allentown was anxious to do it. Unfortunately, two days before the opening he came down with hepatitis. Nobody had thought of double-casting the ballet so there was no one to replace him. The performance could certainly not go on without this most prominent role so it was left to me to step in and do it. It was the first time I’d ever danced a travesty role, or as the French say, en travestie. It is very common in Europe for men to perform on the stage as grotesque women.

The costume, designed after the one worn in the Royal Ballet version, seemed a good fit. Also the wig. I had to forgo my role as director of the production in order to have time to rehearse myself. The clog dance was really the only actual dance I had to do, the rest was all acting. Having rehearsed the other fellow in the role for months, I knew it well and had no trouble performing it, along with the false trips, slides, prat falls and general buffoonery.

Review of La Fille Mal Gardée
“ …. The production was blessed with two outstanding performances by Peter Degnan, who played Alain, the oafish young suitor, and Richard Holden, who choreographed the ballet and stepped in at the last minute to replace an ailing Michael Henick as the Widow Simone, Lise’s mother.

These two professionals left no doubt about their talent. Degnan, ….. clowned the part of Alain to perfection while performing the dance portion brilliantly.

Holden, a seasoned dancer, choreographer, teacher, lecturer and author, mimed to perfection the fussy and protective mother. It was a shock to some in the audience when he whipped off his wig at the final curtain ….”
The Globe-Times, Bethlehem , PA, April 26, 1983


Photos from this 1983 La Fille Mal Gardée production. Me in the comic Widow Simone role.

Graduation Ball in Westchester
At the same time I was rehearsing “Graduation Ball” for a company in Westchester, NY, run by another former Ballet Russe dancer and friend, Rose Marie Menes. I already knew Grad Ball from the Memphis staging.

The character of the Head Mistress of the girl’s seminary in Grad Ball is another comic role, which is always danced by a man as an absurd and bustling busybody. Again, it ended with no one around who could do it. Having just finished doing the Widow Simone, I was coaxed into taking over the Head Mistress role as well. This called for a lot of acting as well as a strenuous mazurka, performed with the pompous old General. I studied lots of films of Danny Kaye and his slap-stick comedy routines for this role.

Photo: Me as the Head Mistress in Graduation Ball

Teacher conventions seemed to be a calling card for me. With the experience of the previous ones, I’d learned more precisely what was expected of me. There were also regular visits to Columbus, Ohio to choreograph for a small student company. I used one of Mrs. Harkness’ arrangements of the Schubert Variations for my “Rondo Brillante” that I staged there, along with my “Theme Of Youth” and “Peter And The Wolf”. It was a busy time.

Photo: Another teacher’s convention at the NY Biltmore Ballroom

Balletfore, “Le Carnaval”
There was a small professional company of nine dancers just starting up out of Manhattan, led by Diane Byer called “Balletfore”. They wanted Fokine’s “Le Carnaval” plus something to go with it. I suggested the pas de deux from “Firebird”, also by Mikhail Fokine. After a few rehearsals, Diana decided, why not go all the way and do my entire “Firebird”. Both of these ballets, along with “Les Sylphides” and “Spectre de la Rose”, staged by myself, were premiered by this young company at Riverside Theater in Manhattan as an all-Fokine program.

“…. Richard Holden’s staging (of Carnaval) was brisk and charmingly caught the “powerful passions” of the moment ….. re-creation was quite delightful and I’m sure the performance reflected the results of much painstaking effort and research …”
Ellen Cornfield, Attitude Magazine

Photo: Sylvia Nolan and Peter Lewton-Brain in this 1984 production of Le Carnaval

“ …. choreographed by Richard Holden ‘In the style of Fokine”. This interpretation is a work simple and serious, holy and profane, shot through with mysterious significance. Stravinsky’s score and the startling costumes inspired by Bakst, plant the work firmly in its period, but it’s the sureness of the performances .. that make us believe the fantastic events transpiring on the stage”.
Elizabeth Zimmer, NY Village Voice

“ …. A definite highlight of Firebird was Richard Holden’s staging of the monster scene. With only one monster and a Petrushka-like helper, the scene was sparked with tension, apprehension, and humor. Without qualification the choreography was brilliant. Michael Keith as the monster and Alexandrous Ballard as the helper made an excellent Laurel and Hardy team and completely caught the spirit of their respective roles. Firebird was a winner …. it was exciting, well staged, and the story line was easy to follow. It made sense! With a reduced company and much imagination, Mr. Holden succinctly re-created the Russian fairy tale …. ….”
Larry Stevens, Attitude Magazine, 1984

Photo from this 1984 Firebird production

“……. Because the Balletfore production was a shortened one that used fewer dancers than those of the big companies, it lacked the grandeur associated with this ballet. But the cuts actually gave the plot a dramatic urgency while the streamlined approach gave it easier for the viewer to concentrate on the character development and on how the movement visualized the music”.
Georgette Couvelia, Yonkers, NY, Westchester Newspapers, March 27, 1984

Mikhail Fokine, was one of the greatest choreographers to come out of Russia.

He worked for Diaghilev’s company, choreographing “Spectre” and “Petrushka” for Nijinsky, among many others. When he came to America during the 1930s , he lived and opened a school on Riverside Drive in Manhattan. George Chaffee, my first proper teacher had studied with him there. After a robbery, Fokine moved to Yonkers, NY, a smaller city along the Hudson River.

This was where Balletfore debuted the all-Fokine program In 1985, before going on tour,. Some of Fokine’s relatives were still living there but unfortunately, knew or cared little for ballet, or the works that their famous relative had created. Nevertheless, the local papers made quite a thing out of it.

With the success of “Firebird”, Balletfore changed its name to “New York Theater Ballet” and came under Columbia Artists Management. They toured my “Firebird” all over the USA and to Europe.

A New Jersey Nutcracker that lasted 18 years.
Sally Topham, who was a classmate of mine at the Ballet Theater school during the early 50s. She turned up again in 1984 with her own company in New Jersey and wanted me to help stage a “Nutcracker”. She choreographed the first act up until the Snow scene. From there on it was my choreography. The production went on for the following eighteen years, as well as “Le Carnaval”, “Firebird” and a full-length “Cinderella” that I staged for her, until she sold her company in 2002.

Photo:  Snow Scene from this Nutcracker production

Le Villi
The New York Grand Opera, a well-established company giving free outdoor performances in Central Park, was doing Puccini’s “Le Villi”, (the Willis). Not only from my Met experience but from early on, I always had a handle on opera-ballet, so was delighted when asked to choreograph this.

Le Villi, or “The Willis” is not just an opera with a ballet thrown in. It has ballet and character dancing throughout. Basically, it’s a ballet-opera, very much like the romantic ballet, “Giselle”, except Albrecht is a tenor and Giselle a soprano.

I used the New York Theater Ballet dancers and also had to stage the leading singers through their actions that had to be worked into the ballet.

There were tremendous sets overflowing the park’s band shell and a full orchestra in the pit. The singers were all professional and semi-professional. As it was free, it drew an audience of thousands. All seats were filled and thousands more standing. My dancers performed it even better than most of the Metropolitan Opera dancers could have.

A Colonial Nutcracker
While choreographing and staging these works, I was appearing every Winter in a “Colonial Nutcracker” as Drosselmeyer, but with a difference. Since it was set during the Colonial period of early America, the character was changed quite differently. I was costumed more like George Washington. Instead of a mice battle it was replaced by British red-coats and Minute Men. This started a trend in regionalizing Nutcrackers all over.

 

Photos: Me in the "Colonial" Nutcracker where I was "Samuel Hinkman" instead of Drosselmeyer. Other traditional Nutcracker characters were similarly renamed in this adaptation.

At one point I was setting nine ballets for different companies. At the same time I was writing articles for dance magazines and writing and illustrating a book on Character Dance, for which Igor Youskevitch had written a beautiful introduction:



“Mr. Holden’s book on character dance is written for dancers and dance teachers. It explains well the technique of selected character dances, and draws proper attention to the importance of expression and style. No one, of course, can learn to dance by reading a book, because the information presented must always be interpreted and physically demonstrated by professional dancers.

However, the historical background of character dance and its relationship to classical, as outlined by the author, will make this book rewarding reading for all interested in dance.

In our time, when Art’s indulgence in abstract forms is a fashion, a book on character dance is welcome indeed. It reminds us of the origin of dance whose very birth was influenced by the human spirit that made us move, dance and express”.
Igor Youskevitch

Death Of George Chaffee
In 1984, during a visit to Paris and Versailles, I received word that George Chaffee had died. Oddly enough, he had just been to Paris a month before me. He always adored Paris and spoke French fluently and had just returned to New York.

A few years before, he had lost his studio on Fifty-Sixth Street. His building as well as many other ballet studios during the 70s were condemned and the tenants evicted to clear the way for modern skyscrapers. This was where I had begun his classes after first arriving in New York from Boston so many years earlier. Poor Chaffee. He ended up living in a ninth floor, cockroach infested apartment on Tenth Avenue, known as Hell’s Kitchen. That’s where he died of a heart attack.

I returned to New York just in time to attend his memorial service:
"A memorial service for George Chaffee, a ballet dancer, teacher, author and collector, will be held at 2 P.M. Saturday at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, 145 West 46th Street. Mr. Chaffee, a leading dancer with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet in the 1930's, amassed a major collection of dance memorabilia and taught dancers including Alicia Alonso and John Gilpin. He died Oct. 20. The service will include reminiscences by colleagues."

From the New York Times, Oct 30, 1984

Balletfore, now The New York Theater Ballet, needed some more choreography.

I had seen the Ashton version of “The Two Pigeons” in the early 60s but could remember none of it except the two live pigeons that flew into the final scne and the marvelous team of Antonette Sibley and Christopher Gable. Rather than copy Ashton’s rendering, set in Paris during La Belle Epoque, I went back to the original libretto from 1875. I edited the Royal Ballet orchestration by Lanchberry to make it fit and went to work. In two weeks it was finished I would choreograph variations and whole sections while on the bus coming into Manhattan from the Bronx. After its premiere at the Riverside Festival, Jennifer Dunning gave it a review in the New York Times.

Photo: Gypsy Dance from "Two Pigeons" danced by Diane Byer and Brian Frette

“The Balletfore choreographers and dancers are good story tellers, and the stories unfolded with the aid of colorful, inventive sets and costumes in just the right proportions for the Riverside’s intimate house and small stage. Mr. Holden succeded in creating a delicate pastel sketch of a ballet [The Two Pigeons’ with real period feeling. … the young company’s dancing ahd an extra delicacy and look of refinement. But this is, even more happily, a company of dancers who can act, with Mr. Kent and Mr. Michael superb as the monsters in Mr. Holden’s production of Firebird which completed the program. Are small-scale revivals of large-scale classics worth doing? There was evocative magic in these loving recreations that made the past seem very much alive”.
Jennifery Dunning, THE NEW YORK TIMES, June 9, 1985

Alexander Bennet and La Sylphide
Alexander Bennett, a former principal dancer with the Royal Ballet, was intensely interested in “La Sylphide”, not the Danish version I had notated and staged, but the much earlier 1832 French version. Different music, different choreography. It was his life-long dream to one day be able to stage it and to write a book about it. His entire life seemed to be involved in research on it. It was truly his obsession.
When he once discovered in the British Museum a picture that Queen Victoria had drawn of La Sylphide while watching a performance at Covent Garden, it was as if he’d found the Rosetta stone!

When he heard that I had a tape of the music from the original French version, he made a special visit to me in the Bronx, anxious to listen to it, and perhaps get a copy.

I had never met him before but was pleased to find he had full respect for the ballet’s nineteenth century origins and was delighted to share with him whatever material I had on La Sylphide, historical or otherwise.
At that time he was teaching in Chatanooga, Tennesee.

“The Humpbacked Horse” makes another appearance
Since the late 60s I had wanted to stage “The Humpbacked Horse”. I don’t know why this Russian folk ballet appealed to me so much. It was in a way like Alex Bennet’s fascination with “La Sylphide”. I had already taught it of course, in 1974 for the Dance Congress and had notated it then, after years of research. For so many years I had praised it to my students and friends. Finally came the chance to actually stage it in New York for Balletfore. Of course they did not have the facilities to do the complete ballet. Neither did the Riverside theater where it was put on. I chose only the scene beginning with Ivan counting the stars. That’s how it started as the curtain went up. Then the little horse comes on and dances her variation followed by Ivan’s variation. The Balletfore dancers executed the Alexander Radunsky choreography almost as if they had trained at the Bolshoi itself. The fifteen minute excerpt ended with the variation of the Tsar Maiden leading into the capture and pas de deux between her and Ivan. Maya Plitsetskaya and Vladimir Vasiliev were the original cast that I’d seen in Russia, and also in Toronto, Canada when the Bolshoi gave a different exerpt from it.

The following day Jennifer Dunning wrote in THE NEW YORK TIMES:

“ … The program began on a note of charming delicacy with Richard Holden’s staging and arrangement of a scene form a version of “The Little Humpbacked Horse” choreographed by Alexander Radunsky to music by Rodion Shchedrin. Mr. Holden succeeded in creating a fairy-tale atmosphere on the unadorned stage. He was helped in this by Brian Frette, gently innocent as Ivan the Simpleton, and Ms. Byer, winsome as the little horse who guides Ivan into another, more exotic world. Ms Posada’s strong, expansive upper torso had an appropriately Soviet look, but the rest of her had the English neatness of attack that identifies this company’s style”.
Jennifery Dunning, New York Times, October 18, 1986

My Farewell To New York
In the tenement building where I lived were some very unusual inhabitants. Below me lived a rather threatening looking man from El Salvador, with a mass of wild, mangled hair. But he later turned out to be quite friendly. On my left was an insane man, undoubtedly a recent release from an asylum. On my
right lived an old Hungarian opera singer. He was alone, friendless and not at all threatening, but a terrible singer and constantly vocalizing. Above my head were families of Cambodian immigrants who were running an illegal factory, keeping me awake all night running their sewing machines full blast. That’s not to say that I myself must have also seemed an oddity. Obviously, a choreographer and a writer didn’t exactly fit in such a place.

Cambodians, newly arrived as immigrants, had actually taken over the building. I tried to help them as best I could but obviously, they were never told how to use any kind of modern American devices, including bathrooms. I often saw them peeing in the hallways. A nice old Italian couple living across the hallway had daily been scrubbing the five flights of stairs. Probably for years the woman had been doing this, just out of desire to live in cleanliness, but after seeing this she finally gave up in disgust.

But I got on well enough with the other tenants. The Cambodians even invited me to their Buddhist wedding party of a sixteen-year old boy to a twelve-year old girl. Nevertheless, it was not a comfortable existence. Being basically a pragmatist, I had made the best of it. After all, I’d had plenty of experience living in squalor, but after seven years living in the Bronx I’d had enough.

So many of my friends had either died or had left New York. I was approaching sixty. Did I want a future of being remarkably mediocre? Even with the disastrous setbacks such as I’d gone through at Butler, things could still be achieved, or had I completely sabotaged my life? This internal dialog went on almost daily while strolling through the Botanical Gardens or along the Bronx River that wended its way through the Gardens. An ancient Colonial mill still remained on the river bank, with an outdoor restaurant attached. I often sat there contemplating what to do.

I found water to be a great teacher. It shows us how to move through the world with grace, ease, determination, and humility. The Bronx River even had a waterfall nearby the restaurant. I watched how the river broke at the waterfall, then how it gained energy and moved on. Like a river, we encounter our own waterfalls. We may fall hard but we always keep moving on no matter what. Water can inspire us to not become rigid with fear or cling to what’s familiar. The river is brave and does not waste time clinging to its past, but flows on, without looking back. With these parameters, I decided to move on too, just as the river flows with its twists, turns and obstacles along the way.

Anticipating change, it seemed like a good time for another visit to England for further solitude and quiet reflection.

Photo: Meditating in Joyce Harland’s garden in Buckinghamshire

During those regular leaves of absence from the Met or Harkness to go to Tucson and choreograph for the Civic Ballet was a time I always looked forward to. I had fallen in love with the desert and had told myself then that when I retired it would be to Arizona.

Elizabeth Shaw and her husband were the first to invite me to Tucson in 1967. Now they were again inviting me to come, this time to stay.

I idolized the Shaw family because they symbolized the close-nit clan I never had. They would be my adopted family.

I found a good home for Livingston, my beautiful tabby cat who had been abandoned in the tenement hallways, and started packing.

Photo: Livingston, my tabby cat

 

 

 

 

 

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