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UNDER THE ORCHESTRA PIT

13 Aug

There is a wonderful man who lives under the orchestra pit in New York’s Metropolitan Opera House. Well, he doesn’t actually live there, but it’s where he spends his days.

I’ve spent a lot of time at Lincoln Center in recent years (as Event Coordinator for the ABT Dancer Reunion and the Antony Tudor Centennial at Julliard), but it wasn’t until years later, as Archivist for the Antony Tudor Ballet Trust, that I had the opportunity to unearth Met Archivist John Pennino’s underground lair, home of the Metropolitan Opera Archives.

The trip to the Archives, led by Mr. Pennino himself, began by walking through the pass door to backstage, continuing on through narrow pipe-ceilinged hallways and down remote staircases to the building’s depths. As dramatic and elegant as the Met is upstairs, the opposite is true of the space underground. Cinder block gray walls and harsh fluorescent lights are de rigueur. It was a long walk to the archives, buried as they are, under the orchestra pit and stage.

 

I was asked to stop before entering the Archives, which are contained in a dark basement room piled high with file cabinets, stacks of boxes and old tin desks.  I had to leave my handbag, my tote, my jacket… I wasn’t allowed to hold or bring in anything. I had to tuck all of my belongings in a corner before even being allowed in the room! (No one is allowed into the archive with coats or bags because of theft.  But I wasn’t offended… I was excited)!

I was there on a mission to discover photos and memorabilia of the great choreographer Antony Tudor, who began staging his ballets for American Ballet Theatre (then “Ballet Theatre”) in 1939, and who in 1951 became Director of the Metropolitan Opera Ballet Company and School. It was at the Met where Mr. Tudor recreated his ballets Jardin aux Lilas, Dark Elegies and Judgment of Paris, as well as created his first American masterpiece, Pillar of Fire, in 1942. And it was in 1974, as Associate Director of American Ballet Theatre, he created his final masterpiece, The Leaves are Fading. The Met Archives were a treasure trove, and I had access!

So there I sat, kindly tended to by Mr. Pennino, quietly going through files of photos and memorabilia that he had stacked up for me, anticipating my visit. He sat behind me, at his own desk, hearing me occasionally gasp, mutter “wows” and voice disbelief. I found telegrams to Mr. Tudor, letters, old programs, rehearsal photos, performance photos… the collection was priceless.

Tudor’s “Echoing of Trumpets” – Photo: Louis Melancon

The Trust wasn’t given permission to use all of the materials – copyrights and all –  but Mr. Pennino did give permission when he could. It was through his kindness that The Trust could gather materials not only to publish in their fund-raising book but to also digitize and store, in the hopes of further preserving Antony Tudor’s legacy to the dance community.

Before Mr. Pennino brought me to the Met Archives I was given a tour of the lobby, with its huge archival displays of photos, beautiful paintings and glass-lit cabinets filled with costumes, accessories and memorabilia. But nothing on display in that dazzling lobby compared with being able to go through the archival materials in that dusty room under the orchestra pit. That, indeed, was a rare treat!

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YES, WE BOW AND CURTSEY!

1 Aug

A few Saturday’s ago I took a great class at New Jersey Ballet taught by prima ballerina and former ABT principal Eleanor D’Antuono. She had such a lovely teaching style, artistic, with great pacing, good corrections, difficult but still manageable.

On my way out of the building I saw Eleanor coming down the hallway – from a distance I blew her a kiss, bowed and curtseyed. When I got home I ran into my husband who asked if I had a good class. “Yes,” I said, “it was great! I saw my teacher on the way out and curtseyed to her for a second time and even blew her a kiss, the class was so good!

“Curtseyed?” my husband answered in amusement. “Are you serious?”

“Of course I curtseyed,” I said, explaining at the end of class we do a “révérence” where we give the teacher a round of applause and then bow and curtsey to the teacher and pianist.  His response was to laugh out loud and say, “Gee, I ought to applaud and curtsey after my spin class!”

Lance Westergard leads "révérence" at Tudor Centennial Workshop at Juilliard. Photo: Cliff Jernigan

It was at that moment I realized to a ballet outsider this behavior might seem odd.  I’d never really thought about it – is a curtsey, bow and round of applause at the end of ballet class (something I’ve done my whole life) really all that strange? And how did the tradition of “révérence” begin?

My online research yielded many explanations of the ballet term “révérence” but very little information on its origin. A blog called balletdancing4u said, “your ballet dancing class isn’t over until you do your révérence. A révérence is always done at the conclusion of your class and is an old ballet tradition that acknowledges your teacher and pianist, as well as showing courtesy, elegance and respect.” It went on to say, “today you thank your teacher for helping you and the pianist for the beautiful music, but one day you may thank your partner for dancing with you, or the conductor for the beautiful music and your audience for their applause.” I kind of liked that.

I also liked the simple, straightforward explanation of révérence on About.com, which defined révérence as simply, “a bow or curtsey – the last exercises of a ballet class in which the ballet dancers pay respect to and acknowledge the teacher and pianist. Révérence usually includes bows, curtsies, and ports de bras, and is a way of celebrating ballet’s traditions of elegance and respect.”

"How to do Révérence " - eHow.com

But what where did it all begin?

In her new book Apollo’s Angels, historian Jennifer Homans traces ballet’s evolution over the past 400 years and how the art of ballet evolved from its start in the Renaissance court cultures of Italy and France. In a recent interview with National Public Radio Homans said, “It was a dance (ballet) that was done by courtiers and kings and princes at court in social situations. It was not a theatrical art set off from social life…. the ways that people moved had to do with the ways that they moved in their lives. Like for example, if you have a révérence, a bow, which is still performed today in classical ballet, both in dances but also at the end of most dance classes, that’s the same bow that you would see in a painting of courtiers leaving their king.  And how far they bow, how deep they go was a sign of respect for the monarch or for the person they were addressing.”

But I thought the best explanation of  révérence was in a Dance Magazine article back in December, 2009. The article, by Kristin Lewis, said, “The origin of révérence dates back to the 15th and 16th centuries, when bows and curtseys were choreographed into social dances. ‘Couples turned toward each other and bowed as a gesture of respect,’ says Elizabeth Aldrich, curator of dance at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. If one couple performed a dance for someone of rank or nobility, their bows and curtseys were given as gestures of respect to this higher authority. Today, the higher authority is the teacher.’”

After class that Saturday I did wish to honor and respect my teacher – to say thank you for a class filled with artful challenges and gentle corrections. I also wanted to thank our wonderful pianist, Marie Raffa, whose daughter is a ballet mistress at American Ballet Theatre. Marie has a way of enriching the music so that it “tells me what to do” – the music she chooses helps me find the steps, figure out the choreography – her music choice is always a perfect fit to the combination.

Marie, who has trouble walking, once told me she takes great joy in watching us dance and move for her. Here’s an extra bow and curtsey for you, Marie, with utmost reverence and applause!

View stunning photographs of bows and curtsies at photographer Gene Schiavone’s website page: “ABT ‘Bows and Curtain Calls’.”

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