Addicted to Dance

I think dancing is every bit as addictive as crack, cocaine or heroin. Of course I never heard of a dancer mugging someone to get money for class -- but there are stories of dancers sabotaging other dancers to get their roles. Thank heavens this is not the norm. I for one, as well as many of my friends, have gone through rough times, working at odd jobs to pay for class, in the hope of getting a job.

The sacrifices made by the early dancers of Diaghilev's Ballets Russes make today's dancers look like pikers. The hardships Alexandra Danilova, Tamara Geva and George Balanchine went through just so we could have the great pleasure they have given us, is an example of dance addiction.

The movie Theatre Street tells one picture of the Imperial School, but my research tells another. For instance, the movie doesn't mention that George Balanchine was dismissed from the Maryinsky Company for showing his choreography at what were called halturas (bread and butter jobs, where the performers were paid with food or firewood).

I think many visualize the world of the Tzar and Bolsheviks as a romantic period. Movies like Doctor Zhivago tell of the love lives of the main characters, with romance overshadowing the tremendous hardships of the times.

Danilova's Choura and Geva's Split Seconds tell of their youth and their families. Both girls' mothers (or mother substitutes) would be considered women of the world today. Danilova was shuttled from family to family until she was enrolled in the Imperial School of Ballet. Geva grew up with a nanny who was her best friend and mother substitute. Her real mother had many affairs with men while her father was busy with his business of making fabrics for the vestments used in the Orthodox Church.

As a young girl Geva was witness to neglect and death. Her girlfriend was a member of the Imperial School, and Geva would watch her in class and dream of being a dancer. Her father would not have it, so her nanny paid for private lessons from Eugenie Sokolova. By the time her father agreed that Geva could take class she was too old for the Imperial School. He made arrangements for her to audition for the Bolshoi school, but they thought that her style was too much like the Imperial Ballet and she was rejected. After the revolution the school was closed for awhile, and when it reopened, floor boards had to be ripped up for firewood. The new government decided that the school should be open to all, and Geva was allowed to take evening classes at the Theatre School.

She had the opportunity to practice with the young George Balanchine. Geva married Balanchine after his graduation and danced with him in his experimental ballets, along with Danilova, Nicholas Efimov, and Lydia Ivanova. After Balanchine was fired from the Maryinsky the others were willing to risk their jobs to continue dancing with Balanchine's Youth Ballet.

Lydia Ivanova, who was a girlfriend of a Communist officer, mysteriously disappeared before she was to leave Russia with the Soviet State Dancers. This small company, which included Geva, Balanchine, Danilova and Efimov, was sponsored by Vladimir Dimitriev. The dancers were on their way to Berlin, Germany to perform during their vacation.

After they finished their tour in Germany, Dimitriev got them booked into a theater in London. They all defected, but they were not well received in London and were bought out of their contract. They went to Paris without money or jobs, desperately looking for work. Diaghilev heard of the plight of these Russian dancers and sent for them to audition for his company. The four all received contracts and their lives were saved until Diaghilev's untimely death.

Geva had left the company because of differences with Diaghilev, and came to America before the Ballets Russes disbanded, but Efimov, Balanchine, and Danilova were jobless after Diaghilev's death. Efimov was lucky to join the Paris Opera Ballet, and Balanchine found jobs choreographing in several places until Renée Blum invited him to be the choreographer of the newly formed Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Poor Danilova was left to fend for herself. Not having money for rent or food was frightening, but she was saved by getting a job in an operetta.

Geva had success in America with the Chauve Sourie, but when the show closed she also was destitute. Luckily, a friend introduced her to Florenz Ziegfeld and she appeared in his show Whoopee with Eddie Cantor and Ruby Keeler.

Balanchine was fired from the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and founded his own Company, Les Ballet 1933. Because of lack of funds this company met with financial failure. Balanchine had no job when he met Lincoln Kirstein at a party. Lincoln invited Balanchine and Dimitreiv to come to America and start a ballet school (School of American Ballet). He had no choice but to take the offer. It was not easy for him after that, but he was able to find work as a choreographer. He choreographed seventeen Broadway shows, ballets for other companies, and even a ballet for fourteen elephants for the Ringling Brothers' Circus.

Of course these dancers all could have left ballet for a more secure profession, but that was an impossibility for them. I overheard two dancers talking of their plight saying, "Dance chooses you -- you do not choose dance."

Dancers who give up performing do not stop taking class. Even if they had to stop because of an injury, they continue their interest in the dance world. The few that can give up dance cold turkey are as few as those who can break the heroin habit. I think I speak for many older dancers in saying that the compulsion to dance stays with us.

I think Danilova summed it up in an interview, when asked if she started as a ballerina. "No, I started in the corps de ballet, and at this point I should like to toss a bouquet to the corps de ballet of all companies -- they know that only a few in each company can advance to soloist or ballerina or premier danseur. And yet most of them remain in the corps year after year, giving their best, because they love the dance."

Next: Ballet and the Evil Empire