March 21, 2023

Navigating the Politics of Mr. Hart – Part II The Radical Change of Style

About the Author: Suzanne Wagner
By Published On: March 21, 2023Categories: Ballet, Blog Daily

Navigating the Politics of Mr. Hart – Part II
The Radical Change of Style



While some things were wonderful with Mr. Hart there were other things that were challenging.

At that time in Ballet West, we seemed to be going back to his heyday at the Royal Ballet.

That in … of itself … was not a bad thing but none of the dancers at Ballet West were really trained in the style of the RAD training.

While we had Denise and Louis (a married couple) as ballet teachers and rehearsal directors, my personal style just did not want to be as congested as that Royal Ballet style.

I had mentioned in an earlier chapter how the Russian and American styles are similar in the fact that we both are huge countries, and our movements reflect the expansiveness of the land and the emotional wildness that such lands offer us to express.

The training of England (an island) is much more on-top of itself. It loves to focus on lots of small jumps rather than wide and exuberant flying leaps.

I am a big girl and I loved to jump big with the men. But all the petite allegro (or small jumps) was wrecking my lower legs.
My calves began to feel like lead and many things got very tight in my body. My personal powerful Russian training from Berlin began breaking down under this onslaught of constipated English technical requirements.
Personally, I adored both Denise and Louis. They were so kind, loving and sincere in their desire to share the joys of ballet and were incredibly generous with their tools, skills and gifts. But during this time both of them changed under the pressures that we did not know about and we could feel it.

I loved Denise’s classes because of their balance and her lovely way to show exquisite and delicate foot work.
Louis classes were never my personal “cup of tea.”

But his attitude changed and it felt as if he needed to push his (or I assumed it might have been Mr. Hart’s) agenda on the dancers.
Rather than classes feeling joyous and a warming up our muscles for the day … class began to feel taxing, exhausting, tightening, and miserable.
Now, again, you have to remember that in the middle of this … I have chronic fatigue syndrome  that has been undiagnosed and I am struggling to get through every day and now all the ways that work for my body are not being offered and instead my big American energy is trying to fit into a small English box.
So, I can’t blame everything on one issue because a multitude of them are happening all at once.
But the result was a deep feeling of misery.
There were wonderful moments.
Monotones II was one of them.
But the struggles with Sleeping Beauty and the character of Carabosse with Mr. Hart tearing down my character, and his way that he seemed determined to make my very real and deeply personal portrayal of dark fairy into some caricature of a gay man in drag … was all too much.
As I am writing, I have to say that I am speaking for myself in how this style change was impacting me personally and others probably were not having this same feeling.

But I can tell you that some very heavy emotions started breaking out and into Ballet West.

There seemed to be … way too much anger … festering below the surface.
In ballet class, I always stood in a corner over by the windows. Every day, I started psychically pulling all the heavy emotions out the windows during class. With each port de bras, I would breathe out and blow the negative energy out the window. It was my personal ritual.
At first, I thought I was just doing it for myself. But I began to realize that it was not just me.
Dancers would even say inadvertently to my face, “Oh God! You were not here today and the energy in the class was so yucky!”
That was when I knew my little psychic energy clearing game, was having some small impact on the energy in the studios.

Sondra Sugai’s face took on the plasticity of a mask frozen in a place where she was trying to keep her cool, but her eyes were tense, dark, and she too seemed miserable.
Denise’s face got more serious, and her mouth began pursing as she seemed to be trying to force these unruly Americans into another time, style, and place.
Louis got down-right-rigid and began pushing in a way that he had never done before. He used to allow us to play. But now, there was no room for whimsy. He was all seriousness and sternness.

The ease and flow of the Ballet West style was evaporating, and my technique was suffering.

I was becoming less skilled, and I could feel my light dimming.

It slowly dawned on me how critical the ballet class is at the beginning of the day. It sets the tone and the strengths for the day. It warms us up and prepares us for the day ahead.

I suddenly understood, why Rudolph Nureyev, would pull his knitted cap down over his eyes in class in Berlin and just do what he wanted.

I did not have the gumption to try that one.

But upon reflection perhaps I should have tried to do class before class so I could maintain what was now being lost. The truth was that I just didn’t have the energy.

The attitude of the dancers was getting harsh, tight, and unhappiness was becoming infectious.
I remember we were told that we were going to put on Giselle, but we were not going to have a real live orchestra … because of budgets.

Okay, there are some things that just should never be done. A classical ballet from the Romantic Period should never not have live music.

All the dancers were horrified.

Me even more so because by that point, I am starting to reconsider ever leaving the Berlin Ballet to come to Ballet West.

There is nothing like dancing to the live flows of an orchestra and feeling the musicians just below my feet, and the thrums of the strings going through your body and activating movement.
I think to myself, “You are not in charge of budgets … so you don’t know what is going on and you should just keep my mouth shut.”

Then in rehearsal for Queen of the Willis, Sondra Sugai, brings in an audio file of the music that she says is going to be the music for the performance.

It is our first try with this particular version of music.

The Three Musketeers (Mary Ann Lind, Myself, and Pamela Robinson) are all to do this particular run-through with this music for the Queen of the Willis dance.
Mary Ann starts and to my horror, the tempo is ridiculously fast. To the point that Mary Ann can almost not dance it.
This version had to be from an old Royal Ballet tempo because they focus on the lower leg activities, and they are all tiny dancers.
It is easier to move quickly if you are a small person. Being the tall dancers (that all three of us were) this was not just grueling but miserable.

Next it is my turn. And I try my best to move as fast as is humanly possible and somehow manage to point my feet between steps but fail miserably.
I need to say here that I am not the temper-tantrum Diva. I don’t lose my cool and I tried always to have a calm persona and a confident expression.
But in that moment, I lose my cool completely!

And I spout out, “This music it too fast, no one can do it at this tempo and look decent at the same time. This whole thing is ridiculous! You can’t do a classical ballet to a recording! Its obscene! What are you thinking? Is this what we are going to be dancing too? We are going to look like idiots and the company is going to look terrible. Are we going to get an audio file that has a reasonable tempo rather than this piece of crap?”

Sondra Sugai is stunned and pissed now herself.
No one talks back in the studio.
The teacher says jump and all “good ballerinas” say, “How High?” with a sweet look on their face.
Looking at her face it is clear to me that she does not like the music either but her hands are tied and she is being forced to do this. For many reasons, scowling behind the mask, she is also not a happy woman in that moment.
My mood had opened Pandora’s Box and now it is her time to lash back out at me.

She says, “This is the music we are using! And you are going to have to deal with it! You need to go to the back of the room and calm down!”
Let’s just say her tone and words do not do what she intended. I am not a child nor can I be intimidated by her.
I turned and looked over my shoulder at her, and with a very calm Carabosse look, I said to her, “Oh, I will go to the back of the room but don’t think for one moment that I am going to calm down!”
In that moment, I suddenly understood how Rudi must have felt … going from town to town, company to company, dealing with all the petty tyrants, when he just wanted to do what he knew he could do and do it in a way that his aging body needed with no drama.
I understood that the military precision that ballet naturally is and the respect we are supposed to show our elders fails miserably in the face of such ridiculous and potentially damaging choices. Dancers get injured by such things and it can end careers!
We were at the whim of a man that wanted to recapture his past and did not see the future staring him in the face.
I storm to the back of the room, shocked and pissed that she was literally giving me a “time-out” like a child. I was a grown woman and everyone in that studio knew that this music was at an insane tempo. It meant that this had to be Mr. Hart forcing it on everyone.

Next it is Pamela’s turn to try to dance to this piece of music.

But as you can imagine, my tone and words had ignited a storm of rage that had been unleashed and that energy was now running through the studio.

Such a thing is not the norm in any way in a ballet studio. Tempers flare at times but not quite like this. Rehearsal directresses are not used to dancers talking back to them.
It is really unheard of and not done. You can see Denise and Louis both flustered. Red is moving up the necks of both of them and Louis face is almost purple. Sondra is indignant and angry and trying to maintain control.

Now it is Pamela’s turn. Pamela is an amazing dancer and if anyone could pull off that tempo … I figured it might be her. She had the lightening speed and gorgeous feet to … perhaps make it look like … something decent.

I have to admit here that when … even Pam was having trouble, I felt less like an idiot and a bit vindicated.

Standing in the corner doing my “time out” I just smiled like a Cheshire Cat.

And just when Pam even begins to spout off … in walks Mr. Hart!

He becomes furious and lets all of us have it, stomping his foot and saying firmly, “This is what we have to work with, and this is what it is going to be!”

And then the rehearsal is suddenly over.

The next day, we appear to have a slower version of music to work with and in the end … before the dress rehearsal, they seem to have found the money and “budget” to create a live orchestra.
I have to say here that I have never been a person who knew the intricate workings of running a ballet company. I do not know the pressures that everyone was under. I do not understand the budget issues that they were dealing with. I was never on the other side of this reality of being in the administration.

I only see the side of the dancer.

I am sure much more was going on behind the scenes because staff and the dancers were getting more and more tense.
The staff were on edge and you could see how they were holding their jaws and how their eyes had lost their playful sparkle.
That is when I began having dreams of a plane filled with dancers (on tour) that was crashing with all of us on it.

The dream kept repeating over and over again.

Such things are a bad omen.

I was trying to figure out if it was literal, metaphorical, personal, or real.

I was about to discover … it was going to be a little bit of all four.

~Suzanne Wagner~

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