At Home with Ballet -- An Interview with Cynthia Harvey former American Ballet Theater Principal Dancer

Cynthia Harveyby Dean Speer and Francis Timlin

November 2003

Through an exchange of delightful, international e-mails conducted during November 2003, Ms. Harvey tells us about her career.

DS/FT: How did you first become interested in ballet? Tell us about your teachers and training ...

I first became interested in ballet by watching Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev on the Ed Sullivan show! According to my mother, I could not reach the TV, but begged to dance as I tip-toed about trying to emulate Margot in "Corsaire." I can't imagine doing it any justice and my parents must have wished that I would sit down so they could watch the masters in action.

My sister and I went to the local tap/acrobatic and baton lessons for a very short time in Novato, California. Later I attended the Parks and Recreations' ballet classes where the teacher commented that I was bored and that my mother should send me to a "REAL" ballet teacher. This teacher was my mentor until I went to New York and her name is Christine Walton. She ran the Novato School of Ballet and was a dancer with Alan Howard at the Pacific Ballet in San Francisco. Kyra Nichols' mom (Sally Streets - ed.) also danced with Pacific Ballet and Christine knew her quite well. Christine had a small school of about 20 students if I remember correctly. In the early days we had live piano accompanying class which was marvelous for such a small run studio. We had community performances a couple of times a year.

Two other students of my "generation" ended up as professional ballet dancers from Mrs. Walton's studio. Elizabeth Ashton, who joined ABT before I did and was lovely dancer who could do everything and was an exceptional younger sister in "Pillar of Fire," and, the other dancer was Lucette Katerndahl who had beautiful legs and feet and made it to soloist with ABT where she danced many roles as well.

Mrs. Walton was constantly trying to learn and instilled in us that there was the correct way of doing things in classical ballet and anything else was cheating. She also had a great aesthetic sensibility and knew what looked best on each of us. I think from early on she sensed my style and line was not "Bolshoi." We learned the Vaganova, RAD and Cecchetti syllabi but did not do exams. She extracted the best from each to meet the challenge of teaching us.

As a child, I was encouraged to audition for other programs and attended, for a short time, Ballet Celeste in San Francisco run by Miriam Lanova. Ballet Celeste was a children's ballet school that performed a great deal and had guest artists dance many of the leading roles. However, I soon returned to Mrs. Walton where I found her open mindedness and thorough training suited me.

At age 12 I joined the Marin Civic Ballet (a member of the Pacific Ballet Association) whose director was Leona Norman, and later Norbert Vesak - where I could train with Mrs. Walton and yet attend rehearsals for performances that a regional ballet company did during the year. I was included in their "Nutcracker" every year until I eventually worked my way up to dancing the Sugar Plum Fairy. I also attended both San Francisco Ballet School summer program and SAB (School of American Ballet - ed.) summer programs, and National Ballet of Canada's summer program.

When did you first come to American Ballet Theatre? Tell us about your career progression there...

I first arrived in New York to live in September 1973 after having been offered a scholarship to attend the then "Scholarship" class at ABT run by Patricia Wilde and Leon Danielian. I also went to Professional Children's School at this time. I did not complete my schooling as I managed to gain a place in ABT as an apprentice in April 1974.

It was actually John Neumeier who came to ABT to stage "Le Baiser de la Fee" who wanted me to dance one of the ice maidens that enabled me to garner an actual contract. Someone left when he did not use her, so I was given her place. That was often how it worked. So, by July 1974, I had a place in the corps of ABT.

Lucia Chase was directing and she thought that Cynthia Harvey as a name was too similar to Cynthia Gregory and asked me to change it. As I wished to keep my initials, I thought I would honor my ballet teacher with a name change to "Cristina" Harvey. I might have had that stage name for a year when Cynthia Gregory heard that my real name was Cynthia and she thought it was ridiculous that I was made to change my name, so, with her as an accomplice, we approached Lucia about returning me to my original name.

Very early on I was given roles of the Friends in "Giselle" or "La Fille Mal Gardee" or whatever ballet had dances for 4-6 dancers. It was when Rudolph Nureyev came to stage "Raymonda" that things took a turn for me. He picked me to learn a pas de trois that soloists & principals were doing, and, he wanted me to understudy the two girl friends who each had a solo in the ballet as well as danced pas de deux with Clark Tippet or Charles Ward. I believe in the cast I was learning the alternate men were Kirk Peterson and Charles Maple or Warren Conover. Unfortunately I contracted mononucleosis and did not get the chance to dance this for quite some time. However, the idea was now in Lucia's head and I was given the 'peasant pas' in "Giselle" eventually and the pas de deux in Eliot Feld's "At Midnight" which I danced with Terry Orr. All this whilst still in the corps.

Then Mikhail Baryshnikov staged his "Nutcracker" in which I was able to perform the Snowflake lead girls along with Jolinda Menendez for the telecast. Finally came "Don Quixote" in 1978...during the previous summer Misha was piecing it together. I was available along with several others to work during our lay off. This was something that I relished, but was apparently not supposed to be done as it was against the union rules to work for nothing. I tried to make the point that it was our summer lay off and that I felt it was my decision what I should or should not do during my time off. Nevertheless, Misha had taught the flower girls variations to me and I suppose what I remember mostly was him saying to Elena Tchernichova (one of our ballet mistresses)that he had no idea that I could do some of those enchainments.

Cynthia HarveyWell, standing on the sidelines in the corps is not conducive to being seen in any other light. I think it was a turning point for me as both Elena and Misha then pressed Lucia to allow me to be first cast flower girl. I think they tried several others in the place as well but I had a good day when she watched, so she had a hard time refusing. By now I had been in the corps for 4 years and had done most of my demi-, and solo roles without too much embarrassment.

Luckily, "Don Q" was to be my good luck charm. Later that year, Jurgen Schneider, our ballet master suggested that I should just keep and eye on Kitri and quietly practice it along with Patrick Bissell who should do the same with Basilio. This paid off in April 1979 as all the Kitri's were injured on April Fools Day in Washington D.C. and I was rounded up to do Act 2 with Marianna Tcherkassky doing Acts 1 and 3 with Jonas Kage. Fortunately, I did not let the side down and had a good time doing it, though I knew Act 2 the least well of all.

This afforded me the opportunity to request that I learn the entire ballet officially so that if this happened again, I would be further prepared. I think Lucia responded that of course I could learn it, but don't expect a performance. I was discouraged that after all I had done, I was still in the corps, but was happy when in the summer I was promoted to soloist. Misha left around this time to go to City Ballet. I was happy for him, but it was bittersweet as I thought that my champion was leaving.

During September 1979, and Natalia Makarova was injured and I think Gelsey Kirkland was unavailable, and Anthony Dowell suggested to Lucia that I do Kitri with HIM! This is at the Metropolitan Opera House and in a season where I was also to do Myrta in "Giselle" plus a huge amount of other work as well as my corps duties. With no dress rehearsal (to be honest, after dancing several other roles in the ballet, it did not really matter to me) I was dancing my first full length ballet on the Met stage in New York City with the one of the world's most celebrated great dancers.

The experience was fantastic from the curtain up. Dowell was wonderful. So supportive and helpful. Here was this great man who had danced with so many wonderful dancers and he never once said, you should do this like Natasha or Gelsey or anyone else. He made it fun for me and I believe we had a good rapport. The corps de ballet sent me the most gracious note and floral bouquet saying that I gave them the feeling that anyone can do anything with hard work and that I was their inspiration. That was one of the nicest things that was acknowledged and recognized. Needless to say the experience was terrific and though the ballet is more than just a killer, it was fun to do with the support of everyone around me.

In between this, I was given the chance of dancing in Japan with Fernando Bujones. He had seen that I wanted to do more and I will always be grateful for his help in allowing me to be his partner on guest appearances.

In 1980, Natasha decided to stage the full length "La Bayadere" and again had to convince Lucia that I should do Gamzatti in the first cast alongside Anthony Dowell as Solor and herself and Nikiya. I had no previous feel for dramatic parts and Natasha worked very hard to get me to understand jealousy and desperation. She was a huge influence. Anthony Dowell had a history of a shoulder problem and in reality Gamzatti probably should have been danced by Cynthia Gregory or Martine Van Hamel first, but luckily my height suited him better.

At the same time, Kirk Peterson was trying his hand at choreography and used me along with some of the others at ABT to demonstrate his talents. This was vital in my early days. Here I had someone taking a special interest and creating things on me which expanded my horizons. When Misha returned to ABT after his time with NYCB, things would be very different. I believe that Misha felt that hard work and respect to him would have its own rewards - ok, and maybe a little talent. I owe a debt of gratitude to him that I only hope he realizes. He has immense integrity in his ballet knowledge and on stage. He taught me so much not simply by things he said but by example. I have often felt that though the public might have been tired of seeing me, Robert La Fosse and Susan Jaffe and Cheryl Yeager dancing so much, Misha was of course trying to put his mark on the company and we were malleable, open minded and hard workers.

I benefited the most as I was able to dance with him a great deal first as a replacement to Natasha in "Swan Lake," the day after I made my own debut in the role opposite Ross Stretton, and later dancing with him on the Baryshnikov and Company tours as well as with ABT. Finally by his approval in my dancing Kitri opposite his Basilio for the video of "Don Quixote," I was given a secure place in ABT and in 1982 a promotion to Principal status. By then, I had danced 7 full length ballets. So, I was never an overnight success!

Tell us about any memorable performing experiences -- such as guest artist appearances -- with other companies...

Regarding performance experiences....where to begin? Having had a long career and a short memory means that others may be better equipped at recalling things for me. Anyway, there have been several memorable times.

My first "Don Q," for previously mentioned reasons. My first "Swan Lake" was at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. and up until the day before the first performance, I was rehearsing on my own with no partner as Ross Stretton was still legally with The Joffrey Ballet. Every now and again I would borrow someone to do the pas de deux but on the whole I had no idea of continuity until the performance itself.

I did have inspiration though in the person of Elizabeth Taylor who sent me champagne and a great note. She was performing in the Theater next door to the Opera House. Anthony Zerbe, whose daughter Jenette was in the corps introduced us. He was starring opposite Miss Taylor and they were dining at a restaurant aptly called The Intrigue, when I saw them and told Miss Taylor how anxious I was - feeling unprepared - she was down right encouraging in assuring me that I had waited my whole life to do "Swan Lake" and that I would be fine ... How did she know that would have a great effect on me? I can't say that I enjoyed the performance due to nerves, but at least I was not booed off stage!

Guesting with Stuttgart Ballet and being coached by Marcia Haydee in Juliet in the Cranko version [of "Romeo and Juliet" - ed]. It was flattering to be asked as I was not exactly known for my dramatic interpretations. I seemed to have been generally received well in Germany where they had no previous expectations of me. My first "Sleeping Beauty" with The Royal Ballet with Jay Jolley, a friend and American colleague, was (Nov.5th 1986) special to me. I was given some coaching by both Dame Ninette De Valois and Sir Frederick Ashton. I felt comfortable and excited about doing this ballet. I suppose the heritage inspired me and one knows when something suits one, as they say in England.

Guesting with Julio Bocca in Argentina was amazing. He is a national hero there and is treated like such. That treatment extended to me as did some of the flattering adulation. Dancing with Julio was always terrific because of the energy and the commitment he put behind everything . Also, he would get so many curtain calls that I could rest just that little bit extra before starting my solo. Same applied to Misha, and Fernando Bujones.

Dancing "Giselle" for the first time knowing Anthony Dowell was out front and that Natasha had given me some wonderful clues on Act 2.

Finally, my last performance with Wes Chapman in San Francisco for the Opera on the stage in "Die Fledermaus," appearing in the party scene on New Years' Eve 1996. I danced Act 3 "Sleeping Beauty" and when it was all over, Gary Chryst who was also appearing stopped and paid a verbal tribute to me on stage which was sweet of him and very touching. He arranged that the other dancers, Wes, Evelyn Cisneros and Tony Randazzo, present a floral tribute to me which was unforgettable.

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