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

November 2003

(Page 2 of 2)

Cynthia HarveyTell us about any outstanding memories of Lucia Chase and Mikhail Baryshnikov...

Outstanding memories of Lucia and Misha? Lucia gave this impression of being flighty and yet efficient at the same time. She seemed always in a hurry; her little lithe body seemed to move rapidly from studio to studio. I recall that when I told her I had mononeucleosis, she pushed her chair so far back away from me that her chair banged against the wall. I guess she was afraid of contamination. I also had to tell her once that I had a stress fracture on a bone in my ankle that I had been told was in recovery. I used my wrist to describe the area on my foot where the problem lay. She replied by saying that as my wrist was not weight bearing, that I should be able to dance that night. I guess you had to be there!

As for Misha, I think seeing how he could fill so many roles...not just on stage. Being a director and being subjected to the kind of criticism he was for a production, for the dancers in the production and still dance brilliantly was immensely educational. I think, though, if I had to sum him up it would be as someone who is intellectual and never satisfied with how much he has learned. I rode on a plane with him on my first tour of the USA one summer and he explained to me why after all the difficulties he had with Gelsey and her drug problems, he kept her.

I said that she was such a beautiful and special dancer but some of the corps felt that she was setting a bad example (I know it sounds very righteous doesn't it!?). Misha explained that at least when she was in the studio, he believed she was not, for those hours, doing drugs. He felt that by having the work, she was safer than being out on the street with no income etc. Contrary to what we all thought, he did care. Of course there was a limit to how much he could deal with and when she and Patrick Bissell went on to miss rehearsals, he had no recourse but to let them go as he would have with anyone else.

What is some of your favorite repertory? Favorite roles?

Favorite roles would have to be Giselle, Kitri, and Aurora, not necessarily in that order. I enjoyed Manon tremendously....a fascinating character. I loved the Sylph in "La Sylphide" and being coached by Erik Bruhn in that role. I had and have such a great deal of respect for Balanchine's "Theme and Variations" and "Ballet Imperial." Very taxing but satisfying when and if you can accomplish the choreography. I enjoyed dancing "Symphonic Variations" by Ashton; a masterpiece.

Coaching and teaching must be a change from performing -- tell us what you like (or dislike) about your new challenges...

Coaching and teaching is much more difficult than performing. Firstly, you don't have the escape of losing yourself in the performance, and I get just as nervous teaching. I had to teach a couple of years ago at STEPS and Allegra Kent, Nikolaj Hübbe and Misha were all in class. I thought I was going to have a breakdown - I was unable to think straight. It is tough when a colleague is in class. I want the dancers/students in class to feel they are thoroughly warmed up and that class is musically provoking or at least rhythmically enjoyable. You can't please everyone and of this I am very aware.

I try to learn all the students names when I teach a summer program even if it is for two weeks for ABT and there are 200 of them. Some stick in mind much better than others obviously. I love working with young students who are serious about the work. I love seeing the surprise and satisfaction of their accomplishment, based on a correction I have given. I am SO glad I am not so familiar any longer with this generation of dancers that they expect me to do the repertoire full out. I mean to say that I am glad that this generation of students are not too familiar with my previous work so that there is no expectation of me demonstrating, as it is important that they get an idea of how they, themselves want to dance a solo, not how I did it.

I have to try not to get too involved with the students as it is my tendency to want to help them so much that I am just as disappointed as they are if they have a bad day. I try to keep in touch with some and note their progress. When you have been helped in this career, I believe it is nice to give back. Sometimes I wonder if I will be found out though. I had so much in the way of good teaching with David Howard and the ballet masters of ABT, that I can't help but think that if I could pass on some of it, then the next group will know that which helped me. David was a huge influence. Though I have never taken one of his training courses, I think his methods and ideas to be so sound and kinetically correct that it would be negligent for me not to pass on what I have learned.

How long have you been in England and how are you enjoying it?

How long have I been in England? I married my husband Christopher Murphy in 1990, so now 13 years. I love my life here though I am far from London and miss the cultural drip feed that being in the city allows. I am busy with my five year old boy, Conal who is, bless him, like a little me except he has more energy and is far less shy than I was at his age. He is my best achievement thus far, though I am only borrowing him for a while.

I love teaching for The Royal Ballet School. The young students are delightful and Gailene Stock is trying very hard to bring about change. I live too far to teach there on a regular basis, but do the summer school and keep tabs on the students as best as I can. I teach for a local performing arts school and coach the ballet for the senior students. I have just recently started a once a month program for four talented little girls. We shall see how that goes. I also teach for two other associations in the vicinity a few times a month. The schedule suits me so far. When Conal is older, I may want to expand my teaching commitments to more serious and regular pursuits.

Working with choreographers and stagers always has its memorable moments. Tell us about a few...

Working with choreographers- I danced a handful of created pieces by some very talented people. I think one of the most valuable for me as a dancer was to have worked on Twyla Tharp's ballets. I danced nearly every one of the ballets she created for ABT and learned the ones that I was not actually cast in either first or second cast. I completely admire Twyla as a person and as a choreographer. She is unbelievably demanding and if you are dancing one of her ballets she expects every waking moment to revolve around her piece which I could not necessarily comply with, but fought hard to try and achieve. I understood that she had her agenda and wanted you to have the same one; to make her piece the best.

The benefit was that her ballets helped my classical repertoire though some might find that hard to believe. With Twyla's work, you had to know how to work from your center and know where your core stability comes from ... if not, her choreography would lead you there. This (though it seems that every dancer should know this) enabled me to move quicker, cleaner and more efficiently (I sound like a car commercial).

The truth is that her technique is based on good dancing and nothing else. I think she feels it is either good or bad ... simple. At any rate, she drove me ahead. Normally, if a principal had "Swan Lake" to perform in the evening, they had a break from 2pm in the afternoon unless there was an emergency rehearsal of something. Not with Twyla. I can recall working on a premiere of hers until quite late in the afternoon and literally having time to go out and have a bite to eat before returning for the evening show of "Swan." She expected rehearsal full out whether I had Odette/Odile on my mind or not.

Her ballets are not fluff. They have substance and quite a bit of substance too. She also was one of the first people who phoned me at home to ask how I was when I had a damaged disc in my neck and had been told that I would be off for months as I lost feeling in my arms. I was also fortunate to work with Glen Tetley, John Neumeier, Ashton, & MacMillan amongst several others.

MacMillan was a very interesting man. He really wanted to see the human body in a rather dynamic way, often to have a desired effect of, perhaps, angst. Yet, when everything was put together, it was more than pleasing to the eye. When coaching me for Juliet, I recall him saying that the solo that Juliet dances in Act 1 for Romeo should be all about being just perfect for him, so every step had to be clear. He also sarcastically told me before my first ever step of rehearsal for Juliet that "You know Cynthia, this is not Kitri"- The message was clear to me that he too had me type cast and wanted me to know it. I was rather defensive and replied that I did not think I entered into the ballroom in Verona with spit curls and a fan.

Ashton was different. I wish I could have worked with him further. We worked on "Symphonic Variations," "Cinderella," and "Ondine." He suited my sensibilities and to rehearse the 'Rose Adagio' for him was extraordinary. He gave me instruction from a dramatic point of view and for what makes the greatest effect for the effort. He explained how he helped Margot Fonteyn with the role.

Cynthia HarveyDame Ninette was a character. She came to watch Gelsey rehearse Aurora with The Royal the same year I went there. The production we were doing was Dame Ninette's. It was a full run through of the ballet and for some reason, I had to dance it instead, but Dame Ninette did not hear that it was to be me (again, a last minute replacement).

Somewhere through the Act 1 solo, she yelled out to Sir Anthony, "That's not Gelsey!" "Who is that?" I was quite intimidated naturally. First, I was without decent shoes since all I had planned was to sit and watch, and second, I felt I was disappointing Dame Ninette who had come to see Gelsey. You would have thought I was used to dealing with that as it was often the case in my early years that I was called upon to replace someone or other. Nevertheless, she had to instruct me on the pricking of the finger as we were rehearsing it as I had not yet learned that section of the ballet. There she was - ninety plus - dancing beside me to help me learn that section!

In performing principal roles, did you develop an affinity for working with a partner or partners? If so, did it immediately feel "right" or did it develop over time?

Working with partners. I made the most of working with so many of the gifted men of ABT and the Royal. There were several with whom I felt shared a sense of humor and so, I knew we could work together easily and others with whom there was no humor and I never felt comfortable.

I had, as mentioned earlier been spoiled as my first real pairing was with Anthony Dowell. I had done the odd performance here and there with Alexander Godunov and Fernando Bujones but never often enough to call it a partnership. With Robert La Fosse, I found a colleague who would work as hard as I and who worked towards the same goal.

With Julio Bocca, we balanced each other out. When I was dancing with him he might not have been 20 yrs old yet. He was still a tad wild and I was by then the old veteran of refinement. Some said he brought out good in me and I had a different but similar effect on him. Having not watched us in action myself, it is hard to say. With Guillame Graffin, I could really enjoy rehearsals and felt his utter commitment to the role on stage. Kevin McKenzie was an honest performer and also would talk through the ballet to make the interpretations gel. Ross Stretton was simply a great partner who left his ego back in Australia when he came to ABT. He made the pas de deux with the girl equally as important as the ballet itself. With Wes Chapman, we competed on another level which was so positive. With Misha, he brought his elegance and simplicity and lack of vulgarity to everything he did and would expect and want the same from me.

At The Royal, Jonathan Cope was marvelous. He actually did more than I wanted him to and I had to request that he let me be a bit, but he is and was a very humourous man and a good partner. Wayne Eagling was terrific...a risk taker - Wayne would wait until the last possible moment to catch or grab you to save you and he ALWAYS did. He would immerse himself in the role. I loved dancing with the gallant Mark Silver and Jay Jolley as well.

The physical compatibility rarely played into the men I danced with. So often I was replacing someone in the early days and later the repertoire over a long season were so physically tough that in one week I would be dancing Nikiya with Laurent Hilaire, two days later with Stephen Heathcote (both guests during Jane Hermann's tenure) and then alternating with Susan Jaffe as Gamzatti. Unlike Alessandra Ferri and Julio Bocca who developed such a partnership, I did not really have the luxury of a partnership during my career. Ultimately, for me, my partner had to take himself lightly and be able to laugh, but take the work seriously. You won't find me telling you with whom I did not get along!

Can you identify some particularly memorable performing experiences? Or perhaps some that you would rather forget about?

Forgetting about performances or remembering good ones... There are always performances you remember for the problems or errors because those things are tangible.

For example, dancing "Swan Lake" and missing the fouettes is something you (and the audience) always remember. A good performance for me might not have been as good from the public perspective. It is the technical aspect that dancers often relate to when saying that a performance went well or not. I always felt I danced best in Japan and this might be because I could not read the reviews and so, felt confident that I would not know if someone else thought I did well or not. Maybe I will find out that they hated me!

I had a couple of funny incidents that also remain lodged in the old memory bank. Misha had cast me as Clara in his "Nutcracker" with Ross Stretton as the Nutcracker Prince. In Act 1 at the end of the snowflakes scene, the Nutcracker pushes a sled out. The idea being that Clara is escorted to the Land of the Sweets with the feeling of freedom and the wind in her hair. We never got to rehearse the sled prior to the performance and Ross pushed so hard that he practically knocked down the last couple of snowflakes and the sled tipped over throwing me out onto the "SNOW". I got a case of the giggles and he quickly lifted me off the floor (or tried to) and then had to execute a partnered grand jete with me and my shaking abdomen. Ross was hoping for a contract as he was a guest up until then. Fortunately, Misha saw the humor in it too.

I recall another moment in one of those ghastly performances where nothing seems to go smoothly but nothing goes too obviously wrong either. In "Theme and Variations" in Los Angeles, Kevin McKenzie was my partner and that performance the audience was told prior to curtain that Misha was indisposed, not for "Theme" but for something else. However, they were not amused. During the slow entrance before a section known as scrambled eggs, one corps girl forgot her entrance and came bourée(ing) on sideways from the wings as I made my entrance. Friends later told me she looked like Carol Burnett trying not to be noticed in a tutu. I did not see her, but heard the audience laugh loudly. This section is very quiet and calm before the ballerina's second solo. I did not know if I had a wire hanger dangling from my costume or WHAT had gone on. I spent the solo just trying to figure it out.

Then came the pas de deux. I suspect the audience would now and then just have to think about what they had seen previously and they would laugh out loud during the pas de deux. Kevin by this time must have sensed me panicking as I had by now been convinced that I was the culprit. In a very difficult section where he had to pass my extended leg in a la seconde, he bumped into it which sent my leg down and I spun under his arm and tried to lift my leg that he grabbed to put back into a la seconde. Yikes!

Another time, I got caught on Anthony Dowell's hooks on his shirt. My pink underpants (these worn over the tights) stuck onto his shirt and I dangled ungracefully. Another time in "Paquita," Patrick Bissell paddled me so much on our partnered pirouettes that one of my contact lenses dried and flew out of my eye. I really am far sighted and could not see at all. Oh dear, I can think of more, but you don't have the space!

Tell us about your latest projects -- teaching, coaching, staging...

Latest projects...I hope to go to Warsaw in February to assist in the staging of Natalia Makarova's "La Bayadere." The premiere is slated for May, but I will need to go in Febuary for the staging rehearsals. I think I might need to learn to ski or skate at least. I continue to teach here in England, in New York either for Nancy Bielski when she is away (another good teacher in NYC by the way) at Ballet Academy East or for ABT and I am on the board of a group here in England called DanceEast which is a national dance agency. DanceEast organised the Retreat for the Ballet Directors in Rural Suffolk last January. I was a part of the team that helped organise that. I attend workshops and judge some ballet competitions here as well.

Currently, I am working privately with a talented dancer who is ready to audition for a major ballet company.

I feel as if I am very busy juggling all of that with motherhood and, I enjoy it!

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Edited by Jeff.

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