An Interview with Howard Sayette

On staging Bronislava Nijinska's "Les Noces"

by Stuart Sweeney

July, 2003


Howard Sayette grew up in Los Angeles, and received his training from many of the post-Diaghilev Russian émigrés, including Tatiana Riabouchinska. He danced in Sergei Denham's Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo from 1956-1960, and was a soloist in the Metropolitan Opera Ballet from 1960-1972.

From 1978 to 1998 he was the ballet master of the Oakland Ballet in California, which, along with the Joffrey Ballet, was dedicated to the revival of many Diaghilev-era ballets. The Oakland Ballet was the first American company to stage Bronislava Nijinska’s "Les Noces" and the revival was supervised by Bronislava's daughter Irina. It is this version which is the source for his stagings of the work on ten companies to date.

Having set "Les Noces" on the Kirov in June 2003, he is now in London to rehearse the Company for their UK premiere of the work. Howard is suitably discreet about working with the Kirov, but reading between the lines I have the impression that Millicent Hodson’s descriptions of her problems with the very hectic Kirov schedule have not come as a surprise to him. We talked about "Les Noces" and the role this extraordinary work has played in his life.

Q. Before you worked on "Les Noces" I understand that you had already met Bronislava Nijinska

Yes, that’s right. When I was a dancer at the Metropolitan Opera Ballet at the time when Dame Alicia Markova was the Director, we had a teacher from England, Kathleen Crofton, who had been in Pavlova’s company I think. She had been closely associated with Bronislava and when the company Kathleen set up in Buffalo was booked for a season at Jacob’s Pillow, Markova sent me and a few other dancers to be guest artists in "Les Biches" and the "Brahms Variations." So I worked with Bronislava for six weeks in Buffalo and then we performed at Jacob’s Pillow. That was also where I met Irina, Bronislava’s daughter.

Have you seen David Drew’s interview on the Royal Ballet’s "Les Noces" DVD? He describes exactly what it was like working with Bronislav And of course when I knew her she was older than the time that David describes. It was so difficult to understand what she said, although "Les Biches" and "Brahm’s Variations" use more of the classical vocabulary, so she could beat with her hands and show us the steps. It was really quite an experience and I always remember that she would always start the rehearsal with something new and if you weren’t involved in that section you could be sitting around for three hours, but when your turn came you always danced as if your life depended on it.

A few years after I retired from the Met, I returned to California and became the Ballet Master at the Oakland Ballet and Ronn Guidi, the Artistic Director was very interested in the Diaghilev repertoire. So, he called Irina and asked if Oakland could have "Les Noces" and she agreed fter coming to see the Company.

I should say at this stage, that it’s only very recently that I have seen the Royal Ballet version staged by Bronislava herself and I have always wanted to make comparisons. I am familiar with the RB version of "Les Biches" and that was almost identical to the version I know, but "Les Noces" is really different. Not the architecture, but some of the style, the steps and other details. Irina came to Oakland with the choreologist Juliette Kondo, who used a Benesh score. Irina was too old to show the steps, but she had an incredible memory for what her mother intended.  I always assumed that the Benesh score that Juliette Kondo produced was the Royal Ballet version. That was why I was so surprised when I saw the differences in the Royal Ballet version.

This week I rang Robert Johnson, an American critic and historian. Irina used to stay with Robert and his mother when we were working together in New York. I asked him about the Benesh scores and he was almost sure that the version we used in the Oakland Ballet was based on the Venice production in 1971.   Bronislava was known for changing things and to date that’s the only explanation I’ve come up with. For instance, in a documentary there is an excerpt of an earlier film of the RB version with Anthony Dowell, showing the scene where the girls are holding the braids. In the Oakland version it’s the two girls furthest away holding the braid up high, whereas in the RB version on one side it’s the closest girl and on the other it’s the one furthest away.

This is the tenth staging I’ve done and before she passed away, Irina was at all the rehearsals. Along the way, Irina would remember small things, which we could include. When you look at images of the productions from the 20's, I see things that are new to me, so Bronislava must always have been making changes. One reason why Irina loved the Oakland Ballet production is that the dancers are not a classical company, more demi-caractere, so it had a more natural, non-classical look. I adored Irina. She was a very charming lady and I relished every moment that she was there as she really knew what Bronislava wanted.  She was a dancer in all her mother’s ballets and then around 1969 after her kids had grown up, Irina began accompanying Bonislava and was there for the production in Venice in 1971, which is the basis for the current versions that I set.

Q. When did you first see "Les Noces", and can you remember your first impressions? For me there was a "shock of the new" and I was in tears without knowing why.

I was a late starter as a dancer and before I took any classes, I was an usher at a theatre in LA and saw the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. It made me so curious that I read all the books and the pictures. So I always had a great interest in the Diaghilev choreographers and their work. Add to that the fact that I had worked with Bronislava on two of her ballets and you can see that I was very keen to have first hand experience of "Les Noces."

At Oakland I didn’t really get an impression of it until I saw the performance. Bear in mind that as ballet master at a company like that I was doing everything single-handed. But when I did see it, I was stunned and people are still stunned. We’ve just revived the Joffrey production in San Jose and the audience reaction was unbelievable -- it’s so spiritual and moving. Unfortunately, most companies just perform it once, as it’s expensive. You have 30 or 36 dancers in the corps plus the singers.

Q. Tell me about the differences you found setting "Les Noces" on the various companies.

That is the great thing about what I do. I basically set three ballets, "Les Noces," "Billy the Kid," and "Cakewalk" and there is something special about the way different dancers approach these works. For instance I did "Les Noces" for the Tokyo Ballet, who probably have the most disciplined dancers anywhere; I'd see them practicing the steps in another room outside of rehearsal time. It was a wonderful performance, except maybe a little too careful and too clean. Carla Fracci was dancing SPECTRE with Roberto Bolle on the same program.  She was so enthusiastic that every year I get a call from she and her husband about doing it in Italy.  Right now it is a possibility in Rome next summer. You know this isn't the first Russian performance I've done. I set it on the Maly Theatre in St etersburg in 1995 as part of a cultural exchange, arranged by David Eden of Arts Link in the US. I had good rehearsal time and it was a big event and I was even interviewed on CNN. The guest of honour was Irina Baranova who had danced in it in de Basil's company. I was nervous what she would say about it, but when I asked her if it was as she remembered, she said, "Exactly."

In all the productions I do, I try to give the feeling for the work that Irina gave me. You can't really coach "Les Noces," you just have to give the dancers an idea what it is and if they have any sense they can make it work. It's all about architecture and you need a really tall girl for the Bride and shorter ones for the corps. That's a problem that the Kirov faces, as  they're all tall and the same applies with the men.

Q. What's your impression of the versions of "Les Noces" by other choreographers?

Jerome Robbins claimed that he never saw the Nijinska version, but his ballet is similar in some ways with the braids and the simple costumes; but in other ways it is very different and it has the orchestra on stage at the back. I love it. There's also the Preljocaj version. I saw a section on video, where they are throwing the dolls around and I was so offended, but then I saw it live in LA. I enjoyed it more. 

Q. Tell me about the score and the sung text.

I've heard the music many times in concert, and Michael Tilson Thomas of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra loves to conduct it, because it's so interesting. To count it and figure it out wasn't easy. The person who helped me the most when I staged it for Dance Theatre of Harlem was Milton Rosenstock, who passed away a few years ago. He came to every rehearsal and he really helped with the counting to make it clear to the dancers. I usually have to use recorded music at rehearsal, because if you just use piano and then they hear the orchestra it's bedlam. Here, I'm using the Leonard Bernstein recording. Some of the tempi are a little fast, but it's danceable.

The ballet is not an interpretation of the sung text and the action doesn't follow the words, some of which don't really make much sense; different singers even take the Bride's line. Irina said that Bronislava always wanted it to be sung in the language of the country where it was performed. So in Oakland we had it in English, but I do prefer it in Russian, because of the beauty of the language. I've always ignored the text and gone back to Bronislava's idea of an arranged marriage. The reality must have been horrible, especially for the Bride, as she would have to leave her family. That's why there is the separation in the fourth scene between the festivities for the corps and the starkness of the action on the platform. For instance when the Bride goes back and forth, Irina would say that it was almost as if she was trying to get away from him. I'm sure that there's also intellectual spiritualism and Irina told me about ideas concerning the energy of triangles, but I focus on the two of them being put in a situation not of their choosing as the essence of the whole thing.

One interesting thought is what would "Les Noces" have been like if there hadn't been the influence of "The Rite of Spring." My view is that a lot would have been the same. You know, there's a second book of Bronislava's autobiography, which Irina never got around to publishing, but someone is working on it now, so at some stage we may learn more about the influences. It's a shame that a lot of the young dancers of today are so driven by technique that they have little curiosity about the past and the important figures from the history of ballet. Some of them have barely heard of Margot Fonteyn.

Q. It is such a striking and avant-garde work, I wonder whether people coming to "Les Noces" for the first time need any preparation?

I don't think so. Beyond reading the synopsis, they can ask themselves questions after they have seen it. One thing I have noticed is that a couple of companies have programmed it with Millicent Hodson's reconstruction of Nijinsky's "Le Sacre du Printemps" and some audience members find that too much for one evening. So it's good that they are on separate programmes here in London and I hope it will be a wonderful experience for newcomers.

Edited by Catherine Pawlick.

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