Classic Stagings
An Interview with ballet master Howard Sayette

by Dean Speer and Francis Timlin

September, 2003 -- In early September, we had a wonderful and amiable conference call with Mr. Sayette from his California home. What follows is the fascinating story of his career as a ballet master and stager of historic ballets.

How did you get into staging ballets?

I danced with Denhamís Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo for four seasons prior to joining the Metropolitan Opera Ballet for twelve seasons, which made my connection to the Diaghilev ballets very interesting in my career as a ballet master. Also Dame Alicia Markova was director of the Met Opera Ballet for a few years, and it was through her that I worked with Bronislava Nijinska in performances of Les Biches and Brahmís Variations, with the Buffalo Ballet at Jacobís Pillow. I then moved to Marin County and became the part-time ballet master for Oakland Ballet in 1976. It was almost an act of fate that I met Ronn Guidi, the founder of Oakland Ballet, whose goal was in preserving the great ballets of the past that were being lost.

I was the ballet master in 1976 when Eugene Loring staged Billy the Kid. I became the stager for of Loring's ballet, Billy the Kid, in the Oakland Ballet repertoire. I staged twelve productions of Billy since 1987, which had great popularity during the centennial year of Aaron Copland's birth (2000) -- including one at Pacific Northwest Ballet. (They did an excellent job!) Besides PNB that year, I did ABT, Joffrey Ballet and Ballet Arizona. I do essentially three ballets: Billy, Cakewalk, and Les Noces. There have been several requests for Cakewalk during the past couple of years, most recently at Kansas City Ballet. I have staged Les Noces for the Joffrey Ballet, having staged 9 productions of it since 1984, including a revival of it for the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago.

As a follow up to my earlier interview on Les Noces, I would simply say that the Kirov's organizational structure is not conducive to staging new works. This is partly due to their being required to perform three to four performances each week all season long, which makes for limited rehearsal time for anything else. While I was personally treated well, it is clear to me that "the system" is a problem. Scheduling is very arbitrary. For example, I was scheduled to set Les Noces at the same time that Millicent Hodson was there to set Rite of Spring. I was never scheduled for a block of time greater than two or so hours in any day. This gave me barely enough time to teach the steps. The London opening was a bit of a disappointment. The performers got stronger later in the run, however. I had never seen the Royal Ballet version and when I did, I was astounded at some of the differences.

Tell us about Les Biches.

I have never had the opportunity to stage it outside of Oakland. The version performed by Royal Ballet is very similar. Some of the differences of Les Noces that I mentioned earlier include that it seems much more stylized than Oakland's version, with a larger cast -- 42 as opposed to 36. The Paris Opera Ballet version is much closer to the Oakland version than the Royal Ballet version.

What is on your plate for the future?

I have been asked by Carla Fracci to stage Les Noces for Rome Opera. Other than that, I am teaching company class at Oakland Ballet and will do another run as Drosselmeyer in Ronn Guidi's Nutcracker this year.

I have noticed that companies tend to do these ballets (Billy, Cakewalk, Les Noces) once and then drop them. Oakland Ballet once had an emphasis on them. The productions were very well-researched for accuracy in costume and set design. We had Les Noces, Les Biches, Le Train Bleu, Bolero, and the first movement of the Chopin Concerto, plus some works by Fokine, Massine, and Joose. Now these works are in great danger of being lost.

Any final thoughts on your experience as a stager?

Diplomacy is essential!

Edited by Catherine Pawlick

Please join the discussion in our Kirov forum.


Submit press releases to press@criticaldance.com

For information, corrections and questions, please contact admin@criticaldance.com