Dance Amongst the Stars

Carla Fracci 1936-2021

Once again I seem to be posting of the passing of another great performer that I loved: the great ballerina Carla Fracci died this past week at her home in Milano. She had been diagnosed with cancer two years ago but had chosen to keep it private from all but her closest family and friends.

Her devoted friend Graham Spicer wrote a beautiful memory of her and created a very personal video as a tribute to a great artist and human being. A left click will take you to his touching homage to a true prima ballerina assoluta.

A left click will take you to the video.

I had the good fortune to see her in 1986 when the overblown Franco Zeffirelli’s Swan Lake, as it was billed, came to the National Arts Centre from La Scala, her home theatre. The ballet had been reworked and Signora Fracci’s Odile, the Black Swan, had become the central character. In spite of the elaborate costumes, overpowering sets, and crowds of extras your eyes were riveted to her every move. She had a magic and a stage presence that was spellbinding and her pyrotechnics beat anything Zeff could possibly think up.

The Odette was a young dancer who was to be one of her successors as a prima ballerina asoluta: Alessandra Ferri. I was blithefully unaware that I seeing two dance legends – one at the beginning of her career and the other at the end. I say at the end but Signora Fracci never did retire from dancing, she simply retired roles and took on technically less demanding but dramatically just as important character roles. And she shouldered the daunting task of directing the ballet companies at several of the major theatres in Italy.

Again I was fortunate that she was the ballet director at the Teatro del’Opera in Rome during the first three years of our stay there. Her choice of repertoire was occasionally criticized for being old fashioned but to a modern balletomane it was a chance to see works that I had only read about. From the The Red Poppy, a seminal Soviet propaganda ballet, to Parade, Massine’s surreal circus in Picasso’s legendary designs, to a reconstruction of Hérold’s La Somnambule, which lay as dormant as its heroine since 1827, and much more it was the history of 19th-20th century dance brought to life.

Though she appeared in character roles they were often expanded to include some measure of dance. And whither she played the Queen Mother in Swan Lake or Carabosse in The Sleeping Beauty, when she came on stage you knew you were in the presence of a star. And at the end of every performance, even if she had not danced that night, she would appear at the final curtain call with the entire cast. And often to the discomfort of the prima ballerina she would receive the greatest applause. At first I thought it was vanity but then I realized that no, this woman was dance in Italy. She was the face and voice of ballet and the wider world of the arts for generations of Italians. She was a true national treasure.

Here she is in the first act variation from one of her most famous roles – Giselle.

Signora Carla – you were a star here on earth may you now dance amongst the stars.

The word for May 30th is:
Balletomane /baˈledəˌmān/: [noun]
A ballet enthusiast
Early 20th century: from ballet + Greek manēs ‘mad’.
Strangely another possible etymology is: the Russian noun “baletoman,” which in turn combines the word for “ballet” (“balet“) and the suffix -man, from “maniya” (meaning “mania”).
English/Greek or Russian derivation amongst my loved ones in Italy I am amongst the most sane.

Picnic at Orly

I was sad to read in Sunday morning’s Guardian of the death of Nicola Pagett. A wonderful actress who many will remember from her Elizabeth Belamey (Miss Lizzie) in Upstairs Downstairs and the title role in the BBC Anna Karenina. After a series of breakdowns she retired from performing and later wrote a book about her battle with mental illness. I have an indelible memory of her striding on stage at the Queen’s Theatre in an emerald green gown flourishing a riding crop to confront Alec Guinness’s Jonathan Swift in an “entertainment” called Yahoo!

Nicola Pagett as Stella in “Yahoo!” an entertainment based on the life of Jonathan Swift (Alec Guinness) which I saw at the Queen’s Theatre, London in December of 1976. While searching for this photo I recalled her in this emerald green gown and carrying a riding whip.

But I also have a wonderful memory of a few brief hours I spent with her at Orly Airport back in 1974. I was taking an early morning flight from Paris to London and our flight had one of those creeping delays caused by London fog in February. After three hours Air France decided to give us something to eat – yes airlines did that in those days – and offered us baguette sandwiches with a small split of wine or water. Every bench and seat in the hold room was taken and it was going to be awkward to manage. However a very beautiful lady put her fur coat down on the floor, turned to me and the couple I was chatting with and asked “would you like to join me for a picnic?” When we settled in I realized it was Miss Lizzie! So there we sat on a mink coat in a departure room at Orly picnicking, chatting, laughing, and making the best of a bad situation for the next hour or so. She was charming, funny, and gracious. I’ve never enjoyed a flight delay more.

May she rest in the peace that eluded her for much of her life.

The word for March 9th is:
Picnic /ˈpɪknɪk/: [1. noun 2. verb]
1.1 An occasion when a packed meal is eaten outdoors, especially during an outing to the countryside.
1.2 A packed meal to be eaten outdoors.
2. The action of consuming a packed meal out of doors.
Mid 18th century (denoting a social event at which each guest contributes a share of the food): from French pique-nique, of unknown origin.
Well it wasn’t outdoors but it was the most memorable picnic I’ve every had.

The Meaning of Nowhere

Jan Morris
October 2, 1926 – November 20, 2020

I was introduced to the writing of Jan Morris, amongst so many other things, by my friend David over at I’ll Think of Something Later. When I was planning on visiting Trieste he suggested her Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere as a fitting introduction to that enigmatic city. It led me to reading many of the more than 40 books that she wrote and a goodly number of the articles from magazines and newspapers that bore her byline.

It was with much sadness that I read late this afternoon that she had died at her home in Ysbyty Bryn Beryl, Wales. Much has been written and said about her writings and her life, at this point there is little I could add. When her last book Thinking Again was published at the beginning of the year she was interviewed by Tim Adams for The Guardian. It is a glimpse into a fascinating life of Morris who cheerfully admits that she is “someone at the very end of things.”

Strangely I had just started to revisit her remembrance of Trieste last week. As I continue to read a chapter or even just a page or two before I go to sleep it will serve as a reminder of the brilliance that was Jan Morris. May she rest in peace.

The word for November 20th is:
Nowhere /ˈnōˌ(h)wer/: {1. pronoun 2. adverb 3. adjective]
1.1 No place.
1.2 A place that is remote, uninteresting, or nondescript.
2. Not in or to any place; not anywhere.
3. Having no prospect of progress or success
From Old English nāhwǣr
Similar constructions were attempted with nowhat (“not at all,” 1650s) and nowhen (“at no time, never,” 1764), but they failed to take hold.

Son Truc en Plumes

The Girl in Pink Tights has three tremendous assets – a dancer named Jeanmarie, a singer named Jeanmarie and a comedienne named Jeanmarie.

Walter Kerr 0n Zizi Jeanmarie’s appearance on Broadway in 1954.

As I was sadden to read in the Guardian on Thursday that the legendary dancer, singer, comedienne died on July 17 at the age of 96.

She was an entertainer that I adored – though sadly I missed my one chance to see her at the Casino de Paris back in 1972 because of a delayed flight. When I made my next trip to Paris the following year she had left the show and let’s admit a show called Zizi Je t’aime just wasn’t the same without … Zizi.

I would be hard pressed to add anything to the many tributes that have appeared online over the past two weeks. Her career took her from the stage of the Palais Garnier and the ballet of the Paris Opera to the stages of the music halls of Europe with stops on Broadway, Hollywood and TV studios throughout the world. She worked with the greats of dance, theatre and fashion, always with Roland Petit, her partner in life and work, by her side. Together they revolutionized ballet in the late 1940s and later revitalized French music hall for almost 40 years.

Roland Petit and Zizi Jeanmaire in ‘Carmen’, 1949.
Carl Perutz (1921-1981)

Most of the tributes includes links to her two most iconic performances: the 1949 Carmen with Petit and Mon truc en plume which she introduced at the Alhambra Music Hall in 1961. But I thought I’d pay my tribute with two clips that originated during her brief time in Hollywood.

I first saw her when my father took me to see Hans Christian Anderson at the Shea’s Hippodrome in Toronto in 1952. We went because it was a Danny Kaye movie but I remember who captivated me, precocious little quee child that I was at eight, was the little ballerina who was the object of Danny’s unrequited love, known at that time simply as Jeanmarie. In the “Ice Skating Ballet” that Petit created for the film Zizi is partnered by the great Danish premier danseur Erik Bruhn.

Zizi first did the Cole Porter number in the next clip in a rather bland remake of Anything Goes back in 1956 in which she was anything but bland. Petit’s choreography for it was often repeated in her musical hall revues and on television variety. Unfortunately the original version is not available on YouTube except as part of the entire movie but here’s Zizi in 1984 – 28 years later – assuring us that “I Get A Kick Out Of You”.

In the last line of Mon truc en plume Zizi assured us that “J’vais t’faire danser” (I’m going to make you dance) – I have a feeling she’s sang that to the heavenly hosts – and they, feathered fans in hand, are dancing with her.

The word for August 2nd is:
Legendary /ˈlejənˌderē/: [adjective]
1.1 Of, described in, or based on legends.
1.2 Remarkable enough to be famous; very well known.
Early 16th century (as a noun denoting a collection of legends, especially of saints’ lives): from medieval Latin legendarius, from legenda ‘things to be read’.

Butterflies Are Free

I have remarked more than once that many of my posts of late mark the passing of people I grew up listening to, reading about, or seeing. Last evening another legend of dance fluttered into the wings: Alicia Alonso. She overcame incredible odds both personally and politically to become one of the greats of the latter part of the 20th century. Her story is a remarkable one and has been well-rehearsed in the many obituaries that are now appearing world-wide.

Alicia Alonso as Giselle with her long-time dance partner Igor Youskevitch. They were the iconic vision of Romantic ballet in my young mind.

I remember pictures of her as Giselle in the ballet books I took out of our local library when I was not yet in my teens. She was the iconic image of the classical ballerina, often shown with Igor Youskevitch, her most frequent partner. Unfortunately I never saw her on stage only on film which though it captured her technique perhaps missed some of that stage magic, that aura that captivated everyone who saw her. My dear Simonetta was fortunate to see her perform, if only briefly, and wrote a lovely reminiscence that she is allowing me to share.

SIMON, THE BUTTERFLY AND ALICIA ALONSO

The ballet community is expressing its sadness on the passing of 98-year-old Alicia Alonso because no ballet lover was filled with anything but awe and deference towards this legend of a ballerina and it is in the human nature to wish to preserve for ourselves all that we (mistakenly) feel “belongs” to us – whether our worldly belongings, the fleeting moment, or those human beings that we love and admire. Yet it would be wise to realise that love and respect mean letting go and allowing those who have lived long and successful lives to break out of their chrysalises which in waning years aren’t always the best of abodes. When my beloved mother passed away 17 years ago, I imagined her as a butterfly that had emerged from the body of an aging lady to fly away into newfound youth and beauty. I wept for my bereaved self, but I was happy for my butterfly of a mother. The idea of the liberated spirit being akin to a butterfly has led to a succession of thoughts today which strangely link together Alonso and my darling son Simon D’Aquino and which I share with you.

Simonetta at a dance event with the 92 year old Alicia Alonso (centre) in 2012.

The great Cuban ballerina last appeared on stage in Rome with the Cuban National Ballet at the Teatro Nazionale, I believe in 1995. I was still a ballet critic in those days and had been invited to the premiere but that night I could not find a babysitter for my little Simon who wasn’t yet even 3 years old, even younger than in the photo below. I realised that this would probably be my last chance to see Alonso perform (well, she was almost eighty – I saw her again in 2012, but not on stage). I was loath to miss the show so I made the snap decision to take my little toddler with me and hope for the best: he might just nod off, I thought, or if he was going to snivel and whimper, I’d just get up and leave – but I’d give it a try.

My dear Simonetta with her son Simon who at this stage was already a confirmed balettomane.

When I got to the theatre it was fully booked but my Simon was so small he could sit on my lap and, being in baby-friendly Italy, they let me in with him. It was a mixed bill, the apotheosis of which was a ballet in which Alonso, wearing an unlikely costume as a butterfly, appeared briefly – propped up by a couple of porteurs – to do a bit of fluttering and enthrall the audience in spite of her advanced age. My little Simon didn’t go to sleep at all: he sat wide-eyed and transfixed as he watched Alicia and her dancers. I mused that one day an elderly Simon would be able to tell the young that he had seen the great Alicia Alonso dance – and it would sound as mythical as when Alberto Testa (who has also recently passed away) used to say that he had seen the legendary Anna Pavlova dance!

Simon d’Aquino as Peter Ryabovsky in a staging of Chekov’s short-story The Butterfly at the Barons Court Theatre in London.

That evening was the beginning of Simon’s love affair with ballet and the theatre in general. From then on he would come with me to see ballets, operas, and plays of all descriptions and, when he finished his schooling, he chose to study drama and embark on an acting career. Yesterday Alonso, who two-year-old Simon had seen as a butterfly, flew away. Tonight Simon debuts at the Barons Court Theatre, London in a play based on a short story by Anton Chekhov. Simon has the star role, that of the bohemian painter Peter Ryabovsky. Oh, I forgot to mention: the play is called…THE BUTTERFLY.

Tonight I have two wishes. One that the great Alicia Alonso rest in peace. The second is for Simon – in bacca al lupo!

October 18th is National No Beard Day – something that doesn’t apply to either Simon or I. It’s also National Chocolate Cupcake day which may!

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