Elaine Fifield: the student years in Sydney

Trader Faulkner recently sent me this tribute to the ballerina, Elaine Fifield, written by his mother, Sheila Whytock, who had danced with Pavlova.

Trader is an Australian actor and dancer, living in London, who is now writing his memoirs.

He once lived with his mother on a houseboat on the Thames in London which is where her article was written.

He also sent me a selection of photos for use on dancelines – one of which was dedicated to Sheila Whytock who taught Fifield in Sydney.

Fifield trained in Sydney before moving to London where she danced with Sadler’s Wells Theatre Ballet from 1947.

John Cranko created roles for Fifield in London, including Pineapple Poll.

“The early training of Elaine Fifield by her first dancing teacher, Sheila Whytock

“A star danced, and under that I was born…”

The lovely line spoken by Beatrice to Don Pedro in Much Ado About Nothing always makes me think of Elaine Fifield.

I have often been asked by people interested in that sort of thing, in what way Fifield resembles Pavlova.

No really great artist ever resembles another, but in certain striking instances there is a likeness.

Both are interpretive rather than creative artists…

Elaine is more creative than Pavlova; she is also more sensitive to music.

With the exception of Autumn Leaves, Pavlova never created an outstanding ballet.

She drove her musical directors mad with her supreme contempt of the laws of phrasing and rhythm.

It was quite extraordinary that such a sensitive artist could be so completely unaware of the basic laws of music.

She thought nothing of cutting out half a bar in the middle of a phrase just because she felt it had gone on long enough, or because she wanted to tack on another piece that took her fancy, regardless of the fact that it might have been by a different composer.

From the conductor’s point of view this sort of thing was in the worst possible taste, but to the end she remained blissfully ignorant of the terrible gaffes she was making.

She slashed bars ruthlessly and the most beautiful music had to conform to the requirements of the ballerina.

As can be imagined, this led to endless rows and when we finally rehearsed on stage with full orchestra, had it not been so trying on the nerves and such a waste of time, it would have been comic.

Once during a rehearsal at Covent Garden, Sir Thomas Beecham, who was conducting, remonstrated with her:

“My God, Madame, can’t you even keep in touch with us for five minutes?”

“Certainly not”, said Pavlova, “it is for you to follow me, you are only the conductor, I am the star”.

There was a frozen silence. The prestige of Opera tottered for a moment in its own stronghold, and Ballet, always the Cinderella of the arts, rose triumphantly above it.

When charged later with being arrogant and conceited, Pavlova replied, “What is conceit? It is the knowledge an artist has that she cannot be wrong; it is something that a great artist knows instinctively”.

Elaine Fifield, like so many young dancers of today had never seen Pavlova. This is unfortunate, as Pavlova still remains the greatest ballerina of all time.

But dancing is such an ephemeral art that her magnetic personal impact died with her.

She often used to say: “Technique must never be an end in itself…ten years to learn, ten years to forget, and then you begin to dance.”

Fifield, like Pavlova, and in common with many Russians, has an extraordinary flair for learning a dance and making it completely her own.

Pavlova did it with Dying Swan, which she learned in a few hours for a charity matinee, transforming what is little more than an exercise in pas de bourrée with the use of arms and body into a poignant portrayal of death.

Nearly every dance I taught Elaine became, by some subtle alchemy, her own.

She needed the initial inspiration of a teacher to fire her imagination and the dance would take possession of her. All that was needed was a guiding hand.

The three responsible for Elaine’s formative years were myself, my partner, Phyllis Brunt, an Englishwoman trained by Olive Ripman, and Madame Gertrud Bodenwieser whose school of modern expressive dance in Sydney ranks with those of Martha Graham, Mary Wigman and Doris Humphrey.

Bodenwieser was so impressed by the girl’s ability that she asked to ‘borrow’ her for a recital she was giving on the History of the Dance.

I realised what the value of an association with a creative artist like Bodenwieser would be to Elaine, who at this time was only nine.

The selection of music was left to me, and together with my pianist we narrowed the choice down to the Chopin nocturne that opens Sylphides and the Meditation from Thais by Massenet.

Elaine, with no basic knowledge of music, instinctively chose the Mediation.

Her choice was exactly right…the mood of this music suited her to perfection and the dance almost unfolded itself.

It was flowing and lyrical, very much in the French tradition with an insistence on great purity of line. Instead of wearing the conventional tutu, we dressed her in draperies of transparent leaf-green chiffon.

The Meditation soon became one of her most successful dances. It never failed to win praise from the adjudicators of the various eisteddfods that are held throughout Australia as a result of the Welsh immigration.

There was always a hush when she drifted onto the stage.

In her translucent draperies she looked like a dryad in the moonlight.
It was a very quiet dance but lit with her own soft radiance.

Her style was light and fluid…she seemed to float above the ground.
Even then one could see that like Pavlova she would become a danseuse de gracia.

Seeming to defy all the laws of gravity and balance, able to hold an arabesque with that thrilling sense of risk that delights the soul; suspending the whole audience with her on one magical breath.

This apparent fragility belied a great determination and tenacity which was soon to take Elaine across the world to work with the great masters, and partner the legendary Nureyev.

Sheila Whytock, Stella Maris, 106 Cheyne Walk, SW 10″