The keepers of the flame

Summing up a year’s research at the Mitchell Library in Sydney, I spoke last week about my discoveries as the Nancy Keesing Fellow.

At the end of their fellowship, all the library fellows are asked to give a presentation to the staff and public. With generous help from Barry Nunn at the library, mine was accompanied by images from the Mitchell Library collections of dance photographs and artworks.

With the guidance of Robert Woodley over the year, I had found previously unknown (to me) treasures in the collection and between us we had fun identifying as many people and places in the photographs as we could, all based on Robert’s work over many years. This work continues.

Among the images I showed in the presentation was one from a portfolio of photo-litho reproductions of Daryl Lindsay’s oil paintings, completed during either the second or third Ballets Russes’ tours of Australia.

Lindsay captured the essence of Les Sylphides, the ballet that was so often given during those tours and which was reproduced as part of the homage to the Ballets Russes by the Australian Ballet in 2006.

At that time, former Ballets Russes’ dancers Irina Baronova, Valrene Tweedie and Anna Volkova worked with the company in re-staging the ballet.

It’s sad that only Anna is still alive.

Lindsay’s painting made me wonder about the future of Les Sylphides. Will it be seen again in Australia within the next decade or has it moved into the museum wing, along with The Dying Swan, Carnaval and Spectre de la Rose.

Sylphides is a reverie that seems to belong to another age, one that is difficult to replicate in the 21st century.

The video, below, shows Tamara Karsavina speaking of the first performances of Les Sylphides. It must have been filmed to coincide with the screening of the 1953 performance as she speaks of the ideal cast of Markova, Field, Elvin and Beriosova.

Who will be the next generation’s keepers of the Fokine flame?

The Fokine Estate’s website states that “the ballets of Michel Fokine are under copyright”. Performing them without a licence from the Fokine Estate-Archive is “in breach of the law and subject to prosecution”.

The artistic director of the estate is Fokine’s granddaughter, Isabelle Fokine, who watched her father, Vitale, set Fokine’s ballets in her early years.

Isabelle has travelled from company to company to stage Fokine’s ballets such as Petrouchka. She did not have a long professional career as a dancer, and therefore the ballets may not be in her muscle memory to the same extent as they were in Markova’s and Baronova’s, both of whom set Les Sylphides on the Australian Ballet, Markova in the 1970s, and Baronova in the 1980s.

Andris Liepa, the Russian dancer whose mission has been to recreate Ballets Russes ballets has said: “We can’t know what was authentic when there are no notations or videos. Everything we do in a ballet is given from one leg to another. I feel everything I’m doing is for people to see these productions and go further in their own way to the next step”.

Isabelle Fokine and Liepa carry the flame but of course there is no network of Fokine stagers or repetiteurs, as there is for the works of Balanchine and Ashton.

Last week, for the website, The Arts Desk, the dance writer, Ismene Brown, interviewed Tony Dyson, one of the trustees of the Frederick Ashton Foundation about the future of that new organisation.

Dyson, said that, subject to the co-operation of the individual owners of the Ashton ballets or their heirs (including Dyson himself, Anthony Dowell and Wendy Ellis Somes), “the majority of those who will be trained to stage the ballets in the future will come from the Royal Ballet”.

The Royal’s stagers would make “full use of the Ashton Foundation’s coordinating role in promoting and making available film and written archive, academic study, filming of the masterclasses, ballet re-creations, etc.”

All of those resources will be necessary in years to come to protect the style of Ashton. As Brown remarked, his style was very particular:

“Some people have opined that Ashton’s work is more period, more perfumed, more indefinable, therefore more likely to be lost as an understood style – there’s been more fear expressed about the difficulty of restating his style than MacMillan or others who seem more physically robust”.