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|About the Change|
A 70th birthday lunch with
Ismene Brown at the table
The walls of his flat are hung copiously with ballet designs, paintings, photographs and pictures of ballerinas, his favourites evidently being Natalia Makarova, Ludmila Semenyaka and Alicia Markova. Lunch is impressive: champagne and smoked salmon. I tell him that in an internet poll Ballet.co.uk fans declared him, by an almost unbelievable margin, the critic they would most trust. He cackles, throwing his head back (rather like a rooster crowing).
It’s an explosive, arresting sound, one of the most recognisable laughs to be heard inside the London theatre and when you have placed it to this tall, white-haired, bespectacled and impeccably smart gentleman, it makes you study his face in a quite new way. You suddenly notice the pointy way those eyebrows fly upwards and outwards, the sharpness of his eyes behind their glasses. No critic can kebab shoddy or vulgar work as cleanly and as ruthlessly as Clement Crisp; yet his kebabs come fronded with savoury, fascinating, even eccentric references to classicism, literature, TV soaps, bizarre current events, music hall acts, bits and pieces of magpie information - a cultural garnish sometimes more entertaining than he found the particular matter in hand.
Here he is kebabbing Ohad Naharin’s ‘Sabotage Baby’ at the Barbican this year:
Crisp commands English like a maestro controlling a vast orchestra of thousands upon thousands of instruments, some splendidly abstruse.
When he likes something or someone, I imagine they must feel, as they read the black print on the pink paper, as if they were being showered with rare jewels. As Tamara Rojo might have felt reading his appreciation of her first Royal Ballet ‘Swan Lake’ a year ago: “[Rojo's] actions speak so loudly that we need no words. The Swan Queen grieves and hopes against hope, and we know every nuance of feeling. Her Odile is malign, seductive, and dazzles Siegfried - as she dazzles us - with prodigies of steps. The third-act fireworks flared and glittered: triple fouettés, and the occasional quadruple; long-held and steady balances; musical sensitivity - all this told of her style. But even more exciting was the poetic sensibility that coloured every action. She is a fascinating young ballerina.”
He does not have any contact with the internet, apart from knowing that his reviews are beamed out on the Financial Times website. He has been the FT’s dance critic for 35 years, and The Spectator’s for four. His knowledge goes back to 1942, when as a schoolboy he discovered the magical experience of going to the ballet. His 70th birthday this autumn, and the seismic shifts now taking place in British ballet, seemed to me to offer a chance both to celebrate his remarkable gifts and to draw on the valuable insights of an almost uniquely long-lasting career.
Ballet.co.uk readers kindly provided many of the questions. We began with, perhaps, the obvious one.
IB: Jim asks: “What are your feelings about the future of the Royal Ballet?”
CC: My feelings are of despair. I really think the Royal Ballet has been denatured. The great point about the Royal Ballet was that it had
No. They are no more than First Soloists, essentially, if we look at performances of ‘Swan Lake’, ‘Beauty’, ‘Giselle’, ‘Coppélia’, with the eye of time and by the absolute standard of the world. And this is the thing one could do, from very early on, with performances by Fonteyn, Grey, May, and Shearer, who were all world-quality; and then of Nerina and Beriosova, and then of Seymour and Sibley, and Park. I do not think now there is a single dancer in that company of world quality who has been produced by the native tradition.
The interesting thing is that they did get Mukhamedov, and now they’ve got Tamara Rojo, which is wonderful. They have Cojocaru, Acosta, Kobborg.
But these are all outsiders.
It’s Dowell’s fault, and Park’s at the school.
Yes, indeed, and the school.
That generation of dancers, which was so accomplished, didn’t know how to pass it on, did not understand the urgency of the need.
And they had no understanding, it seems to me, of the past. Some of the Fokine repertory comes back, a bit of the Nijinska, occasionally - but I’ve always believed that a company like the Royal Ballet should be full of dancers who know the stylistic differences between Petipa, Nijinska, Balanchine, Massine, Fokine - and also had those works in their bodies, just as any pianist will know his Bach, his Beethoven and Mozart. If you don’t have that kind of general knowledge in your body, even as corps de ballet, everything has to be “retaught” and reinterpreted and further degraded each time. The great thing about Russian tradition is that everything is nursed and looked after, it is rigorously handed down, and there is no fooling around with changing this, changing that - as Ashton has been changed, shall we say. Style is going, so that you must accept dancers kicking their legs up in the air in entirely the wrong places. That occasionally happens in St Petersburg too, of course. But it was interesting that the great Aurora we saw this summer from the Kirov was Janna Ayupova, who was markedly better than that tedious Zakharova kicking her legs up into six o'clock all the time.
And then one looks at a Royal Ballet repertory which brings in ‘Don Quixote’, which the Royal Ballet is never going to be able to dance, not even as well as the Paris Opéra, because they don’t have the right coaching. They have no one who understands the energy, the vigour, the panache. I expect it’s just going to look rather flat. Mmm?
So that’s what has gone wrong so far. Is the future going to be better?
No. We don’t have a choreographer. We don’t have a music director. We have an artistic director who I think does not understand what the Royal Ballet is about. He has never worked with the company, I don’t think he understands what has made the company tick thus far. I mean, look at the fact that he brings in Mats Ek, who is an enemy to ballet, or that tedious Nacho Duato. What does this have to do with British ballet? Nothing at all.
Jonathan Burrows, Michael Corder, Russell Maliphant, Matthew Hawkins, Matthew Hart are all British choreographers who have made
Stretton has brought in repertory that he thinks is going to do the company good in some fashion.
Oh ho! Well. Interesting to see what good Mats Ek can do anyone. And Nacho Duato, this terrible, wambling, woolly soft-at-the-edges Jirí Kylián style which is so unmusical, and so repetitious, and so lacking in any kind of rigour.
But you’ve got to think frightfully hard about where the Royal Ballet came from and how to encourage choreography. Given two studio theatres now in the Opera House, you’ve damn well got to have an extremely serious, probably expensive, certainly rigorous selecting of young choreographers, and someone there to talk to them, like several Dutch uncles. It’s what Sir Fred did for Kenneth. Someone who has a very wide experience of choreography - like Donald MacLeary, perhaps - someone who can help these choreographers, tell them, No, you can’t use this score. Or, why are you doing this ballet about the life of a barn owl when you know you should be thinking about steps?
And there is no music director. Barry Wordsworth, who is the rightful tenant of that post, is not there. When Madam started she had not only Markova as ballerina, who could dance anything beautifully, and the baby Fonteyn, but she also had the most vital figure of all, Constant Lambert. Lambert was a genius. Lambert was a brilliant musician, and he was extremely cosmopolitan and he had the most dazzling intelligence. Lambert could say Yes and No. He was not provincial or parochial, and so when the company began, it was not provincial or parochial. The Board today, I think, is largely comprised of people who don’t know what they’re talking about in ballet.
Has that not often been the case?
No. When Lord Drogheda was chairman of the Board, he was a brilliant and great man, and he decided you had to have the best, all the time. And David Webster knew what was good musically and what was good visually, and he insisted on getting the best. You look at the list of artists that Madam had in, her insistence on the visual picture.
Now I’m sure Ross Stretton is a very able and distinguished man, but I do not think he is right for the position he holds. The idea that you somehow suddenly attract a New Audience by putting on New Work is a pathetic fallacy. The ballet audience is by and large people in their 30s, 40s, 50s and so on. It is not the kids who want to go out dancing and drinking and going to clubs. And the idea of offering them little teases - okay, they’ll come and see a programme where there’s something shocking going on, but will they come back for ‘Coppélia’? Uh-uh.
No. Nor do I. I think several things have gone. No one has learned how to make a comic ballet. Nobody knows how to make a triple bill now. The Ballets Russes used to do what was called ‘ham and eggs’ - ‘Swan Lake Act 2’ or ‘Les Sylphides’, then a serious ballet in the middle by Tudor or whatever, then you’d finish with a Massine, a ‘Boutique Fantasque’ or ‘Gaieté Parisienne’, a wonderful triple bill, with all your stars. Fantastic STARS. How many ballet stars are there now in the West ? I think Rojo, yes.
Guillem is a star.
Hm. She’s not a real star.
She IS a real star. You are wrong. You can’t compare her with old stars, she’s a different kind of star, but she is a star of top magnitude.
She fills the theatre, but she’s so uncompromising.
That’s why she is a star, because she is uncompromising.
I think she has a closed mind, artistically speaking. I would rather watch the Trockaderos’ ‘Giselle’ than hers. I said it in a review.
Back to the question of standards.
I think standards of interpretation have gone down. Personality has almost completely disappeared. When Nerina and Beriosova danced, everyone was fascinated by these personalities. And Sibley, Dowell, Wall, Seymour. When the Balanchine company first appeared it was filled with the most extraordinary characters. The choreography had more flavour. The original ‘Theme and Variations’ done by Alonso and Youskevitch was astoundingly beautiful. If you want to understand how ‘Palais de Cristal’ was done in 1947 at the Paris Opéra, look at the Kirov doing ‘Symphony in C’ now. That’s the way to do it. And funnily enough the way they do ‘Apollo’, too. Veronika Part? SEX BOMB! Wonderful.
Yes, but the American balletomanes on the net made very sharp comments about that, called it yukky over-sexualisation.
Of course they did! Balanchine once said that Apollo was “like a farm boy”.
Any books in the pipeline?
No, I’ve been asked to do about five, but I’ve said I’m too bored. I don’t think it’s interesting. There are so many bad books and I’m not going to add to them. [Crisp has already published 14 books, with Mary Clarke or Peter Brinson.]
Every possible way.
Just got worse generally?
Yes! We have stopped being a nation of ballet choreographers, we have stopped being a nation of interesting ballet-dancers, and we have stopped being a nation who go to ballet to enjoy ourselves.
And are they linked?
Yes, of course they are. The fault is largely that, financially, life has become so difficult for ballet companies that they not only have to play safe - ‘Manon’, ‘Romeo and Juliet’, ‘Swan Lake’ - but they have also in a sense been corrupted by the success of modern dance. You see, where once these were separate and admirable manifestations of dance, there has been this gradual cross-pollination, so that people have forgotten how interesting a new ballet could be.
I wish people could have seen how that wonderful choreographer Walter Gore produced ballet after ballet after ballet, season after season, and when he got stuck, Kenneth Rowell, the designer, who was a great friend of mine, told me, “I used to give Wally a prop, a chair or a cup or something, and Wally would then start to make more steps.” Nobody is able to make ballets like that now, because everything is so hung around with bills.
One of the most interesting new things I saw was a couple of years ago, when I was on the jury of the first Peter Darrell choreographic competition, and the decor for this piece, which was to Stravinsky’s ‘Renard’, was a chicken coop, which must have cost all of £2.50. Marvellous. And then you see what the Opera House puts on for the latest masterpieces of Ashley Page and William Tuckett.
I had no training at all, I started going to ballet when I was 10, and loved it. If I’ve been educated at all it’s by watching every
I was also fortunate that although I knew very few dancers they were very great, and were prepared to talk about what they did. I learned from people like Vera Volkova, who was terribly funny and enormously illuminating. I still do learn from Markova - Alicia Markova was my university.
And people like Lincoln Kirstein, who was absolutely fascinating. He told me the truth about the whole Balanchine enterprise. He discussed how things were, what was going to happen, what he wanted. Lincoln, who was a genius, devoted a large part of his genius to making it happen for Mr Balanchine, which is the most devoted, selfless activity you can imagine. From 1933 to 1948, which is 15 years, until they went to the City Center, they lived a lot of their life in a wilderness. But Lincoln believed that George Balanchine was the greatest choreographer of the 20th century, and he made it possible for him to make dances. it is that American thing that I find so admirable, that you have to give art to society. You do it by founding a library, or giving huge sums to a museum, or you pay for an operatic season. What Lincoln did is part of a great tradition that still continues.
It is the phenomenon that stands out in the 20th-century story of ballet, isn’t it? Now the second part of that question: the qualities of a good critic.
Don’t bore people. Tell them what you see. Do your homework.
And don’t be prejudiced?
Oh, no unprejudiced criticism is worth reading. Or worth writing. Prejudice is what makes a critic interesting.
What are your prejudices?
Pro. Love of classical dancing. My prejudices are for, essentially, very beautiful Russian-trained dancing, for New York speed, for French temperamental virtuosity and physical virtuosity - their need to show who they are.
Oh yes. At its best, English lyricism can be very beautiful, you see it in the work of Ashton. My prejudices contra are pretension, messages, the week’s good cause, flat feet, unstretched bodies, dancers with no necks. Unmusical dancers. Dancers who are not old enough - sending out boys to do men’s work, sending out girls to do women’s work. I think many dancers are at their most beautiful when they are over 40. I really love 40-year-old ballerinas. They know so much.
It was Andrew Porter who gave me my chance as a critic. We had met at Oxford. He was already a brilliant critic in his early twenties, and in 1953 he and Derek Granger, a most gifted theatre critic, started the Arts Page on the Financial Times. After about three years Andrew invited me to contribute occasional reviews. The page expanded and I wrote more and more, and in 1970 when Andrew went to New York, I took over all the dance reviewing.
Tell me about your schooling.
I went to a very good school during the war, in Surrey, Oxted Grammar School. Everyone tends to dramatise the war now, but you just lived, and got on with it. I went to the ballet about every couple of weeks. It was only an hour on the train. I would budget it, have a glass of milk and a bun for lunch, then go to either the New Theatre or the Prince’s, see a show, and be back home by six. During the war, sometimes they gave three performances in a day, at 12, 3 and 6. Moira Shearer told me a very funny story about going down on stage for ‘Les Rendezvous’ and finding two other girls who also thought they were doing the lead.
Helpmann was also terribly important. He was so funny, so fascinating. Not much as a dancer but a staggering artist. Very good in ‘Facade’ - why do the Royal Ballet never dance ‘Facade’ now? His ‘Hamlet’, ‘Comus’, ‘The Birds’.... not bad. And his fascinating face, the mouth, the eyes...
And you could see every single company you wanted to see in London after the war. By 1960 we’d seen everything. The Danes made their first appearance, the Paris Opéra came. We’d had Roland Petit’s company. The last great relics of the Diaghilev company, the relics of the pre-war Ballet Russe company, and then all the major artists of the Royal Danish Ballet, the Paris Opéra. And ABT within seven years of its foundation, and City Ballet within two years of its foundation. Such variety, such wit, such style, such beautiful design, and such good music - I had a sensational education. So everything I do now is conditioned by the fact that I saw such good dancing.
I think of the longevity of people like Mary Clarke, Kathrine Sorley-Walker, John Percival, Clive Barnes and myself - I’ve been looking at ballet since 1942, damn nearly 60 years. If you think, a critic who saw the first performance of ‘La Bayadère’ in 1877 or the first performance of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ in 1890, could still have been writing in the 1930s or even 1950s, looking at the Royal Ballet’s ‘Sleeping Beauty’ and saying, Well, it wasn’t quite like that. Which is a thing I can do, which John can do, and Mary, and Clive and Kathrine. That is a very important thing for a critic.
Can that get in the way, though, of allowing times to change?
No, because we have changed with time too.
I mean, in the sense that people who judged the Ballets Russes who came from 1890s St Petersburg would have been shocked by Diaghilev - if you are brought up on the values of the Forties and Fifties, can’t it impede the acceptance of the changes that contemporary dance has effected on it, and this new face that ballet needs to turn to the world?
It is not a new dance, it is a corrupted face.
You referred to the importance and influence of contemporary dance in ballet, but actually the audience for that remains very small in comparison with ballet’s.
I also think William Forsythe is extremely important.
If you switch off the machine, we will talk about Forsythe. [He then lays into him with energy.]
For the most part, none at all. Most criticism is trumpery and pointless, based on ignorance rather than knowledge. I’m not blowing even the smallest trumpet for myself, but I do worry about some of the comments I see. Inevitably criticism is important, and it must be there. Many dancers don’t read criticism, many directors don’t read criticism. Well, okay. Criticism is written for the public, to tell the public something about the thing the critic saw the night before.
So who should artistic directors take notice of? We critics are all going to take advantage of our organs to express our opinions of Stretton’s achievements - should he take a blind bit of notice of what any of us says?
Hm. Not yet. Watch the box office. I think the box office is going to die the death. I think there are already very serious box office problems there. Broadway 80 percent down, business everywhere is suffering, and I think the Opera House is among them, when you’ve got to pay £50, £60 for a ticket.
Who knows? It’s an unanswerable question. I’m not a crystal ball.
You have not once mentioned Nureyev.
Yes. I thought he was [sighs] a ‘star’. A great star, but not a great dancer. I mistrust that sort of stardom, that doesn’t come out of technical command and a kind of serenity.
Madame Danilova, who was so funny, so beautiful, so witty, elegant. Odd things ... you remember Evelyn Hart? One of the most transcendant moments of my entire career was seeing her dance ‘Giselle’ in Vancouver. If I talk about great Giselles, I say, there were three or four. Like Markova, Makarova and Evelyn Hart too.
You haven't mentioned Gelsey Kirkland.
No. Neurotic. Mannered. If she’d stayed with Mr Balanchine she would have been a much more interesting dancer.
Was a very interesting dancer, but not as interesting, funnily
Alla Shelest, who made a few appearances in England, was a very great dancer. I remember Grigorovich saying, “I married my first wife for her intelligence” - that was Shelest - “and my second for her beauty” - that was Bessmertnova.
With choreography there was the first time one saw anything by Balanchine. And I’ll always remember the first night of ‘Scènes de Ballet’, how thrilling it was. And the first night of ‘Mayerling’, which was really quite tremendous. Do you know, once upon a time the Royal Ballet asked us to watch the dress rehearsal so that when you went to the first performance you were slightly armed with understanding. I was fortunate enough that the FT gave me plenty of space and I was able to review all three casts: David Wall, then Wayne Eagling, then Stephen Jefferies, and I wrote in excess of 1000 words on each performance of what I think was a deeply fascinating work of art. You can’t have that nowadays.
There were strange things like Lifar dancing his own ‘Icare’, totally marvellous. I loved a dancer called Serge Peretti at the Paris Opéra, so clean, so elegant. Yvette Chauviré. Nerina on the first night of ‘Fille’ is totally unforgettable. ‘Ondine’, I love ‘Ondine’ very much indeed.
Did you like it as much this time around?
Do you know, in a funny way I thought one saw it better with Tamara Rojo, because the entire apparatus and focus was not directed at Fonteyn. You saw how brilliantly Ashton had put water on the stage. I wish Palemon had been danced by Mukhamedov, he would have done something with it.
I remember taking Luda [Semenyaka] to see Markova for tea and they fell in love with each other straight away because they spoke the same language. They were talking about variations, and Luda knew the variation Markova was talking about, “Oh I know, it was Pavlova’s variation that I was taught”. And they were talking about ‘Casse-Noisette’ and the double gargouillade, which no one can do now. And I listened and thought these two girls are 50 years apart in age but they both came from the same place. A lot of dancers now, I don’t know where they come from.
With Elisabeth Platel you see that bloodline, that French bloodline back through Chauviré. With Vyroubova one goes back through Trefilova. You know at the end of the entrée in the last act of ‘Sleeping Beauty’, Aurora goes right down onto the ground, puts up her hand and the Prince takes it and she rises up - when Markova did that, she came up so slowly, there was such strength in that foot and leg that you couldn’t believe it. Everyone now just comes straight up. I said to her, Where did you get that from? She said, From Madame Trefilova. Another Russian I saw did the same thing and she said, oh it was the old tradition.
“Are there any ballets you never want to sit through again?”
Which choreographers do you think are actually most life-enhancing at the moment?
First of all, Paul Taylor.Roland Petit. Christopher Wheeldon. Most of Mark Morris. Siobhan Davies.
Yes, Cunningham now. I think early Cunningham was a bit tiresome.
On the subject of how you express yourself in print, this suggests a question about the extremeness of passion with which one reacts for or against things - can this be a hazard?
Not a hazard, it’s a MERIT [he is shouting again - he reminds me faintly of Patrick Moore, another rather sudden shouter].
To be very for or very against?
Yes, of course.
Is it not more truthful to hover half-way if necessary?
No. Kiss ’em or kill ’em. There is no point in half-measures. People who write half-measures, like a lot of critics nowadays, are just boring. And not only boring, but lying.
But is it fair?
Whoever said the theatre was fair?
I think good writers sometimes write bad books. Unlike Darcey Bussell, who is a weaker artist, but can look quite marvellous in the right work.
She should have gone to New York City Ballet.
YES! Of course it depends on the qualities of the artistic director. I think Darrell should never have gone to Scotland in the first place, but he made a great success of it anyway. I think any company reflects its artistic director. It’s his extra-terrestrial body, his doppelgänger. I know of no good company that is directed by a bad artistic director. I know many indifferent companies that have been rescued by a good artistic director.
How would you say the Royal Ballet reflected Anthony Dowell over the last 15 years?
In the repertory and the quality of the dancing. That has nothing to do with his own dancing. You can be a perfectly good dancer and an
Where do you think a good dancer has proved an equally distinguished director?
George Balanchine actually, he was a very good dancer. Serge Lifar was a very, very fine director. He was like Nureyev, in that he made the Paris Opéra great. Then when he left in 1958, for the next 25 years the company was in the doldrums. Then along comes Nureyev, who was a fascinating dancer and proved to be a very great artistic director who, through the passion and glamour of his temperament, gave back to the Paris Opéra what it had long lacked, drive, force, a new repertory, and taught those miraculous dancers to be proud of themselves once again.
Was Nureyev a better director than dancer?
It’s a very interesting question. I think he actually was an inspired artistic director.
What I loved and respected, despite some of the things he did as a dancer, was his profound and consuming passion for classical ballet. If there was one thing that mattered, it was a fifth position. And he was a very interesting case of a self-educated musical man who actually ended up, I think, being a very musical choreographer. His ‘Raymonda’ has some extraordinary things in it.
Looking around at the very many distinguished dancers who are now coming to the end of their careers, are there any who you think have any chance of being a good artistic director?
I think it’s probably like riding a bicycle - you can’t know until you’re in the saddle. I think there are an awful lot who want to be artistic directors and who shouldn’t.
Going back to music, I was dismayed when I saw on a poll of fans on the ballet website, about which factors influenced their appreciation of a ballet work: choreography, music, visual, and so on. And a very low rating was given to music, something like 20 percent. I was horrified that so few ballet fans are musical.
I think it’s partly that they’ve had so much lousy dance and music to hear. They’ve been forced to watch and listen to rubbish. I find it extraordinary, also, that musical performances are so poor at the Opera House - I really don’t know how people can dance to such playing sometimes. Choreographers listen to music, endlessly, and it enters their souls, and out of it comes steps - this happened with Balanchine, Ashton and with MacMillan. For a lovely piece called ‘Symphony’ Kenneth listened to the Shostakovich first symphony day and night. Nowadays it is not possible to make steps to a score like John Adams or Philip Glass, unless you are Jerome Robbins, because the music does nothing - it just churns on and you can’t just have steps churning on.
How far did your own musical training go?
I was a good pianist, till at 15 or 16 I realised that I wasn’t a good pianist and I was not prepared to practise seriously or hard enough.
You were born in Romford, I believe? An Essex boy.
I suppose, yes, I am an Essex boy. My father worked in the city, my mother was a wife and mother. I was the only child. My mother was born in 1895, at which time Romford was actually country, and they had horses, not cars. My mother had diphtheria when she was five, and she remembers how they had to lay straw in the street outside her house, because of the noise of the carriage wheels. My father remembers fields all around that house. It is now an Essex waste.
I studied French in Bordeaux and then at Oxford. For a while I worked in the city, for a friend of my father’s - some sort of import and export. I sat at a desk and papers came and went, and I occasionally had to go and look at wood coming in at the docks. And all this wood had little marks on its end, and your wood had some mark or other. I think my father had a terrible bust-up with his business partner, so I thought I’d got to earn my living somehow, and so I taught French for seven or eight years in a comprehensive in Dulwich, South London. I was ENORMOUSLY successful as a teacher, because I scared the living daylights out of the pupils.
Just by being thoroughly menacing. I believed they had to do what I