Tuesday, November 29, 2011


Performing in the Bolshoi’s SPARTACUS
Rosemary Novellino-Mearns

© 2011

Recently, I was asked by a friend of mine, Wendy Perron, Editor-in-Chief of Dance Magazine, to be interviewed, along with her, by Lauren Erin Brown, a dance historian. Lauren was researching The Bolshoi Ballet’s 1962 version of Spartacus. Puzzled why anyone would want to research this particular ballet, I agreed to the meeting.

The interview turned out to be very interesting, and a great deal of fun, as well. Both Wendy and Erin are truly knowledgable about the ballet world, and since this is a passion for all three of us, we ended up talking for almost four hours.

In 1962, I was a sixteen year old Junior in High School, and studying ballet with Irine Fokine, in Ridgewood, New Jersey. Miss Fokine, as we called her back then, was the niece of the world renowned choreographer Michel Fokine and the daughter of the Prima Ballerina, Alexandria Fedorova. You might say that she was “well connected” in the ballet world.

Being serious ballet students, we all knew that the Bolshoi was coming to New York City that fall. I was already a fan, and I was completely taken with their lead ballerina, Maya Plisetskaya. She had become my idol. The first time I saw her dance Swan Lake at the “Old Met,” I almost fell out of the balcony. She was so dynamic, exciting and dramatic. The whole house went insane with applause and bravos. She had over twenty curtain calls that night. They even started to bring the fire curtain down, to get the audience to leave, and every one started to chant…..”We Want Maya….We Want Maya.” This actually made them stop the fire curtain, and she came out once again for another curtain call. The crowd went into a passionate frenzy. Her curtain calls were almost as good as her performances.

A group of us from the Fokine studio, would get on the bus, in New Jersey, and go into the city for standing room tickets, when the ballet companies came to New York City. The Old Metropolitan Opera House was on Broadway between 39th and 40th Streets, which was just a couple of blocks from the Port Authority Bus Terminal. All very convenient, indeed. We’d stand in line for hours. I remember the box office men, at the Met, were very rude and kind of scary, but once we had our tickets, we’d clutch those treasures, as if they were gold. If you were lucky when doing Standing Room, and there were empty seats in the house, sometimes the ushers would let us use them. All of a sudden we had orchestra seats. That is a fond memory.

One day, after ballet class, Miss Fokine asked the “older girls” to stay after class for a few minutes. She told us that, through her mother’s connections, she found out that the Bolshoi was looking for mature looking teenagers to appear as “Supers” in their new ballet “Spartacus.” They were holding auditions in the city on Sunday, and she thought we should all go. Well, we were immediately in a TIS’. The excitement of possibly being on stage with the Bolshoi, in New York City, at the Metropolitan Opera House was beyond any of our wildest dream.

Of course, we decided to go. We all wore our best dresses and high heels. We probably all wore White Gloves, as well. Remember, it was 1962 and there was a dress code for everything.

The audition was in one of the studios in Carnegie Hall. All we did was line up in a straight line. We did not dance one step, nor did we change into dance clothes….just stood there, trying not to look nervous, as they looked us over. I do remember Madame Fodorova was there speaking in Russian to the people behind a table. Sometimes it is good to have connections, because all of us that were from the Fokine Studio ( about 10 of us ) were chosen. We just stood there, acting as professional as we could, and did not react when we were picked. They took our names and told us to be at rehearsal the following week at the Met.

When we were finally out of the studio, we werer all tremendously excited. Hugging each other and jumping up and down, as young girls will do. We must have been awfully noisy and very unprofessional. I couldn’t believe that this was happening to me. My dream was to become a professional dancer, and now I was actually going to be on the stage with the Greatest Ballet Company in the world. I don’t think my feet touched the floor. I couldn’t wait to get home and tell my family.

One of the girls was a little older and she could drive. A few of us drove into the city with her for these rehearsals. We all pitched in to buy $1.00 worth of gas and paid the .50 cent toll on the George Washington Bridge.

As we all walked down the street to the Met’s stage door, I could tell that we all felt like real dancers. It was one of those….”look at me….I made it” feelings. When we stepped into the stage door on 40th Street between Broadway and Seventh Avenue, I felt so grown up and happy. I was also extremely nervous. We were ushered down stairs to a rehearsal studio that was old and musty. The whole back stage area looked used, tired and completely Wonderful to me.

The rehearsal studio was filled with people. The smell of sweat and rosin was only overshadowed by the sound of a slightly out of tune piano that was echoing thought the halls. We were told where the dressing room was located, and all of us got changed as fast as we could. Everyone had a nervous look in their eye, and we all became unusually quiet. All we heard around us was Russian. Needless to say, none of us spoke anything except English.

In 1960, an American ballet dancer, Anastasia Stevens, left the U.S. to join the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow. There was much “to do” about this at the time. Remember, we were in the middle of a “Cold War” with Russia. They were the people that were going to kill us. Anastasia had flaming red hair and a pretty face. All the papers and magazines, of the time, had written articles about her. I remember cutting her picture out of Life Magazine and putting it into my ballet scrape book. She was part of this tour. Much to our relief, Anastasia Stevens was there to translate for us. She seemed a bit distant, yet pleasant and it was helpful for them, as well as us, during these rehearsals.

As the rehearsal began, we realized that there were other U.S. dancers from other schools chosen as well. A lot of students from Ballet Theater School. If my memory serves me well, there must have been about 25 to 30 of us. We were all to be used in the big crowd scenes.
The choreographer was Yakobson and the lush score was by Khatchaturian. In the first act, 10 of us were to run down the center of the stage, with carrying large urns over our heads, and lay down by the footlights to honor the entrance procession of “Spartacus” and his army.
During this first rehearsal, all of a sudden I looked over by the piano and who was standing there, but Maya Plisetskaya. I quickly realized that she was going to be the lead in this ballet. My heart started to race and I hoped my mouth didn’t drop open. There I was standing in a rehearsal studio, looking like I belonged there, with my idol only a few feet away from me. Heaven…….yes, I was in heaven.

We were told at this rehearsal that we would be paid three dollars a performance. Spartacus was scheduled for 8 performances. We were also told, “Do not to bring cameras to the theater, do not wander around the theater, and you are not permitted to watch from the wings.” “If we were not on stage, you were to stay in our dressing rooms.”

A few days later, we had our first stage rehearsal. We were given real dressing rooms. They were in the basement of the Met and very primitive. All the walls were rough brick. We each had a mirror with lights and a chair and for some reason, I don’t think there were any doors on these dressing rooms. They resembled cells. There were several of them.

Finally, it was time to step onto the Met Stage. I had been coming to this theater to see ballet since I was 12 years old. The first time was with my brother, Nino. He treated me to see the Royal Ballet’s “Sleeping Beauty” (orchestra seats). It was very exciting, and still one of my happiest memories. Now I was going to stand on That Stage.

As I stepped out and looked into the house, it almost took my breath away. The excitement was exhilarating. It was strange how much smaller the house looked from the stage. I discovered, later in my life, that It always looks bigger when you are in the house, and it looks smaller when you are on the stage. That’s true of almost every stage where I have performed.
I could see all those beautiful red and gold boxes and balconies in that classical horseshoe shape. The “Old” Met was an extremely beautiful theater, very European, extraordinarily elegant, and wonderfully ornate. I loved it there. It was so much more beautiful then the Opera House we now have at Lincoln Center.
This rehearsal also had the full orchestra. The Khatchaturian score for Spartacus is beautifully melodic, with passages that can make you weep and others that are tremendously exciting.
The company was assembled on the stage and the rehearsal was about to begin. Everyone was anxious and on their marks. It seemed to be going along very smoothly. Everything was falling into place. We couldn’t really talk to the Russian dancers because they didn’t speak English, or so they said. I remember talking to one of my friends back stage about the Bolshoi female dancer’s stage make up, and how sparse it was compared to ours. It was very simple and they hardly wore more then mascara and lipstick. As we were talking, a couple of the girls jerked their heads around, as if they wanted to listen to what we were saying. I think they might have been a little afraid of us as we were of them. Maybe they were told not to speak to us. We all seemed to get along very nicely, even though we couldn’t really speak to one another.

The second act, which I was not in, was a big orgy scene. They wanted everyone in that crowd scene to be actively involved…...how shall I say…... “in each other.” They wanted a lot of kissing and rolling around going on, on that stage. Some of the Americans dancers had a good time during that scene. While all this silliness was going on in the background, there were some spectacular solo variations being performed by the Bolshoi soloist. The young and handsome Vladimir Vasilev did a very sexy variation. He had a powerful jump. In this solo, he seemed to fly through the air and land on some kind of a bed object. It was very impressive. There was also Natalia Ryshenko who performed in that act with a sultry, seductive number.
Much of Spartacus was very earthy and sexy. Most of the men had bare chests and the women had on simple sheer dresses and sandals. There were battle scenes with men jumping up against another man’s Armored Shields. Spears and swords clashing in conflict.

A touching and romantic adagio between Spartacus (Dmitri Begak) and his wife Phrygia (Maya Plisetskaya). The combination of this beautiful piece of music and Plisetskyaya’s artistry was thrilling. She is such a great actress as well as a wonderful dancer, that you completely believed the love and affection between this man and his devoted wife.

For some reason, during rehearsal, we were allowed to remain in the stage area and watch all of this, and as I watch this adagio, I decided that I HAD to sneak on the stage during performances and watch them do this every night. I figured out how and I did. This was all just too good to believe.
My family was excited for me, my friends were happy for me. Everyone brought tickets and the excitement keep growing.
It was finally opening night. The theater was filling up with fabulously dressed men and women. In those wonderful days, people still dressed for the theater. Everyone was wearing their finest furs, dresses and jewelry.
There was actually a little hole in the main curtain which allowed you to peek through and see the audience. I thought that was cool.
The lights finally dimmed, the overture started and we were all in place. I had my urn and I had my mark to hit and I was ready. As I was lying there on the Met stage right in front of the footlights, all of a sudden I heard Booing. Yes, loud, rude, shocking BOOING. The audience hated what they were watching. There was not one Point Shoe and not one Tutu to be found in Spartacus and this made them mad. I think they thought that they were going to see Swans and Princes, but they got sandals and swords.
This was shocking for us, and I can’t even imagine what the Bolshoi was feeling. I must say that the production did resemble a Cecil B. DeMille movie. Enormously big, and grand, with a cast of hundreds and all those dancers running around in sandals.

The reviews were not good, and they cut the amount of performances in half. We only did four. This was all very sad. I only made twelve dollars instead of twenty four. I only got to sneak backstage and watch my idol four times, instead of eight.
One night, there was actually had a bomb scare in the theater. We didn’t take it too seriously, but I was surprised how frightened the Russian dressers were. These were older women that took care of the costumes and shoes for the company, and they were almost in tears. It was sad and I felt sorry for them. I kept thinking, as a sixteen year old, why is everyone so afraid of these people. We were all getting along wonderfully. It’s such a great testament to the arts, that people from completely different walks of life, with different political beliefs can come together, and work as one unit for something they believe in. I felt that way when I was sixteen and now at sixty five, I still believe that.
The last night of the performance, I thought to myself, I’m bringing my camera. What can they do to me…...the ballet ends tonight. Several of the American dancers had the same idea. At the end of Act 3, Plisetskaya took a curtain call. I knew exactly where she would be, and how long I had to do this. One of the male American dancers, who I did not know, had the same plan. We stood there in the wings with our camera ready. I remember saying to him as Plisetskaya came walking towards us…”On the Count of 3 we’ll take the picture then run…….O.K. …..one, two and he snapped his picture. I wanted to hit him, but I snap the shot, flash bulbs and all. As we were both running away, I yelled at him about taking his picture too early. He said he got nervous…..whatever.
Back in New Jersey I took that roll of film to the camera store, and eagerly waited for those pictures to be developed. Finally, they were ready and to my wonderment, I had a Great picture of Plisetskaya. In the lower corner of the photo is the other guys ARGUS camera, but that was all right with me. I spent my Spartacus money to have the picture blown up to an eight by ten. It looked great.
In the 1960s, after the Bolshoi or Kirov performed at the Met, they would go on tour, and then return for another week or two, at the old Madison Square Garden on 50th Street. So…..my girlfriend and I got on the bus and came into the city with that picture. We sat outside the stage door of the Garden for about two hours, when all of a sudden a cab pulled up and out stepped Plisetskaya. I held out the picture and a fountain pen. She smiled at me and said in broken English…..”AH Spar-tac-ous”…..I nodded yes. She signed the picture in English letters and it has been on my wall for almost 50 years.