Ask Mme. Theo
The World's Oldest Living Prima Ballerina Assoluta Offers Advice
to the Embattled Balletomane
[In this, her first column for
us (Ballet Alert! Number 2), Madame tackled the question of "updated"
Ballet Alert! is proud to present
the epistolary debut of Mme. Theophilia Urmamova, the World's
Oldest Living Assoluta. Urmamova's illustrious career mirrors
this century. She made her debut in 1912 at the Maryinsky Theater.
Showing remarkable poise for a child of twelve, she replaced
her extraordinarily talented older sister, Dagmar, who died suddenly,
minutes before she was to make her debut as Aurora, in a bizarre
backstage accident that is not talked about in Russia to this
Urmamova fled Russia in 1917 with
her second husband, the Grand Duke, and danced with every company
in Western Europe that would have her. Her imperious manner and
rabid temper scared off most contemporary choreographers, and
she spent much of her career dancing the classics, which she
perfected beyond perfectibility. Technically invincible (her
fouettés were fast, furious, and uncountable) and dramatically
exuberant, she was truly the last of a line. She has retired
her roles slowly. At 98, Urmamova no longer dances on pointe,
but can still deliver a rousing Russian Stomping Dance if pressed.
("As long as Alicia is still out there," she says resignedly,
"I feel it is my duty to continue.")
Urmamova lives with several other
displaced and/or cast-out elderly ballerinas in a charmingly
overdecorated bunker nestled between subway and sewer directly
underneath Lincoln Center ("Just in case they need us,"
as she explained forlornly in a recent interview.) She spends
her days reading the obituaries of dancers and ballets she once
Urmamova has graciously consented
to answer questions from readers regarding artistic matters only
in these pages. She loves getting mail, and eagerly awaits your
Dear Mme. Theo,
How can ballet companies change
the stories around in a ballet and still call it the same thing?
I mean, is that legal?
I grew up in New York City and
to me, The Nutcracker was what the New York City Ballet
danced. I started going when I was six, and I wanted my kids
to have Nutcracker Christmases, too. For the first ten
years after I got married, we lived in a small city that had
a very nice Nutcracker. Maybe it wasn't NYCB, but at least it
had a tree and a Sugar Plum Fairy, and my kids loved it.
But last year, my husband was transferred.
This Christmas, I took my four children to something billed as
"The Nutcracker! A Holiday Treat for the Whole Family."
Boy, what a shock. Drosselmeyer was a child molester and the
parents were all drunk. (I'm sure it wasn't a satire.) In the
battle scene, the tree didn't grow. The Nutcracker grew instead.
Biggest Nutcracker you've ever seen. Of course, after he grew,
he just stood there and flapped his jaw at the mice.
There was no snow, no flowers (Clara
and a new, pint-sized Nutcracker danced the world's longest pas
de deux to the Waltz of the Flowers). Worst of all, there was
no Sugar Plum Fairy! A fact noted by my six-year-old son, Buddy,
who yelled out, "That's no Fairy! That's just that stupid
girl in her stupid nightgown" at the quietest moment in
the music. His little sister, Susie, who had been hearing Sugar
Plum stories from the two older girls for weeks, cried through
the rest of the second act. Shrieked, actually. We had to leave
before the second attack of the candy canes.
I'm afraid this has had a serious
effect on her relationship with her father. She blames him for
moving. (He's been very understanding and put in for another
transfer immediately. So we're off to Germany in a few weeks
where they should have a good tree, at least. Someplace called
Wuppertal.) Anyway, I'm wondering how a ballet company can do
this and get away with it. Can you tell me?
Dazed in Dakron
Alas, the answer is all too simple.
Tchaikovsky is dead and cannot sue. So they can take his beautiful
score and do anything they want to it. And, as you have seen
all too clearly with your own eyes, that is exactly what they
do. Why the good people in the audience do not rise up and throw
eggs, I do not understand.
So the question is, why do they
do it? Do they forget the real choreography? Can they not afford
to send someone to Russia--or New York, if that's all they can
manage--to get the true version? I have pondered this question
for many years, and I think I have the answer. If the company
has good dancers who can dance, then they dance. The companies
where the dancers they are not so good, they have to make a show
out of something, and so they make up these silly stories about
child molesters and giant growing Nutcrackers who stand still.
There is nothing you can do about it except to check out the
local company very carefully before moving, just like you do
Do keep in touch. I'd like to know
how little Buddy likes Wuppertal.