The Mad Russian and the Dane, Tales of Rudolf Nureyev and Erik Bruhn
Part 4 – Erik
By Neal Weaver
Part 4: Erik
I was scheduled to review the Franco Zeffirelli film of Romeo and Juliet, at the old Paramount Screening Room. I was looking forward to it because I’d seen Zeffirelli’s Old Vic production of the play in NYC. It had originally starred John Stride and Judy Dench, though she had not made the tour, and I can’t remember who her replacement was, but she was very good, as was Stride. And for three quarters of its length, it was the best Shakespeare I ever saw. Three scenes, the first and second balcony scenes and the nurse’s discovery of Juliet’s seeming corpse, were the most fully realized scenes ever.
In the balcony scene, which was very funny and very sweet, the balcony was too high to climb, but low enough that he had to try. He played Romeo as a shirt-tail boy who was always trying to keep his shirt tucked in and his hair slicked down. He put his back to an adjacent tree and his feet on the wall, and shinnied up the wall till he was beside her. But then in his eagerness and ardor, he leaned toward her, lost contact with the tree and fell kerplunk to the ground. It was lovely. And in the Nurse’s scene on the supposed wedding morning, she sailed into the room, addressing Juliet, not really trying to wake her, but talking her into wakefulness. She poured Juliet’s bath, laid out her wedding dress, and lovingly prepared everything for the wedding. But gradually she realized she was getting no response, and went to the bed only to discover that the girl was seemingly dead and cold. She became mad with grief. It was an emotionally devastating scene. If it had continued in that vein it would have been the best Shakespeare production ever, but, alas, Zeffirelli went conventional in the last half hour with a funeral procession and all the trimmings. But none of the really great stuff made it into the movie.
Anyway, my editor, Bill Como, was with me. And he discovered that his friend Chris Allen, who was the manager for Nureyev and Bruhn, was also handling press for the movie. Chris wanted to know if I’d like to do an interview with Bruhn. Of course I said yes. Later I went to Chris’s office to get stills from the Romeo and Juliet movie. Chris informed me that he wasn’t allowed to release the photos of Leonard Whiting’s nude scene, but he was leaving it in a folder on his desk, and if I happened to grab it while he was out of the room, he couldn’t be blamed. He left the room, and I grabbed it, and we ran it as part of our “review with pictures”. He then set up an appointment with me to meet Erik at his apartment.
Chris’s apartment was amazing. When you entered the front door, a sweeping staircase led down to the living room, and on the bottom step was sitting one of Degas’ sculptures of a little ballet girl. It was clearly an original, with a real fabric tutu coated with bronze. And on the walls were glorious paintings, by Degas and others. Alongside the framed originals, there were several reproductions I recognized as the same ones I’d sold at Marboro Books for $4.95, including Matisse’s Jazz. Clearly Chris was not an art snob. He just loved the pictures, whether originals or cheap copies.
Erik Bruhn was a gravely handsome gentleman, a blond Dane, and a man of great courtliness and dignity. But there was always an undertone of melancholy. His English was impeccable, though occasionally garnished with American slang he’d picked up from the kids in the corps de ballet.
Erik Bruhn Offstage.
I was intimidated, knowing that many balletomanes regarded him as the greatest living male dancer. They thought Rudi was a johnny-come-lately by comparison. I began by telling Erik I didn’t pretend to know anything about the technicalities of ballet. He said, “Good. Most interviewers do pretend to know.” Still a bit defensive, I said, “I just try to take the performances in and see what meaning I can find in them.” He said, “How do you think I watch ballet?”He was totally down to earth, and wonderfully easy to talk to.
I got a wonderful interview, though I don’t know how I managed to get it all down in those days before I began to use a tape-recorder.
He was eloquently bitter about dance schools that spent years grinding the individuality out of their dancers, and then wondered why they were so colorless. He told me his life story, and how he’d first accompanied his sister to ballet class.
He called me after the interview appeared, seemingly approving of it, though he said it had emerged as awfully sad. But as he’d told it, it was sad, a life full of dance but not a great deal else. He said, “Next time we must try to do something more cheerful.”
He then invited me to accompany him to a screening of his Swan Lake for the National Ballet of Canada, with Carla Fracci as the swan queen Odette/Odile. It turned out to be held just in a small room with a television set on which we could view a cassette of Swan Lake. Fracci was there also, and it was the first time either of them had seen the finished film. She was very quiet, totally focused on the film and her own performance. It was odd to be watching a film with its two stars, and I found myself trying to watch it from their point of view. But sadly, much as I liked and admired Erik, I couldn’t get excited about his dancing. It was simply too perfect, but without much fire. And the first act choreography was lame: they’d eliminated the prince’s hunting, and without it there wasn’t much else, and certainly no virility. He was reduced to a purely decorative presence, a pretty mama’s boy to the rather sinister queen.
Later he invited me to his book signing. A complete issue of the magazine Dance News had been devoted to his book on characterization in dance. He autographed a copy to me (alas, I lent it to someone and never got it back) and pulled me off in a corner “away from all those people” to talk. Lydia Joel said, “He’s famous for buttering up the press like that.” But I felt it was genuine. And there was considerable jealousy from the Dance Magazine staff because we’d stolen a march on them, getting interviews with both Rudi and Erik. Lydia always minimized my relations with the two of them.
And then he invited me to a taping of Giselle, purely to record the choreography. It was done without sets or costumes, on the stage of an old disused vaudeville house called the Oriental Garden. It was a musty, dusty old theatre, and in the stage boxes there were enormous, dusty, disintegrating red silk Chinese lanterns. I’d been there once before, while doing a piece on The Magic Garden of Stanley Sweetheart and its stars, Don Johnson and Michael Greer. They were filming some sequences in a sort of maze they’d built inside the old theatre.
I’d never been so aware of the toll that ballet takes on dancers’ bodies. They all seemed like walking wounded, nursing bad ankles, bad knees, Charlie horses, sprains, pulled muscles, etc. Even Carla Fracci was nursing some sore limbs. And Erik had to be especially careful. He had famously weak ankles, and had to keep warmed up to avoid doing himself serious damage. When the others took breaks, he was still doing warm-up exercises. He asked me if I’d go out and get him a milkshake, so of course I did. The taping wasn’t much fun to watch because though they were meticulously executing the choreography, they weren’t in performance mode. When I got back, I was wandering around looking for him when I inadvertently walked in front of the camera, to the loud annoyance of the camera crew. Realizing my error I dropped to my knees and crawled out of camera range, and they calmed down. I found Erik, and we went out on the fire escape where I photographed him. On the roof below were the remains of an old outdoor movie dating from the days before air conditioning. There was nothing left of it but rows of seats and a metal frame of what had been the screen. It seemed as much a historical artifact as the Oriental Garden itself.
It was at that time that my play War Games was running Off-Broadway. It had been a disastrous experience for more reasons than I can give here. Maybe I’ll write about it if I live long enough. Erik said he’d like to come and see my play. He was supposed to come on a Thursday night. At curtain time, he still had not arrived. I was making them hold the curtain for him when a messenger arrived with a hand-delivered message, which was from Erik. The only time in my life I received a hand-delivered message. He apologized for not being able to make it, but Mr. B. (Balanchine) had invited him to a cocktail party. And if you were in the ballet world you couldn’t turn down an invitation from Mr. B. He asked if he could come on Saturday instead. I called him and told him of course.
On Saturday, he arrived in good time. But he was not destined to see my play. There’d been a week of heavy rain, and the roof of the theatre (The Fourth Street Theatre) leaked. A ton of water had collected on the top floor. And that afternoon it broke through and flooded the theatre. Water was ankle deep in the front rows, and shoes were floating in the dressing rooms. It seemed there was nothing to do but cancel the performance.