, September 2011
Here’s something of a find! The 1953 Les Sylphides is apparently the first film of a complete ballet that survives in the BBC’s archives. Giselle is also a very early example of televised ballet. That means that we see these productions in black and white—or rather, as I have observed before in reviewing early TV broadcasts, in varying shades of light grey and dark grey. Their vintage also explains a few technical glitches, notably the odd split second or two of poor focus where it appears that a camera-man wasn’t properly ready when the director cut to his camera. The fact that the slips weren’t subsequently edited out may well indicate that these were live broadcasts, as so many were at the time, but the booklet remains frustratingly silent on that question.
With those relatively minor caveats, what we have here are two significant pieces of ballet history. Tamara Karsavina who, at almost seventy years of age, tops and tails the Les Sylphides broadcast. Karsavina had been one of the stellar soloists—along with Nijinsky, Pavlova and Baldina—at the Ballet Russes’s 1909 Paris premiere of the work in this form. She offers some idiosyncratically charming observations. While the occasional off-camera glance suggests that she might not have been entirely comfortable with the medium, she makes a delightful hostess, welcoming us to “her” drawing room and then encouraging us to look out onto the garden at twilight where the action of the ballet takes place. In her heavily accented English, Madame Karsavina introduces the soloists: “If we had our choice tonight, whom would we invite to dance for us? Alicia Markova, of course, for the prelude and pas de deux. And the poet who tries to catch her elusive image—that fine young dancer John Field. For the mazurka we need dancing of the highest quality—why not Violetta Elvin, straight from her triumph in Milan? And for the waltz, who more fitting than this beautiful young ballerina Svetlana Beriosova?”
You would need to be getting on a bit to have seen any of these dancers performing live. Elvin gave up a top-flight career for marriage and retired from the stage at the age of 30 in 1955; Field had moved into ballet administration by the end of the 1950s; Markova’s last stage appearance was in 1963; and Beriosova retired in 1975. This disc—billed as a “first DVD release”—is therefore a welcome opportunity to watch them in action.
The three women certainly do not disappoint. Unsurprisingly, their technique is of the highest order throughout and if, in truth, none exhibits a great deal of individual characterisation, that is only to be expected of a ballet that is essentially a plot-less “Romantic reverie” and a showcase for dance in its purest form. John Field suffers from the fact that male dancers played an essentially self-effacing and second fiddle role to the ladies in British ballet in the early 1950s and were not expected to hog the limelight. That, coupled with the rather hammy acting style of the time, makes him come across as rather effete and sexless. Only later would the status of male dancers in UK be reassessed, firstly as a result of the Bolshoi Ballet’s 1956 London performances when their virile, energetic and often stage-stealing men made a huge impression and, secondly, by the charismatic Rudolf Nureyev’s defection to the West in 1961.
The corps de ballet, drilled by Lydia Sokolova—born, more prosaically, as Hilda Munnings, and taking the role of the mother in Giselle in the second film on this disc—dance well and showcase the soloists admirably. Meanwhile, Roy Douglas’s arrangements of Chopin’s music are given a competent account under the direction of Eric Robinson, the BBC’s favoured conductor of classical “pops” at the time. Incidentally, he was twice conductor for the Eurovision Song Contest, though it may be of some significance that on both occasions (1960 and 1963) the UK failed to win.
The unnamed television director has, on the whole, done pretty well. He or she ensures that the whole of the studio floor-space is utilised, not only from side to side but also from front to back. As a result, this is a surprisingly “3D” production, with plenty of dancers running forwards towards the camera and then veering away to disappear off-screen behind it. While that occasionally costs us the top of a head or two, it’s a technique that successfully injects valuable life and vitality into the proceedings.
Both camera technique and the quality of the visual image improve markedly for 1958’s abbreviated version of Giselle, though there are still one or two glitches that once again suggest this may have been a live broadcast with no opportunity for later editing. Thus we see something that looks suspiciously like a moving camera in the background behind Hilarion’s shoulder in just the opening minute or two. And, later on, when Giselle lies distraught on the ground after her lover’s betrayal, the camera gets in so close that we can clearly see her mother’s fingers surreptitiously loosening the girl’s braids so that when she gets up her dishevelled hair will add to her manic, distraught appearance.
Those quibbles aside, the essential historical value of this film is to preserve Nadia Nerina’s charismatic performance in the title role. Nerina is a somewhat overlooked figure today in that the pre-eminence she might have enjoyed in the 1960s failed to materialise when, following Nureyev’s arrival in the west, Margot Fonteyn extended her own career rather longer than had been anticipated. Miss Nerina—just 5’4” in height and only a little over 7 stone in weight—was always renowned for her on-stage vitality and, especially, her superb footwork and it is difficult to avoid using words like “elfin” and “pert” in any consideration of her superbly assured technique. But quite apart from her technical skills, it is also very apparent in this broadcast that she was a considerably talented communicator of character and emotion. She is well supported by the Bolshoi Ballet star Nikolai Fadeyechev (who partners Galina Ulanova in the same role in one of my choices for MusicWeb International Recordings of the Year in 2008), though both he and Niels Bjørn Larsen, dancing Giselle’s rejected suitor Hilarion, are prone to a degree of over-obvious emoting that may be suitable for the stage but is far too lacking in subtlety for TV close-ups. The rest of the cast—even down to the pair of large hounds that the Prince of Courland arrives with on stage—appear very comfortable in their roles and contribute considerably to one’s enjoyment of the production.
Although the recording can make it sound a little shrill in places, the Covent Garden Orchestra plays the score well under the direction of the Royal Ballet’s Musical Director at the time, Hugo Rignold—an interesting if sadly under-recorded figure who had started his musical career in the 1920s as a highly acclaimed jazz musician.
An ex-dancer herself, the broadcast’s producer and director Margaret Dale uses the confines of the studio to great effect, even if some of George Djurkovic’s designs are a little on the twee side. It would be idle to pretend that the filming of ballet hasn’t improved by leaps and bounds over the fifty years since this film was produced, but its quaint studio intimacy has a charm all its own.
Anyone interested in ballet and its history in the UK will certainly want to watch this fascinating disc.