Greats of grace

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Clement Crisp, ballet critic for the Financial Times for over 40 years, talks to Glass about man’s most graceful form of expression and names the world’s greatest living ballerinas. From his London home, where walls are adorned with beautiful signed photographs of the world’s greatest dancers, the inimitable and uncompromisingly honest Clement Crisp guides Glass through the significance of ballet in a modern world
Why has ballet captivated you for all these years?
It captivated me first during the war as a little boy. My parents asked, “What would you like to do for your birthday?” I had read a book by a very good critic, Arnold Haskell. He wrote many books on ballet in the 1930s, there was even a paperback by him that Penguin brought out called Ballet which sold hundreds of thousands of copies. It did the most enormous good in interesting ordinary people, like a school-child me, in ballet. I read it. Ballet sounded wonderful. It was in the middle of the war, but I wanted to go to the ballet. My parents said, “Yes of course” and that they would organise it.
So we went, the curtain went up and I felt totally at home. I thought it was the most wonderful thing ever. Swan Lake Act 2, totally comprehensible, totally enjoyable and, you know, it just happened. It happens to many people. It happened to Haskell, it happened to Alexandre Benois, the great Russian designer. It happened to … well, to a lot of people. You feel totally at home. It answers all the questions. You just go and feel, “I like this ”. It’s like food, you know, crème brûlée or fish and chips. You just love it. You don’t ask yourself “Why do I like fish and chips? ” or “ why do I so like this pudding?” You just eat and then say, “Oh, I’d like some more”. So I did. Once I started going to ballet I couldn’t stop.
What do you think is ballet’s role in contemporary society?
Well, ballet is actually about being superhuman. Ballet, or any dance is about making the body better. It’s a form of athleticism; it’s a form also of transcending human limitations. You do things that your bodies were not supposed to do. Making your body look better than it possibly should. It is an aristocratic art, because ballet emerged from the courts of the Renaissance in the 15th-16th centuries. There were manuals even then on how to dance. The great changes came at the beginning of the 19th century when women go on point, rising on the tips of their toes.
Implicit in all this is the idea of a woman taking flight. Of being, shall we say, an idealised form of the female figure. You look at a female dancer and see all the fascinating things that happen. The feet turn out because of the turnout of legs from the hip. The line, the shape made by the body is more beautiful because turnout increases the ability of the body to look good in any position. It insists upon a certain physique. It implies, of course, that your career is going to end, if you’re lucky, in your forties or (very rarely) fifties, but usually much sooner. The training is arduous. The discipline is arduous. More fall by the wayside than make it through. In state ballet schools there is a large intake of young children who want to be dancers and at the end of seven years there’s probably two you want to look at seriously. The others have got through but won’t be doing ballet.
I find the Chinese ballet very fascinating today, in that great nation where ballet has really only existed since the 1950s, there is already a fascinating tradition of performance and of wonderful achievement. The young ballerina Wang Qimin is an extraordinary fruit of this still young creativity. I saw her first six years ago and her grace her spiritual decorum were breath-taking. I could never decry the gifts of any dancer, their dedication deserves all our respect and praise but  to be a great dancer, like the dancers you’ve spoken to, you have a one in ten thousand chance. It’s grace of behaviour. It’s grace of presence. It’s grace of physique. Of course it’s hard bloody sweat. Exhaustion. Work and work and work and work and work. You need to be intelligent. People say dancers are stupid, but I don’t think this is true. Look at Alexandra Ansanelli, who’s at a very interesting point in her life where she decided to give up dancing when she’s at her peak, decided to do something different.
Some dancers go on to teach, like Merrill Ashley, who was a dazzlingly good dancer. Some, like the glorious Ludmila Semenyaka, who was a great classical dancer, pass on their tremendous knowledge to the young ballerinas they coach, just as Semenyaka is now coaching and guiding Svetlana Zakharova, one of the most splendid ballerinas of our time. Some go on, like Makarova, who was a very great artist, with a sense of responsibility, handing on a tradition by staging the ballets in which they starred and coaching later interpreters of the leading roles. Handing on of what you’ve learnt is a vital part of balletic tradition, of ballet’s life itself. Ballet is an art which is very difficult to pass on.
In Petersburg, which is the cradle of so much, the training is rigorous because it depends on the national temperament too, profoundly serious. Makarova had a mission to pass on what she knew, what she had learnt. She was a pupil of the greatest dancers of her time and Ludmila Semenyaka is a pupil of three of the greatest dancers of the century. This is an apostolic succession. One of the most interesting things with a dancer is to discover ‘who were his or her teachers?’ If you know that, you know a lot about them to start with. Just as one does, you ask someone “where did you go to University?” “Where did your family come from?” that sort of thing. If you know where people come from, you know something immediately.
Do you think ballet holds an important place because it is the last bastion of grace in society?
Well, we still have really good Couture. And really good serious music, and there are still good and serious paintings. Grace is thought to be, falsely I think, elitist because people don’t go to the effort to discover it. You know, we live in the age of instant everything where you put something in the microwave and instantly you have food, instead of taking the time and trouble to cook. I think it may be especially so in this country, maybe less so elsewhere. I think grace is at a premium in Britain.
But in Paris it’s absolutely there. Grace has nothing to do with race or class. If you want to think about varieties of grace you have to look at the incredible traditions of the Japanese theatre, Noh and Kabuki, which are encapsulations of a kind of grace as an expression of stylisation of elegance, of concentration, of thought and experience. Look also at Chinese opera which has huge popular appeal and is absolutely alive but it is miraculously secure in its manner and its style, which is another thing about grace. I think some hip-hop dancing has grace because it has such vitality and so much life. Marvellous.
Have you ever seen hip-hop?
Oh yes. The best thing.
That really surprises me. 
I love it. I think it is often preferable to the sight of some nice young girl going through the motions of Swan Lake in an Opera house. Grace is a question of harmony. Not going too far. Did you see the costume show at the V&A with the Balenciaga clothes? There was a little black frock? You walk past it probably. Then you look at it and see, what skill, what understanding, what knowledge of a woman’s body, how a woman’s body can look, defined by the couturier’s grace and genius. You don’t even have to be rich to have grace. It’s absolutely nothing to do with that at all. Spiritually of course, you know, saints, men and women who devote themselves to all sorts of good work, from being nuns or priests, or teaching, they all have a type of grace. I think sometimes that it has to do with economy of means, of cutting out the junk. I do think grace is an entire absence of excess, physical as well as spiritual.
That’s very interesting.
Don’t you think? Everything that isn’t excessive has some kind of grace. There’s a photograph of me having supper with three great dancers, Alexandra Danilova, Alicia Markova and Nadia Nerina. Alicia, Danilova and Nadia were all women of extraordinary grace, physical as well as emotional. Nadia had real spiritual grace; her generosity of spirit was unbelievable, and Alicia had that integrity that comes when you are a genius and unique and dedicated to your art. If you want to see her; do you know something called YouTube on the computer?
Type in Markova. Stupefying. And Danilova was life-enhancing, radiant, always beautiful. They all gave out something that controlled an audience in the theatre. The audience went to worship, wanted to worship. I shall always remember Maya Plisetskaya, the Bolshoi assoluta. Who was (and still is) like a flame, like a tigress. I remember in Paris an audience standing, cheering and then, suddenly, everyone gravitated towards her as she stood taking her applause at the front of the stage. People rose out of their seats and went down to get nearer and nearer to this fire. I joined them, couldn’t not. That’s grace. Maybe it’s mad grace but it’s grace. Grace in a person requires an enormous amount of discipline.
You get rid of the self because there is something bigger to concentrate on. It requires so much concentration. It’s even a denial of self. You want, need, to be this other thing. Which is marvellous. For men there’s even the grace of good tailoring. A really well cut suit. If you spend two thousand quid at a Savile Row tailors you gain something beyond the fact of the suit itself! But also look at a peasant woman in Greece. Walking along she’s absolutely ravishing in her simplicity. That’s grace there too.
Do you think there is still a place for ballet and grace and society?
Of course. It’s an art that will go on, it will mutate. It has to, otherwise it’s stagnant, it’s dead. Everything moves. Everything changes but the more it changes, the more it is the same thing. Plus ça change!

by Nicola Kavanagh
Taken from the Glass Archive – Greats of Grace Ballet – Glass Issue 1
Additional credits for image of Tamara Rojo, Doreen Wells and Marianella Nunez. Photo: Anders Brogaard. Make-up: Valeria Orlando. Feather bodice, skirt: Erickson Beamon for Swarovski. Headpiece: Shaun Leane for Swarovski

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Glass Magazine editor in chief

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