Carry on the Esprit de Corps de Ballet
Cambridge, Mass. — Sulamith Messerer is giving a repeat performance. It was the same in Moscow, Tokyo, the Philippines, Turkey, Brazil, and New York. And now, Cambridge, she draws herself up, tilts her head back and a bit to the side, looks coyly out from the frame of her beautifully curved, raised arms, and does fast little brushing kicks behind her with a sure foot.
Though it is a small movement, it is closely watched. And the perfect, constant repetition has given a softness to it. It is more like watching someone hang up her hat with surprising grace than watching ballet. She looks comfortable, domestic almost. I sit in the balcony and feel as if I am spying on her from an unseen window as she goes about her daily routine. The tilt of the head which just happens, as if she turned to hear something, is also correctly classical, continuing the line of her body. It looks gorgeous, but for Sulamith Messerer it serves another purpose.
She is keeping an eye on the admiring audience. It's not as vast as the crowds she drew during the 25 years she was prima ballerina with the Bolshoi Ballet. This audience is smaller, but probably even more intensely devoted to her than fans of her "Nucracker" and "Sleeping Beauty." With that tilt of the head she's not looking not into a huge theater, but into the mirror, because the audience is behind her now. A troupe of little girls, a few young women, and one boy are raising theirm arms and kicking theirm feet, imitating her slavishly and trying not to miss a beat of the piano accompaniment in the large classroom of the Cambridge School of Ballet.
Sulamith Messerer has been dancing since 1926, when she graduated froim the Bolshoi Ballet School. Her teachers danced for the czars. The revolution, she says, didn't change Russian Ballet. The line of great dancers and teachers continued. Communists audiences wept just as freely as Imperial ones over Swan Lake. Her favorite teacher was Elizaveta Gerdt, daughter of Pavel Gerdt, a famous ballet dancer and mime, and Messerer continues the dynasty in her own right -- her niece, Maya Plisetskaya, dances a "Dying Swan" that Messerer choreographed especially fo her, "because she has excellent soft and nice arms, and long."
Messerer herself defected from the Soviet Union in February of this year while teaching in Tokyo. The move has not interrupted her teaching, nor, one feels, the dynasty she belongs to. She now teaches company classes at the American Ballet Theater, directed by fellow defector Mikhail Baryshnikov, giving pointers to the likes of Comrade Makarova. And she also teaches children's classes at the Leigh Welles School of Ballet. She doesn't deel she has exiled herself from her art.
Ballet has moved around quite a lot, she points out. It developed in Italy, was taken over by the French, then by the Russians.
"And now from Russia, came to America. Anyway, now I am glad that in America , ballet room!" (She pronounces the term onootopoetically. Imagine a large ballerina coming down from a tour en l'air and you've got the sound.) "Everybody study ballet, and many people in America understand ballet and like very much. I like it!" she growls expansively after the class, her brown hair and war, lively brown eyes, set in a soft, lined face making her look like an exceptionally graceful Mama Bear. "I am very proud."
Her own travels have been extensive. She has taught all over the world, but most often in Japan, where she started the Tchaikovsky Memory School, out of which grew the Tokyo Ballet. Ballet students of all nationalities have the same capability, she notices, but Japanese students work hardest. Russians and Americans tend to be lazy.
She speaks Japanese: "Immediately when I arrive in any country, I try to speak the language." She speaks English -- "very poor" she protests, but she gets her message across, sending ballet students across the floorboards and speaking up for ballet to journalists. She also gets along in Portuguese. Everywhere, she teaches the same things: the strict classical technique of the Bolshoi as well as "all I know myself during all my life" -- a wealth of experience performing and watching other dancers, and her own feelings about dance. Everyone should have their own personal understanding, she says.
"When dancer dance, she . . . [stops] to understand" mere technique, and relies upon "her . . . feeling," she explains, clasping her hands to her and putting her head back elegantly, miming communication with one's special muse. "Hard to explain," she comments, though one understands perfectly.
Especially when she teaches children, you can see that message come across. When she gives company classes at ABT fro the likes of Makarova and Cynthia Gregory, she says she concentrates on "nuances." (Though Makarova "thanks me very much if I correct her some details. Each ballerina likes it, they need it.") But with children just starting out, she has to teach everything.
"Some of them understand very quick, very capable for ballet. [But] some of them absolutely, their body against ballet. But you must show them, you must teach, you must repeat many times the same movement. . . ."
So when they are at the barre, she patrols the line. With the disarming floppiness of the young, the children in the beginning of class each casualty grab a leg, hoist it up, and hook a heel over the barre. To the accompaniment of the piano and occasional gruff shouts from Messerer, the bend the standing knee in plie, moving the arms in rhythm. Messerer stops by one little girls and silently pulls her shoulders back. They offer some resistance, hunching forward again. "Why? It's pain?" she says.
The girl shakes her head no, looking sidelong at Messerer as the knee keeps bending and straightening, bending and straightening. Messerer simply stands there and pats the girl on the back until she relaxes it. "Good."
Some things can't be described in words of any language. While standing in a platoon behind her, doing their little kicks, the class again receives valuable information. "Soft," says Messurer. She means their arms have to be more fluid , but all she does is make a soft face, eyebrows raised as if she is contemplating something terribly delicate, and hold up one hand, which makes a squeezing gesture. They soften.
Though it's hrd to tell at an early age how much talent a child has, she says physical types show up early. Ballet is uncompromising. Some of them, she says severely, shouldn't bother, because they have "very fat legs, absolutely without feet. Big head." She shakes her own well-proportioned head. So it's all physical? "Physical type. Body not soft, no rhythm, not musical, all this against ballet. . . . No, they [this physical type] can be very good engineer, maybe singer."
It seems unfair. But of course, the ones who would make better ballet dancers than engineers have a lot to contend with, too. At the end of the class , they are working on a rather complicated little back and forth step which is slow, so the rhythm is easily lost. She dances it next to the smallest, thinnest, most spider-legged and best-coordinated little girl of the lot, who is mouthing "one, two, three , four" to herself and ogling Messerer's feet as her own point, then hit the floor, then point again, just at the wrong time. When she finally catches on to the rhythm, she knows it. Her head tilts back with the same proud but coy grace, her arms seem to lilt all by themselves at her sides, and she and Sulamith Messerer finish together. On the last beat of the piano they drop their shoulders and put their hands down in front of them, their arms settling into two perfect ovals. Their heads nod, barely perceptibly, as they glare in the mirror with fierce pride.
In pink tights and black leotard, the little spider-legged girl is about half the size of Messerer in her baggy pants and T-shirt. Messerer has 60 years more experience, mostly on the other side of the world. But the pose is identical. And there's something else.
What you see standing there is not age and youth, Russi and America, nor experience and beauty. It's just two ballerinas.