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Patricia Ruanne, a conversation with a ballet mistress in an interview with Bill Bissell
Patricia Ruanne is concerned with the abiding aesthetic and ethical values that constitute ballet as an art form. In this world, artistic values are informed by aesthetics as well as ethics. Her impressive record as a dance artist-as performer, coach, ballet mistress, répétiteur-has yielded a remarkable career. Ruanne’s articulate assessment of the European ballet scene is framed by her early years spent in the Royal Ballet schools and companies, the 1960s through the early 1980s-a period marked by prolific creativity and strong performing personalities-as well as by her long and formative working association with Rudolf Nureyev.
Patricia Ruanne’s dance pedigree was attained at England’s Royal Ballet schools at White Lodge and Baron’s Court. Her career ranges over an impressive roster of performing credits that includes contracts with the Royal Ballet and Royal Ballet Touring companies, London Festival Ballet (now English National Ballet), and many guest appearances on numerous projects and tours, several of which were gathered together as vehicles for Nureyev. A turning point in Ruanne’s career as a dancer came when Nureyev selected her to create the role of Juliet in his landmark production of Romeo and Juliet. 2002 marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of this production, which was premiered by the London Festival Ballet at the Coliseum on 2 June 1977.
Among other roles she created in addition to Juliet was the female lead in Ronald Hynd’s The Sanguine Fan for London Festival Ballet in 1976. Ruanne retired from performing in 1983 and in her last season received an Olivier nomination for her portrayal of Tatiana in John Cranko’s Onegin with London Festival Ballet-her first performance in that ballet. From 1983-85, she was ballet mistress for LFB and, bringing history full circle, is currently working with the ENB on a revival of Nureyev’s Romeo and Juliet in a production that will receive its first performance on the company’s spring tour in Liverpool on 5 March 2002.
When Nureyev assumed the artistic direction of the Paris Opera Ballet in 1983, Ruanne followed him there in 1986 to become a Ballet Mistress. During the decade that followed in Paris, Ruanne became responsible for restaging many productions of his ballets on numerous companies around the world. Since leaving the Paris Opera in 1996, Ruanne has been engaged throughout Europe restaging the works of Kenneth MacMillian, while also remaining one of the significant artistic caretakers of Rudolf Nureyev’s choreographic body of work. From 1999-2001, Ruanne was acting director of the ballet company for the La Scala theatre in Milan, Italy.
The first part of this conversation considers Ruanne’s professional development as a dancer, beginning with the Royal Ballet Touring Company under the direction of John Field and continuing up through her recently held position as Direttore del Corpo di Ballo at La Scala. The second part of the conversation focuses on Ruanne’s work with Rudolf Nureyev. Her perspective supports the need for new critical attention to Nureyev’s versions of ballet classics such as Swan Lake, Don Quixote, La Bayadère, and Sleeping Beauty. Ruanne astutely makes the case that these works need and deserve to be documented and preserved. Evidence that Nureyev’s Don Quixote “has not been bettered,” in Ruanne’s estimation, is provided by major restagings in Spring 2002 at both the Royal Ballet in London and the Paris Opera Ballet.
This interview by Bill Bissell, took place on 2 March 2001, at the Palais Garnier in Paris, where Ruanne was engaged with the restaging of Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon for the Paris Opera Ballet. Subsequent interviewing took place during the summer of 2001. Bill Bissell, who interviewed Ruanne, is director of Dance Advance in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The complete interview can be found on and was submitted by Frederic Jahn
Part 1: Keeping Dance
Bill Bissell: I’ve certainly read your name in publications across the years, but being an American, I suppose I viewed you as part of a European community that I didn’t ever really experience live or gain exposure to. For all the closeness of the dance world there is also a geographic set of boundaries that separate us. However, you did dance in the United States and I’m wondering if you could begin by talking about the circumstances of those visits?
Ms. Ruanne: My first guest appearances in the United States were in Tulsa and Hawaii, and I mean it was just absolutely great fun. And then when Rudolf had created Romeo and Juliet for London Festival Ballet (now English National Ballet), we went to America to the Metropolitan Opera House and also to Washington. So, that was my big official step into America, which was terrific-it was a great success for the company especially since it had always been the Royal Ballet’s territory. We went on Rudolf’s back because he was the pull of the production, which was fairly sensational.
BB: Does New York hold the same sort of seductive powers over dancers in European companies that it has on U. S.-based companies?
Ms. Ruanne: I think everybody in this business is particularly absorbed into the image of New York being the pinnacle-that if you can make it in New York you’ve made it professionally. But I’m not sure that everybody in Europe has quite the realization of how important this experience can be. Though I think dancers are aware that the wider the audience they reach the better it is for them as artists, I’m still not certain that they realize just how crucial it is and how stimulating it is to touch a different public.
BB: In looking at the trajectory of your career, how would you assess the choices that helped to define you as an artist?
Ms. Ruanne: All of my work in my professional life as a dancer was based in England where I started with the Royal Ballet. All I did was cross the river to Festival Ballet, which was the same thing but different. I’ve worked all over the world, but I needed a home. I needed a company. I did do lots of guest performances, but I never really, really enjoyed that life. I was never happy with the guest circuit like certain dancers. I couldn’t bear being tossed into a production and being surrounded by people who you don’t really know as colleagues. You don’t have a lot of time to work with them or with each other on the production. You are just inserted into something, and I found that deeply unsatisfactory. Any performance is the pulling together of a lot of people. It’s not just the star. And I was only comfortable when I was with a group of people that I knew and there’s an enormous contribution that comes from feeling everybody on the stage. So, my whole background was in Royal Ballet, the touring group of the Royal Ballet and then I had the demented pleasure with working with Ben Stevenson at Festival Ballet and it was just wonderful.
BB: What about your career as a coach and ballet mistress, how did that develop?
Ms. Ruanne: I was always interested in working with dancers. I used to coach at Festival Ballet in the later years when I was still performing and I loved it. I loved working with the young adults and then seeing their performance. It’s such a wonderful feeling seeing people understand and develop. But I don’t know that I would have had the courage to put myself forward as a ballet mistress or somebody who did it as a profession. But Rudolf saw it, and he said, “Well, just come and just shut up and just do it.” So, I worked with him for many years, you know, taking rehearsals and all the rest of it. And my learning process continued for a long, long time after I stopped dancing because it’s a different skill to teach and coach dancers. You become a different type of transmitter. So, I think that he, in the end, inevitably had the greatest influence on the direction I went after I stopped performing.
With coaching all you can do is to help understanding. If the physical element has not yet totally kicked in, that’s not so important, as long as the mind understands what’s needed because it may be that in two years time the physical part will happen automatically-as long as the dancer understands how it must be, what it is they should be searching for in the role. That’s what they are working towards and that’s the ideal: that they understand how to get to that point of knowing what the search is about. If they haven’t got it quite yet that’s not something the public necessarily is going to know or recognize. It’s a degree of perfection that we should be aware of, and that dancers should be aware of, which is why I so often hear dancers say “that’s not how I wanted it, not the way I want it, it’s not why I rehearsed it, it didn’t come out.” Dancers are so frequently disappointed when they know that they understand what they’re supposed to do, but they don’t have all of it under control yet.
Coaching is not just about technical issues however, it is also about sensibility. The role of coaching is really transmitting. The big issue here is: you can transmit all your life, but you have to be received by the listener-you can’t force anyone to switch on their radios.
BB: Were there other personal role models or other people that influenced you while you were dancing or when you began coaching and teaching?
Ms. Ruanne: Artists certainly-obviously Fonteyn. The generation we had then-performers we learned from just by watching-has no parallel today. In fact today’s generation very often feels artistically feeble in comparison. There was a richness-a tapestry of such richness that it’s hard to credit today because they were all highly individual. I mean that was the most astonishing fertile field to look at and to admire and to try to emulate. You could never be like those people and learn everything of what they were passing on. They were all just amazing for us-Svetlana Berisova, Merle Park, Beryl Grey, Lynne Seymour, Antoinette Sibley.
I was very fortunate that I was in the touring company of the Royal Ballet, directed by John Field. He had a very clear passion. He believed that you shouldn’t wait. He believed in developing dancers while they were young enough not to be frightened, not to put too many obstacles in their own minds against themselves. So, we were all thrown into the deep end at very early age, and I think that that was also tremendous gift that you didn’t have to wait seven or eight years before you got your first role-it was almost immediate. And that practical experience is inevitably so precious. In all that generation I think I credit John, particularly, for helping me understand and get ahead with my dance career. I think that his first great love was for the theater; this was what was important to him, and he was right. In some of those little towns in the north of England they had never seen a dancer; it was the kind of environment where Billy Elliot [the fictional character in the recent film of the same name] was raised. But the English do have a very strong theatrical tradition. What we seemed to touch as dancers was the public’s sense of theater. I realized that what we were doing in dance-in a way-was telling a story. If you do it through dance, though, it still needed to speak to you in that sort of narrative or storytelling way. And this view, which John held to so firmly, was a tremendous influence on me and other dancers because it gave us another handle on what we were doing on stage. What became important to me was the credibility of the character, the narrative element that we could find in the movement that audiences could relate to. There is a little bit of actor in all of us, I guess, and that was the thing that I became most passionate about. I was never very comfortable in abstract pieces-though I did not hate them-but I loved the roles where I could find a personality and make people believe in that person. And so John Field was very influential in this sense on my development.
John was the only director I knew on terms well enough to talk to and understand his point of view and thought processes-or purpose-as a director. With de Valois I never had this kind of familiarity-she was already the great woman and I was far too young to have had any social contact with her. Beryl Grey at Festival Ballet was wonderful and she was an excellent director, but at the same time she wasn’t a person with whom you would discuss the why and wherefore of directing a company or the problems that come with it. John was more forthcoming. And interestingly, he always believed I should direct. He thought I was director material, whatever that means, when I was still dancing. So inevitably there were conversations about the way he saw things and how he felt about this or that and how he thought dancers should be taken care of. But I think it’s futile information in the abstract because it depends on where you are and what you are doing. I think if you were directing a company where you have an enormous backup assistance and you have an administrator who can take part of the load, then maybe one could take some pleasure from directing a ballet company. I can’t talk to you about being a director of a company because I’m actually a jack-of-all-trades. I suppose I’m fortunate in the sense that over the years I have been exposed to a lot of people who work for dance companies and I’ve always been interested in how everybody else functions within our environment, whether a lighting man or the wardrobe mistress-whomever.
BB: Do distinctions remain between companies like the Royal Ballet, Paris Opera Ballet, or La Scala?
Ms. Ruanne: I don’t think there are many differences. I know there was a period when you could tell a French dancer before they even danced. An English dancer had the same impact. I think, for a start, dancers have become so much more gymnastic. The whole formula has altered. Our perception of the perfect physique has altered. Male dancers tended in the past to be blocky and now, there is a certain androgyny that is part of the picture. Many male dancers have legs and feet that could be those of a girl. This physical look is always in the process of altering. Physical change is very organic to the art form, I think. Tastes change, ideas change, there are elements that can be bred, but I am almost certain that in ten years it will all change again.
BB: Are there things that are being lost?
Ms. Ruanne: Yes, to a certain degree things will be lost. For example, you have a scenario now that is astonishing. There are male ballet dancers who say quite openly they have no interest in partnering. Interestingly, however, you probably can have a fairly good career without ever having to have to pick up a girl and have a strain on your shoulder. In the past, it was a question of pride, on both accounts. A guy wanted to be known and recognized as an excellent partner, not just as an excellent dancer, and one of the things that every girl dreaded hearing was that she is difficult to partner. Because you are part of a team one of the nicest parts of being a dancer is to find a kind of chemistry with someone. With good partnering it’s almost like your heartbeat stops as you pick up each other’s rhythm. It’s the most perfect feeling that exists when it happens, which is not every time, even with a partner with whom you dance together regularly. I rather regret these guys that don’t know how lovely it can be to work together with somebody, but it’s their choice and it’s not anything that you can alter. And, in a sense, I can sympathize. It’s probably right that their knees will last much longer if they are not carrying a ballerina around every day. All I know is that one witnesses lots of change. At this period of time the slightly gymnastic, slightly cool, uncommitted element is what the public requires and that’s what’s most deserved. I think the Royal Ballet, partly because of the heritage repertory that they retain, remains the most satisfying company in Europe. There is still a great importance attached to the credibility of the story that their ballets are telling and the personality of the work when the dancers are on stage. That’s rather more difficult to get in other companies because it’s not part of their tradition, nor part of their approach to maintaining company identity.
BB: I’m wondering if you can describe, even generally, the differences between the generation of dancers that you were a part of when you were performing, and dancers today. What does a career look like today that is different than, say, in the 1960s, 1970s, or even the 1980s?
Ms. Ruanne: This is a difficult one. I see their lives as being much easier in terms of what surrounds them, in terms of their working conditions. I don’t know that there is the same hunger, but then every generation says that. Everybody says, “Well, it wasn’t like this in my day.” What I do notice most is there is very little, or there is a very modest, interest in the theater. Dancers don’t seem to care about the people who are around them. They seem very isolated in what they do.
You hear dancers screaming at people from wardrobe about dresses. But a dancer can’t get on stage without the person that’s being screamed at. To me it’s a lack of respect for the work of all the people who prepare for your performance. They’re completely unseen, yet they’re magicians sometimes. The rehearsals on stage aren’t just for the dancers. They are also for the technical crew. They’re also for the lighting people. They’re also for your dressers to learn just how long there is for that quick change and if it doesn’t work the first time that is how they will learn what to do for second time. This lack of community within the theater setting among dancers is something I’ve noticed very much in Europe. It doesn’t happen in other companies perhaps where the organization isn’t as big. You know you go to the Finland National Ballet, which is a small company, and the people who dye your houston astros hoodie are in the same building: to get by them you have to go through the hall where wardrobe is making your costume. Inevitably, you build up an entirely differently rapport because the people you see and you work with are much more part of the same world. Our advantage within the touring company was after the performance there’d be one pub that was still open, which was next door to the stage door and probably the choice was between a Greek or Chinese restaurant. In the course of things you’d find yourself with the tech crew or with musicians from the orchestra. There was an entirely different comprehension of each other’s work because it’s not possible to sit opposite a lighting man and not begin to discuss-at some point-the problems of lighting dance. And whether you intend to learn or not, you do by contact and knowing this other participant in your dance is just another human being with a job.
We’re in an extremely fragile profession, dance and cultural work doesn’t keep people alive. It doesn’t serve a function except from an artistic and esthetic point of view. The only way for the company to survive, in my mind, is to hire and fire. That sounds awfully brutal, but it’s the truth. If somebody isn’t pulling their weight or if somebody has lost the force and the desire to dance or participate fully in the life of the theater no matter what their job, then do something else. It’s not a profession for the faint-hearted. This applies to any big funded European house where the people have a permanent contract, as opposed to having a contract that is renewed each year by the artistic administration.
I would imagine it’s getting harder and harder to get a job. It has become far more competitive than it was hundreds of years ago when I started to dance. There is less help and less funding. I probably would have never been able to be a dancer today. When I started training the local county council paid my dance fees. My parents couldn’t afford to send me to finish in the Royal Ballet School. I was given a tremendous grant, which paid all my fees. Today, that’s no longer possible unless you can get a scholarship and, even then, scholarships are not usually comprehensive so obviously dancers have much more of a problem getting into a company.
You know, the image of what’s required to be a dancer in a professional classical company has somehow fallen apart. I imagine it’s different in America because there are so many companies in the States compared with Europe. I don’t know if they have difficulties in surviving or not, but if you think about the number of companies that exist in Europe you don’t stand half the chance of landing a job over here compared with the States. You have big companies with big reputations in Europe, and therefore they are very hard to get into-you know, they’re the “national guardians” of classical ballet and all the rest of it. And though the doors are more open and it should be easier with the European Community, I don’t think it is. I think there are more dancers but not necessarily any more jobs.
BB: In today’s dance world there is concern with “career transition” for dancers after they stop performing. Can you point to anything that could have been more helpful in preparing you for your career roles as coach, ballet mistress, or company director? Can you suggest some ways that companies could help dancers better prepare for retirement from the stage?
Ms. Ruanne: Dancers in England subscribe to the Dancers’ Resettlement Fund which, as its title implies, helps to fund dancers while they are retraining or studying for another profession. It has been in existence for many years and is much accessed with great success. Some European houses try to help place dancers into other roles within the system such as technical or administrative. Of course these houses provide very comprehensive pensions upon retirement, which is why dancers stay put until the bitter end and in many cases have no urgent financial need for further employment.
I personally did not access the DRF, since as Rudolf pushed me off the bridge, as it were, and the whole process seemed inevitable. Also, my conversations with mentors like John Field at the Royal Ballet Touring Company-although held when thoughts of retirement were still in the distant future-took root and I learned about other aspects of the business by osmosis. You don’t realize what you know until you’re called upon.
I think most companies are as helpful as possible with regard to giving dancers time off in order to ease the transition. However, I do believe that it is the dancer’s responsibility to give serious thought to what avenue they wish to pursue in the future, after they stop dancing. The company has already maintained them in their chosen profession, and one encounters a surprising number of dancers who assume that the company will provide them with ideas about what comes next in their lives.
BB: What do you think contributes to forming a good ballet artistic director in today’s dance world?
Ms. Ruanne: Artistic direction-in whatever capacity-is about accepting responsibility for a company and the satellite departments that are crucial to its function and the public it serves. On the grassroots level, an artistic director’s role is a caretaker’s job and I suspect that this basic part of the job description becomes more and more difficult to maintain, not least because there are far more eggs in one’s basket now. Any company that requires a board of directors, alongside the artistic, administrative, and financial directors, will inevitably take longer to get to the artistic point.
Ideally, the buck should stop at the artistic director’s desk. Yet is it really fair to make one person publicly responsible for what may have been a corporate decision-often entailing many compromises? Perhaps we should accept that an artistic director today can no longer enjoy the luxury of being merely well qualified and experienced within the theatrical environment. Given the specialized zones of influence of the board members in most companies, it’s probably vital to have at least a working knowledge of their expertise as well. This may facilitate a balance of power in the sense that the artistic director would have some credibility and authority within the areas of marketing, fund raising, accounting, etc., and might stand a better chance of having the last word on artistic matters
PART 2 Rudolf Nureyev and the Passion for Work submitted by Frederic Jahn and interviewed by Bill Bissell at, www.dancemasters-jahn-ruanne.com
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