Goucher presents 'Concerto' choreographed by Nijinska, remembered by ballerina Keeping Time


Sometimes, in the middle of the night, Nina Youshkevitch awakens to find her muscles remembering an old ballet movement.

"It is a very interesting process. Your body remembers. Then your mind and your body come together, and you see the whole thing," she explains, her left arm rising and bending in a still-graceful sweep, cocking slender fingers over her head.

Although she is sitting in a metal folding chair in a dance studio at Goucher College, you can almost "see" Ms. Youshkevitch as a prima ballerina in the late 1930s, performing the "Chopin Concerto" in the capitals of Europe.

In a way, the 74-year-old dancer is once again performing the work -- as choreographed by the celebrated Bronislava Nijinska -- more than a half-century after its creation.

During the annual Spring Dance Concert at Goucher next week, students will present segments of "Chopin Concerto" as retrieved from Ms. Youshkevitch's muscle-and-mind memory of the original choreography. And, for the first time, the dance is being notated and videotaped for posterity.

"There's no film" of Nijinska's version of the "Concerto," explains Ms. Youshkevitch, and only limited written notes and pictures. And of course, there is the music, whose notes began to trigger movement memories as soon as she began working with the piece.

Will viewers actually see pieces of a ballet as it was performed so long ago?

"The important thing is that the style of the ballet will be kept," says Amanda Thom Woodson, the assistant professor of dance at Goucher who launched the recovery project and is carefully recording Ms. Youshkevitch's re-creation.

"One always has to rely on a dancer's memories," she notes carefully, conceding that in the three-dimensional, moving art form of dance, it is arguable whether a particular choreographic work is ever performed the same way.

Yet she suggests "muscle memory" is powerful, especially in a dancer who performed a work hundreds of times over the course of many years.

"It's a matter of trying to preserve something that -- I hate to put it this way -- will be lost to us before long," said Ms. Thom Woodson, suggesting that dance recovery is akin to collecting oral history.

With Goucher colleague Elizabeth Lowe Ahearn, the instructor is involved in a further piece of detective work: seeking others who might recall "Chopin Concerto" in its original form -- especially members of the ballet corps, whose steps would hardly be remembered by the work's principal dancer.

This week's performance includes only a solo variation from the first movement and the pas de deux from the second.

"I remember some of the corps work but wouldn't know the whole thing. There are times when the soloists were not on

stage," explains Ms. Youshkevitch.

So the Goucher instructors are now on the trail of Freddie Franklin, rehearsal director in the 1940s for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, which mounted the Nijinska ballet. Their goal: to add the corps work and perform the full ballet in next year's spring concert.

Ms. Youshkevitch, who has maintained an instructional studio in New York for decades, spent a week's residence at Goucher earlier this year. She observed and instructed as one of her students, Hillary Mitchell, demonstrated the movements of to students of the college's dance department.

"I did it first, then taught it to her. . . . This ballet was done on me," says Ms. Youshkevitch, using a simple term that connotes a great complexity: that a choreographer designed a work with the appearance, style and abilities of a particular dancer in mind.

She first danced the work with Nijinska in the late 1930s at the Polish Ballet, after working with her mentor at the Monte Carlo Opera ballet and at Nijinska's Theatre de la Danse in Paris.

Ms. Youshkevitch was selected by Nijinska for the corps de ballet of the Opera Russe a Paris at the age of 10, having left her native Odessa in Russia to study in the city which, at the time, bloomed at the center of the creative arts world.

"Nijinska was a great friend of mine. We kind of grew up together. She was very great, and there's no one really left who danced as much with her as I did," she recalls. Nijinska was the sister of the legendary dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, and their parents were dancers Eleonora Bereda and Foma Nijinsky.

"One of the formative choreographers of the 20th century" is how the "The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Ballet" refers to Nijinska. And New York Times dance authority Anna Kisselgoff has called her "a founder of Neo-Classicism in ballet," although her work was better known in Europe than in the United States.

Nijinska died in 1972, in her California home, at the age of 81. But her daughter, Irina, who was also a ballerina until a car accident ended her career on stage in her 20s, vowed to preserve some of her mother's work. Over the years, she re-staged such pieces as "Les Noces" (1923), "Les Biches" (1924) and "Le Train Bleu" (1924).

She also began working with Ms. Youshkevitch, one of the few surviving ballerinas who had performed Nijinska choreography. In 1990, the pair presented an excerpt from "Le Baiser de la Fee" at a symposium at New York's Lincoln Center.

But in July 1991, Irina Nijinska also died, at the age of 77. Ms. Youshkevitch says she intends to continue their work and recalls that before her death, Nijinska herself had become interested in preserving her ballets.

For example, the ballerina recalls a telephone call from Nijinska, who was about to depart for a trip to Amsterdam, proclaiming she had found her notes to the pas de deux of "Le Baiser de la Fee." However, Nijinska died in Los Angeles shortly thereafter, and "We don't know what happened to her notes."

Ms. Youshkevitch does have Nijinska's original notes on her ballet of "Bolero" and is currently working with the Oakland Ballet in California to re-create that work.

"By now, people forget Nijinska. I think that one should give to the young dancers the opportunity to do it," she says, adding that the choreographer was "very, very modern for her time" and plotted movements as challenging, if not as athletic, as works being staged today.

"Some say they [dancers of the '30s] weren't as strong as now. That's absolutely false. Dancers had a great stamina," Ms. Youshkevitch says. "I used to dance the lead of two ballets in an evening."

Ms. Thom Woodson concedes that for the Goucher students who have learned the demanding work, "it's strange; it's hard for them." In the "Chopin Concerto" excerpts, Dinah Gray does an allegro solo, and Amy McCall and Jon Phelps-Steele dance the pas de deux.

Yet the Goucher instructor asserts that the core of the work is easy to learn from Ms. Youshkevitch's instructions to "feel it from the heart."

It has been hard for Ms. Thom Woodson to translate the dance movements Ms. Youshkevitch has described into "Labanotation," a form of movement transcription developed by Hungarian-born dancer Rudolf von Laban (1879-1958). "We're trying to build a history of written work," she says of the movement to notate dance classics.

But hieroglyphics seem easier to understand than the notation for the first few bars of "Chopin Concerto" that Ms. Thom Woodson shows a visitor.

Ultimately, Ms. Youshkevitch says she would like to see a complete version of Nijinska's "Chopin Concerto" danced again by today's ballet companies. "It's fascinating to me to see it come alive," she says.

You again catch a glimpse of the ballerina in her prime as she stands with her back to a wall-length mirror, scrutinizing the Goucher students, with the "Chopin Concerto" playing from a tape machine.

She raises her arms over her head as the dancers do the same, then lowers and stretches them outward, instructing, "you have to hold it as you move, but you don't . . . " -- and she shows the wrong way to move, a jarring arm drop, out of sync with the music.

C7 Clearly, her muscle memories have taken over again.


When: 8 p.m. April 28-29

Where: Kraushaar Auditorium, Goucher College

Tickets: $10 general admission; $5 students and senior citizens

+ Information: (410) 337-6333

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