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U.S.A. International Ballet Competition Juror Nina Novak

Novak's Uniting Passion

by Dean Speer and Francis Timlin

June 2006 -- Jackson, Mississippi

We met with the charming Nina Novak whilst in Jackson, Mississippi for the Round I of the 2006 USA IBC.  Hers is an amazing story of courage and of her belief in the redemptive and uplifting nature of ballet.

Born in Warsaw, Nina Novak joined the Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo in New York and quickly became world-renowned as a classical ballerina.  By special invitation of the Polish Ministry of Cultural Affairs, she returned to Poland to perform in 1961.  In 1964, Novak founded her own school and company in Caracas, Venezuela.  She continued to dance after settling in Caracas, performing in Columbia, Holland, and Poland. 

Always dancing to critical acclaim, she considers the most important aspect of her career to be her intense dedication to the educational aspect of classical ballet.  She is the recipient of the Francisco de Miranda First Class Medal of Honor (Venezuela), the Commendatory Cross of Honor Award (Poland), and UNESCO’s Vaclav Nijinsky Medal.  Novak served on the 2002 jury for the USA International Ballet Competition.

Please tell us how you initially got started in ballet.

Initially, I went to school very early -- I already knew how to read and write by age six. The school officials thought I would be good at dancing as I was always moving! I am very thankful to have been sent to the Grand Theatre of Warsaw, which was a good school, but had to wait until I was eight. They fully auditioned me – [including a] physical exam -- and I was admitted. After only three months, they gave me a full scholarship.

My family never pushed me and were proud of me when they later saw me on stage, but to them, I was just "normal."

At school, we had ballet in the morning and academics in the afternoon.

How did the war affect you?

That's a whole book! We had a very hard time during the war. We lived in Warsaw. Our opera house was bombed in the early days of the war in 1939. I was studying ballet with Leon Wojcikowski at the time, and sometimes we had no place to work. When we went out to go to the studio, we found that it had been bombed during the night.  We had to look for some other place – and this happened several times.  For these five years, I had only sporadic training.  Also, toe shoes were impossible to get.  Wherever I could study, I studied.

When the uprising began in Warsaw, I found myself hidden in a cellar and the house was bombed.  A man dug a hole for us to crawl out, and I ran to my house – covering my head and running. We were often shot at by war planes. The next day, I couldn’t speak due to shell-shock and the whole family was separated. Entire families were separated.

My father died in Dachau and a brother in Auschwitz. They took everybody whom they felt would be a threat to German authority. My older sister saved me, as she claimed not to be my sister. We were in a labor camp. In these camps, if they asked you to take a shower, you never knew if you were going to come back. Warsaw was evacuated in 1944.

I was so happy to find my mother in Wieliczka. We fell into each other's arms and happily wept, telling each other our stories. Then the Russians bombed our house in Wieliczka.

I came to New York after the war and started dancing again. My teacher's daughter, Sonia Wojcikowski, was in New York and was actually responsible for getting me my first dancing job. She had two auditions booked at the same time, and since she could not go to both, suggested I go to one of them.

I was hired for a show that featured Carmen Miranda. They wanted me to go to Hollywood, but I neither spoke English nor had any training as an actress.

While I was studying at the studio of Tatiana Chamier, she called Serge Denham, who came to observe me in class and hired me for his Ballets Russes. At first the ballet master, Frederick Franklin, didn't want me; but two Polish dancers, the Ladres, were leaving the company and encouraged me to stay. Franklin and I later even danced together.

I was able to thrive as I have a good memory and started replacing dancers on tour as they either became ill or injured and were unable to perform. I often filled in and sometimes learned new roles every day. I joined the company in 1949-50 as the Can-Can girl in "Gaité Parisienne," and we -- Leon Danielian was my partner as the Peruvian dancer -- stopped the show with our number at the Met. This was my début as a soloist.  In the 1951-52 season, I was asked to learn "Coppelia."  I had a very good success too.

In my epoch, characterization was very important, as was having inner strength and projection. We went on many tours, and I had many roles.

Did you work with Balanchine, and what was it like to work with Nijinska?

I only danced the lead in his "Ballet Imperial." He had left the company the year that I joined.

Nijinska was in Warsaw before the war and took me from school to the New York World's Fair in 1939 with her company. That was my first trip to New York and right before the war broke out in Europe.

In Ballets Russes, she made a special solo for me in the 'Polovetsian Dances' from "Prince Igor" – also performed at the Met. She later moved to Los Angeles, and whenever I was there, I would study with her. She taught me "Giselle" and gave very difficult classes, and always gave very good corrections. She was also very opinionated.

Her husband would “soften” some of her comments, and assuming if you only knew  English, would translate her comments with things like, "Madame says you are not very good!" when she actually said, “You dance like an elephant!”  It could be very amusing.

The Nijinsky family was actually Polish and moved to Russia, via Kiev, when quite young. Their parents were circus performers.

How did you end up in Caracas?

I married a Venezuelan, but that lasted only seven years. I was tempted to leave and almost left, but then I met and married a Russian oil man – someone who was the son of an officer to the Czar. His family moved to Paris when he was only one year old. He was a very nice man, cultured, who spoke many languages and loved the ballet. He helped me build a school and a house. I've had and have a good life.

I understand that teaching is a passion of yours...

Yes, it is a passion! It is my second profession. Dancing literally allowed me to live. I've taught a lot of good students and many have gone on to be good dancers, including Alexis Zubiria who was a 1982 silver medalist here. I get to teach students how to dance in the style of the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo and my important teachers, Nijinska and Wojcikowski.

What advice might you have for young, aspiring dancers?

Whoever wants to study ballet must, first of all, have the physical and mental ability and must really love this art. You have to be disciplined. Ballet is not only a profession; it's a vocation. You won't necessarily make a lot of money. However, there are plenteous satisfactions.

Ballet, especially classical ballet, is a beautiful profession, and to see male dancers onstage partnering ballerinas is an outstanding experience.  So therefore, I encourage boys to study this art form.

The rewards are worth it. I feel very rewarded to be a part of it.

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