Interview with Cynthia Harvey
-- by Jerry Hochman
I’ve known Cynthia Harvey since she was a corps dancer with American Ballet Theatre. Sometimes you just know, on first sight, that a particular dancer has the technical and personal qualities that will make her a great ballerina, and my wife and I saw that in Ms. Harvey instantly.
We became friends, and we watched as Cynthia rose meteorically through the ABT ranks during the period when Mikhail Baryshnikov was the company’s Artistic Director, when nurturing of talent from within was a company hallmark, to the point where she became one of the company’s leading principal dancers, first dancing featured roles such as Myrta and Mercedes and Gamzatti, and then advancing to Kitri, Odette/Odile, Juliet, and Aurora, among others. In 1986, she accepted Anthony Dowell’s offer to become a principal dancer with the Royal Ballet. She returned to ABT in 1989, and finished her performing career there in 1995. She has lived in England since then, raising her son and teaching and coaching. We’ve remained in contact with her through email (my wife primarily), but except for one ‘ABT reunion’ performance at the Met many years ago, I had not seen her since she went to The Royal.
When I heard that she would be returning to New York in June to conduct a series of master classes through her new venture, “En Avant,” I contacted her, and she invited me to sit in on her classes. Afterward, we spoke briefly about “En Avant,” about the state of ballet in general, and about certain issues relating to ABT today.
We’ve known each other for a long time, Cynthia, but this is the first time I’ve seen you teach or coach. I’m sure your students learned a lot – but I learned a lot just by watching you. You’re as good a teacher as you were a ballerina. Well, I don’t know about that. But, thanks.
Why are you in New York? I’m in New York for the inaugural weekend of the En Avant Foundation, which I formed about a year ago. En Avant was the result of a conversation I had with Bee Fletcher, whom I’ve known since my days with ABT. She followed me through my career, and she’s travelled the world to see ballet performances. We talked one day about the state of ballet as an art – specifically about the fact that we kept reading in the media and in books that ballet was undergoing some sort of demise. These articles confirmed our own observations about an overall diminution in ballet artistry. She had become so disappointed in what she was seeing that she was considering withdrawing her donations to various ballet companies. And you know me – I never give up, and I didn’t want to give up on ballet because it’s been my life. And I asked her not to do that, not to stop donating. We need the funding, even a little. And I said that maybe if we put our heads together we could think of something we could do about it. It was just a throwaway comment. But Bee and I decided there was something we could do about it. Our first thought was maybe we could fund a scholarship to a dancer who meets the criteria of marrying artistry with integrity and focusing on musicality. And then we started thinking bigger along those lines. She said the handing down of coaching from people who were the ones whom the choreographers created on, or who have danced classical roles in a way that reflected these core qualities, isn’t happening in enough places. Now here in New York, of course, coaching is more readily available. New York is a mecca, and companies have the means to get anybody they want. But even where the means are available, there are untapped resources out there, former dancers who can contribute as coaches, beyond whatever training and teaching dancers get at their companies or their schools. Isabelle Guérin, who’s with me this weekend in New York, is one example. Bee and I decided that the best way that we, in particular, could help would be to create a vehicle for arranging coaching by these underused resource dancers. En Avant, which is a non-profit organization, was the result. And Bee’s been involved with me in this, and with us every step of the way, and has been here both days that we’ve been in New York. The first person I contacted about this idea was Violette Verdy [former New York City Ballet Principal Dancer], who’s teaching at a university in Indiana. I had pictures of her on my wall when I was growing up. She gave me my first scholarship. I got a two page letter back from her saying that she would be so happy to do something to help. She’s still got it, physically, she’s still teaching, but why isn’t she coaching more? She would have a lot to contribute as a coach – and not just Balanchine; she’s got a great eye – but she’s not being used enough. And it’s not as if companies don’t want to offer this type of training to their dancers – there’s not enough time in the day, or money in the budget. Simone Messmer [former ABT soloist] spoke about this in an article last year. But dancers are entitled to this type of coaching. They go into roles because they’re so capable physically, without understanding what they’re supposed to be doing. So they end up just dancing steps, and the general public may not see it, but it diminishes the poetry of what we do-what I used to strive to do. And how could I not have high standards, the standards I used to see in the performances of Makarova, Baryshnikov, Kirkland, Cynthia Gregory, Bruhn, Fracci, Plisetskaya, Vladimir Vasiliev. The people that I learned from. They were personalities. They were people who sent tingles up the spine, and there were a lot of them. Each of them was different from the other; they weren’t cardboard cutouts of people who could do the steps. What’s happening now is that we’re amazed by physicality, and people leave talking about: ‘did you see how many turns that guy did, or how high her leg went?’ That’s what we’re talking about here? I could be watching the Olympics and they’d be doing the same thing. So that was the frustration. And then I thought, we can’t change the world overnight, but at least I’d be doing something. I would rather be pro-active than not pro-active.
Do you think that ballet has suffered artistically as a result of this deficiency you see, or something people are afraid will happen? I don’t think they’re afraid; many just don’t know that it can be different. I’m getting a lot of feedback even in this little program this weekend from the dancers here: ‘oh, I had no idea that that’s the way it’s supposed to be’. They don’t know because the emphasis has shifted and there’s no time to go into that kind of detail. And we’re just talking about an extra half hour in the studio. I got so much information about the classical artistry and nuance from Makarova, Ashton, Baryshnikov, De Valois and MacMillan – and used to go work with David Howard in the evenings after he worked with Gelsey, so I got second hand information in that way too. I don’t want to say that ballet has suffered a demise. I want to say that a lot of the ballets themselves haven’t been narrative. They’ve been neoclassical let’s say, or some combination of ballet and contemporary dance. And it was about physicality, or at least that is the impression that came of it. I don’t think you need to diminish the poetry because of the physicality. You don’t need to be less physical; you need to be more creative in how you express it; to find the poetry in the physicality. It’s the expression part of it that I’ve gotten frustrated with. And don’t get me wrong – you’ve got some fantastic, beautiful, expressive dancers now, like Vishneva, dancers who touch you; who move you. But how come it seemed that there were so many more in my day? Maybe I was just lucky and I was in the right place I and saw them all around me.
Yes. When I first started writing I called it a ‘Golden Age’. Yes. And I hate to think that. I hear people saying ‘well, in my day…’ It was different then. And don’t get me wrong. Different is good, and dance does need to evolve. There’s nothing wrong with that. But what’s so beautiful about ballet itself is that you’re telling a story, physically, with your body. And you have to be with the music. Not necessarily on the music, but with it, expressing it. And if you don’t let the music come through you, then we are losing something.
I don’t review a performance from the perspective of a ballet student. I review it based on what I see. Yes.
And I know what looks good and what doesn’t look good. And if it looks good, it’s usually because … …it is [laughs]
Right. But seeing and hearing you in class describe why things were done opened my eyes. It showed me why something looks good. The reason behind the steps. What the motivation is. That’s the way it was supposed to be. Really.
I could tell when something was there and not there, when the expression was being transmitted, but I couldn’t say why. Why I saw it in one dancer and not in another. And there are any number of times when you were demonstrating and explaining and it opened my eyes. Good. And I think some of it has to do with the pace of life. Let’s face it, we’re all doing things with our thumbs. Techno-whatever. Which is great.
Well some people are. I haven’t gotten there yet. [laughs] And I think that’s part of it. Ballet is going to reflect the culture of the times. And it doesn’t need to go backwards. So we’ve hit a peak physically; let’s then use it to an expressive end, and not simply to show an ability. And I see it all the time when I’m coaching, or watching a variation being danced, by people who are far better than I was technically, physically. They slow the tempo: ‘I can’t do it that fast’, they say. Excuse me? Why? You’re far superior physically; you have all that technique, why can’t people do it to speed? ‘Well, it’s too fast', they say. No it isn’t; you’re too slow. The tempi is set by the conductor. Why does the conductor have to adjust the tempo; slow it down. Why can’t you [the dancer] speed it up? The conductor should set the tempo. And if you can’t do it the way it’s supposed to be done, get up to speed or don’t do it. They seem to want to be comfortable now.
I went to several performances this weekend, of “Coppelia,” where, at critical points, the tempo was different at each of the three performances. Every show. Yes.
Two were close to each other, but the other was noticeably slower. And you can see it. And people are going crazy because they think it’s so well done. And they’re doing it because they’re being given extra time to do it. But it only seemed good because the dancer made the conductor slow down. But what were the people going crazy for? For the fact that once the music slowed down, that dancer could do two, three or more turns? But the excitement alters when the intention of the choreographer, who presumably choreographed to specific musical dynamics, is altered.
And here the conductor slowed things down not to adjust to the dancer during the course of the performance, but at the beginning of the series of steps, as if the conductor knew ahead of time that the dancer wouldn’t be able to execute the steps at the usually faster tempo, so he slowed it down. Yes. And why? The conductor’s doing it to give them time to do another pirouette or something like that. Or just to enable them to keep up. The conductors I had in my time? They took no prisoners. It’s up to the conductor. And the composer. Don’t tell me it’s too fast. You have all this training; all this physical ability. Use it. Don’t say it’s too fast.
I remember one performance several years ago, in “Sleeping Beauty,” where the conductor led Marcelo [Gomes] to a ridiculous degree. I thought he’d never keep pace. But he pumped up his speed, and did, like a deep end in football catching a perfectly timed forward pass. And that’s the way it’s supposed to be. A conductor pushing a dancer is exciting, and a dancer like Marcelo can keep up. Now it’s too “comfortable.” When was ballet ever “comfortable?” Sadly, the audiences too are growing used to that. And here’s another example of something that needs attention. Something that’s always bothered me. In “Sleeping Beauty,” all those penche-arabesques, with Aurora’s leg at 180 or beyond. “Sleeping Beauty” is of a manner; of a period; of a time. In that time, I don’t think a 16 year old girl would be showing her underwear to the court, in such an extreme manner. You can do the physical extremes, sure. But why would you, and why should you? Whether you can get your legs up or not, it’s wrong there. And throwing flowers at the king and queen. Who said you should throw them? They must be let go, laid down, like a gift, a grateful offering from a grateful child. Call me old fashioned. And there is nothing in their technical ability preventing them from doing it in the right context. I’ve seen it in contemporary ballets, fantastic technical things that I just love. But it doesn’t belong in 19th century ballet. Would you do Balanchine without taking the Balanchine style? Why would you do Petipa in a style not related to Petipa? And arms have gotten lost; the beauty of the port de bras is lost.
Do you think there’s too much of a reliance on technical stuff, on ‘tricks’? I think people are expected to do it now, that, when people see three or four pirouettes from one dancer and think that that’s great, then the next dancer feels like he or she must do more; that makes it better. They’re confusing ‘more’ with ‘better’. That’s what I’ve seen from my base in Europe, and from speaking with patrons who see ballet here. And I still know more people here, who see ballet here, than I know in England. And that’s what I’ve heard from them. And from what I’ve been reading. It’s sad. I don’t want the things that made ballet classic to go away. I don’t want people to think that ballet is irrelevant.
You’re not saying that there shouldn’t be athleticism. Oh no, absolutely not. You saw me today with that couple in the adagio; I told them they need to be more physical.
You’re saying there needs to be more expressiveness. Exactly. Within that physicality. And I like to think they understood what I was trying to say. And if I’ve taught one girl in half an hour that she doesn’t need to squeeze out one extra unnecessary pirouette, then I’m happy. I can’t demonstrate the way I used to. I hope I’ve increased my verbal skills so I can show by speech.
From what I’ve seen today, you can show both ways. Because I can see it both ways. And your experience is such an incredible resource. Oh I hope so. And when you have someone who has danced these roles…
But it can be the other way too. You can have all this experience, and not be able to communicate it. Yes, that happens too. But look at Isabelle Guérin, she’s done every ballerina part in the repertoire. It may have mostly been in the Nureyev version, but she still has done it. She can tell you where to breathe. If you have someone who’s never danced these roles coaching a principal dancer, how can they tell them? Wouldn’t you want to get it from somebody who does know? And so, why aren’t we using the Isabelle Guérins, or the Violette Verdys, or the Darcey Bussells? Angel Corella? [Since this interview took place, Mr. Corella was appointed to be the next Artistic Director of the Pennsylvania Ballet] Why aren’t we using these people; they’re available. So I’m doing this for a two-fold reason – I’m giving them, the retired dancers, something that they want to give back to, and the students and company members who come will benefit as well.
Do you see En Avant as being more than something like a weekend thing, or an annual coaching master class? Like a regular private coaching school, or something like that? No, I don’t. I don’t have aspirations for myself to do more with it. I’m happy with the ‘weekend’ concept we have. Or maybe do a whole session on a particularly difficult and important segment of a ballet. Maybe a ‘role day’. Or focusing on one ballet. Because that’s my expertise – I’m not expert in other areas. I wouldn’t even say I’m an expert in classical ballet. I’m just learning. [laughs] I never stop learning. I see it maybe expanding to a few days. And to make it more interesting for the students too – they don’t want to spend all their time on one variation. But I have no aspirations of doing a six week summer course or something like that. Those are being done and done beautifully by people already, like at ABT, SAB, San Francisco Ballet School… I’m just happy to teach class there. And I’m also very busy myself with my own guest teaching and coaching. And I love it. There are a handful of companies I regularly work with now. The Semperöper in Dresden, Zurich Ballet, Hong Kong Ballet, The Norwegian National Ballet and The Australian Ballet. So I’m kind of spread out [laughs]. And it’s nice for me – I don’t go every year, so when I return I get to see how they’ve improved.
Have you been able to see any ABT performances in Europe? Yes. I saw ABT in Barcelona dancing Don Q, and I saw Romeo and Juliet two summers ago at the Met. I also saw the studio company, and there’s some good talent there. It’ll be exciting to see what comes from them.
And City Ballet? They haven’t travelled to the UK when I was home; I haven’t seen them, sadly, enough. But I get to see the broadcasts, like that of the Bolshoi. I love it. I sit in the cinema with my popcorn and watch ballet. [laughs] It’s such a different concept. And, with social media, many dancers post their own performances online. I see all sorts of things in this way.
Audiences have changed. They may not eat popcorn during a performance… Like at the Kabuki [laughs]
…but they come in shorts and T-shirts. I know, I’m a little self-conscious. I live in the country, so when I go to a performance it’s an event, and I get dressed up and when I get there I feel a little out of place when I see them in shorts and flip-flops and jeans or whatever. But that’s great. Who cares? Just bring them in, that’s the important thing.
I wrote about that in a review. About one man’s reaction to “Union Jack.” He was sitting there in shorts and a T-shirt and loving it. And I wrote ‘whatever it takes’… Yea. That’s what it’s about.
Yes. Keep them coming.
I know you have to leave in a minute. But let me go into a few other subject areas briefly.
With ABT, even though you haven’t seen many recent performances, have you been in contact with them? Yes. In fact, I saw Kevin and Martine, Cory Stearns and Julie Kent. They came and taught in Barcelona, which was where I was teaching – IB Stage it’s called. Anyway, Kevin called me and asked me to come in and teach on a more permanent basis, but I can’t uproot right now.
ABT has always had guest artists. But it seems to be an epidemic at this point. Do you have any thoughts on this…hah, I can see you do because you’re nodding your head. Yes I do. I mean, I suppose there must be a good reason. It must be a box office issue.
Well, it doesn’t appear to have worked so well this year. I was from Misha’s era, and we were all dancing a lot. And you got your opportunities in Detroit or Kansas or wherever, and then you got to do it several times again at the Met. Now these kids who are up and coming, they’re only getting one or two shows at the Met. They should be doing four and five to improve, to make the company improve, to keep the standard high. Why would you bring in someone else to take those opportunities, other than for box office? It must be box office.
It’s one of those things that bothers me. And except for a couple of dancers chosen for whatever reason, soloists on the whole aren’t getting sufficient performing opportunities in leading roles. Yes. That’s exactly the point. And it’s hard to nurture people when you’re bringing in people from the outside. I’ve heard that many companies, not just ABT, want to make it ‘global’ to share dancers. But that’s if they’re special; if they do something better than your own dancers. I’m not sure that always applies. For that reason, it would frustrate me if I were a dancer now. I’d be pretty upset.
It reduces confidence in your own dancers. And not only does it do that to that dancer, but the public must think…well, that dancer must not be good enough. So they have to bring in others. And the public starts to believe that American Ballet Theatre’s own dancers aren’t good enough. And if that’s true – don’t make them do the tour either. You make them do the hard part, but you don’t give them the reward. Plus, those ballet patrons in the cities where they tour, outside of New York, must think, oh, we’re getting the second string, and ABT brings in the big guns only at the Met.
And it’s frustrating as a fan. You get to see dancers who you know have been dancing well, but you see them get no lead roles, or maybe you get to see them dance a lead, but only one time. Yes. And imagine how nervous that dancer must be; to have only one opportunity. The pressure must be enormous.
Are you sure you haven’t read any of my reviews? That’s exactly what I wrote in one situation. And ok, so the cream rises to the top. But even for ballerinas and male dancers with experience, a one shot appearance at the Met is torture. If it were me, and someone said you’re doing your first “Sleeping Beauty” in New York, and you get only one, it’d be very hard to take.
Are you really sure you haven’t read any of my reviews? [laughs] And I’m not being critical of Kevin. I’m sure he has reasons for doing things the way he’s done them, but there are dancers, soloists and corps dancers, who could be doing a lot more. Sarah Lane, Luciana Paris…
She should have been promoted a long time ago …Stella Abrera.
This really sounds eerie. I wrote about Sarah Lane last year, when they gave her one ‘Sleeping Beauty” after five or so years. It was like a ‘second debut’. I wrote that the pressure on her must have been enormous. I’m sure it was. That wouldn’t feel like nurturing, or being given a chance to grow in a role. And I don’t think he’s spending huge money on guests. No doubt they’re so happy to dance with ABT that they’re lowering their fees – because some of those fees are outrageous. But I don’t really know.
City Ballet isn’t in the same position. Right. Peter Martins and New York City Ballet operate in a completely different way. They have always been an ensemble company and don’t rely so heavily on full-length ballets, with multiple casts needed for those full-length’s. By keeping their own dancers dancing a lot, they seem consistent in their strengths, Did you see Megan [Fairchild] Veyette here?
Yes, I did. And also some very good young dancers I’ve noticed with ABT, who took your classes today.
I know you’ve got to run. There’s a young ballerina at City Ballet who I picked out on first sight, the same as I picked you out….
And on that note, Cynthia had to get to her other appointment. As we were leaving, we talked some more about current dancers she knew, or knew of, and how she looked forward to seeing them perform again, or for the first time, when she returns to New York. Maybe that will be the impetus for her returning to New York again soon. And our meeting confirmed that, after all this time, Cynthia Harvey hasn’t changed a bit, and is still someone I’d pick out, just to know.
And sure enough, a return to New York appears likely. After spending much of the summer teaching at the San Francisco Ballet School’s summer course, Cynthia and I had occasion to speak further this week to complete this interview. She advised that they are finalizing plans for the next series of En Avant master coaching sessions, and anticipate that one will be in San Francisco, one in New York, and possibly another in Paris. Anyone interested should check the En Avant website in the autumn for further information. The website address is: http://www.enavantfoundation.com
.Edited on 8/8 to correct minor typos and grammatical errors.