Caitlyn Lehmann finds a trove of memories in a beloved ballet book
There’s a faint scent of stale cigarette smoke lingering in the pages of my favourite ballet book. Ahh, that whiff of ancient Camel tobacco! One noseful and there I am again, chatting to my grandfather in his bedsit down the back of our garden, taking in his yellowing pictures and his shabby bedspread, and seeing that perpetual smoke haze rolling beneath the ceiling.
My grandfather had his weaknesses – smoking was certainly one of them – but he also had a wry sense of humour, egalitarian values, and a fondness for ballet that I absorbed at his knee. It never mattered that my family lived hours away from the capital cities and their theatres, not when my grandfather bought us videos of the finest ballet performances and religiously recorded the ABC’s annual season of Sunday Stereo Specials. It was the 80s, the era when the ABC brought the Bolshoi, the Kirov, The Australian Ballet and The Royal Ballet into the homes of ordinary Aussies. And I watched those performances over, and over, and over…
And then, of course, there was my grandfather’s copy of The Ballet Goer’s Guide, which he always kept within easy reach. That book spent years resting on his bedside table or lying among papers on the undisturbed side of his double bed. It cohabited with the television and video remotes. It was his Bible and mine when it came to ballet.
Practical and unpretentious, Clarke and Crisp’s The Ballet Goer’s Guide supplied us with the plots and backgrounds to dozens of remarkable ballets. To this was added a short history of the art form, a glossary of steps and positions, and what was then a very up-to-date listing of key choreographers and international stars. But it was the authors’ selection of works that made The Ballet Goer’s Guide seem magical to me, because every ballet I watched on video was right there in that book, so we were never left mystified by the events unfolding onscreen.
When the late John Cargher introduced the Bolshoi’s Spartacus, we turned to The Ballet Goer’s Guide for the relevant entry on Yuri Grigorovich’s stirring production. When The Royal Ballet’s Manon screened on the ABC, there in The Ballet Goer’s Guide were photos of the very cast members we were seeing. For Frederick Ashton’s La Fille mal gardée, we turned to page 123. And if we kept going, we passed the corresponding entries for our videos of Napoli, Onegin, Romeo and Juliet and The Sleeping Beauty.
The Ballet Goer’s Guide was inspirational. Those raw yet carefully described scenarios and their tantalising black-and-white photographs opened my eyes to a world of ballet that extended far beyond the Australian shoreline. Occasionally, just occasionally, I saw a performance by The Australian Ballet that brought it all a little closer.
As I grew older, Clarke and Crisp’s book proved not so much a guide to the ballets I was able to see, but a guide to the ballets I had to see. It seemed to me that inclusion in The Ballet Goer’s Guide was the highest proof of a ballet’s merit. I couldn’t believe my luck when I finally acquired a recording of Ninette de Valois’s Checkmate. I begged for a bootleg copy of Ashton’s A Month in the Country. I was on the edge of my seat as I waited for my first glimpse of Jerome Robbins’ The Concert and his equally celebrated Afternoon of a Faun.
True, there were other books around on the stories of the “great” ballets. Perhaps in your own collection you’ll have Gladys Davidson’s Stories of the Ballets (1949) or one of the various reissues of Balanchine’s Festival of Ballet (1954). Yet The Ballet Goer’s Guide was different. It wasn’t a promo for Balanchine and it wasn’t weighed down by historical nostalgia. It was an enlightened reference that dared include the best of ballet from the Soviet Bloc and embrace the unsettling masterpieces of Antony Tudor and Kenneth MacMillan.
I can’t recall exactly when The Ballet Goer’s Guide passed from my grandfather’s hands into mine. As he grew frailer his interest in the art form waned, and I remember him venting impatience as newer ballet trended towards strident abstraction and athleticism. I vented my own frustrations as the ABC abandoned its arts programming and I faced the prohibitive cost of buying ballet videos from overseas.
My grandfather didn’t live to see the rise of DVDs, YouTube and the age of bargain hunting online. But The Ballet Goer’s Guide has survived. And I’m still excited when I see for the first time one of those ballets featured in Clark and Crisp’s book. I’ve not had the opportunity to see MacMillan’s Las Hermanas, but I have finally seen Flemming Flindt’s The Lesson. I’ve yet to sight more than snippets of Antony Tudor’s Pillar of Fire, but I’m delighted to own a DVD of Bronislava Nijinska’s Les Noces.
My favourite ballet book continues to stimulate my curiosity about this thing we call ballet. And as long it holds that smell of tobacco in its pages, it will always remind me of my grandfather.
Mary Clarke and Clement Crisp, The Ballet Goer’s Guide. London: Michael Joseph, 1981.