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DANCE : Memories of Massine : Former ballerina Tatiana Leskova recalls her mentor's classic 'Les Presages' so well that she's able to duplicate it for the Joffrey

May 03, 1992|JANICE BERMAN | Janice Berman is the dance critic for New York Newsday.

Four years later, Leskova auditioned for the Paris Opera Comique and was taken in as an apprentice. The following year she joined the Ballets Russes, making her official company debut in London's Covent Garden, shortly before her 16th birthday.

She and the other dancers stayed in boardinghouses, which were cheaper than hotels. It was their first time living without chaperonage, but, she said, "we didn't have time to be naughty. We had to learn the whole repertory in a month."

The array of ballets was huge, and some of its most vital work had been the creation of Massine. Leskova remembers him as an artistic director of the old school, "a great personality."

"Outside, he was very dry," she said. "But it was all inside. He was very intelligent, calculated. He had a beautiful face.

"None of them were mild," she said of the era's choreographers, Massine included. "They were rough. He would just take you by the skin of the flesh and just push you and say, 'Don't do that, you're spoiling my ballet.' People were like that, and we didn't talk back."

The dancers who worked for Massine were also strong personalities, she said, more individualistic than today: "Dancers now are preoccupied by technique. In my day, technique was a way to get to art. There's so much more competition today. They look at your body, and it's hard to find personalities. Irina Baronova, Nina Verchinina, Tatiana Riabouchinska, each was different in the way she danced, in the way she understood the movement."

And Massine, she said, relied on each dancer to remember the steps. They were, after all, members of his company. "He wrote nothing down."

Last year, Leskova came to New York to set the ballet on the Joffrey. "I like very much working with the Joffrey," she said. "They have a soul. It gives you a thrill."

Not everything is as it was at the Ballets Russes. Aside from the changes in dancers--more streamlined, more technique-driven--Leskova didn't like the original production's sets or the costumes; she thought the backdrop was too bright.

Campbell Baird has re-created the multihued, multi-symbolic backdrop and John David Ridge the Grecian-inspired costumes. The re-creations have muted the colors; the costumes too have been slightly modernized "for our day," she said. "You can't make everything like a museum piece."

Joffrey principals Beatriz Rodriguez and Daniel Baudendistel have featured roles. Rodriguez, marking her 20th year with the company, worked for several days on her role, Action, with Leskova and her Ballet Russes colleague Laport.

Action, Rodriguez said, "is a bastion of strength." She noted that it is Action who opens the ballet, the first dancer to cross the stage. "She is a very determined person. It's interesting that she is a woman and she does the jumping, which is predominantly a male image."

One of the things that most impressed her about the ballet, she said, was that she learned it from two women. "They sort of took mother roles, teaching and giving part of themselves. My mother isn't a dancer, and it's wonderful to share something like that with these women."

Rodriguez remembers Massine, who died in 1979, from when he worked with the troupe on "Parade," "Petrushka" and, with Alexandra Danilova, "Beau Danube."

"When you sort of take it out of context, he could be my great-uncle," Rodriguez said. "He was very keen. He'd say, 'More. I want more.' He was this little guy who had a lot of character, strength and charisma."

She feels that intensity in the structure of "Les Presages," she said: "It's not milky, romantic, soft in the sense that it gets lost. It's real powerful. If you're talking about the destiny of love, love isn't always very easy."

Nor, said Baudendistel, is it easy to interpret the ballet's meaning. His role, Hero, embodies a certain ambiguity in the ballet's fourth and final movement.

"I love the role of the Hero," he said. Now, shortly before the Joffrey premiere, he was still considering what the role meant.

Is the hero making the world safe for peace, or does he embody an eagerness for war? Baudendistel considered other art of the era, particularly "The Green Table" (also in the Joffrey repertory), in which Baudendistel has danced the role of the Standard Bearer. "He comes out and calls to his boys and is eager for war," and so, he believes, is Hero.

"That's what I am, the glamorous hero, calling them to war. I am the propaganda right. I am the instrument of the evil means.

"I wonder if Massine wanted to scare people," Baudendistel mused. "He certainly wanted to make people wake up and think."

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