Lynn Scymour: What it takes to become an international star
'*or four years she has lanced major roles in Britain and on world tours. The Sunday Times critic says he is “potty” about her. Yet at 24 this Vancouver girl works hard at rebuilding her dancer’s body. “You can only tell how bad you are,” she says. “Not how good”
ALMOST ALL LITTLE GIRLS, Caught in the special exaltations of preadolescence, long to do something perfectly difficult and splendid. They long, that is to say, to be some kind of heroine – a missionary, perhaps, or a martyr, or a great tragic actress forsaking everything for her art, or an opera singer. Or a dancer. Afterwards most ¡of them come to look back on these notions as, at the least, impractical. 3ut Lynn Seymour, dancer, born Lynn Springbett and the daughter of iá Vancouver dentist, docs not. “When we're children of that age we think a lot of things we forget about later,” she said recently. “But they're much clearer, finer, than the things we think as adults.”
Miss Seymour is all of twenty-four now. She is dark, and as sweetly rounded as any Degas ballerina, with a composed, bright face — except when she is looking mischievous. She |s one of the principals of the Royal ¡Ballet, formerly the Sadler's Wells ¿company, of England, which means The is not yet a ballerina and is therefore considerably below the official (status in the company of, say, Dame ¿Margot Fonteyn. But she is the first Canadian to reach the position of principal with the ranking ballet in the Western world, and she is one of only two Canadians — the other is Melissa Hayden of the New York City Ballet — ever to achieve stardom and a burgeoning international reputation in ballet.
In just over four years of dancing major roles in London and on world tours she has collected reviews that build from "a promise of greatness” through “enchanting” and "exquisitely moving" to "beyond praise." Five
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leading roles in new ballets have been created for her. Earlier this year, after her performance at Covent Garden in one of them, the critic in the Spectator wrote, “She dances like poetry." The critic in Dance and Dancers said, “No one could be like her.” The critic in the staid Sunday Times forgot himself enough to say, “I’m just potty about Seymour.”
Of late she has repeatedly been hailed as the logical successor to Dame Margot Fonteyn, prima ballerina assoluta of the Western world, though this thought is deplored by Dame Margot’s fans, who believe her to be unique, by Miss Seymour’s fans, who believe ditto, and by Miss Seymour herself, who is engagingly modest. “You can only tell how bad you are,” she says. “Not how good.”
Nevertheless she can be considered rather specially qualified by her success to compare the highstrung daydreams of childhood with the reality that has followed. It is an illuminating exercise — at least to a layman — for it seems that ballet more nearly than any other adult pursuit in the profane world exacts all the zeal
that an ecstatic novice has to offer.
It is a commonplace of the ballet world that it takes ten years to make a dancer’s body. Yet Miss Seymour, who has been taking dancing lessons of one kind or another for as long as she can remember and who began rigorous full-time training in England nine years ago, still feels her body betrays her. “You should have steel wire in the middle of you somewhere,” she says. “I haven’t. I have something more like sponge rubber.”
It is another ballet commonplace that if you’re a bit of a masochist it helps: more than one dancer is reported to have said, as she massaged aching insteps, “I like to feel pain like that. That kind of pain is accomplishment." Miss Seymour has been through all the routine rigors of inching the thighbones round in their hipsockets day by day so that the legs can turn outward at the correct fortyfive degrees; of stretching and stretching the Achilles' tendon until it becomes a supple elastic strap that can act as bowstring for the body, shock absorber for the feet and guywire for crazy feats of balance; of strengthen-
ing the frail transverse arch ot the instep until the whole weight of her onehundred-and-eight-pound body can grind down on it safely; of feeling her ¡toes start to bleed into her satin slippers. But in addition she has to suffer fits of stage fright before a performance when her feet go numb and she has no sense of where the floor is. fYou could fall over just walking,” she says with reminiscent terror. And she has recently gone through a private bad time when an inflamed Achilles’ tendon kept her off the stage and in pain for six months, whereupon a series of mishaps starting with an onstage fall and proceeding through a bout of flu and an injured leg to a sprained ankle prevented her effective return for a further year. Among other things these episodes caused her to miss a coveted London début in one of the great ballet classics, The Sleeping Beauty, and forced her to watch a rival in the première of a role that had been created for Miss Seymour herself. She is convinced that it was the rebellion of a body that she had failed to make as strong as it needed to be. It was a very bad time indeed.
"1 went quite berserk and kookie and horrible,” she reports matter-offactly. "I seemed to be clawing and clawing just to keep a little fingerhold.” From time to time she would go in to class and try five minutes of harre practice, the pain would spread through the leg again, and she would go home to more weeks of immobility or hopping round her room on the good leg. Immobilization was the only suggested treatment.
Miss Seymour, for whom the price of being able to dance “like poetry” i appears not only to be mortification of I the flesh but the quelling of an unruly spirit as well, now believes the whole ¡ordeal was “in a funny way a blessing."’ As soon as she could use her leg at all she fled back to her original teacher at the Royal Ballet school, Miss Winifred Edwards, for help. In private sessions through a year of setbacks, they went back to the beginning and recapitulated the building of a dancer’s body. “She had come to us at fifteen,” Miss Edwards said recently, “and she missed the slow, gradual training of lower school. Then she rather jumped from student to soloist. Indubitably she was slightly forced.” In Toronto recently, during the company’s North American tour, Miss Seymour remarked philosophically, “The whole thing gave me a second chance at the technique I’ve lusted after for so terribly long.”
It is a final, pertinent, commonplace of ballet that you’ve got to have a special kind of drive to go in for it in the first place. Sentimental outsiders are apt to call it “dedication,” but there have been some considerably more exotic accounts. For example, no conflict of impulse is considered to reside in the fact that the Russian ballerina, Tamara Karsavina, nearly didn’t make it to the Imperial Ballet school in St. Petersburg because she had decided instead to run away to a convent and there, by constant praying, to redeem herself and her family of some imagined sins. On the other
hand Agnes de Mille, the American choreographer, suggests that the drive is not a version of religious fervor but sublimated sex. “Very few great dancers marry well," she says. “Literally and profoundly they wed their work." She also maintains that, "When pubescent girls have any inclination toward dancing at all they are fairly driven by the frenzy ... A kind of madness is involved.”
Miss Seymour, who was to be married in Vancouver, not long after our interviews, to an English dancerturned - photographer, Colin Jones, grins at such suggestions and says, “I’m very passionate about, dancing. But I wouldn't say I’m dedicated.”
Still, she has something-or-other that not only got her through a long training and a painful setback but has also proved a remarkable stand-in for the technique she complains of lacking. It seems to involve a principle very like wiggling one's ears by deciding to dd it, and its most startling manifestation came in the fall of 1958, in Australia, the first time she ever danced the lead in Swan Lake.
In Act III the role requires thirtytwo consecutive fouettés — a fouetté being a virtuoso athletic feat in which the body, supported on one leg, is whipped in a complete circle by the action of the other.
The Swan Lake sequence is considered the merest grandstand play by ballet purists — and also apparently by one columnist in the New York News, who said he personally would rather see thirty-two ballerinas doing one fouetté apiece — but it has become traditional. Miss Seymour had never done thirty-two consecutive fouettés in her life and, in rehearsal for the role she found she couldn’t, though she tried day after day to the point of exhaustion and tears. She was finally told to cut it down to sixteen, and did so on opening night. Then, before the next performance she
announced to her partner that she was going to do the full thirty-two. And she did. "The things that are considered the steel-wire things 1 get through by determination." she explains.
In the beginning, the determination was not particularly evident. She was a plump, cross-eyed little girl with dark hair and braces on her teeth who used to spend hours alone, she reports, just looking at puddles. She had been born in Wainwright. Alta., in 1939. and moved with her family to Esquimau during World War II. She thinks she may have had her first dancing lessons there but doesn't really remember. What she does remember is that she was a schoolgirl in North Vancouver when she saw the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, and the romantic ballet film The Red Shoes. and several performances by the Sadler's Wells Theatre Ballet. "1 loved the people on the stage.” she recalls now. "I loved that they looked beautiful and spare and fit. and moved differently from the people around me. and were very fine in comparison."
She was already taking weekly ballet lessons: now she began going into the studio by herself at odd hours and on Sundays to practise. “But I had nothing to practise,” she recalls. "It was agony. I felt 1 could dance if only 1 knew how." The traditional training is daily and requires rigorous supervision of the slow, fastidious exercises. She nevertheless persisted whenever and however she could. For example, when the National Ballet made its first cross-country tour during the 1952-3 season she turned up at the dancers' regular daily class and practised with them. A member of the group, struck by something about her deportment, drew her to the attention of Celia Franca, the National Ballet's founder and guiding spirit. "She’d be all right for a corps de ballet. perhaps," said Miss Franca witheringly. She has since reconsidered and this June invited Miss Seymour to appear with the National Ballet next April as guest artist at a one-thousanddollar fee.
Miss Seymour made a considerably better first impression the next year
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when, at the urging of a local ballet teacher who had seen her work, she auditioned for the ballet mistress of the Sadler's Wells company in Vancouver during its 1953 American tour. Though the audition took only fifteen minutes, she was invited almost on the spot to come to the Sadler's Wells school as a student. In September. 1954, she arrived alone in London at the age of fifteen. Most of the other students had been enrolled at the age of ten. It is this gap that she keeps feeling a handicap, though her colleagues, the critics and her teachers are by no means so harsh. Winifred Edwards, her first teacher at the school and now her private coach, opaquely but kindly says, "With a physique of this type there are usually extremely supple tendons, and the ligaments are long. So strength is generally a problem in youth. They are late developers.”
As a late developer, she was almost the last of her class to be given a chance to perform professionally. It was the fall of 1957 before she was assigned full-time to the Sadler's Wells second company, which at that time mostly toured the provinces. It was a smaller, younger group than the main one, with a more experimental repertoire and at least one brilliant young choreographer, Kenneth MacMillan, now resident choreographer of the Royal Ballet, which is what the two Sadler's Wells companies have become. MacMillan almost straightway created a part in a new ballet. The Burrow, for Miss Seymour. He has since created three more of her total
of five custom-tailored roles and it is these that have so far brought her greatest acclaim. They have been lyric and dramatic roles and the critics have pounced with happy cries on a quality of rare expressiveness and individuality they detect in her as an actressdancer. "They can also be caught praising her "eloquent feet.”
But before this could happen there was a final hurdle. The world of classical ballet is by tradition formal, punctilious and stern, and no dancer, however praiseworthy, is finally taken seriously until she has danced the lead in the great old-fashioned lugubrious perennials—the Swan Lakes. the Sleeping Beauties and the G ¡selles. These in fact are the only entrees into the big league, and a dancer who has had her chance at one of them but has not been asked again knows, as surely as if she were told straight out. that she is not going to make it.
In the summer of 1958 Miss Seymour was told she would dance Swan Lake in six weeks’ time on tour with the second company in Melbourne, Australia. She was a success, right from opening night, sixteen fouettés notwithstanding.
She danced Swan Lake nine times in all. on the tour, and when she return.ed was invited to give a guest perfo. m-
anee of it with the first company at ('ovent Garden. It took place on May b. 1959, the night before an elaborate state reception for the visiting Shah of Iran. The occasion was reported thus by Clive Barnes in the Spectator: "Ironically enough, considering the pains taken by the Foreign Office, the gala was in fact almost overshadowed by the C’ovent Garden debut the night before of an unknown Canadian dancer in Swan Lake. . . . From her first entrance, swooping in with the untroubled dignity of a young Russian, she instantly showed that rare ballerina quality, recognizable but elusive. . . . Even at this 'early stage there is an individuality about her movements that sets her apart.”
She was thus — despite the inflamed Achilles' tendon that was still to come, and the series of illnesses and injuries as she fought her way back to form — home free. Or, as her teacher, Winifred Edwards, who is a white-haired, slim patrician of the old school, puts it. "In these cases of obvious outstanding talent, disappointment rarely follows.”
As for Miss Seymour herself, reality has certainly differed from the early daydream, but that does not necessarily mean that disappointment has followed.
The beautiful, spare, fit stage-people are. of course, ordinary people who slump and scratch as soon as they reach the wings, who mop the sweat with towels pinched from their hotel rooms and chew gum and speak in the accents of Yorkshire or Pimlico. Many of them arc jealous, competitive. neurotic and whatnot, and most of them talk little but gossip and shop. "Well, dancers arc notorious for being idiots and bores,” says Miss Seymour.
The zeal — also “of course” — sometimes wears thin in the face of the petty drudgeries and economies of a dancer's life. There are endless tights to be mended, endless practice clothes to be rinsed, endless tapes to be sewn to countless ballet shoes, endless suitcases to be packed and trains to be taken and digs to be found and cheap nourishing meals to be bought and all on less than six dollars' expense money a day. And every day. six days out of seven, for the rest of her dancing life, an hour of practice besides the rehearsals. "I'm always tired,’’ Miss Seymour says.
But the idea of a life of rigor is as tempting and splendid as it ever was to Miss Seymour — though her convictions have changed and blurred. "Dancing is one very good form of discipline and I know the method now," she says. “But it's just physical. There arc other kinds of discipline that arc not so narrow. I'm very conscious, for instance, of all the things 1 don't know.”
As for the thing itself — the times of being on the stage folded in the swan-queen's snowy wings in a spotlight so pure unearthly blue that infrared flame seems to flicker along the white moving limbs — it's. well. work. "At ballet school in Vancouver I got this fantastic feeling about just dancing." Miss Seymour says. "But on stage you've always got to be in control. judging, measuring, weighing, counting. One never gets lost in it. So one can never say one enjoyed a performance.”
“Unless," she adds with a moue, "you like work." ★