MEMOIRS OF A RENEGADE BALLERINA
Lynn Seymour doesn’t dance much anymore. The febrile ballerina for whom Sir Kenneth MacMillan created his Juliet--not to mention the Girl in “The Invitation,” Mary Vetsera in “Mayerling” and Anastasia--has, for most practical purposes, hung up her slippers.
We aren’t likely to encounter her again in the illuminating roles Sir Frederick Ashton invented for her: the Girl in “The Two Pigeons,” Natalia Petrovna in “A Month in the Country” and Isadora Duncan. We certainly must have seen the last of her Sleeping Beauty, Giselle and Swan Queen.
Seymour never was a conventional Swan Queen. Her body tended to be thicker than the ideal. Her technique was hardly the most reliable to be encountered on the stage of the Royal Ballet. She did not deal easily and naturally with cool classical rituals. A Canadian, and an individualist to the core, she was not born to the manner of British reserve.
It didn’t matter. Seymour was the sort of dancer who wrote her own rules. She was magnetic, passionate, exciting, sexy, even when her form wasn’t quite perfect by textbook definitions.
Purists may have been bemused, when, at the peak of her career, she temporarily forsook her gossamer wings and tutu to portray a drug-crazed Janis Joplin in an Alvin Ailey opus called “Flowers.” But no one was surprised.
Seymour always was a loner, a renegade, an individualist and an adventurer. That no doubt helped explain her initial appeal to MacMillan.
“I try to cast dancers with something in their own personalities that might be in my story or theme,” he said back in 1960. As for the artist who was to serve as his most inspired and most inspiring interpreter: “Lynn Seymour has a wonderfully expressive body, great musicality and independence.”
Seymour is 46 now. She hasn’t made a major public appearance in ballet since 1981. She has dabbled in choreography. She has coached other dancers. She has flirted with the commercial opportunities of theater, not to mention rock and pop. She has survived a brief, disastrous regime as Direktorin of the Munich Opera Ballet. She has emerged from self-imposed obscurity for an occasional gala.
She remains a potentially formidable force on the balletic fringe. But she probably--with Seymour all predictions should be properly qualified--won’t return to the center of anything resembling “The Invitation.” That was the characteristic MacMillan challenge that made her famous, and which she helped make famous, a quarter century ago in London. Crucially, she now describes it as “a turbulent dance-drama of poetic imagery with tremendous acting requirements.”
Seymour’s description of “The Invitation” appears in a revealing new book by and about her. Written in collaboration with the American journalist Paul Gardner, it bears the simple title “Lynn” (Granada, London: 10.95). It bears only the most superficial resemblance to “Lynn Seymour: An Authorised Biography” by Richard Austin, which appeared in 1980 and represents little more than an impeccably sanitized, carefully annotated souvenir (Angus & Robertson, London: 7.95).
“Lynn,” in fact, bears little resemblance to any biography one is likely to find on the compleat balletomane’s bookshelf. It does not chronicle a crescendo of successes. It does not strain the reader with variations on ". . . and then I danced . . . and then the critics cheered.” Nor does it attempt to offer much artistic analysis or many deep, dark secrets of interpretation.
Although this is a book about a dancer and, on occasion, a book about dancing, it isn’t fundamentally a book about dance. And it certainly isn’t a book that makes the rough places plain. Seymour and her seemingly sensitive Boswell depict a world that accommodates pain, intrigue, deception and agony along with the inevitable flights of glory.
The authors portray a mercurial heroine prone to a generous share of human foibles. They manage to tell her convoluted story in a manner that offsets the passing profundity with generous flights of wit and whimsy. Why the book has not been released in this country remains a question to be answered only by the sophisticated sages who oversee the wheelings and dealings of American publishing.
“The stage is not magic for me,” Lynn Seymour admits at the outset. Born Berta Lynn Springbett in Wainwright, she entered the Royal Ballet school at the age of 15. “I always felt the audience was waiting to see that first drop of blood.”
With Seymour on the stage, the audience saw plenty of blood--real and imagined. The ballet world, a world that thrives on extramural gossip, always wanted to know as much as possible about Seymour’s tumultuous private life. With each new morsel of information or misinformation, the ballet world thought it could perceive a new psychological nuance in this step or that gesture.
Seymour was, to be sure, a compelling actress. Sometimes, however, her motives may have gotten misinterpreted. She recalls, for instance, the opening of “A Month in the Country”:
“Natalia is seen on a chaise reading and holding a fan. Stiff as a ramrod, tense. . . . I realized that instead of playing Natalia Petrovna and lazily fanning away the tedium of a summer day, I was Lynn Seymour, anticipating, with some dread, the first moment when I would begin Ashton’s whizzy allegro solo; all intricate footwork--one misstep and that’s it. . . . Once I stopped fretting about the first solo, Natalia’s lethargy became visible and her character real for me.”
Intentional or not, the nervousness enhanced the poignancy of the characterization.
For all her authority on the stage, Seymour remained vulnerable, lonely, fragile. MacMillan brought out the best in her, and, for a while at least, she brought out the best in him. Their first big crisis occurred in 1965 when he created his epochal “Romeo and Juliet” at Covent Garden.
“Romeo,” Seymour now recalls, “broke hearts and shattered my life.”
MacMillan chose the young Seymour as his Juliet, the young Christopher Gable as his Romeo. The three toiled together for months, day and night. When the Juliet-to-be found herself pregnant, she told her husband, the photographer Colin Jones, that she would have an abortion.
“My life,” she declares, “was dedicated to the ballet. We could have other children. . . . Juliet was mine. . . . Juliet was a priceless gift from Kenneth, glazed especially for me. Juliet, the classical heroine of the theater, was the culmination of all my fantasy roles as a dancer.”
She kept Juliet, after a fashion; lost her husband in the process, and had other children later. Backstage politics caused unexpected turmoil.
First Seymour learned that she had been given “the most humbling of all tasks.” She was to teach Juliet--her special, unconventional, realistic Juliet--to three other colleagues, including the lofty Margot Fonteyn. A very different dancer with a very different physique and a very different perspective, Fonteyn decided to alter the choreography and even the costumes. The other incipient Juliets decided to follow the example of the senior ballerina, not the teachings of the upstart who happened to enjoy the choreographer’s aesthetic favor. MacMillan did not intercede.
Then came a worse blow. The Royal Ballet management gave the prestigious opening night to Fonteyn and Nureyev, the stellar partnership in residence. Adding insult to injury, Gable was scheduled to dance the second performance opposite Annette Page. Seymour was to appear only in the fifth cast.
“I could not weep or shout,” she writes. “My thoughts became incoherent, endless, tangled, unendurable thoughts. The cast list for ‘Romeo’ was the ultimate betrayal.”
As the fates would have it, Page became ill before the second performance. Seymour replaced her and, by default, achieved the success of which she had dreamed. The bitterness, however, lingered.
So did the on-again, off-again rapport with MacMillan. He provided her with “Anastasia,” a theatrical challenge in which she could convey the alienation, disorientation and despair of the mysterious woman who survived the Ekaterinburg massacre. For reasons not entirely clear, however, MacMillan denied her the ultimate reward: an opportunity to explore the kindred spirit of Isadora Duncan in his full-length ballet. Seymour’s only contact with the Duncan persona was to entail the poetic but sketchy, semi-abstract waltzes “in the manner of Isadora” adapted for her by Ashton.
“Lynn” stops, barely, on the safe side of sordid intrusion. Still, the book withholds little about Seymour’s love affairs, her marriages, her children, her injuries, her illnesses, her ambitions, her triumphs, her failures, her complex personal and professional relationships, and her possible penchant for self-indulgence aligned with self-destruction.
The book may, in fact, reveal more than the subject wants revealed. In retrospect, it may make some of its revelations in the wrong key. These are inevitable problems with any “as told to” autobiography.
“The book doesn’t really reflect my present state,” Seymour complains when reached by telephone in her London home. “I didn’t want it published. Some of the worst things aren’t quite right. I wanted there to be a distinction between the first-person narrative and the third-person descriptions. The two got muddled. Lots of things said by others are attributed to me.
“My co-author didn’t want to know enough about my work and how I worked. I made some late revisions. They weren’t put in. The facts about the ‘Romeo’ episode are all correct. Still, I didn’t want to dwell on them.”
One had to wonder if she preferred the “authorised” Austin biography.
“I never even worked with him. That one was done from a distance. Gardner certainly did a lot of work with me on the new book. We worked for two months. He’s good. I only wish he hadn’t gotten so bogged down in the personal thing. My life changed during the course of writing the book. I stopped dancing. I got married again. Things are so much nicer now. The book doesn’t suggest that.”
Seymour says she is “adjusting nicely to life away from the spotlight and trying to do as little as possible. Right now I’m packing for a trip to Paris. Rudi (Nureyev) has asked me to coach some young couples in a ‘Romeo’ pas de deux. I’m doing lots of different things.”
For his part, Gardner insists there was no misunderstanding. “From the outset, the publishers, Lynn and I agreed that the book would be the inside story of a dancer’s life, not just steps and roles. . . . When Lynn read the finished manuscript, she said, ‘I love it.’ If she had a change of heart, it came later, probably as the result of other influences.
“Lynn had a very full life, personal and professional, and our intent was to convey this story in such a way that people who had never heard of Seymour would be absorbed.”
They would indeed be absorbed.
Ten years ago, Lynn Seymour was invited to create a ballet of her own for the London Contemporary Dance Theatre. The title may have seemed odd then. In the cool light of 1985, it seems oddly significant.
She called it “Gladly, Sadly, Badly, Madly.”