Boris Kneazev

I owe much of my setting up as an artist to Boris Kneazev as well. There’s another aspect to consider. One can work enormously in ballet and never get proper parts. Or, there’s even a more dramatic situation, when one gets these parts and realizes that one doesn’t have the force, the talent, to give them a new, a unique life. Kneazev was one of those teachers who knew how to pass on to us the solid values of the new Russian dancing school, from Paris and Monte Carlo. He came to Romania from those places for 3 years, because of a contract that he had signed with the “Cockchafer” Company. During that time, he taught me almost everything he knew. Kneazev was, and I like repeating it, one of the last Mohicans of Diaghilev’s troupe. He was a colleague of Serge Lifar’s, a personality of universal ballet, who died a little while ago. Kneazev was a European – well-known dancer and a great choreographic artist. Sometimes he enjoyed sharing with me some of his intense memories. His debut happened at the “Imperial Theatre”, as partner of the famous Sedova, the theatre’s prima ballerina. He toured around entire Russia with her. His life , before our encounter and afterwards, was an artistic adventure. I’d like you to understand that he wasn’t an adventurer, but a ballet dancer. He performed, on a contract, at the National Theatre of Sofia, where he also put on stage “Polichinelle’s Love”, “The Slaves”, “Reverie” and many others. Karsavina asked him to perform with her and predicted a great career for him. And, in my opinion, he could have been as great as Nijinsky hadn’t he had stage fright. He was extraordinary at rehearsals. But before entering the stage he would get stage fright. I had to push him on the stage. He would get into his role afterwards. He was a special presence, because of the elegance and graphic quality of his movements.He was a vain kind of a guy. He knew what he was worth. He had also performed in Diaghilev’s troupe, at Monte Carlo, for a while. After which he wandered around the world. He danced with Feodorova, Ygorova, Trifilova, at “Casino de Paris”. He often reminded me of the successes he had had in the whole of Italy, in Egypt, China, Japan, Spain, England, even in South America. He would gladly reminisce his evolutions and the shows at the “Royal Theatre” of Belgrade and the “National Theatre” in Prague. He would mention Olga Spesivtseva, his wife, among his favorite dancers. He also liked Vera Nemchinova and Serge Lifar. In 1937, if I’m not mistaken, he came to the “Cockchafer” and he was very excited about his encounter with Constantin Tănase, which he considered to be one of the greatest folk artists, whose work and aspirations were close to accomplishments of superior art. I have reminisced these things in order for you to understand what this professional’s level of artistic communication was.My dear, dictionaries have their purpose. Inevitably, they can’t be complete. And as far as Kneazev’s activity is concerned, it wasn’t supervised by an Academy or by a ballet national theatre for the simple reason that at that time we didn’t have such a thing. Still, we could correct or improve these dictionaries, the two of us. Kneazev worked at “The Cockchafer”, on an artistic contract. He galvanized the ballet elements that we had there at that time. He had original ideas and his shows were highly appreciated. But he also put some shows on stage at the “Alhambra” Company. I was reading, some time ago, an essay-article of Irina Lovendall’s, in the “Cinema” magazine, in which an Egyptian fairy-ballet was mentioned with great charm, a ballet with multiple mirrors which had a great effect over the public, even greater than the one of a stroboscope nowadays. As far as I know, the author was one of the pupils that Kneazev was teaching at his ballet school, which was placed at the residence of ballerina Marie-Jeanne Livezeanu, within the perimeter of the KogălniceanuPlaza. Well, in this Egyptian dance, under the merciless eyes of an Egyptian queen, I don’t remember which one, there was a battle between the queen’s counselor and the sacrificed slaves. He was performing the slave’s part and I the counselor’s. Those were exceptional moments in which the dancers’ art was successfully revealing the battle’s tension, its rhythm, the drama. Kneazev had an extraordinarily great jump. I also remember of a small incident that occurred in that ballet show. In the struggle, Kneazev broke one of his partners’ collarbone. Such things did happen as well.Involuntarily, of course. He would prefer athletic partners, that he recruited among sportsmen. In this case, I offered to take the part, even though he was taller than me. I was sure of myself as far as the dancing technique was concerned. But it so happened that one day, after we had rehearsed that scene many times, Kneazev was very nervous during the show and, forgetting about my height, he made a jump that outran me. I couldn’t grasp his hand and we both collapsed. Afterwards, in another scene, in which, according to the part, I had to kill him, he came, jumped over me and ended in the setting. Still, I had to kill him. That’s what the action demanded. And out to get him! I reached him, raised my hand and killed him. He was dead, but he started to shout. The curtain! Rideau! Let the curtain down! You see, a lot of these happenings spiced up the shows.Kneazev also appeared in the famous magazine “Vox populi, vox Tănase”, where he was announced, in a grandiose style, as “the famous dancer from the Great Opera of Paris”. It was 1936. The following year, he performed in the opening of the “Alhambra Exhibition”, in which I was present as well, in a ‘Montmartre-like atmosphere scene, with Lisette Verea, who performed the art of an American girl lost in Paris. They were choreographic visions elaborated in a very rich multi-chromatic perspective. He created, in the same show, an interesting composition, an Apache dance. And many, many other special things.I told you about the master Anton Romanowsky, the one who taught me how to study, without haste, the traditional, the classical basis of the Russian ballet school. Simultaneously, I took up the exhausting lessons of Kneazev (it took me about 6 hours a day), Who passed on to me the new elements, the innovating lines of the modern Russian school of ballet. It helped me a lot, this fortunate blend. Both as a dancer, and as a choreography specialist. Kneazev contributed with numerous innovative elements, because he had seen many artistic environments. As far as I’m concerned, he predicted for me, even back then, an exceptional career, the career of a name printed ‘in big letters’ on posters. When he left, he even invited me to join him in touring all over Europe, where I was going to assert myself. In Switzerland, he founded a new school, which became famous. The “ground bar” school or the “low bar” school. I followed my artistic calling. And his prediction was confirmed. We met later on, during an international ballet festival, in Greece, where he had a great school. Ballet celebrities would come there each year to study. On that occasion, he especially appreciated my putting on stage an original version of “SwanLake” by Tchaikovsky and predicted a certain future for the valuable ballet ensemble of the Romanian Opera. In a certain way, I owed Kneazev the setting up of a new beginning in conception, dynamics, which influenced – how much? I’m not the only one who should say this – our ballet school. You see, as any other creation of the human spirit, the ballet represents a selective storage of some axiological steps. There have been other methods and schools. And, fortunately, there will be some more. From Noverre to Serghei Diaghilev, from Rudolf von Laban, who published in the 20’s “Die Welt des Tanzers”, to the mythological Nijinsky, or Mikhail Fokin, Georges Balanchine, Serge Lifar, Béjart, Martha Graham, of course, many other artists have ennobled with their ideas this fascinating world of the ballet theatre. The dancer’s training and warming up is of equal importance for his movement and perfection. Kneazev noticed that a great number of the exercises executed at the classical bar tire the dancer. They put him off balance. And more than that, he noticed that it can become a danger for the gymnastics of warming up the joints, that’s why – and that’s a simple, but important idea – he took the whole prep-session on the ground, on the room’s floor. Down, in a horizontal position. That’s how the method got its name as “the ground bar method”.

excerpted from The Conductor of Swans (Encounters with Oleg Danovski), by Marian Constantinescu, Editura Muzicala, 1989

by Oleg Danovski; Marian Constantinescu