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August 10, 2006

Melissa Hayden 1923-2006

Photo by Carl van Vechten, 1956

Milly Hayden was one tough cookie.

I met her only once in 2000, for a coaching session under the aegis of the Balanchine Foundation’s Interpreter’s Archive and wrote the first piece in a series on the project. I had conducted a phone interview with her nearly three years before, regarding Agon.

Anna Kisselgoff’s obituary captures her spirit as a performer better than I ever could. She retired from NYCB close to a decade before I started watching, and now taught at the North Carolina School of the Arts. I had heard the horror stories. She ate adolescent girls for breakfast. One of my favorite students from Burklyn Ballet would call me in tears; finally she quit. The boys always said they had an easier time with her.

When I called to interview her, she asked questions suspiciously, rapid fire. “Well, what to you want me to say?” she snapped.

I guessed that she was like Antony Tudor and this was a test. Back down, and she would move in for the kill. So I didn’t.

“Why don’t you just talk and I’ll type?” I said. So she talked. As she talked, from the questions I asked about her variation, she realized that I actually knew it. Her demeanor changed. We talked for well over an hour, at the end of which she admitted in surprise that she had a wonderful time. After I stopped sweating, so did I.

In her memory, here are the notes of that interview – they’ve not been published in raw form before.

Interview with Melissa Hayden, June 6 1997 by phone at 12:00 noon on the subject of Agon

Do you have any idea why you were cast to do Agon? (laughs) Not a clue.

Do you remember how Balanchine taught the ballet? It was a wonderful experience. Called to a rehearsal on 83/Mad in the small studio. Called to a rehearsal alone, which made me assume I had a solo. We walked in, and there is Mr. B and no pianist. But he sat down at the piano and played the notes - for himself. He then got up and said "try this". He indicated what he wanted, I did it. He said "This [the first phrase given] is now 7 counts." "Now try this" - and he made phrase of five, and another phrase of five and then a six count phrase. He showed the movements, and then he played, and I could hear what he meant. 7-5-5-7 and a 6. It fit perfectly. [the castanets moved in a regular 6 underneath an irregular rhythm. He was very much aware of this as he choreographed] The first part was made in half an hour - then the pianist came in another half hour and the variation was completed.

Were there specific corrections he gave repeatedly? (i.e. sharper, jazzier - et al?) I never got corrected, I did what he showed. He didn't change anything in the variation.

Were there changes made in the first year? Timing got off in the coda of the pas de trois - it had to be rehearsed more, but no changes were made.

Was there a rehearsal assistant? By the '60s, Rosemary Dunleavy.

The 1960 filming: [L’Heure du Concert, CBC]

Do you remember anything about the circumstances of the film? Was it a difficult shoot? Was any spacing or steps changed? Were there any alterations in the 2nd pas de trois for Verdy vs. Hayden? Why didn't Hayden do it at the filming? Was not there for the filming, was doing something else. She showed Violette the variation once, late at night. After that she did not have anything to do with how Violette did it. See below for further comments.

The move to State Theater: What sort of changes were made to accommodate the larger space? Very few changes. It's still done as if it were danced on a smaller stage, like Barocco. It can't be opened too much, you lose the patterns.

Who would have been responsible for the ballet at that time? Balanchine didn't bother with a ballet too much once it was done. After he did a ballet, it was finished - although when we traveled, he would rehearse the ballets more intensively at those times.

Did you see Suzanne and Allegra in the role? Do you think they changed how the company danced Agon as a whole? Vast difference between Suzanne and Allegra. Diana was stiffer and looked more manipulated. The most important thing about Balanchine is "sound" not music - its feeling, it "sings" underneath the movement. Villella was wonderful, he danced the pas de trois with Pat Neary and another woman. The original girls [Barbara Walczak and Barbara Milberg] got lost in Todd's performance, and were not very distinguishable - one only remembers Todd's performance, they were like fringe. She taught Karin von Aroldingen the variation. It was closest to the way she did it. The final pose is done with the hands primarily and was very subtle.

She went back into her part in the second pas de trois for the 1972 Stravinsky Festival. By this point, the duet for the two men had become so that it was danced more straight up and down, more " two dimensional." She saw this in rehearsal and remarked to Balanchine, "Hey, this is the way the boys used to do it." "Oh yeah" and Balanchine began to show it more off balance. "It's playful...it's games." How you get from one step to another is up to the dancer. There are steps changed in the middle of the coda of the second pas de trois, to modify or simplify the movement. The changes were there by the time Gloria Govrin was there - slight changes, nearly the same, the original was possible and could have been done, but was slightly awkward.

The steps for the men in the 2nd duet haven't really changed. The style has changed. "Mr. B originally choreographed my variation at about 60 beats/minute, a very comfortable tempo. Then Stravinsky came and was checking tempos, the first pas de trois was just what he wanted, the second pas de trois entree was just fine. Then mine. The two heads came together. [She imitates Balanchine's nasal tone] 'Milly do you think you can dance it a little faster?' Well I did it, and there was still some room for style. The heads came together again. 'Milly do you think you can dance it a little faster?' Well it got spastic, and they saw the look on my face. It became a compromise between a 60 and a 72 tempo (66) How do I know that? I checked with the pianist." When we went to Russia it got so fast...

Did the 1957 premiere, through 1972. Came back to role because of the 1972 Stravinsky Festival. It became a "tall" role when Gloria Govrin took the part. The tempo may have been slowed when the "big girls" did it. The variation has to be done with the accents up.

Extra information on the existence of films: To celebrate Stravinsky's 80th Birthday, a program consisting of Apollo, Orpheus (with Villella), and Agon was filmed in Hamburg and I was in it in the early 60's. Films of the company were made in the late 50's during the tour of Japan by NHK. Agon not filmed as it was not performed on tour. The pas de deux with McBride and Mitchell was filmed in Toronto around the early 60's.

Somewhere in Russia there is probably a film of Agon from the Bolshoi visit to NYC in 1959. They came and watched Serenade, Agon, Sym in C. put on stage without costumes. Diana Adams probably did 2nd mvt, she did 3rd mvt Sym in C with Eddie Villela. She remembers that day very clearly ("I wore a little pink skirt...")

Ballet tempo may have slowed when the big girls did it. Accents up.

Posted by Leigh Witchel at August 10, 2006 12:25 AM

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