Days Ulanova – Famous Ballerina Brought To Life

ulanova days

Days Ulanova

I own Days Ulanova in hard cover and it is extremely interesting reading, especially if you are interested in the history of ballet or dance of any kind. If you would like to find out how to get a copy, just click on the link above or the picture of the book.

Days Ulanova Review

Galina Ulanova has become one of those legend ballerina’s from her time.

The author of Days Ulanova has done a sterling job of this book, and he also happened to meet her during the late spring of 1959 during her visit to the United States. His first impressions of her were of a lady of striking simplicity and an utter lack of pretension, who had a ‘mixture of shyness and trenchant candor.’

With the help of some linguistic skills of a Soviet Journalist, the interview lasted for a couple of hours and covered a variety of topics. She did not hide her extreme nervousness at having to dance Romeo and Juliet the following evening, as she was worried how an American Audience would react. Albert Kahn came away from that interview feeling as though he had just met a woman who was as extraordinary as she seemed ordinary.

Nevertheless, the Bolshoi Ballet received ecstatic acclaim as they performed for American Audiences, and everywhere the legend of Ulanova came alive for those who saw her dance. The New York Times described her as ‘the wonder of the world.’ulanova days

Ulanova believed that to make music visible, it is the dancer’s task. ‘The dance is the embodiment of music in movement. Just as letters go into the making of words, and words into the making of sentences, so separate movements combine into the words and sentences of a dance.’

Just like the greatest poetry, Ulanova’s dancing speaks a language understood not only by trained dancers, but also by ordinary working men. Her message lies in its direct communication with the human heart, and her dancing was both a testament to a way of life and a song to life itself.

Ulanova’s Life in a Nutshell

Ulanova was born in 1910 in Leningrad. Her parents were both ballet dancers at the Mariinsky Theatre and they also gave ulanova daysfree recitals at night before film audiences in order to bring the arts nearer to the people. Ulanova remembers going with them as there was nobody to care for her at home. She remembers her mother as a hard worker.

She didn’t want to learn to dance initially but was forced to by her parents.  She started off her training at the ballet school in Leningrad in 1919.  No other ballet school in the world can boast of such illustrious graduates as attested by the pictures covering the walls in the room which now serves as a school museum. On these boards are dancers such as Fokine, Karsavina, Pavlova, Nijinsky, and of course, Ulanova.

She studied under her mother who combined her dancing at the Mariinsky Theatre with teaching at the school. Her mother retired from the stage in 1924 and devoted herself to teaching at the Leningrad school until the age of 64.

In the book, she recalls the horrors of both World Wars and what impacts they had on her life. She talks of her love for the Ballet School where she completed her training and shares valuable incites.

She made her debut in Leningrad’s Maryinsky Ballet in 1928 and was an instant success.

GalinaUlanova retired from dancing in 1960, eventually becoming a teacher to more great dancers who followed her — including Yekaterina Maksimova, Nina Timofeyeva and the current Bolshoi director, Vladimir Vasilyev — who followed her.

She passed away in 1998 at the age of 88, but she will be remembered for her uncanny blend of unabashed emotionalism and lyrical restraint, which made her one of the greatest dancers of the 20th century.

The book takes us back into the history of the Bolshoi and shares many photographs, all in black and white, of Ulanova at work and living her life.

I found Days Ulanova extremely interesting reading and learnt lots about how the Russian dancers train that make them into world class dancers.

This is a must add book to any dance lovers collection.


Famous Male Ballet Dancer – Gary Burne

famous male ballet dancer
famous male ballet dancer
Gary Burne aged 21

Gary Burne, the famous male ballet dancer was born Algernon de Blouis Hays-Hill in 1932.

He was born in Rhodesia, which is now Zimbabwe. His grandmother was the one who set him on the road to dancing, by taking him secretly to Elaine Archibald’s studio when he was 7 years old. Only two years afterwards, when he was asked to dance in public, did his parents learn about the lessons. They were of course horrified and claimed that dancing would interfere with his school work. They forced him to stop.

A year later he was allowed to return to his ballet lessons as it was obvious that he yearned to dance.

Gary was teased mercilessly at school, but he made an effort to excel at school sports. He received tremendous encouragement when Anton Dolin, who was on a tour of Southern Africa, visited Elaine Archibald’s studio in Bulawayo and recommended that Gary further his studies abroad.

Two years later he left for London by boat from Cape Town in 1952. Once there, he enrolled in classes with Ruth French and, after three months’ study with her he went to see Dolin and auditioned successfully for the Sadler’s Wells Ballet School. He changed is stage name to Gary Burne, as his real name was deemed unfit. Only three months later he joined the Royal Ballet and within two years, was promoted to first soloist.

Over the next five years he danced most of the leading male classical parts scoring successes in Giselle, Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty. He was partnered with famous ballerinas like Nadia Nerina, Merle Park, Antoinetty Sibley, Beryl Grey, Svetlana Beriosova and Margot Fonteyn.

In 1960, Gary Burne visited South Africa partnered by Nadia Nerina. By now he was a well established famous male ballet dancer.

In 1962 he joined the Stuttgart State Ballet Company at the invitation of John Cranko and John wrote a ballet for him called Catalyst.

He stayed with the Stuttgart State Ballet Company for eighteen months as a leading male dancer. After suffering a foot injury, he was told by a specialist that he would benefit from living in a warmer climate.

He therefore accepted an invitation to join Ballet Transvaal as premier danseur and ballet master, and he danced with Phyllis Spira for the first time at a rehearsal for Swan Lake.

There was an instant rapport between these two dancers and he was amazed that after all the years dancing abroad that he found his ideal partner in Spira.

South Africans imaginations were immediately captured with this startling couple, and they became synonymous with magical, exhilarating and delightful dancing. They became household names and danced to full houses.

The unique combination of fragility and strength was new and refreshing, and they were often compared with Anton Dolin and Alicia Markova.

In 1964 they joined CAPAB ballet company in Cape Town and the partnership blossomed. Together they gave South African Ballet the inspiration that it needed.

famous male ballet dancer
Burne and Spira

This famous male ballet dancer was well ahead of his time and loved to experiment with modern choreography using offbeat music. His topics included drugs and sex and Phyllis always danced in his new works as she believed in him. His first modern ballet was The Misfit which he created in 1967. Then three years later he created The Prodigal Son, which caused a sensation as it was very controversial. Some of the still photo’s taken of the ballet were banned on grounds of their explicit sexual nature. The ballet premiered in Port Elizabeth n May 1970 to rave reviews, both for Burne’s choreography and for his and Phyllis’s dancing.

Gary was a very controlling partner to Phyllis both onstage and off. He liked to dictate everything that Phyllis could do and often to her detriment. But without a doubt they were one of the best ballet partnerships ever.

Sadly Gary’s Drug problems eventually got the better of him.

In the ‘Birthday of Infanta’ , there were some hairy moments and from 1970 to 1971 he would sometimes come to a performance stoned, and Phyllis was very upset with him and told him if he ever came to do a performance stoned she would never dance with him again. And she never did.

Phyllis only saw Garry one more time in 1974 in Johannesburg, and she didn’t recognize him as his face was bloated, his teeth had fallen out and he had a pot belly.

The story ends sadly for this famous male ballet dancer. In 1975 Gary married ballerina Linda Smit but the marriage lasted only a few months. He committed suicide on the 26th of August 1976. He was only 44 years old.



Phyllis Spira – Our Own South African Ballerina

phyllis spira

phyllis spiraEver since she began her dancing career, Phyllis Spira has been compared to legendary ballerinas such as Alicia Markova and Margot Fonteyn. It is said that she had the qualities of both these great dancers, but she still remains uniquely and totally herself.

Phyllis Spira danced with such impeccable style, grace and strength that she won’t be forgotten by both South African audiences and those overseas.

This is a shortened version of the highlights of her life, and I was inspired by this book when I wrote this post – Phyllis Spira: A Tribute

I read Phyllis Spira: A Tribute by Amanda Botha from cover to cover and found it fascinating. It is a fantastic book for any ballet or dance lovers collection.

Phyllis Spira – A Star is Born

Phyllis Spira was born on the 18th of October 1943 in Johannesburg. She was the first daughter and second child of Lazar and Fan Spira. She grew up in a modest home in Orange Grove, with an exceptionally happy and close family.

phyllis spiraAs a toddler, Phyllis Spira was knock-kneed and waddled just like a duck.  Some of her parents friends commented that she walked like a ballet dancer.

Her Aunt, Dr Hilda Phillips, recognised her potential, and enrolled her in Renee Solomon’s newly formed ballet school. Phyllis was 4 years old when she had her first lesson.

Phyllis was one of Renee’s first pupils, and she immediately saw something unusual in the little girl. She was a hard worker, and never minded criticism. She also succeeded in everything she attempted. She loved her lessons in the modest Moth Hall in Orange Grove, which didn’t have any mirrors or barres.

Phyllis was cativated by the big screen and she believes the Hollywood musicals of the fifties had a huge influence on her life. After seeing a film, she would re-enact the entire thing for her family at home.

After four years, Renee Solomon closed her school and recommended that Phyllis Spira continue her classes with Reina Berman, who was a highly respected dance teacher in Johannesburg at the time. Reina Berman was the first South African to be appointed a major examiner by the Royal Academy of Dance, so Phyllis Spira’s future was in good hands.

Reina gave Phyllis a solid groundwork which would permanently influence her future. Reina remembers Phillis as “a weeny little thing who showed tremendous talent and promise.”

Within two years, Phyllis started intensive classes, learning Greek and Spanish, as well as working hard towards her examinations and preparing for eisteddfods. She was very delicate and had very few faults.  She was champion dancer every year and she earned an incredible seventy-three trophies and seventy-four medals in all.

Phyllis’s family fully supported her in her dancing, as they encouraged all of their children in their ambitions.

Phyllis danced with Reina Berman for six years and obtained excellent results at her Elementary Examination.

She was an excellent scholar, but left school early in 1958 when she was just fifteen years old, as she was offered a chance to go the the Royal Ballet School in London. She was finally on her way to becoming a ballerina. Before leaving for London, Phyllis had only seen one full-length ballet in her life, and that was the filmed version of Giselle with Alicia Markova and Anton Dolin as the leads.

Her Aunt Hilda became the driving force in the decision to send Phyllis to London, even though it was a financial difficult time for the Spiras. Her parents also worried that Phyllis was too young to be alone in the world and had no experience in life, but their fears turned out to be unfounded because London proved to be a lucky break for this immensely talented girl from South Africa, as it prepared her thoroughly for her life as a dancer.

London (1959 – 1963)

phyllis spiraWhen Phyllis and her Mother Fan arrived in London in May 1959 they were overwhelmed, miserable and lonely. If it wasn’t for the dream of becoming a dancer, they would have returned to South Africa after three weeks.

After three months, Fan had to return to South Africa, leaving behind an insecure young Phyllis living in a tiny bed-sitting room.

Luckily Phyllis had a bursary for her tuition at the Royal Ballet School and twenty five pounds a month to live on, of which twenty pounds paid for her digs. This left her only five pounds to live on, and she found herself living on a diet of buns and tea. She admits to crying herself to sleep in the first few lonely weeks there.

She earned extra money working as a cinema usherette and a waitress and things eventually improved as she found better lodgings and a roommate  who was a fellow dancer from Lancashire – Judy Ashton. Phyllis and Judy got along well and she started to feel happier.

Phyllis felt inferior to the other dancers at first. She was tiny at 1,57 metres tall and a mere 45 kilograms. She had never before seen so many talented dancers all in one place, and it took her a while to settle in, but she was soon noticed.

Discipline and tradition were firmly entrenched at the Royal Ballet School, and whenever Madame Ninette de Valois, the director, walked past, everybody stood back against the wall and said respectfully ‘Madame’ and curtseyed.

Phyllis had not been at the Royal Ballet School for too long before teachers began to refer to her as a “baby Markova.” Phyllis knew very little about the ballerina, and so had no idea of the importance of the comparison.

She flew up through the ranks to the Graduate Class and was awarded a bursary from the school to allow her to stay in London for another two years. Phyllis was the youngest in the Theater class at sixteen where the average age was nineteen.

Her Father flew to London to attend her debut at Covent Garden where when was chosen to dance a pas de trois in Swan Lake, which she danced with an injured foot.  It was only her youth that prevented her from being selected to join the Senior Company on a tour of America.

She joined the Royal Ballet touring company on her seventeenth birthday, and she had to dance a part as one of the swans in the corps on her first night with them. She spend the next three years learning all the classics and touring. It was a hard life touring the country for twenty-two weeks a year and living out of suitcases. You were expected to dance in eight performances a week and Sundays were spend travelling.

She had some great roles with the touring company including Odette/Odile, Giselle, The Sugar Plum Fairy and The Sleeping Beauty. She receive warm praise from the critics and her name was mentioned in Dance & Dancers Magazine list of most improved dancers of the year, along with names such as Margot Fonteyn, Merle Park and Rudolf Nureyev.

In the years that Phyllis Spira spent with the Royal Ballet Company, the Royal Ballet was at its peak. She says “I wouldn’t have missed those years at the Royal Ballet for anything. I saw places I would probably never have seen and I met a great many wonderful people who enriched my life. It was a marvelous experience.”

She decided to return to South Africa because she missed her homeland and her family. Although she was invited back by Dame Ninette de Valois after two years back in South Africa, she did not go back for another seven years.

Back In South Africa

phyllis spiraOn returning, Phyllis Spira joined a newly founded company called Ballet Transvaal, along with Gary Burns, who was an exciting young principal dancer from Stuttgart Ballet. It was an exciting time in South Africa, as people were flocking to the theaters to get a taste of classical ballet.

In 1966 Ballet Transvaal became PACT Ballet Company, but there were many unsolvable problems in the company, and Phyllis and Garry did not renew their contracts with the Company, and accepted Dulcie Howes offer to join the Cape Town Ballet Company as principal dancers. Three months later the Company became CAPAB Ballet.

The Burne/Spira partnership captured the imaginations of ballet lovers all over South Africa, and they were greatly sought-after all over South Africa, as well as attracting the attention of companies overseas.

Touring Artists

In March 1967 Gary Burne and Phyllis Spira arrived in New York on a three month freelance tour to try their luck. Finding work did prove difficult, because of their South African passports. Finally though, with some recommendations from the Royal Ballet, they got offered Guest positions in the Canadian National Ballet.  Phyllis and Gary instantly captured the attention of audiences in Toronto and received standing ovations.

They toured with the Company through the United States and Mexico. Phyllis scored triumph after triumph, received rave notices in the press and looked set to become as much the darling of the Canadian public as she was in South Africa. Garry and Phyllis were given all the chances they had dreamed of and even got to dance at Expo ’67 in Montreal and in a production of La Traviata at Edmonton.

Such was the excitement that she and Gary caused that a crowd of Eight thousand packed the Ice Skating Rink in Dallas to catch a glimpse of them.

Back Home

Both Phyllis Spira and Gary Burne returned home after fourteen months away with some definite ideas about what they would like to achieve in South Africa. Phyllis peaded for the formation of a national ballet company in South Africa, and Burne was hoping to present an experimental modern ballet season in 1969 – a dream that was only partly realised. He was a genius choreographer, but unfortunately  way ahead of his time, and South Africa was far from ready to accept his views.

The couple celebrated their return by dancing The Two Pigeons with Capab. This was the first production of this ballet outside of the Royal Ballet.

Unfortunately the partnership ended in 1971 and Phyllis only saw Gary once more after that in 1974.

He committed suicide on the 26th of August 1976 at the age of foury-four.

Although Gary Burne extended Phyllis Spira and brought them to knew heights, her next partnership with Eduard Greyling established her as a ballerina of world class.

She and Eduard danced together for the next few years reaching new heights and the coveted Nederburg Prize for ballet was awarded to Spira in 1972 and 1979, which was a fitting tribute to her artistry.

In January 1986 after suffering numerous injuries over the years, Phyllis Spira was appointed principal ballet mistress of the CAPAB Ballet Company, whilst she still lead the company on stage as prima ballerina.

This position opened a new challenge for her and she enjoyed coaching young dancers in the classical repertoire.

She married fellow dancer Philip Boyd in Cape Town on the 21st of December 1986. Together they founded Dance for All, which was developed to help township kids explore the wonderful world of ballet.

Today, the Boyds’ program reaches more than 700 children a year in disadvantaged communities around Cape Town and in the rural inland areas of Barrydale and Montagu. Several learners have gone on to professional careers in South Africa and abroad. In 2002, the film “Guguletu Ballet,” by Kristin Pichaske, focused on one of those young dancers and showed the joy and possibilities that Phyllis and Philip’s work in poverty-stricken areas has offered to thousands of children.

Phyllis Spira received South Africa’s highest civilian award, the Order of Meritorious Service Gold in 1991.

Phyllis Spira sadly passed away at the age of sixty four in March of 2008, due to vascular surgery complications.



Firebird Ballet Story – Do you need a Firebird Ballet Synopsis?

firebird ballet story

The Firebird was first performed in 1910 by the Diaghilev Company.  The Firebird Ballet Story was taken from an old Russian Folktale called The Magic Glowing Bird.  Tamara Karsavina, who is a very famous Russian Ballerina, was cast as the first ever Firebird.Firebird Ballet Story

Firebird Ballet Story

Firebird ballet story is one full of love and magic. It tells the story of Prince Ivan’s journey to win the heart of his princess but first, he has to get past the evil magician, Kostcheï.

Prince Ivan finds himself lost in a deep forest.  He comes upon an enchanted garden.  He doesn’t realise that this enchanted garden belongs to the evil magician, Kostcheï.

Prince Ivan spots a beautiful firebird, on an enchanted tree full of magic apples.  He grabs her and she frantically struggles to be set free.

The Firebird is desperate to released, so she offers the Prince one of her feathers and tells him it will help him if he is ever in trouble. Prince Ivan accepts her offer, and the Firebird flies away.

When nightfall comes, the prince finds himself at the gates of an old castle.  Twelve maidens emerge, led by the beautiful Princess Tsarevna.  She tells the prince that this is the castle of the Immortal Kostchei, an evil magician who casts spells on passing travelers.  The prince, princess and her companions dance until dawn, and then exchange a tender kiss.  Dawn arrives and the maidens must return to the castle.  Despite Tsarevna’s warning, the prince decides to follow them.

As soon as he enters the castle, a crowd of weird figures rush from the castle followed by Kostchei.  Kostchei tries to turn the prince to stone, but Ivan remembers the Firebird and summons her to help him.  She appears and forces the crowds to dance until they fall exhausted to the ground.

The Firebird then tells Ivan that the magician’s soul is kept in a large egg in his cave.  Ivan brings it out and breaks the egg by smashing it on the ground.  Kotschei is defeated and his spells are broken.

With the Firebirds help, Prince Ivan is able to rescue a beautiful princess from the clutches of the evil magician Kotschei.

Prince Ivan crowns her in a ceremony of great splendor.  Nobles and churchmen file into the great hall in beautiful robes to celebrate.  Tsarevna and the Prince are married and all join in a thanksgiving for their deliverance.

Firebird Ballet History – Some Interesting Tidbits

The Firebird is a ballet  done by the by the Russian Igor Stravinsky.  It was choreographed by Michel Fokine and it was written for the 1910 Paris season of Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.  At its premiere on the 25 of June 1910, it was an instant success with both the critics and the audience.

This was the beginning of a collaboration between Stravinsky and Diaghilev that would also produce other famous ballets like Petrushka, Pulcinella, The Rite of Spring and many more.


The DVD on the right gives a fascinating performance from the Ballets Russes who did the first Firebird.  Click on the picture to find out more.

The ballet was again revived in 1934 by Colonel Wassily de Basil’s Ballet Company.  They used all the original sets and costumes.  They also performed the ballet in Australia during the 1936 to 1937 tour.

The Firebird Ballet has since been redone by many ballet companies and choreographers, including famous George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins.

George Balanchine staged the work in 1949 with Maria Tallchief as the firebird.  This version was kept in the repertory until 1965.  It was then restaged with Jerome Robbins in 1970 for the New York City Ballet with new scenery and costumes.

The Mariinsky Ballet redid the original choreography at Covent Garden in August 2011.

The National Ballet of Canada took the Firebird up a notch when they created a version for television.  Here special effects were used to make it look like the bird was flying.

Misty Copeland danced the ballet in March 2012 with the American Ballet Theatre.