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(The Westminster Budget [UK weekly] 3rd March, 1893)
HOW BALLETS ARE MADE - AN INTERVIEW WITH MME. KATTI LANNER
"On nothing - a ballet is founded on absolutely nothing."
It is Mdme, Katti Lanner who lays down this law. Downstairs, in the big hall, which, for the nonce, is the schoolroom for the dancing girls, scores of small figures are reflected in the large mirrors. The stage fairies are in undress; and you have fustian and flannel instead of gauze and garlands; coiffures au naturel instead of golden wigs; and stout boots instead of slippers on the small feet that trip so lightly through the intricacies of a pretty stage dance. Only the faces are the same as on the stage, perhaps even more bright and laughing, for the strain is off; they need not be on their very best and primmest behaviour, but may jump and chat and frolic between each short lesson. Madame Lanner no longer teaches her pupils in the ordinary routine manner; she has Italian masters for this part of her work. But whenever she has evolved a new ballet out of "absolutely nothing," it is the well-known teacher of dancing herself who instructs her corps de ballet from first to last.
In her quiet room above the school, to which Madame drives every day from her private house in a southern suburb, she allowed me, with characteristic good nature, to cross-examine her as to the mysteries of ballet-making.
"Then, Madame, you are really a modernised type of the old writers of fairy stories. The things they dreamt of, and wrote down as marchen, are now clothed with flesh and blood, and put into fairy palaces and gardens on the stage? Is that the idea of the ballet ?"
"Just so. An idea, a mental picture, as it were, comes suddenly to me, unsought and unexpected; and on that idea I try to build up the plot of a ballet. At first the idea is very vague in my mind, but before long it takes a definite shape, and presently I get quite clear in my mind what I want to represent on the scene. The next thing I do is to go to Mr. Wenzel, the composer, and give him just a hint as to the subject of the new ballet. A slight suggestion is quite enough. He composes the music, and when it is ready he plays it over to me several times. While he is playing I think out the steps, the mimicry, the gestures, and when I have these distinctly fixed in my mind I begin teaching my pupils."
"But do you not write down the plot or the leading idea of your ballets?"
"Yes, in a few short notes. Here, for instance, are my notes on the new cat ballet at the Empire Theatre, which packs the house every evening at nine. I always write my notes in French, and afterwards they are translated."
The following is the first paragraph of Madame Lanner's few short notes:
And so on; only the merest outline.
Still a little difficulty / no support needed / in costume
"Apropos of the cat ballet, Madame, is that also a pure invention, or was it, perhaps, inspired by some gallant Tom or lovely Tabby?"
"It would be small wonder if it were so, for I have five cats at home, who follow me about wherever I go. But it was not from that I got the idea. When driving home one evening from the Empire, I remembered, as in a dream, a scene I had witnessed at Vienna when I was first taken to the theatre at the age of seven. A cat performed in whatever was going on on the stage, and as I thought of the far-off times before I myself became a dancer when I was eight years old, the idea occurred to me, why not invent a ballet in which cats take a leading part? It would be something quite novel, and it would make something very pretty and amusing."
"Do you instruct the signore, and do they, in turn, teach the pupils?"
"But you must have studied the habits and movements of cats very closely before you could teach your pupils the pretty clawing and pawing, and the subtle insinuations of feline affection which we admired the other night above all things at the Empire?"
"No special study was needed," replies Madame, with a smile of amusement. "I have studied my cats so long I know exactly what they can do. The difficulty was to get the girls to do it. To teach the step is comparatively easy; it is the gestures which it is difficult, to teach."
"Oh, no. Although I do not teach ordinary dancing, I teach every step and movement of a new ballet. I have special dresses, reaching to a little above the ankle, which I wear when teaching, so that they can see how every step and every movement has to be done. It is very gratifying to me to know how thoroughly my pupils appreciate my teaching them in this manner. Of course, applause, approval, is always pleasing, and the expression of their pleasure from audiences is highly appreciated. But to me there is nothing more pleasing than the spontaneous and enthusiastic applause of my pupils at the school, which often greets me after I have shown them how to do a difficult part of a dance."
Madame Lanner Directing the Ballet at the Empire Theatre
"Are the girls let into the secret of the plot when you begin to teach them a new ballet?"
"No, never; I tell them nothing. Of course, they were quick enough at guessing that this last new ballet had a good deal to do with cats. There was too much clawing and kittenish play brought in, and soon they were mewing and purring all through the lessons. M. Wilhelm, the costumier, was at first rather depressed about having to provide a corps de ballet with cat-like garments. 'It will never do,' he predicted, 'it is impossible to make anything that is pretty without being grotesque out of cat-skins.' 'Don't make the costumes too much like cats. Just put some touches in that show what the dancers represent' I replied, and now everybody agrees that the dresses are among the prettiest that have ever been seen on the stage. Then it struck me that cats, and nothing else but cats, would be somewhat monotonous, and I introduced a number of birds and since birds and cats do not always agree, I put in a fairy to protect the birds, and that is how a thing grows and grows out of nothing."
"How long does it take to train your pupils for a new ballet?"
"About six weeks, unless it is anything very difficult. The cat ballet took eight, and sometimes I take ten-weeks. For I do not want to overwork the girls. But, of course, they have been taught step-dancing. I began to train them as children, and they then stay on with me, and earn their living by dancing. No, I never take small children; my youngest pupil is eleven. Some are older than they look. I have a girl of sixteen who is as small as if she were eight. Ten is the earliest age at which I take them. If they come younger there is no end of worry with School Boards, and Cruelty Boards, and ever so many other boards."
"And up to what age do they generally stay with you?"
"Twenty, twenty-two or three; and if a girl is a very clever dancer then she may stay on till she is much older. In that case, she makes a good deal of money and likes to keep on. The rest get tired of it, and marry, or take up other stage work. Girls are all alike, whether they are dancers or not. When they get over twenty they begin to think about getting settled."
"Are they troublesome to teach?"
"They are good girls, on the whole, and remarkably quick. The only thing I have to complain of is their incessant talk and laughter. But how can you expect young people to be otherwise than gay and merry? I, for one, would not like to see them grave and silent as long as they are young."
(The Westminster Budget [UK weekly] 24th February, 1893)
THE NEW BALLET AT THE EMPIRE
"KATRINA," the new ballet at the Empire, is a delightful excursion into fairy-land, the real and only home of the ballet. Its two scenes, "A humble attic near Paris," and "The Kingdom of the Persian Cats," are alike fanciful, impossible, and delightful. Even in the first scene in the attic we have a happy freedom in fancy dress, in holiday deportment, in eccentric action. No such figures in mauve-lilac, in greens and blues, in browns and orange, as these dancing students and grisettes, were ever seen in even a Parisian garret - in even the country of the "Vie de Boheme." Realism is always an intrusion in the ballet, and realism is far indeed from the dainty spectacle of Katrina," which has no aim but to be beautiful and impossible.
It is a comedy in masquerade, full of gentle fun, of playful fancy. M. Wenzel's music is admirably illustrative, full of grace and charm, happily dramatic, and not over-insistent in its indication of the flutter and patter of birds and cats. As for the scenery and mechanical effects, it might almost be said that it is these that are the excuse for the ballet. Nothing so excellent of its kind has ever been seen in England. Her Karl Lautenschlager, under whose direction the ballet has been mounted, is the most famous man in his profession; he is the royal stage mechanician to the King of Bavaria, and he has charge of the Royal Theatre of Munich, which has the most perfectly appointed stage in Europe. It was he who mounted Wagners operas for Ludwig II.; it is he who mounts all the principal operas in Germany. He was even employed at the opera in Paris, though with the patriotic stipulation that his excessively Teutonic name should be softened into M. Laut. This ballet is his first undertaking in England, and its style of decoration is something entirely new to the London stage.
The canvases are of almost the texture of silk; the brushwork is excessively minute - not, as is usually the case, done at a sweep, with what might be the brush of a bricklayer. And, indeed, the wonderful second scene is more delicate in its gorgeousness, more rich and gemlike in its glitter, than any scenery we have had in London. The stage is all gems, and flowers, and light. At the back is an illuminated glass staircase, with gold and white hangings; at the sides are moving porphyry pillars, gold filigreework, incrustations of jewels; there is a throne which is like a bit out of one of Gustave Moreau's paintings, so deep and fiery is its glow, so gem-like its brilliance. And it is against this background that the masque of cats and birds, of mortals and immortals, acts itself whimsically out. It is, as we began by saying, a delightful excursion into fairy-land; and it is, moreover, the prettiest novelty to be seen just now in London.
Katrina - The Cat Ballet