Friday, October 31, 2014

The Launch of a Ballet Star

I'm not going to talk about all of June Roper's students who went on to stardom but I want to mention one incident in 1938.

Colonel de Basil's Ballets Russia announced they were returning to Vancouver in February of 1938. June started preparing her three most promising ballet students for an audition. She had spent three years working with Canadian youth and she realised an intense training programme can produce a finished dancer in that time. Another advantage was location. Her students were far enough away from Broadway or the motion picture industry so they wouldn't stop their training for high-paying, potentially glamorous jobs.

Three girls, Pat Meyers, Rosemary Deveson and Rosemary Sankey, were taken under June's wing. They were taught, among other things, fouettes in all conceivable combinations and they gained strength and ease in their execution. By the end of 1937, June was ready to put her work on the line and face the judgement of the revered Russians.

The de Basil troupe was performing in Seattle before coming to Vancouver. So June made a trip south of the border to talk to Colonel de Basil and his management team about arranging an audition for her girls when the troupe was in Vancouver.

The new resident choreographer, David Lichine, agreed to see June's pupils in the theatre an hour before curtain call on closing night. So at 7:00 pm on February 3, 1938 June took her three prize students to the Beacon Theatre in Vancouver where the girls went through some basic demonstrations on an empty stage. Lichine and the Colonel watched impassively for a few moments then conferred about what they had seen. The Colonel wanted to see the girls in another setting so he suggested an audition at the Roper studios after the performance.

June asked her office manager, Hope Brealey who was in the audience, to call their pianist and prepare the studio for visitors after the show. Brealey and her companion, both in elegant evening wear, left the theatre for the school. When they got there, the women found a cleaning crew washing the studio floor. There was only a few hours before the guests would arrive so they turned on the heat, opened the doors, hiked up their fancy skirts and got on their hands and knees to dry the floor with towels.

It was shortly after midnight when the esteemed guest arrived. David Lichine and his wife, Tatiana Riabouchinska; Colonel de Basil and Olga Morosova; principal dancer, Yurek Shabelevsky and a few curious dancers relaxed in the studio and watched the three young dancers demonstrate their broad range of skills. The audition went on for two hours. 

Once the demonstration was finished, Colonel de Basil praised June Roper. "Never before have I seen such excellent training Madame. I take my hat off to you." Other company principals who watched the audition said, "We have never seen anything like it from girls so young."

Colonel de Basil insisted contracts be drawn up before he left Vancouver and it wasn't until 5 o'clock in the morning before they were approved and signed by the parents of the girls. (Only two of the girls were accepted. Rosemary Sankey was not considered because of her height.)

This was a big deal. The press covered the story on February 4 and June Roper's fame as a ballet teacher began to spread throughout the profession.

Can you imagine how exciting that night, and the following days, must have been for June and her students? Sankey must have been severely disappointed and my heart goes out to her. But I rejoice in the accomplishments of June and all her students.

This information is coming from the book June Roper, Ballet Starmaker by Leland Windreich.

Have a happy - and safe - Halloween. I hope you find the beauty around you.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

June Roper, Teacher

A pupil attending one of June Roper's advanced classes had to be prepared to work hard. Class started with a short barre based on the syllabus Ernest Belcher had created derived from his own training in Cecchetti methodology. Usually, it lasted no more than twenty minutes, involving a series of fixed exercises.

The centre work was strenuous. Sometimes, June would introduce a new combination. It could be one of her own invention or inspired by a recent exposure to a dance outside of the studio or one taken from memory from something she had seen before.

June's classes were tough and professional. Not for the faint of heart.

The competition in the studios among the ballet hopefuls was intense. But June encouraged people to compete with themselves, not others. If one dancer couldn't perfect a move that her peer had, she was encouraged to observe and ask how they did it.

June never appeared in a ballet company, she had only seen limited performances of a professional troupe and that could account for gaps in her training.  She groomed her prize students for star assignments, not taking into account those fortunate enough to be accepted into the companies would have a long apprenticeship in the corps de ballet before they even got a small solo role.

However, because June taught her students that stardom was a tangible goal, her pupils were constantly encouraged to be unique in realizing their personal dreams. Ian Gibson and Rosemary Deveson - both former students of Miss Roper's - were frustrated in their corps de ballet assignments. They felt the stress on personal artistic achievement was wasted since they were in roles requiring anonymity. Fortunately, when June's students joined a ballet company, they were performing solos within a year so stardom was still in their sights.

June's was great as a teacher because of her ability to motivate her students to achieve technical prowess and convince them hard work would ensure their success as artists. She ruled her domain firmly yet was never autocratic, unkind or hurtful. She had a loving spirit and her students worked hard to please her as much as themselves. They worked to win her praise and appreciation.

Her advanced dancers went with June on trips to schools in Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York. There they received additional coaching from experts in ballet training and alternative theatrical forms. When the students returned to Vancouver, they were encouraged to share their new found knowledge with other classmates.

What a wonderful, creative place 887 Seymour Street must have been at that time! June Roper's B.C. School of Dancing sounds like it was a place of sharing, collaboration and creativity. And lots of love of course. I hope those feelings remain. The studios were there for many decades but, when the Orpheum Theatre was renovated in the seventies, it took over that spot. Now the foyer space to the concert hall occupies that area.

Thanks to Leland Windreich and his book, June Roper Ballet Starmaker for the information.

I hope you find the beauty around you.

Monday, October 27, 2014

June Roper's B.C. School of Dancing

June Roper fulfilled her commitment to Yvonne Firkins and Vivien Ramsay but she didn't go back to Los Angeles. Instead, she joined with a twenty-three-year-old woman, Hope Brealey, who had an aptitude for bookkeeping to open June Roper's B.C. School of Dancing. Brealey was working in clerical position, which although secure, wasn't that challenging. She and June agreed Hope would earn sixty dollars a month and a ten percent share of the school's take.

The two rented a suite at 887 Seymour Street - adjacent to the Orpheum Theatre. The space was suitable for two studios. A student later recalled the area to be surprisingly spacious. The school contained a reception room, a sewing room, a business office and a studio large enough to accommodate thirty dancers. The studio had an excellent wooden floor, strong barres of two heights and one fully mirrored wall. There was a smaller studio and an airless, crowded dressing room without showers, which occupied the remaining area. 

June was able to direct the school with minimum assistance for the next five years. Colonel de Basil's Ballets Russes appeared three times in Vancouver during that time and June continued to be inspired as a teacher and a choreographer by those shows. The young Canadians who came to her studios had innate talents, strong bodies and the kind of dedication she demanded.

The school was open Monday through Friday from early morning until nightfall. The late afternoon classes were for the young beginners and the advanced ballet class was held at 10:00 am for ninety minutes. Early afternoons were devoted to rehearsals for upcoming shows and recitals. Some pupils would choose to spend a full day at the studio and they paid a monthly rate of thirty-five dollars. That fee included morning class and a half-hour of private instruction each week with June. These students were the ones interested in a career in the ballet.

June taught the beginning and advanced classes. She called upon associates and experienced students for special teaching assignments. Most of her advanced students took part in teaching the younger children. Ted Cawker, a local performer, offered classes in tap dancing. Vancouver athletes shared their skills in acrobatics for performance training.

When she taught her private lessons, June gave personal attention to a dancer's special needs. She would often provide programmes of intensive correction. For example, Robert Lindgren was given a series of exercises to elevate his arches.

Usually an advanced class drew twelve to fifteen pupils. Each day of the week was assigned a different ballet activity. Mondays were leaps and jumps; Tuesdays, turns; Wednesday, combinations; Thursday, adagio and Fridays, character class.

Thanks goes to the book June Roper Ballet Starmaker and its author, Leland Windreich for the information. Wednesday, I will tell you more about June's school.

I hope you find the beauty around you.