MADAME ANA ROJE
There is never much fanfare when she arrives in Boston each September to begin her classes, but the news of her coming spreads quickly through the ballet community: Madame Ana Roje is here and ready to teach. Soon a select group of students will be arranged along a barre, waiting while she concentrates and prepares herself emotionally.
And then she begins, starting slowly. Always the start is slow, and the pace that follows is controlled by the condition of the dancers rather than the mood of the teacher,
Pacing is one of Madame Roje’s secrets. It is pacing, personality, knowledge, experience intuition and love that combine to make her one of the outstanding ballet teachers in the world. Former Prima Ballerina of the Yugoslav State Ballet, ex-Ballet Mistress of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and De Basil Companies, and protégé of the great Nicolas Legat, she is a uniquely learned and talented builder of dancers,
Madame teaches beauty of line, expressiveness of movement, softness of port de bras, passion, control and understanding of the Russian style of classical ballet. Fluidity, continuity and unity are her indelible trademarks. When dancers have sampled the wisdom and love that abound in her class, they must return. They know she is the source of a very special knowledge, and they want to move in front of her analytical eyes, to listen to her.
She, too, is a listener, Nicolas Legat, the chief architect of the Kirov ballet, affectionately called her his “little rabbit” because she was “one big ear” while a student at his school in London. From 1933 until Legat’s death in 1937, she was his first and only assistant.
Legat embodied the heritage of the great ballet masters of the world. He was born into a family of renowned dancers, and was the most outstanding pupil of Christian Johannsen. By the start of the twentieth century Johannsen was, next to Marius Petipa, the most important figure in the development of Russian Ballet. When he retired he chose Legat to take his place as master of the Classe de Perfection of the Maryinsky Company (now the Leningrad Kirov) school. Some of the most respected artist in the world of dance attended his classes, including Nijinsky, Pavlova, Folkine and Karasavina.
It was as a teacher that Legat achieved fulfilment. It was he who studied the Italian dancers, and gained and understanding of how they made their spectacular way of dancing. Then Legat taught Mathilde Kschessinska and Vera Trefilova to do the famous 32 fouettes in the third act of Swan Lake. During his career he had an immeasurable influence on hundreds of dancers, and in 1922 when he established his own school in London he attracted the world’s premier dancers as pupils: Massine, Danilova, Dolin, Markova, Fonteyn, Shearer and Ana Roje.
Ana Roje, who came to Legat late in his life, was especially selected and groomed to be his successor, and to be responsible for the preservation of his system. Legat could not have chosen anyone better suited to the task. She is a rare talent: born to dance with fire and strength, born to teach with patience and an astute understanding of how the body and mind work best.
Legat asked Ana Roje what she wanted out of life. Was it fame fortune or knowledge? With knowledge, he told her she could have all the rest. At the time she was widely recognised as a great dancer, and was being solicited with offers from across the world. They wanted to make movies, they wanted her to be in ads, they wanted her to dance, She stayed at Legat’s side and listened, a decision she has never regretted. They would sit up until sunrise discussing the finest points of the art. They spent three days talking about battemant tendu. A single position of the arm could take hours of discussion.
His wisdom mingled with her passion for the dance. She became a connoisseur of people, of their similarities and differences. She learned to be analytical, to develop insights into personalities and physical abilities, and then to translate her insights into a way of reaching and teaching individuals to perform.
Madame Roje says it best herself: “I bring not only my knowledge, but my soul and my love to my work. I instinctively know how to pass my knowledge, to whom, and in what measure… I might scold you. I might bite you. I might kiss you. My passion becomes manifest and I desire that I want you to do it. It doesn’t matter which way I get you to go, sweet or drastic. I run the scale of emotion, but I must find a road for my students.”
In her search for the most effective way to reach individual dancers, Madame Roje leads her class down a different road every day. To a casual observer there is no particular order to the ideas and techniques of her lessons. She never repeats any of her classes. Each is unique, created just for that moment and that group of pupils. When class is over, all combinations belong to the past.
But, there is a deep logic behind her operating procedure, and it is based on the wisdom Legat passed down to her: human beings are always changing; nature is constantly changing and man must adapt; variety in the class develops physical and intellectual capacity; and classes must not be stale since they are expected to give the student fresh strength, and to keep him or her eager for the next lesson.
The logic is effective in its application, and it is effective in terms of the results it produces. Many of the greatest artists of the dance world have benefited from her classes. Massine, Danilova, Markova and Toumanova all studied under her when she was Ballet Mistress at the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo.
She deals with each student in turn, and has the capacity to instruct in such a way that all of her students can perceive the logic and draw knowledge from her remarks.
“Your remarks must be individual,” she says,”General remarks are too simple. My job is to make the dancers do it, and individual attention is the best way.”
Yet, at times, when class is very crowded, she will employ general remarks. But she does it in such a way that makes is seem intensely personal. From the back of the class, where the students cannot see her, she will call out “I am watching you” – and then if everyone does not strain all the harder – “You are not listening. Try harder. I am watching YOU.” And of course, everyone in the class is sure she is referring specifically to them.
A native of Split, Yugoslavia, Ana Roje became the first soloist in the Split National Ballet at the age of 14, never having had a lesson, never having seen a professional ballerina. She was born to dance; her feet were formed in such a way that when she went on pointe all toes touched the stage. She could balance on them all, and she had an inherent talent, for graceful motion. But she had and inextinguishable desire to refine her god-given abilities. She joined the Zagreb Ballet Company and later the Belgrade Ballet Company. Everywhere she danced she was praised by the critics, but she was never satisfied with what she was able to learn.
So, she went to London in 1933 to get a “little polish” from Legat. He told her to forget everything she knew, and to start from the beginning. It was difficult for her to swallow her pride, but after a few of Legat’s classes she began to understand ballet in a way she had never imagined. Ana Roje’s experience as a student and assistant of Legat’s made a profound difference in her life. She became dedicated to following and furthering the generations-old knowledge he passed to her.
Like Legat, Madame Roje wants all her dancers to strive for perfections, but she wants them all to do it with a personal style. “Individuality is important. This is dance not the army. Individuality is the greatest virtue,” she tells a class. “You must be unique. You must develop and exploit the portion of your uniqueness that is beautiful. On stage many are dancing, to be noticed you must maintain your individuality.”
To encourage individuality from the outset, the first and most important thing she tells her students is “know your instrument perfectly. Everybody has some problems, but sometimes they can be exploited to advantage.” Beyond this, she tells her students to be curious, to be always asking questions of her and to seek what is better.
Madame Roje is disappointed by what she sees in some ballet teachers around the world who use the Pavlov dog approach. “They think if they do the same things over and over, and reward and punish, they will achieve excellence. Dancers taught this way can rarely do anything right. The student should know exactly what is being done, why and how.”
“My technique is valid,” she says. “If a student is smart, she will realize where I am heading with each small part of the lesson. It all fits together. It is all so logical.”
In a class
Most noticeable is her voice, soft and cultured, but capable of coaxing greatness out of those who think that they can only be good. Madame is in constant movement: lifting legs, putting arms into proper position, demonstrating the correct way to execute a glissade or changement de pieds.
The cadence is kept with castanets, the only instrument she knows how to play, the castanets are an integral part of the class because they keep the pace that guides the students in their development; their clacking contrasts sharply with her voice, and at each snap the dancers change position. Her eyes are everywhere, constantly searching the dancers bodies, analyzing each move.
Madame comes to a dancer’s body and places her hands on the limb that has been giving trouble. “The leg,” she says, “does not end at the thigh, it continues to the hip. To dance with the leg you must use the hip. It is natural.” In the air or on the ground, her advanced pupils have beautiful body control and lyrical grace. Every move of the body is based on the same principle, the one Legat discovered while studying the motion of dancers from all over the world: control in the hips.
Hip control is one of the techniques employed only in Russian style ballet, and it is one of the keys to the widely recognized superiority of Russian dancers.
Madame moves to the foot of a student, and then to the neck of another who is too tense. “Fill the lungs with air,” she says soothingly. “Breathe deeply, then plie and exhale.” The student relaxes.
She exaggerates breathing to emphasise it. She tells the members of the class they will turn blue if they do not breathe while working, and after each series of exercises there is a brief respite for a deep breath of air.
But the lessons are not always so placid. She can drive them hard, demanding that they do more. If necessary, Madame will force her students to do their exercises properly with a little physical persuasion. She may clutch a fistful of hair and pull up forcefully to encourage a student to “get tall”, or she may strike from the rear: “Everytime you stick out you ‘rappapo’, I’m going to pinch it.” And she is true to her word.
“Suffer,” she entreats with enthusiasm. “You can all suffer. Show me how beautiful you are. Suffer pretty. It has to hurt you. Anybody can kick the leg, so what? Kicking the leg elegantly – that’s it!” She tells her students not to avoid the pain in their arms and legs, because someday the limbs will take them away like birds. “Think every move up as a future jump.”
The castanets click, and the dancers change position.
In Madame Roje’s class, according to the Legat system, movement dictates the rhythms. If the rhythm is not right, dancers have to battle their own bodies for control. Every gesture, as soon as it is created, carries its own special rhythm, without which that movement would not have any sense.
All these principles are based on sound knowledge of how the body works best. She has spent countless hours learning anatomy, visiting hospitals and talking with doctors. Although injuries are common in ballet, none of Madam Roje’s students have ever been injured in class or while performing under her guidance, “not even a little finger.”
“Unfortunately,” she says, “Some dancers and choreographers do not take enough time to study so they can cope with the physical reality, or see the limits and possibilities of individual dancers. They rush into a company and go overboard. That is the tragedy of ballet.”
“Now who is the best? Those that come from somewhere else. But America can have the best,” Madame asserts. She is sure of it. She has committed herself to helping it become a reality.
During the summer months she works at her beautiful home and International School of Ballet in Primosten, Yugoslavia. There with her husband and former dancing partner, Oskar Harmos, they train a select group of dancers from Europe and America. But for nine months of the year she teaches in Boston. Several trips to America in the 1960’s convinced her that there was an opportunity for Russian style ballet to flourish in America, and she realized that American youth are good material for ballet.
Presently her classes are at the Ana Roje Studio of Russian Style Ballet, 667 Boylston St., opposite the Boston Public Library.
Beginning and continuing without local advertising, she has attracted a large and devoted group of pupils. They are her “children”, and she loves them.
Some of the students are selected for training as teachers, so that the traditions and knowledge of the Legat system will continue. But in the course of the last year Madame Roje has decided the time has come to more firmly establish Russian style ballet in America. So, with a group of supporters from the Boston area, she has formed the American Society of Russian Style Ballet.
The purpose of the Society is to preserve and communicate the knowledge and performing methods of the great masters of Russian Ballet, and to further the art of classical dance in America. Toward that end the group co-sponsored a seminar and lecture-demonstration for the teachers with M.I.T. in October. The Society plans future lecture-demonstrations, and also offers consultation and certification for dancers and dance instructors. Madame Roje and the Society’s Board of Directors plan the activities, and have drafted a “Syllabus” for certified instructors to employ in teaching Russian Style Ballet.
Encouragement has come from around the world, and many of the most famous and respected figures in the dance world have agreed to serve as “Honorary Representatives” of the Society: Leonide Massine, Anton Dolin, Alicia Markova, Irena Baronova and Patricia Bowman.
What her students say
“She has a wonderful common sense about the body,” according to Stephanie Moy, a soloist with the Boston Ballet Company and student of Madam Roje’s for many years. Stephanie has been with the Boston Ballet for four years as a professional, and is a rising star. When her busy rehearsal and performance schedule allow, she still takes classes from Madame.
“One of the major reasons Madame is a great teacher,” Stephanie says, “is that she studied with a teacher who was a link in a long line of great tradition. The knowledge has been handed down from generation to generation, and each generation has added something to it. Also, she has a great knack of emotionally connecting to people. She cares intensely about her students, in the studio and out, she has a magnetic personality.”
“Dance is a very hazardous profession, because the demands are so great. Madame makes a point never to hurt anyone physically,” Stephanie says. “Dance is a very painful thing, but Madame is capable of making a distinction between good pain and bad pain. That is why none of her students have ever been injured.”
Maggie Letvin, a celebrity in the Boston area through her physical fitness show on public television (Maggie and the Beautiful Machine), has recently become a student of Madame Roje’s. She herself is a knowledgeable trainer of bodies, but she has recognised a level of understanding in Madame that she would like to attain.
For years, Maggie says, she led classes through exercise knowing what the effect would be but never knowing why. Madame Roje has been able to explain why to her, because her philosophy toward the dance and the body: is that understanding is as important as performance. “It’s her experience and pacing that make her a superior teacher,” according to Maggie. “It’s almost uncanny the natural way that Madame paces her students through their exercises. And her personality is so strong that you are compelled to strive for perfection in her class.”
My own experience
On the assumption that you cannot fully appreciate a teacher without having been a student, I enrolled in Madame Roje’s class. At age 28 my physical abilities would give a choreographer nightmares. Corrupted by rich foods, cancerous cigarettes and atrophied from inaction, it seemed hopeless at the outset. I was bad material, and there was not enough time for any real progress, just three weeks.
But Madame Roje had many notable successes with me in that short span of time. She did it in little ways. She pulled my arm out straight. She told me to relax my neck. She told me that she admired my courage, such as it is, although not my ability. And she made me suffer. “Suffer,” she demanded, “you are not suffering enough.” So, she would come to the leg I was struggling to lift and ensured that I suffered. I loved it.
I lumbered along at the barre, straining and sweating, and discovering how weak my body had become. After class I hobbled home to soak in the tub, and reflect on my seemingly irrational attraction to her torture.
When Madame Roje enters the studio an infusion of energy infects all the students. She is a commanding figure, dressed in black tights, black slippers and a black skirt. Her brown eyes are piercing, and she walks to the centre of the floor with a master’s confidence.
She is steady, has an easily recognizable cadence to her commands, and has a sure touch evenly applied. Variously placid, passionate, exuberant and stern, her personality pulls attention; and her spirit feeds back an enriched mixture of enthusiasm and love for the dance. Her mind contributes intellectual fodder that the students must assimilate and transfer to controlled yet graceful action.
Madame says: “Squeeze out more power than you think you have.” And I squeeze, and suffer.
I was not capable of grace. It was difficult enough just to follow along and mimic the moves of the other students, but Madame would not stand for mimicry. She compelled me to totally involve my mind in the control of body. In time, I came to have a true sense of the beauty and depth of expression the human body is capable of when it is conditioned, disciplined and directed by a creative intelligence. In no way was I capable of properly executing an arabesque, a glissade, or an entrechat. I could not conceive of my legs ever developing the quickness necessary for battement frappe. But I could feel, I could taste, I could understand how they were done. If my body were capable of keeping up with my imagination, I could be a dancer.
In small ways that were difficult to perceive at first, my ballet training began to spill over into the rest of my life. It made me more alert, willing and able to work harder, it added a note of pride to my posture, and there was a pleasing precision to my stride.
I became hungry for physical grace, and I came to realise that Madame Roje’s ballet class was the only source for satisfying this appetite.
The attention I received as a student in her class inspired me on a personal, rather than professional level. She told me, “I firmly believe that each of us is here to do something, to create something, to be something the best we can. I try everyday in my own way.” She made me want to try harder.
She makes her dancers want to try harder. And since she is a contemporary link in a long line of ballet knowledge, she can feed her dancers with a nearly inexhaustible supply of wisdom,
Madame Roje’s life has one focus, to master the physical realities of the human body, and then to direct the body to express the most beautiful thoughts and feelings of the mind and spirit.
She has succeeded, realizing that perfection in unattainable, but the only valid goal for the dancer. And with the newly founded American Society of Russian Style Ballet, her knowledge and experience will be made available to many more people.
From an Article by Steve McFadden: a freelance writer, editor, newspaper columnist and journalism instructor. He is a product of the B.U. School of Public communication, an avid outdoorsman, mountaineer, and accomplished chef. Other fields of endeavor include photography and public speaking.
Published in “Boston Today” December, 1977 p. 22.
(Split, 17. listopada 1909. - Šibenik, 17. ožujka 1991.), hrvatska balerina, pedagoginja i koreografkinja.
Usavršavala se u Londonu. Sa suprugo Oskar Harmošem priređivala je baletne koncerte. Bila je pedagoginja u baletnim trupama Ballets Russes of Paris i Monte Carlo. Od 1941. godine vodila je sa suprugom splitski, a zatim zagrebački Balet, gdje je bila primabalerina. Godine 1953. je osnovala Međunarodnu baletnu školu u Kaštel Kambelovcu. Odlazi u Ameriku, gdje održava stručne tečajeve o pedagogiji Lagata, a potkraj života vraća se u Split. Dobila je mnoge nagrade, među kojima i nagradu "Vladimir Nazor" za životno djelo.
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