by Kalliopi Venieri (introduced by Vincent Guy)
photo by Richard Sasso
Kalliopi Venieri made both a late and an early start as a professional dancer. She had her first ballet lesson at 11, some years later than is usual. By the age of 14, she was invited to join one of the world’s top ballet companies. Now 82, she is still dancing.
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?
W B Yeats
I am 10 years old, walking alone near our house in Rio de Janeiro. Suddenly I hear a powerful musical sound that grabs my attention. I stop on the pavement outside the music shop and hear ‘Classical Music’ for the first time. I listen till the end. Then I go in and ask the young man at the counter,
“What was that?”
“Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1,” he says, “Do you like it?” “Yes, very much! Can I buy it?”
“Of course, but it is quite expensive for a little girl”
He then tells me the price in cruzeiros (now I don’t remember the amount. Let’s just say: a lot).
I run home and tell my mother.
“Can you get it for me, please, please?”
“Yes!” says my Mother, without hesitation.
Vinyl records, especially of classical music, were really expensive back in 1949. So my mother goes on:
“But I’ll have to save up for some time; keep it secret from the rest of the family. That’s a lot of money, in a family of seven. Those things are really for rich people, but I'll get it for you, don’t worry.”
When the record finally arrived in the house, I danced to it all the time, every time I could use the record player. In my untrained body, Tchaikovsky awoke the musical muscles.
One day a Mr. Roidis came to visit my parents (he was the Chief Chandler providing food for every Greek ship that came into the port of Rio). He often came to see my parents for a chat with a Greek coffee or an ouzo and mezedes. After a time I came to join them. As he saw me, he said,
“Hello, young lady”
I smiled timidly back. At that moment Mother said,
“Would you like to see her dance?”
“Oh, yes, let’s see her”
In a second I brought the record player, took my pose and started dancing to the slow movement of the concerto right through to the end. The moment I finished he got up and said: “Take my card; go to the Municipal Theatre Opera House; ask for Edith Vasconcelos”
“She teaches ballet at the Opera House. We used to be lovers; somehow never got round to marrying. But we’re still good friends.”
A few days later my sister and I went to the stage door of the theatre and asked for Mrs. Vasconcelos. She came to greet us and we presented Mr. Roidis’ card. Her face lit up in a great smile,
“What can I do for you?” she asked.
“I want to be a ballerina!”
“Really,” she says, “Let’s go and meet the Ballet School Directrice, see what she has to say.”
While my sister Anna waited down at the reception, Mrs. Vasconcelos and I climbed three flights up to the Directrice’s office. On the way, we had to cross the stage to the other side of the theatre. The huge stage was entirely open; the enormous red velvet curtains drawn wide. I could see the auditorium fully lit up in all the majestic grandeur of the Opera House. I gazed open-mouthed. Mrs Vasconcelos asked
“Do you like it?”
“Yes! Yes! Yes! Very much !!!”
Years later, I often remembered that moment as I danced with famous Ballet Companies in the world’s greatest Opera Houses. I would think to myself: That was an initial message for me from the Universe to prepare me for my dance career.
We walked in to meet the Directrice in her office. I told her that I wanted to be a ballerina. All she said to me was:
“Hmm, lift your skirt up, please, so I can see your legs”
I did as I was told; she checked my legs, my neck and my face ...
“Well, let’s give her a trial; she does have a ballerina’s face and good legs. But you must be able to catch up with the group we’re going to put you in. In three months’ time they’ll be moving on to a more advanced level, and you will have to keep up with them, all right?”
“Oh, Yes!” I said.
And I did.
Had it not been for my mother buying the Tchaikovsky 1st Piano Concerto, I might never have become a dancer.
🎶 Bless you, my Mother, wherever you are up in the sky 🤗🎶. As I write this, there are tears in my eyes.
So from the age of 11, as a pupil at the Opera House, I was already performing on stage, dancing, but also as walk-on in the crowd, in operas like La Traviata, Aida, La Boheme, Norma and many more. The wonderful melodies of these masterpieces went right into my heart as a young girl, a magic theatrical experience that I shall always remember. They seemed to express all human feelings: love, sadness, triumph, hatred, joy.
For the dance school’s end-of-year performance when I was 12, they cast me as The Good Fairy in some extracts from Sleeping Beauty. It was the first time I danced on point shoes. And it was the first time I really felt how ballet technique can unite with lyricism. Honing my musical muscles put me on the path to honouring great classical music.
We dancers, from the beginning of our Classical Dance Education, train to the sound of classical music. That music should ideally be played live on the piano, not reproduced, so there is a close interaction between pianist and dancer.
Later, when I was teaching in my own Ballet School in Athens for 24 years, I made sure my smallest pupils, 3-4-5-6 years old, would learn with joyful music and play joyful games. I’d use pieces like Mozart's Sonatas, Schubert's Impromptus. I let them hear the music and then taught them how to count the rhythms for Waltzes, for Galops, Tarantellas, Adagios and so on. After a few months I got them to improvise movements to these varieties of music. Sometimes, I could hardly believe my eyes how clever they were, how they danced in right tempos, how they kept harmony with the beauty of the music. The exercises had shaped their little bodies into ‘Musical Muscles’.
[to be continued in issue 22 on January 12]
photo by Vincent Guy