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Musical Muscles Part 2: Meetings with Genius

by Kalliopi Venieri with Vincent Guy

Black Swan

Buenos Aires Teatro Colon, 1965

Photo by Annemarie Heinrich

Dance, Dance, wherever you may be,

I am the Lord of the Dance, said he.

Song by Sidney Carter to a traditional Shaker melody

Three geniuses have played lordly parts in my dancing career. Two of them I was lucky enough to meet in person: choreographer George Balanchine and composer Igor Stravinsky. The third is Tchaikovsky, already mentioned in Part One.

Tchaikovsky’s Black Swan

As a listener my favourite composers are Mozart, Schubert, and Richard Strauss, but as a dancer Tchaikovsky's music always has a special place. He is the ballet composer par excellence, so it was perhaps no accident that he came into my life when he did and remained a continuous presence. Standing in the wings of many theatres I would wait to go on stage as the Black Swan in Act 3 of Swan Lake, watching the five Folkloric Dances that precede my entrance. Of course, I’ve done a 40-minute warm-up beforehand; still I have to wait a long time before going on stage. Those dances are:

1 Hungarian Czárdas,

2 Andalusian Fandango,

3 Neapolitan Gavotte,

4 Ukrainian Gopak,

5 Polish Mazurka.

Each of those dances is a jewel, each one so different, their powerful tempos offering me so much energy.

As I wait, I keep moving to keep my muscles warm, then onto the stage, and those fantastic temperaments have given me a great artistic lift, the confidence to dance a super Black Swan, however technically difficult the role may be. And that is Tchaikovsky.

Balanchine’s words of advice

In 1962 I was Guest Ballerina at the Hamburg Opera, to appear in some of the ballets of Balanchine. He was due to direct Eugene Onegin, the opera he’d loved since he was a young pupil with the Marinsky Ballet. On that same visit, he would put on several of his ballets: Four Temperaments, Apollon Musagète, Serenade, Raymonda and Orpheos. Before he arrived in Hamburg, his assistant, Pat Neary, had sketched out these ballets with the company. When I got there, I had to learn fast to be ready for final coaching by “Mr. B” himself. I couldn't wait to meet him. Finally, the day came. I heard that he was already on stage meeting the opera cast, the conductor, plus reporters, photographers, etc. I rushed down to the stage but there was this great crowd. I stood watching from the wings until, after a good hour, he was somehow alone for a moment in the centre of the stage. I walked towards him and introduced myself:

“Hello, Mr. Balanchine, I’m Kalliopi Venieri, the new Ballerina here.”

As I gave him my hand, he looked at me indifferently, saying,

“Glad to meet you”.

And that was it.

Next week he has finished the Opera setting and we dancers start working on Raymonda in the big studio. I want to talk to him, ask him several questions, but that’s almost impossible. At every moment he’s surrounded by other dancers, teachers, musicians, all asking him every kind of question. I don't want to join the crowd, so I stand far away. We work from 11.00 to 17.00 every day. Then one evening after the others have left, I’m staying behind for a while to make sure of some steps. Finally, I sit on the floor exhausted, take off my point shoes and see my feet are almost bleeding. All of a sudden at the far end of the studio, a door opens. I think it’s the janitor coming to tell me to leave, but as he approaches, I recognize Mr. Balanchine.

“What are you doing here? Everyone’s gone home and you’re still here! You must love dancing very much.”

“Yes, and your difficult choreography has given me blisters.”

We start talking.

“Are you nervous about the premiere?”

I say yes.

“Oh, you still have several weeks ahead of you; you’ll be fine. Didn’t you dance with the Marquis de Cuevas company?”

“Yes, for six years.”

He then asks me about Papa Beriosoff (who was our coach at that time).

“Well, he just married a dancer 40 years younger than himself.”

“Ah, we old people have temptations in that direction.”

We both laugh.

The conversation is very relaxed and friendly, so I ask him, "Is it true that in New York when the pianist was ill you sat down and played Bach's Double Violin Concerto on the piano? The whole thing for the ballet rehearsal?”

“Yes, I did.”

“So you’re a musician too?”

“Well, my father was actually a composer, quite well known in Russia, and when I was a youngster I performed quite a few pieces of music like that.”

Then I put the question I’ve been burning to ask: “Tell me, what is your conception of a dancer?”

“To be very musical, as well as athletic like a young horse. And that is what you are!"

I thank him and press on: “How would you define the role of Raymonda? I want to get inside the role. To really understand it.”

“Well, you take a crystal glass; you add something of a Slave to it and something of Royalty; and then you drink it. Add your brilliant technique and there you are!”

“Thank you so much, Mr. Balanchine.”

He gives me a polite bow and leaves, disappearing through the back door.

I felt so privileged. The Universe had sent him to me.


Hamburg Opera House, 1961

Photo by Elizabeth Speidel

Stravinsky’s Birthday Celebration

One of Balanchine’s greatest friends was Igor Stravinsky. Between them they did much to create some of the high points of ballet in the 20th century. Balanchine was not only a choreographer and pianist; he was also a great cook and would invite his friend Igor to his New York apartment to enjoy Russian food.

My first encounter with Stravinsky was simply as a dancer in the role of the "The Ballerina" in Petrushka. It hardly seemed to be a balletic role, since she is just a puppet, with a touch of Commedia dell’ Arte. For me the challenge was to interpret it, to get into the skin of a puppet and act it. She’s a flirtatious coquette, playing with a trumpet, teasing the main figure Petrushka (another puppet) who’s madly in love with her. But she fancies the Moor, so Petrushka fights him but the Moor wins, and kills him. As “The Ballerina” is mostly offstage during these scenes, I would watch from the wings, marvelling at Stravinsky’s skill in using music to insert powerful emotions into a puppet: Petrushka feels abandoned, miserable, jealous, sorry for himself – and mad with fury. When I first saw Petrushka as a child in Rio, I had just found it confusing and noisy, but when I danced in it, the magical score entranced me, and I realised that Stravinsky was a genius; he created a string of masterpieces for us dancers

Petrushka was written for the 1911 Paris season of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Vaslav Nijinsky danced Petrushka with Tamara Karsavina as the Ballerina. It was part of perhaps the greatest creative period in ballet history, which included Rite of Spring and Firebird.

It was on his 80th birthday that I met Stravinsky in person. The director of the Hamburg Opera House, Ralf Liebermann, a longtime friend of both Mr Balanchine and Stravinsky, organised a special event for his 80th birthday. A group of soloists from the New York City Ballet came to Hamburg to perform three Stravinsky ballets, in his honour. They did Apollon Musagète, Agon and Orpheos.

After the show there was a reception. Each of the guests had to pick up a small bouquet of flowers, then go and insert it into one of many holes in a large wooden screen.

Stravinsky is sitting facing that screen. When I go to congratulate him, he asks me, “What’s that all about?”

“When the wall is filled up with all the flowers, you’ll see.” I show him the flowers in my hand.

He says, “Thank you Kalliopi.”

“Goodness! How do you know my name?”

“Are you not dancing the role of Kalliopi in my ballet Apollo Musagète? You know, of course, that she’s the muse of epic poetry.”

“Not this time, but Mr. Balanchine has coached me in the role and I’m due to do it later on.”

“Your name says that you are born to.”

I sit down again. More bouquets are brought to the screen. Then – Surprise! Surprise! – when all the holes are filled with flowers, it shows in letters:


The next day the front pages of most of the German newspapers carried a photo of me showing the flowers to Stravinsky.

And those were my three geniuses: Peter Tchaikovsky, George Balanchine and Igor Stravinsky. All were Russian; no accident, given the huge place of Russian artists in the history of ballet.

Ballet shoe

Dutch National Ballet Amsterdam, 1967

Photo by Ger J. Van Leeuwen

This article appeared previously in Edinburgh Music Review.

The photos were taken early in Kalliopi’s career and, more recently, blended with pictures of architectural salvage by Vincent Guy.

You can see Kalliopi dancing Life Story, a piece of her own chorography, on her 80th birthday at:


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