On a misty Sunday
afternoon in San Francisco, ABILITYs David Zimmerman
transcended a flight of steps to the second floor of an elegant duplex.
He was invited for tea, but also about to take a journey into the
life of former prima ballerina Janet Sassoon. Shes performed
around the world, and is a former star of both the San Francisco and
Chicago Ballet companies.
On the day Zimmerman visited, Sassoons husband John Upton sat
across from her and the three of them chatted in the couples
intimate living room, where framed photographs reflect a life of fulfilled
dreams, outstanding accomplishments and enduring love.
David Zimmerman: When did you realize ballet would become your
Janet Sassoon: My mother took me to a ballet in the War Memorial Opera
House in San Francisco when I was 5 years old. The ballet was Romeo
and Juliet. Afterwards, I turned to my mother and said, I am
going to dance in this house, and I am going to dance Juliet.
My mother said, Uh-huh, yes, darling, thats very nice
to hear. I loved being onstage and knew that I had to strive
to be good enough to dance on the stage.
Zimmerman: You were born in
Sassoon: In Surabaya, which was then in the Dutch East Indies and
is now Indonesias second largest city.
Zimmerman: So you started dancing at a young age.
Sassoon: Absolutely, even though my father didnt approve of
dancing as a career. He wanted me to get married and give him grandchildren.
Against his approval, my mother took me to ballet school.
Zimmerman: He knew about it, though?
Sassoon: Oh, yes. I fought him tooth and nail. I was going to dance,
and that was it. I didnt care about university. The education
I got in the theater was far greater than I ever would have gotten
in college. I met incredible people, I memorized a full-length ballet,
and I got special tutoring to make up for being out of school.
Zimmerman: Your dad and mom took you to LA. Did you father start to
think: Maybe this is not such a bad idea?
Sassoon: He still did not approve, but he allowed it. He was also
concerned about how hard a life it was, and that you dont make
much money doing it. We werent madly rich, but we were affluent,
so I didnt have to worry about that too much. And once I started
dancing, I never had to pay for a class. They were so thrilled to
have a professional dancer. Its a rule of the theater that if
youre a professional who dances in a company, you dont
pay for your classes; youre a guest. Later on, I worked every
day with Lubov Egorova. I loved her class. She taught me reverence,
which is by the way, the title of my forthcoming book.
Zimmerman: Beautiful name!
Sassoon: It means that we show reverence to the teacher after class;
we show reverence for the audience every night onstage as we bow;
and we show reverence for our art and what were doing.
Sassoon: Its very important. One critic said that every dancer
should see the reverence of Janet Sassoon and follow how she does
it. So Madame Egorova taught me to first address the right box, where
the tsar (Russian leader) was, and secondly the left box, where the
dukes were, and then the balcony and finally the entire theater. She
taught me to go down on my knee and bow. Bowing to the audience is
very important, and you do it differently in classical ballet in Russia,
than you do in more modern ballet such as in Germany and Japan.
Zimmerman: Was it in Berlin that you became a prima ballerina?
Sassoon: Yes. With many companies this is the path: You begin in the
corps de ballet (main company), become a little soloist, a big soloist,
a ballerina, and then a prima ballerina. In Europe, we do it a little
bit differently. We go from soloist to ballerina and to prima ballerina.
The male dancer is danseur, and the male equivalent of a prima ballerina
is a prima danseur. In my life, I have only seen one prima ballerina
assoluta and that I think was in a Russian ballet company.
Zimmerman: What made you go into teaching?
Sassoon: Sadly, its a long story. I had an accident in a lift.
My partner onstage in Hamburg, Germany, did a twist, and my knee went
forward. Even though I asked the doctor not to, he stupidly shot me
with cortisone. The medication made me feel like I hadnt been
injured, so I kept dancing and breaking off more and more cartilage
in my knee. Eventually it was too hard to continue, and I had to stop.
But it was time. My God, I danced into my 30s professionally.
And something really marvelous came up. There was a school called
the Academy of Ballet that my father had financed, and the ballet
master that I had worked with there left, he was replaced by Alan
Howard, who was a brilliant dancer in the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo
in New York City. In San Francisco, Alan was my partner in such dances
as Don Quixote and Black Swan. He partnered with me to perform the
But the companies over here didnt dance every night, and I was
used to dancing every single night, so I went to Europe. Youre
going to get older, and you have only those years to dance, then you
either teach or coach.
Zimmerman: You said that the great thing that came out of all of it
was the teaching.
Sassoon: Yes. And not only the teaching, but suddenly through Armen
Madam Bali Baliantz, a lady here who had a Russian restaurant,
I met Rudolf Nureyev, whom I danced with once in New York. I was a
guest with the Chicago Ballet, when Nureyev did his first American
performance; that was my first introduction to him. When I began teaching
in San Francisco, through Madam Bali, I got to work with all these
great Russian first dancers when they were there. So I got Natalia
(Natasha) Makarova, a prima ballerina assoluta. There was only one
prima ballerina assoluta up until the time she danced. And here I
had her in my hands for five months after the birth of her child!
Zimmerman: Oh, my goodness.
Sassoon: I closed the doors. I told the girls, No peeking,
because they could peek from the bathroom door in the back of the
studio or from the front door. So Natasha dressed in my private dressing
room. But when you saw her walking through, you could stop her and
ask for an autograph. I have never seen a body that moved so easily,
everything she did was so beautifully executed. However, I had to
get her back in shape after childbirth, which was no easy job.
I once made the mistake of saying, Well, that was a difficult
step I gave you. And she looked at me and said, I dont
need you to tell me how difficult it is; I need you to tell me how
to do it.
One day I said to her, You know, I have the worlds most
perfect ballerina in front of me, and I never get to enjoy watching
you dance because Im constantly looking for problems.
I just thought, what the hell? So I told her, I want to stop,
take a breath, and watch you dance. And she burst out laughing,
and I burst out laughing. We were wonderful friends. She would bring
me flowers and treat me to dinner.
Zimmerman: And that day she danced for you?
Sassoon: She danced for me.
Zimmerman: That is wonderful.
Sassoon: So then when she was with the American Ballet Theatre, she
asked me again to coach her. Anthony Dowell was then dancing with
Natasha Makarova in ABT and Dowell had injured himself. Now we were
in a pickle. Lucia Chase, who co-founded the ABT, called me in the
office and said, Youve got to go to Natasha. I have telephoned
New York, and Nureyev is arriving tonight at 11 oclock. Nureyev
and Natasha had had some little tiff, so they werent on good
terms. Youve got to talk Natasha in, because the audience is
expecting Natasha and Dowell. I cannot do this in San Francisco tomorrow.
Theres a matinee and an evening performance, and both are totally
sold out, because of Natasha Markova and Anthony Dowell. I have to
do something more, and I need you back here at 11 oclock.
This was at 5 oclock.
So I went in. I had to break the news to Natasha. I said, Natasha,
therell be no funny business. Nureyev is on his way. Hell
be here at 11 oclock. I will rehearse you for tomorrows
Swan Lake, and I promise you, there will be no problems because neither
of you are going to give me a problem. You have to agree because,
as Chase said, the audience will be outraged if they dont get
you and Dowell, but theyll be in heaven if they get you and
Nureyev. I got on the telephone and tried to call all my friends to
tell them to get tickets for tomorrow, theres a big surprise.
I told one of the dancers, You get on the phone and tell all
the dancers whats going on, so that they would get tickets
for the performance.
When I came back later that night, Rudy Nureyev walked in. The first
thing he did was say, Uh, I need a towel. At that time
I had a secretary and told her to go to buy me a towel. I threw the
towel at Nureyev and said, Here! Then he came into the
studio. I gave certain corrections, right to the point. I put my hands
on their bodies. In the pas de deux of Swan Lake, there is a moment
when the ballerina does an attitude or leg lift, puts one arm across
the partner, then adds the other arm, and they rock back and forth
in an embrace.
Theres another part where Natasha has to go under his arm, and
I made sure it was done with great love, because she was so magnificent
that I didnt want anything spoiled by their conflict in the
Zimmerman: I bet it was an amazing show.
Sassoon: The next day, the matinee was first. (laughs) The audience
went wild when it was announced. Ladies and gentleman, Anthony
Dowell cannot dance, hes injured. And you heard, Oooooh!
However, Rudy Nureyev will dance with Natasha Makarova in Swan
Lake. And then they went, Oooooh! You could here it all
through the opera house.
I was dying because I had to be backstage and couldnt go out
in front to see them. I watched from the wings, and it was absolute
magic. Afterwards, I went to Natashas dressing room and there
were tons of people outside; Natasha came to the door and said, Please
let my teacher in! I need to see my teacher! They let me cut
through the crowd; I entered the dressing room; and she closed the
door. I told her what needed fixing for that evenings performance.
Zimmerman: You had a rehearsal between the two shows?
Sassoon: Yup. A slight one, just for the things I saw. And then she
told me, You have to go to Rudy. I originally said No,
but I went to Rudy. When I knocked on the door, and he allowed me
in, he said, And? And I told him what I saw that
could be corrected. I was totally professional, and he said very nicely,
You see? Your towel brought me luck! He became softer
and more willing. I managed to manipulate this kind of feeling from
Rudy, and there was no question about Natasha. I love her to death.
The two of them together were sensational....
in ABILITY Magazine
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