Wrights and Wrongs, My Life in Dance by Peter Wright Oberon Books, 2016, London
I continue to be grateful for Munro’s Books of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, not only for being an oasis in a beautiful setting — a former bank building in downtown Victoria right on Government Street — but also for being a purveyor of titles that are either very hard to get or impossible to obtain in the USA. Happily, they were able to order and ship to me Peter Wright’s autobiography of his career in dance.
Now at the age of 90, Wright has sufficient distance and perspective to look back at what has been an amazing career in dance — modern, TV, and ballet. At nearly 450 pages, it is quite a read, never dull and is at its best when Wright is telling stories, rather than merely recounting events. A bit of a who’s who in ballet and dance of the past 70 or so years, he does give us some insight into not only his life and career but those with whom he interacted and worked during this time.
A continuing theme seems to be the importance of giving people opportunities. Opportunities not only to experience dance — as students, performers and audience members — but also to give chances and a helping hand and leg-up [pun intended] for aspiring choreographers, designers, backstage crew, and staff who all come together to support this thing we call art.
While I note that another reviewer of this book, Ismene Brown, has observed some factual and chronological errors, I really didn’t notice these myself, not being as intimately familiar as Brown with the history of British dance.
Wright has a long memory and has himself been given many of the sorts of opportunities throughout his career that many would yearn to have. These have included working with Kurt Jooss, the greats of the British ballet, in Germany, and other hot spots throughout the ballet world, including Sarasota Ballet in Florida.
Some of his later chapters are more along the lines of essays, expounding his views and experiences regarding what it was like to be the director of a ballet company and what the job entails. We can all agree it entails knowing your craft, working effectively with people, fund and friend-raising, being the go-to person for a myriad of things and for final [and occasionally fatal] artistic decisions.
I was glad that he put faces on many of the people we have read about over the years, how they were actual inhabitants of our own planet and not just the gods and goddesses we enjoyed on the stage [or from backstage]. It’s nice to know that “Madam” [Ninette de Valois] — as strict a visionary as she was — also had a sense of humor. It’s also nice to know that those pioneers were as passionate and caring about their art as we are today — that perhaps they had to fight a bit more than us since what they were doing, building national ballet companies, was being done for the first time. I think this heightened degree of passion perhaps skewed their own perspective of others causing pettiness to have occurred, resulting in “Madam” calling Marie Rambert “…an old cow.”
Wright is very good at describing the ins and outs of staging a ballet, particularly the classics where he has made his name. How much of the original do you retain? How much do the production elements contribute or detract from the work [he’s got some hilarious stories about costumes]? What about the order of music? Interpretation? He also shares observations about the enormous risk [financially and artistically, not to mention turning on or off an audience], creating a following, etc.
Wright is quite candid about how he feels about certain stagings of some of his contemporaries’ works — some good and some watered down. His lead-in to his chapter on Kenneth MacMillan is a riot, with his recounting of how MacMillan himself described what a gala of his works might include: rapes, sex, a blinding, death, murder and other cheerful subject matter to which this choreographer seemed to be drawn. For those who know MacMillan’s ballets, this is no laughing matter.
I loved how Wright caught us up on some of my own favorite dance personalities, many of whom are hard to track on this side of the pond. For example, he mentions Galina Samsova, whom I saw perform in Seattle, along with her then-husband, Andre Prokovsky. I was so pleased to read that many of these people are giving back to their profession, something that I very much believe in and which is critical to the well-being of dance.
All in all, a good read and one that I recommend for the dance fan and critical library, but not for the faint of heart.