By Anita Malhotra
Dancer, ballet stager and teacher Cynthia Harvey first distinguished herself in the ballet world as principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre (ABT), where she performed with Mikhail Baryshnikov, among others, and appeared with Nureyev & Friends. She then moved to the U.K. to be a principal dancer with The Royal Ballet. Since the mid-‘90s, she has worked as a stager and teacher around the world, and in 2013 launched her foundation En Avant, which offers scholarships and master classes to young dancers. Recently, she was named the new artistic director of the American Ballet Theatre’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, a post that starts in May.
Anita Malhotra interviewed Cynthia Harvey, who lives in eastern England, via Skype on February 14, 2016, a few weeks before three performances by the Hong Kong Ballet of her production of The Sleeping Beauty at Ottawa’s National Arts Centre.
AM: When did you first get interested in dance?
CH: I started when I saw Fonteyn and Nureyev on television on the Ed Sullivan Show. I thought she was a princess – she had a tiara – so I wanted to be her. I was very much the girly girl, so ballet was great.
My sister started taking a few lessons at the local place next door and I couldn’t reach the barre. I was always the smallest one.
But then we had to stop – I must have been five or six. I kept begging my mother, so she took me to a summer course. The teacher there recommended me to another teacher and said, “Mrs. Harvey, your daughter is bored. She learns the combinations faster than anyone.” I had an easy co-ordination and wanted to do it so badly, so that was the key.
Then I found this wonderful teacher, Christine Walton. She had two boys of her own, and she kind of adopted me as her daughter that she wished she had had. And because my mother was notoriously late collecting me after class, I would get an extra 40 minutes. She would work with me on little steps one thing at a time, so I benefited tremendously.
AM: Where were you living?
CH: It was Novato, just north of San Francisco. It’s Marin County but near the Sonoma border.
AM: I read that one of your parents was Mexican.
CH: My mom.
AM: Was she actually born in Mexico?
CH: In Yucatán, northern Mexico.
AM: Did your parents have any dance in their background?
CH: Not even a little indication. It was just me. I was a serious kid – very studious, very focused. When you want something badly, you apply yourself. I didn’t need to be told. I guess that’s what helped all on the way throughout my career, because I only took ballet for six years in California before I moved to New York. And then I did a summer at the National Ballet of Canada in ’73, and I went to New York straight from there and did nine months at the School for American Ballet Theatre before getting accepted to the company.
AM: You did not have that much formal training.
CH: No, my teacher was fantastic. She had three of us end up at ABT, so I give her all the credit. It’s a combination of everything – my mother and father’s genes, the support I got from them, and the scholarships I was able to get, because there was no way my parents could afford it.
AM: What qualities did you have that helped you become a principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre?
CH: Luck. I had a certain amount of co-ordination, but I was the right height. I am actually 5 foot 4, I’m not very tall, but people thought I looked taller, so they put me in the back when they needed somebody in the back, they put me in the front when they needed somebody in the front. But at one point, when Baryshnikov was beginning to stage his Don Quixote, he asked a few of us during the summer if we wanted to work. This was on our break, it was no pay, and it was frowned upon because of union rules. But I kept saying, “It’s my summer holiday. I want to do this,” and never thought that we’d get anything out of it.
I remember very clearly he and the ballet mistress at the time, Elena Tchernicheva, said, “We never knew you could do this.” Because they could only see me standing on the sidelines with my arms crossed, you know, in various balletic positions – either a swan or Giselle or whatever. So I was getting noticed, and I had a good, natural jump, but for some of the other technical things I was very green.
I was four and a half years in the corps de ballet and then I spent another four years as a soloist before being promoted to principal. All along I was being given the one new full-length ballet a year or a couple in one year. I got thrown into a lot of things by accident. When there was somebody who’d go off, they’d all turn their head and say, “Cynthia will do it.” Reliable, professional, you know – all that stuff. Even when we did the Don Q [Don Quixote] telecast, I was seventh cast. I wasn’t first. It was again a question of people falling out and I was at the right place.
AM: Your dancing is so full of spirit. Where does that feeling come from?
CH: In that particular ballet, I would listen to all these fabulous flamenco and Spanish composers, and I would imagine that I was in Spain – you know sunshine, and getting out into the plaza. Just stepping out on the stage, I already had a nice warm feeling. But when you’ve got the company, and their choreographed clapping, it gives you a lot of energy. There’s a little in my blood, I suppose, of that sort of Spanish heritage – a little bit of that spice. So that helped a lot too.
AM: You have spoken about being very nervous before a performance, and Elizabeth Taylor helping to boost your confidence.
CH: It was Swan Lake. We were in Washington, D.C., and one of the dancers in our company, Jennet Zerbe, her father, Anthony Zerbe, is an actor. I was staying at this hotel called The Intrigue and I went down to have dinner. Anthony Zerbe knew that I was going to be premiering Swan Lake the very next day.
My partner was in another company and was auditioning, so he couldn’t come until he finished. So I was rehearsing the whole ballet on my own and was very anxious because I had never run it through. Anthony Zerbe came by, we had a chat, and then he went and sat with Elizabeth Taylor. I guess he told her I would be premiering Swan Lake. So she came over to the table and she sat down, and asked me how I felt about this. It was really sweet, very natural. And she said, “You’ve been preparing for this all your life. Why are you nervous?” It was true. After all, this is what we do this for – it’s to perform it. And then she sent me a bottle of champagne and a note. I must have the note in my old theatre cases upstairs.
AM: What was it like to work with Baryshnikov at American Ballet Theatre?
CH: He was not only Baryshnikov the star, but he was also my boss – he was directing the company. So every day was like an audition. You knew that he had the power to keep you or not keep you. We had minimal conversations, but that’s the way he danced as well. It was to the point, nothing extra. But then when you got on stage, you had all his attention. It was all about the standard and keeping that level high. He never put himself out there to be the commodity. He did what he did with a great deal of integrity, and it was always about being at the highest level possible. And that, for me, is the biggest lesson I could have had. Of course it spoiled me, because now I look at other things with a point of view that is a bit warped to a high standard.
AM: You also danced with Nureyev & Friends.
CH: At ABT he did a couple of things. I was green, but it was just a fantastic time. And when you consider the ‘80s in ballet, all these wonderful people came through our lives, and it set a standard for ballet that has not actually been topped, in my mind. You get the artistry, you get the technique, you get the physicality. It was a wonderful period in ballet, and I was so fortunate to have been part of it.
AM: In the ‘80s you relocated to the U.K. to join The Royal Ballet in London. How did that come about?
CH: It was because of Anthony Dowell, who danced as a guest at ABT in the late ‘70s. I did my first full-length ballet with him. Several years later, when he became the director of The Royal Ballet, he had kind of a gap. By now I was a principal, and he knew that I loved the English style and was very much an Anglophile, so he invited me. I remember saying to Baryshnikov, “I’ve always dreamt of doing this, and you of all people will understand what I mean when I say I want to try something new.”
So I went. And I probably would have stayed a bit longer, but I hurt myself in the Manon bedroom pas de deux. I broke my foot in a few places. And at that time the Royal Ballet’s physical therapy wasn’t as strong as it was in America and I had a hard time getting back in shape. I thought, “I’m in my 30s and this is supposed to be my prime time dancing. I need to go back where I have my support system.” So I returned to the United States. And then the year later I met my husband, or now my ex-husband, I’m afraid to say. I married a British man who was working in motor racing and Formula 1. And then I had a few more years left dancing, and I retired at the end of 1995 and had my son in 1998.
AM: You’ve mainly worked in teaching and restaging since then. What are some of the highlights of those activities?
CH: The first thing that came to me was Makarova asked me to help her with the staging of La Bayadère in Poland. I had been teaching in the village where I live here in England. My son was four and a half, so I took him with me to Poland and got an au pair during the daytime. I worked on the fourth floor and we were living inside the theatre on the fifth floor – it was very “Phantom of the Opera.” And then the next year the person she normally had staging things at La Scala was having an operation, so she asked me to do La Bayadère there. And then somehow the snowball effect happened, and people kept asking me to do things, which had me travelling quite a lot.
The next staging I did was in Oslo. In 2006 I went there to teach class while somebody else staged Sleeping Beauty. And then two years later, the ballet master whose staging it was left the company. So they asked if I would re-choreograph some of the extra parts. And then I realized there were some aspects of the ballet that didn’t make 100% sense to me. So I changed exits from one side of the stage to the other so that things flowed a little bit more to my liking.
Fast forward. Madeleine Onne asked me to do Sleeping Beauty in Hong Kong. It involved having to choose a designer and get that aspect of the vision of the production together, because in Oslo it was still the vision of the ballet master from before. So I was kind of starting from scratch. In between, I staged my own Giselle for Oslo. And I’ve now done Don Q on top of it, in Singapore.
AM: Can you tell me a bit about your staging of The Sleeping Beauty, which will be performed by the Hong Kong Ballet in Ottawa?
CH: I have tried to make a thread and a through-line. They are doing a shortened version. What excites me the most is that the Hong Kong Ballet will be seen, because their dancers are gorgeous. I’m actually quite thrilled that they’ve chosen Sleeping Beauty to present. We took Louis XIV as the basis of the idea, so you’ll see some of the costumes have the shapes that belonged in that era. There’s a lot of gold, because you have to remember that it had to appeal to the Chinese audience first. I think everyone who sees them will be pleasantly surprised what a nice, beautiful refined company they are.
AM: You have your own foundation called En Avant. Can you tell me about that?
CH: In 2013 I established a non-profit. I got caught up in this whole idea of having a foundation that appropriates scholarships for a couple of people and then holds master classes and coaches the classical ballets. People learn from YouTube and you’re getting ballerinas from Russia, and you’ve got some American girl who’s not built like that at all, and all she sees is this girl with her legs way up in the air – 180° extensions – and so she tries to emulate that, thinking that’s what it’s about.
And not to say that I was around when these pieces were created, but I’ve been taught by some of the best people – Makarova and Baryshnikov and Frederick Ashton and De Valois, and this information was handed down through them. For instance, last year we did Swan Lake. We did one in San Francisco, one in New York. And young girls between the ages of 15 and 18, if they’re doing the Black Swan they immediately think “evil.” But Black Swan isn’t just a one-dimensional character. You can be mysterious, you can be seductive, you can be all sorts of things. We’re not trying to change the way people have been taught things, but just to feed them the information that they may not ordinarily get, or even if they get it, if it comes from a different voice, often they will listen better.
AM: You’ve spoken quite a bit about the current state of ballet. Could you say a few words about that?
CH: The emphasis has shifted to quantity rather than quality. Art for me is something intangible – you can’t quantify it. And what I was seeing was quantifying things, like how many pirouettes can I get in, even if I have to pull the music out. I don’t think we need to count how many pirouettes or how fast somebody does something or how slow. I want to be moved, I want to be touched, I want to cry, I want to laugh – all the emotions.
For me that’s why I started the foundation, because I was hearing it from so many people. People were writing books about the decline of the ballet, it was going to become obsolete. It shouldn’t be any more obsolete than Mozart or Beethoven. I just heard a concert by Martha Argerich in Basel two weeks ago, and for me it was life-affirming. I don’t think I’ve ever felt that affected. This is what we need ballet to become again.
AM: You were recently appointed artistic director of the American Ballet Theatre’s JKO School. Are you still going to keep a base in England?
CH: I’m not going to take anything with me because I was on the point of retiring myself to Spain. I want to live in a warm climate. So I will start from scratch in New York like a teenager, with no furniture. If you’d said to me a year ago that this was in the cards I would have thought you were crazy.
But when Kevin McKenzie asked me, everything pointed to, “Why not?” My son was will be going to university starting in September – I’m kind of free to do it. I’ve always said that I’d like to contribute to the art form. How much better can it be than if I contribute by directing the school? And especially a school where I have my heart. When they brought me in to look, I got excited by what I saw – the potential is fantastic. When you’re running a school that’s that big, you learn about the different trends that are happening in the dance world. And I think that as my last hurrah it is not a bad thing to do – to be part of the dialogue about where dance is going. It’s a little adventure and I’m game for it.
Cynthia Harvey’s staging of The Sleeping Beauty will be performed by the Hong Kong Ballet at Ottawa’s National Arts Centre at 8 p.m. on March 3, 4 and 5, 2016. For more information about Cynthia Harvey or En Avant Foundation, please visit enavantfoundation.com.