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One Franc, Seventeen

A Tribute to Rosella Hightower

by Dean Speer

Published February 2009

The long line at the Cannes post office stretched far behind me.  I’d earlier walked down the ancient, narrow and crowded street from ballet boarding school to pick up some aerogrammes and stamps.

Yet, here we all were patiently waiting while a young woman in front of me struggled to let the clerk know what she wanted and to understand his reply, her Australian accent belying the fact that she really didn’t know French and was having too great a trouble conveying her business.  Being the helpful person that I try to be, I promptly piped up, “He wants one franc, seventeen!”

She burst out laughing – I never expected this reaction – instead of saying “thank-you” or something like that. This is how Katrina Philp and I became friends.  It turns out she was also a student at the same ballet school. She enjoyed regaling me with stories of how her wonderfully archy feet [this is before Patricia Barker’s famous arches] would instantly “break” most pointe shoes and how she had to order triple strength shanks and even had to have small, special steel inserts installed so the shoes would last more than a few moments in class or rehearsal. [Katrina, by the way, was laughing at my American Western “twang.”]

Katrina arrived from Sydney. I from Seattle, where I had been diligently studying ballet at a local school, not really having been much of anyplace exotic except for Walla Walla. Selling grandmother’s engagement ring to help pay my tuition, my parents and I had ridden the bus up to Vancouver, British Columbia to launch me across the Atlantic pond via Air Canada – with intermediate stops in Toronto, Montreal – then to DeGaulle airport in Paris, where protesters were stirring things up. I had about eight hours to observe this until I transferred to Air France for the quick flight to Nice, where I was shunted off onto a local bus to Cannes, then I took a cab to school, finally arriving late at night, dark and barely able to get my bearings. I may have been very excited about going – and I was – but noted that as we got further and further East across Canada, the accent and timbre of the French spoken changed (more “accented” as we zoomed east).

After checking in with the school registrar and meeting my dorm roommate, I got up the next day to face the joys, excitement, trials and tribulations of acculturating myself with the ways of being a full-time student of ballet at Rosella Hightower’s Centre de Danse International:

8:30 a.m. technique classes with just a hard roll and café au lait for breakfast until Noon. Not being allowed to line up or get served a meal until we were four per table at meals. Being squished and banged every time you tried to move in jazz class as the smaller studio was stuffed with too many students. The modern dance teacher doing Graham her way. A live band for some of the larger, more advanced jazz and modern classes. I thought that was really awesome.

Sunday’s dinner was a “pic-nic” sack lunch with a single boiled egg, some fruit and a piece of bread. Glorying in the beauty of the native and landscape plantings – palm trees, flowers of riotous colors. Oohing and aahing at the downtown chocolate shop with its high-end crystal containers to take your purchases home in. Public versus private [pay to sit] benches along the many parks. Private versus public beaches on the azure blue Mediterranean where topless was common and not even considered that big a deal, except if you’re from provincial and cold Seattle. Swimming in the same and realizing that Africa was just over there. Reading rooms that were outside, where books were kept in plastic bins. Children hunting for escargot in the small park lawn and flower bed under my dorm window. The entire perfume of the locale.

I was proud that I knew, having read it in a dance reference book, that Mme Hightower had been trained by Dorothy Perkins and was from Ardmore, Oklahoma. I believed I might be pretty hot stuff – until Rosella Hightower gave her first class for my group at her Centre de Danse International in Cannes.  Her épaulement was exquisite – at once complex and simple. This was my inkling that I had yet a lot to learn.  And how exacting in Jose’s Men’s Class – everything had to be just so. How Arlette wanted the pliés in jumps to go – just the opposite of how we had been doing them! She kept yelling “tendu!” at me until Rosella, who just happened to be passing through from her office told me that what Arlette wanted was for me to completely straighten out my legs in between each jump.

Completely wonderful was the most beautiful demonstration of technique I’ve probably ever seen.  While I was observing one of the Professional Level classes at Rosella’s, Madame Hightower asked a man who was with La Scala in Milan, to demonstrate a grand jeté en tournant, aka, tour jeté.  He took a preparation in fourth position and was so still for a long time we didn’t think he was going to move.  Then, suddenly, he brushed his leg up to the front, was up in air, turning over in it, changing his legs – and landed like a cat in a perfect and serene plié arabesque.  It was so gorgeous it took our collective breath away.  Hightower smiled wryly and reported, “That’s how to do it!”

The main studio – which was the same size as the Bolshoi stage – had photographs around the walls of Hightower demonstrating perfectly each ballet position: all of the various poses – the attitudes and arabesques and body facings such as croisé.

One time in the school’s parking lot outside the main entrance, I had a brief conversation with Mme Hightower about technique, expressing my appreciation for her care, observation, and correction of even the littlest detail. She responded, “The smallest thing can throw off your dancing for years.”

The time just flew by and before I knew it, was setting sail on the reverse airstream to North America to continue my training and to try to make my fortune as a dancer. I learned so much during my all too brief few months in France. Certainly worth far more than one franc, seventeen.

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