After our marriage in 1959, my husband and I lived in
At that time, Mary Skeaping was the director of the Royal Swedish Ballet. We became fast friends. Because I could find nothing written in English about ballet in
I was extremely fortunate in having my mother-in-law's sister, Margit Wijk, to point out relevant material to me. She was a librarian at the Royal Library and knew many things a researcher might not know about or find on his or her own. For example, she led me to a letter in King Gustav III's private correspondence, written in French from Lijkala in
Another example: A French dance master wrote down notes for his classes and when you turned the page, there was his shopping list for the day! (I remember that he seemed to eat a lot of cabbage.)
Through Mary Skeaping I had access to a lot of material in private ownership; we also visited fascinating libraries such as the one at Skokloster, an old palace near
I interviewed dancers like Jenny Hasselquist, Ellen Rasch, Björn Holmgren and, decades later, Mariane Orlando, Elsa Marianne von Rosen, Gerd Andersson, Regina Beck-Friis and many others; I am most grateful to all of them. They not only gave interesting information but also supplied valuable photographs from their private collections. Gerd Andersson kindly made the fascinating and nostalgic films available that she and Viola Aberlé made about Skeaping and Tudor. I was stunned by the immediacy of Skeaping; she was so real and right there in the room with me, just as I remembered her. The gracious Jenny Hasselquist also gave me her own (translated) collection of cuttings from Russia about Johansson and Fokine for use in the book.
The Swedes are a very talented people, their art and design bear witness to this. They are also consummate actors, and this is to the advantage of both the ballet and the opera. It is to be seen today in such ballets as Mayerling, which Kenneth Macmillan's widow believes to be presented at its best by the Swedish ballet in Stockholm. Gustav III was passionate in his desire for a Swedish theatre and ballet, and, being unable to take part in the dance himself because of a slight birth defect, flung himself wholeheartedly into the theatrical side. He also laid the foundations of very good opera and ballet which I was able to enjoy during my stay and subsequent visits to Sweden. The ballet had had its ups and downs until it was awakened, like a Sleeping Beauty, by Mary Skeaping in her eight-year stay as Director of the Ballet from 1953 to 1962.
Before, it had been through another process of creation when outside of Sweden the Swedish company Les Ballets Suédois was assembled by Rolf de Maré in the 1920s. Yet, he could not hope to win as he was constantly compared to Diaghilev's Russian Ballet which had taken Europe by storm. I had a very interesting interview with Rolf de Maré: I invited him to dinner, and to my delight he accepted and spent an afternoon and evening in our home. He arrived, having travelled to us by underground, very elegantly dressed in a deep wine-coloured suit. He was fascinating to listen to and most stimulating company. He was very positive, but still bitter about the way the press had treated him, his dancers and his choreographer, always comparing his company to Diaghilev's. De Maré believed that the press had hounded his choreographer Jean Börlin to death and had poisoned both their lives. What intrigued me the most was that he spoke about himself in the third person. He would for example say, "When de Maré founded Les Ballets Suédois, he had no scruples about taking the best dancers away from the Stockholm Opera's ballet company, because they were being utterly neglected by that establishment".
Today, I still find it fascinating to read about the past vicissitudes and triumphs of the Swedish ballet. After attending the Symposium in Stockholm during the 225th anniversary celebrations of the Royal Swedish Ballet in June 1998, I decided to publish this book, most of which I had written almost forty years ago. I speak Swedish and understand and read French and Danish. This was useful when I was translating Bournonville's diaries which at that time were available only in Danish.
Now to the period that I lived through with Mary Skeaping in Stockholm her nervous breakdown, her recovery and the resumption of her splendid career.
Skeaping was exhausted. Her behaviour had become very strange. Theatre director Joel Berglund, who had hired her and whom she considered her protector, was no longer there. She had never signed another contract after the first one under Berglund whom she had always trusted. She felt very vulnerable and developed a terrible persecution complex. She believed that everyone at the Opera was against her and that the Opera management wanted to get rid of her. In one way, this was true. Skeaping was a work-horse and, as she always said, "I live to work." Work was her only intense interest. The dancers thought that she demanded too much from them. Moreover, the dancers were prevented from working in the afternoons because the children's classes were held in their studio; consequently, they had to return every night, which impinged on their home life. On many nights the dancers also had to appear as supernumeraries in operas. (They were later relieved from that duty.)
Initially, the dancers were willing to give everything, but Mary Skeaping's constant demands started to chafe. They also resented sharing roles, a practice she had introduced. So her paranoia grew. We would walk down the passage to her office, someone would pass us and she would say, "Did you see that man? Did you see how he looked at me? That is so-and-so, he watches me all the time and listens in to all my conversations. They are looking for a reason to dismiss me; you see I have no proper contract and they want me to go, but they don't know how to make it happen. They think I can't understand Swedish, and I keep it that way, because then I can find out what they are saying about me behind my back."
However, whatever her suspicions, her great contribution to the ballet in Sweden is still being recognised, as it was at the time she would have been soothed had she known this. Mary Skeaping was honoured with the Vasa Order in her lifetime.
At the time when I lived in Stockholm, in 1959 and 1960, my husband was often away, and Mary Skeaping came to rely more and more on my companionship. But then it became very difficult. She would phone me in a state of anguish at all hours of the night and in the early morning and ask me to come over. Sometimes I would go, and if I couldn't, I would try to calm her down on the telephone and then would go and see her at the Opera as soon as I could on that day.
Suddenly the calls stopped. I couldn't find any trace of her. Like her fellow countrywoman Agatha Christie once did, she had simply disappeared. I phoned her flat to no avail, and at the Opera people just said that she had gone away for a while, but could not or would not give me a forwarding address. After the intense interaction with her and knowing her state of mind, I was very worried. Our mutual friends in England had not seen or heard from her.
Then again, all of a sudden I received a call from her inviting me to come to the Opera and watch rehearsals of two Balanchine ballets, Symphony in C and The Four Temperaments, that were to be staged by Vida Brown. I was amazed and asked where she had been. "Oh, I went away for a while, but I'm back now." I expressed my displeasure at her sudden disappearance and told her how worried my husband and I had been about her welfare. She seemed totally unconcerned and in very good spirits.
I went to the first stage rehearsal, sitting in the box that Skeaping had at her disposal. During my entire stay in Stockholm she had always been very kind to me and had made this box available to me, whether it was to watch ballet or opera. I grew to enjoy the operas, as the Swedes not only sing beautifully, but they also act and move so well. They are elegant to the eye, and watching them perform was one of my great pleasures while I lived there. One day, there was a young English girl in the box with me, watching the ballet rehearsal. We introduced ourselves, as Skeaping had told neither of us about the other. The young girl was a musician, a violinist (her name unfortunately escapes me). She told me that she was recovering from a nervous breakdown and that she had met Mary Skeaping in a rest home. She told it openly, as though it was generally known. Suddenly I saw why I had not been told, and I understood the reticence of the Opera employees; perhaps they did not know, either. Skeaping had returned strong and ready to cope. I left Sweden at the beginning of 1961, and then, in 1962, Skeaping also left.
Mary Skeaping was a great asset to Sweden with her interest in both ballet and historic dance. She continued to return to Stockholm and to stage ballets at Gustav III's 18th-century theatre at Drottningholm. We corresponded and were to meet again in South Africa and at her flat in London. At one point, she asked me to help her translate an Italian manuscript by choreographer Gennaro Magri. I took a glance, but it was written in dialect and I suggested that she should try to get someone who not only knew that dialect but also all the old and obsolete words. This was our last meeting.
Her flat in London was accessible over a steep flight of stairs. There she was surrounded by piles of books and stacks of papers. She wrote some flattering words in my book on The History of Ballet in South Africa. She told me many things about her visit to that country just as war broke out in Europe, and so much more but that will have to wait for another occasion. I hope that this book will serve as a tribute to Mary Skeaping and the talented Swedish people.