CITRON firstname.lastname@example.org_county.toronto.globe_and_mail 2003-04-11 published
Visionary performer waged war on trivial art
Her trademark was a experimental process that embraced dance, music, text, mime, clown, ritual and mask
By Paula CITRON Friday, April 11, 2003 - Page R13
Canada has lost a powerful force in experimental theatre and dance. Director, dancer, actor, writer and choreographer Elizabeth SZATHMARY died last month in Toronto.
While she will be remembered as a dynamic figure, her artistic life will remain a contradiction. At the beginning of her career, Ms. SZATHMARY was one of the gilded darlings of Toronto's burgeoning experimental theatre. At the end, she was seen by some as a marginalized, religious eccentric who put on plays in church basements.
To her long-time Friends and loyalists, however, Ms. SZATHMARY's life was a spiritual journey in which art, religion and morality were inextricably intertwined in a nobility of purpose.
Ms. SZATHMARY was born in New York on October 12, 1937, to Jewish-Hungarian parents. Her mother was an unhappy former opera singer and vaudeville performer and her father was a composer and arranger who wrote the theme for the popular television show Get Smart and who abandoned his family. Ms. SZATHMARY attended New York's High School of Performing Arts and later performed with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet under choreographer Antony TUDOR.
A ravishing beauty with masses of long, jet-black curls and compelling light-coloured eyes, Ms. SZATHMARY attracted followers throughout her career. She was, says Toronto choreographer David EARLE, a powerful, mysterious presence and a charismatic performer.
Another admirer was Canadian Robert SWERDLOW. Mr. TUDOR's piano accompanist, he fell in love with the beautiful young dancer and followed her to France where Ms. SZATHMARY danced with such companies as Les Ballets Classique de Monte Carlo and Les Ballets Contemporains de Paris. He was the first of many artists to be inspired by Ms. SZATHMARY.
"Elizabeth was a theatre philosopher who wanted to save the world through the beauty and truth of her art," Mr. SWERDLOW said.
The couple relocated to Montreal in the mid-sixties where Mr. SWERDLOW got a job with the National Film Board. One assignment brought him to Toronto, and it was Ms. SZATHMARY who persuaded him to settle there because of the city's "happening" dance scene. Performing under the name Elizabeth SWERDLOW, she first worked with Mr. EARLE and the future co-founders of Toronto Dance Theatre.
In 1969, Mr. SWERDLOW took an unexpected windfall of $30,000 and built his wife a performing venue of her own. In this way, Global Village Theatre emerged from a former Royal Canadian Mounted Police stable and the couple went on to became synonymous with a new wave of provocative, political, issue-oriented theatre.
Mr. SWERDLOW provided the words and music, and co-wrote the shows Elizabeth co-wrote, choreographed, directed and was the featured performer. Importantly, she was the visionary who came up with original concepts and her trademark, multidisciplinary theatrical process embraced dance, music, text, mime, clown, ritual and mask.
Among their better-known collaborations was Blue.S.A., an indictment of the "American empire," and Justine, the story of a young girl who gains wisdom through the vicissitudes of life. A huge hit, Justine went to New York where it won off-Broadway awards and enjoyed a long run.
Its success meant Global Village became a stopping place for others. Gilda RADNER, John CANDY and Salome BEY represented just some of the talent that passed through. Later, when Ms. SZATHMARY founded Inner Stage Theatre, she helped propel the early careers of Antoni CIMOLINO and Donald CARRIER of the Stratford Festival, Jeannette ZINGG and Marshall PYNKOSKI of Opera Atelier and Native American performer Raoul TRUJILLO.
In the mid-seventies, Ms. SZATHMARY experienced a religious conversion and became a devout Christian.
For Mr. SWERDLOW, it was the last straw in an already turbulent relationship. After the couple split up, Ms. SZATHMARY founded Inner Stage, a name that expressed her desire to produce art that would transform and heal through spirituality. To better strike out on her own, she also shed the SWERDLOW name. Until the 1990s, the main work of Inner Stage was a series of acclaimed morality tales -- or modern fables as Ms. SZATHMARY called them which toured schools from coast to coast. She also explored the storytelling power of Native American myths and turned to such themes as the plight of street youth or to the Holocaust from a teenager's point of view. Her final project, No Fixed Address, attempted to air the true voice of the homeless by both telling their stories and casting them as actors.
By all accounts, Ms. SZATHMARY was a true eccentric who personalized everything. Her computer, for example, was called Daisy. Her home was a living museum dominated by a family of cats who occupied their own stools at the dining table, held conversations and sent out Christmas cards to the pets of Friends. Spiritual sayings, religious art and theatre memorabilia covered every scrap of wall and floor space. On an even more personal level, Ms. SZATHMARY kept a journal of religious visions and dreams written in ornate calligraphy and illustrated in Hungarian folk-style art. What is more, she described ecstatic events and augurisms, including a personal affinity with bison, as if such occurrences were as routine as the weather.
In her work, Ms. SZATHMARY demanded perfection, which meant she often proved impossible to work alongside. Friends and colleagues Robert MASON, Julia AMES and Peter GUGELER all talk about Ms. SZATHMARY's middle-of-the-night phone calls -- and the fact that she brooked no criticism or contrary opinions. All the same, their devotion never lessened.
"She was a queen and we were her subjects," said Mr. GUGELER. "Elizabeth never left you once she got ahold of you."
Guerrilla theatre, grass-roots theatre, shoe-string theatre, theatre against all odds, a "let's-make-a-show" mentality -- that was the brave, artistic world in which Ms. SZATHMARY waged her war against what she saw as frivolous or commercial art. In 1989, Inner Stage lost its operating grant and from that time on she financed her own productions. During the last year that she was able to work, she earned a pitiful $5,000.
Ms. SZATHMARY continued to perform in all her productions, turning more to straight acting as her dancing powers declined. Even so, she never gave up the stage to anyone.
Elizabeth SZATHMARY died of rectal cancer in Toronto on March 28. A memorial service will be held at the Church of the Redeemer, 162 Bloor St. W., Toronto, at 3 p.m. on April 27.
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CITRON email@example.com_county.toronto.globe_and_mail 2003-08-06 published
Linda STEARNS: 1937-2003
As ballet mistress and artistic director of the esteemed Montreal company, she nurtured personality, flair and a risk-taking approach to dance
By Paula CITRON Wednesday, August 6, 2003 - Page R5
In the cutthroat, competitive world of dance, Linda STEARNS was an anomaly. As artistic director of Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, she never played games or held grudges. Whether good or bad news, she bluntly told her dancers what they had to hear, and in return, her open-door policy allowed them to vent their own feelings. National Ballet of Canada artistic director James KUDELKA, who spent almost a decade as a member of Les Grands Ballets, likens her approach to wearing an invisible raincoat upon which unhappy dancers spewed their venom. At the end of their tirades, she would serenely remove the garment and say, "Now let's talk."
Linda STEARNS died at her home in Toronto on July 4, at age 65.
She was born into privilege on October 22, 1937. Her father, Marshal, was an investment broker; her mother, Helen, was heavily involved in charity work. The family lived in the posh Poplar Plains area of central Toronto, where Ms. STEARNS attended Branksome Hall.
Despite their wealth, the STEARNS children (Linda, Nora and Marshal) were expected to earn their own livings. Helen STEARNS had studied dance in her youth, but a career was never an option. When eldest daughter Linda showed a strong talent, history might have repeated itself had not Marshal Sr. set aside his reservations after seeing his daughter perform.
After graduating from high school, Ms. STEARNS went to London and New York for advanced training. It was the great Alexandra Danilova, one of Ms. STEARNS's New York teachers, who pointed the young dancer in the direction of the upstart Les Grands Ballets Canadiens. Ms. STEARNS joined Les Grands in 1961, and was promoted to soloist in 1964. In a Who's Who of Entertainment entry, Ms. STEARNS was once listed as joining the company in 1861, and she liked to joke that, at 103 years, she held the record for the longest time spent in the corps de ballet. In fact, one of Ms. STEARNS's hallmarks was her sense of humour, much of it at her own expense.
Les Grands was known for taking dancers who did not necessarily have perfect ballet bodies, but had personality and flair, a policy Ms. STEARNS continued during her own administration.
Although Ms. STEARNS had very unballetic, low-arched feet, she was a fine classical dancer. She excelled, however, in the dramatic repertoire: Mother Courage in Richard Kuch's The Brood, or the title role in Brydon Paige's Medea. In later years, while teaching and coaching, Ms. STEARNS wore high heels to conceal her hated low arches -- while showing off her attractive ankles.
Her performing career was cut short in 1966 when artistic director Ludmilla CHIRIAEFF recognized that Ms. STEARNS would make a brilliant ballet mistress, and by 1969, Ms. STEARNS was exclusively in the studio. In fact, giving up performing was one of the great disappointments of her life, although she did in time acknowledge that she had found her true destiny. Ms. STEARNS's astonishingly keen eye allowed her to single out, in a corps de ballet of moving bodies, every limb that was out of position. She could also sing every piece of music, which saved a lot of time, because she didn't have to keep putting on the tape recorder. Because of her intense musicality, Ms. STEARNS also insisted that the dancers not just be on the count, but fill every note with movement.
Ms. STEARNS loved playing with words -- she was a crossword-puzzle addict, for example -- and gave the dancers nicknames, whether they liked them or not. Catherine LAFORTUNE was Katrink, Kathy BIEVER was Little Frog, Rosemary NEVILLE was Rosie Posie, Betsy BARON was Boops, and Benjamin HATCHER was Benjamino, to name but a few. One who escaped this fate was Gioconda BARBUTO, simply because Ms. STEARNS loved rolling out the word "G-I-O-C-O-N-D-A" in its full Italian glory. The dancers, in turn, called her Lulubelle, Mme. Gozonga and La Stearnova or, if they were feeling tired, cranky and hostile -- and were out of earshot -- Spoons (for her non-arched feet) and even less flattering names. As reluctantly as she became ballet mistress, Ms. STEARNS became artistic director, first as one of a triumvirate in 1978 with Danny JACKSON and Colin McINTYRE (when Les Grands and Brian MacDONALD came to an abrupt parting of the ways;) then with Jeanne RENAUD in 1985 and finally on her own in 1987. She retired from Les Grands in 1989. Both Mr. JACKSON and Mr. McINTRYE still refer to Ms. STEARNS as the company's backbone.
These were the famous creative years that included the works of Mr. KUDELKA, Paul Taylor, Lar Lubovitch, Nacho Duato and George Balanchine. Les Grands toured the world performing one of the most exciting and eclectic repertoires in ballet. It was a company that nurtured dancers and choreographers, many of whom reflected Ms. STEARNS's risk-taking, innovative esthetic.
She also had time to mentor choreographers outside the company, including acclaimed solo artist Margie GILLIS. Her post-Grands career included writing assessments for the Canada Council, setting works on ballet companies, coaching figure skating, and most recently, becoming ballet mistress for the Toronto-based Ballet Jörgen. When she was diagnosed with both ovarian and breast cancer two years ago, she continued her obligations to Ballet Jörgen until she was no longer able, never letting the dancers know how ill she was.
Ms. STEARNS loved huge dogs -- or what Ms. GILLIS refers to as mountains with fur -- and always had at least two. Her gardens were magnificent, as was her cooking. Her generosity was legendary, whether inviting 20 people for Christmas dinner, or hosting the wedding reception for dancers Andrea BOARDMAN and Jean-Hugues ROCHETTE at her tastefully decorated Westmount home. After leaving Montreal, whether, first, at her horse farm in Harrow, Ontario, or at the one-room schoolhouse she lovingly renovated near Campbellville, northwest of Toronto, former colleagues were always welcome.
She continued to keep in touch with her dancers, sending notes in her beautiful, distinctive handwriting. Her love of sports never left her, and after a hard day in the studio, she would relax watching the hockey game. Religion also filled her postdance life, with Toronto's Anglican Grace-Church-on-the-Hill at its epicentre. Ms. STEARNS was very discreet in her private life, although another disappointment is that neither of two long relationships resulted in marriage or children.
Ms. STEARNS was always ruthlessly self-critical, always striving for perfection, never convinced she had rehearsed a work to its full potential. As a result, she never made herself the centre of her own story. Her homes, for example, did not contain photographs glorifying the career of Linda STEARNS. Only at the end of her days, as she faced death with the same grace with which she had faced life, was she finally able to appreciate how many lives she had touched, and accept her outstanding achievements with Les Grands Ballets. Linde HOWE- BECK, former dance critic for the Montreal Gazette, sums up Ms. STEARNS perfectly when she says that she was all about love -- for her Friends and family, for life, but most of all, for dance.
Paula CITRON is dance critic for The Globe and Mail.
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