BWW Dance Interview: JELKO YURESHA Reflects On His Past and The Dancers of Today

Yuresha in rehearsal with Belinda Wright.

At 78, Jelko Yuresha has come to resemble a lion in repose. I recognize him immediately as I enter the lobby -- I am early, he is even earlier -- and what strikes me more than his subtle smile is his eyes. They are the eyes of a man who retains a zest for life though it is evident that little amuses him. This comes as no surprise. After all, he has seen much and traveled far. As we begin the dance of exchanging pleasantries, it becomes apparent that behind the guise of a charming gentleman I am speaking to the dance version of James Bond -- as played by Sean Connery. Rather than play the part of a sycophant, I decide to lay all of my cards on the table for his appraisal:

I know that Jelko Yuresha was born in former Yugoslavia (now Croatia); that he came to London to study at The Legat School; that he was a Principal with the English National Ballet -- formerly The London Festival Ballet -- where he met his partner and wife, the famed ballerina Belinda Wright; that they toured the world as Guest Artists and under the sponsorship of the British government as "Ambassadors of Dance"; that he partnered some of the greatest ballerinas of his era - possibly of all time; that he worked intimately with Massine, Bourmeister, Ashton, Lifar, and Nijinska; and that he holds the sole rights to Sir Anton Dolin's prized ballets -- Giselle, Pas de Quatre, and Variations of Four -- due to his and Ms. Wright's close relationship with Dolin.

Yuresha with Mme Nijinska

Yuresha is suitably amused and impressed that I have done my homework, though one of the first things he says to me is: "You are very intelligent. I can see that from the way you speak and hold yourself. Your posture is very good. Very good. Perhaps it is not such a good thing to be so intelligent as a dancer? It can cause quite a lot of trouble with directors." To which I respond, "That is why I am retired." I also admit that I have watched a number of video interviews that he and his wife gave, which sends him into fits of laughter. "Oh, did you see my sour face in the interview from South Africa?! I thought that I was such a beauty but I was just ghastly! Just awful. I looked so grim!" Yuresha, I discover, is a delight and is more than happy to laugh at himself though I should add that he didn't look grim at all in those video interviews. To the contrary, he looked as if he were having the time of his life; a similar sparkle stays in his eyes during our interview. Having laughed up an appetite, we set out to lunch.

Ostensibly I am interviewing Yuresha due to his involvement with Valentina Kozlova's International Ballet Competition -- for which he has served as a judge and advisor since its beginning -- though I have ulterior motives. My mother saw Yuresha perform when she was a child and so I have known who he is for most of my life. My family never had a problem with the idea of my being a dancer and I think that it is partly because of this man who is sitting across from me. In a certain way I feel connected to him. More than wanting to hear about his accomplishments and his status as one of the last surviving members from "The Age of Marvels" -- a term I use to describe the period during the late 1950's and 1970's when he was dancing -- I want to know what he feels about this current generation of dancers.

Jelko Yuresha: "Compared with today's dancers, we were terrible. My generation did not have the physical ability that you see today. Partly because we were not aware of how far our bodies could go but also because we were told to never stretch; it would weaken the muscles. Today, a dancer can do anything. But we had something that they don't: a quality. We had to dance. For us it was life. We danced because it was something that we needed. There was no discussion of awards or being great or even being paid. Yes, you wanted to be paid - all of those things, but that was not the reason you did it. You danced because you had no choice. Markova, Danilova, Krassovska, Fonteyn, Belinda; none of these ballerinas thought about being great. Yes of course they had their egos. They were human! And they took pride in what they were doing, but what they had more than anything else was great humor. They were always laughing and telling jokes. I don't know if they were 'stars' because they were funny or if they were funny because they were stars, but it is interesting that all of them had 'it': this quality that was more than their gifts and their concentration. They were great because they had an incredible capacity for feeling and when they danced, you could sense it. You COULD NOT look away. It was impossible. Nothing else existed because they filled the stage with their . . ."

JMPII: "Perfume?"

Yuresha: "Yes! Their charisma. Personality. They painted the stage little by little starting from inside themselves and transformed the entire theater until everything that you saw, the aroma, even the taste was what they were projecting."

JMPII: "Is that something you can teach? Or is it a case of 'you either have it or you don't'?"

Yuresha: "You can try to teach, though it is easier if you already 'have it'. How can you make a good meal if you have a mess in front of you? Think about that. You can't give more than the God-given talent that someone is born with, but you CAN refine. But first one has to be willing to learn and to appreciate that there is something that they do not know and that that will not have right away- and that can create a lot of tension and impatience."

JMPII: "It sounds like you are talking about this generation of dancers."

Serge Lifar, Jelko, Belinda Wright,
Michel Nunes, and Ghislaine Thesmar

Yuresha: "This is a problem with every generation- with everybody at any time. But yes, it is true that this generation is having more difficulty. Today it is harder because the dancers already think that they know everything. These young people can do nearly everything you ask them to do but only in the way that they know how. If you alter the transition or ask them to do it differently, they hit a wall. They are afraid of learning or trying something different because they are afraid of looking foolish. 'If you don't know something then you are a fool.' So you have dancers walking around who think they know everything before they have had a chance to learn it. Now tell me this: How can you learn if you are not open to receiving new information? I feel sorry for these dancers. Everyone is expected to be something before they have done anything; seen anything; experienced anything. Where is the curiosity in that? We (dancers of his generation) were all curious. Maybe because we had different circumstances of living through wars and going without. We knew what it was to be without; without things; without shoes; without tights. We were starving for information; constantly reading new and old books; visiting museums; seeing shows and meeting new people. If I had to say what is different about today's dancers it would be that the world is smaller because everyone expects things to come to them. But that is not how humans should evolve."

JMPII: "You're spot on. That is selfish. Dancing is not selfish."

Yuresha: "Dancing is about giving. Yes. (Dancing is) about going to the world."

As he says this, I realize exactly what he means. In our world of Instagram and Facebook it is easy to assume that all one needs is to build a social media brand and everything will work out. But this posing for pictures is not why we dance. As dancers we can not expect the audience to come to us. There is no substitute for going out into the world and giving a live performance. Our art is about digging deeply within ourselves and offering what we have to the world. Yuresha certainly didn't wait for things to happen for him.

Yuresha: "Take me -- a talentless nobody- ."

JMPII: "I doubt that you were talentless."

Yuresha: "Well, not completely talentless. But in my class of 12, the only reason that I was taken into this group of 'the elite crème de la crème' was to be an example of bad dancing. I was used as an example for what was wrong and what one shouldn't do. But in all of my class of these top dancers, I was the only one to make it out and to make my life in dancing. Maybe what I did was not so great. Ask anyone, they will tell you that Yuresha was a terrible dancer. And I know it. But I danced. I was told that I would be nothing and maybe I was never great but I was blessed to experience what greatness means, and to comprehend what greatness is, and it opened the whole world to me. It's not that I was so great or terrible. . . It's- I was in the milleu of such excellence that I recognized that this was top quality. But of course I had to be educated before I could realize that.

Actually, in my class there was one other dancer who made it out. And she was the most talented. Of us all, she was going to be the star. Everyone knew it and told her so. We were at the Royal Ballet together at the same time and for her- it was very sad - she could not handle it. She was told that she would be the star and when it didn't happen, she committed suicide. Yes, it's true. I feel very sad about this. I was the worst and she was the best, but she did make it to the same rank as me at the Royal Ballet. As soloist, except I danced the top quality and prince roles even though I wasn't the principal at that time. In my Giselle she danced the Queen of the Willis, so that was the top of what she did. But can you imagine the letdown? If you remember at the Mariinsky Theater, all of the great ballerinas -Pavolva, Karsavina, Kschessinskaya, - all of these ladies were bred to be great ballerinas and they were. But she was not. Being the star was not what I worried about. When it happened that I was able to dance as the soloist and principal, it was very nice, yes. But I never assumed- ."

JMPII: "You didn't take it for granted".

Yuresha: "Yes! No. Never took it for granted that I deserved anything. I just wanted to dance, so I danced."

JMPII: "When do you know that it is time to stop dancing?" This question gives him pause.

Yuresha: "Let us eat a little more before I answer this question."

We take a few minutes to lunch and chat about different competitions he has judged around the world, which brings him back to my question.

Yuresha: "Maybe I am not the right person to answer this question. Fonteyn danced into her 60's. Maybe not at her best but she was still dancing. Your body has a way of telling you. I stopped when I was 50. I had a terrible back injury and I suffered with it for years. Such suffering you cannot imagine! I would spend days on my back unable to move. And on tour - as part of Ambassadors of Dance - we had to take a bus throughout Kuala Lumpur and the roads were terrible. Then we would get to a theater and I don't know how we got through the performance. It was just me and Belinda dancing full variations and pas de deux without any divertissement in between to give us a moment to rest. Once in the middle of a pas de deux, Belinda said to me, 'My stomach is falling out', and I said, 'Put it back in until we finish'! It is possible that I stayed too long with dancing. Well, one day I woke up and the pain was too much. So I stopped. How do you know? You just have to listen to what your body is telling you and follow. Many of us stayed too long and suffered the consequences: spinal surgeries; hip replacements; metal knees; torn joints. Of course the science is much better today and we know a great deal more about the body. But you have to listen. If you are dancing and the pain is terrible to the point that you can't think about anything else -- because there will always be some pain -- or you want to do something else more than you want to dance, then you know that it is time."

We spoke about a great deal more from favorite choreographers and dancers to the person with whom he enjoyed working the least (apparently Nureyev was an extremely complex man, which comes as no surprise), and finally to his opinion about competitions (he wishes that there was greater emphasis given to the fact that the dancers have been brought together from all over the world and that they have a chance to share their knowledge with one another. To Yuresha all of the competitors deserve gold medals as testament to their talent). What I came away with beyond an even greater respect for Yuresha was the joy that I was able to spend a little bit of time learning about the world that he lived in. The dancers with whom he works are lucky to have access to this knowledge. I hope that they are wise and brave enough to listen.

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