UNDER MY WINGS: MY LIFE AS AN IMPRESARIO
by Paul Szilard
(Publ. New York 2002)
Introduction, by Clive Barnes
“There is something about the profession of impresario, the entire tribe of them, that has fascinated me ever since I learned that such weird and exotic beings existed. I think I originally imagined them looking a little like Serge Diaghilev—imperious and immaculate, pleasingly plump, a haughty look perhaps accentuated by a monocle, a large black coat, impeccably draped and preferably with an astrakhan collar, and possible a cigar, about which its provenance as Havana would not occur to anyone to question.
A grandee of café society, yet a man of classless class, who wore his cultural and intellectual distinctions as casually as a subtle aroma of cologne.
“Of course, when I actually began to meet these impresario creatures, I did discover that my earlier imaginings were a little less than precise. Heaven’s central casting did not invariably provide the perfect type—just as I discovered to my regret that all critics did not look all that much like George Sanders in All About Eve, so all impresarios did not look all that much like Léon Bakst’s portrait of Serge Diaghilev. Yet it didn’t matter. In my eyes they were still magic creatures, men and women who—in the theater or the concert hall—enabled art to happen.
“It’s a strange profession, isn’t it? Not an artist, yet hopefully with an artist’s taste, not even a critic, yet certainly with a critic’s judgment. Indeed an impresario is a critic who puts his money where his opinion is, a man making his living not so much off the artist but through the artist. A man who presents, but first has to choose; a man who encourages, but first has to discern; a man who spreads a message that he first has to receive. And also a man who lives dangerously not only on his own wits, but on the wit of others. To some extent, like a critic, he is a parasite, but, even more than a critic, he has to be symbiotic with his host. He has to help others before he can help himself. And he also lives a hell of an interesting life.
“Actually being an impresario, or for that matter a producer, has been a career I have idly but quite often considered for myself—although after every such consideration I reluctantly concluded that I had not the nerve, nerves or organizational skills such a career inevitably demands. Nor, for that matter, would I have the patience or sheer courage. I am more suited to sniping from the sidelines than managing the game—to each his own.
“Still I consider it my good fortune that as a critic I have had the opportunity to study quite a number of impresarios from close quarters, and, finding some of them fascinating, have been on occasion unwise enough to become friends with them. Unwise? Yes, in quite a profound way. Critics and impresarios make odd couples. You never agree all the time with anyone—kith, kin, lovers or close friends—and a disagreement between an impresario and a critic will almost certainly carry with it certain financial implications, as well as that special sense of betrayal we all feel when a friend disagrees with that very personal thing, our own artistic taste and judgment. The late Sol Hurok, a man I was proud to count as a friend, and from whom I learned a lot of horses sense about the performing arts, once told me: “You know, Clive, the critic’s job is to sell tickets.” I replied, “Sol, you are absolutely right, but we get to choose the tickets we feel are worth selling.” You can immediately see the difficulty and the potential pitfalls and pratfalls.
“Sol, like many impresarios, was a colorful, larger-than-life personality, a generous spirit (yes, he could also be mean, but the spirit was willing) and a fund of stories, a few unlikely, and all starring himself as hero. At the end of his life—and we had our last lunch together a day or so before he died—he tended towards garrulity, telling the same stories over and over. I never had the unkindness to point this boring point out, hoping that when I too am reduced to the same geriatric infirmity no one will have the unkindness to point it out to me—so possibly I was half-unconsciously paying dues toward such life insurance. And after all, I owed him hours and hours of pleasure.
“There are two other impresarios I have been particularly drawn to—one was Julian Braunsweg, not all that well-known, but the founder with Alicia Markova and Anton Dolin of London Festival Ballet, and, of course, the irrepressible hero of these memoirs, Paul Szilard. First something on Braunsweg. I suppose every impresario has something of the rogue in his personality—they are after all in part kidders and conjurors—but Brausweg gave the indefinable but pungent impression that he had rather more than was strictly necessary. Yet he lost a fortune pouring his own money—and that of his long-suffering but intensely loyal wife—into the limitless needs of running a then totally unsubsidized ballet company, in the bizarre hope that one day he and it would strike it rich. Yet, I must say, Julian lived quite well—presumably on credit, expense accounts and income tax deductions. His accountant—whom I also knew slightly—was heroic.
“Yet of all three of these impresarios, unquestionably my favorite is Paul. Read these quixotic memoirs, a picaresque journey through late 20th century dance, and you’ll soon see why. I don’t quite remember when I met him—it’s lost in the midst of those mists of antiquity—but I was always drawn to his unusual character, a wonderful mix of blunt honesty, bitchy wit and oddly self-deprecating charm. Perhaps it’s also because he’s Hungarian, and I myself have more than enough Hungarian blood in me for my DNA to dance continually a sort of Jewish czardas. I have never really believed there was anything in this kind of racial profiling, but I must admit that I always seem to get on with Hungarians suspiciously well. And when I first went there, Budapest appeared a lot like home.
“Paul has had a wonderful life—and it shows. I’ve never been able to quite pin him down on anything, and I’ve been careful never to let him pin me down on anything either. I guess it’s the Hungarian connection. But his stories are a delight, and his opinions, although often impossible, are trenchant and always amusing. Of course, I thank God, Terpsichore, or both that Paul never became a critic. His private opinions—never publicly expressed—would devastate whole areas of international dance. Yet when he likes something, his enthusiasm can light up the sky. Also—and this is unusual—what he lacks and dislikes often has a cheering lack of relationship with what he is actually promoting. And because he soon realized that, being as stubborn as a log, I was not subject to influence, happily he spares me his highly opinionated opinions. And interestingly when we disagree—even on the touchy subject of dance or dancers he is himself promoting—he appears to worry about it as little as I do. Another Hungarian connection, I suspect.
“Although I’ve known Paul a long time—about thirty-five years I suppose—a lot of this book came completely fresh to me. Some of its raucous outrageousness hardly surprised me—I think I liked in this context his portrait sketch of a mutual and much-admired friend, Lincoln Kirstein, particularly relishing the anecdote about the steambaths—but there was so much in his story that was new to me. I never saw him dance—although my first sight of him was during the late fifties in a photograph of him near-naked partnering a near-naked Nora Kaye which we ran in a British magazine I was then editing, Dance and Dancers. But I have watched him operate so effectively in the wings as manager/impresario. And now storyteller.
“And what stories! Who would have guessed that he once auditioned for Lichine—well, that much you might have guessed—but with Georg Solti as his piano accompanist? Then look again at the character studies here—the slightly dubious homophobia of a nose-twitching Balanchine; the supreme self-assurance of Patrick Dupond; the charming slipperiness of Lucia Chase; Erik Bruhn’s angst-promoting quest for perfection; the heartfelt agonies, troubles and genius of Alvin Ailey; these and so many more are caught on the wings, sometimes in almost casual sketches, at other times, notably with Ailey, in carefully etched portraits. Note, too, the portrait Paul gives of that chaotic Europe at the turn of the forties, a Europe almost but not totally engulfed by war, and certainly not hospitable to a Hungarian passport. By the way, do you really think it is possible to transfer a rubber stamping on a passport by means of a hard-boiled egg? One day I mean to experiment with it.
“Yet what emerges most of all from these sweetly indiscreet memoirs is the portrait of Paul, and rather more shadowy but distinctly omnipresent, his wife Ariane. Paul himself comes across as the India-rubber optimist, the fierce, indomitable survivor, that clearly all impresarios need to be. His entire career has provided the template for his entire career. It is all one piece, such as his running around from country to country, from dance studio to dance studio, from Paris’s Salle Wacker to London’s West Street—who would have imagined he took classes with Vera Volkova and the adorable little Stanislas Idzikowsky (and yes, Stas could turn like a top right into his seventies) in London? But all his adventures in Europe and the Orient, from managing the rich and eccentric Anna Galina’s troupe to taking American Ballet theatre to Europe, or, back in America, persuading Alicia Alonso and three other temperamental diva-ballerinas to behave themselves in a performance of Pas de Quatre, are part of his whole life in dance. Over the years Paul has gotten to go everywhere—nowadays it’s Concorde to Europe, but earlier travel came in humbler packages—and knows everyone, and, of course, everyone’s gossip.
“Naturally Paul being Paul he tells all he knows—gossip to Paul is mother’s milk. Yet in this book, Paul is never unkind. What I like most about the man is his unexpectedly diffident generosity of spirit. He giggles at life, giggles at himself, but he has his down-to-earth understanding of what it means to live, work and survive, and those giggles are never petty. They indicate, as Shakespeare said, “What fools these mortals be.” So his wickedest story has the sting of compassion in his tale.
“But if Paul is compassionate he is also extraordinarily shrewd—he is nobody’s fool, not even his own. He seems that very rare creature—and read these memoirs bearing this in mind—who really has no hypocrisy in his make-up and disapproves of it in others, as well as pomposity and pretentiousness. Yet you rarely find him judgmental—he passes off the world’s faults with a laugh rather than a sneer or a frown, and he is as open about his own peccadilloes as he is free with other people’s.
“I always forget how old Paul is—he makes no secret of it, finding it rather a subject of personal pride, but I have no head for numbers—but he is enormously young for his age. His secret, and it’s hardly a secret, is his enthusiasm, which bubbles like that of a teenager. His eyes are constantly glinting, brightly searching for the new and unexpected—and I think you will find that search providing that thread which runs through this book. He leaves the impression of being one who has liked what he ahs found, but is still searching. He’s not old because he’s still restless ,and old people are not restless, they’re resting. So, if I were to be asked to offer a subtitle for these memoirs, I think I would suggest: “The Happy Story of a Restless Man.” And that story is evidently and cheerfully continuing. Why not?”
Foreword, by Judith Jamison
“I love Paul because he’s done so much for the Alvin Ailey American Dance theater, as well as for me personally. He’s been impresario of the company for more than thirty years, and helped to bring Alvin’s message to the world. Early on, when we were a small company, he booked us into venues where no one had put us before. But Paul had large plans for us and he believed in Alvin and Alvin’s vision. We took a step up with Paul, and we’re still stepping up, thanks to him.
“Paul was instrumental in propelling my career in very interesting ways. In the early 1970s, after Alvin choreographed Cry for me, Paul asked me to appear as a guest artist in many of the galas he was putting together. Those were wonderful evenings when dancers from around the world would perform on the same stage. Both Alvin and Paul were responsible for my doing a modern dance during those classical galas. There I was, a five-foot-ten black woman with short hair and a long skirt, dancing to taped music. Everybody else performed with a string orchestra, and wore tutus and classical ballet costumes. But Cry brought down the house every evening. I think it acted as release for the audience.
“After that, my career rocketed forward, and Paul paired me with people that I don’t think anybody else would have thought of. Paul arranged for me to dance with Mikhail Baryshnikov in Alvin’s Pas de Duke. Who else would have thought of that? When John Neumeier told Paul that he was choreographing Josephslegende, Paul told him, “I have the perfect person for you.” That opportunity to dance the role of Potiphar’s wife at the Vienna State Opera was a tremendous gift to me from Paul—a treasure. And Paul also had something to do with where I sit today. He suggested to Alvin that I eventually succeed him as Artistic Director of the Ailey company, though it was up to Alvin to make that choice.
“Paul has had so much to do with creating arenas for other people to shine in. For me, that’s his greatest accomplishment—allowing so many artists not just to be seen worldwide, but to thrive. He’s also very colorful and very loving, with a heart of gold. Plus, he has the most cutting sense of humor of anyone I know, and he’s able to get away with it because there’s no one else quite like him. He has boundless energy and enthusiasm and I hope he never runs out of steam.
I’m delighted that Paul has written his memoirs and is sharing his stories of life and dance. With Under My Wings, everyone can read what an extraordinary life he’s led.”
Preface, by Violette Verdy
“Men, not only cats, have nine lives and Paul Szilard has nine times that many. A dancer, teacher and an impresario, he has had an amazingly rich life, running the gamut from heartbreak and brushes with death to triumphs and celebrations.
“A friend to many, he has known, helped, loved, and admired the most important artists of the last century (in all disciplines), and this funny and moving book presents a rich portrait of the arts in the twentieth century.
“A wonderful storyteller and a keen observer of human behavior, he is able to make those of us who were there remember events as though they happened yesterday, and those who were not there wish that they were.
When the first Academy Award is presented for a life well and fully lives, Paul Szilard will be the recipient.”
Back cover quote, by Jacques d’Amboise
“Impresario—there are very few left. Diaghilev, Sol Hurok and lucky for us Paul Szilard who is still very much with us, publishing his enticing memoir full of passion, taste, an uncanny business sense and love for artists. That is Paul!”