Ballet Spotlight: Postcards

By Sheri Candler

In 1980, Robert Joffrey choreographed his final work for the company. Postcards is a ballet depicting vignettes of love, romance and Parisian life in the early 1900′s. The dancers wear cream-colored costumes by John David Ridge and the piece is set to music by French composer and pianist Erik Satie,  a colourful figure in the early 20th century Parisian avant-garde movement.

Staff photographer Herbert Migdoll spoke about his contribution to the set of the ballet in an interview for the film. “He [Mr. Joffrey] was very aware of the beauty of Satie’s music and the beauty of Paris.  He wanted to create a work that incorporated the essence of Satie, and Bob’s vision of what all that was about.  He adored Satie.”

“He had an artist create the front curtain, Joe Brainard, who was a very important painter at that time, in the ‘80s. And then he asked me to do the backdrop. He wanted it to have an arch.  When he first came to me, he said, ‘Herb, I want you to do the set for Postcards.’ I thought about it and the next day I went to him and said, ‘Bob, I can’t think of anything.  I have not done anything yet for the company in terms of a set.’ I had dreamed of an idea before, but it’s really up to a choreographer to present you with the opportunity, not for you to go and say, ‘Have I got a set for you.’”

“I said, you know, I have awfully strong feelings about modern stuff, modernism and abstract stuff.  I don’t think I’m right for a Satie turn of the century or a 1920s ballet. But he said, ‘No, I want the front curtain to depict what you’re talking about.  Brainard will do the collage painting for the front curtain.  But when the curtain goes up, I want it to be Paris, the essence of Paris but expressed in a very modern vision, Paris today.’”

“So I went to Paris with him and his assistant, Mary Whitney, to go through materials a specialist on Satie had.  I picked a lot of the pictures for Brainard to use to make his front curtain.  And someone told me there was a wonderful ceiling at the Grand Palais, a wrought iron kind of ceiling like at Penn Station in its day, which is no longer there. When I got there, I thought, ‘Oh, the ceiling is perfect.’”

“When we got back to New York, I showed Bob all the stuff.  I also had photographs of the Eiffel Tower, just as I had details of the ceiling.  And I showed him all the photographs that I took that I felt might work for backdrops.  And he said, ‘I don’t like anything you’ve shown me.  The only things I like in the series you did are the ceiling and the Eiffel Tower.  Do you think you could do something with that?’ I created an arch out of those details.  But it was really Bob’s visual sensibility that directed me towards the brilliant backdrop set. He was such a strong visual presence.”

As a young dancer who had just joined the company at the time, Leslie Carothers-Aromaa remembered how it felt to be in the studio with Mr. Joffrey. “Depending on what era people were in, he was either in the studio a lot or not at all. But in 1980 when I first joined, he was very involved, not only teaching, but with this beautiful ballet he put together all to Erik Satie music, café songs. There was a character, a man who sort of represented Erik Satie, but a little bit represented Robert Joffrey as well.”

“It was a fascinating process and also a labor of love. He found all of this music and it completely floored him. All of this unknown café music of Erik Satie. Being in the dance studio with him week after week, as a part of a new creation, I was only 18 at the time, it really was a great thrill. I look back now at how incredibly privileged I was because that was the last time that happened with him.

“He choreographed it without music first. I was part of a duet with Madelyn Berdes and he taught it to us as one two, one two, one two and then much later we got the music and put it together with that. It was something I had never seen done before, but it was a fascinating experience for me.”

“We were in these 1920s looking costumes and there were pas de deuxs, multiple group dances and women’s group dances. We had live singing as well, opera singers. It was brought back a couple of times in the years that followed, maybe even shortened at one point,” said Carothers-Aromaa.

Postcards (17 dancers – 8 female, 9 male), Premiere: June 12, 1980, Opera House, Seattle, WA

Here is an excerpt from Postcards:

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