Serge was a volatile personality and as such – was a volatile choreographer. He would say that he was passionate but – trust me – that’s the opinion of someone on the “giving” end versus the “receiving” end. Passionate? That’s simply another way of saying his mama didn’t teach him any self control. Along with the constant screaming, he liked to throw things – especially cigarette lighters – which would not have been a problem in that they’re light – they don’t leave a bruise when they hit – BUT in Yugoslavia at the time – it was almost impossible to find a replacement. A couple of lighters a week would bite the dust in Serge’s tirades and inevitably we’d be back on the hunt for a new one – going from kiosk to kiosk to find someone who had one that they would sell you. That was another interesting thing about Yugoslavia in those days. Just because the vendors had the merchandise didn’t necessarily mean that they would sell it to you. The government announced one day that milk prices were going up at the end of the week and all the vendors simply hoarded the dairy products until the price changed. You could see the milk – you just couldn’t buy it. Anyway – back to my story. One day as Serge was reaching his boiling point, he made a grab for the lighter – but I was quicker and snatched it away yelling “Not the lighter!” He threw a chair instead. Then he stormed out of the studio only to return a minute later (still screaming), pick up a metal trashcan and throw that too – just in case everyone hadn’t gotten the point. The chair and the trashcan survived the attack and I had the satisfaction of knowing that I had saved myself from yet another lighter hunt.
Serge’s temper tantrums were a daily event. It was almost part of the schedule. Get up, have breakfast, walk to theatre, go to rehearsal, Serge throws a tantrum, take a break, go back to rehearsal, etc. We were working on the Act One crowd scene and he wanted a dramatic group fist shake. OK – no problem. We listened to the music and he decided that the gesture should be done on count two. I walked around the room, making sure that everyone was clear “Dva, dva, dva” – yep, everyone’s got it. The next day the group executed the gesture on count two and Serge went ballistic. “That’s the wrong timing – everyone’s an idiot – blah, blah, blah”. I jumped in “Serge, that’s where you wanted it yesterday”. “God dammit Debbie, I’m the choreographer and I can do whatever I want.” Well ….. yeah, he’s right. So we established that he wanted the gesture on count three. Again I walked among the cast to clarify “Tri, Tri, Tri”. OK – everyone’s got it. Would you believe that we went through this exact same scene for two more days with the damn number changing daily? Serge’s verbal abuse towards the cast and me continued to escalate. By day four I had had it. I stood up and said “Look, I did not come to Yugoslavia to put up with this shit” and walked out, got dressed and started back to the hotel. I had barely left the theatre when I heard footsteps behind me. It was Serge. “What’s wrong” he asked. With that I broke into a screaming tirade of abuse. Serge begged me to lower my voice. I screamed that I didn’t give a damn who heard me and beside that – no one could understand me anyway. The moment I ran out of steam, I swirled around to continue my march back to the hotel. Serge’s brother was standing right in front of me with his mouth open. “Take him – He’s your brother” I barked while stomping past him. This brings me to a point that I have always found ironic. Serge lost his temper constantly around large groups of people that on the whole could have cared less what he thought. I, on the other hand, rarely lost my temper to the same degree and yet when I did – I was always caught making a total ass of myself in front of people whose opinions mattered to me. Damn.
Having grown up in the ballet hierarchy where I’ve been wrong most of my life, it was no big stretch to settle into the role of assistant (or slave). I also grew up with negative reinforcement. It was (and in some instances still is) the accepted way of teaching dance. While you train, the teacher berates you for your mistakes. While you rehearse, the rehearsal master berates you for your mistakes. I really can’t remember a time when someone would tell me what I did right while they were correcting me. For the fragile egos of a lot of dancers, this is their life. You end up developing your own method of self-defense whether it is to be incredibly submissive or irritatingly argumentative and defiant (I was the second type). I don’t like to use negative reinforcement when I work. I prefer to point out the positive aspects of a dancer’s technique, interpretation and movement while encouraging improvement in other aspects. On this point, Serge, the Macedonian rehearsal masters and I didn’t see eye to eye. We were rehearsing one of the big crowd scenes and the corps de ballet was pathetic, doing nothing except standing around and looking bored – a Dragi and Dragi moment. Serge and the Rehearsal Mistress Sonja were yelling at the group with the usual mixture of insults and pleas for the group to become more animated and energetic. There was no improvement whatsoever. Serge threw himself into the chair next to me in frustration. I leaned over to him, “You don’t know how to rehearse.” He looked at me. “You think you could do better?” I said, “I KNOW I could do better.” He thought about it for a moment and said, “OK, if you and Sonja can get this group together, I will buy each of you a silver necklace.” “OK,” I said, “But you can’t be in the room.”
I arrived for the next rehearsal to find that Sonja was nowhere to be found. OK, I was going to have to pull this one off by myself with my rudimentary Macedonian. I greeted the cast and promptly dismissed all the soloists and principals. I then turned to the pianist and asked her to play the scene. The corps de ballet stood in confusion while the music played. I waited and let their confusion build. Five minutes later when the music finished, I looked at the dancers. “Do you feel stupid?” I asked. My question was translated by the few that spoke English. “Well people, here is my point. This ballet is not just about the soloists. The heart of this work is you. If you’re not good, the ballet isn’t good. I have watched all of you outside of the studio and you are a very animated group of people. Take what you do naturally, bring it onto the stage and the audience will love you.” I challenged them to find their own interpretations and create their own characters and story lines. Walking around the room for the next half hour, I helped create scenarios and encouraged outrageous behavior. At the end of the rehearsal, Serge came in. They did the scene for him and it was perfect. I looked at Serge, “I want gold.” “What?” he said. “I want a gold necklace. Sonja didn’t show up.” I got my gold necklace and the ballet was a success.