On a misty Sunday afternoon in San Francisco, ABILITY’s David Zimmerman transcended a flight of steps to the second floor of an elegant duplex. He was invited for tea, but also about to take a journey into the life of former prima ballerina Janet Sassoon. She’s performed around the world, and is a former star of both the San Francisco and Chicago Ballet companies.
On the day Zimmerman visited, Sassoon’s husband John Upton sat across from her and the three of them chatted in the couple’s intimate living room, where framed photographs reflect a life of fulfilled dreams, outstanding accomplishments and enduring love.
David Zimmerman: When did you realize ballet would become your life?
Janet Sassoon: My mother took me to a ballet in the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco when I was 5 years old. The ballet was Romeo and Juliet. Afterwards, I turned to my mother and said, “I am going to dance in this house, and I am going to dance Juliet.” My mother said, “Uh-huh, yes, darling, that’s very nice to hear.” I loved being onstage and knew that I had to strive to be good enough to dance on the stage.
Zimmerman: You were born in—
Sassoon: In Surabaya, which was then in the Dutch East Indies and is now Indonesia’s second largest city.
Zimmerman: So you started dancing at a young age.
Sassoon: Absolutely, even though my father didn’t approve of dancing as a career. He wanted me to get married and give him grandchildren. Against his approval, my mother took me to ballet school.
Zimmerman: He knew about it, though?
Sassoon: Oh, yes. I fought him tooth and nail. I was going to dance, and that was it. I didn’t care about university. The education I got in the theater was far greater than I ever would have gotten in college. I met incredible people, I memorized a full-length ballet, and I got special tutoring to make up for being out of school.
Zimmerman: Your dad and mom took you to LA. Did you father start to think: “Maybe this is not such a bad idea?”
Sassoon: He still did not approve, but he allowed it. He was also concerned about how hard a life it was, and that you don’t make much money doing it. We weren’t madly rich, but we were affluent, so I didn’t have to worry about that too much. And once I started dancing, I never had to pay for a class. They were so thrilled to have a professional dancer. It’s a rule of the theater that if you’re a professional who dances in a company, you don’t pay for your classes; you’re a guest. Later on, I worked every day with Lubov Egorova. I loved her class. She taught me reverence, which is by the way, the title of my forthcoming book.
Zimmerman: Beautiful name!
Sassoon: It means that we show reverence to the teacher after class; we show reverence for the audience every night onstage as we bow; and we show reverence for our art and what we’re doing.
Sassoon: It’s very important. One critic said that every dancer should see the reverence of Janet Sassoon and follow how she does it. So Madame Egorova taught me to first address the right box, where the tsar (Russian leader) was, and secondly the left box, where the dukes were, and then the balcony and finally the entire theater. She taught me to go down on my knee and bow. Bowing to the audience is very important, and you do it differently in classical ballet in Russia, than you do in more modern ballet such as in Germany and Japan.
Zimmerman: Was it in Berlin that you became a prima ballerina?
Sassoon: Yes. With many companies this is the path: You begin in the corps de ballet (main company), become a little soloist, a big soloist, a ballerina, and then a prima ballerina. In Europe, we do it a little bit differently. We go from soloist to ballerina and to prima ballerina. The male dancer is danseur, and the male equivalent of a prima ballerina is a prima danseur. In my life, I have only seen one prima ballerina assoluta and that I think was in a Russian ballet company.
Zimmerman: What made you go into teaching?
Sassoon: Sadly, it’s a long story. I had an accident in a lift. My partner onstage in Hamburg, Germany, did a twist, and my knee went forward. Even though I asked the doctor not to, he stupidly shot me with cortisone. The medication made me feel like I hadn’t been injured, so I kept dancing and breaking off more and more cartilage in my knee. Eventually it was too hard to continue, and I had to stop. But it was time. My God, I danced into my 30s professionally.
And something really marvelous came up. There was a school called the Academy of Ballet that my father had financed, and the ballet master that I had worked with there left, he was replaced by Alan Howard, who was a brilliant dancer in the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in New York City. In San Francisco, Alan was my partner in such dances as Don Quixote and Black Swan. He partnered with me to perform the classics.
But the companies over here didn’t dance every night, and I was used to dancing every single night, so I went to Europe. You’re going to get older, and you have only those years to dance, then you either teach or coach.
Zimmerman: You said that the great thing that came out of all of it was the teaching.
Sassoon: Yes. And not only the teaching, but suddenly through Armen “Madam Bali” Baliantz, a lady here who had a Russian restaurant, I met Rudolf Nureyev, whom I danced with once in New York. I was a guest with the Chicago Ballet, when Nureyev did his first American performance; that was my first introduction to him. When I began teaching in San Francisco, through Madam Bali, I got to work with all these great Russian first dancers when they were there. So I got Natalia (Natasha) Makarova, a prima ballerina assoluta. There was only one prima ballerina assoluta up until the time she danced. And here I had her in my hands for five months after the birth of her child!
Zimmerman: Oh, my goodness.
Sassoon: I closed the doors. I told the girls, “No peeking,” because they could peek from the bathroom door in the back of the studio or from the front door. So Natasha dressed in my private dressing room. But when you saw her walking through, you could stop her and ask for an autograph. I have never seen a body that moved so easily, everything she did was so beautifully executed. However, I had to get her back in shape after childbirth, which was no easy job.
I once made the mistake of saying, “Well, that was a difficult step I gave you.” And she looked at me and said, “I don’t need you to tell me how difficult it is; I need you to tell me how to do it.”
One day I said to her, “You know, I have the world’s most perfect ballerina in front of me, and I never get to enjoy watching you dance because I’m constantly looking for problems.” I just thought, what the hell? So I told her, “I want to stop, take a breath, and watch you dance.” And she burst out laughing, and I burst out laughing. We were wonderful friends. She would bring me flowers and treat me to dinner.
Zimmerman: And that day she danced for you?
Sassoon: She danced for me.
Zimmerman: That is wonderful.
Sassoon: So then when she was with the American Ballet Theatre, she asked me again to coach her. Anthony Dowell was then dancing with Natasha Makarova in ABT and Dowell had injured himself. Now we were in a pickle. Lucia Chase, who co-founded the ABT, called me in the office and said, “You’ve got to go to Natasha. I have telephoned New York, and Nureyev is arriving tonight at 11 o’clock. Nureyev and Natasha had had some little tiff, so they weren’t on good terms. You’ve got to talk Natasha in, because the audience is expecting Natasha and Dowell. I cannot do this in San Francisco tomorrow. There’s a matinee and an evening performance, and both are totally sold out, because of Natasha Markova and Anthony Dowell. I have to do something more, and I need you back here at 11 o’clock.” This was at 5 o’clock.
So I went in. I had to break the news to Natasha. I said, “Natasha, there’ll be no funny business. Nureyev is on his way. He’ll be here at 11 o’clock. I will rehearse you for tomorrow’s Swan Lake, and I promise you, there will be no problems because neither of you are going to give me a problem. You have to agree because, as Chase said, the audience will be outraged if they don’t get you and Dowell, but they’ll be in heaven if they get you and Nureyev. I got on the telephone and tried to call all my friends to tell them to get tickets for tomorrow, there’s a big surprise. I told one of the dancers, “You get on the phone and tell all the dancers what’s going on,” so that they would get tickets for the performance.
When I came back later that night, Rudy Nureyev walked in. The first thing he did was say, “Uh, I need a towel.” At that time I had a secretary and told her to go to buy me a towel. I threw the towel at Nureyev and said, “Here!” Then he came into the studio. I gave certain corrections, right to the point. I put my hands on their bodies. In the pas de deux of Swan Lake, there is a moment when the ballerina does an attitude or leg lift, puts one arm across the partner, then adds the other arm, and they rock back and forth in an embrace.
There’s another part where Natasha has to go under his arm, and I made sure it was done with great love, because she was so magnificent that I didn’t want anything spoiled by their conflict in the past.
Zimmerman: I bet it was an amazing show.
Sassoon: The next day, the matinee was first. (laughs) The audience went wild when it was announced. “Ladies and gentleman, Anthony Dowell cannot dance, he’s injured.” And you heard, “Oooooh!” “However, Rudy Nureyev will dance with Natasha Makarova in Swan Lake. And then they went, “Oooooh!” You could here it all through the opera house.
I was dying because I had to be backstage and couldn’t go out in front to see them. I watched from the wings, and it was absolute magic. Afterwards, I went to Natasha’s dressing room and there were tons of people outside; Natasha came to the door and said, “Please let my teacher in! I need to see my teacher!” They let me cut through the crowd; I entered the dressing room; and she closed the door. I told her what needed fixing for that evening’s performance.
Zimmerman: You had a rehearsal between the two shows?
Sassoon: Yup. A slight one, just for the things I saw. And then she told me, “You have to go to Rudy.” I originally said “No,” but I went to Rudy. When I knocked on the door, and he allowed me in, he said, “And—?” And I told him what I saw that could be corrected. I was totally professional, and he said very nicely, “You see? Your towel brought me luck!” He became softer and more willing. I managed to manipulate this kind of feeling from Rudy, and there was no question about Natasha. I love her to death. The two of them together were sensational.
Zimmerman: I can only imagine that evening’s performance!
Sassoon: The second one was even better. I told them each what I thought of their solos, and what they could correct. That was one of my greatest experiences in my career.
Zimmerman: Brilliant. What an amazing story.
Sassoon: It was truly amazing. And that it should come to me, my God. God was so good to me in my own career and afterwards, in my teaching, then coaching, which I love. I don’t like teaching class as much. I love coaching.
Zimmerman: What is your biggest joy right now?
Sassoon: My husband.
Sassoon: Absolutely. It didn’t take one second to answer that, did it?
Zimmerman: No, not a second.
Sassoon: It’s straight from my heart. My husband. Of course my life has been dance, and my love has been dance and theater. I have to include all theater. I love the smell of a theater. There is a special smell from the curtains (breathes in), and I love it. I love the blue lights.
Zimmerman: Oh, yes!
Sassoon: I’m already thinking of a sequel to Reverence, which will be called The Blue Lights.
Zimmerman: That’s a wonderful title, yes. That could even be the title of the movie! (laughs)
Sassoon: (laughs) Let’s just say, I still have such passion for my work. I honor my teachers, I honor the dancers, I honor the public, and I honor what God has given me to project in my lifetime to others.
Zimmerman: You know what? It seems that you honored yourself as well by going down the path you wanted to take.
Sassoon: Absolutely. I did what I dreamed of at 5 years old, and now I’m over 70.
Zimmerman: You’re very beautiful.
Sassoon: Thank you. I feel beautiful inside. And hopefully, when I danced, that kind of beauty came out, because I truly believe that you must perform from the inside out, not from the outside in. But what you have inside comes out, and I try very hard to coach as well from the inside out. I thank God for giving me the tools of my body, my talent, and the chance to do what I dreamt of doing when I was so young. What can I say? If I died tomorrow, I have had the most wonderful life.
Zimmerman: Along the way, you’ve had to deal with reflex sympathetic dystrophy syndrome (RSD).
Sassoon: Yes, RSD is a disease of the nerves that is totally debilitating. It is acquired through a surgery or a tremendous blow to the body. I got it after a foot surgery from a doctor who was supposed to be the best: during the operation he hit a nerve, which gave me RSD. It’s painful, but it hasn’t stopped me. I have enormous discipline and I have love in my life.
Zimmerman: I can see you have plenty of love in your life.
Sassoon: I’ve had so much love. First of all from my parents, from my students, from my husband, which means the most. He loves me in spite of this terrible disease that disrupts my life. Who do you think gives me my injections? My husband. Who do you think lies by my side and comforts me when I’m in pain? Who do you think talks me out of being desperate? My husband. My husband is my greatest love.
John Upton: Happily for me, too.
Sassoon: Ours is a happy home. My husband has a great sense of humor. If you don’t have a sense of humor in life, how can you live? I don’t think it works. I love a sense of humor. My husband is terribly funny, and he makes me laugh a lot. The laughter takes away the pain. In my worst moments, he may say something, and I forget all the pain and laugh.
Zimmerman: You two feel like pieces of a puzzle.
Upton: Janet is beautiful, unique and special.
Sassoon: As you get older, you know better what to do with yourself.
Zimmerman: And you’ve done it!
Sassoon: I did it! And I did more than most. It’s been a varied career. I didn’t just do it in one place. I danced all over: from Japan to South America to the stages of Europe. I danced everywhere.