Nicholas Johnson, Ballet Dancer – A Tribute
OK, so I know no one has heard of Nicholas Johnson - but he was one of my favourite dancers in my youth, and I recently learned that he died back in 2007, at the age of only 59. In trying to find out more about his life, I was saddened at how little information I could find. It illustrates how ephemeral a dancer's life is - even a relatively successful dancer's life. I daresay there are young dancers today who've never heard of Rudolph Nureyev or Margot Fonteyn, let alone a mere Royal Ballet principal like Nicholas Johnson.
I'm not going to write an obituary - The Telegraph has already done that. I prefer to celebrate his dancing - which was glorious. This video, which is reproduced here thanks to his friend Diane Adams, gives just a hint of his ability (I especially love the lift from kneeling at the end!).
The ballet critic Oleg Kerensky once compared him to Serge Lifar, and said,
Nicholas Johnson is a glorious dancer. He has a magnificent presence on the stage, and a wonderful, flowing, liquid line that is marvellous to watch . . . If you see these two [Nicholas Johnson and Margaret Barbieri] in "Giselle", you realise what ballet is all about.
Dance and Dancers had this to say:
Field Figures is a rare and beautiful triumph... Nicholas Johnson achieves greatness - there is a restrained urgency, a taut control, a detached certainty in every beautiful movement which carries utter conviction.
I often wondered why Nicholas had not gone on to great things, but the Telegraph obituary answers that question - due to an unidentified virus, he had a paralysed arm for a year, at a crucial time in his career. Another illustration of how fragile a dancer's career is!
I first came across Nicholas when he was billeted at my house during a Royal Ballet season in my hometown. I've written about that experience in this post. It was enormously exciting to have a "real dancer" living in my home, and as a young teenager I immediately fell madly in love with him - so my reviews (below) may be somewhat biased! However, I'm in good company with the critics above, so I'm sticking by what I wrote!
My reviews are reproduced below - please note, the video clips are NOT of those performances.
Ballet: The Two Pigeons
Role: The gypsy lover
"I found it hard to believe that the quiet, modest, fair-haired Nicholas we have come to know was the same man I saw burst on the stage tonight with such fire and brio. He was dressed all in black, a black wig and mustache and dark body make-up.
I had enjoyed Cook's [the Young Man's] dancing in the first act, but with Nicholas' entrance I realized the faults in Cook's dancing. With him, you admire his skill in succeeding in a difficult leap. Nicholas makes it look effortless. And there is acting talent there, too. At first he was just a dashing gypsy with a flashing smile. Then, when the Young Man began to show interest in Djali, he snatched her away and raised a threatening fist, suddenly becoming frighteningly menacing. He came across the footlights.
In the encampment scene, his "presence" showed again. While the Young Man and Djali were dancing, he entered quietly, enveloped in a black cloak in dim light - yet you noticed him immediately."
"Job was a complete mystery to me. The only choreography I could really understand was that given to the Devil and to Elihu. Here, Nicholas Johnson had a very sympathetic role. Most of the other characters were grotesque, old or wearing drab clothes. Elihu - young, athletic and wearing only pale blue footless tights and a wreath of leaves - was flattered by the violent contrast, seeming to actually shine as if surrounded by a halo. It's surprising how handsome Nicholas manages to look on stage.
At the end, he was justifiably given a curtain call to himself,and received louder applause than anyone else - except Hendrik Davel [the Devil] who was cheered to the echo."
Ballet: Pineapple Poll
Role: Captain Belaye
"Did someone mention versatility? That one dancer could be a successful Albrecht, a "soaring" Bluebird, a "second Lifar" and a comedy actor as well, seemed impossible - so I took my seat in the theatre with some trepidation.
My fears were unfounded! From the moment he strode confidently about the stage as the girls swooned to the floor around him, I knew it would work. He whipped through multiple entrechats, shoe buckles twinkling, as if they were a Sunday stroll. His versions of the hornpipe (the basis of most of his dances) were more polished and less abandoned than those of his crew - but none the less dashing with his militarily straight back and assurance.
His third scene opening hornpipe was a show-stopper, showing a surprising aptitude for fast neat steps as well as those effortless leaps, all with the imperturbable panache so vital to Belaye's character.
At the end, Doreen Wells and Nicholas, taking separate curtain calls, drew cheers, whistles and thunderous applause from the audience."
Ballet: Field Figures
"In spite of Dance and Dancers glowing review, I didn't think Field Figures showed Nicholas at his absolute best. Perhaps if I'd understood the ballet, I would've understood his performance! Much of it was undeniably beautiful. Nicholas had hundreds of double tours to do - all apparently without effort. I don't know where the energy comes from."
A couple of seasons later, I had the chance to see Nureyev in another Tetley work (Laborintus), which gave me an interesting insight into the differences between Nureyev and Johnson. Here is what I had to say:
"Seeing Nureyev in a similar work by the same choreographer, doing similar steps and movements, showed the difference clearly.
Nicholas is light, slim and (in formalist dancing) gives a cool, pure, classical impression - although I know he can act other moods. He seems not to be bound by the laws of gravity - it's no surprise to see him soar through the air, he seem to be built never to touch the ground. Nureyev is stronger, heavier - a creature of the earth, and his feet belong firmly on the soil. It's a surprise to find him suddenly spring effortlessly from his native element into one not meant to take his weight. That's what makes his elevation look spectacular - not the height of his jump. He's also the opposite of Nicholas in mood - while Nicholas was meant to be other-worldly, Nureyev embodies the primitive."
Reading that again, it sounds as though Nicholas Johnson was a fey, feminine dancer - but in fact, in spite of his lightness, he was a thoroughly masculine dancer. Forty years later, I still remember the impression he made!
I wish I could have seen him perform as Nijinsky in his one-man play. With his Polish origins, acting ability and graceful dancing, he would have made an ideal Nijinsky.