Ray Barra: dancer, ballet master, choreographer

This exceptional artist, a much-loved protagonist of the ballet world, celebrated his 90th birthday on 3rd January 2020. Timely, for the occasion, Victor Hughes has published a biography revealing the full extent of Ray Barra’s remarkable career.

Artikel aus vom 07.01.2020
  • Ray Barra im Ballettsaal (mit François Klaus im Spiegel) Foto © Holger Badekow
  • Maximo Barra und Ray Barra Foto © Privatfoto
  • Proben im Ballettsaal in Hamburg: Ray Barra, Victor Hughes, John Neumeier, Truman Finney (vorne) Foto © Holger Badekow
  • Ray Barra als Onegin in John Crankos gleichnamigem Ballett Foto © Serge Lido
  • Ray Barra als Romeo in John Crankos "Romeo und Julia" (1962) Foto © Ken Bell
  • Ray Barras Ballett "Poema Divino" für das Spanische Nationalballett Foto © José R. Pino
  • Foto © The Book Guild Ltd.
  • Victor Hughes Foto © Holger Badekow

By Annette Bopp, translation: Victor Hughes

Though Ray Barra was one of the founding members of the ‘ballet miracle’, the Stuttgart Ballet, in the early sixties his name is seldom mentioned when one speaks of the formative years of that company. When Ray was a principal dancer in Stuttgart, John Cranko had just notched up his early successes paving the way to international fame. Ray was there, participating in the new version of "Romeo and Juliet" (1962) and "Onegin" (1965); indeed, he created the principal male roles in both ballets. Not only that; Kenneth MacMillan cast him in two of his creations for Stuttgart: "Las Hermanas" (1963) and "Das Lied von der Erde" (1965) – in the latter accompanied by Marcia Haydée and Egon Madsen. Ray brought to all these important roles an unpretentious dance talent enhanced by a dramatic and natural virile presence.

How important he was for Stuttgart’s development, and concurrently, what an amazingly long and multi-facetted career, not only as dancer but later as coach, choreographer and ballet director he enjoyed, is celebrated in a biography published on the occasion of his 90th birthday: RAY BARRA – A LIFE IN BALLET. The subtitle, A Life in Ballet, connotates a double entendre: it was a life in the midst of, as well as for ballet. Victor Hughes, who himself was for many years a dancer and ballet master with the Hamburg Ballet under John Neumeier and is a friend of Ray’s, has undertaken the task of documenting this exceptional artist’s life. His book is not only a splendid narrative of the artist’s development and career, but at the same time, an attempt at interweaving Ray’s story into many important stations of ballet’s history during the second half of the twentieth century and the early decade of the present. It seems as if Ray Barra, Californian-born, was somehow present, participant or a witness of much that was important in the world of ballet of the time.

Fresh from college and eager to learn ballet in order to improve his tap technique, Ray enrolled at the San Francisco Ballet School in 1948. There he made rapid progress and was accepted into the company. This first engagement, however, was interrupted when called up for military service in the Korean War. Fortunately, stationed in Japan for the duration of his service (1952-53), he thereby escaped being sent to the war arena itself. Back home he resumed his San Francisco engagement, auditioned for Ballet Theatre (later known as American Ballet Theatre) and was accepted. He danced with that company from 1953-58. When ABT announced a long lay-off period with no certainty of re-assembly, he decided to try his luck in Europe. There, in Stuttgart, he found employment with the Württemberg State Theatre, first as a soloist under the direction of ‘Papa Beriozoff’ and then with John Cranko who took over the directorship in 1961. On his 36th birthday a torn Achilles tendon brought his dancing career to an end.

Forced into a decision about what to do next, he accompanied Kenneth MacMillan to Berlin as ballet master of the Ballet of the Deutsche Oper (West Berlin), staying there until MacMillan left. From 1970 until 1976 he was John Neumeier’s ballet master, first in Frankfurt am Main and then from 1973 in Hamburg. He assisted Neumeier on major creations from this time: "Romeo and Julia" (1971), "The Nutcracker" (1971), "Daphnis and Chloe" (1972), "Third Symphony of Gustav Mahler" (1975) and "Illusions – like Swan Lake" (1976). After leaving Hamburg he retained his connection to Neumeier, assisting him on important creations: "The Legend of Joseph" (1977, Vienna), "Lady of the Camellias" (1978, Stuttgart) and "A Streetcar Named Desire" (1983, Stuttgart).

From 1985 to 1990 Ray was artistic director of the Ballet Nacional de España (Clasico) (later renamed Ballet del Teatro Lirico Nacional) for which company he embarked on a prolific series of his own ballet creations. This employment was doubly welcome as by this time he and his partner Maximo Barra – same name, though Maximo’s was his own family name – had decided to leave Minorca where they had built their own house and move to Marbella. On the Iberian mainland they could supervise the alterations to their new home while working from Madrid. Maximo, Ray’s great love, his partner for 54 years sadly passed away in August 2018. Through the years Ray has been open about his homosexuality – especially during a time when being gay was socially disapproved of and contrary to moral and secular law. While a member of Ballet Theatre he entered into a relationship with the company’s great male star, Erik Bruhn. The relationship eased somewhat when Ray moved to Stuttgart, but came to end decisively when Bruhn met Rudolf Nureyev.

In Athens, in the 1990s, following an invitation from the Greek State School of Dance, he brought about an improvement and reassessment of their classical dance department. Then from 1994 till 1996, helping out the Deutsche Oper’s Intendant, Götz Friedrich, he took over the abruptly vacated position of ballet director and stayed on beyond the interim period for two and a half years. For many his directorship there was one of the happiest and artistically successful.

During his Berlin tenure, Ray choreographed his first completely original full-length ballet "The Snow Queen". Other full-length ballets followed: for a ballet company in Istanbul, "Leyla and Majnun" (1996), a ballet based on the twelfth-century Persian poem. The Munich State Ballet commissioned him to do his versions of three so-called Petipa ballets: "Don Quixote" (1991), "Swan Lake" (1995) and "Raymonda" (2001). Later, back in Greece, he was involved in something more complex: Mikis Theodorakis’s "Canto General" (2005) based on poems by Pablo Neruda for the Greek National Ballet - performed in the Herod Atticus Theatre, Athens in the presence of, and on the occasion of the composer’s seventy-fifth birthday. Finally, in 2007, invited by Birgit Keil to choreograph for her company in Karlsruhe, he created what one might consider the culmination of his creative activities: "Carmen". In all he choreographed over 20 ballets; many of them full-length.

The most fascinating feature of this kaleidoscopic account of an artist’s life is how Ray’s many and various encounters are brought into the warp and weft of ballet history. Victor Hughes has managed this in such a way that one is reluctant to put this 250-page book down. Ray was part of a development that significantly marked the dance of our time, especially in Germany: the Stuttgart Ballet developed into the cradle from whence many a prominent choreographer emerged: John Neumeier, Jiri Kilian, William Forsythe, Uwe Scholz, to name a few.

Asked how he came to write Ray Barra’s biography, Victor Hughes, previously a dancer and ballet master with the Hamburg Ballet replied, “I would never have tackled writing this book without the prompting of Giselle Roberge. Giselle, now a friend, used to be a colleague: we were both dancers and ballet masters with the Hamburg Ballet. When Giselle stopped dancing, she served briefly as ballet mistress in the German provinces but had the good fortune of being offered a job by Ray in Spain. At the time Ray was director of the Ballet Nacional de España/Clasico and needed a ballet mistress. From this period, which brought her closer to Ray, arose the feeling that his achievements in the sphere of ballet had not been worthily appraised or documented. She turned to me as someone who had worked with him and was furthermore a friend. Surely, I should write his biography before it was too late. Until I started to investigate all the facets of Ray’s life, I was hardly aware of the diversity, the richness and length of a career, which spanned the second half of the twentieth century and extended right into the first decade of the new one. Ray seems to have met and/or worked with most of the important figures in ballet history of that period.”

What did set the ball rolling to Victor Hughes’s commitment to set down Ray’s life’s story, was an essay he had written about the English choreographer Antony Tudor. As Ray had worked with Tudor, a much revered and feared choreographer, Victor showed him it on his first visit to Marbella. He wanted to know what Ray thought about the essay. After reading it, Ray replied, “Good … maybe you should write my biography.” Perhaps, at that time, Ray was feeling left out because of several biographies of his ex-Stuttgart colleagues that had recently been published: Marcia Haydée, Egon Madsen, Birgit Keil, Georgette Tsinguiridis … his was missing. Even Birgit Keil had told him, “You should tell your story!”

Victor Hughes has spent over two years writing this book involving much research, telephoning or visiting Ray in Marbella. “Ray often disarmingly told me that he was never the possessor of a bravura technique. He was, however, an exceptionally good partner and this is what, according to him, counted in narrative ballet. Indeed, when he danced for Cranko in Stuttgart he was Marcia Haydée’s first partner - with him she rose to become Stuttgart’s prima ballerina. In “Ballett in Stuttgart" (1964), Horst Koegler wrote: “In his narrative ballets, Cranko redefined the male hero by making him the centre of the drama in his Swan Lake, Romeo and Juliet and Firebird. It was a revolutionary act made possible by the presence and commitment of Ray Barra. His example shows most clearly how Cranko did not create roles in his ballets for a fictitious ideal cast, but precisely for the dancers who were at his disposal. Barra is actually no danseur noble, but in reality a character dancer – whence it must be emphasised the usual nomenclature does not apply. He is the possessor of a somewhat raw talent which, however, in recent years he has certainly polished. He does not fashion abstract figures but creates sharply defined roles, erect and manly characters – individuals of warm human breath. He is the born cavalier, the most obliging and skilful partner a ballerina could wish for.”

What is special about Ray, according to Victor, is his humanity: “He has an amazingly wonderful way with people – both in normal social intercourse but especially in the ballet studio. There he is demanding, can be strict, but is always fair. He never puts a dancer down - is positive in his criticism. He always seems to be in a good mood, bringing an enjoyable working atmosphere to the studio. This is not only important for the dancers, but also for the choreographer. John Neumeier speaking of his early years as director in Frankfurt am Main said that it was so important for him to have had Ray at his side. “Ray was always there when I needed him, he never said ‘No.’ He was available after hours; even when I asked him to come in on Sunday to count out the music or prepare rehearsals.”

Victor Hughes: “All who have worked with Ray love him. There doesn’t seem to be anyone who rejects him or speaks badly about him – and that certainly says a lot, especially in the world of ballet! Whenever I tell someone I am writing Ray’s biography, the reaction is, ‘Oh, how wonderful. He really deserves it.’ Ray has always made the best out of whatever life’s circumstances have presented him with. He seems to have been at the right place at the right time. But, above all, there is his immense love of dance and the dancers. This is truly something special!”


Find the German version of this text here.

Victor Hughes: Ray Barra – A Life in Ballet, The Book Guild Ltd., 12,99 GBP or 15,63 Euro

Veröffentlicht in Leute, English Reviews, Blogs

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