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Irena Pasaric from Croatian National Ballet (HNK). This picture is taken from the HNK site and links directly to Irena's biography there

If it weren’t for Irena Pasarić, I would probably still hate Swan Lake as much as I hated it before I met her. Playing for rehearsals of the Act II pas de deux is often an experience similar to what Richard goes through in Keeping up appearances when he has Hyacinth as a passenger: “Slow down! Mind that arabesque! Don’t go so fast! Watch that pirouette! Stop! Don’t stop! Now, stop now! Not now, when I say so!”

But not with Irena. She had a wonderfully fresh approach to Odette/Odile which completely removed all those turgid corners in the score. She was so in control of what she did, that she could decide what her body was going to do on that music, rather than see the music as a kind of affliction that had to be endured, treated and kept in abeyance. It’s not that other people couldn’t do this – I’m sure they could – but there’s an insidious aesthetic in ballet that with Swan Lake, it doesn’t matter how slow, how unrhythmic, how lugubrious the music is, because what really matters is that every last twitch of the choreography has plenty of time to be seen.

Irena had what I’ve grown to call ‘rhythmic autonomy’ – in other words, she didn’t rely on the music to drag her along behind it like a car being towed, she had her own inner tempo and rhythm. That being the case, playing for her was enormous fun, and effortless – you could actually get on and enjoy the choreography, the character, the piece, the music without constantly looking in your mirror, so to speak, to make sure the tow-rope hadn’t snapped. She gave me the best lesson in how to accompany fouettés I’ve ever had, and the advice has held good ever since.

The thing that I am most grateful to Irena for, though, is for her explaining the music of Le Corsaire and other Imperial gala bonbons to me. I was due to play for her and Tamás Solymosi in this pas de deux for some gala evening, and I guess did a creditable job with the first run through. But then Irena, in her wonderful cheeky, flirtatious way said about the big lift “This bit here can be really big, big as you want. It needs to be camp!” And with that, a very large penny dropped. I’d never quite realised before just how camp all this stuff was (I should have noticed, really, given that Tamas was wearing nothing but sky-blue satin pajama bottoms and a feather in his hair), and that to do the music justice, everything in it had to be played over-the-top. To an audience, this will just sound normal, because it’s what the music does. As the musician, though, you have to do twice as much as what seems normal or within the bounds of good taste, and that’s what I hadn’t realised until Irena pointed it out to me.

Apart from any of this, Irena was completely unstuffy, had a wonderful sense of humour, and was great fun to work with & socialise with & a great conversationalist. It was nice to be able to share the odd private joke in Croatian too…

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Jonathan Still, ballet pianist