A PERSONAL TRIBUTE TO ROBERT HARVEY
Robert Mcfarlane Harvey.
Born 25/06/1925 Ballarat, Australia. Died 21/10/2009 Ganges, France.
Robert was a complex person with sides to him that weren’t always easy to comprehend. In his own words his childhood memories were mostly unhappy and as a boy he would sometimes dream that he was a prince, living in a lovely castle somewhere, with different parents. Instead he lived with an irascible, drunken baker for a father, who slept during the day and yelled at his sons if they made a noise in the house, and who got drunk every weekend. The house was unbearably hot in the summer, heated as it was by the baking ovens. His mother played the organ in the local church and led the local choir and would organize sing songs around the piano, which he enjoyed, but she didn’t have much authority over his father, with whom she was always quarreling. In his lifetime Robert came a long way from this claustrophobic, unhappy childhood. His niece Anita Corbally, in an email she wrote in January of this year asking for news of Robert, said that he was the one who “got away from this place” and that she was very proud of the work that he chose to do. For all his personal foibles, Robert was undoubtedly an artist. His many years of professional dancing, with all the technique and discipline that that entails, his incredible energy, his natural singing voice, his love of all the arts, and his impish sense of humour which tended towards the absurd especially in later years, were all qualities that combined to give him exceptional stage presence. What made Robert such a good performer was his ability to fully embody the roles that he played. From Agave in the “Bacchae” (1967) and Prospero in the Tempest (1977), both dramatic roles, to Le Conducteur in “Prévert et Moi” (1984) or the straight faced interpreter of Kurt Schwitters Dada piece “Ursonate” (1991), both more comic roles, Robert always gave himself 150% to the role. There was a big, naughty child in him that came to life on stage and made his performances so real, so touching. In “Ursonate”, the duo of clown/child and accomplished rhythm master created an amazingly coherent musical and comic piece out of a complex series of meaningless onomatopoeic sounds. Truly, an unforgettable virtuoso performance. The child in Robert was also visible off stage with his love of toys or the latest gadgets. He was the first person to have his own computer at Malérargues. He bought a digital camera when nobody knew what they were! He would read the instruction manuals from cover to cover and by trial and error would figure out how to use all the different programmes. He became an expert in using photoshop and we would all look forward every year to receiving his quirky Christmas card where he would choose a beautiful renaissance painting and replace the face of an angel or a monk or even once a naked young man with his own! Although destined to become a dancer from an early age ( his mother had been advised by the local doctor to send him to dance classes to correct his bandy legs!) he preferred technical studies to academic ones at school. He loved tinkering with home made radios and his beloved motorbikes in the early years or later on, at Malérargues, with his bicycle and his computer, buying the latest accessories and parts as soon as they appeared in his various magazines, or when he went up to Paris to go to the latest Apple fair. His meeting with Roy in London in 1955 changed his life. This is how he describes the immediate impact of Roy’s teaching on him in an essay entitled “Reflections 1965”: “Immediately I began to sing, I touched something in myself, of which I had been unaware. I know now that this tiny spark, touched by the sounds of my own voice, was the real me, buried under a pile of religious dogma, sentimentalism and fake gentility. When touched by a sound, it struggled for its very life, and the dogmas and sentiments struggled against it. This struggle I could not cope with and my early lessons were almost inevitably conducted through a flood of uncontrollable tears. This went on for years with the frequent reoccurrence of the tears whenever an important change was about to take place, and only now, ten years later, am I able to exercise some control over them, or even make use of them. My vocal range at first was limited to a small area at the top half of the piano, and it must have been very reedy. Low sounds were out and it was usually when I touched them that the tears were provoked.” Up until then Robert had been a relatively successful professional dancer, with enormous energy but no means to channel it. He was unsuccessful in maintaining relationships and would swing regularly between bouts of depression and periods of elation. As he grew closer to himself and began to realize his truepotential through the work with Roy, he began to feel the call of teaching. First, teaching movement anddance in schools and in professional dance productions, and then becoming the main movement teacherat the Abraxas Club when Roy moved there with his group in 1965. He was a very good and inspiring movement teacher, using an eclectic mix of classical and pop music in his classes. In the early ‘70’s he started to train some of the RHT members, including myself, in movement teaching with music analysis and simple choreography classes. He was also teaching voice like many of the other members, and in 1976 at the first public workshop in France at Malérargues he met Denise and Daniel Schröpfer, two young actors from Paris. A year later, when Robert decided he needed to take a break from the tough communal life we were living in Malérargues, the Schröpfers invited him to stay with them in Paris, and from that moment Robert’s solo career as a teacher and as a performer took off. Not only did he organize and run a very successful RHT Paris teaching programme, he also immersed himself for four or five years in French life and culture, attending regular classes in French at the Alliance Française, and creating two new performances, one a solo ‘Prévert et Moi’ based on Jacques Prévert’s poems, and the other a twohander ‘Tant que Vivray’ based on Rabelais’ writings, with Michèle Laforest. No surprise that in the mid ‘80’s he decided to become a French citizen. Robert was passionate about his teaching and totally committed to passing on what he had learned from Roy. He was strict but warm with his pupils and they respected his passion and his seriousness. Many like the Schröpfers and the Cailles became friends and remain so to this day. In the mid ‘80’s he moved back to Malérargues and began teaching more in Germany than in France, joining Marita Gunther at Amkanal in Hanover, where they formed their first pedagogic groups with their regular singing pupils. Some of these pupils continued to work regularly with Robert after Marita’s death in 2002 and several of them are now RHT voice teachers. It was in 1990, aged 65, that he created his chef d’oeuvre “Ursonate”. His serious efforts to learn German had been less successful than his learning of French, so it’s not surprising that he chose a non verbal piece to work on in Germany . At least he couldn’t be faulted for his bad accent! Robert was also an excellent director and starting at the end of the ‘80’s he was invited to direct in Germany, Norway and Malérargues where he directed several shows : first “l’A.B.C. de Notre Vie” by Jean Tardieu (1989), then “Le Bon Vingt” (1994 ) and “Fou, Fou, Fou” (1995) – both original collage shows created by Robert which were performed outside using the chateau and the grounds, and which were full of humour and poetry. In 1996, together with Ulrik Barfod, he created “Double Click”, a piece that made fun of computer language with an exuberant mix of slapstick and musical games. His last group creation “Variations”(2003 ) , was another irreverent collage piece, with Hamlet’s soliloquy ‘To be or not to be’ performed in many different ways and in different languages alongside various French absurd texts. As usual the show ended with a song and dance number composed and choreographed by Robert. The man was immensely creative but by then his energy was already depleted, and directing and performing were becoming much harder. Apart from one or two small appearances on stage in the following years, “Variations” was to be his last major performance. As a man he wasn’t always easy on himself or on others and he could be downright rude and mean in certain circumstances. For someone who had always been so independent, so active, and so creative, the crippling effects of arthritis, Parkinson’s and depression must have made the last few years of his life a very painful and humiliating experience. Yes, Robert was indeed a complex personality who could also however be very sweet and touching. So let’s forgive him his crankiness and remember rather his gifts as a performer and a director, and his generosity and humanity as a teacher and friend to so many people over the years. We will miss you Robert.