The extraordinary life of 104-year-old dancer Eileen Kramer

8 June 2019

9:00 AM

8 June 2019

9:00 AM

It’s not often you hear the voice of a 104-year-old on the radio. You’re even less likely to hear one so clear in thought, so spirited and full of enthusiasm for life. Eileen Kramer’s voice crackles with age, with the years she has lived, but from what she says, and the energetic way she says it, she could be at least 30 years younger. ‘I don’t know how long I will go on living,’ she says, but she’s still excited by the present: ‘There’s so much going on. I’m living in that period when a lot is being discovered about everything.’

Kramer is a dancer, artist, performer, famed in Australia for her expressive, idiomatic style of movement, and she’s still choreographing new works, although difficulties with balance have meant she has only just given up joining the dancers on stage. In Art of Now: Breath of Life on Radio 4 (produced by Eleanor McDowall) Kramer recalls how, aged 22, she went to see a performance by the Bodenwieser dance group and experienced a moment of recognition. Next day she went to watch them in rehearsal and then asked Madame Bodenwieser if she could join the company. ‘Life with her opened up your feelings,’ says Kramer. ‘The importance of feeling, the importance of expressing feelings.’ Bodenwieser had been forced to leave Vienna on the last train to Paris after the invasion by the Nazis; her husband, a theatre producer, had been arrested and died in a concentration camp. Kramer says of the experience of first meeting her, of the impact she had: ‘You have all this in you, and someone comes along and shows you how to express it in dance.’

After Bodenwieser died, Kramer left Australia and went to live in Paris where she worked as an artist’s model, at the same time as Jean-Paul Sartre and his friends were having their existential conversations at the Café de Flore. She remembers going to a ballroom where Louis Armstrong was playing and being taught how to do the twist by him. Kramer’s gift for life, her ability to tap into the essence of what really matters, shone through a programme that was skilfully, vividly produced. We could feel Kramer’s excitement as she explained that feeling of waiting in the wings and taking in her first breath as the music begins. The dance, she says, begins with that intake of breath. She was probably rather a character when in her prime but has weathered into someone quite remarkable. ‘You can fall in love at 80,’ she says, speaking from experience.

‘As a listener how should you prepare yourself for this?’ asked Sean Shibe at the end of the first programme of his new Sunday-night series for Radio 3, Sean Shibe’s Guitar Zone (produced by Sarah Devonald). He began conventionally enough with John Williams and Julian Bream, a bit of Rodrigo’s famous concerto and the notoriously difficult tremolo study by Francisco Tarrega. But then, a classical guitarist himself, he admitted to being sometimes daunted by the range of effects and extended techniques available to electric guitarists. To prove his point he gave us the last three minutes of Tristan Murail’s ‘Vampyr!’. I listened to a preview first thing one morning and was jolted awake by the ear-splitting chords — not in a bad way. Murail is a classical composer who studied under Olivier Messiaen in Paris but ‘Vampyr!’ (written in 1984) sounds like Jimi Hendrix on speed.

In just an hour Shibe took us through seven centuries and the great diversity of guitar music. He’s chatty but also knowledgable, assured but also personable, drawing us in and making a connection as he shares his enthusiasm. Rodrigo, he says, never really understood the guitar, in spite of the popularity of his Concierto de Aranjuez. The most difficult passages to play, requiring hours of practice, are buried beneath the orchestral sound because the guitar has so little carrying power. Shibe also gave us the source of that universal earworm, the Nokia ringtone, which comes in the middle of a light, innocuous tune by Tarrega written in 1902. Whenever a guitarist plays ‘Gran Vals’, says Shibe, there’s always a laugh or ripple of applause from the audience at that moment when those few notes resonate.

Somehow PM on Radio 4 has managed to rise above the political shenanigans and retain a sense of balance and normal living while also developing several new strands that run through the daily editions creating a more magazine-y, less political feel. Evan Davis, who presents, can incorporate the lighter side of life without sounding embarrassed or off-kilter while the tone is always intelligent without being off-putting. Planet Puffin, for instance (designed as a podcast but none the worse for that), takes us every few days to the Isle of May in the Firth of Forth to report on how the puffins are doing. It’s a remarkable place to see seabirds and the puffins are not just an extraordinary example of endeavour and determination but also a barometer of how our seas are doing.

Last week Emily Knight and Becky Ripley were up to their elbows down puffin burrows, looking to see whether an egg had been laid. It took us a long way from Westminster.

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