This is an exciting time for The Royal Ballet, which has been on a roll for several years with an enthusiastic public for the sold-out performances at the Royal Opera House, the extremely popular live cinema relays, and the streamed events on the internet.
The public and critical success has been mirrored by the various accolades that the company has garnered recently. The Benois de la danse 2015 in Moscow – overseen by Yuri Grigorovich – gave awards to company Principal Edward Watson as Best Male Dancer; its Artistic Associate, Christopher Wheeldon, as Best Choreographer; and Joby Talbot (Chroma, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, The Winter's Tale) as Best Composer. This weekend sees the Positano Premia la Danza – Léonide Massine – overseen by Daniele Cipriani – and another avalanche of prizes for the company. Choreographer of the Year has been won by The Royal Ballet's Artist in Residence, Liam Scarlett; Edward Watson wins the Benois-Massine Moscow-Positano Prize which was established this year after the recent close links between the two organisations; and Wayne McGregor's new full-length work Woolf Works wins Best Production of the Year, which the Director of The Royal Ballet, Kevin O'Hare will accept. I asked him how it felt:
It's a thrill. Everybody works so hard to get these new full-length ballets on, so it's really nice to see that people are enjoying them and getting it, and are as excited by it as we are. It's always a risk, and some will work better than others, but both The Winter's Tale and Woolf Works have done what we hoped they would do: getting people talking about dance and discovering new ways of looking at the full-length ballet.
It's not enough just to put a title in the repertory. With the huge financial investment involved it needs to be right and that means getting the magic mix spot on with the designers, composer and dancers, and is not just about choosing the choreographer whose name is above the title.
Yes, and then there are the people in the Opera House who bring the designs to life. With Woolf Works we had the problem with working out how the complex machinery would work in Act 1, timing it and so on… that's just hours and hours of work.
Also, our dancers are incredible and can adapt their bodies to these different types of choreographers and different styles of work while still being great classical ballet dancers… that's really tough. I try to make it work so there are not impossible juxtapositions between the ballets, but you must do this for the audience, as you don't want to be doing all contemporary ballets in a row. We want them to see The Sleeping Beauty and then see something wild and crazy, or different anyway.
But in April, I point out, the Guardian wrote, “He has an idea that in 2020 he'd like to programme a whole year of work made in the preceding decade. What, so no Nutcracker? O'Hare's eyes dart towards the door and he puts a finger to his lips: “Shhh …””
I've got to do this now, haven't I? I can't renege on it. Well I'd love to do it, because 2020 is one of those important years, just the sound of it. I thought, wouldn't it be great to present all works that had been created over the last ten years – well, we might have to stretch to 15 if we wanted to especially include a particular piece – and of course, there are modern productions like Carlos's Don Q. I'd love it if we could do that, but people don't need to get too scared because it would actually be spread over two seasons, but the year 2020 would have only recent productions. I think would be exciting to see, especially with these new full-length works which, after Twyla Tharp's Mr Worldly Wise in 1995, there hadn't been until Alice. We're now onto our fourth or – if you include Don Q – fifth new full-length production within the last 5 years, which is quite something.
So back to the Positano prizewinner Woolf Works. Virginia Woolf's output isn't an obvious choice for three-act ballet. Was it McGregor's idea?
It was. We'd talked about doing a full-length piece and then played around with a few ideas that came from Wayne: which could work, which wouldn't, or which might come back another time. But this just felt right, and with Uzma Hameed as dramaturg we were able to talk to her, even before we'd spent money on anything, and ask her to work out some ideas on paper. What she came up with was exciting and gave Wayne the strength to say, ok, this is what I'm going to do now.
And out of it also came another stirring score from Infra's composer Max Richter.
He's incredible. He manages to do it without much fuss… just gets on with it. He loves the collaboration with Wayne and really enjoys working through the story with him. Because he's done a lot of film, he's used to working to a brief and getting a narrative across.
It surely was a coincidence that Alessandra Ferri had Mara Galeazzi covering her… two Italian ex-Royal Ballet dancers with a basis at the La Scala Ballet School?
Well, we were trying to win an award from Positano!
he says laughing.
But yes, it was a total coincidence. Wayne had seen Alessandra in Cheri and had the idea to involve her, and I've been a fan since I was at school and she'd just joined the company – there's not much difference in age between us – so I used to hang around the door watching her rehearse, I just loved her. I saw a lot of those first performances: her first Juliet. I hadn't seen her, though, for all those years, so I was very happy with this. Of course, we had dancers in the company that could have done the role, but Wayne felt that the maturity that she could bring to that role was right.
We had to have somebody else to learn it we thought of Mara, who had just been back after her ‘retirement' for a piece at the Linbury. We thought it'd be really nice to have someone who really knew Wayne's work, and Mara's such a great company member. When the piece comes back I hope that both of them will be able to do it.
Watson, who will be dancing at Positano over the weekend as well as collecting his award, was one of the few big-name Brits in the company for several years. Now it seems as though many exciting homegrown talents are coming through.
It does seem to come in waves, but the school really has been producing some great talent and, since I've been Director, I've had a hard time NOT taking people on.
There are so many good ones coming through and the male talent is extraordinary. That's why I've now got this apprentice programme, as I didn't want to miss out on talent that was there when I didn't have the contracts to give them. I came up with this idea as I've seen it work with other companies who have it.
The way things usually work in Europe is that you have to say, for example, at Christmas if you intend to stay on as a dancer [for the following season], and the same for the director if he intends to keep you on or not, but we don't have that. Once you've joined the company, there's a six-month probation and then you're there, yet the deal is that you need only give three months' notice. This means someone can tell me in June that they want to leave and they're gone by September, and with the holidays in the middle! It's tough for the young students because, come Christmas in your graduate year, you need to start to think about finding a job, yet I don't know whether people are leaving or staying or how it's going to be. This apprenticeship programme has really helped.
I'm working closely with Christopher Powney [The Royal Ballet School's Artistic Director from April 2014] and there are teachers from the company who are going across and giving classes, so there's a strong link there.
Many countries, Italy included, are worried about declining audiences for ballet. Companies are closing. How has the UK has got it right?
I think that the standard of the companies is very strong, not just our company but the English National Ballet, Birmingham, Northern, Scottish… There is some really good work and I try and see as much as I can of what the other companies are up to: it's exciting and innovative, so that's really heartening.
I also think that the training is good and stronger than ever. And we've got to be honest and say, it's a wonderful art form! I think that people have a new awareness of dance that also comes from our cinema programme, which, for one night only, we get to beat those big films and become number one at the cinema box-office. Also the internet really helps with projects like World Ballet Day which have made inroads. Dance is growing in the UK and is the one art form where ticket sales and so on are really going strong.
If the cinema relays serve to stimulate a new audience, satisfy the existing one and act as publicity for the company, why don't all companies do something similar?
We are lucky that we have the Opera House, which has its own editing suite underneath so we're all set up for it. If you don't have that within your building then it all has to come in, which is difficult, so we're very fortunate to have all that. I'm not sure, but I think in America there may be difficulties with unions too, having cost implications. We try to do it as efficiently as we can.
What I've noticed, which is great, is that not only the profile of the The Royal Ballet but that those of the individual dancers have gone up so much. We noticed this when we were in the States on tour this summer, and especially in China the year before. When we were in Shanghai a while back we had a good tour but there wasn't that buzz around it, whereas this time we felt, ah, they are here to see Marianela, they've come to see Sarah Lamb… you could see that at the stage door, and they recognised them because they've seen the broadcasts and they'd seen the DVDs.
When you think of dancers as massive as Darcey and Viviana, that whole era, there are not all that many recordings of them because it was so expensive and so complicated to do because every time the cameras came in it was such an upheaval. It's a lot of work now, but we it's feasible. Now we'll start to screen some mixed programmes too, which I'm really pleased about.
The Winter's Tale was relayed live to cinemas only a few days after its première. A brave choice, a gamble even, as it was on the schedule months beforehand. O'Hare's decision?
I really wanted it to happen, and I'm sad that we didn't manage it for Woolf Works too, but that will go out to the cinemas the next time around. The new Frankenstein will go out immediately as well.
Liam Scarlett's full-length take on Mary Shelley's tale will open on 4 May and be transmitted live just two-weeks later. America didn't risk talking Wheeldon's The Winter's Tale unseen however…
No, but then they found out how good it was so it went out there in February this year, so that was a really nice moment.
To be honest, because we don't have the luxury of previews, as in the theatre, you do think that it would be better to do it the second time around: maybe the choreographer wants to change something, or there are ideas about tweaking. But there is something about the buzz around an opening and about saying: ok, this is what we are doing right now and you can see it wherever you are!
This summer, with my headphones on the beach, I listened to some podcasts of old Desert Island Discs episodes. In among the Stephen Frys and Russell Brands were Tamara Rojo, Deborah Bull and Monica Mason. Dame Monica, interviewed shortly before handing over the baton to O'Hare, said that she hoped that she would be allowed back through the stage door, though she wouldn't tread on the new boy's toes. A kept promise?
Yes, and she does come in a fair amount. It varies from year to year. Last year we did Song of the Earth so she came and staged that wonderfully well. Also Firebird. This year she'll be back for rehearsing Myrtha in Giselle… she'll also be back for Sleeping Beauty. She's great in the studio and loves being there.
Talking of past Directors, Anthony Dowell is still with you I see.
Anthony is brilliant. He does The Dream, Month in the Country – those are the two ballets that he owns – though we'd want him anyway. And then for Manon. Recently he came in with Antoinette [Sibley] and they rehearsed with Melissa [Hamilton] and Matthew [Golding]; they were both fabulous and really generous without any “In my day we did it like this”. You've got to say things, obviously, and that's what we want them for, as well as some of those stories!
Continuity is something to cherish…
Yes, and we have Lesley [Collier] of course, who is fabulous, and Johnny [Jonathan Cope].
So for those who can't be on the beach at Positano watching Ed Watson (dancing with Royal Ballet colleagues Lauren Cuthbertson, Sarah Lamb and Bennet Gartside), or you receiving the award, what might you say?
Well, we're thrilled that Woolf Works is being acknowledged, as it's another step in the company's history, taking it in a slightly different direction. Then it's wonderful that both Liam and Edward are being recognised.
It's an exciting time for The Royal Ballet with the 50th anniversary of Kenneth MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet, a new Carmen and the revival of Ashton's The Two Pigeons, which hasn't been done for thirty years; I hope that the audiences and the dancers enjoy it. It is a beautiful ballet and one that I've had so many requests about; it is literally the one ballet about which I've had the most letters, so we've listened to the people!
And will you be taking your beard with you? It was quite a surprise when you first popped up during a cinema interval with your new growth!
Well my mother, who always has something to say, said, “What are you doing with a beard?”, but she's grown to like it.
Prince Charles came to see Onegin one night with Marianela [Nuñez] and Thiago [Soares] – it's Camilla's favourite ballet, she loves it – so afterwards I took them backstage to meet the dancers and afterwards, as I walked them out through a side door, Charles turned and said, “You know Kevin, I think that beard's getting better and better!” Now that it's got the Royal seal of approval, I'm going to stick with it.
Well you look very distinguished!
The Award Ceremony and Gala will take place on 5 September 2015 at 9pm on the Main Beach – Spiaggia Grande. Associated events run from 4 September until 12 September.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.
Great article- It shows that with the right guidance, “keeping up with the times”, taking chances and talent that ballet not only can and will survive but thrive. I love Ashton and so happy he incorporates and keeps alive past productions such as “The Two Pigeons” which now I have to research and see!
I would invite him for consulting somewhere else…
I had a great time with the Royal Ballet many years ago…… when this fabulous company presented my score to Ashley Page’s INVENTIONS. Lovely and sweet dancers, great time there.