Jann Parry talks with Christopher Marney about relaunching London City Ballet
A resurrected London City Ballet will return to theatres next year under the direction of Christopher Marney, ex-dancer, choreographer, and former artistic director of Joffrey Ballet Studio Company of Chicago. He is keeping the LCB name to honour its 18-year history (1978-1996), its founder and director Harold King, and because, he says, ‘It's a good recognisable name for a touring company, at home and abroad'.
London City Ballet (which changed its name to City Ballet of London for its last two years) had to close because it was no longer financially viable. It had never benefited from Arts Council funding and the late Princess Diana had withdrawn her patronage in favour of the more prestigious English National Ballet. Harold King had made heroic efforts to keep LCB going, but the 1990s were against its survival. The present economic situation isn't any better, with arts institutions hit by inflation, Brexit and the effects of the war in Ukraine. Undaunted, Marney is confident that he has the financial support the reborn company will need for at least three years.
He is discreet about his sponsors, but apparently the main one is a Japanese woman he met when he was choreographing a ballet in Tokyo and who admired his work. “We'll have to see how the landscape lies during the next three years, maybe also looking for corporate donors, as LCB did,” he says. The plan is to have an office and purpose-built studio in Islington and to tour for six months a year, with an annual season at Sadler's Wells. Sir Alistair Spalding, artistic director and CEO of Sadler's Wells, has welcomed the return of the company, 30 years after it was resident in the theatre.
Initially, there will be twelve dancers: “That manageable number will suit the rep. I want to secure, as well as the smaller-scale venues I want to tour to.” The company's general manager will be Sean Flanagan (of Balletboyz), with Kate Lyons (New Adventures) as rehearsal director. Drawing on the experience of LCB's former administrative director, Heather Knight, Marney has contacted the independent theatres on LCB's former network of venues. “I found a real appetite for works that aren't just the usual classical ballets but aren't necessarily contemporary dance either. There's a niche for a repertory company doing works, especially narrative ones that are no longer in the mainstream, or that London audiences might see but regional ones don't.”
He reckons that regional audiences' resistance to mixed bills can be overcome by skilful marketing and publicity: “We'll be able to develop a new audience, as well as ballet lovers who loyally remember London City Ballet.” Well-known choreographers whose chamber works he would like to mount include Kenneth MacMillan, John Cranko, Glen Tetley, and John Neumeier. Marney will choreograph for the company himself, as well as commissioning other choreographers. “I'll occasionally contribute a piece, but I'm not intending this as a vehicle for my own work. It won't be a choreographer-led company – and it won't present cut-down versions of the classics. We won't be competing with companies who tour Swan Lake or The Nutcracker.”
Could he make use of LCB's costumes and commissioned designs? “We've been trying to look into the company's archive, which was handed over to the University of Surrey. But it's in unsorted, uncategorised boxes, we think with music scores and lighting plans, maybe designs.” After the company folded, its wardrobe of costumes was sold to Houston Ballet to help pay off the company's deficit. Marney wonders whether he might obtain the redesign of MacMillan's Solitaire (1956), in a revival performed by LCB and then by Birmingham Royal Ballet in 2006. “I'd love to bring it into our rep. now that nobody does it anymore. It's the kind of ‘forgotten' ballet that deserves a new life.”
He intends to launch the reborn company in July next year, opening in the Theatre Royal Bath, whose director, Danny Moar, enjoys programming dance, with a season at Sadler's Wells in the autumn. The repertoire, to be announced at the start of 2024, will include MacMillan's 1972 Ballade, unseen for 50 years, and a new creation by Arielle Smith, whose Jolly Folly was such a success for English National Ballet in 2021.
Jann Parry, former dance critic of The Observer (1983-2004), has written for many publications as a freelance, and has contributed to radio and TV documentaries about dancers.
She is the author of the award-winning biography Different Drummer, the life of Kenneth MacMillan (2009).