Birmingham Royal Ballet was formed when the Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet (as it was known then) was invited by Birmingham City Council and the Birmingham Hippodrome to set up a permanent base at the theatre.
20 years later, Birmingham Royal Ballet has decided to show off it’s diverse and rich repertoire, where they average 130 performances a year in Birmingham and around Britain. The company celebrated it’s anniversary in March this year with a Royal Gala, and this coffee table book filled to brimming with Bill Cooper’s stories-in-a-picture, demonstrates just how busy the company have been over the last two decades.
Talented dancers have always flourished at Birmingham Royal Ballet, including two dancer who later became company Artistic Director’s – Sir Peter Wright (joined the company in 1949 and became director in 1970) and David Bintley (joined in 1976 and became Director in 1996).
The book is divided into sections, each introduced briefly by David Bintley – The Nineteenth Century (covering the classics & some beautiful Nutcracker production images including Anniek Soobroy in the “Waltz of the Flowers”); Ballet Russes (lovely image of Molly Smolen as the Chosen Maiden & Joseph Cipolla as the Miller from Le Tricorne); Heritage Ballets (Alexander Campbell as Puck froom The Dream & Joseph Cipolla again as Tybalt from Romeo & Juliet); International Influences (Monica Zamora from Serenade); Created in Birmingham (Ambra Vallo in Autumn; Elisha Willis and Titi Helimets in Summer; my favourite Powder, with the sublime Carol-Anne Millar & Joseph Caley, Natasha Oughtred as the Bride from Le Baiser de la fée); By the Company for the Company (Molly Smolen in Saturn); and the final section – David Bintley (Leticia Müller as Queen Isabella from Edward 11 & Elisha Willis & Iain Mackay in the same production, Delia Mathews & Tom Rogers from Galanteries & Leticia Müller as Morgan Le Fay in Arthur Part 2, Nao Sakuma as Sylvia & Chi Cao as Amynta from Sylvia; Gaylene Cummerfield, Matthew Lawrence & Steven Monteith in Mass from E=mc2).
Earlier this year I interviewed two dancers from Corella Ballet in Spain : Tracy Jones and Russell Ducker. What makes these two special, and the reason that I am writing about them again, is because as well as being company dancers and friends, Russell choreographs on Tracy; a process I wanted to learn more about. Russell has a quite beautiful website and I encourage you to check it out, where you will find videos of his work. Russell has choreographed three ballets, one commissioned by Corella Ballet; Carmen, Epimetheus (a neoclassical work inspired by Saturn’s fifth moon) and Sospiri (described as “a breath of peace on a perturbed world.” A narrative piece, the subject is a nameless entity. Looking back on a life half lived, filled with memories best forgotten. The piece is that moment of recollection.)
I started by asking Tracy why she gives up her free time (precious little of it) to collaborate with Russell and his ideas, and what she gains from the experience.
Although you are Russell are friends, dancing Sospiri required you to be quite ‘naked’ in terms of your emotions. How did you handle that challenge ?
I think that the fact that me and Russell have known each other for so long actually let me feel more comfortable to portray the emotions needed for Sospiri. It was the first time that I had danced a role involving such character and Russell is very clear at letting me know how he thinks the character should feel and what emotions need to be shown, as well as giving me the freedom to put in my own interpretation.
Do you like to be alone on stage or would you rather have a partner or the corps de ballet around you ?
I think that this depends completely on the choreography that is involved. Of course if it is a classical ballet, a corps de ballet is what makes it look so impressive but in terms of dramatic roles, I would find it easier to portray when alone. I would love to work on a pas de deux that had a story to it at some point as I think when you have a good partner, you can develop so much in terms of emotion and hopefully create something more than just movement.
You’ve said before that you’d love to dance Manon, so it is the drama in a role that appeals to you ? Do you find it harder to dance an abstract ballet ?
I would say that actually I’m more comfortable with abstract ballet as that is what I have had more experience dancing, but when it comes to more expressive ballets like Manon, I think that it would be the drama that draws me the most. But I have always loved the score by Massenet and of course MacMillan’s choreography is always a dream to dance.
How did you find the rehearsal process with Russell, given that you were also dancing with the company at the same time ?
Russell is a very considerate person and therefore we arranged times where both of us were not too tired. Of course when you have a heavy work load within the company’s schedule, it is difficult to then try to continue working afterwards, especially on a new work as it takes a lot of thought and concentration, but we managed to grab time in the studio when neither of us were too busy.
How collaborative is Russell’s approach – were you free to suggest changes etc ?
Having worked with Russell before, I have an understanding of the type of movement he looks for, and whoever he works with, he always makes sure to emphasise that particular dancer’s good points, as well as trying to bring more out of them. He tends to have a set idea of what movements he is looking for and how to portray the emotions of what he is trying to show, but he is always open to playing around with things to make sure that both the dancer is comfortable and the steps look the best that they can.
Having a ballet created on you is a highlight for any dancer. What have you learnt from the process ?
I feel that having a variation choreographed for me really let me develop sides that I hadn’t yet had the chance to in other ballets. It was a big step to work on something with emotion behind it, and to have the opportunity to be able to dance something that you feel completely at home with is always rewarding as you know that you can concentrate on giving your all, as opposed to worrying about certain steps that in a classical variation, for example, may be technically challenging and therefore take away from the performance quality.
Do you feel that Russell has brought out qualities in you that haven’t been seen in other ballets you’ve danced , and if so, how ?
I think that I have always been stereotypically cast to classical ballets, but I think that working with Russell on his first ballet for Corella Ballet, Epimitheus, really brought a more neoclassical movement style out in me and therefore gave me the confidence and experience to use this in other neoclassical works with the company’s repertoire.
As well as needing to trust your partner, you also have to trust Russell as the choreographer. Were you completely comfortable with that from the start ?
Definitely. Having been part of the choreographic process with Russell from the start and watching him work with other dancers, you can tell that he really uses the qualities of each individual and is inspired by what they have to offer. I think that once a choreographer trusts you to deliver the ideas he wants to show, then you can trust him completely.
You’re both flame-haired, talented dancers. Do you have similar temperaments ?
Well I guess you could say that we can both be quite stubborn but I wouldn’t put either of us into the category of having a ‘fiery temper’, although we all have our moments!
Would you like to choreograph ?
I choreographed when I was at school and took part in a few of the in-house competitions. I also worked with a student from the Royal College of Music and collaborated with him on a ballet that was later performed with live music in a performance by the RBS. I think it would be something I would like to try again at some point but for now I enjoy more working with choreographers and understanding exactly what each person wants, as I feel that this quality is essential for any dancer to further their careers.
What was it about your Royal Ballet School training that prepared you for choreography & subsequently winning so many awards ?
I was very fortunate to always be encouraged regarding my choreography whilst studying at The Royal Ballet School. It is a priority for them to give their students opportunities in this creative arena. Even in a student’s first year they have the option to enter a work into the annual competitions. At first the pieces are limited to three minutes, and as you progress through each year the limitations upon what you can do are expanded. I remember my first piece was set to Poulenc. I was petrified at my first rehearsal, but everything just fell into place. I suppose if it had been any other way maybe I wouldn’t have continued. I always gravitated toward big casts, which meant that I always just finished days before the cut-off date. They give you totally free reign on costume choice and lighting design and choice of music/dancers. It is a big challenge for a little person. As part of the academic course they offer lessons in choreography, which were guided by very passionate staff. I always looked forward to them. Winning awards was a huge confidence boost. When you are that young you don’t really appreciate that the judges were all heavy weight players in the dance community, from prominent choreographers, dancers, and sometimes company directors. I failed a few times too; I made the mistake a few times of creating what I thought wanted to be seen. Ironically I still received a prize but I learnt that that doesn’t satisfy the creative appetite, or leave you with much sense of accomplishment. I have such fond memories of those first attempts. It was a great platform to challenge myself on and venture into areas unknown.
You’ve created three pieces whilst dancing with Corella Ballet, one commissioned by them; does the Company give you time to choreograph or how does the process work ?
The company organized a choreographic workshop where a few of the more experienced dancers were asked to submit a piece. I was so frustrated that I couldn’t be involved so I went to our Angel [Corella, Artistic Director], to appeal to him to let me try. I think he was quite surprised that I was so forthright about my passion. I can be quite a dark horse, and he had no indication that I had any interest in choreography. So he surrendered to my plea. I had a great cast, who were really enthusiastic. We canvased our ‘works in progress’ for a jury, and I was lucky enough that they felt my piece should be continued with. As you can imagine, I was over the moon. We performed it regally around Spain and in New York. Since then there hasn’t been another workshop. I try to grab dancers to help me create in the evenings after work, but with our busy schedule it’s very difficult. But I am constantly looking for music, to be as well prepared as I can be for the next opportunity. Christopher Wheeldon told me recently to pick pieces that scare me; meaning those that push me out of my comfort realm. So that is my musical criteria at the moment.
Your first piece, for the Galileo 2000 Award in 2009, was danced by Principal Carmen Corella. Did you find the process of working with a senior dancer daunting ?
On some level. I was asked by Carmen to work with her, so it was comforting to know she had faith in my ability. I have known Carmen for a while now. She is a strong character and knows what she wants so it’s easier to work with someone like that. She was very open to my ideas and gave whatever I threw at her a go. The award asked us to create a piece to Schubert’s Ave Maria. It’s a beautiful aria, but not the most inspiring. Carmen has a great sense of dramatic interpretation, and really gave depth to the performance. She was accompanied by a live singer, which was a relatively new experience for me and further challenged us. She has worked with many great choreographers too, so obviously that sits in the back of your mind, but I think the end result was an achievement.
Do you choose who you want to work with – dancers, costume designers etc?
To some extent. I have preferences regarding which dancers I want to work with. You pick dancers for different reasons and the casting can really have a dramatic effect on any ballet. So it has the upmost importance. The company introduced me to a costume designer, which was a very exciting occurrence, because I have no connections in that area whatsoever. Together with Angel and our company manager Matthew Bledsoe we discussed options and possibilities, but thankfully I was always given the final word. I needed guiding and I was thankful for it.
Epimetheus uses Mike Oldfield’s music, whilst in Sospiri you chose Elgar. Do you have a vast repository of music that you listen to regularly & what makes one stand out over another ?
I never like to repeat myself. I think if I can choose a score that is in no way the same as another of my ballets, that will discourage me from doing so. So my music collection is very eclectic. I believe a good piece of music jumps out at you. You are forced to pay attention immediately, whether it is dramatic, delicate, wonderfully orchestrated or minimal; there are so many ways to appreciate music, as there is in dance. So, I want to create ballets that vary and stand alone for themselves. The music is the anchor to achieving this.
Does the music come first, or does the initial spark of an idea come from elsewhere ?
I would say that it can be both. It’s a lot easier to be informed by the music and led by the composer’s original intention. I think it is rare to find a score that lends itself perfectly to a pre-existing idea. Recently, I have had an itch to try a narrative ballet, with characters and plot line. I have no idea what the setting or theme would be, that would be depicted by the music. Sadly I am struggling to find any appropriate music. Perhaps I will be inspired in another direction on my search.
The audiences in New York were very appreciative of Epimetheus. Does that add to the pressure now ?
I was thrilled with the audience reaction. It was surreal. No, I don’t feel pressure because I know my next will be better. I am more experienced in every area of my life and that is the beauty of art; that as long as you continue to grow, so will your artistic outlook. If I create to prove something, I will undoubtedly stifle any organic innovation. I am not yet an established choreographer, so I don’t believe there is any expectation of me.
What else inspires you to create a ballet ?
With Epimetheus and Sospiri it was definitely the music. It is also the will to succeed and challenge yourself. It a process of self-discovery. Facing yourself with confidence and pushing the realms of possibility. Dancers can be a great source of stimulus too, either by a beautiful body, an exciting natural movement, or strong technique.
How about a tutu ballet ?
Definitely! It is rare to see a new tutu ballet. Companies tend to repeat the standards (believing the classic work should be left to the veterans-which I can appreciate, after all those are the pieces which never go out of fashion) and want their new work to be contemporary and something unseen. But you can never have too many classical ballets – right? It’s a rite of passage for any choreographer.
You choreographed Sospiri on your friend and fellow dancer Tracy Jones. How much of a help or a hindrance is being friends with the people you are directing ?
From my experience thus far, it has never been a hindrance working with friends. Honesty between colleagues is so important. Whether a particular step is uncomfortable or the artistic direction isn’t quite right. With Tracy I know I can say what I want and she won’t take it to heart, and vice versa.
You borrowed a Juliet style costume for the filming of Sospiri. If it was being performed to an audience, would you change the costume – design something new ?
Of course, ideally I would have used another costume. The dressing of a piece is as important as the steps themselves, but I didn’t have many options in the way of choice.
How much of what you have found out about yourself, do you put into each ballet ?
The creation of anything is always a very personal, almost spiritual experience. So much energy and passion is spent that the end result can be quite revealing. You find that people learn how to anticipate what you would like from diagnosing your natural movement. Without realizing you develop a style. Of course, what I learn as a dancer, I also try to apply to my pieces. My time in the studio is a constant learning process.
How do you record the steps ?
My memory is terrible, so I leave that to the dancer. If they can’t remember it and neither can I – it probably wasn’t that great so it’s better to start again. If I am suddenly struck by inspiration, I usually write it down in enthusiastic haste (sometimes with stick men illustrations). Unfortunately, by the time I come back to reading these notes they are completely illegible, to the point where I don’t know which way the paper should be held up!
You seem to enjoy the collaborative process of working with the dancers and not having too set an idea when you begin rehearsing, but do you mind if the audience interprets your work in a different way from that intended ?
Not at all. Theatre is there to be enjoyed. Not studied. If the work has no abstract inclination, it is the responsibility of the choreographer to portray his intent with clarity.
Do you favour contemporary or classical work, or both ?
Although I enjoy the correctness of classicism, as a dancer I favour contemporary work so I guess that spills into my choreographic preference.
The Holy Grail at the moment is finding a choreographer ready to work on a full length classical story ballet. Do you think you have one in you ?
You never know, but I think that that would be some time off in the future. At the moment I am just taking one step at a time, embracing any opportunity that comes my way. Of course I would love to create one, but it would have to be an original piece. I couldn’t ‘re-work’ an existing ballet – unless I turned it completely on its head. So that would probably mean a new score, untouched story and lots of available funds – which are all extremely difficult to find anywhere. I get butterflies just imagining it.
Dancing outdoors in Athens, or on the beach, or some other dramatic setting seems to be in vogue at the moment. How do you feel about one of your ballets being danced in the elements ?
It’s a great idea. I’m not sure about the practicalities, but I don’t see any reason that dance should be confined to a theatre. Here in Spain we dance in outdoor theatres frequently. It can be amazing to be performing and looking out into the starry night’s sky.
What’s next on the creation front ?
I am an open book. You will be the first to know once I crack ahead with the next project.