The Royal Ballet: Behind the scenes

Zoe Anderson, The Independent's dance critic, has written the official history of the Royal Ballet for its 75th birthday. Here, she describes her conversations with company legends and her trawl through the archives
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

"I remember having a V2 rocket go off in the third act, during the Black Swan pas de deux," says the ballerina Beryl Grey. "At the beginning, you do posé turns and then" - she gestures to suggest the steps - "you go backwards, whomp. As I went backwards, whomp, the whole theatre shook with this V2 bomb exploding. But nobody moved in the audience - you know, people were wonderful." It doesn't seem to occur to her that, as she went on dancing in a shaking theatre, she was wonderful, too.

I interviewed Grey while writing a history of the Royal Ballet, which celebrates its 75th birthday this year. That is young, as major state companies go. The Bolshoi Ballet is more than 200 years old, and the Paris Opéra is approaching 350.

The company now called the Royal Ballet started out in 1931, not as a state theatre but as the ballet company of the Old Vic and Sadler's Wells theatres. It was founded by the Irish dancer Ninette de Valois, a charming, formidable woman, later nicknamed "Madam" by her dancers. In 1923, she had joined Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, then the most famous dance company in the world. She had performed in premieres of works by Nijinska and Balanchine, to new music by Poulenc and Ravel; she had seen Picasso coming in to watch the daily class. She loved it, and she knew there was nothing like it in Britain. She decided to leave Diaghilev, to start her own company, to create a new British ballet tradition.

The Royal Ballet's comparative youth means it's possible to speak to people who were there in its earliest years, such as the former dancer Monica Beck, now in her nineties. De Valois started by founding a school, where Beck became a student in 1929. She remembered how inspiring de Valois was, giving her pupils the sense that they were working for a cause, creating the future of British ballet. At this time, much of de Valois's choreography was modernist, without pointe work. Beck, laughing, recalled de Valois urging her young dancers to "Run! Run! None of you can run except Monica - and she can't dance!" Beck slipped off her shoes to show me what de Valois meant: her toes were very different lengths, making pointe work difficult.

I never met de Valois, who died in 2001 at the age of 102, so she was often my first question when interviewing dancers. She influenced, inspired and sometimes terrified generations of them. When Monica Mason, the current director, joined the company in the late 1950s, she was struck by de Valois's fierceness. "I was so aware of someone who was utterly demanding but also very impatient. Not a very smiley person at all."

Then she saw de Valois with Robert Helpmann, an irrepressible company star of the 1930s. "He whispered something," remembers Mason, "and she absolutely fell about laughing. I remember thinking, 'I wonder what it's like to be able to make her laugh?' What could he possibly have said to make her laugh in such an uncontrolled manner?"

It's a characteristic de Valois moment: her quick changes of temper, her preference for "naughty" dancers who stood up to her. Mason got past her early terror, going on to work closely with de Valois on several roles, building up a friendship. But when she herself became director, she chose a rather stern picture of de Valois to hang in her office.

The book covers the company's history in chronological order: what they danced, who danced it, who was in charge. But I also wanted to tell a story: thecharacters, the key events, causes and effects. De Valois famously insisted that it took more than one person to make a ballet company. From early on, she was supported by her music director, Constant Lambert, and her chief choreographer, Frederick Ashton. Lambert set rigorous musical standards; he was a composer, a conductor and a balletomane; he suggested themes for ballets, wrote, discovered or arranged music for them, recommended designers and had a good eye for dancers. He helped to educate the company, recommending books and music to young dancers. He also had a long affair with the very young Margot Fonteyn, already singled out as the company's future ballerina.

De Valois gave the dancers her own strengths - strong feet, speed, clean execution. When Ashton came, he encouraged the dancers to dance on a grander scale, to move more lavishly, adding sensuousness and glamour. He also gave the company magnificent choreography. Many of his 1930s ballets are still in repertory, and still dazzling.

Ashton, too, gained from joining de Valois. At Sadler's Wells he began to work with Fonteyn, who became his greatest muse. "Had I not been able to work with Margot I might never have developed the lyrical side of my work," he said. With her perfect proportions, radiant line and eloquent musical phrasing, Fonteyn became the first ballerina developed within the company. She had a unique position in the Royal Ballet, dominating the classical and the modern repertory, the exemplar of Royal Ballet style.

Fonteyn was given an Indian summer by her partnership with the Soviet defector Rudolf Nureyev: her career, astonishingly long, lasted from the 1930s until the 1970s. She overshadowed generations of dancers, and her example could be constricting. The dancer Deborah Bull remembers girls in the 1980s longing for oval faces, dark hair, Fonteyn-ish proportions. Even Darcey Bussell - much taller, more athletic - had headlines like "Mirroring Margot" when she emerged in the late 1980s.

The company was shaped and transformed by its leaders, but their work was changed by outside events. The Second World War forced changes on the company. Some were practical: the men were called up, theatres were closed or damaged by bombs, food and materials were scarce. But this was the biggest turning point in the company's history; a troupe that performed twice a week, to a small if devoted audience, became a beloved national company, sometimes dancing nine times a week.

These performances, including tours to civilian and garrison theatres, helped to broaden ballet's appeal. "Nervously we decided that it was our patriotic duty to... expose the company to the jeers and whoops and wolf-whistling of uncouth creatures called troops," wrote Tyrone Guthrie, who was the administrator of the Vic-Wells theatres. "Little did we know. Les Sylphides, with a young gentleman whirling around in white tights among white muslin coryphées to waltzes and mazurkas of Chopin, proved just the stuff for the troops." By 1943, the company was rationing seats for London shows.

There were many reasons for this popularity: a wartime hunger for entertainment, the novelty and beauty of ballet, a repertory that could express or transcend the horror of the time. But dancing through air raids also created a powerful bond between dancers and audiences. People who watched them dance on shaking stages did not forget it. Stories such as Beryl Grey's help to explain how the company grew, why it was loved.

When I interviewed dancers, company staff, people who had watched, I wanted as many stories as I could find, to give me a sense of the people who had died before I started watching the company, a sense of the reasons behind decisions. For instance, Nureyev, a regular guest in the 1960s and 1970s, had an important impact on the company. Most immediately, he formed a stellar partnership with Fonteyn. Their onstage chemistry was so potent that observers wondered - as they still do - if they were having an affair.

At the same time, Nureyev brought Fonteyn, and the Royal Ballet, new roles. He staged the 19th-century Russian ballets La Bayadère and Raymonda, grand set-pieces that showed off a new side of the company's classicism. He challenged Fonteyn and the company, urging them to reconsider their technique. The dancer Georgina Parkinson glowed when she told me about Nureyev, about the way he * * changed things. "The liberation started," she said. "Rudolf was the first person that took me to a teacher who wasn't from the Royal Ballet. He got the girls he loved... and we went to these classes, and it was mind-blowing. He opened doors for us." Speaking to dancers of his generation showed me the breadth of Nureyev's influence throughout the company.

And it was an extraordinary generation. Besides Fonteyn and Nureyev, it had the elegant, perfectly matched Antoinette Sibley and Anthony Dowell, the sharply musical Merle Park. It had the potently dramatic Lynn Seymour, the muse of the company's second defining choreographer, Kenneth MacMillan.

When another Russian star, Irek Mukhamedov, came to the Royal Ballet in the 1990s, he said that MacMillan's choreography had "liberated" him. I mentioned this to Seymour, and asked: did MacMillan have the same effect on her? Not quite: "I was already pretty liberal." She danced with extraordinary voluptuousness, giving a heady intensity to MacMillan's ballets. Seymour's generation had the stimulus of regular new works from Ashton, MacMillan and other choreographers inside and outside. It was the Royal Ballet's golden age.

After the war, the company moved to the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden- recognition of its new national status. The Royal Opera House archive gave me access to material up to 1989, with quantities of minutes and personal papers.

Historians depend on what was written down. The Opera House minutes proved invaluable - and infuriating. Plenty of the ballet's decisions were simply made and implemented without reference to the Board of Directors: the record is in programmes and press cuttings, not in the board's deliberations. Sometimes the minutes record exhaustive debates about the colour of the programme covers, hardly mentioning what was happening on stage. And any discussion has certainly been tidied up; I found the secretary's notes for one meeting, a pencilled account that was much fuller than the official documents. The final version didn't hide the arguments: major points were recorded. But much detail went missing. It was more formal, and much flatter.

Yet the records contain some astonishing information: everything from dotty footnotes to major developments. A nervous board worried about the religious implications of Helpmann's morality ballet Miracle in the Gorbals, and invited representatives from several faiths (who all seem to have enjoyed it).

More importantly, they record Covent Garden's finances. Ballet fans are given to muttering about the balance between opera and ballet. It's long been rumoured that the ballet, which made long, dollar-earning tours of America in the 1950s and 1960s, was paying the bills. The records confirm it, over and over. By the 1960s, the ballet's committees were reminding the board that the tours put a strain on the dancers, begging them to try balancing the Opera House budget without relying on the ballet's touring profits.

Other stories needed other sources to explain them. In 1953, de Valois erupted into a board meeting, to be greeted by submissive courtesy. Then the dance historian Jane Pritchard showed me a letter from that year. De Valois, excluded from the management discussions, had at last run out of patience and offered her resignation. Covent Garden couldn't afford to lose her; the board's forelock-tugging suddenly made sense.

The other delight was finding pictures for the book. I wanted pictures of leading dancers, of leading ballets; images showing the extraordinary range of the repertory, and suggesting the company's offstage life. I found some beauties, but I didn't get everybody. Sylvie Guillem, the Royal Ballet's French guest star, has the right to veto photographs - including, I found, those for my book. Everything I submitted had been passed before, but that was no help. Guillem didn't just turn down the suggested pictures, she refused anything else from those shoots. It gave me some insight into her company nickname: "Mademoiselle Non".

The last full history of the company was published in 1981, its golden jubilee. The Royal Ballet was in a shaky state, slipping from its status as first-class company. Technique was crumbling, the qualities of line and footwork becoming insecure. The golden 1960s generation was starting to retire, and there was a shortage of new stars. The company's director, Norman Morrice, pushed young dancers forward, but they weren't fully supported. Some survived, others burnt out.

Morrice was replaced by Anthony Dowell, who began pulling the company back into shape. He brought in stars, including Mukhamedov and Guillem, and encouraged homegrown talent such as Darcey Bussell. Recovery was uneven. In the 1990s, the company had to contend with regular Covent Garden management crises, which saw the dancers threatened with part-time contracts. Dowell was followed as director by Ross Stretton, who threw out core Ashton and MacMillan works, replacing them with dud European imports. He lasted a single season.

The last quarter-century has been the company's hardest, but it's now on a high. Monica Mason was seen at first as a safe pair of hands, a caretaker director. Instead, she transformed the Royal Ballet - and she did it by insisting on the company's roots. Classical revivals began to show greater strength and consistency, with more attention paid to old Royal Ballet virtues - qualities of line, upper-body detail, precision in footwork.

Mason's biggest achievement has been her celebration of Ashton's centenary. Programming so many of his ballets allowed the dancers to work intensively on those virtues, rising to the demands of their company's founder-choreographer. The effect has been sensational. When Swan Lake or Manon came back into repertory, you could see how much had been learnt: stronger feet, cleaner lines. The corps of swans achieved a new collective poetry, with an Ashtonian lyricism in their dancing.

The Ashton ballets were new to most of these dancers - because they had been out of repertory for too long, but also because the company make-up has changed. The current lack of British principals is regularly pointed out, especially now Bussell has stepped down as a full-time member. Headlines aside, this isn't about nationality. The Royal Ballet has always had overseas dancers: Mason came from South Africa, Seymour from Canada, Helpmann from Australia. But all three went to the Royal Ballet School, and were coached in a unified style.

The present company is much more diverse. Alina Cojocaru trained in Kiev, Johan Kobborg in Copenhagen, Tamara Rojo in Madrid. The lack of British principals has raised questions about dance training in this country. Young British dancers, such as Rupert Pennefather or Lauren Cuthbertson, are under scrutiny.

The other change concerns new choreography. For its first half-century, the company had a proud record in producing new work. Since then, it has struggled to find successors to Ashton and MacMillan. Few new ballets stay in repertory; there have been plenty of outright flops. Right now, this is a problem for ballet companies across the world. The first 80 years of the 20th century truly were fertile for dance. Since then, there's been a drought. The Royal Ballet, like everyone else, is looking for the way forward. Mason has programmed a clutch of new works for next season; critics are eyeing the plans warily.

The Royal Ballet isn't alone in looking out for the next choreographer - and it is certainly not the only major company to suffer in the past 25 years. The Russian Kirov and Bolshoi companies faced new pressures with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and New York City Ballet has had to cope with outliving its own founder-choreographer, George Balanchine. By the 1990s, critics were starting to describe a kind of depression in world ballet, a general slump.

So the Royal Ballet's renaissance looks even more exhilarating. The dancing is better than at any time since the 1970s, and there are plenty of good and rising dancers. The current season has seen the American Sarah Lamb responding to nuances of British and classical choreography, Rupert Pennefather gaining assurance, greater depth in performances by Zenaida Yanowsky and Alina Cojocaru. It's an exciting time to be watching the Royal Ballet.

'The Royal Ballet: 75 Years' is published on 20 April (Faber and Faber, £20)