Leanne Cope & Paul Kay
Artists, The Royal Ballet
interviewed by David Bain
Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church,
London, 30 August 2007.
LEANNE STARTED AT THE AGE of about five really for two reasons. Her mother had wanted to do ballet but had sent her to ballroom classes instead so it was out of a sense of spite and frustration! Also Leanne as a child was always walking round on tip-toe so it seemed logical. She attended the Dorothy Coleborn School of Dancing in Bath initially once a week, then twice, then three times where she took the RAD exams. When Leanne was nine, Karen Paisey retired from the Royal Ballet and returned to her home town of Bath and to Dorothy Coleborn where she became Leanne’s full-time and Junior Associate teacher. Karen took special classes every Saturday afternoon for those wanting to go further in ballet when she taught rep (cygnets, Sleeping Beauty friends etc) which was quite fun. She then suggested Leanne audition for White Lodge. Leanne had never heard of White Lodge, or the Royal Ballet, and had never even seen any ballet but she went along, passed the audition and entered White Lodge at the age of 11 in 1995.
Her teachers were Christine Beckley, Shirley Graham, and Patricia Linton initially under the direction of Dame Merle Park and then Gailene Stock. Leanne loved being at White Lodge, contrary to a lot of others’ experiences, and made good friends there – she absorbed it all and thought it was a fantastic place. In her 5th year Gailene Stock introduced the Young British Dancer of the Year award and Leanne was in the finals. She was coached by Darcey Bussell and Jonnie Cope which was incredible and a prize in itself. Then came auditions for the Upper School. She felt uncertain about whether she wanted to go as, although she loved ballet, she also enjoyed other dance forms like jazz, tap, etc. She auditioned for the Lane Theatre of Arts who offered her a full scholarship. When she told Gailene, she said Leanne should take up a place at the Upper School instead – which she did! Leanne said she didn’t have the easiest of times at the Upper School as she suffered several injuries but there were great teachers - David Peden, Christopher Powney, Katia Svenilova and Jackie Barrett among them.
Her first role as a student with the Company was a bridesmaid in Firebird. She was overwhelmed just to be treading on the Opera House stage and when she heard the Stravinsky score it made her realised that that was what she really wanted to do. Then, during the summer holidays, Gail Taphouse phoned to say they needed an extra girl for Work Hours in Coppélia - was she available? Of course she was, and really went for it full out (maybe too much as usual!) but she thinks this may have been a good way of proving she would be an asset to the Company. She was covering everything in her third year. One amusing time was when Marianela went off half way through Bayadère, Leire (all 6 feet of her!) stepped into Marianela’s shoes and Leanne, who had been standing in the wings, was thrown on in the Shades. She had to get ready in such a hurry that she even put her shoes on the wrong feet. Afterwards Gail said everything was going fine but suddenly she spotted a small thing at the end of the line – this was Leanne. She thinks that was when the Company decided to give her a job!
Paul started dancing aged eight because his older brothers and sisters (he comes from a family of seven) were already dancing beforehand so he used to watch them with his mum when she went to pick them up. The teacher suggested he join in and liked the way he picked it up. He soon overtook his sister and went to a class higher. He also did modern and tap dance. He was offered an audition for White Lodge summer school and Miss Beckley suggested that he also audition for the school proper. Things just progressed from there. He hadn’t heard of the Royal Ballet School and had no aspirations, so when he got in it was quite a shock. However, owing to his Dad having misread the schedule for new students and the date he was due to join, his introduction was a bit difficult. They were sitting at home on the Sunday when the phone rang asking why Paul hadn’t been to register the previous Friday – had he decided not to join? This caused a massive panic with his mum and gran rushing around trying to get things ready, sewing name tags in clothes, etc. The main problem was, being a late arrival, he got the worst bed in the dorm! He just blames his Dad for it all.
Paul said he had an easy time at White Lodge, had no problems with boarding though he missed his family but that didn’t make him want to leave. In the Upper School he really enjoyed developing as a dancer in a more professional way and did his graduation performance on the Opera House stage where he danced a pas de deux and solos from Flower Festival. He just loved the feeling of being on stage, dancing those wonderful steps with the full orchestra – it was amazing but scary hearing the audience out front before the curtain rose. Paul went to New York with the Company in his final year performing a few modern pieces as well as Flower Festival in a small theatre. There were some hints that he might get a contract with ABT or another American company, but when he arrived home (he happened to be driving on a road in Devon and had to pull over) there was a call from Gailene to say that Monica Mason had offered him a job with the Company, starting the next day which rendered him speechless! Although he left behind a lot of friends in the School who had to finish the year, he didn’t find it difficult joining the Company. Everyone was very nice, although being a newcomer he felt he was being watched to see what sort of competition he was providing and if he was up to scratch! He went to Russia which was his first experience of touring and it was great to watch their dancers with their extreme physiques and different way of working. The boys didn’t get much work in the Company during their final year - just walk on bits - while the girls had lots to do (swans, Coppélia, corps, etc). Paul walked on as a knight at the end of Firebird but he didn’t mind - just to be offered a job was surreal.
Leanne joined the Company in September 2003 . Her first performance was in Bayadère – it was terrifying coming down the ramp with all those arabesques to put you off balance! She hopes it will be easier this time (with even more arabesques) when she’ll lead the way. As a student she had been taught not to expect to be cast in anything but in fact she was on a lot in the first year performing 8 out of the 12 stars in a new production when everyone was learning everything from scratch. She went on at the last minute in Four Temperaments, her first Balanchine ballet, but it was all such good fun. On tour in Russia, as a student, she had been on in Romeo, a ballet she loves as it’s so theatrical with great fighting, etc. She also did Manon on tour which she really enjoys as she is the little boy in the brothel scene. She had one embarrassing moment when her trousers split and she didn’t know what to do so just had to carry on with a huge rent in her crotch! She thinks all MacMillan ballets are absolutely amazing – after the first couple of shows you really get into it but after about 20 it can become just a bit tedious!
Paul joined in February 2003 but he felt they weren’t quite sure what to do with him then, so he was asked to learn everything (Judas Tree, Swan Lake, etc) which was good experience to feel your way through the ballet. Later in the season he covered the Jester in Cinderella. It was very close to Christmas when Monica said Ricardo Cervera wasn’t well so Paul should learn the role. He took notes from the DVD in the kitchen at home, and just after Boxing Day he got the call and went on – his heart was pounding sitting on the stairs at the beginning. Wendy Ellis seemed pleased at the end so he felt he’d done alright although he wasn’t sure that she even knew who he was! As you’re not cast for anything in the first year, you’re just thrown on in an emergency. So it’s terrifying but teaches you to expect the unexpected. As cover you stand at the back of the rehearsal room and pick up as much as you can because there’s no-one to guide you and you’re left to your own devices and ingenuity. You just have to know the steps. Then once you get on they know you are reliable. Jester was the least prepared Paul ever felt in a role so it was quite scary but it all helps you to get to grips with how the Company works and your place within it.
Asked what were the high spots in the succeeding seasons, Leanne said for her it was Mayerling last season when she danced Princess Louise with Martin Harvey. She’d never danced a pas de deux before except at school, but to have that connection and to play a character role with someone who was so intense and supportive was absolutely wonderful. That performance saw debuts for all the dancers except for Tamara, but they were helped greatly by Genesia Rosato, Vickie Hewitt and Belinda Hatley. Leanne also loved Rake’s Progress in which she was one of the whores. Rite of Spring was also amazing – not necessarily classical but she enjoyed being a character. She would love to be in a musical so it helps towards fulfilling that dream. Firebird has incredible music. She also loves Ashton’s work - Rendezvous, Dream, etc. She can find something good in everything she dances but (Princess) Louise is the ultimate, something she never expected and nothing can quite touch it.
Paul said it was most enjoyable and satisfying to play Bratfisch – a great character role you could build on, and doing tricks with the hat was fun though Monica Parker worked him very hard. He was also in Month in the Country in his second season, with Darcey Bussell debuting in the lead. It was an occasion when the whole cast was English. All his family came to see him and Anthony decided he didn’t need to wear the (blond) wig! He’ll be performing Blue Boy in Patineurs after Christmas, a ballet he’s never seen but has heard to be exhausting and very difficult to dance. Leanne said she’s down to be a Shade and a Snowflake this season. Just to appear and hear the music is a bonus and she’s just appreciative of anything that comes along.
On the subject of tours, they had been to Russia, the US (when Leanne was injured), Japan, South Korea, Washington, Madrid, Turkey and Mexico City. Mexico City was this year, when they danced in a massive venue normally used for rock concerts, so it was more like a cinema with no proscenium. They did Sleeping Beauty which was exhausting as the altitude affected some people. Paul said it was particularly terrifying in the rat mask and he’d come off stage feeling dizzy and unable to catch his breath. Valeri Hristov had a stomach ailment and was on a drip, and a lot of people were also ill in Guadalajara. Leanne said there’d been more illness on that tour than ever before and she had remembered Joan Seaman’s warning at the cake cutting about this! They also did Coppélia and Romeo and Juliet which were well received. The Mexicans love ballet and were a fantastic audience although they were a long way off so you couldn’t hear their reaction as the orchestra drowned them out. However, they heard afterwards how much the audience had enjoyed the performances. People were selling lots of fake merchandise outside the theatre. Nothing was brought over from the Opera House who were obviously aware that this would happen, but there were T shirts, lighters, ash trays, tequila glasses, etc for sale. However, some of them had got it a bit wrong as their goods were for Birmingham Royal Ballet! The ROH shop is very expensive so the dancers bought quite a lot of fakes for souvenirs
They enjoyed the food in Mexico – particularly the steaks which they were told is good for the blood. On their day off they went to the Pyramids which were amazing. The Ambassador also threw a great party with lots of tequila. Ben Gartside got married in the summer and Monica was wondering about his stag party. They were 10 days in Mexico City so there was a stag party at every venue! There were some memorable performances. Leanne recalled going wrong in a character dance in Coppélia and not actually noticed, but it had been noted by Christopher Carr. There were lots of changes of cast as some principals were injured, so Roberta Marquez went on with many different partners. Ivan Putrov was rehearsing Coppélia in the studio and injured the same knee as previously. This gave Ricardo Cervera his debut in Coppélia which was fantastic for him if not for Ivan! The latter went home and came back at the end of the tour to do Swan Lake – a very quick recovery from the injury this time and quite memorable. Thiago Soares was injured so Marianela danced with Yohei Sasaki. Sadly Thiago hadn’t been able to go on tour at all, but is now back in class and improving.
In Guadalajara they did a gala including Act II Swan Lake on a tiny stage which was very hard work. They did three shows, with three different sets of principals. It seemed to go OK but wasn’t great – it felt more like a school performance. Belinda Hatley made her debut in Isadora Duncan Dances and final role at the same time. In Pueblo they danced Beauty in a new theatre on an industrial estate. That part of the tour was uneventful. Pueblo itself was full of churches, and the dancers enjoyed crazy golf and the bowling alley.
Altogether they had great memories of Mexico where their hosts were fantastic. At the final party there was a mariachi band and lots of tequila and everyone, including Anthony Russell Roberts and Monica, was dancing. It was all very well organised and they would certainly be going back to Mexico though it would be nice to go to Acapulco next time, thought Leanne, as Guadalajara and Pueblo weren’t great places! However it had been a very happy and busy tour with little time to sight-see.
Then on to Texas where they’d enjoyed a great party on a ranch given by the main sponsor of that part of the tour, where their hosts were very nice people. The only problem was that the ranch was an estate of 800 acres which the owner said was an hour’s drive away but it was actually two. There was a country and western band and three golf buggies which were hijacked by the Company and were great fun to ride around on. They did Sleeping Beauty and Leanne danced Red Riding Hood. The Americans made a fantastic audience, they clapped after everything and were very appreciative. It was a nice theatre in San Antonio though all rather like being in Disneyland, too clean and sterile.
They preferred Philadelphia which was a nice city, rather like a small New York. They did two Romeos, and two Swan Lakes. All went very well but the theatre was rather interesting as it was timber-framed but open sided so the swans really felt they were dancing in the breeze. However, the temperature was in the 90s and it was extremely hot, rather like a sauna, as they rehearsed there during the day and the stage was covered in moisture. Paul thought the usual rules were ignored! Tamara Rojo went off with foot trouble, so Roberta Marquez had to go on suddenly in Act III. She was standing in the wings, not expecting to have to dance, and was dressed for a party with her hair done and nails painted bright red! It was her first time dancing with Federico Bonelli and it was a very good show. However, Tamara was able to come back for Act IV which was probably a good thing. Leanne commented that it was like the old days where different dancers did the Odette/Odile roles. The final show was Marianela Nuñez and Rupert Pennefather. Leanne and Paul thought it was the best they had ever danced and they looked so good together. (David commented that he hoped they hadn’t said this to Thiago!) They will be dancing Sylvia together next season.
There they had the ‘official’ stag party and went paint-balling where Paul sustained a very bruised shoulder which was extremely painful. While on tour they received the announcement of promotions to principal: David Makhateli, Laura Morera and Alexandra Ansanelli – fantastic news. Very busy tour, the most Leanne has ever worked: she did Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake and Coppélia diverts so the work was hard for the girls. There was not so much for the boys who had a week off in Guadalajara and they played golf, went go-karting and generally enjoyed themselves!
While in America they were also rehearsing for Mara Galeazzi’s tour in South Africa and Kenya. It was a troupe of 12 dancers, who gave their services free, taken from the younger members of the Company, and they were all corps except for Mara herself. She and her partner Jurgen have set up a charity Dancing for the Children with Aids to help those left orphaned or with long term illness. They did pas de deux from Elite Syncopations which they’d not learnt before but which was good fun with six shows in three weeks, work shops, visits to orphanages, and generally helping children to get out of poverty. Actually Paul had been coached a couple of years previously by Lesley Collier in the Sweetheart pas de deux but mainly they learned everything from videos and Mara rehearsed them in the roles she knew. While in Johannesburg they did two shows and visited Soweto township where Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela were brought up. The children were all orphans of aids and 70 percent of the kids also have Aids. They did a kind of workshop to the Elite Syncopations music and the children appreciated everything. They danced around and were strong and happy. It was an extremely emotional and humbling experience to meet those people.
The Royal were received well in Capetown where they did two shows and danced with Capetown City Ballet who did a piece in the programme, four tangos to Roxanne from Moulin Rouge! They also did class with them, and they had lots of energy and worked so hard self-funding with absolutely no official financial support. In J’burg they saw South African Ballet Theatre, who did Les Sylphides and Don Q diverts in a theatre which holds 1,500 but with only an audience of about 100 people. But the dancers went on with such gusto despite the audience not giving much back. Leanne said how she really admired them. Apartheid is still so fresh in their minds and people think ballet is elitist and for the whites. Even so the Royal got good reception with an audience of about 800 which was amazing for that area where people are afraid to go out at night. There were two guests from S Africa Ballet Theatre who did a Spartacus pas de deux.
In Nairobi, it was a different audience as no-one except for the expatriate community had ever seen ballet. They did a general performance for schools, who had never even heard classical music or seen pointe shoes. Paul had a swollen face which was diagnosed as caused by an abscess on his tooth. It was two days before official show and he had root canal work which was extremely painful on the morning of the show. Even being half drugged it was incredible. They did Two Pigeons, Liam Scarlett’s piece from First Drafts, Sweetheart pas de deux from Elite with Sasha from Stuttgart Ballet. They performed in the round, rather like the Albert Hall, but with a thatched roof. The audience was fantastic and it was their best show which very sadly Mara missed as she was hospitalised with bad reaction to malaria tablets – a great show and she didn’t see it.
They then flew to Mombasa for a few days’ rest on the beach, then did a performance with Fort Jesus, an old naval fortress, as the back drop. This wasn’t a great venue as it was totally open to the elements and as it was pouring the stage crew were mopping up before show began. Because of the rain, there was a pause during performance to mop up again but everyone mucked in and even the audience helped! It wasn’t the best of shows but spirits were good and the audience were with them so despite the rain and dew it still went really well. On that part of the tour there was Mara, Sasha, Laura McCulloch, Zachary Faruque, James Wilkie, Ernst Meisner, Caroline Duprot, Gemma Bond, Romany Padjek. Sasha and Katia from Stuttgart joined in for Kenya part of tour during which time Jurgen and Mara got engaged. Altogether there was a team of about 25 including Jed, Gary, Peter, Lorna Robinson from the costume department and her partner Paul.
After Mombasa they were given a four day safari which was the best end of tour they could ever have wished for, staying in tents in the Masai Mara with a Masai warrior complete with spear outside in case a lion approached! They will go back in two years to do a show in the Masai Mara with animals in the background hopefully to tour Penguin Café if it can be arranged. They then had 10 days holiday on the beach in Cannes. So they were really working three out of five weeks of the holiday while lots of principals who were doing galas had even less of a break.
The Company have now been back at work for just over a week and it’s hectic. They’re rehearsing Jewels and Pat Neary is currently working with them on Rubies. It’s such hard work and very demanding so everyone is very sore after five and a half hour days. Then two other women will come in to work on Diamonds and Emeralds. The principals are very excited as they have a fantastic photoshoot when they’re going to be covered in the relevant jewels. This sadly doesn’t include the corps.
Paul was asked about his role as Alain in Fille. He was thrown on at the last minute, it was great fun on stage, with so many emotions to be put into the role so it’s exhausting, particularly as the size of the role is really that of a principal. It was amazing to work with Alex Grant who created the role and knows what he wants but is happy to allow you to play the role in your own way. Paul thinks it’s a fantastic role and it will be good to do it for the second time, so he can develop the character and enjoy it a bit more. He wasn’t in the TV performance which was danced by Jonathan Howells with Carlos Acosta and Marianela as leads. Everything was so very good fun, and it was his first time to be hooked up on a wire.
Asked if they visited the Alamo in Texas, Paul and Leanne said sadly they only saw it at a distance. They were in Texas on 4 July, which was also Olivia Cowley’s birthday, and everywhere was booked up but they had great celebrations up the Sky Tower from where you could see for miles, including the Alamo and wonderful firework display.
Paul talked a bit about his role in the Matthew Hart ballet, Golden Vanity, in which he was a matelot, which was made for him in White Lodge and which they performed in Holland Park. There was a particularly worrying moment when he was shoved inside a grand piano with lots of people standing on top. Luckily he’s not claustrophobic!
Paul and Leanne have been involved in several new works – he was in Qualia and covered for Chroma, DGV (Chris Wheeldon’s ballet). Leanne was in Peter Quanz’ ballet and it was very lucky for her as Marianela went off, Christina Salerno learned Marianela’s role and Leanne went into Christina’s slot at short notice. She really enjoyed it as it gave her a big opportunity to do a couple of steps by herself. Leanne was also in First Drafts – good fun. Jonathan Watkins, who was in the same year at school, is a talented choreographer, and is using her in a piece for a charity gala in Shoreditch on 15 September to raise money for research into autism.
Asked about music on tour Leanne and Paul said local orchestras were used with the Royal’s own conductors who went out ahead to rehearse. They were all very good. In Russia it sounded very enthusiastic, and they really go for it with passion and respect for the music. However, when their time is up they just leave – at one point when the conductor tried to bring in the percussionists they’d gone off because they were due a break! In Africa, the music was taped, ballet companies don’t have an orchestra because of the cost so all music was on CD, put together by the electrical engineers who arranged it with cues etc.
Asked if tours were exhausting Paul said they generally got a day off after flights as they need time to recover from jet lag, and prepare for work in different studios and spaces and stages. Sometimes there is more rehearsal time than here, but it is tiring, and particularly good to relax and see the city on days off. Some of the Company went to Mexico via Paris. But some lost luggage on the direct flight which included costumes and dance gear which they needed for the tour and which they always take with them in case the costumes don’t arrive. Although everyone except for the stage crew go from the Company, they also use local people on tour for props, as well as extras, with the consequent stress of a language barrier as they frequently don’t speak or understand English. There are a lot of extras in Romeo and it was difficult to tell them where to stand and what to do, particularly the children who had to give the gifts. The Company quickly learned useful words like ‘vamos!’. Before going out, there had been talk of Paul and Giacomo Ciriaci who are both fairly small being considered as the 2 goblins for Act III Swan Lake! Luckily two small boys were found locally!
David asked finally about any funny moments. Leanne said she is always falling on opening nights so has just come to expect it. In Paul’s first performance of Rite everyone was nervous with the counts and he was right in the front line, trying too hard and fell flat on the floor – but got up very quickly. If someone in the front goes wrong you can’t miss it. After 20 shows of the same performance they do try to make each other laugh.
Davd thanked the guests very much for a fascinating evening and said we would all be looking forward to seeing what Paul and Leanne get thrown on in next, and we would follow with interest their careers. It had been particularly interesting to hear about Mara’s tour. Leanne said she looked forward to repeating that tour and hoped Monica might be persuaded to take the Company, of which she is so proud, to her own home country. They’d done things which they don’t normally do, but in the end it was so humbling to bring ballet to such people and Leanne and Paul felt the troupe had done justice to the Company.
Report written by Liz Bouttell, corrected by Leanne Cope, Paul Kay and David Bain
©Ballet Association 2007.