First Soloist, The Royal Ballet
interviewed by David Bain
Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church,
London, 24 September 2010.
DAVID STARTED THE MEETING by saying that Bennet’s career really took of when Ross Stretton joined the Company. It then plateaued for a while before it took off again in the past couple of years, which also coincided with his promotions. Bennet explained that when Ross arrived, people in the Royal Ballet did not know much about him as a director. As they wanted to position themselves, competition increased among dancers. A number of Company members had good opportunities and Bennet was one of them, as were Martin Harvey and Tom Whitehead. As young dancers, they were happy to seize these opportunities, but those who were more established got upset and it affected relationships within the Company. It was Ross who gave him the opportunity to do character roles. The first one was that of Hilarion in Giselle, with Johan Kobborg and Alina Cojocaru. The role had previously been given to dancers who were much more experienced and senior than him, so it was a challenge. Peter Wright had a big input in the way he performed the role. Ironically, the first rehearsal took place without the main characters because they were away guesting, and it was awkward to act without Giselle and Albrecht. At the same time, because it happened to be in front of many people, Bennet said he really had to go for it. He enjoyed the experience a lot, and thinks that there is always something to add to the role, especially with a great cast like Johan and Alina.
Bennet then did Gremin in Onegin, although he was very young for the role, as the prince is more than twice his age at the time. He said it was challenging when rehearsing in the studio, but once on stage with the support of the make-up and the costume, it came more easily. He explained how, for him, the time between the stage call and the start of the show, is when he really gets into a character, and he finds it a lot harder to act in the studio. Alina, who was dancing Tatiana, was also very young for the part; it was one of her first big dramatic roles and she was still getting used to Johan’s partnering. Now, because they have been working together for so many years, they are very comfortable, and dancing together has become very natural for them. He also thinks that because Alina is older, she can bring a lot more to the role. Overall, Bennet feels that all of their roles have evolved a lot since the first time they did the ballet together. Also, since Alina had her neck injury, he has had to adjust his partnering to make sure her back is protected.
Bennet also talked about doing Carmen with Mats Ek, when Ross was Director. At the time, all the rehearsals were open. Mats Ek came, and he taught all the dancers the same steps; he then chose his cast based on how they performed. He ended up choosing Jonathan Cope and Bennet for the same role despite their different styles. Mats mainly focused on the first cast, made up of Sylvie Guillem, Jonathan Cope and Massimo Murru. The second cast included Tamara Rojo, Bennet and Tom. Bennet also learned the role of José and ended up rehearsing with Sylvie a few times, which he really enjoyed. He recalled how once she asked him to show Massimo what he was doing because it felt ‘very comfortable’, and how embarrassed he was. After the first season, the ballet has been taught by Pompea Santoro, who was the original M. The time before last though, Mats came to London when they were working on it. However, it was only for three days, and all scheduling disappeared, as his visit took priority over everything else. Mats gave a lot of feedback to the dancers during this short time, and Bennet remembers how he was once taking a nap in the Opera House and Mats woke him up to give him some more comments. Bennet liked doing Carmen several times, especially when he was older and not in Jonathan’s shadow anymore. David asked Bennet why dancers find Mats so inspiring. He feels he has a particular way of making his body talk, even when he is just taking a class. Bennet also said that he enjoys working with him because of the way he makes you feel relaxed.
Jiří Kylián by contrast, was quite scary to work with, but Bennet felt it was necessary for him to give that impression to produce what he wanted. He has a different persona to Mats and Bennet feels he learned less from him. He said dancing Kylián is phenomenally exhausting.
David then mentioned Nacho Duarto. Bennet did not enjoy working with him. Nacho has very specific tastes for dancers, which did not include Bennet, and he thinks he only danced his ballets because management interfered with Nacho’s own preferences.
Audio clip - 11 different roles in Romeo and Juliet:
That same year, Bennet also danced several roles in Romeo and Juliet. To make things more difficult, he was dancing Mercutio and Tybalt on alternate days, which was very confusing, especially when it came to the fighting. This was compounded by the fact that he had a sprained wrist because of the amount of rehearsals he had to do. Bennet feels Mercutio never really worked for him, partly because he did not have enough time to get into the role, and partly because the character came less naturally to him. By contrast, for Tybalt, he did not want to look at what other dancers had done with the role, but he nevertheless had a clear idea of what he wanted to do with it. Having said that, Bennet explained that the character always changes depending on the cast, which also keeps things interesting. He has performed Tybalt with countless Mercutios and Romeos, every time adapting to the specific styles of the dancers performing with him. He also believes it is better for the audience to see a variety of interpretations for the same role and that dancers should have some freedom in the way they perform. In total, he has done eleven different roles in Romeo & Juliet throughout his career, and he joked that they have his name on every costume in the wardrobe department.
Ross left after Bennet was promoted to Soloist and suddenly he was given far fewer roles. He got frustrated by the lack of progression in his career, and by the fact that he was not given any real explanation for it. Ultimately the situation affected him not just as an artist, but also as a person. When the 2006/7 season came, he felt ready to leave. They started working on Voluntaries and Bennet was one of the six men in it. Because they do not wear much to perform the ballet on stage, Bronwen Curry asked the dancers to remove most of their clothes when rehearsing so she could see their bodies properly, something they were not happy doing after five weeks of summer holiday. Eric Underwood had just started with the Company and he got worried to the point of saying ‘Please tell me this does not happen all the time!’ Bennet also explained that it was difficult because they were still learning the roles and therefore not moving all the time, so that their muscles would get cold. He had not initially been cast to dance with Lauren Cuthbertson and Mara Galeazzi, but the casting was not working because of the dancers’ relative heights and Mara suggested bringing Bennet in. It worked out very well, and he received a lot of compliments for his performance, which encouraged him, and the season picked up from there. Monica Mason asked him to do Checkmate, a ballet that he enjoyed doing a lot, particularly with Zenaida Yanovsky. At the end of the season, he was promoted to First Soloist. Unlike Soloists, First Soloists are not allowed to do any corps work, and in his first season, Bennet felt he had a lot of spare time, which he found a bit unsettling, but after a while, things picked up again.
Bennet talked about classes with Loipa Araújo who comes as a guest teacher, and how great it is to have her. She pushes dancers hard, and gets offended if you miss class one day. He thinks that she has been a tremendous benefit to the Company.
He also spoke about working with Tamara, who has been very supportive of him in recent years, and Liam Scarlett, first in the Clore and then for Asphodel Meadows. Tamara and Bennet were the first couple to work in the studio on Asphodel Meadows, so there was a bit of pressure on them and a lot of curiosity from other dancers to see what they were doing. He finds Liam very impressive given his young age; he thinks he has an incredible eye for choreography. Asked by David whether Bennet thought choreography was for him, he said definitely not. He attended a weekly class at White Lodge with Norman Morrice and David Drew, but he did not agree with the idea of forcing someone into a creative process at a set time every week. He also had to choreograph some pieces for his GCSE and A-levels, but found it very difficult. He nevertheless finds it great that a number of dancers of the Royal Ballet have had a go at choreographing through the programmes in the Clore and the Linbury.
David noted that although Bennet does not choreograph, he does not only dance when he is in the Royal Opera House, as he is responsible for the video archives of the Royal Ballet. It is something he got involved with ten years ago, because he had some spare time and he thought it was a shame that the archives were not properly managed, so he decided to do it himself. Since then, the department has grown a lot and so has his role. The archives have expanded from 400 to 760 films, as they film a lot more now. They now film all the Draft Works, New Works, as well as the main stage performances, for which they film every first night, unless it is a repeat of the previous season. In a few instances, when a choreographer or management felt the production was different enough with each cast, they filmed all the casts. This has been done for example with Rushes, Sylvia, and Pierrot Lunaire. Bennet thinks it is very useful to be able to watch what has been done in the past and to see the progression of some artists, such as Liam Scarlett and Jonathan Watkins from their first pieces to the latest ones. Unfortunately, they are not allowed to film everything, unlike some other companies such as New York City Ballet. To the great disappointment of the Association’s members, the Royal Ballet archived footage is only for internal use and cannot be shown to the public, but Bennet said it was sometimes difficult to keep control of the recordings, now that everything is digital. As a matter of fact, some recordings have mysteriously ended up on YouTube. Bennet’s filming for the archives has also led him to work with the media department of the Opera House. For example, he has been putting together ten-minute clips from ballets for commercial purposes (for example to show on BBC Breakfast, or to put on the Royal Opera House website), which he has enjoyed. He also hopes to get involved in 3D filming. So far, they have only filmed the opera Carmen in 3D, but it involves a lot of technicians and cameras both in the auditorium and on stage, so it is difficult to implement for a ballet without being disturbing for the dancers.
Bennet was also asked by David about his future, but he is unsure what he will do. Teaching is one possibility, but it is too early to say. He has been following a teaching course through the education department of the Opera House, which is based on the national curriculum and includes technique, as well as creative dance. He still needs to hand in a few papers to complete the course, but he has enjoyed it so far and he has already planned some classes for 2011.
David concluded the meeting by thanking Bennet for sharing with the audience some of the many experiences he has had throughout his fifteen years with the Royal Ballet.
Report written by Nathalie Dantès, corrected by Bennet Gartside and David Bain ©The Ballet Association 2010.