Principal Character Artist & Ballet Master, The Royal Ballet
interviewed by David Bain
Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church,
London, 18 October 2010
THE LAST TIME CHRISTOPHER spoke to the Ballet Association, he came with two of the younger dancers, just after becoming a President of the Association – ‘a while back.’ Here was a chance to hear him on his own.
Christopher trained with his aunt Joan Stevenson, (Ben Stevenson’s wife). This provided his ‘original classical training.’ In 1973, he appeared in a production of Gypsy starring Angela Lansbury. His uncle then wrote to Barbara Fewster at the Royal Ballet School saying he had a nephew who loved to dance. She replied ‘He can come along’ to a class, which included Jonathan Cope, Bruce Sansom and Simon Rice. Afterwards, his parents were informed there was a spare bed at White Lodge, and ‘would Christopher like to come?’ He spent five years at White Lodge, and two and a half years at the Upper School. He joined the Company on 3rd February 1983, so ‘didn’t really graduate,’ and any initial ambitions to pursue a career in Musical Theatre took a back seat. He has spent 27 years with the Royal Ballet as of February this year.
Christopher has happy memories of school, ‘Oh yes, I loved it. In general, I had a good time. I wouldn’t have been in the Company if I hadn’t been at White Lodge.’ For his school performances, at White Lodge, Christopher did ‘the usual White Lodge Morris dancing.’ For his Upper School performances, in his first year, he was one of Colas’s friends in La Fille mal gardée, and a piece called Here We Come. For his second year performances, he performed the Duke in Giselle, and the Prince in Swan Lake at Sadler’s Wells. Whilst still a student, he got thrown on in a rehearsal of Nureyev’s The Tempest when Michael Corder was ill. There were ‘somechaotic moments, but I guess I must have done ok.’ Barbara Fewster called him into her office, and said ‘Can you start on Monday?’ Peter Wright had also been looking for students to tour at around the same time, and Christopher was half expecting to go there, but then the Royal Ballet contract came along. Christopher did ‘hardly anything’ with the Company whilst a student. He remembers going on in Romeo and Juliet alongside four other tall boys from his year at school as a monk in Act III, with the wedding in Act II, and standing on the balcony watching the ball in Act I.
Christopher’s first performance as a member of the Company was as a coachman in The Invitation. He was told his make-up would consist of a pale face, with reds and blacks. Whilst he went for a minimalist look (black lips and red under his eyes), his fellow coachman Nicholas Dixon went for a more ‘creative’ look, with ‘zigzags coming down. My God!’ Make-up is very different now. Christopher remembers getting lessons at school. They started with the old fashioned basic make-up, a classical make-up and a pancake base, before moving onto the character make-up. ‘We spent weeks doing it.’ He likes to do his own make-up now, but people can have theirs done for them if they wish. If something needs doing en masse for a specific ballet, then a picture goes up to show the dancers what it should look like, e.g. ‘black lines here.’
For the first 18 months to 2 years, Christopher did a lot of roles such as the Raymonda Pas de Quatre, as several tall dancers were injured. During his second and third year, it was back to Courtiers! Being tall, as well as a strong partner seemed to help, so he was put down to learn Scènes de ballet, the Rose Adagio in The Sleeping Beauty, and the Cavaliers in Cinderella very early on. Christopher was never bored, as there was always something to do or work on. The Raymonda Pas de Quatre was his first major role. There was a video of it, but ‘I don’t like watching myself.’ He also learnt Gloria, when Monica Mason told him Kenneth MacMillan wanted him to learn it. ‘I just thought wow!’ With, Agon, Christopher was told, ‘Here’s the CD of the music, you’re on!’ Agon was also his introduction to Pat Neary, and ‘we’ve been good friends ever since.’ They are also two very different ballets, ‘but I loved doing them.’ Working with Viviana Durante, Leanne Benjamin and Darcey Bussell ‘was the icing on the cake.’
Christopher’s uncle invited him to dance in America, but then Anthony Dowell told him ‘I’d like to make you a soloist.’ Christopher’s response? ‘Oh, OK thanks. Bye.’ It was a very short interview! He had got together with Tracey Brown by now, who was very relieved he was staying. At this stage, Christopher asked if he could learn Tybalt. He appreciated the interpretations given by David Drew and Derek Deane. Anthony was initially unsure if he’d be suited, so he checked with Monica, as to whether this would be ok. Christopher had traditionally been cast as Paris, Benno, Hilarion and in other ‘friend’ roles, but he felt he had it in him, especially having done the Fox in Beatrix Potter. ‘Just think of me doing Tybalt in a fox’s mask.’ Luckily, Anthony said ‘yes.’ After that, Christopher asked to learn Rothbart and the King. After an initial reserved reaction, he has ended up doing these roles. Christopher loves the acting side of things. ‘I am quite quiet, even if my family don’t say so.’
On tour, Christopher loves to explore. ‘When we tour, we go to some amazing cities.’ Even though he has been to China three times, there is always something new to discover. ‘I love to see it.’ When he gets home he’ll be ill. ‘I tend to stay up rather late, but it’s the only way to see it.’ He often arrives back from seeing something as others are on their way out, so if they give him five minutes, or leave the address, Christopher will turn round to go and join them.
When Christopher first performed Tybalt, Bruce Sansom was Romeo. He was conscious of towering over Bruce, but was delighted to be doing the role opposite him. ‘He’s so professional.’ They were also at school together. Although there were aspects of Derek Deane’s Tybalt that Christopher enjoys, he considers David Drew to be the best, but ‘you can’t copy, anybody. The more you do it, the more you feel relaxed in performing.’ Christopher will laugh and chat before a performance, but once the music starts, he gets into the ‘zone of being that character.’ He would like to do Tybalt now, but appreciates you have to ‘move on.’ When learning Tybalt, Stephen Jefferies stayed in the room as Mercutio for his first fight as a help. ‘It’s worth gold dust. You learn so much.’ You try to take on board what people such as he and David Drew had to say. David Drew had been his Pas de Deux teacher at school, and Christopher was conscious of trying not to tread on his toes, and take shows away from him. There was a group of them, such as Gary Avis, Luke Heydon and Will Tuckett who were potentially in the same boat. David would go over the pitfalls of a role, so Christopher would ask ‘what could go right with it then?’ David helped a lot, and go over what looked right or might look a bit odd.
After Tybalt, came Rothbart. Christopher found it difficult to begin with especially the bittiness of being on and off in Act II, but he enjoys the role now. He’s not too fond of the Mohican wig, but once the other wig is on, he feels more comfortable. Christopher finds being given corrections a positive thing. ‘Be corrected for doing too much, rather than not enough.’ You can think you’re doing a lot, but it won’t project past the second row. When Rothbart is standing on the rock in Act IV of Swan Lake, there’s not much room, and ‘it wobbles like mad,’ but Christopher will always try to do something. ‘Staff say they love it.’ When Rothbart jumps off the rock, Christopher initially tried flying off horizontally like an owl, so now he has to keep it up, as people told him how good it looked. It gets harder as he gets older. He also gets bored with repetition, so tries not to think about roles in the same way every time, and tries to be spontaneous. ‘Hopefully it adds to my character.’ He wants to do roles for many years to come, and likes to react to what’s happening around him.
Christopher feels the Royal Ballet should do The Sleeping Beauty as it keeps standards up. The standard of the girls always goes up, as those solos are so hard. It’s ‘not my favourite ballet’ to perform in. It’s hard sitting on that throne. On one occasion the Company performed 36 shows on tour in China, which involved continual performances of courtiers and the hunt scene. With the Anthony Dowell production, Christopher and Adam Cooper alternated as Lilac Fairy and Enchanted Garden cavaliers and in the Rose Adagio. They worked out they did something like 150 Rose Adagios over the course of the year between them! They’d be standing at the top of the stairs saying ‘here we go!’ It’s the thought of doing it more than the event itself. The fibreglass breastplate dug in if you slouched. ‘It is hard,’ and he’d rather stand. Elizabeth McGorian once had a mint down her costume, which made him laugh, ‘and then you have the cat music!’
New creations Christopher has been involved in include Love’s Fool for the mini tour. ‘I’ve been in the room when things have been created.’ He was in the second cast for Winter Dreams and The Judas Tree (MacMillan), Vari Capricci (Ashton) and Tombeaux for David Bintley. ‘Delightful to work for.’ He was one of four Winds in Baiser de la fée (MacMillan), and in the second cast of Still Life at the Penguin Cafe (Bintley) and There Where She Loves (Wheeldon). He created a small part of the Tryst pas de deux, as Jonathan Cope had to leave the room, and Chris Wheeldon wanted to get on with creating it. ‘I don’t think Jonny ever felt comfortable with the step.’
In Winter Dreams recently, Christopher was getting the biggest applause of the night. ‘What do you do? Three rollovers. What can I say?’ He tries to make each one slightly different. You can’t practise it – you just have to do it. Anthony Dowell saw it, and said he loved it, although Christopher hopes he hasn’t changed it more than it should be. Christopher hopes he and Gary Avis are very different, but that they both have valid interpretations. Christopher ends up bruised doing the role, although it is as Tybalt that he has ended up really battered and bruised. Christopher thinks he has chipped an elbow, which hurts if he leans on it in the wrong way now from ‘diving recklessly on the floor.’
The year before Ross Stretton came in as Director, Monica asked Christopher to do an open demonstration coaching the Paris pas de deux from Romeo and Juliet ‘which I loved doing.’ He also coached Tom Whitehead in the role. Ross Stretton spoke to all the Principals, and both Jonathan Cope and Bruce Sansom took a class, and Monica asked Christopher about doing the same. Christopher was already doing some teaching for Margaret Barbieri, and teaching stagecraft at the Royal Ballet School. Ross heard about the coaching, and asked him if he’d like to become a ballet master, Christopher’s response was ‘Yeah – great!’ Christopher assumed others knew, but they didn’t, which initially made things a little uncomfortable. Gail Taphouse was thrilled when he sat next to her at a rehearsal and told her. Christopher Carr was also a ballet master at the same time, and Christopher was worried there might be an atmosphere, but he felt the challenge was there, so he took it.
Christopher wasn’t really given a ‘role’ as such. He started sitting in on some of the new works such as Tryst, but often ended up coaching Principals when Ross or others weren’t there. Christopher gets on well with Chris Wheeldon and Pat Neary, so helps stage work on the Company for them now. Monica also has him in on MacMillan rehearsals. With The Nutcracker, there are so many casts that he will look after a couple of principal casts. He often worked with Sarah Lamb and Slava Samodurov for a period. Jonathan Cope, Lesley Collier, Roland Price, Alexander Agadzhanov and Christopher often have a principal cast each. In Sylvia, Ursula Hageli rehearses the hunt ladies, yet Christopher will help with the fauns and nymphs in Act I. Christopher will get the rehearsal going. Even if Ursula is ‘in charge,’ he will feel free to chip in. ‘The best way is to work as a team really.’
With Theme and Variations, Pat Neary did the first week, after which Christopher was pretty much on his own for the rest of the rehearsal period. Anna Trevien arrived back for the second and third performances of it. The rehearsal period started a long time beforehand, which is unusual. The dancers remembered it well, so Christopher gave it a break for a couple of weeks, to keep it fresh. He also gave each principal couple twice a week to go through it, and started full rehearsals again three weeks before the shows. He didn’t want to over rehearse it, and have it go stale. Each cast also had a full call. Tryst needs more attention, as it’s so complicated. With Theme and Variations, the lovely music makes it all much easier to put together.
Audio clip - coaching:
When coaching roles he hasn’t performed himself, Christopher goes back to what he has seen done by say, David Wall, Stephen Jefferies, Wayne Eagling and Anthony Dowell, especially when it comes to partnering. ‘I just ‘tried to take it all in.’ Christopher remembers ‘Madam’ taking a full call of The Sleeping Beauty. ‘Even the staff were terrified.’ 45 minutes into the call, the cavaliers hadn’t made their entrance yet. Every time the courtiers walked on, she would say ‘No! No! No!’ Christopher tries to pass on what he remembers. He has a good memory, but ‘I’m terrible with names.’ He could do Scènes de ballet now, and has seen Juliet’s ballroom solo so many times, also remembers that.
With Romeo and Juliet, Sylvia and Manon, he refers to his notes he has written down e.g. about counts. He has also had to learn to count in rehearsals since becoming ballet master, as it’s not something he did as a dancer, even with Rite of Spring and Valley of Shadows. Christopher is happy to coach with or without counts, depending on what the dancers feel happiest with, and makes it better for them. Christopher tries to stay as true as possible to what the choreographer wants. If, Sir Peter Wright is happy for a variation on a theme, Christopher will give the dancer the option. With something like The Nutcracker, Christopher will often look at the most recent footage the Company has and then check with Jonathan or Lesley as to what they are doing, as Sir Peter will often change things if he has been staging the ballet elsewhere. With Balanchine, Christopher will take on board what others such as Pat Neary say. Whilst working on Tryst with Dutch National Ballet, Christopher had to change a step, as the girl was injured. He ran it by Chris Wheeldon, who was happy with it. Christopher will try and keep it as true as possible to what he remembers.
Christopher has worked under four directors – Norman Morrice, Anthony Dowell, Ross Stretton and Monica Mason. He was in Nureyev’s The Nutcracker in his second year at White Lodge. Kenneth MacMillan was director at that stage. In 18 month’s time, Christopher will be on to his fifth director. What attributes do you need to be a director? ‘Whatever Monica has.’ It’s phenomenal how much goes into it. You have to deal with dancers’ egos, personalities and worries, staff egos and worries, the board, and consider the rest of the Opera House. ‘You have to be incredibly true to yourself, and do what you think is right.’ You also have to be ready to admit a mistake, try to correct it and deal with it, as well as have a lot of patience, and be open to suggestions. It also helps to have a good vision for the future, without drastically changing too much of what we have. It’s almost impossible. ‘A tough job.’ Would Christopher like the job? ‘Who know what tomorrow will bring.’ He wouldn’t have thought at one time that he’d end up on the ballet staff. The worst that could happen is that you’d be awful, and you’d be fired after a day. If someone asked him, he wouldn’t say ‘no,’ but ‘whether I could do it or not, I don’t know.’ Monica’s still got another 18 months, but they’ll be going through the process soon. ‘There are a lot of names we can imagine wanting the job. It really could be anybody.’ It wouldn’t work having one person dictating it – ‘it is teamwork.’ ‘It’s a hard one to answer.’
Christopher coached Darcey Bussell in Song of the Earth last time round. Christopher would love to have done the pas de deux, but had ‘hung up my shoes’ by that stage. ‘The music is incredible. ‘It’s the same with Requiem, Gloria and Mayerling. Christopher also loved the original designs for Anastasia, ‘just beautiful.’ He gets emotional on the ship when he stands there as the Tsar, the officers line up, and salute him. ‘I absolutely loved it.’
Having appeared in Raymonda, does Christopher have any memories of Nureyev? Not with Raymonda, but when rehearsing The Tempest, there was one sequence where Rudolph was carried round, and Christopher had to grab him round the waist and spin him round. Christopher hadn’t twigged this would be his responsibility until it actually happened. When the realisation hit him, he put Rudolph down, who turned round to him, and said ‘Hmm, you’re sooo strong!’
Report written by Rachel Holland, corrected by Christopher Saunders and David Bain ©The Ballet Association 2010