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Gary Norman

Senior Ballet Teacher, The Royal Ballet School
with Ballet Association Award winners Claudia Dean & Lachlan Monaghan

interviewed by David Bain

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church,
London, 25 January 2011.

GARY NORMAN STARTED DANCING when he was eight years old. He was born in South Australia, before moving to a wine growing area. There were no dance studios, and not much interest in dance, except for country dancing. He had a cousin living in the same town, who travelled by bus to Adelaide, so Gary’s mum sent him too ‘to test the water.’ It involved travelling 35 miles on a Friday night for a class on a Saturday morning. He stayed with an aunt, and worked in a cinema to cover the cost of his classes. He did this until he was 12 or 13, when he auditioned for the Australia Ballet School. His teachers said he had enough talent to be accepted, although he had to wait a year before moving to Melbourne, as he needed to be 15. It was a wrench for his parents, as he was an only child. Being in the school was ‘a big learning curve,’ and required a ‘huge amount of stamina.’ Gary stayed in about 14 different homes, but in his third year, he shared with other students. At the school, there was an associate programme that ran one or two classes a week for younger students, but they are trying to get a junior school going now.

 Helpmann then told Gary he wasn’t right for his initial role, so would be sharing the role of Hamlet with Nureyev!

In his third year, Gary was taken on tour with Australian Ballet. The company was split in two, so the management ‘got to know me.’ Gary was given a contract at the end of the year. He wasn’t told as such – he just saw his name up for Hamlet, and thought ‘Yes! Good job.’ Peggy Van Praagh then told him the news. Robert Helpmann, the company director, was mounting his choreography, and Nureyev was coming to guest with the company. Helpmann then told Gary he wasn’t right for his initial role, so would be sharing the role of Hamlet with Nureyev! It was ‘a big, big ask.’ Gary also performed Albrecht in his first year with the company. At the end of the year, Gary got promoted to Soloist, and performed lead roles in Sleeping Beauty and Don Q, and several one act ballets. Gary was promoted to Principal aged 20. ‘That’s fantastic. They showed that confidence in me.’ He danced all the major classics after that. Do today’s students know all this? ‘Oh, they look on Facebook these days!’

Claudia grew up in Brisbane, and started dancing when she was four. She learned ballet, tap and jazz with Carolyn Gilby. Aged 12, Claudia did the state junior programme. She flew to Melbourne three times a year, making her realise ballet was what she really wanted to do. Aged 15, Claudia moved to the Gold Coast, which was an hour and a half's drive away to train full time with Prudence Bowen for about 18 months. Prudence only took 10 students at a time, so you virtually got one-to-one training. It was very intense. Claudia did several competitions, including the Prix de Lausanne ‘a real eye-opener,’ and the Alana Haines awards. Gailene Stock was a judge at the Alana Haines awards, and provided Claudia with an introduction to the Royal Ballet School.

At the Prix de Lausanne, there was a week of classes, with the solos/finals held on stage at the end. The stage was raked, which Claudia hadn’t been used to. She performed one of the Shade solos, and a contemporary solo – Bach Suite – by John Neumeier, which involved lots of quick footwork and off-balance movements. Claudia had never done a contemporary piece en pointe before. At the Genée awards in Singapore, Claudia won the Gold Award. The Genée awards were more for RAD trained dancers (which Claudia was trained in), which was different to the Prix de Lausanne, where there were more types of training on display, such as Cecchetti. It was also an intense week, with classes taken by Christopher Hampson and Lynn Wallis. At the Genée, Claudia performed the ‘slow’ Shade solo, a Pas de Quatre solo from Swan Lake, and another contemporary solo en pointe – ‘a real stamina one.’ At the Genée, there were a lot of Australian and Asian dancers, so there were a lot of RAD trained students. It’s ‘good to experience competitions. You learn a lot.’ She won the Gold Award, as well as the Audience Award at the Genée Awards. The 2009 Haynes awards in New Zealand weren’t as intense. They lasted for a weekend. You did class, solos, then your solos at the finals. Claudia was still training with Prudence Bowen at this stage, and had the choice whether to stay with her, or go to the Australian Ballet School. She stayed with Prudence Bowen, as it provided a chance to experience the competitions, although ‘it’s always been my dream to train at the Royal Ballet School and be part of the Company.’ Claudia feels this came about through lots of hard work, dedication, and playing her cards right. She got offered a place at the Royal Ballet School after the Alana Haines awards, and came straight away.

Lachlan performed a variation from Don Quixote – ‘my favourite solo’ and won!

Lachlan, growing up in Western Sydney, started dancing at the age of 11. His sister attended dance classes so he decided to give it a go. He began with tap and jazz, but not ballet – at that age, the thought of wearing tights was not a plan! Soon after, he moved to a tap school, where he began learning with Glenn Wood, while also commencing his academic and performing arts studies at The McDonald College. He was able to complete two hours of performing arts everyday while also maintaining his academic component. His tap teacher soon encouraged Lachlan to consider starting ballet lessons, and so he commenced classical ballet lessons at the college. He gradually ended up doing more and more ballet. He took to it straight away and it soon became his passion. His parents were not from this background at all, so they were quite surprised to be learning about something they knew nothing about. In year 10, after completing his School Certificate exams, Lachlan started in a full time training course, the Australian International Ballet Academy, which was a part of the McDonald College. It was very different, going from two hours training a day, to full days of work. But he loved it! Lachlan competed in the McDonald’s Ballet Scholarships in 2008 and out of 140 entrants, Lachlan was chosen as one of eight finalists. ‘I was so overwhelmed and excited.’ It was his first major competition. Claudia, also competing that year, was awarded first prize. Lachlan continued training for another year and took the risk to enter the scholarship in 2009, once again being successful in becoming a finalist. Coached by Allan Cross and Josephine Jason, Lachlan performed a variation from Don Quixote – ‘my favourite solo’ and won! His success in the competition gave him the opportunity to do classes in the UK, so he came with some fellow peers, and took class at the Royal Ballet School for two weeks. He was offered a place at the School and commenced in the January of 2010; half way through the first year. He is now in his second year. He was also lucky to be offered a scholarship to assist with the many costs that are involved in living and training overseas. ‘My parents have always been supportive in what my sister and I love doing. But it’s also the little help that can make things just that little bit easier. Where there’s a will, there’s a way I guess.’

Audio clip - Gary Norman and "the lure of overseas":

Gary was a Principal for four years, and had danced all the major works in the repertoire. Dame Ninette had sent Peggy van Praagh to be the director, so the flavour of what she wanted carried through. He worked with international choreographers, such as Glen Tetley (who made Gemini on him – ‘he has some beautiful works’), Tudor, Massine, MacMillan and Ashton – ‘a broad coverage of dance styles.’ Gary was with Gailene Stock at this time. She wanted to go overseas, so Gary told her ‘You’re not going to go without me.’ They went to dance in Canada, ‘a wonderful country’, with a recommendation from Nureyev. They joined the National Ballet as Principals, and stayed for two years, after which they joined the Royal Winnipeg Company. They danced a lot, as the company only had 35 dancers. There weren’t many full length ballets. Anne Williams was now director of the Australian Ballet. She had been ballet mistress for John Cranko’s company. Peggy Van Praagh had brought in Cranko’s Swan Lake, followed by Onegin. Gary had seen it danced in Stuttgart, so came back to Australian Ballet, and went straight into the role. He found the dramatic side of Onegin provided whole fulfilment. Anne Williams was an ‘amazing lady,’ and a ‘tremendous director.’ She worked with everybody from Principals through to extras. ‘You should pass your expertise onto everybody.’ Whilst in Canada, Celia Franca had been in charge. She ‘could be quite cutting, but luckily, she liked me.’ Gary stayed a few more years with Australian Ballet, but finally had enough. He and Gailene were now married and had a daughter, so Gary was flying back and forth between seeing them, and going to dance in a premiere of a triple bill. Gary made the decision to go into teaching in 1980. Margaret Scott formed the Australian Ballet School, and gave Gary a job, even though he had no formal training. This meant Gary had to find his own way and style. Having experience as a professional dancer helped carry him through. He continued to perform as a character dancer and eventually rejoined Australian Ballet as a ballet master. The lure of the Royal Ballet School then came up. He and Gailene initially signed a two year contract, but they’re still here 13 years on!

When Claudia moved to London, her mother came too, staying with her for a week. They keep in contact when they can on Skype. Claudia studied for six weeks in the first year with Miss Zvelebilova. It was tough to start with, as she arrived a week late. She then moved into the second year, where her next teacher was Miss Young. It was around now Claudia started to work with the Company, going on as a court lady. It gave her a real insight into how the Company works. In the April of her second year, Claudia went with William Bracewell, Gary and Gailene Stock to the Youth America Grand Prix in New York. Claudia danced the Gamazatti solo and a contemporary piece was by Christopher Tudor and was placed fifth.

Lachlan was now training with Josephine and Alan Cross. He came over for the classes at the Royal Ballet School. There was a postal strike in London, so Lachlan didn’t expect to hear anything, although Gailene phoned his teachers to say he had been given a place. Lachlan arrived half way through the first year. It was a new experience being surrounded by so many boys. Lachlan’s teacher was Mr Pakri. Lachlan found more strength and stamina were required of him. His second year teacher is Mr Peden, who was British trained. It suits him, and he is really enjoying the experience. Lachlan is able to add on something that he gained before, and there is a mix of experiences and styles teaching now.

 1,300 international students audition
for 25-30 places.

Gailene Stock had introduced the third year at Australian Ballet School, before introducing it here too. This enabled the students to concentrate on their dancing with the Company, and auditioning, with the academics out of the way. There is a great need to use the students at the moment, with six full length productions on this season. Gailene’s predecessor Merle Park had had two Russian teachers, but now there is the strength of the British training, alongside the Russian training. Anthony Dowell appreciated this. Now, 1,300 international students audition for 25-30 places. Gailene and Gary have had to watch DVDs of potential students, although Mark Annear is now looking after this. There are 15 girls and 19 boys in the 3rd year now. For the last three years, there have been more boys than girls. The ratio also works out with half the students coming from White Lodge and half being international. It can create a good competitive environment, encouraging the British/White Lodge students to push more and work harder.

Coming into the Upper School from outside, Claudia feels there is a difference, in that there are a few cliques, but she didn’t find it difficult to settle in, as she is very lively. Although she found it daunting initially, she has come all this way, so wants to make the most of this opportunity. The most difficult part for Lachlan was overcoming any shyness, ‘but hey – I did it!’ Lachlan is sharing a room with a boy who was used to being on his own. He had his family for support, but you have to remember what you’re here for, and really love it. It’s so easy to fall apart otherwise.

Lachlan was fairly involved in school performances in his first year. He did the Raymonda Pas de Deux, the boy’s Pas de Quatre, and the Garland Dance from Sleeping Beauty. He was also involved in the Solos Evening. Now he’s in the second year, he is working towards the Ursula Moreton Choreography Awards at the end of March, and is preparing the Pas de Six from Giselle. In the end of year performances, the School will perform Checkmate. The students are still working on their technique, as they will need to be at their peak for the end of the second year. This means they will be ready to start auditioning.

At the end of year performance last year, Claudia performed the third movement lead in Concerto. It was a real highlight for her, and it’s a ‘very difficult solo.’ She was also involved in the Parrish Maynard piece, which was ‘a highlight too.’ Parrish came for a week to teach the piece and convey all the details he wanted. It was ‘a very busy week.’ He had a taste of who he wanted, after which there were four weeks of rehearsing constantly. The music had no beat as such. It sounded like metal electronic. You listen for the highlights and dynamics. They weren’t taught to count it. Gary feels ‘it is countable though.’

Gailene puts the programme together, and there is sometimes a celebratory theme to it, such as with Checkmate this year. She talks to the staff for their ideas, but ‘has a good eye’ about forming and balancing a programme. Although it is a classical ballet school, they have to think about contemporary work, and the students must be able to act as well. They are able to meet the demands though.

In February, the Royal Ballet School are dancing in Virginia and New York, where they will perform at the Alvin Ailey Centre (who are great at accommodating them), and will perform in a programme with ABTII. They will take five pieces. Gary is choreographing two pieces – one fast, and one slow, which will be ‘really exciting.’ They school is also taking Ashton’s Pas de Quatre from Swan Lake, Fractals, Schrumpf, a piece by Alistair Marriott. Gary says he has never choreographed before. When he had some free time last summer, he heard a concerto by a Polish composer. The second movement is nine minutes, and the final movement is seven and half minutes long, so this is what he has choreographed to. It is very vibrant. Gailene thought it would be ideal opportunity to take the piece overseas - ‘being exposed!’

Lachlan has always been interested in choreography, and is always experimenting.

Lachlan has always been interested in choreography, and is always experimenting. He has based a piece on a pas de deux. He did a piece for four dancers – two couples, but lost two of them to injury. He is experimenting with different weights and balances and everything. ‘It’s going to be exciting.’ The students have choreography classes twice a week. It’s helpful, but not something you can be taught. It has to come from you, but great classes allow you to explore, and ‘unlock different directions. Claudia hasn’t choreographed. You need to have the urge for it, and really want to create something. At the moment, Claudia is concentrating on her dancing. People did choreograph on her in her second year, which was a real experience. Gary is trying to inspire choreographers to do it classically. There’s nothing wrong with say, Wayne McGregor, but it’s good to have the desire to branch into more classical territory, so it doesn’t become a lost art. It would be ‘a great shame’ if that happened. Very few people choose to strictly classical pieces because it’s so difficult. It’s nice to see it sometimes. David Nixon is exploring themes with Northern Ballet, ‘which is great.’ Claudia agrees with Gary, and was involved with one classical piece last year.

Claudia has done lots with the Company this year, which is a real eye-opener. So far, she has done Cinderella, Giselle (Peasant Girls and Willis) and Swan Lake (Court Ladies). She has also been learning Alice. So far, she has learnt Courtier Couples, Card Couples and the Waltz in Alice. You have to watch, so you know the different roles. It’s exciting to dance with the company. ENB, BRB and the Royal Ballet have all offered her contracts. Lachlan hasn’t had experience of the Company so far, but it’s ‘my ultimate dream.’ He’s too tall for Cinderella, but too short for Alice. ‘You’re only missing out on the role of a Hedge!’ Having Chris Wheeldon creating a ballet is very exciting. As a student, you will often get told that morning you are in a role, and you haven’t even learnt it.

Which contract did Claudia accept? The Royal Ballet one – ‘my dream. It wasn’t hard for me to decide.’ Other contracts awarded so far include Brandon Lawrence, Karla Doorbar and Emma Smith to BRB, Claudia and Francesca Hayward to the Royal Ballet, Thomas Kendal to Zurich, and Grete Nybakken to Norwegian ballet. The school has achieved 100 percent employment for the last three or four years, so it’s fingers crossed for the same this year.

The Ballet Association will look forward to watching Claudia and Lachlan’s careers with interest, and wishes them enormous luck for the future. Claudia offered the Ballet Association her thanks for their support, which she very much appreciates.

Report written by Rachel Holland, corrected by Gary Norman, Claudia Dean, Lachlan Monaghan and Daid Bain ©The Ballet Association 2011



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