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Bruce Sansom

Ballet Master and Assistant to the Artistic Director, San Francisco Ballet
Former Principal Dancer, The Royal Ballet


interviewed by David Bain

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church,
London, 11 May 2011.

DAVID BAIN WELCOMED BRUCE who was last our guest 13 years ago, and suggested he began by telling us about his decision to retire from the Royal Ballet. Bruce said he’d reached the age where he knew he was blocking other promotions to principal and was unlikely to have new works made on him. To keep doing roles he loved while thinking he wasn’t as good as he had been wasn’t an option, so he decided to step away before anyone else suggested it, and become master of his own destiny. He had everything in place to enable him to leave the following season when Anthony Dowell, who was unaware of all this, suggested that instead of Des Grieux, Bruce might try Lescaut in Manon. He loved the thought of going out on a debut and being killed on stage so he readily agreed! David asked if he had any second thoughts when Alina Cojocaru arrived and there appeared to be the perfect partner for him. Bruce thinks a partnership works better the other way around (older woman, younger man) so he didn’t take that into account – she was obviously going to have a meteoric rise which would be shared with someone else. When Miyako Yoshida went off he did decline his first proposed partner for Symphonic Variations but Alina learned the ballet in five hours and it was clear from the start that she was made for the role so Bruce was very pleased he’d had the chance to work with her. During this period he was planning his next couple of years, the first part of which was to return to San Francisco where he’d been before as a dancer.

 …he had dinner with Helgi Tomasson who, on his return to San Francisco, called to say he would put together ‘a program’ for Bruce with San Francisco Ballet. Bruce discussed it with Michael Kaiser who said he should go for it…

ROH2 had come into being with the advent of Michael Kaiser who put together a group to mount an evening of performances in the Clore for outside people as well as those in the company. Bruce was with Tom Sapsford and really enjoyed the collaboration, going through the process of seeing things from the other side, and he began to think about arts administration in the UK. There were courses in Warwick and City University but the latter, annoyingly, refused to let him go through the process of application for the MA course as he had no qualifications and no experience. Despite GCEs being his last academic qualifications, Warwick were happy for him to try. He had a great time researching and arguing the case for Icelandic Arts Provision, about which he’d previously known nothing, and loved it. About this time he had dinner with Helgi Tomasson who, on his return to San Francisco, called to say he would put together ‘a program’ for Bruce with San Francisco Ballet. Bruce discussed it with Michael Kaiser who said he should go for it as it would be wrong to lose contact with the ballet, and he never regretted the decision. It was lovely going back to a company which had a good sense of community and where there were still people on the staff from his dancing days. As well as teaching company class, he worked across every department including finance, marketing, fundraising, even doing a stint in the shop, and got to see the bigger picture. There were exciting things happening to the company at the time so he was part of that. However, he knew at the end of the year there was no job and Michael, recently appointed President at the Kennedy Center, suggested Bruce check out their website for a new Arts Management Program which he applied for – an interesting challenge with telephone interviews which doesn’t allow you to see what the interviewer is thinking and vice versa. He wasn’t surprised to be accepted as Michael knew his capabilities so he joined an international group of 12 from across the arts, though mainly from the performing arts world. The aim was to look at different sectors within the arts. They had weekly tutorials led by directors of all the main departments at the Kennedy Center and Michael’s tutorial on strategic planning which Bruce really enjoyed. They each had a placement for three months at a time in different departments to gain hands-on experience and some were lucky enough to be in at the beginning of a project. It was a brand new initiative for the house and some experiences were more positive than others. The Kennedy Center has seven performing venues but was designed to be run out of only one office. They went to New York for a performing arts conference which was all about dance which Bruce loved, and the amount of work coming into Kennedy Center was great. This included the Suzanne Farrell project where they dealt with logistics, marketing, fundraising, the rehearsal process and coordinating what was going on in the studio and ultimately transferring it to the stage so it covered all the areas of Bruce’s interest towards helping him reach his goal of running a company.

During that time he was thinking about what to do next. He’d done the course because looking at directors he’d known he felt they hadn’t had the overall experience which Bruce thought would be appropriate for someone in that position in order to get a sense of the big picture. He saw the directorship vacancy at Rambert and applied because it was in the UK and came home for interview but by the time he got back the rejection letter had already arrived! Despite this he knew he’d had a good interview as well as hitting it off with Susan Wyatt, the Executive Director, who phoned a week later and said they’d enjoyed what he had to say and wondered if he was interested in a one year contract in their development department. As it would get him back into an arts organisation Bruce accepted. This was in 2002 when Rambert began looking at the feasibility of fundraising for their new building – in 2011 it’s only now getting going. It was an interesting but tough job and there was no contact with the artistic element – he saw almost no rehearsals and only went on a couple of tours. His remit came to an end and although he could have stayed on Bruce knew it wasn’t for him as he needed to feel the sweat again but he had proved he could deliver in a real situation rather than just in a training programme.

For the next two years Bruce was freelance which gave him breathing space and he had a good time doing a variety of things including doing up a wreck of a house which he and his partner had just bought. He’d developed good relations with Beyhan Murphy who was running Turkish Ballet (set up by Dame Ninette) and he went out several times as Beyhan’s background was hard-edge contemporary dance and she wanted to bring in the classics. It’s fascinating as the men do military service for two or three years and come back as changed people. You get rough and ready dancers who’ve got heart and passion as they really want to dance but they’re employed till 65 which completely blocks the renewal you’d expect within a company. Bruce had great fun teaching the senior dancers who’d forgotten what it was to jump! He was merciless (or they thought he was) and it was challenging to work with older artists who were on full salary but hadn’t taken class for five years!

On tour Alina and Johan were rehearsing Voices of Spring in the open air with a full moon and she was dropping petals as gusts of wind blew them around – it was very romantic and Bruce felt Fred would have approved.

Bruce also set up his Dartford tour, An Evening with British Ballet, of which he’s very proud – he organised everything including getting permissions, arranging rehearsals, getting people in to rehearse, choosing the dancers, and even doing the laundry between shows! The cast and rep were super and he was pleased with the way it all came together. The rep was British and covered six decades including Symphonic Variations which was the first time that Wendy Ellis had allowed it to be performed without the set. On tour Alina and Johan were rehearsing Voices of Spring in the open air with a full moon and she was dropping petals as gusts of wind blew them around – it was very romantic and Bruce felt Fred would have approved. They had the Qualia pas de deux, Ashley’s Larina Waltz – expanded for five couples to make a great tutu ender, a pas de trois from Bintley’s Dance House and the MacMillan Concerto pas de deux in which Christina Salerno produced a wonderfully unexpected performance. It proved to be the best piece of casting with which Deborah MacMillan also agreed. They also did Wheeldon’s Tryst pas de deux and Tuckett’s Puirt-A-Beul as an opener. As well as Dartford, who put on an extra show which was wonderful, they went to Lisbon and Italy. It was hard, hard work for everyone and the dancers were shocked at the amount of work Bruce was expecting of them but they were all paid, including Bruce, even though there was no financial backing, just some good deals struck. It wasn’t his first venture as impresario – Bruce had done a much lower level version of it for Exeter Festival in which he got Cathy Marston to create a pas de deux for himself which she expanded later into a full work for her own company.

During this period he was also looking around for the sort of company where he’d fit. He saw an advert for a post at Central School of Ballet which was five minutes away from his house and would offer him the chance to test what he’d learned. He was working with Scottish Ballet when he went down to London for the interview, which he knew was the best he’d ever done, and was offered the job. It was an incredible three and a half years of learning experience. When you’re a dancer you are told what to do from year one at White Lodge – you’re instructed and managed in a certain style and don’t have much involvement in or control over what’s happening around you. Bruce arrived at Central, and looking at the staff list realised he would have to manage 60 people, about half of whom were part-time, with nine full time admin, and lots of musicians and teaching staff. He took on his predecessor’s meeting schedule and this meant weekly meetings with all key staff members. At his first meeting with the woman from marketing she asked what he would like her to do that week as she’d always been told what her tasks were to be. Bruce said she should let him know what her job entailed and go ahead and do it though he would be happy to discuss anything she wished. With this approach everyone blossomed and had an input even if it wasn’t their particular area, and they had a great time. Central had a clear message about what it was and gradually it became seen as a school with value and not a competitor, and they developed good relations with other schools. Earlier it had seemed like a place of last resort but this changed and prospective students left with a good feeling about the atmosphere staying true to Christopher Gable’s ideal. There weren’t many problems but Bruce did some restructuring and found it quite difficult to take issue with some of his staff who had in fact been his own teachers as a student. However he learned that it wasn’t so hard if you knew you were righting a wrong. If anyone needed a reprimand it shouldn’t come as a surprise but should be addressed immediately that a situation arose, and people should know it was going to happen because they’d messed up or done something inappropriate.

For the students a real selling point is the tour (they’ll be at the Linbury shortly) and it’s always been pulled together very well. During Bruce’s first year Scottish Power, who’d always been their sponsors to the tune of £300,000, decided not to give the money (the new Board weren’t interested) and everyone assumed it was doom and gloom and that Central Ballet would fold. But he discovered they’d been doing the tour for less than £100,000 then using the remainder elsewhere and realised they could make it work without all that amount of money. They became strict about costs but still managed to bring in new works. Bruce persuaded Christopher Bruce to make a piece and he was fantastic. He was very amused by the idea but Bruce said the students deserved to work with someone of his stature so he agreed and had a field day. Afterwards he gave the piece to a company in Germany who, pleasingly, found it tough. It was a wonderful opportunity for the youngsters to work as a team. A lot of 18 year olds on tour can be quite a handful but it all worked and they did some interesting work which wasn’t going to be seen elsewhere.

His last 18 months at Central was spent dealing with a building project which is still not completed so it was similar to the Rambert situation. His time was taken up with building designs and the technical side and, as his team had developed so much that the school was running itself, this had become his entire job. He was going in at 7am and leaving at 8pm, then the economy crashed and he thought it would be another five years before he could turn things around and felt he couldn’t work on the project for all that time. He knew that Helgi was struggling to find someone to fill a role in San Francisco so he approached him and found himself back in the States. It was easy to slot back into the company. Here he’d completely lost contact with Central’s students as there was no time to be in the studio and with18 years of performing plus eight years of training behind him he wanted to get back to working with professional dancers and feel the sweat of the studio, having proved he could run an organisation.

His roles in San Francisco are ballet master and assistant to the director. Helgi uses Bruce’s and Helgi’s other assistant, Ricardo Bustamante’s, individual skills and because of Bruce’s experience and training he can act as a conduit between the artistic and admin ends of the building. It’s kept Bruce involved across the organisation as well as easing some of the tension which used to exist between the departments. Helgi knows what’s going on but isn’t always available so Bruce can be ears and eyes which has helped Helgi a lot and has made the job very interesting for Bruce as it keeps him on top of what the organisation is doing. Strategic planning is important and they’re always looking at what they’re going to do next and how to achieve it. Amongst other things, Bruce is responsible for overseeing that what goes on the website reads and looks appropriate, specifically checking photos and content for artistic integrity. They have really good profiles of individual dancers and show clips of dance and cut into interviews, which are short and snappy. He can whip through photos quite quickly though admitted that going through seven casts of Nutcracker with 700 photos can be a bit tedious!

As one of the five ballet masters/mistresses he teaches company class but there’s no set rota. Everyone worked on Coppélia and Giselle but this year Bruce was ballet master on, amongst other works, Trio (Helgi’s new piece), Symphonic Variations, Winter Dreams, and was ballet-master-in-chief for John Neumeier’s new work, Little Mermaid, which was filmed. He was in the recording truck with eight monitors and crew and could see so much which wasn’t right, just silly things which had nothing to do with the dancers. Bruce sat with John taking down notes of what he wanted after the first show and was also in on the production meetings all of which made an interesting new experience, seeing it from that side of things. It’s a very complex and layered ballet and it’ll be interesting to see again when it goes out on PBS in the autumn.

Everyone thought Bruce had been in Winter Dreams which he wasn’t though it was in the rep when he was with the Royal so he has seen it a lot and understands it. It’s a mini masterpiece of understatement and the stop-start action is the point of it. It was wonderful to see the San Francisco dancers take on the roles and he could visualise Nicky Tranah while seeing other dancers step in with no previous experience but understand it completely. Grant Coyle, who’d just remounted it here on the Royal Ballet, went to set it so it had a current flavour. He is very specific and Bruce was able to pick up points and influence the dancers’ approach. An Australian dancer who’s been with the company for 12 years was exceptional in Anthony’s role and really understood it and how little he needed to do for effect even though in a house seating over 3,000 you need to make an impact for those sitting way at the back.

Audio clip - new work at San Francisco:

 San Francisco has a very broad repertoire… When Bruce returned from dancing there and was on tour in Japan with the Royal, he was talking to Jeremy Isaacs who couldn’t believe they had six new works every season…

San Francisco has a very broad repertoire from a variety of different choreographers. When Bruce returned from dancing there and was on tour in Japan with the Royal, he was talking to Jeremy Isaacs who couldn’t believe they had six new works every season, including three world premiers. This was introduced by Helgi 26 years ago and it’s astonishing how much they achieve. The artists have new works made on them and experience a range of choreographers. There’s nothing like being part of the creative process and having a work made on you. Helgi keeps pushing the edges of the art form bringing in new younger and older choreographers. His challenge was to take the audience with him but he’s been so successful that now the audience want more than six new works a season. That’s what the company’s all about and Bruce has had the opportunity to see and understand how they achieve that. No-one expects every new work to be a masterpiece. (Ashton had a rep of 80 ballets and we’re left with about 10 of which 5 or 6 stand out.) That’s the average hit rate therefore with world premiers every year you can expect to get something that lasts now and again. They work to a subscription-based season which runs from January to May with eight programmes and people buy weekly tickets for the season. It’s a very different way of presenting work as they only have the house for half the year which creates its own challenges but also its own opportunities. The audiences love it and will let you know if they don’t. Helgi brings back good works which eventually become part of the regular rep. Christopher Wheeldon’s works come back – Bruce mentioned in particular a gem of a piece called Within the Golden Hour which was made for the 70th anniversary.

As well as working with Helgi and Anthony, Bruce was also in the Royal under the directorship of Norman Morrice whom he described as a forgotten director who tested the waters and brought in some innovative people to work with the company. He skipped a generation of dancers promoting Bruce’s generation. Asked what he considered the attributes necessary for a director, Bruce said you’ve got to see the whole picture, can’t be daunted and must be bold. It’s a creative industry so you have to be creative with a master plan of what needs to be achieved in the following few years which builds confidence among the many stakeholders, not least of which are the artists and audience. You must retain the respect of your house who you need to back you. There’s a complex set of equations to settle and you have to have the guts to stand by the principles you believe in. While maintaining an enormous respect for history new works are necessary but you don’t go in and slash everything unless a company is at death’s door. Most heritage companies have a responsibility to mount the classics because the smaller companies can’t do it but along with full length classics you also need to do mixed programmes to showcase a variety of style, look and structure in one evening and give choreographers the chance to extend themselves. Bruce has not seen Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland yet and looks forward to watching the DVD but it’s astonishing to think that it’s the first full length ballet at the Royal for 16 years. The one before was Mr Worldly Wise. That’s not what companies of this scale and size should be doing although he understands why it’s happened. The company needs to keep creating new full length ballets as well as mixed bills. Neumeier produces full length works all the time and his works are now beginning to be recognised abroad. When you’re embedded in a work you can’t be dispassionate about it. Little Mermaid is a perfect ballet – a huge piece of theatre to a commissioned score – and the company love it and have grown with it. The journey of the mermaid is emotionally and physically rewarding with everything you could hope for in a role and the audience response is astonishing although the critics weren’t all in favour. You have to see it as a piece of theatre, and as dance it’s like nothing else. It was a privilege to work so closely with, and be trusted by, John during its creation.

Returning to the importance for dancers to have works made on them, Bruce picked out Tombeaux as particularly special for him. The process itself was at a time when David Bintley was disenchanted and falling out with the Royal Ballet and said it was his homage to everything that was being lost, and his tribute to Ashton. This is obvious from the very first step which is very Ashtonian. Bruce found it the hardest ballet he ever danced and when Adam Cooper came off after a performance he said it was tougher than Mayerling. Bruce did a lot with David and was in nine of his works altogether. He also worked with Ashley Page on his Broken Set of Rules to a Nyman score. This was when the company was on strike and Bruce still doesn’t know how the ballet ever got on stage. It began in silence and when the artistic staff complained that that was impossible, Ashley referred them to the title of the work! Bruce also enjoyed working with Kenneth MacMillan. Prince of the Pagodas was a hoot and Kenneth clearly saw Bruce as Mr Narcissistic when casting him as King of the East. Bruce knew the company were having a big joke on him when he realised, half way through his solo in one of the performances, that the whole stage had fallen asleep! It proved an interesting challenge with a big corps number which is one of the best corps pieces around. There are also good solo roles – along with Bruce in the original cast of Kings were Mark Silver, Ashley Page and Anthony Dowson – and it was amazing to watch Darcey Bussell grow in the leading role. It’ll be great to see it again but he doesn’t know the company sufficiently well to say who might be cast as King of the East this time round.

In thanking Bruce for an entertaining evening, David said we were lucky to have found a space in his busy diary after 13 years. Bruce said it was good to be here at what was a nostalgic time for him. He recalled sitting with his sister outside Clarence House for the wedding of Charles and Diana in 1981 and he was here 30 years later, this time with so many people back in the USA asking him to ‘say hi to William and Kate’!

Reported by Liz Bouttell, corrected by Bruce Sansom and David Bain ©The Ballet Association 2011.

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