Elizabeth McGorian / Jonathan Cope
Principal Character Artist / Répétiteur, The Royal Ballet
interviewed by David Bain
Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church,
London, 7 March 2013.
WELCOMING OUR GUESTS, David asked how Elizabeth started ballet. She said she’d asked her mum at the age of five at home in Zimbabwe (Rhodesia) if she could go to classes and couldn’t understand why she didn’t let her. She later discovered it was because her mum had been a ballet teacher and had actually been a tap dancer earlier on in Pretoria. She didn’t want Elizabeth to go the same way but Elizabeth nagged and nagged until finally at the age of seven she was allowed to take classes. Her mum had taught her a bit when she was very little and there were lots of photos of her in tutus but she couldn’t understand the connection. After she started dancing her mum took up teaching again, but much more into tap and acrobatics than ballet. Elizabeth also did tap, jazz, character, modern and Greek. She said it was quite amazing how she came to London at the age of only 16. She belonged to an amateur company which did quite ambitious productions and that particular year Merle Park and Desmond Kelly came out to perform Giselle and one of the older girls was to be Queen of the Wilis. Merle and Desmond chose and coached Elizabeth and afterwards told her teacher they must get her to the Royal Ballet School but her mother with five kids didn’t have much money and said there was absolutely no way. But within three weeks they’d somehow got the money and she was accepted just on the word of Merle and Desmond into the Royal Ballet School. She’d never been away from home but her Mum put her on a plane which was quite extraordinary but very lucky. Up to that time she’d been to ordinary school with ballet classes three times a week so it was a real shock coming to London and being in such an intense atmosphere particularly as most of her fellow students had previously been to White Lodge.
She was extraordinarily lucky to start working with the Company straight away and after she’d been at the school a couple of months she was entered for the Adeline Genée competition in which she won a gold medal which also helpfully gave her more money. Three months later they were preparing for the graduation performance, learning Monotones and Raymonda. Eventually it came down to Elizabeth learning the lead in Raymonda and finally one day they were told Rudolf Nureyev was coming in and he coached Elizabeth which was up there as the most extraordinary dance experience of her life. It was an amazingly lucky time but then it all went a bit wrong! She broke a bone in her foot during the school performance at the Opera House after which Kenneth McMillan took her into the Company which was thrilling and there followed a week of performances at Sadler’s Wells. She didn’t know she’d broken the bone and kept on working which resulted in her being in a caste for a long time. In those days they didn’t have anything like the facilities there are today with physios, pilates and coaching to help you get back. When she came back into the Company there was a new director so everything changed for her – after that high it was crushing and very difficult as there was no one to say how and when you should return – it was up to you. As a result, Elizabeth went back too soon and broke the bone again.
Elizabeth remembered very clearly seeing Jonny at his school performance and knowing he was going to be a star. (Lots of laughs here around a discussion of their respective ages!) Jonny said he started dancing as his sister danced on Saturdays and he got fed up waiting for her so used to join in at the end of the class. One thing led to another and eventually he joined in the full class. His sister stopped dancing and his teacher recommended he audition for White Lodge which he passed and then spent five intense years there. He then spent two years in the Upper School. Maria Almeida joined the company in 1983 when she was 15 and too young to go on tour. The first ballet they he and Elizabeth were in together was choreographed by Ashley Page.
When Elizabeth joined the company Kenneth was creating Mayerling (1977/78) and then they did Isadora about 1980 just before Jonny joined the company – it was an amazingly creative period with everybody reading books about the history (there was no internet at that time). She was cast as a lady in waiting and whore in Act II and covering someone else but in fact Elizabeth was out for that whole period so was only watching but recalled the excitement of it so clearly. They watched almost everything in the studio but they never saw the bedroom pas de deux with the skull until they were sitting in the audience for the dress rehearsal. The entire auditorium gasped when she took off her coat – they were knocked out by the scene. Everyone was smoking in those days – and there was food lying around – Fred used to stub out his cigarette in his fried egg! When smoking was banned Fred was the only person who was allowed to smoke and two firemen used to stand around just in case! So very different from today’s environment.
In Mayerling Elizabeth did a variety of roles: a whore, lady-in-waiting, Empress and Baroness Vetsera. Jonny did an officer, one of the hunting boys – and Rudolf. Elizabeth stepped in for one show as his mother. The Empress is a crucial role in the ballet but Elizabeth finds it’s very, very sad that her solo was taken out in the revival. She recalls Kenneth one day in the studio saying he was very pleased with that solo and felt it one of his best solo creations so it was a great shame as it was very powerful and crucial to the scene with Rudolf. There were other bits that might have been cut in preference to that.
Of other MacMillan ballets, Elizabeth was in Gloria, Orpheus, Valley of Shadows and though Requiem wasn’t created on them it felt like it at the time. Shadows hasn’t come back for ages and might not. Kenneth was so ahead of his time and even with Mayerling it wasn’t embraced and had a lot of detractors when they first did it and then ten years later it was hailed as an amazing piece of work. Art shouldn’t just be a pleasure or move you. You need to be transported but the work should challenge all the senses and emotions.
On Sir Fred’s work, Elizabeth said that watching La Valse the other evening, she thought it lacked abandon and recalled how amazing it was to have Fred with them when she first did it. She remembered him telling them to whoosh out their skirts and there was a recent posting of an old film from 1960s where everything was right with exaggerated épaulement. It is very difficult to keep these nuances once the original people have gone – it would be the same with Shadows. Also the rep changes so rapidly – you only have to look at the past few weeks to realise this – and they never used to perform such a variety so it’s very tough to keep all the precise detail. In those days there were other things going on – Dance Bites and the choreographic competition which was always hard work but great fun and extremely important.
With Wayne Eagling they did Frankenstein which Elizabeth recalled as being amazing. When they first went on the back of the stage opened up like a chocolate box with the orchestra coming up which was really thrilling and Jonny with his spectacular pin machine which cost an absolute fortune. One day it got knocked over and thousands of pins fell out! Elizabeth was horrified when she went for a costume fitting with the Emanuels who were quite big stars having designed the Princess of Wales’ wedding dress. She walked into the changing room where there were bits of leather hanging around and when she asked where her costume was they said “that’s it”. It was just awful and at that time it was outrageous! Then she was told by the costume lady that there was one more thing that she needed – they had to go to Soho to buy her boots which were apparently fetish boots. It all happens at the Opera House! It was quite something to go from queens to the other extreme! Luckily her parents had no idea what was going on.
Audio clip - high points:
Talking of joyful moments of her career, Elizabeth said there’ve been a lot of high points but particularly Raymonda with Rudi, the opening night of Isadora and lots of first nights including Gloria and Fin du Jour, the Empress Elizabeth and Lady Capulet. The latter is an amazing, extraordinary role to perform. Although she wasn’t on the cast sheet, Kenneth had asked her to learn it and when she did finally have to perform she had absolutely no rehearsal but went straight into the dress rehearsal which they were told only the day before was to be screened on the piazza. Beforehand she wondered after doing nothing in Act II how you would come out and really hit the right pitch of grief, anger and despair but in fact it’s all in the music. It also depends on who’s with you – Elizabeth really feeds off the people around her who are so important and you can have entirely different shows with different casts.
On more recent performances, Elizabeth had done the pianist in The Lesson, which is another stand-out part. When she’d worked with Sorella Englund on Madge in La Sylphide, for which she wasn’t an obvious choice, Sorella said she should really do the pianist. Elizabeth thought it would be good so she said to Monica she really wanted to do it and that Sorella had said she should do it! It was a fantastic role to do and after a few rehearsals Fleming Flindt came in which was wonderful and made it a special time, particularly as he sadly died the following year. It and Madge were departures from the roles Elizabeth was always seen in and it was great not to be pigeonholed.
She was completely thrilled and excited to be cast by Johan Kobburg as Madge in La Sylphide. He didn’t want it based on any other performance but asked Elizabeth to trust her instincts and go with what she felt. In all her career of performing character roles she had rarely been directed and felt this was something lacking, but in Sorella she had an incredible coach and she was so generous and is the greatest Madge who’s done the role for years. Having someone pulling the best out of you and not trying to make you like someone else was wonderful – she is an extraordinary woman. Sorella emphasised the importance of the back story and the need to work out her relationship with James. Also having the time for proper rehearsals and being given the freedom to develop that relationship and to try things out without embarrassment was fantastically creative. The way she did the role differed according to who was playing James. Elizabeth found it difficult to explain in what way but Jonny helpfully said it’s spontaneous and you’re reacting to the different character and personality. (Elizabeth thanked Jonny for his input saying she was just moving her lips!)
This season she did the mother in Las Hermanas and Ray Barra came over and was fantastic – so interested, just as with Sorella. In the first rehearsal he saw her and said ‘you’re nothing like the original woman but let’s see where we’re going’ and he was so encouraging and very much wanted her to do it in her own way. It was very difficult as there were a lot of people interested in it – it’s a fascinating piece – there was an army of people in the studio so it was tough but ultimately you find your own way as it has to be true to you in order to be true to an audience. Everyone had strong memories but it was a long time since the company had performed it and that was because Kenneth had always felt the Opera House stage would gobble up the performance so it had always been done in more intimate locations – they did it at Sadler’s Wells and on a mini tour and then it disappeared again. When it was brought back onto the big stage and these reservations were aired they said the set would be brought right forward and the lighting adjusted to create the right atmosphere which is now much easier to do with the advanced stage techniques that we have. Elizabeth felt it really worked and, watching the other cast, felt it was a very valuable work to bring back. David said it was interesting that there were two very different casts and personalities and it must be refreshing to have your name put up for such a role. Elizabeth said it was so exciting because obviously the older you get there are less roles to do. The character principal men are far more fortunate with a much greater variety of roles than the women – she doesn’t know why – so to get something new is such a boost and so exciting and you hunger for it. It’s also a big change after all the queens in huge costumes!
Elizabeth said she’d been rather horrified when Madam wanted her to do the Queen in her production of Sleeping Beauty when Elizabeth was a young dancer in her early 20s. Madam wondered why she was upset and thought she should have been thrilled as it’s a very important role but it was great to be coached by her and so Elizabeth’s been a queen for a very long time! She sits usually with Chris Saunders watching all those different dancers and has the best view in the house – there’s something to take away from every performance and occasionally those knock-out performances are so special – Marianela’s recent Beautys were extraordinary and wonderful to witness. Jonny mentioned that Derek Rencher used to go to sleep on the throne! Elizabeth said the first time he did it they were sitting together and she looked and saw he was asleep but being a consummate artist he had perfect eyes painted onto his eyelids! During Maria Björnson’s Sleeping Beauty in New York it was baking hot and they weren’t sitting together so she couldn’t nudge or kick him awake at the crucial moment. She was trying to attract his attention without it being obvious and had to ask him to promise not to sleep again! She could happily shoot Puss in Boots – how and why it’s survived she can’t imagine. She dies a little death every time it comes on. She’s much more of a Swan Lake fan than Sleeping Beauty, not because she gets to go home earlier but it’s always been her favourite classical ballet and still has the power to move her in a way that Sleeping Beauty does not. You can be thrilled and excited but not necessarily moved. She also loves Giselle.
Asked if he ever regretted not going down the character road, Jonny said no and he’s not sure the door was open as there’ve always been plenty of people for those roles. He probably wouldn’t be interested unless the role had an artistic draw – just sitting on a throne isn’t so interesting. (Lots of laughter here.) Our style was strong but there’s so much influence now from the outside world that the purity has gone though it’s still a fascinating time. He’s teaching now and gets lots of feedback from dancers. Coaching has changed. In their day Jonny and Elizabeth just did what they were told but now there is debate. A work wasn’t adapted if you were a left turner and now they try to cater to the individual but in some respects it’s not always a good thing. It depends on the dancer. Some know the steps, know how to interpret a role and they get a free rein and it works, others need to be taught and given the support but then you let go and encourage them to find something in the role for themselves. Everyone’s different so you need to assess the individual and their needs. Previously you would be coached by someone and expected to interpret and dance a lot like them. Also there wasn’t the access to films and videos to see alternative versions. Asked when there’s a range of Principals doing Sleeping Beauty or Swan Lake how the coaches divvied it out, he said dancers say if they want to work with someone and that was never the case previously; it’s partly what the dancer wants and what Monica Mason or Kevin O’Hare want but if Jonny feels he has nothing to offer a particular dancer he says so. Master classes he often coaches with Lesley Collier and it gives a good idea of the ballet and structure which makes quite a nice combination. It’s like Anthony Dowell and Antoinette Sibley coming together – they are fantastic. Elizabeth said here that one of the saddest things for her was that she and Jonny were due to do his last performance (Firebird) together when Jonny had his accident. What bad timing he thought as he was lying on the road! He upstaged everyone at the end of the performance by coming on stage on crutches.
Last summer Jonny returned to the stage again for the Olympics. Darcey Bussell asked him and it was an exciting time – and they got tickets to opening ceremony! It was very commercial but the whole experience was terrific. The closing ceremony was different from the opening. The first rehearsal was a bit of a shock as Chris Wheeldon treated Jonny as if he was 22 – Nehemiah Kish, Gary Avis and Ed Watson were there fit and strong – but it was a great experience and it’s all about diversity.
Elizabeth said David wasn’t to ask anything political but…… ! The last time Jonny was with us he talked about what the Royal Ballet needed as a director. How has the house changed? Jonny said it’s moving on. Kevin has created a very good working atmosphere. Jonny is coming and going all the time and doesn’t know exactly what’s going on – he does his job and leaves. The Director’s is the hardest job of all. So far Kevin’s is a different approach, letting the people concerned put on the ballets and leaving it more to them, whereas Monica was very much in the studio putting over her ideas and also with the staging. Lots of younger dancers seem to be getting opportunities. Monica had an image of a dancer she thought was right for the Company and the more obvious people weren’t always chosen. Elizabeth and Jonny agreed that it’s fantastic and important at this crucial time to do solos before the age of 20 – it’s too late after that. When you see someone who’s special you should give them the chance.
A member of the audience asked when speaking of obvious people what do they mean? Jonny said that when you go into a class you look at someone who’s terrific and he/she’s the obvious choice. Then there are those less obvious with interesting qualities but not necessarily with an incredible body or fabulous technique so they don’t jump out at you. Choreographers can spot that talent, but as senior company members they can suggest using someone particular. Kevin is very open and communicative. Artistic taste is such a personal thing and it’s so individual but Elizabeth has said her little piece at times.
Asked about working with Nureyev, Elizabeth said she could talk all night about him. The man was such a powerhouse, so inspiring, energetic. She recalled for instance one entire rehearsal on how to walk on before the solo – he said if you can’t set the atmosphere then, you might as well forget the solo. He was painstaking, inspiring, wonderful, funny. One day he said to her after rehearsal, when you’ve changed come to the car park as I’m taking you to my house in Richmond! She was terrified. He had a little sports Mercedes but she was trying not to be seen getting into a car with Rudi! He asked what she knew about opera and they went into a fantastic room with loads of music and records, and he said you need to open up to art and appreciate the grandeur of a woman in a palace preparing for a wedding celebration. He showed her photos of designs and costumes and made her imagine what it felt like in a particular headdress. No-one else in her career took that kind of care or ignited her imagination. He also showed her a proper reverence. He was very special but mad and it was quite an education! He had such taste and such an eye – an extraordinary man.
Elizabeth’s working on a big project at present so fortunately she’s in a quiet period, not being involved in the triple bills or Bayadère. A dear friend, Jimmy Wormser, a well known advertising photographer who also loved ballet and whom they both knew very well, died several years ago and left her his estate. It’s been difficult work and challenging but wonderful, and the last part is getting all the photos out of storage and archiving them. He’d taken amazing photos of Jonny and Darcey and lots of other dancers and she promised him when he was dying and working on a book of his life’s work that she’d finish it for him. She’s planning an exhibition at the Opera House to launch the book next year for the 10th anniversary of his death.
In thanking our guests for a wonderful evening, David said when he’d first asked Elizabeth to come she said nobody would want to hear her but it had been delightful to have her, our favourite queen, and Jonny and everybody had thoroughly enjoyed listening to them both.
Report written by Liz Bouttell, corrected by Elizabeth McGorian, Jonathan Cope and David Bain ©The Ballet Association 2013.