Bennet Gartside 2017
- Alexander Campbell
- Amanda Maxwell
- Anna Rose O'Sullivan
- Beatriz Stix-Brunell
- Bennet Gartside
- Dame Beryl Grey
- David Donnelly
- Gary Avis
- Harrison Lee
- James Wilkie
- Julia Conway
- Leo Dixon
- Leticia Dias
- Mayara Magari
- Thomas Whitehead
- Tierney Heap
- Twyla Tharp
- Zenaida Yanowsky
Principal Character Artist, The Royal Ballet
Interviewed by David Bain
Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, September 06 2017
David welcomed Bennet by congratulating him on his promotion to Principal Character Artist (PCA). Benn said it wasn’t exactly a shock because the four of them (Benn, Tom Whitehead, Christina Arestis and Kristen McNally) had had some conversations with Kevin O’Hare but there were a few contractual issues between Equity and Personnel Department at the Opera House, so when it finally came out it was more of a relief. They’d had to sit on the news for a couple of weeks before they went overseas and keep quiet about it for the entire tour and it wasn’t until the Sunday’s final performance that it was announced, along with Yasmine Naghdi’s promotion to Principal. Unusually, nothing had leaked out in advance - Benn said they never knew where leaks came from. David mentioned there’d been rumours some while ago that the rank of PCA would be scrapped. Benn said that was more on account of contractual issues as it had been looked on as a job for life. After the financial crash of 2008 when everything was revised, the biggest theatre in the country was heavily funded by the British taxpayer and it had been seen as an expensive position to hold. It is a particular rank, not actually Principal, and the questions asked were how much did we need it? Speaking honestly, Benn said pieces had been created which didn’t include PCAs but he feels that’s not the right way to look at it and now roles are being created for PCAs so they’re needed. When they did Frankenstein in San Francisco, the Ballet Master who came to London to receive part of the staging with some of our team said this is where it is very clear how deep and broad are the acting skills of the PCAs. They don’t necessarily have that scope in some companies in the USA or world-wide and it was a nice message to receive. The repertoire is huge and a conversation with the Director sometimes includes discussion on where will the Royal Ballet be in 10 years’ time and what will be required of the artists. Benn said he saw the group of PCAs being needed. One discussion had involved the possibility of freelancing and bringing in people for Nutcracker and Romeo and Juliet, but Benn said dancers have lives and still have a mortgage to pay, so the answer would be they need to have a proper job. It isn’t a pay-as-you-go job and you’re needed for the rehearsal processes as well as the performances.
He certainly learned his art from the older guys and hopes the younger dancers do the same now, recognising the extra layers the PCAs bring to a performance. In his day acting was part of the training at school, where it no longer happens. The likes of Stephen Jefferies, Genesia Rosato, Bruce Samson, Elizabeth McGorian, and Sandra Connelly came in twice a week for stage craft which had a huge impact. He was blown away with doing scenes in Giselle where Hilarion confronts Albrecht and Romeo and Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet but at 18 he’d think ‘when can I do the solos’ but there’s more to it than seeing people doing pirouettes. He saw something in their eyes that spoke to him and he really wanted to pick up on that. There weren’t a lot of those opportunities when he joined the Company but when they come you know you have to do something with them. His first character role was in 1997 in his second year when they toured to Japan and he did the innkeeper which Neil Skidmore used to do. Benn recalled playing around with it and Elizabeth McGorian being in the wings and saying she loved what he was doing with the role. He also recalled doing Hilarion and asking Luke Heydon why he’d been cast because the others were older like Luke, Chris Saunders, Ashley Page and Alastair Marriott. As a young guy he hadn’t even done pas de six and now he’d got this role. Luke said ‘it’s amazing, have you ever seen Act II (Benn hadn’t) because there’s a huge solo’. He said it is nice when someone new comes through as you get a different take on it. Peter Wright took the first rehearsal when Benn was cast with Johan Kobborg and Alina Cojacaru who were guesting but not actually in the studio at the time, so in front of the whole Company, he was acting and gesticulating - to no-one! It is very hard to be in the studio and act with the Company in close proximity. Sometimes you get uneasy and try to do too much. Getting to the character roles early upset Benn initially but he is happy now that it happened. He recalled when rehearsing the Gremin (Onegin) Act III pas de deux having a conversation with Alina and Reid Anderson who said ‘it will be very difficult for you because you are not 22 on stage, I need to believe you are an older man, it’s 10 years since the previous act, you’re a distinguished gentleman and she is now your wife’. Reid is a great coach. He said as a young guy if someone taps you on the shoulder, you turn and go ‘wot?’ but as an older man you react differently. There were lots of other moments like that and if he travels by tube Benn finds he analyses and learns from people. London is amazing and it’s interesting to see how young people act, how older people act, how the British act in contrast to foreigners. You have to know how to get down and stand up as the 92 year old grand-dad in Nutcracker. Prince Gremin brought Benn to the notice of everyone as a character dancer. He was 22 and Alina in her teens, so it was a real journey for the whole team. Ethan Steifel was there and Alina was also dancing Olga to Tamara Rojo’s Tatiana. She was part of his early career and they worked together a lot - Benn was their Tybalt as well as Hilarion and Gremin. Alina is such a warm person and it was amazing to see her change and develop and grow. The very last time they did it was before she and Johan left in 2013. He’s been lucky enough to have done it with countless other people (Roberta Marquez, Laura Morera, Mara Galeazzi, Natalia Osipova) but Alina is special because they did it for so long, initially as fourth cast and finally as first cast.
Influences: Luke Heydon. You think it’s odd when he could let go in the studio, not at the front but supposedly marking in the background. He continued with the full process and although Benn caught his eye he just carried on and you’d see him thinking about what Giselle was doing and why. He is a nice guy, a sweet guy and you could see him working it all out. It takes a true artist to be like this. Doing the Ugly Sister he would go full out. He’s a loss to the ballet. He set up a market garden but came back for Wind in the Willows. There are roles which Luke did and which Benn always visualises him performing in his head and that goes particularly for Bottom. He just knows how to do it. Whatever Benn does with the role he is Luke, while not actually copying him. For the mime sequences in the Dream he is fixated on not being like Luke! After 22 years in the Company Benn’s seen a huge change but there are a few names that stand out and if you have an ideal it stays with you.
The Concert: another Luke and Johan role. It was a very strange process this time as neither he nor Tom had been near it and the first guy to come in was Johannes. The husband was done by principal guys. Jean Pierre, who was staging for the Robbins Trust, didn’t know the faces and rehearsed the three of them first. When it came to the first scene call everyone walked in and three guys were down for the husband. Jean Pierre said to Tom and himself ‘please keep an eye on the husband’s role’. Then Phil Moseley said ‘Jean Pierre wants to rehearse you, Benn, as the husband’ and they had an hour’s rehearsal. It’s a hard role and it needs to be just right. There is no freedom and it is very specific but Jean Pierre has seen it for years with many companies so you just listen to him. The next day Benn and Laura had a 90 minute rehearsal and did the entire ballet and he said ‘this is it’. Benn really loved it especially dancing with Laura. Jean Pierre spent so much time with them and it is nice to work with outside people, with no disrespect to the Company, and it’s also nice when casting gets changed to your advantage!
The Dream (Bottom) is on pointe. David mentioned that Tom had talked to us about preparing his toes and Benn said, without wanting to go into too much detail, he had his big toenails removed this year for the role. They took it to New York in 2014 when he had a haematoma in the toenail and it was removed. It was the beginning of last season when they were doing Anastasia with high boots and his toes were in agony so he made the decision and he has never looked back. It was amazing – the pain just went away. It isn’t supposed to be beautiful, and there’s a lot of extra weight with the head. You can’t think about pointe work technically as it is very alien to the male dancer. You have to think about maximising the role as you’re in such a big outfit.
Benn had spent part of that day in a dress preparing for the Duchess (Alice). He’d had a forty-minute fitting - three outfits, each with three layers which was very hot. Once you’ve put on the costume you realise how big you have to play the role. For Widow Simone, which had gone down quite well, he spent weeks in the studio with Roberta learning it but until you wear the outfit on stage you don’t realise the enormity. Kevin said he is subtle but you have to turn it up for this one. Drosselmeyer (Nutcracker) is the same - you have to do more and it takes you out of your comfort zone. You have to turn up the volume as it’s a very busy moment with a ton of people on stage, constantly moving around and up and down steps. You have to keep your eye on it so the audience keep their eyes on you and he kept being told they needed more. Gremin was very different and minimal – Reid would say do as little as possible. You mustn’t be a robot but less is more.
Returning to dress roles, Benn said he had been asked for years, including in Monica Mason’s time, to do Widow Simone but he couldn’t see himself in the role and thought he wouldn’t be any good. It takes a long time to get into these roles, you don’t just nail them on one performance, but you change as a person and you find a way of making the character come alive. The relationship with Lise is important. On the tour to Shanghai, Kevin asked him if he fancied wearing a dress and again he said no but this season something happened and he finally said yes and was with Roberta for her final performance.
What is coming up? He’s now busy with Judas Tree which understandably is not the most popular ballet. Benn was at White Lodge when they were brought to see it and recalls people walking out. At the time, aged 14, Benn didn’t quite get the content, he liked the sets, the scaffolding in Canary Wharf, and Irek was amazing but it was really the designs that appealed. Now he understands the content and there is so much more access to the horrible stuff happening in the world and perhaps seeing it makes it more understandable. Earlier on he was third cast and worked his way up to what he calls the Michael Cassidy role in 2010. How do you approach the role? Benn was talking to Viviana Durante about it today. He’s a nasty piece of work, an instigator and totally in control of the other guys but hasn’t anything to do with the woman being brought on. Asked if he was apologising to her, Benn said it was more asking her if she realises what’s happening here and what she’s got herself in to. She is playful and likes being the centre of attention but Benn plays it as if he’s giving her the option to leave now or anything might happen to her because these guys aren’t nice characters. When Ed Watson’s character was running around and then does a solo towards the foreman, Carlos would sit, feeling sorry for himself and feeling guilty. But Benn is keeping an eye on him because he’s not tried to stop what’s going on. It is a big role with lots to think about. Thiago and he were discussing the final solo, when he gets to the point where he’s out of his mind and has flipped. Benn still has total control until her neck is broken at the end. Sadly, it is the world we live in, and there’s stuff to draw on. Benn recounted a personal story which had resonances for both himself and his wife. The choreography is there and how you play the character is your own reading. Everyone has done it differently.
Viv also came for Anastasiathe previous season. It was amazing and incredible to have her in the studio and what she did with Laura was stunning. She doesn’t have the build-up which members of staff have who know the dancers, how they work as individuals and all about their bad days. Viv doesn’t mess around and tells it as she sees it. Talking to Thiago and himself the previous day she said ‘what do you think?’ and Thiago explained it for five minutes but Viv just said ‘I need to see it’. She doesn’t hang about and it was full-on drama from the beginning. Anastasia hasn’t been done in the Company for some time so most people haven’t seen it. Viv had the relationship with MacMillan so to get information from her is irreplaceable as the notator and ballet master can’t give you that background. After a rehearsal you feel totally fulfilled and understand the characters. She got it out of people – all three casts were different – she didn’t dictate but she asked the right questions. She left the Company a long time ago and has no knowledge of the individuals which makes a brilliant experience.
Principal roles. Benn did Rudolf (Mayerling) after Johan had lifted Alina and injured his shoulder again during Onegin. Alina saw Benn outside the studio before class one morning and said ‘work really hard in the class today, Kevin is coming round’. It was really cryptic but he said OK. That night she texted something else cryptic which he didn’t understand. Two days later Kevin called him in and asked him for a video he’d been preparing for Chris Wheeldon, then said ‘sit down, I want you to do Rudolf’. Benn just couldn’t believe it. There wasn’t much time, four weeks till opening, and just one rehearsal with Alina whose back then gave up so he had to wait for her. He’d covered it in the early 2000s and luckily saw David Wall rehearsing with Irek, Jonny and Johan which had been a great experience. Benn had been in countless shows as an officer who works with Rudolf so he knew the material. Mara Galleazi was named as a replacement for Alina but she was working with Ed and it was becoming nerve-racking because with a ballet like that you need to work on it daily for weeks beforehand. They did what they could with Benn in the Opera House and across in the school because of lack of studio space and he had a string of people coming to work with him, including Jonny Cope. It was upsetting that he didn’t do it last time. Benn did two shows of the greatest role that exists for a man and feels he did alright but it comes and goes in such a whirlwind of emotions that you wonder what happened. Johan came back to it for his final performance for the London audience.
In The Winter’s Tale, Benn’s first role was Antigonus. His and Tom’s roles were bigger initially but got condensed and simplified. With that role you’re left to your own devices and you’re trusted to draw out what is required of the character which Benn enjoyed. How you interpret things is important and there are actions which can mean several different things, so it is how you do them that identifies the intention. Then, with a few weeks’ notice, Benn was asked to watch Leontes as Thiago’s knee was a bit dodgy. He said ‘you mean Ed’s part?’ He began working with Olivia Cowley and Melissa at the back. Then Thiago’s knee went, they had a Saturday rehearsal with Chris for the final pas de deux and he said ‘OK, you can do it’. The first night was special and to be involved at such a high level with a very deep character who makes the journey of all journeys was amazing. It’s another Rudolf-like part. For Benn to be able to say he was No. 2 in a work which will last for many years to come is incredible. Then they did it in Brisbane on tour. Everything was fine with Woolf Works but running The Winter’s Tale the day before opening night Thiago’s neck went on the final lift. Kevin said Thiago is off and we are stuck, with back-to-back shows - either Benn or Ed needs to do it. Ed had had a bit of an injury in Woolf Worksso could Benn do the matinee and evening shows? He didn’t know what to say but said yes, and then had a sleepless night which wasn’t helpful! He broke his day down as he would normally do and not being on in Act II was able to relax and take a power nap to recharge for Act III. You also have to fit in a meal and make up etc. He has never experienced anything like it and went to places he’d never been before as it isn’t expected of you. The show must go on so you can’t say no and Benn was still wanting to prove that he could do it. At home the shows are spread out so you may have a week off between them and you have to maintain the intensity. When you do matinee, evening and the following day you remember the nuances. It was an amazing experience. They also had a new conductor so were going back to basics in the studio and getting that close connection with the conductor doesn’t always happen. After the Saturday night Benn was on a high, it was gala night so there was a party after the performance, saying goodbye to people leaving the Company. Then it went sour when three days later he was told he wouldn’t be in it this season. It was harsh. He’ll do Antigonus next time but have to watch someone else dance with Marianela. Decisions are made in a closed office so you don’t know the reasons. But to be left out when the casting is being extended is tough. It hurt for a long time and his wife said he had to stop thinking about it. They retook their wedding vows during the summer holiday so he had to let it go. While he has very fond memories of The Winter’s Tale there’ll always be a sour taste because of that. Ryoichi picked up the second show which Thiago couldn’t do and did a fantastic job.
Highlights. He’s worked under four Directors in 22 years. Rudolf was a whirlwind. He got tickets for the family and his brother, who hadn’t been to see him perform since his school show, was blown away saying he couldn’t believe that was what Benn did.
David thanked Benn very much for coming and said it was always a pleasure to talk to him. We hadn’t touched on his video archive work and teaching ballet classes which he’d been doing for about six years. Benn said Tony Hall’s PA had asked where can we do a ballet class so Phil Mosley gave him a studio for early morning. Initially they were eight and there’s now 65 so it’s grown to five classes of which Benn does three, and David Pickering does two, all for members of staff. He’s teaching basics of ballet in the best theatre in the world with some of the best artists and it is fun. They all have a day of work ahead and use these amazing studios to start their day. Then Isabel McMeekan asked Benn if he would like to take over her classes for the public. They started on Monday, with Roberta Marquez at seven and a half months pregnant and Benn had taught last night at the Royal Ballet School. Some departments of the Opera House they meet but others, like the opera chorus, they don’t meet and he has had a lot of the chorus coming through which is brilliant and a social event as well giving a special connection with the Opera . Social media has broken down barriers between us and them and also between us and the critics. It’s a big talking point and a lot of the dancers talk to journalists. Luke Jennings came to a couple of classes and loved it. David thanked Benn for his continual support of Ballet Association and said he was the only dancer who’d actually asked to come to the dinner! In turn Benn thanked the BA for supporting the dancers over many years and said he asked to come to dinner not just because it was Johannes’ farewell but because it’s nice to meet and talk to the audience and know who you’re performing for.
Report written by Liz Bouttell, edited by Bennet Gartside and David Bain ©The Ballet Association 2017