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    Alastair Marriot 2018

    Alastair Marriot & Jonathan Howells

    Principal Character Artist and Ballet Master & Character Artist, The Royal Ballet

    Interviewed by Linda Gainsbury
    Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, November 07 2018

    In our Chairman David Bain’s absence, Committee member Linda Gainsbury welcomed our guests and said it was almost 10 years to the day since they had last been to speak to us (“and we don’t look a day older”, quipped Jonathan!). At that meeting, we had heard about Alastair’s and Jonathan’s experiences at the Royal Ballet School and their careers up to that point, so the focus of this conversation was going to be very much on the present day.

    The concept evolved further as they began to work on it, mainly because Es wanted a real person to be the central figure

    Asked how the idea for An Unknown Soldier came about, Alastair said that, before the last ballet, Connectome, Es Devlin (the Designer) and he had collaborated on a piece for the closing ceremony of the Olympics. They then had an idea for a ballet but, as they couldn’t get it commissioned at that juncture, they decided to keep it on the back burner and make it after Connectome. It started as a kind of play which became a sort of film, but evolved into what it is now more like a docudrama, an approach which Kevin (O’Hare) accepted. The concept evolved further as they began to work on it, mainly because Es wanted a real person to be the central figure. Talking of the process of proposing a ballet, Alastair said things are different with different directors. Monica Mason would tell you that you had a ballet, you then came up with what it would be about and she would say it’ll be in the beginning or the middle, so you had an idea of what was expected. With Kevin, they went to him with a proposal, having got the Oscar-winning composer, Dario Marianelli, on board. Jonathan commented that it was when they took Dario into the office that Kevin’s eyes lit up - that seemed to be a key factor in getting the commission. Alastair had wanted to make the ballet for the 1914 commemorations, ie before Connectome, and thought that, if they didn’t do it in 2018, the opportunity would be missed. They had lost Es’s involvement at one point because she was so busy, but Kevin felt they couldn’t do it without her as she was so much part of the project. When she became available again, there was a bit of negotiation as she needed concrete dates and, once she knew those, she decided she could make the deadline. 

    Alastair doesn’t often have much to do with the budget but, on this occasion, it had had to increase because they had to pay the owners of the images for the documentary footage. A specially commissioned score is always expensive, there was a lot of multi-media involvement and there are other hidden costs. The BBC said they could have three minutes of Harry Patch, who is very well-known, for £300.  But for Florence, who speaks quite a lot in short sentences, the production company asked for £50 a second! No-one could have anticipated that that would happen. They estimated a budget of £2,000 for media and it came in at twice that amount. Moreover, having a very simple set often made it harder to create because you couldn’t hide anything. In this case, there was ceiling going up and down while, all around, the flats open and shut so you can see through them. Whereas Connectome had lots of digital projections, this latest work had five digital projectors going so you can project anywhere. None of the ‘tech. stuff’ came cheap. They tried to cut costs so, while the back wall, which is electronic, opens and shuts so you can’t see people working it, the side panels are more mechanically opened. Jonathan said you have a budget which can be pushed up a small amount but there’s a limit and sometimes you have to compromise on design. For example, Es will ask what material you are using and then find a cheaper alternative. Rather than cut the set she’ll suggest making it in canvas so she gets what she wants by changing fabric. They were using the Nutcracker lino, which has been cleaned, as they couldn’t afford another lino, so that saved money on flooring. Contrary to the original plan, The Unknown Soldier is now the first programme item. One of the problems with the show was that, of the two existing pieces, one has grey and one black flooring and Alastair’s is lighter grey. You can only put two linos on top of each other so he was told he’d have to have black lino even though that wouldn’t match the set. Alastair therefore suggested swapping the order so he could have grey lino. “There’s always a way around a problem,” they laughed. 

    When researching for this originally, Liam Scarlett, Wayne Eagling and others were already making works on the subject of the war

    When researching for this originally, Liam Scarlett, Wayne Eagling and others were already making works on the subject of the war. They all came in around that time and it had felt sad because Alastair hadn’t got his work commissioned. However, with hindsight, it was quite good in that the others had come and gone and now there was chance to make a ballet which had changed so much over that period of time and had developed into something which was, in their view, better than the original idea. Jonathan said the Royal Ballet have Gloria which they loved but it would be nice for the Company to have a completely different approach to the subject. Asked if his starting point was the experience of love and loss, Alastair said it was and they realised that, if they took a real person and concentrated on her ordinary little life, they believed that they’d get to the very heart of that. What was amazing was that Florence Billington, the lead character, was about 100 when filmed for the documentary. She’s such a sweet lady who tells her story very innocently and truthfully. Alastair totally fell in love with her but he couldn’t put everything about her into a 30-minute ballet. He did, however, have all the transcripts so, while the audience would not hear everything she said, he, Alastair, knows that, in making the ballet, he was using that knowledge to add things into her character or the way she responds. The research did take an emotional toll. Alastair enjoys doing the investigations and doesn’t sleep very well so works a lot at night; but he found it harrowing and quite upsetting wading through the documentaries of people telling their stories. They are so matter of fact in the way they’re told, but there were endless sad, sad stories of terrible conditions and, although not all are in the ballet, it is important to have an idea of what those people experienced. So many were young, perhaps 14, but they were still allowed to go. People tried to get their youngsters back and petitioned Parliament, but no-one would let them come back because they needed the troops. You could see how young they were, just kids. Jonathan commented that, in rehearsals, the youngest Company member was 18, so already older than some of the youngsters who went to war. It was hard for the dancers to realise that, if we were in a similar situation today, they too would be called up. “How can you get your head around the idea of having to go to war at that age?” he asked. 

    Matthew Ball would have been a more mature soldier and it’s sobering for the dancers to know what those young people had been through. It was very emotional and grounding for them to hear Frances’s voice in the room, narrating her own story - a real person although no longer with them. It was particularly poignant when Harry Patch tells his story about finding the soldier on the battle field. Frances said the lost can still be with you even if they aren’t physically there and it’s only when we forget them that they disappear. “How can you express that in dance?”, Linda enquired. Alastair replied that they didn’t know where to end the ballet but, following her story until she received the news of Ted’s death and since the last thing Florence said was that she felt he was always with her, the men would dance while you see a roll-call of the dead soldiers and hear Florence saying, that as long as you remember them, they are still there. Alastair and Jonathan were aware that some people might not feel comfortable with that analogy but it was all about memory and, if you talked about those who had gone, they were, indeed, still around. 

    Asked about casting and the influence his chosen dancers had on him, Alastair replied that the first piece he made for Matthew was when he was at the Royal Ballet School in 2012. That work was coming back into the school this year, having been taken to Stuttgart who asked for it, and it was weird that Matthew was now a Principal doing this present ballet. Relatively quickly after he joined the Royal Ballet, Matthew began doing all the big roles like Lensky and Romeo but he nevertheless seemed the right person to play the unknown soldier as “he has a poetic look about him”. Alastair and Jonathan always look at the students, who’s coming up and who’s going into the company, as they like to work with those in whom they, personally, can recognise talent. Alastair has given Matthew the freedom to bring “his own thing” to the choreography and he seems to thrive on this collaboration. Some dancers are amazing but prefer to be told exactly what to do, and are interpreters of existing roles but, if someone is creative, they are part of the process and don’t mind looking silly and trying all sorts of different moves, with more original results. They started last season with the pas de deux which was wanted for a gala so that was already complete and they blocked in some big numbers, including a dance hall scene with a foxtrot which the young find difficult to do. Alastair is a great admirer of the Strictly dancers who learn it in a week! Asked how much time they had for rehearsals, Jonathan said not much – this season it had been about six hours a week, but they never got the amount of time they wished for. Alastair likes to sketch it quickly and then go over it again. Sometimes it takes three goes, building up to it and making changes so it doesn’t matter if the dancers don’t remember every step; but he films it as he goes along. He finished the work quite early so, with the hours they have now, they can make changes and do corrections. There had been a bit of a hitch when Matthew went to Plymouth to learn and perform in Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake. Alastair couldn’t say ‘don’t go’. Then Matthew had gone into Mayerling, which he learned in a week, and they were worried he would hurt himself; but he survived and now he was doing Bayadere. They made the gala pas de deux, which went beautifully, on Francesca Hayward and then they found out at the beginning of this season that she had been offered a starring role in “Cats”. Initially, they thought she could do some of the shows but the film company said she could not work on anything else in case of injury. They knew they had to move on so the second cast girl became the first (Yasmine Naghdi, “who is lovely”) and the third cast girl became the second. Alastair’s casting was due to be announced but couldn’t be as Frankie wasn’t sure that she would do the movie and was desperate to do the ballet which had been made on her. They described the new girls, the second cast being Anna Rose O’Sullivan, as having worked hard and being wonderful in the role of Florence “and, if the ballet comes back, Frankie can do it then along with both of them”, added Alastair. 

    Linda mentioned that, during the Insights, the process was fairly far advanced with Jonathan seeming to take the lead in rehearsals and Alastair making comments related to interpretation or characterisation. Alastair described Jonathan as the ‘annoying questioning voice’. His way of working was to hand power to people who are good at the job. So, because Es Devlin was an amazing visual designer, he trusted her. Jonathan was better than him at making the movement as good as possible - as long as it was going in Alastair’s direction. He realised that, if people didn’t understand the ‘power play’, it might look as if he wasn’t doing anything! It was a bit like ‘good cop, bad cop’. Sometimes he also had to admit that something he had been wanting wasn’t right and that it had to go; but he could only do that if he trusted the others in his team.

    Asked whether all those judgements were his to make – that is, did he have choreographic freedom or did the Royal Ballet reserve itself the ‘final say’ – Alastair replied that he was the one in charge but, because his approach was essentially collaborative, his ears were open to the views of others, even at the point when the first stage call was on Monday, they had just come from an orchestral call, and the previous Sunday they had had a full technical rehearsal.

    Although Es Devlin was the set designer, Jonathan was in charge of the costumes. He explained that the costume design was period but, while the men were dressed in uniforms, he had gone for a lighter material which you could slightly see through so they weren’t heavy. The women wore long chiffon/silk dresses in different colours, but they moved very well, while keeping the period feel. All the costumes were adapted for dance. He had painted the design but had told the team he needed something light and that it must not look as heavy as it was at the time. People came in to advise and suggest different materials and the ladies at the Opera House who make the costumes had been incredible. When he handed over his designs, he was always nervous as he couldn’t know how any costume would look until it was turned into reality. The makers said Jonathan’s designs were amazing – some people apparently just turn up with a scribble – so that made him feel happy and they had done a really beautiful job on all the costumes. 

    They had asked if she was moved and she had answered, “Did you not see me crying?” 

    Linda enquired whether our guests felt a burden of expectation and, against that background, what would represent success in their eyes. Alastair said that he felt the weight of responsibility keenly. From the beginning, when he first conceived this ballet, he wanted to move people and Es had shared this aim. It was wonderful if people were crying or laughing as they came out, “just feeling something”. Indeed, it had been lovely that day as they had a sponsor who came to a private rehearsal and, talking to her afterwards, they had asked if she was moved and she had answered, “Did you not see me crying?” If people were moved, they would feel it was a success. In response to being asked whether the critics mattered, Jonathan’s immediate reply was, “Yes!”. However, Alastair had come to realise that you can’t make works for critics. They had given their all to The Unknown Soldier and their personal views about it wouldn’t change. However, bad reviews could be very soul destroying. Choreographers had been known to throw laptops across the room because they had read something upsetting but, if you do read them, you have to be prepared for the good and the bad. Jonathan remarked that Alastair was extremely sensitive and had a tendency to focus on the more negative comments and forget about the positive ones. Alastair said that reading reviews was like asking to be hurt, so he avoided that if he could.

    During all the preparations for the new work, Jonathan, in his capacity as Ballet Master, had been working on La Bayadere. He had rehearsed the waltz, the pas d’action, the Fakirs, and, along with Carlos Acosta, the Bronze Idols. He watches Act II and gives an opinion, but doesn’t rehearse that. He quite often coaches Principals and did that even when he was an Assistant Ballet Master. Was that teaching steps as well? Sometimes he teaches it all, initially using notators, but sometimes he was by himself teaching 20 people. There were several Bronze Idols this time, with different body types and this meant that his coaching had to be attuned for each individual. It was usually someone quite small in the role but Calvin Richardson, for example, was taller so he had to be helped to move his longer limbs in a different way. Casting the Bronze Idol had involved an audition process with Natalia Makarova. Everyone learned it, did a stage call and then they were chosen, the casting decision being between her and Kevin. Christopher Saunders as rehearsal director and Kevin start talking about which Ballet Master will do what during the summer, then they look at the repertoire at the beginning of the season and, after a negotiation period, they allocate the various responsibilities.

    The distinction between Repetiteur and Ballet Master was really just a titular difference. It was best to coach parts you had done yourself as you can pass on technical experience while, at the same time, not wanting the dancers to emulate you. Everyone brings their own thing to the role and Jonathan encourages that. He and Alastair are part of the Royal Ballet tradition of passing works on. They knew Dame Ninette de Valois, who said Alastair had beautiful legs but didn’t use them! De Valois loved the boys, but didn’t really like the girls who were given a much harder time by her. After retirement, she said she wanted to teach some classes but only ones for the boys. To them, she was like a naughty old lady who was quite funny and liked mischief so it was possible to get away with ‘murder’! She enjoyed the boys’ banter but wouldn’t take it from the girls. Jonathan worked with Kenneth MacMillan as a member of the original cast of The Judas Tree, and had also been coached by him for Bratfisch. Kenneth liked young people whereas the older dancers were frightened of him. One of the younger girls called him ‘Big Mac’ and got away with it, though the older company members had found that outrageous.

    Linda wondered whether preserving the Royal Ballet style was important to them. Jonathan felt he was chosen to be Ballet Master because he believed it was vital for the Company: he’d been through the whole system and, while not being a Principal, he’d done numerous roles and understood the style and had a lot to pass on. He felt that he had an Ashton ‘look’ to his own dancing but that some dancers who came in from outside didn’t seem to understand it. When he and Alastair joined the Company, most people had come through the school and it was in their bodies as they’d watched the ballets, but now the Company was much more international (which was great) but, for certain ballets, it took a long while to get the different port de bras etc into their bodies. That needed to be coached so they needed people who have experience of how it’s done. Alastair and Jonathan were also around when legends like Margot Fonteyn, Michael Soames and Alexander Grant were there. Jonathan was coached by Alexander as Alain in Fille and took everything on board which he now passes on. Alexander always liked Jonathan doing it because he listened to the corrections, while he felt that some others didn’t always understand why he wanted things done in a particular way. Jonathan thought that he took the feeling of the character of Alain from Alexander. He added that it must never be played for jokes because that would lose the pathos. At the end of the ballet you have to feel the sadness and the loss of the girl. The audience might think you a fool but you are really just an innocent. It was important to Jonathan to try to convey that to the Alains of today.

    As both the guests had become character artists, they were asked how that transition had come about. Alastair said he was on tour in Japan playing a rustic in The Dream and one of the ballet masters didn’t think that he would be able to do it. So, he had asked Derek Rencher to help with his make-up, which he did, and Alastair had played it deliberately over the top. The result was that they thought he had no shame, so he got cast in various character parts although quite young and still dancing soloist roles. He came to realise that, if he was perceived as doing well, he might be able to extend his career taking character roles, and that is what had materialised. Jonathan had often been given slightly demi-character roles, like Kolia in Month in the Country. They were technical but character-based and he naturally went along that line as someone who could act as well as dance on stage. Jonathan didn’t do class any longer, partly because he didn’t want to do it badly. However, he worked to loud music in the gym and got plenty of exercise while coaching. 

    Asked to talk about how they juggled their various roles, especially during the intensive period of making The Unknown Soldier. Alastair said that, if they did not have a lot of performances, it was OK but, if they were doing several shows and developing a ballet as well, it became really tiring because, mentally, the creative process was exhausting. He liked doing the research and having a goal, going to fittings etc and seeing it all through so, when the run of something he had choreographed was over, it left a big hole. They were doing shows on Saturday and presently working a couple of Sundays and Jonathan was also rehearsing lots of casts the next day so it could become especially draining. Linda added that they had also been doing a number of Insights or interviews, including the one in progress!

    The both agreed that they do a lot of the same roles, though “Alastair gets to be Drosselmeyer”

    The both agreed that they do a lot of the same roles, though “Alastair gets to be Drosselmeyer”. However, there was no rivalry. Indeed, Jonathan said that he took quite a lot from Alastair for his Widow Simone, because he was really ‘mumsy’ in his interpretation and he liked that take on the role. Mostly, they were not on stage at the same time, except as Ugly Sisters, but the downside of that was that they hardly ever got a night off together. Linda wondered whether it felt as fulfilling to play character roles as it had been being a Soloist. Alastair thought that it did for him. He added that some choreographers liked to work on a freelance basis, and that had been suggested to him; but he still enjoys performing and developing characters, and he very much values being part of the company. Although he’ll stop dancing at some point, at present he likes combining his choreography with the thrill of still being in a live show. Jonathan also enjoys performing character roles because he gets the nerves and sense of what it was like to be on stage and, when he is watching out front, he can better appreciate how the dancers are feeling because he’d ‘been there’ himself recently.

    They had both been with the Royal Ballet an incredible length of time, Alastair for 30 years and Jonathan for 28 and what they regarded as their highlights had changed over the years. When they were young, just to be cast as a Cavalier was a massive moment, then doing Bratfisch for the first time was wonderful in Jonathan’s case. But, looking back across a whole career, they were able to remember having class with De Valois or seeing Ashton taking a rehearsal and it was important to them and, they thought, to the Company to have been the generation who actually saw those people. They also recalled the old House with the flunkies pulling the curtains. When Margot Fonteyn came back for the last time, she was using sticks (though not for the curtain call) and, when the curtains shut, the person she remembered was the man who pulled the curtains. Having that kind of memory would stay with Alastair and Jonathan all their lives. They felt that it was a huge privilege to have been through the whole system since age 11 and at that particular point in its history - and not many people had had that opportunity. For Alastair it was wonderful to sit and watch the orchestra playing his score (with the Oscar-winning Dario Marianelli taking notes) and being able to think to himself that he and Jonathan had first had the idea for the ballet in their kitchen.

    In response to a question about the sources of his material for The Unknown Soldier, Alastair said that some of the footage was from Boy Soldiers which was available on YouTube. On BBC5, Alastair had heard Florence talking and he thought that they had recut the documentaries and made another programme with additional material called The Last Tommies. Some of the recordings were as late as 2000, some were over 25 years old and you could tell by the quality of the films how old they are. When they started filming, there were several veterans but, in the end, only about 12 of them remained and they were all about 100 years old. 

    Linda brought the evening to a close by thanking Alastair and Jonathan for an extremely interesting evening with a lot of real insights into the various aspects of their professional lives. Since there seemed to be so much more to say, we shouldn’t wait another 10 years before they came to speak again. She said that many members of The Ballet Association would be there on 20 November and then again in order to see both casts in The Unknown Soldier. Everyone gave them huge good wishes.

    Report written by Liz Bouttell and edited by Jonathan Howells, Alastair Marriott and Linda Gainsbury © The Ballet Association 2019