Helen Crawford 2020
Ballet Mistress, The Royal Ballet
Interviewed by David Bain
Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, February 05 2020
After welcoming Helen, David asked how her position as Assistant Ballet Mistress had come about. Helen said originally she’d been asked to help with Manon as a bridge between Monica Mason and Julie Lincoln, She started coaching Lescaut’s mistress, courtesans etc, then did a bit more ballet mistressing while off pregnant, when she thought she’d have a chilled out pregnancy, but did enjoy the coaching. After the birth of George, she came back as a dancer which seemed a bit strange after being on the management side but she was keen to get back on stage. She loved working on Manon with Ricardo Cervera coaching in the studio for hours. He was a brilliant Lescaut and she had danced with him as Mistress so they pooled their knowledge and it was a great experience working alongside him with the dancers. It was interesting discovering that, although some dancers were technically brilliant, you almost had to deconstruct the ballerina in them to become this character, this earthy woman who was Lescaut’s mistress. They would stop the dancers and tell them to ‘just stand as a woman looking at Lescaut’ and Helen loved helping them to bring out the character. Looking at the Company, everyone can do the steps but this is different. It’s quite an honour to sit at the front and watch these incredible dancers but it was also exciting to help bring out something new. For her first rehearsal did she prepare and, if so, how? For something like Lescaut’s mistress, Helen doesn’t have to do the same preparation as she’s danced it a lot, compared with what she’s working on now which is Dances at a Gathering. For years Monica taught her about the Mistress, how the character was, what she was thinking, her relationships with Lescaut, Madame and all the other harlots so it was in her head and no research was needed. But at the beginning of the season as Ballet Mistress she taught the harlots with all their complicated patterns which was much harder as even though she remembered the steps it was many years since she’d been a harlot herself! Manon has changed over the years. The music has changed, and the lighting changed this time into a bit of a disco in some stage calls. In some of the first scenes and pas de deux the lighting was blue which was a bit strange. It was done by an Italian who was sitting next to the previous lighting guy, but ballet staff have no control over those aspects.
Coming back from having George was quite slow but Helen was very lucky as they were doing Romeo and Juliet at the time and she had done harlots a lot and desperately wanted to leap around on stage and get back into those fast steps. She was also cast as Nurse which was amazing as she’d always wanted to get into the character roles. In the end she had to let the harlots go as she tore her hip so instead returned to the stage in a big padded costume with a large head, playing with a doll. But it was incredible experiencing Romeo and Juliet from a completely different perspective. Also, there were several new Juliets and seeing it through their eyes meant every show seemed new and you adapted to their show and their story which was quite special. She had played an old person in Onegin which was fun and it was the only time she experienced Christopher Carr saying ‘Helen, I think you are doing too much’! On her return she did the Tsarevna in Firebirdwhich was her last show on the Opera House stage. They were also rehearsing Don Qfor the tour in which she had three debut roles but they were ones she could manage with a dodgy hip so she was able to get back on stage while on tour with the family which was amazing.
When did she know she was becoming Ballet Mistress? A few months before, a little birdie (probably Ricardo as he knew the job was coming up) said she should keep checking her emails. Finally, the email detailing the job issued and she applied for it. It all happened really quickly. It was only a few weeks before the tour that she did the interview and found out just before they left on tour that, to her astonishment, she’d got the position. She’d gone through her whole career not wanting it to end but she felt it was the right time to transition, having had her son and worked as Assistant Ballet Mistress the previous year. She really wanted the job and remembered saying to her husband that she was really sad because if she got it, it would be the end of her ballet career, but if she didn’t, she’d have to keep on dancing so it was the perfect time. Application is open and you can subscribe to any job that comes up in the Opera House. She took on her Assistant Ballet Mistress role when Sam Raine was on maternity leave so there was a gap as Sian Murphy stepped up and Helen assisted Sian but didn’t do all the corps de ballet stuff. For Manonshe was coaching soloists, then they did Nutcracker and Giselle so she did a lot more corps work which was fun. Also having spent nine years in the corps, she’d done willis a lot as well as the Queen of the Willis and she felt like a traffic warden directing the lines of dancers and the Queen and it was nice to have that personal experience to pass on.
She came back in September as Ballet Mistress working on Manon and formed a good relationship with Julie Lincoln. A couple of years before she’d felt able to let go and accept that ballets can be done in different ways and it was good for her to experience the difference. This time she was working on the whole ballet, the setting, teaching harlots and courtesans, doing the patterns, harlots and towns people in Act III which is a complicated dance to teach. It was Helen’s first experience and she spent four hours with the IPad at home writing counts and patterns, and getting worked up about it. She taught harlots for two hours in the morning, remembered it all, had her notes, told everyone what to do and she was accepted which was a nice feeling. About 4pm Chris Saunders, Gary Avis and Sian were there but when Helen opened her notes, they looked as if they’d been written by someone else and she blanked - she didn’t know where to start and had completely forgotten everything. It was like a new language and she didn’t know what to do with it which was embarrassing but Chris just stood up and took over.
How do you decide who works on what? There’s a meeting for every production and it was decided before she arrived that they should not all be working on the same ballet at the same time unless it was one of the monster ballets like Sleeping Beauty or Swan Lake. She did Manon, Sam the triple bill, Helen Coppelia over Christmas, Sam The Cellist and Helen Dances at a Gathering. For Swan Lakeshe and Gary are doing the pas de trois, Benno and princesses, Sam the big white acts and Johannes Stepanek the Act I and III character dances. Helen feels she knows Coppelia though it was some years since she did Hours and Swanilda’s friends, but this time it seemed completely new and several Company members had never done it. Sian and Christopher Carr did big character numbers, she did Swanilda’s friends, Christopher did dolls in Act II, Helen did Morning and Evening Hours and friends and solos in Act III. It got quite tricky towards the end of the run as numbers were dwindling because of illness and Helen was re-choreographing the students and trying to make it still look good on stage.
Preparation. She looks at her IPad for hours and writes notes which she sometimes uses and sometimes doesn’t. She’s had to rely on it quite a lot this week for Dances at a Gatheringas Chris Saunders is away doing Don Q and Ben Hughes, who’s staging it, is in Japan, so Helen is left on her own with a room full of principals. Sitting at the front watching people like Marianela and Federico is amazing. She loves her job but it is also terrifying. She has watched videos from the ROH archives and sat with Ben as he was setting the piece, trying to watch and make notes at the same time. She was used to learning steps through her body so it was in her system but today she tried steps in the studio and it was as if she’d never done it in her life and she had lost coordination. She covered Dances in 2007 but didn’t get on. Some things just come back, like Coppelia, but not this one. Helen said she can’t think at all about Swan Lake until this week is over – she’s working 12 to 6.30 tomorrow with a half hour break with about 18 different sections of Dances which lasts 67 minutes. She doesn’t want to sit at the front of the room and not know what she’s talking about. So, going home on the train she’ll have her IPad, stick her headphones on and make notes and the same on the way in in the morning, to refresh. After seeing the steps in the studio, you have new eyes.
There are challenges in combining being a Mum to George and a ballet career. As a dancer it was physically very tiring when he was sleeping less. Now he’s energetic, and running around after him and doing bath time is very rewarding and as she doesn’t have to dance it is also easier. He’s not too clingy just now but if he is it’s emotionally hard to leave him in the morning and if she isn’t home for bedtime, she just has to treasure weekends and the time they have together. It’s juggling but it’s working.
Why does Ipswich produce dancers – herself and Gary and Liam? Helen puts it down to the teacher, Linda Shipton. She has a really good eye and they are still close. There’s also another Ipswich dancer who’s now at ENB. She heard recently that some ballet teachers stop talking to students when they go to White Lodge as they think they’re being disloyal, but her teacher told her mum she should go to a vocational school but should first audition for summer school. Linda was very supportive, beautiful and generous with her time and Helen feels lucky to have gone to that ballet school. They did festivals and she got to go on stage but neither she nor her parents had a clue what it meant when White Lodge was suggested. She loved summer school and White Lodge, and was so excited she skipped off on the first day which upset her Mum as she didn’t look sad to be leaving her! Helen couldn’t get enough ballet. Waking every day and having the ballet right there was so amazing. Growing up and socialising in the dorm and living in the park she felt very lucky. Merle Park was director then. She has fond memories of her and recently she was so lovely coaching some Swanildas in Coppelia though it seemed weird as it was the first time Helen had seen her since school when she was used to curtseying to her in the corridors. Suddenly she was sitting next to her, with Merle making little jokes and suggestions, saying tell Aurora to do that sharper. There was a bit of banter which was really nice as she’d never spoken to her in that way before.
Highlights of school. A nice memory was of Swan Lake in her first year when Christine Beckley and Shirley Graham asked a couple of the students if they’d ever put on pointe shoes (Helen’s first pointe shoes came from Norwich), and they covered swans in first year and later went on with the second and third years. They did it again in their second year. Her parents came and saw her running on behind Sylvie Guillem and said ‘we keep seeing Sylvie ‘Gwillam’ and we want to see Darcey Bussell’. They had no idea who or what they were witnessing! Being surrounded by the Company with Sylvie, who was very beautiful, Darcey, Leanne Benjamin and Miyako Yoshida from such a young age was really special. In her second year aged 13 she danced Clara. There’s a photo of her looking very small alongside Gary Avis. The TV programme The House was on at the time. One of Helen’s best friends then and now, Naomi Reynolds, who’s now a yoga teacher, was first cast Clara, the cameras were following them around when the casting was put up and it was exciting to be on TV when she phoned her parents to say ‘guess what, I’m covering Clara’! A coach load of people came from Ipswich to watch the evening performance but unfortunately Helen did Clara at the matinee so they only saw her as a party child! Gary had actually asked Anthony Dowell if they could change the casting around but it couldn’t be done. There was still a bus-load of very happy people as Nutcracker is quite a special ballet.
School performances. Helen did Raymonda solo at Holland Park and waited 13 years till Raymonda came back when she covered Laura Morera and when it returned again six years ago, she actually danced it so it came full circle. She also enjoyed lead Hungarian dancer. Character training at White Lodge was very important and something she is still trying to get out of the dancers so they’re not flapping around trying to impersonate national dances. She had a very good teacher, Tatiana, at the Upper School who was very serious and precise and did technical work at the bar. She has always loved character dancing and has taken it seriously throughout her career.
When did she know she was getting into the Company? Helen said she had a meeting with Jay Jolley who asked where she would like to get a contract. She thought of Hamburg, Boston, and BRB but didn’t mention the Royal as she felt it wasn’t on the cards for her so she was quite shocked when she, Nathalie Decorte, and Naomi Reynolds were called in by Merle Park and told they’d been offered contracts with the Royal Ballet. She would have been more than happy to go to Birmingham as she had worked with them before and they were a lovely company but of course she was thrilled and remembered returning to her art class unable to concentrate on it as she was overjoyed. That Christmas season they were performing Cinderella at the Royal Festival Hall. Helen found out she had her job a few days before her 18th birthday but had to go back to school for a week, which was Gailene Stock’s first week, as they were doing bits of Giselle for the School performance. She joined the Company in the January just as all the ballet boys went off to Japan, though luckily Gary came back ten years later. As well as Cinderella when she did standing courtiers, she did Romeo and Juliet, Swan Lake and a Dance Bites tour. Then she dislocated her knee and recalled Iñaki Urlezaga taking care of her and carrying her to the physio room. Even so she managed to get back in time for the six-week tour of China and Japan.
Her first solo was second shade in Bayadere during Ross Stretton’s directorship. For her first show she was between Jaime Tapper and Laura Morera and was terrified she’d let down these two amazing dancers, but they looked after her. Her first principal role was Lescaut’s mistress. She went to see Monica and said she’d covered courtesans for six years and could she try it. Monica said ‘darling, you’re in a queue’ but during the tour of Hong Kong, when she finally made it on as a courtesan for nearly every show, Monica said she should learn the mistress and just she and Laura were doing it for a while as they were running short of people.
Helen spent a long time as artist and first artist, and after nine years was promoted soloist and first soloist the following year. She had had a few injuries along the way, stress fractures in her foot etc. As first artist you are doing corps and soloist work so to do that for four or five years is quite tiring but you don’t complain at soloist work as it is a gift. Timing has a lot to do with it and who’s around. If she was waiting to be soloist/first soloist now there’d be a long wait as there’s lots of young talent in the Company. How do you cope when there are people who’ve been waiting a long time? Helen said it’s hard but she’s now seen casting from both sides of the fence and knows that when someone is cast in the office everything is taken into consideration. With corps and soloists, it is done quite fairly unless someone is born for a role and you can’t make them wait, so there can be exceptions.
Besides Lescaut’s mistress Helen absolutely loved being the body in Requiem. She loves the music and can’t be on stage listening to it and not emote. Yuhui Choe was her soul which was nice. There’s tricky footwork but it’s a good challenge. Mitzi Casper she’s lucky to have done quite often so feels more comfortable in the role. At her first stage call as Lescaut’s mistress Monica said just have a go at the first solo and Helen wanted the ground to open up as it was Tamara Rojo and Carlos Acosta’s stage call so Tamara just sat watching her. She was absolutely terrified and probably didn’t do it well but felt she later grew into the role and the character. To some people it comes naturally but others take time to grow and mature in a role. Frankie Hayward just gets it straight away but Helen was a slower starter so it took time to become more comfortable with it, knowing when to stop and breathe and when to give just a look, which can be really powerful, and know that you don’t have to do, do, do all the time. Johan Kobborg, Rupert Pennefather, Thiago Soares and Benn Gartside were some of her partners over various performances.
Helen has done a lot of MacMillan roles. What’s wonderful is his story telling and the way he uses the music. He feels no need to put a step on every count of the music, there’s a lot of stillness and moments where it is natural - an incredible lift and phrasing that is choreographic, followed by just a look or holding hands proving that sometimes less is more.
Of Ashton works, Helen did Lise (in La Fille mal Gardee) which was another surprise. Sarah Lamb was injured and she was covering it when Monica said one day ‘darling, how would you feel about dancing Lise in two week’s time with Ivan Putrov?’ She said yes, if you think I can do it, and felt she had nothing to lose. Lesley Collier was in the wings telling her what to do! There was a funny Ivan-ism in the MacMillan studio, when he was trying to pick her up, saying ‘you’re heavier than Sarah but I think I can manage’! One day during a lift she heard his thumb go but he did the show with it taped and although there were a couple of lifts that didn’t work they managed two shows and it was an amazing experience. Sometimes taller ladies have been taken out of the Arabian dance in Nutcracker because they’re considered too big. Helen had Rupert, Henry St Clair and Ryoichi Hirano who said there’s no girl in the Company we cannot lift. If the men can’t do it, they need to go to the gym!
Lilac Fairy is a favourite role for Helen. She likes telling the story through mime, it’s so musical and now she’s enjoying coaching the Carabosse mime as it’s so much part of her. With the mimes in Act II, there’s an answer in the music for the Prince. You don’t always hear it straight away but relax into it. (Here Helen gave a little demonstration of the Act II mime.) You are story telling with the music which for Helen is everything. The solo with the fouettée step is a difficult bit for the Lilac Fairy. She found it scary but weirdly part of her relished the challenge. It was really nice this time as Darcey was around coaching the Auroras and came in to do some work with the Lilac Fairies. Although she’d worked her way up quickly she had done those roles and having that knowledge is amazing and it’s interesting to hear her take on it. She was telling the girls how to do the fouttées and it just clicked and worked for them. It was lovely to be able to call her in to give some help and be an extra pair of eyes and it was a bonus for the girls.
New choreography. Helen was in Wayne’s Qualia but cried after every rehearsal as she thought of herself as a classical dancer and she felt she had ballet dyslexia and was incapable of picking it up. She got through in the end but it was a challenge for her. In Metamorphosis she was a puppet. It was really cool working with Will Tuckett who’s such a clever man though it was tiring moving the dog’s head but it was quite nice to morph into different roles. This wasn’t about her body but how she moved the puppet’s head and how it worked with the rest of the pack. Musically the dog would respond with a different movement so you needed to study dog behaviour. She did try to choreograph at White Lodge, and made something to the Snowman music but it was a bit of a disaster!
Other roles. Comparing her Queen of the Willis when she started to when she finished was a totally different experience. The last time she did it she was completely calm, waiting to bourrée on, compared to how she felt when she started dancing the role, just because of how physically exhausting and challenging it is. With experience you know you can do it so it’s great to have that stillness and be able to stand on stage looking out and taking in the whole scene and then enjoy the experience afterwards. This in comparison to when you’re starting out, feeling like a rabbit trapped in the headlights, and after the show knowing you did it but not knowing how you got through. The solo starts slowly so there’s time to ground yourself, take in the scene and become the character without being a terrified dancer. Asked if she got feedback, Helen said sometimes people make comments after the performance and you do need constructive feed-back to develop and improve so you feel deflated if people say nothing. Sometimes you think you did alright and you get an awful correction. Sometimes you feel you have done the worst show ever and get positive feed-back so you feel confused! Now Helen’s ‘on the other side’ so if she knows she’s going to see the dancers before their next show, she saves her comments for the studio, and only says positive things after the show. During Coppelia everyone was working very hard so she’d stay behind and congratulate them on doing a great job keeping it all together, just to stay positive and get through the Christmas season. Sometimes she takes a cast sheet and makes her notes during the show and ticks them off when she sees people. Leading up to the filming of Sleeping Beautyshe made a load of notes and made sure they were given out straight away. The day before filming Coppelia she’d given different notes about the angle of the head which didn’t happen on the day but still it was danced beautifully and sometimes you just have to let it go.
She danced Olga in Onegin a long time ago. Her memory is more of doing corps girls in Act I and watching Alina, Marianella, Gemma Bond etc. When she danced Olga, although she loved it, it didn’t feel right as she thought she looked too old and was too tall. Looking back at photos she now realises she did look young. Mara Galeazzi was Tatiana with David Makhateli, and Valeri Hristov was her Lensky.
Questions: Do you still take class? She hasn’t since retirement as there’s no time. Helen likes to have time for the family in the morning so if she came in for class, she’d not see George. She’s in the studio all day with no time for herself. She really loves yoga but finding time isn’t easy. She’s done a couple of yoga teacher courses which she hasn’t been able to use but maybe later in life?
Does she see herself going back as a character dancer? She’d like to when George is a bit older. She had asked about it when she got the Ballet Mistress job as she really loved doing Nurse and Lady Capulet when she came back from maternity leave but there is enough to do with this job so she couldn’t take on more just now. David said there’s plenty of time - Gerd Larsen did Nurse into her 70s.
Being on stage in Romeo and Julietand working with different Juliets, in what sense do you see differences? Helen said it’s their characterisation - when someone is emoting, pleading with you and falling to their knees, everyone does it slightly differently and you react accordingly. One friend comes crying to you and you react differently to them than to another friend depending on how they make you feel. You respond to them emotionally and so give a different response each time. You have to be open to slightly different steps and timing nuances. Juliet may start walking from the bed when you know you should be putting her shawl on her just then.
As Ballet Mistress there is a meeting to decide what you do. Would Helen be open to working with all choreographers? She replied she would do anything at this stage and it’s part of the job description to work a lot with Wayne though other people are coming in for his rep so they’ve not so much of it to do. At those meetings it’s Kevin, the ballet staff and the notators who work out between them who is doing which portion of each ballet.
Helen said she was very surprised and chuffed to receive our generous cheque of £100. She’s put it towards a new laptop so she can download the rep and transfer it to her IPad.
What next? She’ll just keep going and see where life takes her. She is loving it now and once this week’s over with Dances at a Gathering she can start thinking of Swan Lake. Helen has no long-term thoughts, this job is a once in a lifetime opportunity so she won’t let it go any time soon.
She has worked for four directors. How has the company changed? Helen doesn’t remember much about the beginning with Anthony Dowell apart from the drama of the men leaving which was a big change but she loved working with him. Ross Stretton seemed quick and ruffled a few feathers so it wasn’t an easy time. He made radical cast changes which upset some people with established dancers doing roles quite beneath them. Monica shaped most of Helen’s career. Kevin is completely different but great for the Company and a great boss to work for, understands dancers and is keen to give everyone opportunities. He’s so human, and understands normal life and injury and he is very approachable.
David thanked Helen very much for coming, saying we have watched her career with enjoyment from Swan Lake and Clara onwards. We look forward perhaps to watching her coach at Insights in future and maybe taking on character roles at some stage. We’ve been grateful to her for the pleasure she’s given us and for being a regular attendee at BA dinners, rallying the troops! We now look forward to enjoying the next stage of her career.
Report written by Liz Bouttell, corrected by Helen Crawford and David Bain.
© The Ballet Association 2020