Jonathan Cope 2020
- Denilson Almeida Afonso
- Sir David Bintley
- Annette Buvoli
- Harry Churches
- Jessica Clarke
- Jonathan Cope
- Helen Crawford
- Melissa Hamilton
- Dame Monica Mason
- Itziar Mendizabel
- Yasmine Naghdi
- Kevin O'Hare
- Hanna Park
Former Principal & Répétiteur, The Royal Ballet
Interviewed by David Bain
Zoom video conference, November 19 2020
After David’s welcome, Jonny, who was at home in Portugal, began by saying he wanted to send big love to everybody, hoped we were OK and finding some positives out of the current crisis. He wished he could see all our faces and thanked us for our leaving present which went towards buying a motorbike helmet and he was very touched by our kindness. It was a joy to ride his bike around the roads of Portugal.
Asked why Portugal, Jonny said they had a little house by the beach in a small hippy town in the west of the country which they’d used for holidays. It’s very spiritual, beautiful and peaceful and they’d been spending more time there as with COVID it was better being in that landscape with more freedom than in the city. Also their daughter, who’d produced their first grandchild, was renting a house in the village and their son was in the basement so it was like being back in London. The Portuguese were very thorough with their COVID restrictions and regulations, similar to the UK but no national lock-down though some districts do have a night-time curfew in the more built-up areas.
Jonny began his work as repetiteur in 2005 through Monica Mason who was very supportive and offered him the job. He’d done a performance with Tamara Rojo on tour which was sub-standard and he felt he should hang up his ballet shoes and move on and Monica stepped in, giving him this opportunity. It was the most wonderful thing as he was able to stay within the industry that he loved and, although nothing replaces performing in front of a live audience, being a répétiteur you are part of that world. Working with the lovely dancers and watching performances was a gift and gave him a greater understanding of the business, of what is important in performances and as a dancer, which made Jonny wish he could have done it the other way round. He wasn’t very good at first – as a dancer you are quite self-absorbed and disciplined, you train every day, go to gym, and train like an athlete but that’s not what you need as a coach which is about being generous and supportive so it takes time to adjust. Then he finds there’s almost more satisfaction with coaching than as a dancer. You work as a team to get a performance together and for a coach it’s incredibly satisfying and hopefully the dancers get a lot out if it too. For Jonny it was a slow transition but a beautiful one and it changed everything about the way he was as a person from being a self-absorbed dancer. Highlights: he had a very good relationship with Lauren Cuthbertson and Ed Watson and Sergei Polunin, working on Manon and Giselleand other ballets seeing them find their own way with the productions, not influencing them but encouraging them to be individual as artists while following the choreography. He also enjoyed working on many ballets with Federico Bonelli. It was a pleasure - dancers are lovely people and the majority need a bit of encouragement. Classical ballet is a very difficult job and requires so much emotionally and physically so dancers deserve a lot of love.
Jonny and Lesley Collier had coached together and he felt it was a great combination. She knew all the ballerina roles and passed on knowledge from Frederick Ashton, Kenneth MacMillan and others, and they had occasionally partnered each other, doing a full-on performance in demonstration. Dancers are very visual and explanation in words can take 20 minutes but if you demonstrate a couple of steps they get it instantly. They had lots of laughs and a lot of fun and he misses Lesley. David recalled the funniest visit to the Royal Ballet School when Jonny and Jay Jolley were coaching the students in Swan Lake Act II – and Jonny was the ballerina with Jay as his partner! Jonny said the girl had the more interesting steps and he was passing on what Lesley had taught him. Donald McLeary was great at portraying the ballerina roles in detail. As a male partner you’re normally accentuating the line of the ballerina who gets most of the fun. He’d taught Miyako Yoshida Ondine, and Alexandra Ansanelli. (Miyako had once said that Jonny was a frustrated ballerina – Jonny acknowledged there’s some truth in that but that’s a bit suspect! Her wish was that he’d come back as her mother Widow Simone in Fille.) Initially when he became a répétiteur, Lesley and he didn’t often coach together as on a day to day basis it wasn’t economical to be both in the same studio at the same time but the times they had together were great. He has a lot of respect for her as a coach in passing on so much including the style and beliefs of the Royal Ballet and what it represents.
Going back to the beginning, Jonny said it was a Billy Elliot-type introduction, starting in Devon when he went on a Saturday morning and sat outside the town hall while his sister took a dancing class. He got bored with that and joined in the class, his sister stopped but he carried on dancing. His teacher saw potential, and he went to White Lodge, having sent off pictures in swimming costume and auditioned. Philip Mosley, who was supposed to be the inspiration for Billy Elliot, had said most male dancers have that connection through a sibling.
Memories of White Lodge. Looking back, it was the most beautiful building and place to be but he didn’t appreciate it as a child, work was tough and they worked really hard and were disciplined. In retrospect he has fond memories, with wonderful teachers like Ronald Emblen. The Upper School came with more freedom as they had digs and travelled to Barons Court which was also very atmospheric, but they trained hard with more wonderful teachers like Walter Trevor. David Bintley also mentioned how great Walter was as a teacher in an interview he gave. They were in Baron’s Court with the Company, the link between the School and the Company was close as they walked past the studios going to class. It was a massive influence, and as a student you based everything on who you respected - Anthony Dowell, Wayne Eagling, David Wall, Stephen Jeffries – all inspirational dancers. It was incredible to stand at the studio door and watch them work and you felt connected to the Royal Ballet world. They were very good times, their whole young world opening up to new experiences. There was more freedom than now, as long as they were there for the 9am class and attended their lessons. For his graduation performance he did Giselle with Leanne Benjamin and that was when he started working with Peter Wright. Peter was a great inspiration who would get off his chair and run around demonstrating chasing the Willis. You didn’t use your arms or hands as a student. He made you understand that you use your arm and hand as a guide to following your eyes looking into the distance. He did five performances at Sadler’s Wells with Leanne who was a beautiful dancer and one of the best Giselles. It would be good to go back and do it better!
In 1982 he joined the Company. Jonny’s first memories were of feeling intimidated and a bit fearful of doing the wrong thing in a tough environment and being faced with Michael Somes you had to be really up to the mark. So, there was a bit of fear with the excitement of moving from student to professional dancers, and they got paid £96 which was a fortune at the time. It felt like growing up, although they’d been on the ROH stage as students in Nutcracker etc. But you just want to get better and better, in that environment you are inspired and want to learn as much as possible. It is like an addiction and all-consuming and Jonny wanted it so much. He did the pas de six in Swan Lake and corps de ballet roles, where he wasn’t that good. He was a hopeless Sleeping Beauty cavalier, and was in Rhapsody boys second cast when he dropped Karen Paisey, a shocking performance, and struggled to stay in line and be part of the group dance. It got easier when he moved to soloist and principal roles in that respect! A difficulty of being tall is that you can’t move as quickly as others and perhaps stand out when you shouldn’t in the corps. There’d be a tall cast and a shorter cast to match aesthetically. He was envious of those who were more compact, who jumped higher, turned faster, pirouetted better and he was always trying to catch up as he was very gangly and thin. But, finally, he got the opportunity to partner ballerinas like Sylvie Guillem, Darcey Bussell, and Altynai Asylmuratova so it was hardly detrimental. There wasn’t a lot of soloist work- King Rat, lead Arabian - before he got his big break replacing Derek Deane in Swan Lake,after which he made a quick journey from corps de ballet, to soloist and principal. It helped him to be alone on stage and set his own rhythm! He recalled one section of Rhapsody where the boys were all jumping, and the timing was off – the next day there were jokes made about the second cast Rhapsody boys please go to Stage Door because their taxi is waiting. Christopher Newton was naturally not best pleased. Everyone has a different sense of balon, and how quickly you take off from the floor but in the corps everyone has to be aware of everyone else and be coordinated. Jonny’s first major role was replacing Derek in Swan Lake with Pippa Wylde. Without a doubt he couldn’t have done it without Donald McLeary’s help – Jonny hadn’t a clue about how to partner, how to run, how to walk, how to stand as a prince and Donald was incredible and helped him get through. Luckily Jonny did have a strong arm and didn’t struggle with the ballerinas in terms of size so it went reasonably well. It was the lovely production with the slow Ashton solo in the first act – a great feeling and so exciting. In old age you look back on these moments with great satisfaction wishing you had enjoyed them more at the time!
On working with different choreographers, Jonny had worked with Fred when he and Maria (Almeida, his wife) did his new production of Cinderella. Fred wasn’t very verbal but when he did speak it was to the point - after the General Rehearsal, the first thing he said was ‘your make-up’s too orange. If you have a light costume the foundation has to be pale, if a darker costume it can be darker’. This may seem obvious but was great advice which Jonny followed. Fred always had a cigarette in his mouth, and didn’t get out of his chair very much, but demonstrated well with his arms and hands which was lovely. He had a problem with Jonny’s nose because for Fred the aesthetic was important – ballet takes you away from harsh realities of life into a beautiful world - but they got over that! Margot Fonteyn had had her nose done, but not Jonny.
He and Maria didn’t dance a lot together as Anthony enjoyed dancing a lot with her including in Ondine,but they did Baiser de la Fée and Manon together. They have so much lovely time together now but then they took themselves so seriously with petty arguments rather than enjoying the moment. They say it is difficult and you shouldn’t have a ‘domestic’ in front of the choreographer. They have some lovely videos of them doing Baiserwith Kenneth MacMillan. Maria, says Jonny, had considerably more talent than him and was the most beautiful dancer but the desire wasn’t there even if the talent was. Ondine was so much fun, because there’s not the technical pressure of a big solo at the end. You’re wearing boots and there’s a real character to play and a big story to tell with long pas de deux and it was a true pleasure to dance. All the boys thought it was great fun to do, the whole second act trying to convince the audience and really believe in it. Jonny remembered one occasion where Anthony wasn’t best pleased and told him off for getting the giggles on stage when they collapsed on the floor at the end of Act III and Michael Nunn and Billy Trevitt started goosing him!
Month in the Country is possibly Jonny’s favourite ballet of all time and the magic is extraordinary. He has so many fond memories of it particularly in Cuba when he replaced Rupert Pennefather who got sick and partnered Zenaida Yanowsky. The audience there was so appreciative of everything they did. Month is a true masterpiece. Jonny always loved being in trousers which feels more natural than tights and the jockstrap not so important! You build the character and tell the whole story in 50 minutes and carry the audiences, who also love it, with you.
Towards the end of his career, he did Marguerite and Armand which was another absolute favourite with a complete story told in a short time. It’s a perfectly formed ballet to most beautiful music and he has fond memories of dancing it with Sylvie particularly on her mini- tours in Japan where the audiences love the ballet and are so appreciative. Sylvie also loved the ballet which was brought back for her.
Kenneth was Resident Choreographer when Jonny joined the Company and they saw him regularly. He appreciates Kenneth now more than at the time and really understands his genius. He had the knack of putting the right people together and creating atmosphere. Then Jonny was the Christ figure in Different Drummer with Alessandra Ferri when he worked one on one with Kenneth. It was fascinating as initially he didn’t know how much input Kenneth wanted from him, but he wanted you to try different things which was more rewarding than being told what to do. Kenneth would sit directing from his chair but was inspiring at the same time. Jonny and Maria did his Baiser de la Fée which was originally made for Lynn Seymour, and it was great as they were a couple. He wishes they could do it again now but it was hard with pas de deux, solos, and coda and was quite a physical piece which didn’t come back into the rep. Maybe it was better to dance than to watch? Next was Prince of the Pagodas.They, and particularly Darcey, pushed as far as they could technically. She created a monster role which many ballerinas have struggled to follow as it was intense and technically difficult.
Of Kenneth’s other works, Jonny spoke of dancing Mayerling with Tamara. Within these roles they formed a bond and relationship which was so exciting. Rudolf is a great role in Mayerling, again a work of genius. The first solo was created by Anthony Dowell on demi-pointe which was extremely difficult and classical and pure, people relaxed once it was over and although David Wall’s pas de deux were equally challenging they weren’t quite as classical so it could be fudged a bit. With Tamara he did a couple of shows that really came together, the music by Liszt is wonderful though some of the cuts didn’t work quite so well. The last pas de deux and whole of the third act section, as a performer you don’t get much better than that, to be drugged out of you head with a beautiful woman. In old age you can look back from your wheel chair and know it was a really good time. Another challenge was not just dancing with Mary Vetsera but all the other relentless pas de deux, which are extremely physical, especially ending with Stephanie in Act I . David was an incredible partner and some of the things he did were amazing. With Mayerling you have to be particularly accurate and musical to avoid it getting messy and you must keep definition within the choreography, which shows the genius of Kenneth, and for that you have to be super fit as, if you are tired, the choreography starts to slip. The first act is for the male dancer and , as in Romeo and Juliet, were very hard. Great roles for a male dancer and you don’t get much better than that.
Manon had another beautiful role created by Anthony, the character is pure and good and requires more sensitivity to truly relate to it. With Sylvie they did some really exciting shows. She was the first person to be allowed to perform the third act pas de deux out of context which they did in Japan. You’d think it wouldn’t work out of context but you really got what was happening in that one moment – she had a gymnastic background and a springy take-off and was sometimes way above his head but it suited her natural character and she had an affinity with it.
Jonny came to Judas Treerather late on and felt it wasn’t a success for him. Irek had what it took and however hard Jonny tried to be that character it didn’t seem to work (apologies to the audience who saw those performances!) but he enjoyed watching more than doing it. Benn Gartside and Thiago Soares did it well. Jonny misses watching ballet more than anything – the smell of the theatre, grease paint, orchestra warming up, the buzz and anticipation of your cast, and even as a coach you still get the excitement of anticipation of live theatre.
Of David Bintley’s work, Jonny did Galantaries. David was another genius who created great works but Jonny’s struggle with him was that he was small and moved quickly so Jonny struggled to keep up with the sharp dynamic and felt he needed a bit more energy and power to do the solo justice. David challenged them with stamina including Young Apollo with Mark Silver. It worked well but hasn’t come back. The story goes that Mark had apple crumble and custard beforehand and it ‘all come back’ at the end of the performance! Still Life at the Penguin Cafe was a lot of fun with Cynthia Harvey and musically and creatively was very different from the norm and was inspiring. At the General Rehearsal Jonny’s aboriginal wig fell off, Cynthia stood on it and thinking it was a rodent just screamed which didn’t go down well. He also had wonderful memories of Monica screaming at Leanne to get on the donkey in Dream. (At this point Jonny said it seemed he was focussing on all the negatives with only a handful of good moments in his career!) In The Planets, David reminded Jonny that he’d tripped over the set and dropped Deborah Bull, but it was the set that was at fault. It was a good piece, and a shame it’s not done now.
Next came Ashley Page who had a passion for his work. He believed and put everything into it so you believed as well as being inspired. You took what he said rather than creating a role on your ability so it was a bit like a clone of Ashley rather than you as an individual and in some respects it worked as it controlled the outcome and his vision of the ballet, but not quite as satisfying as working with someone like Kenneth where you had creative input. His first work with Ashley was Broken Set of Rules– a really good work and the Nyman score worked well, Ashley’s style and the way he moved really came across in that ballet and was one of his best.
Wayne Eagling made Frankenstein and Beauty and the Beast. On opening night Anthony Dowson, who was the Beast, tore his calf , so the show couldn’t go on until Jonny (second cast) got ready to take over. He’d not had time with Wayne alone to get all the moves. The fangs were glued in his mouth and huge globules of glue were running down his face and being swallowed and he couldn’t breathe, and he was making up the choreography as he went along. Not his finest hour but he got to the end and although it wasn’t the opening night they had expected it subsequently did quite well when Jonny learned it and Anthony did some great performances. Wayne gave Frankenstein a whole new look, costumes and Vangelis score and it was totally original and it worked and a lot of people came just for that ballet. It had some tender and touching moments, beautiful pas de deux with Lesley, and so creative with punks, and a voyage of discovery for the Monster. He has a lot of respect for Wayne who influenced Jonny with his partnering and risk taking. He lived on the edge of the choreography which made him exciting to watch and so a lesson not to be too safe and go to your limit.
So far as overlap with the Company as it is now, Jonny did Christopher Wheeldon’s Tryst. Chris has a natural gift and is lovely to work with in the studio. Darcey and Jonny did a lot of things with him and when they started bickering he was very patient and supportive. Partnering and pas de deux took on a new look with Chris who created a different style which benefited Jonny. Pavane with Darcey had complex partnering but it was great and Chris has gone on to achieve great things, deservedly so. Jock Soto, a great partner, has done a lot of his work in the USA.
Partners were everything within a production. Altynai in Swan Lake was mind-blowing in terms of not knowing a movement was over but it hadn’t started and she kept going with it as if it was limitless. She looked at you and kept the intensity of focus which was a bit eerie at first and he had never seen that and it made her unique and she threw herself into everything with no concerns for her own safety, and trusted her partner with wild abandonment. He had to learn the Russian elements which was a learning curve for him watching her and the way things don’t have to stop at the end of a solo, but can go on with the use of the eyes or fingers. A true highlight. The first time with Sylvie he flew to Paris for the Grand Pas Classique which didn’t go well as it was on a rake and affects everything you do as your weight balance is distorted. When you are partnering it is a whole other thing, but they had a first rehearsal and she probably thought it wasn’t going to work. Then she came to London, and back on a flat floor things improved. Probably his closest relationship: he loves her drive and energy and strong temperament, she took on everything in life, learned Japanese in Japan, experimented with different cuisine, she is so alive and taking everything in. She taught him a great deal about confidence – she would say ‘calm, strong’ before going on, she was the confident French ballerina and he was the insecure Englishman. Body-wise they fitted, size-wise, proportion-wise, and no effort to dance together. Dramatically she was probably the partner he did the most with and had the most satisfying times.
With Darcey they were more like brother and sister and had a really easy relationship, she never had an agenda, never had a bad mood, was upbeat and it was a lovely way of being, and they weren’t together so much dramatically but more in the classics. A lovely partnership. He felt blessed to have all those gorgeous women, all so different, who bring different things out of you. Before he started dancing with Tamara Rojo he thought it was time to hang up his shoes as he was late 30s but once they began it gave Jonny a new lease of life until age 43 in the Swan Lake when he felt he could no longer do her justice. They did Cinderella, Song of the Earth and Mayerling. She was so relaxed and calm on stage and at peace with herself. If they missed a hand they were calm and just moved on and made it work with none of that nervousness. She was another risk taker on stage and it made her so exciting. She had an alluring way of looking at you and was completely gorgeous so sometimes you forgot to dance as you were transfixed by her in roles like Mayerling in her nightie!
Question: do you look back on past roles and wish you knew things then that you know now from coaching? One thing Jonny says he learned is that dancers should be out front more as you need to be with the audience to see what they are seeing. If you just focus on pointing feet and doing perfect pirouettes you lose sight of the big picture which is a performance. The aim is to relax a bit and enjoy the glory of the whole thing – music, choreography, partners - and the audience will feel that from you. As a dancer you don’t go out front as you are so tired after a performance you want to go home and sleep. Watching night after night he thought he could have changed aspects of his roles and done things differently. There’s also an understanding of the coaching and what the dancers need. It is really difficult to do classical ballet, requiring such discipline and it’s hard to relax as what you ask your body to do is extraordinary and easier said than done.
Life in Portugal is very different. He has so much knowledge of the Royal Ballet rep. Does he miss it being away and any plans at some stage to return? He misses so much and it is like a death when you move away as the Company is an extended family and it’s been your whole life and it’s such a beautiful life of creativity with a pianist playing live music and surrounded by beautiful people and it’s a wonderful world so to be away is a shock and depressing. The intention is definitely to return and watch and if something comes up it would be nice to contribute. He left the Royal in his 50s so it was a huge part of his life. But this is a new chapter. Maria has supported him selflessly throughout his working life and now they can spend quality time together, enjoy each other’s company, cook together and walk on the beach. Even though he loves the ballet he loves her more, and they take it day by day and now with a grand-child as well life doesn’t get much better, apart from COVID knocking on the door.
In thanking Jonny very much for being our guest, David said his support of the Ballet Association was greatly appreciated over many years, he almost always came to our dinner. In turn Johnny said our support of the dancers is important and being an appreciative audience and without it it’s almost pointless. He is grateful for what we have given and let’s hope it gets back to normal and can continue. We are delighted he remains a President of the BA and we hope we’ll see him coaching occasionally at the Royal Ballet. Juan Laredo rings every week from Spain and says what he’s doing and they chat about the old days. The ballet world isn’t just the dancers but extends beyond and he’s been blessed to have been part of it. David looks forward to interviewing him again when, as Jonny says, he has new experiences to relay.
Report written by Liz Bouttell and edited by Jonathan Cope and David Bain.
© The Ballet Association 2020