Christopher Saunders 2021
- Alejandro Valera
- Anna Rose O'Sullivan
- Beatriz Stix-Brunell
- Christopher Saunders
- Hannah Grennell
- Isabella Boyd
- Johan Kobborg
- Julie Petanova
- Marion Tait
- Matthew Ball
- Mayara Magri
- Meaghan Grace-Hinkis
- Téo Dubreuil
- Valentino Zucchetti
- Yuhui Choe
- Zhan Atymtayev
Rehearsal Director and Principal Character Artist, The Royal Ballet and President, The Ballet Association
Interviewed by David Bain
Zoom video conference, April 14 2021
After David’s welcome when he said it was an amazing 17 years since Chris had last spoken to the Association, Chris began by telling us about his role as Rehearsal Director. He said it’s not a defined role and he does what he’s told! In reality, he’s a stepping stone between ballet staff, dancers and Kevin O’Hare. Every director has their different ways and increasingly Kevin has so much to do, administratively and artistically, so Chris is in the middle and can feed between the staff, dancers and Kevin himself. When he was first named Ballet Master he was coaching principals, which we call a repetiteur, so that was strange and he’s never really been in the mould of what he’s called. In fact, it doesn’t matter as he enjoys the job so much, there’s more seniority, he’s one of the oldest members of the Company, and it gives him more of a position regarding guests coming in to stage ballets, going to watch in the studio and feeding back to Kevin when he can’t always go in. It’s a changeable role which suits him. Sometimes he teaches class (though less frequently as it’s very tiring with everything else), he stages and rehearses ballets, rehearses principals, and goes to ‘gang meetings,’ so he does a little bit of a lot of things.
Gang meetings used just to involve Monica Mason, Anthony Russell-Roberts and Jeanetta Lawrence but gradually departments have become bigger and now the heads of each department come in – music, conductors, health care suite, Learning & Participation – so at least once a week it’s a way of getting together for necessary discussions, though a weekly meeting is barely enough now as more and more needs to be discussed and acted on but any points emanating from that meeting that need forwarding, Chris can put out to the Company. It’s also a good opportunity to see Kevin, Heather Baxter and Rob Clark as when they’re very busy they can sometimes go days without seeing each other. On making decisions as to who’s looking after what in the repertoire, Chris said he and Kevin meet before the next season to discuss it. Sometimes it will be what someone has done in the past, as it’s so important to have the knowledge before you go in. You can’t just say to a new person, eg Ed Watson who’s now part of the team, that you’re going to stage Romeo and Juliet. Over the years Monica mentored Chris so well, along with Monica Parker, for the MacMillan ballets and he gets on so well with Pat Neary who always wants him in, and with Christopher Wheeldon, and throughout all that time he’s absorbed like a sponge so much information so he can go in and stage a ballet. Other ballet staff are the same – Gary Avis, Samantha Raine, Helen Crawford - and they have different parts to play. So, if Chris is rehearsing a role he hasn’t done himself, he’ll ask Ed to rehearse the pas de deux and if there’s to be a new Romeo he’ll leave it to Ed and Lesley Collier who will help out, although both she and Alexander Agadzhanov are doing less these days. He and Kevin go through the repertoire of the season, who’s been involved before and decide who to invite in. If Chris is involved in every ballet, as with this season, they look to see if his workload can be lessened. Sometimes there aren’t enough hours in the day and sometimes one person is enough. For example, Chris knows all the parts of Within the Golden Hourand can easily stage it and rehearse principals, but with DGV he can get Gary in because to have someone there who had the part created on them is incredible. They all get on with each other so there’s a lot of give and take. If someone’s really enjoyed a certain ballet, as Chris has loved the Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux for years and has fun doing it with Pat, he will make it work, while Ed might help with Apollo. After his and Kevin’s meeting, they then go through it with all the ballet staff. Someone may have done a piece like Bluebird last time and may not want to do it again so there’s plenty of give and take which is so important, particularly when it gets so busy.
Phil Mosley works out the rehearsal schedules and Chris says (though he wouldn’t tell him to his face!) that he truly has the toughest job trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. On Wednesday Chris gave him his rehearsal list for next week which is based on a six-hour day so Chris would ideally like 29.5 hours of rehearsals. He knows he won’t get it all, though hopes for most as he knows the time line and how much he has to do, and that’s just for himself working on Within the Golden Hour, Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, and starting Dances at a Gathering. Currently, there are also the two Crystal Pite pieces and Draft Works, and Arthur Pita’s in, so there’s a huge amount to do. Phil turns white when he sees the list, but the good thing is they have known each other since White Lodge and can tease and shout at each other but they’re like brothers and know there’s nothing personal. To still be working with your class from school is incredible. You can almost pre-empt what they will do or say so can prepare yourself. Sam and Helen Crawford are not his generation but they have come through White Lodge and the Upper School so shared the same experiences, he’s coached them as dancers and now they are part of the team. It’s definitely a big plus.
How to ensure that all the casts get to the studios? It is tough and you have to take dancers’ and staff well-being into account, the body can only do so much and then you have to stop. It’s tough if you’re someone like Chris who likes to be busy all the time but, as he gets older, he has to have a break occasionally for a coffee or lunch so Phil takes that into consideration. Kevin says what he wants and the staff try to make his vision happen but there are times when Chris has had to tell dancers a week before the stage call it’s going to be tight but he’ll do his best. If there’s a second cast who isn’t ready, they can’t go on for both their own and the audience’s sake. With Alice the second time around they were over-enthusiastic and getting closer he realised it wasn’t going to be possible and naturally the dancers were very disappointed. So, he told them they wouldn’t get a stage call but after the opening night of a three-week run, he would keep rehearsing the second cast of the waltz and cards and eventually they would go in for a couple of shows each. As a dancer he would rather know the truth and be told the reality – there’s nothing worse than being told I hope so, I hope so and then for it not to happen. But it’s hard as the dancers can’t forget about it because if the first cast is off, they have to be ready to go on. It is part of the job they do and it’s not a nice part. Sometimes he has to tell Kevin they can’t have four casts! It was daunting to see Kevin’s numbers of principals for Swan Lake, but a little selfish side of Chris thought he doesn’t rehearse a lot of Swan Lakeso that was someone else’s job! It is brilliant but there are not always the hours or studios available for those numbers. Some roles you can rehearse second casts and they can almost do the shows without rehearsing with everyone else, but other ballets have to be rehearsed together because of lots of different and intricate parts and, though a pas de deux may look simple, it can be very interactive and complicated. For a new Manon there are so many adage calls and fight scenes and if the guys are working on something else at the same time it’s tough to give them rehearsal time without them working non-stop. It’s a big jigsaw puzzle.
Staging different types of ballets and the challenges involved. As Chris had said, he was nurtured under Monica Mason and Monica Parker in Kenneth’s works and he ended up staging Rite of Spring,and sometimes Julie Lincoln would come in, but one year it happened that he staged Romeo and Juliet and thought nothing of it. Monica came in for the last full call in the studio, made a couple of corrections, said well done and without knowing it he had staged his first ballet. It was brilliant as he’s not generally nervous but part of him would have been terrified had he known in advance but it made him realise he knew a lot more than he thought he knew. His next was Christopher Wheeldon’s Tryst the second time it was put on, as he was in it the first time. It’s simpler with a one act ballet and he also had time to prepare. With a full length like Alice, which is the hardest of all ballets to be in sole charge of, there are so many characters and people who interact with others and you have to know all of them. If you’re staging the ballet, you can’t get away with saying you don’t know something and ask someone else to do it. With the Royal doing Romeo and Juliet regularly most people remember what they have done before. If they were to do Alice again it would be tricky as very few people have been in, for example, the waltz before - some have been promoted, some left or become management. You have to know everything but can’t know everything. You plan as much as you can in advance - personally Chris does it on a daily basis. Everything has to be ready for opening night, he doesn’t mind what chaos happens beforehand, but it’s like a cake when you put the layers on and opening night and beyond is when it has to be ready. For a dancer it’s different as they want to be ready two weeks before and he has to tell them that won’t happen but promises they will be ready for the show. In the morning rehearsals are usually at noon, and Chris will be there about 10 am, sometimes having to excuse himself from meetings in order to get ready, and he goes through the rehearsals with all his own notes and makes extra shorthand notes to refresh what he is going to teach that day. You have so much information in your head and he may also be doing the last run of DGV and starting Requiem at the same time. By mid-week he sees how it’s going and works out what he needs to ask Phil for the following week, and this he usually does on the train. That’s how he works here in London but if he’s putting on a ballet abroad it’s very different.
There are challenges to staging Within the Golden Hour which they’re working on at the moment. They did it in November but that cast wasn’t really a cast that they’d used before, some people might have been in it but not in the same roles, for example Fumi Kaneko was one of four ladies and but hadn’t done the principal role. Because of social distancing and bubbles, they literally had one cast and no covers as they weren’t allowed more people in the studio and could only work for that performance so they couldn’t risk anyone catching or transmitting COVID. It’s slightly different now that testing and vaccinations are available and they’ve discovered different ways of working. Kevin said if they do Within the Golden Hour now, they have the November cast so they’ve all done it recently. But on reflection Chris realised those who did it before were from two years ago and not everyone remembers. Some do but once they finish a role, other dancers wipe it from their mind so it’s not as easy as it seems. Now they have two casts and still have ballet bubbles, Chris has checked the November cast sheet for those who will know it and thinks if they mix it up a bit and put some of the originals like Vadim Muntagirov, who’ll remember it, with Anna Rose O’Sullivan, and Meaghan Grace Hinkis who hasn’t been involved but is quick, with her partner, James Hay, who did it in November, along with the couples either side who know it, it should work. Then it comes to the four couples: Christopher Wheeldon thought it was the best he’d ever seen it, and the dancers were so on it and loved it and were great to go. They were the second cast from two years ago. The original first cast have moved up to first soloist level so they decided to move the soloists to first cast, the covers become the second cast, and now they have more covers as they have eight shows and there are two casts and a cover for each place. Already during rehearsals two covers have gone on because of injury or sickness so what originally looked do-able is now a bit more frantic as he’s teaching covers who have never been involved at all. The Wheeldon style is very distinctive, quirky turned in positions which give a lovely line when you then turn out but when you’re not a Wheeldon dancer it takes time. If you want the dancers to do it you have to give them confidence and enough time with the assurance that they’ll be ready for the show while acknowledging they’ll have to work hard on it. All dancers are different, some have photographic memories, others may be nervous or shy but every dancer has to get the steps right and Chris has to make sure they feel comfortable doing that in their own time. But he also has to be realistic and if Christopher comes over, he might ask why a dancer isn’t doing something in a certain way. At least he knows the dancers well so Chris can explain he or she might take a bit longer to get it right. Last night he was rehearsing the two men. Téo Dubreuil and David Donnelly, who are stunning in it, are like brothers and understand each other and their musicality so he doesn’t need to see them at the moment. Then Leo Dixon and David Yudes will also do it on first cast nights, and the same with the second cast. Chris plans on giving them shows but said he can’t do all the work so although it’s late who’s going to give it a go? The younger ones went through the whole piece. They couldn’t breathe afterwards behind their masks but he couldn’t have asked for more and that’s what he loves about the job. Some things were wrong but the energy and love of it were there and when they were giving 1000% when you asked 100%, they deserved every bit of help to be able to do two shows. Chris was on Cloud 9 after their first rehearsal and seeing what they achieved when they’d never done it before was incredible. The perfect way to end the day.
Staging Romeo and Juliet, the two Monicas were around but since then a lot of different people have been coming in and staging parts of it. Chris said it is like opening a can of worms, as there’s no right way. He can read notation which is why Monica Parker took him under her wing but he’s not necessarily always the right person and so many people have danced the roles and teach them around the world. It hasn’t happened to him yet but for example Fin du Jour involved Monica Parker the last time with Chris putting it together and rehearsing it and Monica Mason coming towards the end for full calls and stage calls. Part of him would now find it tough to watch someone else teach the ballet as he’d done so much to stage it fully. At the same time Leanne Benjamin and Darcey Bussell can give more information to the ladies than he can and he picks things up from them and can then say ‘do the Bussell foot’. It is important that they come in and the work has to progress. Last time for Alice, Chris was in charge of the whole thing as Christopher and Jackie Barrett were away so he asked Jonathan Howells to rehearse the White Rabbit at the last minute as Ed wasn’t able to come. It is good to get people to help out but he does tell Christopher not to change it a couple of days beforehand! At the end of the day, it is all about the dancers giving the show of their life and the audience’s enjoyment. As a dancer you are quite selfish and you enjoy the buzz and thrill and want to do more and progress for your own benefit. As a coach Chris does it because he loves seeing the dancers leave better dancers than an hour before. He’s so proud of what they do as he knows the challenges which they’ve overcome. That, to him, is fantastic and like getting a gold medal.
Staging outside the Royal Ballet. This is a very different challenge as generally you don’t know the dancers or their characters though, in every company, he always knows someone. He did DGV for his uncle’s company, Texas Ballet Theater, and someone who was a student at the school when Chris was dancing said he remembered standing the wings and watching Chris in Gloria! You have to be quick at absorbing how they work and learn the characters. He tells the Ballet Masters he’s not there to dictate - it’s a team effort. His first ballet was Tryst for Dutch National Ballet which was part of a triple bill. It was daunting as he wasn’t aware of just how few hours, they work each day compared to the Royal. It’s their rules, regulations and legal requirements. Phil Mosley makes up our jigsaw puzzle but they have a system for teaching ballet in which each work has two hours priority time when Chris could have any dancer/s he wanted in any combination. After that Four Temperaments had priority time and any dancers left over, he could use. That was quite tough as Trystis quite tough. He was there four weeks and after three weeks Christopher was due to come and even he didn’t get more priority time. That was quite a wake-up call. He also put on Alice in Sweden toing and froing in a joint venture involving Jason Fowler, who had worked with Christopher, and then went to learn from Chris, who then went to Australia for two weeks to do Alice. He enjoys travelling and finds it fascinating to meet other dancers, see how companies work and realise they all have similar problems. Curiously he often sees a dancer working and thinks ‘she’s just like Laura’ and everyone seems to remind him of people at home. He loves it but couldn’t do it all the time. It would be fine if Tracy were with him but it is quite a lonely existence. When Pat comes over, she’ll sometimes say she’s not been at home for four months but that wouldn’t suit Chris who normally never sits still and doesn’t want to go back to a hotel unless it’s to sleep. Evenings can be OK but weekends are tough. However hospitable people are, you can’t be with them for four weeks. Just before COVID he went up to Birmingham to do Don Q and loved it as his son is there in stage management and they are our sister company so it was great to work with them, the only time in 38 years that he’s worked with BRB. Then they went into lock-down but he’s booked to go back next January to continue with Don Q.
In 2001 Ross Stretton, the incoming Director, offered Chris the post of Ballet Master. It was the strangest year with the changes and then reversion to what they knew as the Royal Ballet. Ross offered him the job which was even a surprise to management. It was the last month of Anthony Dowell’s reign and Ross was there holding interviews with character principals and Chris was the only one he hadn’t interviewed. He then asked to see him and said ‘I’d like you to be Ballet Master the next season’. It was very odd. He’d only ever taught two classes and Monica had asked him to coach Tom Whitehead as Paris. Monica had no idea what was going on. Chris didn’t find out why but he suspects Ross came into the position and wanted someone on the team who wasn’t going to say ‘we do it this way’. Personally, Chris will try anything, though never again choreography, so said OK. Ross said it wasn’t necessarily for the heritage stuff but they were to do the Australian Ballet version of Don Q the following year and Chris was to be in charge of it. It was being thrown at him all at once. Ross asked are you busy now, if not the dryads are upstairs at 12.30, so can you go to learn it? An hour later, he’d changed and was sitting at the front of the studio and Gail Taphouse and the ladies just looked at him. Gail asked what he was doing so he said Ross has asked me to be Ballet Master and wants me to learn the production. Then it dawned on him that it was not going to be easy. And, of course, it was shocking. Christopher Carr and Monica had not been told and looking back it was an horrendous position for Chris to find himself in. For Christopher especially, to come in and find someone who is a character principal sitting at the front and going to be in exactly his position was insulting to the staff and that was tough. Chris got on with it but it was the weirdest year for the Company seeing some of his friends being treated badly and others being pushed through. Ross was never nasty to Chris, always helpful, but it was a test of his colleagues’ friendship. For opening night of Don Q he got a call saying he should go on but he thought I’m only third cast. Fortunately, his friendship with Will Tuckett and Luke Haydon was so strong that it survived and they knew it wasn’t his fault but there were some horrendous situations and it was a really tough year. In the event Chris wasn’t really Ballet Master but was coaching principals so none of it made sense at the time. He was thrown in at the deep end, and just got on with coaching Tamara Rojo, Sylvie Guillem, Alina Cojacaru, and learned as he went along, being totally honest and true to himself. He was totally unprepared to coach principals, not even close, so it was daunting. He likes a challenge and his personality helped him to cope and looking back now it taught him a lot about coaching principals which isn’t easy as they are the stars of the show and the company. When Monica took over, she was busy doing Board meetings etc so was juggling her time, Monica Parker knew he read notation and they had a good relationship anyway and he was nurtured by them both. Monica was a real guide in helping him learn how to do things and helped him be in the position he now holds. There were some things she didn’t like doing and showed it is fine to be scared and make a mistake. What he learned quickly with Monica was to be honest. One day she was going over the casting of a one act ballet and asked Chris to take a look. A little way down he saw a name in brackets and thought that person shouldn’t do that role. Monica said she used to check with Fig (Christopher Newton) as he was always honest. They got down to the bottom of her list but he didn’t like what he saw at the top and gritting his teeth said if X and Y couldn’t perform, would you like that person to do the first night? She said ‘OK’ and rubbed out the name. That was only his choice, but it made her think he was right. It taught him that you can be honest if done in the right way. Sometimes a director wants to push a particular dancer which is fine but, if asked your opinion, answer honestly but respectfully.
In contrast to that, have there been situations where people have been cast and you thought ‘no’ and then they have surprised you, David asked? Yes, said Chris, just rehearsing the two gentlemen yesterday he wondered if it might be a bit beyond them but he loves to be surprised. The same thing can happen with promotions. They discuss with the Boss who likes to hear what they have to say from the studio viewpoint but finally it is his decision. You may think they are not yet ready for promotion and yet the next year they are flying so you learn not to judge a book by its cover. Sometimes he’ll say to Pat, or Kevin or Christopher perhaps that may not be the sort of person you’re looking for, but it’s worth giving them a try because of their wicked sense of humour or a feisty side. It makes you think beyond, which you have to in today’s world where you can’t pigeon-hole.
Pat Neary comes from a different era when there was no political correctness. However, Chris’ admiration and respect for her is huge because she is passionate about Balanchine ballets. His first encounter with her was doing the whole Agon pas de deux in a Baron’s Court studio with Monica watching. He was covering Agon before they went on tour to America with the first cast Robert Hill and Darcey and the second cast Mark Silver and possibly Gail Taphouse. On opening night of Swan Lake in New York, Robert’s knee went and Philip Broomhead took over the show. The next morning Monica said here’s a tape of the music for Agon. They came back, went into the practice studio, and he found himself doing the Agon pas de deux with Pat on pointe and then he was in the rehearsal room with Darcey and that was his first big break. One thing he has is quite a good memory and recalls being on stage when Sylvie wanted to know about Juliet’s solo from the ball room scene and Chris was able to show her all of it as he’d seen it over many years. He had only been at the back for a couple of Agon rehearsals but Pat has a memory and sharp shooter wit and they hit it off. He became Ballet Master and started working with her which he loves. It can be exhausting but her passion for what she does is phenomenal. She is tough, has said some unforgivable things in the studio which are unrepeatable, and said such things to one young dancer that produced tears and that should not have happened. Pat likes working with people she knows but there were lots of new faces which made her nervous so he just told her not to look! Next day this same young lady turned up, hair scraped back, pink tights (which Pat likes), tutu, pink leotard and she said ‘Oh my God, I made her cry and now she’s standing in front of me and she’s the ballerina and I love her’. She made Chris promise if anyone went off, he’d put her on and that’s what happened. The young woman couldn’t believe it but he said that’s what Pat wants. It is awful but the dancers respect her honesty though there is a way of doing it without insulting. Hers was a different era and we’ve learned a lot since and our company is open and respectful though perhaps in some other companies it has taken a little longer.
Recent Principal Character Artist roles. Chris loves them all – Elgar (Enigma), Kostchei (Firebird), M. GM (Manon). Chris had watched Derek Rencher in his last shows of Enigma and loved it all, the choreography, music, costumes, design. He never expected it but Derek passed on his pearls of wisdom which was wonderful. When Kevin asked him again last year, he wasn’t sure he could do it justice - he was petrified he was too old. But having researched Derek, Chris found he was 18 months younger than Derek when he gave his last performance. He relies on good friends in the Company who will be honest with him but he knows that was his last time. He was lucky enough to stop doing Gloria and Tybalt when he thought it time. Kostchei he loves too. He loves getting ready, doing his own make-up and seeing his face, his nose and chin change, and picks up the stick and there’s the character. He also loves the music and it’s a beautiful ballet and such fun but quite exhausting - and he’s still sweating on the train home! GM is very different – although not aggressive, he’s not a nice person. In the original story he is ugly. Derek created the role and he was certainly not an ugly man, but you can be an ugly person, not a nice character, lacking respect for anybody as you have money and power. Also, every performance is different as you have to react to whoever you are playing opposite. He did it with Alina and Leanne who are so small and made him feel like a paedophile, and then with Darcey who is such a good friend. He’s been part of it for 25 years, isn’t bored of it and if he does it again it will be different again. He also likes to see people’s reactions especially now he is management. It’s different as you go out on stage and you learn how much you can push your character to get it across to everyone out in the audience. You can’t distract but you can get up to mischief at the right time, and it makes the younger dancers realise that if they think as a harlot, they can play it a certain way. It has to be real but you push it to the limit. You can pick one who’s the shyest and pretend she’s the favourite and chase her around the stage and that’s what acting around the sides is about. This time he was one of the old clients. He knew it to teach but had never done it so it was fresh and there’s even more interaction involved.
Asked if there were any character roles Chris would still like to do, he said not really. When he was younger at school, he wanted to be a prince but then as he worked his way through the Company he knew he didn’t want the responsibility. He’d seen his great friend, Jonny Cope, doing principal roles at a young age and remembered him saying in Romeo and Juliet he never had the chance to have fun in the fights as he was having to be Romeo and the pressure is huge. You learn by doing the corps stuff to get through. Chris no longer wishes he had been a prince (except he was in the school show in Act II Swan Lake) but one thing he asked Anthony was if he could learn Tybalt. Anthony’s reply was will you be nasty enough to which Chris said let me try! No performance is ever the same as there are so many different layers. After 25 years of GM, he is older so if he does it again, he’ll be a different character and do it in a fresh way.
David thanked Chris so much for being our guest. He said he had spent 25 years of his job inspecting people teaching. In some companies they are not so good but Chris is one of the greatest he’s seen. David Drew had suggested inviting Chris to become a President and we are very grateful for everything he has done for the Ballet Association. He comes to the dinners regularly, even if he hasn’t been to talk to us for 17 years, and everyone at his table is always well entertained. Also, since Kevin has taken over, we have all thoroughly enjoyed watching him coaching at the open rehearsals to which we have been invited. In his turn Chris gave his thanks, saying how much the Company have missed the audience as it’s a two way thing and they all looked forward to our return.
Report written by Liz Bouttell and edited by Christopher Saunders and David Bain.
© The Ballet Association 2021