Marion Tait 2021
Former Assistant Director, The Birmingham Royal Ballet
Interviewed by David Bain
Zoom video conference, February 10 2021
After David’s welcome, fourteen years to the day since she was last our guest, Marion said she was so pleased to be with us and wanted to begin by saying a huge thank you to the Association for the generous gift we gave to mark her retirement as Assistant Director. She hardly feels she’s retiring but it does mark a big change for her. The cheque will be cashed when she can get to the bank to prove she is Tait and not Morse! Although she’s had a bad shoulder she is very keen on gardening so will use the money to buy more labour-saving equipment and will think of us every time she’s in her garden. David said this marked an exceptional career and we hoped Marion would remain as one of our Presidents.
Asked how she got into ballet, Marion said from the beginning she had no thought of being a ballet dancer. When she was still barely three her mother took her to a local dancing school where they did jazz, tap and ballet and even then she was small for her age and the teacher questioned her age as she was like a toddler, surrounded by huge girls galloping round in a circle, while the other new children sat on their mums’ laps and cried because they didn’t want to join in. Marion said she was a very shy child who didn’t stick up for herself so when they had theory questions in exams she’d come out and say she knew the answer but didn’t like to say in case she was wrong. But as soon as she was in the studio something took over, and a few years later the teacher had a special barre installed on the wall as she was too short to reach the normal barre. Her teacher was Iris Caldicotte, whose forte was tap. She must have been about 55 at the time but retired when in her late 80s. The pianist, Laurie, reminded Marion of the character in the film, Stepping Out. They did an annual show which Marion loved and one mother said to her mother ‘you can tell it’s Marion’s solo because they’ve got the posh music out which Laurie can’t play’! Ballet wasn’t necessarily her favourite but she was on in everything and absolutely loved it. When she was ten one of the other girls won a five-year scholarship for two classes a week to the RAD at Holland Park Gardens with auditions held every year. She only lasted one year but the following year Marion auditioned and was accepted. The other girls had beautiful feet and legs but hadn’t done the shows as she had. In her second and third years she won the cup for most promising student and couldn’t believe it, and in the fifth year she won the prize which was completely bewildering as she really didn’t think she was so special. For the second-year award, Dame Margot Fonteyn presented the cup: Marion recalled her having the most exquisite figure, wearing a perfect, plain little black dress, and looking so gorgeous. For those five years her mother drove her from North London where they lived to Holland Park and she was allowed to leave school a half hour early to get there on time, eating something in the car on the way. During that time, they had class with a guest teacher Idzikowski whose wife played the piano and Marion was hysterical when they began with pliés to the accompaniment of William Tell!
After five years when she was about 15, her local dancing school suggested Marion auditioned for the Royal Ballet Upper School. Her mum agreed and she was successful. It was a two-year senior course at the Upper School where she started in Julia Farron’s class in the first year. Julia had two classes: Farron A and, as a newcomer, Marion was in Farron B which was less advanced, but after one term she was moved to Pamela May’s class which was the class below the second-year graduates. She loved it though it was really daunting as the students were mostly from White Lodge who went straight there before graduate class. Madam sometimes gave class and knew the White Lodgers, and on Marion’s first day there was only one other besides herself who’d not been to White Lodge. Madam walked round the barre, saying ‘White Lodge?, White Lodge?, no, I didn’t think so, White Lodge?’! Marion said somehow she just slipped into things though she expected nothing and felt herself to be so untalented, with no turn out. Monica Mason was the only other one with no turn out but she did alright! Joy Newton taught them cygnets, and screamed at Marion as her knees kept going the wrong way so she cried and went home saying she wasn’t made that way and couldn’t do it. Her mum was so upset for her and phoned the school to say it was too hard for her and should she continue. Barbara Fewster, who was deputy to Ursula Moreton, spoke to her mum and said ‘we talk to everyone like that, she’s doing very well, she’s fine’. After the first year Robert de Warren wanted girls to go to Tehran where he had a company and Marion was offered a soloist contract. Again, her mother got on the phone saying Marion was very excited but was it wise? Again, Barbara Fewster said ‘she’ll be alright. Just hang on and do another year’.
Highlights at the time. Marion said Joy Newton took the graduate students to Thurrock and Graves End where Marion did blue girls in Patineurs.It was a great experience, and so exciting. The floors were slippery so they had to wear cabaret rubbers on their pointe shoes which meant they couldn’t turn but didn’t slip! The fouetté blue girl was Maria Guerrero, an extraordinary Spanish dancer who could turn like a top, and who married Peter Shaufuss.
When did Marion know she was joining the touring company? She said she had a good friend a year above who was already accepted and raved about how fantastic touring was and Marion thought she would like to join. They were doing a pas de deux class in the Goldfish Bowl at Baron’s Court. Her partner was Richard Collins, and John Field watched them through the window, and next day she and another girl were asked to go to the touring company class as John would like to have a look at them. Then Marion was called to Ursula Moreton’s office who said she had very good news – ‘John Field would like you to join the touring company, you of all people!’ Some of the boys took her out to the pub for a celebratory drink where they played Cliff Richard singing Congratulations which was top of the charts! They then went back for that day’s Spanish class and got out their castanets which drove Madame Ricarda mad. Marion joined the company in August that year, just before her 18th birthday.
First memories of the touring company. Marion confessed to being the worst geography student ever so to join a touring company was strange. They toured for 15 weeks at a time without going home. She took to it so well, loved it and wasn’t at all home sick, though she had no idea how to live away from home. Her mum used to sew on her pointe shoe ribbons, and Marion even posted home rubbish for her mum to throw away! They had extraordinary digs, and she still has her “digs book” with little comments like ‘not bad’, ‘won’t go there again’, ‘damp sheets’, and the price of digs at 7/6 per week including a hot meal. This might one day make a good prize in an auction. There are names of people she has still kept as friends. Older members of the company would recommend digs though she didn’t stay in famous theatrical digs, except in Leeds where it was Basil Hartley’s Novello Villa. Now on tour the dancers stay in hotels.
Dancing with the Company. Her first date was in Coventry and Marion recalled friends coming to see her off at the station. They did La Boutique Fantasque,and Marion was a dolly on the box, standing motionless and then going into action for a circle and a few petits jetés. There was an American boy, danced by Alan Hooper, who was naughty and made the girl next to Marion giggle. Henry Legerton, the ballet master, was furious and took her out of it. Marion never laughed, and took all her roles so seriously. Talking to Elmhurst students while they were at Camberley, she emphasised that from the start you take every role seriously, focus on it and give it your full commitment. That night Henry, because of a last minute injury, asked her to do waltz girls in the second scene which she’d covered, then a few weeks later she was asked to go on in the soloist role of poodles because someone had chicken-pox. She watched everything from the wings and just absorbed it all and Henry knew Marion had learned every role. Next came the white cat in Sleeping Beauty by which time Marion was getting a reputation for being quick at picking things up which was great when they had eight shows a week, double shows every other day. It was a wonderful start to a career and being able to watch people like Doreen Wells and Brenda Last, who were to Marion the greatest ballerinas, was wonderful – they were so different from each other but she loved and admired their differing qualities.
Her first big role. Marion spoke of John Field’s heart attack. He came back to Sunderland where they were doing Swan Lake, Marion led the swans on for the first time and they didn’t make it to their spots and had to leap into line! When he saw her on the stairs after the first act he said ‘Miss Tait, are you trying to give me another one?’ He was a wonderful director, and very inspirational. She was also learning blue girls in Patineurs without any thought she’d go on. In the Stratford Theatre rehearsal room working on a really hard floor, she was told ‘if this rehearsal goes OK you’re in tomorrow’s matinee’. John Field watched, she got the nod and went on with great support from the Company. Then Geoffrey Cawley made lots of ballets and he often used her in her early days in the Company. She was doing Lilac Fairy attendant when he came out front and said to John ‘who is the arabesque?’ which was something she did well. He made a lovely ballet to Poulenc, In the Beginning. She was down to cover two little girls, when Geoffrey asked her to learn the Lucette Aldous place, the serpent. One night when the Company was performing at Covent Garden she did both In The Beginning (her mother and David were out front and gasped when she fell over!) and blue girls – it was quite a night and was only her second year. During her first year Marion did two seasons on Ballet for All where she did bits from Giselle, Coppelia and Act 1 solo of Sleeping Beaut,y so she had lots of good roles.
First principal full length role. When she was still a soloist, Peter Wright said because of her dramatic ability, Marion should do Gisellethe next season. But before that was The Invitationfor Kenneth MacMillan. She didn’t know anything about the ballets. The first thing Kenneth had cast her in was Triad, with the New Group, but Marion was injured so didn’t do it. They rehearsed Pineapple Poll in the Donmar Studio when Marion was the red sailor girl. Cranko came to take the rehearsal and afterwards he said she should learn Pineapple Poll – you can’t get better than the choreographer choosing you for a role.
Working with Peter Wright as Director. He came to the New Group to sort things out. It hadn’t got any direction and they were only 16 dancers, with guests from the Royal Opera House. When the list went up it said David Morse, Marion Tait in New Group and she thought it was great. What a rep they had with works by Joe Layton, Christopher Bruce, Glenn Tetley, all people loved and would love even now to be choreographed for by them. Peter always had a wonderful touch at putting together triple bills. From early days he tried to do cutting edge things like Kenneth’s Check Point which was rather a disaster but with Svetlana Beriosova and Donald McCleary. But Peter soon got the feel of what was necessary to bring back audiences as it wasn’t popular though it was great experience and he got back to more accessible works though Grosse Fuguewas great. And then they started doing the classics like Giselle. Then he brought in people like Galina Samsova who was such a wonderful mentor and Marion learned so much from her.
Kenneth MacMillan. Marion premiered several of his works at Sadler’s Wells. 6.6.78 was a special present for Madam for her 80th birthday in 1978. Desmond and Marion were Gemini, with one of Kenneth’s entwined, contortionist pas de deux. At the first rehearsal she ran on, Desmond caught her and had to turn her smoothly in his arms and she wound round his leg to the floor and Kenneth said ‘no, don’t get on the floor, I’ll never get you up again’! Another work was Quartet, initially to Scott Joplin music, but next day he came back with completely different, classical music, they used the same steps but counted them differently. He just knew after the one rehearsal that he wasn’t on the right track. It was lovely – there were Galina, Desmond and Marion and Carl and they swapped partners. Marion had recently seen some photos of it and said you could see immediately that she was English and Galina was Russian, though they were doing the same position.
Much later she did The Burrow.There was some old black and white footage of Lynn Seymour and Christopher Gable. They were the stars as young lovers but when Kenneth came, he couldn’t recall it all and it evolved so the leading role was more the lady who was Ann Heaton. Marion had a wonderful short cropped white blonde wig. He suddenly said after one stage call, let your hair down, I much prefer that, so the wig had to go. It was great learning and rehearsing it.
Las Hermanas. In that, Kenneth taught Marion to be really dramatic, to put it across to the audience. Initially she was one of the two ‘mice’ but she progressed to being the older sister with Joe Cipolla, and sees the young sister and realises what’s happened and Kenneth said ‘stretch your eyes’, it does something to the whites of the eyes. (Here Marion gave an effective demonstration.) Her favourite photo as Juliet has her eyes out on stalks and he said ‘now you look as if you have seen something horrifying’. Kenneth came to many rehearsals including Desmond and Marion in the rape pas de deux in The Invitation. How do you put yourself into that situation when you have no experience and it’s the same with Juliet. Drama and tragedy are difficult but you have to feel it inside. There’s a moment when she screams silently and Kenneth whispered ‘it hurts’ and even now that still sends shivers down Marion’s spine. He relished that realism and real feelings.
Then came Juliet. Marion never expected to do it as it wasn’t in the rep until 1992 when she was nearly 42 and she thought she might do the nurse which would be fun. At the same time, they were bringing back Solitaire. They’d just done The Burrow, and by this time Kenneth had mellowed and was comfortable with her, but she was terrified of him! He said ‘there’s good news, and bad news for you. The bad news is I don’t want you to do Solitaire any more, it’s a nice ballet for youngsters to get on in, but I want you to be my Juliet’. Marion couldn’t believe it, and had never given it a thought. She thinks it’s a mistake when dancers carry on too long, not that they can’t do it but they lose the speed of footwork and you can see the tension in the shoulders, and just walking on stage you can tell they’re of a certain age. Luckily, she got away with that but was coached by the amazing Georgina Parkinson who just breathed every step with what she was thinking. David indicated that one of his greatest memories was seeing her in the role. “Peter was careful not to give me very young Romeos”. She did one performance at Covent Garden with Robert Hill of ABT who was fabulous and a bit older, but she got through Romeos like a dose of salts including Jonny Cope when he came back after his temporary retirement! She had wonderful tall Romeos so when you look up it makes you look young and vulnerable. Joe Cipolla was wonderful and it was a bit embarrassing as he was also doing it with Monica Zamora who was much younger!
Peter brought many ballets into the rep like Fall River Legendby Agnes de Mille. Marion didn’t know it and didn’t think she’d be involved but he said he’d brought it in for her which was fantastic. In her last couple of years, she had that and Anthony Tudor’s Pillar of Fire, another fantastic role which she didn’t know existed. She was sent a recording of her dress rehearsal at Covent Garden of Fall River Legend, and she recently saw The Suit (Ballet Black) for the first time and got so much out of it. It was fantastic and it reminded her a bit of Fall River Legend, such an intimate piece. David told the story of Alicia Alonso who visited Fall River when the ballet was first created to get into the character which she did so well that none of the other dancers would come near her. Marion was recently asked what sort of study would she do for narrative pieces? She did nothing and didn’t find the necessity - as long as you have a coach to explain the nitty gritty and thought processes, she believes it’s better to go it alone. Concerning Tudor’s Pillar of Fireshe’s a very screwed up woman, said Marion, but she had such fun in that ballet with Kevin O’Hare who kept her sane. Sallie Wilson created the role with Tudor but she was the hardest person ever to work with. Marion was 44 by then and this was a woman who made her cry in rehearsal, pushing her and saying you look better when you cry and get rid of all that stupid make-up. Was it deliberate to put Marion in that frame of mind? She said ‘I am doing my best, I didn’t ask for the role, please get someone else if you’d rather because I’m not making you happy and it’s not a pleasant experience for either of us’. But she said ‘see you tomorrow’ and that was that! It was terrible but got the desired effect.
The move to Birmingham and Peter’s departure. There’d been rumours which Marion hadn’t heard so when she was warming up for Filleone night in Oxford, and Peter said ‘there’s going to be an announcement tomorrow, we’re going to Birmingham and will you come?’. It was a complete surprise. They had done regular trips there and knew it well and David and she bought a house before the move. Then Peter announced he was leaving and everyone wondered who’d take over. We all felt that it had to be someone who understood the company and its history and they wondered about Galina. But David Bintley’s name hadn’t occurred to them but there was a huge sigh of relief when he was announced as he was one of them and he was a choreographer as well. Marion had been Ballet Mistress for a year shadowing the wonderful Anita Landa and Peter knew that this was something she wanted to do. She said yes, and had no regrets about stopping dancing at 45. David joined when she was still doing a bit of dancing while shadowing and he conducted interviews. Once he had the title there was a distance which was correct. He was talking about bringing back Hobson’s Choice and Marion asked ‘should I still do Maggie?’ to which David replied ‘I don’t think so, I think we can manage’! It was good that he said that and she made a clean break apart from character roles so she had the best of both worlds.
Highlights in Birmingham. The early years were fantastic – it was like a rejuvenation but a lovely end to her career as she had great roles but did nothing that was too much for her. She loved watching David create new works like Far From the Madding Crowd. He brought in great artists like Wolfie Stollwitzer, Sabrina Lenzi and Leticia Mueller. Being on the other side working with him and just being around someone you admire so much and will do anything for is terrific. Ballet Hoo was also wonderful. Although still touring they did have weeks at home. She soon realised that the job of ballet mistress wasn’t just about being in the studio, but you’re also the dancers’ confidante and someone they could turn to. She had lots of dancers coming to chat, some happy, some sad, and that was the best part of the job, learning to deal with situations like that. That was why, when David said unexpectedly, I’m going to make you my Assistant Director, Marion said oh no, I love my job and the sort of relationship I have with the dancers and I don’t want to lose that. He said there was no need to lose it, and although the title changed, she hopes she never lost that communication. She still told them to come and see her and she would try to advise. Her predecessor in the job was Desmond Kelly. They had a great relationship. As a partner he was fantastic and with him she didn’t have a care in the world. She did The Invitation with him. Desmond Doyle (the creator of the husband role) gave Marion some embarrassing moments as he decided to come to Oxford to teach her the pas de deux and made her hot under the collar! With Desmond Kelly she had huge trust in what he said in rehearsal. If something was going wrong, she needed to know why and what to do to put it right. Likewise, after a show if something wasn’t right some people would say don’t worry about it but he knew she would worry and would give her the reason why and that was what she needed. It’s all about the psychology and you would probably deal with someone else in a different way. After a show now Marion knows if the dancers want to hear the truth or if they need it packaging. When it comes to teaching Marion believes you have to have been there. Obviously it’s harder to teach roles that you’ve not danced yourself.
It’s now more than 14 years since they did Ballet Hoo. It was extraordinary. A year of every Sunday working with the kids. They had a staff meeting with David, Desmond, Marion and the technical people from Channel 4, and Youth at Risk were the other party involved in looking after and helping the kids, talking through problems, and tough love it certainly was. They explained what they wanted and settled on Romeo and Juliet and after an hour, Desmond said yes and Marion also agreed to take it on. Since then, several members of the Company have gone on to do more stuff with the young. It was a fantastic learning experience for us not to judge a book by its cover. They were kids she would be quite scared of if she met them in the street but talking to them and understanding why they feel so threatened and vulnerable you realise it all goes back a long way and as soon as the kids realised we could be trusted and the discipline was for a good reason to make them look good as a result, their trust built and built though there were always about ten missing at every rehearsal!. Marion feels it’s about time to have another go now. There are certainly people in the Company to take it on and Carlos, with his background, would be totally behind that sort of venture.
David’s retirement. Marion said it was very sad and they all shed a tear - and a little premature but times were difficult. He kept it very private and only told her five minutes before the Company knew. Then Carlos came. She had never met him or seen him dance except once from the wings when he threw himself on the floor after his exit which was quite contrary to what Marion had been taught to do! She said he has a wonderful sense of humour and they get on very well so her leaving was absolutely nothing to do with him. He has been so passionate and enthusiastic and determined about everything and what a nightmare year to take over. (Alan Yentob’s programme Imagine the previous evening about the state of the arts featured quite a lot of BRB). Carlos only saw a few Swan Lakes before COVID took over so he hadn’t got to know the Company. They sat and watched a couple of classes when he asked who one of the dancers was and Marion explained that he was a soloist who did principal roles and sometimes even people in the corps took leading roles if they were suitable which was a somewhat different mindset for Carlos. Then he was looking at people who weren’t dancing so much but she explained that as well as doing character roles and, apart from their dance work, they also do a lot else in the Company with education, and youth etc, and that BRB being a lean machine, every single member of the Company is worth having there.
Talking again about opportunities in a touring company, Marion said there were many more chances to perform although at Covent Garden, probably during Kenneth’s time, the younger dancers, like Darcey Bussell in Prince of the Pagodas, started to be given opportunities.
BRB changed when David took over and brought in people he’d worked with in other companies whereas it had been a company of people who had been principal for a long time. Marion said she didn’t recall any noses being put out of joint. The Company now has grown up from the corps to become principals which is the nice way and they’ve done many principal roles along the way.
Marion’s most rewarding experience coaching other dancers? People ask don’t you miss dancing and Marion says not at all. Sitting out front watching someone you’ve coached is the most rewarding thing. You get nervous and excited and it’s like having a child doing the first of anything. It’s always rewarding passing on Juliet because it’s what Georgina Parkinson passed on to Marion. Ballet Hoo was terrifically rewarding.
What is the best quality you found in yourself about being a teacher? Understanding having been there, compassion, never putting pressure on people to always do their best – Dancers always do anyway! She got very nervous, particularly in later years, before the curtain went up, and she recalled an American semi-contemporary piece when a woman came from the States to audition them and they had to roll on the floor and get up. Peter said she could go to the audition and she got the role, and the woman said I always give that role to anyone who really goes for it like you did. Before the curtain went up she could see Marion was getting in a nervous state, and she said ‘even if you don’t do the best ever done, it will still be good’ and that relieved the pressure. All dancers go on stage believing they have to do their best ever performance and that’s why after every Swan Lake performance, if it had gone well Marion was even more nervous the next time. She now assures the dancers they’re not robots, it’s a live performance, they’re trained to get out of difficulties if necessary, you just keep telling the story and don’t let the technique get in the way and don’t put extra pressure on yourself.
Sadly, we’d come to an end. David said how delightful it had been to listen to Marion’s reminiscences and we have all had enormous pleasure watching her over many years. We’ve so enjoyed the evening, and sent our love to David Morse, who many members remember on stage. We repeated our hope that she will continue as our President, to which Marion said if you want me, I am there and will help in any way – perhaps we can Zoom more often? David assured her she was really wanted!
Report written by Liz Bouttell and edited by Marion Tait and David Bain.
© The Ballet Association 2021