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    Edward Watson 2022

    Edward Watson

    Répétiteur& Former Principal, The Royal Ballet Ballet

    Interviewed by David Bain
    American International Church, Mon 05th July, 2022


    David welcomed Ed who’d been busy dancing recently as well as doing his job as repetiteur, particularly for Mayerling. He has been in Tokyo at the posh-sounding Super Stars Gala, dancing with Natalia Osipova, and performing a solo made for him by Arthur Pita especially for these three performances. When he retired over a year ago, he said he wouldn’t dance any more as a principal at the Royal Ballet but it was nice to be dancing again and trying out things he’d not done before. Nearly all the performers were over 40 – Manuel Legris who’s in his 50s, a couple of dancers from Paris Opera, Helena Granta (a flamenco dancer) amongst others as well as Marianela Nunez and Vadim Muntagirov, so it was a mixed programme with different personalities doing things they’d not done before or things they weren’t known for.  Arthur also made a new duet for Ed and Natasha to Witney Houston’s I Wanna Dance with Somebody, and they did a Wayne McGregor piece called Ambra which he made for Natasha and Ed about 10 years ago. Beforehand Ed was involved with Men in Motion for one night. Ivan Putrov had invited him to mark 10 years of Men in Motion and when he’d done it before he used it as an opportunity to commission new pieces from different people including Javier de Frutos and Arthur, so he thought it was a good opportunity to have something made for him at 46 years old. The idea came from the character Sheila in A Chorus Line – an older dancer who’s done it all which is how Ed felt! It seemed a good idea in the kitchen at 10 pm but then he found himself doing it! It was good to be outside his comfort zone again but a bit scary, doing something he never thought he would. There’s nothing else confirmed for the future though a couple of ideas floating around. He made a short film with the Ballet Boyz nearly a year ago which is still being edited, a book of photos is coming out from a photographer he’s worked with over the years. Ed is also involved in modelling. It seems strange to be doing this at his age but nice to be asked to be creative with other people’s ideas making clothes or pictures come to life rather than live performing. It’s surprising to him that he’s doing it but it feels fine. Asked how it began, Ed said it was for a feature to sell a show which the Opera House asked him to do and he did have a body of work with different photographers. It was in the middle of the first lock-down in 2020, he worked with a photographer for GQ in Vienna, then they signed him to the agency and work comes up occasionally and if he feels like doing it, he will.


    Mayerling. Ed’s first involvement with the ballet had been as one of the officers in the 2000/1 revival when it had been out of the rep for ages. He first saw the ballet in 1992 when he just joined the Upper School, previously he’d only seen photos. As a student he was fascinated by it. Manon, Romeo and Juliet, Fille Mal Gardée were on all the time so they were excited to see something different and Ed went all the time, fascinated by the story and the amazing pas de deux. In his first performance Johan Kobborg and Alina Cojacaru were the leads. He was really happy to be part of something so completely new, or almost new, to everyone in the cast, so there was quite a buzz around this experience. At the next revival he was still an officer and by the following one he’d become a principal. Monica Mason said he wouldn’t have much to do for a couple of months but after that he’d be doing Rudolf so he’d have a long time to work on it. Asked how he prepared, Ed said he watched the three-hour South Bank documentary on the making of Mayerling with the original creators talking about how and why they did something with footage of them working it out in the studio, Nicholas Georgiadis talked about designs and Gillian Freeman about what she would do with the story, so it was a fascinating insight. Monica Parker, the notator, was putting it on in Vienna and suggested Ed go to watch. It was nice to have plenty of preparation time. Then it was about learning the steps, doing background homework to find how the people looked and their relationships. It makes sense once you dance it and you just have to do what’s there. Although not easy it was more straightforward than he’d expected. You are normally partnered with one or two ballerinas but it is rare to be partnered with seven so it’s quite different. He was with particularly brilliant women who knew what they were going to do with those characters. There wasn’t a lot of discussion but rather just getting on with the work and making the choreography look right and through that the relationships are revealed. His first performance was with Mara Galeazzi as Mary, Sarah Lamb as Larisch, Cindy Jordain as Elizabeth, Iona Loots as Stephanie, Gillie Revie or Laura Morera as Mitzi. His first performance was an Easter Monday 12.30 matinee and Ed recalled waking up and thinking he wasn’t ready! He only did about 10 or 12 performances, spread over a long time, but he does remember his last.


    Working as repetiteur for Mayerling, Ed said he didn’t want to tell the dancers what they should do as they need to have their own process of learning, while encouraging them to show what’s going on, what they’re thinking and why they did something in a certain way. There is so much that has to be exactly right but there’s also so much scope to do something with those roles. You don’t say don’t do that, but rather think again, have another go and find a better way. David mentioned one Rudolf talked about being reactive rather than planning what to do. Ed agreed that is the way the ballet is set up. Everyone around Rudolf wants something and cares little except for what they can get from him so Ed advises them to respond to what people are doing. David wondered how Ed helps an individual dancer to stay in role in a hard ballet where it might be easy to concentrate on partnering rather than being the character.  Ed had only worked with Ryoichi Hirano and Marcelino Sambé who were very involved. Technically you have to know the grips in partnering and you have to make sure everything works, being true to the steps. Then they can stay in character. Both Ryo and Marcie were completely invested in it and watching them Ed felt carried along with the story. They are two very different dancers. Ryo has done the role before as well as with Scottish Ballet and wanted to find something else within the ballet, while Marcie was brand new so there were different challenges. In terms of size Marcie is smaller but probably the stronger. Ed doesn’t have a choice as to who he works with but tries to get the best out of whoever is dancing. Sometimes he’s coaching on his own and sometimes on Mayerlingwith Leanne Benjamin or Zenaida Yanowsky. It’s great to get help with the women and to work as a team with all the characters and roles and particularly to have direct knowledge from someone who has done the role a lot. The pas de deux look incredibly complicated, particularly those with Mary, but the ballerina does most of the work and looking at it she does a lot of crawling around on him.  It was made on Lyn Seymour and David Wall and their particular proportions and how they managed each other but except for one which is a bit tricky those pas de deux are the ones that happen the easiest. Then it’s about rehearsing a lot as to who does what and when. The lifts are incredible but a lot is about her working hard and clinging on to Rudolf who dances with everyone. Ed has great memories of them all, and particularly fond memories of dancing with Mara as they’ve known each other so long having grown up together with these ballets. Ed had only ever danced Mayerling and Manon with Mara until she retired. She had done the ballets by the time he came along and he learned so much from her as she guided him through the experience. Natasha was new, and Frankie Hayward was new so then it was his turn to help them through.


    Asked when Ed knew he was to become a repetiteur, he said he told Kevin O’Hare that he wanted to stop dancing while they were in Tokyo before going on to Los Angeles to open Inferno. He was in his 40s and felt he was ready to do something else. He’d already helped the Romeos, a bit with Mayerling in Stuttgart, and English National Ballet with Song of the Earth and enjoyed that different way of still being within the work. Kevin asked if he would like to take on the work here and Ed agreed but it took longer to retire and take over the job because of the pandemic. His first commission was on Romeo. It’s very different as you’re suddenly telling your colleagues and friends you’ve grown up with for 20 years what to do and that doesn’t always go down well! You have to stick with what you know is right and the potential to achieve. As Ed was still dancing it was hard being everything to everybody – working with Wayne, getting a new dancer on in Romeo as well as looking after himself. Different voices speak to different people in different ways, so some people will like getting information from Ed and others will prefer another person. Officially Ed’s done the role for just over a year. His job is to get the best out of the person in front of him and ensure the ideals of the choreographer are still there. He encourages the dancers to have their own thoughts and ideas but he has to make sure the right steps happen on the music and at the right time. It’s a fine line between being quite tough on what is right and wrong while encouraging and trying something else if it doesn’t work so it’s a conversation until you get to the reality of the steps and story. Sometimes a dancer will surprise him. He’ll question what made someone do that then which is completely opposite to Ed’s idea but he’ll say it’s your way now so try it. You watch something familiar and it is looks completely new so it’s very important to let people be brave and try it out.


    Asked if he coaches roles he hasn’t performed Ed said yes – Nutcracker, Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty – and they present different challenges. He has no personal experience but has watched them a lot and knows what looks right. Chris Saunders, Sasha Agadzhanov and Olga Evreinoff all coach roles they haven’t danced. Are coaching classical roles different from Macmillan? Ed said Macmillan is still based on classical ballet but he uses it to say something different. You know the steps of Sleeping Beauty but they don’t drive the narrative whereas the genius of Macmillan is that he uses the steps to tell those amazing stories and push the boundaries of what the classical language can say.


    Ed first worked with Wayne McGregor in 1999 when they’d just moved back into the Royal Opera House after a couple of years’ closure. Deborah Bull was looking for things to put on in the Clore and had the idea of ‘Outside In’ to bring choreographers from outside and using Royal Ballet dancers. She was on a programme in a musical in Brick Lane with Wayne, invited Ed to come and watch, saying he moves incredibly and I’m thinking of asking him to make something - would you be interested? They worked on Symbiont(s) in their lunch breaks, evenings and at night, a group of younger people wanting something new. It was a great, positive experience with a different outlook and a different view. The amazing thing about working with Wayne was that he didn’t want to change you or ballet, he worked with what he had in front of him and his ideas of the possibilities of those bodies and you felt part of it. That appealed to Ed, being part of something they’d not done before though now it feels mainstream. They were part of making a new language - two different styles coming together and making something different. After Symbiont(s), they did a piece in the Linbury with Wayne’s own company and, after Monica took over, his first piece on the main stage was Qualia. Then came Chroma at a very interesting time because it was Monica re-establishing where the Royal Ballet is right now, on a programme with Chris Wheeldon’s DGV and Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments. Ed was in all three, making two new ballets at the same time plus one he’d not seen before. It was a lot of work but a really great time to be involved. There was a cast of younger principals like Tamara Rojo, Alina Cojacaru, Sarah Lamb, Federico Bonelli and Lauren Cuthbertson so a lot who were starting to do featured roles and it felt like an exciting moment and the works are still in the rep so it was a real investment. Lots of choreographers are nervous starting out when different dancers and companies can be quite intimidating so you see a lot of the same dancers in their works which gives them the familiarity. There’s an understanding of the movement and who you are and what you can bring. Wayne and Ed have enjoyed an amazing relationship over 20 years, with more than 20 pieces so it’s a lifetime of work and something Ed is very proud of, being associated with that body of work whether or not it was a success. Wayne works in different ways - sometimes driven by the music, or a story, or it’s an idea that the music has made him feel. He will give you a task based on an idea and ask what you can do with it but sometimes you’re like a sculpture – he says put you head this way or that. There’s always a different challenge and dynamic and you have no idea when you go into the studio what’s going to happen so it’s exciting and a surprise to find out what will happen this time. Wayne has just premiered the Margaret Attwood trilogy in Canada. It’s a co-production between us and the National Ballet of Canada but he wanted to open it there first as Attwood is such a Canadian icon.


    Woolf Works was Wayne’s first full length ballet for the Company. They weren’t sure how it would be put together although they knew the first act was Mrs Dalloway, the second Orlando and the third was Waves. They worked quite a lot with Usma Hameed, the dramaturg, who explained that she and Wayne had discussed a lot about how to weave all the characters together, where they fitted into Virginia’s life and how autobiographical it was. It was interesting to watch Wayne putting it all together. There are scenes with Ed’s character and Virginia Woolf as herself and not Mrs Dalloway, and how she wrote about the character being similar to her experience.



    The role of dramaturg. Wayne had worked with Usma on Raven Girl. Obsidian Tearand Dante as well as Woolf Works. She and Wayne talked about which stories would make good ballets, what he’s thinking, what she has read and how it might work in terms of telling the story, or just to get an idea of the story matter. They worked very closely with the lighting designer and set designer and she pulled the ideas together.

    Alessandra Ferri. Before they started Wayne said he was going to New York to see her in a show she was doing. He came back saying she was amazing and he’d asked her to be in Woolf Works.  She had left the Royal Ballet in the 1980s before Ed joined. At first, he didn’t know if he would be dancing with her but in the end it was a real joy to do so as he never thought he’d get the chance since she’d retired. It was an amazing experience from which he learned a lot. They are great friends now, living not far from each other and meet all the time.


    Dante. In the first act he is the only real, live person. It was important to get it right to show the grounding of Dante’s experiences when he’s exposed to them for the first time, sometimes watching, sometimes being involved, sometimes being told. The first act seemed very complete when they premiered it in Los Angeles. Then Ed read more and spoke to Wayne about the background. The idea of the second act is like a waiting room with a view to an outside you can’t get to. That made sense, particularly as it worked alongside the pandemic, when they were dancing at home, wondering if they’d ever get out. Wayne didn’t change anything in Inferno as he was busy making two further acts so had a lot to deal with. It’s hard with a new three act ballet because whoever is making it moves on and three weeks later you can’t remember what you did three acts ago! It had been a while since they performed it so it was almost like a whole new piece for the dancers to remember, with the studios being filled with people remembering different things from different acts.  Ed wasn’t involved with Tacita Dean on the artwork side. Because of the pandemic their work had been finished and was ready to go by the time any steps had been choreographed for Acts II and III, so it was probably good for Wayne to be able to work from that point. As a performer these atmospheric things normally come quite late. You only get the orchestra three or four days beforehand, you don’t see the set till you’re on stage. Dante might come back before the new ballet comes in.


    The pandemic affected all of them. It was horrible and frustrating but there was a sense of relief that they all stayed healthy while people lost their lives. It was tiring trying to keep going in the kitchen, but an amazing sense of family with the 10.30 class on Zoom so you still felt part of something that they would all get through. Those couple of hours in the morning was something familiar while everything else was unknown. Ed found it difficult to keep going in his 40s knowing he was about to give up but he had a strong sense that he wanted to complete this thing he had started. Completion was important to him and he only considered for a few minutes not going on with it.


    Ed’s first involvement with Arthur Pita was on Metamorphosis,an amazing production. Arthur wrote to Ed saying he had an idea he wanted to talk to him about. Ed thought it seemed a really good idea so why not. He approached Deborah Bull about doing it at the Linbury and she agreed so they started work on it in 2011, during the summer holiday every day for six weeks, and they still didn’t know if it would be any good. After the first preview they knew it was OK! Arthur’s way of choreographing is very story led. And a lot of it comes from discussion within the cast when everybody has an opinion on what they should be doing and everyone’s ideas are considered. It’s incredible to see how it comes to life when you think it won’t. He has a completely individual way of thinking, what he finds funny or emotional or what he draws from his own experiences are always unexpected and it’s a complete joy to go along with him. In the role Ed was covered with brown slime (treacle). It’s a horrible experience going from being smart at the beginning to being degraded and disgusting and people needed to be shocked so that complete transformation had to be shown. Apparently, the treacle brought cockroaches into the theatre in New York after their two-week run!


    Chris Wheeldon he’s known since they were at White Lodge together. He first choreographed Ed in Tryst as one of the four couples. He is different every time, both he and Wayne are ultra-organised knowing the counts of the music, he’ll start on something and then work all night on what it’s triggered and his brain never switches off, looking to what comes next. He’s very musical and works closely with the score. With a commission he works very closely with the composer, and especially since he’s been directing more you can see it in his work - he’s all over every aspect of it.  He’s very collaborative, very open, you can suggest ideas and he’ll say show me. Sometimes it’s a flat ‘no’ but he’s never closed to an idea though he did once say to Ed can you just do one of my steps? You know when to shut up! The White Rabbit is a dual role, in the prologue you’re Lewis Carroll, then you come out of the rabbit hole half-rabbit and it develops further. It’s his way of putting together people from Alice’s everyday life into the fantasy world that these people become within her dream-like world. He wasn’t going to be a sweet bunny. Ed hates being late so put a lot of that into the role. Everyone expected him to be the Mad Hatter as he’d done so many mad roles but it was nice to do something different and tap is not his thing. He had never seen or read A Winter’s Talebut knew what it was about and wondered however Chris was going to do it all. When he did read it, he discovered the language was so difficult and no clue as how to read or follow it and with so many of Shakespeare’s works people talk about what happens off stage, you don’t see the action or how people feel about it or what they saw. It took a long time to get through that but then some actors from the National Theatre came in and read parts which changed everything so they got the rhythm of the language which was really helpful. It was quite an experience working through how to tell that story. It had to be physical and how do you show jealousy without words and create a situation? The work is still very classical and it’s very specific. Chris is very clever and Ed and he worked very closely on it, the closest ever, with proper discussion between the two of them constantly working together. The first act is very physical and long and there’s a lot of story to tell but the whole point of the story is that the jealousy doesn’t make sense, it’s completely irrational and there’s no build-up to when he just snaps. When he first did it, Ed felt it was important to show that but a lot of people didn’t like it so he took the edge of it and tried to find moments in the first scene where he changed the physicality a bit. He’s proud of the work they did on it and pleased they stuck by it. Chris talked to Nicholas Hytner, who has a deep knowledge of Shakespeare, and Bob Crowley who did the designs and they were an amazing team who made it into the ballet.


    Reverting to his childhood Ed said he went to class once a week at the village hall with his twin sister. He did an exam and the examiner told his teacher and his mum that he should be sent to the Royal Ballet School to audition. They asked him if he wanted to and he said OK. He doesn’t recall making a big decision that he wanted to do it but was happy to go along and in doing it he grew to love it. White Lodge has lots of happy memories and difficult memories, leaving home at the age of 11 not knowing anyone or when you will see your family, but you’re driven to be really good at this thing you love and you’re surrounded by 20 others in the same situation so you become each other’s family and competitors. It is an amazing group he grew up with - some have gone to do other things and others are still dancing. In Tokyo last week he met a White Lodge friend he’d not seen for 25 years and they chatted like kids again. It was an incredible experience and from a balletic viewpoint the training was unbelievable and taught you everything you needed to become a top dancer. In the school performance they did a lot of character dances. For graduation he did Monotones II, and the pas de six from Manon. Moving to the Upper School they went from living in the middle of Richmond Park to turning up in Hammersmith with lots of international students and sharing the building with the Royal Ballet company, seeing people they idolised and what they looked like up close so it was a new and exciting experience. It’s different now as they’re not in the same building, there’s so much history in that building, there were lots of ballets created there and it was a special time. As a student Ed performed a few times with the company and at the end of his graduate year he did Nutcrackerand Romeo and Juliet, and just before joining he was in La Valse and Daphnis and Chloe. He knew in the July that he would get a contract but didn’t join until December because contracts weren’t available until then so they had to stay another term. The company wanted to give them jobs so didn’t want them to go auditioning elsewhere.


    After joining the company, he did La Valseand Daphnis and Chloe as the Ravel programme was still on. Then Sleeping Beauty was his first ballet as a proper member of the company when he danced the mazurka in Act III.


    What stands out from his early years is all the amazing principals – Darcey Bussell, Jonny Cope, Irek Mukhamedov, Deborah Bull, Bruce Sansom, Sylvie Guillem, Miyako Yoshida - such individual personalities who could make the same role look different. He felt overwhelmed at the amount of work you had to learn quickly. If you don’t have your own place you have to learn everybody’s place so you can fit in at short notice. Exciting, scary and slightly overwhelming are his recollections.


    Highlights. Working on Dance Bites tours when Ashley Page would make a new piece and he got to be in it. The younger ones were quite often sent out on the tour. It was a great experience to be working with a choreographer and being on stage in a featured role quite a lot. When the Opera House closed that continued and Ed had a couple of big breaks when they were at Sadler’s Wells. Ashley’s work was very of the moment and it was exciting to be involved with the group.


    Questions: Will you do the Men in Motion piece again? They thought it would be funny for one night only. It was the first thing Ed had done on stage since retirement so a way to make a comeback. If there’s a good reason then it could be done again. It was terrifying but with a buzz at the same time. It’s about doing lots of things he’d not done before. They found the costume at a Halloween store in Soho, and tried to make it fit and the story fitted around it.


    Any big role he’d like to do? No, Ed said he was very lucky to have done everything that he did and was well guided by Directors who put him in things that were right for him at the time even if they didn’t all work. He never asked to do anything but Requiem which he finally got after Kevin took over. He loved the very different things he did and doesn’t feel he missed out.


    How do you coach alongside another coach? You teach and watch and whoever has the first bit of advice chips in. They would make plan about what they should get out of the rehearsal and perhaps run the first act for stamina. They see what happens on the technical side and stop the dancers if they need to. They do generally agree and think about things the same way and it’s been pretty straightforward.


    Does Ed do class every day? He did nothing from October to January when he started going to the gym and a spin class. It would have been very easy to carry on but his body needed a rest after 30 years. He does a bit of Pilates, and more class work and barre if preparing for a performance and just work towards a particular role.


    David thanked Ed for giving us a fascinating evening. The Association had offered Ed a present on his retirement from dancing. Ed suggested that the money should be given to students, so it has been shared between our three 2022 award winners at the Royal Ballet School.


    David gave enormous thanks to Ed for coming. We have all followed his career with great enjoyment. Some past principals will have been very jealous at the amount of work created on him. It’s wonderful to have watched him and we all wish him well in his new role. The Royal Ballet is enormously lucky to have someone like him to pass on their knowledge.


    Report written by Liz Bouttell and edited by Edward Watson and David Bain.

    © The Ballet Association 2022