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    Gemma Bond 2022

    Gemma Bond

    Choreographer & Former First Artist, The Royal Ballet Ballet

    Interviewed by David Bain
    American International Church, Wed 27th July, 2022


    David welcomed Gemma to a joint meeting of the Ballet Association and British Friends of Ballet Nacional de Cuba (BFBNC), saying that it was 2003 when she was last our (BA’s) guest, around the time of her promotion to First Artist in the Royal Ballet.

    Gemma began by giving us a potted history of how she began dancing. She was very shy and her mum took her to class at a very young age as she thought a group activity would be helpful to get her used to being with other children. Apparently, Gemma would try to bribe her mum to give her something in return for going but finally her mum put her foot down, saying either you go or don’t, at which Gemma said she loved it and would carry on. Her mum didn’t know anything of the dance world so it was other parents and teachers who suggested the RAD or Royal Ballet summer schools and then teachers suggested she audition for the Royal Ballet School. She was accepted and went to White Lodge, then spent 18 months at the Upper School before going into the Royal Ballet. Her time at the Upper School was short because during the closure of the Opera House when the Company was moving around a lot, some dancers had left and found other opportunities, and they were short of dancers in the corps de ballet.  One day Natasha Oughtred and Gemma were in a pas de deux class with Jay Jolley and at the end he said tomorrow you will take class with the Company. They didn’t know why and thought it was maybe for a fill-in position. After the class Gemma went back to Barons Court, carried on with her lessons when Jay asked why she had left class – Anthony Dowell had wanted to offer her a contract with the Company but she’d disappeared! So, Gemma cleared her locker and joined the Company the next day.

    Her first year school performance was Giselle, and Gemma was Zulma, but by the following year she was already in the Company. It was bonkers because she didn’t graduate or receive a certificate as she didn’t complete the course, but she did have her contract. In her second year she had been working with BRB in Giselle and Nutcracker, spending from September to Easter mostly with them, so was expecting a place with BRB. The other four she used to travel with to Birmingham all got positions and Gemma was really disappointed, thinking it was terrible to be the only one not to get a job. But BRB must have known she would be joining the Royal when they returned to the Opera House in 2020.

    During her first few weeks in the Company they did Swan Lake which was her first full-length ballet and was terrifying. She was also in Firebird and recalled thinking she’d been doing pas de deux and solo work and now she was just skipping around and clapping - very different from what she imagined, but she was very excited. It was so nice to be in the studio with the people she had watched from afar like Sarah Wildor. It was strange as although she started with a bang she then went backwards. Little swans were her first solo role, then mirlatons because there was a shortage of smaller dancers so she was thrown on. Her next solo was Olga in Onegin. Initially her Lensky was Ivan Putrov, who was still in the corps, but for the shows she was with Johan Persson who had done the role before and as she was the newcomer in the group it seemed a better fit. With Ivan they were just giggling! She had a lot of confidence when she started as she didn’t realise what a big deal it was.  After Olga, she danced Clara. In one of her shows the tree failed to grow so she and Chris Saunders, her Drosselmeyer, spent a lot of time running around before the curtain was brought down! She also danced Princess Stephanie in Mayerling,first of all on tour in Russia. Jane Burn was injured, Gemma was the understudy and Jonny Cope, who had worked with her a bit before, said he would dance with Gemma although she’d only had one rehearsal. Then she started to learn it properly and performed with Carlos Acosta when it returned to the Opera House.

    Gemma was with the Royal a relatively short time before moving across the Atlantic in 2008. She explained that she had a very good relationship with Monica Mason, who was by then Director, and they spoke openly about her career and where she was going, what she enjoyed and what she didn’t want. She really is very grateful to Monica for her honesty as she could have carried on while becoming frustrated and maybe even bitter. One day she said she loved ballet so much but realised her strength lay more in character roles. In the Royal you do principal roles if you’re thought to be right for them which is quite unique. Monica said she didn’t see Gemma going past soloist, which was technically her ability. Her rep was fairies in The Dream, the young girls, the helpless princess which she thought was fine but said she would love to travel, be in a different country and maybe join ABT whose rep was similar so she wouldn’t miss out on anything. Monica said she could always come back as they valued her work so there were no secrets and Monica helped her audition for ABT where Kevin McKenzie gave her a contract. As a younger dancer she looked at ballets, wondering why she was always a friend when she wanted to be a harlot, and felt she was being typecast so wanted to branch out. Joining ABT Gemma didn’t give them a list of what she’d done though one after another she was cast in the exact same roles but for the first time really became comfortable with what she had to offer. Instead of looking for something else she found peace and became grateful for her talents, wanting to develop them more. In The Dream she was one of the lovers and absolutely loved it. The whole process was amazing and it was one of the best things she ever did. Then she was one of the Ugly Sisters in James Kudelka’s Cinderella,loving the theatrical elements and feeling very free. She stayed with ABT for 14 years.

    Choreography. Gemma’s first effort was in the school aged 13 when she made a pas de trois for the Kenneth MacMillan competition for herself, Sophie Biddel and Laura Bury, a romantic trio with sylph moments. Chris Wheeldon was on the panel with Deborah MacMillan. It was like an audition process, everyone created something, the panel selected who was showing talent, they worked on the pieces and performed them in a choreographic evening with a panel who awarded 1st, 2nd and 3rd prizes. You had to make a programme about your piece with relevant information but Gemma was so focussed of being a dancer and getting into a Company, and organising all this took a lot of her free time when she’d rather have been practising in the studio.

    While in the Royal, Gemma always wanted to see other choreographers’ works but was quite close-minded and didn’t even see choreography as an option but rather an exercise or a fun thing to do - in the end you could win a ticket to a show which she did and it was fantastic, but she never did it again. She felt she got lucky with that piece but wasn’t sure she had enough talent or desire to carry on. Her best days in the Company were in the studio creating with a choreographer but she also wanted to know what was happening elsewhere and was really excited by other forms of dance. When she was younger and really started loving dance, Gemma watched MGM musicals so a tap dance was really exciting, and seeing videos of Pina Bausch or Martha Graham was amazing so she enjoyed watching videos of other dance forms rather than just ballet. Her parents didn’t take her to the theatre, so her first experience of live performances was at the ballet school.

    Gemma’s interest in choreography grew after her move to the USA where ABT had a female choreographic initiative. They’d been given a grant for a class to encourage women to choreograph, it was all free and you weren’t tied in so could drop out at any time. She had more free time in ABT as they had five weeks of rehearsals, two weeks of shows and two weeks off, and an eight week block at the Met in the summer. It was a Monday when she wasn’t giving anything up so she signed up and really enjoyed it. Stephen Pier was teaching composition dance class at the Juilliard and he was asked to take the Monday class. They had two plus hours and would go through the various stages of choreography, theory, practising in the studio, do a little show and exercises for the next week. They talked about choreographers, the structure of music and many elements of choreography and they made a piece for the kids’ show with ABT when Gemma created a little pas de deux.  Then people would ask her to do little things, and it was always fun but she still didn’t think of being a choreographer.  When Alexei Ratmansky was working with them she felt more confident as a dancer to use her mind in rehearsals rather than just being a body and with her extra knowledge it all became more interesting. ABT started Choreographic Incubator, similar to Draft Works, which they auditioned for. Dancers made pieces, gave a panel their ideas, and they performed at the Lincoln Center. The first year Gemma was chosen and made a quartet, she was chosen again the next year when she made a piece for a group of six women and one man and again when she did a variation. She decided against doing it in the fourth year but they gave her a piece with ABT Studio Company and asked if they could show it in the ‘draft works’ programme. Diana Byer from New York Theater Ballet saw it and asked her to make a piece for her company and this was Gemma’s first commission. She was reviewed for the first time in the New York Times and really enjoyed showing the work but didn’t get any other commissions and wondered what would come next. Nobody knew who she was, she wasn’t a big name in the ballet but talking with corps de ballet dancers who have a long break in summer, unlike principals and soloists who are guesting everywhere, they suggested she make something for them so they could put on a show. She asked Diana Byer, who’s really been her mentor, if she thought Gemma could do it and Diana agreed and said she’d help. She made contact with Dancespace at St Mark’s Church and Gemma made three ballets for an evening show there. It was bananas as the New York Times came and people asked for a ticket as they would love to review it. She had nothing to lose and they performed for an audience of 80. From then on, the Joyce Theater heard about her and contacted Gemma to say they were doing their summer festival introducing new choreographers and would love to give her three days to do her own show so she created new pieces for that. At that time Kevin McKenzie had asked her to choreograph a pas de deux for the Eric Bruhn competition where Liam Scarlett had also made something for Frankie Hayward and James Hay. Neither of them won but at the end of the evening Liam walked away with three commissions and Gemma none! Then a few months later Gennadi Nedvigin at Atlanta Ballet contacted her to say Liam had spoken to him about her work which he’d love to see and he then offered her a commission for Atlanta Ballet.

    By the time she was offered the commission for Havana, Gemma had gone freelance and stopped dancing. While with ABT, she created for Atlanta Ballet, did some commercial work, made a piece for New York Theater Ballet, another for Julie Kent at Washington Ballet and ABT Studio for their piece at the Linbury and every time she had to ask for time off. Kevin said it had been OK as she’d been able to continue her corps work as well but others were asking to do the same and he couldn’t make one rule for one and one for another so she would need to decide whether to choreograph or stay dancing. He had already asked her for a work for the main company in the fall and as she had a child by then it seemed the right time to transition. Also, she’d become a bit stubborn, didn’t want to do variations and was a little nervous so, with other things going on at the time, it was definitely the right moment. She and David met in 2019 when the studio company were here performing as part of International Draft Works and BFBNC offered her a commission to do a work for BNC for the 2020 festival in Havana. Then Covid hit so it didn’t happen, it was still not possible in 2021 but they finally started work on it in January this year and it was premiered on Good Friday.

    (Here we had a break to watch the 25 minute film of Gemma’s ballet La Hora Novena.)

    Gemma then spoke at length about her experience of working with BNC and the inspiration for the ballet. She expressed a great love of the music of the Bach St Matthew Passion but, not being religious herself, initially had doubts about using it. The premier was to be on Good Friday and the music itself had been premiered on Good Friday 15 April 1727, so it seemed to tie in. Gemma translated the words which meant something to her so she decided to use it and is very happy that she did. Then how to use it in a concept for the piece. David had explained to her about the company and their experience, or lack of, working with choreographers, Gemma had seen what Cathy Marston had done with her last piece and knew she wanted to make something abstract, taking the biblical text and words from the score and then create movement out of it. There were no actual characters but you could connect a dancer to a voice and text. She didn’t want to be disrespectful but you can see some kind of story in it. In January, Gemma went to Havana and work-shopped with the dancers. It’s very unique as the director of the company doesn’t tell them they have to be part of it, if you are interested you can turn up which was a new concept to her. A lot of people came and she didn’t know them so had no idea of ranking, no expectations of how they would move and who was number one and number two. It was nice as she just decided who she liked but it was a challenge as for example she loved Brian Gonzalez and created the male variation on him and then he left which was disappointing. Channel Cabrera was great but had also left by the time Gemma returned in March and Chavela Riera was injured, so she lost dancers for various reasons and just as she was breaking through someone else would go. Everything was a little more challenging there. There were no doors in the studio and you heard the noise, wind, rain, traffic, people walking past so there was no privacy and it was really hard to keep the dancers’ attention with so much competition. Also, they were masked which was another challenge but it was very rewarding and she’s never cried so much while saying goodbye and after the last show she couldn’t speak but was so happy. Her movement seems classical and regular, not avant garde or contemporary, but because it is classical ballet with an adapted port de bras, the arms are looser and try to tell the story, so they aren’t classical but the legs are. It was almost harder for the Cubans as they had to break down what they knew well rather than doing something completely different so it took a while for them to get the feel and adjust to it. Their performance quality is high and they thrive with an audience but she didn’t know that until she experienced it. Seeing them in rehearsal and then on stage was completely different and they took everything to the next level. In January they didn’t have the designs but back in New York Gemma worked with designers Reid and Harriet where the designs came from statues with biblical references, they took images of famous statues, blew them up and printed them on fabric and made unitards. They tied in really well to the text and score but watching the ballet you may not have made the connection. Gemma thought them extremely elegant and the dancers were very much vessels rather than being characters. She made several choreographic changes between January and March including reducing the cast from 16 to 10 dancers. Why? She felt that, although they’d all had the same training, they were very different as dancers – their shapes, their intent with the movements – and she was having trouble seeing the large corps as a unit. She’d focus on one and then another rather than thinking of them as a group and it became overwhelming trying to think how to unify them. Also, the music and narrative were so big, and it needed to be pulled in somehow. Gemma felt a more intimate cast would be better, and was happier to have more casts doing the same part. Also, it was so big with the chorus, soloists and live music, that it was terrifying and a lot for her to handle and she’s really happy she made the changes which seemed to work. David mentioned the music was amazing but a logistical nightmare. The chorus was from Holguin, the other end of the island from Havana, as the local opera company were performing Fidelio the week before and after so had no time to rehearse. The tenor was also from Holguin though the bass-baritone, soprano and mezzo were part of the Havana opera company. The bass-baritone was blind and was walked on and off stage by the tenor, the principal conductor was also involved with Fidelio so instead they had Idalgel Marquetti,who is principally the person in charge of the music for the ballet and was brilliant, coming to rehearsals and watching so some of the tempo was correct when it went on stage.

    Gemma had intended to have a Spanish-speaking assistant with her but because of Covid there were visa issues and he couldn’t come at the last minute so she only had Linett Gonzalez, the ballet mistress, as her assistant and she was fantastic. Gemma stayed with her in her family home and was with her every day in the studio.  They got on really well and Linett, who was an amazing communicator, understood what Gemma was trying to do with the dancers and Gemma felt they were on the same team. At a time when the dancers were getting frustrated because she was changing things, Linett took it on herself to intervene and talked to them on the side. Later, one of the dancers told Gemma that Linett had explained it’s a process, things change, we’re work-shopping ideas and want it to be really good. When Gemma spoke to one of the dancers at the end they said when you don’t know someone’s process it’s as if you’re on a long drive without knowing your destination and wonder how much longer till you arrive. They were anxious as they didn’t know their destination which wasn’t the way they normally learned and worked on something, but with Gemma they would learn something which she would then change and they found it frustrating. Finally, they said they were really happy for the journey and would like to do another piece as now they could enjoy the journey knowing the end result would be good. David mentioned one male dancer who caused Gemma a lot of problems but was in love with her until she moved him from first to second cast! She explained that he was missing for many days and it was a crunch time. There were frustrations on either side. They were allotted studio time for rehearsal, then rehearsal with orchestra and then rehearsal with the singers, then they found out they’d lose two days on stage so they were a bit nervous of getting everyone together. There was a chorus of 16 plus 4 soloists as well as the orchestra and dancers so a huge team and it was difficult to make sure everyone was on the same page. The work will be performed again on 5 November as part of the 2022 Festival and there will again be changes before then as some dancers have left. There were five performances this April instead of the planned seven as they were pushed out by a visiting Mexican group, brought by the First lady of Mexico. Only two of the second cast got on in the second week, as the pas de deux lady in the second cast sprained her ankle a day before her performance. 

    In thanking Gemma, David said she plans to be there in time to help Linett to put the ballet back on stage in October. Hopefully there’ll be the chance for British Friends to see more of Gemma’s and Cathy Marston’s work and a film show later in the year.

    In thanking Gemma for joining us tonight, David said it was an enormous pleasure to talk to her and it had been an amazing experience for him to watch her from the start to the finish of her creation.

    Report written by Liz Bouttell and edited by Gemma Bond and David Bain.

    © The Ballet Association 2022