Iain Webb & Margaret Barbieri 2023
- Alexander Campbell
- Amelia Townsend
- Annette Buvoli
- Carlos Acosta
- Christopher Powney
- Iain Webb
- Isabella Gasparini
- Laura Morera
- Liam Boswell
- Madison Bailey
- Margaret Barbieri
- Nadia Mullova-Barley
- Ryoichi Hirano
- Sarah Lamb
Iain Webb & Margaret Barbieri
Director & Assistant Director, The Sarasota Ballet
Interviewed by David Bain
Zoom, Tue 11th July, 2023
David welcomed our guests by saying how pleased we were to have them with us to which Iain reciprocated by saying they were also excited to join us. They began by telling us about Sarasota Ballet and what they are bringing to London next year as part of an Ashton celebration. Iain said Kevin O’Hare invited them for the opening of this four or five year celebration. They had put on a national festival in 2014 although Iain doesn’t claim to be a good director as he works from the heart rather than looking at the whole picture. They had been to Denmark for the second Bournonville Festival and although they knew they couldn’t achieve anything on that scale he was excited at the idea putting it all together. He then got a message saying the box office had heard from Richard Bonning who would like tickets for the festival. Unbelievable! Then the panic set in but he thought Maggie could work her magic. He had a passion for it and felt it was something he really wanted to do. Fortunately, it was a success and had an amazing response whereas if it had gone wrong that could have been the end for the company. Maggie said it was quite something putting ballets together with the orchestra, but the dancers enjoyed it as well as the audiences. This time round Iain asked Kevin if they could bring over some of the company and do, say, Symphonic Variations.They talked through the process and what it would entail and when Iain mentioned the Linbury, Kevin replied that they were going to invite them to come over and perform some of the lesser known works there alongside the main company on stage. Suddenly it was all happening - it was fantastic of Kevin and very generous – and Maggie, Iain and Joseph Volpe were thrilled but a bit nervous and anxious. The last few years the company has changed a lot and now has a very strong foundation, though it was a struggle at the beginning when Iain likened it to taking wallpaper off the wall and finding no wall behind. Now suddenly the Board talked about extending his contract for another 10 years by which time he’ll be 74! He came to the UK to chat to Anthony Dowell who was a big inspiration. His first few years at Sarasota Maggie wasn’t there so he’d ring Anthony who was a great help. He asked what Anthony thought about them coming to the Linbury with some Ashton’s ballets. Was it coals to Newcastle? They talked through ideas and Anthony said Iain had just done Varii Capricciat the Joyce Theater in New York which went down very well so go for it. They’ll be performing works the Royal hasn’t done for a very long time which will please the Ashton fans enormously, said David. Sarasota have a lot of his works but that wasn’t the original intention. When he took over he wanted to get into the studio. A few years before, they staged Two Pigeons in Japan for Tetsuya Kumakawa so brought it to Sarasota with a Balanchine work. They recalled the difficulties to get the dancers to understand so they worked on it constantly, gradually adding more as there was no schooling and people now come for the training. When he teaches them he asks what is the British ballet alphabet – A is for Ashton, B is for bend – so they know that now.
Maggie spoke about the ballets they’ll be bringing saying it would be a variety and mentioned Valses Nobles. She was pregnant when Sir Fred was working on it with Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet. Iain was in it and loved working with Sir Fred. It’s a beautiful piece and very atmospheric. She describes it being in an incredible dance hall and recalled visiting such a place on Regent Street with ferns in plant boxes and the whole atmosphere was very special and moody, with people coming in to dance or just for tea. That’s really like Valses when people come in with one partner and leave with another and the leading lady is chased by all the men. The ending is beautiful and Sophie Fedorovic’s incredible designs and the Ravel music make it an altogether gorgeous piece. They’ll also bring Dante Sonata another incredible piece, which is very special to Iain. It was due to be in their schedule when Covid intervened but they brought it back and Iain loved every second of it watching the rehearsals with such energy and surprisingly bare feet so very different from Sir Fred’s usual work. Unbelievably the audience response shocked him - they loved and couldn’t get enough of it. The dancers loved it too and Maggie would come in and they’d be like a blank canvas waiting to absorb it all like sponges. Grant Coyle helps out with the notation, also Christopher Carr and Lynn Wallace have helped and Anthony came out for The Dream. Iain feels lucky that the dancers are so hungry to do these works. Maggie agreed and said they also have a great variety of other choreographers - Balanchine, Robbins, Tharp - together with other new works so they have a wonderful feast of ballet but still they love the Ashton.
Their dancers come from all over the place. They hold auditions, and are currently planning more in New York and Sarasota, and sometimes they are approached. Last year Victoria Hulland retired. They heard from Marianela Nunez about an Argentine dancer Macarena Gimenez who came with recommendations from everyone. She and her husband joined them last year and she’s been a great success. Some of the principals have been with them for 16+ years, then there’ve been retirements, babies or moves elsewhere. Another principal is hopefully lined up as things change and evolve. They have a couple of dancers from the Royal Ballet School, English National Ballet School and School of American Ballet. Iain admitted to hating the audition process having been spoilt by getting into the school and company without going through all that. They get 600 applications for a handful of places and it depresses him that there are lots of people being trained but no jobs or they’re just unhappy. You have to decide on their future in that two hour period, looking out for quality, technique, and personality. He tells them it’s only one person’s opinion and everyone looks for different things. Some lovely dancers have come from Ballet West and Miami City ballet schools and they’ve risen to challenges in the first year and are now getting opportunities. In England there’s the ranking system of corps, coryphee, soloists etc but in the US sometimes that’s not the case. They do have ranking but they try to open it up so there’s no obligation on choreographers or people staging works to use certain dancers for certain roles. Iain remembered Hans Von Manen (91 today) coming to Sadler’s Wells in his Armani flying suit! Iain was learning the lead in Five Tangos but it took five years before he got to dance it. Here they learn it all so they are ready when called and sometimes have three or more casts. Maggie likes to see what everyone, and not just the first cast, is doing so they do try to give everyone opportunities and all the dancers know they will be watched. Their rep is extensive which can be a disadvantage but they have different choreographers from the past to today. They do six programmes in the season but only three performances of each. The difficulty is not having their own theatre but where they perform is small but beautiful and is actually the old opera house from Dunfermline. They have to bid against the opera’s dark weekends to get in, set up and get out again. There is a ‘purple theatre on the sea’ but it’s $65,000 to hire and they can’t use it next year because Hamilton is coming in and they’re kicked out. So, the limitations on performances are because of lack of their own space.
Maggie talked about her Ashton works including Facade and Sinfonietta. She loved working with Sir Fred and recalled Faith Worth teaching them The Dream. Marion Tait and she learned Titania and they were told to choose which version of the port de bras they liked but when Sir Fred came to rehearse he said to Maggie ‘you have Italian in your blood you’ve got to do it more voluptuously’ and gave her three times more arm movements as she crossed the stage! It was a wonderful feeling. He particularly instigated that for her so he would change things to suit a dancer and was wonderful at coaching and getting the best out of every dancer. She was the gypsy girl in Two Pigeons for the school matinee when he came to rehearse it. Later she danced the Young Girl, which was fabulous, and alternated the two roles on tour. The roles are so different that you don’t get confused except for the fight scene when you have to remember which side to be on. Before every show she went through that section just to be sure. The only piece Maggie created with Sir Fred was Sinfonietta, working in the studio at Stratford upon Avon. She was one of the six couples and a nervous wreck, always in a state before a show because in the third movement the counts and music are really tricky. If you went wrong on the opening counts you could never get back on track. Now their dancers have no problems and they love it.
Iain first saw The Tales of Beatrix Potter in the cinema (really as a way of getting out of school) but absolutely loved Jeremy Fisher. His first experience of live performance was when Sadler’s Wells came to York where they performed The Dream and Maggie was Titania. When he moved to London a great friend was, Doreen, part of the Floral Street gang. In those days the amphitheatre tickets were so cheap so they bought them for every show and just use what they could and Doreen would get tickets from everyone else and pass them on to Iain. So, he lived in the Amphitheatre which was where he got his training. His first time in studio with Sir Fred was working on Death in Venice. ?Dougie Howes? was Tatsio and they went to Aldeburgh, where Craig Wright, who later went to American Ballet Theater, did it with Iain covering the role. He still can’t really say whether he loved dancing or watching Fred’s ballets. He was so kind, so nice, funny and very naughty and Iain adored him. People said Fred was very nervous but Iain didn’t realise that. Often at receptions he’d say to get a drink and sit with him and chat. He felt easy with Iain and they got on well.
Peter Wright was Iain’s first director and Maggie said it was wonderful to have him working here on one of her favourite ballets, Giselle. as well as Summertime which was created on her with David Ashmole and others. A wonderful experience working on a new piece with him and fantastic bringing it to Sarasota. There was an old film. Maggie said she could put together one movement and could show him in London but he wanted to change the third movement which he wasn’t happy with. Maggie put together the first two movements and when he saw the video he was so happy and said after all he thought the third movement would be fine. The dancers loved working with Sir Peter. She and he go back a long way from the time he was directing the company. She performed Giselle by fluke. Peter made his first production for the Royal Ballet touring company but Lucette Aldous and David Wall weren’t able to perform the matinee so, with a little push from Madam and John Field, Peter agreed that she and Nicholas Johnson, the youngsters, could do it. This was her lucky break. When Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet started up, Peter began bringing back bigger ballets after doing the shorter ballets with the New Group which was a fantastic experience but she was happy to get back to full lengths like Giselle, Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty and many others. He was a great director and made wonderful productions. At Sarasota Iain had said originally they couldn’t afford Peter’s production and she should stage her version of Giselle. She thought it would be tricky having danced Peter’s production for so many years. She approached him and said she didn’t want to make any mistakes with his production and he said no, so he would write up all the things she mustn’t do. Then he contacted her saying she’d danced the ballet so many times, it was in her blood so she should stage his production. In response she said she’d love to but thought they couldn’t afford him but he was fantastic and they’ve now done it a third time.
When they brought in Giselle, Iain said it was a time when the company was going to have to close with the economy and no infrastructure. They had one lovely dancer for Giselle which they thought might bring in support. A large part of Iain’s time was spent going round asking for money. He called Teddy Kumakawa in Japan saying how much money they had and could they use Peter Farmer’s sets and designs? Other complications occurred and they realised it was going to be too expensive but when Iain rang Teddy to say they couldn’t afford it, Teddy said it’s already packed and at the docks. But, while the company paid for the transport to Sarasota, amazingly Teddy paid for the whole production to be returned to Japan after the performances. Then their lovely girl said she was leaving the company and immediately the Board and the press were on the phone. Four hours later he was able to tell the Board the opening and following night performances would be danced by Johan Kobborg and Alina Cojocaru. The Board said they couldn’t afford it but Iain said all they had to pay was their fares and they saved the day by requesting no fees and staying with Iain and Maggie. It’s wonderful that they remember old friendships and connections and have been supportive ever since. Peter and Chris Wheeldon were also very supportive during the hard times when the company had no money.
Iain related how he first came across Johan. When Iain started dancing it was once a week, go to the back of the class and follow. Then David Gayle set up Ilkley ballet seminars and at one point brought in Hans Brenaa, the great Danish master. He took his usual place at the back but suddenly found himself at the front without knowing how he got there but it was so exciting. He then wanted to join the Danes and at one point Doreen Rooth even gave him the money to go to Denmark but, although it wasn’t possible as they weren’t taking foreigners at that time, it made a connection. Then Iain wanted to look at how they staged the works so he went a few weeks before the second Bournonville festival and remembered seeing Johan and calling Maggie to say he’d seen this beautiful young boy, like today’s Erik Bruhn, who was just amazing. He’d also seen him on video so they connected and a few months later he brought him to England to dance at the Harrogate international festival where Iain was producing, and they became close friends. Reverting to Peter as a director, Iain had a bit of difficulty as in those days you didn’t speak to principals but on tour some of the boys would take Maggie out to dinner and Iain, the new boy, would just be there with them. Madam and Sir Fred were fine about it and Kenneth MacMillan didn’t care but it was a bit of an issue. Iain worked with the company for about a year as an apprentice and had Christine Anthony who was an amazing teacher from Dutch National Ballet. He told her he’d got to go back to school for a month but needed a job. She spoke to Peter to ask if she could take him to Dutch National, and the next day Peter gave him a contract for Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet! When Peter was with them in Sarasota he said they could do Mirror Walkerswhenever they wanted to, which was really great. Iain said he was always a bit nervous around Peter. His whole dancing career was under Peter who gave him lots of opportunities but perhaps that’s why he finds it easier to talk to Anthony so he gets Maggie to speak to Peter. One of their dancers on hearing Peter was coming out said he couldn’t believe it – a true ballet legend was coming. Julie Kent had just taken over Washington Ballet and announced they were doing The Dream and on the phone to Anthony, Iain said he always wanted to do it at Sarasota and Anthony listened and said yes, you can do it. He was just fantastic here. There was a magical moment after rehearsal with principals when Friedemann Vogel from Stuttgart asked Anthony about Sir Fred and the dancers sat around him on the floor as he talked about his work, he was so easy and inspiring and they absolutely loved him. He was also very good during the digital period when he rehearsed Thais on Zoom. Maggie said they will be performing Varie Caprici, a fantastic piece, and you can’t help remembering Anthony and Antoinette Sibley when you see it. It’s an incredible piece and she hopes the London audience will enjoy it. It must have been quite a sensation when Anthony came on as the gigolo in New York as the audience had only ever seen him in princely roles but he’s something to live up to. The choreography is great with three beautiful pas de deux. After it had been announced, Grant Coyle called to say there was a problem with the fourth movement which doesn’t fit as he’d been trying to get the notation to fit to the recorded music. Barry Wordsworth said when he was making the piece he struggled with that movement and told William Walton he didn’t like certain bits and Walton redid it but passed away before it was performed so there was no recording made. They have commissioned Birmingham Sinfonia to record it and that’s what we shall hear. Grant went to see Anthony before going out and check a few points and asked about the shoes. Anthony still had them and inscribed them to Iain who now has them in his collection. This prompted a suggestion from David that we should do another Zoom session with Iain taking us around his collection and Iain suggested the Ballet Association do a trip to Sarasota to include a tour of his collection which sounds a wonderful idea.
Speaking about his transfer to the Royal Ballet, Iain said it wasn’t a great time for him. He’d done more than he probably should have done and was given the Prince in Swan Lake but, although he could do it, he didn’t feel he was a prince. He remembered going off after the black swan scene and saying to the lovely guy in wardrobe that he couldn’t do it any more and started to lose his nerve. It was great doing Colas, but he started to love Petrushka,Alain and Prodigal Son which were more acting roles. There was talk of moving to Birmingham, Jason (their son) had just been born and Maggie retired so he thought he’d have to do something else. Fred was a bit upset with people in the Royal, and stopped them doing galas of his works. He was the first person who knew about Maggie’s pregnancy so they had a connection. They had the opportunity to go to South Africa for Jason’s first birthday and it was the first chance Maggie’s mother had to meet him. They wanted to dance five gala performances together and they asked Fred if they could do Two Pigeons. and he said of course do whatever you want. When they came back they went to Yorkshire to visit his parents and saw on the TV that Fred had died so instead of coming back to London to see him, Iain went to see Iris Law. They were obviously both upset but he asked if at some point he could speak to Anthony which he soon did and told him he didn’t want to do the dance any more but preferred the more character roles. They were doing a tour of Fillewhen Iain was doing cockerel, Alain and Colas and, although Anthony hadn’t seen him in the roles, he said he always remembered Iain’s personality on stage when he performed at Sadler’s Wells. He said yes, come over in January, but it was difficult and not till 18 months later that he went. He also had some knee injuries during that time. But he has one big regret. When Teddy asked him to go to Japan to look after Symphonic (he went for two months and stayed eight years) Teddy was very close to Roland Petit and Iain likewise became friends. Roland came in one day while Iain was teaching class and jumping around and said ‘you have to be in my ballet’ and he would make a solo for him. Iain said he’d lost his nerve, had retired long ago and he couldn’t do it but now feels it was a stupid decision.
Maggie spent 25 years in the Royal Ballet companies as a whole of which 22 years as principal. She is most associated with Giselle but other highlights were mostly Ashton works which she love – both roles in Two Pigeons, The Dream and Façade. She also loved Cranko ballets – Lady and the Fool,La Capricciosa and Pineapple Poll which they’ve done in Sarasota. Of Madam’s works she did Checkmateand Rake’s Progress and Hans van Manen so felt very fortunate to have had such a variety of ballets. In the New Group they did a lot of Joe Layton, Ronnie Hynd – Bronte Sisters, Papillon. Now looking at the rep the current dancers have they are even more fortunate! She loved Tudor’s Lilac Garden and Knight Errant which he created on David Wall, Betty Anderton, Alfreda Thoroughgood and herself. She was in the corps but working one on one with Tudor. She remembered the rehearsal beforehand was the corps de ballet and there was a great noise from the studio and when the dancers came out they were nearly all in floods of tears. He must have seen through Maggie and realised she’d crumble if he was horrible so was always lovely to her and spent many hours coaching. She always talks about one session which was her reaction to David Wall kissing her hand at the beginning of their pas de deux. Maggie has a different interpretation to David Wall’s memory of it in the Tudor book! Tudor came later to do Lilac Garden which was another wonderful experience but he said he would scream if you over-act as ‘it’s all in my choreography and you don’t have to impose anything further’. She got to work was so many incredible names from the past, including Massine, and of the future. Iain said no-one does Tudor or Massine any more. There were some great one act ballets from these masters but people say you can’t sell mixed bills. You can, but they need to be properly programmed and marketed.
Iain said the English accent is supposed to be quite effective in the USA and he wanted to do Lilac Gardenso rang Sally at the Tudor Trust. He explained who he was and said although he’d never danced any of Mr Tudor’s ballets he felt he had an affiliation with him as he trained at Rambert, joined the Royal Ballet and now was working in America so they followed the same route. He didn’t seem to be getting anywhere and got a bit flustered so then said they were very close to Dame Alicia Markova. When he took her to Paris she’d told him about being in Mexico and everyone came in for Tudor’s Romeo and Juliet but when she saw the designs by Dali she burst into tears and said she wouldn’t dance it. They talked a lot about Dame Alicia, but getting back to the main topic he said he’d like the company to do Lilac Garden but it would be in the theatre in their building and Mr Tudor had once said to his wife that he never really liked Lilac Garden on the bigger stage. She asked who was his wife and when he told her she said had he said 15 minutes ago that he was married to Margaret Barbieri he would have been straight in! He was able to buy the costumes which were OK but the sets were terrible so he went to the Jerome Robbins dance library in New York who had the set designs and he was able to photograph them and they had them remade.
There’s always a question of how works are staged and changes made for the sake of it and it gets difficult when Iain wants the original or the closest possible. He did try to get some Massine but it was more complicated. He wants to do triple bills of Tudor and Madam. They’ve just bought a whole lot of productions from Birmingham so several plans afoot.
For Maggie, making the decision to retire was hard but then she was undecided what to do. Mid-career she had a fanciful dream she might have a restaurant in the country where she grew her own veg and did wonderful Italian recipes learned from her mother, and run an antique shop. She had no experience in these areas except as hobbies so realised she should do what she knew about. Madam had said she should pass on all the experience she’d gained - it was her duty to do so. She did the RAD PDT course which was very helpful and gave her the chance to try herself out behind closed doors. One day Frank Freeman came to teach Solo Seal and sitting in the canteen he asked where she was going to teach. He said people don’t know you’ve stopped. You have to write letters and let people know you want to teach. She’d never had to promote herself before but she did, despite finding it really difficult. Madam fixed for her to teach a couple of classes at the Royal Ballet and Elmhurst were interested and other things were in the offing when Doris Barry, Dame Alicia’s sister, said she shouldn’t accept anything as Nick Espinoza had a proposal for her. He said Dame Alicia says you must come here and start the classical programme and it happened over night. She kept two classes at the Royal for a couple of years but ENB and Elmhurst had to be let go and she became full time at London Studio Centre. They started very small. In the first year she wanted to do Facadeand Alexander Grant gave her permission to stage it and he came in to coach. She wrote asking if she could borrow the costumes for Façade and hired the set from BRB. Maggie spent 22 years there but in the later years she had started to stage for other companies including K Ballet, New State Theatre, Oregon Ballet, and Scottish Ballet, which was just prior to Iain getting the position at Sarasota. Then he wanted her to stage Façade and Pigeons there so she was toing and froing for a couple of years until finally she went full time to Sarasota in 2012.
Iain said that with Images of Dance, the big thing Maggie did, besides the existing rep, was to get choreographers to make works on the dancers. She was the first person to commission Christopher Wheeldon to make a piece, and that’s why when Sarasota were in trouble Chris’s parents said he had to help Iain and Maggie out. She had Cathy Marston do two ballets for them, Michael Corder two or three, Christopher Hampson, Ashley Page and Matthew Bourne all made works, the latter making Boutique, his first piece with pointe shoes. Teachers included Chris Saunders who was fantastic and says he’s always grateful Maggie got him in to teach classes for Images, Slava Samadurov and Renata Peroni. It was very important for Sarasota that Maggie had really close connections with the Balanchine Trust. She had known Violette for some years and when she was visiting London Maggie invited her to come to watch class and she was really impressed by their standard. During Maggie’s time with the company they had little Balanchine – just Allegro Brillanteand Four Temperaments - and she really wanted the dancers to have that opportunity. Violette suggested she write to the Trust who responded that Violette was absolutely amazed at the standard of her students and the work she was doing and they’d be very happy for them to do a Balanchine ballet. In the end she did four or five with Sandra Jennings coming to stage them. That connection now continues at Sarasota.
Iain worked a lot with Matthew Bourne. He wanted to raise money to help with the HIV/Aids crisis and he and Maggie talked about it with a few people but thought it would be connected by their names to the Royal Ballet while they wanted it to be for everyone. Maggie read an article about Matthew and they decided to contact him. Their discussion led to Dance Cares under CruiseAid auspices with lots of companies involved though Matthew and he kept it together. Matthew came to the house and with Maggie they were looking at the original Taglioni La Sylphide lithographs. They were due to go to see Highland Fling at the Lilian Baylis Theatre the following night and during the performance Iain saw that Matthew wasn’t really watching the show but rather Maggie’s reaction to it. Of course, they loved it and she was in floods of tears at the end. Iain went back to work at Baron’s Court and said to his close friend, Adam Cooper, that he must come and see this amazing Highland Fling so he then introduced Matthew to Adam. Matthew spent a lot of time with Maggie when she was a governor and Iain went on his board while he was still at Covent Garden. This was before Adam did Swan Lake. Matthew actually went on tour to America with the Royal Ballet and would organise dinners after the show so they were very close. Then Swan Lake happened and he didn’t realise what he’d produced and how big it was. Sometimes when Iain wasn’t working at the Opera House he’d go on tour with him and this resulted in him putting together a structure for Matthew and when Iain retired they worked together for three years. He offered Iain a contract for a year to be in charge of the British tour of Swan Lake. He was a bit undecided when Teddy phoned saying they were going to do 22 shows of Symphonicon tour but we need someone to look after it. Iain turned down Matthew and went for two months which ended by being eight years. They did Infernal Gallop in Sarasota during Iain’s first year. He recalled coming back after two and a half months touring in Japan, having ten days to pack up and say goodbye to everybody. On the last night he was trying to pack while making the recording of Infernal Gallop and he kept sitting and laughing at it with Maggie saying he had to get on. He said he thought he’d only last a year and the final programme would be Infernal Gallop so he’d leave the theatre laughing. He’s now at the start of his 17th year!
In thanking our guests warmly, David said it was amazing to talk to them both and it would be great if we could organise a Sarasota trip at some stage. Iain said they hoped we’d all come to see them in London and he hopes to be able to show film of some of the rep they can’t bring like Apparitions which is an amazing work. He also has various other projects to put together. The idea of the four-year festival is to ensure that all of Sir Fred’s works are seen with any company who’s done his work putting them on. Iain is looking to produce a book about, for example, Ashton in North America as he’s much loved there. He’d be tickled pink at being a household name in Sarasota!
Report written by Liz Bouttell and edited by Margaret Barbieri, Iain Webb and David Bain.
© The Ballet Association 2023