Director of The Royal Ballet

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By Peter Wright

Kenneth’s seven year period as a Director of the Royal Ballet, which started in 1970, played an extremely significant part in the whole development of the two companies.

“Kenneth wanted to extend the dancers’ powers of expression by embracing different styles, but without destroying what had been developed by Frederick Ashton and Ninette de Valois”

Not just because of his output choreographically, which was pretty impressive: two full length ballets, ten one-acters, three pas de deux and two productions of the classics – but it was also, I think, because of his inclusion of works by other choreographers with different styles, some of them new creations, that led to a broadening of the dancer’s approach to performance. In a short space of time, Glen Tetley, Hans van Manen, Joe Layton, Christopher Bruce and Jack Carter had created new works for the companies. Also, several existing American works, new to the dancers, were added to the repertoires: five from Jerry [Jerome Robbins], five from Balanchine and two from Herbert Ross. Kenneth wanted to extend the dancers’ powers of expression by embracing different styles, but without destroying what had been developed by Frederick Ashton and Ninette de Valois. He had always been anxious to get dancers to use their bodies to express other feelings than the usual love, sadness and joy. His ballets were often about loneliness, fear, terror, lust, hate, sexual frustration as well as the beautiful things in life.

One mustn’t forget that this happened over thirty years ago when cross-fertilization between companies had hardly begun. In fact, he added over sixty works to the repertory during the time he was director, and out of the sixteen choreographers, thirteen were working with us for the first time. As always - some good, some bad and some indifferent – that’s the way it goes. He was also very aware that the future did not just depend on new works and new approaches, but also on a respect for the past. The Royal Ballet organization has a unique heritage created by many great artists which he always insisted must never be overlooked as this is where the strength of the two companies lay. It was a real credit to the staff and dancers that so much was achieved in a relatively short space of time, considering the huge problems that faced the company when he assumed the directorship.

Things had actually started very badly, as Kenneth had understood that he was to be overall director of both companies, but that John Field, who had successfully run the 65-strong touring company for many years, was to be in charge of the administration. However, it transpired that John had been led to believe, by the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden" , that he would be a director on the same footing as Kenneth. This, though, was not acceptable to Kenneth, and John felt disinclined to remain unless he shared this position. It was an exceedingly unfortunate situation and after a few months, when communication between them became very strained and unsatisfactory, John resigned. Some months before, I had been asked to run the touring company when John moved to Covent Garden. Kenneth and I had worked together a lot in Stuttgart with John Cranko, and I was very happy to do this, but suddenly I was now to be responsible for the administration and planning of both companies, albeit on a temporary basis, while a replacement for John was found. In fact, I think it was about four years before someone was finally appointed.

“Not only was it hell for Kenneth, the dancers and the staff, but the whole structure of the companies was badly shaken and it was no wonder that standards deteriorated, and of course it was Kenneth who got the blame for that.”

Apart from this, there was a far worse problem that had to be faced. Some months prior to the commencement of Kenneth’s first season, a serious financial crisis had developed at the Opera House, and as a result it was decided that the Touring Company would have to be disbanded and replaced by a much smaller group of only 22 dancers selected from both companies which would perform small ballets and experimental works on tour. This meant cutting over forty dancers which, on the Union’s (Equity) insistence had to be taken equally from both companies and it was not to be used as a reason to get rid of any dead wood in the companies, but it was the lower ranks, including the new recruits from the school, that would have to lose their jobs. This was a terrible beginning, as not only would Kenneth have to decide who would have to go, but also, losing so many dancers from the corps de ballet had made the company top heavy, and some soloists and coryphées had to be demoted. Not only was it hell for Kenneth, the dancers and the staff, but the whole structure of the companies was badly shaken and it was no wonder that standards deteriorated, and of course it was Kenneth who got the blame for that. The situation was further aggravated by the fact that Frederick Ashton’s retirement (whom Kenneth had succeeded) had been badly handled, which resulted in a lot of hostility amongst some of the dancers who didn’t think he should have been made to retire so soon. They were also very concerned that his ballets would no longer be featured any more. In fact, seven of his ballets, including two new works, were performed by the Covent Garden company and nine, including a new work, Siesta, by the New Group. Now Kenneth’s health was not good. For Many years he had suffered from a serious alcohol problem and although he had completely stopped drinking after the heart attack he had suffered when visiting Stuttgart during his directorship of the Berlin Ballet he was still physically pretty weak; he was nervous, very lonely, avoided communicating with the press and was unable to speak to the company en masse. A few words from him would have lifted their spirits, but that was not to be.

“This was all admirable on paper but well nigh impossible in practice!”

Kenneth’s plans for his first season had been extremely well thought out, but the new make up of the two companies necessitated a lot of reworking and rethinking, and once the rehearsal period started, huge problems arose with the co-ordination of the two groups. Rightly or wrongly, Kenneth had insisted that the visiting choreographers – Jerry Robbins, who was mounting Dances at a Gathering for the Covent Garden Company, and Glen Tetley, who was creating a new work for the smaller group – should be allowed to choose their casts from the entire company which meant it was not possible to decide who would be in the touring group until they had made up their minds! It was also Kenneth’s wish that ballets like Symphonic Variations should go out on tour with the best casts including Sibley, Dowell, Coleman, Jenner, Penney, and Apollo with Beriosova and Macleary who would also be appearing in his new work for the group. This was all admirable on paper but well nigh impossible in practice! How Henry Legerton, who was responsible for making the rehearsal schedules managed to sort out the timetables, I will never know. In those days the larger company only had two rehearsal studios a good half hour away by train at Barons Court and nowhere to rehearse at the Opera House (they now have five magnificent studios there) and the smaller group only had the use of the Donmar studio in the Covent Garden area, where, as well as getting together a completely new repertory including three new works, Dame Ninette was reviving The Rake’s Progress – not easy! It must be said, however, that although very demanding, Madam gave us all immense support and encouragement during this very difficult time.

Well, Jerry refused to be hurried and caused much anguish amongst the dancers when he would sometimes make principals watch while he tried out members of the corps de ballet in roles that they thought he wanted them for, and this did not help their morale one bit. However, Glen had been extremely co-operative, but did insist on having Deanne Bergsma and Desmond Kelly – he adored them both - in his ballet, and Jerry reluctantly agreed not to cast them in Dances at a Gathering, so at least Glen could make a start.

Kenneth’s new work entitled Checkpoint which, thank goodness, he had already started during the previous season, was a very complicated affair that needed an extremely elaborate and heavy set which he had insisted upon in spite of an edict from the Opera House that, in order to save money, only hangings, backcloths and cut outs were to be used for the smaller company’s tours. This had made Kenneth see red. Hadn’t the ballet done it’s share already? What about the Opera? What were they doing to help? As a result, he asked Elizabeth Dalton, his designer, to produce a very elaborate set that consisted of a huge cast-iron wall which had to be strong enough to support two dancers who actually had to execute a pas de deux on it, supported by six men hidden behind an elastic sheet! The ballet was about two lovers of the future who had to meet like flies on a wall as this was the only place where they could not be detected by the all-seeing TV camera operated by the authorities in a police-controlled state. There were also searchlights, armed guards and the use of film. This was the start of Kenneth’s campaign to get a better deal for the ballet companies and their productions. Kenneth had worked extensively in Stuttgart and Berlin (Ballett der Deutschen Oper, Berlin)" in the late sixties where the ballet was properly funded – and here was the Royal Ballet, a huge internationally famous organisation with its great history and reputation, still comparatively underfunded. Although Kenneth at that time had difficulty in speaking his mind, he certainly made himself clear with his actions and surprised everyone with his strength and determination.

“When the curtain finally rose, the wretched thing broke again and went completely out of synch with the music and stage action.”

Kenneth’s original plan had been to open his first Covent Garden season with a new three act ballet Anastasia, but because of the great changes that had been forced upon him, this had to be postponed until the following July. Checkpoint had had a fairly disastrous opening in Manchester – the film which was a vital part of the action broke just as the curtain was about to go up and it took 50 minutes to repair it; the audience, understandably became impatient and irate. When the curtain finally rose, the wretched thing broke again and went completely out of synch with the music and stage action. Kenneth was utterly distraught, the reception was very cool and the press vile. Not a good beginning. However, the week before, Tetley’s new work Field Figures to an electronic score by Stockhausen, also with a difficult but very beautiful set by Nadine Bayliss, had opened successfully in Nottingham. Kenneth was delighted about this as it had shown the dancers in a very contemporary style, though on pointe, and Glen had used the dancers’ classical line to great advantage. It wasn’t long before Kenneth invited him to do another ballet, Laborintus this time for the Covent Garden Company.

It was during this first three months that the unfortunate situation between Kenneth and John Field came to a head and he departed, leaving me to cope with the administration of both Companies. However, my association and friendship with Kenneth, which had lasted for many years, plus his experience as the director of the Berlin Ballet in the late sixties and the work I had done as John Cranko’s associate for five years in Stuttgart, helped us a lot in getting the two ships back on course. Kenneth was not exactly easy to work with in those days as he was still suffering from changing moods and bouts of depression. I had to spend a good deal of time on tour with the smaller company, but we always met every morning when I was in London before his rehearsals began, and we would go over the various matters that needed his attention. He always seemed very tired and never stopped complaining that he didn’t want to be bothered with company matters, when he was choreographing. He invariably wanted to have a sleep before he went in to the studio – but once there he came to life, full of inspiration, although always needing constant reassurance that his choreography was proceeding satisfactorily. However, there were days when nothing seemed to work and gloom and doom descended and there was no way of cheering him up.

Kenneth often went out on tour to rehearse his ballets – he loved working with the New Group, which was the name it had become known as unofficially, and he was anxious to do all he could to make a success of it. But, I might say this was providing he knew arrangements had been made for dinner after the show, that someone was always on hand to bring him cups of tea during rehearsals, that he wasn’t going to be left alone at any time, and that taxis and train reservations for the return journey had been made! Then he was quite happy, and I think those visits brought back good memories of the old touring days with Sadler’s Wells Theatre Ballet when we were dancers with few responsibilities and he was just starting to choreograph.

“He always seemed very tired and never stopped complaining that he didn’t want to be bothered with company matters, when he was choreographing”

It was not long before we found that it was impossible to sustain the New Group with so few dancers and with considerable difficulty I managed to persuade the Board to allow us to increase the numbers from 22 to 34, which made a huge difference; as a result we were able to enlarge the rep considerably and, could include ballets like Pineapple Poll, Concerto, Fête Etrange, and, with the help of students, reduced versions of Giselle and Coppélia. This helped improve attendances no end. Realising that I couldn’t be in two places at once, Kenneth asked John Auld, who had worked as a dancer with the Borovansky Ballet in Australia and also as Ballet Master with Festival Ballet – now English National Ballet – to be our Assistant Director. He had great experience and authority, a wonderful sense of humour and he soon gained immense respect from the company. Kenneth knew him well and trusted him implicitly. This meant I could devote more time to the company in London, which was essential as big foreign tours were looming.

Kenneth created several ballets for the New Group, including The Poltroon, a rather macabre work inspired by Commedia del Arte characters, Ballade which had a very special meaning for him, and other works of his such as Danses Concertantes, Diversions, and Las Hermanas soon entered the repertory.

Madam was still very active in those days and was anxious to help Kenneth as much as she could, but he didn’t always welcome this when it came to rehearsals. She always attended stage calls of his new works, often making suggestions before he had even finished setting a scene. He found this very disconcerting, especially when Manon was being staged and the sets were up for the first time. I was instructed to keep her away which required a great deal of tact. But she was very persistent and I became a sort of go-between. However, she never took umbrage at being treated in this way, often admitting that she had spoken prematurely. There were occasions, though, when he really welcomed her advice and she was remarkably far-seeing about the future.

“She had made such an impression on him that he decided to create a ballet to celebrate their first meeting which was to be a major event in his life.”

There was much excitement in the Covent Garden company during the rehearsals for Anastasia which seemed to be progressing really well, and the morale had improved no end. It was therefore a terrible shock to everyone, when, in spite of the fact that the public’s response was very positive and the dancers loved it, most of the critics damned it. Kenneth was deeply affected by this and descended into the depths of despair. I became seriously worried about him but very relieved when he told me that he had found a psychoanalyst and was going to start treatment. However, there was so much to do finalising the arrangements for the next season and he had to start preparing his new work Triad, that he managed to pull himself out of his depression. When he actually started rehearsing this ballet, which only had a small cast, he found it rather therapeutic after dealing with the vast numbers in Anastasia and although quite drained by what had turned out to be an extremely tiresome and exhausting first season, some of the most beautiful choreography poured out of him. After Anastasia, things took a turn for the better when, out one evening with a friend at the movies, he was introduced to Deborah Williams, the Australian painter. She had made such an impression on him that he decided to create a ballet to celebrate their first meeting which was to be a major event in his life. The ballet was Ballade, the one I mentioned earlier, and it started with three people sitting with their backs to the audience, watching a cinema screen! Deborah and Kenneth’s relationship grew rapidly, and she really had the most inspiring and calming influence on him. She had parted from her husband some time before, and as soon as her divorce came through, they got married.

Although the next years were very gruelling for Kenneth and hardly a day went by without being faced with both artistic and administrative problems, both companies settled down and standards, that had been badly affected by the drastic changes that had taken place, really began to improve. He also realised fairly soon that sending so many principals up and down the country was having a detrimental effect on both groups, and much to everyone’s relief, this was discontinued. Sadly, Kenneth soon found he could no longer involve himself so much with the New Group and left the running of it to John Auld and myself. Provided we kept him informed of the artistic plans and activities, he was happy not to have to worry about it, though he always took a real interest in casting matters, and the choice of dancers entering the company from the school, and of course, any new choreography.

Time will not permit me to cover the rest of his time as Director when he produced some of his greatest and lasting works, including Requiem, which he created originally for the Stuttgart, Manon , Elite Syncopations and Rituals and as it is, I have barely touched the surface of all that happened during those difficult early years of his directorship. To be honest, I don’t think he will go down in history as one of the Royal Ballet’s greatest leaders: somehow he was too inward-looking, too sensitive, and although possessing a brilliant intellect and great artistic integrity and extraordinary inner strength, he found it extremely hard to combine his great talent as a choreographer with the huge responsibilities that he had to face as the Director of a company of the magnitude of the Royal Ballet; this is why, in the end, he decided to give up the directorship and concentrate on choreography. But he will be remembered for enriching the companies’ repertory with many new and different works, including many important ballets of his own; he kept a good balance between the Diaghilev heritage, the classics and new works; he encouraged many talented young dancers and introduced great ones including Natalia Makarova, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Galina Samsova to the companies, and many more guest artists; and he also led the company on major foreign tours to the United States, Brazil and Japan. When he left in 1977, the company was in excellent shape. Tough as things were, it was a productive period and I feel privileged to have worked with such an extraordinarily creative man who has left such a rich heritage of great works; not just to the Royal Ballet, but to companies the world over. We owe him so much.

Sir Peter Wright’s paper was given at the Revealing MacMillan conference in 2002 and is reproduced by courtesy of the Royal Academy of Dance