BRANDON LAWRENCE, PRINCIPAL OF BIRMINGHAM ROYAL BALLET
“IN CONVERSATION “ with Mike Dixon
12th August 2020 via Zoom
"Many of us had followed his career and we had no doubt he would end up as a Principal of the Birmingham Royal Ballet, it was just a matter of when they would get round to it", said Susan Dalgetty Ezra introducing Brandon Lawrence, the subject of LBC’s second ‘virtual’ "In Conversation".
And the opportunity to recap on his career to date and delve further into his achievements and future directions was made possible, via Zoom technology, by interviewer Mike Dixon, author, dance writer and critic, and good friend of LBC.
Mike began by asking Brandon to take us through his early days. Born and brought up in Bradford, Brandon had attended two local dance schools, Stage 84 and the Nydza School of Dance run by Andie Nydza who had also taught dancers such as the Royal Ballet’s Thomas Whitehead and Dominic North, now with Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures. Andie pushed the teenaged Brandon to get involved in the Yorkshire Ballet Seminars and his audition there impressed the Seminars’ director Marguerite Porter to the extent that she gave him a two-week summer scholarship. “It was the David Blair scholarship and I had no idea who David Blair was,” admits Brandon. He remembers the experience as being intense hard work but he enjoyed meeting many other dancers including some from overseas.
His work during that fortnight impressed Marguerite Porter who asked, was there anyway he could do more classes per week? He said he was unsure, as he was just living at home with his mother and sister and he thought no more about it until a little later he received a phone call from Marguerite Porter to say she had arranged an audition at the Royal Ballet School in September, in front of the then RBS director Gailene Stock.
Things then began to gather pace. He recalls: “I did the class and had my meeting afterwards”, then Gailene said: “We’d like to offer you a place, can you join on Saturday?” This conversation, he remembers, took place on the Tuesday. He travelled back home, collected his things and was back in London by the weekend. There was no doubt in his mind that Marguerite Porter had had a great influence on his career trajectory.
Mike asked whether Brandon had enjoyed his time in the Lower School at White Lodge? Brandon didn’t hesitate. “I loved it,” he said, even though there had been some concern expressed by his Yorkshire teachers that he might be bullied there. This turned out not to be the case and he added: “My mum, who is not what you’d call a ‘ballet mum’ said ‘if you go there and enjoy it, great, but, if not, you can come home.”
He didn’t come home. “I thought, Marguerite has gone out of her way to do this … her passion is pretty incredible. She got me and I thought I need to do this. This is the next step.” He had also been inspired by seeing a host of other dancers at the Yorkshire Ballet Seminars, including Xander Parish and Sean Bates, and decided that these were circles in which he wished to move. As it happened, Sean Bates, now a first soloist with Northern Ballet, would be his first room mate at the RBS.
Mike recalled that the first time he had reviewed a performance by Brandon at the Yorkshire Ballet Seminars he was struck in particular by what he described as “your phenomenal, apparently natural jump and your musicality.” He asked: “Are they entirely natural or are they things that you feel you need to work on?”
Brandon replied that he felt he had a natural way with elevation. Even though his teachers at the RBS encouraged him to calm down on occasion he said: “I think it was good to have a bit of that wild, leave your inhibitions, almost no technique, to just feel what it was like to step into the room, jump as high as you can without thinking ‘that should be there, this here, my arm there’.” It was, he felt, necessary to have what he termed “raw strength”. Stamina and technique could take you so far but one also needed deep down a reserve of natural power.
“I don’t like things that look too easy,” he told us. “The jump is something I love doing. Being airborne is incredible!” adding “Because I know I can’t do it forever.”
As to his musicality, Brandon admits to adoring pretty much all forms of music. He is, he said, almost always found wearing his headphones. He would rather have music in his life than visuals or TV, confessing to being an avid Radio One and Classic FM listener, both of which, he said, ignited so much inspiration in him.
Mike assumed that the music he was fond of at home differed from what he was listening to when he joined the RBS? Brandon confirmed that coming to London had opened up to him a new world of live music and he was delighted by the opportunity presented for seeing live orchestras playing at the Royal Opera House, Sadler’s Wells and the Coliseum as well as in concerts.
This line of conversation led to an interesting admission from Brandon. He recalled that, when on one recent occasion during a group discussion, Birmingham Royal Ballet’s newly appointed director Carlos Acosta asked him about the counts for a piece, Brandon said he didn’t like counts. He expanded: “I want to feel the music, I don’t just want to count it because it can become robotic and masks feeling for what the performance is.” He added: “ If you just know the count you’re going on an autopilot.” For this reason, Brandon explained, he preferred to listen to different interpretations of the same piece and also wanted to know how the composer wished a piece to be played. By way of illustration, he chose Concerto. How the first movement of the ballet is danced is not how Shostakovitch wanted it to be played, he said. It has been slowed down a lot for the ballet but it was good to know this.
Mike agreed that this was a valid point, saying that some of the greatest dancers he had interviewed over the years also admitted that they did not count, a fact that might be surprising for the general public to hear. These dancers absorbed the music in a different way, said Mike, adding that Ashton had other people count for him.
This brought the conversation round to Brandon’s view of Ashton’ work, and its musicality. Mike wanted to know which Ashton roles he had danced and which to still wished to take on?
Interestingly, Brandon’s initial response was Colas in La Fille Mal Gardée, a role he had danced with BRB. He would return to that point later in the interview but explained that for him with “genius choreographers” like Ashton, once one had danced their work it became ingrained in him. The feeling of what that choreographer wanted to achieve with the music would stay with you “because they just knew how to get inside of it.”
He enumerated certain Ashton roles he had danced including Les Rendezvous, The Two Pigeons, Daphnis and Chloe (which he described as one of his favourites), Façade and The Dream. Meanwhile, a piece he would love to dance was Symphonic Variations. “It just looks like gods and goddesses on stage and for me that is spectacular. Six dancers, they never go off, the score is dreamy, three movements, Cecchetti-infused, it’s just heaven!” He then added: “To be honest I’d take any (Ashton) role.”
Mike commented that many dancers, if given a choice between fast or slow tempi, would opt for a slow tempo because they feel more in control: yet, having seen Brandon dancing some very fast tempi in a range of pieces, he assumed fast held no terrors for him.
In many ways this had gone back to his training, said Brandon, and he recalled that during his second year at RBS he had been taught by David Peden, “and he still reminds me to this day when he made me cry in class.” Brandon said he just could not move himself quickly enough to satisfy his teacher and, being a teenage boy, it was a mixture of emotions that had got to him on that occasion. “But he said to me you’ll thank me in the future, and he was right.”
Mike then brought the conversation back to the role of Colas in Fille saying that this was indeed a tricky part to play. He told Brandon: “I’ve always said to dancers ‘don’t wait for the conductor, if you wait for the conductor you’ll be playing catch up.’ As a dance artist you develop a kind of second sense about when to wait and when not to wait and when you really have to open the throttle. It’s an art. A conductor can make such a difference to what you’re doing.”
Brandon agreed and they discussed the fact that in Russia, dancers would often signal to a conductor to speed up the tempi, something that would never happen here. In the UK, the conductor was the boss.
What were, Mike then asked, the key roles that helped Brandon develop technically or artistically? Among these chiefly were new works with different choreographers, Brandon explained. In these creations a dancer was living with the choreography six days a week and it built a great deal artistically when one was part of the original company for a piece. He contrasted this experience with the great roles that a dancer always wants and he chose as an example, Sleeping Beauty.
“ It was one that I always wanted to do but he (Prince Florimund) doesn’t come on till half past nine and then it’s all very static,” said Brandon, adding “it’s lovely, it’s gorgeous, but it isn’t as rewarding as something like Colas.” This was a role that had never been on his wish list but he had danced it for BRB with both Delia Mathews and Celine Gittens. “It’s very tricky, there are many hard lifts, but I love that,” he said.
Another of his favourite roles is Romeo and he shared a comment from former BRB director Sir David Bintley. “He said to me ‘all the ladies always want to do Juliet, except she doesn’t do anything. It’s really Romeo’s ballet.’” Brandon concurred. “It’s tough all the way,” he said, “ from the first scene, beginning with the harlots, you have the fight, then you’ve got a quick change into the front cloth, then the ballroom. She’s only had the scene with the nurse and her ballroom solo.”
He recalled that Sir David Bintley always prepared people for the ballet, before they took on bigger roles, by giving them plenty of other parts to play. Brandon had been a Capulet man, Benvolio and Paris first and thereby got to understand what was happening before the role of Romeo came to him. That way, he says, one is not wandering around the stage looking lost. He was disappointed that BRB would not be able to put it on as planned this autumn but it would be coming back as Carlos was keen for the company to do it.
Among other major roles, Brandon confessed to being a Swan Lake fan and the conversation then developed into a discussion about the difficulties of looking princely for a lead role and yet still retaining a sense of humanity, being rather stiff and formal but having quality. “It’s a process. I feel no-one would get it straightaway and that’s why it’s important to re-visit and not just to think ‘well, I’ve done that and I don’t need to do it again.’ You can explore even more a few years down the line, maybe with a different partner.”
Delving deeper into how to play a prince, Mike asked: “When you do these roles do you run a tape through your head about ‘what am I meant to be thinking at this point?’ because I’ve seen princes who really were just cast adrift on stage. Basically they were walking around looking confused because the body knew what they had to do but their head really didn’t know where they were.”
Brandon agreed. He felt much of that problem could derive from the studio where just the character and their partner are rehearsing. With luck, one might then get a couple of full calls, one in the studio and one on stage but, he emphasised, it was important to watch other rehearsals to see what else was going on rather than take the view “it’s not my call, I don’t need to be there.”
He would watch other dancers and think to himself, would the prince acknowledge or react to that or turn a blind eye? It helped him to relax to get eye contact with other dancers on stage. He then referred to the Nutcracker pas de deux when the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Prince finish and the Fairy goes off. “I walk round ready for the solo and I like to look every single flower in the eye. I want to acknowledge them and make them part of the performance. Everyone’s important on the stage and you can get trapped into thinking it’s just about what I’m doing.”
Mike pointed out that Brandon was made a Principal at BRB just before Carlos Acosta took over the Directorship from Sir David Bintley. Did this fact make a difference, he asked?
It was, said Brandon, a surreal experience. It was fantastic that a world-renowned dancer like Carlos was going to be our new Director but, at the same time, Brandon asked himself “does he know I’m going to be a Principal, he has seen me dance but has he seen me dance things that he likes? I was stepping up in someone else’s reign. “ He need not have worried. “I believe I was put here for a reason. Do your strengths, realise your weaknesses. People can only commend you for your work, if you’re striving then that’s got to be respected.”
The discussion then took a fascinating turn to the subject of social media and its potential impact on dance students. Brandon had been asked by RBS Artistic Director Christopher Powney to speak to students, during which the issue of social media had been broached.
Brandon said he was aware that many students struggled with peer group pressure in class and this found its way into social media. “ I pretty much said to them that it’s great for just feedback if you’re happy about putting out information because once it out there, it’s out there. However, if you’re looking for recognition, it’s the wrong place and also if you’re thinking it’s going to accelerate your career, it’s wrong as well.”
“What you do in the company and how you’re working with people, that is what your values are. On social media you can’t turn enough, you can’t jump enough, you can’t be rich enough, you can’t be beautiful enough. That’s not what gives you your values. It’s how you are with people, it’s the knowledge you’re taking on, it’s your learning, your experience. If you’re using it for the right reasons, go for it but it’s not, I believe, going to propel you to where you want to go.”
Mike asked Brandon to speculate what the future held for BRB under Carlos’s Directorship.
Brandon said that with the pandemic it had not been the greatest start for Carlos. Many meetings had been held and it was an exciting time. Carlos wanted to do many things the company had not done previously but even just having him in the studio was so inspiring. It was a different outlook and he was pulling the best out of individuals. There were some very exciting plans that the company hoped to announce soon.
At this point Mike turned to questions that members watching online had posted in the chatbox. The first query wanted to know how Brandon had coped with the pandemic lockdown and how he had kept himself fit?
He felt he had coped remarkably well. He had been in Birmingham the whole time and the main reason he didn’t return to home in his native Yorkshire was that his mother had been out of the country and came back just as the lockdown was imposed and he thought it unwise to go and see her and his sister for that reason. He admitted that for the first couple of weeks of lockdown he had taken time off. “I thought, let me get it all out of my system, watch TV series I haven’t watched in a while, stay up late, then I know deep down I’ll feel ok.” Then he started to build himself up once more, had Zoom classes three days a week and took up running. He had also been doing a lot of work with bbodance where he had also studied and was now a Patron of the organisation. He also began working with dancewear company Dansez and had started a regular podcast with Julia Dixon. A range of film projects had been underway with BRB and one in particular of Brandon’s own devising tied in with the Black Lives Matter movement. He had also begun to study for a teaching qualification.
At this point, Mike interjected to say that Brandon’s profile outside of BRB was really quite high and described him as the face of bbodance. “Some people have even called it the Brandon Ballet Organisation,” he quipped.
Brandon said that, in joining BRB, he really wanted to have a great career and enjoy it for what it was but there were so many other things that he wanted to do as well and he was only too aware that there was a time limit on him as a dancer. “ It made sense to accept being a patron of bbodance two years ago,” and he felt a duty to do something for the young membership during lockdown.
He also began his teaching qualification with the organisation.
As far as Dansez was concerned, that tie-up came about because they were involved in some photoshoots of dancewear to promote the BRB brand. Brandon stayed in contact with the organisation to explore the possibility for designing some male dancewear with them and he now has his own collection.
Brandon commented: “I like projects, I like working, I like keeping things on the go, I like networking and I know I can’t dance forever.”
This led Mike to express the view that when young dancers were finishing school there really should be some discussion about what they would be doing once they finished dancing. Brandon said such discussions were certainly not held when he was at dance school but was very much part of the discourse within the BRB. For this reason DCD – Dancers Career Development – came into BRB for group meetings with information regarding exploration grants and future training grants and it was one such grant that Brandon has used for his teacher training. “It seemed quite appropriate during lockdown,” he said.
A further question posed was whether Brandon would be interested in pursuing a new career in choreography but he admitted that this did not really appeal to him, but added: “ In the past year, year and a half, I think I’d want to be a Director. I bet it’s a really rewarding job to have in a company, exciting as well. A hell of a lot of work. I’d like to regenerate a company and put my stamp on things artistically.”
A member of the virtual audience wanted to know which Balanchine ballets would Brandon want to dance in? He said, without hesitation, “I would love to dance more Balanchine. I’m a big fan. If I ever did leave BRB, I would want to go to the New York City Ballet.” On his wish list would be to try the Black & White ballets such as Agon, the Stravinsky Violin Concerto, and Symphony in Three Movements. He also said he loved Jewels, especially the Diamonds pas de deux, Serenade, Theme and Variations and Ballo della Regina. “ I’d give them all a go if I could.”
A questioner wanted more information about the films he had been involved in during lockdown and this gave Brandon the opportunity to tell us about Bodies. The “devastating murder of George Floyd” had played on his mind and, he said, “ I thought there is so much going on in terms of hurt, vandalism, looting, violence, that’s not how you create something around this issue and make a talking point.” He wanted to create something relevant to Black Lives Matter so called up a childhood friend Davy Lazare, a writer, poet and filmmaker, who readily agreed to help. Brandon also enlisted the support of his sister, Kim, as producer and they set about creating a short film with Brandon dancing to the words spoken by Davy. “It’s not about the Brandon Show,” insists the dancer, “ it’s just the visuals that enhance the words.” The team he put together also included an old friend, BRB dancer and choreographer Ruth Brill, as dramaturg and he invited Alexia Bergman, the daughter of Dansez founder Samantha Carney, and a second year student at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, to create a score.
Brandon scouted locations around Birmingham and filming was done overnight one Friday starting at 8pm and finishing around 3am the following morning. The work was edited by Davy Lazare and released on YouTube.
“When he saw it Carlos personally called me and we had a great conversation about diversity,” says Brandon. He describes the work as a really significant point during lockdown. It remains “something special” for him, probably the most memorable thing during that period.
Finally he went into some detail on the film he had made with bbodance to accompany the organisation’s dance challenge competition. “It is not just a video saying who won,” he explains, “ it’s creating a ballet for the students.” They were asked to submit self-filmed, self-choreographed dance sequences of themselves during lockdown and also submit written thoughts about the strange times each was going through. Brandon contacted composer Andrew Kristy who agreed to put together a score that creates three distinct movements. The entries, some 150 in total, were received and whittled down to about 20, were judged by Sir David Bintley, and Brandon took on the task of editing the film himself. “It was very successful,” he says. “It was created to have the winners in the spotlight but it was mostly about creating a piece of art.”
With that, the conversation wound up with Susan thanking both Brandon and Mike and pointing out that the only thing missing, due to the limitations of the technology, was a loud and long ovation from everyone who had tuned into the interview.
Written by Phillip Cooper, edited and approved by Brandon Lawrence and Mike Dixon