CHRISTOPHER HAMPSON "IN CONVERSATION" WITH GRAHAM WATTS OBE

2nd September 2020 via Zoom


Susan Dalgetty Ezra welcomed everyone to this third LBC Zoom conversation and said how delighted she was that we were to be joined by Christopher Hampson, Chief Executive and Artistic Director of Scottish Ballet.  She also introduced guest interviewer Graham Watts, mentioning his many involvements in the field, particularly as the driving force behind the National Dance Awards. Susan also reminded members that Graham was last at LBC for the interview with photographer Bill Cooper. 

Graham began by welcoming Christopher and saying what a pleasure it was to be interviewing him and returning to the LBC.  Graham then asked how he had been managing during the lockdown. Answering from a rainy Glasgow, Christopher explained how lockdown had been a real challenge for everyone “for our dancers, for our support staff, for our technical crew, all of our artistic team, all the choreographers and guest teachers we were hoping to engage throughout the rest of the year and I think it’s really tested the company.” Focusing on “being creative in the face of adversity,” he mentioned in particular the resilience of dancers whose “careers are short” and for some of whom the missing six months may be a large part of their career. “They’ve been incredibly patient as we’ve changed gears and realigned ourselves with our digital projects” he said, applauding their “willingness to embrace the uncertainty has really helped.” 

He went on to explain that many of those who work for Scottish Ballet are back at their base every day and the company are now able to rehearse again, even during extra lockdown in the Greater Glasgow area; “we just have to make sure we’re not visiting other people’s homes, indoors. We can still progress our work in the studio, we can still progress the creativity that’s happening.”  He also explained how all the major ballet companies have been working together during this period, and how “galvanising” it’s been to work with them in this way on the “Return to Work” programme. He also mentioned how he had addressed a whole company meeting earlier in the day reminding them that it is what they do outside of Scottish Ballet that is vital to their safety during the pandemic. “It’s all our collective responsibilities to keep operating in a thoughtful way to keep the ballet open.”

Graham went on to ask how the company had coped and for how long they were out of the studio. Christopher explained that lockdown began when the company were performing at the Joyce Theatre in New York in March. Most of Broadway closed a night earlier so “for one magical night, we were the best-selling show on Broadway. We flew back at the weekend so I spent most of Friday locked in my hotel room with the Company Manager trying to get flights home for the company.” Then they were in lockdown and the dancers stayed in Glasgow in April and May. “They were very patient; we did class by Zoom like most companies. I said to the company, let’s just get creative. So we did, we created during lockdown.” The dancers went on summer break in June and then came back to what was assumed would be a period of 12 weeks to get them back to performance fitness. “Even though they were doing classes on Zoom, they were not travelling or weight-bearing, so their muscles and bone structure were weakened. We’ve done a lot of work and research to get them back to performance.” Christopher hoped that by the end of September the company would be at the performance level they were at in March.

The discussion then moved on to the digital work that Scottish Ballet has been involved with recently, with Graham suggesting that Scottish Ballet had led the way in this area. He asked Christopher about their partnership with the Edinburgh International Festival which led to My Light Shines On, and how that came about. “To give some background, Scottish Ballet committed to producing a digital season in 2017; no-one really knew what that was at the time.” Christopher explained that this provided a way of commissioning work outside the usual seasons. “It was a really successful venture but it challenged the organisation to work quite differently outside of a theatrical context.”
More digital work followed in 2019 with different choreographers, so Scottish Ballet have a significant background in digital ballet. “I like to think we had four years on some other companies. It’s not just filming ballet, you have to conceive a bit differently, you need to ask dancers to work in a different way and choreographers to work in a specific context. The whole of the creative and technical teams also needed to develop new skills. When we needed to pivot this year, we were already on the road.” My Light Shines On (a title offered by Fergus Linehan, Artistic Director of EIF) was an opportunity to show the world that “art and creativity lives on” even if the Festival is not happening this year. The piece used the idea of a ghost light in a theatre, a single light on a stage. “It signifies the lights are still on, even though there’s no work happening.” The company took on the task although they had only been back for four weeks, and Christopher also commissioned choreographers they had worked with before, and those new to the company like Nick Shoesmith, to produce further work. Christopher explained that he said to Shoesmith “We can only really create five minutes but I want the entire company on stage. He was up for the challenge.” The work was put online alongside some of the other digital pieces in the company’s repertoire. “I like that, when you’re working in a digital space, you can work with a choreographer from San Francisco or London.” As a further example of this, Christopher explained they are currently working on a section of David Dawson’s Swan Lake with the help of his Rehearsal Director Becky Gladstone who is in Berlin.

Uniquely in the UK, Christopher is Artistic Director and CEO of the company. He was asked how this had helped during the lockdown period, and Christopher agreed that although “the art drives every single decision we make” and he also needs to persuade the other 80 people he works with, it does mean that when a decision is made “the entire company gets behind it. It excites me although it is not for everyone. It is a vocation, I live and breathe this art. I try not to think of it as two jobs; I tend to speak about my job as I lead” and he went on to say how he has seen the power of delegation. “I always go the long way round; it’s got more stop points on it, it’s more authentic, you’re taking more people with you.”  As to whether this is stretching himself, he is clear: “I was a dancer, I love challenging myself” and he went on to describe how he runs, wild-swims and takes the dogs out “I value that and it really centres me.”

Graham asked how working with Creative Scotland (the Scottish version of the Arts Council) works but Christopher explained they are instead directly funded by the Scottish Government. Scottish Ballet is part of an organisation called the National Performing Companies (NPC), alongside Scottish Opera, Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Scottish Chamber Orchestra and the National Theatre of Scotland. The Scottish Government maintains the five organisations for the nation. “We’re talking with our Minister and her team directly.” This direct funding provides a direct line if there is a problem; on the other hand it is a very difficult process to stay apolitical as an organisation in difficult times.
As Graham suggested, there is also a little more certainty about current issues in Scotland but they share with the rest of the UK the pressure to open regardless “and we all meet regularly online, the Artistic Directors of the major companies, and I think there is a push for companies to be in theatres at any cost.” Christopher went on to explain that this leads to strain not just for companies but for venues who were also having to decide when they might re-open. “We knew probably in about May behind the scenes that we would not perform till next year,” he said, explaining how that helped their venues around Scotland and gave them certainty. “We tour to Aberdeen, Inverness, Glasgow and Edinburgh and those venues did not want to open if it made no business sense.” This may mean the English companies will be back first but Scottish Ballet has worked more on its planning. “We all need to support each other, there’s no right or wrong way.”

Graham then moved on to talk to Christopher about his career. Christopher said he began at age 3 because the girl opposite went to ballet “and I had no-one to play with in the evenings. When she couldn’t skip, I could. She’s now a lawyer but I have a lot more fun and I can still skip.” Christopher went on to describe his notable early performances. “In 1979 I was asked to be part of a production from Northern Ballet Theatre, a little boy in Madam Butterfly, I would have been 6.” Christopher was in an NBT production every year from then till 1984 when he went to White Lodge. “I was in Madame Butterfly choreographed by Jonathan Thorpe, then Miss Carter Wore Pink by the wonderful Geoffrey Cawley; it was a full evening and I was in the entire work.” A Midsummer Night’s Dream and one other ballet followed and then he went to White Lodge and found his route was quite different from others. “I thought it was really normal to have ballets choreographed on you.” 

Christopher explained that all these experiences fed into his abiding love for theatre. “I always made model theatres out of anything and I still have a beautiful wooden Pollocks Theatre in my office at home.” He expanded on his love of theatre and of different genres. “If someone liked Fred Astaire, I liked Bob Fosse… I’ve always been trying to find a broader outlook.” He also won the Choreographic Competition at White Lodge when he was 16, but for composition. “I composed a score for Christopher Wheeldon’s ballet, which won. It was also the first year of Kenneth Macmillan’s prize and he took us to the theatre about five times, it was amazing.” Christopher later joined ENB and so it was fitting that Macmillan took them to see Festival Ballet. “We saw Etudes and Swansong with some of the original cast. And the last act of Anastasia with Lynn (Seymour) who came back. What a baptism of fire, I ended up dancing with some of those dancers.”

At White Lodge, sensibly, Christopher chose to keep much of his performing history to himself. “Our teacher Pauline Wadsworth was talking about the great Nureyev and I had danced with him two years before when Boston Ballet came to Manchester with his production of Don Quixote… in it the children do a puppet production and I was the little him. He lifted me off the cart every night and we used to chat with him in the wings. I just kept it quiet.” 

He was then asked how he came to choreography from the age of 17 and how it developed from there. “I got this drive and this buzz from working with my colleagues and creating new movements, and exploring classical technique.” After four years at ENB he started to get commissions for choreography and this continued every year from then on. He won the National Dance Award for Double Concerto when he had just stopped being a dancer. 

Christopher was asked what he enjoyed most and least during his dancing career. “Performing in my own work fills me with dread. I was quite a technical dancer, my body was a very easy physique, it had a long line, I was trained in a Russian style, a kind of Xander Parish-y look to it, though I’m nowhere near as good a partner as him. I loved dancing in the very abstract works, anything that challenged my classical technique. I enjoyed all of my time on stage and I enjoyed the time performing with colleagues.” He does think though that, in England at that time, the range of choreographers in classical companies was not as wide as now. “I regret that I didn’t do a bit more Forsyth, or Kylián. I loved the Balanchine and Bigonsetti, I was the lead in Square Dance which I adored, and which played to my strengths.” Christopher also remembers enjoying just as much playing the Headmistress in Graduation Ball, using his height to great effect.  

Asked again about the transition from dancing to choreography he explained it was about no longer getting the feedback he needed from performance as had previously been the case. The development of stage fright while dancing in Swan Lake in the round was an aspect of that, and he “couldn’t feel the buzz” as has been the case for other dancers. “But I knew that choreographically I was getting a high from that, so if it all went wrong after a year or two, I had the safety net of youth, I could step back into dancing.” He also realises now that he was in fact being quite strategic in his development, spending his summers on galas and choreographing for schools to build up a network. As a result, when he stopped dancing, he soon had many commissions as well as directing galas for Wayne Sleep as well as guest teaching. He was also involved in developing the Master Classes led by Daria Klimentová and others. “We all enjoyed that and it’s still successful today.  

Christopher also became something of an entrepreneur, putting on shows at Christmas. “Within one year I was knocking on Raymond Gubbay’s door, saying can you give me the Royal Festival Hall. There are things you do when you’re young… I did this version of A Christmas Carol… it wasn’t amazing but I loved setting up a company and we learned so much. We did it again in Cardiff a year later and it was much better.” Graham suggested this must have been excellent preparation for what Christopher does now.

Work followed in Atlanta and New Zealand, but it was Double Concerto that “really landed me and encapsulated what I was about. People saw me as a trusty creator and collaborator.” He explained that being asked to choreograph Romeo and Juliet was a wonderful opportunity, and he could get on with the work in New Zealand out of the glare of the London press. Also he got the chance to bring the work back and refine it several times before bringing it to London and to the Edinburgh Festival. Atlanta Ballet is another place where he has had success including a very different version of Rite of Spring. “Travel is a great educator; I grew creatively as well.”

Moving on to discuss choreographic practice further, Graham mentioned the diversity of the work as regards subject matter although it is always very technical and classical. He wondered whether Christopher develops a store of ideas or has a range of music that he would like to make work to, or is he the kind of choreographer who focuses on one project at a time? Christopher would definitely put himself in the first category: “Just today I walked into our music department and said could you just get me a work by Martinů? I won’t say what it is because it will give it away…” He also said that he sometimes lives with a piece of music for a long time before the time seems right to do something with it. “I’m very score-bound. I play the piano and was trained musically a little bit. Music is a real driver for me.” He did say though that he cannot listen to that same music after he has choreographed to it. 

Graham asked Christopher where his diverse range of choreography comes from. Is it from a diverse love of music? Christopher explained how in his early days as a choreographer he tended to tell stories rather more than choreograph movement; but “when I joined ENB I challenged myself to go very abstract.” In his current role he loves setting up challenges for himself and dancers, and explained how he thinks limits are good “because it challenges you to push.” He also explained how he is “really hands-on” with the group of young choreographers he is working with at Scottish Ballet. “Within the company I set creative challenges and they’re open to anybody.” 

Christopher has been very supportive of Ballet Black and has made Sextet and Storyville for them. Graham mentioned that he had particularly admired the news piece written by Christopher regarding race and ballet. In the piece Christopher suggested that no company should be performing a ballet like Petrushka that includes a blackface character and also raised concerns that ballets like La Bayadère and Le Corsaire, done as full productions in their original historical context, belong in a museum. There’s lots of scope for them being reinterpreted".  “That piece I wrote was called Does ballet have a race problem, and the first sentence was "The short answer is yes…"  I encourage our industry to embrace that our history has not always been amazing… It’s not about throwing history away, it’s about not having always been the best we can be, certainly by today’s standards.” He suggested ballet has held on to things no longer seen in theatre or even opera, and an open, transparent discussion of this issue allows the art form to move forward. 

Graham then passed on questions from the audience. The first questioner asked how Christopher ensures diversity in Scottish Ballet. He said it is very difficult. On the stage with Scottish Ballet, audiences will see black and brown dancers. “We’ve actually got the only two British-trained female classical dancers of colour at Scottish Ballet, but the problem is right back in the training.” He felt the issues were around access particularly for young women, “from little ballet class to vocational training – there’s a lot of work to do there.” In terms of diversity for the rest of the company, “I just wrote my board report yesterday and the last sentence was we’re very white at board level.” 

The next questioner asked whether there was a bona fide charity that either could recommend that helps struggling dancers, particularly those in the corps de ballet. Graham mentioned that dancers at New York City Ballet have started something. Christopher suggested Dancers Career Development (DCD), a transition organisation helping dancers to increase skill sets and engage in lifelong training, and not just at the end of their career. “They are a fantastic charity that we give to and support at Scottish Ballet.” 

The final questioner asked Christopher to say how he meshes choreography and being in charge, and what the balance is in terms of time. He explained he wished he knew the answer but he is lucky to have the entire organisation under one roof which is a big help. “I try not to think about my hours, it is my vocation.”

Graham finished by asking what the plans are now that 2020 season has now been moved to 2021 starting with The Crucible at Sadler’s Well March 2021. Christopher explained that will be followed by David Dawson’s Swan Lake for a season in Spring. Then Christopher is very excited to be producing Macmillan’s Mayerling, with permission from Lady Macmillan to create a smaller tourable two act version, “like a chamber work, focusing on Rudolf and the women in his life.” That is in the Autumn. 

Graham offered his thanks and handed back to Susan who commented that Chris’s enthusiasm and passion “leaps across the screen.” She also reminded us that LBC is international as was shown by those attending, and one of the questions having come from Canada. “It’s been such a pleasure and you would be deafened by the round of applause you would be receiving.” 

Members were also reminded that they were not being asked to pay for the virtual interviews but  the LBC continues to support students, schools, and dance organisations so all were encouraged to make a donation to the website – press donate at www.tlbc.org.uk.

Written by Chris Abbott and edited/approved by Christopher Hampson and Graham Watts

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