DAVID NIXON OBE "IN CONVERSATION" WITH DAME MONICA MASON DBE
12TH JANUARY 2021
Originally scheduled to take part in this Conversation had been Henry Danton but, owing to technical difficulties with the internet, it had been decided to postpone that interview to a later date and David Nixon, Director of Northern Ballet, had agreed to step in as interviewee. Susan Dalgetty Ezra expressed LBC’s gratitude for his “coming on board at the last moment”. She noted that he, one of the Circle’s vice-presidents, would be In Conversation with our President Dame Monica Mason, “so we have London Ballet Circle royalty tonight.”
Dame Monica reiterated these thanks to David for “stepping onto centre stage tonight at a moment’s notice” and added: “ but then you’ve had lots of practice doing that.” She began by asking for some biographical details. How, why and when had he started to dance?
David said he had been born in Windsor, Ontario, Canada, to English parents and the family had moved when he was four years old to another Ontario town, Chatham. “I’d been bothering my mother to take dancing lessons since I could speak and finally when we moved she took me to Florence Abel’s School of Dance and I started ballet and tap at the age of four. She thought I’d give it up quite soon but, instead, I added more classes the following year and so on and so on.”
He then admitted to “a big mistake” when he was six, in Grade1. “ Mary Poppins had just come out at that time, we were doing a sort of musical on it and I wanted to audition for the role of the chimney sweep, so I brought my RAD record in and put my tights on and did a ballet demonstration so I could get the part, and I did.”
He was very good, he said, and “managed to let everyone know that I was a ballet dancer in a hockey town in Canada.” For the next six years, walking to school, during break, lunchtime and walking home he was called ‘Tina the ballerina’. And, he went on, it was non-stop, even throughout the summer. “They would follow me around if I did any activity. The interesting thing was they would tire of it but they would pass it on to the new generation of kids so I was always picking this up.”
Matters improved when he was in Grade 7 and moved to a new school where no-one knew he danced. He didn’t tell anyone “and all of a sudden I was liked by people and I had friends.” At the same time he had decided to audition for the National Ballet School of Canada in Toronto as he felt he needed more tuition in ballet than his current teacher, who was an excellent tap tutor, could provide.
He duly auditioned and was accepted. “I think they thought I was never going to leave,” he said. “because I took two extra graduate years. I truly loved the school, I loved my classmates, I just loved the atmosphere. I think it was an extraordinary place, they were extraordinary people and they meant so much to me.” When he did eventually leave he joined the National Ballet of Canada when Alexander Grant was the artistic director and he quickly climbed through the company. Part of that success was “ jumping in like I am doing tonight,” he explained. “I remember on my very first tour, we were doing Rite of Spring and I actually danced six different roles over the tour as all the men went down and in one ballet I had been covering one soloist’s place and in fact both the principal and the soloist went down and with no rehearsal I stepped in and did both parts combined together.” This created for him a reputation that he was in fact “not too bad” on stage and he eventually began to attract his own roles.
A few years passed at the company and he was asked to get involved in a special tour [show] in America – Baryshnikov and Friends or, in his case, Alexander Godunov and Friends. They travelled to 26 cities in six weeks over the summer and that was when he met his wife to be Yoko Ichino who on one occasion said to him; “Do you mind if I tell you something?”
“I said ‘no, that’s fine,’” he remembers. And she went on: ’Can I just tell you that you work all wrong!
“You can imagine I was quite a diligent sort of student and I always worked very hard,” he admitted, adding: “Once, when Alexander Grant laughed at me in rehearsal because I couldn’t do a turn, he said: ‘You haven’t worked that one out yet, David, because he knew that I figured things out even when I didn’t really do them correctly. And I guess always being a student I said (to Yoko); ‘Well, what do you mean?’ And she said; ‘Well if you want I’ll teach you.’” So for about three-quarters of the American tour he would spend three hours with Yoko on the barre each morning. “I was trying to change how I worked and nothing was really there so it was a kind of guessing game when I went out on stage,” he said. “ Anyway, the tour ended and I went back to the National Ballet of Canada but I had this thing that I wanted to change how I worked. Then part way through the season Yoko came and auditioned and Alexander Grant took her because she was ideal for a wonderful dancer we had in the company called Kevin Pugh.”
This meant David could continue to work with Yoko but it proved difficult as he had grown up with the National Ballet School and, he said, people could not understand what he was trying to do. “Whenever I said ‘I’m trying to learn and trying to work with Yoko’ they said ‘but she doesn’t look like you’. I said ‘yes, but she’s been doing this technique for years.’” David decided it was best to take time off from the company, which he did for a year.
Just prior to this change Nureyev had danced with The National Ballet of Canada in Sleeping Beauty and when he discovered that David was planning to leave he spoke to fellow dancer Erik Bruhn and “told him he was loosing his prince to stir up the pot.” Unbeknown to David at the time Nureyev called a few directors and told them that David would soon be available and they should contact him.
That intervention, David explained, led to his moving to Berlin to the Deutsche Oper Ballet under the directorship of Gert Reinholm. “For me it was a really extraordinary time,” he said, “They had a fascinating rep and Reinholm was like a Diaghilev in some ways. He had been a great dancer himself.” He also had a way of gathering the right people to him, such as Sylvie Guillem “who danced a gala in the opera house before anyone really knew who Sylvie Guillem was.”
The other advantage was that, at last, David was able to work in partnership with Yoko. Herr Reinholm allowed the couple to dance much of the company’s rep together.
Dame Monica asked about Yoko’s background and why she felt she could introduce David to a different dancing technique.
He replied that Yoko had been trained by Mia Slavenska who had met Yoko’s sister when the latter was something of a child prodigy in New York appearing in shows with the likes of Danny Kaye and Frank Sinatra. She was indeed gifted and Mia moved from New York to Los Angeles to train her. She began teaching Yoko and the manner in which she taught Cecchetti was quite difficult.
“They were very hard classes and she (Mia) was of the old school,” said David. “She was nasty-plus. She’d say things to people like ‘what are you wearing stripes for, you’re fat as it is and that makes you look twice as big’. But Yoko really understood Mia so many times Mia didn’t come in and told her to teach the class even when she was only 14. So she was always teaching when she was very young and teaching older people because most of the ballet students couldn’t stand Mia after a couple of weeks.” The only students who stuck with her tended to be the modern dancers.
Here Dame Monica enquired whether David studied Cecchetti at the National Ballet School?
Yes, he confirmed, adding: “I grew up with RAD then went to the National Ballet School. We did Cecchetti, I wouldn’t say we trained Cecchetti but we did the exams. I was the first boy in the School, with Kevin (Pugh) to take the advanced Cecchetti.
Dame Monica continued: “So now you’re in Germany with Gert Reinholm. I was very fortunate. I met Gert when he was still director there, when Rudolf put on a production of The Nutcracker for the company. I don’t think you were there then.”
David said that that was before his time. Dame Monica said Herr Reinholm had asked her to come and teach the snowflakes adding: “ I think that was the late seventies, ’79. Yes, you’re still a baby.”
David laughed: “ I was just coming out of school.”
Dame Monica recalled Reinholm as an extraordinary man. “He was really wonderful. It was a great privilege to meet him and know him a little.” Then she asked: “So how long did you stay in Berlin?”
“I was there for five years as a dancer,” David confirmed, “and in the fifth year Reid Anderson took over the National Ballet of Canada and I had been guesting with them after a couple of years because all along they thought I was coming back, I was on a leave of absence, but I kept saying ‘well, I haven’t really done what I need to do yet,’ but then Reid took over and, because he understood the German system he said: ‘you resign in November in Berlin or I won’t give you a contract. So I resigned and actually decided through that year that I didn’t want to stay in Canada. I wanted to stay in Berlin but in that period the directorship had changed in Berlin and Gert stepped down so that Peter Schaufuss took over (1990). I had already given up my contract and Peter wanted it for someone else so I was kind of out of a job.”
At this point he and Yoko decided to go freelance although he admits to not having been as confident as her on this move so he took up a position in Munich as a resident guest artist to dance with Evelyn Hart. He remained her partner there for a year and also continued freelancing with Yoko.
Dame Monica commented that Evelyn Hart was Canadian. Had David known her in Canada?
He said yes, he had, and had almost gone to the Royal Winnipeg Ballet where she was before his original move to Berlin. He went on; “Evelyn is a little bit above me so I actually never saw her in the school before she left. She didn’t stay very long at the National Ballet School. It didn’t work for her and then she ended up in Winnipeg of course where she was really able to blossom and become a quite extraordinary dancer.” He added: “So that was an interesting year. After that we (he and Yoko) just decided to freelance and we lived in Berlin so I was there for another four years, so that’s ten years in total and I started to get this idea that I wanted to direct more and I thought to myself ‘I’m not going to get a job as a director just having been a principal dancer. Why should you just hire a dancer to direct a company?’”
This decided him to produce his own evening of dance, which he ended up doing twice. This, he felt, gave him some credentials to prove he did understand marketing, fundraising, programming, even lighting.
“What kind of evening was it? Did you have dancers from abroad?” Dame Monica wanted to know.
David said that on the first occasion he used dancers he knew from the Deutsche Oper. He choreographed the entire evening and, on the second occasion, he also used dancers from elsewhere that were available; friends including Martine Lamy who was a principal at the National Ballet of Canada. “She came over and she did the Marquise in my original version of Dangerous Liaisons. She was quite outstanding in that role and I was showing people a video of her recently when we were re-doing the ballet .”
Dame Monica asked: “Am I right in saying that you’d shown a real interest in choreography when you were at the National Ballet School?”
David said he had. There had been choreography workshops but these had fallen away for a few years. But his best friend at the school, John Alleyne, who went on to become quite a well-known choreographer and directed Ballet BC, decided along with David that they wanted to choreograph something for fellow dancers while at the school during the summer.
“We did it in our own time because Betty (Oliphant – co-founder of the National Ballet School) wouldn’t give us any time during the day. We choreographed and put together a programme at the end and Betty was thrilled actually and that was the start again of the choreographic workshops taking place in school.” David went on to participate in several such workshops but said: “I don’t think I ever really thought why I wanted to choreograph at that time. I’m not really sure but it was there and when I met Yoko I started to create things for us.”
Dame Monica noted that he quite enjoyed choreographing for himself and Yoko, adding; “Which is not the easiest thing to do.”
David was frank: “I think I enjoyed choreographing for her, not me. I loved how she danced and I had to make things for her. She was so easy to partner. I could play with different ways of partnering with her that I couldn’t necessarily do with some other dancers.”
“And partnering was one of your very strong points, I imagine,” interjected Dame Monica.
David agreed. “ I always valued being a partner. I grew up adoring the ballerinas in Canada. When I got to dance with them it was special to me and I always thought of taking care of them. I felt that that was what my job was. It wasn’t about showing myself off. It was about making sure they looked their best. When you dance with dancers that are more mature than yourself you have such respect for them.”
Dame Monica asked if pas de deux had been taught at the National Ballet School?
Yes, said David. “We had very good teachers in the sense that I had Glenn Gilmour and Earl Kraul. The problem was that we would start pas de deux in September and by the middle of October the pas de deux classes were cancelled for rehearsals so you were never really getting the training.”
“And whenever”, commented Dame Monica, “I see your dancers in your company (Northern Ballet) I am always struck by how wonderful the boys partner and I imagine that must come from you being a very good partner and being able to rehearse people really well, teach them how to partner well. Is that right?
“I definitely can show them how to partner in ways that perhaps some people don’t understand,” he said, “ because I was also quite guided through my whole career by various people, not just working with Yoko. Evelyn was quite a demanding partner and she had really studied things and she would insist in you partnering her in certain ways. There were also stories about how Gelsey (Kirkland) wanted to be partnered. We heard those and I experimented with those ideas with Yoko and with Evelyn. I was about illusion. So how do you make the illusion better? And to make the illusion better you have to be a better partner. And in the early days I was really able to teach the men in the company. I could do it all. Also the value in my choreography is that the partnering’s quite challenging and so they have to learn to be a good partner in a certain way.”
Dame Monica asked whether David had been fortunate in not suffering a lot of injury as a dancer?
He replied that one injury in particular had plagued him since the age of 16. It involved his knee but he never knew what the problem was until later in life when it transpired that the cartilage was not set in the normal way so he could not bend his knee fully. “It locks,” he said, “ but I also tended to tear it slightly so there was constantly this sort of swelling which would then go away.” He added: “ Actually, that did hurt my career but as regards other injuries I never suffered with anything else.”
Dame Monica continued on the theme of treating injuries. She said: “I don’t know what the set up was like in Berlin but it was really quite a long time before physiotherapists began to specialise in sports and dance injuries, wasn’t it?”
David agreed that the directors in Berlin and elsewhere at that time didn’t know what to do about injuries. “I remember in Canada you had to ask another dancer what to do if you had a problem, where to go, what to do, it wasn’t the staff,” he said, “ Then in Berlin there was nothing. You had to figure it out for yourself. It’s so much better today. We have a full-time physiotherapist for the dancers, we have a massage therapist and we have access to the info about other things as well.”
That was interesting, commented Dame Monica, as a lot of sports science had come out of Germany since. She went on: “I know one of the first people to work at the Royal Ballet was a German trained therapist. I called him a little tank – nothing could ever have blown him over. He was so solid. He hadn’t been a dancer but I know he had trained a lot of people in this country and he was very knowledgeable and it seemed to me then, and I’m talking late ‘90s and the beginning of the new century, that we really got to grips with it and I think in the last 20 years they’ve made such strides. I think it has become more acceptable and understandable that dancers, like athletes, might get injured so directors became a little bit more understanding and, frustrating as it is as a director to have somebody go off, and certainly when I was directing as I did a lot of teaching of injured dancers, so I was very sympathetic to it because I’d had one injury that had kept me off for nearly a year and I had to get myself back into shape. So I think we’ve come a long way in recent years.”
David said it was also helpful nowadays to have clear guidance as to when something really was serious and when it was not. “The important thing is to take the responsibility off of the dancer because that way they don’t feel pressured to do something when they shouldn’t, even when they want to. I’ve had dancers say ‘no, I can still do it,’ and I’m like ‘no, in this instance the physio has said that it could get worse by doing something’ so that is a turning point for us.”
Dame Monica wanted to know when David decided that his dancing career was probably coming to an end and he was looking to transition? Did he see himself as a choreographer or a director?
“I really saw myself as a director,” he said. “Because I went to America to a smaller company (Ballet Met, Columbus, Ohio) and the resources were not there to hire people to choreograph six programmes a year so I had to do it and I had experience with it so was fine. What happened is that I felt that my choreography was not of itself that extraordinary a thing but the experience of the process for the dancers was quite extraordinary and what developed in them was really worthwhile. I think of myself as a training choreographer in a way when I take a ballet and I look at my company and what do they need? What can I use the ballet to pull out of them? Is it about their idea and their concept and what they have to say? My approach is much more like a director? What do I want to do for the dancers?”
Dame Monica said: “I think your record of achievement in terms of full length works is quite extraordinary. What was the first full-length ballet you made?
David confirmed that this was Nutcracker, adding: “Because they didn’t want to pay royalties to the old version in the company in America so they said: ‘Please do the Nutcracker right away’, which was OK. It wasn’t the best. But my first new full-length that season was Dangerous Liaisons.”
Dame Monica wanted to know what appealed to him about that complex story with many interesting characters and for an American audience?
“You’re right to point out it was America,” David replied. “We had parents calling us ‘would this be appropriate for my three-year-old?’ and we’re like ‘there’s a word Dangerous in there I don’t think that’s right for a three-year-old.’ It was the characters (that appealed) because I was a dramatic dancer so I had more of an affinity for dramatic characters and there were several of them and I was trying to get away from the ballet that’s typical in a classical ballet repertoire where you have a single principal man and woman and maybe some soloists underneath but that sense that more people were necessary to tell the story in concrete ways. There are four strong women characters and not as many men – two – but my company wasn’t that big so in terms of the company where you have two casts doing it, that was quite good for offering soloist parts.”
Dame Monica wanted to know what music was used and what about the designs, did David do that as well?
He said the music was mainly Vivaldi’s Four Seasons augmented with some additional pieces and, yes, he also did the designs but on that he admitted: “ Wayne Eagling once said to me, he looked at my sweater and said: ‘did you knit that as well?’ I said ‘well maybe I wouldn’t have to if I had the money that ENB has!’
“In the early days I couldn’t afford designers so I did all the sets and the costumes but always in collaboration with the team, building the set with people, painting the scenery and then with the costume department. I always worked closely with them and utilised their talents.”
Was there one choreographer that David would say influenced him, especially in the beginning, Dame Monica asked?
David paused. “That’s a hard one. John Neumeier for me was quite big when I was in Germany and I really admired what he did.”
“Did you dance for him,” Dame Monica wanted to know.
Yes, he had danced Neumeier’s Nutcracker, but he went on: “Béjart for me also fit me physically very well and I think because of that I really enjoyed it. But I’ve never had an ability to imitate a choreographer. I once did a piece and said to Yoko: ‘And who does this remind you of?’ She says: ‘Who is this supposed to remind me of?’ I said Twyla Tharp isn’t it? And she goes ‘No, it’s not Twyla Tharp’. And I did another piece I thought was Yuri Killian and that wasn’t Killian either so I never really had that ability to imitate a choreographer.”
In the early days of his choreographing his work went quite well for women dancers but, he said, the men hated what he asked them to do. “They’d look at me and they’d say ‘Really? You want me to do that with my legs?’ I’d say ‘Yes.’ They’d say ‘No’. When I finally started to collaborate much more and give them keys to work with, that was the most successful version for me and that’s when I came over to Northern Ballet (2001). That’s the way I was working at that point.”
Dame Monica wondered how many rôles he had had created on him by a choreographer but he admitted not as many as he would have liked.
But, said Dame Monica, had he not worked with Glenn Tetley on a creation?
“I worked a lot with Glenn Tetley,” David explained, “but never had anything created. I was always second cast.” He went on: “I had a lot of creations from Constantine Patsalis who was a choreographer, he was Erik Bruhn’s partner for a long time in Canada. In Germany, they tended to buy ballets rather than create them. I had a duet with Eva Evdokimova choreographed by John Neumeier for myself called the Einhorn – the Unicorn. But actually I didn’t create many rôles. My dancers get to create roles all the time. I don’t think they realise how fortunate they are.”
Dame Monica agreed it was a very different experience but she was asking because she felt he had always been so conscious as a dancer wanting to improve himself but also having the ability to analyse very carefully and closely, and, alongside Yoko, what worked and what didn’t work. How much help had Yoko been to him in his choreography?
“I think where she helps is by training the dancers,” he answered. “ So she works on their technique and the way in which they execute so that supports how I would like them to move and gives the company more of an identity in the way it moves and also sometimes I’m looking for the clever idea and she says: ‘the more you try and find the clever idea, the farther away it will be. Just let it be, if you find one, you find one, if you don’t, you don’t.’ Yoko’s very balanced.”
Dame Monica asked: “Do you have any particular ballet that you would describe as your favourite in terms of what you’ve created and what you’ve made for your dancers? Something you’re especially proud of or, maybe, you’re proud of all of them as well. I imagine you would be.”
This, he said, was a really difficult question. He explained: “I think I look at ballets by dancers I’ve created and worked with and because I look at them that way, each of them is special in its own unique way because of the experience of working with those dancers and what that brought to them and to me and to the company.”
For that reason he could not really place one ballet over another but, on the other hand, he described what he called the “most different experience” he had had and this was when he created Ondine for Ballet du Rhin. That was so special because it was the only ballet he created on another company. “And because the dancers were quite classical but did a lot of contemporary work and when I came in and I had the more classical vocabulary and this very difficult story, they were just like sponges and they worked with me, especially the two leading women who were just extraordinary.” He described the experience as really beautiful and received a review in Dance Europe that said he had made Hans Werner Henze’s music come into its own. “I think that was probably the biggest compliment anybody could have made and the fact that I had understood the music.”
That work had been in 2006 and Dame Monica noted that that would have been 50 years since Henze had written the score for Ashton. She recalled: “I think ’58 was the premiere for Ondine here and while Sir Fred was choreographing, he would come to a halt because he was waiting for the next piece of music to come from Germany. He didn’t have the whole score and he had no way in those days of hearing the score before he choreographed. It would arrive with a piano score, the pianist would play him some things, but of course it’s hardly a representation of it. We were so struck the very first time we heard the first orchestral. What we were hearing now was so very different from what we’d heard on the piano and of course we had no way of just listening and listening and listening to the music. We just had a very few orchestral rehearsals and the first night happened. So I should think that the first time you came to make the ballet you’d had the chance to really listen to the music?”
David said he could not imagine that score on a piano, describing some of it as so ‘thin’. “I don’t know what you would play to make it come to life.” He added: “I always laugh because Bertrand (Bertrand d’At, director of Ballet du Rhin) called me and asked me to do it and I would have to use the Henze score and I said ‘yes’ because I was really eager to do the ballet. I put the phone down and I said ‘Oh, my god! THAT music! because I never though of Henze as easy music and I wondered how I was going to be able to deal with it. I think it was a combination of those dancers and I had rewritten the story. I took it back more to the original and I actually added more Henze music into it .
Had he seen Ashton’s Ondine, Dame Monica asked?
He said ‘no’ “But, you were doing it at that time with both Alina and Tamara and I came and you gave me tickets and so that’s when I saw it and I thought to myself ‘Oh my god! How do you deal with this piece? It’s quite difficult musically to understand it. It was iconic in my head for Margot Fonteyn even though I’d never seen it, I had images of what it was, it was the same with Marguerite and Armand. You read about it as a student, you just think to yourself: ‘these were moments in dance that everyone in the world knew were happening, so when someone asks you to do something that is so iconic, to do it again, it’s quite humbling. You have to step back and think you won’t do THAT. You must not think of it as trying to capture THAT. You just have to think ‘now what would I like to do with it 50 years later?’”
This prompted Dame Monica to ask: “Can you say whether you’ve always come up with the idea of a ballet first rather than hearing a score and thinking ‘I’d really love to choreograph something to that music?’”
David was definite: “It’s ideas first. Sometimes it’s difficult to find the music; to figure out which way to go with it, especially if it’s not going to be an original composition. When we first were going to do The Great Gatsby and we didn’t have time for an original score , who struggled to think of who we could use? and it was actually the orchestra manager who suggested Richard Rodney Bennett.”
And, he added, author Anthony Meredith who wrote the biography of the composer worked with them as he had worked with David Drew on the Malcolm Arnold score for The Three Musketeers. “He (Meredith) is a great person for finding music from just about anywhere that the person’s written,” he said.
Dame Monica agreed: “Those are examples of two scores that just are a marriage between the choreography and the music which is just what every choreographer always wants,” she said, then asked: “ Would you say that you felt restricted financially with the ideas that you could explore as the director of Northern Ballet having choreographed so many works? Do you think that had you had bigger budgets you would have done things very differently?”
David responded by saying that the problem in some ways was the audience and their expectations. “They’ve grown to want the spectacular production in terms of sets and costumes which are very expensive and that can take away quite a bit from the actual dance which is what I always think we should be looking at.
“I make choices in that, instead of doing one new production with the money we had, I’d do two. The limitation for us as a company comes more from our theatres because many of them are very small and they don’t have the depth, so some of the things that you spend money on you couldn’t make use of.”
He said he always thought of the European stages and, indeed, the Royal Opera House and the depth available. “You can build these fantastic sets that retreat into the distance or out to the wings,” he said. “In many of our venues there’s nowhere except for the space for a dancer to exit. So we’re always trying to figure out ‘so, the bed goes off now stage right, not stage left and this piece of furniture has to come on from the opposite side and the dancers have to exit a different way …”
That was typical of a touring company going to various theatres. He gave the example of Matthew Bourne’s productions. “ He tours them to our similar venues. But they build it on a certain size and it’s always that size, but I think my choreography doesn’t work that way. I always wanted more and more space and the sets always had to be that much more expandable. I always think that if you don’t have money you need to have more creativity. It was a very good experiment this past autumn because we couldn’t have taken a set into the theatre with Dangerous Liaisons because it was lost in the (2015 Leeds) flood. So we didn’t have the set, we didn’t even have the furniture. We had to piece it together but it gave an opportunity to look at the production absolutely stripped down to nothing so it came back to just the three pieces of furniture and the black back, and three chandeliers.”
This actually made the piece look as though it was reborn, he felt, and one focussed totally on what the dancers were doing. Sometimes, he said, sets could take ones eyes away from what was going on on stage. He cited the revolving wall in Akram Khan’s Giselle at the ENB. “You can’t not look at that wall – that piece of incredible scenery they’ve got on stage. It’s meant to do that.”
Dame Monica said all credit was due to David for coping with the effects of the disastrous flood. “It was so horrific for you, wasn’t it?”
He agreed that, on one level, it had been terrible because so many productions were lost, and that was the company’s history that was going. “Then,” he said, “you have to make that decision whether you’re going to rebuild things or not and it’s kind of a sad thing in a way because you’re like ‘well I think that ballet isn’t going to work any more. As much as I like it I think we’re going to have to say no to that.’ On the other hand, because of the insurance, that has helped us do new ballets, like 1984, Jane Eyre, Casanova, Geisha, because otherwise in our budget at the moment we wouldn’t have had those funds. I made the decision consciously to put to bed some of my rep so that we could use that to support new choreographers and for me that was the right decision.”
“Do you find it very rewarding,” asked Dame Monica, “to see somebody come through your company and create something that you admire and that works so well for your company?”
David admitted he absolutely loved that. “Both Jonathan Watkins and Cathy Marston did really wonderful works for us and Cathy has a much longer and closer relationship than does Jonathan so with Cathy we’ve really gone through quite a history together. She feels comfortable with the company probably in a way that she doesn’t with every company. And then of course there’s Kenneth Tindall who grew up as a dancer with me and then I recognised he had a talent for choreography and I have really tried to commission him and feed that talent and I enjoy nothing as much any more as rehearsing his ballets, as a rehearsal director, and he trusts that I’m not a choreographer coming into the studio. I really am a rehearsal director who’s trying to make his vision be as good as possible with the dancers. The dancers like it because I have an imagination and sometimes they can’t see so I can tell them a story that I can see in the choreography and the movements.”
He gave as an example working previously with dancer Mlindi Kulashe. “My ideas weren’t necessarily what Mlindi had in his head but what they did was connect the dancers in a way that ended up making the choreography work in the way Milindi wanted it to. I’m more of a rehearsal director than I am a choreographer.”
Dame Monica said she felt he was an amazing choreographer. She said: “I’m a huge fan, David. I think so many of your talents and your gifts are really rare and I think that the dancers who work with you and for you are really very blessed to have such an extraordinary person leading the company.” She wanted to know about any difficulty or not in selecting dancers for Northern Ballet. “You’re so experienced now I’m sure that you take a look at a dancer and you know instantly whether they are going to work for you. Is that so?” And how often was it that someone didn’t work out?
David said finding new dancers was still quite challenging. He had quite an intensive auditioning process but a problem was that a dancer who worked well compared with others being auditioned might, all of a sudden, turn up on the first day of work with the company, “ and you go: ‘ Oh my goodness! What was I thinking?’ because in the mix of your company they don’t work the same.”
Then there were those who were exactly right. “There are dancers, Kevin Poeung was one, I just saw him at the barre and I knew I wanted him and I knew he was extraordinary and special, and Joseph Taylor is another one and Abigail Prudames.”
Dame Monica said David was very encouraging with his dancers and helped them when they wanted to explore something different or begin to choreograph. It was important, she believed, to keep one’s dancers as rewarded, happy, satisfied and challenged as possible. Is this something you really enjoy getting into with them?” she asked.
He felt it was very important to support them. “I didn’t stay in one company my whole life. I went and did many things and that made me have more information and knowledge. I said to somebody the other day ‘ You don’t own the dancers. They are with you and you give them what you can and you hope you have a certain amount of time with them. They are passing through and you do have to help them and sometimes I can’t because we have a lot of performers and that can limit my ability to let them be free but in terms of doing courses and wanting to choreograph or wanting to go out and try something I really want to support that as much as possible and I try my best.”
Was there anything, asked Dame Monica, that he wished he’d done as a dancer and as a director?
David thought for a moment. “The only thing I really would have liked to have done as a dancer was John Neumeier’s Swan Lake. It was the one thing I felt I had missed out on,” he admitted. “As a director, there’s too many things to list. One’s always learning as a director. I was so inspired when I started off in America but I made many mistakes, I didn’t understand the job. I had come from being a dancer. I had a lot of wonderful people on my staff who gave me a lot of guidance and knowledge. I wish I’d known more when I started about what the job really is. I think many of us fantasise about what being a director is but when you sit in that chair you really have to understand it becomes not about you at all whereas when you’re a dancer it’s only about you and within a month I understood that I wasn’t really important any more and I really was there for other people.”
He had been asked, he said, why he did not direct a larger company. “ Unlike you, Monica, I could not have done that. It takes a special person to run a company like the Royal Ballet because it’s a lot of different hats and I think I don’t have some of those hats so I was much better off in a smaller company and I would have liked to have known a bit better what the job was.” He then admitted that in the early days he didn’t use email at all. “I didn’t use a computer for the first six years in America,” he confessed. “It was when I came to England finally. Mark Skipper (chief executive, Northern Ballet) forced me onto the computer.”
Dame Monica turned to questions posed by members watching the Conversation on Zoom. The first wanted to know what was the most favourite role David had danced?
He said this was probably Albrecht in Giselle dancing opposite his wife in the classical version but his favourite programme of all time was doing Béjart’s Firebird “and then being on the table in Bolero. It was fantastic because I didn’t have to lift anybody all night and I had more energy to dance than I had ever had.”
Another questioner asked who had been the designer of his Peter Pan and had it survived the flood?
David said the ballet had unfortunately been one of those they had said goodbye to. He had done the costumes and the designer was Peter Mumford.
The next questioner wanted to know if he was working on any choreography at present and which contemporary choreographers did he most enjoy?
David replied that he didn’t really choreograph any more. The last thing he had done was The Little Mermaid. As to his favourite choreographers at present these were Kenneth Tindall, Cathy Marston and Jonathan Watkins, all of whom had worked for him. He added: “What’s interesting today is that there are more really talented choreographers than there were during our time. It’s hard when you’re looking for who to choose for a mixed programme because you get in so many videos of work that is quite interesting.
Another questioner asked how it had been getting a new purpose-built facility and whether the City of Leeds had been supportive?
“I have to say ‘yes’, the City of Leeds has been very supportive, not only financially every year but we wouldn’t have the building without them. It was only when the Council took over the project that we were able to fund it and get it built and they leased the land for it.” Moving into the building also had an immediate effect on the company’s profile.
“I remember,” he said: “there was a critic who always came to our old facility in West Park to do interviews because no-one else wanted to come there and all of a sudden she couldn’t get an interview when we were in the new building because everyone wanted to come and see the new building. We were the same company but all of a sudden it became something else. I miss in a very interesting way the old building because it was nostalgic and we created so many ballets there and the truth is nobody wanted to rent our studios so they were always mine.
“In the new building because of the cost we have to rent studios. I feel sometimes they’re not our home in a way. We’re also a tenant there and it has bothered me sometimes.”
But, he admitted, one advantage of lockdown is that nobody else has been in the building except the company “and we have all the doors open so we can hear the music from the studios in the atrium. And that’s what a ballet building should be like.”
Here the questions concluded and Dame Monica summed up by thanking David and saying: “I don’t know where British ballet would be without you.” The interview had also been a very good launch for the London Ballet Circle’s New Year.
Susan Dalgetty Ezra reiterated these thanks and admitted feeling very homesick hearing David talk about Canada and she added: “I feel very fortunate because I saw David and Yoko dance in the National Ballet of Canada in Toronto. When the School produces dancers like him who come over here and put Leeds on the map, it’s really wonderful.” She ended with the hope that LBC members would be able to travel up to Leeds in due course to see his new production of Merlin.
Written by Phillip Cooper, approved by David Nixon and Dame Monica Mason