CLAIRE CALVERT AND ALEXANDER CAMPBELL "IN CONVERSATION" with Linda Gainsbury
29th June 2021
A delightful couple – both on and off the stage – joined the LBC for an informative and entertaining evening!
London Ballet Circle Chair Susan Dalgetty Ezra extended a warm welcome to those tuning in to the program, via Zoom, and introduced the evening’s guests from the Royal Ballet: Alexander Campbell (Principal Dancer) and Claire Calvert (First Soloist). “If you are a ‘first-timer’ to these conversations, you have chosen a very good evening indeed to join in,” said Susan. “We have watched Alex and Claire dance many iconic roles, and I for one know that when their names appear on the cast sheet, I am in for a very good night at the ballet!”
Susan then turned the program over to Linda Gainsbury, to begin the conversation.
“There is no doubt the lock-down turned Alex and Claire’s professional lives upside down”, Linda said, “but since May of this year, life has felt really busy for the Royal Ballet. You’ve both been on stage extensively, and Claire, you have featured in a new work. Tell us about that, and the creative process.”
“It’s a new piece created by Kyle Abraham,” said Claire. “He is an American, I believe, from New York City originally. She explained that, during the pandemic, choreographers had had cast on the basis of their existing knowledge of dancers. Kyle had picked Natalia Osipova and Marcelino Sambe to be in his piece. However, when he came and saw the dancers, he wanted to explore more, so that’s when other dancers got involved. Claire added that it was an interesting and new experience as she hadn’t done a huge amount of new work in her career.
The audience was reminded that the piece was entitled Optional Family: A Divertissement, and started with an amusing monologue, with the speaker playing both the man and the woman, and then switching to the domestic reality. How was it being part of that creative process, as some of us were left a little bit not understanding the story?
“I think it felt like the exploration of a theme,” said Alex. “When I saw rehearsals, and the end-product, there was an exploratory feel to the piece. In a way, it was a nice, positive way for a choreographer to have the opportunity to work with, or within, a Company. Often, people arrive and go straight into the deep-end, not having the opportunity to work, or be part of the classes, to make decisions.” “He was definitely quite an open person,” agreed Claire, “and ‘in the moment’. Some things we didn’t know until we were on stage, and would suddenly think ‘what’s that?’. Kyle uses those reactions and feelings in the decisions he makes within his pieces .” As Kyle was due to return to The Royal Ballet during the 2021/22 season, Claire thought that the short piece he had produced might be just the starting point and that it would be enlarged upon.
Claire also mentioned that that experience had been very helpful to her, in terms of getting re-accustomed to being on stage. “The contrast between that, and then being in Apollo – it’s really quite extraordinary!” observed Linda. Claire agreed, adding that she had initially been concerned that Apollo was to be her first show after lockdown. “Sometimes it is not the rehearsals that give you the practice, but the fact you’ve had performances.”
Alex was asked whether performing in Within the Golden Hour was a good way to come back in terms of getting used to being on stage again? “If I had done all the shows, yes,” laughed Alex, “but we only did one, as my partner was injured.” He had felt the need to be on stage ahead of the exertions of Dances at a Gathering because the stop/start nature of the season had been difficult to contend with. “And the Brown Boy: he’s quite prominent, and that role is demanding,” Linda added.
"There’s a section in the ballet called the Brown Boy, where we did a pas de deux with the Pink Girl, who was Marianela Nunez. It is quite an exertion,” said Alex. He described a quick turn-around before coming back on for the second variation, which is the more tiring of the variations. “l always got a bit nervous about making sure I had the puff-and-legs to get through,” he said, “but the wonderful thing about Dances at a Gathering is everything about it, every part of it, is just a joy to perform.”
Alex was asked to expand on that as some members of the audience want to layer a story on top of the dancing, and take things from the interrelationships they see. “Do the dancers see those interrelationships and weave stories or do they play it like it was intended to be – story-less?”
“We are encouraged to learn the steps, and do the steps on the music, and that’s it,” replied Alex. “But I think it is impossible to be on stage, interacting with other people, and NOT have a reaction to them. What I love about Dances at a Gathering, from an audience perspective, is that it is impossible to watch and not put something of yourself onto what you are seeing. I think that is the beauty and the magic of the piece - everyone will have a different take. There is no right or wrong. It’s you watching something and projecting your own experience on it, whether it is life experience or how you feel that day, and it will always be slightly different based on how you feel, but also on who you are seeing on stage.”
Asked whether there was scope for individual interpretation as Calliope in Apollo, Claire replied. “The last time I did Apollo was quite some time ago, and I was one of the Hand Maidens”. She described the way it is rehearsed as “you come in, you do your part, and you go. You don’t necessarily get all the in-depth feeling and understanding of the piece. But what is mind blowing about Apollo”, she continued, “is that it was choreographed in the 1920s. The generations of people who have done that ballet make it impossible to have just one version. Pat (Patricia Neary) has many videos of different versions of Apollo, and she has an understanding of how it has evolved and how people have done it differently over the years. But it just adds to how amazing that ballet is. It has been around forever, but amazingly, it appears modern!”
Linda pointed out, “You were live-stream cast, both you and Alex.” She asked if it made a difference, on and off stage, when you know you are being broadcast world-wide? “Normally on live-stream to the cinema, there is a slight delay,” Claire explained. “But with the live-stream of Apollo, there was a delay of several minutes, which was a little more comforting. But there is definitely more pressure, as you know this is something that will be there for a long time!”
Alex agreed. “You are aware that it is not just the 2,000 people in the audience who are watching. The number is vastly more than that! And there is the pressure of knowing it will be captured. It is not just a fleeting moment. But backstage, we see the live-capture feed on the screen, from these amazing HD cameras, and it is great.”
One more difference both Claire and Alex found is that, because the cameras are going to capture more close-up shots, the make-up artists apply far less make-up than they would for a normal live, stage performance.
The conversation turned back the guests’ ‘ballet beginnings’ with Claire having a traditional route - local training, White Lodge, Royal Ballet Upper School, to the Royal Ballet. Alex, from Australia, jumped just about as far as he could to the Royal Ballet School, and then onto the Birmingham Royal Ballet. “But why not stay in Australia? Why the great leap?”
Alex explained that his ballet teacher in Sydney had always advocated for the Royal Ballet School (RBS), saying it was the best in the world, so if he wanted to make the most of his potential, that’s where he should be aiming.” He went on to say that, thanks to the Scholarship Program, it was financially a much easier option as the RBS paid for his entire training. “The Australian Ballet School did not offer that for me, and the cost of going there would have been prohibitive for my family,” he said.
“I was there for two and a half years,” said Alex. “I joined in February, 2003, half-way through the year, and had two more years, before graduation. So, there was a year of overlap with Claire because that was the point at which Gailene Stock added a third year to the Upper School training.
“One the best things about the Royal Ballet Upper School,” continued Alex, “is that Directors from all over the world look there for talent. My avenue into Birmingham Royal Ballet came when David Bintley became aware of me, in my second year at the school……… and he invited me and a couple of other boys to come up and work on Beauty and The Beast as students.”
Asked how early in her third year Claire knew that she had a contract with the Royal Ballet, Claire said that, in her case, it was after the first half term. She explained that BRB, ENB and the Royal were very much in circulation with the school and there were always conversations going on with those Companies. Normally, for every other company, students would go and audition. However, in Claire’s third year Ted Brandsen, the Dutch National Director, came to watch class and pas de deux, and he offered her and Yannick Bittencourt (who is now at Paris Opera) a job. This was very unusual as they had only just done their audition photos. However, the protocol then was, if students received an offer, the ‘home’ Companies would be asked if they wanted them. This resulted in (Dame) Monica Mason offering Claire a job.
Speaking of his decision to move from Birmingham and the differences between the two Companies, Alex said, “I had lots of opportunity, and I really enjoyed working with Birmingham Royal Ballet. It was a wonderful six years. But I guess the overriding reason for the move to Royal Ballet came from a chance I had to guest with the Australian Ballet, around my fourth or fifth season with BRB. I had a taste of a different working environment – one that was tougher in terms of coaching and rehearsals. I chatted with the Director of the Australian Ballet at the time, David McAllister, and he suggested RB. I said ‘I don’t think that’s going to happen. No one just moves from the BRB to the Royal’, and he said, ‘why don’t you just try it’”.
Alex explained that, in the following season, Monica Mason, had come up to Birmingham to watch a performance of Cinderella. He continued, “It was on a Sunday – one of I think only three Sunday performances I’d ever been involved with at the Birmingham Royal Ballet, and Monica saw me do a principal role. We had a little conversation, and I thought ‘this might be the right time to send her a letter, indicating my interest’. I think it was an opportunity for me to be in a different environment, surrounded by world class performers. To be in class with them, and see how hard worked every day, and see how they approached class, rehearsals, performances. I saw it as a chance to get more out of myself.”
“And particularly with the rep, to date at least, as we don’t know how it is going to change with Carlos – but it expanded your repertoire of roles, virtually overnight, didn’t it?” suggested Linda. Alex agreed. He said there was a bit of a cyclical nature to the rep at BRB, and he had started revisiting roles for the second time. “If I had stayed for another couple of years, I’d be revisiting roles for the third time. That’s not a bad thing, but I think I was keen for a change. I had always hoped I could work with two Companies in my career, so it was about timing really.”
For Claire, the experience of change had been that of Director within the RB. “What difference did it make to a Company when a Director changes?” “It’s massive! The Director is the ultimate decision maker of your career,” explained Claire. At the point that Kevin O’Hare became Director, Claire pointed out there were people in the Company who had been under four different directors. “It’s not really a feeling of starting again,” she said, “but, if you look at it in a positive way, it can be somewhat like a clean slate!” And while it represented a new opportunity there was also a feeling of, “Where do I stand now? Do I have to look at my approaches? Do I have to build again?”
Alex added, “That was actually one of the things that I was really grateful for when I made the move at the age of 23 or 24. While at Birmingham, I felt I was seen as the young student who had worked with them from the age of 16. When I moved to the Royal, they saw me as a 23-year-old man, not a boy, so I suspect a change of Director at that point in a dancer’s career could be similar.”
That prompted the question as to whether the experience of being a Company member felt different as dancers moved through the ranks? Alex replied. “I remember having a conversation with Roberta Marquez, while we were rehearsing Don Quixote. She joined the Royal as a principal, and she told me she found it to be quite a lonely existence. I thought, ‘how can that be? You are surrounded by other dancers, you are performing in front of 2,000 people. Everyone loves you!’. She told me, ‘But I rehearse on my own. Occasionally I get into a bit of a call group, then I am on stage, and that’s it’. I certainly heard what she was saying, but I didn’t actually appreciate what she meant until I was promoted. You spend most of your rehearsals with your partner, and the coaches, but you don’t actually interact a whole lot with the Company, especially in big ballets. I think that’s one of the things that has changed under Kevin’s directorship – bringing in, and encouraging, new works results in more interaction between the ranks.”
Claire nodded her head in agreement with Alex. “Even before the apprenticeship scheme was introduced, you still had a six-month probation, to prove yourself,” explained Claire. “It’s difficult to remember how you felt at that time. But looking back, I did get some huge opportunities. I knew they were good things, but because you are always striving for more, you don’t necessarily take those moments to stop and say ‘Oh! Well done me!’. But what was different for me was that I did a lot of high-ranking roles, but virtually no soloist work. I did Lilac Fairy and Mistress before I did any other fairy or courtesan. Much of what I did, even very young, was really quite singular. I’ve done Lilac Fairy for over 10 years now! I think that is something that makes my experience quite unique.”
Linda said one of the things that struck her was that Alex and Claire have both had the privilege of dancing soloist, first soloist, and principal roles in the same ballet and asked about the value of having had soloist roles in ballets where they were eventually leading them.
“There is a value to going into the corps,” said Alex. “In the crowd scenes in Romeo and Juliet, for example, you get a real understanding of the ballet, and you get a perspective of it, from that role. It helps inform your interpretation of other roles, I think, when you’ve had your own reaction to those characters.” He went on to give an example. “In Manon, I had the opportunity to do both Lescaut and Des Grieux. It is interesting when you get the opportunity to do a role on the other side. You’ve already been thinking about it. You are informed by having had the initial experience. I’ve seen people in the corps who knew a role inside out, even though they’d never actually done it. The repertoire is part of the fabric of the company. Nutcracker is amazing,” he added, “when you think a number of the White Lodge students go on to become Company members.”
“I had that experience, my first year at White Lodge,” said Claire, “when we had the opportunity to do Nutcracker and I was a Gingerbread. And now I’ve done Sugar Plum Fairy, and just about everything in between – and that’s part of what it is all about. That’s what it is there for – to prepare you for those roles.” “And” Alex chimed in, “the responsibility of leading that performance, that production.”
Asked to talk about Hermione (in Winter’s Tale), a role with a huge responsibility, Claire explained that it was an amazing experience as there was no need to think about the technical challenges, just being in the moment in the story.
Linda asked them both, “Do you have a different mind set when you know the show is on your shoulders? Do you know when you come on stage that, for this evening, I’m the main man or the main woman? Does it make a difference?” “It’s great,” said Alex. And Claire, pointing towards him, said, “You love it!”
Alex agreed. “I love being part of a satisfying performance. Having had the experience of going through the corps, I’ve seen performances that were great, but I’ve also seen some that just didn’t gel.” He went on to say that perhaps that happens when people don’t necessarily interact honestly with each other while on stage, and that is something of which he tries to be incredibly aware. “If Romeo does not respond to you as Mercutio, you might as well go off stage,” he continued. “You feel ‘what is the point?’. It is actually about everyone, and that’s the part I enjoy. You can bring people – the other members of the Company – in. It’s not just about me, or any one character, it’s about all of us going on this journey together. And it is for the audience!”
[At this point videos were shown of Claire in the Third Variation from Act 3 of Raymonda and of Alex, some time ago, as The Bluebird.]
The discussion then turned back to the more dramatic roles. “You’ve both had lots of those,” she said. “But when you start it, what are you thinking about? What reserve do you draw on to be that person, and to tell that story? Could you share some of that process with us?”
Not surprisingly, it depends on the role, explained Alex. “I enjoy reading, therefore I read the source material. For example, with Romeo and Juliet, I go back to the play and pick things out and think, ‘that’s what I’d like to get across at a certain moment’. It’s a great place to start.” He continued, “The other place really is the experience of being on stage in the different roles. That is a massive part of it. You think, ‘oh I remember this person doing this, and that worked really, really well. So how do I weave that sort of thing into my Mercutio, or my Hermione?’ I love that sort of thing.”
“Alex has very natural instincts,” said Claire. “Not everyone is like that. I’m not. For example, Lilac Fairy is very key in the story of making Sleeping Beauty even more interesting. That’s something I learned from Monica Mason, and then built on that myself. Monica spans over generations and has that insight to give you, and you then use that in your performance. “
“I had an interesting situation the first time I did Queen of Hearts,” continued Claire. “Zenaida Yanowsky was a principal with the Royal Ballet at the time. She is a very naturally funny person, and it was created on her. And the only other people who had done it were Tamara Rojo and Laura Morera, both of whom are very big personalities, with ‘standing’ in the Company.
“I remember them teaching the role but saying ‘but you don’t have to do it this way. You can do it your way . . . but not like that!’. So my flat-mate and I got this box of chocolates, and we did this exercise where we were eating the chocolates, but we had to give our impression of how much we liked each one, using facial expressions, as we would if we were eating the tarts, let’s say. We spend a lot of time on technical things, but we don’t often spend time on that sort of thing! So, I decided I would put my own take on it, and they said ‘oh, that’s quite good actually’!”
Referring to Alex and Claire working together, Alex confessed to be excited. “I had not done Lescaut that often, but Claire had done the part many times, and I thought she was one of the best Mistresses I’d seen. It was great to work with someone who knew the role, was very confident in the role, and it was one of the best periods of time, in terms of rehearsing, that I have ever had. Everyone seemed to be on the same wave-length. We had good coaching, and that allowed us to express ourselves. It makes you feel you have ownership over what you are doing. I loved it. In fact, I was disappointed the next time it came around when Kevin said he was jigging up the casting.”
Asked to share the early stages of being cast together in Prodigal Son, Claire had found that very exciting “partly because the ballet had not been done for a long time and, also because we don’t have lots of opportunity to be partnered together. It would have been nice to have that memory.”
Alex continued, “The rehearsals started in the middle of Coppelia and Sleeping Beauty, and I had actually picked up a lot of extra Sleeping Beauty performances. I was doing Coppelia with two different partners, and then they said, ‘oh, by the way, we are doing Prodigal Son’, which is really quite physically demanding for the guy, and some of the rehearsals were on the days that I had performances.”
The memory of this brings them both to laughter. “There is a moment in Prodigal Son where it’s quite tricky,” said Alex. “The guy is on the floor, with his knees up, and Siren sits on his head, and puts her feet up on his knees. (Alex demonstrated!) All the weight goes through your neck, and then you slide your feet down. It’s very painful actually. We had a 20 minute rehearsal and we just couldn’t do it. Chris Saunders said, ‘should I just leave you guys alone to figure it out?’”
“Alex said the position of me sitting on his head was crushing his skull,” added Claire. “Turns out, I wasn’t doing it right! There are some videos, and bloopers, of us on Instagram!”
Linda said, “One of the things that is really noticeable about you both during lock-down is that you have humanized ballet dancers a bit, with what you have done on Instagram. And yes, you’ve shown us that move from Prodigal Son, but you also seem to have gone into the dancers’ DIY territory. Tell us more about that!”
“It was fun,” said Claire. “Alex was nervous at first. I said, ‘let’s just have a go’. With the opportunity we had to buy a house together, we thought during the lock-down, the perfect thing to do was to strip some wallpaper and take some carpet up!”
Alex agreed. “It was fun,” he said, “and fun to document, to look back on. There wasn’t a lot going on in January, so people were starved for content. People got on board, gave us their input along with some challenges, and we got one nice room out of it. There is still plenty we’d like to do with the house, but going forward, a lot of it will be delegated to people with ability and actual skills, not just enthusiasm!”
At this point, the audience joined in with some questions.
About teaching on Zoom and face to face: “I had done some teaching before all of this,” said Alex, “but certainly I’ve done more since the lock-down. I think it is a really nice way to interact with others who have an interest in the art form. Before the pandemic, I might not have prioritized them as opportunities, but now, I would.”
“You’ve just used the word ‘interact’, Alex,” said Linda. “You are interacting but then, again, you are not. It is all at a distance, and it has a different feel to it. Claire, when you are teaching, do you feel the distance?” “I try to be as interactive as possible. I try not to always demonstrate, but to stop and look, and give corrections,” replied Claire. “But you have to get used to it. You say, ‘is everyone ready?’ and no one answers! They are following Zoom etiquette – especially the younger generation – and they are on mute all the time. So it can be a lonely place!”
Linda mentioned that some of the LBC members had watched Alex teach a live-group recently, but it was also on Zoom. “So that must be even more of a juggle for you,” she said. “Absolutely,” agreed Alex. “It is a challenge for any teacher to make sure everyone involved is getting something out of it. But the set up was good, and simple, thankfully. I think people are understanding of the challenges the platform presents. The main thing is to keep it enjoyable, and to challenge and engage the class.”
About presenting Insights/World Ballet Day – how did Alex get into that:
“I believe it was when I took an Insight Evening, as a dancer, on a panel, answering questions and when it was done, I was asked if I would be interested in hosting. I think they must have asked many others, before me! But yes, I have enjoyed it,” he said, “and I am grateful to have the opportunity to continue trying to do that. It’s not like I have any training in it. The experience I’ve gained has been on-the-job. Each time I learn a little more. I look back at some of the first ones I’ve done, and I think, ‘Gee whiz, I can’t believe they let me on camera!’.”
Referring to her Make-up by Claire Instagram account, Claire said: “I have been doing Alex’s make-up actually. I did his make-up for The Dream, and when we did the Gala. I’ve done some tutorials, on Instagram and for some different schools. Again, it is another part of the things you learn on-the-job.”
Linda noted how interesting it was to see how, during the pandemic Alex and Claire had layered other aspects onto their ballet careers which might give them options for the future.
Claire replied, “I think it is more important than people realize because, as a dancer, your career doesn’t go forever. So having other interests, or joys, or loves is not a bad thing for a dancer. I hope lots of dancers – everyone really – has taken that from this time (the pandemic). You can have other passions and still do your job to a very high standard.”
“But what you are showing us on stage is the sum of life experiences”, said Linda. “And so, you’ve added to that, and therefore going forward, it’s bound to enrich your primary career.”
“I hope so,” said Alex. “And hopefully we will have a full season next year. And there’s just one more thing we would like to say. We have felt, from our perspective, that we have had wonderful support from fans of the ballet, the art form, and the arts. That’s been really heartening, and it’s kept us going to do the ballet classes. So, we’d like to say a huge thank you to everyone for that support. It’s been a massive help.”
The evening concluded with heartfelt thanks to Alex and Claire and good luck wishes for the future.
Report written by Kathleen Clark, edited/approved by Alexander Campbell. Claire Calvert and Linda Gainsbury