Photo: ASH

Christopher Marney In Conversation with Deborah Weiss

May 13, 2024

The Chair of the London Ballet Circle, Susan Dalgetty Ezra, warmly welcomed Christopher Marney to the evening’s In Conversation. In a full and varied career he has been a dancer, a choreographer and Artistic Director of the renowned Central School of Ballet. Christopher is now in the process of reviving London City Ballet which last performed nearly thirty years ago. This evening he would be conversing with distinguished writer and good friend of the London Ballet Circle, Deborah Weiss, who Susan also warmly welcomed.

So, said Deborah, why London City Ballet? Christopher revealed that his interest in theatre started at a very young age, and that by eight or nine he was taking part in the annual pantomime with his local repertory company in Hornchurch. He went on to appear in other shows in the late 80s whenever a child was needed and had, in fact, acquired his Equity Child Membership card as soon as he became eligible. Performing was a wonderful experience and gave him so much knowledge about theatre. 

Although he was taking some elementary classes in singing, dance and drama to support his performing activities, he had never seen classical ballet. It was not until 1991 when the London City Ballet played the Hornchurch theatre that he saw a performance of Cinderella. Christopher recalled that he had been completely ‘blown away’ by the experience and had not wanted to go home afterwards – he still keeps the programme of that show. Inspired to dance, he upped attendance at local classes and then started at the Italia Conti School, with sessions after school and also at weekends. 

The concept of the London City Ballet itself was also to affect him profoundly. The company made dance much more accessible to audiences by touring to play on smaller stages both within the London area and in the country as a whole. Unfortunately, however, London City Ballet could not keep going and closed in 1996.

When he was 15 he auditioned for full time training at several musical theatre and ballet schools, but there was one which really grabbed his attention, sparking his interest and fortunately accepting him as a student. The Central School of Ballet had been founded by its Artistic Director, Christopher Gable, who to the young Christopher seemed the absolute epitome of a director, stressing not just great ballet technique but more importantly the totality of a production. Gable wanted dance to be used expressively within the overall dramatic framework of a piece rather than be paraded as an end in itself. At the Central School Christopher truly found his home, graduating in 1999. 

His first professional job after graduation was for six months, dancing with Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake on what was billed as its final UK tour. Next came The Car Man, another Bourne production, at the Old Vic in London. He stayed with the company for some eighteen months and then went on to dance with other companies, such as the BalletBoyz, both here and in Europe. 

Some eight years later he returned to Matthew’s company, because he missed the works and being on stage on a regular basis, and had the opportunity to create a number of roles, for instance Count Lilac in Sleeping Beauty. Christopher commented approvingly on the way in which an artist can make their mark in one of Matthew’s productions. His works never stood still; they constantly evolved and developed throughout the run. 

Deborah then asked about choreography and how Christopher had learned the craft; who had mentored him? Christopher commented that back in the early years of the century, when he was embarking on his first steps in choreography, mentoring was less of an issue than it might be today. Matthew would explain what he wanted and set the framework for a piece and then give Christopher freedom to work it through. In Bourne’s company he also had opportunities to undertake other aspects of mounting a production, for instance he had been Rehearsal Director for Cinderella; experiences which all furnished excellent preparation for eventually running his own company.

Over the years Christopher had kept in touch with the Central School of Ballet from which he graduated. He understood and liked its ethos; he had also choreographed some pieces for its touring company, Ballet Central. So in 2016 he gave up active performance with Matthew’s company and returned to his old school, initially as Artistic Director to Ballet Central. He was in that post for three years before becoming Artistic Director for the whole school for a further two years. 

He considered his primary challenge was to ensure that the legacy of Christopher Gable’s ground-breaking work with the school should not be lost. Since Gable had left there had been many staff changes. However, he was fortunate that a few who had worked with Gable still remained, including his wife Carole and the school’s Director, Heidi Hall, who had also been trained by him – so there were still members of staff who shared Gable’s belief that a dancer should tell a story. While Christopher had little or no experience of actually running a company, he knew exactly what he wanted to achieve; to re-instate Gable’s ethos and ideas. 

Christopher was asked if he missed dancing, of being on stage. He replied that he was so enthusiastic about his new role and anxious to devote all his effort to it that he really had not had the time to think about missing the performance aspect of his craft. The job both satisfied and fulfilled him and he remained there for a total of five years. 

The next step was a move to Chicago as Director of the Joffrey Ballet Studio Company. The Joffrey was much smaller than Central; there were just some ten dancers rather than the 40 or so back in London. The Studio Company provided a pre-professional year for its dancers, who came from all over the world. The work was intense; students trained with him in the mornings, after which they would go off to rehearsals with the Joffrey Ballet itself or with other companies. He remained with Joffrey for a year and found it a wonderful, caring company to work with, but as he had left his family back in London he felt that, sadly, the situation was not sustainable. 

While at Central he had been toying with ideas about London City Ballet and whether it could ever become viable again. During the relatively few years of its existence London City Ballet had carved for itself a significant place in the field of dance. It had been the brainchild of its founder and director Harold King; once again Christopher would like to ensure that a great legacy should not be forgotten. While in the States, and realising that the Chicago job might be just for the one year, he started to develop in earnest ideas for its revival. Accordingly Deborah asked Christopher for more detail of his thought process.

Christopher started by explaining that he did not want to disrupt memories of the original London City Ballet. He wanted to learn as much as he could about it; to run his ideas past as many people as he could to gauge their reaction to the possibility of reviving the company. Heather Knight, former administrator of the company and full of historical insights, was invaluable to him in this research. The last thing he wanted was to give the impression that he was simply using the name of a much-loved company to give a boost to something completely new and different. He considered its history just too important to be lost. 

Identification of the venues willing to accept productions was clearly a vital step. Christopher collected together, through eBay, programmes of the Ballet’s annual tours covering most of the years of its existence, and through these identified maybe five or six regional theatres which had taken shows on a regular touring basis – for instance Bath Theatre Royal and the Everyman Theatre at Cheltenham. He contacted the managements of these houses to seek their views. Was there any demand for ballet? Might there be potential audiences for a new touring group? He was amazed and gratified by the response – that provincial audiences had been starved of good quality ballet and that they would be delighted to stage a new group.

London, however, might be a different matter. The capital was relatively well served with dance companies. He decided to try a somewhat indirect approach to Sir Alistair Spalding, Artistic Director and Chief Executive of Sadler’s Wells, home of the original company. They met and Christopher outlined his plan to re-invent London City Ballet. Sir Alistair’s reaction was very positive; he had ‘loved the company’ and was very attracted by the idea of something new based on an old but well-loved legacy.

Most important, Sir Alistair offered support and said he would be keen to include the new company in future programmes for the Wells. However, theatres such as his plan at least two years ahead and Christopher was keen to get something off the ground in a much shorter timeframe. Fortunately he had been able to persuade Sir Alistair to make a week available this coming September (2024), during which the new company has been booked to present five performances. The programme for the week was launched in October 2023 to a small but enthusiastic group in the foyer of the Sadler’s Wells Theatre.

That’s epic! An enormous volume of activities to have arranged in a very short time, said Deborah, asking for more information about the whole process. Christopher said that he had spent a whole year following his return from Chicago concentrating on the new project. He extended feelers in all directions and had been overwhelmed with the positivity of the responses. He had to gather together a group of dancers and ascertain whether he had the right to perform works. And he had to do it all just working on his own from his kitchen at home. Since the launch at the Wells he had been able to appoint Sean Flanagan as a part-time General Manager, and it was an enormous help to be sharing the workload. 

Following a question from the audience, Christopher revealed that he had met Harold King, founder of the London City Ballet, on a number of occasions starting in 1998 while he was still a student at the Central School of Ballet. He reported that Harold had an infectious personality and sense of humour, and, like Christopher Gable, a desire to give dancers as many opportunities as possible to perform – and today would have been his birthday!

Deborah was keen to learn how Christopher had found the dancers he needed to launch the company. He replied that he had commenced by inviting six dancers, whose work he knew well, to form the core of the new company. His aim was to have a total of 14 dancers, a number which he felt would enable the company to tackle a reasonable range of work while – hopefully – remaining financially viable. He wanted a range of experience within the group; he had advertised for individuals prepared to combine both classical and contemporary techniques with a love of acting and story telling. The advertisements attracted 930 applications from all over the world…..  An incredible number! 

Selecting company members would clearly be difficult and he was keen to see as many applicants as possible. Working with their CVs, video clips and other information, such as visiting schools to see graduates, a team of three whittled the group down to about 200. Thanks to Kevin O’Hare he was able to use an empty studio at the Royal Opera House over a weekend and arranged classes for the Saturday. About 40 dancers were recalled for the next day, when there was a further class plus rehearsal sessions for excerpts from both a classical ballet (Larina Waltz) and a very different barefoot contemporary work. From the final audition and from talks with the individuals he selected eight dancers to join his core group, to form the initial company of 14 artists. 

Was this a fixed group, inquired Deborah. Christopher hoped for stability and that the core group would remain while recognising that dancers would inevitably come and go. He would also be keen to involve guest artists in every season and he was extremely grateful that Alina Cojocaru had agreed to be their first such guest.  

And so the discussion turned to ballets and programme content. Christopher expressed his intention to present pieces which, while they might be from well-known choreographers, had not been seen for some time. In particular he referred to Ballade, a MacMillan piece which had not been mounted for many years. Involving just four dancers, it was perhaps not surprising that it had been ignored by the big companies who had many dancers to keep busy. Although notation existed, he could find almost nothing about the piece. There were no photographs, nor could anyone recollect seeing it.

Christopher  then explained that some years previously he had requested permission from Deborah MacMillan to stage pieces which Ballet Central might tour, and had started with a short excerpt from Valley of Shadows, a powerful one-act ballet concerning the fate of a Jewish family under Nazi occupation in Italy. Alessandra Ferri starred in it when performed (just three times) in 1981, and she had worked with him and a notator to put the ballet back together. One of the original cast members, Guy Niblett, had come in to stage the piece which had been most successful. 

The next year they performed an excerpt from another MacMillan creation, House of Birds,  based on a Grimm’s fairy tale. Christopher was a great lover of Kenneth MacMillan’s work and realised there were other, less well-known pieces which might be revived. 

Accordingly he talked with Deborah MacMillan about the possibility of performing Ballade, requesting permission to stage it with the new company. And then she revealed the piece reflected her first ‘date’ with Kenneth. She was the woman in the piece; one of the men was Kenneth while the other two men were friends and the ballet was loosely based on the interplay between them all. She was happy that the company should present it and rehearsals would begin in July with guest Alina Cojocaru for its presentation in the September programme at Sadler’s Wells.

MacMillan was not the only choreographer he had in mind. He had spoken with the Peter Darrell Trust about reviving some of his ‘lost’ works. And some American choreographers, for instance Alexei Ratmansky, whose works were not often seen in this country.

Dancers need space to work in, said Deborah. Christopher responded that spaces large enough to use as a ballet studio were extremely expensive in London. He had therefore looked around at other possibilities and had found a Victorian school building owned by Islington Council, and close to Sadler’s Wells, which had a large derelict shed which was currently being rebuilt into a new studio. It has a high ceiling, skylights to bring in daylight, and a brand-new sprung floor. This would become London City Ballet’s home when the company was not on tour. He hoped that its presence as a centre might in due course benefit all of the young people of the area. Deborah also noted that dancers require time as well as space to rehearse effectively; Christopher responded that adequate rehearsal time would be found for all productions.

The company had already arranged its first touring programme, visiting Bath, Cheltenham, Cambridge, Windsor and York as well as playing at Sadler’s Wells itself. Amazingly there would also be a foreign tour! Christopher had contacted an agent in China who had promoted tours of the original company and had been surprised to find the man still in business and happy to arrange a tour for the new company. Thus they would spend three weeks in China, dancing in eight cities – and returning via New York where they would also perform. I am absolutely astounded, said Deborah again, at how much you have done in such a short space of time. It will surely be an enormous success!

Christopher was then asked about performing new works. He believes there is an audience keen to see revivals of older works and new ones were not top of his priority list at the moment. Nevertheless, the company would aim to offer one new work every season. He had been impressed with the manner in which Arielle Smith worked with classical dancers in a more contemporary situation, and this year she had been asked to devise a piece for London City Ballet. She will spend some time with the company to get to know the dancers before she starts on her piece.

And live music? So important to both dancers and audiences. We can’t do everything at once, said Christopher. We certainly recognise the importance of live music. One possibility which we are exploring is to involve younger orchestras seeking chances to perform. But it has to be one step at a time. The same applies to ballets especially for children; there simply is not the time at the moment.

All of your plans require financing, said Deborah. Where is the money coming from? At the moment the company is financed by a small group of private sponsors to whom Christopher was extremely grateful. The ballet will then need to stand on its own feet, however, and will be heavily dependent on ticket sales together with other methods of fund raising. For instance, the ‘Friends of London City Ballet’ had just been instituted, in which interested individuals pay £5 per month and receive in return a regular newsletter and other benefits. And he was always looking for other sources of help…..   

In concluding the evening, Susan, as Chair of the London Ballet Circle, thanked both Christopher and Deborah. They were clearly old friends, and their conversation had been both fascinating and enlightening. The evening had been extremely interesting and entertaining, and she thanked both contributors most warmly. 

Written by Trevor Rothwell, approved by Christopher Marney and Deborah Weiss

Copyright LBC 2024

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