Category: Interviews

Delia Mathews interview

Having finished the 2012 autumn tour, Birmingham Royal Ballet returned to our Midlands HQ on Monday, for a full week of Cinderella rehearsals.

Over the course of the winter season, seven different ballerinas will take to the stage as Cinderella, each with a different male dancer partnering them as the handsome prince.

One of them is First Artist Delia Mathews, who has already made her debut this autumn as the lead in Swan Lake (‘I really enjoyed it!’) and was among five Principal couples who on Monday shared a studio rehearsal.

‘We had a few rehearsals during the recent tour’, says Delia. ‘We had one in Cardiff last week, between the triple bill and Swan Lake. To be honest my mind was fairly full of Swan Lake, so it didn’t really go in, but at least it was a chance to try things out. We can focus properly now.’

The dancers are been a great support to each other at this early stage, with the shared rehearsal providing a chance to learn from one another.

‘That’s been great, because there’s a lot to learn’, confirms Delia. ‘It’s been especially good having the chance to work with Elisha and Iain, because they created those roles, so they know them inside out. They know exactly what David’s thought processes were when the characters were first made, so it’s been great having their support.’

In these photos, taken during Monday’s rehearsal, you can see Iain and Elisha helping Delia and partner Tyrone Singleton with one of the lifts. Also featured is Ballet Master Wolfgang Stollwitzer.

‘A lot of it is about co-ordination between partners,’ Delia explains, ‘as well as balance. If you don’t end up right above his head, it’s much harder for your partner to support you.’

‘The guys usually tell you not to try to help too much, and to just let them lift you. If you jump even a second earlier than they’re expecting, then they can end up having to catch you on your way down and lift you back up, rather than just push you into the air in one movement.’

This is the first time that Delia has danced with Tyrone Singleton. ‘I’ve heard he’s a great partner,’ she says, ‘so I’m really looking forward to working with him this season.’

But her work on Cinderella does not end with the title role. Across the three-week run in Birmingham, Delia will be playing a total of five characters. ‘I’m dancing Cinderella, Winter, one of the Stars, one of the Eight Ladies (the guests at the Prince’s Ball) and the Fairy Godmother! It’s a lot to learn, and in not much time, but I’m excited.’

In the story, Winter is one of four fairies, each representing a different season, who help the Fairy Godmother to transform Cinderella for the ball. It will be a particularly special role for Delia, having created the character for the original 2010 production.

It will also give her a chance to help those new to the role, in the same way that Elisha has supported Delia herself. And of course it also means that she is already familiar with the choreography.

‘It’s really nice to go back to something that’s already in your muscle memory, so you can work on it further’, she says. ‘It’s amazing how quickly it comes flooding back. When you put the music on, your body just does it!’

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Prokofiev’s score

During the summer of 2010 – while much of the choreography for Cinderella was yet to be completed – David Bintley discussed Prokofiev’s score for the ballet.

‘I did a radio show a few years ago,’ he noted, ‘for which my seat and microphone were positioned within the orchestra. It was a concert of music for dance, and one of the things that the musicians played during was a suite from Cinderella. Even if I hadn’t been such a fan of the music – which of course I was – the impact of such a performance would have converted me instantly. It was a thrilling occasion.’

‘It’s a remarkable score,’ he explained, ‘because while it’s built around the framework of the 19th-century ballets, with the requisite waltzes and variations, there’s an additional complexity to even the simplest looking solos.’

‘In addition, it’s a score of huge extremes. While most of the Tchaikovsky scores encompass a single idea – Grandeur for Sleeping Beauty, doom and foreboding for Swan LakeCinderella has this extraordinary range of emotion. It has everything from heart-stopping pathos to really quite crude, almost Soviet humour. And at the root of everything there’s always a little kick that knocks it off-kilter; nothing’s ever four square like a Tchaikovsky variation. And I find that fascinating. As a choreographer, and as a performer, you’ve got to be alert all the time.’

In mid-2009, David Bintley discussed his dual responsibilities as both a Choreographer and Director of Birmingham Royal Ballet. ‘I use my pieces to bring people along’, he said, ‘to support the dancers’ development.’

With Cinderella going on tour this month to Salford and Plymouth, we asked how he hopes his latest work has stimulated the Company.

‘It’s a ballet with a lot of roles for women, rather than the men,’ David says, ‘Cinderella herself is a nice role for the girls because it’s quite varied – not only technically, because they’re working barefoot and en pointe, and with big set pieces in the second act – but also because of the long passages where they’re just alone by themselves. They have to create and maintain a character that really endears itself to the audience, who have got to empathise with Cinderella, otherwise the show doesn’t work. It’s really carried on her shoulders.

‘Then there are a lot of subsidiary characters like the sisters, which are comedy roles, and there aren’t a lot of those for women in ballet. I feel that these characters work: there’s a freedom in them that allows the dancers to add their own personality, but there’s a good solid framework and the audience gets the jokes.

‘Then there are the Seasons, which are challenging solos full of difficult steps. They’re deliberately difficult, I didn’t want to make them easy. And I’ve tried to get a number of the girls into those roles from Principals to Artists. We’ve already had Nao [Sakuma] as Autumn, and Natasha [Oughtred] as Spring, and Elisha [Willis] as Winter. All three of these are also dancing Cinderella in other shows. But I’ve also cast Artists like Yvette [Knight] and Kristen [McGarrity] and Delia [Mathews], all of whom I wanted to challenge. And they’ve responded brilliantly.’

Mixing up partnerships

Five different pairs of dancers have taken on the roles of Cinderella and the Prince during the Birmingham season. But a number of well-established partnerships will not be appearing together, having been matched up with alternative opposites.

‘There are so many factors that you’ve got to take into consideration’, says Director David Bintley of casting Cinderella and the Prince.

‘Not all the Principals are dancing the role of Cinderella, and so their usual partners needed alternatives. Matt [Lawrence] dances with Gaylene [Cummerfield] a lot, but she was creating the part of one of Cinderella’s sisters, and so he needed putting with someone else.

‘As it was a new piece, I also felt it was an opportunity to experiment. While Cinderella and the Prince have a couple of very important pas de deux, for large portions of the story Cinderella is by herself. Because of this I felt we could take a risk and change some of the partnerships to avoid getting into a predictable area.

‘A lot of partnerships are based upon the fact that they have historically danced particular pieces together, and whenever those pieces come back into the repertory you’re hesitant to break up a successful pairing. Each time we do classical pieces like Romeo and Juliet, for instance, Chi [Cao] and Nao [Sakuma] dance together, because they have a similar temperament and a similar refinement of technique. In a narrative work however, there are other priorities, and so you need partnerships that will bring something new out of one another, to find a balance of technique and performance.’

"Now the work begins"

The morning after Cinderella opened at Birmingham Hippodrome, Choreographer David Bintley remarked: ‘Now the work begins’. As the ballet now enters its third and final week in the Midlands, he explains:

‘There’s such a lot of pressure and stress involved in getting a new ballet in front of an audience’, David admits. ‘It doesn’t matter what critics write in the papers, or online; it doesn’t matter what I think; it doesn’t matter what my mum thinks, or what the Company thinks. All that matters is what the audience thinks – that is absolutely the acid test. If they don’t like it, then you’ve failed.

‘And until you’ve witnessed their responses you just never know. I still don’t feel we know yet – even the first night isn’t an absolute indicator. That only comes when the piece has had its ups and downs, and it’s been performed with the odds against you, in front of a damp, cold, snowed-on audience, who lost half their enthusiasm for a night out in the traffic jam on the way to the theatre. It’s like a friendship or a relationship really. You can’t really test its validity and its strength until it’s been pushed about and seen in its best light but also in its worst light. So this whole first run will still be a period of uncertainty for me, with all the different casts and all the different audiences. It’s only at the very end of the season that I’ll be able to go: “phew!”’

Iain Mackay’s Cinderella diary

It’s been great being back in the studio with David and Elisha, and the work has been really positive. Elisha’s really easy to work with. She always knows what David wants and she never doubts an idea, she just gets on with it. Then if David doesn’t like it he’s able to say so and we move on, and it’s still a really relaxed atmosphere in the studio. It’s great.

I think David makes Cinderella quite relevant to today. The relationships between the characters are really natural, really well done. He moves with the times but at the same time it’s really classical and doesn’t step over the line of being it too modern.

Most Princes are pretty straight forward, but David’s really tried to give this one something extra – to give another dimension to the usual Princely role of standing around, looking good, and not really doing very much! David turns away from these stereotypical Princely gestures, where you’re in a tendu and you do a very classical ports de bras. Instead, he has always seen the role very much as a real man, much more natural than a one-dimensional fairytale character. He’s really tried to make him into more of a real person.

The Prince’s first entrance is kick-ass! In most of the ballets I’ve done, the character walks on from a Funeral, or you come on and do a polite Princely bow. Here though, David’s got this entrance for me that brings me straight on at 100-miles an hour! It’s such a great moment and hopefully I’ll do it justice.

We’re starting to do full calls in the studio, and it’s great seeing the other pieces of the ballet. The Prince as a character is a really small part of such a huge show, and he’s not in a lot of the main story-telling scenes. So I know my pas de deux, but it’s only now that I can start to see the other parts and see how it all fits together. Yesterday watching rehearsals was great, as the Prince isn’t in Act I so I was able to sit back and watch it all.

At the moment Act I is one of my favourite parts of the ballet. I really like the sisters, and Marion Tait’s amazing as the Stepmother. She’s just incredible. And there’s a lot of comedy in the piece. I always think it’s really hard to do comedy in ballet; for me it’s never usually that funny. But David’s comic timing works really well and the girls playing the sisters are really great.

The corps, and the way David moves the waltzes around look really impressive already too. It s a demanding show for them, and I’m sure that when the costumes are on it’ll look even more amazing.

I’m excited, and it feels like there’s a buzz going on in the building. The Designer, John Macfarlane, has been in the studio having a look at the rehearsals too, as well as Lighting Designer David A Finn. You can see everybody’s starting to piece all the elements together in their minds, and it feels like we’re all part of something really big. It’s a huge show. And David seems really calm, he’s enjoying the ride by the looks of it!

Elisha Willis

Elisha Willis has spoken to us about working on Cinderella, and what she thinks of the lead role. ‘I really like the character as David has envisaged her’, she says. ‘It could have been easy to just present her as a vulnerable victim, as people have done so many times before. But in David’s mind she’s a much stronger character, because she’s endured so much hardship and survived. And I love that angle, I find it really interesting.’

‘I find it easy working with David. When he suggests something I feel that I understand what he’s looking for, and occasionally we even have exactly the same idea at the same time. And I love working with Iain. Everything’s just so easy for him physically, I feel as light as a feather when working with him, he’s amazing.’

The process steps up a gear this week, with the Company beginning stage rehearsals on Thursday. ‘It’s a really exciting time’, Elisha says. ‘Last week we began running all the acts in their entirety, and that’s always interesting – finding out if you’re physically capable of getting through the whole piece in one go! Thankfully it’s all good so far. And I’m looking forward to getting on stage later in the week and finally getting to see the sets and costumes and everything together.’

Having started work on the Principal solos and pas de deux as far back as January, this has been a lengthy process. ‘We did start it all a long time ago,’ nods Elisha. ‘I’m thankful that we recorded videos of everything, because I do suspect we could have forgotten quite a lot of it by now!’

A new article was published on the main Birmingham Royal Ballet website last week, in which Marion Tait discussed some of her more wicked roles. Featured, of course, were Carabosse from The Sleeping Beauty (pictured right), and the Stepmother from our new production of Cinderella.

Speaking of the character of the Stepmother, she said:

‘David [Bintley] has given me a pointer as to how he originally envisaged the Wicked Stepmother. He said he loved the restraint of the stepmother in the Disney version. I actually hadn’t seen it, but he told me that she speaks very quietly, and she never raises her voice. That immediately gives me shivers just thinking about it!’

‘It’s probably going to be an example of the Michael Caine school of acting – one eyebrow, and one move of the eyes rather than the whole head. Hopefully if you’ve got the audience gripped you’ll draw them in and they will see every little movement.’

Click here to read the full interview.

Joy vs turmoil

In Cinderella, the hardships that the heroine endures are what give the ending its power, as she escapes the isolation of the squalid kitchen and the cruelty of the ‘wicked’ stepmother. Where some of David’s previous narrative ballets (such as Cyrano and Edward II) have seen a character rise and fall, Cinderella sees charts the protagonist’s steady rise as she rediscovers hope.

But in the world of ballet, happy endings (The Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker) can seem outnumbered by tragedies (Romeo and Juliet, Giselle, Swan Lake). Choreographically, is joy as interesting as grief or turmoil? David Bintley believes so.

‘I don’t think that joy is a permanent state,’ he says when we put the question to him. ‘It is something which is very, very brief. It’s in fleeting moments between everything else in life; our daily episodes of work, distraction, interest, fun, whatever. Contentment is more common, calmness or acceptance, yes; but joy to me is something that is above and beyond, it’s a crest of a moment, a climax. And it’s something that is probably more aspired to than achieved.’

‘But it’s certainly something that Cinderella attains, and is possibly all the more powerful because she daren’t have hoped to. And choreographically, I would say that beauty and serenity are joy in movement, and so of course are interesting.

‘The suggestion on stage at the end of the piece is not of a tangible place, but more of the Prince and Cinderella together, preserved in a state of bliss. It’s the end of the darkness, the moment of the sun rising after the night. Nothing matters but those two people in this one particular moment of joy, where she’s escaped all of the hardships of the world that she’s known before.’

Modelbox presentation

An interview with John Macfarlane appeared in the Birmingham Post and Mail last week. The designer, who also worked on Birmingham Royal Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker, told Diane Parkes:

‘In The Nutcracker everyone remembers the scene where the Christmas tree grows and the fire turns. In Cinderella we could have gone for just one major pivotal point. But this is a full length classical ballet with a story which has plenty of opportunities for imagination.”

The format of a classical ballet also brings with it some difficulties for a designer however:

‘It is the sheer logistics. You have all these ideas but then they have to fit into the grid and the side of the stage.

‘You have an idea and that is fine but then you realise that you can’t put it where you want to because you already have a piece of scenery there. It is very much like a sudoku puzzle. And that becomes all the more complicated when it is a production which also needs to tour so has to be adaptable for other theatres.’

Click here to read the full interview.

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