the resurrection of the London City Ballet

Christopher Marney recently received a very nice letter from Prince William and his wife. Thirty years ago, William’s mother, Diana, a ballet lover and sometime dancer, was patron of the London City Ballet. That company went bankrupt in 1996, but Marney was on a mission to revive it. He sent the royals some photos of Diana with the company’s original director, Harold King, “and they sent back a lovely letter wishing me luck.” Was that all? No offer of royal protection? “I don’t know if I should go that route,” Marney says with a faint smile. “I don’t know if it’s really up to us.”

Marney’s vision for the updated, 21st century version of London City Ballet breaks with some of the more traditional ideas of the art form, as originally forged at the court of Louis XIV. He wants a company of dancers that reflects the present: a diverse line-up in age, ethnicity, experience and body type, and – in a discipline in which adults are sometimes referred to as ‘girls’ and ‘boys’ – an environment that sees dancers as treats adults. . But at the same time, interestingly enough, it is a company that remains purposefully connected to the past, with a specific mission to revive forgotten gems by choreographers of genius and bring them back to life on stage.

It is a brave and, some say, foolish idea to create a new ballet company when the arts appear to be in permanent crisis due to a combination of budget cuts and inflation. But Marney is happier when I meet him at the company’s new headquarters. The elevator zooms up and enters directly into the room, making it sound like a New York penthouse, but it is a somewhat shoebox-sized office in a Victorian school turned community center in Islington, North London. Portrait photos of the company’s opening lineup are attached to the crisp white walls. It’s a testament to the respect Marney has in the industry and the solidity of his idea that guest artist Alina Cojocaru, one of the world’s leading ballerinas, is at the top of the list, and that’s a bit of a coup. The London-based Romanian was previously a star with the Royal Ballet and the English National Ballet (ENB) and has danced on all the major stages in the world.

Marney has picked up experienced dancers who have left major companies for more flexible careers – ex-ENB director Alejandro Virelles, the brilliant Cira Robinson, formerly of Ballet Black, and Joseph Taylor of Northern Ballet. There are dancers from companies in Spain, Denmark, the US and South Korea, and new talents who are just starting out. Eight of the sixteen were chosen through audition; 930 dancers from around the world sent video footage (Marney watched it all) and 200 were invited to audition in person.

On the coffee table is a stack of old London City Ballet programs that Marney bought on eBay, dating from the company’s founding in 1978. Marney, who danced with ballet companies across Europe and with Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures, and was director of the Joffrey Ballet Studio Company in Chicago could have started a company under his own name, but he cringes a little at the thought. He loved the idea of ​​reviving London City Ballet because it played a formative role in his own dance history. One of the programs comes from the Queen’s Theater in Hornchurch, Essex, where Marney saw the London City Ballet perform in 1991 at the age of 11. At the time he was part of the theater company, playing children’s roles in musicals and panto, but when he watched the ballet, “I immediately realized that this was what I was attuned to, and that was my direction,” he says.

He and his mother followed the dancers to shows in Basildon and Chelmsford – it’s impossible to imagine quality ballet now touring so widely. Marney wants to offer something so accessible. He’s signed up to six theaters so far, plus a spot at the Latitude festival and a tour of China, but he hopes to tour more, “not just on a diet of Swan Lake and Cinderella,” but with a much richer offering of what ballet is. , past and present.

Marney met Harold King when he was training and they kept in touch. “He had an impact,” Marney says. This was after the original London City Ballet closed due to mounting debts. Money is of course the crucial factor in making all this possible. The survival of the new company depends on one anonymous Japanese sponsor, who provided the initial financing, and a small circle of donors. Marney also went through all those old programs and wrote a letter to all the sponsors and advertisers mentioned therein, about sixty in total. “I had two reactions,” he laughs, and neither actually made any money. The money is not enough to fund a full-time company all year round, so they have to be more agile and work on a six- to seven-month model, which suits some dancers who want to do different projects. .

Donors supported the idea of ​​reviving lost works, and Marney’s research shows there is an audience for it. For the company’s first program, he brings back Kenneth MacMillan’s 1972 ballet Ballade, in collaboration with MacMillan’s widow, Deborah. MacMillan’s pieces (Romeo & Juliet, Manon, Mayerling) are among the most popular at the Royal Ballet, where he was artistic director in the 1970s, but Ballade has only been danced once, during an overseas tour fifty years ago. The subject is Kenneth and Deborah’s first date – they went to the cinema on Fulham Road – but Deborah has never seen it before. There was no video, so the ballet was reconstructed from a written score in Benesh notation (written on a staff, like musical notation), which had been sitting on a dusty shelf in the Royal Opera House all this time. “It’s fascinating,” says Marney. “The score not only tells you the steps, but also the intention, the looks between the dancers, the tempo.”

They are also reviving the 1993 Larina Waltz by Ashley Page, former principal dancer at the Royal Ballet and director of the Scottish Ballet for ten years. It is a classical ballet, says Marney, but one that “really moves and eats up the stage”. You might wonder if there’s a reason these ballets aren’t seen anymore (maybe they weren’t that good in the first place?), but Marney says choreographers simply go out of fashion and recordings often don’t exist. so it doesn’t take long before pieces are forgotten.

However, it’s not just about the oldies. Marney’s own 2022 piece, Eve, is planned, and he is commissioning a new work from Arielle Smith. The 28-year-old British Cuban choreographer is the woman of the moment and has recently started creating dances for the San Francisco Ballet and the English National Ballet that are peppered with humor, theatrical instinct and strong female roles.

I really want to do things right, in the sense of doing it differently, and doing it for this generation

What’s so brilliant about Smith? “I just love the way she is with the dancers in the studio,” Marney says. “You get the best results on stage when it has been a creative period in which there was positive energy. She takes people out of their comfort zone and encourages them to contribute to the process. There are no ‘mistakes’, nothing ‘wrong’ with what anyone does.” This is different from some of Marney’s own experiences. “In the past, you were a bit conditioned not to talk and to do as you were told.”

Nowadays, the culture within dance companies is something that directors take seriously. Ballet has had more than its share of stories of bullying and abuse of power, made possible by strict hierarchies that encouraged dancers to remain silent and know their place. That is changing. “I really want to do things right, in the sense of doing it differently, and doing it for this generation. Running the business in a way that supports everyone,” says Marney. In his own career, “I didn’t always feel like I had a lot of autonomy,” he says. He has drawn up a code of conduct that the dancers will also take into account: “So that it is a space where everyone can feel safe and creative.”

Now Marney just has to hope that an audience will come and see them. “When I started I thought, oh god, it’s probably quite unpopular not to do ‘new’, but the reactions didn’t feel like that.” There is enthusiasm from venues that cannot accommodate the larger British companies and have not presented Russian touring companies since the invasion of Ukraine.

Marney hopes he can live up to people’s expectations of ballet as “just tutus and a very long evening”. “I think about my first impression of ballet and that’s still why I do it,” he says. “I remember not realizing that people could be capable of that. I just thought: what special things are possible when you tell stories like that, through dance.”

London City Ballet tours from July 17 to August 10; tour begins Bath Theater Royal.

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