Inner Turmoil, Inner Strength

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By Sir Peter Wright

By the time I joined Sadler's Wells Theatre Ballet he had already graduated to Covent Garden and I did not get to know him properly until 1952 when we were both appearing in a short season of ballets by John Cranko at Henley-on-Thames.

Cranko had been asked by John Piper and Osbert Lancaster to get a group of dancers together to help save the theatre from being sold off as a warehouse. This turned out to be a major turning point in Kenneth's career. Although he had been dancing important roles at Covent Garden, he had begun to suffer from serious attacks of stage fright and Ninette de Valois realised that he needed to get away for a bit from the stresses and strains of dancing at the Royal Opera House; not only could the critics be pretty vicious, but being extremely sensitive, he suffered a lot from jealousies within the company and gibes from his colleagues. Working with Cranko at Henley in a creative and more relaxed atmosphere helped him get his confidence back and gave him the feeling of being part of a family, something he had been yearning for ever since his mother died when he was just 11 years old. Cranko gave him the lead in a new ballet Dancing set to music by the jazz pianist George Shearing, in which he partnered my wife-to-be Sonya Hana, as well as other challenging roles; but most importantly, he made Kenneth believe he could be a choreographer himself.

“Kenneth's problems lay deeper than just stage fright; he seemed to have a tortured soul”

However, I sensed that Kenneth's problems lay deeper than just stage fright; he seemed to have a tortured soul and, in fact, he later confided in me that he felt he needed some sort of psychiatric help but did not know how to go about finding it. His mood swings were fairly extreme; on some days he and Geoffrey Webb, another member of the group, would pretend to be wild and crazy ghouls executing dangerous and daring acts, such as leaning out of the dicky of a friend's Triumph Roadster backwards whilst travelling at 70 miles an hour with their heads practically touching the road! Then on other days he would be full of despair and totally lacking in confidence. A serious car accident shortly after Henley made his nervous condition worse and as a result he could never travel in a car faster than 20 miles an hour, would not use public transport and never flew. This was to have repercussions later when he became director of The Royal Ballet. Because the premiere of his new ballet Ballade  for The Touring Company had been scheduled to take place in Lisbon a few days before the Covent Garden company opened in New York for their first season under his direction, he had to travel there by the QE2 missing the first night with disastrous results - the public were insulted and Solomon Hurok, who had done so much for the company over the years, was both angry and hurt. It took Kenneth a long time to recover from the ill feeling caused by this bad planning.

I think it was shortly after the car crash that he started to drink a bit too much in order to overcome his nerves and feelings of insecurity; over the years this reliance on alcohol was to take a hold of him. He also went into psychoanalysis for several years and although this treatment didn't seem to help him much he always maintained that it did do a lot for the creation of his ballets, giving him a deeper understanding of the human psyche. Sometime later he went to a psychiatrist (very different treatment from analysis) and this helped him a great deal.

“he would spend hours counting out every single note, discovering hidden phrasing, using the atmosphere of the music to huge effect”

After Henley, Kenneth returned to the Sadler's Wells Theatre Ballet just when David Poole was starting a workshop for aspiring choreographers and Kenneth did his first piece of choreography Somnambulism to a jazz score by Stan Kenton. It was an instant success and he then did two more ballets for the group. I was in one of them, Laiderette , set to Frank Martin's Petite Suite Concertante , which required a harpsichord. The work was so successful that it was taken into the Ballet Rambert repertoire almost immediately although De Valois had wanted it for the Sadler's Wells Theatre Ballet but in those days, with the company's limited budget, it was not possible to tour a harpsichord. What impressed me most was his instinctive understanding of the music and his unorthodox use of it. It was a difficult score and, as he was unable to read music, he would spend hours counting out every single note, discovering hidden phrasing, using the atmosphere of the music to huge effect. We were also amazed at the way he took basic classical steps and made them look completely different, often asking us to try them backwards, turned in and with strange arms and body movements which nowadays seem quite natural. In rehearsals Kenneth demonstrated most of the steps and movements himself and then made us develop them until they looked right; he was always demanding and his choreography was very complicated and extremely difficult; much more so in those early days than in his later works. Needless to say he suffered from appalling nerves throughout and was convinced it would be a flop. In fact, it was hailed by the critics as a work of near genius and Ninette de Valois commissioned him to do a new work, Stravinsky's Danses Concertantes . Kenneth chose Nicholas Georgiadis from the Slade to design it and their association was to last throughout their careers.

Cranko gave Kenneth constant support and created the part of Moondog for him in The Lady and the Fool, probably his greatest role, though he never liked the ballet, finding it far too sentimental for his taste. Cranko also gave Kenneth the idea for his next ballet, House of Birds, based on a Grimm Brothers fairy tale, Jorinda and Joringel , He was going to do it himself but then decided it would be a good piece for Kenneth; how right he was, for it brought out another aspect of Kenneth's work which was rather macabre and frightening, but showed how masterly he was when tackling a narrative work. Kenneth used Georgiadis again and John Lanchbery found the perfect music consisting of some piano pieces by Federico Mompou, which he arranged beautifully. The result was a major triumph for all concerned. Steps, ideas and choreographic invention seemed to flow out of Kenneth and within two years he had created six highly successful works.

“He did though have a brilliant eye for recognising talent, often rescuing dancers from the ranks whose hidden talents were not always immediately apparent”

Kenneth badly wanted to stop dancing as now he had found himself as a choreographer he had lost all desire to be a performer. Madam however wanted him to continue, firstly because good male dancers were still in short supply and, secondly, because there was no money for another choreographer's salary as Ashton and Cranko were both already under contract. Happily though, the success of Danses Concertantes had been so astounding that she had no choice and he got his way. Even so, his insecurity and depression continued and he began to rely on alcohol more and more in order to get through long and exhausting days of nerve racking rehearsals. He was, however, very quick witted and fun to be with, provided he was surrounded by his few very close friends. He had very strong likes and dislikes and was often accused of only using his friends in his ballets. He did though have a brilliant eye for recognising talent, often rescuing dancers from the ranks whose hidden talents were not always immediately apparent. He and Margaret Hill, a superb artist who joined the company from Rambert, but who did not really fit into the required Royal Ballet (then Sadler's Wells) mould, struck up a deep personal relationship and he created Solitaire for her. They helped each other a great deal as they both seemed to suffer from the same problems - feelings of loneliness and rejection; subjects that were to feature in many of Kenneth's later ballets.

And then Lynn Seymour appeared on the scene! She was the perfect MacMillan dancer with a body that could make all his amazingly inventive and offbeat choreography look natural, a superb classical line, feet that could almost speak, and wonderfully expressive eyes, strangely enough with a slight cast, that made her beauty even more appealing. She was to become his muse and give him inspiration, often anticipating his choreographic thought process, suggesting steps and movements that fitted in perfectly with his ideas. They became a wonderful professional partnership and great friends, but their relationship was fairly tempestuous - they both had strong personalities with very definite ideas; but she always managed to make his often extraordinarily difficult and inventive steps make sense and brought his characters to life. Who will ever forget the rape scene in The Invitation ?

“Las Hermanas contained all the things that Kenneth could depict very well: sexual repression, violent lust, jealousy and dramatic intensity.”

In 1963, Kenneth went to Stuttgart on Cranko's invitation and created Las Hermanas . He had not had a particularly good year, with only one ballet and the critics were being vile to him. I was ballet master there at the time and I sensed he was particularly nervous, not looking at all well, and his hair had become quite grey. I was quite worried that things were not going to work out; and then Marcia Haydée and Ray Barra started working with him. As usual he started with the main pas de deux and no one was allowed near. The rapport that emerged between them was wonderful; Kenneth became a changed man and he went on to create some of his most expressive and dramatic choreography. Las Hermanas , with music by Frank Martin (another score for harpsichord) and designs by Georgiadis, was based on Lorca' s The House of Bernarda Alba and contained all the things that Kenneth could depict very well: sexual repression, violent lust, jealousy and dramatic intensity. It was, to my mind, the perfect combination of steps, ideas, music and perfect casting and I could not believe how Kenneth changed from someone seemingly on the verge of nervous breakdown, into this man with a purpose that would not swerve. It made me realise the necessity of making sure that choreographers have the right atmosphere and the right artists to work with. This visit to Stuttgart made a huge difference to his creative life, and the already individual style of his work became even stronger. Cranko was actually very envious of the immediately recognisable look of his choreography and said that he knew no other choreographer with such a strong personal signature. Kenneth adored working in Stuttgart and decided that somehow, somewhere he must, like Cranko, have his own company, which in fact he did a few years later in Berlin. He went back to Stuttgart two years later and created Song of the Earth , probably his greatest work. I think he was, in some way, expressing his appreciation for all that Cranko had done for him. This gratitude was further demonstrated when he choreographed Requiem as a tribute to Cranko when he died ten years later.

Las Hermanas was a triumph. I later directed it for the BBC. It was a marvellous collaboration with a great cast: Haydée, Barra, Monica Mason as the Jealous Sister, Georgina Parkinson as the Younger Sister and Ruth Papendick as the Mother. Kenneth was brilliant in his understanding of working to the selective eye of the camera rather than a theatre audience; he would have made a great film director. We then collaborated on a new work, The Crimson Curtain , which he choreographed especially for television with Seymour and Desmond Doyle. This was another occasion when Kenneth's nerves nearly got the better of him. The initial rehearsals were carried out behind closed doors - even I was not allowed in - and he was terrified by the time restrictions that are imposed when working for television. However, when the pas de deux was finished and I was allowed in I beheld the most ravishing piece of dance that moved me deeply. Later in the studio, when this particular section was being filmed, one of the rather bolshy stagehands, who thought "ballet was only for poofs", turned to me with tears in his eyes "I didn't know that such love existed". The Crimson Curtain was based on a French film of the same name and set to a harpsichord concerto by Gabriel Pierné. It tells the story of a young girl's passionate desire for a hussar who is billeted with her family. To get to his bedroom she must creep past her sleeping parents. At the height of their lovemaking she dies in his arms. Somehow he must get the body back to her room, and we are left with the final shot of him galloping into the distance, knowing that at any moment the parents will awaken. Sadly, this strange and romantically beautiful ballet got destroyed when the BBC were having a clear out.

“I think he was probably the most honest man I have ever worked with, and the one who suffered most in the pursuance of his art.”

Kenneth and I had always worked well together and when he accepted the directorship of the Berlin Opera Ballet he invited me to be his assistant director. For family reasons I had to refuse, but judging from what one hears about all the problems that Kenneth was faced with there, this was just as well. The amazing thing about Kenneth is that although on the surface he sometimes appeared to be a very gentle person, fraught with nerves and ill health, underneath he had an inner strength that impelled him to do things his way, both as a choreographer and a director. This sometimes made him unpopular with the establishment, the critics and his peers, but he always stuck to his guns. I think he was probably the most honest man I have ever worked with, and the one who suffered most in the pursuance of his art.

Sir Peter Wright was ballet master for Sadler's Wells Opera Ballet and later for The Stuttgart Ballet, where he choreographed various works. He has mounted works for many companies and led the Sadler's Wells Royal Ballet to Birmingham in 1990. He was knighted in 1993 and made director laureate in 1995.