the revival of 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 London City Ballet. That company returned in 1996 but Marney was on a mission to revive it. He sent some photographs of Diana to the royals to the director of the original company, Harold King, “and they sent back a beautiful letter wishing me luck”. Was that all? No offer of royal patronage? “I don’t know about going down that route,” Marney says with a smile. “I don’t know if it is very us.”

Marney’s vision for a rebooted 21st century version of London City Ballet breaks from some of the more traditional ideas of the art form, as originally conceived in the court of Louis XIV. He wants a company of dancers that reflects the present: a diverse range in age, ethnicity, experience and body type, and – in a discipline where adults are still called “girls” and “boys” – an environment that treats dancers as adults. . But at the same time, interestingly, it’s a company that purposefully stays connected to the past, with a special mandate to revive forgotten gems by great choreographers and bring them back to the stage.

It’s a brave, some would say foolish, idea to launch a new ballet company when the arts seem to be in permanent crisis due to funding cuts and inflation. But Marney is chipper when I meet him at the company’s new HQ. The lift zooms up and opens directly into the room, which makes it look like a New York penthouse but is actually a shoebox office in a Victorian school turned community center in Islington, north London. Pinned on the fresh white walls are headshots of the company’s initial range. The fact that guest artist Alina Cojocaru, one of the most famous ballerinas in the world, is at the top of the list is a testament to Marney’s respect for the industry and the solidity of her thinking, and a bit of a coup. The London-based Romanian has previously starred at the Royal Ballet and English National Ballet (ENB) and has danced on every major stage in the world.

Marney has gathered experienced dancers who have left big companies for more flexible careers – former ENB principal Alejandro Virelles, great principal Cira Robinson, formerly of Ballet Black, and Joseph Taylor of Northern Ballet. Dancers are coming from companies in Spain, Denmark, the US and South Korea, and new talents are emerging. Eight out of 16 were selected by audition; 930 dancers from all over the world sent footage (all watched by Marney), and 200 were invited to audition in person.

On the coffee table is a pile of old London City Ballet programs that Marney bought on eBay, dating back to the company’s founding in 1978. Marney, who danced with ballet companies across Europe and with Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures, and was director on the Joffrey. The Ballet Studio Company in Chicago could set up a company in its own name, but it is arguing a bit. He loved the idea of ​​bringing London City Ballet back to life as it played a formative role in his own dance history. One of the programs is from the Queen’s theater in Hornchurch, Essex, where Marney saw London City Ballet perform in 1991, aged 11. the ballet, “I immediately realized that this was what I was meant to do, and that this was my direction,” he says.

He and his mother followed the dancers to shows in Basildon and Chelmsford – it’s unimaginable that ballet is touring so widely now. Marney wants to offer something as accessible. He’s signed up to six theaters so far, as well as an appearance at Latitude festival and a tour in China, but hopes to tour more, “not just with Swan Lake and Cinderella”, but a much richer range of what is ballet. , past and present.

Marney met Harold King when he was training and they kept in touch. “It had an impact,” says Marney. This happened when the original London City Ballet closed due to mounting debts. Money, of course, is the critical factor in doing any of this. The existence of the new company depends on one anonymous Japanese sponsor, who provided the first financing, and a small circle of donors. Marney also went through those old programs and wrote to every sponsor and advertiser listed in them, about 60 in all. “I had two answers,” he says, neither of which yielded any cash. The money is not enough to finance a full-time company throughout the year so they have to be more flexible, working on a six to seven month model, which suits some of the dancers who want to leave and different projects that do. .

Donors have latched onto the idea of ​​reviving a lost work, and Marney’s research suggests there is an audience for it. For the company’s first program, he is bringing back Kenneth MacMillan’s ballet from 1972, in collaboration with MacMillan’s widow, Deborah. MacMillan’s pieces (Romeo & Juliet, Manon, Mayerling) are some of the most popular at the Royal Ballet, where he was artistic director in the 1970s, but Ballade was danced only once, on a foreign tour of 50 a year ago. The subject is Kenneth and Deborah’s first date – they went to the cinema on Fulham Road – but Deborah never saw it. There was no video, so the ballet is recreated from a score written in Benesh notation (written on a pitch, like musical notation), which has been sitting on a dusty shelf at the Royal Opera House all this time. “It’s really interesting,” says Marney. “The score tells you not just the steps, but the intention, the look between the dancers, the pace.”

They will also revive the Larina Waltz from 1993 by Ashley Page, former principal dancer at the Royal Ballet and director of Scottish Ballet for ten years. It’s a classic ballet, says Marney, but one that “really moves and eats up the stage”. You might ask if there’s a reason these ballets aren’t seen more (maybe they weren’t that good in the first place?), but Marney says it’s just that choreographers fall out of fashion and often there are no recordings, so it doesn’t take long to forget pieces.

It’s not just about the old people, though. Marney’s own 2022 piece Eve is on the bill, and he’s commissioning a new work from Arielle Smith. The 28-year-old British Cuban choreographer is the woman of today, most recently creating dances for San Francisco Ballet and English National Ballet with humor, theatrical instincts and strong female roles.

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

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

These days, the culture within dance companies is taking directors seriously. Ballet has had more than its fair share of stories of bullying and abuse of power, allowing dancers to remain silent and know their place. That is changing. “I want to set things right in terms of doing it differently, and doing it for this generation. Running the company in a way that supports everyone,” says Marney. In his own career, “I didn’t always feel like I had a lot of independence,” he says. He’s putting together a code of conduct that will include the dancers, “So that it’s a space where everyone can feel safe and creative.”

Now all Marney has to do is hope that audiences will come to see them. “When I started I thought: Oh, gosh, it’s probably unpopular not to be doing ‘new’, but the response didn’t feel like that.” Enthusiasm from venues that can’t host on the major companies in the UK and Russian tour companies are no longer present since Ukraine joined.

Marney hopes that he will be able to counter people’s expectations of ballet being “straight and a very long evening”. “I think of my first impression of ballet and that’s why I do it,” he says. “I remember not realizing that people could do that. I thought, what extraordinary things stories can be told in that way, through dance.”

London City Ballet is on tour July 17 to August 10; The tour begins at Bath Theater Royal.

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