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Interviews

a conversation with Alexander Grant
Summer 2000
by Jane Simpson

© 2000

Alexander Grant, a New Zealander by birth, joined the Royal Ballet in 1946. He was soon given roles by both Massine and Ashton, and went on to become the greatest character dancer the company has known. After giving up dancing he was for some years the Artistic Director of the National Ballet of Canada. He was a close friend of Ashton’s until the choreographer’s death, and inherited the rights to La Fille mal Gardee and Facade. As his dancing career is well documented, I asked if we could devote most of the interview to his stewardship of these two ballets.

DanceView: I’d like to understand your role as the owner of La Fille mal Gardee and Facade. If I was a company director and I rang you up and said I’d like you to mount Fille for my company, what would you do?

Alexander Grant: The first thing I do is try to find out something about their company — for instance how large it is, because often people think Fille doesn’t require many people, but it needs more than they imagine — they have to have covers, for instance, particularly for the prin-cipal roles, because of injuries. So one does that, and then one insists if one has no knowledge of the company, that somebody goes out — myself, or somebody else — to see whether they have the type of people that the ballet is suitable for: the type of dancers, and the wide variety of dancers, from the very young ones to the more mature character artists. It’s usually fixed by the fact there’s a ballet master who can play the father, and there’s very often the ballet master, or the director themselves, who have the maturity to play the Widow. Those roles require a mature and experienced artist — and the young, they want to dance more, they’re not happy with doing those roles, so you have to have someone with that experience. The Widow is such an important role; and so I send somebody to see if the company is capable of putting out a cast like that.

DV: Have you ever said no to someone who asked?

Grant:  I’ve said no to a company recently, in Greece. I had no knowledge of the company at all, and I would have had to send somebody there — but then I found out before I sent anybody that they were going to do it to tape, and I said no. I felt that it’s a ballet that requires the life of an orchestra — because otherwise with a tape, the dancers don’t bother to listen after a while, they don’t dance to the music, and so ... I said no. I have an agent, who makes the arrangements these days, and she was a bit disappointed, because they seemed to be very keen — however, that’s what I said. I also say no when I find the company hasn’t got enough personel. I mean the chickens can be done by students, the smaller the better really, but also some of the villagers can be apprentices and things. Sometimes companies have a school that they can use to bring the numbers up... those are the main criteria. The Stuttgart company are going to do it — I know that is a very very good company, but they still asked me, and I want to go and cast it for them, because a director rather likes the person closest to the ballet to cast it. So I was just recently in Stuttgart.

DV: And how do you do the casting? Do you watch them in class?

Grant:  I watch them in class; also I confer with the director, of course, because there’s always a certain amount of hierarchy, although the director, Reid [Anderson], said ‘We don’t stick to hierarchy here — the soloists often do principals’ work and the principals do soloists’ work’. I believe in a certain amount of hierarchy because I feel that the younger dancers should see that when someone has worked very hard to get to the top, they are the star. It’s a good lesson for the younger dancers — that if they get to the top, it’s worth doing. So I’m not against hierarchy — everyone needs someone to look up to, and I remem-ber in my life as a dancer, one learned an enormous amount from the people at the top, because they had such experience and they had done so many roles.

DV: So if you were casting Lise, say, are there particular qualities you look for?

Grant: One wants to have — knowing Sir Frederick’s wishes in this matter — not too tall a dancer. He liked a smaller dancer; besides, the work that he gives them particularly in the Fanny Elssler pas de deux, with a lot of lifts, including the one handed, means she can’t be too large a lady for the gentleman to be managing. Also he liked that because somehow it was the character — she doesn’t have to be small, but she mustn’t be big. Companies love tall girls these days, with everlasting legs and that sort of thing, and therefore they tend to collect those in their companies quite a lot; but he wasn’t keen on that — he didn’t like even the mother to be a great giant. Colas can be any size he likes, if he’s got the ability — but I always insist that Alain should not be taller than Colas; to me it would be wrong for the balance of the ballet if Alain was a taller dancer than Colas, the hero. So there’s little things like that; but of course then there’s the sort of look; and Lise, for instance, has to have a kind of bubbly personality, and she has to have a good jump. Ashton did the ballet originally on Nadia Nerina. It hadn’t been very long since we’d seen the Bolshoi for the first time — they had a great deal of elevation, the female dancers as well as the male dancers, and Nerina was very very good at that, so I suppose that’s one of the reasons he chose her — and of course he gave her that kind of work in the ballet. So when I see somebody in class, I see if they have good feet and a good jump, and a sort of out-going, bubbly personality as well — I mean Lise should be sort of an irrepressible character, really.

DV: And what about things like musicality?

Grant: Ah well, of course, that is the most important thing, particularly where Ashton was concerned — he used to say that before he went anywhere near the class-room, he listened to the music as much as he could. Although he said he never invented a step while listening to the music, he invented the mood and character, and then he worked on that with the dancer, inventing the steps that conveyed that character-isation and that musicality. You could always rely on the fact, when you worked with Ashton, that what-ever you did, it would have that musical quality — and it made it very much easier for the dancer, the dancer uses that musicality. We were taught to listen in those days — I can remember de Valois in those early days of the company shouting ‘Listen to the music!’ : she felt that we were just dancing, and not dancing to the music.

DV:  And what about Alain, your own role? What would make a dancer suitable for that?

Grant:  Well, again, you want somebody who has an express-ive look.The dancing in Alain is much more difficult than people realise — they get the idea that they’re supposed to dance badly, but they’re not: they’re supposed to dance well, to do the work that Ashton choreographed, and that will convey his clumsiness. So I require a good dancer, a neat dancer, an express-ive dancer, who uses his head and his face when he dances.

DV:  Earlier this year I heard you giving a talk about coaching, with Jonathan Howells. I thought he was extremely good, but completely different from you.

Grant:  I don’t mind that; what I want is what Ashton wanted — that the choreography should be done correctly; but then it’s like music, you must play the right notes, but the interpretation can be different for every musician. I was very pleased with Jonathan, because when I was teaching him the steps he would do them correctly. It’s something I’ve had to bring people up on when I’m coaching, and it’s why I insisted with this Royal Ballet revival that I should be there from the very first rehearsal. If people have been doing something the wrong way for years, and you then interfere, they resent it enormously, but if you can get in from the beginning, they understand the role. Alain was not an idiot — he was childlike, and hadn’t matured. It’s showed by the way Osbert Lancaster designed the costumes: in the first act, he’s growing out of his suit, and then in the second act his father has bought him a new suit which is too large for him, hoping that he’ll grow into it. Some dancers think that Alain is mad — but you want it to be amusing, and people don’t want to laugh at an idiot. They’ll laugh at things children do, though.

DV:  Do you have the same rights with the Royal Ballet as elsewhere, or do they have some special licence?

Grant:  Well, they did it first, of course, and as with every company in the world, it gets handed down — musical values change, or they’ll do a step their way because it’s simpler for them — over the years it gets changed. This time, for this revival, I told them it was no good getting me in for the last two weeks, after they’d learned everything — so I was there from the beginning, and I think it helped. There were a lot of new casts, though, all in different rooms; but they left it to me who I worked with, which was fine. I was very worried about it though, because they were doing it in the Festival Hall — I’d danced there with English National Ballet and knew how awkward it was; but they removed some of the obstructions for the Royal Ballet. I think ENB were very insulted that in all the years they’d danced there, it had never been altered for them!

DV:  Suppose this imaginary company wanted to have the ballet redesigned?

Grant:  Well, they wouldn’t be able to, unless I gave permission. I’m very hesitant about it. Ashton had a wonderful collection of nineteenth century prints of idealised country life — he had a room for them called the Fille mal Gardee room, in his house in the country — and he showed them to Osbert Lancaster to show him what he wanted. I’ve seen recently how they’ve changed some of Ashton’s decors — Daphnis and Chloe, Rhapsody — disastrously to me — as though they know better than the choreographer! Sometimes it works, but it’s very, very risky. I believe Ashton did allow it himself before he died, for Warsaw, because they had very little money — I actually went out there myself, and helped to look at it and coach it, a couple of years ago — and I can tell you, that it wasn’t the same thing — it didn’t have the wit. Osbert Lancaster had wit, amusement in his work as well, and it’s what Ashton wanted. It’s a very English ballet — as I say, Ashton loved that idealised view of the country, that kind of print — the farm-yard, the stableyard, and the peasants, in an idealised way. He loved the country, and his place in Suffolk.

You know, his grave in Yaxley — it’s where his mother was born, you know that? That’s why he went there in the first place. She was born in Yaxley, and she was buried in that churchyard. Years and years ago, Ashton had a cottage just next door to it. In those days the church used to have a school, and this had been the school cottage, thatched and everything, and that was his first house there, before he moved to Eye. He showed me once the gravestone of his mother — it was there; but when Sir Frederick was to be buried it had all been turned up and moved; and they said ‘Oh no, the graveyard is full and he can’t possibly be buried there; but if you can find the grave of his mother he can be buried on top of her’. So in the end, the Church Council — knowing that he was a very celebrated and famous Yaxley man — said they must find a grave for him, and they went around — we went around with them, Michael Somes and Tony Dyson (who was a friend of Frederick and myself) — because I was staying there when Frederick died — and they put a big spike down to see if anybody was there. But I was thrilled that he was going there, because his grave actually looks down to where that cottage is — they call it Ashton Cottage now.

DV:  So, this hypothetical company has been given permission to put the ballet on, and you’ve been over and done some of the casting. Who actually teaches them the basics?

Grant:  In the days of Ashton, a girl called Faith Worth used to teach it — she was a notator — and unfortunately when I used to go there, there were bits that were quite wrong, because she hadn’t notated it originally, and there were bits missing, like in the storm, and she sort of just made them up. Anyway, we used to put them right. Now I have three people who can do it: a girl called Jane Elliot, who is also a notator, and who has very carefully got what I feel is what Ashton wanted; and a ballet master from Rio de Janeiro; and David Scott and his wife Joanne Nisbet, who were the ballet master and ballet mistress when I was in Canada. (Ashton himself came over when we did Fille in Canada and being the choreographer, he himself changed little things, little details — and the detail is so important in the ballet because the detail is the characterisation, and that’s what gets lost; and he changed little things because he was looking at it again, and working on it again, and that to me was the latest Ashton version.) So one of them teaches it, you see, and then I go and try to take the mechanics of the notation and try to make the dancers know why they’re doing it: because notation is a wonderful thing, but it doesn’t tell you why they’re doing something, it just tells you what to do, but not why to do it; and Ashton, although he didn’t always tell you why you were doing it, he worked with people who got the message, if you understand me, he liked to work with people who he could see understood what he was trying to say.

DV:  You said that Ashton himself changed a few details for the NBoC...

Grant:  They were just little mime details, and little musical details...

DV:  ...and if you teach it to a new company, you teach it like that?

Grant:  Yes; I tried to teach it to the new people in this revival at the Festival Hall recently; and because they’re so dyed in the wool — some of them are still reluctant, the ones that had done it before — there were two people who had done it before, Irek Mukhamedov and Miyako Yoshida who’d danced with the Birmingham company — she’d done it before so she was very reluctant to make the little changes that I’d gathered.

DV:  I think many people, including me, thought it was the best revival for years...

Grant:  Well, one gets worried again because the detail gets lost. It’s like — there’s a lift in the first act, where Lise is lifted up and does a backbend — at least Nadia Nerina did a backbend. Nobody else does a backbend — they’re all stiff, like this, as though they can’t backbend — and I said to them ‘You know, this is a backbend’; ‘Oh no, there never was a backbend’; so Nadia Nerina had a tape of a television film that Margaret Dale did, soon after the ballet was done, and she gave me a version of this tape; and I took it in to the Director, and to the ballet masters, and I said ‘You’ve just got to watch this tape’; and there on the tape was Nadia Nerina lifted up with this wonderful backbend; and all that sort of thing happens.

DV:  Is that the lift with the ribbons, at the back corner, and he lifts her and she’s holding the ribbons?

Grant:  Yes; and now they’re trying to do a backbend, but they didn’t even try because they said it didn’t exist.That’s just one tiny little incident.

DV:  But it’s the tiny little incidents that make it...

Grant:  Well that’s what I keep on saying: ‘Please, please, please do not lose the detail’; but they think it’s not important. The reason it was put there in the first place by the choreographer was to show the characterisation, and somehow they think it’s not important today, because they’re so concerned with the technique — which is very good, they have wonderful dancers — I mean to have the technique to do everything is what every dancer desires; but you don’t just concentrate on that if you’re wise, you have a little bit else, something else to offer besides just the technique. It’s like a fantastic concert pianist; I mean I’m sure there’s many many pianists with wonderful technique, but few who can translate that technique into saying something.

DV:  Many people say that the Royal Ballet is losing it’s ability to dance Ashton, because they can’t do the little steps, and the bends, anymore. Do you find that?

Grant:  Well, it’s not the dancers’ fault, exactly, it’s because choreography today is different, and also they don’t get ballets where they have to characterise — I mean the only one trying to carry on that tradition so far as I can see is someone like Bintley. In our time we had ballets where we had to be something — that’s what I liked about it... I could never be myself, but to be something else was what it was all about. It’s not just to show gymnastic steps, but to be something. I was once in Russia, to judge, and Sergeyev, who was the director of the Kirov at the time, was also a judge, and they gave a big luncheon party, and everybody was speaking, and the one thing I do remember him saying was ‘You have wonderful company in the Bolshoi, but please remember that the ballet dancer is an actor—dancer’. What he was trying to say was, don’t lose the ability to portray something — that’s what an audience wants — that’s why the Diaghilev ballet and those later ballets were so successful — it wasn’t just the corps de ballet came on to be pretty, to do pretty steps...

DV:  There seems to be a whole genre of ballets, that I would call demi-caractere, that have just disappeared...

Grant:  That’s it... you see, someone like Ashton was very demi-caractere, and someone like de Valois was very demi-caractere. I was tremendously fortunate because when I joined the company in 1946, who was working with the company but Leonide Massine? He gave me my first role, and when I think about it now, here was I, in the company one year, and I was doing a ballet of Leonide Massine, doing a role that he’d done himself in America, and the other people in the ballet were Margot Fonteyn, Michael Somes and Moira Shearer. And my partner was Margot Fonteyn! — I mean, unbelievable when I think about it now! He was a wonderful person to work with: you just had to learn from him — he didn’t really tell you, you had to get the message when he showed you something..

DV:  He didn’t explain, he just told you the steps?

Grant:  Yes, he showed them to you, but he didn’t explain; neither did Ashton, really. The more you worked with Ashton, the more you realised that on that music, that was the step, and it was very difficult to do any other step to it, because it was such a musical thing.

DV:  I always think that the best choreography, and a lot of Ashton’s, looks as if he didn’t invent it, he discovered it — it was always there, waiting.

Grant:  Well, it was waiting till he discovered it, and you discovered it as a dancer too; you were quite happy, because he wouldn’t let you do something he could see you weren’t comfortable with. So that’s why other dancers — unfortunately, coming after — that’s why sometimes they change it to make it comfortable for themselves. Ashton would have it comfortable for the dancer, but in the way that he still wanted the move to stress, and to the music.

DV:  Do you get asked to coach your other roles, not in Fille — things like Tirennio?

Grant:  No, no, they don’t bother. I would like to have helped with Tirennio, although I rather liked the way the dancer did it — but you know what happened with Tirennio is, that years ago when it was first revived, Michael Somes was responsible for it, and he cut out certain steps from Tirennio — because when the film was made, they cut it — being a film they had to have it more precise, and they had to have it within a certain time factor — so they cut some of Tirennio’s dance — some of the most difficult steps; and of course that remained cut out ever since. I don’t think I could remember ... there was one step I remember that he did across the back, which is not there anymore.

DV: I saw a film of you recently, at the Fonteyn conference in September — a film of Sleeping Beauty, a compilation, shot on the American tours in the early 50s...

Grant:  I actually shot a little film, in 1950, on the second tour we ever did in America, showing Margot and everybody walking on the railway line — and in the old Metropolitan Opera House, from the prompt box... I thought it was Margot until I looked at it recently, but it was Moira, Moira Shearer — so I had both of them; Moira was doing a bit of the Rose Adagio.

DV:  This film has different casts, though it’s always Fonteyn — the Prince is sometimes Helpmann, and sometimes Michael Somes; and you’re in it, in the Three Ivans...

Grant:  The Ivans... when I first joined the company — I had a scholarship, I’d been sent to join the Sadler’s Wells School, but there was no school, so they put me with this group for my classes, and they just said ‘Learn anything you can’; and then one day I had this message from Covent Garden, ‘Would Alexander Grant, who’s just arrived from New Zealand, would he come to rehearsal at 6 pm’ and I was on that night! But having had experience in New Zealand, I must have looked as if I knew what I was doing. I was then asked by the ballet mistress, Joy Newton at that time, if I’d done any Russian dancing — because a friend of hers had been with the de Basil to New Zealand, and had seen me as a boy when I’d been asked up to their class to do a Russian dance (because I thought they were Russians, which they weren’t) — if I could do the Ivans, and I said ‘I think so’ and she said ‘You’re on’ and I did it for 20 years! I did it in Moscow for the Russians! Twenty years I did the Russian dance, and because I always did the Russian dance, I never did anything else.

Also in 1946, the new Ashton ballet Symphonic Vatiations was a great success, and Brian Shaw, who was in it, was suddenly called up — they were still calling people up, they still had to do military service — and I think it was Philip Chatfield they put in to Brian’s part; but he was tall, and there was a turn in it where you leaned back, and he was always falling over, so I was suddenly told to go ahead and do it. I had to learn it no time at all. I must say they were all very kind — Michael Somes, he could see how nervous I was — I mean, can you imagine, there I was, and you couldn’t get off the stage till it was over! Ashton’s first teacher was Massine, and Facade had a Massine finale — obviously Ashton was influenced by Massine — he would never admit it though, he would always say he was influenced by Nijinska.

DV:  Are there other Ashton ballets that you would like to see revived, that still could be while the people who danced them are still around?

Very, very difficult. There was a lovely ballet that I was in — Helpmann crawled over me — it was called Dante Sonata — we had snakes round our legs, and the snakes were made of coiled wire with material over them.. and one of the pieces of wire was sticking out, and as he crawled over me he cut my leg, so I went to the dressing room and I asked him ‘Could you ask them in wardrobe to fix your snake, because a piece of wire is cutting my leg?’, and he never did it, and I was cut a second time, so then I went to the wardrobe, and they fixed it.

DV:  It’s certainly one that many people would like to see revived; and maybe it would look very modern today?

Grant:  It could look very modern, that’s right...Another ballet that was a great success for Ashton and Fonteyn was Apparitions. Peter Schaufuss persuaded Ashton to revive it for English National Ballet for Makarova, and it didn’t really work — so it’s very hard to know...

DV:  How do you think Marguerite and Armand will turn out?

Grant:  Well, Marguerite and Armand was special for those two, and he wouldn’t let anyone else do it, you know. (In the early days he wouldn’t let anyone else do Symphonic Vatiations, you know) But I don’t know: it could work.

DV:  What happens to the ballets that Ashton left to Fonteyn, and Somes? Do they now belong to their heirs?

Grant:  Yes — his [Somes’] wife now looks after Cinderella, which he owned, and Symphonic Variations, but I hear that she’s very keen to change the decor for Cinderella. Maybe that’s a different matter, that Cinderella can be changed because it’s been done already in different decors; but anyway she wants to change it; and of course Deborah MacMillan changed the decor for MacMillan’s ballets, didn’t she? It’s a very very hard decision — I can’t believe that people can claim to know better than the choreographer. I mean they don’t change the decor when they revive a Diaghilev ballet, do they? But he himself was not against changing decors, you know, if he had a hand in changing it. As I say he changed the decor for Fille for Warsaw, because they were poor.

DV:  But there’s a difference between Ashton doing it himself and someone else doing it. There always seems to be a line ‘Well, he would have liked it’, and maybe he would — but maybe he wouldn’t...

Grant:  It’s easy to say. As far as Daphnis and Chloe is concerned, it had great space to it — I mean you had this wide open space; and you also had a different decor for the claustrophobia of the pirate scene, and now... I don’t know, I was very upset about that — and also about Rhapsody, because there’s a great red streak on the decor, and the boy has a red streak on his costume so he dissolves into the backcloth; and the reason Ashton did it in the first place, in a kind of frivolous, pastel shade was in compliment to the Queen Mother, because she always had pastel colours, she always wore pastels, and it was for her special thing.

DV:  If you think it’s possible to rate the different Ashton ballets against each other, how would you rate La Fille mal Gardee?

Grant:  Well, I would say, it was the one ballet that Ashton himself used to say, it was an immediate success. A lot of his ballets had very mixed receptions when they opened, and then grew on the public and media alike; but Fille, from its very first performance, was an enormous success with the public and an enormous success with the media, ... so he placed it very highly, I think. I wouldn’t say which is the ballet that he liked of his own ballets the best — I don’t know; but I know he placed it high up. To me it was a wonderful compliment that he left it to me.

DV:  When you were rehearsing it, did you know it was going to be a masterpiece?

Grant:  Yes. I was in many Ashton ballets, and we never really knew, we just worked ...but with Fille we knew, through all the rehearsals, that it was going to be a great success. It was great fun to work on; it was one the he choreographed and never changed a step afterwards, it just came out like that — easier, even. It was all great, great fun, everybody was enjoying it. I remember sharing a dressing room with David Blair, at Covent Garden, and David looked at me at the dress rehearsal, and he said ‘Has Frederick said anything to you?’ and I said ‘No’, and he said ‘I don’t know whether he likes me in this or not, I don’t know whether he’s happy with it’. I said ‘You never know with Ashton; but you’d definitely know if he wasn’t’. Michael would come and say ‘He doesn’t like that’... there was none of this business of going round and saying ‘You were wonderful, darling’. De Valois never did that either — I mean I wasn’t brought up like that, and when I went to Canada, because I didn’t do it they thought there was some-thing wrong; I might go and say ‘ You should have done this’, or ‘Why didn’t you do that?’, but I never ever said ‘You were wonderful’. I can remember driving Frederick once — I used to drive him home, he never learnt to drive — none of them learnt to drive, they couldn’t afford to — when I joined the company in 1946 the only people in the company who had a car were Michael Somes and Harold Turner. Helpmann never learnt to drive, de Valois never learnt to drive — I think Margot learnt later — Ashton never learnt — because they couldn’t afford cars.. But I’m driving him home one day, and he’s settling in the back, and I’m driving, and he said ‘Alexander’, and I said ‘Yes, Frederick?’, and he said ‘You were very good tonight’ — I nearly jumped out of my skin...

DV:  I remember years ago overhearing some people sitting behind me who had been round to see you in your dressing room, and who were saying you had been very cross because they’d asked you when you had decided to become a character dancer, and you had said ‘One doesn’t decide to become a character dancer, one evolves’.

Grant:  Well, I don’t remember saying that, but I do know that I didn’t decide to be a character dancer: I decided to become a dancer, and I know what gave me my first inspiration. I can look back and remember that during a tour of the Colonel de Basil Ballets Russe, who came to New Zealand just before the war, Leon Woizikowsky came on as the Golden Slave in Scheherezade — and I’d been dancing since the age of six — I just kept dancing, I didn’t know why — and I suddenly thought ‘This is why I’ve been dancing, this is what I want to do, I want to be this Golden Slave in Scheherezade’ — and of course we never did Scheherezade in my heyday in the Royal Ballet; but it’s funny, the last ballet I was involved in English National Ballet was Scheherezade and I was finally cast as the Chief Eunuch, and I was so thrilled that I was in this ballet, because the original Chief Eunuch had been Cecchetti — and I was doing the part when I was in my sixties — it had taken all this time — though it wasn’t the Golden Slave, unfor-tunately! When I came over to England I didn’t know if I would even get into a company — it just happened, that they were short of boys; and I just wanted to dance — it wasn’t a question of whether you were deciding to be this kind of dancer or that kind, it was just what you were lucky enough to be given to dance — and I was given this role by Massine, which typed me as that kind of dancer for the rest of my life. I don’t regret it because I was much happier being someone else beside myself.

DV:  Did you ever wish you could do Albrecht, or Siegfried?

Grant:  No, I don’t think I ever did. I was very happy with what I was doing, and I felt there were plenty of other dancers who were good at that sort of thing; and you see I got to be in a ballet in which Somes and Margot were the stars; and these other people who did the same sort of thing as them weren’t in it, they were in the next night or something, but I was in it from the first — so I was very happy with that.

 

 

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