Creator and Muse: Choreographers, dancers and the roles they make together
From The Rite of Spring to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, ballet's specially-created roles.
As with The Royal Opera, over the years The Royal Ballet has seen a number of roles created on particular dancers by choreographers. We thought we’d take a look at a few examples:
Kenneth MacMillan and Lynn Seymour
One of MacMillan’s first works for Deutsche Oper Ballet, Concerto is an exuberant showpiece of the outstanding abilities of the whole company. The lyrical second movement was based on Lynn Seymour’s warm up for rehearsal: “I used to become fascinated by what she was doing rather than what I was supposed to be doing, and I decided to incorporate the idea of the barre work into the choreography.” The central pas de deux, danced by Seymour in the first performance, is an sensual transformation of the dancer’s graceful exercises.
The Rite of Spring
Kenneth MacMillan and Monica Mason
Kenneth MacMillan plucked the 20-year-old Monica Mason – later Director of the Royal Ballet – from the corps de ballet to create the gruelling part of the sacrificial Chosen One. It was a part she would dance for the next 20 years. MacMillan explained his choice: “For one thing, she has tremendous power… rare in English dancers, who tend to be more elegant and refined. But she has a real athletic quality, which struck me in rehearsal – also she is tremendously musical.”
He drew on Mason’s knowledge of Zulu dances, gained during her South African childhood. As Mason remembers, it is “absolutely not feminine choreography” – something MacMillan made use of in 1987, in the ballet’s first revival after Mason retired from the part in 1982. He departed from Stravinsky’s original scenario and cast a man (Simon Rice) as the Chosen One: “I realized the steps I’d worked out on Monica were just as suited for a man. In fact, I’d picked Monica out of the ‘tribe’ of the corps because she was so much more athletic than the others, with real energy and attack.” In her 2011 revival of the ballet, Monica followed MacMillan’s adaptation, also casting men for the part: Edward Watson and Steven McRae.
Marguerite and Armand
Frederick Ashton and Margot Fonteyn
Frederick Ashton had long been looking for a subject for Margot Fonteyn and her new partner Rudolf Nureyev when he came across Alexandre Dumas fils’s La Dame aux camélias, also the inspiration for Verdi’s La traviata. Fonteyn was far older than many other leading dancers, but her electric partnership with Nureyev had revived her career.
In this story of a courtesan forced by propriety to give up her beloved, Ashton showed audiences a dancer whose technical abilities were beginning to decline but who retained a profound emotional power.
Zenaida Yanowsky as Marguerite and Federico Bonelli as Armand in Marguerite and Armand © Tristram Kenton/ROH 2011
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Christopher Wheeldon and Steven McRae, Lauren Cuthbertson, Edward Watson
For The Royal Ballet’s first full-length commission in 15 years, Christopher Wheeldon produced a wealth of fabulous creations including a discombobulating Cheshire Cat, a sinuous caterpillar and a tap-dancing Mad Hatter – created especially for McRae, almost unique among Principal ballet dancers for his brilliance as a tap-dancer. Wheeldon was no less exacting with the casting of his principals: “As soon as I decided I was going to do Alice, Lauren [Cuthbertson] was absolutely for me the key to making this production work, because I knew she would embody the kind of Alice I wanted to portray. She has a unique ability to make her dramatic persona on stage natural, honest, fresh and to the point…as for Edward [Watson], he and I have been friends from school, and we grew up together…I want my White Rabbit to be a little bit bad, a little belligerent, and Ed’s great at that. He does bad-tempered – a little bit tortured – really well!”
Do you have a favourite specially-created ballet role?