About Alexander Roy – Choreographer
ALEXANDER ROY – choreographer
It is possible today to take a 12-month course and graduate with an MA and Postgraduate Diploma in choreography. Presumably the successful candidate is then a ‘qualified’ choreographer with a career in this profession to look forward to. In practice, this is not the way it happens, and the path to becoming a successful professional choreographer is a long and often difficult one. Alexander was fortunate in working from the beginnings with an exceptionally interesting and imaginative director, the choreographer Gertrud Steinweg. Steinweg had been a pupil of the famous German dancer and choreographer, Mary Wigman, and her own works were certainly influenced by Central German expressionism, but also, due to East Germany’s ties with the Soviet Union, with the trends in theatre at the time brought about by companies such as the Moscow Arts Theatre and the German drama directors, including Brecht and Piscator. At the Komische Oper, where Alexander had become principal dancer, the theatre’s intendant and opera director, Walter Felsenstein, regarded dance with the same importance as drama or opera, an unusual situation in Germany at that time. He took a personal interest in Steinweg’s new productions, visiting rehearsals almost daily and insisting on meticulous ‘polishing’ of the dramatic sense of the ballets and finesse in every detail. This detailed work left an indelible impression on the youthful Alexander and was the beginning of his ‘apprenticeship’ as a choreographer.
It is doubtful that there have ever been child prodigy choreographers ( to equal Mozart’s achievements), and the path is generally made by years of observation – of performances and rehearsals – also participation as an interpreter of good choreographers’ works, and ideally, the opportunity to create first ballets for student groups, and for professional dancers’ workshops. Alexander’s ‘apprenticeship’ as a choreographer was enriched in Berlin as a result of the visit of a plethora of leading international ballet companies in the 1950’s. Here he watched performance after performance, discovering Balanchine, Robbins, de Mille, Tudor, Ashton, and the still very young Roland Petit. As a result of these visits, Alexander knew he must leave the ‘East’ and made his way to West Germany where he was able to join a touring American company, ‘American Festival Ballet’. Here, he made his first encounters with American contemporary dance, and even with jazz, and was able to appreciate the difficulties under which choreographers of a touring company must work, with snatched rehearsals between travelling and performing. Moving on via an engagement in Essen, to The Netherlands and to England, Alexander had the chance to work with some of the stalwarts of an older generation, notably Kurt Joos, Leonide Massine and Walter Gore, all confident and secure in their manner of working, and all strict and demanding taskmasters. He also encountered a new generation of choreographers, influenced strongly by the trends in dance in the US at the time, John Butler, Glen Tetley, Job Sanders, Benjamin Harkavy, Hans van Manen and Rudi van Danzig.
Alexander had been given some opportunities, choreographing for fellow students and later for scenes in operas and operettas in Germany, but his first major challenge was to realise a long-held aim, to create a full evening’s performance of ballets, a ‘concert’ programme for two dancers- with Christina Gallea joining him as a performer. It was an audacious and ambitious project with the aim of presenting a colourful and varied programme of ballets, to include examples of classical pas de deux from the 19th and 20th century, but essentially to create new works in varying choreographic styles.
Opening with the Grand Pas de Deux ‘Don Quixote’, the couple immediately re-appeared in an Orpheus and Eurydice pas de deux, to Franz Liszt’s Symphonic Poem; Alexander then had a solo piece to Ravel’s ‘Alborada del Graciosa’ – the Morning Serenade of a Fool – before the major work of the evening a long, dramatic ballet to Jacques Ibert’s score based on Oscar Wilde’s ‘Ballad of Reading Gaol’ – “ for each man kills the thing he loves’’….Soli and the pas de deux from Fokine’s “Les Sylphides’ opened the second half, before a light-hearted ‘Café d’Illusions’ . Christina ‘s solo ‘Blue Roses’ to Debussy’s ‘Reflets dans l’Eau’ was the dream of a lonely woman imagining the visit of a longed-for suitor, and the evening finished with an energetic “ Impromptu Con Spirito’ to Gershwins ‘Three Preludes’. After a year of touring throughout Western Europe, a second season, which included a lengthy tour of East Germany and a two-week season in London, demanded a new programme. This included two important works, a contemporary ballet danced to J S Bach’s Partita for solo violin, but also incorporating speech, with extracts from Shakespeare’s sonnets, and a lively closing work, Le Manège, to some irresistibly danceable music by the 19th century composer, Louis Moreau Gottschalk. Both of these ballets, created in 1964, were still being performed in revised versions for a larger cast, in London, twelve years later.
Following a stay in London as member of London Dance Theatre, for whom he also remounted the ballet to Bach, now titled Circuit, and in Paris, as dancer and assistant to the choreographer, for a series of dance films, Alexander was ready to realise his plans to form a company, and International Ballet Caravan was born in Paris in 1965. The following period up to 1969, and which involved a move to London, was possibly a tentative one choreographically, one in which he was searching for his own ‘voice’ and where the early works were inevitably influenced by the legacy of those choreographers he had worked with as a dancer. The most important ballet from this period was undoubtedly The Gentleman Caller, based on Tennessee William’s play ‘The Glass Menagerie’, which proved to be a powerful dramatic ballet and won much success. Following the company’s first central London season, Richard Buckle, the doyen of London’s ballet critics, wrote in the Sunday Times “It is a very rare experience to see so accomplished a work by an unfamiliar choreographer.”
In 1969, naturally influenced by tumultuous events taking place in art, music, drama and dance in the late Sixties in ‘swinging’ London, Alexander set forth creating a series of almost provocative ballets, Nepentha, danced to the music by one of the most popular music groups of the time, Procol Harum, and The (Immoral) Story of a Small Town and the Visit of a Old Lady, based on the play by the Swiss dramatist, Friedrich Dūrrenmatt. Claimed by the critics to be the longest title in ballet, the work, danced to an electronic score, arranged by Alexander, and to text by American poet, Walt Christopher Stickney, was well received in London and Paris. However, it brought about a ‘scandale’ among the audience in Nice, in southern France, with the auditorium split between boos and bravos. Further works followed involving collaboration with the performers, dancing and speaking, as in Playground, conceived especially for young audiences. In 1972 Fanfares was choreographed for The Festivals of London, with funding by the Gulbenkian Foundation and the Arts Council of Great Britain, and performed throughout the capital, including on a stage under the Westway. Inspired by the work of the Belgian surrealist painter, James Ensor, the ballet brought to life the nightmare world of carnival masks and puppets, bringing Philip Hope-Wallace to write in the Guardian “ Mostly in white tights with trimmings of bedraggled hats and umbrellas, the dancers grovelled, pranced or formed strange clusters… achieving striking images of bum-to-bum or crawling togetherness of louche masked characters which got close to catching the spirit of this strange painter in some of his moods.” By now, Alexander had established himself as an original and inventive choreographer with a remarkably wide range. During the early 1970’s he created several ballets to contemporary scores – Visages d’une Femme, to music by Jacob Druckman, Voices to George Crumb’s haunting Ancient Voices of Children, and for a London season in 1976, About Face to Dmitri Shostakovitch’s Trio in D minor. These dramatic works all proved to be successful in seasons in London, and on tour on the Continent, but the company was now touring extensively throughout the UK, giving up to 200 performances annually in towns and cities, both large and small. These ballets needed good, well-equipped stages and time to prepare each performance. It was also a period of economic crises, strikes and shortages, and Alexander was aware that audiences, who did continue to fill the theatres, needed a different kind of performance, something less demanding and more entertaining.
This was also a period of stability in the company with a group of competent and collaborative dancers, allowing Alexander an exceptionally free-hand to produce one ballet after another. These were ‘lighter’ works, Castles in the Air, to Jacques Ibert’s Divertissement, Masquerade to Khachaturian’s suite of waltzes and mazurkas, Housewarming to an elegant selection of pieces by Francis Poulenc, Peter and the Wolf and Soirée Musicale. In 1980 he produced a ballet which combined these elements with a dramatic narrative, A Smile at the Bottom of the Ladder. The title came from a novella by Henry Miller, written in Paris, describing the tragic life a clown-like figure, which was obviously based on the life of the painter Henri de Toulouse Lautrec. Shostakovich had written a film score for a film set in Paris at the same period and this proved perfect for the ballet. Alexander designed a simple and highly effective set, and the cast were dressed in costumes replicating those of Lautrec’s own paintings. It was a longer, and much stronger, work than those of preceding years and it was well received in London, and on tour, and set the stage for a whole new era in the company’s history.
Alexander had long wanted to produce a full-length ballet, the short, divertissement-like works of the 1970’s becoming too undemanding and lightweight. Directing an unsubsidised company, it was essential to find a theme which would still be attractive to promoters, and to audiences, and he turned to Shakespeare, deciding to mount A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the end of 1980. Shakespeare’s incomparable talent at combining drama and comedy, love- interest and suspense proved perfect for a ballet and the new work was choreographed at almost breakneck speed during the latter half of 1980. During the period from August to December, the company gave over 80 performances, touring throughout the UK, while rehearsing both A Smile at the Bottom of the Ladder (premiered in September) and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which received its first performance in Plymouth at the end of November. All this was made possible by having an exceptionally talented and hard-working ensemble of dancers. The music chosen, was not Mendelssohn’s ‘Incidental Music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, usually chosen by choreographers, but a selection of Rossini’s String Sonatas, playful and lyrical, and proving a perfect match to the lively choreography. Balanchine had already mounted a full-length production of The Dream in 1962, and Alexander’s was very nearly the first European full-length version, beaten by John Neumeier in 1977, but it was the first British version, a fact which mystified many of the dance critics. John Percival, writing in The Times: “To put on A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a two-act ballet is a bold enterprise at any time; but when you have a company of only 10 dancers, it appears positively foolhardy. But with some doubling of roles and a firm refusal to acknowledge boundaries of sex, Alexander Roy carries it off surprisingly well… This Dream is really quite an achievement.”
The company then set off on a month-long tour of France and Switzerland, returning to the UK in the spring of 1981 for non-stop touring in the UK. Theatre directors were initially wary of booking a full-length production, fearing that their audiences not really ‘ready’ for this, and especially not for a Shakespearean theme, insisting on a second programme of shorter works. However, they were soon proved to have underestimated their audiences and the ballet proved to be an immediate and long-lasting success, still being performed during the company’s final season in 1999. It was also televised by German TV in during a performance in Berlin in 1987 and subsequently shown in many European countries.
Happy with scope that a full-length production gave him as a choreographer, and the success which The Dream had won with both audiences and promoters, Alexander now produced a string of evening-filling productions, Beauty and the Beast in 1983, The Magic Flute in 1988, Figaro, Figaro in 1992 and finally Alice, Dreams and Wonderland in 1998. All these works had a strong narrative thread, and offered the dancers rewarding roles. They also attracted overseas promoters, bringing the company to tour not only throughout Europe, but also regularly to South East Asia, and to North and South America. Other works choreographed during the 1980’s and 90’s, included a one-act La Ronde , based on Arthur Schnitzler’s play of the same name and danced to music by Jacques Offenbach, Le Boeuf sur le Toit to Darius Milhaud’s irresistibly danceable South American rhythms, and Adagio ,to Albinoni’s lyrical score.
Alexander also accepted a number of guest engagements, mounting Capriccio and Passing Encounter both for Scapino Ballet in the Netherlands, and for Harlequin Ballet in London. Nepentha was performed by the Royal Ballet of Flanders in Antwerp, and he collaborated as choreographer with the Opéra Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels.