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Leanne Cope

Former First Artist, The Royal Ballet

interviewed by David Bain
Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, London, 24 November 2016

AFTER WELCOMING LEANNE, who’d joined the Royal Ballet company 13 years ago and last came to talk to us in 2007, David suggested she told us first how she got into dancing. She said she started at the age of five, her mum was a ballroom dancer who wanted to do ballet. When it came to her turn Leanne went to ballet but wanted to do ballroom! She was at a local dance school where Karen Paisey, a former Royal Ballet Principal, had been a student and had returned as a teacher so Leanne had a lovely teacher who knew not just the basics but taught them rep like Cygnets or Friends from Sleeping Beauty, so they learned something other than RAD. Leanne went to Junior Associates at the age of 10 and at 11 she moved to White Lodge where she spent five years. At 16 when auditions for the Upper School came round she wasn’t sure she really wanted to do ballet so auditioned for musical theatre schools. When she told Gailene Stock, Gailene became very angry and asked why she was wasting time with musical theatre after doing ballet for so long. Leanne hadn’t been sure she’d get into the Upper School as she wasn’t as gifted technically as the others in her very strong year (Hayley Forskitt, Paul Kay, Jonathan Watkins, Nathalie Harrison, Jenna Roberts, etc) but did succeed and decided to continue ballet.

 At 16 when auditions for the Upper School came round she wasn’t sure she really wanted to do ballet so auditioned for musical theatre schools.

Highlights of White Lodge: it was during the closure of the Opera House so they didn’t do Nutcracker but did Peter and the Wolf at the Royal Festival Hall. From the age of 12, Jonathan Watkins’ choreography was a stand-out. Every year there was a choreographic competition and she was always in his pieces. She was also in a lot of works made by Jenna Lee, a former ENB soloist who now does commercial work. Leanne also met her husband (Paul Kay) at White Lodge, made long-lasting friendships with Nathalie Harrison, who was her bridesmaid, and others. She and Nathalie had next door beds in the dorm, then shared a flat, and still are very close. To be with like-minded people with the same passion at the age of 11 is very special. She enjoyed White Lodge and was never homesick. It was hard, there were tears both happy and sad, but she absolutely loved it.

Upper School: they were in Talgarth Road and moved to Covent Garden in her third year. It was tough.  Upper School is a whole other ball-game, it gets serious with foreign students who’d been doing competitions and solos and you realise it’s a big world out there. It was the Millennium year of talent. At White Lodge you were very cocooned and only knew the Royal Ballet and Birmingham Royal Ballet and suddenly you realised how wide was the world with many different styles and it was great to expand your horizons.

Highlights at Upper School: Leanne spent three years in the Upper School. She mentioned in particular loving choreography and being involved with other people’s work. Leanne was Cupid in Don Quixote in graduate year in White Lodge on the Opera House stage. You got the chance of a broader view seeing other companies, plays and theatre and it’s more fun. It’s not good to become too blinkered and if your heart is just set on RB/BRB it may lead to disappointment so a wider view is important.

She never expected to get into the Royal Ballet company and wanted to go to BRB mainly because she loved David Bintley’s theatrical ballets – the Arthurs, Carmina Burana, Far from the Maddening Crowd. She knew she was not as gifted as some of the girls in her year and when they were asked which three companies they would like to join, Leanne put Cats first! Gailene Stock told her off but the idea remained at the back of her mind.

She did amateur dramatics as a child and had a passion for it. She told Paul that when she retired as a dancer she would join the Wimbledon Amateur Dramatic Society. His reply was he wouldn’t go and watch her there! She heard around May time that she was joining the Company, having worked in the classics a lot in the third year when she had her own spot. They realised she could be thrown around and had a brain for working out patterns and swapping places and she thinks it was her logistical brain rather than talent that got her the job!  Paul got his job in the February, so it was amazing to be in the same place and not BRB after all. She couldn’t believe it and almost still can’t believe she was ever in the Royal Ballet.

First memories of being in the Company: She joined with very long hair which she’d cut off. When Monica Mason called her into her office Leanne thought she’d be fired! It was an amazing time to be there: Darcey Bussell, Sylvie Guillem, Gillian Revie and Belinda Hatley were around. To be in the studio with those traditional Royal Ballet dancers was special.

She was terrified of being a shade in Bayadère.  Although she’d done it as astudent, there’s more pressure when you’re in the Company. She was also in the revived Anastasia but her first featured role was probably Clara. When she first joined she understudied for a while in Peter Wright’s revamped production for Alina Cojocaru though Nutcracker wasn’t done for a long time during the Cinderella period. Clara wears a long dress which is very forgiving and particularly in the Mirliton dance, where the others are in tutus, a long dress is much easier.

Why was she chosen to do new choreography in the Company? Leanne said Liam Scarlett was once asked if she was his muse. She said she wasn’t a muse but it was amusing to be in a studio with a choreographer, where things can happen by accident and turn into something magical. It is fun to be part of the creative team. For her the best choreographers use the people in front of them. Jonathan Watkins did a First Drafts piece which was a duet for her and Yuhui Choe. Liam came the next year and he made a pas de deux for her and Paul. Jonathan used music from the movie Catch Me If You Can which was very mechanical, quirky, difficult to count, and couldn’t be more different from Liam’s piece. Yuhui is very precise and would make it look perfect so Leanne felt she was always trying to play catch up. Liam’s piece was to Chopin, a very melancholy, heart-wrenching pas de deux. It made for an interesting evening going from one contrasting work to the other. She was very tearful at the end and her Mum and Gran who were in the audience could tell she was really feeling it. Something very deep happens when Leanne’s performing Liam’s work which isn’t just about the steps. He was commissioned to do a piece for the Linbury and initially there were no covers but finally she covered Laura Morera. Liam invited her to a rehearsal and she sneaked in at the back. It was amazing to be in the studio with Laura. Afterwards Liam asked her to do the pas de deux with Bennet Gartside. He then made another piece for Laura, Tamara and herself and Bennet, José Martín and Ricardo Cervera. She was an artist on stage with first soloists and principals – a crazy experience!

Leanne had always been a child, animal or fairy – a whole menagerie of creatures! To play a real woman was amazing. The pas de deux was only three minutes but took a long time to choreograph and rehearse as it was so dangerous…

David said her confidence in herself as a dancer must have risen by then and asked how much input she had into Asphodel Meadows. Leanne said if Liam had faith in her then she had to have it in herself. She wasn’t in a tutu and tights with hair in a bun. She should have been terrified but wasn’t as she felt very prepared, it suited her and she knew she could do it. It was made on Tamara Rojo and Bennet but she and José were working it out for themselves and occasionally something would catch Liam’s eye. She and Tamara did it very differently but Liam likes people to interpret in their own way. The next work was Sweet Violets when she had a role created on her. Leanne had always been a child, animal or fairy – a whole menagerie of creatures! To play a real woman was amazing. The pas de deux was only three minutes but took a long time to choreograph and rehearse as it was so dangerous but it was absolutely thrilling to dance. Her client was Thiago Soares and he was an animal on stage where he really gets into the role. There were bruises and scratches but it was great fun and she trusted him a lot. Liam never said he was casting her as a prostitute but suggested she Google the Camden Town murders. Then she knew it would be grim and dark but he didn’t say who she was going to be. When the cast went up she Googled her character, Emily Dimmock, and read the crime reports and post mortem describing her slashed neck and knew what the role would entail! She actually did two roles and there was much more to Annie Crook’s life. One day she danced one character at the matinée and the other in the evening. Liam wanted it to be as natural as possible. He took his inspiration from MacMillan and it’s conversational in a way. He didn’t want balletic gestures but wanted her to slump down, exhausted after an evening, eyeing the client when asking for the money so very much about human gestures rather than the steps. He would take it so far away from ballet and then bring her back when she had to remember to point her foot. It was hardly a ballet vocabulary, so it must have been hard to notate. She had to think how would she react if someone did this to her, if someone held a knife to her throat? Liam said it was as if someone was spying through a keyhole rather than in front of a huge audience. The other role is the young girl who meets one of Queen Victoria’s sons, has a secret affair and was reported to have had a child with him. She was put in a mental institution where they performed a lobotomy to silence her. She actually lived into her 90s and may have died in a fire at the institution rather than of old age. It was a challenge to get your brain in the space of ten minutes from the very romantic pas de deux to an Anastasia-esque mental institution where you had a lobotomy.  It was a very complex piece with fantastic music and Leanne wished it were full length as there was so much to fit in. Perhaps in future Liam might explore it further. He didn’t say what he thought of Walter Sickert or whether he thought he was the Ripper.

Her next strange role was in Liam’s Hansel and Gretel. The season before she left she went from Clara one day to Gretel the next! Two very different 11 year old girls and a dark and twisted tale. Clara was exhausting but Gretel more so. The week they opened, the Josef Fritzl case in Austria had just come to light and one review said how insensitive of Scarlett to make a ballet of it. She thought it unlikely that Liam could have predicted the Fritzl scandal would come out that week but it seemed apt at the time. They didn’t know how dark and gruesome it would be until they saw the set. Zenaida Yanowsky was to be the witch but was injured and Brian Maloney took over so there was a different approach. The role wasn’t gender specific and Kristen McNally and Christina Arestis learned it the next year which made a very different ballet. The six characters spent a very intense three/four weeks in the studio sometimes with the composer, sometimes the set designer and costume designer. They felt they were in their own little world in the MacMillan studio forgetting what was going on in the rest of the Opera House. It was fun but exhausting – you went home not only thinking of the steps but also the psychological aspect. It worked so well in the Linbury where it was a very intimate experience with such a small cast.

While still dancing Leanne was doing a lot of acting roles. She enjoyed the parts where you are a person and maybe Liam identified that in her. She knew she wouldn’t be Juliet or Mary Vetsera. What’s interesting about ballet is to be able to tell a story without words. Asked where the acting came from, Leanne said she didn’t know. At one point at White Lodge a drama teacher came in and Leanne hated it as they were made to be a teapot! There’s a desire to tell a story and she likes to feel something and express herself when she hears the music. Having had a little acting experience, she saw ABT do Romeo in New York and was watching the town people, looking at the vegetables and moving around. You’re running here and there and you’re crying over a dead body but is it a Capulet or a Montague and would you react differently if it was someone from your own side? You have to create the psychology of that person and how they’d express themselves in those circumstances.

Working with Jonathan Watkins in As One on the main stage came at about the same time as Asphodel Meadows. She was also in Chris Wheeldon’s DGV and when he made Alice she was the younger sister in pink. She only spent seven minutes on stage in the first scene when she was six years old but she was a person and Leanne wondered what her life was like. She was also in Will Tuckett’s Timecode, an educational piece, which they toured with Martin Harvey who’s also now acting.

 An email came from a casting agent in New York headed An American in Paris so she watched the film with Lesley Caron, a ballerina who didn’t sing and who speaks very little in the film as her English wasn’t good.

When did Chris broach the idea of An American in Paris?: His assistant Jackie Barrett taught Leanne at While Lodge and the Upper School and told Chris that she sang in a choir at school, took singing lessons and, although not a singer, could sing in tune. Chris sent a message saying he’d got a project and would love to hear her sing, would she learn The Man I Love before he left for the USA the following week? She youTubed it but found only Ella Fitzgerald and Barbara Streisand clips which were a bit daunting! In between a double show of Swan Lake, Leanne went to the shower of the changing room (acoustically better), Chris filmed her singing on his iPhone, and that was her audition though she didn’t know what for. Then about a month later he said someone would send her a script and she was to learn a couple of scenes. An email came from a casting agent in New York headed An American in Paris so she watched the film with Lesley Caron, a ballerina who didn’t sing and who speaks very little in the film as her English wasn’t good. Leanne learned a couple of scenes with a terrible French accent like ’Allo ’Allo andread with Chris in his American accent. This was filmed to send to the producers. She heard nothing more but the company went to Japan on tour doing Alice when Chris asked her to keep it in mind. She thought that they’d chosen another girl but then Leanne was invited to New York for a final audition. It was like being in a movie, turning up in New York, going to a casting agency, feeling so special, and singing in front of about 20 people – Chris, musical director, producers and set designers etc. There were two other girls at the audition who got chatting and Leanne still keeps in touch with them. Then the boys turned up – Robbie Fairchild, Tyler Hanes and Michael Rosing and she read with them all. Finally after being there about 10 hours they said they wanted to see Leanne dance and put her with Robbie. She didn’t know who he was but that evening saw a huge poster of him outside the Lincoln Center and discovered through Google that he was an New York City Ballet principal! They both got the job after which they went through the six-week workshop stage to put together as much as possible of the show for potential investors. In the end she didn’t know if it would come to anything and was in tears as no one had come from England to see her and she thought it might be as if it never happened. She came home and was on stage as a snowflake the next day.

Her season ended with the Royal Ballet tour to Russia. She didn’t go to China, but went to Canada to train at altitude with Jackie Barrett for two weeks. Then there was a summer of weddings, she went to New York in September for six weeks of rehearsals and the show opened in Paris where it played for two months. It was lovely to live in Paris and be able to do research for your show! Compared to ballet it was a long rehearsal period. They had eight weeks, you never see the tech period in ballet as it’s done on a Sunday but you do in the theatre sometimes working a 12 hour day. They got to the first preview and were supposed to do a run-through in the afternoon in preparation to perform in front of a paying audience that evening at the Châtelet. Within the first two minutes a huge piece of scenery crashed down and they had to sit in front of the stage and read and sang the show with the orchestra. They thought of the possible bad reviews and that they could be closed the next day. However, they got through it with six standing ovations, and all cried with great relief.

She’d come to the role as a dancer but during the workshop and rehearsals for Paris she took singing and acting lessons in any spare time she had. Chris put her in touch with coaches for one-on-one coaching which was amazing and terrifying at the same time. Leanne’s dyslexic so not good at reading scripts and that was one of her biggest struggles. The coach gave her a Greek tragedy, Shakespeare etc to read so it was the best training you can have and, while terrifying, you have to put yourself in that vulnerable situation. As a singer, unlike a dancer, you need to use the floor and breathing comes from deep down. To sing and dance at the same time is very difficult but you have to learn and make mistakes in front of 2000 people so it’s scary.

She had never been backstage on a theatre on Broadway when they made the move to the Palace Theater. New York audiences won’t sit for three hours so a lot of changes were made to the show but mostly for the better. During the preview period they had eight nights of previews, there would be changes, you’d relearn lines but have to perform the original later that day. They opened on 12 April last year to rave reviews which was wonderful. It was the most awarded show of 2015, nominated for 12 Tonys which included herself and Robbie, and Chris won for best choreography. Natalia Makarova was the only other Royal Ballet dancer who’d been nominated for (and in her case won) a Tony award. Natalia also won the Olivier for the same role – perhaps history will repeat itself, said David.

Leanne did 17 months on Broadway, eight shows a week which is tough, just Mondays off, for six months…

Leanne did 17 months on Broadway, eight shows a week which is tough, just Mondays off, for six months and then down to seven and then six shows a week but they did over 600 shows there altogether. It’s tough on the body but thrilling and she enjoyed doing the same thing over and over again. In ballet there is a right and a wrong but in shows you are reacting to different people and you find out more about your character and use the information you’ve gleaned as you approach a scene. In Paris she walked the streets pretending she was Lise, soaking up the locations and atmosphere. Then when you are on a Broadway stage you know how it is. She never thought she would enjoy a family feeling again like that at the Royal but it is a close knit community among the cast. Her last show was 9 October. She has an American agent who sent her to audition for a play, said don’t expect to get it, but she did! It was brand new, and they did a four week workshop beforehand. It’s another different ball-game from musical theatre but the girl is a ballerina so at least Leanne knew what her life was like. She had an amazing director in John Rando so she learned a lot from him and can apply the experience here.

In London the show starts previews on 6 March 2017 and opens on 21 March. She’s already back in training to perform at the Royal Variety Show on 6 December. Robbie will be here for the first three months, then Ashley Day takes over. The cast is British with a couple of Aussies and a lot of RBS graduates. They’re selling tickets till September but they hope it will be extended.  She’s now freelance. 82% of workshops/readings don’t come to fruition so they were very lucky with An American in Paris. If you were investing, would you put your money on two rookie ballet dancers?

Questions
Has she thought of going back to dance?: Leanne said she wasn’t saying no but probably not to a ballet company. She’d have loved to do Matthew Bourne’s Red Shoes but now she’s made a noise on stage she would like that to continue.

What performances will you do in London?: For three months, eight performances, then seven or six. She’s not yet signed a contract but maybe she won’t be on on Monday nights and Wednesday matinees.

Were songs cut between Paris and Broadway?: Our Love is Here to Say was cut because it opened and finished the show and then the start and end were changed.

Size of the orchestra was larger in Paris so did that affect you?: Paris is like an opera house and your voice sounds beyond you while in New York the sound is inside your head so that’s better for the performers but maybe not the audience. There’ll be a smaller orchestra in the West End and the orchestration has been rewritten but sounds just as lush.

David said it had been a pleasure to welcome Leanne and thanked her for a very entertaining evening. We were all looking forward to seeing her soon on stage and to the next stage of her career.

Report written by Liz Bouttell, corrected by Leanne Cope and David Bain ©The Ballet Association 2016

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