Lynn Seymour brings new air to GNO

The golden age of British ballet not only produced a great tradition in classical dance, a foundation for ballet companies the world over, but a stellar cast that became household names to people who had never even seen a ballet performance. Lynn Seymour, the inspiration for many choreographers, particularly Kenneth MacMillan, is now in Athens as part of a team working to change the face of Greece’s National Opera Ballet. Under new management of Stefanos Lazridis since last year, the Greek National Opera (GNO) is making an all-out effort to change the entire approach to state ballet performances in this country. It has enlisted Seymour as the artistic director of the ballet and Bolshoi star Irek Mukhamedov as chief repetiteur. Originally from Canada, Seymour was one of a group of young ballerinas who emerged from the ranks of the Royal Ballet in the late 1950s and early 1960s when the company (formerly the Sadler’s Wells Ballet) became one of the world’s greatest. Ballet critic Zoe Anderson, in her book «The Royal Ballet – 75 Years» (Faber and Faber, 2006) described Seymour as «a classical dancer of extraordinary individuality, musical and powerfully expressive. «Her dancing had a melting, voluptuous quality; the softness of water, and its force,» Anderson wrote of Seymour’s debut performance of Odette-Odile in 1958. It was for her that MacMillan created many of his ballets, including «The Invitation,» «Symphony» and «Images of Love.» In 1976 Frederick Ashton cast her in his new ballet, «A Month in the Country», based on the Turgenev play. Her last MacMillan role was in «Mayerling» in 1978 before accepting the post of director of the Bavaria State Opera Ballet. During the 1980s, Seymour decided to «hang up her shoes.» «I stopped because I just didn’t think it was going to go anywhere – and because I was 40. There was nothing in the offing and I didn’t want to keep repeating old stuff. Then somebody phoned me up to say ‘we want you’… There was a brief ‘phoenix arisen’ period… with a number of modern dance companies,» she said in this interview with Kathimerini English Edition. Roles included the queen in an early production of Matthew Bourne’s «Swan Lake» [Ed. note: about to open in Athens], and more recently the stepmother in Bourne’s production of «Cinderella.» «That was more or less the last thing I did. Then it really was time to hang up the shoes,» she said. This week Seymour talked about plans for the Greek company and her own vision for its future. What prompted you to take up this challenge, and what did you expect to find? First of all, I was invited. I came over to see it, and came to think that I could help and that it would interest me to do so. I didn’t know what to expect. I think at the moment a lot of ballet companies are experiencing difficulties. They’re not keeping up with current events and are not as au fait with today’s society as contemporary dance companies are. I think that’s why (the ballet) is not having a very happy time, and this company was included in that. I also saw a very healthy contemporary dance community in this city and the ballet was lagging behind it, I felt. I thought there was an opportunity for me to help retrieve a situation that was going nowhere really. I am enjoying it so much. I am working with some absolutely wonderful people. It’s very exciting because we are really starting from zero. Everyone is new at what they are doing so we are all in there together, which is a lovely feeling. I see a tremendous response in the company. We are having fun, whereas before it was a pretty depressed outfit. There are always going to be growing pains but I think with time we will overcome these. What ballets are in progress for the company? What I am attempting to do is broaden the company’s vocabulary. I want it to build a repertoire that is unique unto itself, that distinguishes the company as being what it is, rather than a pale replica of something else. At the same time, I would like to introduce to the company and to the public the classics of the 20th century that they haven’t seen. Not only for the benefit of the dancers but for the people who come and watch ballet, so that they realize that it’s moved on from the tutu. We’ve had little time to prepare this program; it’s not exactly what we wanted to have, but it is making me very happy because we have two new creations, and the creative process is what it’s all about. Also, the fact that we are embarking on this, that the dancers are having ballets created based on them and their strengths, is a very, very good start. They’re being introduced to an early MacMillan – «Solitaire» – which I think is a good way to start to show them how neoclassic ballet has developed. It’s a challenge in that it mixes the very classical language with some really quite naturalistic and modern ideas. It also tells a little story, which is quite expressive. I think it could be a sort of family favorite. It was originally created for Sadler’s Wells, and we danced it for years. Everyone loved it so much and it provided wonderful roles for people. I thought it would be a good start and also suit the venues we are using. We are very excited about having our own place – I think (the Acropole Theater) is going to be a great little dance house; it reminds me of the early days of the Sadler’s Wells when we did so much new work there; it was all so exciting. Self-imposed discipline Do you think the company’s particular characteristics lend it to a specific kind of ballet? I want to broaden their vocabulary, as I say, and to experience a new way of working. The days of being told what to do and not asking any questions are over. That died with Tsarist Russia really and les petits rats in the Paris Opera – little urchins subjected to great discipline. The thing about artists today is that their discipline is self-imposed. The creative experience involves them as well as the choreographer and everyone else, and these people aren’t used to doing that. It’s all a new ball game for them. Introducing them to this idea and getting them to participate, to take that kind of responsibility upon their shoulders is going to take a while. What I find with the whole company is that they are extremely passionate, expressive and sensitive, and I think that’s wonderful. It’s what artists need to be. I like the fact that there is no hidden agenda. You get passion, shouting, you get tears, but I think that’s fine. I’m enjoying that – the English reserve wasn’t really my cup of tea. Are there any plans to bring in guest artists in from abroad? Mainly teachers, at the moment. My idea right now is to use what we have, especially while I discover what everyone’s got. It’s going to take me a while to really understand everyone’s potential and qualities and talent. Also, while we are in venues that are not big enough for the grand gesture, I want to keep the repertoire in the 20th and 21st centuries because we don’t have either the place or the number or the training yet to do justice to one of these great big historic pieces. That’ll come later – obviously we don’t want to ignore them, but we want to do them appropriately and very, very well indeed. From what you have seen so far, how do audiences differ from those in Britain, for example? I have only been here a very short time; I have been to as many different things as I can and I see that audiences vary for different kinds of spectacles. I went to the Athens Festival and it was packed, as was (Dimitris Papaioannou’s) «2.» The ballet wasn’t overcrowded, but that might be because they weren’t sure what to expect. Now that we are opening in a new theater, we’re showing that we are doing some new works that might possibly interest a younger clientele. People who are fans of Fotis Nikolaou and Constantinos Rigos will come and that will be a different audience to what the opera has been used to getting. Hopefully it will become a more interesting mix. Has Greek bureaucracy raised any obstacles for you? I’m afraid so… endlessly. These kind of rigid rules have no place in the arts. You can’t run an art house like a post office, and a really provincial one at that. It is quite exasperating but we are coping, we are still smiling! What about the pace here, the way of life? I am really enjoying it. Despite all the frustrations and exasperations, I think it’s a wonderful place. I’ve met so many extraordinary and sweet people, and that’s made me enjoy it a lot. You have inspired a number of wonderful choreographers. What would you say have been the highlights of your dancing career for you personally? I think really it’s the people. I’ve had such great fortune to work with some wonderful and very inspiring people and they have been more important than any performance. Also, the process of creation has always interested me and I have been involved in many of those, and they have been all very special. So I think it’s the people and the process really, that’s where I have been really lucky. And the time in which I was doing it all was very productive. I was fortunate in many ways.

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