Acclaimed choreographer and theatre/television director Dame Gillian Lynne is a legendary figure in the arts. With a career spanning more than 70 years, her achievements include being a ballerina with Sadler’s Wells Ballet (now The Royal Ballet), performing centre stage as the London Palladium’s lead dancer and choreographing some of the world’s most iconic musicals.
Georgina Butler made the most of an opportunity to converse with the multi-award-winning dance superstar…
Gillian Lynne is a household name – a VIP in the world of dance and theatre. Her CV is packed with soloist roles as a ballerina; guest appearances as a dancer on the stage and on television; and countless productions on which she has worked her magic as an internationally sought-after director and choreographer.
Joining the Ballet Guild in 1942, aged 16, marked the beginning of Gillian’s career as a professional dancer. By chance, Ninette de Valois, the founder of Sadler’s Wells Ballet (which later became The Royal Ballet), saw Gillian dancing as Odette in Ballet Guild’s production of Swan Lake and immediately decided she wanted the talented young artist in her company. When Gillian accepted this invitation, she was the first dancer to join Sadler’s Wells Ballet who had not studied at its prestigious feeder school (now The Royal Ballet School). Possessing a gift for dancing; a desire to follow her dreams; and a tenacious work ethic, Gillian flourished as a ballerina and was later an instant success at the London Palladium and in subsequent roles in the West End.
Perhaps most famous for her ground-breaking choreography in Cats and The Phantom of the Opera (both with Andrew Lloyd Webber), Gillian has choreographed or directed over 60 productions in the West End and on Broadway. These productions have won numerous accolades and Gillian has been presented with multiple awards, including two Olivier Awards – one an Award for Outstanding Achievement for her choreography of Cats in 1981, the other a Lifetime Achievement ‘Special’ Olivier presented to her in 2013.
Of particular interest to balletomanes like me who have trained with the Royal Academy of Dance, Gillian is a Vice-President of the Academy. In 2001 she was awarded the Academy’s highest honour, the Queen Elizabeth II Coronation Award, for her significant contribution to the ballet and dance industry. More recently, in the 2014 New Year’s Honours List, Gillian was made DBE for her services to Dance and Musical Theatre – the first woman to be acknowledged in this way.
Now aged 90, Dame Gillian Lynne shows no sign of slowing down. I would hazard a guess that her secret to ageing so very gracefully is keeping busy, having a passion and devoting herself to her work. An enthralling conversationalist, she captivated this writer with her tales of being a wartime ballerina and expressed nothing but boundless enthusiasm for dance and the performing arts. The conversation flowed easily to cover everything from the fascinating developments occurring in dance today – sharing excitement about Akram Khan’s gritty new Giselle for English National Ballet – to how dance makes me who I am (which I’ll admit made my day!).
As I am already a fan of Cats and cannot imagine life without dance (to participate in and watch), I was not an interviewer who needed much convincing to embrace the production and understand why dance is as natural as breathing to Gillian. Still, I do think it must be impossible for anyone to fail to feel inspired after speaking to Dame Gillian Lynne…
Since its premiere in the West End in 1981, Cats has been performed with sell-out success all over the world. The most obvious question to ask is: why has Cats stood the test of time so well?
Well, when we were devising it and working towards premiering it we knew that there was simply nothing else in the world quite like it. Not another show about animals and certainly not one about cats! Everything about it was unusual then, in 1981, and still today there is nothing in the world quite like Cats.
It has an amazing, beautiful score by such a talented man – he is such a very, very talented man – and the choreography that I used was so unusual. In movement, there had never been anything of the sort used before.
It was totally unique and to our amazement it completely worked. It really worked. People saw it and just fell in love with it. I’ve had people tell me that they saw Cats years and years ago when they were young and now they are returning with their children to share the Cats experience with them. How lovely!
Did you ever think Cats would be as successful as it immediately was and still is?
We believed in it but it was truly a miracle that it became such a phenomenon. We just didn’t know if it would work and there were all these top London producers and directors who thought we were entering into lunacy. They thought us mad, you know. They were of the opinion that you can’t do a show about cats!
It was a miracle that it caught everyone’s imagination as it did. I mean, it really was to our total amazement that it not only did well, it did better than any other show at the time and for such a long time afterwards. And here we are now, still bringing Cats to audiences today.
Your own success as a dancer and choreographer is a phenomenon itself. Could you ever have imagined doing something other than dance?
I couldn’t imagine ever spending my life doing anything but dance. I found it aged 8, fell in love with it and from then on I have never been drawn to anything else.
I had a wonderful career as a dancer and have been able to pass dance on in my work as a director and choreographer. I have always been part of that world of theatre, ballet, dance, the arts. It is where I belong and what I know.
My whole life I have been able to do, achieve and enjoy so much. All of it what I love. I have had a nice life and worked hard at something I am devoted to. I know I am fortunate to have been able to spend my life working at something that has allowed me to have so many ideas, and to have so much interest in what I do. To have been able to use my body and keep my body going and commit to something that inspires and motivates me. I am very lucky, not everyone finds that or is able to have that.
You are acting as the Patron of One Dance UK’s Together for Dance Gala, a glittering fundraising event. The evening is set to be a sparkling celebration of dance, all in aid of supporting an organisation that champions improved opportunities, education and health at all levels of the dance industry. How did you come to be involved and what are you looking forward to most?
I was asked, maybe two years ago or so, to be involved with the fundraiser as a guest of honour. Then, of course, I was made a Dame and they asked if I would be the patron, the head of it. Of course, I was happy to do so! The evening’s programme is going to include a lot of wonderful dancers and I will know a lot of the people attending so it should be a chance to enjoy some sort of social life while helping a good cause.
Having danced all my life it is important to be able to give back in some way and support One Dance UK’s work for dance. I have bought a table at the dinner and will urge my guests to put their hands in their pockets and contribute to the charity.
And I really don’t get the chance for a madly busy social life as my husband and I are always working on projects. It will be fun to do some good; see some people that in many cases I perhaps have not seen for years; and enjoy an occasion that is all about dance.
As someone who has been a seminal influence on British dance and theatre, what do you think dance contributes to society? Indeed, where would we be without the arts?
With the world as it is today, with all the bad things that happen – natural disasters and wars and politics and ghastliness – we need the arts.
We’d be on the bottom of the floor and miserable otherwise.
It is a blessing to have dance, music, theatre. They are uplifting to participate in, to look at, to listen to, to read about.
What does dance mean to you? What have you given to dance and received back?
Dance for me is everything. It is in my soul. All about the soul. I never really wanted to do anything else. Fortunately, I was lucky enough to be well made for it. I had the right body that could do it, the talent and the opportunity. I have met people; travelled the world; experienced all the wonderful things life has to offer. All thanks to dance.
I really do believe dance offers all that a human being needs. It involves the body and the mind. It takes dedication and is extremely hard so it takes effort and makes you strong. Strong in a physical sense as it keeps you fit but also strong in the brain, and strong in the mind. It opens you up to learning, keeps you thinking and you have to have willpower. Willpower to keep trying, to push on. And, of course, it is artistic. It is expression, communication.
Dance is a wonderful thing for kids. Anything that will get them away from the iPhones and machines! We need to get them to work their brains and their bodies. With dance, they move, they get fit, they experience music, they appreciate art. Dance is so valuable. It is education for the soul.
You released a fitness DVD for older people, Longevity Through Exercise, in 2014. Do you think it is dance and movement that has kept you energised and engaged your whole life? How do you stay so motivated, what would you say to inspire others?
I encourage people of all ages to work at taking care of their bodies. To keep fit. I don’t dance anymore, I rehearse other dancers, but it is important to still exercise every day. Try never to give in to that feeling that you are too tired or put it off, thinking you will just exercise tomorrow. Staying active will take you a long way, even if it is just 15 minutes a day.
I work out every morning of my life on my bedroom floor. Breathing and stretching. It is good for your heart and your lungs – your whole body – and it gives you time to think, to breathe, to tune in to your body. It makes you turn off from the problems you might be facing and get down to basics. You can be in the moment and notice your movement, appreciate your body. It will put you in a good mood; keep you in shape; take you through life.
If anyone has yet to see Cats, how would you describe the show? Who will enjoy it and what should they expect?
I think Cats is a wonderful show for people of all ages to see. The kids will definitely love it. After all, you have these talented performers cavorting around executing amazing movement and really singing beautifully – most other musicals do not have artists that sing and dance as exceptionally well as the Cats cast must. And there are dangerous tricks too. Just so much action and energy and life onstage.
Parents who bring their children are opening their eyes to so much visual and rhythmic potential. The parents ought to really observe their children watching the show. As, you know, there will be those children who say “can I go and learn to dance?” and if they truly fall in love with performing and pursue it, who knows where they will end up?
I really don’t see Cats ever ending. So many people return with their children, eager to share the show with them. I think it is the perfect show for anyone who wants to be entertained and enthralled.
Do you have any advice for young (or not so young!) dancers? Perhaps some pearls of wisdom about getting the best from yourself and making the most of your talent for, and enjoyment of, dancing?
Nurture your soul by dancing lots. Keep your body moving whatever your age. Focus on the positive. Notice what is happening in life and seek out all of the wonderful things there are to watch, learn and experience.
Choreographers are coming up with fascinating new ways of working and there are fresh new ideas in the arts all the time. Embrace them, let them excite you!
> One Dance UK’s Together for Dance Gala will be held at London’s Novello Theatre on Sunday 9th October.
> Cats comes to Milton Keynes Theatre from Monday 24th October until Saturday 29th October 2016.