When I look back at my own work, I find myself watching a lot of pieces through my fingers. I was very pleasantly surprised, however, when I recently rewatched Flowers of the Forest. I was just 21 when I created the first steps, in 1979, and I look back without embarrassment, and I’m quite proud that it’s still around.
Overall it’s a strange piece because it’s actually two different ballets. The first one is from 1979, and is the second professional piece I ever made. Vyvyan Lorrayne was a fellow dancer in the Company, and she and her partner Paul Waller had what we used to call a ‘folly’, whereby people take a group of dancers to dance pas de deux and gala pieces overseas, in the process funding a weekend holiday abroad.
It was for one of these weekends that Vyvyan asked me to create a piece for her, and I responded with a ballet set to the Four Scottish Dances by Malcolm Arnold, choreographed for a small group of just six dancers. It was unusual for these tours because it was a complete little four-movement ballet, despite being only 12 minutes long.
Some years later, I heard Scottish Ballad by Benjamin Britten, which was one of the pieces that he’d suppressed during his lifetime, and which was reissued after his death. It’s a splendid piece, but rather odd because it’s about 15 minutes long and the first ten of that is a funeral march. This means that on its own, it’s structurally unsuitable for a ballet, but along with the happy, jolly Malcolm Arnold pieces, it’s perfect.
Thematically, the Four Scottish Dances part is what I call a ‘picture postcard’ view of Scotland, with caber tossing and wandering in the heather. But my intention for theScottish Ballad was to make it more historically influenced – Britten wrote it during World War II, using a historic battle to comment on the one that was taking place at the time. The title refers to a ballad which lamented the flower of Scottish manhood, slain at the Battle of Flodden.
The two pieces contrast nicely with each other in the ballet. The modern cast in the Arnold section are shown in modern kilts, while those in the Britten section are in battle dress more reminiscent of that worn during another Scottish defeat at the hands of the English, the Battle of Culloden. At the end of the ballet, I bring them all together, to present the romanticism, the sadness and the stoic nobility of the Scots.
It was 1985 when I took this larger concept to Peter Wright and said I could expand what he already knew was a successful and enjoyable work, and make it into a bigger ballet for the Company. He loved the idea and was very supportive. These were great days for Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet, full of great tours. Flowers of the Forest came fairly quickly off the back of Peter’s Swan Lake – Sleeping Beauty I think had only premiered the year before – and those productions are still with us, 30 years later.
Back then, the Company was entering a new era, and it also feels like the period when I really started getting it right as a choreographer. While my earlier work had interest, it didn’t have staying power; I was full of ideas, but not many steps, and was still working on mastering my craft. I’m never satisfied with anything, ever, least of all on opening night. But I couldn’t make work fast enough to get out the broadness of what I wanted to encompass. I was a kid and I wanted to have a crack at everything.
I always felt that people were trying to get my number, and pigeon-hole me: ‘What does he do?’ And I thought, at that time, ‘heck, even I don’t yet know what I do!’
I wanted to self-impose rules, not only to prove my credentials, but also to prove that I had craft. When there are no parameters, then you’re free to do absolutely anything, and ‘anything’ is not necessarily good. I’m a firm believer in craft, and in mastering whatever your corner of the universe happens to be.
Flowers of the Forest gave me an opportunity to work completely within the Romantic Classical idiom which suited that subject. It also gave me the chance to use ‘petit batterie’, in imitation of the kind of fleet footwork that was not only a feature of early British ballet, but also of Scottish folk dance itself.
When I started my choreographic career, Ashton, MacMillan and Balanchine were still alive, so I was in the shadow of some pretty big people, and my early work was always programmed against some 20th- century masterpiece or other!
But, rather than run away from that, I’ve always tried to embrace it; I am merely a link in a 400-year chain, and that’s a tradition I take very seriously.