Jonathan Payn on Enigma Variations

With the 2015 Variations triple bill underway, First Soloist, Jonathan Payn talks about his new role in the restaging process for Enigma Variations.

It was after the first night reception of the Prince of the Pagodas in London. Sir Peter Wright came up to me and introduced me to Tony Dyson who owns the rights to Enigma Variations. He told me about the scheme that the Ashton Foundation has started, where dancers shadow the restaging of some of the Ashton ballets, with the view to restaging the ballets themselves. Currently Desmond Kelly (former Assistant Director of Birmingham Royal Ballet) is overseeing the production. There might come a time when he doesn’t want to or isn’t able to, so they’re looking to the next generation to take over.

When it started it was all very hypothetical. We didn’t know at the time if Enigma was coming back. It was a case of, ‘if Enigma Variations was to come back, would you like to? Of course I said, ‘please!’

'If you don’t put the effort in, you don’t get the rewards'

I’m still performing the roles of Elgar and Nevinson in the ballet, but now I’m in every rehearsal. First of all, I’m shadowing, watching and learning from Patricia Tierney who’s the Company Notator. Previously I’ve only known my own parts, whereas now I’m trying to learn the choreography for the whole ballet, including the women’s parts and roles I wouldn’t even have dreamt of doing when I was younger. When Desmond Kelly comes in, he’s looking at the authenticity. He’s looking at the acting, the storytelling and whether it’s an accurate portrayal of the ballet. I’ve been learning from that in an observational role, sometimes making written notes.

In the early days it was easy to balance time between coaching and dancing because Enigma is very easy to break down into little sections. All the characters are in separate rehearsals, so for the majority of the rehearsals I was there as a shadow. I could watch the videos in my own time, and learn from it that way. Obviously when I’m up dancing Elgar I’m unable to shadow quite so much.

I think it’s actually helping my work as a dancer and as Elgar. It’s giving me a greater understanding of the piece as a whole, as well as just concentrating on what I’m doing.

It has taken up much more of my time, but in a good way, particularly with the choreography. Patricia is teaching it from the Benesh notation [a form of 'sheet music' for dance], which is quite quick, whereas I’m there writing it down long hand which takes much longer. Then sometimes I’ve thought it’s easier to get up and learn it myself. I’ve had some bizarre situations where there’s been a rehearsal for female roles such as Dorabella or Winnifred Norbury, and then there’s me, not on pointe, trying to learn it. But I actually find it easier to learn that way. It’s been time consuming, but if you don’t put the effort in, you don’t get the rewards.

'The restaging process can benefit from the input of dancers who have already performed the ballet'

Enigma Variations has always been very special to me. I got some pretty big breaks doing the ballet. To be able to give something back to dancers new to the ballet would mean a huge amount. There are other people such as Desmond who are already restaging this ballet so I have to wait my turn. What I would hope is that when we have performed Enigma this season, the scheme doesn’t just end. I’ll be looking to see how we can progress it over the next two or three years.

I have been in the Company quite a while and in a lot of these Ashton ballets. So, there might be others where I could take on a similar role. One has to be careful; there are people with way more experience than me. But ultimately, you’ve got to start somewhere.

I feel very fortunate that I was in the production in 1994 when Birmingham Royal Ballet first performed it. We had Michael Somes coming up to restage it with other people from the original cast, so I was able to listen to what he was saying about the ballet. It’s important for people who were there at that time to pass on what they learnt. Benesh notation is a wonderful way to record ballet, but sometimes the restaging process can benefit from the input of dancers who have already performed the ballet; about the style, about the essence, something which you can’t write down.