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Interview Donald McAlpine

How did you start to dance?

It wasn't with any idea of me being a ballet dancer, but to keep me from getting into the gangs, playing on the streets, and getting into mischief. So my mother sent me to tap classes, and the same time the Russian Ballet was touring Australia, at the outbreak of WW2 1939.

My mother arranged for me to have an interview with one of the dancers and he said, well keep him 'til after the War - let him start learning his grade 1 for now. Well, when I got to Grammar School, I said to my mother, no this won't work! Now that I'm at School, they want to you to go to Sports. Well, I was the best hurdler - I could jump over the hurdles in an 'Attitude', you see! Whereas the other boys couldn't turn out their knees to clear the hurdles. And I thought, how can I get, every night, into the centre of town to do my Ballet class? This won't work! I'll have to go to Australia. A man and his wife from the Ballet Rousse had settled in Melbourne and started the Russian Ballet. For the first time in my life, there, I saw a Ballet on the stage; not just Fred Astaire, on the big screen.

What age were you then?

Well, I was 14. In 1944. So I knew there was a full-time Ballet School there, I just had to leave the Grammar School in New Zealand. The War was still on, and we went on a trip ship that was going to Burma. A luxury liner turned into a troopship you see, in 1945. And, that was when I was just turning 15. But my sister was dancing in Sydney, in 'Review', where they did big shows, and they would do short Ballets to pieces like Rhapsody in Blue, or, Slaughter on Fifth Avenue, Gershwin, you know, those sort of pieces. She met us, my mother and I, and said you can't take him and put him in Melbourne. It's a big city compared to Melbourne. I wouldn't be happy on my own. So I had to back to New Zealand, and I finished all my exams and got a scholarship. That's the start of my story. But in London, Sadler's Wells, that's how it started. In Islington, just a bus ride away from the West End, so not quite by the Royal Opera house, in the middle of Theatre Land.

So after the Second World War, the Royal Opera House invited Ninette de Valois to take her company away from Sadler's Wells and become the resident ballet company at the Opera House. Even she was a bit nervous about doing that - wondering whether it would be a success or not, because they were a small theatre compared to the big stage, but her ballets were so good, and her dancers improving all the time. We had two leading dancers then, Alicia Markova and Anton Dolin - they were British dancers who were recruited by Diaghilev to augment to Corps de Ballet in Paris. They would only take Nijinsky and Pavlova and Casavona. They were young, just graduates. And when they came to London they would recruit in the same way. They liked the English dancers because they worked well in a Corps de Ballet, teamwork, compared to the dancers of Paris who just wanted to be stars, and didn't want to be in the Corps de Ballet for long.

There's always been a sort of continuity, passed on. Because there must have been hundreds and hundreds of professional dancers just wanting to be on the stage and say they've been associated with the great Ballet Russe. And what's interesting is that the Royal Opera House recently had to do a reconstruction, and everybody had to move out and they couldn't perform, but they still had a poster of the last performance of the Ballet Russe. So anyway, they had taken the Russian technique to Australia. But up to then, we'd just had the Royal Academy of Dance, and the Cecchetti Institute. The first Ballet I saw was Les Sylphides.

How about your style. You were first learning tap dance?

Yes, but I soon gave that up!

But you have this different branch, of tap dance and Ballet.

It's funny, for tap dance I had to go to another teacher because the Dance School I went to only did Ballet. A bit like the Royal Ballet - they only taught that and a bit of Spanish, Flamenco, which we do too! I fell in love with Flamenco, and took two exams. We both did - my wife and I - took two exams from the Flamenco Society. But no, for tap dancing, I even went in my white tie and tails and top hat, with my partner when were only about 10, to entertain the American Camp - a huge camp of thousands in New Zealand. When we were 9 or 10, we had badges, hats, and comics about the American Aircraft - I enjoyed that. I always said later, if the Ballet becomes too hard and I'm not getting anywhere, I can always go back to being a Song and Dance man - which I did in a way, because I only had 4 years with Ninnete de Valois' company.

You know, I even said to her - oh, the arrogance of Youth! - I walked up to her during a Ballet we were doing during the Festival of Britain in 1951, she was just on the stage supervising things before the curtain went up for the dress rehearsal, and I went up and said, "Madame" - she was always called Madame, just Madame - "Madame, excuse me, do you think there's a future for me in this company?" Well! When I think about it now, having the audacity, it's a wonder she didn't say "Eugh, get out of my sight! I haven't time to worry about you!" But no, you had the chance if you weren't happy with your part, to go to the office and say I would like to transfer if there's a vacancy to the first company. Actually, I thought if I changed my name from McAlpine to Donald 'Alpine' it would be at the top of the list! We had no stars - we were all 18-year-olds just starting our careers. Especially the boys - they're always short of boys. I thought it was marvellous, when I got off the ship, to have a boys' class. 12 boys - all my life I'd been more or less the only boy.

So, after 4 years I thought I'd go and learn some contemporary dance, and learn Labanotation - I was fascinated, all through my young life, about how can you write down three-dimensional movement, and make it accurate and scientific, and I saw some in an American Paper, and article about different forms of notation in the world. So I took this opportunity by dancing in a show in the West End, then a Cabaret, all that time I hadn't find a course - but I was making, I thought, a lot more money.

Can you tell me more about your Dance Studio?

By the time I was 40, I'd gone back. I'd done tours with famous Glyndebourne, danced in Eugene Onegin, and all my life I kept ending up dancing in the Nutcracker, the last act… It was just like a dream, but anyway, I'd done all that, seen America, and two of our dancers stayed behind there in Chicago for a ballet club where they were offered a very good contract to teach and perform in the shows. But I thought, I like our method - the Arts Council that distributes money for the Opera House, and you're kept under a permanent contract - whereas in US they're kept for a season, then rushed over to Hollywood to earn a living for 6 months - and I thought it's silly, you train the dancers in your style, you might as well call it the English style if it's based in London, and they didn't even want us to go to outside classes - they said it would confuse you with the training methods.

With my dancing school, when I was just 13, I thought well I'll have to teach one day. I'm investing everything, all my formal education, to learn how to write a Ballet, to learn how to memorise Ballets so you can reproduce them in other countries. So, that's all, the time came when I was 40 - I will still being employed by the English National Opera, it had got bigger since Sadler's Wells - but it doesn't have any backstage facilities because the road is there! So you have to get the tube to the studio, then come back. But you know, I saw the fact that we needed another Opera house. They said they were going to sell the Colosseum, to change it into a Woolworth's or something, but there was a big campaign, Save Our Theatre!

What is your ideal place to live and work as an artist?

Well, no choice! I thought once I should go back to New Zealand, because they gave me a Grant, a scholarship, as well as the Royal Academy of Dance who gave me a scholarship to tuition to finish my dance training in England, but there was only one place I applied to with my grant… the New Zealand offered me a grant for two years for choreography - I didn't want to just be trained in dance, but that's what happened. I said how do I become a choreographer - that's my first love - she said the only way to become one is to get into the company. Well, within a few days, I was called to go into the Sadler's Wells office and sign a contract, because a boy was doing this Russian dance right down here, and he put is cartilage out! So I had to replace him and learn the repertoire immediately because we were opening in Manchester. You know, the Old Vic Theatre, in Waterloo, is where it all started, because of the National Theatre, acting, it got a reputation for being a company that had something to say.

All these things fascinated me, but particularly the ability to animate movement - the ability to make the illusion that you are weightless, that you're coming out of Giselle's grave. The art of Pas de Deux is to create an ethereal being, a spirit that isn't human, it's all done by illusion.

How about Susanna, your granddaughter, are you proud of her, though she's stopped dancing?

Oh yes, you know, she spent a lot of time at the Dance School, hours, while her mother taught, and I used to take her round the park next to us. As I was fading, and I wanted to get a studio that could last, and I thought my daughters could be part of it.

My other daughter started an acting class. They made a little company of actors themselves. But Susanna would draw! But I never thought they would necessarily be too interested in Ballet like my daughters, but Susanna's father recognised that she had great talent on the Violin, and we saw that she would just draw for hours and hours, beautiful arabesques, and faces, and hair, and that was it - a talent. Well you do have to specialise eventually.

So you are still happy with any choice Susanna has made, not to be a dancer?

Yes yes, she did lots of classes too, but it just worked out that it was Art. You see, they didn't live with us. Louisa came to live with us with our first granddaughter Amy. We used to pick her up and we'd do Romeo and Juliet, or Peter and the Wolf - I'd be the wolf and she would have to catch me. She would go upstairs and ransack the costumes of her Granny, well she did a lot of dancing and became a very good choreographer. Once she got to university she was putting on Musicals, outside of studying drama and music.

Children find their own niche of what they want to do - they want to have the choice of testing it out - maybe I like painting more than making up a dance. I love drama - the way Laban thought about analysing movement. If you're doing digging in a field, you've got to think about it. Have you ever dug a spade into the ground? You've got to feel it. Analyse movement. The most efficient and economic form of movement, and don't waste energy.

Interview, Image: Zejun Yao

London, UK, 2015.