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Interview Louisa McAlpine

Will you start with a general self-presentation?

I'm Louisa, and I was a professional dancer years ago, well not years ago—I finished my last performance at the Colosseum called The Mikado, which I have been dancing in for the last 25 years, in 2013, I think. But now I've decided that was my last one because I'm too old now—too old to do a supported cartwheelon a raked stage! But I teach, and I love teaching, and I've been teaching and choreographing ever since I was 16, really. I went to the Royal Ballet School and I won the choreographic prize, called The Ursula Moreton Choreographic Award, which was very prestigious—people who have one the same prize have been David Bintley, who runs the Birmingham Royal Ballet, and Michael Clark, who won the year after me, he runs a successful dance company. So, I love choreography, but I live my life teaching, and occasionally choreographing. I choreograph for a Operas quite a lot. Last year I choreographed a Rossini Opera called La Gazzetta, which was huge fun—it was all set in the 1980s, and we did things like use the Macarena. It's quite fun to update old-fashioned Operas with a bit of modern human. But yes, I teach with my parents at the Dance School, which is large now. I teach jazz, tap, ballet, and some musical theatre stuff—from age two and a half to age 90!

Many choices and a big scale for ages. What about yourself, and the beginning?

My childhood? Well, I always say I was dancing with my legs out of the pram. We were dancing from an early age. It was the only thing I wanted to do. I did a little bit of modelling as a child, but from the age of about 9 I started going up to a school called Arts Educational, and that was getting myself up to down with my glass of milk and a Marsbar and doing my ballet classes. I only felt alive if I was doing class. I remember much later on, when I was training, I auditioned at 16—so I never did A-levels, which I do regret, but my parents never said "Oh you must stay and get a proper job," they always said dancing is the most important thing—so I auditioned for the Royal Ballet School on the first audition, then on the second audition I got in on the teachers course. I liked that because I was already teaching at my parents' school anyway. Once I left there, I worked in a dance company in the Isle of White. I longed to travel. I got married. Then we went to Basel, and I got into a small company called Swiss Chamber Ballet. Then we came back to London, and somebody said, "why don't you audition for musicals?" Because I could sing. So I trained and got into West Side Story. I loved that, and as I was performing there I auditioned for Phantom of the Opera, and the choreographer for that Gillian Lynn, but as I was auditioning they offered me an audition for Cats. I stayed there for two and half years, loved it, and it was very hard work. After that I left, and then I had a baby. After that, I carried on teaching, but when I could I did some choreography. And I carried on doing that, really, for 25 years!

That's interesting, so many years! Why do you say you only feel alive when you are dancing?

Up till recently, unless I was physically going to dance, I didn't feel real. When I'm getting in shape again or listening to music, a whole day can pass, if I'm committed to dance. It's funny how it can just take over. It's Because it comes from my whole life, my parents. And yet I don't get to go and see it too often! I remember when I was about 24, I was put up to do jury service. I arrived on the first day, and I said—I was crying—"I don't think I can do this! I have to do my dance class! Every day!" And they said "you're not the sort of person we want on a trial, because you're not committed, go away then." So that showed how obsessed I was, how I needed it! Nowadays, of course, I would love to do jury service, I have! You do see people like that still, that need a class every day. You don't necessarily improve, you just need it.

You found this drive quite early?

Yes, I always danced after school. Practically every day. It's a common thing. A lot of my students now come five days a week. You get transported. I think it's because everything is similar—the structure is always the same. You start with the bar. People feel like they know what to expect.

You say you were in Catstwo and a half years, continuously?

Yes, every 6 months a new cast would come in, so we'd have to rehearse then. Shows every day. Two shows on a Tuesday, two shows on a Saturday. We'd be exhausted after every show.

There's a huge difference between live art, performing art, and cinematographic art. There's just one shot—it can't be recorded. Every time people come, it's always different. But you did two and a half repetitions. Did anything change?

You had to work very hard not to feel like you're just repeating yourself. You always had to have an inner voice saying work harder, when it's feeling difficult. We had to have classes about how to be a cat! Studying their movements. I actually modelled my cat movements on our little puppy, which was probably wrong, but it helped me because I knew my little dog really well. It added an extra bit of fun for it. It was hard work because sometimes you work with dancers you don't really get on with. No one could recognise you offstage, and the stage was very stage. The whole audience moves round a circular stage—the first five rows—and we'd come out of rabbit warrenson the side of the stage. So all the time we were hidden in darkness—it was very claustrophobic. The New London Theatre is straight up, like that, and you'd come out of the stage door but nobody would know who you were. It was hard work, but I loved it. Although dancers are never well paid, it was equity rates, so it was enough. I mean so many times dancers work for nothing because they love it. That's why—dancers always are so grateful, because they would do it for nothing, sometimes they get paid nothing.

Is it still like that today?

Yeah, I think it is.

So why are there still so many young kids dancing?

There's so much now on television too—Dance Mums, So You Think You Can Dance—it's really out there. It is easier now because it's not a closed shops. When I was young, you had to do 40 weeks in the provinces, and then you got a card—you needed that before you could audition for anything in the West End, now I don't think you need that. You still need to work hard. Sometimes you have to lie a bit. One audition I went for, they said "you had to be 5ft 6," so I wore a huge blue ribbon on my head, and got through! And another time, we had a ballet audition, and I just felt they hadn't noticed me when I was told to go. So I left the stage and came on again from the other side, and got through! So auditions are hard, and people are always disheartened from them, but it's like a ladder, you gradually learn.

How did you notice you hadn't been noticed by the judge, what made you come back again on the other side?

It was terribly naughty. I think it's where you stand, I just knew they hadn't noticed me, but I thought I could get that job.

In the audition, was it from looking at the judges, or from what they say?

They didn't give any comments, you can't see them. They say "Number 2, Number 9 stay," or something, and you can tell when they're looking at you. With Cats, after it had been on for 2 years, I didn't get in. The director said, "everybody stage right, you're in; everybody stage left—your technique isn't good enough." I was really annoyed then because I'd been to the Royal Ballet School, so for her to class me with people who had really bad technique was really frustrating! But you have to keep trying. It's a shame you haven't met my eldest daughter, Amy, because she lived for dance. I have a friend who got thrown out of the Royal Ballet School, and I worked with her in West Side Storyyears later, and she said she never goes to see dance shows—she said she hated what it did to her, she was really bitter and resentful.

So you have three daughters, did you stop dancing for a period to bring them up?

I was lucky that I could juggle both. I was working and dancing, right up to their births really—well at least 6 months. For Amy, I was in the acting company—so I had sort of stopped dancing, but it was still very physical—and I had Amy, and immediately, after I split with her father, my parents looked after her a lot, and I danced a lot with English National Opera. Then I was choreographing Carmen, and I met Susanna and Rosalind's father, and when I had them I was teaching a lot. They, again, were always at the ballet school. Amy, by then, was 7 and committed to dancing. And they loved it—and music. Suzuki was a large part of our lives, travelling 3 times a week to Putney for their music classes. I think they had a good mix of music and dance.

How do you feel about learning dance from your parents and teaching them to your children?

I always have that in mind. My sister and I were both taught a lot by my mother—not so much my father. So her influence has taught me a lot. She has a wonderful way really. I mean, she doesn't like to say her age, but she was born in 1934! She really doesn't stop planning, learning. Up until recently she still came up to London to learn the ballet syllabus with me! But yes, all our girls have been very involved in dance. They've been very different in their dance: Susanna had the most musical way of dancing, such a beautiful way—and it was just so sad to me that she said, "no I'm not going to do it anymore." She got to grade 7, she always did really well, and she was beautiful. She had a light jump, and an incredibly long neck, and beautiful arms. So it's nice that she's gone back to things like Yoga. Whereas Rosalind's father always encouraged her to drive for gymnastics and diving, physical things. And Amy, again very musical, very gifted, amazing pianist and cellist, and loved musicals. Her father is a pianist with the Royal Ballet, and that was very influential for her.

Was it difficult teaching your children?

No, not really. I didn't teach them that much because it happened to work out that my mother taught most of the grades they were in. But Susanna and Rosalind, well, Rosalind—she was very feisty, she would say to me "Mummy no that's rubbish"—you know, she would never hold back. Susanna had a lot of outward respect. They always contributed with ideas. When they were in class, the classes were always very bubbly. I mean even if they weren't my children, I would have enjoyed having them in class. Although maybe sometimes I'd have been nervous with them if they got a bit feisty or rude!

So you've been at this Dance Studio since the beginning. Are you running it now?

Sort of, I always refer back to Phyllida, but sometimes we have different opinions! Actually, I get a lot of help from David, because he does the website. But is a sort of dual effort. I think I run it in terms of planning certain events, but I do need her and we work together.

How about the tradition of a big performance every two years? On the DVDs you can see it never stopped!

It can be hard, but so exciting! We just did one in 2014, and in the summer we'll plan for 2016. It just takes that long, because you have to maintain the classes at the same time. It's always worth doing it. And every time until now, Donald has been in it! We're beginning to repeat old shows now, ones we've done in the past.

Do you ever think about what time you might retire, or anything like that?

No, not really, but I feel a bit like Prince Charles, with my parents! My mum maintains she will never retire. I think I'll be like her, I won't ever want to stop—it's my own livelihood. It's not brilliant in terms of making money. You'd be better off a personal trainer, or even Pilates teacher, but to be a dance teacher you have to love it! It's difficult sometimes because we are only a transition. You know when they get to a certain age they will go to university and probably can't continue class. Though we do have some that maintain both university and ballet class. We're there to do the training so they can go to the next stage.

But they do have a precious time of their life at the dance school.

I think so, yes. You do feel as though they're part of a family.

And have you ever thought about who might take over the Dance School.

My mother always said, whenever I said I had a dancing job offer that dancing and performing is the most fulfilling thing do while you are young and able. Performing is a gamble financially though and sadly teaching in a dance school is also not usually very lucrative.

I don’t think I would ever ask anybody to take it over because of this. I love teaching dance though and I’ve always refused jobs that took me away from the dance school, I couldn’t move out of London.

I think its double sided. When your mother gave you support for other jobs, you still have more and more determination to hold on.

Maybe. There's a chance that Amy might want to keep it on. But I'm not sure about Susanna or Rosalind.

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

Definitely London. I can't imagine anywhere else. I think it has everything. I mean, I know it, and I have since I was a child. I have contacts here, and I love the buzz. Although, I've lived in Basel, Italy, but it's not the same. The audiences, they just wonder in late! The energy you get in London, nothing compares really!

Interview, Image: Zejun Yao

London, UK, 2015.