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Interview Phyllida McAlpine

Would you like to start with a general self-presentation?

Well I've never done that, I've never had a formal interview, like young people have. Just about Ballet?

Yes, about dance.

Well, I did start training seriously a little bit late, although I had done Greek dancing and little bit of Ballet. So, I came to study in England with a teacher called Anna Ivanava, when I was 15, and I had a group lesson every day and private lessons. And I had some experience in Stratford-upon-Avon in The Tempest, and Glyndebourne Opera, and Pantomime at the Palladium. Then I auditioned for English National Ballet, and I didn't get it, but later I got the chance to join Alicia Alonso's company in Cuba, which was wonderful for me because they did a wonderful repertoire - we did 26 different ballets; full-length Swan Lake, Giselle, La Fille Mal Gardee, Coppelia. Then we had a tour of South America - we went to Chile, Argentina, which was lovely, then a World Tour.

Then when I came back from that, I'd had the experience, and I auditioned for English National Ballet and that time I got in, because of having the experience of dancing Ballets in that repertoire - Prince Igor and others. Then, before I'd joined, my husband Donald had joined, and we got together, and we did a Provincial Tour, that means going around England, and then we had the chance to go around Europe - so we toured Spain, Germany, Italy - but very soon after we got married, in fact the next month, the company was invited to dance at Prince Rainier and Princess Grace's wedding, and that was a great experience - that was like our honeymoon because it was straight after our wedding. So I was at the company three years. We went to Israel, and … you ask a question now!

I want to ask a little more, so really is it dance that brought you and your husband together?

Yes it brought us together! I was a new girl, and I saw him dancing on the stage of the Festival Hall, and he was wearing a little grey jumper that was too small for him, and I thought oh he looks rather nice! … bit skinny! So, that's how we got together.

When did you get the plan to settle down in South London?

I was in the company three years, then I got pregnant with my Louisa. So the company was going to Israel, and I was coming home to London to have the baby. No, it was Lisbon! Anyway, we had identical suitcases, and when he got to Lisbon he had my suitcase, and I had his. And I cried! So he went on another few years at the Festival Ballet (that was what it was called then). So I had the baby. Then the company came back, and they were performing in Oxford, and I took Louisa, a little baby, to see him and somebody was off for Les Sylphides, and they said you must go on! So we put Louisa in a draw in the boarding house, and the landlady looked after her there! And I went on. Then I had another baby, Fiona, and he thought Oh I have to tour all the time, away from my family, so he left and joined a smaller company - the Harlequin Ballet. They rehearsed most of the year, and went away for a small amount of time, so he saw more of the family.

Was it difficult being a dancer and mum?

I stopped dancing when I had babies. I couldn't do both. People do, nowadays, but I wasn't that good! I wanted to be a tiny member of this huge thing that was Ballet. I knew I was late coming. I could do 32 fouettes on pointe - I could do those things. The audition for Festival ballet was some amount of fouettes on pointe, you had to courroux across the stage, you had to chaine across the stage, and that was the audition - and a solo. Nowadays, it's mostly a class audition. So I didn't dance professionally once I had the children, but I had to learn to teach. I had to learn all the syllabus for the grades, everything like that.

Then you both opened the Dance Studio.

Yes, in the Festival Ballet I had a friend with children. She said, if you start a Dancing School, I'll send my children. So we had a little nucleus, and that's how we started the school. Just in the Alexandra Hotel in Clapham Common, upstairs, and then we moved to Clapham South to a Vicarage Church Hall, and our children danced there, and our friends' children, and then I think Donald took the course with the Royal Academy of Dance to be a professional Dance Teacher. We sent our children to another Dance School, because it's hard to teach your own children. But then that teacher got married and went off to Canada, so we bought the school. The bank lent us the money! It was in Stockwell, London.

What year was that?

Well, that was 1972, when we bought the school. Then Louisa became a very good dancer and went to the Royal Ballet School for the teachers course. Then graduated and was in Cats and West Side Story and everything. Fiona also did ballet, very well, but she was so thin the Royal Ballet School wouldn't let her in, so she became an actress. But she still dances! Mostly she is an actress, though.

So there is already three generations of these dancers.

Yes with Susanna, Rosalind and Amy. Did you meet Amy?

Not yet.

Oh she's lovely.

Yes I've heard many things about her! And how about the changes in dance style. From the very beginning this studio was open for Ballet and a bit of Spanish. Do you think some things never change, or some things have been modified?

Yeah a lot has changed! Now I teach 13 ballet grades. When they bring in the new syllabus, there's so much contemporary dance - rolling on the floor - it's difficult for me. The ballet grades are much more Musical Theatre, there's one Gershwin with a bowler hat - it's difficult for me because I'm so classically trained.

But you still teach lessons?


What is your solution, or how do you adapt to this new way of teaching and dance?

I'm having a difficult time with the new grade 4 and 5. I never really did Musical Theatre. If I have one pupil I can teach that young student and she can show the others.

In all your years, how do you keep learning or adapting?

Watching new works, I have to choreograph dances for all the shows. Louisa and Donald are very good choreographers, they can make it up on the spot. But I have to write it down on a bit of paper. Sometimes I use things that they've studied in their class, so that they can learn it a little easier. Sometimes I make up something good, occasionally I can! I did The Tempest with Beethoven, and that was good! And I did The Little Mermaid with Max Brooks violin concerto, and I thought that worked.

How do you feel, when you said 'that was good', how could you tell?

It looked original, because sometimes I would put a bit from Giselle, Les Sylphide - steal bits from the group sections - but with these they were original works. And it was all about the music, don't you think - do you do choreography?

Yes, when I have taken some classes, they say it's all about the music. You can interpret it differently, but you can't jump outside it.

I'm not happy with some contemporary dance because it doesn't seem to go with the music, or there's no music!

Yeah I love classic, and some post-modern dance though. So there have been many generations that have grown up with dance. Do you feel any difference in the students nowadays?

They want to be there. I always want them to be passionate. I think they're more receptive now. I think Louisa has helped - she's instilled a lot of enthusiasm within the School, because she's young and energetic, and she's very good at talking to the parents, and recruiting new students - I'm not good at that!

Sometimes that's important, the relationship between teacher and student, and the families behind the students.

Yes, I'm rather shy with the parents. I can relate to the students, but Louisa is good, she knows all the parents' names and she talks to them.

And a question about the granddaughters. Susanna chose to do Art, and stopped dancing so much. What do you think about that, are you disappointed?

No, I've always admired her work. She's always been painting and drawing. It's lovely. But it's lovely that she has danced as well, and she knows about dance, but she's taken her artistry a different way. And the younger one, Rosalind, she's taken it a different way too - gymnastics, diving, and now psychology. Experimental Psychology.

Do you wish to continue this Dance School?

The three girls are interested. Especially Amy, because she already teaches there. Definitely she would like to be part of it.

Amy is already giving a contemporary dance class, but Ballet is still very important?

Oh yes, I teach 11 of the classes in Ballet. Parents mainly want Ballet classes. We just had two whole days, 10 - 6, of classical Ballet exams. I can't count how many children - must be 65 or something.

That can't be easy work.

Yes, the shoes, the hair, no nail polish, jewellery, very polite - don't talk, keep smiling!

Do these exams have any style influence - Russian?

I was trained Russian style, but then I had to learn English style from scratch.

How about Donald?

Australian, mostly Royal Academy of Dance I think. Some of his teachers were Russian, but he learnt the English Method.

He's stopped teaching, but when he did teach did you have different methods?

Different, yes. He's very imaginative, excited, passionate. He's a great choreographer, and knows about music. And I just plod along, doing it by the book. I just want the children to be happy dancing, like I am. But it's not as natural for me as it is for him - he's just a born dancer, you know? Jumps! Get's excited! A little bit mad haha!

You seem very proud of him!

Yes so proud of him.

But a little bit modest of yourself!

Well, I started late, I was training at 15, I knew I wouldn't ever be a soloist. I just wanted to be in the Corps de Ballet - a little part. I was short - which was good in a way, because I got to be in the front! Sometimes I did child parts. Though I knew I wouldn't ever be a soloist, I just wanted to be part of it.

You say you love to teach children. Is this your main motivation for making the Dance Studio?

I always liked to remember things and relay them to people. Even when I was child, I wanted to reconstruct what I like. Because I love dance so much myself, and children love to jump about, it brought a lot of joy. My teacher was very strict, she made me cry! But then, when I did my first move on pointe, she took me out and bought me ice-cream! I wouldn't have done anything, if it weren't for her. She knew people, she got me my first job, and loads of others. She said you've got to get your body into the theatre. I think it's just wanting to reconstruct something I loved.

So you taught your children?

Yes, but it's so difficult, because they think you're either ignoring them or picking on them! It's hard. That's why, we taught them the foundations and then sent them to another teacher.

What about the younger generation - Amy, Susanna and Rosalind?

I suppose we both taught them, and Louisa would too. They all had leading parts at points. Grandchildren are easier to teach than your own children. It wasn't so personal.

If you could ask your future self in 5 years a message, what would you say?

A message to myself? Oh, I've never had such a question. Well, there seems to be a move that I should retire. Well I don't want to retire. Well, what would I say. Well, I'm just sticking to what I want to do. I can't answer that. Could you?

I could tell you later! Why don't you want to retire?

Because, the children, they're so lovely and I'm so interested. I don't want to just be at home. I don't really enjoy holidays that much. It's more empty!

I agree, I don't like holidays too much, I like to work. Even with friends, the best way to hang out is in work.

And structure! I like to know what I'm doing every day. I don't want a free day when I don't know what to do - go and spend money!

What about 20 years ago, a message for yourself 20 years in the past?

Well, I was 60…

Let's go further. Well, Susanna is 21. What about your 21 self?

Oh, well I don't know, read more books! Take a course! I don't know… I don't think I'd have done anything differently because it's all turned out so nicely, and I'm grateful. I was an absolute fool when I came to London, and I learnt along the way. Ok, don't do any practical jokes. No more practical jokes. Big mistake! I'll tell you a story?


Ok we were on tour at Festival Ballet, and I had some soup cubes. I gave some to Tony Gilpin, who was the brother of John Gilpin, a famous dancer. Tony was the stage manager and I said, oh Tony, would you like a toffee? And he said yeah sure, he ate the soup cube and was violently ill. He was terribly ill all evening and couldn't do his work! So I would say, no practical jokes!! Because I'd read all these stories, I wanted to be the Mad Cap of the Fourth.

That's a great story! Ok last question, what is your ideal place to live and work as an artist?

London! London. Everything is so free! Monday morning, the woman sitting next to me on the bus said, I wouldn't move to the country for the world! On Monday I can go up to St Martins on the fields and have a free concert, then I can go across the world to portrait gallery for free. You can get a bus every 6 minutes!

Or the sea. I could live by the sea. Just about. It's not to have to get into the car. Just leave the house and nobody knows where you're going. Nobody knows your business.

Do you ever think the capital city is too noisy or crowded?

Lovely, lovely, lovely! Because I was brought up in Ireland, in the War. We lived in a big castle with my grandmother. No other children, just me and my sister - it was lonely. Big spaces and fields. So I love London, and people - sitting in a Cafe Nero and just watching people. I love the noise. People say, oh the beach was empty, how lovely, nobody on the beach. I think think oh no, that's boring! I love lots of people, do you?

Yeah I love it. It's a good one, because many friends I have dream of going to places with no people, but I think it gives you freedom for a while but then there is silence. Well, because in London there are so many people, there are so many activities, and you can choose whether to participate or not.

Yes it's so lively!

Interview, Image: Zejun Yao

London, UK, 2015