In conversation with Ashley Killar
Ashley Killar attended the School from 1954-1962. He began his professional career with John Cranko at Stuttgart Ballet, before becoming a founding member of Scottish Ballet and a Soloist with Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet. Post performing career, Ashley worked as a Ballet Master and later became the Artistic Director of Napac Dance Company (South Africa) and New Zealand Ballet. Whilst in South Africa, Ashley met his wife Jane and after their time in New Zealand, they successfully ran the Ecole Ballet and Dance Theatre School in Australia for twenty years.
Remaining inspired by his early years working with John Cranko, Ashley has recently released the book Cranko: The Man and his Choreography. Here we discuss Ashley’s Royal Ballet School days, his career in dance companies and the influence of John Cranko.
What drew you to ballet?
My mother sent me to ballet classes very early, but I gave up at age six because I wanted to be a sailor. However, I saw a lot of performances and the theatricality of ballet got me started again. I became a Sadler’s Wells School Junior Associate aged nine.
Your father worked at the Royal Opera House – did you get to go a lot as a child? If so, what was this experience like?
Magical, and it still is. As well as ballet, I saw operas like Wozzeck and Salome, fortunately without properly understanding their subject matter, and called my model boat ‘Jenufa’ after that opera. Ballets like Ashton’s Cinderella entranced me, and one matinee my Dad took me to the theatre canteen where I saw the same real life dancers in their make up wearing dressing-gowns. Magic!
What are some of your fondest memories of your time at the School?
Solo lessons for A level English with Mr Bowles. His love of Shakespeare could only inspire. I once played some Debussy on my flute for everyone in the Salon, and it seemed to be much appreciated. Very gratifying!
We now have a much higher percentage of boys at the School, how was it training here when there were so few?
Boys of different ages and abilities (both academic and dance), had to share classes. That had some disadvantages for the younger boys like me, but I was able to repeat Form 5 as it was then known.
After graduating from the School, you joined Stuttgart Ballet. John Cranko was the director at that time; can you tell us a little bit about your experience working with him and his process as a choreographer?
Not in a short paragraph! It was an extraordinary time, not only for me but for everyone who worked with him in Germany. I devote a chapter of my book about Cranko to my personal experiences in Stuttgart.
I understand Cranko encouraged you to choreograph. Had you choreographed before and what do you like about choreographing your own works?
At The Royal Ballet Upper School I devised a highly ambitious plan for a dark, dramatic ballet using music by Shostakovich. Thankfully, it never came to fruition. In Stuttgart, Cranko encouraged me but made it quite clear that there was no shame in failing in one’s choreographic efforts. That’s why the company was a launching pad for many well-known choreographers. It’s no use learning a language unless you pluck up courage to speak it, however badly. He didn’t give a lot of corrections, just nudges in future directions that might prove fruitful. That’s what made me enjoy making ballets.
You have since written a biography of John Cranko, Cranko: the Man and his Choreography. What is that makes Cranko’s life so fascinating to write and read about?
Well, during a lifetime of working in ballet (as a dancer, ballet master, artistic director and director of a large ballet school) I found that Cranko’s methods of educating his dancers (and his audiences) still worked. He was not a good teacher of ballet technique, far from it, employing others to teach classes, yet always seemed to sense what was needed to make the company more successful artistically. He inspired people by holding out ambitious ideas, what he called ‘the golden apple’. I wanted to explore that side of his nature, and how it nourished his extraordinary career as a choreographer. His death aged 45 was a tragedy for the ballet world.
When you embarked on the research for the book, what were some of things you discovered about Cranko’s life that surprised you?
The range and depth of his ballets. Most people know of Onegin and the other popular works like Pineapple Poll and Lady and the Fool, yet very few have heard about Antigone, Brouillards, Harlequin in April or Traces – each real treasures.
After leaving Stuttgart Ballet, you joined Scottish Ballet and then went on to The Royal Ballet as a Soloist. Which pieces did you most enjoy performing whilst with the companies and which choreographers did you most enjoy working with?
I had quite a line as Hilarion in Giselle (I danced it in all three companies), and I enjoyed trying to find a potent mix of comedy and pathos when playing Dr Coppelius. Most, I loved dancing the clown Moondog in The Lady and the Fool. To work with Dame Ninette on The Rakes Progress and Checkmate was a revelation, and wonderful to create a role with Kenneth Macmillan. I managed to watch Sir Frederick Ashton at work from time to time – what an honour!
What was your experience like working in South Africa as Artistic Director of the Natal Performing Arts Dance Company? There must have been difficulty working during apartheid?
While the nationalist government funded lavish new theatres and theatre companies that showed mainly Eurocentric works presented by and for white people, many of us in the arts felt that social change was not only overdue, but vital. My job in Kwa-Zulu/Natal was to help make theatre dance accessible to all the people of the province. Our productions included kids programmes like Check Out Dance! and visits to outlying schools in addition to full scale productions of classic ballets and modern dance in a wide variety of styles. We mounted two six-week festivals of dance in which Napac Dance company performed alongside dance groups from all over the country: Indian, Spanish, Zulu, ballroom, contemporary and ballet in what we called Dance Forum.
You later became Artistic Director of Royal New Zealand Ballet. What are some of the challenges as a director and what informed your programme choices?
New Zealand is a very long narrow country with a surprising number of opera houses for a relatively small population. As is the case everywhere, the majority want classic story ballets and scenic spectacle. The cost and practicalities of touring made this impossible except in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin. This was not a time for experiment, although I introduced three Balanchine works to the repertoires, commissioned some New Zealand choreography and tried very hard to get audiences to embrace dance for the sake of dance. All very different from my adventures in South Africa!
Are you planning on writing more biographies of dancers or choreographers – is there anyone who you find particularly interesting that you would like to delve deeper into the life of?
My own life, perhaps? One’s own motivations and their eventualities are, in many ways, the hardest to understand – I’m not sure that readers would be exactly gripped by what might end up as torturous self-analysis! No. But I’m very interested in the context in which creative artists work – how their environments shape, distort, scare or delight them and influence their work. Perhaps a collection of short biographies: a poet, a composer, a painter, an actor and a dancer at work during that amazing period 1790-1830, just before the dawn of the Romantic era!
This is a question that we always ask alumni, how do you define success?
Genuine success in dance is getting as close as possible to a full understanding of what the choreographer (and the composer before him) intended – and then bringing that vision live to the magic space of a theatre.