Interview: Antonia Franceschi Q&A

Tuesday 8 December 2009

Fame, Grease, New York City Ballet and now a pub theatre in Camden all feature in the life and times of choreographer and dancer Antonia Franceschi.

Her new show opens this week (21 – 31 July) at the Lion & Unicorn Theatre, Kentish Town. Pop8 features film, a new solo for Antonia by Rambert’s Mark Baldwin, original music and the six dancers of Ballet Black – all in a 21 by 18 foot space.

Antonia fills in some detail for us…

Tell us about Pop8. What was the inspiration?

Pop8 came about after Tal Rosner (film maker & creator of the title sequence of Channel 4’s Skins) had seen my show Up From The Waste at The Soho Theatre and asked me to collaborate on a film. I had written some new stuff, saw a performance film he made to accompany Stravinsky’s 2 Pianos – which was fantastic, and that was that. We shot There in Kentish Town, which was the beginning of Pop8.

Who else is involved?

George Sallis of Giant Olive at The Lion and Unicorn pub theatre, specifically asked me to do something for them and I wanted to
experiment. I’ve done two ballets now for Ballet Black, which I’ve really enjoyed, as Cassa Pancho and her dancers are wonderful to work with – really focussed and interesting.
There are three English and three American, it’s so cool. They’re very versatile. They’re going to be really exceptional in the sense that they can cross over, the dynamic elements from the Americans and the refinement of the English all merging. They had some free time in between their scheduled shows in July and it was a great opportunity to continue working with dancers that danced my other ballets; the ideal thing for any choreographer to continue a dialogue. We got a grant specifically for July at very short notice, which is why the performances are previews and not premieres – not reviewable!

Mark Baldwin (Artistic Director, Rambert) found me when I first came to London back in ’95.
I was taking part in an open ballet class. I was very lucky to be useful – right place, right time. He needed a dancer en pointe for a Channel 4 film he was making called Echo. We went on to work together on lots of projects over the years. I’m so happy to be dancing for him in this solo – and to Bach! And Zoe Martlew is a composer and collaborator I’ve worked with before. She is brilliant, brave, a fantastic musician of course and she inspires me.

How did you first get in to dance?

My mom is a painter, but always wanted to dance, so she went to classes with me sitting under the piano (aged about 3 yrs old), and she spotted my feet! When we moved to Manhattan she found a wonderful ballet teacher Margaret Craske, who always let us dance English country dances before we went to the barre, so joy preceeded barre! When I was about 9 there was a TV contest called Wonderama – and because we didn’t have a lot of money I just went on it and won a bicycle. My mum was dating the cameraman…

Did any particular dancers influence you?

When I was 10 I was in The Sleeping Beauty at The Metropolitan Opera House when the Royal Ballet came to New York and I saw Margot Fonteyn onstage, which was beyond magic. So that was that. Oh yes, and of course there was the Jackson 5

Antonia Franceschi in 'Fame' As a teenager you appeared in the films of Grease & Fame. Was that a big turning point?

Overwhelming! Grease was enormous. I was at the High School of Performing Arts. I always wanted to be a ballet dancer, but there were dance, drama & music departments and I went for drama because I thought it was important to be well rounded. I heard about the open audition for Grease the movie. The queue was around the block and when you got in we were all in rows of eight with the choreographer going ‘five six seven eight’, like in Chorus Line. I was singled out – ‘you kid, do it by yourself’, called back the next day and offered the job. I said I was 18, but really I was underage – only 16.

It was a fantastic turning point for me because in order to get into a ballet company you had to do ballet during the day. It’s really competitive if you’re not in by the time you’re 18, it’s over. So to do ballet in the day, you have to go to a private school and we didn’t have enough money. So my summer job was Grease and then I had enough money to go to a private school and to go on to get into New York City Ballet. I gave up a scholarship to American Ballet Theatre School to do Grease, so yes, it was a complete turning point.

For years you were a dancer in New York City Ballet and you were there when George Balanchine was still in charge. What do you remember about him?

I was in one of the last groups he took. When I was in the NYCB school I was picked to be in Le Bourgeois gentilhomme which was the only thing Balanchine did with Nureyev. Then I was in a film of Les Enfants du Sortilege – and then eventually I just started talking to him! I remember a couple of times sitting on the stage with him, on a stool, just himself & myself, nobody around in between rehearsals. It was in my really early days in the company and I was pinching myself thinking is this real? Yes, it was intimidating, but exciting because he was so lovely… And you think there is no way I can make an impression but you start to. At school the word would go round ‘Mr B is in the hall!’ All the girls wore perfume all the time to stand out. I went to visit him when he was sick in hospital at the end. I didn’t know not many people went, because they kept telling us when he got ill, go visit him, I just assumed people were and I went, trying to ‘do the right thing’ & sat on the bed and nobody came.

What did you learn from him?

The thing with Mr B was you worked at your highest possible level, because you knew he saw the best of everything. When he did class he would push you physically way past what you thought was possible, but you could do it. You had this ‘infinite possibilities’ feeling all the time – you always felt that it was just a matter of time before you got your moment. He made everyone feel like that – it was really exciting. But he was also really scarey. When he said ‘that’s not right’ there was a hush. Did that mean she would never get it right, that she was doomed? Russians are really different…

Creative-wise he was the most amazing thing – the way he put things together, knowing exactly what everyone was doing and then all of a sudden there was this beautiful ballet. It was extraordinary. I’ve never seen anything like that.

One of the things I feel luckiest about is that I walked into the company that he had made. Everybody in that company was amazing. You couldn’t pick a better time. He had shaped everybody; they were all his product. I’ll never forget looking across this massive stage and it was one exceptional beautiful thing after another. All the dancers had different things about them. It’s not so much like that now. His castings would always be very different, with incredibly interesting pairings. There was always this atmosphere of constantly moving forward. Anyone could be the star the next day. That was the big thing about Balanchine’s company. He could take a fancy to someone in class – and they were learning the lead in Nutcracker the next day – for real. It was so exciting.

Antonia Franceschi. Choreography by Wayne McGregorPhoto: Laurie Lewis What brought you to London – and kept you here?

In 1995 I fell in love with an English man. It was the only reason on the planet! I’d left NYCB a couple of years before. When I came here I soon met some brilliant talented people & just carried on where I left off – with neoclassicism. Working with all the contemporary people en pointe, was the same thing I had been doing in New York. It was luck I went to take class with a wonderful teacher, Renato Perroni, who could see in a second the NYCB style and he told Mark Baldwin about me.

Assis Carreiro, then at The Place set me up with Wayne McGregor who was resident artist there. He did his first solo pointe work on me. We became great friends and he made a duet for us. The thing with working with Balanchine you just ‘did’ everything, when Wayne said try this – I just did, no fuss. That’s why I got on so well with choreographers!

Has London been a good place to work in dance?

The only negative thing as teacher and a dancer, you’re always looking for teachers. Here professional dancers stick to their company classes, but in New York everyone goes to different classes, so you have a camaraderie with all dancers, not just your company. You’d find a great teacher and there you see someone from American Ballet Theatre, from Twlya Tharp, from Merce Cunningham… You might see someone from down at the Plaza dancing Sleeping Beauty, while you’re doing a Balanchine thing, so you learn how they use their arms and you’re constantly getting better. Class is not only about maintaining, but getting better. Mr B was always looking for the next technique, the faster turn, this or that, so you don’t just do class to warm up, which is what happens here.

When I first got to London it was such a shock, I never saw professional dancers at class. So I started getting tapes made from my classes in New York, because I couldn’t maintain my technique here. Then I’d rent a studio, invite people and that’s how I started teaching, because they loved the class, with my box full of tapes from NY. That’s how this whole technique got here – I never would have started teaching otherwise.

Do you teach now because you enjoy it?

I love it! It’s just conflicting because if you really teach it takes a lot of energy, so I choose what I can do. I always teach Richard Alston’s company now, then there’s Scottish Ballet, Rambert, DV8, the Billy Elliott boys…

You’ve become known for working with dancers to help them recover from injury. Is that something you were particularly drawn to?

One of the techniques I studied when in NYCB was by Christina Bernel who was really good for that, it keeps you really healthy, which is why, knock wood, there’s nothing wrong with me – no plastic hips or anything!. It’s really healthy, because Balanchine technique can hurt you, its so fast, this technique is much more organic. Because it was so competitive we always did Pilates, everyone was always trying to get better all the time and we know now that Pilates prevents injuries. One of the techniques is helping dancers get back – you learn about your body in order to survive, because it can be very wearing on the bones, on the hips, ligaments.

So ballet is still at the centre of your life?

Yes – I’m lucky enough to be useful, I still love it because it feels good. If it hurt I wouldn’t want to do it – but I’m not in any way, thank the Lord,
obsessive in the way I used to be!

POP8 - produced by Antonia Franceschi So what’s next?

This is a first stage of *Pop8*. The Lion & Unicorn is tiny – just 21 by 18 of my feet! The audience is going to be beyond happy – they are going to be ‘wow’. I just thought it would be great for the community and great for the dancers because I learned so much when I went from the 2,600 seater NY state theatre to working for Mark, sometimes in very small spaces. Its really good to learn how to shift your performance.
Choreographically you scale it down a bit – you don’t simplify, you sharpen everything so it reads really clearly because its so close up. But there’s interest from a larger venue and it could develop. There’s a lot there, but let’s see if there’s a lot there!

POP8
A Giant Olive Theatre Company project at the Lion & Unicorn Theatre, Kentish Town. 42 – 44, Gaisford St, NW5.
21, 22, 25, 26, 28, – 31 July 09.
Tickets: £16.50/£15 (concs)
more details/online booking

17 July 2009

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