Reviving London City Ballet, 28 Years After It Closed

Christopher Marney recently received a very nice letter from Prince William and his wife. Thirty years ago, William’s mother, Diana, a ballet lover and sometime dancer, had been patron of London City Ballet. That company folded in 1996 but Marney was on a mission to revive it. He sent the royals some photos of Diana with the original company’s director, Harold King, “and they sent a lovely letter back, wishing me luck”. Was that all? No offer of royal patronage? “I don’t know about going down that route,” says Marney with a faint smile. “I don’t know if it’s very us.”

Marney’s vision for the rebooted, 21st-century version of London City Ballet breaks from some of the more traditional ideas of the art form, as forged originally in the court of Louis XIV. He wants a company of dancers that reflect the present: a diverse lineup in age, ethnicity, experience and body type, and – in a discipline where adults are still sometimes called “girls” and “boys” – an environment that treats dancers like grownups. But at the same time, interestingly, it’s a company that’s purposefully staying connected to the past, with a specific remit to revive forgotten gems by genius choreographers and bring them back to life on stage.

It is a brave, some might say foolish, idea to launch a new ballet company when the arts seem to be permanently in crisis by dint of a combination of funding cuts and inflation. But Marney is chipper when I meet him at the company’s new HQ. The lift zooms up and opens straight into the room, which makes it sound like a New York penthouse but is a somewhat shoebox-sized office in a Victorian school turned community centre in Islington, north London. Pinned on to the fresh white walls are headshots of the company’s inaugural lineup. It is testament to the respect Marney has in the industry and the solidity of his idea that top of the list, and a bit of a coup, is guest artist Alina Cojocaru, one of the world’s leading ballerinas. The London-based Romanian was previously a star at the Royal Ballet and English National Ballet (ENB) and has danced on every major stage in the world.

Royal approval … Princess Diana visiting the company’s founder, Harold King, circa 1983. Photograph: Alban Donohoe/

Marney has picked up experienced dancers who have left big companies for more flexible careers – ex-ENB principal Alejandro Virelles, the brilliant Cira Robinson, formerly of Ballet Black, and Joseph Taylor from Northern Ballet. There are dancers coming from companies in Spain, Denmark, the US and South Korea, and new talents just starting out. Eight of the 16 were chosen through audition; 930 dancers from all over the world sent video footage (Marney watched it all), and 200 were invited to audition in person.

On the coffee table lies a pile of old London City Ballet programmes that Marney bought on eBay, dating from the company’s founding in 1978. Marney, who danced with ballet companies all over Europe and with Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures, and was director of the Joffrey Ballet Studio Company in Chicago, could have set up a company in his own name, but he cringes a little at the thought. He loved the idea of bringing London City Ballet back to life because it had a formative role in his own dance history. One of the programmes is from the Queen’s theatre in Hornchurch, Essex, where Marney saw London City Ballet perform in 1991, aged 11. At the time he was in the theatre’s rep company, doing child parts in musicals and panto, but when he watched the ballet, “I realised straight away that was what I was attuned to, and that was my direction,” he says.

He and his mum followed the dancers to shows in Basildon and Chelmsford – it’s impossible to imagine quality ballet touring so widely now. Marney wants to offer something as accessible. He has six theatres signed up so far, plus a spot at Latitude festival and a tour in China, but he hopes to tour more, “not just with a diet of Swan Lake and Cinderella”, but a much richer range of what ballet is, past and present.

You raise me up … London City Ballet’s Cinderella from 1995, with dancers Kim Miller and Marius Els. Photograph: Peter Teigen

Marney met Harold King when he was training and they kept in touch. “He had an impact,” says Marney. This was after the original London City Ballet had closed because of mounting debts. Money, of course, is the crucial factor in making any of this happen. The new company’s existence hinges on one anonymous Japanese sponsor, who provided the first funding, and a small circle of donors. Marney also went through all those old programmes and wrote to every sponsor and advertiser listed in them, about 60 in all. “I had two responses,” he laughs, neither of which resulted in actual cash. The money is not enough to fund a full-time year-round company so they are having to be more agile, working on a six-to seven-month model, which suits some of the dancers who want to go off and do different projects.

The donors bought into the idea of reviving lost works, and Marney’s research suggests there is an audience for it. For the company’s first programme, he is bringing back Kenneth MacMillan’s 1972 ballet Ballade, in collaboration with MacMillan’s widow, Deborah. MacMillan’s pieces (Romeo & Juliet, Manon, Mayerling) are some of the most popular at the Royal Ballet, where he was artistic director in the 1970s, but Ballade was danced only once, on a foreign tour 50 years ago. The subject is Kenneth and Deborah’s first date – they went to the cinema on Fulham Road – but Deborah has never seen it before. There was no video, so the ballet has been reconstructed from a written score in Benesh notation (written on a stave, like musical notation), which had been sitting on a dusty shelf at the Royal Opera House all this time. “It’s fascinating,” says Marney. “The score tells you not just the steps, but the intention, the looks between the dancers, the tempo.”

They will also revive the Larina Waltz from 1993 by Ashley Page, a former principal dancer at the Royal Ballet and director of Scottish Ballet for a decade. It’s a classical ballet, says Marney, but one that “really moves and eats up the stage”. You might ask whether there’s a reason these ballets aren’t seen any more (perhaps they weren’t that good in the first place?), but Marney says that it’s just that choreographers fall out of fashion and there often aren’t recordings, so it doesn’t take long for pieces to be forgotten.

It’s not just about the oldies, though. Marney’s own 2022 piece Eve is on the bill, and he’s commissioning a new work from Arielle Smith. The 28-year-old British Cuban choreographer is very much the woman of the moment, recently making dances for San Francisco Ballet and English National Ballet that come laced with humour, theatrical instinct and strong female roles.

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What’s so brilliant about Smith? “I just love the way she is with the dancers in the studio,” says Marney. “You get the best results on stage if it’s been a creation period where there’s been positive energy. She brings people out of their comfort zone and she encourages them to contribute to the process and there are no ‘mistakes’, nothing ‘wrong’ with what anyone does.” This is different from some of Marney’s own experiences. “In the past you were a little bit conditioned into not speaking, doing as you’re told.”

These days, the culture inside dance companies is something directors are taking seriously. Ballet has had more than its fair share of bullying stories and abuses of power, enabled by strict hierarchies that encouraged dancers to keep silent and know their place. That is changing. “I really want to get things right in the sense of doing it differently, and doing it for this generation. Running the company in a way that is supportive of everybody,” says Marney. In his own career, “I didn’t always feel I had much autonomy,” he says. He’s been putting together a code of conduct that the dancers will also feed into, “So that it’s a space where everybody can feel safe and creative.”

Now Marney just has to hope an audience comes to see them. “When I started I thought: Oh gosh, it’s probably quite unpopular not to be doing ‘new’, but the response hasn’t felt like that.” There’s enthusiasm from venues who can’t host the bigger UK companies and who no longer present Russian touring companies since the invasion of Ukraine.

Marney hopes he’ll be able to upend expectations people might have about ballet being “just tutus and a very long evening”. “I think about my first impression of ballet and that is still why I do it,” he says. “I remember not realising that people could be capable of doing that. I just thought, what extraordinary things are possible with telling stories that way, through dance.”

London City Ballet is touring 17 July to 10 August; tour starts Bath Theatre Royal.

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