The “wonderful” life of Sir Peter Wright

This article first appeared in the Australian Ballet’s program for its 2014 season of Sir Peter Wright’s Nutcracker in Melbourne and Sydney. The ballet was first performed by the Australian Ballet in 2007.

Sir Peter Wright’s conversation is peppered with the word ‘wonderful’. Tchaikovsky’s scores are full of wonder, his teachers were wonderfully kind to him and his father, who once tried to stop him dancing, later wrote him a “wonderful letter” to say he was sorry. His optimism is exhilarating and his energy is inspiring.

“I’m not good at doing nothing”, he says, so at 87 the choreographer is still staging his interpretations of the great classical ballets of the 19th century, still travelling the world to coach dancers and now “just starting to write my own book. I am determined to do it. It’s not an autobiography. It’s going to be portraits about some of the people I’ve worked with and important things in my life. I just want to show the interesting parts of my life”.

The interesting parts of his life will not be so easy to define as all of his life is fascinating, from his fierce determination to dance despite his father’s protests, to his years on the road as a dancer with the Sadlers Wells Theatre Ballet, his close friendship with Peggy van Praagh, his dedication to ballet for more than 70 years and his artistic directorship of the Birmingham Royal Ballet.

Sir Peter never has been, never will be, a man who puts himself on a pedestal. His modesty and sense of humour are apparent in conversation and clear to see on clips of him coaching dancers, among them the superstars such as Carlos Acosta and Natalia Osipova in Giselle.

When it comes to his stagings of Giselle, Coppelia, Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty and Nutcracker his motto is: “Respect the past, herald the future and concentrate on the present”. Dyed-in-the-wool conservatives may tell him he mustn’t fiddle with history, but his response is that change is necessary to save the classics from ending up in the museum. As he said “you have to make all that wonderful choreography work for today’s dancers, who are much more advanced than in the 19th century”.

Sir Peter’s most prolific decade was the 1980s when he created his own productions of these ballets. His Giselle has travelled far – at one stage, 14 companies had this ballet in their repertoire – but his most loved ballet is the Nutcracker he choreographed in 1990 when the company formerly known as the Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet moved from its home at Sadlers Wells Theatre in London to Birmingham. There it took the city’s name and became Birmingham Royal Ballet.

“I did it in gratitude to Birmingham for all they had done to get us to Birmingham and I also thought it was terribly important that Birmingham should have its own Nutcracker and not just a copy of the one at Covent Garden. My spirits were very high because we had got there. It was a huge operation moving the company up to Birmingham”.

Music is always the impetus for all his reconstructions of the classics so while he loves the score of Coppelia he has never been tempted to reconstruct La Bayadere, Don Quixote or Raymonda.

“I adore Swan Lake and I adore Sleeping Beauty but I think Tchaikovsky’s greatest score is Nutcracker. It’s so wonderful especially for the Snowflakes” and the music that accompanies the magical growth of the Christmas tree in Act I.

“That was originally the entr’acte music for one of the Sleeping Beauty’s scenes for the Lilac Fairy and the Prince, but it was cut, probably at the dress rehearsal. Tchaikovsky would never waste a good theme so he used it in Nutcracker”.

Sir Peter is a forensic researcher. After studying the original story of Giselle, first performed by the Paris Opera Ballet in 1841, he concluded that Giselle committed suicide. “It states very clearly that Giselle takes Albrecht’s sword, plunges it into her heart and dies and that’s why she’s not buried in the hallowed ground but in the forest”.

For Nutcracker, too, “I did an enormous amount of research and got the original notation”. John Wiley, (the author and academic) “helped me in getting a lot of information from Russia. I was a bit bogged down by trying to be too authentic, but I thought I’m going to release myself from that – I’m going to do it how I feel. My collaboration with the designer, John McFarlane, was so wonderful. We charged into it and it all happened like magic”.

In the 1960s, Sir Peter choreographed more than 12 of his own ballets, but chose not to continue on that path. As he told The Telegraph in London, the choreographic genius of Frederick Ashton, Kenneth MacMillan and John Cranko, was always “in there, and it has to come out. With me, it might have been in there, but I had to dig it out. I got considerable satisfaction out of choreographing. I liked it – I still do – but it’s not a burning passion for me”.

His introduction to a lifetime of dance came at age 7, when his mother took him to ballet class. The teacher was impressed by his potential but his father was horrified by the idea that his son might become a ballet dancer. “He was quite a strict Quaker. They don’t approve of that sort of entertainment. He was a wonderful man but completely blinkered about a lot of the arts”.

At 16, Sir Peter fell under the spell of ballet forever the moment the curtain rose on a production of Les Sylphides. Many years later “my father came to see my Giselle at Covent Garden and he wrote me the most wonderful letter, trying to explain how I had been brought up and he realised he had made a terrible mistake not encouraging me and so we had a real reconciliation.

“In a way the fact that he made it difficult for me was a good thing. I was a late starter as a dancer, only 17. I didn’t go to any ballet or dance school. I got a job as an apprentice with the Ballet Jooss”, a company founded by Kurt Jooss, a German dancer and choreographer who sought refuge in England when he refused to obey orders to dismiss the Jews from his company in Germany.

To gain the apprenticeship, “I had to fight like mad but I was determined and I think that’s why I was able to make a career for myself against all the odds. I was on tour and dancing every night. I had it really rough but it made me into a much more interesting person”.

Sir Peter was lucky to have the support of three mentors, first Jooss, then Peggy van Praagh and Vera Volkova. “I met Peggy through a school friend of mine. I had a long talk to her and she said ‘you really must get a classical training. She encouraged me to go and work with Vera Volkova”.

A Russian dancer, Volkova had escaped the Soviet Union to settle in London in the mid 1930s where her studio in Covent Garden was the hub for a who’s who of ballet dancers, among them Margot Fonteyn and Erik Bruhn.

Sir Peter remembers the studio as “ghastly, a terrible floor, uneven, knots in the wood, a bumpy, funny little stage where the piano was. She did two classes each morning. She said: ‘I know you haven’t got any money but you have to pay me something, so come to my first class for half the price’.

“It was three shillings and sixpence, so I only paid one shilling and nine pence. ‘Later on’, she said ‘you can come to the second class for free, but you’re not ready for that yet’. And she gave me one private lesson a week for nothing.

She thought I had talent and she was absolutely wonderful to me. She was very strong and demanding, didn’t stand any nonsense, was wonderfully musical and everything she demonstrated was so dynamic”.

To make ends meet, he danced in musicals then joined the Sadlers Wells Theatre Ballet where van Praagh was in charge of the company. There he met and married the dancer Sonya Hana, became assistant ballet master of the company, then took the same role at Stuttgart Ballet under the artistic director, John Cranko.

His progress to the top of the Royal Ballet seemed almost certain when he returned to London as associate to the then artistic director of the Royal Ballet, Kenneth MacMillan.

Yet when MacMillan left, he was not the chosen successor, a snub that must have hurt deeply at the time. Instead, Sir Peter became artistic director of the Royal Ballet’s sister company, then known as Sadlers Wells Royal Ballet.

In Birmingham he led the company for five years until 1995 when he had to retire due to the neuromuscular disease, myasthenia gravis.

With remarkable resilience, Sir Peter has continued working with many companies as they revive his works around the world. “I need to keep busy”, he says. Sir Peter knows the wisdom of the words in Waiting for Godot – “We must go on”.

As he once said “you must just go on doing it until you drop. I’ve had a wonderful life and what has gone through my life is the art of classical ballet. And that is why I keep going. Because of that”.

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Sir Peter Wright, photo © Richard Farley

Sir Peter Wright’s Nutcracker, Benedicte Bemet and artists of the Australian Ballet, 2014, photo © Jeff Busby

Sir Peter Wright, coaching dancers at the Dutch National Ballet, 2010

Damien Welch in The Nutcracker, the Australian Ballet, photo © Jeff Busby