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Sense and talent

Posted on July 26, 2017

Pippa Moore has spent 20 years with Northern Ballet. She speaks to Zoë Anderson about change, camaraderie and experience

The first time Pippa Moore auditioned for Northern Ballet, she met a gruff response from then director Christopher Gable. “He said to me, ‘How old are you?’ I said 18. He said, ‘Well, this company has to be very mature, and professional, you’ll be on your own, going round different cities, touring. So go away and get some experience and come back when you have.’” So I thought, OK, I will.” She joined the small company Wiener Ballet, which toured to a different theatre every night. “You could only do it when you were 18, because you just have that physicality, you just bounce back – you can get off a six-hour coach journey and do Swan Lake and not think anything of it.

“After two years of that, I auditioned again, and they wanted someone to cover for somebody who was injured. They said, ‘We’ll give you three months,’ which then turned into 20 years!” The story feels characteristic of Moore: her resilience, her optimism and her sense of the realities of company life.

Touring is in Northern Ballet’s bones: in a period when most companies have reduced the number of performances away from home, the Northern Ballet model still involves a lot of performances in a lot of UK cities. What is that like for the dancers? “I’m fortunate in that I do love going to different places,” Moore says. “I know a lot of people find it tiring, being away from home, having to sleep in a different bed, and find a place and forage for food when restaurants are closed after the show. I’m quite a chameleon in that I adapt to each situation quite well. It is tiring on the body; the older you get, the more it takes its toll.

“I feel that we’re really lucky to do as many shows as we do. I can’t think of anything worse than rehearsing and rehearsing for months and getting your one chance to do a variation. If you muck it up, or if it didn’t go as well as you wanted it to, it must be awful to think, that was that. We really get the chance to work on things and develop them, that’s the beauty of doing lots of shows. There’s also the negative side, when you think, oh god, not another wet Thursday matinée! But,” Moore adds, tactfully, “that’s just when you’re tired.”

If Moore is well-adapted to touring, she’s also a good fit for Northern Ballet’s storytelling tradition. “If I could have been a silent movie actress, I think I’d have loved that era in time,” she says now. “That’s the reason I’ve stayed here so long – it’s the dance theatre of what we do. I’ve loved it throughout my career.” When she describes her early dance classes in Liverpool, at the Elliott-Clarke School of Dance, she remembers the whole atmosphere: her teacher was “just as you imagine a ballet teacher, with the French roll, the corgi and a stick. I just loved her classes – the dusty wooden-floored studio, the gold mirror. That caught my imagination.”

She came to dance because her mother worked next to a dance school: Pippa and her sister did classes all day on Saturdays, while their mother worked. “We did everything – drama, tap, modern, ballet – just filled the day.” At first, Pippa loved tap and performance. “Around my era, growing up, it was all Fame, Grease, Saturday Night Fever. These films were always on TV, and I loved it.” She watched ballet on television, and saw Northern Ballet at the Liverpool Empire; later, as a student at The Royal Ballet Upper School, she would do class with the company in half-term holidays.

When at last she joined Northern Ballet, she was pitched in at the deep end. “Because this girl had been injured, there was no gentle, ‘Let’s all learn the ballet together.’ They had three weeks before they went on tour, and they were doing Don Quixote, Cinderella and Swan Lake. I remember the ballet mistress took me into a little tiny studio, no bigger than this” – she gestures around the small office – “to get me up to speed on those three ballets. At the end, I knew all the steps, I just didn’t know which ballet they went in! As long as I went to the studio and somebody started me off, then I could do the sequence.” She seems to have thrived on it? “A little bit. It’s funny, at that age – I don’t know, you have less fear. You have a lot of ‘let’s go for it’. Why do you go on rollercoasters when you’re a teenager, and not when you’re in your thirties? To me, it’s similar: you know what’s at stake in your thirties.”

A petite, fine-boned dancer, Moore spent a lot of time playing children and younger characters. “Or I’d have to lead the line [in the corps de ballet]. I think that’s where my confidence had to come from, because I had nobody to hide behind. When you’re the smallest in the company, guaranteed, you’ll be at the front of the swan line. So I always had to know what I was doing, and I had to have an air of responsibility to the girls behind me. You can’t be shy. So that helped, because you’re obviously seen then to be responsible, that you could take on a solo.”

Her big break came in Gable’s production of Dracula, where she was third cast Lucy. “That was a huge thing for me: it was a principal role, I had to dance with men, many pas de deux. When that ballet came around again, a couple of years later, I was first cast Lucy. Once you’re first cast in a role, you’ve got an upward trajectory.” To prepare, she spent a lot of time watching the company’s established dancers. “I’ve always been quite good at observing. It’s part of acting: I observe people in the street, in the supermarket. I have to play Grandma now, in The Nutcracker – you can’t just ‘act old’ in the clichéd sense. I watch people, and I think, they do move slower, they’re more hesitant or unsure. It’s those little subtleties that I’ve always loved watching in the older dancers – usually when they don’t think I’m watching them!”

It’s one thing to observe real people for family roles, but how do you prepare to play Lucy, a vampire bride? “There’s so much out there these days in terms of films and series and books and everything,” she says happily. “A lot, when I was a child, had to come from your imagination, but nowadays the world’s your oyster when it comes to research.

“It’s encouraged, as well. They want you to know what you’re portraying. Nobody’s just decorating the stage here, we do workshops and read sections from the books with the company, so that everybody feels part of it. There’s nothing worse than not feeling that spirit on stage. There’s no point just having a star couple and then everyone else clueless as to what’s going on. Even if the character you’re doing doesn’t have a name, you should give yourself a name, to give yourself a personality. Know where you’ve come from, what your motivation was for being in this scene.”

Moore obviously cares about the community of being in a company. “It’s something that we need to keep working on. The company is growing, so there’s less camaraderie – in the sense that you don’t see everybody as often. There are 47 of us now, which doesn’t sound that large, but compared to 34 when I first joined… A lot of them are young, straight out of school, so we have to work harder at integrating them, letting them know that it’s OK to give your personality. You have to participate. Contribute, in every aspect, not just on stage, but as an artist and a creative person.”

Another big change has been the company’s splendid new home in Leeds. “It was a big turning point for the company. I feel privileged, I also feel sad, because my era of dancers, all my peers, didn’t make it to see the new building. For 15 years, we’d been promised it. When we first moved to Leeds, we went to the temporary West Park, where we were told, ‘It will only be for a little while’. And one by one they retired or left, and I’m probably one of the few who got to see these fantastic facilities.”

She laughs: “That’s probably what lengthened my career, being warm in the studio! Being warm, not having leaks from the ceiling. You’ve got purpose-built studios, the studio theatre seats 200 and we can do triple bills, the children’s ballets. In terms of our profile as a company, it’s shot through the roof. Everybody knows who the company is now, where we are. That’s inspiring. To have all the students in the school, in the academy, that’s incredible, the amount of children who are coming through the doors each week. And that’s without the other adult classes, or people who hire the studios. There’s such a buzz about the place – you just feel like part of something more important.”

Moore has had few injuries in her career. “Whether I’m just from good genetic stock, or whether I’ve been sensible in knowing my capabilities and looking after my body, diet, everything – but then last year I had a hip operation, which was the first time I’ve ever had an operation. The surgeon had said, ‘If you don’t get it done, it’s career-ending.’ So I prepped myself, mentally, that that could be it. In true Pippa fashion, I came back, I was back on stage within the three months. I thought, ‘Yes, actually, I don’t want to just hobble out after a long career.’ I want to finish on a high, I’ve come back to full fitness and doing the roles. It was a turning point: nobody is indestructible, you have to look after yourself even more now. Over the years, you can be an amazingly talented dancer, but if you’re not mentally strong, you won’t last, you will burn out. Being sensible is probably just as important as being talented!” 

This interview was originally published in December 2015 issue of Dancing Times

Zoë was born in Edinburgh, and saw her first dance performances at the Festival there. She is the dance critic of The Independent, and has also written for The Independent on Sunday, The Scotsman and Dancing Times. In 2002, she received her doctorate from the University of York for a thesis on “Nationhood and epic romance: Ariosto, Sidney, Spenser”. She is the author of The Royal Ballet: 75 Years and The Ballet Lover’s Companion.

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