A VERY young Marion Tait found herself dancing the lead in everyone’s favourite tale of puppets and people back in the 1970s, not long after she became a principal dancer in what was then Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet.
Now, as number two to artistic director David Bintley and as ballet mistress (responsible for the female dancers), she has a very different part to play as BRB bring Coppelia to Sunderland Empire.
One thing remains the same. The man who created the company’s production, choreographer Sir Peter Wright, is still very much present.
“He wasn’t even a sir then,” Marion tells me with a fond chuckle as she recalls the first production when she performed Swanilda – the village maid who taunts the old puppet maker of the title – as second cast to the illustrious Merle Park.
Wright based his interpretation on the traditional 19th Century Petipa-Cecchetti version, which was acquired in 1934 by Vic-Wells, precursor of both Royal Ballet companies.
He added, of course, large stretches of his own choreography. “It’s very interesting to see how he altered it and made it his own,” says Marion.
The day we talked, 86-year-old Sir Peter – now BRB’s director laureate – had been to the company’s rehearsals to cast an eye over the production coming to Sunderland.
Marion explains that, among other things, Wright reminded the latest generation of Swanildas and Franzs that they are, basically, soubrette or character roles.
Soubrette is not a word you hear much these days. In old theatrical jargon, it means a role for a performer with a marked degree of youthful innocence and enthusiasm. “That was very much me back then,” Marion goes on.
Wright is as insistent now as he was then that the great pas de deux between Swanilda and Franz – part of the retained 19th Century choreography – should not resemble those seen in “grander” ballets like Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty.
Marion explains how the changes needed to achieve this can be subtle.
“Rather than a man standing with both arms out, he may have one hand on his hip. And he wears soft character boots rather than ballet shoes. It’s just remembering those little things that make it work.”
Sir Peter remains an object of enormous respect and affection amongst the current crop of BRB performers. “He’s demanding but he doesn’t have to raise his voice. Everyone goes into full focus mode and gets things done. It’s great that he’s still very much a part of the company’s identity.”
Marion Tait (OBE, CBE) carries with the lightness of her craft the role of assistant to artistic director David Bintley she was given last year. “He’s still very much in charge,” she insists. “It’s very good, actually. If I’m asked a difficult question, I can say: ‘Ah. I’ll have to ask David about that one.’”
The recently-acquired honorific comes at the end of an extraordinary career with Sadler’s Wells and then BRB going back more than 40 years and including all the major classics and a clutch of works created by such choreographic luminaries as Sir Frederick Ashton and Sir Kenneth MacMillan.
I have seen Marion Tait in many of those roles. Each left an indelible memory. With her days as a dancer behind her, she still sometimes treads the boards in an acting role, to which she brings that easy to recognise but devilishly hard to define quality of “presence”.
Put Marion on an empty stage and she will appear to fill it.
But the full-time job she enjoys most is in her role as ballet mistress. It makes her both technical adviser and, not infrequently, confidante.
“They’ll talk to me about their careers and any problems they may have,” she explains.
“That’s the very thing I didn’t want to lose on being given the title of assistant director.”
Coppelia is at Sunderland Empire from Wednesday to Saturday. Tickets: 0844 871 3022.