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About the Change

Wendy Ellis Somes

Setting ‘Symphonic Variations’ in San Francisco

We caught up with Wendy Ellis last summer in San Francisco - where you can see the results of her coaching from April 13 onwards in a mixed bill of works by Frederick Ashton and Kenneth MacMillan

by Renee Renouf

© Andrea Flores

'Symphonic Variations' reviews

San Frnacisco Ballet web site

Renee Renouf reviews

Here to set Sir Frederick Ashton's sublime Symphonic Variations on San Francisco Ballet, Wendy Ellis Somes has got to be the perennial Good Show, Great Trouper, British style. In the theatre world, that's high on the scale from one to ten. Wendy, small and pert like a spring nosegay, obliging and clear in her opinions, is worth every millimeter of the assessment.

The widow of Michael Somes, partner to Margot Fonteyn in the days when the Royal Ballet toured the United States prior to Dame Ninette's acquisition of Rudolph Nureyev as one of the company's principals, Wendy Somes inherited the rights to Symphonic Variations from her late husband. Somes was willed it by Sir Fred. “Sir Fred willed his ballets to his friends, and Michael made certain I knew the work backwards and forwards,' she remarked., “Every single thing that was known about it.”

Wendy got started in ballet, “When I was three, because I love music. That's the long and the short of it. I just love music. And music promoted me. I just felt I had to do something with the music” she disclosed, still in the clothes she wore in taking class. “I started classes in the North with B.B.O., which is the British Ballet Organization, someone called Peggy Wilson. I am from Lancastershire.

“I won a scholarship to the British Ballet Organization when I was twelve. and they told me, ' You really do have to come somewhere in London to train properly because we've done as much as we can do up north and you really should be at a full time dance school.' Wendy auditioned for White Lodge in Richmond Park, the junior division of The Royal Ballet School and was accepted, leaving home at the tender age of twelve. “Then I just graduated to the Upper School and got into the company. I was very fortunate.'

Wendy Somes disclosed, in a voice still breathless with awe, that she joined the company in 1969. “Every second year we used to go to the Metropolitan Opera House in Lincoln Center. I danced in the company until 1990, when I retired. I became a principal dancer about Seventy-eight.”

Asking her about her roles, Wendy responded, “I was still in the corps when I danced Les Deux Pigeons, by Sir Frederick Ashton, Lynn Seymour actually coached me in it, which was wonderful. I actually performed it more like Lynn, more tom boyish rather than sweetie-sweetie. That was very, very lovely.

“After that I did most of the ballets: La Fille Mal Gardee; Romeo and Juliet; Sleeping Beauty, etc. etc. And new ballets; I was very fortunate that Kenneth created the role of Princess Stephanie for me in Mayerling. I created a role in Gloria.

“It was wonderful to work with both Sir Kenneth MacMillan and Sir Frederick Ashton, two of the most renowned choreographers in the world. When we were working with them, day in, day out, we just didn't really recognize just how important this was in history. It's not until much later, that I suddenly look back, now, and I say, 'My goodness, it was an everyday occurrence!' You knew it was special because you were working with very great people, but you didn't really realize how historically significant it was, what wonderful choreographers they were.”

I asked Wendy Somes whether she had danced it. Again that breathless tone of awe, “Oh, yes, many times, gosh, yes. You know Fred very rarely changed the cast. He hated changing the cast, especially the side girls if he got two that really matched. He sometimes would change the center. “

Since Symphonic Variations is also on this season's roster for American Ballet Theatre, I asked her if she was going to mount it follow her visit to San Francisco Ballet. Wendy informed me that it had been originally mounted for ABT in 1990. “My husband and I mounted it together. They haven't danced it since then. It was Jane Herman who invited both Michael and myself to mount it.

“I'm going to Orange County this weekend to see the company perform and in class, so that I have an idea of whom I want for cast when I return in September. It's a very different company from what it was in 1990.” Ironically, Wendy is mounting Symphonic Variations for San Francisco now because of a convenient time slot. The ballet is scheduled for Program Seven, April 2004.


Wendy Ellis Somes coaching Ashton's Symphonic Variations.
© Andrea Flores

We also touched on the Sophie Fedorovich costumes and sets for Symphonic Variations. Fedorovich elicits an expression great admiration from Wendy Somes, not only for the elegant simplicity of her work for this signature Ashton work, but also for the Fedorovich opera designs.

“Fred used to talk to me about things in the country, at the home he bought with his legacy from Sophie, where I used to be his guest. He must have known that I would be involved in mounting his works, eventually. “

“It's the first time I've ever worked with them but I've loved working with the San Francisco company. The vibration of the company as a whole is very lovely; extremely good. They're extremely hard working. They listen, they try, and I know how much they've got on their plate, and they've only just come back after a short break It's been wonderful to work with them; I've truly enjoyed it.

Asked about the number of casts Wendy Somes has selected, she replied, “Only two casts, because Fred only did one! It's too hard a ballet, it really is. They never go off stage, not for a second. They're on stage from curtain up to curtain down. It's very hard stamina wise, you'll see. I tell them you must listen to the music.”

Having danced it many times, Wendy obviously is the meet, right and fit individual for the job. We reviewed some of the individuals with rights to the Ashton works: Alexander Grant has La Fille Mal Gardee; Anthony Dowell has Month in the Country; Derek Rancher inherited Brian Shaw's rights for Les Patineurs. Margot Fonteyn was given the rights to Ondine. Tony Dyson, an architect, owns the rights to Enigma Variations. A number of the rights, such as Birthday Offering, reside with Sir Fred's nephew, Anthony Russell Roberts.

“I also own the rights to Cinderella and I'm going to put a new production, a brand new production with new sets and costumes at Covent Garden at Christmas. I'm very excited about it. I'm very protective and I feel it's my right, my duty to be so, to mount Sir Fred's works as I believe Fred would want.”

Wendy Somes' official role with The Royal is one of a guest. “I am not attached. I go when I'm asked. This is wonderful, this guest thing of me producing Cinderella. I've known Monica Mason for thirty odd years, and she is delighted with the designs. which are very romantic. Anthony Dowell and Wayne Sleep, who were classmates at White Lodge, are doing the Frederick Ashton and Robert Helpman Ugly Sisters. It will be a riot.

Symphonic Variations was choreographed in 1947 and Cinderella in 1948. It feels spooky almost, but it's just come out that way. The first night of the new Cinderella is December 23 and the first night of the original Cinderella production was December 23, 1948.”

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