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About the Change

Jonathan Byrne Ollivier,
Principal dancer

Northern Ballet Theatre

By Mandy Kent

© Brian Slater

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Milton Keynes, famous for its very confusing roads and even more confusing concrete cows, is not perhaps the most inspiring place to meet the enigmatic hero of Wuthering Heights, nor the swaggering Musketeer, Athos. However, their alter-ego Jonathan Ollivier is very much at home here, being a local boy from just up the road in Northampton, and happy, given the endless touring life, to be within easy reach of his Mum’s Sunday roast!

First things first… yes he is tall, dark and handsome, but not the brooding Byronic figure I’d imagined - friendly, charming and courteous is more like it. He’s grown his hair long and has a goatee beard and moustache to suit his 17th century roles in ‘Musketeers’. By coincidence the famous composer Malcolm Arnold, who wrote the music for ‘The Three Musketeers’, was also born in Northampton. Jonathan recalled... “In the summer I was given an Honorary Fellowship from the University of Northampton, and Malcolm Arnold was given an Honorary Doctorate. He couldn’t go and pick it up as he was too ill but I was really chuffed to get the fellowship at the same time as him. It made it really special for me. ” Unfortunately Malcolm Arnold died on the night that the show opened in Bradford… “We found out just before the curtain went up on opening night. David Nixon went out and made a speech which is how we found out, but it made all those anxious nerves go away and made it more special. It felt that this is what we’re all here for now, to do a good show and the show was in his honour. We were all proud to be a part of it.”

‘The Three Musketeers’, Northern Ballet Theatre’s latest production, is touring the country until June, together with ‘A Christmas Carol’, ‘A Sleeping Beauty Tale’ and ‘Romeo & Juliet’. Has ‘The Three Musketeers’ been well received so far? “Yes, it’s going very well though it’s changed a bit since we opened: we’ve got into our characters more now so it’s cleaner and hopefully the story is clearer too.” Jonathan described the various roles he has in The Three Musketeers: “There’s Athos, the Musketeer who cares about his appearance and who likes nice clothes. I’m allowed to wear my own jewellery in this role.” Perhaps there are some similarities between Jonathan and Athos… “Oh yes, I do tend to dress like that all the time, as you can tell!” he laughs, with his silver earrings glittering. Athos is his favourite character as it was created on him. “That’s the first role, with lots of sword fighting which was really good fun to do, then in the second cast I’m the Duke of Buckingham, the Queen’s lover, who’s not really a decent man as he runs off with Milady. He doesn’t have good morals but he does have lots of nice pdd with Queen Anne! Then I also play Count Rochefort, who’s always in the background dressed in black, with an eye patch. He’s one of Cardinal Richelieu’s men who works alongside Milady to discredit the Queen. I have a good swordfight in that role, using two swords when I fight d’Artagnan”.

Jonathan Byrne Ollivier in Northern Ballet Theatre's The Three Musketeers
© Merlin Hendy

Jonathan enjoys the sword fighting in this production, which has been directed by renowned fight director, Renny Krupinski. “It’s nice to do something different where you have to concentrate 100% or more, because you can hurt someone or be hurt so you need constant eye contact with the person you’re fighting. We’re taught how to throw punches, how to take them, how to kick, how to make the sound effects…and how to do it all safely, especially with the swords, because the swords are really heavy. They’re blunt, but we’re told to go for the stabs, go for the hits, so if someone doesn’t put the sword up and it does hit them you could probably crack a bone, you definitely would hurt them because they are heavy, they are steel. We have had a few injuries!”

Injury is a constant worry to dancers and, while Jonathan is presently fighting fit, last season he was off with a back problem for nearly five months. “I tore two discs in my lower back which was very painful and I had to have extensive physiotherapy. It was getting worse as I thought it was just a back spasm at first and carried on dancing…. I was told if it didn’t clear up in two or three months they might have to operate because the discs had bulged out so they were going to fuse the vertebrae together.” That would have been the end of his dancing career but he emphasised “It just wasn’t an option…I’m 29, I love dancing and there’s nothing else I really want to do.”

His love for dance dates back to when his sister’s dance teacher encouraged his mum to leave him behind while she went shopping… “I’ve got three sisters and two of them used to go to ballet and tap. Irish dancing is how I started: my grandfather’s Irish, and I actually took that up first, but I didn’t like it because the teacher used to shout a lot and I was very young, only four or five at the time. Then I didn’t do anything until I was about six or seven, and the teacher said to my mum ‘leave him here….you can go and do the food shopping on your own’, because I was a bit of a pain in the supermarket, so I got to stay for ballet and that was it!” Was he the only boy in the class? “Pretty much all my life, training in Northampton, I was the only boy…every now and again another lad would join in and we’d be friends but then they’d have enough. I made my mind up from a very young age that it was exactly what I wanted to do as I had such a love for it. I had a few problems at school from doing ballet: I was bullied and had fights, but it was only when I started fighting back, because I also did karate, that they left me alone! It still happened but it was more ‘low key’ - instead of it being physical it was usually name calling, and you can deal with that. When you’re young and you are dancing you’re just dancing for the fun of it …and it’s so strange that in every other culture around the world dancing is a very masculine thing to do; in Russia it’s done in the army, for example, and all of it is very masculine and somehow here it’s all seen as ‘men in tights’. But what they seem to forget is that when you get older you’re dancing with women all the time, which isn’t bad!! So it’s a very strange stigma that’s still attached to it but I do think it’s getting better now.”

Having firmly decided on a career in dance it was time for Jonathan to apply for vocational schools: “When I got to sixteen I needed to go to a full time school; if I wanted to dance professionally I couldn’t do it at a small school in Northampton any more. When I was about thirteen I applied for some summer schools; I did the Royal Ballet summer school a couple of times and I did the Vaganova summer school. Then I wanted to get into a full time school so I auditioned for the Royal and for Rambert. I didn’t get into the Royal and I did get into Rambert, which was a great choice for me. I was lucky because Rambert nurture you to be your own person, your own dancer. I’m not saying that the Royal do it as ‘clones’ but they have a specific way of teaching - you get in on the shape of your body, on the amount of turnout you have, on how loose you are. At Rambert you’ve got all different shapes and sizes and different physiques and things are tailored to the individual. Some people aren’t good at ballet but they’re amazing movers so they’re pushed more on the contemporary side and vice-versa. I learnt both, it was very 50-50, and I learnt contemporary and ballet every day, so for me it was perfect.”

Jonathan Byrne Ollivier
© Brian Slater

After graduating from Rambert Dance School in 1996, Jonathan flew out to South Africa to join Cape Town City Ballet, where he met his future wife Desiré Samaai, who also danced in the company. He was promoted to principal at Cape Town, where the repertoire included many classics such as Swan Lake. But he has always enjoyed contemporary dance and this was one reason for joining NBT. “When I joined NBT (in 1999), ‘Carmen’ was very contemporary. It was choreographed by Didy Veldman, from Rambert, and she also did ‘Streetcar’ (A Streetcar named Desire). I danced the role of Stanley, which was made on me and that was really good fun”. NBT’s triple bill, Jardi Tancat, Lambarena and Dividing Silence, which last toured in 2004, was all contemporary work by different choreographers and was another programme which he enjoyed. “I’d like to get more into the contemporary side of things now; I enjoy classical stuff but I’d like to try something different as well.”

I asked Jonathan if there were any opportunities to get involved with the choreographic process: “The choreographer will come up with the ideas, for example David (Nixon) will say ‘try this lift’ or ‘try this move’ and you’ll do it and it might go wrong and you’ll fall into something else and he’ll say ‘OK that was good ’.” So he doesn’t have it all in his head already? “No, it’s more a collaboration; he has the main ideas but it’s a collaboration between all the dancers and him. It’s a whole creative process, when we’re in the studio.” At present, however, there are no choreographic workshops for the dancers: “There used to be more time to fit it in, but now we’re on the road more and we do more ballets in a year than previously. I know a lot of dancers would like to have workshops though”. In the future NBT should have their own premises in Leeds, which will provide additional studio space and an opportunity to have workshops and other ventures: “I hope so and also the building will be shared with Phoenix Dance Company, the contemporary company in Leeds. I have some friends there and I know that they would like to do a collaboration on works. For the last three years they’ve been doing something where they choreograph on students and some professional dancers and they want some dancers from NBT to be part of that. Hopefully next year something can come out of that. But if we do share the same building it could be wonderful.”

Northern Ballet Theatre is one of the larger touring companies in the UK and it attracts a wide audience by introducing ballets to people based on well-known films, operas, books or plays. Jonathan agreed: “We make it accessible for everybody and we do a lot of story ballets as people are generally familiar with them. It’s not elitist - you don’t have to know what ‘Swan Lake’ or ‘Nutcracker’ are about, or dress up. It should be a fun night out: it’s about being entertained, having a nice night out with your family and friends. ” One of the main reasons he applied to join the company was its emphasis on strong story-lines and vivid characters... “I always thought it would be a great thing to do ‘Dracula’, and when Desi and I joined the current production was Michael Pink’s Dracula. We thought what a great idea, it was exactly like the film: the story and costumes were the same and there was fake blood everywhere. It was so gory that there was an age restriction on the audience so very young kids couldn’t come in!” Now the company have David Nixon’s ‘Dracula’, which is very gothic though less gory. In the opening scene, Dracula emerges naked from his coffin and Jonathan explained that the idea is for Dracula to rise from his coffin ‘just as he is’, swathed only in a cloud of dry ice. It was certainly an impressive start to a powerful tale! Strong stories like this appeal to Jonathan as he loves to get into a character and he has an intensely dramatic stage presence. Romeo and Juliet is another of his favourites especially the NBT version choreographed by Massimo Moricone which was originally directed by Christopher Gable. It uses the Prokofiev score but the movement is different compared to the MacMillan or Nureyev versions: “I love doing it, it’s meatier, the sword fights are with big heavy steel swords and daggers and Tybalt and his gang are in leather waistcoats and look very masculine.” Jonathan dances either Romeo or Tybalt but prefers the menacing Tybalt. He often finds he is still in character at the end of a show: “ In any performance where it’s serious , like ‘Wuthering Heights’, it’s such an emotional rollercoaster, and you have to feel the emotion to portray it, so at the end of the piece it could take a good hour or two before you start feeling normal again. And it’s the same in ‘Romeo and Juliet’ with Tybalt: you can feel quite aggressive afterwards, not physically but you’re uptight, your whole body is tense from fighting. I definitely cry on stage doing Romeo and during Wuthering Heights I used to get very emotional as well. If you aren’t feeling it then the audience aren’t going to feel it. You need to be able to push that emotion across.”

Jonathan Ollivier and Desiré Samaai in Lambarena
© Brian Slater

While the audience are often very happy the critics can, er.. feel differently: does he ever read his own reviews… “No, I once got a review for ‘Streetcar’ saying I still couldn’t dance! It didn’t upset me and I actually found it quite amusing but I tend not to read reviews much now! Unless it’s constructive …sometimes reviews are posted up on the board which might say ‘I didn’t understand that scene’, and I think that’s up to the dancer then to find a way to explain it better. But when someone says ‘he still can’t dance’ it’s not what you want to hear when you’ve got another seven shows that week! ” Since then Jonathan has been twice nominated in the National Dance Awards (2003 and 2004) in the category Best Male Dancer so it would seem that many people, critics included, do rate his dancing highly.

Spending up to thirty weeks a year on tour and living out of a suitcase must be hard but Jonathan says you get used to it and there are perks, like the visit to China last January… “It was brilliant! The first time we went was five years ago and we took ‘A Christmas Carol’ out, which was different as they didn’t know the story. The audience came in with beers and they walked around, and videoed the show, phones were going off - it was a purely social event. I found it quite funny. But going back this year was completely different; the audience were quiet and well behaved. We did ‘La Traviata’ and Desi and I would open at every venue and then we had the next day off so we could see a lot of places.” There’s another tour planned next year to China and Hong Kong but in the meantime there are many more dates at less exotic destinations in the UK and tonight, Milton Keynes was in for a swashbuckling treat!

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