Cats choreographer Gillian Lynne on working with Dudley Moore and Moira Shearer
TO those outside the world of theatre, Gillian Lynne's name might not strike an immediate chord.
But you'll certainly have heard of the people she knows, the places she's been and the things she's done.
Aged "a very, very young 82", the former Royal Ballet star has choreographed and directed some of theatre's best-known works, including Cats and Phantom of the Opera.
Entertainment legends trip off her tongue... Dudley Moore, Albert Finney, Moira Shearer and Andrew Lloyd Webber.
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Now her famous ballet A Simple Man – about the life of painter L.S. Lowry, will grace Nottingham Theatre Royal's in March.
The ballet forms part of a mixed programme put together to celebrate 40 years of the Northern Ballet Theatre.
Gillian believes the work's inclusion was inevitable.
"It put the company on the map. The company was doing all right but it hadn't found its own special voice. A Simple Man found its voice for it," she says.
The Lowry ballet was originally commissioned by the BBC in 1986.
"I'd just finished staging Phantom of the Opera and the head of BBC TV in Manchester said they wanted something to commemorate LS Lowry's 75th anniversary," recalls Gillian.
She worked alongside legendary composer Carl Davis. Together, they attracted a stellar cast.
"It all fell into place. I cast Christopher Gable as Lowry and Moira Shearer, with whom I'd been in the Royal Ballet Company at Covent Garden, as his mother.
"Then I asked Albert Finney to do a prologue. He was a friend of mine and was born in Salford, just like Lowry. Therefore we got a huge public watching it."
The TV-screening of the ballet won a Bafta and it went into Northern Ballet's repertoire in 1987.
There it remained for eight seasons. It was performed during the 1990s but this season's revival will be the first in 12 years.
Gillian, who has been working on with the company all week at their rehearsal rooms in Leeds, says: "It will be a lot more 'of now'."
The ballet is around 45 minutes long and is based on Gillian and Carl Davis' fictitious re-imagining of Lowry's life.
"We made the story up based on this marvellous, resilient man, a rent collector who used to work all day and paint at night," she says.
"He had a mother, whom he looked after, and who never once said, 'That's wonderful son.' She never gave him an inch. He was very repressed and the ballet's about two women he yearns for."
In real life, Lowry's mother Elizabeth was irritable and bed-ridden.
"He had a hard life but sometimes good art comes out of a very tough life," says Gillian.
She was already a Lowry fan prior to the ballet.
"I love his depiction of man and woman in the industrial life," she says.
In the ballet, Lowry's world is painstakingly recreated. The costumes all look as if they were lifted from his paintings.
The dance, meanwhile, draws on a combination of modern, jazz and ballet – in many ways reflecting Gillian's varied career.
She was born in Kent – "I'm totally and utterly English!" she says.
Aged 16, she was spotted by Ninette de Valois and entered Sadler's Wells Ballet.
She rose through the ranks to become a leading dancer at Covent Garden where, at the time, Moira Shearer was one of the stars.
"I joined the company after her. She was already a star dancer and she befriended me from the beginning. We became enormous friends."
After leaving the company, Gillian moved into musicals and, in 1963, choreography.
"I never wanted to do it. It was an absolute accident. I was appearing at the Palladium in London and a man who had worked at Covent Garden and knew me said he'd been left £900 by an aunt and wanted to do a jazz ballet. I'd just met Dudley Moore and I'd done a show with him and we'd become good friends so we decided to make a show called Collages."
Dudley, helpfully, wrote all the music for the show.
"It was a brilliant score. It was many years ahead of its time. We put it on in Edinburgh and it was this massive hit."
I ask her what Dudley was like to work with. It turns out the words "Dudley" and "work" shouldn't really feature in the same sentence.
"He was sometimes very reluctant," she says. "He used to say, 'Can we go to the pictures instead of going to work?' and I used to say, 'No! Get your hands on the keys and write!' He taught me all my offbeat jazz timings, which are very evident in Cats. I learned those from Dudley because he was such a clever jazz pianist."
After choreographing that show, Gillian was handed three movies and a Broadway show.
"I became a choreographer overnight," she says.
Moira, meanwhile, had gone off and made The Red Shoes.
When she, Gillian and Christopher reunited to make A Simple Man, the collaboration proved golden.
"We grew up totally classically and then branched out. When we came together to work on this ballet, we were very sympatico," says Gillian.
"I've had an amazing across-the-board background which I poured into the ballet. Everything about it was slightly ahead of its time."
A Simple Man has endured, hence its revival in Nottingham next week.
Gillian has been to Nottingham before – she even met her husband, the actor Peter Land, in a touring production that came here.
So she's glad Northern Ballet Theatre has chosen Nottingham as one of its venues to celebrate its anniversary.
"Forty is pretty damn good in this day and age. It's a very interesting little company," she says. "Although I've got more energy than any of them!"
The Northern Ballet Theatre is at Nottingham's Theatre Royal on March 10-14.