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Omnibus is an arts-based British documentary series. Season 15, Episode 2 features a behind-the-scenes look at Gillian Lynne's work in the original London production of Cats. The episode originally aired on BBC1 on 17 January 1982.

Episode Description

CATS: a look at the work of choreographer Gillian Lynne as she 'polices' the hit West End musical; working and rehearsing with the dancers to keep CATS on its toes.[1]

Video

Gillian_Lynne_Omnibus_1981_London_Documentary

Gillian Lynne Omnibus 1981 London Documentary

Transcript

START

[Interview]

Lynne: I like sort of pagan things and cats are often pagan and anarchic and cruel, as well as sensual and soft. And so it was such a range of movement possible and then Andrew's music is just thrilling to me. And that's what attracted me - and of course then the characters written by T S Eliot! So it was Andrew's music, there's a chance to make people move in a totally new way, then there are these brilliant characters written by T S Eliot.

[Footage of the West End cast performing "Jellicle Songs"]

[Lynne addressing the cast during rehearsals at the New London Theatre]

Cast Warmup - Improvisation


Lynne: Ok, good morning everybody. Can you all come on stage please. We'll do a little bit of cat warmup – cat dip.

[Voiceover]

Lynne: I have to look after my work very carefully. So I am constantly going back. With Cats I always give about a 40-minute improvisation of reminding them about the felinity of it, and that they must express through the discipline of feline intuitions which start in different places from ours. The back says things and the neck comes up, there are strange things happening out of the ears and all of that. If they lose that, some quality goes out of the show.

[Lynne warming up with the cast]

Lynne: Is everybody here? Is there any rotter hiding behind the seat? No... alright. We got room? Alright let's do Finola's exercise.

[Interview]

Lynne: We always start out with: they look at me and I look at them, and they think 'That bitch has come back again, that cow.' I know they do. And then we do the improvisation together and I work with them and they say 'Well silly old thing, she is working herself to the bone as well.' But it starts off: 'I'm called in today and I could've been going out with my boyfriend to lunch,' or 'I'd seen that lovely new dress and I could've gone to Jaeger and bought it,' or wherever. And there's always that little thing, especially if you're in a show where you're giving your all every night - which they certainly do - and which is a smash hit, obviously the instinctive human reaction is 'Why do I need to go in and rehearse?' It starts with that tiny little 'Ergh there better be a reason for this call' and it finishes that we're all having a ball.

[Lynne warming up with the cast]

[Interview]

Lynne: I work everything out on my own body, and indeed, I really believe in not asking people to do anything that I can't do.

[Lynne warms up while "Memory" plays]

[Lynne and Jo-Anne Robinson rehearsing the "Jellicle Ball"]

Lynne: Ok George, thank you. Was it off? [Robinson: yes, one and two, the arms came out to the side, three, four, five, six, seven...] Ah! And that, that is shovel, with a flat hand...

[Interview]

Lynne: Policing this show is difficult. I have a wonderful ballet mistress called Jo-Anne Robinson, but it's hard for her because I can't bear counting when I choreograph, I'm not even very good at it. It's the joke that dancers always have with me – I work entirely from words and on phrasing, musical phrasing, and therefore my choreography is peculiar. It's not like anybody else's, and sometimes people don't understand it. It works on its own level only, and therefore, unless it's done absolutely with my kind of mental intention behind it, it can look terrible very quickly.

It's only by doing it flat out that you suddenly find a release happening, suddenly something happens to your spirit, suddenly a leg can do something it never did before. You don't find that by saving for the performance, ever. So I really try not to allow that and that's why I've got a name for being tough.

White Cat Solo


[Lynne rehearsing the "White Cat Solo" with Finola Hughes]

Lynne: Don't forget that when you come into this little circle of light, the rest of the cast are out through the auditorium, and it's your task to absolutely drag the audience's focus into you. And you'll do that by being - not by selling anything - but by being totally into yourself. Totally, absolutely hedonistic about your own body. The less aware of them you are, the more they will be aware of you. Ok? So here we go. His ineffable, effable, effanineffable, deep and inscrutable, singular name, name, name, name, name... Right now, really pull and pull yourself out. And be surprised to see your own leg... scratch... and now really soft. Now really pagan, show your teeth, that's it. That's lovely darling. Ok now use your head, push it up, control your tummy, good. Excellent.

After we've said The Naming of Cats and explained to the audience what we as a collective cast feel about being a cat, we then let the audience notice a peek, see something that they shouldn't be seeing in a sense. Which is a beautiful young cat, dancing sensually for herself.

[Footage of Finola Hughes performing the White Cat Solo]

[Voiceover]

Lynne: It matters very much to me. Partly because it's the first piece of real dance in the show, and partly because it was the first bit of real choreography I did. I still think it's about the most truly cat-like piece of choreography in it.

The Role of Choreographer


[Interview]

Lynne: This show is an entirely staged show. In other words, I had to stage all of it because... I think it's a funny belief in England - I don't know, I may be wrong – I think they think a choreographer is somebody who when in a musical when it's pure dance, they do that and that's all. But that is so far from the truth. And a choreographer in a musical, from the moment any music plays, they then direct it. And therefore if it's a musical that is all to do with song and dance, obviously you're staging the whole show. That's not to say that when you work with someone as brilliant as Trevor Nunn that he isn't having his marvellous overall look at it. It was Trevor's and John's conception that we did see this wonderful rubbish dump. But he and I don't talk at length, but obviously when it is a show that is entirely shown visually - there is no text as such – through song and dance, it's a very heavy role for the person in my seat.

Macavity


[Lynne rehearsing "Macavity" with Sharon Lee-Hill]

Lynne: She's saying 'The man was wonderful when he made love to me, but I hated him,' aren't we. So, if we got it across here, it will be the same thing across near your tummy. I'd actually like your hand to feel your body as he once did.

[Footage of Sharon Lee-Hill performing "Macavity"]

[Lynne rehearsing "Macavity" with Geraldine Gardner]

Lynne: His brow is deep – hold it there – his brow is deeply lined - and that thought, really get down...

[Footage of Geraldine Gardner performing "Macavity"]

[Lynne rehearsing "Macavity" with Sharon Lee-Hill and Geraldine Gardner]

Lynne: One of the things that has gone a little bit with eight performances a week - which is so hard to sustain - is that moment between these two women who have known intimately the same dangerous man. But I want those moments where you just exchange looks - which is a moment of collusion(?) between you - not to go, even in the round. And it's important it's just by a tell of the head, it doesn't have to be that though I do think –

[Footage of Sharon Lee-Hill and Geraldine Gardner performing "Macavity"]

[Interview]

Sharon Lee-Hill: We had a bit of trouble at the beginning, trying to find that rapport. Because when you got two strong ladies together, doing a duet, it was quite a long time wasn't it – getting that rapport. We've got it together now and it feels really good. Didn't you find that? [GG: What?] As well, to begin with – the rapport.

Geraldine Gardner: Yes, well it's difficult. Any duet you know...

Lynne: At the same time, two women singing together – when you get it right – I think it's terribly exciting. Terribly exciting.

[Footage of Sharon Lee-Hill and Geraldine Gardner performing "Macavity"]

[Lynne rehearsing "Macavity" with Sharon Lee-Hill and Geraldine Gardner]

Lynne: So a small change I think I'd like... Macavity, Macavity, there's not one – like a stomach ache – no one *da da ba ba ba*. From the stomach ache... because we lose the syncopation at that lovely push bit – no one like *ma-ba ba ba*. And also here, will you make sure that – Macavity, Macavity – that again this is all being used.

[Footage of Sharon Lee-Hill and Geraldine Gardner performing "Macavity"]

Keeping the Show Fresh


[Interview]

Lynne: I alter it sometimes because things change. Look, there are bits that you think 'I know that is not the best I could have done there but I ran out of time.' And suddenly sometimes you're going in a rehearsal and you look at a movement and you think 'Why on earth did I think that was right? Why on earth did I think that was the best thing? We should be doing that!' And so one changes it. And also you find too that when a cast gets on top of something and certain excellence develops in something that when you were initially doing it was difficult. Once they've got on top of that and the new freedom and panache is coming, they're able to attempt something more, so naturally you put it in. And I think it's good because it keeps the show fresh.

[Footage of Lynne rehearsing the "Jellicle Ball" with the cast]

[Voiceover]

Lynne: When you're giving eight performances a week, sometimes the intellectual approach is inclined to go out the window because your body is doing something and you think 'Oh my leg's gone high' and you've forgotten that a cat would pull it back instantly and things like that. So that's my tidy up rule with it, and it's always to bring back to the disciplines of what I felt it needed.

I'm not interested in just movement for movement's sake. I like working with words and from text, and I'm interested in dance and drama. So I think the thing I'm best at is getting something original out of people and getting them to break barriers of personality in dance. I wouldn't set myself out to be a great choreographer but I think I'm a good director-choreographer.

[Footage of West End cast performing the "Jellicle Ball"]

[Voiceover]

Lynne: When you hear music, unless your gut turns over and your heart turns over, and you feel 'Ah! I've just got to move to that,' then I don't think you should do it.

The Jellicle Ball


[Lynne rehearsing with the cast]

Lynne: Could you all come round. Can we just remember, first of all why we call us the whirlygigs and why we did it. If you remember, initially we had a piece of lyric – a piece of spoken word – here didn't we, which all seemed wrong in the middle of a huge great lump of dance. So this bit is Deuteronomy arriving, seeing you all -

[Interview]

Lynne: The "Jellicle Ball" was the most exciting thing to build and the most difficult. Because as you see our show is in-the-round and choreographically, when you have a great thrust of movement with - say - six people, normally if you were in an ordinary theatre they could then veer off into the wings, catch their breaths and zoom on again at another angle. Working in-the-round, I can't do that. They have to make their thrust and then I have to take the focus over to the other side of the stage, but those people who are then recovering their breath for their next bit, are in full view. So it's as if I've had to choreograph in the wings and what the audience sees.

I am pleased with the construction of the "Jellicle Ball", because even on a flat house that always seems to work. And that's hard to do in the theatre. And it's hard to do with that much dance because that's – there's the fairly short poem at the beginning and then there's something that's 10 minutes of solid dance. In a musical, where the ear gets used to song and dance, song and dance, song and dance, if you suddenly had song and daaaaaance, unless that long span of dance is riveting, the balance has gone and the audience gets restless. So I'm pleased that they don't and I'm pleased that that seems to work.

[Footage of the West End cast performing the "Jellicle Ball"]

END

References

  1. Omnibus 17/01/82, bfi.org.uk.
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