Gemma Bond © Alexis Stemberg
Gemma Bond
© Alexis Stemberg
What made you come to the United States?

I was in London (The Royal Ballet) for eight years. Though I was lucky enough to do principal and solo roles, I was ultimately a corps de ballet dancer. Although they might not see a path for you to become a principal dancer, if a role comes up that is perfect for you, they still give it to you even though you’re not going to become a principal. I had three or four things that I would do whenever the repertoire came back – Olga in Onegin and Princess Stephanie in Mayerling – really great roles. I was twenty-seven at the time and I thought that if I was going to stay in the corps de ballet then I was going to see more of the world. I thought, given my training, that I would go and try for American Ballet Theatre and live in New York for a while, or maybe Stuttgart. 

Did you find that you were a different dancer in New York than you were in London? 

When I came to New York, I was cast in the same roles, without even telling them of the rep I had done in London. I thought, that’s who I am. 

How is life at ABT different from life at The Royal Ballet for you? 

I don’t think I would be choreographing if I hadn’t moved to ABT because there is no time at The Royal Ballet. There, you get in and have class at ten, work all day and then there’s a performance at night. And it’s like that throughout the year. Here we have an intense rehearsal periods of five weeks and then we’ll do a tour with eight shows a week somewhere. ABT started this Innovation Initiative and I joined up. From there I started doing more. 

I read that you had trouble asserting yourself when you started out choreographing. What changed?

I’m more confident. In the beginning I would say, let’s do this… and I was working with my peers. They would look at me and say that it didn’t look good. I didn’t have the confidence or believe in what I was doing enough to just say: “no, we’re doing it like this”. I think it came from not understanding what I wanted to say and just wanting to make interesting sequences. I was more concerned with making it interesting than making it meaningful.

Gemma Bond in <i>Sleeping Beauty</i>, American Ballet Theatre © Gene Schiavone
Gemma Bond in Sleeping Beauty, American Ballet Theatre
© Gene Schiavone
I wonder if we don’t raise boys and girls so differently that we train girls to want approval in a way that we don’t with boys.

In the ballet world, it’s a huge thing: the men are like kings from when they’re knee-high because they’re so valuable. People want to invest in them. When I started ballet there were only two guys and maybe fifty girls. With the women it was highly competitive.

How do you feel you are evolving as a choreographer?

For me it’s about experience and working with different types of dancers. I think that the experience of choreographing on people who aren’t technically as strong or maybe whose technique is based in modern dance or contemporary ballet has changed the way I create movement. Now it’s more about: “why are we doing this? What does it mean?” It’s as if it was a sentence and I don’t want to have anything in a piece that doesn’t have meaning or a reason. For me now, it has to have some meaning, otherwise it’s empty. 

Who do you look to for choreographic inspiration? 

I love Kenneth McMillan. Having danced some of his works, being coached by the people it was created on, and hearing why they did what they did, I see the process,. Now, when I choreograph, I want things to have meaning. I don’t want it to just be steps. In his work there’s a purpose to everything. Sometimes the greatest moments in McMillan’s work are the quietest. Like that moment in Romeo and Juliet when she sits on the bed. The music is a whirlwind around her and you would think that there isn’t any choreography… but that is the choreography,that moment when you take the music in. I’m amazed by that.

Why do you think women don’t get as many opportunities to choreograph? 

For me personally, coming from a ballet background, I think there just isn’t enough time for women to choreograph. In classics like Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty, the women are dancing in every act. The men are only in two acts of Swan Lake. In ballet, I think women don’t tend to branch out into choreography as much because they don’t have time and they’re very driven to be ballerinas themselves. I’ve had to sacrifice a bit of being a dancer at ABT because I wanted to choreograph. You can’t do everything. It’s just the way those ballets work. Men have more time and when you have more time you can watch more. That’s how I see it.

What can you tell us about your new piece for the ABT Studio Company?

It’s called Third Wheels. When I was younger I was always surrounded by couples and I was the third wheel. I was going to parties as the third wheel. Then I had a group of friends and we realised that we were always third wheels. So this piece is about those people coming together and having a relationship. I didn’t want to do anything too dark or too sensual for fifteen year olds. I would feel uncomfortable watching that. It has meaning but it’s fun. I’m really proud of the dancers because they’ve risen to the challenge. 

Have you thought about stories you’d like to tell through choreography?

I love the book, Le Parfum (Patrick Süskind). It’s a very dark story. I think it would be a wonderful ballet, with the right setting. I like the dark side of it. I think you have to feel a little bit of that to see the beauty of things… too many things now are pretty. When you think about Giselle and Swan Lake, they’re really dark. I think we forget that. It’s all about death and betrayal. 

How do you think a choreographer best tells a story? 

I’m trying to create movement where the vocabulary I use is traditional classical ballet but the way the body is, leaning forward, shows you’re interested in something. So using the movements we do every day in class, the port de bras and the arabesque… So if your hand is open, there can be a desperate quality to it instead of being a “ballet” hand. There’s no mime. The first time I realised how brilliant McMillan was was when I watched some students doing the pas de deux from Romeo and Juliet. They were terrible. They had no coaching but it still looked amazing. They were missing so many elements but because of the way he choreographed it, you still understood what was happening. That’s my inspiration.

What is the next step for you as a choreographer?

I have a few things in the works. I would like to slowly progress, doing more works with ballet companies and slowly build on. I’m not in a hurry. 

 

Gemma Bond began her dance career with the Royal Ballet in 2000 and moved mid-career to American Ballet Theatre in 2008. She has been choreographing since 2010 when she joined ABT’s Innovation Initiative and has produced works of steadily increasing visibility.