A slim figure in rust-coloured sweats walks across a rehearsal studio at Birmingham Royal Ballet into a knot of dancers. She adjusts an arm here, manoeuvres a leg into position there; addresses individuals before demonstrating a sequence of gestures. She returns swiftly to her chair, her tousled blonde hair catching the morning sunlight that floods the room. Only the slight angular kink at her waist betrays the fact that she is not quite as youthful as her dancers.
“Two metal hips, one metal foot,” says Dame Gillian Lynne, who celebrated her 88th birthday in February. “That’s what I always tell the airport security people. They still take me off for testing.”
Lynne is rehearsing her revival of Robert Helpmann’s groundbreaking 1944 realist ballet Miracle in the Gorbals, in which she danced at the age of 18. Although the score by Arthur Bliss and Michael Benthall’s scenario both survive, the steps have been lost and she has had to start from scratch. “The problem is that none of us can remember a step,” she says during our pre-rehearsal interview. “So I will be making a new ballet.”
While this might daunt a lesser choreographer, making new work from old holds no terrors for the indefatigable Lynne. In her ninth decade she is as busy as ever, multitasking like mad. Aside from Miracle for Birmingham Royal Ballet, she is addressing a new production of Cats, the musical that made her name as a West End choreographer in 1981. She has overseen 13 productions of the feline musical in various countries and, having heard rumours of a better than average touring production, she dragged Andrew Lloyd Webber to see if it would be worth bringing into the West End.
“It was not one of Andrew’s favourites,” she says, disarmingly. “But he fell in love with it all over again. I haven’t changed the choreography. I have put the pagan back into it. And the sex. Cats are pagan, after all.”
Schooled as a classical ballet dancer, Lynne quickly broadened her range under the tutelage of Helpmann, who was as fully engaged in theatre as he was in dance. He was “not particularly interested in steps,” she says. “Bobby was a wonderful person of the theatre. He was much more of a director than most choreographers.”
Whatever lessons she learnt have stood her in good stead throughout her remarkable career. She moved from classical ballet to performing in West End musicals in the 1950s with hardly a blink, crossed over into choreography in the 1960s on stage and in films such as Half A Sixpence (1967), Man of La Mancha (1972) and Yentl (1983) – in which she choreographed the wedding sequence – went on to direct television in the 1980s (Morte d’Arthur, A Simple Man) as well as maintaining an association with Lloyd Webber, choreographing The Phantom of the Opera, which premiered in 1986. She has acted opposite Errol Flynn (The Master of Ballantrae, 1953) and choreographed Frank Zappa’s surrealist 1971 movie 200 Motels. She has worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal Opera House as well as the Muppets. She has even found time to put together a fitness DVD for older people, with the help of her husband, actor Peter Land, appropriately entitled Longevity Through Exercise, which was released this year.
The term “workaholic” hovers around her small, compact figure: from her early school days she was incapable of sitting still. She enrolled at Molly Lake’s Ballet Guild and at 16 was spotted by Ninette de Valois while dancing the role of Odette in a performance at the People’s Palace in east London. Lynne finally arrived at Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet a year later, in 1944. With the reopening of the Royal Opera House after the second world war she became a dramatic ballerina of some distinction, appearing in works by Frederick Ashton, de Valois and Helpmann. She even worked with the great George Balanchine. “I adored him,” she recalls with a twinkle in her eye. “He was such a sexy beast. He used to hit you if you were out of position.”
All this early activity was the result of being alone for much of her teenage years. Her mother died in a car crash when Lynne was 13 and her father was away on active service during the war. I put it to her that dancing provided an escape from the tragedy and loss she experienced during her teenage years.
“It’s a creed,” she says firmly. “Not an escape. My mother’s death simply strengthened that creed. Then the war happened and I clutched at my creed. I never got sick of being a dancer. I never wanted to be a choreographer. It happened by accident.”
The “accident” occurred in 1962 when she was acting in a revue called England Our England. During rehearsals the choreographer walked out following an argument: the company asked her to step in. Elizabeth West of the Western Theatre Ballet then asked Lynne to make a ballet with comedian and composer Dudley Moore doing the score.
“Elizabeth wanted a jazz ballet and the critics had told her that I was the only one with the mix of experience to do it.”
The resulting Owl and the Pussycat led to Collages in 1963 (also scored by Moore), the first time jazz, modern and classical dance had been welded into a new dance form. “That hit the jackpot. The BBC sent their ‘young Mr Melvyn Bragg’ to review it. Ha ha!”
It might be said that she has been hitting the jackpot ever since. Among her many awards are a pair of Oliviers, a Bafta in 1987 (for A Simple Man, a BBC drama about LS Lowry that she directed) and a brace of Tonys (for Cats and Phantom of the Opera). She was made a CBE in 1997 and a Dame this year for services to dance and musical theatre.
“I’m proud of being made a Dame but it doesn’t mean anything to me,” she says. “It means more to my husband.”
She laughs and checks her watch. It is time to begin rehearsal. She has little truck with rest breaks and all the palaver of health and safety regulations that dance companies now have to deal with.
“I don’t believe in 15-minute breaks every hour or whatever it is,” she says. “I don’t think it gives the kids the brutish stamina they need. This generation need to be encouraged not to give in. I mean, I can’t do a relevé any more and I stagger a bit on my foot, which has two nails in it. I’ve got arthritis in my hand from writing my autobiography [A Dancer in Wartime, 2011] and my hips need redoing but I am too old.”
Too old? She packs more into a day than most people do in a week.
‘Miracle in the Gorbals’, part of an evening entitled ‘Shadows of War’, opens on October 8 in Birmingham, then touring. brb.org.uk
Photographs: Andrew Fox; AlphaPress; Allstar