Will Tuckett: ‘Choreography was always my first love’
If you had to guess what Will Tuckett did for a living, ballet dancer probably wouldn’t be top of your list. He is well over 6ft tall, tousle-haired, charismatic and instantly likeable. He reminds me of a games master I had at school who never minded in the least that I was hopeless at everything.
Last year he won an Olivier award for best entertainment for his exuberant reimagining of The Wind in the Willows, the first ROH show ever to transfer to a West End theatre.
Now he is working with Opera North on a revival of the classic Cole Porter musical Kiss Me Kate, having to find ways of using his eight dancers that won’t preclude the 40-strong non-dancing chorus. “The sheer weight of numbers is challenging,” he sighs during a rehearsal break.
Tuckett definitely likes a challenge. In 2007 he made his non-dancing directorial debut at the ROH with a creditable stab at Sondheim’s Into the Woods, and in 2012 he directed and choreographed a new version of West Side Story at the Sage, Gateshead, which had the critics reaching for their stars. More recently he directed and choreographed a stage version of the popular children’s TV show In the Night Garden, for which he spent hours watching old episodes of the show in preparation. He told me at the time: “The nearest we get to tension is when Igglepiggle loses his blanket.”
Some time ago Tuckett concluded that he liked working collaboratively on a par with other creative talents. “The truth is that ballet isn’t really that collaborative,” he says. “In opera and musical theatre you can look at things in different ways, you’re not solely responsible for creating the language, and that’s what drives me now. The kind of dance I like to make now has a lot more theatrical impetus and narrative drive.
“West Side Story was a dream for me, a real high point. It was only the third or fourth time it has ever been rechoreographed in the last 50 years. The estate knew my work and sent me a very strong directive saying I couldn’t do anything that in any way resembled Jerome Robbins’ original choreography. The aim was to make audiences feel they were seeing and hearing West Side Story for the first time. I love the idea of new performers revisiting old shows and making them their own.”
Alfred Hickling, writing in the Guardian, described Tuckett’s version as “driven, dynamic and very, very dark”. He gave it five stars.
Tuckett’s journey to this theatrical cornucopia has been a circuitous one. Having fallen in love with ballet at an early age – “I was lucky enough to have parents who thought it was important for me to see live performances” – he was sent to White Lodge, the Royal Ballet’s lower school, at 11, only to be “kicked out” at 13 for being too tall and having the wrong kind of feet. In fact, he returned to the upper school after taking his O levels elsewhere, and went on to join the Royal Ballet’s corps de ballet at 18.
Throughout this training he remained ambivalent about becoming a ballet dancer. “I didn’t really like the ballet school, it was all a bit myopic. Nobody thought or talked about anything other than ballet. I often used to wish I’d gone to film school instead. I’d still like to make films,” he says.
“I had a lot of success when I was very young, then managed to blow it. There was nowhere to go but down after my first few (choreographic) efforts. I had some really bad reviews for The Crucible – one said I shouldn’t ever be allowed to work at the Royal Opera House again – and I was all set to give up choreography altogether when Anthony Dowell (then director of the Royal Ballet) asked me if there was anything I really wanted to do before I quit.
“It was a canny way of encouraging me to keep going and be myself, rather than try to do the things I thought were expected of me. That was a turning point. After that I started to enjoy myself. Anthony helped me through it. It was great falling back in love with what I really wanted to do. Choreography was always my first love.”
As well as Dowell, the young Tuckett’s other influential champion was Val Bourne, then running the Dance Umbrella, who invited him to participate after he won the Cosmopolitan Dance award with I Am a Kenwood Mixer. “Through Val, I met up with lots of interesting contemporary creatives like Michael Clark, Derek Jarman, Orlando Gough, Richard Alston and Jonathan Burrows. Theirs felt like a more approachable and immediate world than the world of ballet I’d been used to.”
The big turning point for Tuckett, however, in terms of his future work, was The Wind in the Willows, first staged at the Linbury in 2002. “It was a watershed moment,” he recalls. “It made me realise this kind of collaborative approach was how I wanted to work in the future. We didn’t spend hours looking at animal videos, we thought about people you might attribute animal qualities to. My thinking was, ‘Let’s just be silly.’ I wanted City bankers and 11-year-old boys who had been dragged from their Xboxes to sit back and join in the fun. It was the first time I’d done any work with puppets, and the performers just fell in love with them. Audiences of all ages were tickled by these hand puppets doing stupid things.”
With his outgoing personality and gift for communication, Tuckett strikes one as a natural teacher, but he says his work commitments would not leave him enough time to teach. “It’s hard enough trying to see my family,” he says, referring to his wife, Caro Howell, who runs the Foundling Museum in central London, and their six-year-old son.
He is booked up as far ahead as 2017 with directing and choreography commitments, as well as film-making projects.
As someone who was into dance from an early age, did he ever encounter any prejudice? “No, I was really, really lucky. A friend of mine had a fight on my behalf once because somebody said I was a poof for doing ballet. But honestly the only bullying I encountered was at ballet school and that was because I liked reading books.
“I think it’s a more acceptable thing for boys to do dance now, what with the hip hop scene and the popularity of Strictly. Ballet will probably always be seen as something other because it has such a rarefied reputation. You can only go so far in trying to make an art form ‘down with the kids’ before you start to bastardise it.”
Kiss Me Kate begins its tour at Leeds Grand Theatre on September 21, ending at Nottingham Theatre Royal in November
We need your help…
When you subscribe to The Stage, you’re investing in our journalism. And our journalism is invested in supporting theatre and the performing arts.
The Stage is a family business, operated by the same family since we were founded in 1880. We do not receive government funding. We are not owned by a large corporation. Our editorial is not dictated by ticket sales.
We are fully independent, but this means we rely on revenue from readers to survive.
Help us continue to report on great work across the UK, champion new talent and keep up our investigative journalism that holds the powerful to account. Your subscription helps ensure our journalism can continue.