Feature: Book review: Here Today, Gone Tomorrow

Wednesday 3 October 2012

'Here Today Gone Tomorrow - A Life in Dance'

Here Today, Gone Tomorrow by Christina Gallea Roy
Published by Book Guild Publishing. RRP: £17.99
Reviewed by Graham Watts

Rarely does a book come along that oozes so much passion for dance as Christina Gallea Roy’s charming and detailed account of her life. In fact, this is simultaneously both an autobiography and a biography, since it is the story of her lifelong partnership with Alexander Roy.

Gallea – an Australian ballerina – and Roy (a dancer/choreographer from East Germany) met while rehearsing with an American ballet company ahead of its European tour in the late 1950s. Their meeting was fortuitous since both replaced dancers who had left at short notice and it was to be the beginning of a lifelong partnership both on and off the stage.

Stories of dancers meeting, falling in love and dancing together for the rest of their lives are not uncommon but what makes this partnership different is a mutual desire to retain their independence. Gallea and Roy had the opportunity to take many paths during their careers, with offers to join several international ballet companies. They chose their own way, beginning as itinerant dancers travelling from theatre to theatre across central Europe, presenting their own concert programme of classical pas de deux and modern works; leading on to the considerable growth and success of their own small companies, the International Ballet Caravan (a nomadic ensemble that did exactly ‘what it says on the tin’) and the Alexander Roy London Ballet Theatre, which enjoyed considerable worldwide success in what Gallea describes as “the boom years” between 1981 and 1994.

It is fascinating to read of their variable treatment by theatres and opera houses around the world and the unscrupulous behaviour of some promoters: appointments continually postponed and money invariably exchanging hands in brown envelopes, often at the very last moment when all hope was about to expire. It is worth noting that their companies received almost no subsidy from any public funds, just the odd grant to help pump-prime a new work. The pages are filled with anecdotes of experiences ranging from full houses of appreciative audiences, to other engagements where there was no marketing or support of any kind. Arriving at one theatre in France to find an audience of none, the ensemble simply packed their VW camper van and moved onto the next town!

During those boom years, the tours went wider afield, into Asia and both North and South America. They were pioneers, taking a small scale ballet company to such places as Alaska, Columbia, Ecuador, Macau, the Philippines and even to a small expat community in Borneo. The ensemble risked both environmental and political turmoil, getting caught up in storms of both kinds. In fact, this detailed account of an itinerant dance lifestyle provides a wonderful flavour of the era (from the ’60s through to the late ’90s) and, often, I seemed to be reading a fascinating example of travel writing rather than a book about dance.

The biggest upset is to imagine the loss of Alexander Roy’s prolific choreography. Reading contemporary accounts of his work, it appears to have been an outstanding body of repertoire to rival the output of the many influential choreographers at work during this period. It ranged from cut-down, bite-sized interpretations of the classics (Coppélia and Les Sylphides ) to new literary interpretations, such as Alice – Dreams and Wonderland and A Midsummer Night’s Dream , progressing into what seems to have been a rich vein of more expressionist work, including A Smile at the Bottom of the Ladder and Voices . Yet, with his companies now long gone, Roy’s choreography is largely forgotten, without an enduring legacy and that is a very great shame.

Christina Gallea Roy’s descriptive detail provides a fascinating narrative that manages to capture hundreds of names of choreographers, dancers and dance works without ever seeming to be a work in which these necessary references outweigh the achievement of being a good read. Some of the dancers featured have an enduring familiarity, such as Keith Rosson (former Royal Ballet principal, who performed with Gallea and Roy in the late ’70s) and Darius James who has gone on to run his own very successful small company (Ballet Cymru) with great success. My only minor quibble with the writing style is that it veers from the well-constructed narrative into a series of selective diary entries to describe the extensive American tours in 1988/89 – with their monotonous catalogue of endless motels on busy highways – and this sudden change of style, so late on, doesn’t sit well with the rest of the book.

Above all else, this book is an optimistic and heart-warming account of two people living a happy life, doing what they loved, in the manner they wished; but it is also an often funny, often sad, record of the challenges that this lifestyle presented, not least in terms of how to make ends meet. In this tale of the ups and downs of managing a small-scale dance company, it is the downs that turn most pages. There are occasions when the couple had to sell treasured possessions in order to ensure that their dancers were able to eat. It seems that whenever Gallea and Roy had a choice to make, it was always their dancers that came first.

Christina Gallea Roy gives a purposeful and interesting account of what it was like to be an itinerant dancer in the latter decades of the twentieth century and her book is excellently illustrated throughout with over 100 photographs, including several by the esteemed dance photographer Anthony Crickmay, which capture the essence of Roy’s choreography even if the steps are no longer danced.

Available on Amazon

Graham Watts writes for many publications including DanceTabs and Dancing Times. He is Chair of the Critics’ Circle Dance Section.

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