“When I was little, they called me wriggle-bottom,” English choreographer/director Gillian Lynne confesses. Recently, after an exhausting workout, a “Cats” dancer asked, “Miss Lynne do you have an indestructible body?”
Lynne never did learn to keep her seat still, but she found out how to make the most of her high energy. In the last 12 months, she has:
--Choreographed and co-directed the Los Angeles production of “Cats.”
--Created a new 40-minute ballet, “Cafe Soir,” for the Houston Ballet, set to Stephen Sondheim music.
--Prepared “Jeeves Takes Charge,” the one-man show she directed in London and New York, which will open at the Westwood Playhouse in September.
--Taught Chevy Chase how to do a “shoe clatter” dance for “National Lampoon’s European Vacation.”
--Conceived and directed for the BBC “The Morte D’Arthur,” an 80-minute award-winning special using the original text from Sir Thomas Malory’s version of the King Arthur legend.
--Choreographed the four-hour CBS miniseries “Alice in Wonderland,” featuring Sammy Davis Jr., Ringo Starr, Carol Channing, Shelley Winters and Telly Savalas.
Lynne’s next project is in Australia where she will choreograph her sixth production of Cats,” having polished off the last dance for “Alice,” a musical for Karl Malden and Louis Nye as the Walrus and the Carpenter. “Karl, Louis and I went on a picnic last weekend to get ahead,” Lynne says. “lack of rehearsal time is a real problem. You can’t do these things in two hours.”
But that doesn’t mean she won’t try. At 53, Lynne is a small, slender blonde with the stamina of a hummingbird. “You have to fire up people with your own energy,” she explains about her work technique.
“Irwin Allen (producer of “Alice”) was terrified about my dealing with his big-ego stars, but I knew I’d have no problem with that. I’m used to working with very good actors because of my work with the Royal Shakespeare Company and “The Muppet Show.”
“I believe in friendship and love, but I’m tough. I expect people to work hard and passionately--in this business, you have to. My first day on ‘Alice’ I arrived at 6:30 a.m. to look at a set I’d never seen. That day I had to stage a number with 75 people, including 12 stars and a 9-year-old girl.
“I knew I’d have to go in like a bulldozer. That’s very difficult on your first day. But you’ve got to get your will power blasting through, quiet everyone’s doubts and persuade them to do something they might look awful doing. I think I had a temperature by 7 p.m., but we did it.”
Looking deceptively fragile, Lynne is sitting on the floor of an MGM rehearsal hall (“Judy Garland and Gene Kelly used to work out in this room”). On a nearby sound stage, “Alice in Wonderland” is in its final days of shooting. Although she has a formidable reputation in Britain, Lynne is just beginning to become known in America, as the award-winning choreographer of “Cats.” She has choreographed all the “Cats” productions, including the Broadway version. “Sometimes I thin ‘Cats’ is a blessing,” she observes. “It is so famous and successful, and my heart, soul and gut are in it. ‘Cats’ must be the most heavily choreographed show in history.
“But it does t end to obliterate all the other things I’ve done. That’s why it was important for me to do ‘Alice.’ ”
Her goal? “Having directed TV and choreographed so many movies (including “Yentl,” “Man of La Mancha” and “Half a Sixpence”), I won’t rest until I direct a movie.” She would like it to be in Los Angeles, because her husband, New Zealand-born actor Peter Land, is beginning to get noticed here.
“Peter is much younger than me,” Lynne says, emphasizing the much. They married in 1980. “Because of my energy, I thought it essential for me to have a young husband. We met when I staged a brand-new production of ‘My Fair Lady’; he played Freddy. I’m perpetually amazed that he’d want this hard-working thing that I am, but I shan’t question it anymore.”
They settled in Los Angeles eight months ago when Lynne began rehearsals for “Cats.” “I thought there would be many people like me in Hollywood,” she says. “There are a lot of directors and a lot of choreographers, but not many who can do both.”
Lynne broke off from her interview to spend 25 minutes showing some dance steps to 9-year-old Natalie Gregory, who plays Alice. “I’ve been teaching Natalie about tiredness,” Lynne confides afterwards. “You can’t give into it--that’s how you conquer it. Natalie is determined. She’s got the discipline and the will power, just like I did.
“As a little girl I was a pain in the neck, apparently. I was always moving. Myu mother thought I had some disease like Saint Vitus’ dance, so she took me to the doctor. He was very wise. He put some music on and went outside with my mother. Through the glass door he watched me leap about. He told my mother, ‘Take her to dancing class--now!’ I was 5.”
Lynne’s love of dance helped her through a difficult childhood. “My mother was killed very early on, and my dad went straight into the Army,” she says.
Dame Ninette d e Valois, founder-director of England’s Royal Ballet, saw Lynne perform when she was 16 and invited her to join the company. She immediately began dancing alongside such stars as Margot Fonteyn, Robert Helpmann and Moira Shearer. Had Lynne been less headstrong, she might still be with the Royal Ballet today.
“Massine (a Russian choreographer) was a bout about me,” she remembers. “And Margot’s mother always thought I would follow Margot. But very early on, I didn’t get a role I wanted--I knew Massine wanted me, but the company thought I was too young. It broke my heart. I’m impatient. I said, ‘All right. I’m leaving.’
“Also, I’d seen a production of ‘South Pacific,’ and that really knocked me out.” Lynne walked a half-mile west to the London Palladium, a variety theater, and got a job as the lead dancer. She was 21. The ballet world was shocked.
Eventually, Lynne began creating and choreographing her own shows. In 1964, David Merrick brought her to Broadway to choreograph “The Roar of the Greasepaint, the Smell of the Crowd.” Since then she has produced, directed or choreographed more than 30 London stage productions and dozens of TV shows.
To choreograph “Cats,” which first opened in London in 1981, she spent a month in a rehearsal room with her assistant, a pianist and two dancers. “You listen to the music and all sorts of images fly across your mind,” she explains. “Then there’s that most awful moment. You’re standing in front of a mirror with your assistant three paces behind watching your feet. You have to make some commitment.
“When you’re directing, there’s the script, and when you’re staging songs the songs are there. But there’s not much to help you when you’re actually working out dance steps. I try to think myself into the skin of the characters and how they would have moved and just hope my body will move that way.
“I can’t do it in my head--I have to get out there and move.”