Pressing the right buttons
Jann Parry talks to Lisa whose career with the Royal Ballet began at the age of six
Seen 'em all, Lisa has — Tamara Karsavina, Sir Frederick Ashton, Dame Merle Park, Rudolf Nureyev, Misha Baryshnikov, Wayne Sleep . . . She was lying about Karsavina, I suspect, though they might have met; the great Russian bal- lerina died, aged 93, in 1978, when Lisa was already 13, having started her stage career at the age of six. Born in 1965, to theatrical parents, Lisa watched ballet from the wings until she was ready to take over her mother's role and make it her own. Mother, heavily pregnant at the time, retired shortly after giving birth for the 13th time. Lisa soon became so experienced that she has long known her music cues better than the generations of young dancers who pretend to lead her on. Ashome Lisa, to give her her thorough- bred name, is the miniature Shetland pony who appears in Ashton's much-loved 1960 ballet, La Fille mal gardee (known to some as La Filly Mal Gardy). Tamara Karsavina had urged Ashton to recreate La Fille, a favourite old ballet in which she danced the role of the heroine, Lise, with the Imperial Russian Ballet. She showed him the charm- ing mime scene in which Lise day-dreams of having three children by her farm-hand boy-friend, Colas. Ashton incorporated the mime in his ballet, preserving a tradition that dates back to 1789, when La Fille mal gardee was first given in Bordeaux, just before the French Revolution.
It's an older, more robust tradition than the Romantic vein of sylphs and wilis — Giselle, for example, would never have included pregnancy in her mad scene mime. But although Ashton sets his Fille in a (notionally French) farmyard with chick- ens and a pony, his vision of the country- side is, he admitted, a pipe-dream; 'a leafy pastorale of perpetual sunshine and the humming of bees — the suspended stillness of a Constable landscape of my beloved Suffolk, luminous and calm'.
Alexander Grant, Ashton's original Alain (Lise's hayseed suitor, who loses her to Colas), says that Sir Frederick always longed to drive a pony and trap at his country home. That's why Ashton insisted on a horse-drawn cart to take Lise and her mother, Widow Simone, to the harvest field; and he wanted the smallest, whitest pony possible. Once he had spotted Lisa's pretty, 34 inch mother, Seagull, it was love at first sight. The line of succession has been assured ever since — `nipotism', say suffering dancers — though Lisa's breeder commends her placid nature.
Lisa belongs to Diana Grasby, whose mother, Kathleen, bred Seagull and other theatrical Shetlands on the family farm in Warwickshire. The ponies worked in panto, pulling Cinderella's coach — possibly another source of inspiration for Ashton, whose 1948 Cinderella owes much to pan- tomime. Seagull auditioned for the Royal Ballet's touring company in Coventry in September 1963 and was such a success in Fille that she travelled with the company, accompanied by Diana Grasby on as well as off stage.
Meanwhile, back at the Royal Opera House, the resident Royal Ballet relied on London-bred ponies, starting with Buttons, a whitish Shetland with brown knees. Seag- ull took over in 1966, when the touring company performed Fille during its annual Covent Garden season, and Ashton fell for her charms. From then on, Seagull (or her daughter) serviced both companies exclu- sively. Diana Grasby had two costumes — a groom's outfit, with top hat, for the Opera House and a peasant boy's smock on tour.
Before Miss Grasby gave up her walk-on part in 1976, she engraved herself on audi- ence memories by carrying one of Lisa's foals on stage; Lisa refused to let her off- spring out of her sight, so it had to come too, thereby doubling the `Aaah' factor.
Lisa is normally very accommodating, prepared to wait patiently outside theatres in her mini-trailer (where I interviewed her) and to enter the stage dock by ramp, lift or even metal staircase. An RSPCA inspector was once required to check that she was not being forced to perform. Her handler opened the horse-box and stepped aside while Lisa crossed the stage on her own and stood calmly in her usual corner.
On another occasion when the trailer broke down on the way to Bournemouth, she travelled in the back of a Cortina, to the surprise of locals who had to direct her driver, Harry Lane, to the theatre.
Her handler for the past seven years has been John Lumb, who transports her from Kineton, where she shares a field with a 29- year old Shetland. Lisa is shampooed and blow-dried at a nearby stables, where her food intake before a performance is care- fully monitored. 'She's all right provided she's not given sugar by the stage staff,' Mr Lumb says. 'Otherwise she leaves a mess in the wings and the ballet smells a bit too authentic.'
A brush and pan are kept handy in the back of the cart she pulls. The male dancers who now lead her on and off (and who mime giving her titbits) are known within the company as shit-shovellers. It should be said that many of the defecation stories are not attributed to Lisa but to `foreign' ponies on tour. Such as the one that peed on the raked stage at Sunderland and fused the footlights; and the one that made the Oxford stage so slippery that dancers fell like flies, provoking a po-faced local critic to write that 'Adventitious haz- ards of this nature should persuade the Royal Ballet to dispense with the largely needless services of this walk-on character.'
And then there was the fiery black Per- sian stallion lent by the Shah of Iran during his grandiloquent cultural festival in 1977. Nobody dared tell him it was unsuitable, and as the Empress would be present in the Royal box, it had to go on, heavily sedated — with the inevitable consequences of relaxing all its muscles. 'By some miracle, only in the wings,' Christopher Nourse, then company manager, remembers — how could he forget?
Even nice little Lisa has a mind of her own. She sets off on her music cue whether anyone else is ready or not. (Widow Simone's near-tumble out of the cart is not always an act.) Former shit- shoveller lain Webb recalls his inexperi- enced partner dragging Lisa on to the wrong music, far too early, to her great indignation. Then there was the occasion, three years ago, when somebody left the doors onto the Opera House stage open and Lisa set off from the wings into Covent Garden.
She ran past the underground station, up Long Acre, down Drury Lane and was eventually cornered by taxi drivers outside the Waldorf Hotel. Two large policemen escorted her back to the Opera House. `She's right hard to catch if she hasn't got her harness on,' John Lumb says. 'I reckon she was looking for a new job in the West End.' Lumb, the natural double for genial Farmer Thomas in the ballet, cannot con- firm the story that La File mal gardee is the only ballet our horse-loving monarch enjoys. 'We don't meet royalty,' he says regretfully. 'Sometimes I see the cones out in front of the Opera House, but we're gone before the curtain calls.'
Like the Queen, Lisa has no plans to retire. Don't let her know, but Miss Grasby has a male heir in waiting. Ash Hill Carnelian is a delectable four-year old Shetland, bred for the ballet and raring to go.