LUKE JENNINGS

What about Xander?

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Yuliana Lopatkina and Xander Parish rehearse Marguerite and Armand (photo: Mark Olich)

Last week Vladimir Shklyarov, principal dancer of the Mariinsky Ballet and the Bayerische Staatsballett, was confirmed as a guest artist with the Royal Ballet. He is to dance two performances of Marguerite and Armand with Natalia Osipova, and replaces Sergei Polunin, who has withdrawn from the ballet. Shklyarov is a dashing and technically assured dancer, and he has performed opposite Osipova before, in Giselle.

This casting decision, however, raises a number of questions. Why, out of the three men cast for this Ashton ballet, is only one (Federico Bonelli) a member of the Royal Ballet? The La Scala étoile Roberto Bolle is suitably tall, given that his partner is Zenaida Yanowsky, but Armand is a young man, and at 42 Bolle is hardly in the first flush of youth. Shklyarov is splendid, but could the Royal really not furnish a partner for Osipova from within its own ranks? If only one company male dancer is perceived by the Royal Ballet as equal to this quintessential Ashton role (and note that Bonelli, like Bolle, trained in Italy), Covent Garden audiences are entitled to ask why.

When Polunin was invited to dance Armand, it was in a spirit of rapprochement, following his precipitate departure from the Royal in 2012 (Polunin danced the role in 2011 with Tamara Rojo, to great acclaim). But why was a similar invitation not extended to Xander Parish, also a former Royal dancer, now performing principal roles at the Mariinsky? Parish is the finest British danseur noble of his generation, he has a legion of British fans, and he has made it known that he is keen to guest at Covent Garden. He has, moreover, danced the role of Armand to great acclaim with Yuliana Lopatkina, and is tall enough to partner any of the three Marguerites (Yanowsky, Alexandra Ferri, Osipova). Casting him would have been appropriate at many levels.

It’s possible that no invitation has been extended to Parish by Royal Ballet director Kevin O’Hare because such a move might be seen as an implicit criticism of his predecessor Monica Mason, who was director of the company from 2002 to 2012 (Parish left in 2010). But this is to view the situation in an unnecessarily negative light. If Mason felt she could not promote Parish, for whatever reason, she was right to let him go. Even if one questions this decision, Mason’s reputation is unassailable. She has given her life to the Royal Ballet, and when she was appointed director in the turbulent days following the departure of Ross Stretton, her experience, dignity and calm leadership proved the key factors in returning the company to a steady course.

When Parish left the Royal to join the Mariinsky, it was the best move he could have made. The challenge might have defeated the self-deprecating 24 year-old; instead, it galvanised him to great things, and it is on this outcome that we should focus. All’s well that ends well, after all. O’Hare showed magnanimity as well as commercial acumen in inviting Polunin as a guest artist, despite Polunin’s well-publicised and often unjustified criticism of the Royal Ballet. That the invitation didn’t work out as planned doesn’t mean that O’Hare was wrong to issue it. It was a recognition that what’s past is past. That it was time to move on.

Parish has never, by word or deed, criticised his former company. He is a courteous and principled man who has succeeded by dint of sheer hard work, and he has been a superb ambassador for British dance. That the Royal has not invited him back to Covent Garden, as it has Polunin, is an anomaly that should surely be corrected. It would reflect positively on all concerned, and demonstrate that the company is looking to the future, rather than dwelling on the past. It would be the graceful thing to do.

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All about Eve

When I read this story in a local newspaper, I felt I had to do something.

Here was a young dancer in distress. Eve Elliott was so upset by what had happened that she was ready to give up the ballet classes that she loved. And we couldn’t have that, so I rang some people I thought might be able to help.

Two days later I met Eve at the stage door of the Royal Opera House. She and her mum, Lara, had come by coach from Hereford. Backstage, we met talented young dancer Solomon Golding, who told Eve about his own journey from a council estate in Tottenham to the Royal Ballet.

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“It’s hard work” Solomon told Eve. “But if you keep going, and you’re good enough, you’ll make it”

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Our next stop was a rehearsal studio, where Eve met principal dancer Sarah Lamb, who was working on a pas de deux with up-and-coming soloist Tristan Dyer.

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Eve was thrilled when Sarah gave her a signed pair of pointe shoes.

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After a backstage tour, during which Eve saw Edward Watson rehearsing, and Marianela Nuñez stopped for a quick chat, it was back to the stage door, where Eve ran into her third star ballerina of the day, Lauren Cuthbertson, who had just come in with a pair of tutus.

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This tutu was still a little on the big side, but maybe, one day…

Later, waiting for the coach home with her mum, Eve has the proof that it wasn’t all a dream.

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So many, many thanks to the Royal Ballet for putting a smile back on the face of this very special young dancer, and for rekindling her ballet dreams.

(Thanks also to my daughter Laura for taking the pics, except for the last one which is by Lara Evans, Eve’s mum).

 

Who Was Myrtha?

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In February, earlier this year, I was making my way through the sixth arrondissement in Paris. Taking refuge from the icy wind, I stepped into a small antiquarian bookshop in a narrow impasse off Rue Monsieur le Prince. Leather-bound volumes in varying stages of disrepair lined the shelves, and the place smelt musty, as if not often visited. The proprietor, an elderly man, invited me with a gesture to examine his stock. I did so, pulling out a couple of books at random, and was just returning the second of these to its place when a sheaf of handwritten papers on a lower shelf caught my eye. I knelt, blew the dust from the cover-sheet, and read the words:

La Tragédie de Myrthe, Ballet-Pantomime en 2 Actes

The short libretto was unsigned, and dated 1838. It was not for sale, the proprietor courteously informed me, but I was welcome to read it. I did so several times, memorising the contents. Then, as I had an appointment to keep, I reluctantly left the shop, and surrendered myself once more to the elements. The following day I returned to Rue Monsieur le Prince, determined to question the proprietor about the provenance and authorship of the libretto. But I could find no antiquarian bookshop, and indeed, no narrow impasse. I paced the area for hours, endlessly retracing my footsteps, but without success. The shop, and its elderly proprietor, might never have existed. There are those, of course, who will say that they never did exist, and that rather than recreate the story of Myrtha from the anonymous libretto, I simply made the whole thing up. What can I say? In the face of such assertions, the only dignified response is silence.

 

*

M Y R T H A

The Duke and Duchess of Pomerania.

Count Wolfram, their son.

Myrtha, a beautiful orphan of aristocratic birth, lodged at the Castle.

Caspar, a squire.

Berthe, a servant girl.

 

PROLOGUE

Myrtha is dancing in the castle gardens with her friends. They are interrupted by a commotion: Berthe, a servant girl, is being expelled from the castle. Myrthe asks why, and a steward tells her that Berthe is pregnant. Myrtha pleads on the girl’s behalf, but is told that nothing can be done. Wolfram enters, and Myrtha sees from Berthe’s expression that he is her seducer. Myrthe questions him, but Wolfram laughs the matter off, and Berthe is led away.

ACT 1

It is the first evening of the harvest festival, and dancers are entertaining the Duke and Duchess of Pomerania, their household and their guests. Six year-old Albrecht, son of the Duke of Silesia, has been dressed by his nurse in a peasant costume, and dances with the local children. A mime holds the company spellbound with the story of the wilis, spirits of young girls who die before their wedding nights. When they elect a queen, the legend goes, the wilis will take vengeance on any young man who falls into their grasp. Also present at the celebrations is Caspar, a handsome squire enamoured of Myrtha. Caspar and Myrtha dance together, and slip away. A short distance from the castle they meet villagers returning from the vineyards. The young couple dance with the villagers in the twilight, and declare their love for each other.

When they return to the castle torches are burning, tables have been laid with food and wine, and the celebrations are in full swing. Seeing Myrtha, Wolfram claims her for a dance, to the visible approval of his parents. Myrtha is unwilling, but powerless to refuse him. Caspar seethes, and has to be restrained by his friends. Later, Caspar and Myrtha contrive to meet in a quiet corner, but are discovered embracing by Wolfram, who by now is very drunk. Wolfram attempts to drive Caspar away, and imposes himself violently on Myrtha. She resists him, and is rescued by Caspar. The couple make plans to run away together.

Berthe meanwhile, is stumbling through the forest on her way back to her village. As darkness falls, the wilis appear, and surround and terrify Berthe. Eventually, they vanish into the night, and Berthe flees.

 

ACT 2

A hawking party in the forest. The Duke and his retinue are taking refreshment in a village. Dogs pant, falcons sit watchfully on gauntlets, pennants bearing the red griffin of Pomerania snap in the breeze. As the villagers entertain the ducal party with a dance, Myrtha and Caspar wrap themselves in villagers’ cloaks and make good their escape. The dance ends, and Wolfram notes their absence. Angrily, he questions the villagers, but the interrogation is interrupted by the arrival of the exhausted Berthe, carried on a stretcher of branches by the village gamekeeper and his young son Hilarion. Mutely, Berthe identifies Wolfram as the author of her distress. Furious now, Wolfram takes a party of supporters in pursuit of Myrtha and Caspar.

In a clearing in the forest, the couple express their joy in a passionate dance. It is not long, however, before Wolfram and his party arrive and confront them. The two men duel, and when it looks as if Caspar might gain the upper hand, he is treacherously stabbed in the back by one of Wolfram’s friends. Dying, Caspar sinks to the ground. Wolfram tries to claim Myrtha, but she seizes Caspar’s sword and stabs herself. The ducal party and the villagers arrive, and before their horrified gaze, the lovers expire in each others’ arms.

 

EPILOGUE

Myrtha is buried in the forest, in unhallowed ground. As darkness falls, the wilis surround her grave, and as midnight tolls in the distant castle, Myrtha rises from the dead. Plucking sprigs of rosemary from the graveside, she surveys her dark domain. Forming spectral ranks to left and right of her, the wilis acknowledge Myrtha as their queen.

The Training Issue: A Struggle for the Soul of British Dance

The Laban Conservatoire

The Laban Conservatoire

It’s a spring morning, and I’m watching a contemporary dance class at the Trinity Laban conservatoire in Deptford, East London. The studio is large and airy, one of thirteen such spaces in the building designed by the Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron, and the students, in their late teens and early twenties, watch as the teacher demonstrates the moves.

It’s a familiar scene to me. I trained as a dancer, and performed for ten years before becoming a journalist. I’ve been in and out of studios like this for most of my life, and the teacher’s words “Pull up… Hold your backs… Feel the floor…” are the same as they always were. Except that in the nineteen seventies they were as often shouted as spoken. And if our limbs weren’t in the right place, teachers felt free to reposition them, sometimes forcibly. “You’re all gutless!” the school principal would snarl, as we balanced at the barre, legs quivering with strain.

Here, though, all is tranquil. Teachers don’t shout at students any more, and they’re not supposed to touch them, either. But these are far from tranquil times in the British contemporary dance world. In April, a triumvirate of choreographers – Lloyd Newson, Akram Khan and Hofesh Shechter – issued a press release raising grave concerns about standards of training in the three main contemporary dance conservatoires. Specifically, Trinity Laban, Northern School of Contemporary Dance (NSCD) in Leeds, and London Contemporary Dance School (LCDS) in Euston. These publicly-funded establishments, supposedly flagships of the government’s Music And Dance Scheme, produce about 150 graduates a year. And apparently they were failing.

The choreographers announced that they were “increasingly dismayed by the declining standards they witness when holding UK auditions”. Newson, artistic director of DV8 Physical Theatre, said that he and his colleagues wanted to employ graduates from the conservatoires, but found that the students, more often than not, “lack rigour, technique and performance skills”. In consequence, Newson said, he and his colleagues had to look overseas for dancers of the necessary calibre.

The timing of the press release, on the eve of the Dance UK conference, was incendiary. It overshadowed everything on the agenda, and there was heated discussion of the issue in the press and on social media. Opinion was sharply divided between those who praised the choreographers for speaking out, and those like Neil Nisbet of the online dance magazine Article 19, who damned them as “incredibly arrogant”. Matthew Bourne, of male Swan Lake fame, defended the overall standard of UK-trained dancers, but admitted that of the last hundred dancers he’d employed, only five came from the contemporary dance conservatoires. The rest were all trained at ballet or musical theatre schools, which produced “better all-round performers.”

Unsurprisingly, the principals of the three conservatoires were angered by the attack. “I’m open for discussion” Veronica Lewis of LCDS told me. “But I don’t want to be head-butted”. The furore, it rapidly became clear, was more than a disagreement about training methods. It was a no-holds-barred struggle for the soul of the art form.

Australian-born Newson, 58, has been making dance for three decades. He’s attracted to complex issues – social, sexual, political – and his unflinching approach has won him several awards and an OBE. He has spoken out, he says, because of “the continued lack of urgency in addressing and improving the quality of UK contemporary dancers… There’s a critical lack of body-awareness”. His words are echoed by other senior practitioners. Jasmin Vardimon, a director-choreographer known for her physical theatre productions, says that dancers leave the conservatoire schools unable to adapt and work in a multidisciplinary way. “There’s a lack of theatrical skills; the schools don’t give them the tools. They’re not versatile enough”.

“For me it comes down to one word: rigour” says Arthur Pita, a choreographer whose productions include the award-winning The Metamorphosis. “We’ll look in years to come and say: what happened? It all went flimsy.” Like Newson, Pita trained at LCDS. Looking back to his student days in the 1990s he remembers “classes driven by passion and intelligence. It was like being in church.”

Arthur Pita

Arthur Pita

It’s not like that any more, says a choreographer who recently visited LCDS to audition graduate-year students. “The attitude was so lackadaisical it was laughable. They looked like they couldn’t be arsed. And once the project was up and running there were constant problems with absenteeism. One student requested compassionate leave to recover from the emotional trauma of learning my work.” A guest teacher at LCDS, who has given professional classes all over the world, encountered similar attitudes. “The students don’t believe you when you say it’s not good enough. Don’t take on board how hard you have to concentrate in class. Don’t warm up. Don’t get that you shouldn’t have to tell them more than twice. They just don’t really listen.”

These are dismaying testimonies, and I was offered many others like them. But why would students submit themselves to such demanding and expensive training (three-year BA dance courses cost £27,000 in fees alone) if they lacked motivation? What was going wrong? For Ian Garside, a former Laban student, it was the teachers’ too-soft, hands-off approach. “As a dance student, you need a kick up the arse. And we didn’t get one. I felt I was never going to reach the heights I aspired to.”

A teacher who has worked at all three conservatoires tells me that the problems stem from the sidelining of demanding disciplines like ballet, and the techniques evolved by Martha Graham, José Limon and Merce Cunningham, in favour of exercises like somatic release, which is as much a healing therapy as a performance discipline. “There’s a theory in contemporary dance that you can get away with it by ‘finding your own way'” says Pita. “But deep down we know that’s wrong. The art form has got fragile. It needs muscle.”

While dance-specific, these lamentations have a familiar ring. They echo those concerning the death of grammar teaching in mainstream education, the neglect of drawing in art colleges, and the phasing-out of competitive sport in schools. According to this narrative, feel-good activity has displaced hard-won craft and skill. But the conservatoires, and others in the contemporary dance sphere, see things very differently.

They see a sector starved of funds, and deeply divided. Its most visible stars are choreographers like Newson, Khan, Shechter, Wayne McGregor and others whose work is subsidised by Arts Council England, showcased at venues like Sadlers Wells, and toured internationally. Beneath the radar, however, there’s a myriad of less celebrated practitioners. A vast cohort of performers and choreographers moving from project to project, often working in an experimental vein, far from the major dance houses. In its diversity, this alternative tendency is comparable to the indie music scene. A few work regularly enough to make a living, but most are forced to find alternative sources of income in order to survive. Wages are low – many dancers are prepared to work for free, rather than not at all – and every year new graduates and dancers from overseas swell an already overflowing pool.

With the gap widening between dance’s haves and have-nots, the sector has become damagingly polarised. Many feel that as increasingly deep cuts are imposed, the few are favoured at the expense of the many. The producer Chantal Guevara notes that while smaller-scale enterprises are starved of funds, “We’re inundated with Akram, Hofesh, etcetera. It’s a boys’ club.” This year, ACE awarded Newson, Khan and Shechter a total of £1.3m.

Charlie Ashwell, the editor of online dance magazine BellyFlop and a working professional dancer, articulates the sense of grievance felt by many of her colleagues. “For too long a few have gained acclaim, money, runs at the National, MBEs, by treading the rest of us into the mud.” These privileged few, she continues, have colluded in dancers’ job insecurity, while practising “humiliation dressed up as character-building artistic process.” By referencing the audition process in their press release, the three choreographers touched a raw nerve. “It amazes me how little the ethics of auditions are called out” says Ashwell. “Holding auditions asks dancers to give up their time and energy for free with absolutely nothing guaranteed in return. Auditions are always exploitative.”

Whether you agree with Ashwell or not – and many in the contemporary dance world would contest her words – it’s clear that life for conservatoire graduates is desperately precarious. Most, given that the supply of contemporary dancers far outstrips demand, will have portfolio careers. At different times, they might find themselves performing, choreographing, producing, publicising, teaching, writing about dance or involved in dance therapy. As all three conservatoire principals emphasise, this expanded skill-set necessitates an updated schooling approach. “We’re not offering you a glittering five-year career before you retrain” says Laban principal Anthony Bowne. “We’re offering you a lifetime career in dance”.

Almost all conservatoire graduates will have to start from scratch, assembling creative projects with like-minded colleagues, and competing for crumbs from the funding table. This can be daunting, but creating from scratch is what young British artists are good at. Matthew Bourne was a Laban graduate who launched his career by putting on small-scale shows with colleagues. None was a memorably brilliant dancer, but as a group they were bursting with inventiveness. Today, many conservatoire graduates would rather do their own thing than work for a big-name choreographer. As one puts it: “If I was a fine artist I wouldn’t want to do someone else’s painting, so why as a dancer would I want to do someone else’s dancing?”

Sophie Unwin (left) & Lydia Cottrell

Sophie Unwin (left) & Lydia Cottrell

Watching that Laban class, I realise how much has changed. There’s none of the blazing competitive tension that I remember from my own student days. There’s no sweat on the studio floor, and the students are all shapes and sizes. But as Lydia Cottrell and Sophie Unwin of the performance duo 70/30 Split explain, the new wave of practitioners is not interested in dance based on virtuosity and technique. “There’s a hunger for small-scale, undefinable dance, DIY-style” says Unwin. “It’s completely valid and more interesting.” Ordinary, imperfect civilian bodies, like those of Unwin and Cottrell, are central to this new-wave vision, and appropriate to an interdisciplinary sphere in which the boundaries between dance, theatre, and other performance arts are dissolving, while whippet-thin, balletic physiques are associated with what they call “old-style contemporary dance”. The gulf between old and new, the pair say, has widened to the point where the two cultures find it hard to communicate with each other. As Guevara confirms: “Neither funders nor schools understand what contemporary dance is now.”

Even the hiring process is changing. “I don’t believe in auditions” says Theo Clinkard, a popular new-wave choreographer. “I teach classes and workshops so I can meet people and see them dance in a non competitive environment. (This) keeps me in touch, let’s me know which dancers are around and helps me find out what is moving them at any given point.” Clinkard is keen to do away with “the old school dancer/maker hierarchy”, and says with reference to Khan, Newson and Shechter: “I want to pull the rug from the power structures these chaps are clinging to.”

Personally, I’m torn. I get, completely, the notion of dance as a human-scale thing. As approachable and imperfect, rather than hyper-refined and “other”. But the trained dancer in me mourns the death of old-school rigour at the conservatoires. I remember the tough love offered by the LCDS teachers when Newson and Pita trained there, and the drained faces and sweat-drenched bodies of the students after a hard Graham class. Today, the training is infinitely broader, and the LCDS students learn, amongst other skills, how to write a business plan. On the day I visit, the final-year students are undergoing diversity training.

“We can’t turn the clock back to a time when we were fantastic for some students and others failed” says Janet Smith, principal of NSCD. “We have to ask: to what extent can we open up their full potential, and joining a traditional dance company is not necessarily the way.” The students at Laban appear to agree. As Bowne says: “Doing steps for Matthew Bourne doesn’t appeal to the majority of our graduates.”

Smith is right: you can’t turn the clock back. But the three choreographers are right too: something fierce and vital has been lost, and this needs to be faced by the conservatoires. Essentially, Laban, NSCD and LCDS have become broad-spectrum dance universities. Might there be room, somewhere in the conservatoire system, for a dedicated, top-level training strand, with fewer peripheral activities, for those with exceptional promise as performers? Without such a strand, we have to accept that British contemporary dance is more likely to produce conceptual game-changers than elite dancers. It shouldn’t be impossible to nurture both.

The Royal Ballet School. Are the odds stacked against British children?

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It’s 8.30am, and in an 18th-century Palladian villa in Richmond Park, London, 25 children are saying their prayers. “God be in my head and in my understanding,” they recite, heads bowed. “God be in my eyes and in my looking…”

At first sight, they resemble any other bunch of 11-year-olds. Look again, though, and they don’t. For a start, they all share the same physical proportions. Long necks, trim shoulders, neatly made upper bodies poised on long legs. They’re preternaturally neat, and glow with health and purpose. They look happy, and perhaps they have reason to be so, for they know themselves to be special. These are the youngest students of White Lodge, the Royal Ballet Lower School. Every one of them hopes to become a professional ballet dancer. They are, says White Lodge principal Diane van Schoor, “the clay”.

White Lodge is a boarding school. It was established in 1955 by Ninette de Valois, founder of the Royal Ballet, to provide dancers for the company. Entry is by audition and each year about 1,000 11-year-olds compete for two dozen places, making it one of the most selective educational establishments in Britain. Students stay at White Lodge for five years and, at 16, audition for the Royal Ballet Upper School in Covent Garden, where they spend a further three years, graduating as professional dancers at 18 or 19. For most, the dream is a place in the Royal Ballet itself.

Over the years, however, the odds against home-grown British students fulfilling this ambition have steadily lengthened. Statistically, only around a quarter of those first-year White Lodge students are likely even to graduate from the Upper School, let alone be considered for a place in the company. The Royal Ballet and its schools comprise the nation’s flagship classical dance establishment, so why are the odds so comprehensively stacked against British children? Jane Hackett, a former director of the English National Ballet School and the Central School of Ballet, now co-director of creative learning for Sadler’s Wells Theatre, is concerned by the figures. “It’s inexplicable, when you look at the amount of money invested in British ballet, that such a very small percentage of British dancers are graduating and progressing through companies.”

To make sense of this issue you have to separate the often contradictory strands of the Royal Ballet’s organisational culture. Excellence figures strongly in the mission statement and the Royal schools spare no effort in bringing potentially talented pupils into their orbit through outreach programmes. There’s an assumption that ballet goes hand-in-hand with privilege – in fact the students at White Lodge come from every imaginable background. The fees exceed £30,000 per annum, but no successful candidate is ever turned away. Instead, families are means tested and, in more than 80% of cases, are supported by government grants.

The parents of Sam Lee, from Dagenham, knew next to nothing about ballet when Sam was introduced to dance by the Royal Ballet’s Primary Steps scheme, which sends accredited teachers into schools. Now Sam’s at White Lodge. “You see dancers like Carlos Acosta and it’s inspiring. The training’s hard, but I tell myself don’t give up. Carry on!” Sam’s attitude suggests that he may have the right stuff to make it. But he’s going to need every ounce of that determination.

It’s 9am, and teacher Nicola Katrak, a former Royal Ballet dancer, is putting the Year 7 girls through their paces in one of the White Lodge studios. Their upper backs don’t yet have the ironed-out flatness of the older students, their legs are not yet fully turned out from the hip and their feet not yet fully arched, but the evolution is under way. And as they move forward as one into arabesque – standing on one leg with the other lifted high behind – it’s as if they leave their children’s bodies behind. Ballet is about physics, about advanced co-ordination and muscle control, but there’s a metaphysical element, too. You don’t perform the arabesque, you become the arabesque. It’s about transformation.

Final year students, White Lodge. Photograph: Hugo Glendinning.

Final year students, White Lodge. Photograph: Hugo Glendinning.

These girls are here because, even at 11, most of them instinctively understand this. As they progress through the school they will be drawn deeper and deeper into ballet’s abstract dimension. This will compound their sense of vocation, bond them to their fellow students, and set them subtly apart from the world outside classical dance. The idyllic surroundings, the intense friendships, the sense of insidership – all these are remembered with great affection by former White Lodgers. But for those who do not make the grade, the sense of loss can be acute. One girl who was recently asked to leave the school was described as “absolutely devastated. Traumatised.”

In the next-door studio, Hope Keelan is teaching the Year 7 boys. Standing bare-legged at the barre in leotards and shorts, they look much more vulnerable than the girls, and lack their self-containment. One moment they’re puffed up with achievement, the next they look quite lost. Homesickness is a big issue and both Keelan and van Schoor confirm that boys seem to take it hardest. At the beginning of the school term, says Keelan, she has sometimes conducted classes to the sound of “sniffing and sobbing”.

“I was homesick at first,” says Misha, a London boy named after the Russian ballet star Mikhail Baryshnikov. “But you have to go forward. We talk to each other, talk about home. And now I love it so much here I couldn’t give it up.” Ellie, a freckled Liverpudlian, agrees. “You realise what a nice place you’re in. It’s really homely.”

And it is. The dormitories are particularly welcoming, with each girl’s area individualised with toys, family photos and posters of favourite ballerinas. The boys’ quarters are comfortably informal, too; former Royal Ballet star Sergei Polunin described his time at White Lodge as “like being in Harry Potter“. But the obstacles these children will face are formidable. They will be subject to term-by-term appraisal and at the end of each year some will be “assessed out”, or asked to leave. Perhaps they have failed to reach the expected technical standard, or their bodies have developed in ways that do not comply with the school’s increasingly narrow physical ideal. Short-backed and long-legged, in the Russian mould, this is very different from the longer-backed “old” Royal Ballet look and there is a certain irony in the fact that many of the school’s ex-company teachers, were they to present themselves today with the bodies they had as teenagers, might well not fit the mould.

Additionally, the British White Lodgers have to compete for their places with increasing numbers of students brought in from abroad, a process many find stressful and demoralising. For Claire Calvert, a talented young Royal Ballet dancer who went through White Lodge and the Upper School, it was “very difficult” when, each year, yet another cadre of overseas students arrived. Some of her friends were worn down by the ceaseless competition. “It’s so mentally draining. There are girls who say: ‘I just don’t want to go on.'” And many didn’t. Of the 19 girls who joined White Lodge with Calvert, she was the only one to make it into the company.

For one former teacher at the school, the system is fundamentally unfair. “The children who go into White Lodge are the most talented in the country. They prove their commitment by leaving their homes and their families, aged 11. If I was a parent of a child who’d made that kind of sacrifice and then been assessed out, I’d be pretty unhappy.” In this teacher’s view, echoed by many in the British ballet world, the onus should be on the school to make the best dance artists it can of the children it selects. The “difficult” students, experienced teachers say, are often the most creative, and freedom from the fear of being assessed out would powerfully enhance that creativity. As Hackett says: “The approach, if someone’s struggling, should not be ‘we’ve got to get rid of this dancer,’ but ‘what can I do to make him better?'”

Whatever its ethos, the place is Arcadian. In an airy studio shot through with shafts of spring sunlight, van Schoor is teaching the Year 11 girls. At the piano, a young man is playing Chopin. Not with the chugging rhythms of the day-in, day-out ballet accompanist, but beautifully and sadly, as if it matters to him. The girls, now 16, have acquired their working ballet bodies: pulled-up, long-muscled and racy. Along with the Year 11 boys, they will soon face “final auditions” for the Upper School. Only about half will make it, and they know it. There is an undercurrent of acute, sublimated anxiety. “Jeté en avant, jeté en arrière…” sings out van Schoor, demonstrating the flickering jumps with an insouciance that none of her students can quite match. She makes them repeat the exercise, showing how an oppositional torsion of the upper body, known as épaulement, brings the otherwise academic sequence to life. And then watching them, shakes her head. “You all look as if you’re going to Sainsbury’s. And I’ve got news for you. The sale’s over.”

The White Lodge candidates who make it into the Upper School will be joined by students from other UK ballet schools and from overseas. They will live in accommodation owned by the school – there are boys’ flats and girls’ flats – and will do their own shopping, cooking and laundry. As at White Lodge, part of the syllabus is given over to conventional academic studies. All students leave with three A levels and a BTEC in dance, scoring well above the national average. “Some find A levels very difficult,” says Royal Ballet School academic head Charles Runacres, who has taught at Cambridge University and Eton. “But the concentration and the desire to do well does transfer from ballet”. Those who survive the three-year course can expect to graduate as professional dancers. Gailene Stock, director of the Royal Ballet School since 1999, prides herself on the fact that for the past five years, all her graduate-year students have won contracts with international ballet companies.

In one of the Upper School’s spacious, purpose-built studios, a second-year girls’ class is under way. The teacher is Anita Young, a former Royal Ballet soloist, and she is trying to get the girls, who are mostly 17 or 18, to think about expressiveness. “Listen to the music!” she keeps telling them. The girls are formidably technically assured, but they look tense, watching Young with large, nervous eyes. When they take balances they tend to gravitate backwards, as if fearful of commitment to the position. “Weight forward,” Young implores. “You can always have a nose-job. You can’t mend a broken back!”

“They’re so lovely,” Young sighs after the class. “And their legs go far higher than ours ever did. All this, though…” And here she strikes an attitude, the position pliant and alive, her arms framing her face with subtle épaulement. “All this is gone.” But if her pupils go for eye-catching hyperextensions and “six-o’clock arabesques” rather than nuance and refinement, it’s perhaps because they know that in an audition they have to grab a director’s attention fast. In a mercilessly unforgiving milieu, their instincts are fine-tuned for survival.

Evie Ball. Photograph: Hugo Glendinning

Evie Ball. Photograph: Hugo Glendinning

Evie Ball, a smiling student from Liverpool who dreams of dancing the role of Manon with the Royal Ballet, went through White Lodge and now, at 19, is in her graduate year at the Upper School. She has loved her time at the school and made lifelong friends there, but has always been conscious of its Darwinian back-beat. “They started assessing us out in Year 9, when we were 13,” says Ball. “And it kicked in that this was a competition. The final term at White Lodge was really nerve-racking; less than half of our class got through to the Upper School. And now, of those, there are just three boys and four girls left.”

A substantial percentage of Upper School students are from overseas, either fee-paying or on scholarships. Many are recruited at international competitions or at Royal Ballet summer camps while in full-time training in their home countries, a practice one British ballet parent calls “absolute poaching”. But according to Gailene Stock, searching out the most talented students worldwide is only sensible, given that ballet is a globalised business. Their presence in the school, Stock insists, inspires the home-grown students, and many ballet migrants, such as Alina Cojocaru (from Romania) and Marianela Nuñez (from Argentina, but now a British citizen), both of whom spent time at the Upper School, go on to become lustrous stars of the Royal Ballet.

It’s a vexed issue. Cherry-picking gifted foreign students, processing them through the school and skimming off the crème de la crème for the company, certainly keeps the statistics looking good, and makes sense in market-economic terms. But it also makes for a company without much of an identity or unanimity of style. British dancers are often late developers. With time and care, as the history of the Royal Ballet has proved time and time again, they flower into artists of subtlety and sensitivity.

Melissa Hamilton, from Northern Ireland, was refused a place at the Royal Ballet School. She was taken in hand by a Russian teacher who saw her potential, and who patiently set about turning Hamilton into a ballerina. Eventually, the Royal Ballet accepted her and, earlier this month, the 23 year-old made an acclaimed debut as Juliet at Covent Garden. But how many Hamiltons never flower at all? How many drop out in their teens, their self-esteem in tatters, convinced they’re failures?

Pretty much everyone in the Royal Ballet establishment admits that there’s a crisis of confidence among their young British dancers. Gailene Stock, who is Australian, talks of her British students’ “reserve”. They tend, she says, “to stand back and admire”. And this diffidence carries over into the company, where out of 29 Royal Ballet principal dancers and first soloists, only five are British-born and trained. British dancers still make up a majority in the company, but most languish in the lower ranks. No one in the establishment is prepared to make the connection between these dancers’ lack of confidence and their schooling experience, but to many observers it’s a clear case of cause and effect. “If you’re operating from a basis of fear,” says Hackett, “you can’t hope to develop confidence, expressiveness or personality”.

Part of the problem lies in the nature of the establishment itself. Management scientists talk of “the organisational dilemma”. How do you reconcile the conflict between the needs and aspirations of an organisation and those of the individuals who make it up? No one at the Royal Ballet School is unconcerned with the pupils’ wellbeing and, in many cases, the affection of staff and teachers for those in their care is palpable and touching. But the organisation is attempting to master two conflicting roles: as a national arts organisation with its roots in the community and as a globalised free-market player. These roles are in constant collision and the home-grown dancers are caught between them.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Globalisation notwithstanding, the world’s great classical dance companies – the Bolshoi Ballet, Mariinsky Ballet, Paris Opera Ballet, New York City Ballet and others – draw almost exclusively from their own schools and home-grown students and, in consequence, maintain an individuality of style and tradition which the Royal Ballet, for all the brilliance of its imported stars, has lost. Commercially speaking, you underestimate the appeal of local talent at your peril. Darcey Bussell was a wonderful dancer but British audiences loved her first and foremost because she was a home-girl, one of their own.

At White Lodge, where a new day is beginning, posters of Bussell still feature on the dormitory walls. Downstairs the Year 7s are saying their prayers. As well they might. Last year, two former White Lodgers out of an original cadre of 24 graduated from the Upper School into the Royal Ballet. This year the figure was zero.

(First published The Observer Magazine, 25 March 2012)

Crystal Pite: trying to excavate the truth.

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There’s a new spirit abroad in choreography. It offers us beauty and exhilaration, but with the old aesthetics stripped away. It looks for truth, no matter how unconsoling, and its subject is the transfixing poignancy of the human condition. You sense this spirit in the work of choreographers as disparate as William ForsytheAkram Khan and Hofesh Shechter. One is American, one Anglo-Bengali, one Israeli, but the issues that they address – memory, ritual, the blaze of life set against the dark eternity of the void – are common to all. And nowhere are these themes more subtly and beautifully explored than in the danceworks of Crystal Pite, whose Ten Duets on a Theme of Rescue can be seen at Sadler’s Wells in London this week, presented by New York’sCedar Lake Contemporary Ballet.

Pite is a 42-year-old Canadian who has been creating dances for more than 20 years. Her six full-evening works were all made on her own ensemble, Kidd Pivot, and although few in number, are precision-crafted and multilayered. Choreography, for Pite, is the search for what lies beneath the surface of our lives. “I’m trying to recognise and excavate what’s true” she says, when I call her at her home in Vancouver. “I’m looking for moments of resonance.”

Such moments are evident in Lost Action, which Pite brought to London in 2009. In the opening minutes of the piece, the seven Kidd Pivot dancers are revealed against a backdrop of poppies, an emotive image given that almost 70,000 Canadians were killed in the first world war. They flicker into action in a frenzy of darting leaps and turns, and then subside into stillness, lonely as statues. The lights fade, the dancers’ ghost images suggesting the gradual dissolution of memory into history. The piece is rich in allusion, with tableaux echoing the Descents from the Cross of Caravaggio and Rubens, and swaying friezes of linked figures recalling Sargent’s paintings of mustard-gas victims. But you don’t have to get the references to read Pite’s work. Her intentions are conveyed, with strange, fierce intensity, through the wordless language of the body. When her dancers loom from the shadows it’s like a waking dream. Some part of you has been there before.

In Pite’s Dark Matters (2009), a man, living alone, crafts a wooden puppet that comes to life and then, with increasingly sinister purpose, sets about controlling its maker’s existence. The piece, Pite says, is about “loneliness, obsession, and the danger of creation”. If the ideas that feed into Dark Matters are gothic, the dance Pite draws from them is tight and enthralling. Her performers, like the puppet, appear to be impelled by forces outside themselves. At moments, they seem to be wrenched in two directions at once – an experience with which Pite herself is familiar. “In me there’s a politeness and obedience that drives me crazy. It’s my Victorian upbringing. I resent it, and I push against it.”

When Pite uses the word Victorian, she’s referring to Victoria, British Columbia, the town where she grew up and trained in ballet. The discipline of classical dance was formative. “Ballet is on me like a coding,” she says. “I can’t wash it off.” At 18, Pite auditioned for Ballet British Columbia, and danced with the Vancouver-based company for eight years. In 1996 she left Canada to join Ballett Frankfurt in Germany. The company was under the direction of William Forsythe, the late 20th century’s most radical choreographer. Forsythe has rewritten the vocabulary of ballet, pushing the elements of speed, balance and co-ordination to previously unexplored limits. He has deconstructed the very notion of theatricality, and to interpret his ideas has always been drawn to dancers who are physically and imaginatively hyper-flexible. Dancers like the willowy, ever-curious Pite, who danced with Ballet Frankfurt for five years. Pite’s work has been compared to Forsythe’s, and you can see his imprint in her high-speed articulations and boneless imbalances. But Pite brings something else to bear: a refined lyricism which transforms everything she touches.

You see this in the delicate texture of The Tempest Replica (2011), based on Shakespeare’s play. To launch the storm that sets events in motion, the female dancer who takes the part of Ariel eats an origami paper boat. On Prospero’s island, the inhabitants are costumed as if they themselves are made from folded paper. You know, at a glance, that the dance is born of the written and spoken word. At the same time, Pite’s choreography demonstrates her determination to engage with “the things that are beyond words”.

“I’ve got an obsession with narrative,” Pite says, adding that this is “kind of a taboo subject”. She’s referring to the belief, in US art-dance circles, that abstract dance (as exemplified by the work of choreographers like Merce Cunningham, Mark Morris and Trisha Brown), has a “purity” that other forms lack. Narrative or “story” dance, with its old-world, imperial associations, has long been regarded with a certain condescension. But Pite has enraptured American critics. The New Yorker called The Tempest Replica “a work of astonishing beauty and thoughtfulness”, and US audiences loved The You Show (2010), which opens with a series of intimate duets, and escalates to a point at which the dancers lock together to form massive, duelling combat-robots, like those in the films Transformers and The Matrix Revolutions. The sequence is satiric, but Pite is fascinated by the not-quite-human – puppets, paper figures, robots – and by the way they stretch her movement vocabulary.

Kidd Pivot have made just one visit to the UK (that all too brief Lost Action season) but Britain will be seeing more of Pite’s work. There’s Ten Duets on a Theme of Rescue at Sadler’s Wells on Friday and Saturday, and next spring Kidd Pivot will be bringing The Tempest Replica to London. Meanwhile Royal Ballet director Kevin O’Hare and Scottish Ballet director Christopher Hampson are both in talks with Pite about possible future commissions. If she were to create a main-stage work at Covent Garden she would be the first woman to do so for a decade and a half. “Conflict and drama, I have to seek them out” Pite says. Let’s hope she finds them here.

(First published The Observer 22 Sept 2013)

Vincent Dance Theatre: Motherland

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There’s a sequence in Vincent Dance Theatre’s Motherland that’s repeated at intervals throughout the two-hour piece. Aurora Lubos enters with a bottle of blood-red dye, slops a great gob of it on the all-white backdrop and, hitching her skirt up to her waist, leans back against it so that it seems to be welling from inside her, then fixes us with a sad, abject gaze. Then Andrea Cataniacomes on, flicks a hopeless glance at the audience and collapses, apparently lifeless, on to a pile of soil. Finally, Patrycja Kujawska saunters diagonally across the stage, playing a lyrical air on a violin.

Choreographer-director Charlotte Vincent founded her company in Sheffield in 1994 and since that date has undertaken a series of explorations of the human condition and of the nature of performance itself. Lubos’s actions remind us of the ineluctable nature of the female cycle, while simultaneously informing us of her physical preoccupations as a dancer who is also a mother. Catania’s collapse suggests a different realm of female experience: a sense of her own invisibility. An apprehension that she could, at any moment, be obliterated from the consciousness of those about her. “I’m here,” she calls out at intervals. “I’m still here.” Kujawska, meanwhile, seems to provide a commentary on the way that the raw stuff of women’s lives is aestheticised and made poignant. The eternal, after all, does not have to be acted on.

The work’s title is brutally literal. Vincent constantly draws parallels between the fertility of women and that of the land. As the land is raped by corporate interests, so are our lives degraded. At intervals, Lubos appears on stage swollen-bellied and bloody-thighed, before delivering herself of a swag of soil, spilling it symbolically on the stage. If the cast’s women are simultaneously bruised by fate and in thrall to their biology, Vincent does not lay the blame at the door of men. They’re feckless and inattentive – Greig Cooke‘s blithe lack of self-awareness is particularly well pitched – and they’re spendthrift in their lust, but the issues that Vincent is exploring are existential ones. The piece’s most searching questions are voiced by 12-year-old Leah Yeger, who in a performance of exceptional poise, quietly but insistently demands explanations of the actions of the adults around her.

Music and folk-song thread through the piece, not as an ironic counterpoint, but as a simple and often touching commentary on the action. Many of the 10-strong cast are accomplished instrumentalists and this elision of musical and narrative performance – the sense that the soundtrack comes “from within” the piece, rather than being overlaid from the sidelines – adds greatly to its cohesion and power. Another great strength of Vincent’s work is its continuity. She has committed herself to a team of performers who, over the years, have become familiar figures to her audience. One of her concerns is the way that female dancers are “lost” to motherhood, so when Lubos had a child, Vincent set in place a series of extraordinary supportive measures, recalibrating her company’s professional practice to accommodate her dancer’s new needs. Failure to encourage mature female performers back to work in this way, Vincent says, will create a UK dance ecology “dominated by men and younger female artists whose work is valid, but perhaps lacks emotional depth”.

The truth of this is self-evident; former ballerina Darcey Bussell is one of many dancers who has told of the liberating new perspective on their work that motherhood brought. But there are costs, too, which Vincent has explored in Look at Me Now, Mummy, a solo piece for Lubos that saw the dancer presenting a series of mind-numbing domestic tasks as bravura performances, interspersed with jags of weeping. Long-term Vincent-watchers will be aware of this backstory, as they will of a devastating episode in the choreographer’s own life, when her husband left her for another woman, an experience transmuted by Vincent into a dance work named Broken Chords.

But Motherland works fine without this foreknowledge. Vincent has clearly watched a lot of Pina Bausch and while the debt is apparent in the piece’s fast-cut and often drolly surreal tableaux, the impetus and inspiration are Vincent’s own. She can bang on a bit: a shouted statement of the virgin/whore dichotomy is otiose and the piece could be shorter. But what gives Vincent’s work its power is that it is born not of hothoused theory but of lived experience. It comes from the heart and that’s not always a pretty place.

(first published The Observer 18 Sept 2012)

Writing with your dad… Writing with your daughter

Father and daughter Luke and Laura Jennings have written a book, the first in a new series, set in a stage school. What’s it like writing a book with your dad? And why did Luke suggest the idea to 13-year-old Laura? Father and daughter explain.

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When my dad suggested that we write a book together I remember thinking: is he serious? I was in year six at school, and I’d never even written a proper essay. How could I help him write a whole novel?

But when we started working out the storyline, I realised that it could be fun. I’d always liked making up stories – when I was younger I used to have conversations with myself, taking it in turns to be each character, making up back-stories for each of them. My brothers thought I was crazy, sitting on the floor talking to myself in different voices. “So what are you doing today, Susie?” I’d ask. “Oh, I’m just doing the school run, Millie, then I’ll be joining my husband at the space station. He’s an astronaut”. I also had several invisible dogs to look after, which took up a lot of my time.

The plot of Stars started off as a mishmash of ideas. What I wanted was for it to be about four girls that I could relate to. If I’m late back from school I get worried voice-mails from Mum, so we put them in a boarding school to get the parents out of the way so they could have proper adventures. I’ve always loved acting and singing, and Dad used to be a dancer, so it had to be a stage school.

Making up the characters was really exciting. Jess was the central one. She’s unsure of herself, thinks she’s plain, and isn’t proud of her bum! Like any new girl, she’s intimidated by all the talented, big-personality types around her. Foxy, on the other hand, is the super-confident girl we’d all like to be. Ash is the princess of the group, the sensible one who tries to keep them all on track, and Spike is the wackiest – she’s deaf and a ballet dancer.

We did disagree on stuff. Not storylines but details. For example we argued for over a week about Ash’s hair. She’s half Ghanaian, and I wanted her to have an afro and Dad wanted “a short, fashionable bob”. I mean, does that even exist? But in the end, it all went quite smoothly. Getting a publisher was really cool, so was having meetings at Puffin. I’d rush home from school and change into jeans and a leather jacket, and we’d sprint to the tube. And then there was the launch party. Studded high heels and a galaxy-print dress, if you were wondering…

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OVER TO LUKE

Aged 11, Laura was a picky reader. She was suspicious of books set in “the past” (any era preceding the mid-1990s), flatly uninterested in the tales of boy-wizards bequeathed to her by her two older brothers, and dismissive of most pre-teen fiction (“all those cliché divorces”). Instead, she subsisted on the sugar-rush of girly stories that could be consumed at a sitting. Pink-jacketed, breathless, and liberally sprinkled with exclamation marks, these were pleasurable but unchallenging. And eventually Laura got fed up with them.

“So what kind of thing are you looking for?” I asked her, as we poked around our local bookshop. Laura’s answer was specific. Realistic, up-to-date stories about teenagers that weren’t patronising, or full of “stuff we’d never say”. And preferably, since she loved singing and acting, set against a theatrical background. The more we talked, the more minutely detailed her requirements became. And the less likely it seemed that we’d find what she wanted. “So why don’t we just go home and write this book?” I suggested. Laura looked at me warily. “OK” she said.

It was a new departure for both of us. I’d trained as a dancer and spent 10 years on stage, so I knew the theatre world. I wrote about dance for the Observer newspaper and I’d had three novels published. But I’d never written for children, nor did I know of anyone who’d co-authored a book with a child. So Laura and I made up our own ground-rules. Story meetings would be fully professional in tone. They would take place in the local high street café, and the usual limits on whipped cream, marshmallows, and sprinkles would be suspended. Laura would need proper work-clothes, specifically a leather-look zip-up top which was on sale at H&M (£24.99). And some ankle boots, obviously.

We got to work. The setting for the story, we decided, would be a stage school. A boarding stage school (essential to get rid of the parents). Our lead characters took shape. We agreed on Jess from day one. She was our narrator, a kind of everygirl figure, awed and slightly intimidated by the talent surrounding her. “She should arrive in the middle of the school year, so everyone’s already made friends.” Laura suggested. “And let’s give her really difficult hair”.

Then there was Ash, mixed-race, a fabulous singer and a bit of a princess. “Pink button-up nightie” said Laura. “And her timetable Blu-tacked to her bedside locker”. And Foxy, the glamourpuss daughter of TV executives. We’d lived in Surrey for a time, and agreed that Foxy’s family lived in Weybridge. “She has a mohair coat” Laura decided. “All the others have rain-jackets and parkas but Foxy has a proper, tailored coat”.

And perhaps my favourite of the four room mates, Spike. A ballet-girl, deaf since birth. Over the years I’d often thought of writing about a character who never speaks, who expresses herself physically rather than verbally. Which of course is what dancers do. Spike became the distillation of many people I’d known and worked with, and although I never met her, there was a deaf girl called Nina Falaise who became a ballet dancer around the time that I did. She couldn’t hear, she explained to people, but she could feel the vibrations of the music.

While we were writing the book Laura was in two school plays, and quickly learnt to watch her fellow actors, most of them older than her, and to note how they behaved. I talked to her friends, absorbing the way that they’d overlaid their London accents with the Mean Girls Valley-speak of the movies they’d grown up with (“I know, right?”). One way or another, it all went in.

Our working method was straightforward. We would decide on a section of storyline, and I would write it up. Laura would then pick through it, occasionally shaking her head pityingly. “Dad, this is tragic” she’d sigh, her fingers dancing over the keyboard. For Laura, establishing character was a top-down operation. The first thing that had to be fixed was the hair. Foxy’s took the longest to get right. “Can’t it just be long and red?” I pleaded. “Dad, please. Don’t be naïve” Laura murmured, scrolling through page after page of Google Images. And finally, there was Foxy’s hair, styled exactly as Laura had envisioned it, and flowing from the head of the teenage Nicola Roberts, in a picture taken before she found fame with Girls Aloud.

Somewhere along the line we called the book Stars. I learnt, early on, to trust Laura’s instincts about what would and wouldn’t work for her age group, and she, in her turn, knew that she was a real partner in the creative process. Writing fiction’s a grind, and there were days and weeks when Laura had other things on her plate. But then she’d re-engage. And suddenly most of Stars was written, and it was time to see if it had a future. I emailed the work-in-progress to Jo Unwin, an agent who specialised in children’s books, telling Laura that even if Jo wasn’t interested, we’d finish it and print out copies for her friends. Weeks passed, and finally a reply dropped into my inbox. Fingers tightly crossed, we opened Jo’s email. “Love it. Finish it. But take out the swearing and the laxative sequence”.

Three months later Jo, now officially our agent, sent the book out to publishers, and we knew that this was it. Jess, Ash, Foxy and Spike were out there, fighting for their existence in a cut-throat marketplace. When Jo rang, it was with good news. Three publishers were interested, and Puffin had made a pre-emptive offer. We accepted, and although Laura was briefly disappointed that she couldn’t have her half straight away in cash, I knew we couldn’t have hoped for a better result. A couple of days later Laura took the afternoon off school, and we went with Jo to meet our publisher Sarah Hughes at the imposing HQ of Penguin Books, Puffin’s parent company. As we sat around a table in a conference room decorated with famous Puffin book covers, listening to Sarah’s plans for the Stars series (as it now seemed to have become), I wondered, once again, if this was all too much to lay on the shoulders of a 13-year-old. Would the attention freak her out? If there were signings and interviews, would it go to her head?

Deep down, I knew she’d be fine. Laura wasn’t averse to the spotlight – she was quite prepared, at mealtimes, to belt out Rihanna’s Diamonds until physically gagged by her brothers – but her feet were firmly on the ground. As we left Penguin she turned to me thoughtfully. “Dad, I think we need to talk about my outfit for the launch party”.

(first published in The Guardian 26 June 2013)

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Read the first chapter of Stars

Are some ballets too dangerous?

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Last Saturday, while dancing Kitri in Don Quixote, Natalia Osipova slipped and fell. The Russian ballerina recovered herself quickly, flashing the audience a rueful grin, and completed the first act with her partner, Matthew Golding. During the interval it was announced that she had hurt herself too badly to continue, and that she would be replaced by first soloist Akane Takada.

The Royal has a tradition of rising to the occasion in a crisis, and so it proved last week. Takada is a very different Kitri to Osipova. Where the former Bolshoi star gives us soaring leaps and show-stopping virtuosity, Tokyo-born Takada is all spun-gold precision, teasing out the music’s grace notes and framing her fiercely determined gaze with the subtle flow of her arms. Act 2 was a joy. The ensemble dancing is now well bedded-in, and Takada’s sparkle was beautifully complemented by Francesca Hayward’s dragonfly vividness as Amor, and Claire Calvert’s bountiful Queen of the Dryads. In Act 3, elegantly and attentively partnered by Golding, Takada crowned the grand pas de deux with two glorious balances that will linger long in the memory of those who witnessed them.

But in all of this we should not forget Osipova. What it cost her to complete Act 1, urchin smile gamely in place, we will never know. Ballet is a high-risk activity, and a slippery patch of stage or a split-second’s inattention in a leap can spell serious injury and months of rehabilitation. Alina Cojocaru almost broke her neck in rehearsals here, Ivan Putrov had to be carried offstage with a torn Achilles tendon, and Claire Calvert returned this season from a year’s lay-off following a severe knee injury.

Lauren Cuthbertson has suffered a string of mishaps, most recently a badly twisted foot sustained while performing the notorious “slide” in Act 1 of Manon. This step, an accelerated, feet-first skid to the ground, has injured Cuthbertson, Alina Cojocaru, Sylvie Guillem, Sarah Lamb, Cynthia Harvey and Tamara Rojo. It is a known and wretched hazard which clearly should be modified. But no-one at the Royal dares touch MacMillan’s choreography, and one dancer’s injury is another’s chance for triumph. When the Manon skid claimed Cojocaru, Jamie Tapper raced to Covent Garden from her flat, where she had been decorating, and completed the ballet with visible streaks of white paint on her hands. At the age of 19, Marianela Nuñez replaced the injured Leanne Benjamin as Don Quixote’s Kitri, propelling herself to the Royal’s front rank.

The Covent Garden crowd has always loved these last-minute heroine narratives, and cheered Takada home. Osipova, meanwhile, will be reflecting on the price of giving her audience all of herself, every time. She could play it safe, but she wouldn’t be Osipova if she did.

(first published The Observer, 23 Dec 2014)

Sexism in dance: where are all the female choreographers?

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As a nation we are well supplied with choreographers. Matthew Bourne, Akram Khan, Wayne McGregor, Liam Scarlett, Christopher Wheeldon… the list goes on. All are highly acclaimed, players on the world stage, their services booked for years ahead. So why are their female colleagues struggling for visibility? Why, when British dance was founded by women like Ninette de Valois and Marie Rambert, and has always employed more women than men, are there no high-profile women choreographers?

It’s 14 years since a woman was commissioned to create a main-stage ballet at the Royal Opera House. If this were true of women playwrights at the National Theatre, or female artists at the Tate, there would be outrage. But at the flagship institution of British dance, the omission has escaped public notice. As it did last summer when the Royal Ballet and the National Gallery launched a collaboration named Metamorphosis: Titian 2012. Of the 15 artists and choreographers involved, none was a woman. An ironic decision, given that the subject was the goddess Diana, the personification of feminine power.

Even in contemporary dance, historically a territory marked out by choreographic pioneers such as Martha Graham and Pina Bausch, men are much more prominent than women. In the UK the female choreographers are there – Fleur Darkin, Shobana Jeyasingh, Charlotte Vincent and others have been diligently carving out careers for years – but it’s almost always their male colleagues, even the less experienced ones, who get the big commissions. “It’s a nightmare for those of us who watch as men get given chances they are simply not ready for while we graft away at our craft and take smaller-scale opportunities,” says Janis Claxton, an Edinburgh-based choreographer. “Women quit because they don’t get the support that their male colleagues get, and having to push constantly against this outrageous gender inequality is infuriating.”

In classical dance, female choreographers are rare indeed, and the dynamics of vocational ballet schooling are at least partly responsible. Boys see themselves as individuals from the start, but girls quickly learn how replaceable they are, and in consequence can become over-anxious to “fit in”.

“When I was a student,” one Royal Ballet soloist remembers, “the highest praise was to be told that you were a ‘good girl’.” While this makes for loyal, biddable corps de ballet dancers, it doesn’t encourage young women to take a proactive approach to their own creative careers. In professional ballet companies, faced with heavier workloads and greater competitive stress than their male colleagues (not to mention the exigencies of pointe work), few women have the time, energy or inclination to consider choreography.

And to date, those who do have found the cards stacked against them. Consider the case of Vanessa Fenton. From 2001 the Royal Ballet held a series of choreographic evenings in the Royal Opera House’s Clore studio to show work by junior dancers of the company, among them Alastair Marriott, Liam Scarlett, Jonathan Watkins and Fenton. At one such evening, critics were invited to select a fledgling choreographer to whom they felt they could offer constructive advice, and I chose Fenton. In contrast to the men’s more ordered work, Fenton’s was quirky, strangely costumed and bursting with semi-resolved ideas. At the time, as well as choreographing and working as a corps de ballet dancer, she was studying for a degree in English literature at Middlesex University.

Fenton and I corresponded. We discussed her ideas, and the following year, having been awarded her BA, she created a ballet called Knots, which reimagined the poems of RD Laing as a series of text messages. As deft choreographically as it was intellectually, the work marked Fenton out as a potential Next Big Thing.

“I wanted to be a choreographer,” she told me. “Truthfully, I wanted to be director of the Royal Ballet. I loved the company, I would have done anything for them.”

But it didn’t happen. Her literary studies were greeted with bemusement by her superiors: “‘Why would you want to do that?’ they asked me.” And while her male colleagues’ choreography was taken seriously (Marriott, Scarlett and Watkins would all go on to main-stage commissions at the Royal Opera House), Fenton’s wry, sophisticated work was never allowed to progress beyond studio performances. “I’d get a pat on the head from the director – ‘Well done, clever girl’ – and that would be it.” Gradually Fenton realised that she was never going to get a break. “I was devastated, seeing everyone else get a shot. I didn’t get one chance. And it broke my heart.”

Fenton left the Royal Ballet, and looking back she realises that despite her manifest talent she never had a hope of a main-stage commission. She could be, she admits, “difficult… I wasn’t Snow White”. And while difficulty was pardonable in a male member of the company – “Oh, they’d say, he’s a bit of a maverick” – it was unforgivable in a female employee. “It’s as if there was something abhorrent about a free-thinking woman. Something slightly disgusting. How dare she?”

Cathy Marston was another ambitious young choreographer who found the Covent Garden main stage closed to her. A prolific dance-maker, her full-length adaptation of Ibsen’s Ghosts, staged in the Royal Opera House’s Linbury studio on a shoestring in 2005, was one of the finest new story ballets seen in the building since Kenneth MacMillan’s Mayerling in 1978. A few years earlier Marston had approached Anthony Dowell, then director of the Royal Ballet, to ask the company to take her on as a character dancer. This is a traditional arrangement enabling choreographers to work within ballet companies, but Dowell made it clear it was for men only. As Marston told a Ballet Independent Group forum in 2002: “He basically said, ‘Darling, I’d love to have you as a choreographer but you know you’re a girl. We don’t have character parts for girls your age’.”

Marston echoes Fenton in identifying a double standard relating to female creative assertiveness. “It’s fine to be ‘sassy’ or ‘pushy’ as a twentysomething choreographer, but whereas men over 30 can still charm their way through, it’s harder for women. They start to become ‘a flirt’, which leads to worse labels, or the opposite: ‘boring’. And affairs are not as acceptable for women choreographers as for men – not that this is directly connected to opportunity, but it’s not unconnected either. It’s certainly a way that a considerable number of male choreographers use, abuse and build power, in my experience.”

What the history of British classical dance overwhelmingly demonstrates is that while women may run ballet schools and become ballet company administrators and directors, they are rarely, if ever, invited to the choreographic high table. They are permitted responsibility, in other words, but not creative power. The consequence in recent years has been a succession of works, some forgettable, some memorably fine, but all bearing a recognisably male creative stamp.

Choreographer Susan Crow wonders if the situation is self-reinforcing. “Have decades of work from a male perspective internalised particular choreographic conventions, and conditioned tastes to a certain type of physicality?” UK ballet-goers will be in little doubt that this is so. The problem is not that the work of McGregor, Scarlett, Wheeldon and their confrères isn’t good and at times brilliant; the problem is that it’s the only game in town.

Kevin O’Hare, who succeeded Monica Mason as director of the Royal Ballet last year, is sensitive to the issue. “There’s no getting away from the fact that the women haven’t been coming through,” he says, adding that he has approached an internationally renowned female choreographer with a view to a future commission. Within the company, O’Hare says: “I will try and make a path for women to be creative.” This is heartening, as is the news that Scottish Ballet director Christopher Hampson has commissioned pieces from three women (Crystal Pite, Kristen McNally and Helen Pickett) for the 2013 season. Last year Scottish Ballet presented A Steetcar Named Desire, choreographed by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa. The production won a South Bank Sky Arts award, and the prize for best classical choreography at the National Dance awards.

But there is a long way to go before female choreographers achieve anything like parity with men in either classical or contemporary dance. An illuminating analysis of the female choreographer’s dilemma is provided by the dance historian Lynn Garafola. Looking at pioneer dance-makers like Bronislava Nijinska, Isadora Duncan and Agnes de Mille, Garafola notes that while women are invariably in the vanguard of any new dance endeavour, men soon step in if the project is successful. “In smaller companies, in newer companies, in companies that have an experimental dimension – you’ll find women choreographers there. But once ballet is institutionalised, it becomes a man’s world.”

This is certainly true of contemporary dance in the UK. Of the 12 associate artists at Sadler’s Wells who are choreographers, just two of them are female – Jasmin Vardimon and Kate Prince. There’s a theory that women are more complicated in their ambitions, and less ruthless when it comes to networking, self-promotion and playing the system. But even if this is true it’s hard to believe that it’s more than a contributory factor to female under-representation.

In the words of Fleur Darkin, choreographer and artistic director of Scottish Dance Theatre: “Institutions are biased against female achievement systematically, not because individuals are misogynist. It is the culture, not one thing.”

No one offered choreographic careers to Vardimon, Prince or Darkin; they had to fight for them. And it’s a fight from which many like Fenton withdraw, bloodied and exhausted. “The ambition was kicked out of me. In any other institution I’d have been an asset. Why wasn’t I given a chance?”

(First published The Observer, 28 April 2013)