Dancers in the Making. John O’Dwyer Visits the English National Ballet School

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English National Ballet School

From the outside, English National Ballet School’s early-twentieth-century premises in a street off the King’s Road look like those of countless other colleges of further education. (They are, in fact, shared with Kensington and Chelsea College.) It is not until you reach the first floor that there is a sense of being in a place where dance is taught. In one of the study rooms on this floor last Friday afternoon school staff welcomed members of the London Ballet Circle – with tea, coffee, and mince pies – to watch students of the school in a ninety-minute rehearsal of ballet, contemporary, and character dance.

Founded in 1946, the London Ballet Circle (whose current patron is Sir Peter Wright) is a registered charity aimed at promoting interest in dance (‘not just ballet’, as its website points out). Funds raised through its activities go to supporting gifted student dancers. These activities include talks by dancers and choreographers, and visits for members and guests to ‘top’ ballet schools. As a member for the past year, I had been to the talks. This was my first visit.

English National Ballet School was set up by English National Ballet in 1988. Now functioning as a separate entity, it maintains ‘strong links’ to its parent company. (Former students include English National Ballet dancers Alison McWhinney, Junor Souza, Ksenia Ovsyanick, Erina Takahashi and Lauretta Summerscales). The school teaches a three-year course in professional dance, with sixteen as the starting age. The third-year students that afternoon were rehearsing with English National Ballet for its forthcoming production of The Nutcracker at the London Coliseum. We were to watch the first and second year students in pieces from the school’s December Showcase event (the first performance of which had been given the previous evening).

The ‘stage’ of the high-ceilinged, tall-windowed ENBS Studio Theatre, as we took our seats, was a flurry of warm-up pirouettes, lifts and spins. When it cleared, the Director of Dance, Samira Saidi, told us it was ‘a real treat’ for the students to have us there. She then called for seven of the first-year students (who were waiting in the corridor outside) to perform, in turn, the solos they had choreographed on themselves.

Choreography is compulsory at English National Ballet School, partly, Saidi explained, so that students can learn how to be a ‘muse’ for a choreographer. The seven students, who started at the school in September, had received one lesson in the subject per week. With help from Samira Saidi when nerves, quiet voices, or difficulties with English made it necessary, each student introduced their work before performing it. As different from each other as the seven dancers themselves, these short, sensitive and coherent solos to recorded music explored technique (Balanchine) and the themes of war, falling leaves, dreams, insecurity, overcoming, and the rush hour in New York.

When Saidi’s ‘Any more first years?’ met with a negative response, it was the turn of the second-year students. Their choreography was a group work for five dancers. The ‘motif’, chosen from a set of four given to them by English National Ballet Associate Artist and alumnus of the school, George Williamson, was ‘aggressive control’. Showing the greater aplomb that a second year of training had given them, the female dancers made use of the bourrée (with arms in fifth position high). Gestures were thrown off as if in defiance. The grouping of their bodies had impact. The piece ended with a lift by one couple that was rather unsettlingly repeated by a second, who rushed out from the wings behind them.

Both first and second year students then returned for a section from a piece called Mozart Allegro. Choreographed by Renato Paroni to utilize their classwork in dancing the music’s ‘difficult rhythms’, this will be performed in full as part of Spring Celebration: A Showcase of British Dance Training at the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Studio Theatre next March. It was followed by a cut version of ‘Dance of the Hours’ from Coppélia, performed (to piano accompaniment) by twelve of the first-year women. The aim, again, was to challenge the students. A challenge for which the dancers showed themselves ready as, kneeling in a wide circle around the stage, they rose consecutively, turned on the spot to signify the striking of each hour, then knelt again. One of the students, replacing another who was injured, had learnt this dance in a day.

Before the rehearsal began, Samira Saidi told us that alongside the lessons in ballet, contemporary dance, and choreography, character dancing (e.g. the mazurka) had been introduced into the school syllabus at the start of this academic year. It was a type of dance, she said, that had become neglected, and it was an important one. When a dancer joins a company, their first role is a character role.

‘First years, put your character shoes on!’ she then called out in the direction of the corridor. While they did so, Saidi told us that as Director of Dance she was aiming for uniformity of style across the school, that her focus on port de bras was ‘a work in progress’, and that the use of footwork in the allegro was another area on which she was concentrating. She also mentioned that at the Showcase Event of the night before, Sir Peter Wright had admired the students’ batterie. With the eight character lessons they have had so far to help them, the first-year students then came back to dance a gentle, Polish mazurka, clicking the heels of their black, character shoes together in the air.

The rehearsal over, the first-year students sat together in a relaxed, smiling group on the floor to answer questions from the audience. The first of these was about the pas de deux: ‘Is it terrifying?’ ‘If the girl’s fearless, it makes it easier.’(No one, I realize now, thought to ask any of the girls what they thought.) One boy liked the ‘diversity in training’. One girl liked the fact that there wasn’t always a teacher around, and that you had to be independent. For another boy (and you could tell that he really meant it), the English National Ballet School was like ‘a big family’. When asked if most of the students went into classical ballet after their course, Samira Saidi replied that some people might say, ‘What is classical ballet?’ ‘Nowadays,’ she said, ‘to be the most versatile is the most productive.’

When there were no more questions, the London Ballet Circle chairman, Susan Dalgetty Ezra, stood up to thank Samira Saidi, the four teachers, and the student dancers themselves. The visit to English National Ballet School was, she said, ‘One of the highlights of our year.’ I could easily see why.

John O’Dwyer

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