Christopher Booker once asserted there were only seven basic plot types, ranging from “rags to riches”, to “overcoming the monster”. Whether or not you agree with him, it’s undeniable we’re drawn to familiar themes in our stories. We love learning about heroes, myths, gods and great lovers because they remind us that, for all the trappings of modern life, human experience hasn’t essentially changed. That doesn’t mean we can’t change these stories – in fact, we must. Theatres need to present new audiences with engaging work that brings humanity to history, otherwise we risk burying ourselves under something rigid and incomprehensible.
Bridging this gap can be especially difficult for young performers in the early stages of their career. When I made my debut as Clara in The Royal Ballet’s The Nutcracker, my biggest challenge was to not be overwhelmed by the roster of dancers who had performed the role before me. I had come from playing a mouse in the production as a student and watching in awe as Alina Cojocaru became a most wonderful Clara. I learned to take inspiration from that whilst finding my own way of telling the story, and that can be the real excitement in conveying a classic story to a new audience – the chance to prove your quality or promise alongside people you aspire to be like.
One of my earliest successes came in winning the Royal Academy of Dance’s Phyllis Bedells Bursary in 2010. Whilst it built my confidence hugely and gave me some wonderful insights and resources, it also represented a fascinating intersection between the past, present and future; among the judges on that day were the late Jean Bedells (daughter of Phyllis Bedells) and Steven McRae. In one of the biggest moments of my dancing life at that stage, I had earned the approval of a hugely respected dancer and someone who would become a colleague at The Royal Ballet, alongside previous winners of the award such as Lauren Cuthbertson, Elizabeth Harrod and Emma Maguire. At one of the starting points of my professional career, the times gone and yet to come were in a comforting alignment.
Storytelling is transient in nature, and someone else may pick up the baton and take dance in a new direction. All we can do is keep encouraging new dancers and all manner of fresh voices eager to take us one step forward, with our rich history in hand.
Anna Rose O’Sullivan is an artist of The Royal Ballet
Pictured above, from left to rightr, are Paula Hunt, Jean Bedells, Anna Rose O’Sullivan and Steven McRae at the Phyllis Bedells Bursary in 2010. Photograph: Mark Lees/Royal Academy of Dance.