Posted on August 1, 2016
In her fascinating book, But First A School, a history of New York’s School of American Ballet, Jennifer Dunning examines its annual Spring Workshop Performances, remarking that “the Workshop tradition… has given visibility to the School as a productive vocational institution.”
The phrase “productive vocational institution” doesn’t quite suit the end-of-year performances here, which are dominated by commissioned pieces tailored to fit the dancers comfortably. The Royal Ballet School’s display in July lasted for nearly three hours and, like an old-fashioned recital, allowed every single student to appear – 128 from White Lodge, the lower school, and 84 from the Upper School – in selections matched to their age and ability.
However, the Upper School also took on Ashton’s Les Patineurs and Helgi Tomasson’s bravura Concerto Grosso for five men, in which we could assess the dancers in repertory that one day, if they’re lucky, they might perform as professionals. Twenty-three of them have secured contracts, including all five of those young men. Only four others stood out individually as artists in the making, infusing their technique with musicality and personality that distinguished them from the careful anonymity of the ensemble. Kaho Yanagisawa, the seductive soloist in Kenneth MacMillan’s Soirées musicales, has signed with the Royal Swedish Ballet; Harrison Lee, the Blue Boy in Patineurs, and Julia Conway, one of the Blue Girls, were identified as first year students, and Sae Maeda, the more confident Blue Girl, was named in the second year group.
How do you gauge whether a school is “productive”? By the contracts its dancers receive? By the clarity and difficulty of the technique they show you? Or by the extent to which they can transform the material of daily class into dancing?
Founded in 1988 and currently involving 74 students in a three-year course, English National Ballet School (ENBS) describes itself as “a specialist training centre for… young ballet dancers aged 16 to 19.” I know that many schools concentrate on post-GCSE teenagers or serve them exclusively, but I’ve never understood why intensive training for dancers here only begins after the students’ bodies are formed and their habits set. At 16 – unless you’re as gifted as Rudolf Nureyev, whose serious training began at 15 – it may already be too late to start thinking and working like a professional. At 16, you could be launching a career.
According to Samira Saidi, ENBS’s director of dance, the recent public performance was organised to “showcase our young dancers’ talent and versatility.” The school commissioned several items for them; some students danced in their own work, created for the in-house choreographic competition; and David Bintley’s Four Scottish Dances and the Grand Pas Classique from Raymonda Act III pressed the eager students to take the stage like adults.
Clearly concerned with more than technical proficiency, they also offered gracious manners and a physical attack that varied from one piece to another. Though you wouldn’t have mistaken them for experienced professionals in Raymonda, they captured its inherent grandeur and nobility by honouring the musical impulses that propel the steps.
The same qualities informed the young artists in the Images Ballet Company, which consists of the final year students from London Studio Centre’s classical ballet strand of training. This year, six women and a single man presented a touring programme of five selections, ranging in style from La Vivandière to a “deconstructed sci-fi version of Giselle.”
Undaunted by the task of delivering an entire evening by themselves, the troupe pounced on the opportunity to respond to each work’s distinct atmosphere and vocabulary. The four commissions gave them ample opportunity to do so, and I particularly admired Morgann Runacre-Temple’s The Kingdom of Back and the three women who ignited its drama.
For 21 years, American Ballet Theatre (ABT) has run a summer programme for dancers aged 12 to 22. To conclude this year’s five-week course, the students performed excerpts from ABT’s repertory, including Birthday Offering, Don Quixote, Etudes, Giselle, La Bayadère, Le Corsaire, The Sleeping Beauty and Raymonda. Why shouldn’t the students here tackle a similar challenge? Don’t they dream of dancing that repertory? Isn’t their training meant to prepare them for it? Or do they have different goals in mind?
Pictured: Dancers of English National Ballet School in Raymonda Act III. Photograph: TIM CROSS.