English National Ballet School, introductions at City Island, London on November 02 2019. Photo: Arnaud Stephenson

The inaugural World Ballet School Day

The inaugural World Ballet School Day, which comprised nearly three hours of film from graduating and younger students across the world, was a triumph. In these difficult times of lockdown and uncertain futures, it was encouraging to listen to and watch these young people espousing the virtues of their chosen careers with such enthusiasm, as well as projecting a deeply held faith that all will come right eventually.

Originally the brainchild of English National Ballet School’s Director of Dance, Viviana Durante, she introduced the programme and then let the students take over. The message was one of solidarity – that no matter where you are, the dance world is a tight knit community and connected through its common language. Led by six students on Zoom, each of them was eloquent, articulate and talented. There were eleven international schools and the Prix de Lausanne involved, showcasing some pre-lockdown footage of performances as well as rehearsals and a piece of new choreography by Didy Veldman. The whole event was not only insightful, but with such diverse offerings and presentations, a great vehicle for promoting the intelligence, resilience and determination of the next generation of dancers.

After introductions and explanations, born in Missouri, USA, Maya Smallwood took us through the Canadian adventure at Canada’s National Ballet School where she’s studying. Not so recent footage showed a sweet Juliet solo followed by a pas de deux from La Bayadère. This led into Azure Barton’s Come In, showing the strength of the male students, but the highlight in this section was Jera Wolfe’s Arise for a vast cast. He’s an established dancer and choreographer, highly innovative and visually impactful – his choreographic voice reminds me of Akram Khan’s but he is nevertheless, singularly original. Palucca University of Dance Dresden, introduced by Olivia Mitchell, Swiss born with British parents, gave us a completely different offering. Film clips, clearly created in lockdown, were imaginative and artistic, more contemporary yet no less striking. Ava Arbuckle, from Dallas, regaled her Prix de Lausanne experience at which she was the winner and the recipient of a scholarship to the school of her choice. The John Cranko School in Stuttgart will open its doors to her when they can – lucky them!  She has an extraordinary talent, just fifteen years old, and already in command of a strong technique, yet it is her warmth and grace that make her stand out. It was interesting to catch up with her week of classes and performances, her candid commentary of events allowing us a glimpse at the range of talent visiting the Prix. Arianna Hughlett (also known as Anna) is studying at Boston Ballet School. Again, one was struck by the maturity and integrity with which she speaks about the art form. We also saw a piece of her own choreography, as she explained that she had been mentored by Helen Pickett; Quartet, showed great promise.

Following this we saw a performance by the Royal Ballet School which was given at the Prix de Lausanne during the interval. Beginning with Ashley Page’s Larina Waltz for five couples, it was quickly apparent that this was a bumper crop of graduate students who are astonishingly accomplished already. It’s not easy choreography – Page honed his craft with Ashton and MacMillan and there are challenges which lie in every phrase that would have made even seasoned professionals rather twitchy. Yet each couple were polished technically, strikingly confident, pleasing in presentation and exceptionally musical. In an adaptation of parts of Ashton’s Rhapsody, Daichi Ikarashi, who has shown enormous potential since a very young age at White Lodge, displayed all the makings of a future principal. Apart from his phenomenal facility, he has charm in abundance. His cohorts, dancing the pas de deux, Lauren Hunter and Denilson Almeida, look set for bright futures too.

Joel Calstar-Fisher from English National Ballet School introduced some rehearsal footage of My First Cinderella (ch: Ruth Brill), which unfortunately wasn’t performed as scheduled because of lockdown. Followed by some Zoom conversations with fellow students about how they’ve coped during the last few months – they voiced sentiments that echo everywhere. Calstar-Fisher offered some of the most interesting observations into the sound advice given to the students during this period, from professionals or ex-professionals. He quoted his teacher, David Yow, who suggested that the most common word a dancer will hear during their career will be ‘no’!  As in: no, you’re not doing this right; no, you’re not right for this; no, you’re not doing this just how I want it – and finishes by saying that being able to deal with that rejection everyday makes dancers resilient.  Wise words indeed. Tessa Karle, currently at the New Zealand School of Dance, but born in Canberra, Australia, introduced some wonderful clips of students from the Australian Ballet School discussing their feelings along with film footage of previous performances. Including snippets of The Sleeping Beauty – standards look exceptionally high. Guilherme Vicente and Christian Mathot were the captivating hosts of a look inside the Dutch National Ballet Academy which included a really interesting interview with Ernst Meisner, the artistic director of the school and the Junior Company. It struck me that it would have been a bonus to hear from other school leaders, particularly when confronted by their own students.  Perhaps this could be included in future transmissions.  When we revisited Karle, she was initially holed up in a hotel, having to do quarantine for two weeks after returning to Wellington from Australia, to resume her studies. Of course, New Zealand is ahead of the world in terms of returning to normality – and it’s a positive. After getting back into the studio, we saw her in action rehearsing a pas de deux – her commentary and the beauty of her dancing were both inspiring.

Last but not least, we were treated to Veldman’s A Screen Apart, commissioned by the Royal Ballet School. Let me say from the outset – it is a remarkable achievement. Veldman is resourceful in the extreme and combined with her imagination, dedication and choreographic vision, she has created something that will resonate everywhere within the dance community. It will also represent a sort of COVID diary for posterity.  It transmits the quality that dancers exude – the notion that nothing can or will defeat that innate desire to dance. Using over a hundred dancers from every corner of the world, each of them using their own phones/cameras to film what they did, and set to JS Bach Goldberg Variations and The Well-Tempered Clavier, Veldman has crafted a series of vignettes, adhering to the restrictions of the particular dancer.  Some of them are outside, some watched by dogs, some in kitchens and so on. All of them are expertly, in fact – ingeniously – edited together by the BalletBoyz, Michael Nunn and Billy Trevitt, in a half hour long montage which clearly depicts the mood of lockdown. Even different time zones could not deter Veldman from completing her choreographic project/study.

In conclusion, one hopes that WBSD will become an annual event. Thoroughly enjoyable for multiple reasons, it could do with a bit of tightening up to avoid repetitious dialogue. However, the concept and delivery are a runaway success.

Participating schools in A Screen Apart: The Royal Ballet School, San Francisco Ballet School, Canada’s National Ballet School, Paris Opera Ballet School, The Royal Danish Ballet School and Dutch National Ballet Academy.

Other schools participating in WBSD alongside the above were The Australian Ballet School, Boston Ballet School, English National Ballet School, New Zealand School of Dance, Palucca University of Dance Dresden and the Prix de Lausanne.

WBSD available for catch-up for one month at www.worldballetschoolday.com

Article by Deborah Weiss

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