English Youth Ballet, Grand Opera House, Friday 25th April 2014
About a year ago, English National Ballet presented their company to Ballet Teachers in Northern Ireland, encouraging them to put forward their dancers for audition to complete the company that would see professional Principal dancers, dancing with soloists and corps made up of dancers from around the country. Ballet is successful, across the country, to a certain level with some notable over-achievers who have taken their careers to the greatest companies in the world. Most of our ballet dancers have to leave the country to get any sort of success and Melissa Hamilton shocked the Royal Opera House audience and Royal Ballet partner, Eric Underwood at an Insight event, by saying that she had not danced on stage until she commenced her professional career at the Royal Ballet. Hopefully this opportunity to dance in one of the greatest classical ballets of all time, in one of the greatest theatres, will give young dancers the recognition they deserve and the performance opportunities that have been lacking that place them at a distinct disadvantage when they are competing for places at Ballet Schools and for professional contracts. It really does show the level of determination that our dancers that have made it on the greatest stages of the world have shown and that they will be able to pass their knowledge onto up and coming dancers. Of course what would be the dream would and something that I think could be truly life-changing for many of our young people in Northern Ireland is a Performing Arts School, I think we owe it to the next generation and could have more economic benefits, in the long term, than it initially costs, in terms of giving them purpose and a shared future, more than artificially trying to merge them but staying in their own communities, take them into a new community and it widens their horizons. Channel 4 recently featured a dancer and musicians in Baghdad and the struggles that they go through to attend the last Performing Arts school. Northern Ireland has none of the difficulties that this country must go through but it is inspirational to witness the determination that these dancers have to display their talents, in spite of their hard work or chosen field not always being the most popular or widely recognised.
The evening started with wave after wave of dancers taking to the stage in beautiful costumes befitting their role and stage of training and with the older dancers in pointe shoes. It was a breathtaking sight, to see so many homegrown ballet dancers, from dance schools across the country. This is a good sign for the growing stature of ballet, that the stage of the Grand Opera House, one of the finest theatres in the world that has been graced by Darcy Bussell and Carlos Acosta. Up until the recent renovation and extension of the Grand Opera House and the improvement of the stage that became a deterrent for top ballet stars coming to the Belfast, so many dancers would not have been able to dance on the stage. We have been blessed in recent years with the renovation or completion of some stunning arts venues, although I would like to see the pendulum swing towards supporting fledgling talent to fill these venues that hopefully our very own young people will dance or appear on, in years to come. However, we are so thankful for English Youth Ballet who have done a very precious thing here by offering our young people an opportunity that a lot of us who discovered ballet later in life, would have killed for. I think even being a child in the audience, would have inspired me to get down to ballet class and hopefully will inspire those who don’t have a particular interest in ballet as I noticed that this audience was possibly not the usual ballet audience and there was a large group of young, must have been along to see a school friend and the group of character dancers got a particularly loud cheer. These young people were dressed superbly for the occasion and maybe if they have never been to ballet before, will now consider attending other performances.
After the first procession of dancers onto the stage, the Royal family and the baby Princess, Aurora, is presented to the public, like Prince George, in an official family photo. A role that caught my eye in this scene was that of the photographer, played by one of the very few boys dancing this evening, in fact, there were only three and one had a very small part and the other was a tiny boy but who was not overawed by his surroundings and adorably cute. I really enjoyed the young boy who played the photographer as he oozed confidence and personality, he may not, as yet, be the finished article in terms of strength and balance and could point his toes a bit more but this will all come with time and practice and growing up, if, of course, he sticks with ballet and peer pressure does not overcome his enthusiasm. I would love to see Ballet Boyz with their experience and personalities to take on the mammoth challenge of our lack of male dancers in Northern Ireland. Cultural stereotyping still pretty much dictates that dancing is for girls and our young men don’t have the chance to engage with the strength and manliness of ballet. I love that the Ballet Boyz slogan is ‘Real Men do Wear Tights’, however, tights are not necessarily obligatory and maybe in the future, tights will be consigned to history but for now, whether in tights or not, male ballet dancers must embody graceful strength, musicality, topped with the stamina of a marathon runner, it really is for special people. In full flow, ballet is a spectacular sight to behold when all the elements come together as it did on this evening.
Sleeping Beauty is one of the greatest classical works alongside the likes of Giselle and Swan Lake and most of us know the story which was largely untouched in this particular ballet. It retained what is reported to be one of the most difficult solos for a ballerina, the Rose Adagio, performed by professional dancers, whom I notice from the website are also Ballet Mistresses/ Masters. Their dancing for the evening was lovely, if a few wobbles or maybe were a little slower than I am used to but they created the dramatic icing on the cake, supported from some of the older dancers in solo roles. Some of the older girls danced solos and danced as a group, they were wonderful. Most were on pointe and actually didn’t notice that some of the dancers weren’t until they were taking their bow. The younger dancers played their part as well, such as Carabosse’s company of mice and in the reverse role, cats, in the fairytale sequence. They were dressed, complete with white tutus and when they turned to wiggle their tails at the audience in perfect synchronicity with the music, they had the audience enthralled. There were memorable solo roles, a young dancer in a pink dress did a short solo but she really stood out for me as a really graceful and poised dancer. There was also a girl who played Cinderella, dancing with some of the younger dancers and she gave a great performance. The dancers were well drilled and carried their roles off with aplomb with what must have been at times, terrifying and exhilarating. This work was put together in such a short space of time and as most dancers probably train in church halls with chairs as audience, it really was miraculous to put this together to such a standard and bring the performance element out for these dancers and soloists.
I was in awe of these young dancers and bravo to English Youth Ballet and their teachers for the obvious hard work that went into this event. Let’s hope that this is an epoch-making evening and these dancers are encouraged to strive harder in their training and perhaps go onto follow in the footsteps of other Northern Ireland dancers such as Gillian Revie and Melissa Hamilton. I hope that we cherish our arts and build upon this success and that there is a dividend for dance, special mention goes to the Belfast Telegraph who have followed the dancer’s progress and devoted many articles to them. I would also like to see a revitalised umbrella body for dance like Dance Northern Ireland many years ago. Dance Resource Base do a lot of work with dance professionals and letting them know about what is going on but an organisation that is fully funded and recognized. I would like to see a dance umbrella organization that bridges the gap between audiences, professionals, young people in training and adults doing it recreationally, to give everyone with an interest in dance, at all levels, a place to go and support each other. Maybe Northern Ireland can develop, if not its own ballet company but surely a Youth Ballet company can be aspirational and English Youth Ballet have showed how this can be done. It would be nice to see our talent staying in Northern Ireland, instead of shipping out, at a young age, where opportunities to influence the next generation are limited. However, ballet is having a bit of a renaissance and new studios are opening up that have great intentions for dance in Northern Ireland and especially to take on the perception of dance amongst males and the dearth of boys dancing in this country, so that next time boys will not be outnumbered 3 to 100!