David Mead looks ahead to Summer Variations, this year’s Elmhurst Ballet School’s summer shows with school artistic director, Robert Parker, and David Bintley, director of Birmingham Royal Ballet, who has created his first work for the students.
In Birmingham, full-time dance training means Elmhurst Ballet School, Britain’s oldest vocational dance school, now fast approaching its centenary, having been founded in Camberley, Surrey in 1923, before relocating to Edgbaston in 2004. The annual summer performances are always a highlight of the school year; a rare chance for students to showcase their talent in public, some for the last time as they leave to join the professional ranks.
After two years at the Birmingham Rep, the school is this year ‘returning home’, the shows taking place in its own studio theatre. The good news is that, for the first time, Elmhurst is able to open these up to the public, who will get to see David’s new ballet, Comic Cuts, among a host of other good-looking works.
The students got a lot from the experience of performing in a big, professional venue but, says Robert, “We thought it would be nice to do it back in house. It allows us to bring people into the school. We have a fabulous theatre, fabulous facilities but we do feel sometimes like people don’t know about us. When people visit our school, they walk through the doors and are completely bowled over by the facilities, the students, everything. So, we thought, let’s shout a bit more from the rafters that we are here. But we are certainly not ruling out going back to the Rep in the future,” he stresses.
Although Birmingham Royal Ballet’s principal school remains The Royal Ballet School in London, Elmhurst has a very close and fruitful relationship with the company. It’s an association that is “absolutely wonderful and simply goes from strength to strength,” says Robert.
“Aligning our repertory with BRB opens up opportunities for dancers and notators to come and work with the students,” explains Robert. “The BRB dancers are here as much as possible, often teaching that repertory, while our Upper School dancers get to perform with the company occasionally.” The graduate students can also take class with the company from time to time, so even if they’re unfortunate enough not to be selected to perform, they get that experience. Such contact with professionals is crucial for students, he believes. “Allowing them the opportunity to work with the company gives them really valuable industry experience.
Birmingham Royal Ballet also get involved in class assessments, choreographic competitions, and lead in delivering Elmhurst’s summer school. “Marion Tait is pivotal in that. She always delivers the most incredible masterclass in mime.” And, of course, the summer shows. “Having the company stage manager, Diana, barking at them in the wings is great experience,” says Robert, smiling.
While the association allows Birmingham Royal Ballet to use the students, and gives their dancers the chance to cut their teaching teeth, David sees the relationship as being about something much deeper. “It’s like having children. How does having children benefit you? It’s because you want to give. It’s because you have experience, skills and abilities that you just want to pass on. One of the hardest things that BRB, or Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet as it was in London, always faced, was that it didn’t have that proximity with the Royal Ballet School that the Royal Ballet had, so we never had as much of an outlet. I’m a great believer in that interface. I think it’s terribly important. I thought that when I was a student myself. It’s exciting to work with a company.”
He continues, “It’s important that our people have the opportunity to work with young people, to pass their gifts on, whether as a teacher, choreographer or co-performer. All these things we do with Elmhurst students. The tremendous thing is that a lot of staff at the Elmhurst were members of BRB or its forerunner. They have a great knowledge of the company and the way we perform.”
Comic Cuts is David’s first work created on Elmhurst students. Made on the Upper School dancers, it’s a 15-minute piece in five sections, set to the music of Raymond Scott. “An extraordinary guy,” he says. “He used to be in one of the big television orchestras, then he cut loose and formed the Raymond Scott Quintette, although it had six players, which says a lot about him, and wrote this vary particular kind of jazz.” Reportedly, Scott thought ‘Quintette’, his spelling, sounded “crisper”, and was concerned that calling it a sextet might “get your mind off music.” His work quickly got picked up by the cartoon makers, who adapted his scores for many 1930s classics, notably Warner Brothers’ Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies series. “After that he was in the forefront of TV advertising and wrote a lot of electronic stuff before almost anyone else was doing it. He was a real original,” David adds.
David’s entertaining, witty ballet is full of dance that showcases the personalities of the dancers. Comic Cuts definitely has the ‘smile factor’, even in the studio and out of costume. He explains, “It’s all inspired by comics and early cartoons, the Silly Symphonies, the early Disney’s that had a lot of funny animals and insects in. There is some colour in it, but the whole thing is designed to be in black and off-white, so it looks like the old black and white cartoons and comic strips.”
Reflecting on the creative process, David says, “It’s always interesting working with young people. You can’t take anything for granted. You can’t just throw something at them and they come up with it. You have to be very, very precise. I’ve done a lot of dancing, getting up and demonstrating. You especially have to do that with something quirky like this. What I really enjoy is the journey with them, because they are better at the end of it. They do benefit from working with choreographers from outside the school.”
Robert agrees wholeheartedly. “It’s great experience for our young dancers to work creatively with industry leaders like David and Stéphen Delattre, who has made a new contemporary piece on the graduate students. Stéphen gave them lots of feedback about audition techniques, what they should be wearing, body language… It was a great education for them.”
All those things are important when it comes to finding jobs. As Robert explains, “There’s a big shift in the expectations companies have of graduating students today. Choreographer-directors want to see how receptive dancers are, how collaborative they are, how articulate they are and whether they can transmit their ideas. Dancers today need to be more than just technically proficient. They’ve got to be creative, autonomous and versatile. It is a challenge to prepare them for the rigours to come. My answer is ‘let’s bring in the profession.’ Let’s effectively get them experienced before they leave the school. So, any opportunity I can, I get people in to work with the students, expose them to new ideas and push their boundaries.”
Those boundaries, and the students’ physicality were certainly pushed by French-born Stéphen, says Robert. Choreographer and director of Mainz, Germany-based Delattre Dance Company, Stéphen prefers to see his work, Next Breath, as a “presentation of work in progress” rather than ‘finished’ choreography. Danced to music by Michael Gordon, he explains that the idea behind the piece is “next generation, next breath;” that the dancers finishing it are not those who started it; the journey has changed them.
From the new to the old and a ballet rarity to look forward to: Frederick Ashton’s Explosions Polka, which has been revived for the Upper School’s Year 13 students by Ann Whitley. Not danced for over 30 years, the divertissement accompanied Ashton’s Voices of Spring pas de deux in the Royal Opera’s 1977 production of Die Fledermaus. The ensemble piece was last performed during the 1984 Christmas season at the Royal Opera House.
Also in Summer Variations is a new work by local choreographer Adam Rutherford, who has created a piece for the Lower School Year 11 students, jazz and flamenco, plus two short works by Year 9 student Olivia Chang-Clarke and Year 13 student Chloe Jones, both recipients of Elmhurst’s annual David Bintley Choreographic Awards and both choreographed on their respective year groups
“It’s all about balancing tradition with the modern and new,” says Robert. “The British dance heritage is important. You do have to have a respect from the past before you can look to the future.”
Summer Variations is at Elmhurst Ballet School’s studio theatre (249 Bristol Road, Birmingham, B5 7UH) from July 7-14, 2017. For booking visit www.eventbrite.co.uk and search for Summer Variations in Birmingham (note that only shows with tickets available are listed).