Changing attitudes with Ballet United

This summer, London’s Cadogan Hall hosted the first Ballet United Gala. David Mead catches up with organiser Tom Attard Manché to talk about the event, and his hopes for Ballet United going forward.

You get the impression that dancer Tom Attard Manché still can’t quite believe he pulled it off. Only 23, and with no experience of putting together such a show, he brought 30 dancers from across Europe to London for an evening that showcased classical and contemporary ballet with new and recent works alongside classical pas de deux (reviewed here). It was a resounding success. But why take on such a huge undertaking?

Tom Attard ManchéPhoto courtesy Tom Attard Manché
Tom Attard Manché
Photo courtesy Tom Attard Manché

Tom has a pretty varied background having trained in London, St Petersburg and Paris, before working freelance in New York, London and Paris. He explains that the idea for Ballet United came to him when he was struck down with glandular fever in September 2016. It’s an extremely debilitating illness. “It makes you very tired and couldn’t dance for a few weeks. I was getting quite low, but I had this idea in the back of my head. A lot of my friends would say they were interested in ballet, and when you mention to other people, taxi drivers, bartenders and so on, that you are a dancer, they suddenly become interested too. But very few had ever seen a performance.”

There are clearly some barriers, or at least some perceived barriers, to ballet in particular, believes Tom. “At lot of people we spoke to had this idea that it was too expensive or too elitist for them. I wanted to do something that would get them, the younger audience especially, into the theatre, interest them, get them really excited and ready to embrace ballet.”

So, Ballet United and the gala was born. Making it sound rather easier than it was, Tom says, “I called a few of my friends in companies across Europe. Most were people I grew up with, went to school with, danced with, trained with. I didn’t know all the ins and outs of putting on a show, and I really just needed dancers I could rely on, and they were really adamant they wanted to do it.”

One of the biggest problems turned out to be finding a date when everyone could come. While many dancers are on summer break from their companies in July, many are also away on holiday, he explains.

Cadogan Hall set for a music concertPhoto Alex MacNaughton
Cadogan Hall set for a music concert
Photo Alex MacNaughton

He then got Cadogan Hall in Sloane Square as a venue, wealth management company, LGT Vestra, as lead sponsor and, “It just kind of grew by itself.”

In fact, a great deal of work went into it, not least in putting together a presentation and taking it to venues and sponsors that highlighted his ideas about making ballet more accessible and relevant. No-one would disagree that strength, discipline and vitality are all essential for dancers, but he believes they are also universal ideas that shouldn’t be undervalued.

Cadogan Hall just “felt right,” says Tom. “It’s an old church converted into a theatre. The stage is a good size and it seats 953, so not too big, not too small; and it was a bit unique. When we booked it, ballet had never been done there. Our tickets started at £15. The most expensive was £45. So, potentially, everyone could afford it.”

Melissa Chapski and James Stout in Trois Gnossiennes by Hans Van ManenPhoto Danny J Peace
Melissa Chapski and James Stout
of Dutch National Ballet
in Trois Gnossiennes by Hans Van Manen
Photo Danny J Peace

Having a wide-ranging programme that showed the diversity of ballet today was important too. So, alongside big classical pas de deux were neoclassical and contemporary pieces including a duet from La nuit s’achève by Benjamin Millepied and Trois Gnossiennes by Hans van Manen. There were new works too, by Valentino Zucchetti of The Royal Ballet, Nicola Gervasi of Northern Ballet) and Umut Özdaloglu of the Ballet Junior de Genève.

How do you get the word out about a new event like this? “Social media is the easiest platform to reach young people on. We had a lot of people posting, and that kind of spiralled. I have some friends who are influencers on Instagram. That helped as well.” He also got coverage in Country and Town House and Country Life magazines.

A lot of time was spent on photoshoots, trailers and teasers. “We did a shoot in Paris with dancer Joseph Aumeer which was styled by Denni Elias and shot by Ruy Sanchez, founders of A trailer was shot around London with Isabella McQuire Mayes, and there was also a short film directed by Dark Energy’s Trevor Melvin that features pairs of pointe shoes scattered around everyday London locations that people from different walks of life can take and use as they please.

Ballet shoes in the bus shelterA screenshot from Trevor Melvin's short film
Ballet shoes in the bus shelter
A screenshot from Trevor Melvin’s short film

Tom reveals that there’s one more to come, a sort of behind the scenes film with bits of rehearsal. “I think that sort of thing really engages with people a lot. And I really enjoy working with filmmakers.”

An important part of getting an audience was Tom’s linking up with a couple of companies who have programmes whereby they promote attendance at cultural events for employees as part of their personal development. “We explained the whole concept, and how the programme was geared towards people who hadn’t necessarily seen much ballet before. I was very conscious that people had that idea of ballet and tutus, but I wanted to show them the different things companies were doing, and the really diverse repertoire that there is out there today. We asked them if they would be interested and how many employees they would like to send, especially young employees fresh out of university.”

Looking back, “It was everything I wanted it to be,” says Tom. “There were comments that people didn’t think they would like it going into it, but now they want to watch more. So, it fulfilled the aim of getting people in, and getting them to appreciate ballet,” says Tom.

Mana by Umut Özdaloğlu of the Ballet Junior de GenèvePhoto Danny J Peace
Mana by Umut Özdaloğlu of the Ballet Junior de Genève
Photo Danny J Peace

Tom says he learned a lot from Ballet United. He freely admits to “trying to figure it out as I went along. I got involved in every aspect, stage and artist management, administration, even travel arrangements for the dancers. I had crash courses in Excel, ticketing, dealing with the press, sponsors, dancers, costumes. It was tiring. I was stretched. There was a lot that could have gone wrong. I got quite nervous. But I’m so glad that I did it because now I understand the machine. Next time, I want to delegate more, get more of a team together, so I can have space to be a little more strategic.”

So, there is going to be another gala? “Don’t hold me to it, but I think so. I hope so. I really want to continue to continue with and hone the gala model, to encourage young people to embrace ballet. For 2018, he has a date towards the end of Spring in mind, maybe late May. “But I’m still playing around with it. I change my mind quite a lot. I am, after all, a dancer, and I’m trying to get back. Maybe I get a job somewhere and then it might all become too much.”

Ambre Chiarcosso and Loick Pireaux in the Grand Pas ClassiquePhoto Danny J Peace
Ambre Chiarcosso and Loick Pireaux in the Grand Pas Classique at last July’s gala
Photo Danny J Peace

Looking further ahead, Tom also has plenty of thoughts about how Ballet United might expand, although, laughing, he says, “I’m scared to say anything because I feel like it changes hourly! But I do have a lot of ideas.

When asked what was the most satisfying thing about the gala, Tom only half-jokingly says quickly, “That I made it!” before adding, “And the feeling of empowerment that I got. I never thought I would be able to do something like that and pull it off. Even when I started, I didn’t quite have the self-belief that I could do it. And then there was just watching my friends pull it off on the night. That was really satisfying. I’m still coming down from it. It was just so intense.”

BBC Young Dancer of the Year Nafisa Baba at the Ballet United GalaPhoto Danny J Peace
BBC Young Dancer of the Year Nafisah Baba
dancing Near the place where your feet pass by Laila Diallo
Photo Danny J Peace

And what of Tom as a dancer? Now just over a year since he fell ill, he’s says he’s just focusing on getting back into shape and auditioning. It’s been a long road back. “There was a time when I seemed to be going back to the doctor with something different each week. The more I tried to fight back, the worse it seemed to get. I would be OK for a couple of weeks, then fall apart again. Even now, trying to get back is difficult, but I am really hungry for dance.”

“It feels great to share my thoughts and collaborate with such talented and passionate artists. I could not have done this without the help and support of so many passionate people. Now when I go to take a class, I feel like it makes me a different dancer.”

Tom takes his bow after the first Ballet United GalaPhoto Danny J Peace
Tom takes his bow after the first Ballet United Gala
Photo Danny J Peace

“Looking at YouTube and the videos that are on Facebook, you can see that people are intrigued by dance,” says Tom. Videos can get thousands, sometimes millions of views, but translating that popularity on social media, especially among young people, into actually buying tickets and going to the theatre is not so straightforward. That’s what I’m passionate about. I think it helps that I’m young myself. I really want to remove any barriers that exist, make people feel welcome, feel comfortable. It’s an ambitious task, but I’m energised by it.

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