Elmhurst Ballet School: Awakenings

July 7, 2019

Maggie Foyer

Awakenings, Elmhurst Ballet School’s whole school programme, was a lively, entertaining evening of dance covering the broad range of dance the school offers and proud parents seeing everyone in action. Artistic Director, Robert Parker, notes the importance of training versatile dancers for today’s dance industry but while Elmhurst has an unusual and diverse mix of dance styles for a ballet school, it is open to question whether the curriculum is meeting the market. To their credit the student, were well costumed, well-groomed and the show ran like clockwork.

The first half showcased non-classical dance and bright-eyed, smiling dancers from the tiniest to the tallest gave confident performances. The most sophisticated work, in choreography and performance was Wayne McGregor’s Entity. Emilia Rouanet Feliu opened with a solo where she was ahead of the game with strong extensions, a fluid torso and clear articulation in her movements, something I didn’t see enough of in other dancers although Ryan Felix and Andrea Canalicchio gave impressive performances. The structure is complex and surprising, John Hopkins’ music developing from scratchy record to rhythmical beat in a work that is a fine addition to the Elmhurst Ballet Company repertoire.

The Message, choreographed by Daniela Cardim, a smart piece of neo-classical choreography built on a clever idea used pointes and partnering to good effect and was given a strong performance by the dancers of the school’s touring Company. Cardim has been named as the fifth choreographer on Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Ballet Now programme of new works, and will present on the company in summer 2020.

Elmhurst Ballet School in Secuencias by Ana GarciaPhoto Andy Ross
Elmhurst Ballet School in Secuencias by Ana Garcia
Photo Andy Ross

Friend Like Me, danced by Year 7, opened the evening in bright costumes with an oriental flavour. Buoyed up by super-confident performers with winning smiles, it earned an enthusiastic audience response. In fact, this was the case with most of the very entertaining jazz numbers. However, there is sadly little employment for jazz dancers who are not also trained singers, and there is fierce competition from stage schools turning out high quality ‘triple threat’ singer/dancer/actors.

Secuencias, choreographed by Ana Garcia, was danced by the senior school, each level showing an increase in sophistication and rhythmic complexity. The dancers delivered with commitment and great style. Historically, Spanish dance has been a significant part of the Elmhurst curriculum but while it may teach rhythm and footwork, there are few employment opportunities available for non-specialists in this field.

In the second half the focus was ballet. Réves de Jeunesse showed the progression through the grades from 7–11 with the senior school presenting excerpts from Sir Peter Wright’s production of The Sleeping Beauty. It was a chance to see all the lower school go through their paces. It was well choreographed by the teaching staff, showing the development through the years. The youngest of the boys were most impressive and working strongly for their age. It was difficult to assess the quality of the Year 8s, dressed in baggy overalls and dancing to Copland’s Rodeo, but their enthusiasm was undeniable. The choreography for the girls was rather soft-edged, characterised by careful port de bras and pas de bourrées. At this level, nailing a good demi-plié and strong tendu sets the dancers up for the whole of their career and it would be good to have seen more of these. The higher levels showcased some exceptional pupils whizzing off fouettés, neat batterie and virtuosic jumps. It climaxed on a careful exercise in pas de deux by the Year 11.

Elmhurst Ballet School Year 11 Girls in Gloria Grigolato's Réves de JeunessePhoto Andy Ross
Elmhurst Ballet School Year 11 Girls
in Gloria Grigolato’s Réves de Jeunesse
Photo Andy Ross

The Sleeping Beauty, a benchmark in the classical repertoire had its ups and downs but looked lovely in Philip Prowse’s exquisite costumes. Kirsty Walker, as Aurora, had a confident partner in Alex Johnson although there were a few close calls. Due to injury, Andrea Canalicchio took over for the Prince’s solo and danced with great elán. He showed a warm presence, fine tours and a very stylish finish. Walker’s solo was careful and started well but into the coda, she had little energy left and just managed to get there.

The Bluebirds, Isla Ghali and William Mitchell, were secure in the pas de deux showing quality and style in upper body. Ghali danced a lovely solo but while Mitchell had crisp clean batterie, Bluebird is one of the most exhausting of the male variations and he too struggled to finish. However, he bounced back to execute a fine brisé diagonal in the coda.

The fairy solos were uneven often starting well but few managed a strong clean finish. The opening scene of fairies and cavaliers was better. The partnering was good and the dance well-rehearsed and well executed. The Lilac Fairy attendants also danced with precision while Emilie Bouet Conran made a gracious Lilac Fairy.

Elmhurst, one of UK’s first vocational schools, has a valuable link as the associate school to Birmingham Royal Ballet. Elmhurst Ballet Company, launched this year, also provides additional small-scale touring experience for graduating students. While Elmhurst has a fine reputation as a school that nurtures and cares for its students in a holistic manner, at the final hurdle, gaining a good job, the record is currently poor. Ryan Felix has gained a BRB apprentice contract and several others are on trainee programmes with small companies, but none have a contract with a major company or even good junior ballet company. Technical standards in both classical and contemporary work do not seem to be matching the opportunities in a very competitive market.