Elmhurst Ballet School Theatre, Birmingham
May 15, 2022
David Mead is at the National Showcase and talks to co-creators Julie Bowers and Brandon Lawrence.
The last couple of years has been a challenging time for dance graduates setting off on their professional careers. As GradPro co-creator and Birmingham Royal Ballet principal dancer Brandon Lawrence told me, it has always been difficult getting yourself seen by companies and directors, but the pandemic has exacerbated things with performance opportunities greatly reduced, and even some graduation and graduate company performances cancelled completely. On top of that, the uncertainty led to some companies also putting recruitment on hold.
Lawrence and Julie Bowers, CEO at bbodance, had already worked together on a number of projects trying to identify how they could help students generally. There had been a couple of online competitions but they wanted to do more.
And so, GradPro was born. Not a competition as its creators are keen point out, but a performance opportunity for recent and imminent graduates to showcase themselves. “It was kind of a no-brainer to do it,” Lawrence says.
“It just snowballed,” Bowers explained. Companies were immediately keen and quickly committed to project, offering to coach and mentor dancers. Most of the venues for the regional events in Birmingham, Glasgow, Leeds and London, from which the fourteen dancers for the National Showcase were selected, also gave their space free. Dansez, who had created a dancewear collection with Lawrence in 2019 were equally enthusiastic. The London Ballet Circle, and Royal Ballet governor and Olivier Awards dance panellist Gail Monahan, offered sponsorship, while another £4,000 came via the project’s JustGiving page.
Danced in front of a small but appreciative and supportive audience, the National Showcase saw each of the fourteen dancers in class centre work (some previously seen, some not), a solo from the ballet repertoire, and a choreographed solo. Although there was a competitive element in that awards were made to the top four dancers as selected by judges Dominic Antonucci (Birmingham Royal Ballet), Kenneth Tindall (Northern Ballet) and Monahan, Lawrence emphasises that the event was very much more about “giving the dancers encouragement and helping them on their way.”
Lawrence explains that GradPro is very much about the dancers taking charge, and negotiating where they want to go and how they present themselves. As such, he says it was the dancers who decided that the repertory solos should come first. They also had a completely free choice of what they performed. There was no list of solos from which they had to choose, for example. Even so, most did stick with the familiar from the 19th-century classics, “although there were no Prologue fairies,” he laughs.
Of those, it was professional trainee at English National Ballet School, Paige McElligott, who would go on to pick up the evening’s top award, who really made people sit up and watch. Her solo from Act I of Giselle was outstanding. She was not only confident and superbly controlled, but showed that wonderful ability to find time in the music, somehow holding or suspending moments in a way that made sure we saw them. Plus, there was a real sense that this was no abstracted solo and that she could see in her mind the other characters on stage.
Of the rest, it’s perhaps no surprise that the two more unusual and punchy selections stood out. Elizabeth Griffiths, a graduate of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, showed all the necessary sharpness and attack in a solo from William Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated. Central School of Ballet graduate, Elena Scott, also played to her strengths as, like McElligott as Giselle, she inhabited her character fully in her variation from Alberto Alonso’s Carmen Suite. She captured perfectly the charged and expressionistic choreography, very much speaking to the audience.
There was much to admire elsewhere although two Elmhurst dancers stood out. Olivia Chang-Clarke, finalist in BBC Young Dancer 2022, gave a nicely controlled, confident and very musical performance of a Cinderella variation from Act II of the ballet; while the tall Mackenzie Jacob cut an elegant figure in his Siegfried solo. Poppy Frankel, now training with former Royal Ballet dancer Vanessa Palmer, gave a particularly perky rendition of the Pizzicato Polka from Sylvia.
In competitions and such like, when given the chance to dance their own choreography or have work made on them, dancers often head down a contemporary path. Not so much here, where almost all the choreographed solos were also very classically-rooted. Again, the work was uniformly impressive although, making the judges lives somewhat easier than is often the case, pretty much the same dancers stood out.
Chang-Clarke proved that she’s very much a performer again, almost playing with the audience in a solo from her own Tetris, which is being danced in full by Elmhurst Ballet Company this year. Frankel showed some beautiful use of the upper torso and shoulders an interesting and very classical Gnossienne No.3. In one of the more contemporary dances, Jacob showed good prowess in his floor work and quick feet in Shift, and I again enjoyed Scott in the powerful Ellipsism, that came with a strong sense of longing. But it was McElligott who again took the honours with Seasong, a dance imbued with joyfulness and a springtime feel that was full of super pirouettes and jetés.
It was no surprise that the judges were unanimous in selecting a delighted Paige McElligott, as winner of the first place Gail Monahan Award, comprising £1000, 20 pairs of Freed pointe shoes and a £250 Dansez gift voucher.
Poppy Frankel took the London Ballet Circle Award, comprising £500 and a Dansez gift voucher. Olivia Chang-Clarke picked up the Dansez Award of £250, two private coaching sessions with Rachel Hester and a Dansez gift voucher; while Mackenzie Jacob won the Yorkshire Ballet Seminar Summer School Scholarship.
The remaining ten dancers also received £100 plus Freed and Dansez vouchers for their participation. Those who did not make it to Elmhurst were all given one-to-one feedback following the regional events.
As the audience drifted away, Lawrence told he how he emphasised to the dancers that, “It is important to keep the conversation going. It doesn’t stop here.”
It really was a super way to spend a Sunday early evening, watching fourteen truly talented dancers. Bowers and Lawrence told me afterwards that a number of companies and directors had already asked to see the film of the showcase. They also revealed that GradPro will be back for 2023, once again open to very recent graduates and students in their final year of training.