In the first of two features looking ahead to its 2023 production of Snow White, David Mead talks to Ruth Brill artistic director of London Children’s Ballet, which now has a first-ever permanent home in Wandsworth.
Read also, “They are so rising to it”, a conversation with with Snow White choreographer Gavin McCaig and dancers.
As anyone who has been to one its West End performances will surely agree, London Children’s Ballet (LCB) is rather extraordinary. Established by Lucille Briance in 1994, it provides a rare and quite possibly unique experience for its dancers: to be part of a professional company, and to appear in a full-length, narrative ballet accompanied by a live orchestra. The performers may only be aged 9 to 14 (9 to 16 for boys), but the company’s professional values are on a par with any major ensemble. The youngsters are expected to deliver. And they do.
LCB is noted for its reimagining children’s books as ballets. The ideal story is one that people connect with, that has lots of interesting characters, allows for big ensemble scenes, and comes with humour, drama and excitement, and space within the narrative for it to be adapted to the needs of the company. Completely new productions such as last year’s hugely successful Anne of Green Gables are balanced with popular revivals.
This year’s Snow White sits somewhere between the two, explains artistic director since 2019, Ruth Brill, who herself appeared with the company, starting as a “bright-eyed 10 or 11-year-old,” as she puts it, in Cathy Marston’s production of Ballet Shoes in 2001. Brill would dance in three more productions, later going on to perform with distinction for English National Ballet and Birmingham Royal Ballet.
She explains that, while Snow White uses Richard Norris’ score and most of the costumes from Jenna Lee’s previous 2015 production, the scenario has been rewritten slightly and a few things interpreted differently. But, as she observes, fairy tales are always being rewritten, updated and looked at in different ways. “What is so brilliant about them, is that you can find your way to tell the story. This one will be a “fresh, what feels right for now version, but still Snow White.”
Completely new is the choreography by Gavin McCaig of Northern Ballet. “It’s important that a choreographer feels that it’s their show. I don’t show them what’s gone before, so they get their own vision for the production. So, although this is classed as a revival, it feels like a new ballet.”
Such is LCB’s reputation, that, last autumn, some 600 dancers auditioned for the 50 roles in the ballet, with around an additional 50 places on offer in four touring companies that take a reduced version of the main production out into care homes and Special Educational Needs schools each year.
Recalling some terrifying audition experiences that she had as a youngster, Brill says that the main thing is that everyone to enjoys the occasion. “We try not to cram too many people into the room, so that everyone gets a chance to dance and to show themselves.”
No-one gets a free pass. Even those who have appeared with the company before have to audition again. It is good to have a few ‘old hands’ around, though, Brill admits. “I’ve been there myself. You really look up to those who know what they’re doing, know the ropes, and know how to be, have the right spirit.”
Successful candidates rehearse at weekends, with more intensive bursts during half-term and school holidays. While dancers have to be committed and at every rehearsal they are called to, nobody pays to take part, although a contribution towards costumes is asked for if families can.
Those rehearsals all take place in LCB’s new home, which it moved into in summer 2021 having previously lived a nomadic existence. Apart from being logistically difficult, it was expensive too. “We used to spend tens of thousands hiring studio space each year,” says Brill. That all changed when it moved into a new cultural anchor space provided free by The Big Yellow Self Storage Company as part of its new development in Wandsworth, a provision encouraged by the borough’s vision to embed culture and the arts within regeneration schemes. After a deal with another charitable tenant fell through, the company pitched for the site and now have a 20-year lease.
The warm and welcoming venue has been fully kitted out to suit the company’s purposes. A main studio and smaller second studio have Harlequin sprung dance floors, mirrors and barres. There are changing rooms, a meeting room, and open-plan office space that sits on a balcony overlooking the big studio, and so is really connected to what is going on there. Costumes are stored in Big Yellow next door.
“It’s been a real game-changer,” Brill admits. “It was so exciting, being involved in this big step.” It was also something of an unexpected sliver lining of Covid. “I sometimes wonder, if there hadn’t been the pandemic, how would we have found the time to plan it all. We were dealing with so much detail.”
Having a place to call home gives a kind of heart to it all, she adds. “When the dancers come to rehearsals, they always come to the same place, we’re there all together, and you just get much more of a rhythm to it all.” Apart from auditions, rehearsals, workshops, masterclasses and summer schools all being held in the venue, it’s also allowed for an expansion of LCB’s extensive outreach programme, and extra income through studio rental.
While LCB alumni may include Royal Ballet principal Anna Rose O’Sullivan, and English National Ballet first soloist James Streeter, Brill is adamant it is not just about those who are going to go on and become top dancers. “It’s just as much a chance for the youngsters to learn about themselves and to develop as people. As they get to feel what being in a company, what dancing professionally is like, they may decide it is not for them. But our work is just as much a success if a child decides their future lies in another direction.”
The family atmosphere and company spirit are key, says Brill. “Ballet is hard. You need that connection. And performances are the richer for it. Of course, it’s about putting on a spectacular production in the West End, and about having high-calibre people involved, but as much, if not more, it’s about the process and the journey. About the experience that these children have and how that takes them forward not only in their dance journey but also within themselves: gaining confidence, making friends and growing as people.”
She continues, “Right from the word go, we make it very clear that everyone needs to muck in. We take away their phones at the door so they have to interact with each other. Every rehearsal, we have board games and cards. It’s also important that they understand we are a charity, so we ask the dancers to do charity fundraisers to help us keep giving this opportunity for free. There are lots of bake sales; people making bun wraps, candles, knitting things and selling them just to help contribute. That connects them all.”
But, and as anyone who has seen LCB at work, on stage or elsewhere will testify, Brill insists that it is about excellence as well. “I wouldn’t have been interested in this job if it wasn’t at that level. It’s just that the difference is that the people on stage are small people, but with great capabilities that can be unlocked. You can get them all there, all focused, working really hard to pull it all together to achieve that level of performance. It is so hugely satisfying to bring these qualities out from everyone.”
She bubbles with enthusiasm and passion as she speaks about working with the company and young people generally. “It’s amazing to see a kid with that spark that you can just help bring out. Or perhaps a kid that won’t go on to dance professionally but who has the most transformational experience. You see them grow in confidence and just have the time of their lives. It’s a really inspiring thing to do. We all go above and beyond, fighting to survive in the current climate, year after year having to fundraise to offer this opportunity for free, to keep improving it and pushing it on. It’s hard work. But it’s worthwhile work.”
Snow White is at the Peacock Theatre, London from Thursday 13 to Sunday 16 April, 2023. Visit www.sadlerswells.com for tickets and further details.
For more about London Children’s Ballet, visit www.londonchildrensballet.com.