Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Meet Gavin McCaig of Northern Ballet

Gavin McCaig joined Northern Ballet as an apprentice a few weeks ago. I was introduced to him by Janet McNulty at the Stanley and Audrey Burton Theatre on 21 June 2014 when I saw the company dance the Mixed Bill.  I asked Gavin whether I could do a feature on him when he could spare me the time. He kindly agreed. The opportunity to interview him arose this weekend.  The questions in italics came from me. The answers in heavy type are Gavin's.

I see you were born and brought up in Motherwell and started to learn to dance at the age of 7. Was it your idea to start dancing lessons at that age or was it your parents? If it was your idea what made you ask them to send you to the Marie Frame School?

It wasn’t my idea to start dancing at all. I had an older sister who went to our local dance school and my best friend (also a girl) who was a neighbour went too. Her mum was also an ex-professional dancer who recommended me going down to the dancing ‘because i’d love it!’. With my dad being a football-fanatic it wasn’t his idea of a pastime for a young boy growing up in our area. It was unheard of for boys to dance in our local area.

Are you the first in your family to become a professional dancer? Do you have relations who are good at dancing?

I am the first in my family to dance, as far as I know!

What attracted you to ballet as opposed to other styles of dance? 

Initially it wasn’t ballet which attracted me. When I started ballet wasn’t really mentioned at first. It was hip-hop, jazz, tap and street dance. Ballet came later, when I joined the Dance School of Scotland.

Can you remember the first time you saw a ballet performance? If so, in what theatre, which company and show? Was it live or on TV or in the cinema? Who were the dancers you remember? What age would you have been?

For me, it was a theatre performance which encouraged me to pursue a career on stage. CATS the musical was on tour in Edinburgh my mum organised for us to go and see it. I was mesmerised! A few years down the line, following my joining on the DSS, I think the first ballet I was ever taken to was Scottish Ballet. I have a feeling it was Ashley Page’s Sleeping Beauty which, at the time and as a young boy new to the ballet world, I wasn’t overly impressed by it.

Were there any dancers or choreographers who particularly impressed you in your early years? If so, who were they?

In the early years, I can’t say there was. It was only when I moved to London that I began to understand the arts world and more importantly the ballet world and the way it worked. In all honestly, I didn’t really even fully understand that after my 3 years there I would be endeavouring to join a ballet company. I just knew I wanted to be on stage, and was addicted to this all-new “ballet bubble” I found myself in. It was all so new to me!

Tell me a little about the instructors at Marie Frame who encouraged you to audition for The Dance School at Scotland.

Marie who ran the school was the one who suggested it. She obviously spotted the passion I had and the love I had developed for it in such a short space of time. It really does become and addiction and a part of you from a young age.

At what age did you audition for the Dance School of Scotland?

A youthful 11 years of age!

Did you enjoy your time in Glasgow? If so tell me about it?

My time in Glasgow was incredible. I moved away from home in to the school’s residence and shared with other boys in my year. The school was a normal secondary school but had the Dance School (Scotland’s only vocational centre of excellence for dance) ‘late night’ classes in ballet, tap and jazz.

Were there are teachers (or indeed student dancers) at Glasgow who particularly impressed you? 

Over my time at the school I worked with many great teachers (a lot of whom had close ties to Scottish Ballet or other parts of the dance world). Elaine Holland was our director there at the time - she was a wonderful woman and an excellent upbeat teacher. Kenny Burke, now the director of the school (ex-RB, and ex-director of SB) worked with us a lot too who was hugely encouraging and inspirational. Kerry Livingstone and Eleanor Moore Tyres had huge influences on me in my first and second years, as well as the late and great Frank Freeman who I had the pleasure of being taught by on numerous occasions. Frank encouraged me a great deal whenever he came to visit and even invited me down to the Yorkshire Ballet Seminars scholarship audition (for which I was given a week's free tuition at the course).

At what age did you audition for English National Ballet School?


Did you enjoy studying in London?

Yes I did. London is an incredible city. There’s no place like it. It’s bursting at the seams with arts and culture. People are open and intriguing, the city centre is buzzing with performances and things to do; and you were never far away from the next big thing going on.

Tell me a little about your studies in London. 

My three years in London were incredible at times but mostly very difficult and I have many unhappy memories from my time at ENBS. London can be a lonely place, especially when you are training in such an intense environ. It does all seem like a dream when you explain it to someone - but its far from it. Recently, David Nixon mentioned in a rehearsal how people can have the wrong idea about ballet - about the grit and determination and incessant hard work which remains the invisible backbone of the productions audiences come to enjoy, but can sometimes go unknown to the public.

The training I went through to get to where I am now was by no means easy. Day-in; day out, hammering your body which, for me, just wasn’t built for ballet! I’m not naturally flexible, turned out, strong or facilitated: and this does lead to problems. I suffered two major injuries over my time at school; a tear of my labrum in my hip which resulted in a hip operation and a few months later, a stress fracture in my foot which lasted the best part of a year. It’s intense down there and psychologically you have to be a fortress. I eventually succumbed to the negativity which you are surrounded by constantly and went through a pretty rough time following my foot problem. I see now though that it was all worth it but it’s a place which teaches you how to grow up quickly.

I just wish at the time I’d known I would actually make it and had a bit more confidence in myself. Persistence is the key to success, luckily. And the occasional glass of wine!

When you attended the Prague Masterclass did you have much contact with Daria Klimentová? If so, tell me about her and what you learned from her which you are using in your career as a dancer? Was there anyone else who impressed you?

Daria is an incredible ballerina and teacher. She runs the masterclasses which are an intensive week of training with the best teachers and most famous dancers and choreographers in the world. I truly never thought I’d have so much fun dancing and the atmosphere at the Masterclasses was exceptional - as well as Prague being such a breathtaking city for them to be held in.

Morning class was taught by a range of teachers including Christopher Hampson, Keith Mackintosh (Ballet Master for Cape Town CB), Marie Lindqvist (Principal Dancer at Royal Swedish), Daria Klimentová and Vadim Muntagirov, to name but a few. Following class the boys would group together upstairs to work on Variations. During the first week we worked on the two solos from ‘Theme and Variation’ by Balanchine, and also Bronze Idol from La Bayadere which was so much fun. Jan-Erik Wikström took these classes and I particularly liked working with him and his upbeat enthusiasm. Pas De Deux classes were also so much fun, again taken by Jan-Erik and his partner at Royal Swedish, Marie, whilst again, working on Theme and Variation. The classes had a buzz about them and it was clear everyone was having as much fun as I was learning the repertoire. I had the most incredible two weeks there, and winning the boys prize was the silver lining!

I see that you danced in Hansel and Gretel. I saw the show on 21 Dec (the last Saturday before Christmas).  Did you dance in that performance?

I’m not 100% if I did dance in that performance...I wasn’t in a set cast and was put on now and then to ease the workload of the other dancers.

How did you find Christopher Hampson?

I really like Chris. He’s a lovely guy who knows exactly what he’s doing and where he’s taking the company. I was privileged to work with him and the company - it was the ballet company I grew up watching and a big part of my journey as a young dancer. The company recently toured to Russia with Matthew Bourne’s Highland Fling, which is incredible. He’s opening new avenues for Scottish Ballet and that’s excellent. He’s also an incredible choreographer: his works have appeared everywhere from New Zealand to the USA.

I am delighted you have come to Leeds but What attracted you to Northern Ballet?

In all honesty, love! Kevin, my partner began dancing with the company as an apprentice during his third year at ENB School and when we became partners I came to watch him and the company regularly.

Tell me about the audition? What did you dance? 

The audition for Northern Ballet was intense and not like any other auditions I did. Usually you just do a ballet class and that’s your chance. It’s make or break. The audition for NB was a day long event which included partnering, dancing different parts of repertoire (Chaos scene from Cleopatra and Ball scene from Cinderella) plus an interview with the director.

What have you done since you joined the company?

This season we are performing more than ever. With Arts Council funding increases we are expected to perform even more and are headed for a massive 250 shows this season! We have been learning Cinderella, The Great Gatsby, Dracula and our new children’s ballet, Elves and the Shoemaker. I’ve also done a few interviews and a photo shoot, as well as getting used to the way things work here. It’s busy.

How do you like living in Yorkshire and working in Leeds? Do you ever miss the bright lights of London or Glasgow?

I love Leeds, I really do! I don’t often miss Glasgow although it’s always nice to return home. I do however miss my family and friends there an awful lot.

How do you like dancing with the company?

I’m living my dream. I knew I’d wanted to be a part of the company since I saw Beauty and The Beast, David’s narrative and inventive choreography coupled with the use of Danse Macabre, Op. 40 (in a particular scene,) I was hooked. I love story ballets and narrative works so the repertoire is exciting and enjoyable for me to be dancing. The foundations upon which the company has been built are that of a theatrical nature - Christopher Gable and David Nixon have made the narrative absolutely intrinsic to the works the company presents.

I’m loving being with the company and working with such incredible dancers, I’m inspired when I watch the older dancers of the company - they understand how to portray emotion and make the audience feel something.

How do you find touring?

I haven’t done a whole lot of touring yet so that we will have to wait and see. I’m looking forward to it at the moment, however.

You have said that you would like to dance Gatsby and in I got Rhythm. How about the classics such as Swan Lake, Giselle, Sleeping Beauty, Romeo and Juliet etc. or the great Balanchine and Ashton ballets? Would you like to dance in any of them and if so in what role?

Of course I would love to dance in these classic ballets. I adore the classics and the beauty and grace of Swan Lake takes my breath away. I seen National Ballet of Canada dance Romeo and Juliet when they toured to London in April 2013 and it blew me away. 

Much to my excitement, Northern Ballet will present Jean-Christophe Maillot’s Romeo and Juliet in February. I can’t wait to be on stage dancing to that renowned and spectacular Prokofiev score. It’s going to be magical. A what role? Romeo, of course. To dance the balcony scene in Maillot or MacMillan’s would be a lifelong dream come true.

Who are your favourite choreographers of all time (other than David Nixon of course)?

I love Wayne McGregor. His work on Infra for the Royal Ballet blew me away. The piece is so emotive from the beginning and the choreography and staging is so fresh and modern: the man is a genius. I also love David Dawson’s work. Recently I seen his latest work for the Royal Ballet in November and I fell in love with it. The pas de deux work is so intricate and delicate, it’s a wonder how he creates such beautiful shapes and lifts.

Who are your favourite dancers of all time (from any company in the world)?

Guillaume Cöté , Steven McRae, Vadim Muntagirov, Daria Klimentova, Martha Leebolt, Vicki Sibson and Dreda Blow.

How do you see your career developing over the next few years?

I would hope to find my feet at Northern Ballet for the foreseeable future. I love it here and hope I can continue to develop as a young artist in such a nurturing environment.

Do you have any ambitions in choreography, teaching or management in later life?

Definitely. I feel this may be where I find myself sooner rather than later. I seem to be good at organising and planning; as well as thoroughly enjoying choreographing and teaching, both of which I had experience of during my time at school.

How did you get interested in software? Can you code? Have you designed any apps? List some of your favourite apps?

I have once tried to start to learn to code and gave up. It’s complicated business. Maybe more so than performing a tendu!

List some of your favourite films or TV shows?

Downton Abbey, Four in a bed, Come dine with me, X factor, Britain’s got talent,
Grand Designs.

Do you have any favourite actors, musicians, painters, composers or other artists?

I love music! I have so many favourite artists in my music library we may be here for some time discussing them all! Actor wise, I’m a huge Angelina Jolie fan!

Finally, what advice would you give to:
(a) a young boy or girl in Motherwell or anywhere else who is starting his or her dancing lessons and wants to become a professional dancer?

Don’t let anyone make you feel like what your doing is wrong for you. Be your own boss.

(b) a student at the Dance School of Scotland or similar school?
Prepare get’s real from here on out!

(c) the English National Ballet School or similar school?
It can all be worth it, never give up!

Gavin is not just a remarkably gifted dancer, he is also a very pleasant and personable young man.  I wish him all the best in his career.

Further Reading
Northern Ballet  60 seconds with...Gavin McCaig

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