Friday, 4 May 2018

Visiting Taynuilt

Ballet West's Grounds
© 2018 Jane Elizabeth Lambert: all rights reserved 




















In my very first blog post I wrote:
"I was intrigued to receive a mailing for a performance of "The Nutcracker by Ballet West". Now I had heard of a company by the name of Ballet West in the United States which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year but if that company ever came to the United Kingdom I would have expected it to tour major cities rather than towns in the Highlands of just over 2,500 souls. It occurred to me that there might be a company from the West Country which is where Scottish Ballet originated, I googled "ballet, west, uk" and was surprised but delighted to find a company and school in Taynuilt. Delighted because where could be more idyllic to study dance than by the banks of a real lake (or more properly loch) which might even host the occasional swan?"
I attended that performance and enjoyed it so much that I returned to Scotland the following and each subsequent year to see other shows by that company. Over the years I have made the acquaintance of the school's principal Gillian Barton, her children Jonathan and Sara-Maria, the choreographer Daniel Job and teachers, alumni and students of the school.

When I was in Greenock to see Giselle and the Rossini Cocktail earlier this year I told Gillian Barton that I would be in the area at the end of April.  The reason for my visit was to see Scottish Ballet's Highland Fling in Oban on 29 April and the St Andrews University Dance Club gala on the 30. Gillian invited me to call in to Ichrachan House on the way which invitation I readily accepted.

When I first made contact with the St Andrews Dance Club just over a year ago I asked whether I could attend one of their classes 50 years on.  I was told that I would be most welcome.  I checked the Dance Club's Facebook page and found that there was a beginners' ballet class between 16:00 and 17:00 on Sundays.  As St Andrews is only 120 miles from Oban I thought there would be ample time to dash along the A85 and arrive in time for Scottish Ballet's Highland Fling at 19:30. When I checked it out on Google maps I found that the journey would take at least 3 ½ hours with expected traffic and roadworks delays. Sadly, I had to abandon that idea and I tweeted my disappointment.

Gillian Barton picked up my message and invited me to one of her classes.  Even though I am old and slow and fat with no real aptitude for ballet, her invitation was irresistible.  I had often thought of attending one of Ballet West's outreach classes when next in the area (see Taynuilt - where better to create ballet? 31 Aug 2016).  I had even asked about private lessons because the leading contributor to BalletcoForum who has also attended my over 55 class in Leeds makes regular visits for that purpose. However, I had never thought in my wildest dreams that I would ever attend class with exceptionally talented students who were training for the stage. It would be like meeting Roger Federer on the tennis court. I consulted Fiona Noonan, the teacher who had led me back to ballet after a break of 45 years, and my good friend, Mel Wong, who know my limitations.  "Go for it and enjoy it" they replied as if in chorus adding their personal tips on how to survive.

I very nearly fluffed the opportunity.

The hotel that I had chosen because it seemed to be the closest to Ichrachan House turned out to be worse than Fawlty Towers, The description on Booking.com was idyllic. The rate of £65 for a twin (I had intended to travel with a companion and had made double bookings for everything) seemed reasonable enough. When I arrived after driving from Ecclefechan I found the place deserted.  There was a sign stating that check in was between 16:00 and 18:00 with a mobile number to ring for arrivals outside those hours.  "Not to worry" I thought "I'll take tea at the Robin's Nest." When I arrived at the nest I found that the redbreast had flown that day.  The tea shop normally opens on Sunday but not that particular day.  "Roosting perhaps with my landlady" I thought.
Loch Etive
© 2018 Jane Elizabeth Lambert
All rights reserved

I drove down to the pier and to my relief and joy I found that Loch Etive and its majestic, surrounding hills were still there. Indeed, there was even a swan on the loch.

I returned from the pier and found my landlady who was lovely. She was also interested in dance and thinking of attending Highland Fling.  I told her the story and the story of La Sylphide from which it was derived. I thought I had encouraged her though she did not like the idea of cutting off wings with garden shears.

As I mentioned in Scottish Ballet's "Highland Fling" in Gurn and Effie Land 2 May 2018 I skipped supper to attend Scottish Ballet's pre-performance talk and I had skipped lunch in anticipation of Oban's legendary fish and chips. By the time the post-performance talk was over all the purveyors of that delicacy were closing and I did not fancy a curry or chow mein the night before a ballet class. Breakfast at MacFawlty's did not begin before 08:00 which was when I was supposed to be at the barre.  Pangs of hunger, heavy lorries on the Oban road, strange groans from the bathroom fan and the failure of the radiator to take the chill off the air kept me awake all night  The result was that I was half comatose when I should had had my wits about me on Monday morning.

Worse.   My landlady had directed me along a road that ran parallel to the road I should have taken and Google maps seemed to back her up.  Then Google maps led me a merrier dance than any ballet teacher could have done.  I eventually found the entrance to Ballet West a few hundred yards from my hotel with the result that a journey that should have taken a few minutes actually took more than half an hour.  Instead of arriving at the studio 15 minutes before time which I had always been taught to do, I arrived right in the middle of glissés.

The class was taken by Jonathan Barton who had danced the lead roles brilliantly in The Nutcracker, Swan Lake and Romeo and JulietGraciously he admitted me to his class despite my tardiness.  The students welcomed me with smiles. I recognized some of them from Rossini Cocktail which I had reviewed in Fizzing! Ballet West's Rossini Cocktail 6 Feb 2018.

I rattled through the warm up exercises facing the barre that Karen had taught me.  I rather prefer Jane's warm up of running round the studio, suddenly changing direction on a sixpence, skipping facing in, skipping facing out, jumping jacks and stretches but obviously that was not possible on that occasion. I followed it up with my own pliés and side bends in 1st, 2nd, 4th and 5th, tendus with foot flexes and glissés before joining the class exercises.

The class was unlike any that I had ever attended before.  First, it lasted two hours although 30 minutes was pointe work which I did not do. With the benefit of hindsight I could have participated in a lot of that on demi but I never thought to ask.  Secondly, it was much faster than any class that I had ever attended before. Normally, in adult ballet classes there are breaks in exercises from stage right and stage left but on Monday the pianist kept playing and we kept dancing.  Thirdly, the instructions were more complex than anything I am usually asked to do.  I don't think that we were asked to do anything that I had not been taught at some point or other though there was plenty that I had never mastered.  Fourthly, there was not much actual teaching though I did learn a lot as I will explain blow. The experience was very like the company classes that I had seen in Amsterdam, Leeds and Oxford. Jonathan was more like a ballet master putting his cast through their paces than an adult ballet teacher.

I learned a lot by observing the regular students.  For instance, between barre exercises they stood in 5th with their arms in bras bas and their faces inclined towards the centre.  "I can at least do that" I thought.  In fact, they may have taught me something much more valuable and that is to concentrate on the instructions and get on with the exercise in hand. Miraculously, despite my lack of sleep I woke up in class. I forgot my hunger, The aches and pains that usually start after 40 minutes didn't bother me. I normally want to rest on the barre. Nobody did that on Monday so neither did I. The result was that I attempted everything.  Even the exercises where I did not have a clue winning a round of applause for trying at one point.

Of course, I also learned a lot from Jonathan. In particular, never look at yourself in the mirror when trying to dance. As he put it: "You can watch a performance or you can do a performance but not both at the same time." This is a very bad habit that I had acquired and it will not be easy to break but if I can crack it I am sure it will improve my dancing.  Jonathan is an inspiring teacher.  In a grand jeté en tournant exercise he pointed to the surrounding hills urging us to "soar like the mountains".  Even I cleared a few inches with that exhortation ringing in my ears.

I have had two lessons since Monday.  One with Karen Sant in Manchester on my way back from St Andrews and the other with Jane Tucker in Leeds on Wednesday. I doubt if my dancing can have improved much from just one class but my mental attitude and self-confidence certainly have.  I emerged from both classes much happier than usual feeling as though I had achieved something.

After the class Jonathan invited me to watch him coach Joseph Wright and Uyu Hiramoto for the grand pas de deux in Paquita.   I had seen both of them in Giselle earlier this year and they both impressed me.  Particularly Uyu.  In Ballet West Amplified 11 Feb 2018 I wrote:
"The last scene was enchanting. Mist (dry ice) wafted across the stage. Lights flashed. Myrtha (Uyu Hiromoto) glided onto the stage. She was as regal last night as she had been the week before. I have been a fan for some time and yesterday I had the chance to meet her. It is as hard to pick stars in dance as it is winners at Aintree but occasionally a student or member of the corps seems to stand out from his or her peers. Xander and Demelza Parish did so at the Yorkshire Ballet Summer School gala in York on 31 Dec 2007 (see "Review: A Summer Gala of Dance and Song, Grand Opera House, York"31 July 2007 The Press) . So, too, Michaela DePrice did in Amsterdam in 2013 (see The Junior Company of the Dutch National Ballet - Stadsshouwburg Amsterdam 24 Nov 2013 25 Nov 2013). I saw the same signs in Hiromoto yesterday. Now I could be wrong but I was right about the Parishes (especially Xander) and I was right about DePrince though she was already in the Junior Company and on her way to great things when I first saw her."
Grounds of Ballet West
© 2018 Jane Elizabeth Lambert
All rights reserved
I also saw a contemporary class after that session.

As I wanted to spend some time at my alma mater, my visit to Ballet West was necessarily brief. I did not see any of the students' quarters or dining or recreation facilities so I won't attempt to discuss the learning experience or compare it to other ballet schools.  All I will say is that the surroundings are magnificent and the teaching staff that I have met - Gillian, Jonathan and Sara-Maria Barton, Daniel Job, Natasha Watson inter alios - have impressed me greatly. Students and alimni have brought back an impressive haul of medals and trophies from the Genée and other competitions (see the Student Achievement page of the Ballet West website) so Ballet West appears to be doing something right.  They have also trained some of my favourite young dancers such as Isaac Peter Bowry and Sarah Mortimer.

However, none of them are in the Royal Ballet or other great  national companies so I asked Gillian Barton why not.  Actually I already knew the answer because a very similar situation exists in my profession.  The bench contains a disproportionate number of judges because they are recruited from the best chambers and the best chambers tend to recruit from the Russell Group and particulalry Oxbridge because any vacancy can be filled many times over with good candidates from those law schools. That is not to say that there are not even better candidates from the other universities but they are harder and require more resources to find.  If you can fill a vacancy immediately with excellent candidates from the Royal Ballet School (and possibly a handful of other schools) there is very little incentive to spend time and money looking further. Rather unfair perhaps but perfectly understandable. There are ways round the problem.  Ballet West has set up its own touring company which will provide some opportunities for its alumni and it is developing ever closer links with the big companies but these are  long term projects that will take time to achieve.

As Ballet West is already training an adult ballet student I asked Gillian Barton whether she would be prepared to train any more of us to which she replied that she would.   I asked about costings and she replied that she charged £600 for a week's summer school which includes accommodation.  She could probably do the same for adults or less if they found their own accommodation and transport.  I asked about content to which she replied that she would give us anything that we needed - repertoire, technique - anything.  I suggested talks on putting ballet in a cultural and historical context. She said that Daniel Job is an authority on dance history and theory. I also asked about day courses to bone up on something awkward as pirouettes and other turns are for me.  She said that she could do that for £40 per hour.

Argyll is breathtakingly beautiful and if I could learn some ballet there I would be in 7th heaven.  If anyone would like to join me on an adult ballet residential course, do let me know.

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