First Soloist, Birmingham Royal Ballet
interviewed by David Bain
BRB studios, Birmingham Hippodrome
22 June 2011.
JENNA HAD KINDLY AGREED to speak to the Ballet Association group visiting Birmingham before they attended the Company’s performance of Carmina Burana and Allegri Diversi.
Jenna began by telling us about her early ballet training in her native Australia. She started dancing at the age of six and when she was about ten decided to take it more seriously. Until she was 15 she attended a dance school two or three afternoons a week from 3.30 to 8pm following her normal studies. Gailene Stock already knew her from her time as a ballet associate when she was 12 in Australia. She invited her over to UK and watched a class, offered her a full scholarship but said she had to decide whether to accept by the next day! This was a bit tricky as it was a massive decision for a 15 year old. Her mum was very reluctant to let her go but her dad said it was a great opportunity which might not come round again and she could always go home if it didn’t work out. There aren’t a lot of classical companies in Australia although there are plenty of contemporary opportunities whereas over here if the Royal didn’t work out there was always the whole of Europe. So Jenna returned to Australia to finish her school year, came back to England with her dad on Christmas Day and started at the school in January 2000. When her dad left it was tough being on her own for the first time in her life, particularly having to concentrate all day on ballet. However, she’d been well prepared in Australia entering several eisteddfods – dance competitions with all sorts of dance which you could enter from a very early age every weekend, and you could go in for several each day if you chose – and this offered a chance to be performing on stage which was great experience. You could win $A10 as a first prize so after doing it for years you could pay your way, which Jenna did.
Jenna had good memories from the ballet school where she made lots of friends and she had the chance to work with the Royal Ballet a good deal, including going on their six week tour of Australia. As a student she appeared in Bayadère (doing Shades was scary), Swan Lake, Nutcracker and Giselle. She was initially at the school in Barons Court, so it was good to experience all that history before moving for her final few months into the new building in Floral Street. Jenna was offered a contract with Birmingham just before the Easter holidays in her third year. She didn’t really know the company, having only been there for a one day school trip to watch a show, but she liked the look of them performing one of David Bintley’s ballets in which she recognised the principal girl from Australian Ballet who was guesting with BRB! She’d not been aware that David was interested in her though he used to be on the panel of assessors or would be around the school so she auditioned all over the place and was offered contracts with Boston and ABT Studio with the possibility of going into that company. When David offered her the contract and gave her a couple of weeks to think about it Jenna decided she didn’t want to have to make another big move to the States, having finally settled in UK, and accepted the offer.
Her first roles in the company were in the corps in Sons of Horus and third cast in Apollo (Terpsichore) – quite something for a new girl! It was her second day in the company and she’d never seen the ballet before but she loved it on sight, particularly dancing with Iain McKay. Bob Parker was another Apollo. Jenna also danced later with Chi Cao. Desmond Kelly taught the ballet and it was quite scary for a 17/18 year old dancing with all the Principals but since then they’ve performed it a lot and luckily in BRB they all have ample chance to dance on tour. Elite Syncopations was another ballet, previously unseen by Jenna, which she did in her first year.
Her first full length ballet was Juliet in the Ballet Hoo! project which she and Jamie Bond worked on with the kids for six weeks from 6.30 to 9pm after their ordinary day’s work. The 14 year old Sherina who played Jenna’s mother and Christina as the nurse were great. Christina knew Jenna’s role as well as Jenna herself, sometimes telling her she was late on an entrance! The lad playing Tybalt proved so good that in the fight scenes he actually did the sword fight rather than a company member as originally envisaged. There was an amazing reaction to the project from within and without the house. It was a big role for a young dancer with no experience. In the Upper School there was no acting training though in Australia they did a bit of demi-character work. Jenna was also cast in Swan Lake which came as a surprise! They’d been away when David told her she was to dance Odette/Odile with10 days to prepare for a performance in Belfast. She danced with Iain and Marion and Desmond taught her. The final rehearsal was awful but it went all right on the night after which Sir Peter Wright went backstage and was in tears (of appreciation rather than despair!). She found and still finds the Black Swan the harder but the more rewarding of the two roles, so enjoys it more than White Swan.
Working with David can be stressful but it’s great to rehearse with someone on their own works. In Cinderella which had several casts he knew exactly what he wanted and he worked with the first cast, then the second and so on and you picked it up. Jenna’s danced both the lead and the Fairy Summer which is also a good role. She likes this take on Cinderella where the character’s a bit rough around the edges.
Jenna created the fairy in Michael Corder’s Baiser de la Fée which needed great stamina but was very rewarding, and it was really good to be partnered by Alexander Campbell. Michael worked you so hard, there were lots of steps and he wanted a dominant female character. It was tough doing it all day, every day. You’d do it once through and Michael would ask you to do it again, and then again and again. So it was hard but great to experience working with someone whose method is completely different from David who says maybe this or maybe that, try this, try that. With Michael he knew what he wanted, so he’d do it and you’d do it and then a bit later when you’d got it he’d scrub everything and begin again!
David thanked Jenna very much for giving up her precious time to talk to us particularly as it’s so difficult for dancers to come down to London for our regular meetings, and said we’d continue to follow her career with great interest.
Report written by Liz Bouttell, corrected by Jenna Roberts and David Bain ©The Ballet Association 2011.