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Claudia Dean & Tierney Heap

Artists, The Royal Ballet

interviewed by David Bain

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church,
London, 27 November, 2013.

TIERNEY STARTED DANCING at age three in a local school just outside Manchester, where she comes from. Her mother thought that she had too much energy and that dance would be good for her. At the age of eight her dance teacher suggested the Royal Ballet School (RBS) Junior Associates programme, which she did in Manchester every other weekend for three years. Then at eleven Tierney went to Elmhurst School for Dance for three years, although while there she auditioned every year for White Lodge but without success. Elmhurst had just moved to Birmingham and the Artistic Director of the school was Mary Goodhew, who left just as Tierney did. While Tierney was at Elmhurst in Year 8, she knew Melissa Hamilton who was in the Upper School. Tierney did not enjoy Elmhurst that much. Boarding was not working for her and she felt that she was falling behind on her academic work, which she feels is very important as a back-up given the possibility of injury in a dancer’s career, so at 14 she returned to a regular school for two years. As Bury Grammar School was quite an academic school, and Tierney was quite behind, the summer was spent having private tuition to reach the necessary standard for the school. Normal school also meant going back to dancing after school three evenings a week and on Saturdays she went to Senior Associates in Birmingham. There was no family connection with dance, although her father’s mother went to ballet and her sister did musical theatre for a while. Tierney did not know about dance as a career, and was not really aware of the Royal Ballet, she just liked dancing.

Claudia started dancing at the age of four in Brisbane, Australia, in a local dance school doing a variety of dance, including jazz and tap and a lot of local competitions. At the age of 15 she knew that ballet was the career that she wanted to follow and so she started to train privately with Prudence Bowen. This was on the Gold Coast an hour and half away from her home, so she stayed there during the week and came home at weekends. Prudence Bowen is well known in Australia and has a strict attitude towards teaching. Claudia is very thankful for Prudence’s teaching which meant a great deal to her. She had private coaching from 7am to 9am, then with the other students, up to a maximum of 10 at a time, from 9am to 3.30pm, then privately again from 3.30pm to 5.30pm. This left her with little energy to do school-work during the week and so that was left to the weekends when she was at home with her family. She was at Prudence Bowen’s for two years following the RAD syllabus. There was a lot of coaching for solos and for competitions, which are very popular in Australia (Tierney commented that this is in contrast with the UK where it seems that there is more focus on dancing a teacher’s own choreography in local dance festivals. Before she had gone to the Upper School she had never danced a solo from a ballet and in fact had not even seen Nutcracker.)

Claudia started with local competitions in Australia but then travelled to New Zealand for the Alana Haines award, to the Prix de Lausanne, to the Genée … as well as competing in the YAGP

Claudia started with local competitions in Australia but then travelled to New Zealand for the Alana Haines award, to the Prix de Lausanne, to the Genée when it was in Singapore, as well as competing in the YAGP while at the RBS. Gailene Stock was judging the Alana Haines award which led to an offer to join the RBS Upper School. She competed in the Genée in Singapore in September 2009 on her way to London. Wayne Eagling was a judge at the Genée and offered her a contract at English National Ballet (ENB) but Claudia decided to still go the RBS as at 16 she felt very young to start in a company. For Claudia, competing in the Genée was a real highlight. Not only did she win a Gold Medal, she felt that it was an insight into what company life would be. She danced a solo created by Adrian Burnett which he taught to the competitors, the slow Shade from La Bayadère and the Pas de Quatre solo from Swan Lake, though a jumpier version than the one we perhaps know. Miss Bowen had chosen Claudia’s solos to highlight different aspects of her dancing, wanting to demonstrate both light and shade.

Tierney, between the ages of 14 and 16, had only been training three days a week but this time seemed to liberate her dancing. She had felt the training at Elmhurst had been too constricting for what she needed at the time – quarter turn pirouettes when Tierney felt like doing doubles. Doing jazz dance also helped keep her interest with all the jumping and moving. At that time she needed to feel challenged and liked a faster pace of training. She knew that she still wanted to dance and so auditioned for the Royal Ballet School, English National Ballet School and Elmhurst. Though the Royal Ballet School was always her first choice, she was prepared to accept anywhere and then see what happened when she auditioned for companies. Tierney was accepted by all three and, of course, chose the Royal. The first few months at school were very hard, even just going back to doing ballet all day took adjusting to. Tierney commented that while in the Company it was possible to choose your own pace in class depending on how you felt but at school one always had to dance at full pace. Tierney found this a difficult adjustment and then at Christmas fractured her foot and needed to be in a boot for six weeks, meaning that she only had two weeks training before the Young British Dancer of the Year (YBDY) competition. She got to the final of YBDY in her first year, dancing Gamzatti from La Bayadère and Esmeralda solos, and in her second year, dancing Paquita and Summer Fairy from Cinderella, received a Commendation, despite falling into the piano during her Paquita solo. She also competed in the Genée in her second year, when it was held in London, dancing Raymonda Act 2, Summer Fairy and a new solo choreographed by Liam Scarlett for the competition, and won a Bronze Medal. For the Genée, Gailene Stock had chosen a few Royal Ballet School students, though not Tierney, to compete but after Tierney received such a high mark in the Advanced 2 RAD exam, a necessary qualification for entry, she was also entered. Miss Stock gave strong advice about which of the solos from the given list would suit. At first Tierney was not sure that the softness of the Summer Fairy solo would suit her and much preferred Esmeralda but in fact the variation and the combination worked well.

 Tierney had watched Claudia dance on YouTube before she arrived and was not entirely sure that they would like each other but in fact they were very good friends from the start.

Claudia and Tierney met at the Upper School. Tierney had watched Claudia dance on YouTube before she arrived and was not entirely sure that they would like each other but in fact they were very good friends from the start. Because of the Genée, Claudia arrived a week late for the beginning of term which was a bit annoying, not apparently because of missing a week’s training but because of missing the initial getting to know everyone. Claudia’s mother was with her for the first week, she fitted in easily and London soon felt home. Both Tierney and Claudia found the atmosphere in the school accommodation very supportive as well as fun. However, although they did not appreciate it then, life was pretty problem free. Six weeks into the first term, Miss Stock moved Claudia into the second year which meant a rapid purchase of the new colour of leotards.

Tierney felt that the teaching in her first year had a more technical focus, then with Miss Young and Mr Peden in the second year there was more focus on upper body and artistry before, under Mr Norman and Miss Tranah in the final year, mixing the two together enabled them to find out how they wanted to dance and how they wanted to present themselves to companies. The change in teachers Tierney felt worked well. The third year has repertory classes as well as pas de deux classes but no contemporary or academic work, and is therefore felt more similar to Company life. Both felt that there was so much energy needed for dancing at the Upper School that they had little left for their academic work and it was hard to balance the two.

At the end of her first/second year performances Claudia performed the principal girl in the third movement of Concerto which she loved and feels more proud of than her graduate year performances when she danced Spring and Fall by John Neumeier, though she learnt a lot in that piece as it is very lyrical in contrast to her normal jumping and turning. Tierney performed the principal girl in Paquita in the Linbury in her graduate year as well as a Jyri Kylian piece, Un Ballo, which she loved. Both thought appearing in the Grand Défilé was an amazing feeling.

Although a few students had danced with the Company in their second year and early in the third year, neither Tierney or Claudia performed with the Company till late in their third years. Tierney first danced Court women in the Prologue as well as Nymphs in Sleeping Beauty. Claudia first danced in Giselle and Cinderella. Neither remembers their experiences as going very smoothly. Tierney commented that going wrong is the worst feeling, however, she has now learnt that the best way to go wrong is with confidence.

In her third year Claudia had first been offered a contract by BRB, Wayne Eagling had also remembered her and, after she took class with ENB, offered her a contract but when Monica Mason offered her a RB contract, it was an easy decision for Claudia to accept. The Royal Ballet is held in very high regard in Australia and she had come to the RBS with the hope of getting into the Company. Claudia’s memories of her first year are very good and she felt that she learnt a lot, not dancing on stage all the things that she was learning, for example dancing Roberta Marquez’s role in Birthday Offering in the studio, but she felt that what is learnt in the studio can be as important. Claudia was a general cover for Diamonds but her first time on the opera house stage was in the first show of Rubies when someone else went off. After the first rehearsal, Claudia put in lots of extra practice on a Sunday to make sure that she knew the role well enough to come up to Pat Neary’s high standards in the studio on Monday to be able to make it onto stage. Learning how to dance as a corps member had been hard as her focus in training had been on doing solos.

Tierney had been offered contracts with three companies in Europe: Munich, which she had accepted, Vienna, and another company in Germany and was on her way to get her suitcase to fly to Amsterdam to take class with Dutch National Ballet, when she got a telephone call to come to the RBS office where she was told that she had been offered a contract with ENB and the Royal. Words apparently cannot describe the joy of that moment. Tierney went to Amsterdam for the weekend but did not do the audition as the decision to accept the Royal Ballet contract was also an easy one.

… she felt nervous as it takes time to learn the tricks of staying in line, how to keep your eyes everywhere on stage and look good as well as dance. We should never underestimate how hard it is to be a corps dancer.

Tierney felt that starting in the Company with Claudia already there was a great help as she did not feel alone which might have been the case after leaving a very close-knit school environment. She was also lucky enough to be given a place next to Claudia in the dressing room. Dancing in Swan Lake, which Tierney had not done as a student, she felt nervous as it takes time to learn the tricks of staying in line, how to keep your eyes everywhere on stage and look good as well as dance. We should never underestimate how hard it is to be a corps dancer. The challenges of staying in line as a swan can lead to some heated conversations amongst the dancers. By the time they did the ballet again on tour, Tierney had learnt the tricks and it was so much easier. Tierney also got the opportunity to dance the Mazurka which, although it has heavy costumes, was fun. One of her highlights of that year is covering the Queen of Hearts in Alice which she had watched and loved while at school. Another was dancing in one performance of Christopher Wheeldon’s Aeternum as one of the four couples with Nicol Edmonds, although it felt slightly odd at first doing pas de deux again after not having done them since school.

Audio clip - dancing Swan Lake in the corps:

The highlight of Claudia’s first year was dancing her first solo on the opera house stage, in Raymonda, someone having gone off. That day was also her birthday. For her, the first year in particular had an odd mixture of highlights of learning solos and then going back to be a maid in the first act of Nutcracker but the contrast makes her all the more determined to be there for the good things. The highlight of this year has been dancing The Chosen One in The Rite of Spring. Claudia found out about the casting in April by email as principal casting is sent by email ahead of other casting. This was just before she was about to have coaching from Monica Mason as Mistress in Manon so she was able to thank her straight away. However, Claudia then had to wait a long time before learning it, as although she watched it, she did not want to learn it before Monica taught it to her the right way. Claudia had covered the corps roles as a student and had watched Stephen McRae dance The Chosen One in the studio and remembers thinking what a great role it was, and now suddenly it is her turn. Claudia was very nervous before the first rehearsal with Monica, which was very intense but the coaching was so clear and accurate in everything that Claudia only took four one hour rehearsals to learn the part, despite there being no repeats in the solo and it being difficult to learn. Claudia felt that Monica taught her the way that Kenneth Macmillan had taught her but then allowed her to make it her own. Claudia had run the solo twice before performing it an Insight evening in the Clore. This was good preparation for the final two weeks rehearsal before her first show. It was only a few days before the first stage call that she danced with the corps which was hard as it is difficult to recognise anyone when they are wearing bald caps and hard when jumping through them lying on the floor, not to jump on anyone.

 Tierney commented that for the rest of the company, The Rite of Spring is also a very hard piece as it is very dangerous to lose concentration for a moment. Though she longed to be watching Claudia, she could not…

Tierney commented that for the rest of the company, The Rite of Spring is also a very hard piece as it is very dangerous to lose concentration for a moment. Though she longed to be watching Claudia, she could not as everyone has to count all the time and if you ever stop counting it is very hard to know where you are or pick up where you are. As the music goes through all the phrases, there is no normal counting and it is not really possible to listen to the music. The atmosphere for the piece is very different to anything else that they dance. All the dancers are in the wings beforehand going over their own counts. The first stage call was very disconcerting as suddenly everyone looks the same and also for Tierney, Fumi Kaneko, the dancer who she had been depending on as a marker, had gone off. Christopher Saunders had taught the ballet and had done it very well, though it is very hard to teach as there are so many different counts for different groups. The whole rehearsal period had been in trainers and the contrast with pointe shoes was strong. Tierney felt that it is not a ballet that you can follow, like at some points in Swan Lake, but one where you have to think for yourself.

Claudia had watched the performances with Zenaida Yanowsky and thought the fact that there are so many young dancers in it at the moment made it a very energetic performance. Her mother and grandmother were able to come and see her performances, which was wonderful for her, although the experience felt surreal and went so quickly. She finds it hard to put into words the emotion of performing it. David commented on her favourable review from Clement Crisp in the FT, something that Claudia now knows is very hard to come by.

This year Tierney learnt Queen of the Dryads and Mercedes from Don Quixote but did not dance them and was in the second cast of The Human Seasons, the new David Dawson piece, doing Lauren Cuthbertson’s role. However, as time ran out, the second cast did not make it onto stage. She is learning the principal role in Rubies as cover and is doing a solo in Diamonds. Both she and Claudia are down to learn Queen of the Willis in Giselle.

David asked whether they felt that there had been a change in casting. Claudia felt that more young dancers were being given opportunities. Tierney commented that it is a short career and the young dancers have a lot of energy and give everything when they are given an opportunity, however, she recognises it is important to build up to solo work and that there are older dancers who are also very keen for the same opportunities as the younger dancers. Tierney noted the significant mental and emotional difference between dancing as one of a group and dancing a solo and that learning solo roles helps you get ready for opportunities to dance them later. Claudia commented that she found dancing The Chosen One mentally exhausting and that her brain is just recovering from her last show a few days before.

Tierney talked about how much she enjoys being taught Rubies by Pat Neary and the enjoyment of coming out of a studio knowing exactly what you should do. Pat knows the style of the piece so well having danced it herself and has such energy about her that you want to dance well to impress her. Pat impresses everyone else just by doing class.

David asked about their use of social media, which they have both embraced fully. Both feel that it is a good way to share their life …

David asked about their use of social media, which they have both embraced fully. Both feel that it is a good way to share their life with their friends and family, most of whom are far away and have little real idea of the life of a dancer. They feel it is nice to share how to paint on eyebrows for Rite or the costumes that they wear.

When asked what they found surprising about the life of a professional dancer in a company compared to their expectations when they were at school, the list was long. It included life in the dressing room; learning how to take class on your own, teaching yourself, unlike in school where you were taught more specifically; how starting shows in the evening when you are not used to dancing is so tiring and the need to get used to lots of late nights; the need to learn to do your own make-up and hair for stage; as well as the issues of casting; however, they both love the life that they are leading.

David thanked both Tierney and Claudia for being the most interesting and entertaining of guests as well as remarking that Claudia is the first recipient of the Royal Ballet School Ballet Association award to dance a principal role at the Royal Ballet. And so we are very proud of her.

Report written by Annette Fraser, corrected by Claudia Dean, Tierney Heap and David Bain ©The Ballet Association 2014.