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David Pickering

Education Administrator, The Royal Ballet

interviewed by David Bain

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church,
London, 19 June 2014.


DAVID BAIN WELCOMED OUR GUEST David Pickering and suggested he began by telling us how he started dancing. David comes from Yorkshire and is one of five children (four boys plus his twin sister) whose parents were both teachers and provided a constant taxi service to whatever sort of class was on offer. He started gymnastics but his mother was always interested in dance and taught at a sports and athletics college where she did the dance teachers’ course. This proved the catalyst for pushing them all, including David’s big rugby-playing brother, into dance class. Another brother still reminds him proudly that he got the same mark (honours) as David who was the only one to carry on with ballet. He did all types of dance and had a very broad base though at the age of five a lot of it’s just about skipping around and having fun, but by the age of 10 David had already performed in musicals and other commercially based theatre. His wonderful teacher, Jean Pearce, who also taught Kevin O’Hare, had a fantastic reputation for producing really good commercial theatre people rather than ballet dancers.

 Alexandra Danilova was one of his teachers … as well as Christopher Gable, Carl Meyers and Barbara Fewster.

The Yorkshire Ballet Seminar was a big part of David’s childhood and his first experience of professional ballet teachers and ex-dancers. He had never been taught by a male teacher before and had been the only boy in his class with lots of girls so this was a new experience. Alexandra Danilova was one of his teachers – as a 10 year old he knew nothing about her or the Ballets Russes – as well as Christopher Gable, Carl Meyers and Barbara Fewster. In 1983 he won the David Blair Scholarship which gave him three weeks of all-inclusive tuition and accommodation. It happened to coincide with his being a chorister in Edinburgh but David Gayle, founder of the YBS, kindly said he could do weeks 1, 3 and 5 which worked really well as his teachers then included some Danes who introduced him to the Bournonville style. Carl Meyers was very inspirational, an amazing man’s man and great teacher. After this David was instructed by Barbara Fewster to be at White Lodge in September which was quite frightening! It was a big decision but his parents thought he shouldn’t make the move to London at that point, so he stayed at his state middle school and as a Yorkshire scholar travelled twice a week to boys’ classes with Louise Brown, an excellent teacher who has taught several other people in the Royal Ballet companies. She was horrified when, during this time, David was performing in Bugsy Malone in the West End (Kevin O’Hare was in the film version)! Another inspiration came through taking part in the film of Monty Python (singing dodgy lyrics which he didn’t understand!), for which Arlene Phillips was choreographer. At the end of the shoot she said David should go to the Royal Ballet School for a classical training which sets you up for anything with its technique and discipline. He remained at home keeping his options open but the more he focussed on the classical training the more he realised its importance.

At 14/15 he wanted to move forward with ballet and was fortunate to find a male ballet teacher in Harrogate, who is now an international examiner at RAD, and also came to London at weekends, not to the Royal but to Central School with Christopher Gable who wasn’t happy when in 1988 David joined the Royal Ballet Upper School at 16 after GCSEs! Merle Park had arrived by the time he joined though Barbara Fewster was still in place when he auditioned (quite a scary experience to be alongside White Lodge students as well as those from all over the world). Also he was suffering an injury at the time. He had always been small and at first it was thought he might not grow enough for a ballet dancer but after 15 he shot up and by the end of his first year he was six foot! Although his muscles were very strong, his bones were weakened and he pulled a chunk out of his pelvis but thankfully his mum knew a specialist who was able to help.

Memories of the school: Moving away from home for the first time was a big thing but his parents were happy that he moved in with a family in Petersham where there was already a student from Rambert. David decided he’d cycle along the river to Richmond station and take the tube to Baron’s Court. It was a great adventure and the first day he was so worried about being late that he arrived to find almost no-one there. Toby Norman Wright, a really nice guy from White Lodge, was in his year and interested to find out about David who’d come through a different system, and for David it was good to meet someone he’d not shared his entire life with. At the time everything was changing at the school and in his first year his teacher was German Zamuel so the training was Russian. Even as a new student he was aware there were mixed opinions about this stylistic change but David knew no different and did what he was told. German was a great guy but a tough teacher and David felt the difference with not having gone to White Lodge or a vocational school and always being the only boy. David Dawson, Robert Tewsley, and David King, as well as Toby, were in his year. Having always had surplus energy he recalled being absolutely exhausted and after his cycle home went to bed early and slept like a log – it was a very different world. Another student whom David befriended was Teddy Kumakawa who was the same age but a year above him. Teddy was the big noise around the school and even before meeting him David had heard about the 15 pirouettes which he thought impossible until he saw for himself. He’s still in touch with Teddy who’s still doing 15 pirouettes!

David spent two years at the Upper School. At the time there was slight friction because it was the transitional period when, having previously been a three year course, it went down to two so half the year above came down and half went up – those who went down weren’t happy. But it quickly became a very close-knit group and in that hard working situation there was little time for yourself. On a work level they were close but once David got back to Richmond at the end of the day he was frankly too tired to do any socialising.

In David’s second year he was in the Rake’s Progress having the great good fortune to be coached for four months by Madame…

Memories of dancing in school: At the end of the first Christmas term, David got a glimmer of some progress – German had been getting on to him all the time which was his job but he recalled German saying in a very Russian way ‘look how he was when he first came and look at him now’ which seemed a positive thing! The first year is all work, the second year was the school performance. Julie Lincoln was the formidable ballet mistress and but there was a level of respect if you had achieved something. She was a wonderful but very tough teacher who really put you through your paces. In David’s second year he was in the Rake’s Progress having the great good fortune to be coached for four months by Madame, who by that time was over 90, which was a big thing as he certainly knew who she was! To be coached by her in her own ballet was very special. At first the dancers didn’t know which role they’d be given, except it was clear that Matthew Hart would be the Rake, and David learned three or four roles. At one rehearsal Madame cast David as the Gentleman with the Rope, an absolute lunatic. Then weirdly after months of rehearsing she decided she wanted David as the Rake which caused quite a kerfuffle. In the end this didn’t happen as Julia Lincoln who’d been involved in rehearsals said that would mean the Rake was taller than the gentleman but it was an unbelievable experience which meant a lot to David then, and even more now. He reprised the role after joining the Company.

Asked when he knew he had a contract, David said it was towards the end of the graduate year. His friends who were doing the three years and were a year older had an audition schedule all over Europe. As an amusing aside, David said that to subsidise himself he got a job on Sainsbury’s checkout along with another friend. When told they could start on Saturday his friend said he was really sorry he couldn’t work that day and when asked why not he had to say he was going to Monte Carlo! While they were busy rehearsing for the school performance, Reid Anderson came to do auditions as he needed people for the National Ballet of Canada. David, Robert Tewsley and Benazir Hussein were all offered contracts, which was amazing considering the NBC’s good reputation. David seriously considered accepting as some very good dancers were struggling to get work at the time so he asked to speak to Merle but Anthony Dowell got wind of what was going on and wasn’t happy so stepped in and offered them all contracts. Only Robert decided to go to Canada. Having worked with the Company as a student during their provincial tours which included Prince of the Pagodas, in September 1990 David joined the Company where he remained as a dancer for 24 years. It’s sounds like a long career and time flies by because you are working so hard but it’s a young person’s game and he’s quite happy with the career he had.

Highlights included his first ballet which was David Bintley’s Planets in a programme with Requiem. David had been Chorister of the Year and recalled singing the Pie Jesu in the Fauré Requiem and was amazed to then be lifting Darcey Bussell in the ballet to that music. But it’s strange having been at the top of the school to come down to walk-on parts like a warrior in Bayadère and if you’re lucky getting on in a dancing number, but it’s all a learning curve. It was an anxious time for people going to their pigeonholes in search of ‘yellow perils’ which told them before the press announcement if they were going to do a principal role. David thought it wasn’t worth looking but found he was being cast as Paris in Romeo and Juliet with Fiona Chadwick as his Juliet. Kenneth Macmillan was still alive and it was a huge opportunity for him. David also chose it as his last role as a dancer though he did a few other things in between! Romeo is a great show with lots of meaty roles particularly for the men, and he also danced Tybalt so after years of being shunned as Mr Nice, he got to be Mr Nasty!

The Royal’s rep is so diverse. David was coached by Anthony in Derek Rencher’s role in Shadowplay and amongst others of Kenneth’s works he did The Invitation and My Brother, My Sisters. He was also one of the three men in Les Biches alongside Martin Harvey and Irek Mukhamedov. It made him smile but almost sick as the first to walk on and David found it one of the most physically tiring shows, along with Rite. For that everyone has to give 100% and the energy is quite incredible making an all-inclusive experience. He also worked with Kenneth on his two last pieces, Winter Dreams and The Judas Tree and it was wonderful to be in both original casts. He was in Mayerling waiting to go on as the young Count who finds the couple dead when he heard Kenneth had died. It was an honour to be asked by Deborah Macmillan to be one of the coffin bearers at Kenneth’s funeral. Another Kenneth role was in Different Drummer as the friend Andreas with Jonny Cope who had just come back from his first ‘retirement’. When the work returned 10 years later David was the Captain and absolutely loved it – a bizarre character but an amazing experience. He did quite well with, and was very grateful for, Kenneth’s ballets. Some ballets are gems to watch and to perform like Ashton’s Enigma and Month with small casts, beautiful music and beautiful choreography.

There are many roles David never performed which he’d have loved like Romeo and Rudolf but as well as being passionate and ambitious you have to be realistic and he’s happy with the roles he did. He got very close but was disappointed not to get Gloria when on tour in Russia covering for Iñaki Urlezaga but in the end Iñaki was able to dance though David did get to rehearse along with Carlos and Natasha Oughtred.

 David’s role in education began in 2008 after the Beijing Olympics. From his first year in the Company he had had an interest in education…

David’s role in education began in 2008 after the Beijing Olympics. From his first year in the Company he had had an interest in education and there were projects going on then in which dancers could be involved. He went to a school in Yorkshire and, being a Yorkshire lad and having barely left school himself, found it very special. He started doing more in 2007 when he was asked to be on a selection panel for the Chance to Dance programme and was formally approached after an amazing ‘seminar’ surrounding the Cultural Olympiad. On the Royal Ballet tour of the Far East he was asked to be part of this programme alongside the tour because he’d done some work with freelance creative teachers and it was thought a good idea to have a dancer there. It was quite something working with local teachers/dancers who were keen to learn as much as they could about the way we teach children creatively. The Beijing teachers loved it and soaked up as much information as they could. It was incredibly tough as, after a full day teaching artists in the morning, community groups in the afternoon, working with young people, orphans from the earthquake, disability and ability people from all walks of society, David was appearing in Sleeping Beauty at night. Tony Hall, Chairman of the Board, came to see some of their sessions in Beijing and signed a five year memorandum of exchange between the Opera House and the Chinese so to be part of that was amazing. Going on tour is very special as you’re showing the world what the Company can do as dancers, but to showcase the education and outreach work was wonderful. David had to speak as the education rep on a panel alongside Monica, Leanne Benjamin, Johan Kobborg and Tony Hall. The whole of the Chinese press were there, along with Anthony Russell-Roberts (not on the stage!) who was very positive about everything. After this Kevin O’Hare, Company Manager at the time, whom David described as amazing at nurturing people in the next stage of their lives, approached him and asked if he would help with scheduling and working in education while continuing to dance if he wished. David agreed though it was tough as he had no ‘out time’ but it was a great transition as it was very helpful to his teaching and demonstrating to still be performing.

Audio clip - Chance to Dance:

During those years in the office, Kevin was pushing David further with the education work. He started doing more teaching as well as being a selector for Chance to Dance which is a very large dance project. When it began in 1992 there were four boroughs involved: Hammersmith, Fulham, Southwark and Lambeth – two dropped out and now it’s Lambeth, Southwark and Thurrock. The Royal Ballet Company take out a nutshell ROH rep to show people where they work and what they do, including a day in the life of a dancer, and they take dancers along to demonstrate. He began by being one of the dancers, then was asked to co-present a demo for four or five schools where you have about 500 Year 3s in a school hall, with a couple of dancers, a ROH musician and an RB pianist. They do an hour’s demonstration, half an hour of a story ballet and take the children through the story. They try to take young corps de ballet dancers who are in costume and who then have the opportunity to learn e.g. the Black Swan from the likes of Lesley Collier and Jonny Cope. It’s a big day when a corps girl gets out of the corps because it’s hard to be released from your responsibilities as a swan! It is good for the dancers to be part of the scheme and one positive is that it also gives them a chance to be seen by the Director who comes to watch. David began to be an educator and now decides on programming and organises demonstrations with dancers depending on their performance schedules. Afterwards there are six workshops within the 35 schools so it means 1,800 children every year are treated to an amazing demonstration of dance and learn about ballet by dancing in creative workshops lead by accredited teachers. The teachers will say if someone shows promise or interest and 30 children from each borough get the opportunity to join the Chance to Dance Company which offers four years of weekly teaching. They do a performance at the Opera House either on the main stage or in the Linbury or both. They’ve recently done Still Life at the Penguin Cafe in the Linbury for which David arranged a suitable adaptation. Last year they did a version of The Rite of Spring which was an amazing experience. It’s very rewarding, particularly for someone like David with his background and interest in education, to pass on his knowledge and experience from working in such a special place and maybe inspire the next generation of dancers or choreographers. It isn’t the mission of Chance to Dance to scout for talent but rather to give opportunities to a lot of children who might otherwise never go to a theatre let alone see a full orchestral rehearsal of a ballet at the Opera House. After more than 20 years, tens of thousands of children some of whom have gone into vocation schools, some to White Lodge and others have become professional dancers in ENB and elsewhere, have benefited from the scheme.

The onus on outreach and learning has increased so much in the last 10 years and is vital for the next generation.

This is only one of David’s many projects and, having decided he had to focus on one thing, he is now full-on in education and outreach. The onus on outreach and learning has increased so much in the last 10 years and is vital for the next generation. He is shortly going on a three day visit to Shanghai during which there’ll be six workshops, and a theatre visit for a Don Q dress rehearsal. After Beijing and Taipei in 2011 they did something similar. With his long background in the Royal Ballet he knows the dancers and whom to ask and when. His success rate is quite good as he knows who would be right for the job. He tries to get the young dancers – Reece Clark was in Still Life – to encourage them to be part of the outreach work, laying foundations for the future. Rio was another amazing experience being part of a teachers’ symposium in the wonderful Opera House and representing the Royal Ballet and Chance to Dance. Paul Reeve, the director of learning and outreach, and Clare Firmin, ballet education manager, were keynote speakers. Teachers came mainly from the Rio area and brought students along to demonstrate their teaching practice but David was proud to say we are leading the way in teaching creatively and have been for the past 20 years. There’d be a demonstration of how they teach eight year olds, suggesting the teachers imagine they were children, and next day move on to 9/10 years old and so on. There was a lot of discussion about different approaches to teaching. Brazil’s darling of dance, Ana Botafogo, was another keynote speaker. Ballet is huge in Rio but very middle class as only people who can pay do ballet. There’s a big dance culture in Brazil but not ballet. They went into small schools in dodgy areas, working with communities who would never normally get the chance to go to the Opera House so it was amazing to show it could be for everyone even if they can’t all become a Carlos or Marianela. It’s about demonstrating that ballet isn’t just about standing on your toes but also about the music, the rep and the history.

In the UK the arts in schools are having a hard time and the squeeze is very noticeable. Certain areas can get by but it’s quite disappointing and contradictory. Some specialist schools are not being used or maximised with a consequent waste of resource and opportunity as there’s resistance at certain levels and a feeling that dance isn’t relevant. One studio where David teaches in Lambeth and Stockwell has a wonderful sprung, heated floor with big stages but it’s rarely used for its real purpose but rather a space for a table tennis table.

Dance is on the up since Billy Elliot and Strictly where Darcey is making waves as a spokesperson on the panel, and with the world-wide live relays. Our media were slow to catch on to this and after seeing the relays from the Met Tony Hall said they had to have them too. There are lots of cross-overs happening in the media age and things are coming together. David is getting phone calls about various projects and is used to flying about. There’s a pilot scheme for a beginners’ class for staff at the Opera House every week. Teaching the class, he meets people from other departments whose paths he wouldn’t normally cross – IT, personnel, finance, customer services, opera singers. He told the new Chief Executive that his PA comes to the class and he should too. So far he’s not come but seems a great guy. Some of those who work in the media feel there are possibilities for outreach on line, a 10 minute ballet session for downloading across the world for example.

David said he is so privileged to be involved in education and has a large body of great people who can be relied on and are qualified to help with lots of events, family Sundays when Royal Ballet dancers will teach creatively, and classes for blind adults which is really very special. Now he’s stepped aside he realises that dancers do have a wow factor and it’s great to have them on board to do their bit.

David Bain said it had been a fascinating evening. It had been a long time since David came to talk to us and hoped it wouldn’t be so long until the next time.

Report written by Liz Bouttell, corrected by David Pickering and David Bain ©The Ballet Association 2014.

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