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Anita Young with Chisato Katsura & Adam Russell-Jones

Teacher and students, The Royal Ballet School

interviewed by David Bain

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church,
London, 29 January 2014.

DAVID BAIN WELCOMED OUR GUESTS and apologised for the absence of Reece Clarke, our third award winner, who had been needed for a stage call of the Rhapsody programme. Reece will come to talk to us later in the year, following the Company tour to Russia and China.

  …at the age of 10 she was put forward for, and gained, a scholarship to the RAD along with Marion Tait, Marguerite Porter and Jan Francis amongst others.

Anita began by telling us her introduction to dance which came about through a baby/childhood illness for which she was being treated at Great Ormond Street Hospital. She began regressing, wouldn’t eat, and went back to the crawling stage when a child psychologist suggested dance classes to encourage her to move, listen to music and do something active. It was a life-saver for her and her ambition now is to do something special for the hospital. A Londoner by birth she went initially to a wonderful lady in Old Compton Street, then the Max Rivers studio in Leicester Square. She began doing exams and at the age of 10 she was put forward for, and gained, a scholarship to the RAD along with Marion Tait, Marguerite Porter and Jan Francis amongst others. It was the English teacher from her ordinary school who suggested she audition for White Lodge where she went aged 11, and this was followed by the Upper School before moving into the Company at the age of 17 where she was in the first UK performance of Nureyev’s Nutcracker which she’s now teaching her first years for next week’s performance.

Adam began dancing at stage school in Cardiff when he was eight. He wanted to be an actor and had no passion for dance but his teacher said he’d got rhythm so he went to a ballet teacher once a week. He auditioned for Billy Elliot and did over a year of the choreography, songs and script. There were regional auditions to get through before coming to London and re-auditioning. His group was about 10 in number, of whom three became Billy. They did a variety of things including jazz, acrobatics and singing as well as ballet. He enjoyed it and knew he wanted to be on stage but didn’t make the cut, so auditioned for Elmhurst and went at the age of 11 on a scholarship. Elmhurst was different then from now. Mary Goodhew was Director and Adam really enjoyed it – it’s an amazing building with purpose-built studios and it was very valuable to learn so many different styles of dance – jazz, contemporary, flamenco, ballet – which give you a good foundation and confidence. It may not suit everyone but for Adam it was the right school and had the right atmosphere. Desmond Kelly’s arrival as director coincided with Adam’s year 9, about the time he sustained an ankle injury which resulted belatedly in surgery and put him out of action for 9 months. Desmond pushed him in the right direction and after he came back from injury, aged about 15, he realised that dance was what he wanted to do as he’d missed it so much while being off, so he really has to thank Desmond for where he is now. During year 10/11 he was in rehab and improving and getting through an injury is hard enough but when he didn’t succeed in his goal of going to the Royal Ballet Upper School at the first attempt it was tougher still as he saw his contemporaries moving on. He went instead to ENB school, and from there entered the Young British Dancer of the Year (YBDY) and got to the finals. It was a great experience to be able to perform in front of the staff and show what he could do. A week later he auditioned again for the Upper School and was successful.

Chisato began by apologising for not being good at talking. She said she started ballet in 3rd grade as she had bad posture and her mother wanted her to be toughened up! She didn’t like the classes and preferred to be at home but her sister always went to class with her and after a while Chisato began to enjoy it more and was encouraged by the positive reaction of her mother who was full of praise for her and her progress. After her own class she would watch the older students whose teacher always acknowledged her and one day suggested Chisato show her what she could do, saying she had a nice physique, and should try to audition for White Lodge. At that time she was attending normal school and going to dance classes for two hours, three evenings a week. She auditioned for White Lodge and was surprised to be accepted. She went in at Year 9 and was very happy.

For Chisato a highlight of her time at White Lodge was when she danced on the stage at the Royal Opera House as the cat in Peter and the Wolf

Although she was Chinese from Shanghai, she was born in Osaka, Japan, where her mother and father were studying and working. Eventually the whole family took on Japanese nationality. Coming to White Lodge was hard. Chisato spoke no English and was very home sick but her friends helped so much, teaching her English, and they became like her family. Getting up early in the morning was tough with academic studies starting at 8am and then ballet all afternoon till 6.30pm so by the end of the day she was completely knackered! At White Lodge you are trained in the classics and the Cecchetti technique which is a good foundation. Chisato feels it would have been tough to go straight to the Upper School without that preparation. Miss Keelan was her teacher and eventually she got used to everything. At first it was very strange to be living in the middle of a park with deer and rabbits running around but she loves English culture, the old houses and streets and the history that goes with it. For Chisato a highlight of her time at White Lodge was when she danced on the stage at the Royal Opera House as the cat in Peter and the Wolf and she loved it as it was something different, not classical but requiring you to be dynamic and cat-like at the same time. The narrator was Will Kemp.

Anita said White Lodge had changed a lot over the years. Now the academic curriculum is packed full of a huge variety of subjects but when she was a student they didn’t have such a crammed time-table and finished daily at 3.30pm. As a day pupil living in Putney, she was home by 4.30 every day. They didn’t do a lot of things like solos, concentrating more on the rep and Dalcroze Eurythmics. Arnold Haskill was director at the time and once a week every class went to his study and he spoke about current affairs and what was going on in the world. As a 12 year old, to hear this liberal man expounding his views was very interesting and helped to develop them as people and build their confidence. Anita stressed how important it is to have a wider knowledge of current events. At that time some students went at the very young age. Anita recalled a young girl from Mauritius, sponsored by Elizabeth Taylor, who came aged 9 and now works at the BBC. Lady Agnew was the headmistress, a wonderful mother figure like a cuddly teddy-bear who would give the little children a big hug (not allowed now!).

Asked why Adam went to the ENB school, he said when he was in year 11, aged 16, he wanted a challenge and felt London was the hub for the arts in Britain. Elmhurst was changing but he wanted something new, a change of scene, a change of peer group. He came from a year with a fairly negative attitude towards ballet who resented education, so it was a difficult environment. Some of them carried on, and some went into musical theatre, some gave up altogether. It was great and a safe school where he felt at home but he needed motivation to get better and thought coming to London would help. During his first year at the ENB school there was no director (Samira Saidi came later and was always encouraging) but it is a good school, more informal with everyone on first name terms. The year went quickly but he still felt a bit dissatisfied. He lived with a family but it took time to adjust to being independent. After his first half-term he re-auditioned for the Upper School. It felt strange to leave a school where they wanted him to stay to move down the road. Among his teachers at ENB were Chris Lee Wright, Paul Lewis, and Rachael Hunt. Paul worked him hard but it was what he needed and it was very valuable – he was a fantastic teacher and now he is teaching first year at the Upper School with Anita.

Chisato said that at White Lodge you’re assessed mid-way and some people get chucked out. She was always scared of appraisals. You’d have to wait for the letter to tell you whether you could continue. Of those who couldn’t continue, some went to Elmhurst, one boy went to Central and the others stopped dancing. She said that from her year about 60 per cent went to the Upper School. On differences between White Lodge and the Upper School, Chisato said that at White Lodge there’s a canteen so you don’t have to cook or even decide what to cook, and it was a big change to go the Upper School where you have to be more independent. Also there’s a half hour train journey from Baron’s Court to get to the school. Miss Young had been her first year teacher – very passionate and energetic which she loved though she’d been a bit scared of her red nails! It was a good year and they all felt like a family.

Anita said that during the first year they do solos, pas de deux, the rep, and BTEC which is a challenge and Anita always wanted to do more Ashton, MacMillan and the heritage works though it can be difficult to fit it all in and copyright must be observed. Pas de deux for many of the students is a shock as some haven’t been supported before, let alone experienced aerial lifts, but it all builds up stamina. This year they’re performing Rudi’s Nutcracker for which you need good stamina. Chisato said there’s no heritage work done at White Lodge so the Upper School is great. They did Monotones and The Two Pigeons which was fun and included De Valois steps.

Audio clip - Ninette de Valois:

 Anita said that De Valois as a teacher was terrifying, as were a lot of teachers, but that was society at the time.

Anita said that De Valois as a teacher was terrifying, as were a lot of teachers, but that was society at the time. You never answered back and did exactly what you were told. She recalled an occasion when she was a swan and had a poisoned corn which was so painful she couldn’t get her shoe on. But no sympathy from Madam – ‘silly child, just get on with it!’ Madam would sit in the wings even after she stood down from being director and always told you what to do in no uncertain terms. At that time the Director was Ashton and Michael Somes was also there. They were eccentric but knew the works so you loved and respected them and their amazing brains: they were masters of their craft. Anita recalled so many highlights – dancing Agon with Rudi, being coached by Balanchine, working with Robbins on The Concert and Tudor on Shadowplay, Ashton, Prince Charles coming on set. Lots of work under pressure but she thrived on it. Margot Fonteyn was a most wonderful lady who looked after Anita at her flat when she was sick in Brazil on tour and embarrassingly her mum wrote to Margot afterwards to thank her. When Anita left to have a baby, Margot invited her to tea with Felix, her brother, and opened the door herself. Svetlana Beriosova was also very generous. Anita was lucky to work with great people of great humility. Jerome Robbins paid great attention to detail. With The Concert he rehearsed over and over again to make sure the umbrellas were absolutely right – it was exhausting but he, like the others, was a perfectionist. The school did Tudor’s Lilac Garden for his anniversary, the only part of the company to celebrate his anniversary year. Anita felt saddened that works are now put on so quickly and learned watching videos so the detail imparted by the choreographers to the dancers they worked with is missing.

For his first performance in the YBDY Adam prepared Albrecht from Giselle which required acting skills but he hadn’t prepared anything for the second round so he did the Paquita variation which is more showy. It’s good to show different sides of yourself but he preferred Giselle as acting is at the root of what he enjoys performing. YBDY is a springboard and he got to show the school something of his versatility in ballet. There were three other students from ENB school in his year, Johnny Rhys Halliwell, and Isabel Brouwers (previously at White Lodge) who also got through to the finals and now has a contract with ENB.

For her YBDY performance Chisato did Paquita and Summer Fairy from Cinderella. Both very different solos – Paquita is more showy, Summer Fairy all about acting and mime and putting over the message. Anita chose Summer Fairy for Chisato to dance as it suits her and she did it beautifully, very lyrical, pure line and musicality – very Fred – and she won. Chisato hadn’t any expectations and just thought she’d have a go. After her Paquita solo she felt she’d not done very well so she couldn’t believe it when her name was called as the winner. In this country we don’t have a history of going to competitions although there are competitions within the school. For the Lynn Seymour Award for Expressive Dance, Chisato had been going to do Roland Petit’s Carmen solo but was injured and there wasn’t time to regain the stamina needed for the role. Instead David Peden searched through the videos and they found Macmillan’s Isadora and she prepared the solo which follows the loss of Isadora’s children. She researched into Isadora Duncan’s background to help with the role but it was very hard to gauge the emotion and try to imagine herself as a mother who had lost her children and dancing her grief, but she practised over a couple of weeks, learning primarily on her own.

Adam said the teachers aren’t allowed to coach them which is good as it makes you independent and the best part was choosing something that suits you, which you enjoy performing. Heritage works are important but Adam said this was a great experience as there is so much choreography out in Europe that it’s good to show some different works. For his piece he did Pina Bausch’s Orpheus and Euridyce. He did the solo when Euridyce is being taken down to the underworld and he wasn’t sure if his interpretation was accurate but you have to show the story. Practising and performing it is great and the costume makes a big difference (for Adam only flesh shorts) but it creates vulnerability and it makes you alive and gives you a professional feel. The Lynn Seymour award is very valuable as you can perform works not otherwise done in school. No one is allowed to watch you except the judges but Anita thinks that will change as this year the students saw the rehearsal and should be able to watch the performance and they feed off each other’s ideas and performances.

For Adam it seems an ideal company. He knew their rep – they do the classics but they push new choreography and Adam wants to be in new works and be part of that creative process.

At the beginning of the 3rd year you make a list of companies that interest you. Stuttgart’s website indicated that there were no contracts on offer but Adam sent them an email anyway, was invited to an audition and has been offered a contract by Reid Anderson which is very exciting. When he went over to take class he realised that the men were very tall – on average 6ft 2in – but everyone was very friendly and there are several former Royal Ballet students who introduced themselves. For Adam it seems an ideal company. He knew their rep – they do the classics but they push new choreography and Adam wants to be in new works and be part of that creative process. Reid likes to give the younger dancers a push and told Adam that people can join at 19 and be a principal by 23, so Adam feels he’ll get opportunities. He thinks a lot of talent can be wasted just standing at the back. Meanwhile during the past two winters Adam has been working quite a lot with BRB, whom he described as very friendly and helpful. It was great experience and it all helps your confidence which in turn helps when going for jobs. He’d been to do Aladdin and last year was on their UK tour so had the opportunity to see how the company worked while moving around different theatres and in different surroundings – being adaptable is a must!

Chisato is now preparing for the Ursula Moreton choreographic competition next week and is making a piece called Transient. She said she was always interested in choreography – it’s very pressured but there’s a lot to enjoy. The choreographic classes help to fire your imagination and encourage creativity. Sometimes dancers can be rigid in what they do, and think only of ballet, but these classes are very helpful to broaden ideas. She began with the idea of a pas de deux which she thought would be easy to start with and two people easier to control, but after the first workshop she was inspired to go further and opted for 10 dancers which created depth and made the piece more alive. She is in the second year and her dancers in the first so you are friends and students at the same time and it’s not easy to establish authority and make them listen to you! The music is by Arvo Pärt and this was Chisato’s inspiration. They are free to create what they want for this piece (someone is doing hip hop) so long as it’s five minutes. They’re more constrained in White Lodge where the ballet must be more classical and no more than two minutes long. It’s hard work as Chisato is also in someone else’s piece.

Last year Adam was choreographing at the same time as being in Aladdin. Chisato was in his piece and he was also in someone else’s piece. He got his idea from Louis Armstrong’s Melancholy Blues which has a real jazz feel. You have a vision and tell the dancers what to do and it may be that they do something a bit different and you like it better. (Anita said she actually created a little pig step in Beatrix Potter. Fred said do something piggy and he liked what she did and it stayed.) Adam watched the first years in class and liked the way some of them moved so he had one guy from his year and the rest were first year students. He too found it difficult as you had no authority so it took a while to get going and one Japanese boy spoke little English so that was another challenge. But it was a labour of love and he felt he created some good stuff although he didn’t win. It’s good experience and although Adam doesn’t necessarily want to be a choreographer he wants to be part of the creative process and have an input in new works.

For the end of year performances they are doing Raymonda Act III for which Reece will come back, Liam Scarlett is making a piece for all of them, and 3rd years just started a contemporary work by Martin Joyce, who has worked with Rambert. The theme this year is alumnae so former students are coming back to make the works. There is a programme of diverts for the graduates. The second years are involved in Raymonda and Liam’s piece. and also a work by Alexander Whitely. He came for a workshop and Chisato liked his work, and there’s a David Dawson pas de deux.

Anita has now been four years with the Upper School. The first years come from all over the world so you have to bring them together. Some can’t speak English, some come from very small towns, and from Australia and it can be daunting coming to the Upper School in a big city. It’s tough after being perhaps the best pupil in your school and then you come to the Upper School and suddenly you’re with lots of talented dancers. Anthony Dowell had said that when he went there he was always measuring himself against the other students. You can do three pirouettes on pointe and someone else does eight! Anita tries to make everyone feel at home in the Upper School and help them gain confidence – she’s really a mother hen, nurturing and helping them through. She reckons success is about 60% confidence and 40% technique and she relishes inspiring confidence in the first year which is preparation for the second year and beyond when you’re doing harder things and working with the Company.

In thanking Anita, Adam and Chisato, David mentioned Chisato’s saying she didn’t like talking and that’s clearly not true – both she and Adam have confidence which will stand them in good stead in the future. We shall look forward to seeing them again and perhaps Adam will arrange for Stuttgart to visit London!

Report written by Liz Bouttell, corrected by Anita Young, Chisato Katsura, Adam Russell-Jones and David Bain ©The Ballet Association 2014.