Grace Blundell & Solomon Golding
Artists, The Royal Ballet
interviewed by David Bain
Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church,
London, 15 October 2016.
IN WELCOMING SOLOMON AND GRACE David began by thanking them very much for stepping in at the last moment in place of our scheduled guests, Akane Takada and Ben Ella, who had been called for a Viscera stage call.
They began by telling us where they came from and how they got into dance. Solomon was one of five children born on a council estate in Tottenham to his Mum, who’d moved away from her upper middle class background, and Dad who is Jamaican. They moved around a lot including to Jamaica and then West Africa as his Dad thought his roots were there. While in the UK they also lived in Highgate where his Mum was a social worker. She was always talking about ballet as she had loved watching Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev but it meant nothing to him until he was about six when, while living in Ghana, his grandma, who loved the opera but had never been to the Opera House, recorded on VHS the Christmas Specials from the BBC and he was enthralled to watch Tamara Rojo and Carlos Acosta dancing Romeo and Juliet. Finally, on returning from Ghana to Ely, Solomon started doing classes. Although his siblings all went to the dance studio, Solomon was the only natural dancer.
Grace’s background is very different. She comes from just outside Birmingham and was about three when she started taking dancing lessons where she met and danced little duets with her (still) best friend which she enjoyed. When her friend moved to another dance school, Grace followed, going after school to ballet, jazz, lyrical and tap classes, and to dance festivals. There’s no family connection with dance but her Mum read about the Junior Associates (JA) programme, put Grace in for an audition and she succeeded so went every Saturday to JA in Birmingham. Aged 11 she decided to audition for a vocational school and applied to White Lodge and Elmhurst. She was devastated to be only wait-listed for White Lodge, crying her eyes out thinking it was the end of the world. But Grace believes things happen for a reason and now knows moving away from home to White Lodge at that stage wouldn’t have been right for her as she’s really family orientated. Luckily she succeeded in getting into Elmhurst where she boarded but was able to go home every weekend.
After training for six months in Ely the teacher suggested to Solomon’s Mum that he should audition for the Royal Ballet School (RBS). He did no research and knew nothing about the school so it was just a romantic notion, but everyone was excited for him so he thought that was fine. He became a JA in London under Sylvia Hubbard, coming down every alternate Saturday. Solomon said nothing works conventionally in his life. When he auditioned for White Lodge, Sylvia was on the panel. You have a first audition after which you hear if you will go to the final. When the letter arrived it said ‘no’ and Solomon was devastated. He went to his class that evening crying to his teacher who said he needed to prove it wasn’t the end for him and he should go to JA every week which he did. Gailene Stock came to one class and on the following Monday they received a phone call to say she wanted to offer him a place at White Lodge without even doing the second audition. He struggled at first as it was nothing like his previous experience. He didn’t even know where the school was and that imposing building in Richmond Park in huge grounds was miles away from his world but he learned a lot about the history of the school and history of the Company.
Initially Solomon was a boarder but was struggling and after the first term it just wasn’t working for him. He’d had a very different upbringing and experience of ballet from the other students. Some had been dancing since they could walk, some had parents who’d been dancers and knew the teachers and he felt it was a bit cliquey and he didn’t fit in so clashed with a lot with people. At the same time he really wanted to dance. Gailene said he had talent but the boarding wasn’t working and what could they do, so Solomon became a day student and went to stay with an aunt in London until his family moved back to the city. In his year he was the only day student but everything seemed to happen in the dorms at night so the others would chat and laugh about what had gone on and he wanted to be a part of it. Here Grace said she’d felt sorry for a boy day student at Elmhurst who was in a similar position. For Solomon it was hard to miss out on all the shenanigans but he was there to do ballet and knew that at some point they’d all move on to the next stage and it would be all right.
Mary Goodhew was Artistic Director of Elmhurst until Grace was in year 10 when Desmond Kelly came along but this didn’t involve any massive change for her. Grace was such a home person and found it hard living away from home. There were so many learning curves as a boarder but it taught her to become very independent in comparison to her other friends. Everyone makes sacrifices, including the family, and she feels she’s now doing what she missed out on when younger. Being in the Company, there’s a schedule so she can get a train home to catch up with family and friends. The training at Elmhurst is broader and you can go down various roads like jazz, tap, Irish dancing but Grace knew that she wanted to go down the ballet route and it became a bit tense, so in year 8 she re-auditioned for White Lodge. She succeeded in the first but after the finals Mary and her parents decided it was better for Grace to stay at Elmhurst until year 11 and then audition for the Upper School. Of course this wasn’t what she wanted but it was the right decision. Her Mum and Dad have always been supportive and she wouldn’t be where she is if it weren’t for them. Nothing really changed for Grace when Desmond took over – Mary knew it was ballet she wanted and he knew the same. Her Mum went with her to audition for the Upper School and Grace was so happy to get to the finals. She was at Elmhurst when her Dad called to say the letter had come offering her a place at RBS and when she heard she burst into tears. It was hard as she wanted to tell the world but had to be sensitive for those who hadn’t succeeded.
Talking of White Lodge highlights, Solomon said it was a big learning curve and now it makes sense and he’s very grateful for the experience, although at the time he didn’t appreciate it. It sets you up for ventures outside the school and getting your first job and in his case dealing with the situation of coming back to the UK after a period overseas. He had a great time and is still friends with some of the students but the whole day was spent there and he had no friends outside the school. Something of a highlight was seeing the school do the whole shift to the new building. He recalled being in Baron’s Court where studios were falling apart and then moving to a place where everything was brand new and wonderful.
At White Lodge they had appraisals every year and in year 11 when Solomon was 16 he auditioned for the Upper School. He was quietly confident as he’d put in a lot of work. It was perhaps unfair to those who hadn’t been to White Lodge as the White Lodge students found out they’d succeeded before the public auditions. They did a class and were called individually into Gailene’s office. You didn’t see the others’ reactions as they left by a different route! Gailene told him he’d got a place at the Upper School but for Solomon it was with mixed emotions as he’d heard his Dad had died the previous day. All he’d wanted was to get to the Upper School and suddenly his priorities completely changed. He wondered what does it really mean but desensitised himself and just thought ‘what will be, will be’. The Upper School was a move away from home into the newly renovated accommodation in Baron’s Court. The horror stories of what it had been like before would have upset Health and Safety! It was so much fun and his first experience being out in the world – a real Joe Cool. There were only five boys and five girls who went from White Lodge to the Upper School so they were among a new group of international students, checking on their training and hearing about other people’s experiences. It was an amazing time as it opened their eyes to wider horizons. People came through competitions which White Lodgers hadn’t been used to, only having Genée and Young British Dancer of the Year (YBDY). Of Solomon’s year, those who came into the Company were Donald Thom, Mayara Magri, Thierney Heap and Téo Dubreuil. He and Téo were very good friends before he went to Hong Kong and Téo to English National Ballet (ENB) and renewed their friendship when they both got in to the Company.
Grace said that Desmond had built up a stronger connection between Birmingham Royal Ballet and the school so the Upper School people worked with the company a lot more. Coming into the Upper School you felt like a small fish in a big pond after being a big fish in a small pond! There were so many international people in her year. It was intimidating but everyone had their goal and knew what they wanted. Her first teacher at the Upper School became ill and Gailene Stock took them for a while. There were also guest teachers, including Zenaida Yanowsky. After having the same routine every day, it changed and everyone was all over the place. Then luckily they had Miss Whitten in their second year and in the third year Miss Tranah. During Grace’s first year, Solomon was in the graduate year and after that, things changed. He had Mr Pakri and Miss Zvelebilova in the first year, second year Anita Young and David Peden, third year Nikki Tranah and Gary Norman. At the time, Elmhurst had been right for Grace but once at the Upper School she felt very behind as the others could do double pirouettes on pointe which she couldn’t so it was a massive shock. But it made her even more determined and she tried very hard in the tough first year.
Highlights of the Upper School. Solomon was in the finals of YBDY and was very happy. In the second year he did the Lyn Seymour competition when the students choose their own solo from the rep, find costumes and music and rehearse by themselves. He danced Lensky from Onegin Act II and came second so all the hard work paid off. Monica Mason was one of the judges. For Grace it was working a lot with the Company especially in the third year. It was an incredible experience so she felt very lucky and for about half a season was in nearly every show. Solomon was also used a lot as a student. He was 10 years old when he did his first ever show as a page in Cinderella and he was also in Nutcracker so felt very at home and involved with the Company. Grace also worked with BRB. In Year 7 she was in Coppélia as an angel who just ran on, sat down and ran off. Initially she was sitting in a carriage and one of the Company members had to lift her out which she thought was just wonderful. In her graduate year she went on tour with BRB in Prince of the Pagodas. It was a wonderful time as she was still at school but also doing shows in the Coliseum.
In Solomon’s graduate year they auditioned all over Europe and beyond but he made no headway and was one of the last in his year to get a job. Two of his last auditions were Boston Ballet, where it was nigh on impossible to get a visa, and Hong Kong Ballet (HKB) in New York City where a group of friends went together to audition. They had no money to get to New York so went to the finance office who gave them funds but said don’t tell anyone else! They auditioned at the Alvin Ailey studios in New York which was amazing. He was offered a year’s contract with HKB where one of the pluses was he learned a lot of solo work. Stephen Jeffries had left and Madeleine Onne, from Swedish Ballet, was their new director. Solomon commented here that (until Kevin) he had only worked with female directors. Hong Kong is very finance based and so different from London. HKB doesn’t have a home so you went to a studio in the Hong Kong Cultural Centre but if someone outbid you for studio space you’d sometimes be dancing in a gym which he could have done at home. The school schedule had been hectic but in Hong Kong there were lots of rehearsals for only a few shows a year. It was a very different culture and way of doing things. Performances weren’t sold out and Solomon felt it wasn’t for him so went to Boston for three days and loved it as it reminded him of UK. Sadly his visa application was rejected so no contract could be offered. His stuff was arriving from Hong Kong but luckily hadn’t yet left the UK. It makes him sweat to think of it! But his Mum was very determined and said ‘send Tamara an email’ or ‘write to other directors’ but Solomon wanted to do class with the Royal so emailed Kevin and explained his position. He didn’t want to correspond with a lot of directors and then turn them down if he got into the Royal because you never know what might happen in future and he didn’t want to burn his bridges. Kevin invited him to take class and he was offered a contract by which time he’d been round the world and back again. For Solomon he felt it was an advantage having worked elsewhere. It was an opportunity to go off the grid for a bit, the Company was familiar with him but when someone is shiny and new the attention always follows that person. Now he speaks to third year students and talks about his somewhat unorthodox experience. Although he really wanted Europe he was prepared to go to Hong Kong because they offered him a job and it showed he was really serious about ballet. He also matured a lot having never lived alone and then suddenly he was dealing with a different currency, different culture, and the need to find an apartment and pay the bills. He was totally on his own and HKB don’t have finance or offer help with accommodation. They just give you names of estate agents.
Grace said she also had a very hard time in graduate year doing so many auditions and getting nowhere. She felt she was getting lower and lower and becoming a bit withdrawn but she never questioned that dance was what she wanted to do. Each audition made her realise she wasn’t good in big, open auditions with loads of girls fighting for one job as she lacked the confidence but she was so grateful for the opportunity of working with the Company and because she did so much and got thrown into so many things she thinks Kevin realised she was capable and proved herself that way. Then last year the apprenticeship scheme started and she became one of the first five girls. In school you’re taught and corrected every day but once in the Company you’re more on your own so it was good for her to have the coaching and extra solo lessons making the transition a more gradual process. The daily routine was the same as the rest of the Company including rehearsals, class and corps de ballet work as well as their extra coaching although they were paid a bit less which could have been a worry. Solomon said he’d look through the window and it made him want to be an apprentice – the last time he had a solo it was at school! Grace worked a lot with Olga Evreinoff. When you leave school and don’t do solos in the Company you lose stamina quickly so Grace found it really helpful to keep it up and as an apprentice you are still used – for example she was one of the harlots in Manon, so was still doing dancing roles. As apprentices they only have a one year contract so every day you feel you have to prove yourself but you have to take care not to get negative and worry about what would happen if no contract was offered and the audition process started all over again. If you think like that you don’t appreciate what you have so you have to relish every day’s experience with the company even if it does only last a year. All the other girls on the scheme got jobs last year, one went back to ENB, one to Portugal, one to Scottish Ballet and one to Estonia.
The highlight of Grace’s first year was Swan Lake, the ultimate dream, and it was the 2,000th performance. It’s such hard work for the corps but you feel so wonderful afterwards. In their generation they grew up watching and hearing stories about Swan Lake. Grace recalled watching it in first year with a standing ticket and remembered thinking how scary it must be waiting to go on and then suddenly you’re on stage and become part of that long history.
Solomon has been in the Company for two years and talking of his favourite works he said he loved Rite of Spring in which he had his first role as he was covering for Paul Kay who went off. Grace was also thrown on last season. You have to count everything so it was an big achievement. He had a small solo in Connectome so felt involved, and he was a gardener in Alice, one of three guys painting roses but really enjoyed it and having moved on the cast list from a ‘bracket’ to first cast was great and he did every show. When it was created he was a hedge so he’d made progress! Working with Hofesh Shechter was an amazing experience. Solomon had surgery on his big toe right before the tour and the last thing he did before that was Hofesh. He has such a following and the way he is and how he spoke to them was just so different. In the classical world you are normally told what to do in everyday life and with Hofesh it was very casual, he was swearing and running around and making awful jokes but was a breath of fresh air. There was a mix of every rank of the Company for his workshop when he set up movements which they performed and then he chose the dancers.
Grace talked about Wayne MacGregor’s work. She’s still very new and it takes time to get into it but this year she is cover in Raven Girl which is a massive eye-opener. Coming into the studio she was expecting him to teach the corps as would normally happen, but he would start something, then say move in this way and then change direction, so quite difficult to follow. Even though she’s not been on in Raven Girl she feels she’s been part of it. Now they have Carlos’s Carmen. Creating new works is exciting and Solomon said they have a great time throwing ideas around and it’s a big collaboration. A choreographer might ask you to do something but if it’s not realistic you then find another way.
Now Two Pigeons is coming back into the rep. Grace said normally they don’t start rehearsals until quite near a show but it hasn’t been done for 30 years and Christopher Carr is trying to put it together from so many different versions so it’s going slower than normal. Solomon learned Giselle, Swan Lake and Nutcracker with Chris and said he can be very intimidating and scary because he knows the works inside out and when he teaches it you know it for ever. Grace said she was petrified working with him! In this case although Chris was in the original production he’s really learning it again at the same time so it’s more enjoyable and so much fun. There are big corps numbers with the gypsy men and girls and it reminds Solomon of Fille where you don’t have to think what it means but is just a lot of fun. When you are trying to make ballet relevant you can get lost in the modern thing but it is great when you have something classical which people can just enjoy and Two Pigeons delivers that. The ballet was made for a small stage but Chris has redone a few things and is trying to make it bigger. He seems happy that it’s back and it must be refreshing for him to do something that’s not in his head. Solomon said he can’t wait to see the costumes and sets which have been remade. Grace said she’d had a costume fitting and the bars had corroded so she got stuck in it for a while.
In answer to a question Grace said that during their apprentice year they worked on solos of the fairies from Sleeping Beauty and the pas de trois from Swan Lake which they did with Olga.
Asked how you get yourself noticed in the corps, Solomon said some people just get opportunities but sometimes you have to take it in hand so go to your director and ask to learn something which you feel suits you and if you show you’re good you may be lucky if someone gets injured and you’re a cover. Last year Grace was fourth cover for one of the caterpillar women in Alice and ended up doing lots of shows. That was just luck but she was so happy and hopes next time she’ll be put in.
Solomon was asked whether he knew he would get into the Royal Ballet when he was a student. He said it is always interesting to reflect on earlier years when, if he’d said he was going into the Royal Ballet, everyone would have laughed. There’s a lot to do with perception and if you are the right type. It’s interesting to see who has carried on dancing. He recalled in year 7 there was a darling who was one of the little girls in Swan Lake and also in Johan Kobborg’s La Sylphide. Afterwards she was showered with flowers and he thought she’d go to the Royal but now she’s moved back home and is a hairdresser. No-one can predict anything. There’s great pressure and people take different paths. But how does a director choose who should be cast from among the great principals? Different people bring different facets to a role.
In thanking Grace and Solomon for being our guests, David said it had been very entertaining and interesting and we all looked forward to following their careers over the next few years.
Report written by Liz Bouttell, corrected by Grace Blundell, Solomon Golding and David Bain ©The Ballet Association 2015.