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Paul Lewis

Teacher, The Royal Ballet School

with RBS students Yuki Sugiura and Joshua Junker, recipients of BA Awards 2015

interviewed by David Bain at Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, London, 27 January 2016.

AFTER WELCOMING OUR GUESTS David began with an apology for the absence of Gabrielle Beach who was auditioning in the USA. Paul, Joshua and Yuki then started by telling us how they got into dance.

Paul who comes from Harlow started at the age of 10 in Leo Kersley’s ballet school (Leo was a former principal with Sadler’s Wells Theatre Ballet and long-time member of the Ballet Association). His sister who is two years younger wanted to do ballet so Paul was dragged along and thought he could do better than her so they asked if boys were accepted and were told ‘of course come along on Saturday at 12’. When his Dad was told, he wasn’t pleased but apparently Paul had something and he stuck with it.

Yuki who comes from Japan began in nursery school and aged seven her teacher suggested she go to her ballet class because she had nice feet. Neither of her parents danced but her grandmother did traditional Japanese dancing in kimono with fans. Initially her class was just for an hour and a half but gradually her day, which started at 8am with several hours of academic studies, lasted until 10pm ending with three hours of ballet training in a different location. It was a large ballet school with about 100 students. She did it because she loved ballet and her teacher suggested she did competitions in Japan some of which she won.

Joshua began at the age of eight with breakdance because his brother was doing it. His teacher had a dance school for boys and slowly introduced contemporary dance and later classical ballet which at first he thought was very feminine and wasn’t for boys. But after a while he began to like ballet more and it was suggested he audition for The Conservatoire professional ballet school in The Hague. His mum used to do expressive dance, requiring no technique but focussing on emotion. His dad is director of drama and art therapy at a university.

 Paul was bullied at school because it wasn’t ‘normal’ for boys from Harlow New Town to dance, but one older boy suggested he apply to The Royal Ballet School.

Paul was bullied at school because it wasn’t ‘normal’ for boys from Harlow New Town to dance, but one older boy suggested he apply to The Royal Ballet School. After dancing for only four months, he auditioned for White Lodge without success, apparently because he ‘lacked confidence’. Leo was furious and arranged a private audition without Paul being aware he was being tested and he was accepted into the Legat Summer School run by Eunice Bartell. He spent five years at Legat but he always knew he really had to get into The Royal Ballet School. Legat was a good school and many former male pupils went on to successful careers in some of the good ballet companies which was inspiring. At the age of 16 Paul re-auditioned and was successful in gaining a place at The Royal Ballet Upper School where he stayed for two years.

There was a lot more detail at The Royal Ballet School than he had been used to – he didn’t know how to turn out properly and his teacher, Murray Kilgore, was keen that everything should be correct and he really drilled them. After a school where you did academic work and one ballet class a day, at The Royal Ballet School they had morning class, solo class, pirouette class, virtuosity class, contemporary twice a week and it was quite full on. Choreography was an optional extra on a Saturday. It was exhausting dancing all day long, but it sets you up for your future profession. While at the school Paul auditioned for Northern Ballet Theatre (NBT) just for the experience and Robert de Warren wanted him to sign up immediately! He spoke to Barbara Fewster, then Ballet Principal at the School, who said he should take it which he did but only stayed a year. Sasha Agadzhanov came as a guest teacher and said Paul should work with Valeri Panov at Royal Ballet of Flanders so without knowing anything of Panov or the company, Paul went there to audition and succeeded.

Joshua said that Wim Broeks was Director of the School in The Hague when he was there and previously Chris Powney had taught there. Classical dance only takes up three hours a day so it’s quite a shock to train all day at The Royal Ballet School. Joshua said the first year was very basic classically, doing the Vaganova style, then he had a French teacher in the second year, so learned the French style with a lot of pace, after which it was the very ‘squared’ style at The Royal Ballet School, but he thought it very helpful to train in different styles. He had done The Royal Ballet School summer school but pulled out of auditions as he didn’t want to leave the Netherlands and home. Just before the parents’ show he was asked to reconsider, and in discussion with his mum, it was decided he should come, which he did a few weeks later. Summer school was two weeks with 30 boys from all over the place and it included jazz, breakdance and hip hop but it helped prepare him for The Royal Ballet School and full time training. In The Hague the school was much smaller and in Joshua’s time the students were mainly Dutch though now there are more foreigners.

Yuki entered the Youth America Grand Prix as she wanted to do ballet outside Japan where ballerinas weren’t paid …

Yuki entered the Youth America Grand Prix as she wanted to do ballet outside Japan where ballerinas weren’t paid and had to have other jobs to subsidise themselves. Youth America is where companies go to look for future stars. She went with her teacher and another friend from the school and danced Aurora’s Act I variation and a contemporary piece made by her teacher. She really enjoyed the experience as there was lots of energy and everyone had a passion for ballet and wanted to be a professional. Besides her solo pieces, she also worked with the director of John Cranko’s school. She was awarded second place and Jay Jolley offered her a scholarship which meant she could come to The Royal Ballet School with fees paid.

After NBT, Paul moved to the Royal Ballet of Flanders where he had a wonderful time. It was a really inspiring period with a mix bag of rep as Valeri Panov, the artistic director, was very creative and theatrical. Amongst other works they did The Idiot, Three Sisters, and his Romeo and Juliet. There were some great dancers too but Valeri Panov was replaced by Robert Denvers, an ex-Béjart dancer, who’d taught in New York and had learned to teach from Balanchine. He made changes in terms of style and rep and Paul stayed there two years performing in some great pieces – The Lesson was his favourite of all roles – and works by Kylian and Balanchine. Then Christopher Gable took over at NBT and a friend of Paul’s spoke of him as a great director. Paul had also seen A Simple Man on TV and loved it. He and his girl-friend at the time, a fellow dancer who wasn’t happy in Flanders, decided to audition for NBT and got in. He had three great years working with Christopher, for whom he had enormous respect, during a wonderfully creative time. He was a director who truly deserved the title of Artistic Director. Ballet is an art and with story ballets the telling of the tale shouldn’t be secondary to technique as the two cannot be separated. They did Giselle and, although he wasn’t cast originally, Paul asked Chris if he could learn the role of Hilarion. Christopher agreed and on opening night Paul created the role. They also did Romeo and Juliet and Simple Man amongst many others. When Paul told Christopher he was going to leave, Christopher said he’d got great plans for him but it was tricky as his relationship with his girl-friend had broken down so it was time to move on and he went to English National Ballet (ENB).

Yuki came here on scholarship. Her first year teacher was Miss Young who has a very Royal style which was completely new for Yuki. Although she enjoyed it, it was hard as Yuki knew nothing of the style so she struggled at first but thinks she’s improved. This year her teacher is Daria Klimentová, a former principal dancer with ENB. Her style is very different again, but Yuki thinks it will be helpful in future.

 Joshua had recently won the first prize in the Lynn Seymour award for expressive dance…

Joshua said in the first year they lived at Wolf House in Baron’s Court with very nice people but it was quite difficult as he’d never really trained in boys’ technique. This year they are training with a Cuban teacher which is very ‘loose’ so again it’s good to learn another different style. Joshua had recently won the first prize in the Lynn Seymour award for expressive dance when the students have to choose a solo, learn it by themselves, arrange the costumes and then perform in private in front of the judges, Monica Mason and Kevin O’Hare. It’s all about expression and emotion. He did Kylian’s Gods and Dogs. It explores the lines between illness and health, madness and normality and suggests with its shocking movements that you need a bit of madness in your life. When Joshua was at school in Holland, Nederlands Dans Theater (NDT) was their parent company so he’d known and been fascinated by the piece since he was young and always wanted to perform it. Yuki also entered the competition dancing Lady Capulet’s solo at Tybalt’s death in Jean-Christophe Maillot’s Romeo and Juliet for Monte Carlo Ballet. She is younger and has more dancing than in the MacMillan version.

After NBT, Paul moved to ENB where Derek Deane was director. He recalled playing the main door in Derek’s Alice in Wonderland. The turning point for him was when, performing in Manchester, he saw himself in a full length mirror dressed as the Dodo and realised a career change was called for! Meanwhile he had had some good character roles – Tybalt in Nureyev’s Romeo and Juliet, which he loved and worked on with Rick Verner the original Tybalt, Von Rothbart and Drosselmeyer – and had worked with some amazing ballerinas, but after the Dodo experience he decided, as he loved performing and felt very comfortable on stage, he really wanted to be an actor so went to drama school for a year. With some reluctance he was given a dancers’ resettlement fund grant and as he was already a qualified massage therapist he was able to support himself charging £5 per treatment! He struggled as an actor for two and a half years and started doing a little teaching meanwhile at the Young Dancers Academy. He taught for Leo Kersley a couple of times and, as he’s analytical about how people do things and would watch recordings in slow motion, teaching seemed natural. Jane Hackett from the Central School asked him to mark assessments and teach class, and then offered him a three-day-week job which combined with his acting career. Jane then went to ENB school and Bruce Sansom, her replacement, offered him a five-day-week teaching post and eventually Paul succumbed and loved it, remaining there for five years. Then Michael Corder at ENB school offered him the post of teaching third year boys. Up till then he’d never qualified as a teacher. However, you do need a bit of paper so eventually Paul gained his teaching diploma which actually proved helpful – having knowledge doesn’t make you a good teacher, he said, and you need to understand how people receive information and the psychology of learning. It also helped with writing lesson plans, aims and outcomes which are part of a teacher’s life.

Asked how a typical day was for the students, Yuki and Joshua said their academics including work for their BTech (dance appreciation, history of dance, analysis, nutrition, health, running a business) was in the morning, followed by an hour and three quarters ballet class. Lunch was 45 minutes (a bone of contention!), then pas de deux, solos and choreography. It’s important to understand the process and working with a choreographer. Yuki said they all did choreography in the first year but had a choice in the second – she chose not to carry on but to perform in it instead. Joshua chose to do choreography and was one of seven students working for the Ursula Moreton competition. (Which, a few days after the talk, he won.) He was making a piece inspired by a jungle atmosphere, dark and mysterious, with monkey-like movements to music which was ‘quite jungly’! Each choreographer could choose one dancer and Yuki had been chosen for two pieces. Both she and Joshua were in one piece which had crab-like movements! Yuki’s other piece is expression of space in movement.

On two days a week they do contemporary dance, character work, fitness with the aim of strengthening the body, Pilates, repertoire to prepare for working in the corps of a company. The second years have little opportunity to work in a company although two boys went to BRB this year for Nutcracker and some girls werein Nutcracker and Jewels.

Laura Connor mentioned that Jay would love to get him to the RBS. The following year he heard Meelis Pakri was leaving, so Paul rang Jay who said ‘thank God you’ve rung!’.

On his move from ENB to the RBS, Paul said he’d twice been invited by Marguerite Porter to teach for three weeks at the Yorkshire Summer School, a particular pleasure as he’d been there as a 14-year-old on a David Blair scholarship. On his second visit Jay Jolley was there and Laura Connor mentioned that Jay would love to get him to the RBS. The following year he heard Meelis Pakri was leaving, so Paul rang Jay who said ‘thank God you’ve rung!’. It’s now been three years and Paul’s found it a great place to work and great privilege to work with such talented kids. Joshua had said earlier that he thought Paul and Miss Young were ‘very Royal Ballet’. Paul said he was worried at first as although he’d been to the RBS, his influences were very eclectic and on his very first day there he had eight Italian teachers who came to learn the Royal Ballet style and he wondered what it was! But it’s unmannered, pure, correct, placed, turned out, precise. On a couple of days they have teachers from different years including from White Lodge. Chris Powney’s policy is to make the upper and lower schools more integrated and there is interchange with White Lodge teachers every week so the students can experience different styles. Also male teachers can teach the girls and vice versa. The aim is to produce versatile, adaptable dancers who can be employed all over the world working with different choreographers in different styles.

Preparing for the school performance in the summer, we heard that Charlotte Edmonds, part of the Royal Ballet young choreographer programme, had done a couple of workshops and was making a piece for the second years. They were also to do Les Patineurs, and a very modern piece by a Belgian choreographer, Stijn Celis, called Vertigo Maze. At the moment, Paul said that training was more important but in the summer term they would go off timetable and rehearse for it. Once in the third year they do more rep and can be part of the exchange scheme with American Ballet Theatre.

Speaking of their year’s highlights, Joshua said for him it was winning the Lynn Seymour award, and for Yuki it was improving her jump.

On life outside school, they said after the first year they are now living off Long Acre but having to fend for themselves, cooking, cleaning, shopping, doing laundry etc. For them both it was a new experience having always previously been cared for by their mums. But it all helped in their development as individuals. Paul remarked that the transition to independence in the Upper School was hard with a tough day followed by homework and looking after themselves but they are remarkable young people with incredible dedication and focus. They are also amazingly bright and it’s a privilege to work with them.

Talking of auditions, Paul said the students are reminded from their first day that people coming into the building and to class could be looking out for talent so they should always present themselves as well as possible. They are developing as performance artists so in audition they do what they do every day. Recently some directors visited the school – some students stepped up to the mark and put the light on but others just treated it as a class. Elsewhere some auditions can be like cattle markets so you have to put yourself forward and present yourself well rather than hiding at the back. Paul remarks that ‘you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression’. A future employer can make a decision in minutes and will notice if someone isn’t paying attention.

In thanking our guests for a very entertaining evening, David said we looked forward to seeing Yuki and Joshua in the school performance and to following their future progress and good fortune in their tough, but chosen careers. Meanwhile we shall enjoy seeing them in class during our visit to the school in April.

Report written by Liz Bouttell, corrected by Paul Lewis, Yuki Sugiura, Joshua Junker and David Bain ©The Ballet Association 2016.

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