March 12 2020 saw the last Royal Ballet performance of Swan Lake just days before Boris Johnson announced a national lockdown due to COVID-19 and the closure of all our theatres. The Royal Ballet had been giving astonishing performances with many exciting debuts being eagerly awaited by the ballet world.
The learning and participation department (L&P) had been working tirelessly over the previous year and a half not only to progress and extend its established projects such as Chance to Dance and Create and Dance and give them a national reach, but also to animate the beautiful new front of house spaces and curate a full programme of events in the new Linbury Foyer and Paul Hamlyn Hall.
As part of this new ‘Open-Up’ programme, I personally had been teaching Ballet Dots (ballet classes for ages 6 months - 4 years) and Dance with the Royal Ballet as well as regularly programming and presenting many ‘Live at Lunch’ events as well as ‘Ballet Studio Live’.
When the country went into lockdown, instead of cycling to Covent Garden each day on my bike I suddenly found myself ‘commuting’ to my living room each morning and staring into a screen full of my colleagues in their little boxes online. Our first task was to re-write our national schools projects and make them available online to primary school children across the UK and their parents, who had suddenly found themselves responsible for home-schooling their children. ‘Create and Learn’ was the result which offered a new dance, opera and design challenge every week until the end of the school year.
I became keenly aware of how isolating it felt to be away from ‘real life’ connections and the inspiring energy that the ROH all my work friends and colleagues offer. As a former Royal Ballet Soloist, I’ve never been one who finds it easy to sit still for very long let alone be locked inside a confined space! Dance is a vehicle to strengthen human connection and inspire creativity. These are some of the core values of the ROH ballet learning and participation programme and the things that shone through as so essential during lockdown.
So, a global pandemic wasn’t going to stop us bringing the positive force of dance and creativity into people’s lives! The Royal Ballet had been due to perform a gala at Cast in Doncaster in July 2020. Alongside this, a major partnership with Doncaster Council, Cast and Doncaster Creates was enabling ROH L&P to begin the journey of working in every school in the town over the next three years. We had already begun plans for a performance by school children outside the theatre ahead of the gala. Lady Deborah MacMillan had given us her blessing to use Sir Kenneth’s Romeo and Juliet to inspire the creative choreographic process with the children and the resulting outdoor curtain-raiser performance was to include four Royal Ballet dancers. Sadly, this could no longer take place, so we moved the project online.
Romeo and Juliet offered us the themes of solidarity, friendship, family and determination. Residents of Doncaster were invited to create an original dance relevant to their experiences in lockdown. The project creatively engaged Doncaster residents with The Royal Ballet’s production through specially made online filmed resources featuring The Royal Ballet’s Charlotte Tonkinson (a Doncaster resident herself) and myself. We filmed the three weekly creative challenges on our smartphones from our respective living rooms.
135 people took part in the online project during the summer of 2020, including residents of care homes, school children, young people with special educational needs, local businesses and members of an older people’s dance group. Each participant submitted a film of their dance and these were all put together by professionals at the Royal Opera House, where Doncaster residents danced virtually alongside Royal Ballet dancers to be part of a ‘lockdown’ dance film.
When I watch the film, I am reminded of the potential for dance to bring together communities and provide inspiring ways to express emotion and connect to each other. One teacher at a participating school said “we saw a rise in confidence, there was great range and scope for them to express themselves... working together on this gave them a sense of teamwork and lifted their spirits.” Creativity and teamwork are vital skills to see us through this challenging time and this project in Doncaster has demonstrated how the repertoire of The Royal Ballet can inspire and develop these qualities.
Here is the link to the film on the ROH website: https://learning-platform.roh.org.uk/doncaster-dances
David Pickering, Education Administrator, The Royal Ballet