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    Sophie Alnatt 2019

    Sophie Alnatt & Aiden O'Brien

    Artists, The Royal Ballet

    Interviewed by David Bain
    Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, September 11 2019

    After David’s welcome, our guests began by telling us how they started in ballet.

    Sophie’s older sister danced and when she was two she went with her and enjoyed it a lot. She went to classes after school and at weekends and made lots of friends. Even at that age she performed as a little lion in a show of The Lion King.  Every two years they put on a big show including jazz, tap and modern dance. She did an audition for the Junior Associates (JA) programme when she was nine where she met others who are now in the Company. Her first day at JA a mini Kitri was needed for Don Q at the Opera House and, being the smallest, she was chosen. It was really exciting as she got to wear the Kitri costume, did a little dance and Carlos Acosta lifted her up! Her parents drove her from home in Southend to London every weekend with little Sophie colouring in her exercise sheet on the way.  Her teachers were Miss Gaines and Tania Fairbairn who was also at White Lodge.

    Aiden started dance classes when he was seven but his parents were always playing music at home which he and his brothers danced to

    Aiden started dance classes when he was seven but his parents were always playing music at home which he and his brothers danced to. A family friend was doing a disco class and suggested they went. His brother dropped out and Aiden kept on going. Every two years they did a show, he had one number in the disco piece and wore a red shirt with buttons which he loved. He watched the other pieces and said he’d love to do that so the next year he did everything on the curriculum – highland, country, hip hop, jazz, tap and disco - and finally came ballet. When he was 10 his teacher suggested he try for JAs. It was either London or Manchester at the time as there was nothing in Scotland where he comes from (there is now, in Dundee) so he chose London which had more suitable travel connections. It was a fortnightly programme which involved a 4am start for him and his parents trekking down to London and back the same day as he was also travelling to Glasgow for the Scottish Ballet JA programme on a Sunday which meant giving up his weekends completely for a couple of years. He then auditioned for White Lodge and was accepted.

    Sophie didn’t want to leave her parents to go to White Lodge but it was either that or the local grammar school which had so many pros against just one for White Lodge but as it was ballet she decided to give it a go and really loved it, though returned home every weekend. She made really good friends there with whom she’s still in touch and learned a lot of hard ballet. It was five years with amazing teachers, but Ms Van Schoor, who’s no longer there, would scream at them and make them work so hard but she meant well and they loved her. Also, Mary Goodhew, Anita Young, and Nicola Katrak who coincidentally had been with Sophie’s aunt in the Royal Ballet many years before. Nearly all the girls apart from two had been through JAs. It was the same for Aiden – 10 out of 12 had been in JAs. He went to White Lodge in 2009, made life-long friends who went through the School together up to graduation. It was hard to leave them as he’d reached a stage where he knew them better than he knew his brothers who he mainly only saw during holidays. He still sees his younger brother as the nine-year old he left behind and he’s now 19 and at university! His teachers were Miss Keelan in Year 7 who was really hard on them but she got the best out of everyone. In Years 8 and 10 it was Mr Castilla, now at ENB, and Mr Yow in Years 9 and 11. It was good to go back to teachers who already knew you so you weren’t starting again from scratch.

    Originally Sophie was due to go to Elmhurst but on the last day of term there was a change and she found it was to be Royal Ballet Upper School instead

    Comparisons between White Lodge and Royal Ballet Upper School (RBUS). In Aiden’s time at White Lodge Diane Van Schoor was in charge; she ran a tight ship and was very strict but always got the best out of everyone. Gailene Stock was at RBUS until he arrived and there’ve been a lot of changes since Christopher Powney took over.  Sophie said Diane Van Schoor was a really good leader of the School, extremely strict, and she remembered her screaming at them when they were sunbathing in the garden to get out of the sun as they must all look the same on stage and mustn’t have tan lines. She was sad to finish at White Lodge when lots of people left and went to different schools. Originally Sophie was due to go to Elmhurst but on the last day of term there was a change and she found it was to be RBUS instead. For RBUS you’re marked as Yes, Maybe or No. Originally, she got a Maybe, then auditioned and got a No but she was then given a nice part by Louise Bennet who choreographed for their end of year show and on the last day they said they didn’t want to lose her so to come to RBUS. It was quite a shock and involved a quick change of plans. It was a tough time and Sophie remembers doing her GCSEs and being very upset by everything. The first day it was daunting with ?Miss ….. who’d been Russian trained with everything very turned out, shouting ‘you can’t stand like that’. But, finally the RBUS was really great and she loved it there.

    Assessments at White Lodge. Years 7 to 9 are all fairly similar. Year 9 is when they decide if you are staying on for Years 10 and 11. It would be very unusual to be assessed out in Year 10 when they take GCSEs. In Year 7 Miss Keelan ran a really tight ship. Everyone had to know exactly what they were doing in their assessment and four weeks beforehand they had to know the appraisal class by heart. One day Aiden messed up an exercise and she kicked him and another boy out of the class! It was devastating for him as he wasn’t bad, or misbehaving, it was just an honest mistake. It was awful but outwardly he appeared quite calm while the other boy who’d been kicked out was in tears. Miss Keelan then came and said he could go back in but told the other boy to wait until he’d calmed down. Afterwards Aiden felt traumatised and phoned his mum, crying massively. There’s always the sense that you’re never secure until after the appraisal and marks. Everyone compares their marks and it’s hard enough just being a teenager and more difficult comparing yourself with others so he never enjoyed appraisals. Sophie remembered appraisals being very frightening, repeating the same class every day and it was very strict and tough and it was all down to that one day when you couldn’t make a mistake. It was hard to be so regimented but it makes you hard working today. She thinks dancers work so hard in comparison to other people! They obsess over details and don’t even realise it’s not a normal thing to do as it is so engrained in you. In her Year 9 quite a lot were assessed out and it was traumatic and sad when your best friends had to leave. Aiden said in Year 7 one girl and one boy left, and in Year 8 two girls left of their own accord. They were the group in a long time when no-one was assessed out in Year 9 which was a good year. Diane Van Schoor and Mr Castilla created Jubilation, their party piece which they did to death and performed in numerous occasions - the Opera House stage, in the Linbury, at Buckingham Palace, in galas. Only two girls were assessed out in Year 9 in Sophie’s time which was a real shock, but hers was also quite a good year.

    Move to RBUS: the most exciting thing for Sophie was doing pas de deux, and dancing with the boys with big lifts and turns. They worked a lot with the company which was also exciting. She was very lucky with her teachers – Katya Zvelebilova, Petal Millar, and Anita Young. Aiden had Paul Lewis, Rodolfo Castillano, and Jay Jolley. It was very different with the pas de deux, contemporary dance etc. He was stick-thin and pas de deux wasn’t his favourite as in his first year he got two stress fractures in his back from lifting as the demands in RBUS are so much greater. There are an extra two to three hours’ dancing every day and the standard increases with the addition of newcomers, and at that point Aiden was pushing hard but being tall and skinny his body couldn’t cope with the massive growth spurt and partnering the tall girls. It was Christopher Powney’s first year and he realised there needed to be a switch in healthcare. Rather than just getting on with it, he saw a need to nurture individuals as everyone grows at a different rate. It was a rocky start but he was back for the end of year show. By the time Aiden reached his third year the pas de deux wasn’t so scary.

    In RBUS Sophie said a lot of dancers came from elsewhere - a couple from America, one from Norway and some from other countries - and the standard was very high but it made them up their game. White Lodge was about clean technique and everything just so, but everyone else was doing more turns and bigger jumps so it made them competitive. It was good to realise there was a lot more to work on. It was the same for Aiden though 11 boys from White Lodge got into RBUS so there wasn’t much room for anyone else. They wondered who would come from the Prix de Lausanne and were impressed with one of the dancers who could really jump. In their first year the three or four who weren’t from White Lodge could turn and jump and split legs, but they too had something to learn from the White Lodgers - the English style, port de bras and head placement.

    Differences in style of teaching. Paul Lewis was a good transition as he was British and had been through the system. He taught at Central and danced with ENB. He’d also seen the international standard and he pushed them hard which was great. Second year was Rodolfo Castellanos, with a Cuban background, who was very different from anything Aiden had done before, focussing on freedom of movement, natural coordination and added flair. Jay Jolley knew the syllabus but had an American background, the Balanchineisms were new for them like cabriolles at the bar which they’d not done at White Lodge so it was a more international style of teaching. It wasn’t quite so true of the girls’ teachers – Miss Zvelebilova was very Russian so you were told to stand in a certain way, a different port de bras, preparations for pirouettes etc so it was confusing to be told to do it a different way from what they’d been used to. She was very tough but it was good for the students. Sophie was thrown out of her class when she couldn’t turn out any more and was very upset as she was trying her best. The next year they had Miss Young, so they reverted to the same training as White Lodge. Having been told they must stretch, it was back to not stretching so much! Confusing but at the same time it was important to be versatile as the company used many different choreographers with different styles. In their third year they had Petal Miller, more English, similar to Miss Young, but she spoke a lot about confidence and finding your place, not everyone being the same, and preparing for their different futures.

    In her second year Sophie went on tour with the company to Japan and Barcelona doing Sleeping Beauty and Romeo and Juliet.

    Sophie: when she was in school there was no apprenticeship programme, and they knew only a couple of girls would get into the Company. In her second year Sophie went on tour with the company to Japan and Barcelona doing Sleeping Beauty and Romeo and Juliet.She loved working with the Company though it was very daunting and she recalled doing class with them and being in awe of everything. She did lots of auditions and eventually Ashley Page gave her a job at Scottish Ballet after coming to the School and watching a rehearsal. Meanwhile Sophie had had an exciting time auditioning. She remembered going to Norway, almost missing her flight as she was on the wrong bus, her card didn’t work, there was snow everywhere and she just wanted to cry. Her parents were petrified when they heard and her Dad then gave her his credit card. She also went with a group to Dresden, couldn’t get the ticket machine on the tram to work, and they all ran away when a scary man chased them! In all she did about ten auditions which was expensive, paying for flights and hotels, and sometimes you’d find 150 girls there and you’d have to fight to get to the front, to get yourself noticed. You’d do a half hour at the bar and then they’d throw you out so it was a waste of time and money. It was hard to keep motivated as there were so many people in the same situation but you had to persevere, and do your best and sometimes it was just a question of luck if you fitted someone’s bill.

    For Aiden it was the same, sending details and auditioning everywhere, but he was offered the apprenticeship in January so had the first term to get organised. Being part of RBS is helpful as it gets you through the door for an audition but they don’t know you personally so you’re just a number. He recalled being told you need to stand out so to wear something they’ll notice – in Aiden’s case he chose blue shorts. His first audition was in Munich where he did the bar standing near the back, two or three exercises in the centre and then they read out the numbers they wanted to keep and, despite the blue shorts, his number wasn’t called. It’s a walk of shame and you just put your head down and leave. He can laugh about it now but it was quite traumatic and a reality check as it’s the first time you’ve really faced rejection. Stuttgart offered him an apprenticeship which Kevin heard about and he was then offered one with the Royal Ballet. He’d also got auditions at Dutch National and Vienna, which he cancelled, but in Vienna he’d booked a nice hotel so thought he’d go just for a break. It was very cold but a lovely weekend with no pressure. He went on a three-week tour of Japan at the end of the second year to Japan which was amazing. He covered Romeo and Juliet and Giselle but didn’t get on so it was like a free holiday. Jerome, another boy from his year, and he did the hunt and were then free to roam around. That was where the Company first saw him and, as it’s about fitting in as well as how you are as a dancer, the ballet staff saw he was quite assertive in rehearsals and committed to learning roles, even though he didn’t go on.

    Sophie really enjoyed being with Scottish Ballet. Glasgow was dull and rainy but a fun place to live and it was a small company compared with the Royal. She started with Ashley’s Nutcrackerwhich had such fun choreography and she coveted some of the roles. Ashley was a great Director and would come backstage after the show to thank them and say positive things. She was scared being a long way from home but enjoyed it all and felt she could make her career there. She also did Sleeping Beauty but unfortunately Ashley was leaving about that time so she thought sadly she wouldn’t get the roles she’d hoped for. Christopher Hampson took over and she left with Ashley who gave her a part in an opera which he choreographed, Hippolyte and Aricia, at Glyndebourne which was a great experience. She has stayed in touch and he has advised her and believed in her which has kept her going along the way. David asked if she’d told Kevin we should have some of Ashley’s work. She said no but would definitely mention it!

    Apprenticeship. Aiden was the third or fourth year they’d done it and they had a good success rate. When Kevin offered him a place he said it was with the intention of joining the Company but financial constraints play a part and if there was not a job at the end it would be because they couldn’t afford it. Luckily in the last couple of years the Aud Jebsen’s have been employed and Kevin has been very good at helping those who’ve not succeeded to find jobs elsewhere. Aiden felt it was a pathway and wasn’t like another assessment you go through at school. On first joining they were thrown in at the deep end with the Company so it didn’t feel like being a separate entity, even though their salary was lower! His first work was Alice in which they were doing the same roles as artists and it was like that throughout the first season which isn’t always the way for the guys who don’t have so many corps numbers as the girls. Both Swan Lake and Alice give them opportunities to dance. They were offered coaching which is now being fitted properly into the schedule whereas in their case it was never easy to get a studio. He had a few sessions with David Makhateli, Carlos Acosta and Brian Maloney but Aiden wasn’t so keen on the coaching at that point. He was being used in the Company for corps de ballet and then going back to solos, having not done any for some time, was quite daunting and could lead to a drop in confidence. At his end of the year session with Kevin, Aiden was honest and said he found it hard to adjust to doing solos. The coaching has changed and while they still do solos, they also focus on other aspects of the rep. When did Kevin tell him he’d got a place in the company? In December he was called late in the afternoon and thought it was bad news because he’d been injured in the first season in Alice. Kevin said he was happy with him and he should get back to full fitness. Just before doing the beggar dance in an April show of Manon, Kevin called him into the office to say he’d got the job. He felt great and went on stage but messed up! He hadn’t made any other arrangements as Kevin sounded positive in December and Aiden was still half injured so wouldn’t have had the confidence to audition either. However, he was still updating his CV and getting his blue shorts ready just in case! Auditions are at the beginning of the year so it’s important for Kevin, who’s very aware of this, to make his decisions early. You need to know if you have to go auditioning otherwise you might have to wait another year for the opportunities.

    After Scottish Ballet, Sophie had a three-month contract with New English Ballet Theatre (NEBT). They only work for a few months a year but she danced a lot which worked well. It can be very hard to find a job but NEBT is a place where dancers and choreographers can show their work and they rehearsed at the Opera House and did something in the Linbury, so she gives thanks to them for where she finds herself today. Then out of the blue she got an email from an unknown German company offering her a contract only to discover it was meant for another Sophie! However, she was invited by them, the Magdeburg Ballet, to audition so she went off to what used to be East Germany and found the whole city centre closed off as they’d found a WWII bomb. She felt she really didn’t want to live there but they offered her a three-month contract which she decided to take. She didn’t know anyone, but a German couple from their ballet association invited her to stay till she found somewhere to live. They had no English and Sophie no German but with the help of Google Translate they managed to tell her that the RAF had bombed their house – a great start to their relationship! She got plenty of dancing experience, including Coppelia, Sleeping Beauty bluebird, canary fairy, sugar plum fairy in Nutcracker as well as Clara so got to do lots of solos, and eventually stayed for four and a half years. They were nice people, and she was very glad as she gained a lot of experience and learned a lot, both life-wise and ballet-wise. They had a Cuban director, Gonzalo Galguera, who was very fiery with a sometimes shocking temperament. If it was 6 o/c and he hadn’t finished you had to stay on – you had no rights as in other companies. It was a small and very classical company and they danced a lot of his choreography. There was one other English White Lodge dancer in the company. Otherwise they were Russian, Italian or French but not German. Most of the dancers spoke English to each other but they were taught in German by a Bulgarian ballet mistress. As Sophie didn’t understand initially all she could do was follow the others. Gradually she picked up the language though no-one spoke to her at the beginning. Eventually she felt she’d done everything the company had to offer and wanted more so it was back to auditioning again. Unfortunately, she picked up a stress fracture so missed a lot of auditions and found it very hard being without a job while carrying an injury. NEBT had a season coming up at the Peacock and she managed to make it through that audition, and had a really good time, dancing the wonderful pas de deux from Jenna Lee’s Four Seasons.  Then Kevin O’Hare’s assistant phoned and invited her to do class after which he offered her a one year contract. When she said she’d booked a holiday, he said go and enjoy the holiday (which she didn’t!) and then join. Coming into the Royal was such a contrast after working in a company with less than 30 dancers. Her first rehearsal was mirlitons in Nutcracker.She wasn’t down on the casting and turned up at the back with four casts and then they told her to do it and she just had to copy everyone else. Eventually she did a lot of shows which she loved. She felt really happy, already knew lots of people from school and the building was familiar so she settled very quickly. Asked if there were advantages to going to dance elsewhere Sophie said it made you really appreciate everything available in the Opera House, the health team, facilities, the ballet staff and amazing dancers all of which help you to be the best you can. She’d had a great time doing different choreography and she’d gained wonderful life experiences which she wouldn’t otherwise have had, but now appreciates doing the Macmillan and Ashton rep which is lovely and takes nothing for granted.

    Aiden said it was nice to feel settled in the Company last year as, although new artists, they had already done a year so the ballet staff knew them and their reliability and they could focus on their careers and doing the best job possible. Last year wasn’t great for the boys’ rep as they did Mayerling and Bayadere.With not a lot for them to do it was quite chilled and Aiden concentrated on coaching, the gym, Pilates, and getting strong. After Christmas it started to pick up with The Two Pigeons which was when Sophie and he formed their friendship and he felt more confident on stage, just serving drinks and moving tables around, which he’ll be back doing in Manon! It gets you used to being on stage so when you do dance you feel more comfortable. Doing small parts and covering is so important for your general confidence.

    Highlights of last season: for Sophie she had lots of highlights but loved Symphony in C, all dancing together in the last moment in gorgeous white tutus is wonderful. She also loved Flight Pattern, such an amazing piece with a big group all together, very powerful, very emotional with the music and the background to the story. Aiden loved The Two Pigeons and Flight Pattern. In Two Pigeons you can be cheeky and perform, but Flight Pattern is about moving on stage. He loved to be in a large body of people working and moving together and Crystal Pite was an amazing woman. As it was a revival, she wasn’t there when they were learning it so Deirdre Chapman and a notator took them. They were amazing and very meticulous in how a movement should be done. Most people had done it before and Aiden had covered it in third year so had an understanding of the movement. Then Crystal came in and was so lovely, she learned everyone’s name, gave you a hug and personal corrections. It’s a good relationship as you want to do well for her and for the group. Everyone enjoyed the whole process. Even if contemporary wasn’t your particular style you wanted to do it well for her. There should be more like her. Aiden felt she was the first person who was very supportive and didn’t make you feel scared if you messed up.  They then had Christopher Carr for Two Pigeonswhich was another highlight. He’s scary but with him everything is so clear you know what you’re doing and feel confident to go on stage because he’s meticulous and drills you so you perform at your best. It’s not just about the performance but the whole production which starts weeks or months beforehand.

    At the end of last season they went to Japan on tour. Sophie and Frankie Hayward were last there in 2010 in their second year as students In the Upper School so it was exciting to go back and look for their names which they’d written on a wall backstage. They did Don Q to a crazy audience who came to the stage door and were taking photos and were completely involved in the performance. They were quite shocked but it was cool to have such a lively and loud audience. At the Opera House the audience is more English and quieter! Don Q is quite hard with loads of changes but they all enjoyed it and then went on to Yokohama where they did a gala with Symphony in C which was stressful as you have to be so together and all in line, in contrast to Don Q. They only had one stage rehearsal so there was a lot to take in. The shows went well except that Cesar Corales took a knock on his mouth and he had to do the Romeo and Juliet pas de deux with Natasha Osipova. His face was all swollen, he couldn’t talk, move his mouth or smile at Juliet. Afterwards he had to go back to hospital for more treatment.

    Aiden found Don Q fun as it involves a lot of acting, which he really enjoys

    Aiden found Don Q fun as it involves a lot of acting which he really enjoys. You feel like a celebrity in Japan, everyone’s at the stage door with their books, taking pictures and then following you along the road. It’s flattering but can be wearing! In Yokohama there was Symphony in C and gala pieces so it was great for the boys who did class every day and then went sightseeing. Because he’d been there before Aiden was the sort of tour guide. He loved the culture, food etc. Touring also gives you the chance to get to know the company. In London after a show you go home. On tour you stay in the same hotel, have drinks, go for dinner together so it’s a nice social experience. Getting paid to have a week off at the end is also great!

    Sophie: After Japan they went to Los Angeles which was very exciting. She joined them for Mayerling and thought she’d get a week off but on the first day of rehearsals she was told she would be doing every show. It was a beautiful, fun place to be, with lovely restaurants, but everywhere was so far apart that they always had to take Ubers. Despite jetlag she wanted to see as much as possible and was out and about all the time. Half the company stayed on for Wayne’s piece and those of them who were just in Mayerling had an extra week’s holiday which Aiden enjoyed. There was so much to see and do in LA as everything like films and pop culture is based there, and diets and new trends all come from there so it’s exciting to see all that, though quite tiring doing all the tourist stuff, but it was a nice way to end the season!


    How does it feel after the final school performance at the end of the third year? Aiden said it is so emotional and the final defilé is one of the best moments ever with everyone together in fifth position when the lights go up. When the curtain goes down there’s a great roar on stage and every year they get told off! At the end of the third year everyone is crying and hugging, both happy and sad, but it’s the best feeling knowing all the hard work has paid off. Sophie found it a great moment but over-whelming being on the Opera House stage with wonderful music.

    Are they in any new ballets? They are currently rehearsing with Cathy Marston, both of them covering but you never know what might happen. It’s quite a complicated ballet about the cellist, Jacqueline du Pré, with several different sections and they’re still working out who will do what. Cathy’s corps tends to do a lot of different things.

    David thanked Sophie and Aiden very much for being our guests and said it was always delightful to meet the younger dancers and spot them early in their careers and we now looked forward to following their progress. When Sophie first appeared on stage everyone had asked who was the blond girl as there are very few in the company.  The Ballet Association has a great deal to thank her for. She is the first person who’s rushed back from a weekend break to be at our annual dinner. Sophie said she was in Portugal with some of the girls and she’d deliberately booked an earlier flight back but it was then delayed so rather than waste time going home to dress, she came straight to the hotel and changed in the toilet into something from her suitcase. Aiden couldn’t make it as he was at home in Scotland where his Mum had a prior claim on him but hoped he’d be invited again.

    Report written by Liz Bouttell,edited by Sophie Allnatt, Aiden O’Brien and David Bain.

    © The Ballet Association 2019