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    Jessica Clarke 2020

    Jessica Clarke

    Artistic Manager, The Royal Ballet Upper School

    with Hanna Park & Denilson Almeida Afonso, 3rd Year students & winners of the 2019 BA awards

    Interviewed by David Bain
    Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, January 08 2020


    After David welcomed our guests, Jessica apologised for the absence of Alix Van Tiggelen who had gone with other 2nd year students to rehearse for their part in the opening ceremony of the 2020 Winter Youth Olympic Games in Lausanne.

    Jessica started by telling us how she got into ballet. She said her mum was a ballet teacher and it was cheaper to take her to class than to hire a babysitter. After a few years, by the time she was eight, she was clear she wanted to be a dancer. Although her mum didn’t want her to go away to school, Jessica was determined to go to the Royal Ballet School if she got in, which she did and spent five years at White Lodge before moving to the Upper School. She was very home sick at first but was determined to be a dancer and knew that was where she had to be. By the third year (now year 9) she had got over her homesickness and enjoyed her time.

    Jessica started by telling us how she got into ballet. She said her mum was a ballet teacher and it was cheaper to take her to class than to hire a babysitter

    The advantage of being at White Lodge is that everything is in one place and the ballet and academics are all organised for you which makes life very easy. This contrasts with people who don’t have that benefit and have to do their academic studies in one place, go to ballet elsewhere after school and then home to do homework which makes for late nights. For Jessica, White Lodge was a wonderful experience where she made good friends whom she’s still in touch with. There were 18 in her first year and three made it into one or other of the Royal Ballet companies. Speaking of moving to the Upper School Jessica said now they were more aware of academics and psychological and mental health. In the 80s it was different. Each year some people were assessed out, in the 5th year (currently year 11) there were 12 girls, eight of them got through to the Upper School and about the same for the boys. With regards to the Royal Ballet, a big change now is the apprenticeship scheme. This is wonderful because it means there are six secure contracts for a year which gives dancers experience with the Company and increases their chances of being taken on permanently.

    Hanna started dancing aged six at home near Seoul in South Korea. Her mum thought dancing makes you healthy and your body looking good, so she started for that reason but found it was fun and she really liked it. She went to ballet class after school until she was nine when she moved to an arts school where people could do music and arts as well as dance. They did academics with ballet classes in between lessons as well as after school so it was hard work as they finished late but a good experience. In the old school Hanna did academics from 8am to 3pm, and ballet until 7pm. There was then another ballet class until midnight, so she only slept from about 1 to 6 am! It was hard but she loved to dance and to learn. At the arts school they taught all types of dance – ballet for two hours, then Korean traditional dance, contemporary dance and choreography so there was plenty to learn and it was fun. There weren’t many boys, only two in her year with about 12 girls so it was hard to do pas de deux. Here, there are now more boys than girls.

    Denilson is from Brazil. When his parents divorced, he moved with his mum to Rio. She used to dance in the Baptist church when the choir were singing. When he was five, he wanted to do it too but there were only girls so his mum said he should stay in the corner and copy her! After two years the Pastor noticed him and called him to the front and there he stayed for a year. One day a dancer came to the service and asked his mum if he would like to join a ballet school to improve. It was 1½ hours from his home and classes were three days a week. The teacher there saw his potential and said he should go every day. They did tap and jazz as well as ballet and as there weren’t any other boys Denilson began doing pas de deux at eight years old and was also needed for choreography. His mum said going daily was a problem as she had to work, so he changed to a quite famous ballet school which was even further away from home where Mayara Magri went. Unfortunately, they didn’t have much money so couldn’t afford the fees which were quite expensive.

    When he was five, he wanted to dance but there were only girls in the class so his mum said he should stay in the corner and copy her

    Denilson Almeida Afonso

    There was a social project sponsored by the owners of the school to get kids to come for the ballet. They also helped him with transport. By this time he was 11 years old so was allowed to travel on his own by tube (it was 17 stops and his mum phoned every four stations to check on him!) but his mum took him to the train and someone from the school picked him up at the station and reverse after school when his mum picked him up with a bike. Finally, when he was 15, he was allowed to go by himself by bike! They taught all sorts of dance in the school. He did normal school from 6-12am, had a quick lunch and then ballet school. They had to do their own warm-ups so that at 1.30 they were ready for solos, then a break and class for 1½ hours, then another ½ hour break when he did his homework. They then did pas de deux rehearsal working for competitions and as he was the only man, he had to partner all the girls of all ages for pas de deux! They finished at 8.30pm so he was home by 10pm, had dinner and got to sleep about 11pm and then was up again at 5.30am to go back to school. His teacher was Brazilian but studied in Russia, so his training was Russian. Asked if there were advantages in working long hours, Denilson said maybe but when you’re in the Royal Ballet School you see how easy life can be while still getting the same tuition and good results! He says he’s improved so much since joining the school, so it is really just what people do who have no other options.

    Hanna also had a Russian teacher who was tough, and they did high legs and big turnout. She was in the same school for six years. After three years she went to the arts high school. They prepared for exams with bar work, centre work, pointe work, character and contemporary dance and if you passed these exams you got to the high school where they did lots of practice for competitions – variations and contemporary works. Her highlight was the Prix de Lausanne where she won a prize.

    Jessica said in her day the Upper School was in Baron’s Court and she lived so close by that she could run to school holding her breath against the traffic fumes! It was exciting because at White Lodge they were quite a small group and at the Upper School they had extra classes, so they mixed with a lot of other people. They went from a group of 12, to two classes of girls and one of boys so it was a substantial number and inspiring for young people to see different energy and different training which you could all learn from. Her highlights were performing with the Royal Ballet from early on and having tickets to see the performances so there was a connection to the Company. The Company were also based in Baron’s Court and shared a canteen, so it was wonderful to feel so close to it. You got to know the dancers though they were too timid to talk to them but just being near them was enough at the time!

    She lived so close by Baron's Court, so she could run to school holding her breath against the traffic fumes

    Darcey Bussell was in her year and William Tuckett, who’d been at White Lodge but left, then came back into the Upper School. Teddy Kumakawa also joined them. Asked when she knew she was going into the Sadler’s Wells Company Jessica said it was the last month of term. She’d worked with the Royal Ballet in her first and second year. There was a new Swan Lake for which Yolanda Sonnabend did the designs, Jessica had her place in it but was doing swans every night in different places. In her third year, she and two others went on tour with Sadler’s Wells (they did an eight-week tour of the Far East in April). When she got back everyone else had jobs and she and her two friends didn’t. Then she was told by Merle Park that Peter Wright wanted her for Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet. Now the third year are already looking at auditions and contracts in January but in her day they didn’t think about it until the summer. Now she feels the stress of the students who are nervous waiting for jobs to come up. Jessica spent three years in the Upper School - first, second and graduate years. Some students just did the first and then graduate year. After that the course was generally two years until Gailene Stock took over and made it three again.

    Hanna did lots of competitions in South Korea and several around the world, New York twice including the Youth America Grand Prix (YAGP) and Berlin. When she went to high school she prepared for Prix de Lausanne, one classical variation (the Shades from Bayadere which is very slow) and one contemporary variation (very fast) to show she could do both. The stage was raked for Prix so it was hard to get used to but it was a nice experience which changed her life. There were students from everywhere, doing classes with many foreign students from lots of schools and teachers from all over the world. A panel (which included Carlos Acosta) watch and mark every class - is there pressure being watched all the time? Sometimes Hanna felt it but didn’t worry too much and just did her own thing. She won second prize which meant she could choose from a number of schools but her dream from when she was very young was the Royal Ballet School and she, her parents and teachers were so happy for her to come here, and she’s still happy!

    Denilson also did the Prix de Lausanne the year before Hanna. He did some small competitions in Brazil and prepared for the big ones, going to YAGP in 2016 where they were offered schools in America but decided to try for the Prix in 2017 from where he came to the Royal Ballet School. For the Prix he prepared a classical variation from the choice of about six or eight and also a contemporary piece which for the first time had been made by someone famous. He had to copy it from a video. In New York there were so many Brazilians for the competition that it was like home as they were in the same hotel! For the Prix the way they pick dancers was from a group of about five. He didn’t win but got the Rudolf Nureyev prize which was amazing. He was offered a few places and Royal Ballet School was one so he was thrilled. He had a meeting with Mr Powney which made it official though his teacher had to ferry him around and speak for him as he knew no English at the time.

    Both Hanna and Denilson had been to the YAGP - what is the difference between it and Prix? The YAGP is more like a competition with all the variations, while the Prix is more about look and personality in the classes and how you take corrections, so it’s a more personal approach. Denilson was 15 at the time of YAGP and many of the others were 18 and it was such a big event on a big stage. The Prix is about getting students into a school or company that will help them progress as a dancer, whereas YAGP is more about getting prizes. At Prix they really took care of you. Denilson’s friend didn’t get offers but the Director of the Prix walked him around all the directors asking them to give him a chance and that was very touching. His friend is now in the company in Singapore.

    Jessica said she spent wonderful years with Sadler’s Wells. They went on eight-week tours around the provinces which as a smaller company gave you more opportunities to perform, so really quickly she got to do some lovely roles. When you perform intensely like that you can feel the difference each day because you’re developing the many different roles you are given. You also make wonderful friends on tour, and the company is your family as there’s not much of an outside life which might not suit everyone but for Jessica aged19 it was amazing to socialise and work together and support each other. Peter Wright was wonderful. He was supportive and much respected as a director. What is magical is that he still comes to watch the school performances and is very much a part of his productions, still changing things, even re-choreographing parts of Nutcracker last year. What a gift to the ballet world to have that integrity and desire still to put everything into his work. Jessica joined in 1988, Peter took them to Birmingham in 1990 and David Bintley took over in 1992.

    Moving to Birmingham was an incredible opportunity for the Company. She loved Sadler’s Wells, but it hadn’t been refurbished and the facilities were rather tired. Then they went to Birmingham where they had huge studios, extraordinary facilities and people bent over backwards to make them welcome and support the Company so it could expand and develop. The Company flourished and had its own identity, so it was an exciting time. The wonderful thing about having David as director and choreographer was that, unlike guest choreographers, he got to know them through working with them daily so he could use dancers for their specific talents or characterisation for the roles he was working on. Some of his works were absolute masterpieces. Hobson’s Choice was wonderful - very English, with humour, sympathy and empathy, a wonderful narrative ballet. It was the epitome of a new narrative ballet at the time. He also made Cyrano, and Gallantries for four couples and four soloists which was beautiful. It was pure movement and exquisite. It hasn’t been done for some time but hopefully it will come back.

    Jessica was in the Company over 10 years and retired at 29. However, she has been a part of the establishment since she was 10 years old, as a student, then a dancer, before returning as an Associate teacher and then doing the Professional Dancers’ Teachers diploma. She joined the White Lodge faculty about 10 years ago.

    Hanna came to the Royal Ballet School in 2018, went into the first year, but after a month Mr Powney offered her a jump into second year which she was very pleased about, and she is now in her third year. She couldn’t speak English very well when she came but now it’s better. It was very hard at first to get used to everything as it was so different and because of her lack of English it was hard to make friends but after a week she felt more comfortable. In Hanna’s old school it was a very busy schedule, but it is freer here and also there are more boys so it’s easier to do partnering which is very nice. Her first teacher was Miss Tranah, in second year it was Miss Klimentova who had a Russian background but taught in an English way. Jessica commented that Daria always said coming to England taught her so much and without it she wouldn’t have had the career she enjoyed. Hanna said it was rather a Russian style which is straighter with more extensions and big turn out and technical moves. Coming here she found it more artistic, and about the body and port de bras.

    Denilson: what is the Brazilian style? He said they always say they’re free and don’t have a style, although in the school they said it was Russian. It was a good thing because when he went to Prix he could listen to the teacher and know what he wanted and make changes. Coming to RBS he saw the difference but struggled a bit. Mr Hristov was his first teacher who was quite tough but over the year it got more relaxed. He couldn’t speak English so he tried to learn the exercises but couldn’t pick it up as he couldn’t understand what was being said. Apparently, Mr Hristov was saying you must do the exercises to improve. Then he got injured and had time to learn English and get into the style, watching so many performances of Sylviawas very helpful. It used to be first come, first served for tickets but now it’s balloted which is fairer. His next teacher was Mr Lewis who was incredible. Denilson had been taught by a woman before so the way Mr Lewis taught seemed like a mirror you could be inspired by. He showed the importance of ballet coming from the inside and to tell the story to the audience.

    Hanna has done one school performance and Denilson has done two. A choreographer came to make a 12-minute piece for them. He was part of the first movement then was injured but watched every rehearsal. He got better a month before the performance and was allowed to dance but told not to jump though he did do one double tour. Jessica said he was a model student, and when he was off injured for quite a long time, he was committed to the exercises, worked through it, and learned so much in the time he was off – a great example to other students who have suffered injuries. Denilson said he wondered what he’d do but was offered so much – watching ballet, classes, teachers teaching other students, so he picked up the exercises and had time to learn.

    At beginning of every term each student has a profile taken and from that they get individual programmes on how they can improve certain physical and anatomical aspects

    Fitness at the school. Hanna said there’s a gym, with lots of equipment, physiotherapists, body conditioning, personal trainers and they are well taken care of after injury. They also have massage, which is good for the body when you’re so tired. At beginning of every term each student has a profile taken and from that they get individual programmes on how they can improve certain physical and anatomical aspects. For example, they are measured on the depth of the plié on each leg so they can work on any inequality of physique to help them develop evenly or if there’s a weakness in the posterior chain of muscles it can be looked at to try to ensure the body can withstand the demands now made on it as an athlete as well as an artist. There’s conditioning and Pilates every week, a health nurse in school every day, a nutritionist and a counsellor so it’s really a holistic approach.

    Jessica is Artistic Manager of RBUS – what does that involve? Denilson gave an impressive overview from his viewpoint. He sees her keeping an eye on artistic and academic needs in the Upper School. She looks at the schedule, if there are rehearsals with the Company whether they can attend or not, physio appointments, how much time they’ve put in for performances so for example those on-stage last night started later today. If they need to ask Mr Powney something and he’s not available, she will pass on the message. Jessica said it’s hard to define the role but really, it’s looking after the artistic management of the school and students on a day to day basis. She does the schedule each week, organises guest teachers, rehearsals for any pieces being choreographed, coordinating with academic staff if they want to take students out of class for some reason. She liaises with ballet teachers and pianists that they’re all happy with their roles and also liaises with the health team on a weekly basis to check on injuries and keep Chris Powney updated on those. Various tours are coming up for the third years, so she checks that wardrobe are up to date with costumes and fittings.  They’re now starting work on end of year performances, so she also coordinates those rehearsals, the people coming in to teach and making sure the production side is in place.

    For the end of second year performance Hanna said their big work for the girls was Paquita (she failed to tell us that she took the lead!), Alastair Marriott’s piece Simple Symphony which was about 10 minutes long, and they also did Ashton’s La Valse,and a piece made for the boys by Ashley Page.  This year it’s Elite Syncopations, Valentino Zucchetti is going to make a piece for the boys while the girls have part of Corsaire, then they’re doing Chanson, a slow six-minute-long pas de deux, and also Rhapsody.

    For their tours they’ve just been to Rome and there’s an exchange coming up in Amsterdam with the Dutch National junior company. For that they’ll do Larina Waltz by Ashley Page originally made for four principal couples for the Royal Ballet tied in with the Royal Opera chorus for the Prokofiev gala. Then Ashley came to the school and made it into five couples which they did at the school performance two years ago. They’re going to the Orchard Gala in Japan at the end of February and will be taking Chansonand Rhapsody. There is a gala version of Rhapsody that was put together by Stephen McRae and Miyako Yoshida, which includes the male solo, the pas de deux and girl’s entrance and coda. It is very hard for the boy as there’s a lot of lifting and tricky jumps in the solo, so they made it into a pas de trois for two boys and a girl. Denilson does the pas de deux and the lifts. The music is stunning, he says.

    Both Hanna and Denilson have been given Aub Jensen Young Dancer apprenticeships with the Company. Jessica said they were delightful and model students, and both deserve it as they are committed and work very hard.

    Questions: at the Prix you have prepared solos and you’re given a short coaching session. Is it easy to incorporate the teachers’ suggestions? Denilson said it depends on what they say. They are aware the students will have to dance very soon so can’t make big changes but from the feedback it’s more about detail and how to impress audience and judges. He thinks the judges want to see how you respond to what the teachers say. A friend of his was told to change completely the diagonal which was terrifying. However, dancers are used to being flexible and know what they can take and what they can’t.

    You’ve said there are even numbers of boys and girls at the Royal Ballet School. Does it affect your work? For pas de deux you have someone to work with and make the best you can. In the Company you dance with different people so it’s good to have variety.  For the girls only to have one boy you get used to that but it’s incredible how the shapes of girls or length of leg can make a difference to how the boy has to move and adjust the timing. David said the fact that Denilson was the only boy in Brazil was an advantage. Thiago Soares says he’s a good partner because he had to dance with so many different girls.

    Jessica: would you have liked to stay on longer as a dancer? She was always very fit, but it was more a personal decision. She really enjoyed her career and was never plagued with injury and could have fine-tuned her body better with the knowledge we have now, but it was really because her fiancé was in London and she was in Birmingham and she wanted to be with him. She would have liked to carry on dancing, but family life took over. A lot of those who are teachers say if they’d known then what they know now about physicality and how you use your body it would have made a difference to the way they danced.

    David said many thanks to all three. We look forward to watching their careers through the apprenticeship and hopefully beyond at the Royal Ballet for many years to come. Meanwhile we are looking forward to visiting the Upper School on 28 April.


    Report written by Liz Bouttell, edited by Jessica Clarke, Hanna Park, Denilson Almeida Afonso and David Bain 

    © The Ballet Association 2020