Hannah Grennell and Téo Dubreuil 2021
- Alejandro Valera
- Anna Rose O'Sullivan
- Beatriz Stix-Brunell
- Christopher Saunders
- Hannah Grennell
- Isabella Boyd
- Johan Kobborg
- Julie Petanova
- Marion Tait
- Matthew Ball
- Mayara Magri
- Meaghan Grace-Hinkis
- Téo Dubreuil
- Valentino Zucchetti
- Yuhui Choe
- Zhan Atymtayev
Hannah Grennell and Téo Dubreuil
First Artists, The Royal Ballet
Interviewed by David Bain
Zoom video conference, March 24 2021
Following David’s welcome, Hannah and Téo told us how they got into ballet. Hannah, the youngest of four with two older brothers, began dancing with her older sister. Their mum sent them to the local dance school in Essex as she was inspired by Princess Diana and wanted them to have good posture, and know how to hold themselves well and she also wished she’d learned to dance when younger. She felt that if they had some sort of skill, they could present themselves well at events and not feel uncomfortable. Hannah, although only two, was in awe of her older sister and copied her without really knowing what she was doing. That class shut down, so she stopped dancing at the age of five for about three years and then it took the dance teacher a year to get her to return to class as she was very shy. Her mum, who worked for the local council as a hall warden, took Hannah and she would watch from the door and started to dance there, the teacher would notice and Hannah would hide, but she was persistent and after a year Hannah was persuaded to join the class. She stayed from seven and a half until she went to White Lodge in 2003 and it was thanks to her teacher that Hannah auditioned for Junior Associates (JAs) who asked her to audition for White Lodge though she didn’t want to leave home. The teacher said she should give it a try, she got in and took it year by year as she wanted to dance and entertain but wasn’t really sure about it. In 2003 Hannah joined JAs in the second year which was the last year in Baron’s Court. This was pre-millenium. She saw the models for the new Floral Street building, and remembers an orange canteen, the Upper School students were there and she was in the same JA class as Francesca Hayward and Sophie Allnatt and joined the same year as Yasmine Naghdi so she’s known them for 20 years since the age of nine. Every year for five years she got through at White Lodge but she was in a class with many small people while she was very tall. They weren’t sure what to do with her as she was so tall with a long back, maybe too tall for an English ballerina and weren’t sure if the Company would take her if she kept growing.
Téo comes from a family where both his parents are dancers, so he was born into the theatre and is always surprised that his parents were surprised when he said, about the age of five or six, that he wanted to try doing a ballet lesson. His earliest memory is of being in the studio watching company class. His parents were reluctant but he persisted so they enrolled him in a local church hall school with a lovely lady called Vilma Henwood who is now in her 90s and still going at the school. He did class once a week and when he was eight, he auditioned for Birmingham JAs and was accepted. He was with the JAs for two years, doing one class a week on a Saturday at the Hippodrome where Birmingham Royal Ballet (BRB) were based, and they took class in their studios. He remembered having an inflatable ball, a towel, and clinging bands and a form which had to be completed every week to say that you had done your exercises for the week and your parents had to confirm this. Téo recalled ticking off a few days when he hadn’t done them! He started with JAs aged nine and after two years auditioned for White Lodge and was accepted. By that time his parents recognised his wish to dance. The local class allowed him to enjoy it and have fun, but at JAs and with the RBS audition and acceptance at White Lodge it became more serious and he knew that was the direction he wanted to go in and his parents accepted that.
Highlights and downsides of White Lodge. Téo enjoyed his time there. A few people didn’t but mainly that was because of home sickness. It’s really young to be living away from home at the age of only 11 but he wasn’t phased at all and nor were his parents. Hannah said her parents were the same and agreed it was the best place to be training and it wasn’t as if they were never going to see her again. Some people’s home sickness lasted for years and especially having nine weeks off in the summer heightened this feeling. Téo only went home in the holidays while some students went home every weekend and that makes it more difficult as you get out of the routine of being in school with your friends. To say goodbye once a week makes it tricky.
Talking of teachers and performances Hannah said she was so tall, among the very talented, much smaller, more coordinated people in her year but she grew and grew and was always a bit Bambi-fied. She recalled auditioning every year when the Company did Swan Lake and had the baby cygnets in Anthony Dowell’s version, kids in the garland dance in Sleeping Beauty and the same with Nutcracker, but she was too tall, taller even than the smallest company members like Iohna Loots and Natasha Oughtred and Hannah was heads above them. In Nutcracker while Téo was in Year 8 he was a party child though curiously he never did the battle scene and made his debut in it as the Mouse King after joining the Company! At that time Hannah was in Year 9 and they were all in Nutcracker and people said she was too tall to be a mouse and no costume that would fit but her teacher said she could not be the only one not doing it so her claim to fame was them making her a special costume. Now the White Lodge kids are much taller than she was at that age. Much as she loved White Lodge and had a great five years there, she’s not sure she’d do it again. It was very up and down and hard not to be performing much, and having the potential but it not being recognised while she was growing into her body and her talent. She was always struggling and would have given up any Christmas to be in the Nutcrackeror Sleeping Beautyor Swan Lake. There were amazingly talented people in her year who always got to do it, so it was difficult but it toughened her skin for rejection which a lot of her year didn’t face at the time. She felt she was always the underdog but looking back feels she’s done amazingly well. Conversely, when he joined White Lodge in year 7, Téo was just over 4’10’’, he remained the smallest in his year for five years and for the first couple of years he had the cute factor. He did Nutcracker in Years 7 and 8: party children in Year 7 and Fritz and party children in Year 8. Other than Nutcracker, La Sylphide was the only other performance he was involved in with the Company while at White Lodge..
When did they learn they were going into the Upper School? For students there’s the potential to be assessed out every year, said Hannah. You’ve been away from home since age 11, and have to go through this extreme competition every year, so you’re aware of the possibility, but it didn’t happen to too many people. Téo commented that the Year 9 assessment was big, and going into Year 10 was the time it would more likely happen as you’re about to start GCSEs. A couple of people in his year were assessed out. For the Upper School the usual time of assessment is around February when they do an internal audition in Years 10/11. Hannah felt hers was a very strong year with most of the women going into the Upper School, so there were about 12/13 of them who were successful and perhaps three who didn’t get through. In April there were final auditions for those from White Lodge setting a benchmark for people from outside who needed to be as good as or better than them! Téo said only about half his year went to the Upper School so it was very tough with about 5/6 girls and boys out of 13 of each getting through. Those few weeks it was difficult. Not everyone wanted to go to White Lodge and some might want to go elsewhere to musical theatre or contemporary work but you live with them for five years and are very close and perhaps one person wanted to go to the Upper School and didn’t get in and you did, so you have to be sensitive to their feelings and not celebrate too much. Asked of those who didn’t get in, how many carried on in dance, Téo thought not a lot of his year group carried on dancing but Andrew McNicol went into choreography and is doing really well, working globally. Some went for a year or so to another school but hadn’t taken up the profession. In Hannah’s year, some decided to go to college or university and stopped dancing. Several went to Central, Elmhurst and English National Ballet (ENB) and the majority of those continued dancing. Then some did three years in Upper School and decided not to dance any more, and some people simply could not find a job after graduating, going for auditions everywhere but had to look for a different career which is so tough. At the moment it is very tough. Wondering how they keep going now Têo said he has so much admiration for them. There’s a knock-on effect and now the companies don’t have spaces or money to employ extra dancers.
Hannah went to Dutch National Ballet/ Het Nationale Ballet (HNB) in 2011 having auditioned for them twice – initially they asked for CVs and pictures and she got to the last round and then was told ‘no’. Petal Miller (Ashmole) said they were coming here on tour, and would be at Sadler’s Wells, so suggested Hannah go again and audition. Petal put in a good word with the director, Hannah had another audition and was offered a job so a couple of weeks after graduating she moved to Holland. She absolutely adores the company and still does and admires them from afar but still has close ties with them and goes over when she can (though sadly not now). She was there only for three years but it was where she really found herself as a person and as a dancer. Starting as an apprentice to then being in the corps, it is now what is the junior company there. From the beginning her training from the RBS and having worked with the Royal Ballet Company as an Upper School student in Giselle and Swan Lake hadtaught her how to pick things up and be very attentive. In her first year she had about six Swan Lake spots, and had to change from the version she had learned at school and that stood her in good stead as a reliable dancer. She worked with amazing choreographers, did outside projects, dancing at music festivals, in art galleries and made some videos and had the best time. Téo joined ENB in December 2011 while in his third year at school. While they were doing Nutcracker at the Coliseum, he got in touch with Maina Gielgud, who was one of the senior Ballet Mistresses with the company. He was involved with the Royal’s Nutcracker over Christmas and as he was in London he asked if he could take class with ENB at the Coliseum and he went and this he did for a week. The director, Wayne Eagling, watched a few classes and at the end asked if he could speak to Téo and offered him a job. Téo assumed this was for the following season but Wayne asked if he could start the following week. He said he’d have to check with Gailene Stock who said he couldn’t go immediately as he had to do his assessments to which Téo replied he thought it was better to have a job but she didn’t like that idea at all. She said she’d have to ask Monica Mason if she wanted him. Monica had nothing to offer, Gailene asked if he was sure, Téo said absolutely, and the next week he was a member of ENB which seemed bizarre. He was dropped into their Nutcracker run when they were on show 20 out of 50. He had a few little rehearsals to learn all the corps de ballet numbers the first week and then he was in it. He was following his father into what was his first company when it was Festival Ballet, he then went to the Royal, back to Festival Ballet and then joined Sadler’s Wells/BRB. Hannah worked with several choreographers at HNB - Shen Wei, the Chinese choreographer who made Rite of Spring, David Dawson, their resident choreographer, whose work she saw a lot though she never made cast, and Christopher Wheeldon who did Cinderella, so that was her first time working with Chris, Jackie Barrett was there too and it was amazing. They also did some choreography from Ballet de Monte Carlo (Jean-Christoph Maillot). And, of course, there was Hans van Manen, an amazing man and a gem to watch this genius at work who is still creating in his 80s, and she loved his work and thinks it would be lovely for the Royal to do it as there are so many incredible dancers who would look gorgeous in it. It was an amazing time, which she remembers so fondly. It seems such a long time ago as she left in 2014 but time has flown by.
Téo’s highlights at ENB. One of his earliest memories in his first season after Nutcracker, they announced a split tour dividing the company into three groups: one international, one in London and one travelling around the UK. He got on the international tour to Australia after only being two months in the company so he wasn’t popular straight away as there were people who’d been there a lot longer who would have loved to go. He spent ten days there and did 14 performances which was mad. They did Suite en Blanc put on by Maina, which would look good on the Royal. It was whistle-stop as they landed. did the shows and came straight back to London. He really enjoyed Swan Lakein the round at the Royal Albert Hall – it was an amazing experience. Derek Deane was rehearsing so it was fun and he was very nice to Téo who felt he must be doing something right. The film crew were there, filming Agony and Ecstasy before he joined and during his time and spent hours and hours filming and then showed all the bad bits, but it made good TV. Hannah said in Holland they did something similar. Téo always felt supported and very much encouraged by Wayne Eagling who wanted to push him to achieve great things and he was given some great roles - in his first year in the corps de ballet he was doing soloist works.
Téo joined the Royal in January 2014 having applied in the autumn. He wrote to Kevin asking if he could do an audition and secretly ran across the Piazza to take class with the Company. After his first class, Kevin invited him to do a further class as he wasn’t sure so then Téo panicked but returned the next week and took class with Betty Anderton. She sets exercises in her own special language and you have to understand her terminology but Téo had no idea what she was saying while everyone else knew. He bluffed his way through the class and she was most encouraging and helpful and after that Kevin said he would be in touch and a couple of days later he offered Téo a job. All this happened in the October, while ENB were touring with Corsaire. They were in Bristol when Téo asked to speak to Tamara but her only free time was during the interval so he had to go to see her to hand in his resignation in full pirate get-up with a huge moustache, crazy hair and eye liner which was very strange. She was very nice and understanding and it was a happy encounter but she asked if he would stay and do Nutcracker because they didn’t have the numbers. He spoke to Kevin who spoke to Tamara and they agreed he could stay until the end of their Nutcracker on 4 January. So, 5 January was his first day with the Royal Ballet going immediately into a different version of Nutcracker which went on until 18 January.
After leaving the Upper School, Monica said that Hannah should keep in touch which she did through Lesley Collier whose husband Guy Niblett was one of her first examiners. Lesley called during the Nutcracker season, saying she knew Hannah had always wanted to go to the Royal and they needed women now as there were lots of people off injured and it was Monica’s last season and it was jammed packed. Hannah’s plan had been to stay at HNB until she was about 25 and then hoped to come and audition with lots of experience behind her and feeling more confident and aware of her abilities. She had a few days off from 1 January so came and took class for three days. Rather like Téo, she found herself in Betty’s class on the first day and couldn’t understand what was going on, and then the next couple of days she had Roland Price. She saw Kevin who said he’d be in touch but when she was offered a contract she was very much in two minds whether or not to accept as she was not quite ready to leave HNB. She hadn’t expected to have the opportunity to go to the Royal so soon and they wanted her to start straight away, but she said she wanted to leave HNB on a good note as you never know what might happen in the future and said she would like to finish the season. Kevin completely understood so she started in August in what was an amazing season but it was a bit of a baptism of fire. At HNB they always said the Royal worked much harder – and truly they are some of the hardest working people she knows. The schedules, said Teo, are absolute madness. At Dutch National it was in chunks – you’d rehearse a ballet and then perform it, then rehearse the next. At ENB it was similar – they would have 6/7 weeks of rehearsing a show and then perform it so it was a shock to rehearse/perform eight productions at the same time. You wonder how you remember all of that, and sometimes you don’t, though the music definitely helps. Some of the big rep comes back but add in all the new creations and you wonder how there’s space in your brain. Some people hear the music and it’s as if they’ve performed it the night before. But if their spots change or alterations have to be made as has happened when dealing with COVID, then Hannah finds it very hard. Thank goodness they only did four Nutcracker shows, she said!
The Royal changed when Kevin became Director. Hannah was no longer the only tall girl as others had increased in height and Kevin has taken in more taller women but whether or not by chance, she’s not sure. Every director has an aesthetic, said Téo, and a look or image they want for their company. Monica’s image was for smaller, more compact dancers and the majority were quite small but Kevin has gradually brought in taller dancers, both men and women. Téo has found himself doing roles that are for smaller dancers like mandolin and Patineurs, but, looking at the huge guys who are doing those roles, he wonders how they move as quickly as they do but they make it work. He gets through Within the Golden Hour on a Red Bull and Anadin!
Talking of highlights, both Hannah and Téo do just about all the Company rep, contemporary, neo-classical and classical. Having gone on tour as a student with the Company, Hannah said no-one does tours like the Royal Ballet, (apparently Kevin has used this quote in a press release). There is something about going internationally with the Company and its rep and she loves touring. Crystal Pite was a massive highlight and it was wonderful being part of her creation. She loves working with Chris Wheeldon and Wayne McGregor and was in Pam Tanowitz’s piece and Alleta Collins’ work in the Linbury. Hannah and Téo were both in the Deloitte Ignite event, being body-painted by Chris Ofili, the Turner Prize-winning artist. There were eight dancers and they each spent an hour being body painted head to toe by Chris Ofili and after that you couldn’t sit down! Hannah has her shoes which he signed hanging in her changing room. Téo had a photo taken of Ofili painting him which he has signed. Of other highlights Téo said he really enjoyed the new creations. Hofesh Shechter was amazing, and working with him was so much fun. It was the first time Téo had done something so far removed from classical ballet. This was fully immersing yourself in his vocabulary. His workshops to reach the end result were so amazing and he loved every second of it. Working with Wayne McGregor is always a joy, also working with Chris Wheeldon whose creations he’s often in. Hannah said working with Pam Tanowitz was incredible. She was only supposed to be a cover but Pam wanted her in the piece and if she could have had more dancers to work with it would have blown her mind. Pam has a real American energy and attack and so fresh coming into a new season and working with her was amazing. They all learned phrases but didn’t know what would come out of it and you could see the Merce Cunningham vocabulary through it. When you create something with a group you form an even tighter bond than that you already have with the company. She also loved her weird little solo and loved the music and enjoyed the opportunity to work in the new Linbury Theatre so it was altogether a lovely experience. Pam is great and she hopes the powers that be will have her back to make another piece for the company. Pam thought they were amazing coming in every day and if she saw someone practising on the side she’d say come on in and do it. The whole Merce Cunningham programme was so well received and very beautiful. Téo did Monotones which was fun. It was something he has always watched and been amazed by. Even at the School when they got to see performances he remembered Ed Watson, Federico Bonelli and Zenaida Yanowsky doing Monotones II and he was simply amazed at the way they appeared so ethereal and thought then he’d love to do it. He got the opportunity to perform it again on the main stage which was lovely. David said the Ballet Association had sponsored the Merce Cunningham programme. Both Hannah and Téo thought it was a great bill, three very different works with a connection.
This season it’s been lock-down and in and out of performances - a non-season season, as Hannah calls it. She ended up moving out of London to Norfolk and locked down there with her partner’s family and she is very grateful for their kindness in taking her in. The Company were great - they had Zoom ballet classes three or four times a week, yoga, Pilates classes, and sometimes guest teachers came in at weekends. Although it was a very unsettling and unnerving time, Hannah had quite an amazing lock-down, watching the seasons change in the garden and had more space than in a tiny London kitchen. Sponsors and donors provided the dancers with special flooring - and she got a puppy. She loved it as they had moments to themselves which they’d not experienced since going to JAs. She felt she could actually slow down and figure out what makes her tick as a person and not just as a dancer. It gave her time to reflect and look into hobbies and think about what might happen after ballet, even if it’s ten years down the line. What could she give back and what take from it in terms of other skills? It was a time not to be afraid to face the unknown and have patience with herself. They were barely making all the swans in the shows, there weren’t enough women, people were getting injured and pregnant and giving up. Lock-down was a bit of a blessing in disguise as she took time to check in with herself, as normally they have to be so mentally strong and not get affected by things.
Téo found it quite challenging. He says he’s the kind of person who thrives when busy, almost too busy, and if there are no breaks and he’s stressed that means he’s probably in a good place! To have this abundance of time scared him. What do I do? Performing is motivating and it wasn’t there. How could he keep it up? Having the Company provide them with daily class was a god send, and having live class with everyone there together made it so much easier, as he knew everyone else was in it together so it gave a nice sense of community. It took him a few months to get his head in the right place but once the sun came out and the weather was glorious it helped a lot though he still found it challenging. Once they were allowed back in the studios it was very helpful to have a commute and a schedule and structure to the day which really made a difference. Hannah agreed - it’s an occupation which thrives on community. They lost their one motivation which is performing for an audience. They love the day-to-day class and rehearsals but when the end result was taken away and there were no performances it felt like a slog of a marathon with no end in sight. But the fact that they had live classes and got to see people and had Brian Maloney or one of the other teachers there brought the Company closer. The bond you form through trauma seemed to bring them closer. The principals are colleagues and friends but you put them on a pedestal but all the barriers got completely wiped out and everyone became so human to each other. There’s a Royal Ballet WhatsApp group and they are there for each other and it was much appreciated. Coming back to do class with everyone was wonderful even though masked and two metres apart. It’s kept that community vibe even while things are slightly more normal. Younger members have been having coaching from the principals, pas de deux and solo coaching. There have been a lot of pluses along with the many minuses. They’ve learned a lot about each other and the world and how to be there more for each other. They’re really getting there and the company is making massive strides in the right direction which is really good to see. David added that we, the audience, also found it very challenging. For those of us who spend a lot of time watching ballet, it’s not the same watching on a screen, and nor is it the same, said Teo, for the dancers dancing to an empty house which is bizarre. They can’t wait to have an audience and we can’t wait for the May date when we hope we can look forward to all the new works next season. There’s some really exciting stuff coming up.
David offered many thanks to Hannah and Téo for being our guests. One of the things that has got us through this period is being able to talk to dancers in Zoom meetings, and it’s a great pleasure to hear about their experiences. A big thank you to them both and hopefully soon we will be able to start issuing invitations to a Ballet Association dinner once again.
Report written by Liz Bouttell and edited by Hannah Grennell, Téo Dubreuil and David Bain.
© The Ballet Association 2021