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    Zhan Atymtayev 2021

    Zhan Atymtayev

    Teacher, The Royal Ballet School

    With students Julie Petanova, Alejandro Valera and Isabella Boyd, winners of the Ballet Association RBS Awards 2020

    Interviewed by David Bain
    Zoom video conference, January 27 2021


    After welcoming our guests, David suggested they each told us where they are at present and how and why they started in ballet.

    Zhan, who is in London, was born in Kazakhstan which, at that time, was still part of the Soviet Union. He started ballet at the age of 11 at Almaty Ballet School and prior to that did lots of other activities. Being a curious child with lots of energy he wanted to do everything – sports, football, martial arts, as well as playing piano - so his days were already full and he wasn’t thinking of anything else. His Mum says fate brought him into ballet. She and a friend were going shopping and Zhan went too. The friend had two children with her who said do you mind coming with us to the ballet school as we have an audition there? They went along and Zhan read his book till a half hour later they came back with the teacher who said unfortunately they hadn’t been successful. As they were walking away, the teacher asked Zhan if he’d like to have a go and he was curious about it so said yes. They went for initial checks and a basic medical but as soon as he stepped into the ballet studio, he felt the energy. There was so much care and attention from teachers and medical staff. He passed the preliminary audition, was called to the finals in the summer and couldn’t wait for it to come round. David asked how you prepared for it, knowing nothing about ballet? Zhan said ballet in the Soviet Union was subsidised by the government, and there was very little activity until the age of ten by which time he was doing different things but as he went to a music school and played piano it helped in terms of musicality and artistry. The final auditions were quite hard, spread over three days, first manually checking facilities, proper medical and genetic tests to predict your height etc, and then you were given a chance to be yourself and improvise. They played music for you to produce free choreography. He really enjoyed the experience although it was probably awful but they liked him and offered him a place. His eight years at the school passed so quickly. It was difficult initially as they were training hard, the days were full, he had to stop doing football and martial arts, but substituted different things. There was more attention to music, (everyone had to learn at least one instrument), history of art and history of ballet as well as character dance. He hardly saw his parents. He would come home about 8pm, six days a week with only Sunday off, but it was really great for him – he met incredible people and professionals who inspired him. He feels lucky with the support and advice he received – as a child he always ended up doing something a bit naughty so this was great. He felt the teachers gave him different opportunities which helped him progress much quicker as a professional. By the time he went to Moscow to dance with Russian National Ballet he felt secure with his technique and partnering. Ballet in the Soviet Union was a very prestigious thing to do and they had opportunities to tour around the world so people aspired to being dancers. His wasn’t a huge class – 7/8 boys to 20 girls.

    Julie comes from Prague, Czech Republic, where she is currently. When she was three her older sister did ballet and Julie was inspired and wanted to do it too. Aged four she joined a little ballet school going twice a week, and every year they did a performance of a story-telling ballet so since a very young age she learned to have her own character and work on it. It wasn’t tradition to do competitions but instead they did performances.  She hadn’t thought of being a ballet dancer. At the age of 11 she went to the Conservatoire in Prague and every year for the next six years she went to the Royal Ballet School (RBS) summer school. RBS was very different from the Conservatoire where they trained in the Vaganova style, which was very strict and they did lots of academic work as well as dance. It was a day school where Julie worked from 8am to 5.30pm which was a long day for an 11-year-old, but she got used to it. Her highlights were the annual school performances. Hers was such a good year, she made lots of friends and had an enjoyable time. There were only three boys in her year with 20 girls as it’s not common for boys to dance.

    Isabella is at home in Chicago where she lived all her life until going to the RBS. She started dancing about the age of three. Her sister and Mum were dancing while she was too young but she sometimes went to the studio to watch and eventually told her Mum she wanted to get signed up. Initially she was piggy-backing her sister and copying everything she did. She really loved doing recitals, which gave her the chance to express herself and it was something different from what her school friends were doing, so it was special for her. Eventually she went to Joffrey Ballet where she did more classes and it became more serious. She got out of the recital mindset, and was more excited just to train and focus on technique. She had to go elsewhere for academic work and dance was the extra thing. It was stressful doing both. In high school at about the age of 14 she had a full day of academic work till 3pm, then ballet from 6-9pm so her entire day she was gone from home from 6am to 9pm. She realised she wanted to do more ballet and less school work and her last school before RBS she was with the A&A Ballet who had a conservatory programme running from 10 till 3pm. After a year of high school, she somehow convinced her parents that she should do that programme and those five hours a day were everything she dreamed of, doing so many performances, always rehearsing for something. She went to them at 14 and did her academics from her high school programme after the conservatory programme so she’d go home and do a full course of several classes for high school which she’s continuing even now, although this is her final year.

    Alejandro is currently in Madrid where he was born and raised in a little town about 40 minutes from the capital. He has an older sister and his mum thought they should do something after school to fill in time. His mum heard about a ballet teacher locally who was new and looking for students. She signed up his sister for ballet but didn’t know what to do with Alejandro. He asked to do ballet too, but the teacher said he was quite young at the age of three, and suggested he go to music classes for a year or so and then join her class, so that’s what he did. The teacher was very excited to have a boy in class as in such a small town they were all girls and finally she could teach a boy and look into the male technique. He really enjoyed working with her though finally she had to leave the country but said he had talent and he should go to the Conservatoire where he auditioned, was accepted and trained there for six years from the age of ten. There were six boys and 15 girls so more boys to interact and dance with. There was only ballet at the Conservatoire so, after dancing from 9-2pm, he had a rushed lunch and went to normal academic high school in Madrid, where he worked until 9pm and then had to drive home for dinner. It was a very full and tough schedule but he enjoyed it and felt he was growing. He did summer school at RBS and after that he was offered a place, without auditions, in the first year.

    Zhan said he always likes challenges and was advised to go to the capital where there were more opportunities. He loved visiting different countries on their crazy tours in Europe and the USA, which lasted for four or five months. He progressed much quicker as there weren’t too many rehearsals because they were performing nearly every day, sometimes twice, so your performance was a rehearsal. That way you learn quickly because there’s no chance of making mistakes. He recalled one tour in Europe when normally there would be three principal couples who shared all performances. He and his partner had been elsewhere and were joining the company in Germany. He heard that one of the boys had appendicitis, had to have surgery and go back home so knew he would probably get more performances. Then he was standing in the wings one day watching another couple dancing when the Prince landed awkwardly during his solo and sustained a bad injury. The company manager ran to Zhan and said he must get ready to stand in for Act IV. Then he woke up in the morning and another man had broken his foot. As it would take some time to get a working visa for a replacement, Zhan kept dancing every day. He thought it would be impossible but for the next 58/9 days he was dancing with different partners which was hard but there was so much support from colleagues and the director and also audience. These extreme situations helped him to learn much quicker. Their rep was totally classical, mainly the Russian classics, which made him think after achieving a certain level that he needed another challenge and wanted something different. He had originally joined the Moscow company at the invitation of the Artistic Director who’d seen him doing open class, and after a chat asked him to do company class so it was all very quick and he was promised a lot of work and opportunities. The company did come to England for a tour.

    Julie: she always wanted to do a summer course to explore more about technique outside the Czech Republic so her mum went on Google to research and the first to come up was RBS. White Lodge is beautiful and she fell in love with the Royal. She was accepted every year and it kept her motivated throughout the year. Especially at White Lodge it was the teachers from the School, and Royal Ballet students were always such an inspiration for her and to have the same teachers was wonderful. They did ballet classes, English rep, character dance and had free time to go round White Lodge and Richmond Park. She made so many friends from all around the world who helped with her English, especially the first time when she couldn’t speak a word. There were quite a lot of people at the summer school, about six groups each with about 20 or 30 students. Asked what was the challenge transferring from the Vaganova to Royal Ballet style, Julie said in Prague they were trying to copy Vaganova but there was no teacher who had actually done the Vaganova training. At the summer school it was exact and precise and the teachers knew what they wanted. She loved the English style with its musicality and the corrections made so much sense. They also cared about healthy bodies and made the students understand. In Prague there was no physio or health care so it was quite hard.

    Isabella said her first was a little dance school in her neighbourhood with no particular style. It didn’t focus particularly on ballet but more on jazz, tap etc. At Joffrey, it was Vaganova mostly but more classical with a version of its own. One teacher was Vaganova trained and drilled the technique into them. There were three Russian teachers who broke away from Joffrey and formed A&A Ballet where Isabella landed up as she fell in love with her teachers and instantly said she had to leave Joffrey to continue with them. It was hard but she liked the Vaganova style which looked pretty and was good to perform.

    Alejandro’s school in Madrid had no specific style or technique. One year there was a Vaganova teacher, next a French teacher or another style so it was a mixture of many techniques and he felt he could learn the best of each of them. At RBS they train in the English style so it was quite a challenge to change everything he had learned but it made him cleaner and aware of every position and really know what he was doing, the purpose of each exercise and what he wanted to say with each movement. Ballet isn’t hugely popular in Spain and the national company is separate from the Conservatoire and only a few go from there into the company. There is no link with Victor Ullate who runs his own private school and company.

    Zhan was ready for another challenge as although he was moving to St Petersburg with their State Ballet they were still focussing on Russian classics. He’d always been a huge fan of Kenneth MacMillan and Frederick Ashton’s works, which he found fascinating. It was so different and he wanted to try something like that but there was nothing available for them in Russia. Once you’ve done so many performances of certain classics you need to move on and challenge yourself in order to progress so he auditioned for English National Ballet. Wayne Eagling was Artistic Director and he agreed for Zhan to do company class, after which he said he thought they could work together. There were so many great dancers, teachers and choreographers there – he definitely had to highlight David Wall, who made a huge impact on Zhan’s life and inspired him to be the person he is. From day one they had a Nutcrackerrehearsal, he was dancing Prince with Sarah McIlroy. David came in and said you’re the new guy, how do you pronounce your name? I can’t say that so I’ll call you Jan. He’s much missed, an incredible man with great sense of humour. One memorable experience was working on Manonwith David who was the original Lescaut. To work with him on that role was wonderful. Zhan had lots of different partners - as a tall guy you can dance with anyone. The time went very quickly and he was so lucky to work with so many incredible professionals.

    Julie did the usual audition to get into RBS. She knew she wanted to go there so auditioned nowhere else and decided if she didn’t succeed, she’d stay in Prague. She and her teacher worked on videos etc, and although she expected nothing, she was invited to the second round. It was crazy going to London other than for summer school and they stayed in a hotel overnight. When she was invited to the call back class she didn’t understand and thought it wasn’t a good thing that they wanted to see her again. Then there were medical checks.  Daria Klimentova, who is Czech, took the class and she was always a massive inspiration for Julie so it was amazing to have her there. She visited Julie’s school once but she didn’t work with her there.

    Isabella got in by auditioning. It was mid-January and she was doing a lot of work for summer intensives and was auditioning everywhere to see where she might be successful. That year the Royal came to Chicago for the first time to do live auditions so she thought she’d give it a go. She was successful in getting into the second round and was then freaking out, wondering if she could go to London in March. Her mum said we have to, to see how it works out. It was such a dream to make it into the RBS. They went and stayed in a little hotel and it was Isabella’s first time out of her country. She got through to the second day of auditions, went back home and within a few weeks was sent an email offering her a first-year place. She’d done competitions in the States including Youth America Grand Prix for four or five years. She liked them but preferred the excitement you get from performances. There’s a lot of stress in competitions as you’re by yourself and there’s nothing to interact with on stage while dancing just in front of a panel of judges.

    Alejandro reached a point when he knew he needed to start thinking of moving to another country if he wanted a career in dance as it’s limited in Spain, so thought a summer school would be a good start. He’d always watched RBS and Company videos so decided to try for summer school to see if he liked it and the teachers and training and to get to know London. He went to White Lodge and after two weeks he was offered a scholarship for the following year. He then did summer school in the Upper School the next year and at the end of the second week they offered him a place to start in the first year that September. He was so thrilled and didn’t even have to audition as the door opened for him. He accepted and within a few weeks he moved to London and started at RBS.

    Zhan: as he said previously, he’d met incredible professionals who nurtured and inspired him. He always wanted to be a teacher so started doing some forward planning and while he was still dancing David Wall recommended that he did some teaching qualifications at the Royal Academy of Dance (RAD). He applied for the course and was offered a place. There he met another bunch of great professionals including Lynn Wallace, and this is where he started to go deeper into learning about teaching different styles. They’d debate with Miss Wallace about styles and how we teach in England so he learned in great detail. Going back to the company afterwards it helped him prolong his career, and avoid some injuries. He felt he was better, stronger and dancing cleaner and this was with the benefit of the extra knowledge he obtained at RAD. It was great to do these qualifications while still dancing when he enjoyed it even more. When Tamara Rojo became Artistic Director, the company got a broader rep which was another challenge and great for him – there were works by Jiri Kylian and Roland Petit, and working with Akram Khan was a highlight. He really enjoyed working with Tamara and grateful for the opportunities she gave him. It’s not happening every day when you have to partner your Artistic Director! This was a very different way of working but very creative. Meanwhile he was waiting for the opportunity of a teaching job and in 2013 a position became available at White Lodge and he applied. It was a strange feeling as he’d done the qualifications which helped him to dance better and feel great so was it the right time to stop? He knew that sooner or later he’d have to change over and it was an amazing opportunity. When he walked in on audition day, he knew he’d love to work there. Everything about the school - the building, greetings from staff, audition class, students - was amazing and the acting head of the school was Jay Jolley, who conducted his audition. Zhan’s very thankful to have got the job. On his first day working there, he took year eight boys who are now graduating from the school – where has the time gone? Year 10 boys are already into their third year as professionals.  Highlight of his time there? Zhan said it’s never dull, so every day is a highlight but one project he was responsible for was Conservatoire for the end of year performance which he staged, working together with people from the Royal Danish Ballet School. It helped him to learn about their style and was his first experience of casting although that wasn’t his final decision. He really enjoyed it and the students did so well on the day, and surprised him by doing even better than expected. Performing on ROH stage helped them to give an extra special performance. He also represented RBS in a teacher exchange programme when he went with Anita Young for a week to teach at the Paris Opera Ballet School which was another great experience. They taught classes, coached rep and he found it interesting and informative to see a different way of learning and teaching as well as the similarities.

    All three students arrived at RBS in different years. Julie joined in 2017 and since the first year had been suffering from a shin injury which was found not to be a stress fracture but a stress response as she’d grown 10 cms in two years and her whole body had changed. So, she was told she should repeat a year which she didn’t know was a possibility. At first it upset her as she was scared of joining a new year but it was the best thing for her. She is more than happy with her new friends and she believes they all have their own paths and for her it meant taking that extra year. Her biggest highlight pre-COVID was performing in Vixen.It was amazing working with the choreographer on a new production, with a costume made on her and she had her own make-up lady. It was surreal and she was understudy for Vixen, the main character, doing crazy pas de deux with the third year. Her teacher in the first year was Miss Tranah, who she knew very well from summer school, so was so happy to have her, and then Miss Klimentova twice which was amazing as they were the only two Czech people in the Upper School so it was good to speak their language together.

    Alejandro came to join the first year in Sept 2018. For him the highlight was all the training and just being there every day. If he’d been told a couple of months before that’s what he’d be doing he wouldn’t have believed it. Another highlight was the end of year performance: working with different choreographers – Goyo Montero came to restage a contemporary piece, and Ashley Page made a piece for them, and they also did Ashton’s La Valse. They were three amazing pieces which taught him a lot. Working on the Opera House stage was overwhelming but very nice. His teachers were Mr Hristov in first year, second year Mr Atymtayev and Mr Cervera for third year.

    Isabella only arrived in September 2019 and the year was cut short by COVID. Last year the highlights was rehearsing for end of year shows as even though they didn’t perform them it was nice to dance with everyone together and everybody was having fun in the studio and cheering each other on. She enjoyed getting ready for assessments and they were all complaining about aches and pains while deep down really enjoying themselves as it was exciting to be in the thick of it even though it was stressful thinking about performing.

    Zhan. His move from White Lodge to the Upper School was in September 2019. He felt it was great to start at White Lodge and he’d learned a lot. Working with young children he had to go back and reconsider how to construct lessons, and how to be in the studio. Now he’s taught the whole school. He is thankful to Mr Powney for giving him opportunities to develop professionally. Initially it was year 8 and year 10, then Mr Powney asked him to take years 9 and 11. He always said he’d love to work at the Upper School as he felt it was important to have a classical professional background and teaching experience, and he has so much passion for ballet and dance in general so really aspired to the Upper School. Finally, he got the opportunity and started with second year men and those original year eight boys from 2013 became his second-year men in 2019 so they had journeyed together. Last March COVID struck. They managed to complete second year assessments, which was a highlight as they’d been building up to it while starting to worry about a possible lock-down. The next day they were told it was highly likely they’d go into lock-down and a couple of days later everyone had to go home.

    How did they work in their different environments? Isabella said for the first few weeks nothing was planned as it was so close to spring break, but eventually there was a daily Zoom schedule, so it was more structured. For the internationals the time zones were different so she just did 1¼ hours of ballet but others were able to do almost a full day. At home no-one has a lot of space and initially she had no access to a studio and just had to use the living room. It was hard at first but once Zoom started it was more structured, which was nice. Julia said it was quite shocking. They’d worked so hard before assessments and next day they were home and not knowing what was to happen next. She’s very lucky that in her room she has a ballet barre and mirror so is more fortunate than those dancing in their kitchen. It was difficult but she’s found some positives like working on strengthening and there were many classes which helped with it and has focussed on different things.

    Alejandro was so focussed on second year assessments that all his thoughts were directed to that day. There was a meeting saying London was probably going into lock-down and you may have to go home but he turned off his phone to do the assessment and thought he’d worry about it afterwards. He phoned his mum who said you have a ticket for tomorrow so he came home and after a couple of weeks off the Zoom classes started which really helped to give them a routine throughout and keep a structure to the day. He also had time to work on weaknesses and things which he’d not had the chance to work on before. Also, he’d been away for 18 months so enjoyed being at home and spending time with his family.

    Zhan said there were challenges for the teachers. When they went into lock-down for the first couple of weeks there were no classes as it was Easter break so they had the opportunity to consider different options on how to approach the problem. They knew they had to keep working and keep in touch with students. With different time zones the School approached it in an incredible way and everything is working smoothly and student orientated not only with ballet class but now weekly performance coaching with the clinical psychologist and health care team so they’re approaching it from the mental as well as physical viewpoint. Initially they didn’t know when lock-down would end but when easing began it was good to come back and they did summer school over Zoom around the world and apparently it was very successful. For one class he had about 160 students, and Miss Young had a record with a class for 200 people. They started slowly coming back to the studio, and it was great to have UK students to demonstrate exercises, and it was good for them as well to socialise with their friends. Coming back in September there were year bubbles, first year only working in their bubble, men with Mr Lewis and ladies with Miss Tranah, pas de deux with Mr Lewis and in second year Zhan doing pas de deux and Miss Klimentova was doing rep classes. It was great to be back but they missed the interaction and he was missing a female teacher for pas de deux. But they had to do it, though it was very different. Zhan was thinking about safety and how to get to work, so started cycling.  They were wearing masks and managed to go through the autumn term with no cases which was incredible. Even after the amount of time they’d missed, the students came back motivated and hungry to learn, with daily and weekly tutorials, and lock-down made them really appreciate their normal lives.

    What happens now as there’s no auditioning? The students said it’s very scary as no-one knows what will happening or whether companies will have contracts, but they have assessments and now they’re filming videos and doing photo-shoots. The school is very helpful, sending off CVs and videos and contacting as many companies as they can. It’s making Alejandro more motivated and determined to achieve his goal so he’s doing everything he can to get a contract and they are all doing the best they can.

    David said sadly we’d run out of time. It’s been great to talk to the four of them. We hope lock-down finishes at some stage this term and that they are back properly next term. A joint Ballet Association and London Ballet Circle Zoom morning with the school next month has had to be postponed but we hope to do something in the summer term and meanwhile we wish them enormous success in their future careers. One of the delights for us is to see what happens to the students who’ve won our awards and we follow their careers with interest. It’s been a pleasure to see them you all and we’ve had an audience of about 100 members – the largest ever meeting with students - which is one benefit of Zoom! We also look forward to seeing them in the School performances.

    Report written by Liz Bouttell and edited by Zhan Atymtayev, Julie Petanova, Isabella Boyd, Alejandro Valera and David Bain.

    © The Ballet Association 2021