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    Benjamin Ella & Tomas Mock 2023

    Benjamin Ella & Thomas Mock

    Soloists, The Royal Ballet

    Interviewed by David Bain
    American International Church, Mon 120h Nov, 2023


    Our guests began by telling us about their involvement in The Dante Project.Tom was involved in the creative process for the role of Virgil when Wayne McGregor made the first part of the ballet, Inferno, which premiered in Los Angeles before lock-down. Wayne later created Purgatory and Paradiso as Acts 2 and 3. It’s a very interesting role with weight and depth in terms of character. Virgil is guiding Dante throughout his journey and wants him to go further than he himself can go, i.e. to reach Paradise. You can see the relationship forming between the two of them throughout the work. Initially Virgil isn’t attached to Dante but going through Inferno he develops feelings towards him and wants him to succeed. In Purgatory you see Virgil break from Dante and let him go to the next stage which is Paradise. Asked if he knew about the Divine Comedy beforehand, Tom said he’d heard of the story and did some research to get an idea of who Virgil should be, but most of it he learned through the course of the creative process which helped him come to the character with a fresh mind in terms of the story Wayne wanted to tell. His first performance this time is on Wednesday with Ryoichi Hirano who is new to the role of Dante. (Last time Tom did it with Federico Bonelli as one of his last shows with the company.) In the beginning they didn’t know how to interact but as rehearsals went on they formed a really good relationship and found the key moments and a good way for the two to tell the story. Ryo’s interpretation of Dante is strong and Virgil is the supporting role pushing the narrative further forward. David wondered if the lighting had been changed for Inferno. It seemed to be lit more than last time. He mentioned that when Johanna Adams came she talked about the problem of the side lighting being too bright for dancers.  Tom said although he’s seen it a couple of times from the front this time, he didn’t last time so he can’t compare.  Dancers do complain about side lights blazing in your face when it’s not pleasant to dance and makes it hard to do the steps. The lighting makes it quite intimate with good visual effects and a lot of drama but it’s not easy for a dancer to perform. Ben had no prominent role but was in the first circle of hell which really feels like hell and is quite tiring. He was second cast to Matthew Ball in Purgatory and Paradise. Purgatory is quite enjoyable and quite a journey, suffering and repenting for your sins, and trying to be righteous to get to heaven. It has a rich community feel and a ritualistic feeling with beautiful music. Paradise is difficult to perform with lots of lights and smoke!

    Tom was not in Don Q but Ben said it was great. He made his debut as Espada with just two shows and wished there were more. He was also doing matadors and gypsies which he’s done before. Espada is a fun role to get into and not too stressful (it’s not the Nutcracker pas de deux which he’s currently rehearsing) with a few technically challenging moments but a great character to discover. He was dancing with Isabella Gasparini. They have a good on-stage relationship and although not perhaps her natural personality it was a fun challenge. At first when they found they were doing Don Qagain he wasn’t sure about it but there’s a lot of fun and silliness which is quite refreshing in a world which needs a bit of fun right now. The first stage call with orchestra he wasn’t on so watched from the front and got quite emotional which seems unusual for Don Q. There’s so much heaviness in the world just now and it had a really positive feeling, with summer in the town square and brightness and tambourines. Ben’s now glad it’s over but hopes everyone enjoyed the fun nature of the piece.

    Since Kevin O’Hare became director and since Covid they’ve had long runs of some ballets which is fine for the principals but not perhaps for the rest of the cast doing 27 Beauties. Ben said it could be partly the scheduling of productions. It can feel as if it’s dragging on but it gives them more space for rehearsing other works at the same time. After fifty Swan Lakesthe ladies probably wish it was over sooner.Tom added that it depends on the production, you never see multiple shows of triple bills, but it’s not as intense for the boys, while for the girls it’s hard work in the big productions. They’ll do 20/30 shows of the classics in which the girls are involved most of the time. As a soloist you get some shows off to recover so it’s not too intense. Twenty-five shows is always a challenge physically especially with a new piece or rehearsal of other ballets throughout the day.  After Covid they were down to eight programmes but now it’s up to ten.

    At the end of last season they toured Japan. Tom said it was his third or fourth time there on tour and the whole company was very excited. It’s a wonderful country, the people are very inviting, the culture is wonderful and everyone has a fantastic time. They took Romeo and Juliet and although Tom was injured just beforehand it was really easy as he was only doing Escalus so it was more like a vacation and he brought his wife with him so they had a great time. It was his last tour so a good one to finish with. Ben says he always loves going to Japan and this was probably his 5th company tour. The Japanese love the ballet, treat them very well and the dancers all love Japanese food and culture. It already feels like years ago. They’d not been since 2019 because of Covid although they should have gone in 2022 but sadly the tour was cancelled so this was special and the audiences even more appreciative of them. It’s almost ridiculous with the crowds outside after the show. Sometimes it’s a bit too much - people would follow you to the station and back to the hotel which occasionally required a stern word! Ben went back later in the summer with Hikaru Kobayashi’s gala which he choreographed for. It was an amazing experience. He made a piece for Northern Ballet and this was basically the same.  For Hikaru’s gala he had the cream of the Royal crop – Marianela Nunez, Matthew Ball, Mayara Magri, William Bracewell, Vadim Muntagirov and Fumi Kaneko. It was difficult to put together as they were making the piece whenever they had time.  Not everyone got together until the week of the show in Japan so it was quite scary. The dancers knew what they were doing by the time they reached the shows and they’re such incredible artists they can be relied on to perform. Then Ben went to Leeds and tweaked it, adding one piece of music with a new finale for Northern Ballet which premiered in September in Leeds before coming to the Linbury. Unfortunately, he had bad flu with a temperature of 39 degrees and was bed-ridden for three days so couldn’t make it for opening night or the Thursday night when Prince Edward was watching. He also had the cream of Northern Ballet including Joseph Taylor and Dominique Larose, Harris Beattie. Sarah Chun and Jun Ishii who is very talented at only 19 and danced Vadim’s role, and Kirika Takahashi who did Fumi’s part. This was a very different experience as he had much more time with them. With the Royal he had just three or four rehearsals with Marianela and William but with Northern he had two weeks in May, after Bluebird, when he headed up to Leeds to teach, choreograph a bit more and tidy it up, and he then had three more weeks leading up to the performance in August/September. It was amazing working with them. They are so eager and it was a real experience having an assistant, Dan, who was amazing and Hikaru who was also helping. Federico is Director but has not many people between him and the dancers so he is very busy but really helped a lot. They would have a chat at the end of the day to see how things went and he came up with ideas. It was Ben’s first go at choreography so it was good to have that support and feedback and positive criticism. He still wants to dance but he has a lot more respect for choreographers now. It is easy for dancers to complain but you are putting your heart on the stage so it’s a very vulnerable place to be before a show.

    Tom has spent the last five years doing an Open University degree and last year he finished his Bachelor’s degree in mathematics and statistics while still dancing. He began a Masters in statistics at LSE in September which was why he wasn’t in Don Q.When he was in his early 20s he started thinking about what to do after ballet and business studies came to mind. He’s good with numbers so thought he’d do ‘A’ level maths and sat the exam with some of the students! Then he thought why not keep going with it as it has a broad application to different disciplines and with the OU he could organise it around his schedule. Rehearsals can be unpredictable time-wise so distance learning fitted in. Maths is a subject you can do remotely, it’s very objective, there’s very little discussion as it’s either right or wrong so there’s no need to interact with others. The more he did the more he enjoyed it and with the AI revolution he thought it might be another path to pursue in the future. He didn’t see himself in other roles like choreographer or ballet master so was looking to find something he could be good at and make the transition. Next Saturday will be his last performance with the Royal Ballet, ending a 12-year career as a professional dancer. His parents and wife are coming to watch, and friends from school are coming the previous day.

    Tom comes from Bratislava. At primary school his teacher’s daughter did ballet professionally and thought he was very energetic and might enjoy dance although he’d never done anything like that before and didn’t know what it meant to go to ballet classes. As a ten-year-old you usually do things other than ballet, but he thought he’d give it a shot and auditioned for a ballet school in Bratislava with only seven boys and that was a big year. Tom enjoyed it. His teacher studied at Vaganova in St Petersburg and was very good, showing the students old books about Baryshnikov and Malakhov, telling them stories about ballets and roles. He lit a fire in them, making them want to do it rather than having to do it so they wanted to become like one of the big dancers they heard about. About that time the internet was starting but you couldn’t go on YouTube to watch so those books showed what ballet is and what it could be. From the age of ten Tom studied for six years before auditioning for the Royal Ballet School. Why did he audition here? Tom said it was an English speaking country and he thought it would be good to get an education at a good ballet school but with a strong academic background where he could develop as a student and not just a dancer, and it wasn’t too far away from home. Ben’s background was very different. His parents were dancers and had a ballet school which was sold a while ago. They didn’t force him into ballet. He wanted to be a tennis player, his grandfather had played for Australia in the Davis Cup and his parents thought there was more money in tennis! When he was about 10 or 11 his parents made their own production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and needed a boy to do the changeling so he took the role and really enjoyed the experience of the theatre which felt magical. His tennis coach said he wasn’t very flexible and suggested ballet classes might help so at the age of 11 he started doing a couple of classes a week after school. One of the guys from Ben’s academic school was doing ballet with his parents so he went without being very serious about it. Then aged 13 one of his teachers who was Russian gave him a video of Carlos Acosta and he became obsessed. Carlos was his idol and he’d watch the video three times a day, every day and would go into the studio and practise. He decided it was what he was going to do, and wanted to give up tennis straight away though he was quite good at it and was at one of the best training academies in Australia. His parents said you can’t stop tennis so he did both for a year although he knew he wanted to do ballet. They were living ‘illegally’ in his parents’ ballet studio which wasn’t doing so well financially and were paying teachers with their credit cards. His bedroom wall was a black stage curtain and he’d go to the studio late at night to practise. When he was 15 he got more serious but it was difficult having his parents in the business as the lines get blurred between parent and teacher. He was very rebellious towards them for which he has apologized and in all their interests it was better for him to go elsewhere. He auditioned for and got into Paris Opera Ballet and the Royal Ballet schools. Paris was his dream and he’d watched them for ever on video but you had to pay, they didn’t offer scholarships and their boarding house was closed at the weekend so it was difficult for foreigners. He was given a full scholarship to the Royal Ballet School so it was a no-brainer and came here aged 15. His teacher was Meelis Pakri in his first year and he was his main mentor throughout his time at the school, they became friends and still keep in touch. Ben joined the company when he was 18, but was injured at the time.

    Tom had Meelis in his first year, then David Peden second year and Gary Norman in the third year. Asked why Meelis was a great teacher, Tom said he didn’t micro-manage students, he focussed on the mechanics, how to jump higher, how to make pirouettes more secure. A lot of teachers would fiddle with the line and pose, cosmetic things which weren’t the most important at that stage when they were 16. Once you have the foundations you can build on aesthetics, like how to hold an arabesque or attitude. With him they were fully confident that they could do the techniques required on stage. Meelis trained at Vaganova, was very passionate as a teacher and about the ballet. He had a good balance of hard line training but having been in the US for a while he had developed a bit of a Western style too. In general he was pretty strict which is why some people didn’t like him but most of them are grateful for that. They needed it as rebellious teenagers! He wanted them to be better. Students who wanted to grow and learn he would really help but with slackers he would warn repeatedly and then say if you don’t want to, that’s your problem. Then they’d blame him. The older Ben gets, the more he understands his point. Both Tom and Ben wanted to learn and they both won the award for best graduate in their different years. Tom likes going down memory lane. He had a wonderful time at the school, stressful initially with little English, not knowing what people were talking about and every day something new, but then he got to know people, the place and culture and by the second and third years he was very grateful for his time there. The first year he was trying to find his place and standard, but was doing really well towards the end of the last performance in his second year when an American choreographer came to make a contemporary piece and he got a good part in the ballet. Then the teachers saw his potential and in the third year he got more prominent roles and solos and for the third end of year performance he did the Red Knight from Checkmate which was physically the most challenging and demanding role in his entire career. At the same time he was rehearsing Rite of Spring with the Royal Ballet, again physically really demanding. and that sowed the seeds of his injury when he joined the company. Emotionally he is very grateful for everything he experienced at the school, the teachers and classmates, and he had a wonderful time, but he wouldn’t do it again. Ben found it a whirlwind, three years on the other side of the world was amazing in many ways. One of his highlights was just loving being around so many incredible dancers. In the first year Vadim roomed with him and they created a language of a mixture of English and Russian which no-one else understood. It was inspiring, pushing each other on, practising, choreographing, doing tricks and pirouettes in the corner and getting into trouble. Ben felt very blessed as he went on about nine different trips in three years. Usually, you only did one trip in the third year. These included Palermo, Dresden, Turin, Florence, Salt Lake City, and in second year New York for the Youth America Grand Prix where he got silver and Vadim gold. It was an amazing experience. He was so nervous and shaking before going on stage but met so many incredible people. It is now his 15th season in the company. He’s learned a lot and is still learning.

    Most people found out they were joining the company around December/January but Tom didn’t know until April by which time most of the students had found jobs. He auditioned for Vienna though it wasn’t his number one choice and was hoping a place would open up in the Royal. Then Gailene Stock said Monica Mason would like to offer him a contract so he was very grateful. A few weeks after the New York and Washington tour with the school, Greg Matthews and he did class with the Royal for a week working with different teachers and with Monica watching sometimes. Mostly two boys and two girls would get a contract but this time it was just Tom. Ben found out in January in his third year. He had auditioned for ENB where he and Leticia Stock took three days of class just before Christmas. This was during Wayne Eagling’s time as director and both were offered contracts. He hadn’t planned any other auditions, but was thinking about possibly a US or European company. Both he and Letty decided to go to ENB but the first day back at school after the Christmas break Gailene called them into the office and said Monica wanted to offer them contracts with the Royal Ballet, probably because she knew they were thinking of going elsewhere. The Royal wasn’t necessarily Ben’s dream, which it was for some dancers, and he’d thought of Houston or San Francisco, something more exotic. But sometimes life has other plans for you, he joined with his injury and was off for quite a while. He doesn’t know if he would have been kept on elsewhere but Monica was very supportive and he was very grateful to her. In his third year at School he did Corsaire pas de deux with Shiori Kase at the Critics Circle awards. Leading up to graduation he was doing too many things - Oberon, La valse and a contemporary work - and there was no injury management at the time. In the two weeks leading up to the shows, his foot got progressively worse and after a couple of shows in the Linbury he couldn’t walk, had a scan and found a stress fracture. For three years he was on and off with the same injury and probably only danced 6-8 months altogether in that time as the problem kept recurring. In 2012 he almost stopped dancing but then decided to have the operation. James Calder performed it, they took bone from his hips and Ben still has two titanium pins so it was quite extensive. It took a year less one day after the operation to get back on stage but it was successful. On and off he’s had other injuries but he’s overcome them.

    Both joined as Artists and David wondered if that was a good thing rather than having the experience of being an apprentice. Tom thinks so. In the third year at school you have the opportunity to work with the Royal Ballet, depending on what their productions and needs are. Most of the students got some sort of exposure to what life at the Royal is like, covering some roles and getting some dancing roles on stage so you are prepared for the job when you join. It is much more exciting as joining as an apprentice creates another hurdle before you can enter the company.  His was almost the last year before the apprenticeship programme began. Tom is glad he didn’t have to go through that programme and could join as an Artist. Ben agreed. He says he feels bad for those people who’re finding it difficult to get a job so the apprentices are probably grateful for it. The School used to be two years with the third year an apprenticeship and now they are apprentices for two years earning less than an Artist. He is very grateful to have joined as an Artist. Because of his injury Ben had his probation extended by six months and you’re not fully in the company until you’ve passed your probation but that now seems even further away for apprentices.

    Tom has done a lot of principal roles - Tybalt, Hilarion, Gremin and lead gypsy in Two Pigeons.He is very grateful for the roles he was given. He likes to do character roles, not technically the most demanding but rich in character. Tybalt and Paris are some of the highlights which he really loved. When they made the film Romeo and Juliet in Budapest he did Paris for the first time and that will stay with him. In Onegin he did Gremin which is a beautiful role to dance. Most of the roles started coming up for him just before Covid, but by then he was nearing the end of his degree so he knew his career would go in a different direction. He wishes he had done more of those roles earlier in his career as they are a very important part of the story that is being told. but they are roles you need to grow into and aren’t so well suited to the less mature. Hilarion was his first big role and he had a great time in it. Raymonda, lead gypsy in Two Pigeons were really fun for a couple of runs. Ben used to dislike contemporary ballet in the school but now some of his best and worst experiences on stage have been in contemporary ballets. It’s the same with Wayne’s works. Focussing on highlights there was Obsidean Tear, Woolf Works, Albrecht, the Nutcracker prince, and Mercutio last time round but that wasn’t the best experience because his first rehearsal was on a Monday with the show on the Friday. That was not ideal but he’d like to do it again and do it better. Hofesh Shechter’s ballet Untouchable was wonderful; for the audience it might drag a bit but dancing it was an incredible experience, like Rite, exhausting and all dying together on stage. Crystal Pite’s ballets Flight Pattern and Light of Passage were some of the most incredible experiences for the company. She is such an incredible artist and human being who sets the standard, encouraging, critical, pushes you and you want to be better for her. Tom commented that you might think principal roles and being at the top of the cast sheet would be the biggest highlight but sometimes lesser roles and ensemble pieces are more satisfying. You sense a connection with everyone, and the feeling of team work makes it so much richer.

    Questions: Tom started his Masters in September, a two-year programme which is mostly studying but he will try to find a part-time job in the data science sphere. After that he will look for a job as a data scientist or data analyst, hopefully in London. Will Ben do more choreography? He hopes so but there’s nothing concrete and just now he enjoys focussing on his dancing career. He doesn’t know what the future holds but wants to explore choreography. He thought of doing something for Draft Works this year but decided against and might do a piece in the spring. Draft Works is a great opportunity to try making pieces without too much pressure. Asked if they’d had regrets about the roles they haven’t done Tom said the choice isn’t necessarily yours. He was grateful for the roles he did, and he’s leaving feeling he did his best every day during his time at the Royal. They all know their career will come to an end and they then have the opportunity to pursue something else. Perhaps his only regret is Rudolf and here Ben commented that Tom has a similar look to Rudolf ! Ben is still continuing to dance (Rudolf would be good) but sometimes those roles he thought he wanted to do weren’t so great and some he didn’t expect were amazing experiences for him so he’s realised it’s not good to judge too soon. Whatever he is given he will do to the best of his ability, even if struggling with learning new movements or styles. Just now Joseph Toonga is making something which is very different. He doesn’t complain, but learns it step by step and Joseph is great to work with.

    In thanking both Ben and Tom, David said we’ve enjoyed watching all their performances. Tom goes out on a high and we look forward to more of Ben’s roles and certainly his choreography in the future.

    Report written by Liz Bouttell and edited by Benjamin Ella, Tomas Mock and David Bain.

    © The Ballet Association 2023