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    Christopher Powney 2023

    Christopher Powney

    Artistic Director & CEO, The Royal Ballet School

    With students Milda Luchute, Alfie Shacklock & Isabella Shaker, winners of BA awards 2022

    Interviewed by David Bain
    American International Church, Tue 24th January, 2023


    Our guests began by telling us about their background and how they got into ballet.

    Alfie, 18, comes from Australia, and started dancing aged 4 because his parents thought he had lots of energy and having tried soccer, swimming, rugby, tennis, etc found he was still very active. There’s no family background in dance and his parents didn’t understand what was involved or that it could be a career. He’s from a small town south of Brisbane in Queensland and spent his whole life there until he came to London which was a big change. Growing up he was lucky to have two great teachers. Lots of companies did tours so, aged 12, he saw his first live ballet which was American Ballet Theater (ABT) doing Swan Lake and from then on he knew he wanted to become a dancer.

    Bella is 17 and from Chicago. She started dancing aged three as she had three older sisters and was jealous of them so she went along. Like Alfie, she had lots of energy and her mum and older sister were dancers which definitely inspired her. Her sister is ten years older and is a professional dancer.

    Milda is from Vilnius, Lithuania, a beautiful little country across from Sweden above Poland. It was part of the Soviet Union for a long time until 1990 but has its own culture and language. It was, until the 15th century, the biggest country in Europe. She started dancing aged five although she had almost begun before she was born! In Dubai her mother had met another Lithuanian woman whose sister was the prima ballerina of Lithuanian National Ballet. When her mother met the ballerina they became friends and at the time of Milda’s birth they were in the same hospital so she was her first visitor.  Then five years later she founded her own ballet school and Milda, as her first student, appeared in a photo shoot. When she started class she didn’t enjoy ballet that much - she hated sitting on a mat for ages flexing her feet but once they stood up it was great. She also hated tutus and hair buns as she thought a ballerina should have her hair down! One of the first pieces she saw was Desdemona, with very dark and scary neo-classical choreography. Her mum was afraid to take her to it but at six years old she was gob-smacked. Ballet in Lithuania had begun in 1925 when it was closely related to St Petersburg so there’s lots of history and exchanges between the two companies. They have a lot of great dancers and  Lithuania was the first country outside Russia to put on Raymondawhich she danced last year.

    Chris thought he was the last person to be a teacher because he was a bit of a rebel as a dancer but he had an incredible mentor in Christopher Gable, who gave him so much in his career, and he worshipped him. Like so many dancers he wondered what to do when he stopped dancing. Should he get out completely, or do something connected? He spoke to Christopher and Ann Stannard who together had set up Central School of Ballet and once again Christopher inspired and excited him, coaxing him into teaching a class at Central. Chris, aged 24, was so petrified he could hardly speak during the barre but had done all his homework and once he got into the centre was hooked and loved it from then on. He had a great teaching coach in Jackie Barrett, who helped enormously and who now works with Chris Wheeldon. He was still dancing when the Royal Ballet’s teachers’ course asked him to come in for one day a week, and he then took a break from dancing and went to run the Central School of Ballet touring company which he loved, teaching works, rehearsing, taking young people on the road and seeing how they grew. He’d been with Rambert at the time and Christopher Bruce kept trying to tempt him back to guest by giving him lovely things to do. It felt good and so he returned to the company for two years. He was thinking of giving up as he had a knee injury which could have been operated on, but still had lots of energy and wanted a new adventure. He’d always said he’d stop while at the top and he has to thank Gailene Stock who took a risk and gave him the teaching job during her first year at the Royal Ballet School (RBS). David recalled seeing him take class and work on a Cathy Marston piece with Romany Pajdak. Although we didn’t sponsor that piece, the Ballet Association did find a sponsor for it.

    Milda talked about schooling in Lithuania. She was dancing at a School of Ballet from age five to thirteen. She had several teachers and kept switching classes, moving up and down, through good years and bad. In some ways it was hard because one teacher would do a port de bras in a certain way and then another would say something different but it made her pick up things quickly and she learned a lot. She started going to competitions aged 10, and, as the first student in the school, she was the first from her school to go to a competition. She went to Romania and loved the experience.  She also went to Youth American Grand Prix (YAGP) in Paris, San Diego, Grasse and other places and then switched schools to go to the National School of Ballet which is an arts school with three departments – music, arts and dance. She started dancing with one of the teachers from her previous school and was there for three more years. Originally, she had been in normal school during the day and ballet school afterwards but in the National School they also did academics so they’d have three normal classes in the morning, then ballet, and character, running between buildings. At the end of the year they did school performances. The first was Four Seasonsthen Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in which she hated being a dwarf but it was one of her best roles. A few years later she was Snow White and they’d do a short ballet or little gala performance.

    Bella started dancing at a local school, in a studio on top of a church with only a few students but her sister was also there. She stayed for two years and loved it as they started performing right away, so she was four or five for her first performance which was Coppelia.Every year they did a different ballet which was a lot of fun. She got more serious when she was eight and her Mum decided she needed to learn technique so went to another school on different days which was Cecchetti-based, everything was so slow and boring, spending 45 minutes out of an hour’s class at the barre just repeating things. She wasn’t fond of it but looking back it helped a lot with her technique. At 12 she changed schools where there were more classes every week, Balanchine-based so very different from Cecchetti, she really loved it and completely switched styles. It was so different from her old school. It seemed more free and less technique-focussed with higher arms and legs, and fast which was a big challenge while she was growing so she struggled but it really helped. She was there three years from 13 to 15 and also at the Joffrey Academy of Dance which was a mix of styles. She was at American high school all day and then Joffrey from 4 to 8pm. It was a big commitment for her parents to get her down to the city. They studied contemporary, modern and character as well. In both schools they did an end of year performance, and Bella’s favourite part was being on stage. Her first school was very small with no boys and they did Swan Lake adapted from the original. They then did Tarantella and other Balanchine ballets at Chicago Ballet Arts and at Joffrey they also did an end of year production.

    Alfie was not at a proper dance school, it was music and dance, running round the studio and doing hop-scotch. His parents were happy he was using up his energy but he was just doing a 30-minute class each week without proper training. When he was five one of his mum’s friends moved back from Europe and opened a dance school. Alfie was her first student. They started in a classroom with no proper equipment before finding a building and opening a studio and he stayed there the whole time he was in Australia. It was very different from any other training, just a few classes of the RAD syllabus in the afternoon, very regimented, and he didn’t really understand what he was doing. When he was 12 his teacher thought he had some talent so he joined the Queensland Ballet Academy afternoon programme and the Australian Ballet School in Melbourne where he flew down twice a year to take classes with the School.  He did YAGP, went to New York and did competitions around Australia where you tried to do as many solos as possible, in all different styles, and it was a good opportunity to perform on stage. That chance to perform in front of people is where his enjoyment and passion for dance came from.

    Chris spent six years with Gailene at RBS and it was a huge learning curve. He did one of the first teachers’ courses, created in 2001, with Jay Jolley so they were the guinea pigs of this new teaching course. By this time he had two young children. He’d been invited to teach in Holland by Wim Broeckx and although his wife is Dutch she didn’t want to go back to Holland so at first he said no, as they were quite happy here but he kept asking Chris to go. Then he looked at London life, the bomb had gone off and Chris was on the tube in Hyde Park when everything went dark and eventually found out what had happened. It was at that time he was again invited and the family decided it was time to move. This was at Christmas 2005 and they went to The Hague for four years. In that time, he was encouraged to interview for the directorship of the Royal School in Antwerp, he thought he’d use it as a learning process, but the game was on and he studied, read books and prepared his vision and Powerpoint presentation. It was a bit of a shock when he was offered the job! His wife was in tears as she was enjoying being back in Holland and, although Chris was on the point of accepting, for various contractual reasons he pulled out at the last minute. Two years later the Dutch National Ballet Academy job came up. That needed a major change - at that time in Holland schools were very provincial all wanting to do the same thing so the talent was spread too thinly and it needed to be pooled. The Conservatoire was the classical school and the Amsterdam school wasn’t in a great place at the time. He got the job, spoke to Ted Brandsen, the director of Dutch National Ballet, and the Academy team and they wanted to do something with the school. It made sense that they should be linked to the company. He had the backing of all concerned and they were completely behind Chris’ idea so he was like a kid in a toy store with all the means required for a big project, wanting to make it the best school. He had to persuade Ted to make the change to associate the company with the school, and hoped it would then change the psychology to students wanting to go to the school because of its links to the company, an idea which is proven to work. It was a Catch-22 situation as Chris had to raise the standard of the school before the link would happen but finally Ted went for it and together they created the junior company, another great link. He also set up a summer school so in three and a half years they made some huge changes and it has gone on from there. He and the family were happy in Amsterdam. Then sadly Gailene became very ill and suddenly he was called and asked to come to talk about the RBS and was it something he’d consider taking on? The circumstances were understandably sensitive with Gailene so unwell and unable to work, it felt uncomfortable, but the school had to go on so he went for a conversation with the Board. They were incredibly charming, but it was a bit scary. He wasn’t going to go as he thought surely they have someone else lined up and that he was just part of the process but he decided to go for the experience and because he thought he didn’t stand a chance he was very relaxed. They were interested in what he had to say and what he thought about future training so it was a very good conversation. A few hours later he had a call to say he had got the job which was a shock. He then had to break the news to his wife as he thought he couldn’t turned down such a great opportunity. Gailene had brought the school into a magical place and had done some wonderful things but he didn’t want to be just a caretaker and wondered what he could do, what did the school need and could he do something with it? Once he started looking into it, he discovered there was a lot to do. It is ever-evolving and Dame Ninette’s vision was to move with the times. There’s never a dull moment and so many things still to be done.

    Alfie said one of his teachers in Australia had trained at the RBS. Alfie was doing competitions in Australia including the Alana Haynes which Harrison Lee had won the year before and Alfie then won it. Alfie admired him and wanted to be like him as he’d just won Prix de Lausanne and come to the school so thought he would try and see what happened. He got a scholarship from YAGP and Mr Powney came to teach at the semi-finals. It was the first time they’d had a workshop in Brisbane so he came to summer school at White Lodge in 2017 on a week’s scholarship and loved it. It motivated him to think he would do everything he could to make it happen. He went back to Australia, worked hard with different teachers and did a summer school where he took master-classes in Brisbane and did a little audition on the last day and was invited to a final audition at the Upper School. So, he came for that in March 2020 and was accepted but because of Covid flew home the following day. Alfie feels he was lucky to have got to the audition as otherwise things might have been different and he might not have got a place. Although Covid was ongoing he finally got to the school in September 2020 but they were still very restricted though able to be in the school for live lessons whereas prior to that it was all on Zoom. Australia was still very much in lock-down. Alfie did two spells of quarantine in a hotel for two weeks with Zoom classes at midnight his time so it was a big challenge for a 16 year old.

    When she was 14, Bella was training for YAGP and her Brazilian coach saw that the RBS were coming to do auditions at the Joffrey and said Bella should have a try. Her mum and sister danced with ABT and she always thought she’d be going there too but she loved the Royal Ballet and knew the school was great. She has five older siblings but her mum thought she was too young to go away at 15 but Bella said she would try as the auditions were convenient after her Saturday class at Joffrey. To her, the audition went terribly because for 45 minutes beforehand she had a very bloody nose and thought she’d miss registration and lose her chance. Normally at auditions parent volunteers are giving you your numbers outside and her mum, who didn’t know much about the school, was pleading and asking for Bella to be let her in without knowing she was talking to the Director of the RBS!  She went in with a bunch of tissues and recalled worrying the whole time that her nose bleed would start again. Because she was focussing on that, she wasn’t worried about anything else so it went quite well. Afterwards Mr Powney talked to her mum but she wasn’t happy about Bella moving away at her age so she was offered an international scholarship to Upper School whereby you represent the school but you train at home until both sides feel it is the right time to come into the school so you are a long distance student. She was very grateful to be an international scholar for 18 months, then Covid hit which put off their planned visit in April 2020, so in July she sent audition material and she was offered a place in first year.

    During winter in Milda’s second year at the National Ballet School she was wondering what to do in summer and decided to try for the summer intensive at RBS. She sent five photos which were horrible and she was crying because it was the last day before the application deadline and she thought she’d not get in. She’d had a bad hip injury, had been in hospital and was then rehabbing for a month, and when she was sitting in bed one day, her mum told her she had a place in the summer school. She was very happy, although she wasn’t allowed to do any ballet and the most she could do was walk and her rehab exercises, so started jumping and kicking her legs. She went to Summer School and after returning home on 8 August was sitting with mum having sushi when she got an email inviting her for a three day short term scholarship. She went in January and loved it so much, but didn’t do well as she had horrible pointe shoes and had to keep taking them off as her feet were so sore. She wasn’t expecting much but was invited to the final audition and she thought ‘I’m almost there, I’m going to London’. She came back after class where she’d stayed practising till the cleaning ladies turned her out, ran to the car where her mum was picking her up and her mum said she didn’t get in. She cried the whole night and for longer but then thought why? It isn’t the end of the world. She started working more both mornings and evenings, then went to the Prix de Lausanne the next year. She filled in the form about which school she wanted and saw RBS but thinking there was no way they would invite her so put it down as second although mentally it was her first choice. There was a networking forum, tables where the school directors were sitting and a lady told you which desk to go to. She went to the Dutch National School, talked to the Director and he offered her a place which made her so happy. She then asked the lady if there was anything else and, as she said no, Milda went back to the hotel as it was too early for her flight. Milda was lying in bed when her mum called asking where she was as Mr Powney was looking for her. She didn’t know what to do but her mum said he’d call back the next morning. She was so tired but woke up so early, and didn’t know what to do except stare at the screen of the phone, until Mr Powney called and offered her a place. For the first few seconds she was so overcome she forgot her English.

    Speaking of being a director, Chris said so much has changed in dance education, in any kind of intense physical training, in the way you teach. They changed the course, have improved the health care massively, written a degree course with Roehampton University which is a huge undertaking but the students are capable. They’ve opened up the school. In his day students went and got trained and there was little known about what was happening and how they were assessed or communication with parents as to what they were doing but there was just a trust in the school. Now they share with the parents and outside world about training and assessment, they’ve changed the model of progression through the school. They need to maintain excellence and standards but they must recognise the young person is a human being growing up, what they want to achieve with more flexibility, and how to make a more versatile dancer. Whether or not they get to the end of the course they want them to be able to stand on their feet and give them life foundations during the process. There is the academic, mental health, pastoral and holistic side and it can’t just be about training as a dancer. Mental health puts pressure on the kids, and there is pressure just from being an RBS student, the pressure of carrying the brand. Some people relish it and others struggle with it. They’ve built a 20 strong team around health care with a nurse, sports scientist, strength and conditioning, psychologist amongst others, married with what the Royal Ballet company are doing. They’re advancing and leading the way and schools come from around the world to see what they’re doing. They have some fantastic donors who support this as it can’t come out of the fees but you only have to talk about the well-being of the young person and it hits the spot.  It’s challenging being a teenager, they’re not easy years and the students talk about their ambitions and disappointments along with the problems of growing up and learning about themselves. Clearly transparency is everything. They are very honest about how they do things without hiding the fact that disappointments can come along the way. For Chris it’s very important that, while needing to reach a high standard, the students have to be able to cope. You can guide them but if they can’t cope with increasing standards they’ll crumble, their confidence will go and they’ll not be happy which would be irresponsible of a school.  Most recently they’ve been building on how the teachers teach, the studio culture, the need for a shift in how we train, so it’s more inclusive of the students’ needs and they feel they have a voice. That’s not to say it isn’t demanding but they’re doing it in a positive way and the students know they are believed in and staff are on side. If you can do that well, the students are happy and know they are supported and in that way you hope they’ll flourish. It’s a different approach on which they will keep improving. There are platforms for students to have more voice so they can come forward with their views and experiences. We can always improve so it’s important to give them a place where they feel safe enough to be able to share their thoughts.

    Since Chris joined in 2014 it’s been one financial challenge after another. He had to make some significant changes on arrival as the 2008/10 crisis had had a big impact on government funding, then the school had to make massive changes with Brexit and Covid which the students have come through magnificently and now the biggest crisis of all, the inflationary rate and the war in Ukraine which are impacting on everyone. They’re trying to construct a business plan to be sustainable going forward while developing and improving the school. One positive to come from Covid was digitalisation. The students did brilliantly, staff were amazing, things changed overnight to a digital world. They worked very hard and started working on Zoom and video and realised they could do more with it, developed the teachers’ courses, and can offer more services to the dance world here and abroad as their brand is huge internationally. That can help with the business model.

    Speaking of her first year in the school, Milda said there was a sudden realisation that she wouldn’t be speaking Lithuanian every day and at first thought it wouldn’t be too bad but found it was hard. Her first class they did floor barre, pliés and tendus, and next morning she was very sore. From the beginning there were so many corrections and it seemed like her 12 years of training was all for nothing but it was just the different style as previously she’d been used to Vaganova technique so it was especially hard as she’s very tall.  Vaganova is about an expansive quality and expands the energy out of you rather than stopping at a certain point. Dynamics and power are also very different. In her first year there were a lot of ups and downs. In her previous school she was proud of herself as she worked so much and thought she had a chance to become a ballerina and suddenly she found herself surrounded by amazing dancers and realised it was not going to be so easy. It was tough but she got through. The first year was also the most challenging for Milda psychologically. It was hard to be away from home, adapting to a new world, dance style and culture. When lock-down began she was too late to go home although there were a few flights but very expensive and her home apartment is very tiny so there’d have been no studio to work in. She stayed in White Lodge where they weren’t allowed to go into the studios but used an upstairs canteen area so she and two other girls were doing class on Zoom and it was very hard trying to keep up her motivation, and after lunch she’d put on sneakers and run around the garden at White Lodge. In the evening she went back to practising and doing pointe work, knowing one class over Zoom and one contemporary class wouldn’t be enough as she had so much energy. Now she wishes she had more! Chris recalled seeing Milda, from his office window, running round the rose garden. He was furious as the UK government rules wouldn’t allow them into the studio because it would give them an advantage over those who had no access to facilities. Certainly, that was true to some extent. Some students were in very difficult situations at home, one was working on his porch, another young man was in a small flat sharing with brothers and sisters trying to get onto the internet with his father working from home. But frustratingly there was one rule for all and no exceptions allowed even for specialists.

    Coming to the school from the USA Bella said was a very big change. She was used to everything being separate with high school during the day where there were 1000 kids, her group of friends, ballet friends and family. Starting at the Upper School she found 12 girls and 24 students altogether in her year. Her school friends were also ballet friends and they were all living together. Sharing with everyone was fine but only 24 people seemed crazy. In the first class she couldn’t do floor barre and wondered how she’d get up and dance when she couldn’t do that? She was very shocked how hard it was but working slowly on head and arm placement was good and now it’s helpful to have that background and explore more. She luckily could go home during Covid, flying back for Christmas, then came back here to quarantine but realised nothing was happening so went home again after a week and got Covid. The Zoom class was at 11am UK time so 5am for her, particularly tough as it was winter, doing ballet in her living room, dark outside so it was hard to be seen on screen. She was trying to go to bed early but the whole family were at the house and waking up when she was on her second class, the kitchen was next to living room, people were having breakfast, the dog was barking so she had a hard time focussing. They worked a lot on technique and arms and feet as there was no room to travel. Then when they were working on their summer show rep, Bella felt pain in the right foot and found she had an extra bone in her heel which isn’t good for working on pointe. She finished the year, did summer show in a lot of pain, then had surgery to remove it. She worried they would cut a tendon and she would never walk again. It was very stressful but she was home for the whole summer and nothing bad happened. She then came back in the second year and it was definitely a struggle for the first term after which it was fine.

    As Alfie was only 15 when he came for his first year his mum decided she would come with him although Australia was in lock-down and she didn’t know if she’d get back home again. She dropped him off at the school and it was such a big change for him, coming to London from a very small town in Australia, catching a bus every day, and everything so different. At home he was the only boy but here in Upper School there were 13 of them so it was competitive and he wanted to be like the others but realised he had lots of things to improve on. He worked very hard, made new friends and it was a challenge but a great year. During the first lock-down he went back to Australia, spent two weeks in a quarantine hotel and his parents sent him a dance mat and barre so he was doing Zoom classes in a small room at mid-night his time and always falling asleep! It wasn’t ideal but then he was able to spend time with the family. They were lucky to be able to perform on the Opera House stage and did the gala waltz from Sleeping Beauty so a great way to end the first year.

    Milda has been covering in Nutcrackerand doing court ladies in every act of Sleeping Beauty.Bella is doing court ladies and sometimes also nymphs in Act II. There’s a terrifying four minute change from nymphs back to court ladies which isn’t ideal when you’re pretending to be asleep and very sweaty but it’s a lot of fun.

    Alfie had worked with BRB in Nutcracker as a soldier and a guest, performing 26 shows at the Hippodrome and seven at the Albert Hall. He’s also involved in the court scene in Cinderella.

    It was now time to finish and in thanking our guests very much for coming David said he’d leave a question in the air with Chris for another occasion. Most of the international students come from an ordinary academic school and do ballet in the afternoon or evening. Here we have a lower school and David wonders if the international students have an advantage? Answers another time! It’s always a pleasure to have the students with us. When discussing making our awards, Gailene said we should support international students and it’s worked extremely well as we now have three award winners who are principals in this country – Marcelino Sambé, Reece Clarke (as a Scot he’s an honorary international!) and Yaoqian Shang. David then explained that we normally give a cash present to dancers who leave after completing 10 years with the company. Ed Watson, who stopped dancing after The Dante Project though is still with the company, said he would rather his went to the students so each of our young guests would share it between them and we looked forward with interest to following their careers wherever they may be. It was now no secret that Alfie had a contract with BRB so congratulations to him.

    Report written by Liz Bouttell and edited by Christopher Powney and David Bain.

    © The Ballet Association 2023