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    Amelia Townsend & Nadia Mullova-Barley 2023

    Amelia Townsend & Nadia Mullova-Barley

    First Artists, The Royal Ballet

    Interviewed by David Bain
    American International Church, Mon 02nd October, 2023


    Recently promoted Royal Ballet First Artists, Nadia Mullova-Barley and Amelia Townsend were the guests tonight. They started by discussing the recent three-week tour to Japan during which they spent two weeks in Tokyo and then travelled by bullet train down to Osaka for the final week. This was shorter than previous tours. They began with three shows of a gala including Frederick Ashton’s “A Month in the Country”, Christopher Wheeldon’s “For Four”, Valentino Zucchetti’s “Prima” and George Balanchine’s “Diamonds”, which they both danced. This was followed by seven shows of “Romeo and Juliet” where, between them, they played townspeople, harlots, Juliet’s friends and formal couples. These were not demanding roles for them and nice to do when in a more relaxed situation on tour. The Japanese audiences are very enthusiastic and supportive, “going wild” during performances. They wait in hundreds outside the stage door to take photos which is not what happens in London (though last Saturday after this season’s first performance of “Don Quixote”, the scenes were very similar with dense crowds at the stage door). Altogether the tour was fun and Japan is a beautiful country with a different culture. They loved Osaka even more than Tokyo and it was the first time they had gone there as the previous tour (pre-Covid) took them to Tokyo only.

    The tour schedule is packed but the dancers get a day off after arrival to recover from the long flight and then one day per week. Also, once performances have begun and rehearsals are over, they have mornings off, so there is some time for sightseeing. In addition, they go out for dinner after the show to restaurants close to the theatre. As this is not the first time they have toured Japan, they visited most of the main sights on their first visit and so this time they had time to calmly walk around and take in the culture.

    There were some minor challenges such as the single tiny studio in the theatre which was too small to hold the whole company so during class before the performance, some dancers were forced to remain outside in the corridor to do the exercises and had to strain to listen to the instructions. There was also the jetlag and intense heat to deal with. The heat caused swollen ankles and feet, so several dancers had difficulty fitting into their pointe shoes. Another important effect of the heat is dehydration as the dancers sweat profusely so this must be carefully monitored. Generally, the tour flows quite smoothly as it comes at the end of the season, by which time the dancers are working “like clockwork” and things come together even with very few rehearsals. One big challenge is packing their make-up boxes because this must be done at least a month before they are due to leave, and it is difficult to be sure what to pack and what they will need on tour. Inevitably, on arrival, there is a lot of running to the nearest pharmacy to buy items that were forgotten which makes things interesting and fun.

    News of the next tour is revealed around April, though usually rumours abound before that. Kevin O’Hare has a meeting with the company in April when he reveals the repertoire for the next season and, quite often, he also advises them where they will tour. They already know that there will be no tour at the end of this season which will finish in London with “Swan Lake”. This is disappointing as they really enjoy going on tour.

    This last Japan tour was Amelia’s second and Nadia’s third tour. Nadia’s first tour was to Madrid. It was a tough one-week tour with seven performances plus two full run-throughs. Because the temperature in Mediterranean countries is so high in summer, events happen much later when it is cooler so on days where there were two shows, the first performance was around 5.00p.m. and the second around 10.00pm. which meant that they were performing Act IV of “Swan Lake” at 1.00a.m. That particular week was also hotter than average.

    To make things easier for the dancers, the repertoire performed on tour tends to be ballets they have performed during the season or relatively recently so that the choreography is still fresh in their minds and does not take long to rehearse. Although it feels like a rush, things always come together as the company works well under pressure.

    In the past, there were summer performances in London after the tour, but this resulted in several cast changes as dancers were injured or simply exhausted, but nowadays the company goes on holiday immediately after touring so that they can switch off or do different things. Many of the principals continue performing in galas. Nadia completely switches off and she pointed out that as a member of the corps you dance in every single performance and you are worked extremely hard and you have to have long-term stamina so it is mentally and physically important to have a proper break. So, although she keeps physically active, she avoids ballet for this short period. Amelia feels that it is necessary to have time for your body to reset and to have free evenings. She also avoids ballet during the holidays. She stays active in other ways, going to the beach and swimming for example. There is a sense of guilt at not practising but she tries to suppress that so that she can be “a normal person instead of a ballet dancer” for a while which is mentally important for her.

    Nadia comes from a family of musicians, none of whom dance. She also played instruments as a child and was quite a tomboy with no urge to do ballet but one day she was given a children’s book in a party bag after a friend’s birthday party. It was called “Elephants Don’t Do Ballet”. She had no interest in it at the time and it was a full two or so years, at the age of seven, before she picked it up out of boredom and read it. The book had a profound effect on her and she marched into her father’s room and announced that she was going to be a ballet dancer and demanded ballet lessons. Her father was quite complacent, but she was quite persistent so in the end he did enrol her in classes.

    Amelia’s experience was quite opposite to Nadia’s. She is Australian and her mother and aunt were both in the Royal Ballet School. Her aunt subsequently joined the Royal Ballet, and her mother started a dance studio in Australia. She has an older sister who was having lessons, so her mother also brought Amelia to the studio to watch while her mother taught. As her sister was dancing, Amelia was inspired to join in. There are several family videos of Amelia running up and trying to join her sister’s classes. Her mother was not keen as Amelia was only two years old and she felt that that was too young for a start in ballet. She allowed her to start when she was three. The studio is still up and running and Amelia’s sister is still dancing so ballet is definitely in the family genes.

    Nadia studied at the Junior Ballet School at White Lodge. She auditioned for the Junior Associates programme but did not get in at her first attempt. She did on her second attempt and spent two years as a Junior Associate and whilst auditioning for the next level, Middle Associates, Gailene Stock invited her to the final auditions for White Lodge. Nadia was not keen as she did not want to leave home, but her dance teacher persuaded her to at least go to the audition and then see how she felt. She won a place and changed her mind. At White Lodge there are exams every year for promotion to the next year. Then during the final year, Year 11, there are auditions for the Upper School and only about 50% of the year gets through. In Upper School there were also exams for promotion and it was not a guarantee that you would be able to continue to the next year.

     Having started her dance career in Australia, the Royal Ballet was never in Amelia’s sights. As a young child she was given books from the Royal Ballet School Diaries series by Alexandra Moss as a Christmas present and, naturally, she dreamed of going there but, to her, it was something that was never going to happen. Her goal was the Australian Ballet and when she was 12, she was offered a full-time place at the Australian Ballet School in Melbourne and she left her home in Brisbane to attend for the next three years. It was during a ballet summer school in Sydney that her life changed. She was taught for a week by Jay Jolley, a Royal Ballet School teacher and he subsequently invited her to the final auditions for the Royal Ballet Upper School. Though it was a devastating decision for her, she declined the audition because she was not sure that she would succeed and did not want to risk losing her place at the Australian Ballet School. A few weeks later, she received an e-mail from Jay Jolley who, exceptionally, offered her a place without audition and told her that she could start in September. So, her route to Upper School was unusual and she is very grateful to Jay Jolley for this. She was at the Upper School from the age of 16 to 19 and she subsequently graduated to the company.

    They were both taught by Anita Young, Paul Lewis, Daria Klimentova, Nicola Tranah, Jay Jolley, Christopher Powney, who was the then Director, and Jessica Clarke. In Amelia’s year group, dancers who also made it into the company were Harrison Lee, Harris Bell, Taisuke Nakao, Yu Hang and Katharina Nikelski. Seven in total which is a relatively large number. In Nadia’s year there were also Aidan O’Brien, Joonhyuk Jun, Sae Maeda and Joshua Junker.

    For Nadia, the transition from White Lodge to Upper School was huge, both geographically and educationally. In White Lodge you spend five years in a boarding school in the middle of a park which is quite restrictive. Then suddenly you arrive at Upper School and have more freedom which Nadia loved. The step up in physical activity is huge. At White Lodge there is quite a bit of academic work as you study for your GCSE’s as well as ballet, whereas at the Upper School you only do one A-Level and apart from that you are doing ballet all day which is an extreme change for the body to adapt to. In addition, there were many more international students at the Upper School. Previously, White Lodge was attended almost exclusively by British students. Entering Upper School was like entering a new world where the standard has suddenly gone up and there is much more competition.

    Amelia had to deal with leaving her family and travelling to the other side of the world. The workload was intense but not very different from what she was doing in Australia. It did make her realise that now she was on the path to entering a ballet company and ballet was no longer like a hobby for her. She was now in a boarding school and had to make new friends and connections as she had no other family here. It was certainly challenging, but fun at the same time. In the third year it was even more intense than in the first year. The tension was palpable because people’s mind was on finding a job. Also, you began working alongside the company, so you become semi-professional.

    As students, they mainly get called upon to perform in the larger ballets. For example, they are often Snowflakes in the “Nutcracker” and standing roles and character roles in “Swan Lake” and “Sleeping Beauty”. These are great opportunities for students as it is very exciting to stand on stage and watch the famous principals of the company dance. Snowflakes is tough for students to dance as you are constantly moving around and you have to know what everyone else is doing all the time. This is made more difficult by the fact that everyone looks alike, wearing the same wigs. When you are a student, you do not know the other dancers well so it all becomes a blur of white and silver in front of you and you can be put in a different spot at short notice which makes the whole thing very stressful.

    Amelia did several roles while she was a student. One particular memory is of the ballet “Sylvia” where she came on at the end of the ballet carry a spear. The ballet was three hours long and Amelia came on at 10.29p.m. after having left school in the late afternoon to go across to the opera house and spend approximately an hour and a half doing hair and make-up. All that simply to come on during the last minute of the ballet holding a spear just before the curtains come down. The next morning everything is back to normal and you return to school” Apart from being a Snowflake, she also performed in “Alice in Wonderland”, “Giselle” which was quite terrifying because the students had very little flexibility due to their academic studies and they came in only one week before the show began when everyone else really knew their parts. Amelia remembers being “thrown into” a spot in the front line but she didn’t yet know the choreography. She became very good at acting confident and simply copying the people around her. It was a full call so there was a panel of the staff watching from the front of the room. It was a scary experience but very character-building.

    The Royal Ballet tends to know which dancers they want to accept but, generally, dance students start to prepare for auditions during their third year by preparing CV’s and cover letters. In addition, around December, the school will bring directors from other ballet companies to the school to see the students. Those who are accepted into the Royal Ballet may also find out around this time. Amelia was told on 23rd December and Nadia on 18th January. This means that they usually do not have to audition for other companies. Nadia was called into Christopher Powney’s office, where Kevin O’Hare gave her the good news. Amelia was about to go on stage to do the Snowflakes dance when one of the ballet masters, Sian Murphy, asked her and another student, Yu Hang, to stay back on the side stage. Amelia immediately assumed that she had done something wrong and went on stage terrified and unable to concentrate, not daring to believe that it might be the news she wanted to hear as it was still quite early. However, when the dance was over, during the interval between Act I and Act II, Kevin O’Hare came by and did indeed give them both the good news. It was the best Christmas present ever. To add to the moment, Amelia’s mother had just arrived from Australia that morning and was in the audience watching.

    Both Nadia and Amelia started on the Aud Jebsen Young Dancer programme. Although they did what the other corps de ballet dancers did and, indeed, got some extra coaching, they felt more “on edge” because they had not yet achieved a full-term contract with the Royal Ballet. It is difficult to prepare yourself for the change from Upper School to the Company. It is impossible to comprehend until you are experiencing it. For years, at the ballet school, you are pushed, instructed and corrected, then suddenly you become responsible for your own coaching. You are not trained to become a member of the corps de ballet which is a specific art form, requiring you to see in all directions, learn to quickly pick up choreography and make your own technical corrections to fit in with a line, It is completely different from dancing on your own and can only be learnt by doing. No-one can explain it to you.

    Grooming is extremely important and you have to learn to do your own hair and make-up, including stage make-up. So, you learn by watching more experienced company members and taking advice from them developing the skills over time. Amelia thinks back to how she first did her make up and realises that now it is completely different.

    Nadia went through a period of considering why she wanted to be a ballet dancer. At school you are simply success-driven and striving to get to the next year and there was always something to achieve. Once she had her contract, she began to question what she wanted to get out of “the job” and what she was really passionate about, having to make these decisions on her own now with no-one specifically looking after her.

    Turning to “the Covid years”, the company had just finished a run of “The Cellist” and they had performed five shows of the “Swan Lake” run when the virus hit. Nadia was in her third year and admits that, initially, they were quite happy to go into lockdown because everyone was so exhausted at that stage of the season with bodies struggling after what seemed like non-stop work. They were expecting to be off for a week or so. No-one imagined the break would be as long as it turned out to be. Amelia was due to fly to Portugal with some of the other girls from the company during a free weekend. The holiday had been booked long in advance and when they heard news that flights were being cancelled, some of the girls questioned whether they should be going, but not Amelia who admits that she was probably a little in denial. They did go on the holiday and that is where she was when they received the news that they were not to return to the ballet studio the next day because of Covid. It all sounded like great news and Amelia was even up for spending some extra time in Portugal. Fortunately, her friends persuaded her that it was probably best to go home. After saying goodbye at the airport in London, they didn’t see each other for several months. A few days later, she flew back to Australia.

    Class was taken via Zoom which was initially a novelty but one that soon wore off. It was fun and challenging to find ways to stay fit “in your kitchen” and it was a nice way to stay connected with the rest of the company. For Amelia, in Australia, it was a struggle because of the 10-hour time difference as class, for her, was late at night. It was clearly not sustainable but, as her mother owns a dance studio and Brisbane did not have the stringent lockdown rules of the UK, she was able to continue to practice.

    For Nadia lockdown provided time for her to relax, breathe and explore other interests, something which dancers do not usually have space or energy to do. She took up other hobbies and spent time reflecting on how she really felt about being a ballet dancer. It was a turning point in her life as she realised how much she loves her job and missed it over the four months they were away.

    Amelia enjoyed the high of being with her family whom she had been away from since the age of 12 after her move to Melbourne. She suddenly had time on her hands which she was not used to so she cooked and baked for her family. On the other hand, it was quite a sad time as she could see no end point and she began to miss work. Like Nadia, she took the time to reflect and also realised how much she loved her work and could not consider giving it up. When she returned to London, she took the opportunity to have surgery for a longstanding problem with her Achilles tendon. This had been as issue since the age of 10 but she never wanted to take the required time out to resolve it as time in school was so precious. She had a bone removed which required a six-month recovery period so the break caused by Covid provided her with the perfect opportunity.

    The company provided ballet, pilates and strength and conditioning classes to help the dancers stay fit. But it was impossible to maintain the extreme level of fitness of a working ballet dancer. After Covid, there was a period of adjustment to tone up the muscles in the lower legs. The start was gentle with only one class a day and they only performed a half-season with very few productions. Masks had to be worn during class and the dancers were put into Covid “bubbles” so that they only interacted with that small group of people. The productions were also scaled down into “Covid versions”. Audiences were smaller with only every third seat bookable unless you were a couple and masks had to be worn. There was a whole season when not much was done and the following season, which was meant to be the ‘comeback’ season, was hit by another wave of Covid sickness. This did work in Nadia’s favour because she had to go on stage in the role of harlot in “Romeo and Juliet” as practically every other dancer cast in that role had gone down with Covid. All in all, it took some time to return to normality.

    Both ladies feel fulfilled by contemporary choreography such as works by Crystal Pite whom they find incredible and moving to work with her. Some of the works include: “Flight Pattern”, “Solo Echo” and “The Statement”. Nadia is also a fan of the dramatic and “human” McMillan ballets: “Romeo and Juliet”, “Mayerling”, “Manon”. She finds the other ballets fun to do but not as artistically fulfilling as these. For Amelia her highlight is Crystal Pite’s “The Statement”, especially as it was the first big work she performed with the company. She also enjoyed performing the Golden Vine Fairy in the “Sleeping Beauty” and the Cygnet dance from “Swan Lake” because it is such an iconic piece and it felt so surreal to her to be dancing that on stage. Unfortunately, the two ladies were unable to share any information about their upcoming roles, simply because they are only told a few days before rehearsals start and rehearsals begin approximately six weeks before.

    On the subject of “Cinderella”, Nadia commented on the fact that, unlike with most classical ballets, there was an openness to making changes to the choreography since the ballet had not been staged for such a long time. Wendy Ellis-Somes was responsible for these changes. It was also a unique production because most of the company had not danced the ballet before and they all had to get used to a different style of choreography. The sets and costumes were also new and it was quite challenging to dance in some of the more imaginative costumes. It did, however, look incredible and was well received by audiences.

    The dancers are encouraged to have fun on stage and not to do the same every night but to find stories and characterisations that fit in with the scene they are in. This keeps them motivated when they are performing in a long run. Some ballets lend themselves to this more than others, but even in a role like a Snowflake you can make it more interesting by throwing some snow around or smiling as you are passing someone in a pattern change.

    When working with guest choreographers on new creations, the process is very different. With classic pieces, you can watch videos to help you learn the choreography, but with new pieces, you are not sure what you will be doing. You must approach things with an open mind. During last season’s gala, they performed a piece by Joseph Toonga which took them all completely out of their comfort zone as it included popping and locking, something they had not done before and were not quite sure how to approach. The challenge was fun and allowed them to experience something different. It is actually quite exciting to enter a studio and not be sure what is about to happen. This makes the experience enjoyable. New creations take longer and require more time. Nadia thrives off the experience and enjoys the freedom from the more rigid atmosphere of the classical ballets. She finds the ability to move her body in different ways and learn new styles of choreography fascinating and a joy.

    Preparing for roles like Lilac Fairy can be amazing and terrifying at the same time. Nadia was coached by Monica Mason who is a very motivating and uplifting coach. Half an hour with her is extremely intense, not only because she provides you with so much information but also because she is so highly respected amongst dancers that they put a lot of pressure on themselves to please her and not let her down. It was Nadia’s first time doing such a big classical role and quite a challenge, but she felt well prepared for it and she always felt on top of the role. Performing your first big role after being in the corps de ballet is scary because up to that point, you have spent years trying to blend in and now you are front and centre, commanding the whole stage and, as in the case of the Lilac Fairy, telling the whole story.

    Amelia had the good fortune to cover Natalia Osipova in the Kyle Abraham’s “The Weathering”. It was a new creation and a group of dancers participated in a workshop until approximately five dancers were chosen. Natalia could not be present much because she was away doing other performances and meeting other commitments, so Amelia ended up spending a great deal of time with Kyle creating the material. When Natalia came back, Amelia helped her learn the choreography. She was never clear that she would be performing. On the day of the performance, whilst she was on her way into work, she received a phone call from Kevin O’Hare telling her that she would have to go on for Natalia that evening as she was unwell. Everything happened in a blur with a quick class, time in costume and make up, a run-through of the choreography and then on stage. Kevin had to make an announcement to the audience that Natalia was ill but being replaced by Amelia Towsend. All Amelia could think about was the audience questioning who on earth Amelia Townsend was. For her it was a crazy but very special moment in her life.

    Although she feels restricted by her height, dream roles for Nadia are Queen of the Wilis from “Giselle”, and Tatiana in “Onegin”, the mistress in “Manon” or Manon herself. She loves acting and would love any role which involves some “meaty acting”. Amelia also loves the dramatic ballets and would love to dance “Juliet” or the Queen from “Alice in Wonderland” and definitely more contemporary ballet.

    As far as choreography goes, Nadia has no immediate ambition to pursue this and would only consider doing it after she has finished dancing. She sees that the choreographers who participate in the Draft Works programme are under tremendous pressure, because they have to do the work in their own time as well as keep up with their ballet schedule. Amelia is very interested but agrees that with their current schedule. She created a piece after she finished school and also during her first year in the company. But she had more time then as she was an apprentice. Now it would be a struggle, with her current schedule, to find the time and energy. She did do a Draft Works piece during Covid and her recovery time after her surgery. and it was streamed on stage. She is definitely interested in pursuing it in a few years’ time.

    A question came from the audience about acting lessons. This is something that is not really taught though they did have a couple of stagecraft classes. This is one of the main challenges when you are a new company member because the rest of the dancers are friends and comfortable acting around each other; they know the storylines and exactly what they are doing. You, on the other hand are young, intimidated and trying to fit in. The ballet masters are a great help and encourage you to “go for it”. You do build up the confidence over times. Amelia remembers her first experience was as a whore in “Mayerling” and how terrifying it was because she felt all eyes were on her as the new person. She gave it her all, however, because it would have looked much worse if she had held back. Nadia commented on the fact that the Royal Ballet stands out because of the acting ability of the dancers. Often during full calls, Christopher Saunders is not looking at the principals or even the dancing but is concentrating on the people in the periphery and what they are doing and he makes all his notes about that. It is obvious that they can all dance and have the technique at this stage so there is a high focus on everything else that is going on. For example, when Carlos Acosta came to a “Don Quixote” rehearsal, most of his notes were about the acting and how the dancers interacted with each other.

    The final question of the evening was about funny anecdotes from performance.

    Amelia: During her second season, at the end of the Snowflakesdance when she was on the floor in the semi-circle another dancer was standing on her dress so when she tried to stand up, she was pulled back down again. Naturally, this caused a fit of the giggles. When she did manage to stand up she tripped a few steps later and could not catch her balance so kept on tripping around the whole stage so it was extremely hard to keep it together during the show. In fact, anytime someone falls over, assuming they are not hurt, it’s an excuse for hilarity.

    Nadia: A few years ago, she was playing the serving girl who faints when Espada comes close to her in the tavern scene of “Don Quixote”. When she falls back, she is caught by another dancer, but this time, unbeknownst to Nadia, her hair got caught in his costume which meant that she was unable to get back up. So, a few cast members had to crowd around her to try and untangle her hair her whilst she had to maintain the full back-bend position she had started in.

    Amelia: At the beginning of “Firebird” in a scene where she was quite near the front, her trousers came undone so during a very still scene, she had to maintain a pose with one elbow whilst trying to keep her trousers on with the other and her fellow dancers around her giggling.

    Nadia: A classic example was during “La Bayadère” when at least six girls dropped their candles and in a serious scene like that is very difficult not to laugh.

    Amelia: In the third act of “Manon” when all the whores come down, it is accepted tradition that you should be as dramatic as possible, so during the final performance the dancers took things to a new level, blacking their teeth out etc. and because the scene is so dramatic and serious, when you look over and see your friend with missing teeth and overacting, it becomes almost impossible to keep a straight face and it is a challenge to try and make your friends and colleagues laugh.

    Nadia: In Japan, during a performance of “Don Quixote” where she was playing several different roles, she forgot to change her shoes during the interval from ballroom to ballet pumps. When she went back on she was one of the townspeople and she was already halfway through the dance when people began noticing that she was wearing bright green ballroom shoes where everyone else was in pink ballet pumps. She was the last to notice and, at first, couldn’t understand what everyone else was laughing at.

    Amelia: Benjamin Ella told her the story of one performance of “Romeo and Juliet” when he was playing Mercutio. He is due to walk down the stairs looking cool and attractive with all eyes on him when he takes one step and then proceeds to slide down the whole staircase on his rear end. He then has to get up as if nothing unusual had happened to go and kiss the girl…

    And the list goes on!

    An audience member asked if they are ever reprimanded. The answer is no if anyone falls, especially if they are injured but when things are dropped or if they are laughing too much on stage, then that is a different matter and sometimes they do come off stage wondering if they will be in trouble. Things do go wrong, and people do get injured with other dancers having to come on to replace them. In those cases, the show may have to pause for a brief while. In response to the audience member commenting on how stressful it sounds, both ladies replied that it can be, but that they thrive on it.

    Report written by Herma John and edited by Nadia Mullova-Barley, Amelia Townsend, Rachel Holland and David Bain.

    © The Ballet Association 2023