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    Stuart Cassidy 2024

    Stuart Cassidy

    Pre-professional year teacher, The Royal Ballet School

    With students Alejandro Muñoz, BA award winner 2023, Layla Hotham & Pietro Zironi 

    Interviewed by David Bain
    American International Church, Tue 23rd Jan, 2024


    Following David’s welcome, our guests began by telling us how they got into ballet.

    Stuart started because he went to watch his sister at her twice weekly ballet classes in Tunbridge Wells, where the teacher was Irene Kinsey, mother of Rosalind Ayres, both ex-Royal Ballet. He was fidgety and bored and asked if he could join in. His teacher put him in her class with all girls which he loved and showed off. She suggested he audition for Junior Associates and go each weekend to see if he liked it as he had a talent, was musical and she thought he’d be a good fit. He got in, fell into dance and loved it but equally loved athletics, karate and football. After JAs it was suggested he audition for White Lodge which was when he had to decide whether or not to follow it seriously. He decided to give it a go as he was told he had what it took. At that point ballet wasn’t a real passion but it just developed as it went along. His sister still dances, doing class twice a week, and loves it though was never a professional.

    Layla started at the age of eight which is quite late but before that she’d been very active with karate, football and rounders. One year she was given DVDs of Darcey Bussell in Sylvia and Moira Shearer in The Red Shoes and she became obsessed with the idea of dancing as a career which she knew was right for her. She watched classes on YouTube and tried to copy them so her Mum found a dance school called Centre Point in Denton near Manchester where she went a couple of times a week. She wanted to do every class on the timetable so had to give up karate but her Mum wasn’t too happy to have to drive her there every night. When she was 10 she auditioned for the Mid-Associates but aged 11 her Mum wasn’t keen on her auditioning for White Lodge as she thought Layla was too young to move away from home. But when she was invited to the final audition for White Lodge and started to learn about the Royal Ballet School she became obsessed with the idea of going there, watching ‘Day in the Life’ videos and knew it was where she wanted to be. She auditioned but didn’t get a place at first which was very upsetting. Then another girl didn’t take up her place and went instead to Vaganova and the place was offered to Layla whose parents agreed.

    The audition was over two days, the first being mostly health checks etc, and she was asked why she wanted to dance. She said she’d watched videos and aspired to be like those dancers. The next day was just a ballet class. She was due to go to summer school and only found out she’d been accepted for White Lodge about a week beforehand.

    Alejandro said he was a very active three-year-old and his parents thought he’d do well so sent him to after-school classes where the only dance was ballet. The teacher said he was really good.  He was the only boy, showing off and doing the splits when no-one else could, and he was the quickest mover. He was there from three to eight years old when the teacher suggested he go to a proper dance school to train as she thought he could make it his career. His mum signed him up for five hours of ballet, rep and contemporary classes in Madrid. When he was 12, he saw the cinema relay of the Royal Ballet’s Sleeping Beauty and asked his Mum if he could go to London. She said they could try so they sent pictures and went to auditions five hours away in Barcelona. The first audition was to lead to a second but Christopher Powney invited him to the school for a week after which he got his place and joined a year later in year 10. It was hard as he spoke no English and would just follow people around, say yes and look happy! It was quite a change after having five hours of ballet which was quite focussed on him while at White Lodge there was a big group. There were lots of things to do in the school but they didn’t do so many hours of ballet but the main change for him was to learn the Royal Ballet style, how to use the arms and take corrections. There was a lot of academic work in the morning which was mentally tiring, trying to follow conversations and everything that was going on when he didn’t really understand. He could get the gist from a few words he knew from previous schooling but it took about three months to learn English. It was helpful that there were English classes arranged for the international students.

    Pietro was about seven when he started ballet. It began by him watching a little show at his best friend’s primary school. He really wanted to be on stage and feel the sensation so asked his Mum if he could try. He comes from a little town in Italy where ballet wasn’t a big thing for boys so when he was young he had lots of problems socialising with other boys as he did ballet while they played football so it was very different. His Dad and Granddad initially thought it was a bit scary and didn’t want him to do it so he started to get involved with other things but they just didn’t suit him.  His Mum said it’s not for you, you need to dance and he used to dance in the living room and have fun with the music. His Dad took him to meet a friend, a former principal dancer at La Scala. He saw the talent and passion and said Pietro should keep going. So, when he was 11 he joined La Scala and this was the first time doing real ballet which was very different for him. It was a huge thing being in a professional school and it was really hard being away from the family but he socialised more as he was with boys who shared his passion. He saw a lot of great dancers who came for a gala – Marianela Nunez, Roberto Bolle, Svetlana Zhakarova – all idols. He spent three years there and being in La Scala was a huge thing. He had a few classes with the Royal Ballet teachers who were in Italy, and did an audition which he found very stressful. He was the smallest boy in the class and was very anxious and embarrassed, but his Mum said don’t worry, it was just a bad class. If you have talent they’ll know. He went back to school and then the pandemic came but Pietro recalled being in the car and seeing an email saying he had passed the first audition so he then went to White Lodge for the second. It was his first time in London, which he found very cold, also his first time in a massive studio, the Margot Fonteyn theatre at White Lodge. After the audition he thought he had no chance as there were so many talented people but after a few months he was invited to join the school. Both Alejandro and Pietro joined in year 10, one year after each other. Asked how many other students were from abroad, Alejandro said in his year there was a group of five boys, and four were international, in another there were six girls and five international. With Pietro there was just one other boy from New Zealand and two girls, one each from Japan and Portugal.

    Stuart’s highlights from the RBS.  When he started at White Lodge he said he hated being a boarder and really missed his family. It was terrible as in those days there were only payphones so he would call home, then put the phone down and they would call him back. He was like that for the first term but his parents said stick it out, you’re there for a reason, and eventually you’ll enjoy yourself which he did. He really loved what he was doing and made some great friends who he’s still in touch with on Facebook, and it was a great experience. He was lucky to be only 75 minutes away from home so his parents could visit or he went home at weekends which was so much easier than for the foreign students. One of his great friends is Larissa Bamber who got a job at White Lodge at the same time as he did. He’s known her since he was 10. She and his wife are also very good friends so they do a lot together as families. For Stuart generally the White Lodge experience was good. He’s very competitive in whatever he does, be it running, football, karate or dance, and it suited him that there was the possibility of a goal, which was to get into the Upper School. He worked hard and it paid off. He loved the school performances which weren’t as regular as now. There was one at Richmond Theatre in the mid 80s. He did folk and Morris dancing which he loved and when he joined the company he continued in a group called the Bow Street Rappers, a Morris troupe of old White Lodge students, and lots of company members. They went around the country Morris dancing and drinking beer! Time went very quickly in the Upper School. He didn’t do a lot of school work as he was already commuting to the Upper School with the first year students as he was physically more advanced. By the second year he was working with the company nearly the whole time and was offered a contract after the second year but decided to do the graduate year and is pleased he did as it cemented what he had learned. He danced the school performance with Darcey Bussell. In those days the school was three years for the men, but sometimes only two for the girls. Leanne Benjamin, Larissa Bamber, Rachel Whitbread and Nicky Searchfield (his wife) were there at the time and all went into the company after two years.

    Leyla’s White Lodge highlights. For the first three years she was so home sick every first term and her Mum would come to stay in a hotel, and they’d just look at each other as they missed each other so much. After Covid she was ready to go back and was never homesick again! She’s made some amazing friends and knows that she and her best friend, who’s now in Tring, will be friends for ever. Looking at the White Lodge experience she knows she wouldn’t be the person she is today without it. You really grow up there between ages 11 and 16 and grow as a person, living in that environment, all wanting the same thing, and it’s like a family supporting each other. That experience makes you mature early and now, spending time with friends at home, she feels older than they are after having to learn to be independent. Covid hit in a ‘good year’ for her, in year 9. There was not a lot happening that was important at the time, whereas in year 11 there would have been auditions. They had already done their assessments for years 10/11 before all lessons went online and though they were preparing for GCSEs it wasn’t too serious. They got back to school in year 10 when there was another lockdown. Asked her age at the time, Layla said year 9 is age 13 and14 and she was 13 when lockdown started. Doing ballet class on line was an experience. She was in the front room while her Mum worked in the kitchen. They had a barre which was attached to the wall and one day it fell off and she had to apologise to the teacher while she fixed it. Then her cats would come in and she’d fall over them so it was a bit chaotic but the school handled it very well and they just kept going. She didn’t feel she missed too much, and still learned a lot, training wasn’t too badly affected, you still got the information and kept the structure of doing ballet and rep classes even though they weren’t physically there.

    Alejandro started in year 10 but most of that year was hit by Covid. It was quite stressful for his year as they had to audition for the Upper School the following year with only half their training completed. He remembered jumping and sweating and seeing his Mum lying on the sofa in Madrid where it was so hot, then the wifi would go off so it was very hard but they got the information and still learnt a lot.

    Pietro said they did a bit of the first term before being sent home. It was quite an experience as his two dogs would get in the way when he was doing barre work. School was very good, even organising their academics, though it was of course very different. School performances: in year 10 it was more in house and class demonstrations.  It was his first class performance and the combination was completely different. He remembered asking which exercise it was and the teacher said concentrate, guys, concentrate. It was stressful, but fun at the same time. They couldn’t do the defilé as the Opera House was closed. Year 11’s highlight was auditioning and getting into the Upper School which was his dream. Being in the Opera House with a huge crowd out front was so beautiful and made him tearful. He had a great time with friends, going to Sheen and to Richmond which was a big thing and lots of fun.

    Once in the company, Stuart had something of a meteoric rise. Before that, they’d done Swan Lake for the school performance where Kenneth noticed them and he worked with them after the school broke up, creating things on them, which was amazing at that young age. Stuart had already worked with the company in featured roles while still at school and after just two years in the company Kenneth gave him Romeo although he was still in the corps de ballet. He started doing principal roles and everything else followed - promotion to soloist after two years, first soloist after three and principal after four. It was just bonkers and happened so fast but he kept on going! Sir Fred also came to White Lodge and coached them in Pas de Legumes in which Stuart was a tomato so Twyla Tharp wasn’t the first to choreograph vegetables! It was a fantastic experience. Working with Kenneth and Dame Ninette on Rakes Progress at school and in the company was extraordinary. He was so lucky to be around when they were alive.  Performance highlights. Romeo was his big break but it included an embarrassing episode. In the crypt scene he was worrying about his cape, and getting his knife ready to stab Paris which he did but when he threw off his cape and jumped on the bed he realised he’d forgotten to remove his track suit bottoms! When his Juliet, Viviana Durante, saw she started to shake with laughing but they got through and it went very well.  Working again with Kenneth, he did all the rehearsals right up to the first performance of Winter Dreams and then he was injured so Adam Cooper got it and is credited with the role. Also, he was very lucky to be part of the creation process of Judas Tree. These are major landmarks but also important are premiers and trips abroad as they toured a lot in those days. He still gets shivers thinking of Lescaut sitting in the middle of the stage with his cloak spread all round him and watching Manon now it all came back to him. They did it in the open air in Athens, looking up at the Parthenon, a very beautiful setting. He danced Swan Lake with Leanne in Israel, next to the beach so the swans were on stage with the sea behind and it was stunning.  He was so lucky to have had these experiences.

    Leyla had opportunities to dance with the company between the ages of 11 and 13. In years 7 and 8 she was in Nutcracker, the first year as a gingerbread when they went on for about five seconds, but it was the best moment of her life. She still has some glitter which she collected from the stage after the battle scene. The next year she was a party child when it seemed there was so much dancing and being on the Opera House stage was amazing. Liam Scarlett made Frankenstein and she was a party child, then he did Cunning Little Vixen but she wasn’t picked for that and was really upset. For the end of year performance in year 8 (aged 12) they did Paquita, which they’re doing this year. She’d watched Hanna Park performing her pirouettes and thought now they’d have to do it. They also did La Valseiaand a contemporary piece, and now they’re doing them all again though are so much older.

    Alejandro said there was nothing in year 10, and year 11 they couldn’t go to the Opera House. In the first year of Upper School doing the defilé was very exciting and they also did Ashton’s pas de deux, a tough ballet which they worked so hard on but it only lasted six minutes. He also did the character dance in Raymonda. Then in second year he and two other boys were invited to the John Neumeier 50th anniversary gala. It was an incredible moment to be together with the Paris Opera Ballet School and Canadian school. There was a gala and a piece was choreographed by one of his friends. Two months ago, he did the Rhapsody pas de deux at a gala in Prague and also performed in Borne to Dance in Whitehall, a charity gala with which Darcey Bussell and Michael Nunn are involved, to support premature babies with consequent issues. In year 11 Pietro performed in Holland Park so was very excited. Jubilation by Mikaela Polley. Years 7 to 11 were all performing the same piece, it was beautiful but tough.

    Stuart talked about leaving the Royal. In 1999 Teddy Kumakawa formed his own company, K Ballet. The Royal had toured a lot in Japan and they started doing performances in the summer break which were very successful as the Japanese loved the Royal Ballet. They thought about doing it more often and decided it was possible so a group comprising Stuart, Teddy, Michael Nunn, William Trevitt, Gary Avis and Matthew Dibble all decided to leave. It was a big decision and Anthony Dowell wasn’t happy at the time though he understands why it happened. Stuart said he’d been a principal for nine years and wanted something different. It was a bold move. There were only six of them to begin with, plus lady guests and friends who went with them as partners. In the early days it was a very small group but very successful, and it grew from there and is still going strong. Stuart remained for 20 years until Covid when everything changed. For the last 10 years he was with K Ballet, he’d lived in New Zealand (17 years in all) which is a fabulous place to live and bring up children but everything had to be rethought. He couldn’t travel to Japan, ballet and New Zealand shut down so he became an estate agent for two years, learning a new skill, selling houses for Sothebys. As Stuart had said before, his reason for leaving the Royal was wanting to continue classical dance in a different environment. But everyone had their own ideas of what they wanted and how they wanted to do it. He loved to see the company grow. From the original six men it expanded to 20 in the first year and got bigger and bigger so now there are about 65 permanent members who are nearly all Japanese. Initially there was a huge influx of Europeans while they brought in sufficient local talent to fill the void. It was a wonderful progression. He’s close to Teddy and they speak regularly. It’s a great company with fabulous rep, lots of big classics but also modern and contemporary works. Also, they paid their female dancers which didn’t happen in Japan previously. When they first started, Stuart was invited to dance with another company in Japan and only afterwards discovered his female partner had paid his fee so he never did it again. The men were considered most important and if a female wanted to dance they had to pay them which meant it was only the ones with the biggest amount of cash who could do so and they weren’t necessarily the best dancers. It was a very slow process but things did change and there was an exodus from other companies to K Ballet because the women were being paid. Now things are levelling off and most female dancers get paid.

    Asked about Upper School highlights, Layla said just getting in! In year 11 she didn’t feel she’d succeed so getting in was incredible along with four others. The training load increased, and she became stronger and learned so much. During the first year they did so much more in end of year shows, the dream scene from Don Q and more actual ballet so that performing experience really helped. They also did a contemporary piece called Bold by Goyo Montero which they learned in a week. She hadn’t seen much of his work though they had seen it at the Prix de Lausanne and it was a completely new style to learn. She’d not done anything like it with her body before and it was just so new and exciting and amazing to perform on stage.

    Alejandro’s highlights in the Upper School, he mentioned again the Ashton pas de deux and going to Hamburg to perform it, they also did MacMillan’s Four Seasons, and the defilé. Another highlight was the Lyn Seymour award where they choose an artistic variation which they rehearse themselves and perform it for Kevin O’Hare and Monica Mason. They give them feedback and it’s an incredible experience. Alejandro chose Manon and now he’s involved with the company being a servant but it means he’s on stage!

    Pietro said just getting into the Upper School was the biggest highlight and living in London, and being free after living in the middle of a park. The end of year performance and actually dancing on the Opera House stage is an experience and it’s so beautiful. He also mentioned the Lyn Seymour award, and getting feedback from two idols of ballet is just insane. Winning a prize was an honour and so unexpected. He did a contemporary piece by an Italian choreographer. Another big highlight is working with different teachers on new techniques, they each have something new to say and new corrections which will stay with you for ever.

    Alejandro said he was able to be with us tonight as he has a contract – no further details – and David mentioned our other two award winners will send a message shortly and members will get the link in a newsletter.

    Stuart said estate agency filled the gap during Covid when there wasn’t a lot of dance. He did have opportunities to work in New Zealand but he thought it was best to be here as his parents are getting old (Dad has just broken his hip) and just being around for his family was a good thing, though sadly his wife’s parents have both passed away. He’d retrained and did the RAD teachers’ course and a Pilates instructors’ course which was excellent. One of the Pilates instructors at the School had had the same teacher. He interviewed for the post here via Zoom while he was still with K Ballet in Japan who’d invited him back to do one final set of shows of Madame Butterfly. David asked how the school had changed and Stuart answered hugely. The centre of the school are the students and everything is done to support them. There’s a huge health care team, facilities for body maintenance, and coming back from injury. An extensive team of people to support the dancers in every facet of their journey to a professional career. There was nothing in his time there. In the company he had lots of operations and was one of the first people to do Pilates as part of rehab. Previously there was only a physiotherapist who just had ultrasound so Stuart’s seriously jealous of the current students! It is wonderful and pioneering and the school have created this and it’s setting the mark for other schools to follow.

    Layla said two weeks ago she was diagnosed with a stress fracture in her vertebrae. The incredible health care team will help, and she’s got great faith in them and is already starting with a little rehab. She needs to keep her spine in a straight position for now which is very difficult. She’s never had an injury before, so it is a shock not to be able to move which is normally so natural for them. She feels stuck and it’s been awful but she’s grateful for the physical and mental support, which she even feels just walking around the school.

    Pietro tore a ligament in his ankle just before Christmas and right after the Lyn Seymour performance. It wasn’t too painful but shocking as it’s also his first injury. The health care team really help physically but also mentally where he needed the most support. It’s a slow process but he came back this week feeling out of shape which is difficult but the school is a brilliant environment to be in.

    David thanked all our guests and said it was always a pleasure to meet the students and hear from their teachers. We shall be visiting the school on 8 May when we hope to see some of them in class.

    Report written by Liz Bouttell and edited by Stuart Cassidy, Alejandro Muñoz, Layla Hotham, Pietro Zironi and David Bain.

    © The Ballet Association 2024