‘As artists we are chosen. There’s no quitting time for us’

Ballet careers skew young, but flamenco dancers can continue into old age. In Toronto, will Jurgita Dronina, principal ballerina with the National Ballet of Canada, and flamenco artist Carmen Romero find common ground?

Deirdre Kelly It’s said that flamenco dancers get better with age. Jurgita, is ballet just for the young? 

Jurgita Dronina That’s a great question. I’m 37. Until I hit 33, your body can do anything and you feel unbreakable, invincible. But then maturity crept in, and that’s when I really began to understand how to do things and had freedom to experiment. It’s what ballerinas call the golden middle, where your technique peaks with your maturity and artistry. Those are probably the best years in a ballerina’s career. I doubt I’ll be able to continue past my 40s, because ballet doesn’t go on forever. Carmen is lucky in that she can go on if she wants to.  

Carmen Romero I’ve been dancing since the age of eight. Flamenco training is very different to classical dance. As an art form, it celebrates different parts of life: birth, youth, maturity and death. I once served as a translator to a reporter interviewing [the great flamenco dancer] Antonio Gades and I’ll never forget something he said. When asked how long he would continue dancing, he said, ‘until they put the tag on my toe’! I just turned 56 and I’m still at it.

I would agree with Jurgita, that the older you become, the more you have to offer. It’s my belief that artists are messengers, the muse to the audience. People come to dance to escape in the moment, or to fly in the air with Jurgita and experience that freedom in their mind. Or when I hit the floor really hard, to feel that vibration deep inside. 

Jurgita Dronina
Carmen Romero

Jurgita The knowledge and life experience that comes through your soul, your energy, is the biggest lesson you can give to the young ones. When I joined the Royal Swedish Ballet as a 20-year-old, there were so many fantastic older dancers who came from John Neumeier and Maurice Béjart. It was like a masterclass. I watched every single show and my jaw would drop. That raised me as a dancer. 

Carmen Jurgita, I like how we align. We are in entirely different worlds but our approach to our art is similar. Recently, I had an invitation to work with apprentice dancers at the National Ballet of Canada. It was like a dream to hear the music and see the dancers run across the floor in their pointe shoes. I immediately got a sense of community and legacy building. As an independent artist, I don’t have that kind of support. I have to create my own community. I’ve nurtured dancers and musicians through my school. People that came to me as beginners are now fully-fledged, award-winning artists – that is my relevance. 

Jurgita We come from such different art forms and yet we value the same things and strive for the same stage catharsis. 

Carmen I love that: stage catharsis. That’s really powerful. I believe as artists we are chosen. There is no quitting time for us.

Jurgita Not when you can still give something. Maybe one day, I won’t be able to dance at the top level. But I see myself still giving back to the art form. ‘Until they put the tag on my toe’ – I’m going to use that line!

Jurgita Dronina with Mathias Heymann in 2013. Photo: Angela Sterling

Deirdre Jurgita, what role have teachers have played in your life?

Jurgita Good training at a young age is key to longevity in dance. I was 10 when I started ballet and still do the same basic class my fantastic teachers taught me as a girl. I would say it’s the discipline of never giving yourself a day off or an excuse. That early training has carried the career. I’m super grateful to every single teacher along the way. 

Carmen Flamenco is only one dance under the whole umbrella of Spanish dance. Technique is your foundation, but there’s no standardised training. Different dancers come up with their own pedagogy, and the way flamenco is expressed can vary person to person. 

Jurgita When we did Don Quixote, I watched countless videos of flamenco: how to communicate with a fan and use the shoulders. Before ballet, I did ballroom dancing and hip-hop, which played a huge role later in my repertoire, especially in contemporary. In ballet, if you don’t know other dance forms, you won’t go very far. 

Carmen Romero. Photo: Dahlia Katz
Jurgita Dronina in Don Quixote. Photo: Angela Sterling/National Ballet of Canada.

‘I was steeped in the RAD’

Michiko Nishimura, 33, formerly a ballerina in Japan, has been teaching for three years in Toronto, Canada. Barbara Peters, 85, has been teaching almost continuously for close to 65 years in Yorkshire, England. Do the two RAD teachers share an approach?

Barbara Peters I started training in 1956 and graduated as an RAD teacher in 1959. About 15 years ago I started teaching a syllabus called babyballet with my daughter, and still advise on that. I teach a Syllabus 1 class to adults working on the RAD’s Discovering Repertoire syllabus. We started in lockdown – I was able to teach online from home and it was quite popular. The youngest in class is 40 and the oldest is 85 – and that’s me. 

Michiko Nishimura I graduated from the teacher certificate program at Canada’s National Ballet School in 2020, just as the pandemic was coming in. I started my ballet studies in Japan when I was seven years old and sometimes went to Russia to study – in Japan most schools do the Russian style. But I wanted to learn something different. I did not know anatomy or how to teach musicality to a young student to become a professional dancer. At Canada’s National Ballet School, I chose RAD because it is very good for young students. Everyone enjoys it and I can really see the students develop.

Barbara I didn’t start ballet until I was nine years old. Mine was an RAD teacher and I passed all my exams. I was often asked to help teach the little children, which I liked. I was quite small and knew that physically I wouldn’t be a ballerina, so at 16 I applied to the RAD teacher training course. Unfortunately, because everybody thought dancing was a truly trivial pursuit, I couldn’t get any funding. My parents were not wealthy, so I had to leave school and worked for a whole year to get money for my fees. A grant was only awarded in my third year, because they could see I was serious about doing something worthwhile. It led to becoming a senior student of RAD and then an examiner – I was steeped in the Royal Academy of Dance.

Michiko Presently, I teach at the Conservatory of Dance & Music in Toronto, and before I was – still am – a dancer and a choreographer in Japan, and also a choreographer at the Okada Sumina Ballet Company.

Barbara Peters
Michiko Nishimura

Barbara Do you dance for your students?

Michiko Yes. I put on pointe shoes in front of them and show them how I dance and they have such bright eyes! The other teachers tell me it is inspiring. I think it is very helpful to help others improve and to show how to perform. 

Barbara The students must think it wonderful to watch you dance, but I think there is a very fine line to make sure that you adjust your demonstration to suit your students – if you’re not careful, you can make them feel a little inadequate.

Michiko I think there needs to be a bigger emphasis on showing students how to perform. If you use the same music over and over to prepare for exams, I sometimes feel that they stop feeling anything and look stiff and robotic. It is harder to teach them expression, and how to use the body. Sometimes I give periods of free dance to loosen them up because if you only use the syllabus, it’s very hard to perform on stage. 

Barbara Free dance classes and alternative music alongside the syllabus are definitely important. If you’re working with children, you must mix it up to develop musicality.

‘What makes us a family is a shared love of the art form’

Clarke MacIntosh, National Director of RAD Canada, compares notes with Maria do Carmo Kenny, National Director in Brazil and South America, about how the RAD helps to develop a sense of community.

Deirdre Kelly What were your first impressions of the RAD?

Clarke MacIntosh My background is not in dance. It’s in the arts and classical music. When I started at RAD in 2011, I had a lot of discussions and interviews with members, examiners, and teachers. I wanted to learn what made the RAD meaningful and special for them. Overwhelmingly, there was this recurring theme: the sense of family, the sense of community. I could name at least a dozen high-profile members who were not initially RAD students but who ended up joining the organisation as professional teachers because there was this much greater sense of support, collaboration and community than they had encountered elsewhere. 

Maria do Carmo Kenny Like Clarke, I am not from a dance background. I was a secretary at the Hilton hotel and took the RAD position without knowing anything about dance, but now I love it.

Deirdre How did the pandemic affect the way you developed the RAD community?

Clarke The pandemic made us pivot to online right away. Having town hall sessions for members so they didn’t feel quite so alone was important. You learn dance in a social group and setting – you learn and progress with the same cohort, perhaps for years and years, and create friendships that last your entire lifetime. The RAD gives that same experience to teachers – by adopting and embracing technology in new and creative ways, we have created this opportunity to bring that sense of community back.

Maria do Carmo Kenny
Clarke MacIntosh

Maria We were able to do exams in December 2020. The teachers were thankful that they could close that terrible year with something to offer the students.

We are now much more linked to students and their parents, using social media tools like Instagram and Facebook in ways we hadn’t before. When the quarantine was implemented in Brazil in March 2020, I said to the students, Why don’t you let us see you dancing at home? At that time, we had only 400 followers on Instagram, but within three months, we had 4,000 – now we have 11,000. This has changed the way the RAD operates in Brazil. WhatsApp is also very popular here, so we created several groups – for teachers, students and examiners, plus regional groups. If a teacher has a question, she will put it in the group chat, and a colleague or tutor will answer and add to the conversation. It creates a feeling of family.

Brazil is a big market for the RAD to conquer. In 2021, we offered 27 online courses for teachers across South America, and 950 teachers participated. Our Instagram shows how we offer support and how our students enjoy our exams and summer courses. Technology enables the organisation to grow. 

Deirdre How is dance a socially and emotionally bonding experience, from your perspectives? 

Clarke Parents often wonder about the legitimacy of dance in their children’s education. I remind them that very few people become engineers, but we don’t question whether math is important. Education in the arts builds personal and social skills, and appreciation and empathy that serve people for a lifetime. For us at the RAD, the value of dance is as a life preparation activity for young people.

Maria I was at a birthday party last week for one of our examiners, and all her students – maybe 60 of them – were there! Students regard their dance teacher with love and tenderness because that’s the person who connected them to art, music and a way of expressing themselves. That makes us a family – a shared love of the art form. 

Clarke You end up with these bonds where a teacher celebrates their 60th birthday and students across three generations show up to celebrate. It makes it all worthwhile. 

Deirdre Kelly is a Toronto-based dance critic and author of Ballerina. She has twice won the Nathan Cohen Award for criticism. Her next book, Fashioning the Beatles, will be published later this year by Sutherland House Books.


Be well

Isaac Ouro-Gnao

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‘I’ve trained with the RAD since I was four – so taking part in The Fonteyn feels like a nice circle.’ Valentino Zucchetti’s ballet career is studded with RAD landmarks. Now an established soloist and increasingly ambitious choreographer at the Royal Ballet, the Italian’s RAD roots remain strong. The former gold medallist in the Genée International Ballet Competition is now the first guest choreographer in its new incarnation as The Fonteyn.

Zucchetti currently sports a devilishly trim goatee – a sign, he grimaces, of the injury he’s carrying, as he must be clean-shaven on stage. His eyes glint, but can’t suppress the thrumming frustration of recovery. He’s a sharp, candid interviewee.

A perfect fit for the RAD flagship (as RAD Artistic Director Gerard Charles points out, ‘there’s even a studio in RAD Italy’s summer school named after him!’), Zucchetti notched up all the RAD exams from Pre-Primary to the Solo Seal, and won his gold medal in 2006, when the Genée was held in Hong Kong. ‘I have hugely fond memories,’ he recalls. ‘At La Scala Ballet School, we weren’t allowed to do competitions. It was one of the reasons I left. So when I came to the Royal Ballet School, the first thing I did was spearhead into competitions.’ 

Zucchetti in Don Quixote. Photo: Andrej Uspenski/Royal Ballet

Some events felt ruthless, but the Genée, he says, ‘was a different experience altogether, more nurturing – it didn’t feel like a cutthroat competition, more like a summer course that ended with a performance.’ He relished creating work with guest choreographer Yuri Ng, and being coached by Christopher Hampson (now Artistic Director of Scottish Ballet). ‘It was definitely one of the best experiences I’ve had.’

‘I had no idea I was going to win,’ he says now. ‘There were a couple of dancers that were just killer.’ On stage, Zucchetti was ‘dazzling,’ reported Olivia Swift for Dance Gazette. ‘Compared to longer-limbed male finalists, the 18 year-old is small. Yet he is also strong, controlled, and above all, devastatingly charismatic.’ The gold medal, predicted Swift, would be ‘the start of so much more.’

Zucchetti made good on the prediction, dancing in Oslo and Zurich, and for the past 13 years with the Royal Ballet. Now a First Soloist, he’s notable in roles with dash: Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, Lensky in Onegin or Puck in The Dream. Alongside, since winning the Ursula Moreton Choreographic Award at the Royal Ballet School, he’s made regular pieces for the Royal Ballet’s Draft Works and increasingly for the main stage – Anemoi returns next year.

Choreographers at the Genée formerly made male and female solos, which all candidates would learn. This time, everyone participates in a single group piece. ‘Solos were great for the first group that got created on,’ Gerard Charles explains, ‘but each subsequent group was basically taught what was already set.’ At his first Genée, in Toronto, choreographer Gioconda Barbuto initially worked on material with all the candidates: ‘but although 70 dancers learned it, only the finalists got to perform it on stage.’

‘This time,’ he continues, ‘I thought it would be great if the choreographer made a piece everybody could be in. They may not be a finalist, but they will still dance at the finals, they won’t be forgotten.’ An ensemble work also gives a taste of ‘creating as a group. No one will know who will be a finalist when the choreography is set, so they’ll all be featured equally. Part of this event is to give people experiences – making this together will be a very exciting experience.’ Zucchetti seemed ‘perfect’ for this commission: ‘he understands young people. He will challenge them. They’ll learn what it is like not to be spoon fed.’

Fumi Kaneko in Zucchetti’s Prima. Photo: Andrej Uspenski
Francesca Hawyard in Prima. Photo: Andrej Uspenski

‘I’m looking to make sure the dancers are all involved. It must be challenging, but not impossible’

Valentino Zucchetti

When we speak, applications for The Fonteyn are still open, so Zucchetti has no idea how large a cast he’ll have. Is he planning for 40 dancers, he wonders, or 90? Creating a big number will be demanding, ‘because we are asking a lot in very little time. I’m looking to display the dancers, to make sure they’re all involved. I will try my best while creating to make it educative, so they learn as much as possible. I have to make it challenging, but not impossible.’

It sounds daunting, but ‘I’m quite used to thinking on my feet,’ he says. ‘I use limitations almost as an exercise. I started my craft at the Royal Ballet School, but mostly in the main company, when time is non-existent. I’ve learned to structure rehearsals well, with no time-wasting.’ He hasn’t yet selected music for The Fonteyn: ‘it will be exciting music for sure. I spend a ridiculous amount of time researching music and have a playlist of about 400 tracks ready to choreograph. Music is never the problem.’

Having been there himself, how would he advise the candidates? ‘The ballet landscape has become very acrobatic, but the way to stand out is combining your technique with an innate, natural sense of performing. By all means, show us what you’ve got technically – but the judges have seen it all. They want to see you perform, demonstrating that you could be a valuable member of a company. It’s often in the way you respond to music, new choreography, or to teachers in class – things which to a young dancer might feel marginal are actually key.’

As a choreographer, Zucchetti has showcased ballet stars: Prima (2022) was made for Royal Ballet principals, including former Genée medallist Francesca Hayward. But he also responds to eager youngsters – evident in Anemoi (2021). Named for the Greek gods of the winds, its breezy ensemble moves in gusts and swoops. Big companies, he feels, can keep dancers in their place, but Anemoi was made especially for the corps de ballet. ‘They understood how special that was. That’s why they went all guns blazing, because they were like, this is our chance.’

All guns blazing… Mariko Sasaki and Lukas B Brændsrød in Anemoi. Photo: Alice Pennefather

He enjoys ensemble creations? ‘One hundred percent. Great scores require great structure: the bigger the orchestra, the bigger the cast, and there’s so much you can do within it. My focus is on constantly shifting structure while surfing the musical phrasing. That’s what I like, and what I appreciate in other choreographers.’ 

I sense a restless itch to create dance. ‘I’m a very hyperactive person,’ Zucchetti confirms. ‘A workaholic, constantly grinding to create more. I think my itch started when I first choreographed, at 16.’ As a dancer he has also watched many other choreographers at work. ‘I have been so lucky, I’ve worked on a ridiculous amount of new creations. Ultimately, each choreographer has their own style. Ideas come from different people or places, and the way you manifest those is very individual.’

He believes ‘everything in my career as a dancer has benefited me, in one way or another. Even bad experiences taught me a lot. You learn how to help a choreographer – I can sense when a choreographer is stuck, and the last thing you want is a sassy dancer looking at you like: what’s next? I gravitate towards dancers with musicality or enthusiasm, or a palpable sense of appreciation for my work. If they’re enjoying it, I’m enjoying it.’

‘I was 35 in May, so definitely heading towards the sunset of my dancing career,’ he adds. ‘I’m so fortunate that I have this other passion. It has limitless growth – as a dancer, all I can do is try to last as long as I can, but I can keep improving as a choreographer until I die.’

‘I gravitate towards dancers with enthusiasm. If they’re enjoying it, I’m enjoying it’

Valentino Zucchetti
Zucchetti at the RAD in London. Photo: Ali Wright for Dance Gazette
Zucchetti with Christopher Hampson at the Genée in 2006. Photo: Mark Chan
Zucchetti winning gold at the Genée. Photo: Conrad Dy-Liacco

He keeps an eye on older dancing colleagues, to see ‘how they exit and how they feel about it. For some people, ballet is all they have – they throw themselves heart and soul into it and can’t see an alternative. Psychologically that can be very difficult. I definitely don’t want to find myself psychologically unprepared when the day comes.’ 

Finally, why does choreography appeal to Zucchetti? ‘It’s actually very basic,’ he says. ‘Whenever an idea is in my head, it keeps bouncing like a ray of light inside a room of mirrors. One pleasure is the relief of transferring it out of my head. I remember watching something I made for the Royal Ballet School, and I was like, eight months ago this was in my head and now it’s at the Royal Opera House. Genuinely amazing.’

He also loves ‘seeing dancers really engaging with my work. Let me tell you, as a dancer you dance a hell of a lot of things you don’t fully enjoy. But when a dancer’s fully with you, and you see them on stage genuinely feeling the piece – that’s great. And for me, it’s all about what the audience feels. I get such a kick every time.’


 Dancers from the Royal Ballet in Valentino Zucchetti’s Scherzo

What’s new at The Fonteyn?

As The Fonteyn returns in person for the first time since 2019, Gerard Charles, the RAD’s Artistic Director, explains some exciting changes.

Dancers Own
The choreographic prize will now be only for dancers who choreograph their own piece, and not for a teacher or guest choreographer. Our intent was always to encourage young people to choreograph themselves. We offer support from two teachers at the Rambert school. They have made some helpful videos, and will give feedback to the first 20 candidates to send us videos of their choreography, with plenty of time to act on the advice. 

Extra events
We’re expanding things out so people beyond The Fonteyn candidates can benefit. It’s not confined to the lucky few. At a series of workshops, community students will have a chance to work with our coaches and learn some repertoire. We’re also running the Phyllis Bedells Bursary in tandem with The Fonteyn, bringing together the paths through the different bursaries the RAD offers, like stepping stones showing where they can lead.

Very few dancers win a Fonteyn medal, but other interesting candidates deserve an opportunity to be seen. For the first time, we’ve negotiated with leading dance schools around the world to offer scholarship positions for candidates who fit what they’re looking for. They include: American Ballet Theatre’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, Dutch National Ballet School, Royal Ballet School, Canada’s National Ballet School, New Zealand School of Dance, North Carolina School of the Arts, Rambert School and Queensland Ballet Academy among others.

Join the Fonteyn audience at the final (booking is exclusively open for RAD Members until 30 June)


Life is busy for David Hallberg. The artistic director of the Australian Ballet has been devising his company’s 60th birthday celebrations and leading its first international tour (to London) since before the pandemic. At the same time, the dancers are taking industrial action in a dispute over pay: leadership involves as many challenges as rewards.

Only a few years ago, Hallberg was himself a dancer, one of the starriest. Elegant and heartfelt, he was a principal at American Ballet Theatre and, unusually, at the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow. His trademark was the princely roles central to classic ballets: in Giselle, Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty

How quickly things can change. In early 2020, as he was due to dance Swan Lake in London, the world went into lockdown. He had already been appointed to succeed RAD Vice President David McAllister at Australian Ballet, and found himself ‘on a plane to Australia before the borders closed, to get my feet wet as the new director here.’ It marked a decisive end to his old life. 

Onstage, Hallberg projected assurance – offstage, as his candid memoir A Body of Work explains, he felt far less certain. He doesn’t mask periods of unhappiness and anxiety – the book was written during a serious injury and his rehabilitation with the expert team at Australian Ballet. When we recorded Why Dance Matters, the RAD podcast, it was reassuring to hear him sound like someone who was exactly where he wanted to be.

David Hallberg in Chamber Symphony at American Ballet Theatre. Photo: Marty Sohl

What first attracted you to dance?

The allure was seeing Fred Astaire on tv – it was sheer enjoyment, fun, passion. I was doing tap, jazz, competitions and all that stuff. Then when I found the passion for classical ballet, it was fun, yes, but what I loved more was the work ethic. The hard work, the dedication, the focus, the sweat. I craved that kind of focused atmosphere. 

Have you always been drawn to pushing your limits?

Much to my detriment, because I famously had an injury that lasted two and a half years. I abused my body and my instrument: I didn’t listen to it, I learned the hard way. But I don’t look back ever in regret of that journey or that path I went down, because honestly I’m artistic director of this company because of that formative time of injury and rehabilitation.

Being a dancing boy isn’t always easy. How was your experience of it?

This goes beyond wanting to dance, this goes to who someone is, in an existential way. When I was young I was just being me and I was called all of the names in the book. I didn’t understand what I was doing wrong – and then I found dancing and fell in love with it.

I didn’t understand what was so weird about it. My empathy for whoever taunted me when I was a kid has changed. Forgiveness is really important. But throughout my career I’ve had young guys dancing – and their parents – reach out to me and my parents seeking advice about getting through the hardships of growing up and being bullied. It was very scarring but obviously it taught me some great lessons.

‘Being bullied is hard. But you will get past this. Just keep fighting’

David Hallberg

What advice do you give them?

First off, there’s a ton of sympathy. I typically say: I know this is hard. There’s no doubting that you want to be accepted by your peers, that words hurt. But you will find a moment where you rise above it. You will get past this, you will succeed. Just keep fighting. Fight for that you think is worth fighting for. Because as bad as it got in school for me I never once questioned whether I should continue to dance or not, that was my refuge. It was just a matter of weathering the storm.

Did the prince roles in classic ballets come easily to you?

To me to a certain degree. Playing the prince in The Sleeping Beauty and Nutcracker and so on – I felt a lot of pride and it was an honour to interpret these roles. But there’s another side of me as an artist – if I have any regrets it’s that I didn’t tap into my true artistic hunger and sensibility in terms of work, choreographers and exploration that is the absolute opposite of being a prince. 

What did going to live and dance with the Bolshoi in Moscow teach you?

How you survive! I went to the Paris Opera Ballet School when I was 17 and spent a really hard year there. The kids were not nice to me, I was pushed in the back of the studio and it was one of the most formative years of my life. I would not take that experience back. It made me who I was, it made me focus even more. The same in Moscow. Moscow is not a forgiving city, it can be very unfriendly, and when I went to Bolshoi there was a ton of pressure. It just made me hone in on: how can I learn from this? How can I grow from this? It was so rewarding in that sense.

David Hallberg in Kunstkamer at Australian Ballet. Photo: Daniel Boud

Was it easy to be an out gay man in Russia?

It was a conservative environment but in the environs of Bolshoi Theatre I was very much myself. Everyone knew I was gay and I didn’t live a closeted life in Moscow. It is a very different society to live in as a gay man, at times very repressive. But not where I worked and not the friends I had – that was very open, very accepting.

The invasion of Ukraine has left Russian dancers isolated – do you still hear from your former colleagues?

I can’t speak for them, because I’m not going to presume to know what their experience is, but I do still speak with colleagues there. I have very dear friends that still live in the country, and I have dear friends that have left the country because of the conflict. 

As the Australian Ballet marks 60 years, how do you define its identity?

There’s such a rich history in 60 years of the Australian Ballet. Nureyev and Fonteyn came here and a lot of our roots are from the Royal Ballet. But what’s so beautiful about this company is its Australianness. One of the things I was first attracted to is their warmth and that’s what I feel makes them so unique. When you watch the Australian Ballet perform, you’re seeing dancers of a fabulous calibre. But you’re also seeing a humanity and warmth on stage and that I think sets us apart from other companies.

How does it feel to be responsible for a company of dancers?

When you become an artistic director it is not about you anymore, and I wholeheartedly welcome that. I had 20 years where I worried about my body, my performances, my costume. It was all about me – and as a dancer it has to be. It’s a very selfish career. Now I have 77 dancers with ambitions, and I’m developing them individually and as a group. I’m bringing this organisation forward with new risks while adhering to their beautiful 60-year traditions. It’s about something other than yourself – which, truth be told, is so refreshing. 

‘When I first got to know the dancers, I partied and got drunk with them. But I’m not one of them anymore’

David Hallberg

Does the dancers’ current protest action remind you that you’re no longer one of them?

That’s probably been the hardest transition, to be honest. When I came to dance with this company as a guest artist and spent over a year rehabbing my foot with the team here, I got to know the dancers. I danced with them, I partied with them, I got drunk with them. Now I don’t do that – I lead, guide, nurture and develop them, so the biggest transition is what happens when you walk into the room. It’s not as casual anymore. It’s been the biggest adjustment because I’m not hungry for that side of the responsibility – that kind of power a director has makes me uncomfortable. I have to accept it, I’m not one of them anymore.

Sharni Spencer and Callum Linnane in Jewels (Australian Ballet). Photo: Rainee Lantry

You danced in Kunstkamer with the company – will there be other performances?

That would at this stage be a no. I think those days are finished. I only returned in Kunstkamer because Sol Léon [the choreographer] talked me into it and it was a great vehicle to share with the dancers. But there’s no plan to come back in other repertoire. My devotion is to the position I have right now and it was part of the decision I made when I accepted the job – it’s time to move on. 

Why does dance matter to you?

When I first had the spark, when I was nine years old, it was – and still is – my reason for existing. It’s a force stronger than me.



Many congratulations on receiving the Queen Elizabeth II Coronation Award. What does it mean to you?

It’s deeply meaningful for two reasons. First of all, the late Queen’s name is attached to the award. I have such high regard for how diligently she served Britain and the Commonwealth through decades of social change, political upheaval, financial challenge, wars… she was the ultimate civil servant and I have tremendous respect for that. Professionally, I was welcomed with open arms by the Royal Ballet when I first came to the west, and the RAD’s important link with the legacy of the Royal Ballet is obvious – so to be honoured by the Royal Academy of Dance is a professional honour of the highest calibre. 

‘To be honoured by the RAD is a professional honour of the highest calibre’

Mikhail Baryshnikov

When did you realise that dance was what you wanted to do with your life?

Probably when I was 10 or 11. It was an unknown world, but I was smitten from the first moment. I would wake up in the morning and think, ‘is there a performance tonight?’ It was an incredible source of joy and I’ve chased that all my life.

What made you decide to leave the Soviet Union in 1974?

The main impetus was to enlarge my artistic experience – to work with new choreographers, to experience and learn about the world outside of the Kirov Ballet, outside of Russia. It sounds arrogant now, somehow, but I knew that I would never mature as a man if I stayed.

Baryshnikov receives the QEII Award from Camilla, Queen Consort. Photo: David Tett

New work has always been significant in your career. Which of the ballets you premiered are you most proud of – and what excites you about new projects?

This is a story for a different interview because the list is long! And I’m still working so, who knows, maybe the best is yet to come. But every new piece, and certainly new genres give you unique hurdles to navigate. It’s the thrill and challenge of the unknown, grappling with the question: how can I make this work? How can I make it mine in a way that makes sense?

You have done so much beyond ballet – in contemporary dance, theatre, on screen. Which of your recent projects have given you most pleasure?

I think it’s the body of work that makes me most happy and proud. Past experiences go into new experiences and the journey continues. That’s what gives me pleasure.

‘My first spoken words were Russian, but dance has always been my most natural language’

Mikhail Baryshnikov

You have spoken out fiercely in response to the invasion of Ukraine. Does it seem that art and ballet in Russia have become politicised as they were in your youth?

I never imagined that the country where I once lived would again systematically brutalise and oppress, not only its own people, but the people of a neighbouring sovereign country. The effect of this war and aggression on art and ballet in Russia remains to be seen, but what we do know is that there are incredibly brave and honourable artists refusing to be champions of Putin’s war. 

Dance has been central to your life – why does dance matter to you?

My first spoken words were Russian, but dance has always been my most natural language. It was how I found my voice – so I feel incredibly lucky.

‘Dance has never disappointed’… Baryshnikov at Buckingham Palace. Photo: David Tett

Fearless inspiration: Baryshnikov and the QEII

The Royal Academy of Dance gave Mikhail Baryshnikov the Queen Elizabeth II Coronation Award, its highest accolade, on 16 November, in recognition of his immense contribution to ballet and the wider world of dance. It was presented by Her Majesty The Queen Consort, longstanding supporter of RAD, at a special ceremony at Buckingham Palace. The award was instituted in 1953 to celebrate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. In receiving it, Baryshnikov joins a list of some of the most eminent names in dance, including Rudolf Nureyev, Frederick Ashton, Kenneth MacMillan, Karen Kain and Carlos Acosta.

‘I am deeply humbled to accept the award,’ Baryshnikov said. ‘It is a true honour to be added to such an impressive roster of recipients, many of whom I am proud to have worked with and call friends. From very early years dance has been my mentor, my teacher and my best friend. It has brought great joy, it has never felt like a burden, it has never disappointed. It has been an unspoken conversation with the world and I feel lucky to have found it.’

A reunion at the RAD… Wayne Sleep, Dame Antoinette Sibley and Mikhail Baryshnikov. Photo: David Tett

Born 1948 in Riga, Latvia, Baryshnikov began his spectacular career with the Kirov Ballet in Leningrad. He came to the west in 1974, dancing with American Ballet Theatre (ABT) and then New York City Ballet. In 1979 he became artistic director of ABT and in 1990 co-founded the White Oak Dance Project with choreographer Mark Morris. In 2005 he launched Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York City, a creative space for multidisciplinary artists from around the globe. As an actor he performs widely in theatre, television and film, receiving an Academy Award nomination for The Turning Point, and most recently worked on a new adaptation of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard.

Inspiring the world: Tim Arthur welcomes Baryshnikov to the RAD. Photo: David Tett

Dame Darcey Bussell, President of the RAD, said, ‘Mikhail Baryshnikov has been an inspiration to so many aspiring dancers across the world. Fearless in his pursuit of artistic expression, he has transferred his many talents into other genres.’ Tim Arthur, Chief Executive of the RAD, added, ‘the Academy’s mission is to inspire the world to dance and I think there are few people who have achieved this in a way that he has, through his incredible career as a dancer and now artistic director.’


For Céline Gittens and Steven McRae, the RAD has long been part of their dancing lives. It shaped their training and saw them succeed at the Genée International Ballet Competition. Today, each is a principal dancer with one of Britain’s leading classical companies, and has recently been appointed an RAD Ambassador.

Céline Gittens, at Birmingham Royal Ballet, trained in the RAD syllabus with her mother in Trinidad and Canada. As the RAD’s International Ambassador, she will draw on her experience of RAD training and of seeing first-hand the positive impact the RAD has upon local communities around the world. Australian-born Steven McRae was also introduced to ballet through the RAD and now dances with the Royal Ballet. As RAD Ambassador, he will highlight the positive role a teacher can play in a dancer’s life and how dance teachers can best support and motivate their students.

Dance Gazette brought them together at RAD headquarters in London to discuss their dance journeys, their role as Ambassadors and how parenthood has focused their thoughts about dance training for future generations.

Dance Gazette When did you know that dance would become your career?

Céline Gittens It was definitely when I was 15 years old. That was when I made the decision to continue with dance as something that I could make into a career. At that age, you don’t know what’s going to happen, so it was really driven by a passion for dance and was encouraged by my parents to do what I loved. Now, as a parent myself, that’s what I want to do for my daughter. Thankfully, it worked out for me. 

I went on to do the RAD’s Genée competition, which was a huge stepping point for my career, my first international competition. It was held in London at Sadler’s Wells, and was a wonderful occasion. This was 2005 – social media has grown so much since then and provides dancers with a portal for seeing how people dance around the world. I didn’t really know what I was getting into, but going into the Genée with a driven mindset was enough to enjoy the competition.

Céline Gittens and Steven McRae at RAD headquarters in London. Photo: Helen Murray for Dance Gazette

‘Every time I step on stage, I have an opportunity for a huge impact on somebody’s life’

– Steven McRae

Steven McRae I fell in love with dance very early on. I was seven when I started. By the age of nine, I was dancing six days a week, every day after school, I couldn’t get enough. My parents knew nothing about dance but were totally supportive. But like Céline, it wasn’t until I was about 14 or 15 that I even understood that you could dance professionally. I’d never been to the theatre. The first ballet I ever saw, I was in it with the Royal Ballet, as a student! But I had wonderful teachers, and the turning point was a video that my dad recorded of a gala at the Royal Opera House, where Sylvie Guillem and Jonathan Cope did the final pas de deux from Manon. That three minute pas de deux blew my mind. That’s when I said, that’s what I need to do. I didn’t want to do it, I needed to do it. 

The year after that, in 2002, the RAD brought the Genée to Sydney for the first time, which is why I was able to enter, because we couldn’t afford to fly to London. Like Céline, it was my first time on the international stage, an extraordinary opportunity to see what other people were doing, how they conducted themselves. That’s how the doors opened, because the Genée prize money got me to the Prix de Lausanne, which got me into the Royal Ballet School. It was a chain of events sparked off by the RAD.

Céline, I actually watched you that at the Genée at Sadler’s Wells. I had just joined the Royal Ballet.

Steven McRae at RAD headquarters in London. Photo: Helen Murray for Dance Gazette.

Céline I hope you voted for me!

Steven Of course! 

Céline My now husband’s parents watched that performance, and they voted for me.

‘It’s not about you any more’: becoming a parent has changed how both Steven McRae and Céline Gittens see dance. Photo: Helen Murray for Dance Gazette

Dance Gazette How important is self-belief in a ballet career?

Céline For myself, a lot of that confidence came from my mom who trained me since I started dancing at three. As a kid you’re doing it for fun. It’s just something that you love: the music, movement and energy. But you need a support network, people you trust to let you know that you are doing the best that you can even if you don’t win the competition. That’s definitely something that has supported me. You’re on your own in a company as a professional dancer, so you need that even more. I’m so thankful to still have my mom’s technical and artistic input. It is very important to have that solid mindset and confidence. As a dancer, it can be a very lonely place. 

‘You need a support network as a dancer. It can be a very lonely place’

– Céline Gittens

Steven You have moments where you have complete self belief, but I think it’s important for people to be open and acknowledge that you also go through periods when you doubt every single thing you do. There have been times through this last season, getting back on stage after injury, where I haven’t felt like I was in my own body, I felt like I was hovering above, watching somebody else. It’s a terrifying experience. 

I had wonderful teachers from the beginning and my early years of being thrown on stage were vital to building confidence. Dance started to transform my life. That’s through what the teachers did – it was much bigger than just telling me how to dance. They always wanted to know what was happening at my academic school. That holistic approach was evident. As a child, I didn’t understand that, but I look back now and go: wow, how extraordinary.

Dance Gazette Why did becoming an RAD Ambassador appeal to you?

Céline Over lockdown, there was a lot of talk about inclusivity, diversity and equality issues in the dance world, but not a lot of highlighting the institutions that excel in that area. It’s awful to hear stories of people being mistreated and not being given opportunities. But I looked at the RAD because I did pre-primary when I was four years old and have been with the RAD ever since. Growing up in Trinidad, I’ve seen the impact it had through my mom taking ballet to our community. They didn’t have ballet there until she started teaching and then opened her own school. I saw how loved it was, how it opened job opportunities as people became teachers. The RAD has a global reach and affects communities and different ethnicities in such a positive way, which we need to highlight. 

Céline Gittens at the Genée in 2005. Photo: Patrick Baldwin

‘I’m excited to remain strongly connected to the RAD because that’s where the future is’

– Steven McRae

Steven I was introduced to RAD at my local school. I went to a jazz class where I was jumping around, being wild and absolutely loved it. But their policy was that you also had to do a ballet class. Later, when I met Hilary Kaplan, I was bowled over by this extraordinary woman with an insane passion for teaching. She has devoted her life to teaching and to the RAD. 

I’ve always had a very soft spot for the RAD, and the role of ambassador seemed a golden opportunity to ensure that conversations keep happening about how teachers are trained and develop. I’m excited to remain strongly connected to the RAD because that’s where the future is.

‘Trust your technique’: Céline Gittens quotes her mother’s advice. Photo: Helen Murray for Dance Gazette

Dance Gazette Does becoming a parent affect how you think about the future of dance?

Céline It definitely does make us think about the future. We’ve spoken about how our careers have turned out and it was because of people who really cared. My mom was also my teacher – she was caring as a mother, but also the care continued into teaching, and I’ve seen that with her other students. She creates a space for dancers to feel comfortable. You need to be open and welcome to everyone. That’s what I want to be as a parent, seeing how can we channel our energy to facilitate our children because, obviously, they are the future.

Steven The second you have a child, it’s not about you anymore. That’s where an organisation like the RAD comes into play, because they focus on developing teachers. It’s about being open to conversations that our generation and the next are having, so that it continues to evolve. We can’t just keep teaching the same way we did 100 years ago.

‘The RAD has a global reach and affects communities in such a positive way’

– Céline Gittens

Dance Gazette What are the biggest lessons dance has taught you?

Céline Trust your technique. That’s something that my mom always said. No matter what situation you’re in – if the lights are blinding you or your costume malfunctions – trust your technique, because you’ve worked so hard to get to this point. Trust yourself, and then move forward.

Steven The world is much bigger than you. Every time I step on stage, I think of the opportunity to have a huge impact on somebody’s life.

After one Sleeping Beauty performance, a young girl at the stage door asked me to sign her programme. I asked, ‘what was your favourite part?’ And she just looked at me with this glazed expression and said, ‘all of it.’ I walked home that night thinking: I had a good impact today. We inspired that child. That’s why we do it – it’s so much bigger than just one person.


Steven McRae in conversation with his RAD dance teacher, Hilary Kaplan
Céline Gittens on her role as RAD International Ambassador

On my way to meet the RAD’s new Chief Executive, one question above all demands an answer. Not how the role follows a career which embraces theatre, publishing and finance. Not how he plans to develop the RAD’s work from its new global home. No, I burn to know whether Tim Arthur, as an online biography claims, really is ‘an almost award winning burlesque dancer’?

Arthur winces and then grins. ‘That is great,’ he says. ‘Yes, I was the second best male burlesque dancer in Britain in 2008.’ He was invited to cover a burlesque competition for the London listings magazine Time Out, only to realise he’d been entered into the Male Tournament of Tease. ‘I said, alright then. I was trained by Bearlesque, a phenomenal male burlesque troupe. Every night for six weeks, for four hours a night I trained and trained. Somehow I won my heat, so had to come back for the grand final.’ The final was packed with friends and family. ‘There is something peculiar about hearing your own mum shouting, “That’s my boy!” halfway through a burlesque routine,’ he muses.

Somewhat to his surprise, he says, ‘I loved it. Loads of other people did the competition, largely to overcome something. It’s very exposing, quite literally.’ For Arthur, who began his routine dressed as a bowler-hatted London businessman, ‘I had a lot of body confidence issues to overcome. And I took it really seriously – if I commit to something, I really commit. It was a complicated eight-minute routine. I’d danced when I was a kid, ballet and tap up to about eight or nine, but not anything since, so I was remarkably proud of myself.’ He was even offered a couple of professional gigs.

Vegas beckoned, but here he is in Battersea. And what does his burlesque moment reveal about the RAD’s new boss? He’s not afraid of a challenge, or of looking daft. He’s a showman, a grafter, and if you put him in a corner with only a bowler hat to protect his dignity, he’ll still give his all.

We’re sitting in the RAD’s new global headquarters during the handover from Arthur’s predecessor Luke Rittner. ‘This is Luke’s legacy,’ he says admiringly. ‘Luke has created a state of the art, incredible space. The studios are the best in London. I want our members to feel proud that we’ve created this for them and also for the community here in Wandsworth. We’re a global entity, so for members from around the world, this is their home in London – I’ll give them personal tours!’

Only weeks into his new role, Arthur is still ‘in the listening phase.’ When he first applied for the job, he admits, ‘I had an awareness of the RAD, but had no idea about its scale and global reach. This is an amazing organisation touching lives every day.’ Progressing through the rounds of interviewees, he met RAD staff, teachers and members. ‘I don’t think I’ve ever come into a business where people feel more passionate about an organisation,’ he marvels. ‘People love it with a passion and ownership that I’ve never come across. It’s an amazing gift and responsibility to take the organisation to the next level, but keep everything that people hold dear: all the DNA, all the values. The legacy that Luke leaves is incredibly impressive, you don’t want to screw it up.’

‘I took the burlesque challenge seriously – if I commit to something, I really commit’

Guy Perricone, the RAD’s Chairman, believes the Academy is in safe hands. ‘Tim has both commercial and artistic experience,’ he says, ‘with great sympathy and sensitivity for the RAD’s cultural, educational and artistic value. The importance he attached to the membership was critical. And, to be blunt, he’s a really nice person. There is an ambassadorial aspect to the CEO role – somebody who can present the RAD in the best possible light.’

Arthur is an undeniably amiable presence, willingly changing his jacket and bopping about the RAD’s new building for the Dance Gazette photoshoot. There are no diva antics to report. He grew up in London, and his mother Toni appeared on Play Away, a vastly popular British children’s tv programme in the 1970s. ‘I often get people saying, I grew up with your mum – I tend to say, and so did I.’ Toni and his father, Dave, were folk musicians, and young Tim toured with them as, he says, their precocious lighting designer.

A lasting love for the arts was implanted early. ‘It was all my childhood,’ he says. ‘The importance of the arts ran through it like words in a stick of rock – how they could transform or fulfil your life. Our house was full of music, there was no getting away from it.’ Folk dance too: ‘My dad taught me clog dancing when I was three or four, in actual Lancashire wooden clogs. We were part of a Morris dancing group. We used to sing as a family, four-part harmonies around the piano.’ He thinks for a second. ‘It sounds a bit like an English Von Trapp family, now I say it out loud.’

Although his university degree was in religious studies (‘I’m fascinated in the psychology of what motivates people’), Arthur’s first job was ‘teaching drama to the long term unemployed in Greenwich.’ It wasn’t easy. ‘There were people who didn’t want to be there at all,’ he remembers. ‘I was potentially out of my depth, but they were really generous – they gave me a go. By the time I left, we had 40 people, doing some amazing performances.’ The experience taught him that ‘you can transform people’s lives with the arts, but only if you’re open and engaging – it’s a two-way relationship.’

Similar lessons thrummed though his leadership of Cardboard Citizens, a theatre company working with the homeless. ‘I’m still friends with loads of those amazing people,’ he beams. ‘When I see them around London, they’ll give me a big hug.’ But what can the arts offer those in urgent need of food or shelter? ‘Often, when you work with homeless people, they are in survival mode – they lose hope or a sense of worth, they don’t feel part of a community. In Cardboard Citizens, they could feel valued. The arts have profound impact on people and their understanding of what they’re capable of, with a huge effect on the rest of their life.’

‘I’ve never come into an organisation that people feel so passionate about’

From theatre, Arthur moved to join Time Out, with its listings magazines and city guides, ending as its Global CEO. ‘The great thing Time Out does is help people discover great art,’ he says. Less predictable was a shift into banking, as Creative Director at Virgin Money. ‘For people who knew me, that was the biggest swerve,’ he concedes. But he describes Virgin’s then chief executive, Dame Jayne-Anne Gadhia, as ‘one of the most inspiring people I’ve ever worked with. She told me that she wanted to create a bank that people loved and was there for them, looking after them at the worst times and also helping them to build and celebrate. She would make business decisions – worth millions or billions of pounds – based on her values, which were: does this make people better off? She’s probably the best boss I’ve ever had.’

If there is a thread through these disparate careers, he considers, ‘it’s always people, and how you create positive change’ – he’s also training as a psychotherapist. ‘If your motivation is to make people’s lives better, you can do that in hundreds of ways. Dance is an amazing way to do it.’

This is a message Arthur hears from RAD members. ‘That has got me most excited, because of their passion,’ he says. ‘I’m going out to dance schools, talking to examiners. I want to know, what could we do better? How has the world changed, and how should we respond? The membership will know the answers.’ He already feels very much at home. ‘I ran my own drama school. I’ve been meeting RAD teachers and it feels so familiar. I know exactly what it’s like to go with a set of keys to open up a cold hall. I know the juggling act of being creative and a great teacher, but also running a business. Everything we do at the RAD is based on the desire to build an organisation that members will be proud of, and that is useful and helpful to them.’

We run through challenges facing the RAD as it settles into the 21st century. As in all arts organisations, safeguarding has become a key concern. ‘Student safety is first and foremost,’ Arthur declares. ‘Every child should feel safe, and my number one issue is that we continue to improve our safeguarding practices, and help our members with them.’ The Academy has appointed its first full time safeguarding officer: ‘it’s beholden on the RAD to lead the way as a beacon.’ He is also keen to consult with members for their ideas: ‘we are one family and should learn from everybody.’

‘I want to build an RAD that members will be proud of’

Expectations on this issue may differ across the RAD’s territories – is it possible to produce consistent practises for over 80 diverse countries? ‘Different cultures have different expectations, different needs,’ Arthur acknowledges. ‘At Time Out we had a core set of values, and tried to make sure that all the Time Outs around the world felt part of one family. But they were given enough freedom to thrive in their own cultures. Having taken my first RAD trip, to Australia, I sense it’s very similar. We’ve got to listen to people around the world because they will know their market best.’

Ballet’s poor record on diversity – on and off stage – is another urgent issue. Does Arthur’s appointment reflect that urgency? ‘It’s a valid question,’ he says. ‘There’s no getting away from it, I’m a white, middle aged man, I’m not the most diverse choice. But I’m passionate that there is diversity and equality, not just within the organisation and membership, but also within our student base. How do we reach out to different audiences and celebrate different cultures? All I can do is promote inclusivity, equality and diversity with everything we do.’

How does Perricone imagine Arthur’s RAD? ‘Obviously, it’s early days,’ he responds. ‘But I’ve already sensed his openness – he wants to go out and be our ambassador. He’s also grasped that if we’re not serving our members we are missing a very big trick.’ And for Arthur himself, a road that has passed through clog dancing, theatre for the homeless and, yes, burlesque seems to lead logically to the RAD. ‘It just feels like a dream job for me,’ he says. ‘What an opportunity, what a gift.’


Carlos Acosta bestrides the world of ballet. He’s danced all the ballet princes and everything from Romeo at Covent Garden to Spartacus at the Bolshoi. He leads not one but two dance companies – his own Acosta Danza and Birmingham Royal Ballet – and has shared his story via film, autobiography and fiction. No wonder the Royal Academy of Dance gave the Cuban artist its most prestigious award, the Queen Elizabeth II Coronation Award, in recognition of a remarkable career.

And yet it might easily not have happened. Born in one of Havana’s poorest districts, a career at the peak of international ballet seemed beyond possibility. ‘My neighborhood was very humble,’ he reflects when we speak just before Christmas. ‘My dad was a truck driver. I didn’t have a sense of the world and my place in it.’ It was, he says, a tough environment. ‘Already by the age of nine, I was involved in petty crime and things like that. In the 1990s, there was a big crisis in Cuba and lots of my friends fled the country in rafts. Some of them ended up in jail.’

Acosta Danza in De Punta a Cabo. Photo: Yuris Norido

So what might his life have been had he not found his way to ballet? His voice catches. ‘That’s a very tricky question. I mean, god knows.’

Instead, the sports-loving, breakdance-fancying boy trained at Cuba’s renowned National Ballet School, and his burning sense of discipline and focus kicked in, eventually bringing him an international career, embracing the new while remaining committed to the classical core of his training.

Acosta was lucky – ballet reached him young. ‘That’s why the role of teachers is so important in the formation of dancers, kids, students,’ he declares. ‘They show you the way and create a narrative that makes sense to you.’ He is committed to passing on that legacy to new generations – perhaps that’s why a new collaboration between BRB and the RAD (see ‘Perfect partners’ below) fires him up. ‘This is a very important partnership for us,’ Acosta explains, ‘because it’s trying to get more kids to engage with ballet beyond weekly lessons. We will be offering workshops with dancers, pre-performance talks, special events, ticket offers. We will focus on connecting with dance teachers and students around the country, so they can connect with BRB’s large scale productions.’ Identifying and sealing a bond with new dancers and audiences alike is already part of BRB’s work – Acosta enthuses about Dance Track, ‘a really wonderful project that teaches dance for free to kids aged six to eight. We have 200 or so kids that we teach and we give them the gear and everything.’

‘Ultimately,’ he considers, ‘it’s all about this art form and how it is positioned in people’s lives. Eventually that can translate into audiences as well. If the kids don’t become professional dancers, they could become teachers or the audience. That is the entire ecosystem.’ It brings him back to the RAD collaboration – ‘a great partnership that I’m very glad we are a part of.’

Acosta in Don Quixote (Royal Ballet). Photo: Johan Persson

‘My life without ballet? God knows’

Watching Acosta’s plush assurance in princely roles, you might imagine they came naturally to him. In fact, classic ballets and especially their scores initially baffled the student dancer. ‘I despised classical music because it was alien to me,’ he says. ‘I wanted to break dance and was into the kind of music with a beat that gives you an energy rush. Classical music takes more time to get used to.’ Gradually, he grew accustomed to it and, as he notes, ‘dance and music go hand in hand.’ He admired dancers Mikhail Baryshnikov and Rudolf Nureyev: ‘I didn’t just want to become a good dancer, I wanted to become an artist. Somebody who could spark emotions in others and constantly reinvent himself.’

He initially felt at home in athletic, sparky roles. ‘I knew that I was very good at projecting ballets like Don Quixote and Diana and Acteon. These kind of roles were closer to my upbringing: Basilio [in Don Quixote] is a barber and Actaeon is a hunter. They’re famous for their power display, the high jumps, leaps and turns. I could do that very well, but I didn’t know how to project the prince.’ He broadened his range and look inwards with the Royal Ballet, where he was a guest principal from 2003–16. ‘The repertory gave me a chance to grow up as an artist. That’s one of the things I enjoy so much, the fact that you keep changing. Human beings have many layers and I was keen to explore all those layers and deliver a different image of myself each time. I had to learn so much before I really got into the depths of ballets like Mayerling and Romeo and Juliet, where there is a big arc of growth within the roles.’

Growing as an artist and as a person go hand in hand, he believes. ‘The person impacts on the artist, because the artist is first and foremost a human being. So the more this human being grows, you see roles differently, see life differently. I always wanted to evolve and grow and learn.’

Acosta receiving the RAD’s QEII Coronation Award in 2016. Photo: Piers Allardyce

For Acosta, this project had an especial urgency – he needed to draw closer to more privileged peers. ‘I read my first book at the age of 25, I didn’t have a lot of cultural upbringing. Compared to everyone else, I knew I had to catch up, so I needed to hurry. That motivates me, the fact that every single hour I’m learning something. Even to this day, I’m always making plans and a strategy for both companies that I direct, and thinking of ways I can learn new things.’

Although he came to feel at home in psychologically challenging ballets, Acosta’s heart retains a special affection for Don Quixote. Petipa’s Russian classic is riddled with longing for the warm south – exuberant, colourful and giving young love its day in the sun. It was a natural choice for Acosta’s first large-scale production for the Royal Ballet in 2013. 

Don Quixote is a ballet that every big ballet company should have,’ he enthuses. ‘There are so many roles, it keeps the company in shape. Seguidilla, fandango: everybody is active, it contributes a lot to the dancers’ development.’ It’s also, he says, a happy show: ‘in ballet there are a lot of tragedies – everybody, one way or another, dies – but this is a feelgood, go-have-a-mojito-afterwards ballet.’

‘Teachers are so important. They show you the way’

Acosta rehearsing Don Quixote at the Royal Ballet. Photo: Johan Persson

Acosta’s production also has an unusually warm heart. Although the ballet is nominally based on Cervantes’ 17th-century novel, most productions sideline its title character – the ageing knight with an overactive imagination, who embarks on noble yet largely deluded acts of chivalry. Usually a mere sideshow to bouncy lovers Kitri and Basilio, Acosta insists ‘he should be the hero. The purpose of his quest is to help mankind or the needy, wherever they are.’ Acosta explores ‘the demons in his head that I call the shadows, images that come to him,’ and throughout will foreground the knight – ‘this is his ballet.’

He felt BRB deserved its own production, and though again working with designer Tim Hatley, he’s now rethinking the designs and orchestrations and ‘I will have a fiddle with the choreography.’ The show will feature animations that bring the images in Quixote’s head to life. ‘We’re trying to visit a classic through the lens of today.’

If anyone deserves a have-a-mojito-type evening, it’s dancers and their colleagues, who have had a gruelling time during the pandemic. Acosta, taking charge of BRB just as the UK’s first lockdown hit admits that, despite his default optimism, ‘it’s been very hard, emotionally to keep the spirit alive at times.’ Reflecting on why he dances has helped keep that flame burning. ‘Dance has been my purpose, my mission, everything I accomplished was because of dance,’ he says. ‘Dance rescued me, took me out of a world of poverty. I don’t think anything could give me more pride than to call myself a professional dancer. It’s just a wonderful thing.’

Perfect partners

The RAD’s new collaboration with Birmingham Royal Ballet will offer students and teachers an insight into the creative work of a leading ballet company.

Birmingham Royal Ballet and the Royal Academy of Dance have announced a new partnership which will create stronger links to the professional world of ballet for RAD teachers and their students through an exciting programme of events and exclusive experiences. 

The programme will launch in February 2022, following consultation with RAD teachers. It will include a series of pre-show talks as part of BRB’s Don Quixote UK tour as well as practical workshops with dancers and staff, offering insights into company life, both onstage and off. The programme’s initial focus is the UK but hopes to harness digital technology, to reach RAD teachers and students around the world.

Gerard Charles, RAD’s Artistic Director, says, ‘The RAD is committed to providing our teachers and students with enriching and high quality experiences. There is so much more to studying ballet than simply learning the steps, and so we are delighted that Birmingham Royal Ballet will be lifting the curtain on company life and the artistry and creativity that makes it a leading dance company. We are all part of a large dance community that includes beginners, experienced dancers and teachers, and we learn from each other. I cannot wait to see how our dancers and teachers benefit from this amazing opportunity.’

We are all part of a large dance community
and we learn from each other’

Gerard Charles
roline Miller (Chief Executive, BRB), Darcey Bussell (RAD President) and Gerard Charles (Artistic Director, RAD). Photo: Tricia Yourkevich
Caroline Miller (Chief Executive, BRB), Darcey Bussell (RAD President) and Gerard Charles (Artistic Director, RAD). Photo: Tricia Yourkevich

Luke Rittner became Chief Executive of the RAD in 1999. Since then, the Academy has continued to expand its international reach, developed its Faculty of Education, and taken its flagship event, the Genée (now The Margot Fonteyn International Ballet Competition) to major cities around the globe. More recently, he has celebrated the RAD’s centenary, steered it through a pandemic and prepared to see it into a new London headquarters. 

But what are his most treasured triumphs and memories? How does he see the RAD – and the arts in general – changing? Eight of the RAD’s National Directors put their questions to Luke.

I have spent 21 of my 36 years with the Academy under your leadership, and know how much you have changed the RAD. Which of the changes is most dear to your heart?
Maria do Carmo de Kenny, Brazil and South America

I’m quite proud of the name change – from Royal Academy of Dancing to Royal Academy of Dance – although it was met with considerable opposition. I was on the receiving end of some pretty robust letters! 

But I’m most proud of taking the Genée (now The Margot Fonteyn International Ballet Competition) around the world, because it has been unbelievably successful. I thought, if we were an international organisation, why has our flagship event been in one place, London, for over 60 years? When I proposed it to the board it passed by only one vote, and after the meeting the chairman said: ‘you got what you wanted – but if it fails, you’re out of a job.’ It made an instantaneous difference – we’d never had more than 50 candidates in London, but in Sydney in 2002 we had 97, and sold out the Sydney Opera House. Steven McRae won the gold medal, and brought the house to its feet.

During your tenure, what events or moments gave you most pride?
Mona Lim, Singapore

The Genée and Fonteyn, every year, provide moments of huge pride, delight and excitement. Within the RAD, I love the biennial conference, when our international colleagues come together at Cumberland Lodge in Windsor Great Park. And every two years, the Examiners Seminar – it’s completely amazing when you sit in a room with 250 examiners and hear their stories. These events are real high spots. They bring home the family feel of the organisation in a way that nothing else does.

One more specific experience was going to a little dance school in the basement of a teacher’s house in Guadalajara in Mexico. She focuses on encouraging boys to learn ballet, which in a pretty macho society is not easy. She laid on an exhibition class, with students ranging in age from seven to 17. They were working so hard and their trust in her was breathtaking. Afterwards, they all told me they couldn’t tell their parents or friends at school they came to ballet class once a week. The teacher collected and washed their clothes after class, because they couldn’t take them home. It was extraordinary and very humbling. I sat there with tears streaming down my face.

What was the most significant social change internationally during your time with the RAD?
Bronwyn Williams, New Zealand

There’s no doubt the RAD is a very different organisation to the one it was 20 years ago, but most of the changes have been to do with the Academy. I did feel that the world had moved on while the Academy hadn’t. When I got the job, I told Deborah MacMillan, who was on the board of trustees, ‘I think they want me to bring the RAD into the 21st century.’ She said, ‘darling, try the 19th first!’ It was agonisingly insular, inward-looking and old-fashioned, and I don’t think you could apply those same adjectives today.

We don’t always recognise how much teachers have done. For example, since majority rule was established in South Africa, our teachers there have worked incredibly hard to reflect this in their classes. The Academy must also grasp and embrace the current emphasis on equality, diversity and inclusion, in a way we haven’t yet done. It’s become much more urgent.

There’s no doubt the RAD is a very different organisation to the one it was 20 years ago

You must have travelled the world at least twice for the RAD. Is there anywhere that you would love to revisit as a relaxed tourist?
Diane C Bernard, Caribbean

I’ve been to 33 different countries for the RAD, and have had amazing times everywhere. I’ve probably travelled the world around six times, all in all. I never got to Thailand, where I’ve always wanted to go. But I’d like to go back to absolutely everywhere, in relaxed mode, because I could do some sightseeing. 

I went to Laos about four years ago and fell in love with it. I had some amazing experiences in Jamaica. I’d love to go back to Mexico and Brazil – and I can never get enough of Australia.

What propelled you to bring about a dramatic change in our teacher training programme, establishing the Faculty of Education? And what will you miss most about the RAD?
Tina Chen, China

The Faculty was actually created by my predecessor – in the teeth of opposition – and Joan White, the first Director of Education, started on the same day I did. She was absolutely extraordinary. She started work at 5am, every single morning except Sunday – she never stopped working. She created a university department at the RAD and I hugely admire her dedication, loyalty and the standard she set.

What will I miss? It’s the people and the travel. I just love meeting new people. People are not always easy – but they’re all interesting.

Over the two decades you have been at the RAD you’ve had many wonderful trips to
South Africa and Zimbabwe – what were the most memorable occasions?
Olivia Lume, South Africa

About 10 years ago, the troubles of Mugabe’s regime in Zimbabwe were at their height. Our examiners were beginning to get nervous about going there and our insurance company wouldn’t insure us, so we decided we couldn’t continue doing exams in Zimbabwe. I wrote to our teachers there – and the replies were furious! One teacher’s husband wrote a letter full of expletives, accusing me of not daring to announce the decision face to face. So I decided to get on a plane and went there.

When I arrived in Zimbabwe with Olivia we were both quite nervous, because we knew how furious everyone was. The first meeting was in one of the teacher’s houses, in a very frosty atmosphere. Just as I was starting to explain myself, all the lights went out. People brought out candles and oil lamps – and in this much softer atmosphere, we talked and talked late into the night. I made 12 friends that night. We decided that we would do exams with examiners from South Africa, and it taught me how important it is to look people in the eye and try to make things work.

I also remember a teachers meeting in a remote part of South Africa. One very apologetic lady arrived late and explained, ‘I’ve driven for six hours to get here, and for the first two hours my husband had to tow me on the tractor because the road was washed away. And I have to get back to be on duty at my studio tomorrow morning.’ It was quite amazing.

Also in South Africa, we visited a township school, run by a couple of ex-dancers. They put on a display in a shack with a tin roof and earth floor. There were little faces looking in all the way round. I’m know I’m a softie, but it was so moving.

What will I miss? People and travel. People aren’t always easy – but they’re all interesting.

Where is the industry going: what are the next opportunities or challenges? 
Rebecca Taylor, Australia

Classical ballet needs to be relevant and must speak to today. It’s a challenge for the artform because it is so steeped in tradition. I am a horrible traditionalist in many ways, but tradition should be a jumping off place, not a prison cell.

You are a passionate champion of the arts. How should the RAD respond to the responsibility for the arts to evolve and remain relevant?
Clarke Macintosh, Canada

The RAD must be even more open to community work and embrace the work on diversity. It will have to reconcile the demands of its membership with this wider reach.

Thinking about the arts is such a huge subject. Where do I begin? It’s so important that young people get introduced to any aspect of the arts. I’m passionate about it because it was all I had at school. I was useless academically, and the arts were a place of refuge. The arts can be a life-saver for so many people, as they have been for me.

The arts can be a life-saver for so many people,
as they have been for me



New reality

Deirdre Kelly

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‘I was just born to be a fan of things.’ Brandon Taylor is smiling down the Zoom. The American writer is a fan of, among other things, medieval European history; 19th-century Russian portraiture; 20th-century literary theory – and, it turns out, ballet.

None of these are necessarily passions you might expect to animate a 32-year-old novelist from Iowa, but Taylor – whose debut Real Life was shortlisted for the Booker Prize last year – is your man for recondite enthusiasms. ‘I tried being the very cool, very aloof artist,’ he says. ‘I tried looking down my nose, but I don’t enjoy it. I’m such a nerd about things that I enjoy – I have no cool.’

I would happily quiz Taylor about his strong views on the Tudors (‘usurper trash’) but ballet calls. What ignited that particular enthusiasm? He dates it precisely – to World Ballet Day 2016. WBD is when international classical companies and institutions including the RAD open a window not on performance but on their daily grind – the routine of class and rehearsal. ‘I’d always had an interest in dance, but it never occurred to me that it could be something you could write or do a story about,’ Taylor says. He was working long days as a graduate student in biochemistry at the University of Wisconsin, and ‘one of the things I was doing to keep sane in the middle of the night was I’d browse YouTube, and I came across the video of World Ballet Day in late fall 2016. And I was like, wait, there’s a video of the entire morning class? It was the best thing I’d ever seen.’

Brandon Taylor. Photo: Bill Adams

‘I was like, wait, there’s a video of morning class? It was the best thing I’d ever seen’

WATCH An extract from Wayne McGregor’s Chroma at the Royal Ballet

He enjoys staged ballet, but admits that his devoted nerding is drawn to ‘nitty-gritty process-oriented stuff. I felt incredibly privileged to get a behind-the-scenes sneak peek into how these dancers start their day. Everyone’s got a slightly different ritual: some people take the legwarmers off when they move to centre, some people leave them on, some shed layers as they get warmer. When people think of dance it’s like going to the museum, this distant, cold art form – but you get this glimpse into the human behind the artistry and I loved it so much. And I was like: oh, now I know how to write about this.’

That realisation bears fruit in Filthy Animals, his first short story collection. Six of the stories track a fraught triangle between three young people at a midwestern university, as Lionel, struggling with his emotional health and career prospects, becomes emotionally tangled with Sophie and her boyfriend Charles, both dance students.

Bodies, their fragility and needs, are at the heart of these stories. ‘Flesh’ tracks morning class when Charles stumbles in, hungover after late-night sex. He feels rough, his injured knee twinges – but all dancers know you don’t skip class, no matter what. ‘It is mind-blowing to me,’ Taylor admits. ‘I used to work in a lab, and you could tell after the summer vacation who hadn’t been in lab all summer. Their pipetting wasn’t as crisp, their experiments didn’t run as smoothly. For dance, where your craft literally lives in your body, I do think you have to be in it continuously, otherwise you lose your touch and feel.’

Justin Peck rehearses Heatscape at Miami City Ballet. Photo: Daniel Azoulay

‘I know what it’s like to be young and have a passion and want to be an artist,’ he muses. ‘Now I had access to a visual vocabulary, a way into this form that I’d loved for so long but didn’t know how to write about.’ Watching dancers all over the world go through their morning motions was key. ‘You can see they’re working on things. You see the bones but also the spontaneous play of it.’ Whether they’re in lab, in bed or in class, Taylor homes in on the tensions that bodies carry. In the studio, dancers size each other up (Sophie is the acknowledged star of her cohort, while Charles is second-tier, as long as his knee holds out) and are unillusioned about their bodies. ‘It is an unsentimental attitude towards oneself, like, “I’ve just got to get this hunk of meat into the air for 2.5 seconds and down again”. So much of dance is paying attention to your body until it’s less a body and more a machine that does things.’

In a pre-interview email exchange, Taylor named Justin Peck, Wayne McGregor and  Charlotte Edmonds among favourite choreographers: ‘neoclassical and modern-adjacent stuff.’ Perhaps unexpectedly for a storyteller, these aren’t primarily narrative artists. ‘I’m as non-abstract as a contemporary writer can be,’ he agrees. ‘But one of the things I love most is when a piece bears some mark of its composition.’ In these dance makers, ‘you can see the sketch line, like artists who work in charcoal. I love the human mark of it.’

WATCH A trailer for Justin Peck’s Heatscape at Miami City Ballet

‘I love social conflict –
not in my real life, but in my art’

Charlotte Edmonds rehearsing at the RAD’s Genée International Ballet Competition in 2015. Photo: Elliott Franks
Eric Underwood in McGregor’s Chroma. Photo: Johan Persson/Royal Ballet

Taylor writes cool but reads scalding hot. Does he respond physically to the emotions that scorch through his work? ‘When I was younger I would feel emotion very keenly,’ he admits. ‘I had no means of separation, I was in it. Now there is more of a separation, but I know I’ve hit on something really good when I feel a spike of anxiety – when it cuts through the distance I’ve managed to make for myself. The Lionel stories look into some dark, complicated places, and there were moments in the revision of Filthy Animals when I had to get up from my table and walk it off. But when I do feel a flush of anxiety when I’m writing, I try to pay attention. It’s about maintaining the emotional torque but not losing the artistry.’

World Ballet Day and the obsession it unleashed ultimately shaped Filthy Animals. Taylor wanted to follow characters through several stories (‘I have a hard time letting go’), and standalone tales alternate with Lionel’s encounters with the dancers. Their coffee chats and hook-ups feel unbearably high-stakes, especially whenever food is involved. A campus potluck, an unnerving shared pasta, the calamitous student supper in Real Life: Taylor’s dinner scenes are goosebumpingly tense. ‘I’m drawn to meal scenes because they’re one of life’s great locked rooms,’ he explains. ‘You go to someone’s house and eat their food – you can’t just get up from the table and go. All of us have been at the dinner table where someone says the thing they were not supposed to say. That’s where the real juice comes from. I love social tension, I love social conflict – not in my real life, but in my art.’

The publication of Filthy Animals will hopefully be less fraught for Taylor than his novel’s entry into the world last year. ‘It was a weird and brutal year,’ he reflects. Lockdown in early 2020 coincided with a period of illness. ‘I started having these horrible anxiety attacks and developed this panic disorder. I went to the ER 10 times over a three-month period.’ Prioritising health over self-promotion, he assumed Real Life would disappear without trace, only for it to hit the Booker shortlist. The story of a Black, gay scientist’s response to aggressions, micro- and otherwise, in grad school was often taken as autobiographical, yet Filthy Animals, ‘in many ways is a much more personal book. It was born out of the darkest period of my life.’ And he chuckles.

Filthy Animals is far more than dance lit, yet it gets to the heart of something about a life in dance – its immediacy and precarity. At one point, Charles realises he’s being honest, ‘because something in him hurt, and for a dancer pain is always the way you know something is true.’ How does Taylor intuit this so acutely? ‘It comes from that enthusiasm,’ he explains. ‘Once I get into a thing I get into it. It comes from a lot of watching dance, documentaries, interviews with dancers. And then thinking about the analogues in my own life – working in lab, pursuing with fanatical dedication a singular pursuit, and what it costs you.’ We’re back to the rewards of curiosity and enthusiasm. ‘I’m a super fan of things,’ he says happily. ‘When I engage with something I engage with it fully. I commit.’

Woolf Works. Photo: Tristram Kenton/Royal Ballet



Amber Scott may be one of Australia’s most acclaimed dancers, with a long and storied career as a principal dancer with the Australian Ballet (AB), but one of her most cherished memories stems from the RAD’s Genée International Ballet Competition. She was only 15 years old, a student with the Australian Ballet School (ABS), and the excitement at being named a Genée finalist was enhanced by the fact that the finals were being held in London.

‘It was my first trip overseas, so I got my first passport!’ Scott tells me today. ‘Going to London was amazing. Most of the competition was held in Battersea but the final was in the city and the taxi drove past Buckingham Palace, it was so special. It really hit home we were in London.’ It was 1998 and the bronze medal she received almost paled into insignificance alongside the excitement of that trip.

Fast forward to 2021 and Scott was hoping to return to London in person as a member of the coaching team for this year’s Margot Fonteyn International Ballet Competition, as the Genée is now known, but is nevertheless happy at being able to bring the past 22 years’ experience to the role.

The Brisbane-born ballerina was five years old when she began ballet classes. Her family relocated to Melbourne after Scott was accepted into the ABS aged 11, clearly showing promise as just nine years later she received a coveted position with the main company. Since that first trip to London, Scott’s career has taken her all over the world, from New York to Paris, London and Shanghai, including four months in Copenhagen with the Royal Danish Ballet on dancer exchange. She was promoted to principal artist in 2011, a dancer renowned for her artistry, grace, intelligence and ability to bring alive some of the classical canon’s most beloved roles, Swan Lake’s Odette/Odile, Onegin’s Tatiana and Giselle among them. Most recently she and husband and fellow AB principal artist Ty King-Wall added ‘parent’ to their respective roles, welcoming baby Bonnie into their family.

In person Scott is and has always been overwhelmingly humble and gracious. Little wonder new artistic director David Hallberg speaks so highly of her. ‘Amber is a beautiful ballerina but [also] sees herself as having a responsibility to nurture younger talent,’ says Hallberg, who took over as the AB’s eighth artistic director following the retirement of David McAllister last year after 20 years at the helm. ‘Amber’s humanness and empathy and warmth bodes well to inspiring and leading and mentoring younger talent,’ Hallberg says of her role as a Fonteyn coach.

Photo: Dan Boud
Amber Scott and Kevin Jackson rehearsing The Firebird. Photo: Kate Longley

When it comes to Hallberg’s respect for Scott’s abilities as a dancer you need look no further than the fact that the then-American Ballet Theater and Bolshoi Ballet principal artist requested Scott partner him when he staged his astonishing comeback from a career-threatening ankle injury in 2016, dancing Coppélia together in Sydney. He had been off-stage for two and a half years.

Now celebrating her 21st year as a professional dancer, Scott reflects on some significant changes in the world of classical ballet, most of them welcome and not before time.

‘We all questioned everything last year – ballet’s place in the world environmentally, politically and in terms of the gender balance’

‘We all questioned everything last year – ballet’s place in the world environmentally, politically and in terms of the gender balance. Ballet is such a beautiful artform and has its traditions, but it will be interesting to see how it’s updated,’ she says. In the past 12 months she has had the opportunity to watch both Queensland Ballet and West Australian Ballet and is pleased to see the continually evolving face of those companies, and the AB, to better reflect the culturally diverse world we live in.

When it comes to teaching and coaching Scott is relieved to see the back of some unacceptable practices. ‘I definitely encountered some methods I certainly wouldn’t be using myself these days. I was fortunate I got through relatively unscathed but teaching and learning and how we look after young people has really evolved and that’s great,’ she says. ‘The way we used to teach or be taught, you hear stories from our ballet teachers about things that are just not acceptable these days. I think there’s a lot more thought about interactions with students, it’s really important that we have the highest level of care for our young dancers.’

Scott is quick to point out how instrumental many of her teachers and coaches were in helping her become the well-rounded dancer she is today, many of them encountered through the dance competitions she was encouraged to enter. While she typically found her exposure to these guest coaches helpful, she admits to finding the competitions themselves mentally challenging.

The Merry Widow. Photo: Daniel Boud

‘I didn’t really love the feeling of competing, I found it overwhelming to be somewhere new and have to just come out and do a solo,’ she says. ‘It was exciting and you’d want to watch everyone else, but I also felt I had to concentrate really hard to do what I needed to do. I did the Genée and Asian Pacific Competition  [which she won] in the Australian Ballet School and was really well prepared for both and learnt a lot but I definitely preferred the feeling of performing with a company. You get a high from performing but I like it when it’s within a context and not about a prize.’

Despite this she recognises how important competitions are in the development of a young dancer, for a multitude of reasons. ‘The overall experience was what was important. Maybe being taken out of my comfort zone was what I needed, because even now what we do gives you a lot of nerves and adrenaline and you need to know how to cope with that. So competitions do give you a lot of skills for later life.’

‘When I joined the company there was no social media. We sat and knitted’

It was during a competition that Scott received an invaluable piece of advice that has stayed with her to this day. ‘One of my old teachers said you just had to find space, because it’s always very busy backstage and in the dressing room, so sometimes it’s hard to get that moment to calm yourself. Back then we had tape decks, so I’d put some music on and go over the steps. I still do that now to calm myself [before going on stage], zoning in and calming the mind.’

For his part, Hallberg believes competitions are important because of the exposure they give young dancers. ‘Competitions around the world are an opportunity for a young dancer to be seen by directors and directors of schools,’ he says. ‘There’s something to be said of course for who wins and the recognition that brings, but more importantly it’s about getting that exposure.’

Hallberg should know. In 2010 he was awarded the prestigious Benois de la Danse Prize for best male dancer, an award he found both surprising and deeply satisfying. ‘I honestly thought I’d never win because I’m American and it tends to be a very European/Russian-centric prize. But winning gives you a sense of being recognised for your hard work and talent.’

And now it’s time for Scott to take her place as an influential coach in an influential international competition. Scott has always enjoyed guest teaching, occasionally coaching during summer schools or volunteering at the National Theatre Ballet School in Melbourne where she is a director. She is also hoping to complete her graduate diploma of elite dance instruction through the ABS by the end of this year. Her initial connection with The Fonteyn was in 2020, when she was part of an online Q&A between current and previous finalists and winners. From there she was invited to be among the elite group of international coaches working with this year’s crop of finalists, Lynn Wallis, Wayne McGregor, Leanne Benjamin and Miguel Altunaga among them.

Amber Scott and Adam Bull in The Nutcracker. Photo: Jeff Busby

Scott says the logistics have at times been challenging – juggling multiple time zones, working from makeshift ‘home studios’, typically the kitchen or living room (in Scott’s case the garage) and of course the restrictions of not being physically present in an artform that is the very definition of physicality – but the rewards are manifold.

‘I’ve really enjoyed it, I’ve loved teaching and coaching,’ she says of the half-hour Zoom sessions. ‘I felt I had a nice rapport with the students I worked with, they were receptive to new ideas.’ Given the brevity of the sessions Scott was mindful not to overload the students with too many corrections, instead focusing on giving them positive feedback to leave them confident and capable of striving for something new. ‘It can be difficult when you’re not familiar with a student and you’re just watching them online,’ she says. ‘You want to create a positive learning environment because a computer screen is always challenging.’

Hallberg adds that as a teacher, creating a positive learning environment requires a nuanced balancing act between nurturing and pushing, knowing where the line is and when not to cross it. ‘If you push too hard they crumble but if you’re too soft they don’t improve,’ he says. ‘That’s something even I am finding as a new artistic director.’

Scott would have liked to have taken on more Fonteyn finalists but, with Australia in the incredibly fortunate position of being relatively Covid-free, some performing artists have been back on stage since the second half of last year, while the Australian Ballet resumed performances in February. ‘I was very happy to be doing that but guilty not to have more time because I was performing,’ she says.

Amber Scott and Kevin Jackson rehearsing The Firebird. Photo: Kate Longley

To this day Scott is grateful for the ‘many amazing coaches’ who have guided her along the way, from a shy corps de ballet member to today’s veteran dancer who nevertheless still strives for improvement. ‘They’ve taught me for 21 years now, it’s like a family, we’ve been through really good times and challenging times like last year,’ she says. ‘I have a lot of fun in the studios with the coaches, they see us trying really hard but sometimes it all goes horribly wrong and is really funny. But they want to see us growing as artists and I really appreciate when they watch you closely enough to offer something new, help you grow into each stage of your career, because you need different things at different stages.’

As she takes on more of a coaching role herself Scott is hopeful she can impart to her students some of the knowledge and experience and joy she has had in over two decades of dancing professionally in this rapidly shifting world.

‘The world has changed compared to when I joined the company at 20. There was no Google, there was no social media, you couldn’t YouTube a ballet up the back of the rehearsal, we sat and knitted!’ she laughs. ‘There’s so much more now young people have to contend with and we’ve got to do our best to nourish them in the right way.’

WATCH Amber Scott at Australian Ballet

Jane Albert, an author and journalist specialising in the arts, writes for the Weekend Australian, Australian Financial Review and others.


Begin again

Sally Howard

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