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.
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.
Céline I hope you voted for me!
Steven Of course!
Céline My now husband’s parents watched that performance, and they voted for me.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.