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  • Writer's pictureJoe Powell-Main

My experience of working with one of my dream ballet companies.

In this month's blog post I am going to be sharing my experience of working with the Royal Ballet. It has always been a dream of mine ever since I was a young dancer. When I was training at the Royal Ballet School one of the highlights of my years there were the visits to the Opera House, whether that was for Nutcracker rehearsals and performances, going to watch general rehearsals or the end of year shows. After acquiring my disability and beginning to restart my dance journey, I never thought that the possibility of working with the Royal Ballet would ever happen, but sometimes you never know what the future may hold...….

Me as a 13 year old Royal Ballet School Student in costume ready to perform in the Royal Ballet's production of the Nutcracker. Picture taken in 2012.

When I was a young ballet student, being a principal dancer in the Royal Ballet was one of my dreams. It was something that I hoped was possible but it always seemed so far away maybe something that was quite possibly out of reach.

Being brought up in Mid-Wales, the surroundings were lovely with rural countryside. London and the Royal Ballet seemed so far away, almost as though London was a completely different country.

I remember my first experience of learning about the Royal Ballet was through the television. I think it must have been in the early 2000s. There had been many TV programmes that had been on the BBC that had featured the Royal Ballet. I am not one hundred percent sure but I think it was part of the momentum that began when the company celebrated their seventy-fifth anniversary.

Anyway the first introductions I had to the Royal Ballet was through the television with programmes featuring Johan Kobborg and Alina Cojocaru and Darcey Bussell in Frederick Ashton's Sylvia. I remember that I used to copy the movements of these dancers and even try and emulate them in my own ballet classes (I don't think at that age I realised how technically challenging ballet could be).

A young me at home trying on my dance uniform (not sure how old I am here?)

I remember reading every possible ballet book I could. I even remember collecting Magic of Ballet comics, they provided an insight into the Royal Ballet and its productions. The comics came with gifts as well, I was more interested in reading the comics than the gifts, many of them I think I gave to my sister.

I learned all about the stories of classics such as Swan Lake and Coppélia. I also remember making sure I knew names of dancers. I think the three dancers that were my favourite at that time were Carlos Acosta, Tamara Rojo and Marianela Nunez. I liked looking at pictures of them performing in the books thinking how amazing they were and how great it would be to one day see them perform live.

I was very lucky that a few years later I did get to see these dancers perform live. It was my first visit to the Opera House as a Royal Ballet School Junior associate, to watch a general rehearsal of La Bayadère. Being in the grand building was exciting enough, but when we were told that we would be watching some of my favourite dancers, as you can imagine I was very excited. It was difficult for me not to clap during the general rehearsal (a custom which is used by many different dance companies for stage rehearsals) I think I had to actually sit on my hands!

My fascination and excitement with ballet in general and interest in The Royal Ballet continued throughout my time at White Lodge. I really enjoyed learning about the history of classical ballet and what was great, is for one hour per week as part of a class I got to watch a ballet production on DVD, typically for the most part this would be a DVD of a Royal Ballet performance.

Highlights during my time at White Lodge were the visits to watch shows and rehearsals by the Royal Ballet, performing with the company in The Nutcracker and Peter and the Wolf and school summer performances at the Opera House.

An interesting anecdote that I always share, occurred during my first year of being in the Nutcracker in 2009. I was playing the role of one of the four pages to the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Prince in the second act of the ballet (I still have the grey ballet shoes I wore for this role). It was my first time stepping onto the main stage as an eleven year old dance student. The movements for pages were easy to remember, but the first time I rehearsed on the stage I completely messed it up! I was so starstruck that I was on the same stage as Miyako Yoshida and Steven McRae who were rehearsing the leading roles in the ballet. I remember I was so embarrassed that I beat myself up for weeks thinking that I completely messed everything up (something that I have noticed that I sometimes still do as a perfectionist).

During the time I acquired my disability I had to distance myself from anything to do with dance or classical ballet as it upset me too much. When I did begin to start dancing again I started to acquaint myself with the art form whether that be through my degree or inspirations for creating new ideas. Inevitably I did begin to come into contact with resources provided by the Royal Ballet whether that would be references for essays during my degree or videos on social media that inspired me to translate classical ballet movements to my body now, my body that incorporated a wheelchair and crutches. But at no point did I think that I would get the chance to work with the company at all!

Rehearsing with the Royal Ballet's Kristen McNally for the Paralympic GB Homecoming Ceremony, September 2021. Photography Andrej Upenski.

It was a huge surprise and joy when the opportunity to collaborate with the Royal Ballet Company, was presented for the Paralympic GB Homecoming ceremony in September 2021. I was really thankful and excited by this amazing opportunity but I was also quite nervous. I felt that there was the potential for this being a huge step forward for inclusive dance, with a responsibility resting on my shoulders.

However I couldn't have enjoyed this experience more if I had tried. The dancers, Isabel, Liam, Sophie and Francisco, who I worked with were so lovely and extremely talented. Kristen McNally who constructed the piece was fabulous to work with as well. I really appreciated that Kristen asked me many questions. It was great to work with a team that were interested and curious about exploring the full possibilities of me using my chair and crutches. I was so excited to perform (hopefully) a special piece for this amazing event that honoured the Paralympics GB athletes.. The opportunity to perform to such an emotional song by Birdy that I felt was so appropriate for this piece was also incredibly special.

Performing with the Royal Ballet's Isabel Lubach at the Paralympic GB Homecoming ceremony. Photography Getty Images.

The experience of this project was certainly something that I would never forget and I hoped and kept my fingers crossed that more opportunities of working with the Royal Ballet would present themselves...…

With Kristen Mcnally, Sophie Allnatt, Francisco Serrano, Liam Boswell from the Royal Ballet and Birdy backstage at the SSE Wembley Arena. Photograph Patricia Powell-Main.

A few short months down the line, I have been extremely lucky to get the chance to work with the Royal Ballet again. For the past few months I have been working on Sleepwalker, a brand new creation by Kristen McNally and Principal Dancer Alexander Campbell (who I first encountered performing in Birmingham Royal Ballet's Sylvia as a young child). With a fantastic original soundtrack by Sophie Cotton. It has also been lovely to work with Isabel Lubach again (who was a couple of years above me at White Lodge) who I am partnering in this piece.

We first began the process of Sleepwalker, back in early March. Alex had come up with an idea to explore and showcase at Spring Draft Works at the Linbury Theatre taking place at the beginning of April.

The process creating this new work has been extremely enjoyable for me. It has pushed me to try new and different ideas and also created a new approach to developing myself as an artist. It has been great, working with Alex, Kristen and Isabel has been just brilliant! It has also been great to have a voice in the process. The working environment has been really positive and allowed me to have a creative input into this work too!

Rehearsing Sleepwalker with Isabel Lubach at the Royal Opera House Studios. Photograph by Alexander Campbell.

The feedback from sharing an excerpt of the work at Drafts was really positive and that was amazing to hear. As a disabled dancer there is always a little niggle at the back my mind whether an audience will accept me as much as my standing counterparts. But the feedback from the performance at the Linbury really boosted my confidence and spurred me on to do more work.

I am really excited to have the opportunity to continue to develop Sleepwalker with Alex, Kristen and Isabel for the Greenwich and Docklands International Festival on the 10th and 11th September. Earlier this month we returned to the studio to begin preparing for the festival. It was great to be back working with the rest of the team, I was also so appreciative of the time given by all involved, at the tail end of what I am sure has been a rewarding but challenging season.

I am so excited to share the further work we have done on Sleepwalker. I look forward to returning to rehearsals later on in the summer.

For more info on Sleepwalker click here.

Sleepwalker with the Royal Ballet at GDIF 2022 Coming soon! Photography Asya Verzhbinsky.

The overarching message from this blog post, I want to share is, never let your journey dictate where you end up. A dancers life is complicated, it has its ups and downs. But if you believe in your own self worth, you can make things happen.

I am still learning to do this by the way so I am definitely a work in progress.

Hopefully I have proved that there is a place for dancers like me in the industry. To all those who told me it wasn't possible, or I wasn't good enough I hope I have proved you wrong.

I look forward to the performances in September and who knows maybe there is more to come with Sleepwalker..... fingers crossed!

That's all for this month's blog post stay tuned for more content coming soon!

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