On Monday 14 June over a hundred young people from schools all over the UK and China flocked to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall to dance Swanning Around. The piece is a re-imaging of Swan Lake inspired by Derek Deane’s production for English National Ballet, currently showing at the same venue. For six weeks, the five British and five Chinese schools involved in the project have been rehearsing in their separate venues with professional dance artists from ENB. I went along to meet the young performers as they met to rehearse together for the first time.
For Artistic Director, Laura Harvey, Monday’s performance is the culmination of 18 months planning and preparation. ENB senior principal Jenna Lee choreographed the opening and finale sequences danced ensemble by all the students, and much of the choreography existed only on paper and in separate rehearsal studios until today. “This weekend is the first time it’s come together, and it’s a real test to see if everything we’ve done on paper has worked,” smiles Laura. ‘So far so good!”
The five UK schools – Burnt Mill School in Essex, Holland Park School and Latymer Upper School in London, Salford City College in Manchester and St John Bosco Arts College in Liverpool – each worked with a dance artist from ENB to create their own group piece based on one of the characters from Swan Lake. “We’ve had music composed by a lady called Sally Greaves,’ explains Laura. ‘She’s really drawn out the central characters of Swan Lake, so it’s not so much just the narrative, it’s really delving into who those characters are.”
ENB principal dancer Yat-Sen Chang choreographed the Rothbart sequence on 24 dancers from Holland Park School. ‘Getting the character for each part of the dance was a challenge,’ he says. ‘Even though it was Rothbart, I kind of wanted to make it a little bit more grounded in terms of movement and shapes.” The dance artists had just six weeks to create the pieces with their young dancers, who come from a variety of school yeargroups and training backgrounds. ‘It hasn’t been very much time to put it all together,’ says Yat-Sen, ‘but working with the school was really enjoyable – one of the great moments of my week!’
The cast includes Y7 dancers from St John Bosco and Latymer Upper School, GCSE dancers from Holland Park School, and A-level students from St John Bosco and Salford City’s Pendleton Sixth Form Centre. The performers are both male and female; some are new to dance, some returning after a break, and some have been dancing for many years.
Although there is an age gap of up to seven years between some groups of performers, what’s remarkable about this rehearsal is the way the whole group pulls together as one. As Jenna walks among the dancers, setting space and adjusting fine details, there is little sense that these young dancers come from different yeargroups and different areas of the country. All are focused on the same object – to bring Jenna’s ‘dots on paper’ to life.
In addition to the Albert Hall performance, Swanning Around will be performed at the Shanghai World Expo in September this year, and ten of the young performers from Hong Kong and China are also guesting at the London performance this week. ‘We had an open audition in Hong Kong, so a lot of people went to the audition,’ explains 18-year old Olivia Kong Hiu Ting, ‘and they selected 26 of us to be in the project. I found out I’d got in in my chemistry lesson and I was so excited – I thought,’Oh my god, it’s such a great opportunity to be in such a big project!”
In September, ten of the UK students will perform in China alongside students from the five Chinese schools involved, from Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai and Jiangsu. Working across ten centres – some of them 5,000 miles apart – has been made possible by site visits from the ENB team, and by technology partner WebPlay who have provided an online interface for students to communicate with one another, share rehearsal footage, keep diaries and meet virtually. ‘They’ve been able to see each other in rehearsal using WebPlay,’ says ENB’s Director of Learning Fleur Derbyshire-Fox, ‘but today it’s really started to make sense with them performing together in the same space.’
Monday’s performance brings to the stage regal soldiers, a whiteness of Odettes fluttering across the stage, Yat-Sen Chang’s grounded, percussive Rothbarts, super-cute cygnets, disco-dancing party guests and seductive, Balanchine-inspired Odiles danced by Salford City. As the whole cast gather into a wedge for the grand unison finale, the sense of unity and achievement is potent enough to reach up to the Grand Tier. ‘Being in a production isn’t like what you do in class,’ reflects Olivia. ‘Everyone is working for the same goal.’
Originally published at www.londondance.com