The Emerging Dancer competition acknowledges the fact that all of English National Ballet’s dancers leave audiences awestruck night after night.
As mere mortals, we cannot fully appreciate the constant scrutiny these exceptionally talented performers put themselves under. Once the applause is over (and they have had a night’s sleep to recover) the company’s dancers return to the studio the morning after a performance. Here, they challenge themselves to jump higher, turn faster and balance better.
I was given the chance to gain further insight into this quest for perfection on Saturday, during a visit to English National Ballet, ahead of Emerging Dancer 2014.
Emerging Dancer, now in its fifth year, is an annual competition to recognise and nurture talent within the company. It began in-house (with just English National Ballet funders invited) but tickets were sold to the general public for the second year and Emerging Dancer is now an exciting evening that should be marked on every balletomane’s calendar.
Tucked away behind the Royal Albert Hall is Markova House, the home of English National Ballet. It is here that the six Emerging Dancer finalists – chosen by the company’s artistic, music and administrative staff, and the principal dancers – take daily class and squeeze rehearsals for the competition into their packed schedules. (As well as Emerging Dancer to prepare for, rehearsals for Romeo and Juliet in-the-round at the Royal Albert Hall, Choreographics at The Place and performances of Lest We Forget at the Barbican Theatre have been keeping English National Ballet’s dancers busy.)
Madison Keesler, Senri Kou, Alison McWhinney, Vitor Menezes, Junor Souza and Joan Sebastian Zamora will each perform a solo and a pas de deux in front of a judging panel of industry experts at London’s Lyceum Theatre this evening (Monday 19 May).
The audience in the 2,100-seat West End theatre will include their family, friends and fans, press, and members of the public who have managed to get tickets for tonight’s one-off show. Judges Deborah Bull CBE, Clement Crisp OBE, Dame Gillian Lynne DBE, Arlene Phillips CBE, Tamara Rojo and Wayne Sleep OBE have the unenviable task of selecting the overall winner.
Entering the airy Donald Barclay Studio (the ‘Upper Studio’) – to observe Alison, Junor, Senri and Vitor in rehearsal – I cannot help but be impressed by the ornate plaster work and high ceiling. Even more impressive is the fact that stunning principal dancer Daria Klimentová is just finishing stretching out in the corner of the studio. Excusing herself, she grabs her bag and heads off to change back into street clothes, leaving the finalists to rehearse.
Principal dancers (Daria, Tamara, Alina…) are used to being centre stage, dancing demanding solos and dramatic pas de deux scenes, with all eyes on them. Emerging Dancer throws the spotlight onto junior company members, offering a thrilling preview of what is to come as they progress.
Alison and Junor
Alison and Junor will dance a pas de deux from Esmeralda (a ballet about a beautiful gypsy). Alison (who competed in Emerging Dancer last year) will need to capture gypsy flair, tote a tambourine and maintain high leg extensions and well-centred pirouettes. Junor (another previous nominee – he participated in Emerging Dancer in 2012) will be leaping across the stage but must reign in his enthusiasm (illustrated by shouts as his turns go slightly off-kilter) to ensure he remains controlled.
Alison wears a black practice tutu over her ballet attire, while Junor sports a stripy bodywarmer. Despite his length of limb (he is all legs) his trouser hems touch the floor as he dances. I don’t realise how tense this makes me until he rolls one leg (the side which is trailing the most) up (potential for injury duly lessened, cue my sigh of relief).
Asked to describe Junor as a dancer, Alison said: “He is explosive, very long and he takes up a lot of the stage!”
Junor on Alison: “Everything is under her control. I can’t tell when she is nervous.”
Senri and Vitor
Vitor Menezes must be used to competition and comparison – his twin brother Guilherme is also a dancer with English National Ballet (he participated in Emerging Dancer last year). Vitor replaces an injured Ken Saruhashi as a competitor and appears to be relishing being a finalist.
He said: “The whole point of the competition is to show what we can do, so hopefully everyone will see something different and enjoy it. As twins, Guilherme and I are really similar but we have different qualities and it took a while to be myself – to not be shy – but now I am ready to show it.”
Vitor and pas de deux partner Senri started learning their piece from La Sylphide in March.
Senri said: “We were very organised. We are so ready – I want to do it now!”
Senri praises Vitor’s partnering and ability to adapt.
Asked about Senri, Vitor said: “I’m a big fan!” We have so much fun together and she is a very bright person with a lovely smile who makes everything look so easy.”
La Sylphide requires an ethereal Sylph and a male partner with crisp footwork. Senri’s effortless grace and Vitor’s compact frame bode well.
All of the finalists express a desire to work harder and emphasise the effort needed to prepare for Emerging Dancer.
Alison said: “We’ve had to have a lot of determination. I know I need to work on mental strength. A lot of things work really well when I am feeling good but then if I am not feeling as good in my head, things are not as reliable.”
Alison explains she finds it difficult to ‘let go’ when dancing and reveals she has chosen a solo which challenges her to do just this.
She said: “I deal with it every day, even in class, but I am learning there is no point in holding back.”
Company class is at 10.15am every day.
Madison (who arrived post-rehearsal as her pas de deux partner Joan was performing in Manchester so unable to attend) said: “I don’t enjoy class, stuck in front a mirror. The stage is the best place in the world but I think of class as a medicine – it tastes bad but I know it’s good for me!”
Junor shares Madison’s view (adding that a later class would be better) but Alison and Vitor are more positive, with Vitor saying: “I like class, I like that feeling you get when you finish of ‘I did everything I could’.”
Best advice for the best performance
The finalists are being mentored by more experienced English National Ballet dancers and throughout the rehearsal they coach each other. Seeing their positive approach and camaraderie, I am keen to hear about the best advice they have received throughout their dance training and performance experience.
Having already mentioned that he used to give up a lot onstage and now reminds himself that the audience is there and giving up is not an option, Junor said: “To think of flying – when I was in Le Corsaire and really stressed I would just think of flying. Just fly!”
Vitor: “Never give up!”
Alison: “To just go for it!”
Madison: “Trust yourself. That is why this competition is so important. It will prove we can be confident and push ourselves.”
“Chukkas” to all of the dancers. I can’t wait to see the show!
I found the Milton Keynes angle for a piece published on Total MK.
Georgina Butler is an editor, a dance writer and a ballet teacher.