Emerging as an artist is tough. It can be hard for junior members of a ballet company to leave a lasting impression. Most of the dancers who reach the top companies will spend their career in the corps de ballet. This term (which literally means ‘body of the ballet’) refers to the dancers who generally work in a disciplined group, undifferentiated from each other. The objective is to blend in, not stand out.
Companies tend to grade their dancers (artist, first artist, soloist and first soloist, principal, lead principal) and nineteenth-century ballets (which are still the foundation for most companies’ repertoire) were created to showcase those at the top of the hierarchy. Of course, talent does pay off and the most talented dancers will eventually receive promotion. However, for the public, opportunities to really see what junior artists are capable of are limited.
This is why English National Ballet’s Emerging Dancer competition is so warmly received by balletomanes. The competition is an annual opportunity for English National Ballet to nurture and showcase the talent of its up-and-coming dancers.
Throughout the autumn, the company’s artistic, music and administrative staff – and the principal dancers – vote for their favourite dancer. The selected dancers are then whittled down to a shortlist of six and these six finalists go on to compete in a thrilling live show, in front of a panel of eminent judges and an audience of fellow dancers, friends and family, press and ballet fans.
Emerging Dancer (now in its fifth year) provides a platform for dancers to each perform a solo and a pas de deux of their own choosing. This lets them showcase their technique, artistry and potential to the artistic staff who oversee promotions and casting, as well as the public.
The Emerging Dancer 2014 finalists are definitely ones to watch out for in future productions.
- Madison Keesler joined English National Ballet as a First Artist in 2013.
- She was born in Carlsbad, California USA, and started dancing aged 6.
- Training: Zamuel Ballet School, Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, and San Francisco Ballet School.
- Previous companies: The Hamburg Ballet and San Francisco Ballet.
Madison is extremely articulate, a quality which she more than demonstrated during the group interview I was lucky enough to participate in with (five of) the Emerging Dancers.
Despite only joining English National Ballet last year, Madison has undoubtedly made an impression. She has been nominated for Emerging Dancer in her first year with the company and Liam Scarlett choreographed her competition solo, Variations on a Theme, especially for her.
How do the other dancers describe her?
Junor: “Madison is very American, very unique!”
Senri: “She is dynamic.”
Vitor: “Very clever, very bright. You can see that she thinks about everything that she does.”
Alison: “Madison is very precise.”
What are Madison’s thoughts on the competition?
“At school we got to show we could cope with principal roles and key pieces in galas and events but in the company we are part of a larger group that already has principals to dance these pieces.
“The competition will let us show that we can handle the choreography.”
And having Liam Scarlett choreograph a solo for her?
“I am so lucky that I asked Liam and he said yes. I don’t have that sort of leaning. Choreography is not my thing.”
Madison emphasises that dancers “never talk positively” about themselves and is frank about her belief that she has much to improve upon (“everything”). Still, does she see herself as a principal one day – would she like to be?
“Definitely, part of the reason for coming here is to acknowledge how much I need to grow.”
- Senri Kou joined English National Ballet as a First Artist in 2005 and was promoted to Junior Soloist in 2010.
- She was born in Gifu, Japan, and started dancing aged 4.
- Training: Nana Kawashima Ballet Studio, London Studio Centre.
- Previous company: Peter Schaufuss Ballet.
Senri is radiant onstage and sunny in person. I saw her on multiple occasions last year as a Lead Flower in both Le Corsaire (2013 world premiere) and Wayne Eagling’s Nutcracker and she has an enthusiasm that always shines through.
She was easy to talk to and also took the time to chat once the “official” interview was over (so that I could get the Milton Keynes angle).
How do the other dancers describe her?
Vitor: “She is a very bright person with a lovely smile and she makes everything look easy.”
Alison: “Senri has beautiful port de bras and makes everything look easy.”
Junor: “She always looks as if she is enjoying it. We all have good days and bad days but it seems like she only ever has good days.”
Her colleagues may believe everything looks easy for her but does Senri have anything in particular that she thinks she needs to work on?
“I’d like to get out of my comfort zone a bit and push harder – but I do think I work hard.”
Does she aspire to be a principal dancer?
“I am happy personally and very grateful. If I ever had to do something that was too difficult I think I would just freak out and I wouldn’t enjoy it – and I do want to enjoy it.”
- Vitor Menezes joined English National Ballet as an Artist of the Company in 2011.
- He was born in São Bernardo do Campo, Brazil, and started dancing aged 9.
- Training: English National Ballet School (graduated 2011).
Vitor is Brazilian and, as he jovially proclaims during the interview, he believes that “Brazilians never give up!”.
He joined English National Ballet after graduating from English National Ballet School – as did his twin brother Guilherme, who competed in Emerging Dancer in 2013.
What do the other dancers have to say about Vitor?
Junor: “It’s just his laugh. It’s great!”
Senri: “We have fun together and he is very calm onstage.”
What does Vitor think about Emerging Dancer?
“The whole point of the competition is to show what we can do. It has been something to look forward to. I am really going to miss it.”
What is his experience of being ‘a twin’ in the company?
“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.”
Does Vitor aspire to be a principal dancer?
“Yes, I like to be challenged. In ballet you portray a character and it must feel amazing to have all that dramatic part to set up as well as the dancing.”
- Alison McWhinney joined English National Ballet as an Artist of the Company in 2005.
- She was born in Port MacQuarie, Australia, and started dancing aged 4.
- Training: English National Ballet School, Ecole Ballet Studios.
Alison is a very classical dancer. I am always drawn to her clean lines and assured style when I watch English National Ballet productions. She competed in Emerging Dancer last year (2013).
In person she is extremely unassuming and reveals she finds it hard to “let go” and be confident. I was so pleased she was just as lovely in person as I imagine her to be when watching her perform!
What do the other dancers have to say about Alison?
Senri: “She is very dedicated, she puts in so much effort.”
Vitor: “She is always the first in the room every day and she has amazing balance and control.”
Junor: “Everything is under her control. I cannot tell when she is nervous – everything is just so.”
What is Alison’s advice for aspiring dancers?
Just go for it!
Alison says she likes “to be the ballerina” and finds it hard to “let go”. Many dance students will relate to this, what does she think about “letting go”?
“I deal with it every day, even in class, but I am learning there is no point in holding back.”
- Junor Souza joined English National Ballet as a First Artist in 2010 and was promoted to Junior Soloist in 2011.
- He was born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and started dancing aged 7.
- Training: Escola de Danca, English National Ballet School.
Junor is perhaps more ’emerged’ than others in this line-up, having already been given the opportunity to dance various leading roles, including all three male leads in Le Corsaire. (I saw him perform as both Ali and Lankendem – he had great presence and virtuosity in both – and he has also danced as dashing lead pirate Conrad.)
He competed in Emerging Dancer 2012.
How do the other dancers describe Junor?
Senri: “He is very talented.”
Alison: “He is explosive. He is very long and takes up the stage!”
Vitor: “Junor is very energetic.”
What does Junor have to say about being part of English National Ballet and being in competition – for roles and for the Emerging Dancer title?
“We are a very small company and we tour so we are like a family. We are different, unique, dancers and we do all support each other.”
Just like his colleagues, Junor is immensely modest (he shies away from talking about the media coverage he has been receiving since the Emerging Dancer finalists were announced) but surely this explosive dancer aspires to be a principal?
“Tamara [Rojo] has already given me so much opportunity and I have had hard pieces and danced with her! It is a big pressure to dance with the big stars like Tamara – she is my boss and the ballerina. A principal one day, I’m not sure, but for now I am pretty happy.”
Joan Sebastian Zamora
- Joan Sebastian Zamora joined English National Ballet as an Artist of the Company in 2013.
- He was born in Cali, Colombia.
- Training: The Colombian Institute of Classical Ballet (Incol Ballet), The Rock School (Philadelphia), Royal Ballet School.
- Previous company: The Royal Ballet (Firebird and Nutcracker, 2012–2013).
Joan joined English National Ballet just last year and I saw him dance the leading role of Ali in Le Corsaire last year at Milton Keynes Theatre. Unfortunately, he was unable to attend the interview I was at with the other Emerging Dancers as he was performing elsewhere.
What do the other dancers have to say about Joan?
Madison: “He is very green and just starting out in the company but definitely rising to the challenge.”
Alison: “He has a lot of potential.”
All six dancers have plenty of potential. I look forward to seeing what is next for them!
Visit the English National Ballet website for information on current productions.
Georgina Butler is an editor, a dance writer and a ballet teacher.