Georgina Butler discovers the collaborative spirit of New English Ballet Theatre
When New English Ballet Theatre invited me to watch rehearsals, chat to members of the production team and learn some of the dancers’ latest choreography I seized the chance to learn more about the young company.
I love ballet. Absolutely adore it. Given any choice — throwing a few drinks back at some trendy new bar or throwing a leg (front, side and back) at the ballet barre; finding myself at a festival or losing myself in a classical masterpiece — I go for the ballet option every time.
My devotion aside, I do sometimes fear for ballet’s future. There is always the very real possibility that classical ballet could become a museum art form. No balletomane wants to see the object of their affections stagnate (with little to offer beyond revivals of existing work) or, if we imagine the worst-case-scenario, become extinct. Although the world’s well-established leading companies have a starring role to play in shaping ballet’s future on the global stage, it is up to the emerging troupes of today to ensure it remains relevant to our lives. Ballet needs to keep evolving; inspire new ideas; attract new audiences.
New English Ballet Theatre is a vibrant modern ballet company determined to drive the art form forward in exactly this way! Founded in 2010 by Artistic Director Karen Pilkington-Miksa, the company is committed to the continual reinvention of classical ballet and aims to present exciting new works to the widest possible audience. The ambition does not stop there though. At the heart of New English Ballet Theatre’s mission is the desire to nurture the next generation of dancers, choreographers, musicians and designers. The company seeks out and hires talented graduates from a variety of disciplines on a seasonal basis, affording emerging artists the creative space and support to explore their full potential.
The spirit of collaboration that New English Ballet Theatre’s dedicated production team and eager dancers all clearly thrive on has echoes of the pioneering approach Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev adopted when forming the Ballet Russes. He gathered together the best young Russian dancers of the early 20th Century and also commissioned some of the most famous composers and artists of the day. Through his careful curating, Diaghilev championed collaboration. He presented ballet as an equal partnership of movement, music and visual design — a spectacle that is only possible through synergy.
Indeed, New English Ballet Theatre does actively strive to emulate Diaghilev’s all-embracing style but the reasons encompass more than enlightened notions of arty idealism. Artistic Director Karen Pilkington-Miksa was creating the company just as the UK economy clawed its way out of the Great Recession. At the forefront of her mind was the aspiration to be able to offer exceptionally talented young people professional paid work, and ongoing mentoring, in the industry that they have trained to work in.
What inspired me to establish New English Ballet Theatre? Job creation primarily and also art creation. I wanted to make jobs happen by giving new graduate dancers the chance to dance professionally in an environment that gives them plenty of opportunities. And, now, our company is very much choreography-driven as well.
There are so few jobs in the industry that we need somewhere for the wonderfully talented graduates of our finest dance institutions to go. Running parallel to this are all the talented graduates of other professions, particularly musicians and designers. New English Ballet Theatre is an apprenticeship company that employs some of our most talented young people who have trained in the arts and supports them through the earliest years of their careers.
Artistic Director Karen Pilkington-Miksa
Constantly looking for ways to energise and excite their classically-trained dancers, New English Ballet Theatre’s production team invite dance-makers to hold choreography labs. These sessions, which involve giving promising choreographers the freedom to explore movement ideas with skilled young dancers, have the potential to spark fascinating new projects.
Besides showcasing the new dancers, choreographers, musicians and designers that the company enlists and promotes, Karen’s vision for New English Ballet Theatre incorporates performing new dance works in new places for new audiences. Aware of ballet’s niche appeal, Karen is keen to reach people who may not otherwise encounter ballet. The company have already performed at music festivals and seasonal events, including Latitude Festival and this year’s Canary Wharf Summer Sessions. Similar occasions are being planned and Karen’s pragmatic optimism about how the future could be is admirable.
Ultimately, there is most certainly a dual intention evident in New English Ballet Theatre’s raison d’être. While the initial hope may have been to develop the careers of individual graduates, the wider ambition to make the future of ballet brighter shines through. Bravo!
We commission young choreographers to create new ballets to live music which will inspire both our young dancers and the next generation of dance audiences. After all, if we cannot make a young audience love dance then — and this is especially so for ballet — the art form will simply not continue. It needs to grow and stay relevant.
The whole ethos of New English Ballet Theatre is exciting. We are seeking out ways of ensuring new audience development while also nurturing our young dancers, choreographers and musicians and giving them a platform.
What is important is believing in young artists. I believe in their talent and, once the stage is made available to them, they have to prove it. And they always do! We are so looking forward to what the future holds. I’d like to start being able to offer longer contracts, get more creatives on board, do more. We may be a young company but it is amazing how our dancers rise to the occasion.
Artistic Director Karen Pilkington-Miksa
The young dancers we work with are required to execute some demanding dance content. We expect a lot from them and they are given work equal to that of principal roles.
Diversity is definitely key in the dance industry now. It is not enough to be a classically trained dancer, they have to be able to embody different styles. Take on new ideas. Bring their own ideas!
Ballet Mistress Jessica Edgley
The current dancers of New English Ballet Theatre are: Alexander Nuttall, Alexandra Cameron-Martin, Bethany Headland, Cecilia Pacillo, Diogo Barbosa, Giulio Galimberti, Hannah Sofo, Isabella Swietlicki, Nathan Hunt, Nicola Henshall, Pablo Luque Romero, Riccardo Rodighiero, Seamus Wilkinson and Zoe Arshamian.
This season’s choreographers have been working with New English Ballet Theatre’s dancers to create Quint-essential, an inspiring programme of five new ballets. In signature New English Ballet Theatre style, three of the five pieces will be performed to live music played by up-and-coming musicians.
Among the dancers themselves, there is an overwhelming consensus that their diverse work with New English Ballet Theatre, though hectic and hard work, is “very rewarding”. In such a supportive environment, where creative collaboration and artistic development underpins every decision the company’s production team makes, the possibilities for ballet appear to be endless.
Although New English Ballet Theatre is very much living in the present, due to its small size and emerging status, its forward-thinking approach and bold ambition make this company one to watch. Here’s to a future with more opportunities for emerging artists — and more ballet!
Georgina Butler gets a sense of what to expect in Quint-essential: Five New Ballets
Land of Nod by Marcelino Sambé
The audience will be caught up in a surrealistic dream in Land of Nod. Award-winning Royal Ballet Soloist Marcelino Sambé sends three dancers drifting off into the realm of the subconscious in this piece, his first creation for New English Ballet Theatre. Land of Nod is set to music by Nathan Halpern and Yann Tiersen.
Strangers by George Williamson
An evolving romantic relationship serves as a means to explore the concept of ‘foreignness’ in English National Ballet Associate George Williamson’s Strangers. George himself is no stranger to New English Ballet Theatre as he was previously commissioned to choreograph for the 2012 season. For Strangers, George enlists the whole company to track the highs and lows of a couple’s entanglement. Different dancers portray the same man and woman at various stages of their romance, conveying how individuals can move slowly apart, becoming unfamiliar to each other and themselves.
Strangers is choreographed to Brahms’ Cello and Piano Sonata in E Minor Opus 38 First Movement. This sonata will be played live by pianist Anne Lovett and cellist Anna Menzies. When quizzed during my visit to rehearsals, George revealed that the music has “a raw energy” and “does not specify a set time or place” which makes it ideal for his take on the way affairs of the heart may influence, but not define, individuals.
Moonshine by Kristen McNally
A witty interpretation of the concept of the ‘pilgrimage’ — a person’s literal journey or metaphorical search for moral or spiritual significance — is the basis for Kristen McNally’s Moonshine. The Royal Ballet Soloist choreographed for New English Ballet Theatre’s debut season in 2012 and added another commission in 2014. This return with Moonshine sees her choreographing for eight dancers to the Academy Award-winning original film score medley of The Grand Budapest Hotel, composed by Alexandre Desplat. The eclectic variations (a blend of French, Balkan and eastern European folk music) have a certain quirky charm that give Kristen plenty to work with in her “indie” ballet style.
I was afforded the opportunity to learn a small chunk of this piece from New English Ballet Theatre’s ballet mistress Jessica Edgley. Many of the featured movement phrases are far removed from classical ballet technique. Grounded and purposeful, they are packed with Kristen’s favoured contractions, playful isolated gestures, momentary pauses and precise shifts of timing. A tongue-in-cheek look at the human race’s ability to take ourselves too seriously, Moonshine seems set to affectionately replicate, quietly reject and effusively rejoice in the age-old notion of a pilgrimage.
Enticement’s Lure by Valentino Zucchetti
Two couples are faced with temptation in Valentino Zucchetti’s ballet to Rachmaninov’s Trio Elegiaque No. 1 in G Minor. The Royal Ballet Soloist is another returning choreographer, having choreographed for New English Ballet Theatre in 2013. Enticement’s Lure is choreographed for five dancers and uses lyrical movement to consider how desire can impact on a relationship. The accompanying music will be played live by three musicians.
Vertex by Daniela Cardim
Presenting her third commission in as many years for New English Ballet Theatre, company manager and choreographer Daniela Cardim has been heavily influenced by classical music from her native Brazil. Vertex is choreographed for eight dancers and is set to Camargo Guarnieri’s String Quartet No. 2. This particular arrangement is something of a hidden gem from the esteemed musician’s back catalogue and will be played live by the Gildas Quartet.
Offering some insight into Vertex, Daniela described the music as “very fast” and “hard to count”, but added that it is “a good challenge for our capable and energetic dancers”. Indeed, Daniela devised her choreography in close collaboration with the dancers. Vertex examines the dynamics of, and intention behind, movement in response to the music and to the mesmerising line drawings of renowned Royal Academy of Arts sculptor Ann Christopher.*
September 2018 Update:
I have since reviewed New English Ballet Theatre’s commemorative double bill The Four Seasons / Remembrance.
Georgina Butler is a journalist, a dance writer and a dance teacher who specialises in teaching classical ballet. She previews and reviews productions, writes features and interviews people from the world of dance.