London Children’s Ballet is on a mission to inspire the pursuit of excellence and change lives through dance. As both a performance company and a registered charity, it produces and stages a new ballet in London’s West End each year and runs outreach work in primary schools and the wider community. Essentially, London Children’s Ballet (LCB) encourages everyone – participants, creatives and audience members – to be their best selves by enabling them to experience the life-enhancing benefits of dance.
When I was invited to watch LCB’s 2022 ballet, Anne of Green Gables, I was keen not only because it was a wonderful opportunity to support gifted children who love to dance, but also because it was a new reason to visit the Peacock Theatre. Sadler’s Wells’ West End home is a 1,000-seat theatre that is part of the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) campus. So, as well as presenting must-see shows and dance performances, it hosts lectures, conferences and ceremonies for the university.
Gliding across that stage during my graduation from LSE was about celebrating what had been achieved and what was still to come. As a child, I was happiest reading, writing and dancing. As an adult, I am fortunate to spend my professional life reading, writing and dancing. Having graduated from LSE and the Royal Academy of Dance, and qualified as a journalist, editor and ballet teacher, I know a thing or two about striving to fulfil your potential and follow your passions! How uplifting to return to this venue to be entertained by the LCB company – motivated children who are exploring their talent, dancing around their school commitments and learning the reward of persistence and hard work.
“Oh it’s delightful to have ambitions. I’m so glad I have such a lot. And there never seems to be an end to them – that’s the best of it. Just as soon as you attain to one ambition you see another one glittering higher up still. It does make life so interesting.”
Anne Shirley, from Anne of Green Gables by LM Montgomery
London Children’s Ballet: Ambitions
LCB aims to:
- inspire excellence and change lives through dance
- support young choreographers, composers and designers
- build the dance audiences of tomorrow
- take dance to those who cannot afford or physically attend the theatre.
LCB was established in 1994 to give children the experience of performing as part of a company, in a professionally produced full-length ballet at a West End theatre. Founder Lucille Briance saw her shy 10-year-old daughter, Zoë, transform into a confident, focused, happy child in the dance studio and wanted her to have more opportunities to flourish. Unable to find a children’s ballet company, Lucille started one.
Open auditions, for girls aged 9 to 14 and boys aged 9 to 16, are held every autumn to search for up to 50 young dancers to star in the annual production. As many as 700 children register to audition each year, travelling to London from as far as Devon, Chester and Wales. Successful candidates rehearse on Sundays, from January to May, and complete an intensive period of daily rehearsals during February half term and the Easter holidays. The company does not discriminate on grounds of height, shape or income – children are judged solely on their ability and participation is free of charge.
An additional 50 or so dancers are selected for LCB’s touring companies, which take a specially adapted version of the stage production out into the community. These children travel together around Greater London, performing in care homes and special educational needs schools. They spread joy by dancing for, and talking to, residents and students.
To date, 11,945 children from more than 250 ballet schools have auditioned for LCB. Of these, 1,345 young dancers have received over 100 hours of free tuition and performed in a stage production. What’s more, a further 742 young dancers have performed as part of a touring company. Plus, in keeping with the emphasis on excellence, encouragement and the value of the experience, children who audition but are not accepted are invited to special masterclasses to help them develop confidence and performance technique.
Anne of Green Gables
London Children’s Ballet (LCB) reimagines beloved children’s books as ballets danced by an all-child cast for family audiences. Founder Lucille Briance was artistic director for 25 years, leading the company through the creation of 16 original productions including A Little Princess, The Prince and the Pauper, The Secret Garden and Ballet Shoes.
Anne of Green Gables (presented at the Peacock Theatre from 26 to 29 May) is the first LCB production to be devised under the artistic direction of Ruth Brill. Ruth, who danced with English National Ballet and Birmingham Royal Ballet before focusing full-time on choreography, is herself a former LCB company member. The ballet’s scenario, based on the charming novel by Canadian author Lucy Maud (LM) Montgomery, was written by Zoë Vickerman and neatly condenses Anne’s mishaps and triumphs into two 40-minute acts. Zoë, who worked with Ruth Brill to appoint Jenna Lee as choreographer, Gus Nicholson as composer and Elin Steele as designer, is Lucille’s daughter and danced in the first three LCB productions.
There is an unmistakeable family feel to the entire experience, even as a rookie LCB audience member. The programme features delightful illustrations by some of the young dancers. The auditorium buzzes with anticipation as theatregoers of all ages look forward to seeing their relatives perform or their very first ballet – or perhaps both! The chatty introduction by Ruth Brill and a few cast members reveals the magical ways that dancing unites people and makes life better.
The opening scene, at a bustling countryside train station, immediately demonstrates the professionalism of everyone involved. Sweetly lilting music (incredibly, Gus Nicholson’s very first score for dance) floats through the air, courtesy of the live orchestra, while young dancers wearing full dresses, breeches and braces, or smart uniforms convincingly embody roles as children, parents and station staff. Jenna Lee’s fluid choreography clearly differentiates between playful kids and purposeful grown-ups, while making the most of the large ensemble.
Anne Shirley, an 11-year-old orphan, arrives expecting to be adopted by Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert, an elderly brother and sister. Unfortunately, they were expecting a strong boy to help on their farm, not a spirited, romantic, slip of a girl. But quirky Anne is starved of love and determined to convince them to keep her.
Everything comes together beautifully. Anne’s fascination with blossom trees becomes a rose-tinted dream sequence. Her social blunders keep animated lines of whispering gossips busy. Her tragic past is shown in a powerful contemporary style flashback. Her intelligence, loyalty and temper are flaunted in the classroom, where schoolchildren with fidgety feet perch on stools and hunch over slates.
The steps, performed in flat ballet slippers, appear natural and are executed with precision and personality. The choreography is, in fact, deceptively difficult, but the dancers are all well-drilled and obviously in their element. Facial expressions, nuanced body language and elements of mime are part of the dancing, not an afterthought. This ensures crystal-clear storytelling and it is easy to forget that children are portraying the adult characters.
As Anne, 13-year-old Annalise Wainwright-Jones is on stage most of the time and shines extremely brightly. Her acting seems effortless, whether in moments of silliness or seriousness, and she dances the role of a headstrong innocent with infectious enthusiasm and impressive classical technique.
Bravo to everyone who made Anne of Green Gables come to life. Simply lovely work: talented dancers, lucid choreography, atmospheric music and lighting, gorgeous sets and costumes. Continue like this and the LCB spirit will be influencing people for good for countless generations to come.
“We ought always to try to influence other people for good.”
Anne Shirley, from Anne of Green Gables by LM Montgomery
London Children’s Ballet: Influence
The curtains have closed on Anne of Green Gables at the Peacock Theatre, but the influence that LCB has will not be forgotten by those lucky enough to have experienced a performance. Indeed, the charity welcomed 2,000 audience members as part of its ‘Ballet for £1′ initiative and delivered workshops in 40 primary schools across London in advance of the production to provide context and spark imagination ahead of the students’ visit. For most of these children, this will have been their first experience of ballet.
Some of the most disadvantaged and isolated audiences will enjoy snippets of the show later in the year when LCB’s September touring company takes specially tailored 30-minute performances to them. Choreographer and movement director Colleen O’Keefe will put the dancers through their paces during rehearsals in LCB’s new permanent home in Battersea.
This space includes two studios, offices and costume storage and is still something of a novelty as it only opened in summer 2021. Auditions, rehearsals, workshops, masterclasses, summer schools and half-term programmes are now held in the venue. Having somewhere to call home will provide a significant saving, while making it possible to expand the outreach classes and develop revenue streams through studio rental.
LCB fundraises year-round so that it can offer its unique opportunities to young dancers, whatever their financial background, and share dance more widely. Its main objective has never been to find great future ballet dancers, but alumni include Anna Rose O’Sullivan, currently a principal dancer with The Royal Ballet, and James Streeter, a first soloist with English National Ballet.
By focusing on inspiring excellence in its broadest sense – through quality training and productions, a focus on widening access and participation, and a culture of encouragement – LCB really does seem to be changing lives through dance.
To learn more about dancing with, and supporting, London Children’s Ballet, visit the LCB website and follow @lcbballet on Instagram and @lcblondon on Twitter.
*Anne of Green Gables production photography by Alice Pennefather.
*Anne of Green Gables publicity photography by Amber Hunt (Photography by ASH).
*Audition photography courtesy of London Children’s Ballet.
Georgina Butler is an editor, a dance writer and a ballet teacher.