Birmingham Royal Ballet showcases the art form and celebrates 25 years of Dance Track with a series of events at The Rep this month. Katy Edgington discovers more…
Birmingham Royal Ballet’s very first residency at The Birmingham Rep is set to showcase the next generation of dancers this May, featuring members of the company and music from The Royal Ballet Sinfonia.
The week-long residency continues the ballet company’s ongoing partnership with the theatre, forged by Birmingham Royal Ballet (BRB) Director Carlos Acosta and The Rep’s Artistic Director Sean Foley in 2020 to help revive the city’s cultural life after lockdown.
In October 2020, the world premiere of Lazuli Sky by Will Tuckett marked the reopening of The Rep and BRB’s return to live performances. This was followed in June 2021 with the world premiere of City of a Thousand Trades. BRB and The Rep also collaborated on specially adapted seasons of Sir Peter Wright’s The Nutcracker and Sir David Bintley’s Cinderella during 2020 and 2021.
The company will open its residency on Sunday, May 8 with Dance Track 25, celebrating the flagship education initiative of the Learning, Education, Access and Participation (LEAP) department at BRB.
Dance Track is a talent identification programme which has nurtured, trained and supported more than 3,200 young dancers aged six to 11 since it was launched in 1997. Some 200 dancers are taking to the stage to mark its 25 year anniversary with performances, films, talks and more. Current Dance Trackers, together with alumni and special guests, will tell the story of the project that has been getting Birmingham dancing for 25 years.
Breaking down barriers
BRB’s Learning and Participation Manager, Rebecca Brookes, manages both large and small-scale projects including Dance Track, conducts ballet training in Birmingham and on tour, leads repertoire workshops and auditions, and has co-devised a new ballet fitness programme – as well as teaching on Dance Track.
“We reach out to schools in areas that might not otherwise get the opportunity to access ballet classes,” Rebecca explains. “Every class that we give is free of charge, and they also get their uniform free of charge and the opportunity to come in and meet some of the dancers and see a performance on the main stage.
“Some families might not have stepped foot in a theatre before, so we introduce them to that and introduce our world. We want it to be inclusive, but there are a lot of barriers to break down.”
When Dance Track started in 1997, the team visited 11 schools. This year they’ve been to 36 across South, Central and North Birmingham. The ambition is to expand into the East and West of the city, too. Rebecca and her colleagues audition Year 1 pupils for the programme, looking for those who show aptitude, enjoyment and focus. These children are invited to BRB’s base in the city centre for a final workshop. Then around 100 children are selected to take into the new Dance Track cohort every September. Of these, around half will be invited back for a second year.
“They then get the opportunity to audition for the Royal Ballet School Junior Associates or Elmhurst Ballet School Young Dancers,” says Rebecca. “If they’re accepted onto one of those courses, they’re automatically eligible to graduate into Dance Track Plus, which means they get free lessons with us for another three years to supplement their ballet school training.”
Celebrating 25 years of Dance Track
For Rebecca, the best part of the 25th anniversary celebrations this spring will be seeing her Dance Trackers having fun: “They’re getting to perform on the professional stage, in a professional theatre, in costume and full lighting. Even though they’re only on this journey with us for a short time, I would like them to have the gratification of a celebration of what the programme has achieved.
“It’s also a chance for us to thank all of our donors and sponsors, without whom the programme wouldn’t exist. And to get as many old teachers back as possible to say thank you for joining us on this journey.”
She’s also looking forward to seeing how much alumni from previous years have developed, changed and used Dance Track as a springboard. Jakob Myers, who now dances with Ballet Cymru, will be performing in the gala, and Oscar Kempsey-Fagg, one of three brothers who have been through the programme and are now in ballet schools, will be performing a solo.
“For me, Dance Track isn’t just about learning ballet or the time you’re in the programme, it’s about changing lives,” Rebecca adds. “It’s teaching life skills, independence and focus, so they can take what they learn on this journey as they progress through their career – whether that’s in dance or not.”
Ballet Changed My Life
Dance Track 25 will also feature performances by BRB Principals Céline Gittens and Brandon Lawrence, who will be co-hosting alongside Shireenah Ingram, the Ballet’s youngest ever board member. Born and raised in Sheldon, Birmingham, Shireenah’s relationship with BRB began in 2006. She was the youngest participant in the four-part Channel 4 documentary Ballet Hoo! Ballet Changed My Life.
“I grew up in a working class area,” she says. “Luckily my school had the option to learn instruments and put on spring and summer shows, so there was always the opportunity to perform.
“In my early teens, there were a few issues at home. My grandfather, who raised me, lost his sight. I was really struggling with that, but didn’t know how to communicate it as a child. Social services got involved to try and help the dynamic at home, and one of the opportunities they found was Ballet Hoo!”
As part of the Ex Cathedra choir while at primary school, Shireenah’s earliest experience of ballet was as a chorister in Sir Peter Wright’s Nutcracker. But she had never danced before.
“It was a very intensive programme and very new for the body, but the pace gave me the confidence to say ‘I can do this’. It was around the time of my GCSEs as well, so there was a lot going on at school and in life. It was quite demanding but I learnt the discipline of it all.”
For Shireenah, this was one of the most important things she took away from the whole experience, and it has impacted her confidence and career ever since.
“I remember growing up and going into auditions or workshops and being complimented on my professionalism, how I held myself and my discipline,” she explains. “And I strongly believe that that came from having that experience so early on in my life. I never thought I’d be performing on the Hippodrome stage or moving off to London and working with big companies. It gave me confidence, vision and direction that I never knew I had.”
Now a professional actress, presenter and songwriter, last year Shireenah founded Red Lens, which specialises in acting classes and coaching to increase personal performance confidence. She’s working to expand her company alongside developing her acting career – her recent credits include Doctors, a BFI short film which was shortlisted for a BAFTA, and a Marmite ad. She is looking forward to performing, connecting and engaging with audiences and reuniting with old friends from the company at the anniversary gala.
More dance to enjoy
Dance Track 25 is followed on Sunday, May 10 by New Dance Now – a showcase of new choreographic talent. The evening will feature brand new work by the next generation of young upcoming choreographers from the UK’s leading ballet companies. At the end of the night, the audience will be asked to vote for their favourite.
The BRB’s residency at The Rep continues Friday, May 13 and Saturday, May 14 with An Evening of Music and Dance. The company’s world-class dancers will present a repertoire hand-picked by Acosta, accompanied by The Royal Ballet Sinfonia. Performances will include the famous Bluebird pas de deux from The Sleeping Beauty and the beautiful Farewell pas de deux from Kenneth MacMillan’s Winter Dreams.
Shireenah will return to host Discover Dance & Music, also on May 13 and 14 – a magical journey into ballet for audiences aged four-plus. She will be joined by conductor Philip Ellis to introduce the instruments of the Royal Ballet Sinfonia, present BRB dancers in highlights from classic ballets, and host interactive fun and games.
Birmingham Royal Ballet’s week-long residency at The Rep runs from Sunday, May 8 until Saturday, May 14. Tickets can be booked at www.birmingham-rep.co.uk