Birmingham Royal Ballet retains to this day the philosophy instilled in it by its Irish founder, writes Julia Molony
Sadlers Wells ballet was founded by a formidable and beautiful Irish woman from Wicklow. Ninette de Valois (born Edris Stannus) was a focused and determined woman from the first. Early signs of her fierce character were apparent from childhood; elocution lessons to correct her Irish accent into a more English style were firmly rebuffed, and at a party she attended as a child, she announced, unbidden, that she would be performing a jig. At the age of seven, she went to see Sleeping Beauty at the Gaiety Theatre, an experience that changed her life, starting off an education that would form her into a globally recognised pioneer and innovator in ballet – at a time when the form was dominated by the French and Italians.
Her legacy in Dublin lives on. Next month, the ballet she founded in the UK, now called the Birmingham Royal Ballet is coming back here, bringing Giselle to the Bord Gais Energy Theatre.
In 1990, Sadlers Wells Ballet became the Birmingham Royal Ballet, moving up to its new home in the heart of Britain's second city, where it has thrived for 23 years. It's an amazing place, and retains a deep respect for and allegiance to its Irish founder – her portrait hangs on the walls to remind students of the legacy they share.
Ballet, it turns out, when I visited the company in their impressive home in the Hippodrome, looks quite different up close. "It's quite visceral," explains Paul Murphy, principle conductor of the BRB, and he's right. Walking into the boys' rehearsal room is like walking into a football lockerroom, but with more energy. There's something about watching these elite, highly trained dancers that seems like witnessing something beyond human, such is the grace and the skill they express with their bodies. The abstract, otherworldly beauty that we watch from the auditorium seems rougher, more real at close range.
"Sometimes it can be a bit heated," jokes the Northern Ireland-born Murphy, "but only when you get an Irish man in the room."
The current artistic director of Birmingham Ballet, David Bintley, was a former student of Ninette de Valois, and a favourite of hers. "Everybody called her Madam," he remembers. She'd retired 12 years before he went to the Royal Ballet school, but "she still used to hang around the school all the time, and she was really, really very frightening and scary. All the teachers and staff and older people were really scared of her, and the students".
They struck up a rapport when he was learning a solo of hers, "the Satan solo from her Job," he remembers. "She came in and I don't know why, but she made a beeline for me, she took my hand and ignored the rest of the class, ignored the teacher and went through the solo with me. She was the most extraordinary woman that I ever met.
"Thank God, she did take to me and I had a really, really close relationship with her for many years... well as close as one could have with, you know, a god."
Bintley is adamant that the company under his stewardship retains its founding principles. "I have a strong feeling about this company, it's been through many names but it's been the touring company, all the way through its life, whether it's been in Birmingham or at Sadlers Wells. And that company seems to me to reflect the original company, before it got to Sadlers Wells and before it got to the Royal Opera house and sat into plush surrounds, pampered and petted and famous. I feel that this company still has the same philosophy."
That's why we'll be lucky enough to see the Birmingham Royal ballet's Giselle; a production that's perfectly formed and ready to travel, bringing the haunting story of a village girl who falls for a prince, and then dies of love, to audiences in Ireland and all around the UK.
David, as director and choreographer, has added contextual details, surrounding Giselle's village with mountains, setting the second act in a ruined church, to add his visual signature as well as grounding the plot in realistic details.
"I think it has a great dramatic story," he explains. "It's fantastical, it's about spirits and ghosts and things like that. I zeroed in on the realism of this community, it's very cut off, so we have very high mountains in the beginning. And then we move into this fantasy world, where these rural folklore stories become fact. I have changed it around to give a greater realism, to give the shock of the drama, and then the supernatural aspect that much more of a basis in fact, to make them more believable, if you want to believe in ghosts"
"Giselle," he says, "is the greatest ballet of the romantic period. This accounts for its more esoteric, fantastical elements. The women then were seen as fairies, spirits, sprites."
Only the best dancers from all over the world are chosen to join the company; Italian prima ballerina Ambra Vallo, a sprightly, blonde beauty will give her final performance in Dublin, retiring after a long and illustrious career. No doubt the Dublin performances will be a bittersweet swansong for her.
Other principles in this production include dancing couple Jenna Roberts from Australia, and Iain Mackay who defies every cliche of a male ballet dancer; he is tall, strong, looks like he could have been a football player if he wasn't a ballerina and comes from Glasgow, of all places. He was hand picked by Bintley to join the Birmingham Royal Ballet.
"I like the physicality of it and I like entertaining, I like being on stage, that sort of aspect of it," he says.
"My brother dances and he was older than me. He was the only boy in the class and he wanted to go because he enjoyed Fame and musicals and all of that, so I went along with him to keep him company. I think my dad was a bit shocked it happened. He still is, I think," he says with a laugh.
The elegant Jenna Roberts is from a small town in Australia and has been dancing since she was six. "When I was 13, we got tickets to go and see the Australian Ballet perform Madame Butterfly ... that was the first time for me that I thought, 'That's what I want to do'. I thought it was the most amazing ballet I'd ever seen. It was so beautiful," she says.
What makes a good ballet partnership? "A lot of it is about trust," Iain says. "The more you work with that person, the more you gain their trust. You know they are always going to give 100pc, technically, emotionally, when they're on that stage. You give everything to it, both of you."
'Giselle' comes to the Bord Gais Energy Theatre from July 4-6. Tickets from €25 on sale now. See www.ticketmaster.ie or call 0818 719 377