I Gatecrashed the Royal Ballet School Summer Intensive (and it was one of the best things I’ve done)

Thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic, SO many things have been cancelled in dance this year, including performances, classes, and of course summer intensives. It’s been super tough, and that’s something I’m going to discuss in more depth in a future post! However, we’re fortunate that some events and programmes were moved online, and one of those happened to be the Royal Ballet School Summer Intensive.

Whilst I’m sure it must have been really disappointing for those hoping to attend in-person, moving the RBS summer intensive programme online actually opened it up to many dancers all over the world. I thought to myself, if this programme is going to be held online, I wonder if I could have the opportunity to join?

Now, I use the term ‘gatecrash’ loosely- I am definitely older than the target audience for this intensive, BUT I do train on a pre-professional programme with 15-19 year olds so this is in line with the kind of training I do on a daily basis. The sign-up sheet didn’t explicitly state an upper age limit, but I may have knocked a few years off just in case! I wouldn’t say that this is something I encourage recreational adult dancers to do, but I think that if like me, you’re in training at that level and working towards a professional career at a later age, sometimes we need to seek out opportunities and go in via the back door! I did feel a bit sneaky signing up for an intensive that I know is usually only open to much younger dancers BUT I got SO much value out of this incredible programme that I have absolutely zero regrets.

The summer intensive consisted of a selection of Zoom classes, which you could pick-and-mix to create your own ideal intensive for up to three weeks. In the senior level, you could choose from daily technique masterclasses for women, for men, and mixed, as well as special classes for those who had access to a studio and therefore more space. There were also classes in contemporary, mime, and Pilates, as well as specific focus classes on things like ports de bras or pirouettes. There were also small-group classes available, with a limited number of participants, so that students could get individual feedback. In the interest of fairness I did not sign up to those very limited classes, and they were more expensive than I could afford at the time anyway, but the women’s classes filled up straight away.

Alongside this selection of classes was a programme of interviews and talks which were all free. I was on a very limited budget (thanks again Covid) so I couldn’t sign up for as many classes as I wanted to, but in the interest of getting a diverse experience I signed up for 2 ballet classes, a mime class, a port de bras focus class, and Pilates, as well as every single free talk available (there were lots and lots of these over the 3 weeks). I then added in another 2 Pilates classes after the first one because I absolutely loved it! I think I spent about £60 which is an absolute bargain for all the sessions I got out of it, but if you wanted to do a ballet class every day, or more than one a day, it would have amounted to much more.

I ended up with quite a few things to keep me busy each day over the three weeks and I wasn’t sure if I’d overcommitted myself by booking on to so many talks. Well, I was there with a notebook and pen for every single one and I absolutely loved them. I learned SO much incredible information. Here are the talks and interviews I participated in, in addition to the classes above:

Interviews with: Vadim Muntarigov, Steven McRae, Kit Holder, Wayne McGregor, Darcey Bussell, Matthew Ball, Kevin O’Hare, David Bintley, Marcelino Sambe, Brandon Lawrence, Yaoqian Shang, Alexander Campbell, Ed Watson, Iain Mackay, Yasmine Naghdi, Marianela Nunez, Marion Tait, Monica Mason, Laura Morera, Tyrone Singleton, Cathy Marston, Sarah Lamb and Francesca Hayward (although I missed that last one because I messed up the Zoom link!).

Plus healthy dancer talks: one on Nutrition, which was honestly groundbreaking for me, it was the most valuable talk I’ve ever participated in, and one on strength and conditioning.

I think that the Royal Ballet School really went above and beyond to create an experience that was just as valuable as an in-person intensive, in a different way. It was incredible to take the types of classes taught at the Royal Ballet School, and I imagine it was even more useful for the younger dancers who are hoping to audition at the school in the future. I really enjoyed the Pilates classes in particular- the approach was really different to any I’d taken before, and the teacher tailored the subsequent classes based on things we wanted to work on in the first week, so it was super valuable. And in the mime class we learned a section of mime from La Fille Mal Gardee- I’ve never done mime before, so this was a really enriching new experience for me. Something I should mention is that almost all the classes finished with a question and answer session with the teacher, so we had opportunities to ask questions about technique, about the teacher, career questions, etc. and get them answered. We also had the opportunity to submit questions for the interviews, so it was really exciting to have my questions answered by the likes of Kevin O’Hare!

I have pages and pages and pages of notes from this intensive, and I want to share some of my favourite pearls of wisdom with all of you:

Pearls of Wisdom from Royal Ballet Stars

  • Vadim Muntarigov had the surprising advice of working on your stamina for multiple pirouettes, because it’s one thing to do them in class, but another to perform them at the end of a challenging variation, which is usually the case in choreography!

  • Steven McRae recommends visualising a perfect performance before stepping on stage- but also having back-up plans in place in case certain things don’t come off (e.g. turns, lifts)- he says to see rehearsals as a chance to try multiple different ways of doing things. If something goes wrong, keep dancing as if you’re in the performance, and that is what gives you your back-up plan for when you’re on stage.

  • Kit Holder, First Soloist at Birmingham Royal Ballet, told a really inspiring story: when he was 18, he asked BRB for a job after having a great experience touring with them whilst in his last year at the Royal Ballet School, and got a straight up no! But, he got offered the job just a few months later over the phone when someone else left the company- so it’s always worth asking, because even if it’s not the answer you want, you might get a yes later or some other opportunity because you expressed your interest and will be kept in mind!

  • Wayne McGregor’s interview was an absolute mine of practical and inspiring advice, but some of the highlights are: Be someone who says hello when you’re in the studio or the corridors, have that human connection with your colleagues and choreographers alike; be an intelligent dancer who isn’t afraid to work hard and push; don’t sit down in the rehearsal room, be working- if you can show good work ethic in the 2nd or 3rd cast, you might well be in the first cast next time- nothing in the studio goes unnoticed!

  • Darcey Bussell had some great audition advice: be prepared to make a mistake, and don’t be afraid: how quickly you can recover from a mistake is important to a director. Also don’t shy away from moments of stillness in the dance, because they attract they eye!

  • Kevin O’Hare had some wise words on rejection- that there’s always a different path to your own goal, and in fact many dancers graduate from the Royal Ballet School and dance elsewhere before returning to join the Company later.

  • Sir David Bintley, former director of Birmingham Royal Ballet, said that being someone who can step into a role at a moment’s notice is as valuable as being able to do eight pirouettes, because in a company people need to go off every day and need to be replaced. It’s worth noting that this was a definite theme across the experiences of many dancers, who spoke about getting jobs and promotions based on being able to step in for someone else at the last moment, so take that advice seriously!

  • Marcelino Sambe talked about feeling lost when he first joined the company, and struggling to pick up choreography and covering roles- so he spent a lot of time in his first year in the company learning repertoire, and learning from videos as well.

  • Brandon Lawrence, BRB Principal, says don’t leave rehearsal and forget about it: go over it in your mind, think about it, film yourself, take notes, talk to your partners, and anything else to get the most lasting value from that time.

  • Yaoqian Shang had beautiful advice for how to get over a bad performance: firstly, to come home to good food, and remember that ballet isn’t everything in life, and also to be grateful for things such as a healthy body, other parts of the show that did go well, and that you might have the opportunity to perform it better next time.

  • Ed Watson advised that in an audition, you need to try to find a balance between knowing the rules of the ballet technique, and finding a way to express your personality within that.

  • Iain Mackay had parents who didn’t understand much about ballet, and he declined his offer to join the Royal Ballet School because his parents felt it was much too far away- and he says that this was probably the best decision that they could have made, because he continued training at home in Scotland and found an amazing teacher who helped to shape him as a dancer. So remember that something that might seem like a disappointment at the time ends up being a perfect part of your unique path!

  • Yasmine Naghdi takes a lot of interest in performance nutrition, and I loved hearing about what she eats on performance days: porridge for breakfast, lots of nuts and seeds or nut butter, and bananas or bagels with peanut butter etc. throughout the day, risotto with chicken and mushrooms about 3 hours before the performance for carbs and fats, and a hot chocolate 30 minutes before the show for some sugars, some high-carb and sugar snacks during the performance like bananas, jelly babies or flapjacks, a protein shake with water immediately after leaving the stage (within 15 minutes) to aid with recovery, and pasta for dinner at home.

  • Marinaela Nunez says that even now, as such an accomplished ballerina who has danced every principal role in the RB repertoire, she loves to be in the position of a student, and always asks for help, and loves learning and trying things differently, and recommends this approach to dancers. Always be a student, talk to your teachers and coaches, and never stop learning.

  • Marion Tate imparted so much wisdom from a long and incredible career, and said that peripheral vision is what makes a great corps de ballet dancer, because you need to check that you’re always in line! She also says that you need musicality, because you can give the corps de ballet counts, but unless they can all breathe the music together, they won’t be together.

  • Laura Morera spoke openly about how losing her father led to her becoming more fearless on stage. She said; “Put everything out there, and if you fail at least you failed with 100%. And if you succeed, you’ll succeed 100%”.

  • Sarah Lamb believes that the pandemic could separate those for whom dance is a calling from those to whom it is a job; she recommends asking yourself, “can I live without it?”, because this is such a difficult career that you need that level of drive and passion

I hope that these bits of advice are as inspiring to you as they have been to me- this is only a tiny selection of all of the amazing insights from this course.

This was definitely one of the highlights of lockdown for me, and I’ll be taking all the wisdom I learned forwards in my dance journey from here on. Sometimes when an opportunity comes along, instead of seeking out permission, it’s best to just go for it and get every bit of value you can from the experience!

Let me know if you participated as well!

Keep dancing,

Jessica x

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