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Baby ballerinas


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Alicia Markova was dancing leading roles with the Ballets Russes when she was 14. Beryl Grey danced Odette-Odile with the Vic-Wells company on her 15th birthday. Margot Fonteyn was the star of the Vic-Wells at 16 when Markova left. The Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo was built up around the talents of a couple of 12-year-olds and a 14-year-old.

 

Wouldn't happen now. Just about the most we'll see in the major companies is a star student being given a soloist role or two during her graduation year. I know the training is more rigorous these days, but the choreography these baby ballerinas danced is still in the repertoire. Yet they'd never stick a 15-year-old student onstage as Odette-Odile these days. The ROH Board would have a fit if they were told that this 16-year-old kid is now the prima ballerina.

 

Just wondering what's changed. Are the technical requirements so much greater now that Beryl Grey and Alicia Markova wouldn't have been ready till they were 18? Are there just more dancers around so it isn't necessary to push any of them? Are company directors less willing to take risks? Are audiences more sophisticated? Or are a bunch of possible stars being held back unnecessarily? 

Edited by Melody
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Well it did happen with London Festival Ballet (now ENB) in the mid-1980s with 16yos Trinidad Sevillano and Katherine Healey who were both principals.

 

As a ballet-watching newbie I did not realise just how wonderful Trini was until I recently saw some clips of her on You Tube, I just knew I loved her!

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I expect it is more to do with current legislation about the hours children are allowed to rehearse and work on-stage.  Many West End shows cast children but they have to have 2 or 3 casts to ensure no child works too many hours.  Unlike actors, dancers also have to do class daily plus attend rehearsals, so an under-18 would soon run out of hours she/he could legally work.

 

Monica Mason was asked about taking on young stars Marianella Nunez and Alina Cojocaru and in at least one case I'm sure she said the company would have been happy to offer a professional contract when the dancer was still in her teens but had to comply with the law and wait until she reached her majority.

 

When you consider how short a dancer's career is, it does seem a pity that the law intervenes in this way but perhaps there are sound physical or psychological reasons?  Young principals have been known to burn out under the pressure so perhaps they need more time to mature before being thrown in the deep end.

 

Linda

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IN those days, when these young dancers of 14 & 15 became professional dancers, the school leaving age was 14, so most 14 year olds left school for full time employment.  However as these dancers were so young, they still needed chaperones and many mothers accompanied their daughters.  This is where the "dance mothers" originated!

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I believe that young people now have to be in education or training until they are 18, although they can work part time (20 hours per week). Does that mean that it would no longer be possible for 16 and 17 year old dancers to join ballet companies? Or could classes and rehearsals be classed as training?

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In the case of Marianela Nunez, she was dancing professionally in Argentina at 14. When she was effectively recruited by the RB, she was too young to join the company so had to join the RBS. She could only join the company at 16 as it's illegal in the UK for anyone younger to work.

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The school leaving age keeps rising all the time. I do believe it is now 18 after being 17 for ages. But I'm sure that had something to do with why younger dancers could be employed.

When I started school in the 50's the school leaving age was 14 then by the time I got to that age it had gone up to 15. Somewhere I the 70's I think it went to 16 and seemed to be that for ages.

 

You can work before the age of 18 but the hours would be restricted. Presumably the Theatre world has to keep up with the current laws on employment .......even if a 16 or 17 year old would be perfectly capable of working for longer!!

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I don't think that many dancers join companies under the age of 18 these days, at least in the UK. Whether this is to do with employment law I don't know. However, according to her bio, Beatrix S-B was 15 when she started dancing professionally in the US. I read somewhere that Shiori Kase was 17 when she joined ENB but I wonder whether this is in fact correct. Sergei Polunin was put up 2 years when he joined the RBS and so he must have joined the RB at 17. A couple of years ago a French woman whom I met at the Coli told me that her 17 year old nephew had just joined the POB.

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Despite the fact that most schools begin at 8.45am-9am so my dd at vocational school can have a 9am ballet class. Children working in theatre are not allowed to rehearse or be in the theatre (which would include Company Class) before 10am

 

Children also have to have a break of at least 14 hours after a performance the day before , so for example if they perform on Monday until 10.30pm they are not allowed to rehearse until 12.30pm the next day.

(Just realised the panto dd was in a couple of years ago broke these rules!!!)

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I just checked, and the school leaving age was raised to 16 in 1972.  It is being extended so that:

 

This requires them to continue in education or training to the age of 17 from 2013 and to 18 from 2015. Young people will be able to choose whether to stay in full-time education, undertake work-based learning such as an Apprenticeship, or part-time education or training if they are employed, self-employed or volunteering for more than 20 hours per week.

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In the UK also,  training is geared towards dancers doing their professional training at 16+ in the upper schools so I would find it difficult to imagine a dancer coming through the UK schools being company ready at 16.  This is regardless of the changes in law for school leaving age.  After all, its only in the last couple of years that this change took place and up til then 16 year olds could work full time.

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Dancers mature at different ages - some may indeed be 'ready' to perform professionally at 15, while others not until 19 (or anything in between) though rarely beyond  that age for classical dancers.

Just as some dancers are ready for principal roles at 19 and others not until 27 or more, or anything in between, or not at all...

Sadly more and more 'rules' don't allow for individual differences - more's the pity

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I guess the responsibility of working full-time for a company and fulfilling all the obligations required might put too much pressure on young dancers, even if they are performance-ready. Perhaps on balance it would be better to avoid the risk of early burn-out at the expense of one or two extra years of performing for dancers, especially if they are likely to bloom in the company anyway. And I guess in the UK they are obliged to finish school too.

 

Is this what the RB apprentice program was for? I remember following Yuhui Choe and Maria Kotchetkova with great interest while they were apprentices. I don't know how old they were at the time though, 17 or 18? Are there still apprentices in the company?

 

It would be interesting to make a comparison with sports. I know there are limits in some sports, but doesn't swimming allow for very young athletes to compete, as young as 13 in the London Olympics? Who draws the lines?

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In the UK also,  training is geared towards dancers doing their professional training at 16+ in the upper schools so I would find it difficult to imagine a dancer coming through the UK schools being company ready at 16.  This is regardless of the changes in law for school leaving age.  After all, its only in the last couple of years that this change took place and up til then 16 year olds could work full time.

 

 I wondered if that might be part of the reason. It seems that most of the baby ballerinas were hired by companies at a time when there weren't many formal ballet schools attached to companies in western Europe, and most dancers were getting lessons privately under conditions of much less overall structure and uniformity among schools.

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Interesting to note that the many Japanese soloists and principals in companies throughout the world have no fear of technical virtuosity:

From early training they are used to performing and competing, learn soloist and principal roles from the classical repertoire - and there is not the 'learn to do one pirouette correctly before you go on to two' - or even worse, rules about at which year's study this or that step is learned, with no thought about the individual's strengths and weaknesses as in so many formal schools...

The challenges against classical dancers being even more prevalent from Japan, are to do with physical esthetique, so those with good physiques (I do not say ideal) are the rarity rather then the norm there.

There is a great deal to be said for launching into difficult steps before the teenage 'uncomfortable' years - then the dancer can concentrate on refining the technique and the innumerable artistic possibilities of style, musicality, story telling, stagecraft etc, through the rest of their training and dance career...

Rather then, as often happens, as soon as a difficult combination arises, the dancer needs to overcome fear of them in rehearsals, thus wasting valuable time.    And fearing Fouettees or Manege for instance, can create enormous nervous tension and fear before and during the actual performance...

- Eliminate the fear as soon as possible in thioe who have the capacity even if the steps are far from perfect, and have a good time refining and exploring the artistic component.

Much more fulfilling career!

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  • 2 years later...

I saw an interview with Margot Fonteyn on YouTube the other day where she said she'd started dancing professionally at 14 or so, and that she thought it was better - certainly easier - to start young than to stay in school until 18 and wait till the early 20s before tackling the major roles, because there's been so long to worry about it and people expect so much more.

 

Of course, this is the view of someone who was dancing the major roles from early on and not stuck in the corps for 20 years.

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It really was a case of being in the right place at the right time.  Ninette de Valois decided to make Fonteyn the successor to Alicia Markova as there were no other suitable dancers. So  Fonteyn was the top of the tree from then on for many decades, which as the company grew, effectively blocked the promotion prospects of some other dancers.  I am a great admirer of Fonteyn, so this is not trying to denigrate her, just saying how it was.  

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Not a baby ballerina, but Natalia Makarova was one. From what I remember from her autobiography, she defected while guesting with the RB (dancing with Nureyev) but the RB management didn't want to push out Fonteyn, who was well past her prime at this stage. Still RB's loss was ABT's gain.

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1 hour ago, trog said:

Not a baby ballerina, but Natalia Makarova was one. From what I remember from her autobiography, she defected while guesting with the RB (dancing with Nureyev) but the RB management didn't want to push out Fonteyn, who was well past her prime at this stage. Still RB's loss was ABT's gain.

 

She did not, she defected from the Kirov ballet.  The idea that the Soviets would allow her to dance as a guest with Nureyev, of all people. is preposterous.

 

Markarova appeared with the RB as a guest over a lengthy period, initially she did dance with Nureyev, but to say the two didn't get on would be an understatement and her favoured partner was always Anthony Dowell.  Just as today a section of the RB audience was hostile towards guests and despite excelling in MacMillan's ballets she never joined the company permanently.

 

Was Fonteyn past her prime in the 1970's?  Not in the eyes of an audience that paid premium prices to see her, would queue out all night in Floral Street for a return or standing place and never let her leave the stage until they had applauded her for at least half an hour.  Fonteyn was by the way on equal footing with Markarova as far as official opera house status went as both were designated guest artists.

 

I'm told autobiographies can sometimes be prone to memory lapses.

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1 hour ago, Pas de Quatre said:

It was said that Merle Park always ended up playing second fiddle to Fonteyn when she should have been the company's top ballerina.  So it was just a logjam.

 

If there was a log jam it wasn't caused by Fonteyn whose international career touring with Nureyev coincided with most of Ms Park's time as an RB principal.   There was an awful lot of competition for "top ballerina", particularly from Lynn Seymour and Antoinette Sibley, both of whom were favoured by Ashton and MacMillan.  Merle Park came into her own (deservedly) towards the end of her career, her misfortune was to be an exact contemporary of so many equally dazzling talents within the RB at the time she danced with them.

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Yet while Fonteyn was "blocking" the advancement of other dancers Ashton and MacMillan were working with the great dancers of the second generation;creating great roles for dancers like Beriosova, Nerina, Seymour and Sibley of a style and type that, for the main part,would never have suited Fonteyn. I seem to recall reading that with Fonteyn as guest artist Beriosova was seen as  the Empress and Sibley seen as the Crown Princess.

 

It seems to me that Park perpetually played second fiddle to others, she was second cast to Nerina in Fille and second cast to Sibley in the Dream. She came into her own as a partner for Nureyev in roles which would not have suited Fonteyn such as Clara in his Nutcracker.One of the problems for her was that she was seen by many as a soubrette. She came to roles like Odette Odile quite late in her career and when it was announced that she was to dance these roles quite a lot of the older regulars thought that she was totally unsuited as she was a soubrette. When finally a major role was created on her, the role of Isadora, it did not work. Ashton reputedly said that the decision to create Isadora on Park was the greatest artistic mistake that  MacMillan had ever made.

 

But when you have a company so full of gifted dancers, as the company then was, you have to know what to stage in order to develop your current crop of dancers as artists and what to stage for the generation following on behind the current crop. Arguably something which the RB did not entirely succeed in doing. As far as fourteen year old performers are concerned you have to remember that most people left school at fourteen in the 1920's and 30's and having fourteen year olds employed was the norm in most areas of employment. Today it is not.

 

As far as allowing  dancers to begin dancing classical roles early in their careers without the burden of excess expectation was not that what the old Touring Company was for? By the time that Fonteyn gave the interview in which she spoke about it being better to start young the Touring Company had been disbanded and had been replaced by the New Group which by then had been transformed into SWRB with a somewhat different remit. Although it was planned that both Benjamin and Bussell would go to that company and learn their craft there

Benjamin left and MacMillan decided to make Prince of the Pagodas on Bussell and she was transferred to the main company.

 

I am not sure that the past provides particularly useful lessons for the present except perhaps that you should not take your eye off the next generation while you are catering for the artistic needs of the artists who are currently at the top of the company. Things went wrong in the late seventies and eighties. Let us hope that  things do not go wrong again.

Edited by FLOSS
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2 hours ago, FLOSS said:

 

But when you have a company so full of gifted dancers, as the company then was, you have to know what to stage in order to develop your current crop of dancers as artists and what to stage for the generation following on behind the current crop.

 

This applies no less today and I am not altogether convinced that the major UK ballet companies all have the balance 'right' - nor, indeed, that dancer development is a sufficiently prominent consideration in programming.

 

But I am taking us away from the headline topic.........

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19 hours ago, MAB said:

Just as today a section of the RB audience was hostile towards guests

 

Except(?) that today the perceived "hostility" is largely down to the fact that a number of the roles they are taking are perceived as being ones which could equally well be taken by suitable dancers within the company, and that there don't appear to be any compelling artistic reasons to invite a guest.

 

OTOH, I dare say I could manage to put up with David Hallberg for a couple of Giselles ;)

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