English National Ballet School | Behind the barre
This year I am following two English National Ballet School (ENBS) students; one in the first year and one in the third (graduate) year. The latest available Ofsted inspection report (2008) gave the three year National Diploma in Professional Dance (classical ballet) an ‘outstanding’ grade. The report goes on to say “students respond with vigour to the very high expectations that teachers have of them, and appreciate the balance of demanding challenge and personal support they each receive.”
I would like to introduce you to Mlindi Kulashe from Cape Town, South Africa and Ellie Sharpe from Devon, England. I will be focusing on Mlindi very shortly; for now, I’d like to share with you Ellie’s inspirational story.
Ballet student Ellie Sharpe
Ellie is a 3rd year student, which means that she will shortly be auditioning with ballet companies around the world with the aim of securing her first professional contract. The Ofsted report for 2008 said “the school has a target of 85% of graduating diploma students to gain related employment within six months of leaving; it exceeded that target for those who left in 2006 and 2007, and has already met it for those who left in 2008.” Two years on, the employment landscape is very different, with the recent funding cuts making it quite possibly the hardest ever year to graduate.
Ellie is a great communicator, a mixture of Royal Ballet Principal Lauren Cuthbertson and (retired Principal) Darcey Bussell in looks and technique, and I recently spent a day with her to observe her in class and to chat with her. In pointe class, I saw Ellie being put through her paces by teacher Linda Moran with piqué, soutenu, chassé, coupé, jeté topped off with chaînés turns. The exercises are repeated, turning both ways – something that is very difficult for most dancers. Ellie is naturally a right turner and later tells me that “turns are my thing, pretty much any kind of turn. I’d say if I was doing one step to try to impress you, that’s what I’d do. But I also love to jump, because I love that feeling. I love sauté de basque, that feeling of turning again but in the air, it’s just wonderful.” None of the girls are particularly keen on the adage pointe exercises, but Ellie has a poise and winning confidence and she stands out even when the steps are difficult. Later Ellie practices her variations for the Christmas performances. She wears Bloch Serenade Strong after being taught by Sarah Lamb (a Bloch Ambassador) at the Wells Ballet course.
Freed’s come in to fit the 1st year students but “we don’t have anyone from Bloch. When you first arrive you know what pointe shoes you like. The thing is the intensity of the dance and whether your pointe shoes are going to stay strong, because you do go through them like this (clicks fingers). I get through a pair a week; it’s literally breaking the bank.”
I ask Ellie whether she had any guidance when it came to choosing pointe shoes, “we’ve been taught where to sew our ribbons and elastics. I do take a lot of care with it. I am one of those people; I like to be well presented and that’s something I care about a lot, but we haven’t really been told about vamps or wings. I knew that I liked a three quarter back because my feet are very arched and so I break them quite quickly and I wanted them to bend more at the top rather than in the middle. So actually, I did my own research on pointe shoes. I also went to Bob Martin, and chatted to him.”
Early ballet years
Ellie grew up in Devon, and ballet entered her life when her mum found a way to use up her excess energy, “I was quite hyper active as a child and my mother was told ‘oh, perhaps you should take Ellie to ballet lessons and wear her out a bit.’” Her mum is an accountant and there was no family history of ballet, so Ellie blazed a trail via The Royal Ballet School mid and senior Associates (she describes Saturday’s as “the most exciting day of my week. I had two friends who came with me and it was the most exciting thing. We got on the train together and we went on our own. My first year would have been when I was 14 and then I did the last year when I was 15, but I actually came to ENBS when I was 15 because I’m a year ahead academically”), and then to English National Ballet School. Travelling to London every weekend helped because “when it got to senior associates I went to the upper school which was great because I got to know about London, and when I first came to ENBS I knew how to get around and it wasn’t so scary.”
I ask when Ellie decided that vocational ballet was for her and whether she knew what to expect, “well, no, I mean I wanted to do well in my GCSE’s and did really well. I got all A stars and A’s so I was really happy and my mum was too. You can’t do ballet when you’re old, so I wanted to give it my best shot and I’m so passionate about it. For me, dancing is the music, expressing the music through my body, and emotional dancing. I love story ballets. I didn’t know how intensive it would be. You arrive and it’s 8.30-6.30 every day. First year, I think you’re just so excited to finally be here, you just go for it, but then throughout the year you get tired and you push yourself. It’s really disciplined and really hard.”
But the hard work paid off, “I was really lucky at the end of my first year here, I got to dance the Principal role in the 3rd year ballet, at the end of my 1st year, which was just incredible. I did a pas de deux in Elite Syncopations. I mean, it was just incredible. That feeling. Because you work so hard throughout the year, and I just want to go on the stage; I want to perform, that’s what I love doing. To have that opportunity was just fantastic. Because it’s funny, it has to look like it’s on the spur of the moment it happens, so although you’re so practiced and so rehearsed you have to make it look spontaneous, which is actually really difficult, and make it look funny as well without making it look too over the top and exaggerated. It’s difficult. So, I finished my first year on a high and I was really excited.”
In ballet, you can never be sure of anything, and this is never truer than when training. Ellie says “I did competitions and they went really well and I was getting a lot of good feedback. Just after Christmas, Michael Corder came into the school to watch class. I’m one of those people – I’m desperate to impress – I’m a dedicated person and I love to dance and I want people to see that about me when they come in to watch me. I was lucky enough to be picked to be part of his ballet, which was just so exciting; to work with the choreographer as well – they’re few and far between so to have that opportunity was great. Not only that, but I was cast in the pas de trois of three girls. I was the solo girl with two girls behind and it was just the most gorgeous dance, it really suited me. But then, I was having a bit of pain in my hips, but I’d been having it for two years before coming to ENBS so I didn’t really know what it was. I was an amateur at that point and I didn’t have physiotherapy. I saw the physiotherapist quite a few times throughout my 1st & 2nd year and it was always about the same kind of things, but I’d have a massage and then feel ok so I carried on. But then I started to realise that this pain wasn’t really that normal and it was getting worse the more intensively I worked. And so the physiotherapist said perhaps we should go and get some scans and see what’s going on.”
At this point Ellie says “I couldn’t even bring my knees to my chest, it was painful; I could not do that. We started yoga, and yoga’s supposed to be a relaxing thing and I couldn’t do it. It was all parallel and contemporary. It was a nightmare. So, thinking it was just tendonitis or something, or I was hoping that was what it would be, I was referred to a great surgeon.” The earth-shattering news Ellie had to deal with was that the scans had revealed bone spurs on both hips. In fact, the hip that gave her slightly less pain was actually worse, physically. She was told that she had almost two hips in one socket, stretching the ligaments and cartilage and that the bone was crumbling. They would operate on each hip, but she would have to take time to recover from the first operation before the second could be attempted.
This is never good news for any dancer but Ellie had been cast in Michael Corder’s ballet, “it was just such a shock and I had to come back in and tell Michael that I couldn’t dance in his ballet. This was a role that I’d created and absolutely loved, and because so badly you want to impress, and you get so few opportunities to be seen. To think I had to come in and tell one of the most prestigious classical choreographers of the time that I couldn’t dance in his ballet was just mortifying.”
Mentally, it’s as tough to go through a long injury as it is physically. “I had one done, and it went really well, but just – shocking – to be sitting at home on your sofa, knowing that the rest of your class are dancing is just very difficult. And then to have the other side done and know that you’re going to be repeating exactly the same thing, you feel like you’re stuck in a rut and you’re never going to get out of it. Of course you can see the light at the end of the tunnel, hopefully, but you don’t know whether the operation will have worked.”
During this recovery time, the clock was ticking inexorably towards the end of 2nd year, and Ellie had missed at least half of it. “For the time that I was dancing I obviously wasn’t performing to my fullest because I was in pain.” And so Ellie and her teachers came to the conclusion that she should repeat 2nd year, and now Ellie can reflect and say “I’ve realised now that in 3rd year you train for a bit but then the auditions come, and I wouldn’t have been ready to do that, and so it was the best thing to do.”
You’d think this would be enough for a teenager to cope with, wouldn’t you ? But there was more to come. “I was just so eager to get back that I think that I just threw myself into it and I wasn’t the conscious or thinking dancer that I usually was, because I so wanted to get back doing Grand Battements and everything else. I worked in the wrong way and I built the wrong muscles and I wasn’t me; I wasn’t the dancer I was, if you understand. And it upset me because I thought that I was working really hard, trying to get back but actually I’d been doing the opposite. I should have been doing it slowly and thinking about what I was doing. I should have taken it as a new start when you can correct all your errors but instead I created more.”
I ask Ellie what advice she was receiving from her teachers at this time, and she says that the physiotherapist, knowing that she was a thinking dancer, had suggested that she go into class and try everything. Red rag to a bull. Her teacher “did at first [try to ease her into training], but then time went on and it seemed like I should be doing that. I can’t even really remember what I was thinking; I just knew that I wanted to get back and prove myself because I felt that I’d let everyone down because I’d gone off in 2nd year. And then the Christmas show came and I was lucky – Michael became director of the school and I thought ‘here’s another chance.’” Ellie did get that second chance, and also danced the Brown Girls from Les Patineurs. “It was great. A lot of stamina needed, I felt ‘ok, I came back and I’m doing this,’ but actually as time went on I realised that I’d just created this body that was more like a body builder than a slender ballerina.”
More trouble was in store when the Easter appraisals arrived, “I wasn’t looking good. I was really, not out of shape, but the wrong shape. Muscular in all the wrong places. My quadriceps; everything was just dense muscle rather than slender, long, and the teacher said to me, ‘we’re not sure that you’re right for 3rd year.’”
Ballet’s Anya Evans
But Ellie is nothing if not a fighter, and every cell within her vibrates with positivity, which is just as well. “And that, for my life, was the biggest wake-up call. I thought that my operations were bad but I’d come back, I knew what I had to work on, but I kept thinking, ‘oh, it’s fine, I’m coming back, I’m rehabbing still.’ I wasn’t. And then, I wanted to dance, and the thought of giving it all up after two hip operations, you know, this was my passion, my dream, this is what I wanted to do, and I said ‘is there any way I could change it around’ and they said ‘well, you work hard over the Easter holidays and we’ll see, we can’t make any promises but we’ll fight for you’, with all of the artistic staff, Anya Evans and Larissa Bamber, who were my rocks, literally.”
“So that Easter I went away and I worked really hard, Anya, luckily enough, said come to my gym and do yoga and I went, I was religiously doing it. And within two weeks I changed; literally I changed. I came back and everybody went ‘Ellie my God what’s happened to you ?’ and that was just that feeling of ‘wow, I can do something about it and I want this, so I will do everything within my power to do it.’”
A fortnight goes by and the interview looms, “I was pleased that everyone could see a difference but I still wasn’t confident enough to say ‘oh well I’ve got it, that’s fine’. I walked into the office and I was shaking. Desperate to hear some good news but having the negativity in the back of my mind. Michael said, ‘we’d like to offer you 3rd year’ and I think I jumped on him and kissed him; you know, to have a second chance was just the best thing.”
Now in her 3rd year, Ellie has a new teacher, Linda Moran, “I think it’s great to have a brand new teacher because I feel like it’s a blank page and I can really start again and she’s wonderful. She’s such an intelligent teacher and I’m learning so much from her already. There is so much information that I want to take from her and it’s almost overwhelming, this knowledge that you need to put into your body. And obviously auditions are coming up.”
Indeed. The thinking dancer emerges when I ask Ellie where she would like to dance, and given her love of story ballets she doesn’t hesitate to say Northern Ballet. She would also love to dance Balanchine; she is a tall dancer and feels the style would suit her.
Ellie loves artistry over extreme, “ballet at the moment has got a bit, I’d say, physical. You know what I mean ? It’s got very contorted. A lot of choreographers are thinking outside of the box and are willing to push everything to extremes and make people go ‘wow’. We’re actually losing the real technique, but not just the technique. You look at Margot Fonteyn and how she could convey the story and her chemistry. Altynai Asylmuratova is literally my inspiration as a dancer. She’s just – you watch her and you believe her. You’re not even thinking about the steps. She’s an actress in her own right, and that’s what I would like to be seen as, one day. A person who moves people when I dance as well, rather than someone just making them say ‘wow’, because as much as someone can kick their leg above their head, if they kept doing it you’d get bored of it.”
Ellie will shortly be auditioning, and with the school Christmas performances coming up, it’s a very busy time.
I will be bringing you the next instalment in Ellie’s story very soon.