When I meet Maria Engel, co-incidentally on the opening day of the Christmas ice rink at Somerset House, she is wearing newly acquired and utterly fabulous skyscraper heels. Beaming her usual mega-watt smile at me, she drops into the conversation that she is a good skater. I fear that there may be a clause in her contract forbidding such precarious activity and thank my lucky stars that a giant Tiffany blue box provides immediate distraction.
Photos throughout : Mo Greig
Maria started ballet classes in her native Germany at Ballet und Tanzstudio Beatrix Klein aged three and a half, because her Mum spotted her flexibility and passion for spinning in their living room. Initially going once a week after school, by the age of 12 her teachers, (Beatrix Klein, Christine Steiniger, Elaine Underwood, Galina Georgieva-Weber & Jadwiga Antony) recognising her potential, suggested gradually increasing the number of classes until she was dancing daily, only having Sundays off.
Auditions, the bane of any dancers life, followed for companies in Germany and abroad, including Elmhurst, a vocational school associated with the excellent Birmingham Royal Ballet. Maria says of her first visit “when I went with my mum to Elmhurst, it was so friendly and my mum felt really comfortable with the school, which seemed really like home, and I felt really comfortable.” Maria was accepted, and the sixth form students train intensively for three years towards the National Diploma in Professional Dance, which is recognised as the vocational equivalent of an honours degree. By the time they graduate, students are expected to have mastered a range of techniques and to have developed the maturity needed to take responsibility for their own future in dance.
Maria praises her teachers for guiding her towards these goals. “The thing is, at the beginning I didn’t really speak that much English, and then I came here and I didn’t go home for the first month. That was the first time I’ve ever been far away from home.” It took only a few weeks to settle in and get used to fast-spoken English, a testament to the pastoral care at the school.
Ofsted (The Office of Standards in Education) inspected this course in January 2008 and the report listed the school’s key strengths as ‘very good and outstanding teaching; highly effective strategic management; high technical standards; high standards of performance in productions; thorough pastoral and academic support; effective staff appraisal.’ Students, just like Maria, speak most highly of the support they receive and ‘the friendly atmosphere’ of the school, which aims to produce ‘thinking dancers’.
During her final year Maria performed Elite Syncopations – “it’s a great show to do”, and toured with Birmingham Royal Ballet in The Firebird. “You get the credit of your hard work back as soon as you step on stage.” The audition process began again, this time for professional work, and I asked Maria whether she had considered going home to work in a ballet company there, but she replied “I really like to speak English. You know, it’s so strange, going home, for the first two days, I can’t speak, because you use different muscles, and when I’m on the phone to my Mum I start talking English to her. It’s really strange, because I think a lot in English, I think more in English than I do in German.”
Maria’s approach to auditioning is to look through the profile pictures of the dancers in the Company, and with her own profile picture in her head, tries to work out whether her face might fit, “because sometimes the Company goes for a certain look which you can then see in their programmes.”
Ballet Theatre UK, Britain’s newest classical ballet company, was auditioning at this time, and Maria travelled to London and was asked to perform a solo. She chose Kitri from Don Quixote, which company Director & Choreographer Chris Moore describes as “completely the other end of the spectrum from Sugar Plum, but I could just see that she was someone that I could work with and that she would create the image that I was hoping to go for with it.”
Chris cast ten dancers for his new production of The Nutcracker, with two alternating casts to cover all the roles. From the start of the audition Chris knew that he wanted to cast Maria, “well, to be honest, to be perfectly honest, she was the first one that we decided to offer a contract to, and we sussed that out pretty much within the barre work and the class really. Just because she presented such a finish with her work and she seemed to dance with quite a lot of maturity and a lot of style, which is quite unique in someone that’s obviously just left college and is on their first contract. She really shone out because of that style and her athletic dynamic that I was really looking for without it being someone non-expressive and just legs and technique. It was quite clear that she could act a little bit through her dance which was exactly what I wanted. There are so many things; style really was the biggest thing, she looked so right for it and has such energy in her dancing.”
In fact, such was the standard of Maria’s dancing that Chris had quite a task on his hands to find a suitable partner for her. “I did find then after we decided to cast her, it was difficult to find a guy that would be suitable for her, to find a guy that was of a good enough standard. So then luckily we found Diarmaid.”
Just two weeks before the end of her training at Elmhurst, Maria received the news that she had been offered a contract. After screaming with a mixture of relief and excitement, she phoned home. “I was so happy, I was crying down the phone to my Dad.”
Maria, the youngest girl in the Company, was cast as the Sugar Plum Fairy.
I spent some time with the dancers at final rehearsals, where they were already portraying excellent characterization. I could see how impressive all of the dancers would be once they were in the theatre, as Maria highlights “well, once you are in the theatre, and you have the lights, the props, and you wear the costume, it’s completely different. It makes it about fifty per cent more than you are doing already. It just brings out the character; I’m actually wearing that red dress, something to be proud of, I actually get the necklace.“
What about the fiendishly tricky Gargouillades ? “It’s the way of approaching things and thinking. For example, I had coaching with my ballet teachers at Elmhurst who said, ‘think of the second leg coming in’, but for me it was really hard, and then they told me ‘bring your foot to the knee’ and that would make it work for me. So it’s just about approaching things in a way that you understand. The solo is hard because the Sugar Plum variation is pure classical ballet; it’s so pure that you can see any mistakes.”
Maria’s Prince, Diarmaid O’Meara, says of dancing with her “Maria has real elegance when she dances, not only physically but a sense of poise and maturity. We very quickly gained each others trust which makes dancing with her a joy, and her openness allows us to improve with each performance. I hope that we’ll have many opportunities to dance together after this tour. “
In the famous Sugar Plum pas de deux, Maria has to trust Diarmaid “because if you are turning on pointe, on one leg, it’s the boy who saves you or puts you on your leg. And I love Diarmaid to bits. He’s so funny. I do trust Diarmaid and I know that he will be there. It gets better every time. Every performance is different but the more we do it, I think I get more secure.”
I reviewed one of their performances recently and watched Maria dance with elegant, long clean lines, and a warm, expressive face. Secure in the choreography and in her partner, Maria fouttés effortlessly upstage and launches into the fish dives with ferocious abandon. But there is more, which is what Chris also saw in the auditions. Maria has a rare luminosity, she dances like a single dust mote dancing in a beam of light cast by the brilliance of her technique but also by her innate intelligence as a dancer.
The particular challenges of being on tour – new theatre each time, maybe a raked stage, the travelling – meant that at their first dress rehearsal the stage was a tight fit for the choreography, so adjustments were rapidly made and the cast adapted easily. “You have to be really secure on the choreography though, to then get the placement right.”
Equally testing is knowing that friends and family are in the audience. In Tamworth last week Maria had three of her teachers from Elmhurst watching – Errol Pickford, Elizabeth Rae and Donald Tolj, and she says “I know they’ve seen me dance so many times but they’ve never seen me in the show, and I was so nervous and no-one can understand. So nervous !”
Conquering the nerves is part and parcel of a dancer’s life, and of course, Maria danced brilliantly. As we were walking between photo shoot locations, she told me that she felt it was her best show so far. Anyone who knows how modest and unassuming dancers are, will know that for Maria to admit to being happy with her performance under such scrutiny means a lot.
Audience feedback has been excellent and Chris says “I’ve been really, really surprised at the amount of comments. People have been emailing and I just thought that’s really nice of someone to email to say how much they enjoyed it.” The theatres too have been positive and “we’ve had quite a lot of them already want to confirm for next year.”
Whose choreography would Maria like to dance, given the chance ? “MacMillan. Manon is one of my favourite ballets actually”. And if she could choose her partner ? “I’m torn between Carlos Acosta and Roberto Bolle. Or maybe Robert Parker.” She’d be wearing a tutu, and it would be red, “I’m a bit obsessed with the colour red.”
I asked Chris how he’d describe Maria’s dancing now, at the half-way point of the tour. “I’d say she has definitely grown in her performance, just with the experience of doing the shows and touring, but the lovely thing about Maria which has come out as we’ve been travelling is that she’s such a positive person to have on tour. She keeps the morale up and is always happy. When you are sat in the bus and you’re going around for long drives, it’s nice really.”
What does Maria wish for herself in the future ? “To get into a medium sized company, which gives me challenges.”
As Maria was directed by the photographer, a crowd gathered around me and asked who she was. I replied, “That’s Maria Engel and she’s going to be a famous ballet dancer.”