“ I want to be on that stage and I want to do that”. So said Megan Wood, at the tender age of 3, after her Mum had taken her to see a ballet. Megan has just premiered in Ballet du Rhin’s production of Giselle, so I think we can safely say that she has accurate foresight. The other thing I guarantee you is that the intervening years will not have been easy, and so I caught up with Megan to find out just what it takes to make one of your dreams come true.
Megan started ballet classes around the age of 3, at the Teresita Marsden School in Chichester. Teresita has recently retired but was gracious enough to recall Megan’s early years. “She came to me very young. She was a very slim little girl, and she was always very disciplined and very serious. She had very good feet, a good instep, she always worked very, very hard and did well in her exams.” Teresita goes on to explain that when other girls left, Megan stayed on, taking several classes a week, and she became more skilled as a result. Spotting this talent, Teresita was keen for her pupil to “be with other students with similar ability and to see what the world was like outside the ballet school,” and this led Megan to audition for the Associate Programme at Central School of Ballet at the age of 15, a course designed to prepare students for full time training, in particular vocational training on their degree course.
It involved a whole day, on a Saturday, in London, in addition to normal weekday school classes, and Megan was still taking local ballet classes after school every day. The Saturdays at Central were long because of the travelling to and from Chichester, but Megan thrived, being with other students who really wanted to be there, “it was always fun. I loved it, I really loved doing it. The teachers have been other places so they know what’s up and coming and they can correct you in a different way, and you have really healthy competition. Because if it’s just your local school, some of the kids just do it because their mum says, but when you’ve got people that really want to do it, like all my friends, you’ve got that healthy competition.”
One of the aspects of ballet which the teachers helped Megan to overcome was her pointe work. She had been doing one class a week at her local school, but here she was putting her pointe shoes on every day and had some fear about doing so, “because you’re standing on your feet, on your toes, and it’s not normal, I think it was the fear of hurting.” How did they do that ? “They’re going to push you a lot more: ‘you can do it, you will do it’, and they try and make you turn your mind around, and obviously, you’ve got that competition, you think ‘ok, she’s doing it, well I’ve got to do it’. You’ve got that grit and determination.”
At 16, Megan auditioned for the 3 year Central School of Ballet degree course. It helped that “some of the people that I met in associates went on to train at Central. It means that you already knew somebody, to go into this scary new place at 16. And then it’s like ‘oh my goodness, I’m at the doors, I’m here, I’m a first year.”
I’m intrigued to know how the training differed once Megan had been accepted onto the course, and she tells me, “I think your teacher always says, ‘lift your arms up, hold yourself’, but it became more: ‘no, this is how you do it, this is why we use that muscle’, it was really like training your mind to think ‘ok, that’s why we do that, and that’s going to help this movement’ so technically you were learning the proper way to use your body which is really important. When you come to London they teach you what line looks nice, how to feel, how it looks, how to put that into your mind and into your body. I think it builds your confidence, ‘ok, now I understand’ and then you feel more in control of your body.”
Megan found the experience a positive one and most of the time she had good assessments. “I think it was our first year assessment in ballet and we all sat and meditated around the barre just before, to get into the zone. You have to really focus your mind and obviously it’s really, really scary, when you’re 16. Our year bonded so well, we had such a tight year, which I think really helped; we really helped each other get through, in the down moments.” All the way through school, the students know that they will face an assessment to get into the third, performance year, “so they are looking all the time to see if you are capable as a person, and I think that’s the pressure you feel, because it’s like ‘if I don’t show them what I’ve learnt, if I have a bad assessment, what are they going to think?’ It’s really scary, just like auditioning as well, and I suppose that’s what it’s getting you ready for.”
Megan says, “ I really did work my socks off, I was really determined, especially in first year. And then in the second year we had Nathalia Barbara, who’s a real task master but I absolutely loved her as a teacher. She really, really helped me. She would really, really push you.” Nathalia says “I think she was able to develop her musicality and artistry quite a lot in that second year. She really became a dancer, not just an exercising little girl. She matured quite a lot in that year, and that was the nice thing to see.” I say to Megan that second year seems to be quite key in terms of really pushing students and she concurs, “yes, I think it’s that real push, push, push year, because they really want to get everything out of you. They know you’ve got more and they really try and drag it out. I look back on it as a really good experience, especially with Nathalia, even though she did sometimes push you to your limit, but I’m so pleased we had her and I thought she was an amazing teacher. She really showed me that there was so much more I could do and there was still more to come.” Nathalia recalls, “Megan was always a delightful student. She was very musical and very responsive to corrections. A beautiful girl to work with and she worked hard. I don’t think she ever had one day when she didn’t work hard. A very dedicated student, and when you are dedicated you get the results.” Megan sums it up, “so they’re just trying to see if you can go ahead with the third year. You’ve got to be really at your tip top in third year because then, that’s it.”
During the annual Prague Masterclasses summer school, Megan met the dancer Sofiane Sylve (Principal dancer with New York City Ballet), as well as Maina Gielgud (who was trained by Tamara Karsavina) with whom she would later work, and she also met her boyfriend which she describes as “very romantic.”
Megan was asked to dance in La Syl
phide with Ballet Du Rhin, and later stayed in France to take regular classes, watch rehearsals and performances, travelling here and there to auditions, one of which was for Ballet Theatre UK in London. There was the usual round of class, pas de deux and then solos, and by this time Megan felt that she must be in with a chance, not to have been cut earlier in the day. She chose her Graduation solo – the Sicilian section from Emeralds, part of Balanchine’s Jewels, which at four minutes is considerably longer than most solos, “when I first told Bill (the director) in third year that I was going to do it, he said ‘and you’re going to do all of it ?’ And I said ‘yes I am.’ And he said ‘good’. It was amazing being on the stage with everyone just looking at you for those four minutes.” It did the trick, and costume fittings followed along with a brief rehearsal period.
Ballet Theatre UK toured the UK with their production of The Nutcracker before Christmas, where Megan danced the central role of Clara, which she absolutely loved. “I think I’ve learnt so much in this contract, for myself, because we haven’t had that ballet mistress, that’s always shouting at you.” I ask what her dream role might be and she tells me, “I’ve always said, I’d love to be a Swan, especially when I went to see English National Ballet, I said, ‘I have to be a Swan one day’. But it’s between Manon and Swan Lake; the drama, getting into character, especially Manon, I love, about ballet, being someone different, and the steps, that’s ballet, but acting, that’s important for me.” Fellow dancer Natalie Cawte told me, “Megan approaches everything she does with a professional manner and is always working to improve. We had some great laughs on tour- on and off stage. She is very kind and loyal and we formed a great friendship.”
Megan travelled to France in the New Year to work with Ballet de Rhin again, this time on Gielgud’s acclaimed staging of Giselle.
I ask Megan what it is about ballet that she loves so much, and in her reply I can see that her influential teachers have left their mark, “I think it’s being somebody else and just playing somebody, giving the audience emotion and showing them how much that it is in my heart. When you are in the moment, it’s just magical and as soon as you get on that stage and you have an amazing performance you think ‘this is why I do it.’ You’re not you anymore, you become a completely different person and you’re just there telling this story to your audience, and just pulling them in. I love that.”
I asked Nathalia & Teresita what advice they would give to Megan now, and Nathalia echoes Megan’s sentiments about ballet, “I think my advice for her is always dance with her heart. Yes, the technique is important, but the soul is the most important.” Teresita replied, “just to keep on working, but she is very, very good so she doesn’t even need my advice.”