World Ballet School Day & A Screen Apart

Choreography Didy Veldman and others
The Australian Ballet School / Boston Ballet School / Canada’s National Ballet School / Dutch National Ballet Academy / English National Ballet School / New Zealand School of Dance / Palucca University of Dance Dresden / Paris Opera Ballet School / Prix de Lausanne / Royal Ballet School / Royal Danish Ballet School / San Francisco Ballet School

World Ballet School Day Credit: ASH
World Ballet School Day Credit: ASH

World Ballet Day has become an annual fixture for balletomanes since 2014, now we have the inaugural World Ballet School Day, the brainchild of Viviana Durante, former Royal Ballet Principal and now Interim Director of Dance at English National Ballet School 2019/20.

Precipitated by lockdown, by the cancelling of end of year showcase performances, World Ballet School Day, all two and three quarter hours of it on Vimeo, hands over presentation to mostly final year students from some of the most illustrious ballet schools in the world—twelve schools from three continents. Talk about global reach. It is much needed for morale.

A platform and forum for “the stars of the future”, as Carlos Acosta puts it in a brief clip from the Prix de Lausanne, with its message of solidarity—you are not alone out there, though it may feel like it. Insider participant view (the astonishing fifteen-year-old Ava Arbuckle from USA) from the Prix de Lausanne is fascinating, but it’s her showpiece, The Awakening of Flora (Petipa, music Drigo), which speaks more than her voiceover words. It wins her a scholarship.

Frankly, I’d have preferred more show than tell, but these young men and women need an outlet for their stories during lockdown, and though the streaming varies in quality from school to school, as does the sound quality, what is not in doubt is the standard of dance performance. There are interviews, shared stories, anxieties over audition rejections, a show of tenacity and strength of character that is necessary in a young dancer’s life, mens sana in corpore sano.

And, of course, extracts from display ballets: Canada National Ballet School showcases the Juliet variation from Romeo and Juliet; a duet from La Bayadère; Azure Barton’s superlative Come In; Arise by Jera Wolfe with its huge corps de ballet—the whole School I imagine—which I love and it reminds me of Akram Khan’s Dust with its many hands making light work of a difficult job. It can be seen in full on their web site.

Palucca University of Dance Dresden shows wonderful stills and some final year student work, split screens and behind the scenes rehearsals. Dance has an international vocabulary, transcending language, though throughout the WBSD everyone speaks impeccable English with that universal inflection and ‘like’ mannerisms of the young, which tickles the linguist in me.

Boston Ballet School has a very articulate young presenter, Arianna / Anna Hughlett, who promotes her own pre-professional student choreography, Quartet, to Dvořák’s ‘The American’ string quartet, as well as other student work. With the luxury of the Boston Philharmonic, they shine in the couple of extracts on display.

The Royal Ballet School comes in at 54:52 minutes with chat from two students, Koko and Mattheus. And a showcase of the RBS performance of the Finals Interlude piece at the Prix de Lausanne—a 1993 gala number by RB alumnus Ashley Page to Tchaikovsky’s delightful "Larina’s Waltz".

But what knocks the socks off me is Ashton’s Rhapsody (Rachmaninoff) extract—created in 1980 on Mikhail Baryshnikov for the Queen Mother’s 80th birthday gala. I don’t know the name of the young man following in Baryshnikov’s footsteps, but the highest compliment I can pay him is that I see Baryshnikov before my eyes, those superhuman turns in the air and that cheeky hip wriggle.

English National Ballet School shows its pre-tour (cancelled) Cinderella rehearsals and lots of chat about keeping one’s perspective during lockdown and Zoom classes. Mental and physical pressures and the sacrifices one has to make for a career in dance.

Australian Ballet School show lockdown practice and lots of ballet extracts ranging from Con Brio by Simon Dow and Sketch Tone by Richard House to Raymonda, and Aurora’s Wedding and the Bluebird pas de deux from Sleeping Beauty.

The Dutch National Ballet Academy contribution looks filmed on iPhones: an interview with artistic director Ernst Meisner and lots of shorts from Paquita, Wayne Eagling’s Nutcracker, In and Out by Hans van Manen, Embers by Meisner and Larisa Dobrozhan and Gregor Seyffert’s Bolero.

New Zealand School of Dance is way ahead of the rest of the dance world with students returning to the studio, not before having to quarantine for 14 days. An encouraging light at the end of the tunnel for the other young presenters and commentators...

And finally, at 2:20:17, a world première of a new half-hour work made especially for this inaugural day, Didy Veldman’s A Screen Apart, commissioned by the Royal Ballet and edited, imaginatively cut and spliced, by the BalletBoyz Michael Nunn and William Trevitt.

In her informative opening interview, Veldman recounts how the idea came to her. She teaches at White Lodge, the Royal Ballet’s lower school, but now there are no students, just empty studio space. What to do… How does one keep them creatively motivated during lockdown? She shows how. She’d imagined working with two students, “a choreographic study”, but the idea grew and she ended up working with a globally scattered hundred or so on Zoom—divided into six groups.

For a study, she turned to dislocated hands, feet, face, and then bodies in the strangest of venues—wherever the dancers were holed up—a children’s three-panel flip book comes to mind in which one can create fantastical creatures. A montage of country and city, large and small spaces, some dancers metaphorically climbing up a corridor wall, a slick collage of images, screens multiplying, mirroring, And the result is wonderful. Bach’s Goldberg Variations and The Well-Tempered Klavier are the perfect accompaniment.

Paris Opera Ballet dancers did something similar at the beginning of the lockdown, dancing in living rooms, balconies, in the bath, with children in the kitchen, and a Romeo and Juliet emerged. Celebrating the human spirit, A Screen Apart shows indomitable will in the face of obstruction. Shot and performed by students: 25 from Canada, 17 from the Dutch National Ballet Academy, 22 from the Paris Opera School, 15 from the Royal Danish Ballet School, San Francisco fielded 21, RBS 18.

The day should have finished there, but the six presenters had to have the final word on this helpful project, and it is about them really and the need for talking therapy to keep them going. It doesn't replace the buzz of live theatre, but they hope it has corrected some misconceptions, made the dance world more accessible to a wider audience.

The trailer music is “In a Perfect World” by Howard Harper-Barnes. If only. WBSD will be available for catch-up for one month. It’s worth a look, not just for ballet students. And you can dip in and out at will. Let’s hope this concept continues for years to come, virus or no virus, plague or no plague.

Reviewer: Vera Liber