Search for ballet stars of the future

Northern Ballet Academy classes at the Northern Ballet, Leeds.Pictured from the left are Becky Foster, Ben Davis and Anna Williams...SH10012041d..22nd January 2015 ..Picture by Simon Hulme.
Northern Ballet Academy classes at the Northern Ballet, Leeds.Pictured from the left are Becky Foster, Ben Davis and Anna Williams...SH10012041d..22nd January 2015 ..Picture by Simon Hulme.
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Northern Ballet Academy is looking for new recruits. And it’s not the boys who are in short supply. Sarah Freeman reports.

It’s 4pm on a Thursday evening and with school over, it’s a fair bet that most teenage boys have already swapped the classroom for the computer. Not Ben Davis.

As he is most days, the 15 year old is warming up in one of the studios in Northern Ballet’s Quarry Hill headquarters. He won’t get home for at least another few hours when he will then have to catch up with homework and sleep.

It’s an exhausting routine, but as one of the Academy’s rising stars, Ben, who lives in Bingley, wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I started dancing when I was three years old and loved it immediately,” he says. “When I was younger some people at school did tease me for wanting to be a dancer, but it’s different now. I’m not sure what’s changed, but there has been a shift in attitudes. Ballet is just as physical, if not more so, than football and rugby.”

Call it the Billy Elliot effect or the impact of choreographers like Matthew Bourne, who famously staged the first all-male Swan Lake, but in recent years Northern Ballet has had little difficulty finding talented male dancers, who now make up close to 50 per cent of those who graduate from its Academy.

Like many, Ben was spotted by Yoko Ichino, associate director of the Academy and wife of the company’s artistic director David Nixon.

Together they make a pretty formidable partnership and have helped put the company on the national and international dance map.

It was David who spearheaded Northern Ballet’s move from its old, rather dilapidated base on the outskirts of the city and into the largest purpose-built dance studios and theatre outside London.

Now rubbing shoulders with West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds College of Music and Yorkshire Dance, it gave the company the surroundings to match its ambitions and brought it into the heart of the city.

It’s those same connections that the Academy wants to foster which is why it’s holding an open day next weekend in the hope of sparking the interest of others like Ben.

Spotting and nurturing the talent of the future has always been one of Northern Ballet’s priority, but in the last few years it has been able to increase its national and international reputation for training.

“When I was growing up in Canada, if you wanted to be a dancer then you had no option but to leave home at an incredibly young age,” says David, on a break from rehearsing a new production of Romeo and Juliet. “I was 12 when I went to board at ballet school and that’s so young. It was the same in this country, if you wanted to dance, you had to go to London.

“Partly that was about snobbery - if you wanted the best, the feeling was you could only get it in the capital, but those facilities simply didn’t exist elsewhere.

“That’s not true any more and it’s because of places like the Academy. I think we offer something unique and our students graduate and go on to all the major ballet schools.”

Nixon says that while some centres are desperate for their dancers to hit certain milestones by certain ages, Yoko insists that everyone who comes through the Academy system is trained as an individual. While many of the Academy recruits come from local dance schools, Northern Ballet also tries to find untapped talent from within Leeds and the surrounding the area.

“There are many children who don’t have the opportunity to have dance lessons and so we now run a programme where we go into schools and try to reach those who have never event attempted an arabesque,” adds David. “That’s great for us as we get to see them before they have had a chance to learn any bad habits. Those that we feel have potential are then invited to workshops. That’s as much for them to see what we do and how we work and the scheme has proved incredibly successful.

“The world of ballet is often accused of being elitist, but we have always tried to appeal to as wider section of the community as possible.

“Dance as a whole has also become much more flexible. There is and always will be an ideal shape for a male and female dancer, but that’s not to say that anyone who doesn’t fit those statistics is automatically ruled out.

“The truth is, that the very best dancers have that certain something which makes it impossible not to watch them on stage and that kind of presence more than compensates for being shorter or taller than average.”

That said, not every dancer who is accepted into the Academy will end up realising their ambitions.

“Some decide it’s not for them or that they would rather dance as a hobby rather than a career,” says David, who has been with Northern Ballet since 2001. “However, the hard part comes when you have a dancer who is desperate to go onto one of the top schools, but who you know isn’t going to make it.

“That’s an awful thing to have to tell someone, but it’s worse to string them along. We have a duty of care to everyone who comes into the Academy and that sometimes includes telling them what they don’t want to hear.”