She grew up near Barnsley and became the first Yorkshire dancer to be selected by the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow. Tala Lee-Turton tells Sarah Freeman about her first year at the Russian barre.
Tala Lee-Turton looks like any of the other young dancers at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy. Her long brown hair is tied neatly in a bun, her legs are pipecleaner thin, yet pure muscle, and her posture, even away from the barre, rummaging in her kit bag, manages to be somehow graceful.
Except, the 17-year-old isn’t like the other ballerinas. It’s the accent that gives it away. In the 10 months or so she’s spent in Moscow, Tala may have picked up enough of the lingo to navigate the Metro and read a restaurant menu, but back home for a short break her vowels remain the kind which could only have been honed in Barnsley.
“Aww, it’s just been amazing,” she says as she gets ready for a photoshoot in the studios of Northern Ballet. “Obviously I’ve never been to Russia before and so I had no expectations. Looking back I’m glad I didn’t know too much because every day has brought a new experience.”
It was in spring 2012 that Tala found out she had become the first ever dancer from Yorkshire, and only the ninth British student ever, to be accepted into the Bolshoi. Given the school was established in 1773 it was some achievement, but her journey to Moscow had begun many years before that.
Growing up in Wombwell, she took her very first ballet steps as a five-year-old at Fearons Middleton School of Dance and it soon became obvious that this wasn’t going to be a fleeting hobby. Notching up impressive marks in successive dance exams, by the time she was 11-years-old Tala had left home to become a weekly boarder at Tring Park School for the Performing Arts. However, it was only when she discovered Bristol’s Russian Ballet School that her early promise really began to flourish.
“They teach the Vaganova method which is designed to involve the whole body in every movement, the idea is that is creates a greater harmony of movement and right away it just felt right.”
Tala’s mother is more forthright about the differences between the Russian teaching style and some of the methods her daughter came up against in her early years in dance.
“Tala had lost a lot of confidence in her dancing ability – no matter how hard she tried and how well she did, it never seemed to be good enough. At Bristol we found a school which really believed in nurturing their dancers, in bringing out the best in them.”
It’s not the kind of picture many will have of Russian dance schools and particularly the Bolshoi, which has just emerged from arguably the most turbulent period in its 240 year history. In recent months the company has been mired in allegations of vicious infighting and feuds, which came to a head when a masked man threw acid into the face of artistic director Sergei Filin.
Since then veteran dancer Nikolai Tsiskaridze, who was in open conflict with the theatre following the attack, has left the Bolshoi under something of a cloud, while leading soloist Svetlana Lunkina told a Russian newspaper she had moved to Canada amid claims of threats to her husband.
Reading those allegations must surely have worried Sara, back home in Wombwell. She says not.
“Any company, whether it be a professional ballet corp or a financial advisers, can have its problems. I went to Moscow with Tala when she first went out there and I knew she was being looked after. Sometimes you just get a feeling about a place and the academy felt like a very safe place for her to be.”
Tala says she only became aware of the growing scandal when she was told by her mum. And with the academy dancers kept separate from the professional company, the endless column inches which have been devoted to the story, it wasn’t, she says, something she became embroiled in. Conversely, she adds, her experience of Moscow’s historic dance school, has been overwhelmingly friendly.
“People imagine Russian dance teachers are this real breed of tyrants. I guess it doesn’t help that to English ears, their accent sounds really harsh, but they are really encouraging. In fact, they are probably less strict than some of the teachers I’ve had over here.
“The one thing you could accuse them of is being chaotic. As students at the academy we can get cheap tickets for all the big productions at the Bolshoi Theatre or at least you can if you get up in the early hours of the morning and camp outside the ticket office. The first person there starts a list on a piece of paper with their name at the top. They pass it onto the next person in the queue, the only problem is that someone else can come along with their own bit of paper and start a whole new list. The Russians just shrug their shoulders. That’s the way things work out there. The funny thing is though, while it can seem incredibly disorganised, things do get done.”
Having stood in the wrong queue and missed out on tickets at her first attempt, Tala did manage to catch performances of Swan Lake, Spartacus and The Pharaoh’s Daughter all for just £2, compared to the £135 the company was charging during their recent run in London’s Covent Garden. However, it wasn’t just the cut price tickets which made it an evening to remember.
“The atmosphere is incredible and Russian audiences are much less reserved than they are over here. They are pretty raucous and they leave their seats in the stalls to go right up close to the stage to applaud the principle dancers.
“We got to see Zakharova dance the part of Odette/Odile in Swan Lake and watching the performance made me really appreciate pure, classical ballet. It’s easy to dismiss it as a bit dated, but when you see the Bolshoi at its best it’s just spellbinding.”
That kind of flawless perfection doesn’t come easy. Days at the academy start about 7am. An hour later Tala is generally found warming up outside the studio in preparation for her four daily dance classes. “We dance six days a week and in between there’s the language classes with a teacher who doesn’t speak any English at all. I wouldn’t say I’m fluent, but I’m getting there and it’s going to get a whole lot harder next year as I’ll have to do all my academic exams in Russian.”
The students all sit an equivalent of the international baccalaureate. It’s there as a back-up. Whether through injury or a realisation they are simply not good enough, most ballerinas never make it to the top of what is an incredibly competitive professions. However, Tala isn’t thinking about life’s ‘what ifs’. For the moment at least she’s concentrating on the next three years at the Bolshoi academy and making the most of her time in Moscow.
“It is a fantastic city. I don’t get too much time off, but when I do I like to explore. It’s a bit like London in that if you use the underground it makes you feel like everything is miles apart from each other, but if you start walking the streets you realise it’s actually quite a compact city.
“The only thing I haven’t found yet is a cinema which shows English films, but that’s next on my list. In fact, film is probably the only thing I’ve really missed – that and really good food. I’m a vegetarian and there’s not many of them about in Moscow, but I manage. I’ve found a supermarket which sells tofu and we’ve got a microwave, so I can cook vegetables and scrambled eggs. That’s pretty much what I live on.”
Having previously performed with both the English National Ballet and American Ballet Theatre at the Coliseum in London, Tala already has her sights set on joining one of the leading companies.
However, realising that dream doesn’t come cheap. Each year, academy fees, living costs and insurance alone run to around £20,000. It’s not unlike attending a dance school in this country, but because Tala chose to study abroad she is no longer eligible for the usual grants and loans.
She managed to pay for the first year thanks to an impressive fundraising effort with contributions from both family and friends and numerous anonymous donations. So far the next six months are covered, but the fundraising is ongoing.
“We speak every day on Skype and of course I miss her,” says Sara. “We’ve both made a lot of sacrifices, but when I went out to visit her I could tell instantly that it had all been worth it. She looked like a different dancer and she just didn’t stop smiling. All any parent wants is for their child to be happy and Tala is certainly that.”
To read more about Tala’s journey from Barnsley to the Bolshoi or to help the fundraising effort go to talaleeturton.wordpress.com