Ballet company's exciting reimagining of the classic fairytale Rapunzel
When Rapunzel’s hair grows so long that she becomes trapped in a tower, her beauty is hidden from the outside world. She only has a possessive witch and her pet creatures for company, until a prince comes along, drawn by the sound of her sweet singing. With a scenario written by former Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy, music by award-winning composer Murray Gold and eye-catching choreography from balletLORENT founder and artistic director Liv Lorent, the performance is narrated by actor Lesley Sharp making it extremely accessible for those who may not have been to a ballet before. Accessibility and inclusivity are at the heart of the company’s ethos and as part of the Rapunzel tour, they have been collaborating with community casts at each venue.
“We have ten children from Richmond Hill School in Leeds taking part and also some babies and toddlers appearing alongside their professional dancer mums, so it is a truly multi-generational piece,” says principal dancer Gavin Coward who takes on the role of the prince in the production. “Because the show is for the whole family, it needs to work on many levels – so there are witches and skateboards and lots of fun action but the story is told through the eyes of the husband and wife and it explores their longing for a child and the extremes people can go to.”
The character of Rapunzel is also given much more agency than in traditional versions of the story – she is strong, resourceful and tenacious. “She is really feisty and determined to escape,” says Coward. “And the prince doesn’t rescue Rapunzel, they kind of rescue each other. The prince is pretty lost himself and wants to find love and acceptance. So there are lots of subliminal messages – it reflects what is going on in the world and we as a company are inspired by what is going on in the world.”
As well as taking on the male lead in balletLORENT productions, Coward also works with the company to deliver workshops in schools and in their Youth Academy to encourage children from all backgrounds to try dance. “We focus on areas that have poor or low engagement with the arts – that is where I started, so it feels like coming full circle,” he says. When Coward was a child in Morley in Leeds, the idea that he might become a ballet dancer seemed a long way from the world he knew growing up in the pub that his parents ran. He discovered dance at the relatively young age of 10 and very quickly realised it was something he wanted to pursue. “I was quite a shy boy, the youngest of three brothers and I was the typical dreamy, arty child but I was always moving and found that movement came very naturally to me,” he says. “My mum ran the tuck shop at the local community centre and I went along with her every Saturday. There was a dance class there and I would watch from a distance and learn all the routines, then I finally plucked up the courage to join in about a year later. It was great – I had found something that allowed me to channel my emotions and energy. It was the eighties so it was all freestyle, it was very free.”
At the age of 18 he went on to do his formal training at the Northern School of Contemporary Dance in Leeds. “That was like another world – I learnt all about technique and freedom of expression. I had to work really hard but I learned so much and it gave me the discipline I needed.” Soon after graduating, he landed a part in Matthew Bourne’s seminal version of Swan Lake in which the traditionally female roles of the swans were danced by men. “It was an amazing experience,” says Coward. “Having started in disco and street dance and then done contemporary training, it was another learning curve. It was great –and I got to travel all over the world.” Since then he has worked as dancer and choreographer in theatre and film and has been involved with balletLORENT for 20 years, where alongside performing he finds his educational role very rewarding. “I love working with the kids,” he says. “It is about instilling creativity and critical thinking, showing them how to make something from nothing and the importance of collaboration. I believe they are vital life skills that dance, and all the arts, can teach you.”
Rapunzel, Leeds Playhouse, April 5&6.