There are some performances which will always be more difficult than others for Royal Ballet dancer Emma Maguire. Standing in the wings preparing to go on stage for The Nutcracker or Swan Lake it’s impossible for her thoughts not to turn to the one missing member of the audience and her biggest fan.
“Those were two of mum’s favourites,” says the 33 year old, whose mother Ann Maguire was murdered by a pupil at the Leeds school where she had taught for more than four decades. “Swan Lake was one of the first full productions I performed in when I joined the Royal Ballet School.
“I was only 11 and I was only on stage for the first act, but over the years she got to see saw me change from a tiny signet to a fully grown swan. Mum and Dad came to see everything I did, even if that meant driving down to London and back in a day. Sometimes I could only catch them for five minutes after a show, but mum would always be there with a card and a little present.
“There were days when I felt that I hadn’t performed my best, but her positive outlok would raise my spirits and it also instilled in me a sense of optimism and drive to improve. Losing my mum has made those moments when I feel sick with nerves before curtain up more difficult to overcome, but I just try to remember the love and support she gave me and that gives me the strength to continue.”
Emma graduated into the main Royal Ballet Company in 2002, was promoted to first artist five years later and has been a soloist since 2011. She credits her rise through the ranks with the support she received from her parents in those early days and it is also ballet - and the close company of dancers - which have helped her through the last three years.
“None of us really knew what to do after mum died,” she says. “All you hope is that people are there for you. I’ve spent more than half my life at the Royal Ballet. They are a second family and the support they have given me has been incredible.”
When we speak, Emma is just an hour away from going on stage in a mixed programme, which includes Forsythe and Balanchine classics, but she also has other things on her mind. In memory of her mother, Emma is organising a gala event in Leeds this September with the proceeds going to the Ann Maguire Arts Education Fund.
The fund is managed by the Leeds Community Foundation, with money distributed on an annual basis to community projects that give young people the opportunity to experience the arts and crucially enable them to discover their artistic potential. The gala evening this autumn will be the first to take place in Emma’s home city and follows on from a similar event at Sadler’s Wells two years ago which was hosted by Darcey Bussell and Jonathan Cope.
“It went exceptionally well and it raised more than £100,000 for the fund,” says Emma who, along with sister Kerry, has always been determined that Ann’s legacy should remain a positive one. “The money raised enabled us to fund many more worthwhile projects and give various individual grants. Kerry and I both hope that the next gala evening will help guarantee the future of the fund and allow us to broaden its reach.”
The event will see Northern Ballet perform the final pas de deux from Jonathan Watkins’ critically acclaimed adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984 and more than 20 world-class dancers from the Royal Ballet will also be travelling up the M1. Whether Emma gets to perform though remains to be seen.
“It’s going to be down to logistics,” she says . “We can only get into the theatre on the day of the performance to set up, so if I think I am more useful behind the scenes then that’s where I will be. Of course I would love to be on stage, but the first priority has to be about making the night as successful as possible.”
Emma says the fund has already made a difference to many young people’s lives and one of the largest grants to date was awarded to Opera North’s Young Explorers scheme.
“It was a really exciting project to be part of and it saw hundreds of schoolchildren from across Yorkshire to opera for the first time,” she says. “They were encouraged to engage with a famous Donizettti Opera and took part in a series of workshops to explore all aspects of the music, characters and plot and it culminated in the creation and performance of their own mini-opera.”
Among numerous other projects, the fund has also supported St Mary’s Youth Theatre whose aim is to get youngsters away from anti-social behaviour, bullying and drug and alcohol abuse and into a safe, creative environment which might just ensure their life takes a different direction.
It’s a cause Emma knows her mum, who taught at Corpus Christi Catholic College in the east of the city, would have approved of. While Ann’s subject was Spanish, she also led the school choir and was pretty handy on the guitar.
“ My mum used her love of music and her own musical talent to give pupils new skills and experiences. She was a great believer in the power of music and the power of the arts in general. Kerry and I really benefitted from having a mum like that.”
Growing up, music was at the heart of the Maguire household. Both girls picked up musical instruments from the earliest age and initially at least dance classes were just a sideline.
“I think they thought it would be good for our sense of rhythm,” laughs Emma. “Little did they know where it would lead. However, pretty early on I knew it wasn’t something I just wanted to do on Saturday mornings and mum and dad said that they would support me.
“They drove me all over the country to classes and auditions and I know that sometimes it is just a small amount of money which can make a difference. Once you get a place at dance school there are scholarships and grants you can apply for, but for a lot of people paying for the travel to those auditions is a real obstacle. It was one of the reasons why we wanted to set up the fund.”
An inquest into Ann’s death is due to take place in November. Whatever conclusion the coroner draws it won’t bring back a much loved wife and mother and for Emma and Kerry, the fund is one way of ensuring something positive comes out of the events of April 28, 2014.
“When mum died so many people contacted us to say what a difference she had made to their lives and how important she had been during their school days,” she says. “Honestly, we were quite overwhelmed. We can’t bring her back, but while she is no longer here, through the fund our family can carry on that work and ensure that mum is never forgotten.”
Ann Maguire Gala, Leeds Grand Theatre, September 3. For general tickets call 0844 848 2700 or book online at leedsgrandtheatre.com