With Birmingham Royal Ballet touring China, Diane Parkes catches up with one young star.
Teenager Rex Wheeler could not believe his ears when he was invited to join Birmingham Royal Ballet on a three week tour of China.
The pupil at Elmhurst School for Dance in Edgbaston had toured the UK with the ballet company but never imagined being invited abroad.
“I was called in by the school’s artistic director Desmond Kelly and he just said very casually that Birmingham Royal Ballet wanted me to come to China with them,” Rex recalls. “I think I was just jumping around.”
A few weeks later and the 18-year-old is onstage with the company as they perform in China’s three largest cities - Guangzhou, Beijing and Shanghai.
“It is such an incredible opportunity,” he says. “You learn so much when you are touring with a company.
“We are used to seeing these dancers on stage, in costume and made up for the performance, and to be with them in class and rehearsal is something that you cannot learn in school.”
Rex is currently applying for his first job as a dancer and is hoping the Chinese tour will be a bonus.
“It is so good to have this experience and all that you learn with it,” he says. “I would love to be offered a place with Birmingham Royal Ballet. That would just be a dream come true.”
Rex is one of five Elmhurst students with the tour – also on board is 18-year-old Jade Heusen, who also visited Japan with the company last January.
“I really enjoyed last year but it is definitely more comfortable the second time,” she says. “You know how it all works and who everyone is and what is expected of you.
“In many ways though it is very different as China is so culturally different from Japan. It is really interesting and such an incredible experience.
“We have been out in Guangzhou and seen the markets and seen things I would not have been able to imagine such as all these dried dead animals for sale. And I am really looking forward to going to Beijing and seeing the Great Wall of China.”
Also on this year’s tour is 19-year-old Laura Davenport who joined BRB from Elmhurst this summer. She visited Japan with the company last year as a student and is delighted to now be a professional dancer with BRB.
“I really enjoyed going to Japan with the company last year but it is fantastic to now be working for them,” she says. “It is great joining a company where you already know people and what it is like.
“I was offered a couple of other places but I really wanted to come to BRB. The standard here is so high and watching the other dancers gives me something to aspire to.”
And Elmhurst School is also looking to recruit new dancers from China with the school’s artistic director joining the tour to audition local students.
Visiting schools in Beijing and Shanghai, Mr Kelly is hoping to find the ballet stars of the future.
“This process is at its very beginning,” he said. “We may not find anyone on this visit but we are creating a link we can build on in the future.”
The ballet tour is being used to foster and expand business and educational links between Birmingham and Chinese cities with sponsors including Birmingham City Council, Birmingham University, Bournville College, The Heart of England (Advantage West Midlands), the British Council, IMI and Amway Artistry.
And each of the sponsors is hoping that putting Birmingham on the investment map can only be a step forward.
Advantage West Midlands market manager for Asia Pacific David Fisken said the tour offered the ideal opportunity to link culture and investment opportunities.
“This tour is sending out a powerful message that Birmingham is a strong cultural centre,” he said. “And we are using that cultural strength to network with key contacts in the area.”
AWM, which helped secure the Nanjing Automobile Corporation investment in the former MG Rover Group, said there are plenty of opportunities for Chinese businesses in the region.
“With the sponsorship of the tour we are hoping to achieve inward investment in the West Midlands which creates jobs, put the region on the map.
“Who knows whether people watching Birmingham Royal Ballet here in China may choose to come and see the company in Birmingham? And at the same time they may come and see other historical assets such as Stratford-upon-Avon, the birthplace of William Shakespeare, the writer of Romeo and Juliet.”
Birmingham University is also hoping to build on those links. Head of college for arts and law Anne Pauwels said the visit is part of an ongoing process across the two countries.
“There is substantial synergy between the ballet and the university as a centre of learning for drama and theatre. And particularly in the matter of Romeo and Juliet because of the Shakespeare Institute,” she said.
“In sponsoring the tour we hope to show students here what is available in Birmingham.
“It is also about engaging and building partnerships in Guangzhou, Beijing and Shanghai. We are in the process of setting up an office in Shanghai which can build on these partnerships.”
BRB artistic director David Bintley said visiting China was an important development for the company which was formed in 1990 when Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet moved to Birmingham and has visited Hong Kong and Japan in recent years.
“This is the first time Birmingham Royal Ballet has toured China and 20 years since Sadler’s Wells did so,” said Mr Bintley.
“We had to look at China. It is the hot place to be at the moment – especially after the Olympics.
“And the tour is going very well. It is important for the company to be recognised on an international level. And in doing so they are promoting the name of Birmingham everywhere they go.
“We have had a lot of assistance from Birmingham-based companies in funding this tour and we are very grateful for that.”