As Birmingham Royal Ballet headline a major arts festival in America, Roz Laws goes stateside to see their work.
A CUTE little girl dressed in tights and ballet shoes, with her hair pulled back into a bun, has a burning question to ask of the ballerina in front of her.
“What food do you eat in England?” she asks.
She seems happy enough that fish and chips is the favourite food of Birmingham Royal Ballet dancer Laura Davenport.
The second question is then “Have you met the Queen?”
This is one of the educational workshops run by BRB during its stay in Norfolk, USA, while it headlines the Virginia Arts Festival.
Laura and her colleague Ruth Brill have been sent out early to go into schools and introduce them to ballet and Birmingham.
Some know nothing about ballet, though the kids in this school, Old Donation Centre at Virginia Beach, are more knowledgeable. They shout out enthusiastically when Laura and Ruth ask them what plie and tendu mean (to bend and to stretch), and they know their port de bras from their arabesques.
They are eight to 11-year-olds on the gifted dance programme. Some cannot read or write, others have behavioural problems, some may even be homeless ‘transients’, but they all show a talent for dance.
So once a week, 320 students travel for up to an hour to the Old Donation Centre for free dance lessons.
Teacher and movement therapist Valerie Winborne explains: “We have hundreds audition for places. They don’t need any dance experience but we look for their potential – skill can be taught.
“We love to have dance companies come to visit us, especially from across the water. The Birmingham Royal Ballet’s reputation is one of excellence, exemplary productions and accessibility.
“The opinion we have of England is of pomp and circumstance, and there is an elegance about the company, but they are very accessible. The dancers are always talented, gracious and tremendously humble.
“It’s wonderful for our students to be exposed to real dancers like this.”
And the children do ask questions about dancing, although they are more interested in what Ruth and Laura eat and the fact they have met BRB president Prince Charles.
Another boy asks: “Do you hold your pinkie (little finger) up when drinking tea?”
Laura and Ruth teach them a little about Coppelia, the ballet which the BRB is performing at the Virginia Arts Festival. It’s a charming tale of dolls which come alive and magic potions, and the 23 excited, noisy but attentive children – half of them boys – love pretending to wind each other up as clockwork dolls.
Afterwards, Laura, 23, tells them that she’s from Nottingham – “home of Robin Hood, you’ve heard of him?”. She began dancing at the age of three and at 16 she moved to Birmingham to train full-time in ballet at Elmhurst School. She joined BRB at 19.
Over five days in Virginia, she and Ruth go to 11 schools and teach 492 children of all abilities, from 170 primary school children who have never danced before to advanced 18-year-old students.
The pair make a great double act and you would never know this is the first time they have taught together like this.
Laura says modestly: “We’re very much making it up as we go along. It’s very rewarding to meet the kids because they are all so enthusiastic. They all want to know what we eat, though!”
Some 135 children from Old Donation Centre later attend a BRB schools’ matinee of Coppelia. For many of the 1,800 children in the audience, this is their first time in a theatre, let alone at a ballet.
Dressed in their Sunday best and highly excited, they watch the first two acts of Coppelia, with assistant director Marion Tait and dance master Dominic Antonucci explaining the plot to them beforehand. There is much wild cheering and applause.
Nine-year-old Laeson Bowzer from GA Treakle Elementary in Chesapeake Bay says afterwards: “I’ve been to the circus but nothing like this.
“The first part was a little bit boring but I liked the second part and I bet I’d like the third part. I liked the bit where the doll came to life and when they were hitting each other.
“I thought it was only going to be girls so it was good to see boys dancing too.”
BRB’s artistic director David Bintley says: “The kids’ reaction was fantastic. They applaud in all the wrong places but that’s fine.
“Mind you, the first time we came with Sleeping Beauty, we told them not to be afraid to clap when they wanted and they didn’t stop clapping all the way through.”
BRB chairman Michael Clarke is bowled over by the ‘ecstatic’ children, saying: “If that isn’t something with the capacity to transform lives, I don’t know what is.”
The audiences’ reaction to the three other performances at Chrysler Hall are just as loud, with standing ovations every time.
The BRB first headlined the Virginia Arts Festival in 2007 with Sleeping Beauty, then again with Swan Lake in 2010. To be asked back for a third time is rare.
“It makes us feel special,” says Bintley. “They’ve taken us to their hearts and vice versa.
“We performed at the New York Met in 2004. Virginia Arts Festival director Rob Cross saw us and invited us along.
“It’s very important for us to perform abroad. We want to take the name of Birmingham around the world, especially as we’re partly funded by the city.
“We are an international company and it’s good that the city sees us playing in New York, Tokyo or Virginia.
“Coppelia is a big production and a huge undertaking to ship all our scenery, costumes and props here, but it’s worth it.
“Our educational work here is a vital part of what we do. Twenty five years ago it was a ticking boxes exercise for the government, now it proves to be some of the most rewarding aspects of our work.
“Sending dancers into schools is like a Ferrari driver talking to a kid with a spanner and a Meccano set, but we’ve learned how to unlock something in them and it’s very satisfying.
“My indelible memory of touring South Africa is the workshops we did in the townships like Soweto. That had a profound effect on the people we met, and us too.”
There’s a multicultural and international feel to Norfolk. Half the population is African-American and it is also home to the world’s largest naval base and the only NATO station outside Europe.
For the BRB’s first full performance, a reception is held by two prominent Britons in the city – former Ambassador John Field and Vice Admiral Tony Johnstone-Burt, the top British officer at the NATO base.
He reveals his special ties to Birmingham and its ballet company. The first ship he served on was HMS Birmingham and he courted his wife by taking her to see Coppelia on tour in Sunderland.
Thrilled to introduce the BRB to audiences is the Rob Cross, who says: “I feel honoured, as BRB is a world class company and an asset to the festival.
“The Royal part of the name helps too, the fact it is endorsed by the Queen. It’s impressive and implies quality.”
Cross was hired in 1995 to start Arts Festival, then only 18 days long. Now it runs for six weeks and has a budget of $7 million, reaching 60,000 people.
“For the first festival it was hard to get people to come, both in terms of artists and audiences. I had to call in a lot of favours from friends in the first couple of years.
“But we have really grown and now we can get almost anyone we want, like The Chieftains to play on St Patrick’s Day.”
He bangs the drum for the festival and literally for the Virginia Symphony Orchestra. He combines his arts administration role with that of principal percussionist, though his life as a musician has to take a back seat during the festival.
He does, however, get to play at the last BRB performance of Coppelia, standing in for a fellow percussionist whose daughter is graduating that day. The BRB is borrowing the Virginia Symphony Orchestra for their performances.
“It’s such great music and it’s fun to go in the pit and play,” says Cross. “Musicians can get jaded, playing the same pieces again and again, but this is one of the artistic highlights of the year for the orchestra.”
The festival brings in $17million for the region from visitors from seven countries and 42 states. One in four of the audiences aren’t local, but have travelled to Virginia specially for the festival.
The educational aspect is important to Cross too, who encourages every artist appearing to hold a workshop, masterclass or student matinee. Last year 30,000 children went to events and he is full of praise for the BRB’s outreach work.
Perhaps the last word should go to Birmingham’s Lord Mayor, Councillor John Lines, who was invited out to Virginia with BRB with his wife Kathleen.
He admits he was a late convert to ballet.
“It’s more the Lady Mayoress’s thing,” he confesses. “But we went to see the BRB’s Swan Lake last year and I loved it.
“Still, at the back of my mind I did wonder if that was a one-off, but Coppelia has been wonderful.
“I happen to think that our ballet is the best in the world and we are so proud to show it off.”