By Emine Saner
The London Magazine
April 14, 2013
[London, England] – It’s hard to tell who’s more nervous: the children in the rehearsal room, or the parents, waiting in the café. It’s a Sunday afternoon at Dance Attic Studios in Fulham, and as the sky darkens outside and traffic rumbles past, auditions are being held for an ambitious new show.
The London Children’s Ballet (LCB) has been giving children the chance to experience a professional production, from auditions to West End performance, since 1994. This year, they’re staging an adaptation of Nanny McPhee, the story of seven mischievous children who have driven away every nanny they’ve ever had (Emma Thompson, who wrote the film’s screenplay, has given it her blessing).
Of more than 500 children who’ll audition, 50 to 60 will be chosen, aged between nine and 14. But this is no watered-down version that makes allowances for its young cast. They’ll have to learn and perfect complicated steps. If they get through, the next five months will be taken up with weekend rehearsals, plus a two-week intensive burst during the Easter holidays.
In the main audition space the judges – the LCB’s founder Lucille Briance, Fiona Chadwick, a former principal at the Royal Ballet, and Erico Montes, the choreographer – sit at a table, notepads in front of them. Tim Hammond, the composer, mans the grand piano in the corner. A group of 15 girls run in, dressed in pale pink tights and leotards, their hair scooped up into neat buns, numbers pinned to their fronts. For the next hour, they practice their routines, swooping across the floor. The ballet mistress encourages them: “Show a love of dance, girls! You’ve got the technique but I’m concerned about the faces. Show that you love to be here.”
Outside, parents line up to collect their daughters. Last year, talented young dancer Alyssa, 11, didn’t make the cast of LCB’s The Secret Garden, though she hasn’t been put off. “She’s been nervous, but excited as well,” says her mother Anabel. “She really wants to do it , so it’s fingers and toes crossed.”
After an hour, the girls rush out again, looking relieved. Lily O’Regan, 11, from East Sussex, is sitting on a step outside the studio. How did she feel it went? “OK, I think,” she says. “I felt my cheeks going red, but I think it went well.” Last year, she made the cut for The Secret Garden: “This time I’m a lot more excited because I know what it’s like, and it’s amazing.”
Next, it’s the boys’ turn. Luca Ross has come from Surrey to audition. His mother is a dancer, he says, and he started doing ballet when he was seven. He gave it up for a while when other boys at school teased him, but has now started again. He’s made friends with Hugh O’Sullivan, who has come for the day from Portsmouth. Hugh attends ballet classes on Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, and is about to attend an audition for the Royal Ballet School. What does he like about ballet?“I like that it makes you stronger.”
“And it takes up your energy,” adds Luca.
Are they nervous? Both nod. How would they feel if they got through? “Really happy,” says Hugh, “but it’s just to have fun, really.”
In the main room Fiona Chadwick is going through her notes. “We’re finding some lovely dancers,” she says. “It’s usually obvious who the very strong ones are, and the weaker ones, but it’s the middle ones that cause the problems.” It’s about giving them a fair chance, she adds. Their dancing might be affected by nerves, and if they’ve been in a previous LCB production, they’ll look more confident than children who’ve never experienced anything like this.
What are the judges looking for? “Certainly technical ability – that they can do certain ballet steps. Then you’re looking for personality, and how quickly they can pick things up.” The pianist begins to play as the boys file in. Erico Montes, a 28-year-old First Artist with The Royal Ballet, who comes from Brazil, teaches the routine. It looks complicated. One boy is quietly practising by himself. For another, the pressure gets too much and he says he feels sick. He’s promptly sat down with a glass of water.
Three months later, we’re back in the same room to watch rehearsals. Hugh got through. “It was really exciting when I found out,” he says. “I phoned everybody I knew.” How have the rehearsals been? “Really fun. It’s pretty hard, remembering it, but we write it down afterwards.”
Today, they’re rehearsing a scene where the unruly children fight with their house staff in the kitchen. The first run through is a technically complex standoff between the two groups. After a while, the excitement proves overwhelming – the boys are told off for talking and fidgeting. “I know this is exciting but if we want it to look good, we have to focus,” says Montes, kindly but firmly. Everyone scuttles into position.
The boys learn a ‘sword fight’ – in the show they’ll use kitchen utensils – then run through it all from the beginning. “That wasn’t bad,” says Montes, smiling. It takes two hours to practise a routine that lasts 45 seconds. Montes gathers the children around him. “It’s looking good. But we need to be calm, focused.” Next will come the costume fitting, and two dress rehearsals. The show opens in April.
The day’s efforts over, there’s a flurry of activity as bags and coats are collected. Montes stands in the corridor, looking tired but happy. For him, the challenge is putting together choreography that will stretch the children, without piling on the pressure or putting them at risk of injury. “We know the impact that this will have and how much they will have learnt by the end, and how close they become to each other,” he says. “There’s more to it than just putting on a ballet.”
Nanny McPhee is at the Peacock Theatre, WC2, from 24-27 April, including matinees. For tickets, visit londonchildrensballet.com