By Sally Williams
April 19, 2014
On a cold day in October Isabella Koos, 14, was one of 500 children assembled in a studio in west London to audition for the London Children’s Ballet’s latest production, Nanny McPhee – The Ballet. Although it is called the London Children’s Ballet, children from anywhere in the country may audition. Isabella lives in Totnes, Devon. She came to ballet when she was six, and it became her life. She danced whenever she could: five times a week by the age of nine. Her performance as the Sugar Plum Fairy in her school’s end-of-year show was remarkable. ‘She led the little group, was totally focused, remembered all her steps, looked straight out at the audience,’ her mother, Gabi, a nurse, remembers.
But the top ranks of classical ballet require a certain body type. ‘Small head, long neck, narrow hips, long arms, legs proportionally longer than your body,’ Gabi runs through the criteria. There is also the matter of ‘line’, the arrangement of the head, arms, body, legs and feet in a pose or movement. Good line is critical. ‘You accept it,’ Gabi says. ‘If you want to be a runway model, you have to be 6ft tall. It’s no good if you’re 5ft 6. It’s no good wishing you were 6ft, you’re not.’ But Isabella’s dream was to dance for a large audience. She worked hard, but there was no opportunity. Until they came upon London Children’s Ballet.
London Children’s Ballet was founded as a charity in 1994 by Lucille Briance, 61 (she remains artistic director), the mother of a ballet-mad daughter who desperately wanted to be a ballerina but did not have the ‘right’ feet or knees. ‘Her knees hurt now and they hurt then,’ Briance says of Zoe, then 10. ‘She wouldn’t have had the slightest chance of getting into the Royal Ballet School.’ Briance looked for an outlet for Zoe’s passion that would allow her to dance more seriously but carry on at school. There was no such place, so Briance created it. She wrote a ballet (adapted from Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince), hired a choreographer, found a studio and advertised auditions for a new ballet to be performed entirely by children.
LCB is now in its 20th year and is celebrating with ballet based on Emma Thompson’s Nanny McPhee films, about a stern governess who uses magic to restore order to a household with seven children. Thompson, who also plays Nanny McPhee in the films, wrote the scripts based on Christianna Brand’s Nurse Matilda books.
It isn’t hard to see why LCB is such a success. Every year it mounts a ballet at a West End theatre using talented nine- to 16-year-olds from dance schools across the country. It does not discriminate on grounds of height, shape or income (it costs the company £3,600 for each child to do the ballet; families pay £45). Children are judged solely on their ability. ‘People who select for vocational training schools are absolutely right: if you are going to train for the long haul, you need a body that is not going to break down,’ Briance says. ‘But I come to it as a parent, and if you have a child who is passionate and willing to work hard, you have to offer them the opportunity to go as far as you can.’
Each production, created from scratch, has an original score (‘There’s an orchestra! Not music coming out of a speaker!’ one child enthused), rich sets, costumes and top choreography. Briance adds to the pressure by writing the ballets herself because ‘we need to do something that hasn’t been done before and done better’. She has written 17 so far, all adapted from classic works of literature such as The Canterville Ghost, The Secret Garden and A Little Princess. Nanny McPhee is her first to be based on a contemporary film.
The idea is not talent-spotting, though LCB has changed lives. Anna Rose O’Sullivan, who played the lead role in A Little Princess in 2004, for example, was heading for a future in musical theatre until LCB highlighted her rare ballet talent. She is now an artist with the Royal Ballet. But the hope is to teach children the transferable skills of discipline, patience and teamwork.
‘LCB demonstrates year after year that even a modest amount of talent, when properly directed and imaginatively deployed, can produce quality dance theatre,’ Louise Levene, the Sunday Telegraph’s dance critic, says. ‘The performers change every year, but that potent combination of amateur enthusiasm and professional production values guarantees an enjoyable show. The consistency has been astonishing.’
The London Children’s Ballet calendar starts in October, with the first auditions (there are three rounds in all). Rehearsals are every Sunday from January until the performance, in April (with two intensive weeks over the Easter holiday).
Today is November 17, the final round of auditions. One hundred hopefuls are assembled at Dance Attic, a rehearsal studio in west London, to compete for 62 places. The children have been told to wait in a ‘holding room’, a small studio that is now a mess of ballet bags, clothes and lunch boxes. The mood is tense. Some dancers stretch their legs at the barre. Some stand still, hands on hips. Others compulsively adjust their leotards. There are Fattypuffs and Thinifers, leotards in pink, sky blue and white, and hair is parted dead centre and pinned at the back – the importance of ballet buns having been drummed in by teachers with names such as ‘Miss Heidi’ and ‘Miss Nisa’ at dance schools back home.
Some come from ordinary-person ballet lessons, and others are crème de la crème Royal Ballet School junior and senior associates who dance in special classes on Saturdays. But being a junior associate will not necessarily make you a member of LCB. Far from it. ‘It’s not necessarily about technique,’ Briance points out. ‘It’s about children who can twinkle.’
Cameron Nolan, 10, a sweet-faced boy with red hair, is here because, for some reason, when he was seven he started walking on his tiptoes. ‘Sometimes I’d do it to stretch, sometimes to make myself feel a bit taller. I’d do it naturally,’ he says. ‘Friends would joke that I should do ballet, and I thought, “Maybe I should.” ’ He was drawn in by the Billy Elliot effect. He now goes to lessons near his home in Banstead, Surrey, where his mother is an estate agent and his father a rugby coach, and still plays rugby every Sunday. ‘Ballet has helped my rugby,’ he says. ‘It’s improved my balance.’ He uses chaîné turns – fast turns along a diagonal line – to dodge tackles.
Ruby Spicer, from Sidcup, has cherubically curly hair and at nine is the youngest at today’s auditions. She suffers from chronic asthma and severe allergies, and her consultant suggested dance as a way to build stamina and confidence. ‘She was in and out of hospital so many times she missed a lot of school,’ says Ruby’s mother, who works in social services; her father is a psychotherapist. Ruby started ballet at the age of three and does three classes a week. Her favourite position is the splits.
Mukeni Nel, 16, had a dramatic start in life. As a newborn he was abandoned in a village just outside Nairobi, Kenya, and he was abandoned again in the hospital he was taken to after being found. ‘They left me to die,’ he says. An untreated eye infection has left him blind in one eye. At seven months old he was taken to an orphanage, from where he was adopted by his British father and Kenyan mother. ‘My mum couldn’t have children and she wanted to adopt a girl, and of course I wouldn’t have been adopted by anyone because I’m not the perfect child. But my dad said, “If you’re going to adopt anyone, you have to adopt this one” – looking at me – “because you can really make a difference to his life.”’ His name means ‘forever happy’ in his mother’s native language.
He now lives in Winchester and started ballet aged five because he was friends with the girls and it was what they did. Dancing is not affected by his impaired sight, unlike throwing and catching in PE. ‘I have the worst hand-eye coordination ever.’ He now wants to make ballet his career. ‘When I dance I just feel more free and happy. I go to that special place, somewhere light and fun,’ he says. ‘I have really long legs and long arms. I just need to gain some strength.’
The auditions are held in a large room with a pianist and a mirrored wall. The judging panel comprises Briance; Fiona Chadwick, a former principal ballerina at the Royal Ballet who is clever at spotting technique; Erico Montes, 28, the choreo-grapher, and Gemma Pitchley-Gale, 26, the LCB ballet mistress – both dancers at the Royal Ballet. They sit at a table with sheets of paper and put ticks or crosses under two headings: charm and choreography. Sandwiches, fruit and fondant fancies have been placed nearby for their lunch.
The children are led in 10 at a time and form a line in front of the judges. Niccy Tranah warms them up and says things such as ‘Big Christmas lights. Put them on!’ to get them to smile.
Some get crosses. ‘Weight back all the time,’ ‘Jumping on straight legs,’ ‘So unmusical it was horrendous.’ Mukeni gets ticks, as do Cameron (‘So boyish!’ the judges say), Isabella (‘Adorable’) and Ruby (‘Quick learner, great head on the turns’).
When the letter arrived, ‘I jumped up and down and phoned my husband at work – “She’s in, she’s in!” ’ Ruby’s mother later tells me. They celebrated with dinner at Café Rouge. ‘I couldn’t open it quickly enough,’ says Annabelle Adey, 14, from Epsom, Surrey, who plays Nanny McPhee and is an LCB veteran, having appeared in Snow White and A Little Princess. ‘And there it was: “Congratulations! We are delighted to offer you a place.” ’ Her mother and her friend Natasha started crying, she says, ‘and I screamed because I was so happy!’
Lucille Briance is tall and authoritative, and speaks with a hint of an American accent. She was born in New York, where her father was a stockbroker and her mother devoted herself to good causes: launching libraries, scholarship programmes. ‘My mother is very big on, “To whom much is given, much is expected,” ’ she says. After graduating from Smith College, Massachusetts, where she read political science, she worked in publishing in New York. She moved to London in 1980, after marrying Richard Briance, who is the head of a merchant bank (and son of Prunella Briance, the founder of the National Childbirth Trust). After a spell at Vogue as managing editor and then merchandising editor, Briance gave up work to be a stay-at-home mother. She has four children: Zoe, 31, is the executive director of LCB; Henry, 29, works in private equity in New York; Clemmie, 26, is a social worker; and Freddie, 24, works in retail.
‘I certainly didn’t expect to be running this,’ Briance says. ‘I thought I’d have an idea and hand it on in a month to the ballet world.’ In fact she devotes 11 months a year to LCB (August is spent with her 94-year-old mother in Nantucket). She searches for stories to adapt (she met Emma Thompson after the actress came to a show), fires off letters, meets agents, who recommend costume and set designers, networks supporters and organises fundraising events (for example, dinner with Emma Thompson and 250 friends at Bafta), driven by a belief in the transformative effect of hard work and ‘children from all backgrounds feeling stretched and important’.
She also takes great pleasure in ballet – ‘We do actually go’ – and rails against those who say it is too highbrow. Various producers have tried and failed to get LCB on television over the years. ‘Basically they [commissioning editors] say, “No, it’s an elitist thing, no one is interested in ballet!” ’ she cries. ‘It’s so ignorant!’
One of the things she is determined to protect is that the cost of LCB to parents is so minimal. ‘Seventy-eight per cent of our parents said they would not be able to participate if it wasn’t,’ she says. But keeping it that way is getting harder. ‘About 70 per cent of my work is fundraising, and in my opinion it’s a waste of time. If the government would give us an endowment we could slash our costs.’
It is now March and back at Dance Attic Isabella is learning that LCB’s professionalism requires sacrifices. She has two parts: as Aunt Adelaide and in the corps de ballet playing magic dust – an invention for the ballet. It is her ninth Sunday of rehearsals and her routine is this: alarm at 4.30am, pull on clothes and reach for ballet bag, which is already packed. Once she is bundled in a coat, her mother drives her along country roads and they park at a Morrisons. The coach from Totnes to London leaves at 5.05. Isabella sleeps on the coach, or does her homework. Once they get to London, the ritual is to run through her steps in her head as she walks down Fulham Broadway towards the studio. ‘She’ll be talking, naming her steps, and her arms will be twitching as we get closer,’ her mother says. While Isabella is rehearsing, her mother spends time with friends or goes shopping. If Isabella finishes early, they can make the 4.30pm coach back to Devon. But normally it is the 7.30. ‘So we get home after midnight,’ her mother explains.
‘The other day we were on the coach,’ she continues, ‘and it felt like such a long journey home and I was feeling a bit fed up, but I didn’t say anything. Then Isabella turned to me and said, “Mum, I’m so glad we’re doing this.” ’
To support LCB’s 20th-anniversary appeal, text LCBD20 £3 to 70070. To pre-order a DVD of Nanny McPhee – The Ballet, call 020-8969 1555
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