Susan Robinson: For the “Pure Love of Dance”

ENB principal Laurretta Summerscales, Alumna of the Susan Robinson School, photo Laurent Liotard

Susan Robinson, ballet teacher extraordinaire, on how she transmits her “pure passion for the art” to successive generations of dancers.

On the last night of English National Ballet’s London Christmas season, Laurretta Summerscales received a rapturous ovation for her sparkling portrayal of the slave girl Medora, a lead role, in Le Corsaire.

Better was to yet come, when the ENB’s Artistic Director strode onto the stage, microphone in hand, to make a very special announcement: Laurretta Summerscales was being promoted to company principal with immediate effect.

The news was received with jubilation in the London Coliseum and beyond, perhaps nowhere more so than in a quiet corner of leafy Surrey, in the home of Laurretta’s first ballet teacher, Susan Robinson.

“She was driven,” Susan recalls of the young Laurretta, who started coming to her school as a six-year-old.

“We used to have an exercise, eight sautés, and it had to be in canon in fours. She was not a jumper, and she got her knickers in a twist about this. But later her mother told me at three in the morning she went into her parents’ bedroom and said, ‘I can do it now.’

This “passion for the art” is what Susan looks for when children first come to her. That and, of course, musicality, “being at ease with the music.” 

Lauretta again: “In her first class one of my pianists said, ‘oh, she’s very musical this little girl.’

We talked in her cosy living room in Byfleet early one Friday afternoon, before she started a full schedule of classes in the Methodist Hall, the biggest of her three studios, just a stone’s throw away.

Small CloughieWe did so under the watchful eye of Cloughie, her splendid ginger tom, named after the quasi-mythical manager of Nottingham Forest football club, Brian Clough.

Susan is a die-hard Forest fan and proudly points to the club shirt she’s wearing.

With Susan Robinson,  an irrepressible and extraordinarily vital character, surprise follows surprise follows surprise…

 

Teaching came to her almost by accident, when her dancing career in Germany was cut short for family reasons.  Back in Britain, a tentative start as a freelance teacher awakened a semi-hidden vocation.

“I received quite a few compliments and I thought, “well, I think I can do this.”

Just to make sure, she consulted Barbara Fewster, whom she describes as “an amazing teacher,” whose opinion she absolutely respected.

“She said to me, ‘go and find a place where there isn’t any recognised ballet school, and maybe you’ll find some stars for us.’  But she said, ‘I doubt it, because talent is very very rare.’

So Susan Robinson found a niche in Byfleet, where just over 40 years ago she started her school with two students and now has around 280 in what’s widely acknowledged as one of the top non-vocational schools in the UK.

That she is a natural teacher became absolutely clear as I watched her first class of the day for six and seven-year-olds.

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“There’s a right way of doing it and there’s a wrong way. Just the small things: making sure their hair is in a bun, making sure that they’re not scruffy…There’s a rule and we’ll have fun, but you don’t step over that because otherwise what’s the point?”

She feels it’s important, too, that beyond learning the technique children are able to express themselves and acquire a feel for the stage.

“My idea is that they come off the streets, we try to give them a sense of performance – we have a biennial show, and I do take a small performing group and we do lots of charity work; and so the children have the opportunity of me putting up a cameo role that suits their personality, brings out their best and gives them the confidence.

Class was a mixture of fun and discipline, and her 14 little pupils were engrossed throughout.

Montage Monday

She teaches the standard syllabus; but beyond that, “when they are eight or nine I yank them out for another class which is non-syllabus and it’s my idea of what training a classical dancer needs to be”

It works. Nowadays, when visiting companies need children for productions in London they come to the Susan Robinson School.

It’s been like that since the time, many years ago now, when Moscow’s Bolshoi first came calling:

“They wanted an open audition for children to be in The Sleeping Beauty, and we went up to the old Studio Centre and the Russian Ballet Mistress was there. Our school uniform is navy blue with a pink belt, and I think it was my proudest moment when she said, ‘if you do not have navy blue leotard with a pink belt, please leave.’

She laughs with pure pleasure. And adds: “so, we had 12 dancers in and of those four went on to become professional dancers.”

Natalie Dodd, photo c/o Mark Bruce Company
Natalie Dodd, photo c/o Mark Bruce Company.

Students leave the Susan Robinson school at 16, and if they want to pursue a dancing career must then enrol in a vocational establishment.

The roll call of her alumni dancing professionally is impressive indeed.

With the school offering jazz, tap and contemporary dance classes as well as classical ballet, the students’ options  are quite open.

Susan Robinson alumna Natalie Dodd – “she’s a very tall girl, beautiful!” – has just joined the Mark Bruce Company as an apprentice and is dancing in its high octane The Odyssey, currently touring the UK.

 

 

Hannah Bateman, another “old girl,” is a Leading Soloist with Northern Ballet – but only because she had the grit and determination Susan so admires.

Hannah Bateman as La Fèe Luminaire in Beauty and the Beast, photo Bill Cooper
Hannah Bateman as La Fée Luminaire in Beauty and the Beast, photo Bill Cooper

“Hannah was in a state school and they interviewed her for a future career and she said, ‘I want to be a ballet dancer.’ And they said, ‘oh don’t be ridiculous, Hannah, we think you’re quite handy with your hands, perhaps you could be a plumber.’”

She still laughs heartily at the memory. In fact, Susan Robinson laughs often, be it for sheer joy or simple mischief.

Miss Hope

She keeps an iron grip on her school, her life’s work. She trains her own teachers: “they’re old girls.”

When I visited, Hope Roberts was going through the first stages of her training with “Miss Susan,” which she will complement with a recognised teacher’s training diploma.

Hope trod the boards with the Bolshoi as one of the child extras in the Russian company’s The Sleeping Beauty, but decided teaching was her calling.

Obviously, not all of Susan Robinson’s pupils go on to become dancers or teachers. Still,

“I always say, if you never dance a step, it’s not wasted, because you’ve been with like-minded girls and boys, you come through puberty in a very healthy way and just get on with life. And I think the camaraderie that the girls have, the friendship they’ve spawned, they’ve kept.

“I like that about them, because they’re nice human beings and it really matters not whether they danced or not. With us here they did dance, and they danced with joy.”

Susan Robinson personifies the joy of teaching. She has a second studio next to the Methodist Hall, and as well she had a smaller one build in her own back yard, in what was once a garage and subsequently a vegetable patch.

“When I’m in my 80s perhaps I’ll be able to take a private lesson or coaching here and dodder around on a stick.”

Perhaps; but at the end of an inspiring afternoon, the image of Susan Robinson doddering around on a stick is really quite impossible to conjure up…

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"That's so Scottish Ballet..."

Christopher Hampson, Artistic Director and Chief Executive Officer  of Scottish Ballet, shares his ambitious plans for Scotland’s premier ballet company.                               

A mere glance at Scottish Ballet’s website reveals the huge amount of civic pride invested in the company.

“Scottish Ballet is Scotland’s National Dance Company,” it reads at a time when nationhood is very much at the forefront of the country’s preoccupations.

The names on the Board read like a Who’s Who of Scotland’s industry and public life.  Glasgow-based Scottish Ballet clearly has a key place in Scotland’s identity.

Leading such a company is a challenge; but one which 42-year-old choreographer and former dancer Christopher Hampson is “excited” to have taken on.

Over martinis (“vodka, with a twist”) during one of his lightning visits to London, he talks about his vision for the company he took over three years ago.

“I want to make sure we’re present in people’s cultural make-up. (…) That sometimes means that you do re-look at things. At Scottish Ballet we have to ask how do we do a production today and for the people of today.”

That, he says, involves doing the classics “with a twist” – and that’s one of the reasons why he’s commissioned a new Swan Lake from choreographer David Dawson.

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David Dawson’s Swan Lake for Scottish Ballet Dancer Sophie Martin photo David Eustace

 

“My commissioning of David Dawson to do the work is really key, because although he is a very contemporary choreographer, his passion is ballet and he absolutely adores it to the point of obsession.  And in a way that obsession becomes abstraction and so you end up with so much more – it’s like a very concentrated classicism that you get with him, that he pushes, pulls, extends… that excites me.”

With the interests of his 36-dancers foremost on his mind, he goes on:

“What I’ve always seen with David is, when he works with a company, the dancers change after they’ve worked with him, their technique evolves and they get a richer vocabulary.”

Scottish Ballet’s Swan Lake “for the people of today” premiéres in the coming Spring; before that, though, Hampson is absolutely focussed on the company’s Christmas show: the UK premiére of his very own Cinderella, created for New Zealand Ballet in 2007.  That brings new challenges for his dancers.

“I expect my dancers to be able to be great character actors, to be great dancers classical and contemporary.

“I always leave room in any production for an artist to extend the character.  I mean, the Sisters [in this production] are principal dancers, Sophie Martin and Eve Mutso – they’re normally up there doing lead roles, so flip that around and they’re bringing their artistry to these Sisters.”

It is a work that can be seen on many levels – “it’s essentially about a girl grieving” – but within that he’s woven magic and fun, mapping a journey from darkness to light; and so, he says, it’s the ideal Christmas show for the whole family.

“It should be for children, it should be for adults, it should be for grandparents and aunties, and godparents, gay uncles… 

Scottish Ballet Cinderella dancers Bethany Kingsley-Garner, Christopher Harrison photo Andy Ross
Scottish Ballet Cinderella dancers Bethany Kingsley-Garner, Christopher Harrison photo Andy Ross

“If you’re taking your family out, you’re spending upwards of £150 on going to the theatre, you’re owed something, you’re owed an entertaining evening, you’re owed excellent values, professionalism, a great technique and fun, enjoyment.

A WIDE REPERTOIRE

The classics, though, are only a small part of Scottish Ballet’s extensive repertoire. 

“I think we’re one of the most prolific companies creating new work in Britain today. I think we punch way above our weight in terms of contemporary ballet and dance.  I think we lead in terms of versatility of dancers.

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Matthew Bourne’s Highland Fling Dancer Remi Andreoni photo Graham Wylie

“In the last couple of years we’ve done Matthew Bourne’s Highland Fling – we’re the only company in the whole world that he gave one of his ballets to! -, we’ve done Helen Pickett, we’ve done new stuff, we’ve done [company founder] Peter Darrell’s The Nutcracker, which is classical, but with new designs by Les Brotherston.

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Scottish Ballet in Peter Darrell’s The Nutcracker photo Andy Ross

“We’ve done Twyla Tharp, David Dawson… on and on it goes, and that’s not just one or two people, that’s my entire company have to do that.  You have to be really good to do it.

“My first year we did Hans van Manen’s 5 Tangos.  I like to think that we’re attracting the world – they’re coming to Scotland, it’s fantastic.”

A couple of international big name choreographers will be added to Scottish Ballet’s repertoire next season … but so far we’re sworn to secrecy.  Watch this space!

And Scotland is coming to the world, with international touring, most recently to China, Hong Kong and the USA, an increasingly important part of the company’s remit.

As a prolific and internationally acclaimed choreographer, though, surely the temptation to cram his company’s repertoire full of his own works must be irresistible?

“Oh, not for me, not at all!  When I got the job in 2012 it was such a relief  to take a step back, to know where my voice could work in a repertoire and to have the confidence to know where it can’t and others’ can. 

“One part of the job that I never knew existed, this joy, is commissioning other people, because I know how that feels: I can see the joy, the trepidation, the excitement in their faces – it’s great I’ve been able to facilitate that.

MENTORING NEW CHOREOGRAPHERS

He loves, too, to mentor budding choreographers from within the ranks of his own dancers.  One such is coryphee Sophie Laplane.  Hampson speaks of her with evident pride:

“Sophie was somebody who I could see kept ploughing this field but getting deeper and deeper, and that excited me.

“She obviously had an idea, she was going around it, but every time she went around it she produced something quite unique and new.”

So he gave her a few chances in galas, a performance in the foyer of the Edinburgh Festival, and finally her breakthrough: her own short piece – Maze – on the big stage.

Sophie’s career as a choreographer is now well on track.

REACHING OUT BEYOND THE BALLET STAGE

Hampson is on record as saying he wants to make his company relevant beyond the realm of ballet.  To that end, he’s brought the Education Department directly into the Artistic Director’s, ie his own, domain.

And he’s got a number of outreach projects under way.  One such, about which he talks with open emotion, is called The Close.

“This is working with young people that have been taken out of mainstream education (…).

“First, we just meet them (…)

“Then we bring them into the centre of a city and just take them to a theatre, not going in, (…) just getting them comfortable there.

Finally, they go into the theatre and watch a performance – most recently Krzysztof Pastor’s gritty, modern-day Romeo and Juliet.

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Krzysztof Pastor’s Romeo and Juliet Dancers Erik Cavallari and Sophie Martin photo Andy Ross

“Afterwards, me and a couple of the dancers, including Sophie Martin who played Juliet, went to the Q & A session, and this guy said, ‘I got a question for you’ and pointed at me, he said ‘why do you do any of this?’

“I said to myself, that’s the smartest question I’ve been asked in a very long time.”

Hampson talked about how vital it was, “how healing, and how important, how we can affect people, how we can look at things we can’t look at in life, how it’s a mirror on our lives, it can make us laugh, it can make us cry…”

And he likes to think that in 20 years’ time that young man will still remember the first time he went to a theatre.

Other projects include Scottish Ballet’s Creatives, giving people from within the company at all levels the opportunity to develop skills outside of dance, what he describes, with an impeccable French accent, as “la troisiéme scène,” what can be seen beyond the stage.

There’s also the Digital Season, which is about “engaging with people at the top of their field in many different sectors, photography, film, plastic arts, poetry – anything!” and bringing them in to use the company as their inspiration.

In 2019 it’ll be 50 years since the visionary Peter Darrell founded Scottish Ballet; celebrations there will certainly be, but for now they’re a closely guarded secret.

Christopher Hampson will not be drawn, but he’ll say this about Scottish Ballet at 50:

“I want us to be a diverse, strong, unique company, I want us to be recognisable.

My ambition for my time at Scottish Ballet will be, if people hear about a repertoire or hear about an initiative, they’ll say:

‘That’s so Scottish Ballet, that…’”

And with that he drained his glass and breezed off.

 

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Living the Dream in Ballett Zurich

Royal Ballet graduate Daniel Mulligan writes about his life as a dancer in Ballett Zurich in Switzerland’s most glamorous city.     

I spent two years in the Junior Company and was lucky enough to stay with the main company after that period. Our director then was Heinz Spoerli and he used me in his pieces very often and pushed me from a young age, which I’m very thankful for.

It helped me build my strength and gain experience.

Since 2012, we’ve been working under the direction of Christian Spuck and the change came at a good time for my career. As well as creating new works for the company, Christian has brought ballets he created in other companies.

The repertoire is varied and satisfying: we have a good mix of classical and modern works.

This season we started with a fantastic triple bill of In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated by William Forsythe, Gods and Dogs by Jiří Kylián and Minus 16 by Ohad Naharin. I danced the Kylian and Naharin pieces which requires two very different approaches and styles.

For Gods and Dogs, like with all Kylián works, the musicality and emotion of the piece are very important.

Mulligan in Gods and Dogs photo Gregory Bartadon
Mulligan in Gods and Dogs photo Gregory Bartadon

There is a beautiful shimmering silver curtain at the back of the stage and a sole lit candle at the front, both of which add to the atmosphere of the piece. The score blends Beethoven music with a modern electronic reworking by Dirk Haubrich.

It was such a pleasure to dance this touching ballet, and even more so as we actually had the chance to work with Jiří Kylián in the studio.

Then to something very different with Minus 16 by Naharin! While Kylian’s work is modern, there is still a strong classical base within the choreography, whereas Ohad Naharin created his own movement language known as ‘Gaga’.

We had quite a few ‘Gaga Classes’ with the assistant who set the piece to discover this different way of moving, and it was a very liberating feeling.

The mirrors are completely covered for Gaga class so it really enables you to focus on all the sensations in your body; and there is a lot of room for movement exploration with direction from the person teaching the class.

I really enjoyed this process and it definitely helped with the actual performances of Minus 16.

Physically, it is a very demanding piece. In quite a number of the performances I danced the opening solo which goes on for about 15 to 20 minutes whilst the audience return from the break and it’s all improvisation!

It is so much fun, you can be really outrageous and crazy and it’s great to get a response of laughter and bemusement from the audience.

My professional life is very important to me, but I definitely like to find a good balance with my home and social life too. I strongly believe that this keeps dancers happy: creating new and exciting life experiences and meeting people can also help you develop your artistry.

I travel when I can, go to concerts, museums, the cinema, watch other companies perform, cook at home, eat out at a restaurant, check out flea markets and design stores, go clubbing… the list goes on!

I love living in Zurich! Switzerland in general has a very high standard of living and its stereotype of being super organised and clean is true!

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I find it very important to try and experience as much art as I can and Zurich is a good city for that. It’s not a huge metropolis like London, which is my hometown, but for its small size it packs a punch and you can find a lot of interesting things to do.

Plus, it’s in a perfect spot in Europe.  It’s easy to travel to many destinations, and when I get time I like to travel to see friends, often dancer friends, so I can see them perform and catch up.

That’s the beauty of this profession; you end up with friends all over the place, which gives you a good reason to travel and usually there will be a spare bed or a couch for you to sleep on!

The summer months in Zurich are awesome, there are lots of nice cafes and bars to hang out in (I prefer the more alternative side of town to the postcard image of downtown Zurich) and you can finish work with a nice refreshing dip in the lake or the river.

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Just around the corner from where I live is a great place to socialise all year round!

It’s known as ‘Frau Gerold’s Garten.’

In the summer months there is an outdoor bar, which is built out of old shipping containers with tables and seating improvised from pallets and other second hand furniture.

In the winter it doubles up as a cheese fondue restaurant with a cosy indoors.

I love taking friends here when they visit as, of course, cheese fondue is a very traditional Swiss dish; but here it’s served in a slightly quirkier environment than a mountain chalet.

I like to browse second hand shops and flea markets on Saturday afternoon after work, if I don’t have a show. I like looking for old records or second-hand furniture; if you’re lucky, sometimes you can find something great on the street that somebody has left out to be taken away for free.

I’d recommend a visit to anyone. And while there why not pop into the opera house too, to see a performance?

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