Laurretta Summerscales: becoming Juliet…

Laurretta Summerscales in English National Ballet's Romeo and Juliet, photo Laurent Liotardo

ENB Principal Laurretta Summerscales talks to Ballet Position about her favourite roles and the current  phase in the company’s history.

Juliet is one of Lauretta Summerscales’ favourite roles. Juliet, that is, in the Rudolf Nureyev production of the tragic love story of Romeo and Juliet. Nureyev’s 1977 ballet on Prokofiev’s complete score is the version danced by Laurretta’s home company, English National Ballet, for whose predecessor, London Festival Ballet, Nureyev created the work.

“Oh, I love Juliet!” she exclaims, and her face, already animated throughout our lengthy conversation, lights up further. “This is the only version of Romeo and Juliet I absolutely love.”

Nureyev himself described his Juliet as “passionate, willing and more mature than [Romeo] is.”

Lauretta: “You can see the transition as she turns into a woman – she realises what she wants and then she’s put into a situation where she has to choose between two sides, but she loves them both, doesn’t understand it. She’s, like, caught in a trap.

“I see her as a very strong character, so that’s why I can act her quite easily because she’s strong, even though she’s not toughened, harsh; but she knows what she wants and she’s very strong against everybody.”

Judged by many to be the balletic version of Romeo and Juliet closest to Shakespeare’s original, Nureyev’s ballet doesn’t stint on the bawdiness and violence that characterised Renaissance Verona. And he introduces some changes that intensify the dramatic effect.

“This is the only version (…) where she actually sees Tybalt dead. In all the other versions that I have seen you never have the chance to show the audience your emotions, what you go through!

“You have seen Tybalt dead and you have love for him and you have love for [Romeo] different types of love… this complete torture of two sides… and also you have a go at him saying, “how dare you do this?” and at the same time you love him.”

Throughout, though, and this seems to be the clincher for Lauretta Summerscales, “she’s quite calculating, thinking about things, thinking about “should I, shouldn’t I?” she’s scared, but you can see that she hasn’t lost control.”

Laurretta Summerscales
Laurretta Summerscales

As she gestures to signify her enthusiasm for this role, the tell-tale sparkle of diamonds flashes from the ring finger of her left hand. She is engaged to fellow Principal Yonah Acosta, with the wedding booked for the very first day of their summer holiday, post Romeo and Juliet.

The natural question, then, is, would she like to establish a regular stage partnership with her life partner?

“It would be great to do Swanilda and Franz [in Coppelia] because there’s a bit of feistiness, and we’re like that naturally, so I would love something like that because I would just have so much fun with him on stage.”

‘Feisty’ is definitely one word you would associate with Laurretta. It’s also a word that applies very much to ENB’s Director since 2012, Tamara Rojo. Does that create problems?

“I find we’re both quite feisty. I think it’s more because I’m pushy and I think I annoy her sometimes, which is understandable.

“It’s difficult, because as a dancer you don’t want to be seen that you’re laid back or that you’re super confident and you expect everything. I always want to show that I am always wanting more, I don’t want anybody to see me as big-headed (…)

“So, I never want her to think badly of me, so sometimes I’m like, ‘Im here, just to let you know.’  I’ll bet she’s gonna say, ‘go away, leave me alone.’  I don’t know that for sure, but that’s the impression.”

Big-headed is definitely not the impression Laurretta Summerscales gives. On the contrary, with her open smile and willingness to engage, she comes across as disarmingly unpretentious. Strong-willed, though; and intent on widening the range of her roles.

Brought into the company after only two years in the English National Ballet School, her progress up the ranks has been fairly swift, and promotion to Principal came, aged 25, in January 2016.

A strong dancer with a powerful jump, and appearing taller on stage than she is in real life (at 5ft 4 or 1.62 m she’s well within a female dancer’s average), she has tended to be typecast as, say, Medora in Le Corsaire, Odille rather than Odette, Myrtha rather than Giselle.

And yet, she gave a good account of Giselle in her debut in the role last Winter.

Laurretta Summerscales as Giselle, photo Laurent Liotardo
Laurretta Summerscales as Giselle, photo Laurent Liotardo

“I want to be able to be versatile and feel I can bring a bit of this, a bit of that, I’m not in a box. I don’t like to be in a box, I have this thing, ‘no! no box!’” (Laughs)

Versatility has to be the name of the game under Tamara Rojo’s ambitious plans for English National Ballet. The company’s repertoire now includes work by contemporary choreographers such as Akram Khan, Russel Maliphant, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa and China’s Yabin Wang, in whose complex reading of the Medea myth, M-Dao, Laurretta starred.

Laurretta Summerscales in M-Dao by Yabin Wang, photo Laurent Liotardo
Laurretta Summerscales in M-Dao by Yabin Wang, photo Laurent Liotardo

Another coup for Rojo was the acquisition of MacMillan’s seminal work, Song of the Earth, choreographed on Mahler’s haunting Das Lied von der Erde, where Laurretta would be eager to dance the central role of The Woman – though she has no idea yet whether that’ll come to pass.

There is actually a lot ENB dancers don’t know about Rojo’s overall plan for the company.

“I understand she wants to push the company up there, to be different, to grab people’s attention, but what her plans are for the future, like what ballets and stuff, no. We may have an idea, rumours, there’s always rumours, but you never know because things do change like this” – she clicks her fingers – “so until you see it in black and white… but that won’t be shown to you until literally a month before.”

Laurretta is understandably reluctant to be drawn on internal company politics; but pushed about the Director’s accessibility to ideas or even suggestion from below, she will say this:

“When she’s a dancer, in dancer mode, you can talk very freely, but when she’s a director it’s a very different dynamic.”

She is much happier talking about her ambitions for the future, the roles she’s got her eye on beside that of The Woman in Song of the Earth:

“Definitely La Bayadère, I’d love to do both Nikiya and Gamzatti, but I absolutely love Gamzatti, especially the last solo – it’s really difficult in the red dress, it’s beautiful!

Don Q, for sure – I feel like I can really just explode on stage. Elite Syncopations I’ve always liked because of Darcey Bussell.

“And the last one that I’d like to do is Sleeping Beauty. The Act II solo – I like the challenge, it’s such a long solo, it needs so much control…”

More immediately, Laurretta Summerscales is reprising the role of Juliet during ENB’s forthcoming stint at London’s Royal Festival Hall; and then, of course, there is the small matter of her own love story to attend to come the first day of the summer holiday and her wedding to Yonah Acosta.

by Teresa Guerreiro

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ENB dance Romeo and Juliet at the RFH, 1 – 5 August 2017. Laurretta Summerscales dances Juliet with Paris Opera’s Josua Hoffalt as Romeo on 4 August at 19:30

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.

teaching small

“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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