National Youth Ballet dancers tipped for the top

THE ballet stars of the future will be showcasing their skills in Surrey this month with a wide variety of excerpts from Toad to the Polovtsian Dances.

The National Youth Ballet will be bringing the young talent gathered for this summer to the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford before heading for a gala performance in London.

Previous dancers are now working professionally with ballet companies all over the world, including the Royal Ballet, English National Ballet, New York City Ballet and Vienna Festival Ballet. Others have gone on to dance at the Moulin Rouge in Paris and star in shows such as Chicago, Cats and Phantom of the Opera.

“Oh without a doubt some of this current crop will go on to dance professionally,” says Jill Tookey, founder of the National Youth Ballet and now executive and artistic director.

“We have hundreds of alumni who are now professional dancers and choreographers.

“I often hear back from managers at various ballet, and they love our dancers because not only are they good, but they know about being part of a company.

“They learn a lot more than ballet with us – things like team spirit and getting on with other people.

“After all, this year you might star as Alice in Alice In Wonderland and next year you might be a rabbit.”

This year’s crop of eight to 18-year-olds – who all have to audition – have already impressed royalty after performing at the Coronation Festival in July, at Buckingham Palace. “It all went amazingly well,” says Jill. “We were there for four days with 37 dancers and had to pinch ourselves to make sure it was really happening.

“We were invited because of our reputation and I suggested we do scenes from Alice In Wonderland because I knew it would work well in the gardens there. We also did scenes from Toad (left) and The Old Man of Loch Nagar, which was inspired by Prince Charles’ book of the same name.

“Almost all the Royal family were there − the Queen came past us in a golf buggy − and Prince Charles and Camilla were present, as was Zara. Of course Kate wasn’t there, because she was about to have her baby.”

Toad – based on Kenneth Grahame’s Wind In The Willows and choreographed by Wayne Sleep – will also be performed at Guildford, along with Small House of Uncle Thomas (from The King and I), the Edwardian costume ballet Impressions of Sophie, and The Polovtsian Dances (from Prince Igor).

“It is aimed at a family audience, although we get loads of comments from fans of professional ballet, who pay us great compliments,” adds Jill.

“I very much want to entertain, especially because I know a lot of the audience will be young and I don’t want them to get bored. I want them to think ‘That’s incredible!’”

Jill started the project back in 1983 and after a couple of breaks is now running it for the 26th year.

“I trained in ballet but then went into fashion journalism as a career,” she explains.

“Then I wrote a children’s book, Pedro the Parrot, and because of my background I thought it would make an incredible ballet.

“So I set up Ballet Workshop at Sadler’s Wells in 1983.

“After three or four years I could see people were coming from everywhere, and I was encouraged to go national, although I first had to get the backing of Sadler’s Wells and the Royal Academy of Dance to be able to call it the National Youth Ballet.

“I’m still doing it and my work is entirely voluntary – I must be crazy but I love it!”

She has no shortage of young dancers who want to join, but an interesting thing she has noticed in recent years is an upsurge in interest from boys.

“When I first started it was around 5 per cent, now the boys make up around 20 or 25 per cent every year,” says Jill.

“I think it’s partly down to the huge success of Billy Elliot and partly all the dance shows on TV.

“I don’t turn my nose up at them – after all, our dancers recently got one, two and three in So You Think You Can Dance…”

The National Youth Ballet will perform at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford, from Thursday, August 22 until Saturday, August 24.

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