It’s every dancer’s dream to perform on stage in front of a big audience – and for 40 young people from the Portsmouth area, that dream will come true tonight.
They are among 100 talented ballet dancers from Hampshire who have been picked to appear in the English Youth Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker at the Kings Theatre in Southsea.
Most auditions for prestigious ballet productions take place in London, But Janet Lewis, who ran the Lewis London Ballet and was artistic director of the Dublin National Ballet, decided it wasn’t fair that young hopefuls had to travel to the capital to showcase their talent.
So in 1998 she formed the English Youth Ballet. The company would use professionals as their principal dancers, while the main body of the cast would be young local dancers from the regions they visited.
Dancers performing at the Kings come from dance schools across the city, including Southsea School Of Dance, Timestep School Of Dance, Whitestone School Of Dance, Classique School Of Dance, Giselle Academy of Dance & Theatre Arts, Southern Arts Academy and Rochelle Ballet School.
Even the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy will be played by Julianne Rice-Oxley, a principal dancer who was brought up in the city.
Janet says coming down to the city is something the company loves doing.
She explains: ‘We have performed in Portsmouth about five or six times and our show helped save the theatre. Ultimately, us coming was why it couldn’t be closed down.
‘We still return every two years and we always like to go to the seaside – not that we see the sea very much. We tour all over the country too, even as far north as Newcastle.’
Janet started the company to give young dancers who lived outside London the chance to appear on a professional stage, in a professional production.
She says: ‘I did a pilot scheme with young dancers within a 50-mile radius of the Octagon Theatre (in Somerset), and advertised to all the dance schools. They took up the challenge and we had a very successful Nutcracker performance.
‘That’s how we still do it 13 years on. We do eight programmes a year and I can’t really do more than that because we have to build a whole new company and cast each time.’
Janet, who has performed with the London Festival Ballet and the Royal Ballet, believes the best way for young dancers to learn is to take part in traditional productions of ballet, and mainly uses major stories such as The Nutcracker, Sleeping Beauty, Giselle and Coppelia.
She adds: ‘We cover all the major classical ballets because I feel that is the foundation of young ballet dancers. They can easily be adapted for the cast’s standards.
‘It’s good because they learn about what is expected of them and their behaviour in a professional production.’
Past performers have gone on to study at vocational schools. Janet explains: ‘We have some that return every year when we arrive and have gone on to get jobs and into schools. The performance experience really helps.’
Janet was even awarded an MBE for services to dance in the 2008 New Year Honours List. Talking about the day, she says it was lovely.
‘When I found out, I thought I’d done something wrong because I had a letter from the Prime Minister! Of course you have to keep it secret until it’s announced, so my husband and I kept it.
‘The day was lovely, a beautiful summer day. We had a lovely lunch, and it was very much top hat and tails.’
But what she’s really all about is giving young dancers an opportunity they would never normally have.
Janet adds: ‘I don’t want talent to be utilised only in London, I want there to be a balance so local dancers have something on their doorstep in their local theatre, of a highly professional standard.’
n The English Youth Ballet will perform The Nutcracker at the Kings Theatre tonight and tomorrow, with shows starting at 7.30pm each evening, plus a 2.30pm matinee tomorrow.
Tickets cost £16 to £20 from the Kings on (023) 9282 8282, or visit kings-southsea.com