A dancer in London: Juliet Burnett writes home

12 October 2011 | By admin

Our Senior Artist Juliet has jetéd off overseas for a month on the Khitercs Hirai Scholarship. In the first of her posts, she takes class with The Royal Ballet, learns a new technique and takes a peek inside the Royal Opera House dressing rooms.

In the final hours of the long flight to London, I pulled out my UK landing card and started to fill it out in a semi-dazed stupor. At the section asking for the purpose of my trip I almost ticked the box that said ‘Work’, but then a reflex jolted from within, and I withdrew. It wasn’t so much the montage of tales dancing around my head of disasters involving absent working visas and suspicious immigration employees. It was the box next to it, which said ‘Education’. Despite a suitcase full of pointe shoes and practice clothes, and the fact that I had nearly ten years of dancing professionally under my belt, it didn’t take me long to decide which box was more applicable to my pursuits over the next month. I had come here to learn.

The Khitercs Hirai Scholarship would enable me to develop my career by facilitating work experience with other ballet companies. Life in a ballet company can be an insular existence; the scholarship affords the recipient the chance to expand their horizons by working with another company of their choice – essentially, being a member of that company for a period of time. The Australian ballet world is at the mercy of the geographical forces; as it’s hardly a convenient stopover between the two primary strongholds of dance – UK/Europe and America – we get little in the way of visits from international companies. So sending a dancer overseas also means they can watch as many shows as they need to rejuvenate their aspirations. This trip was, hopefully, going to be a reawakening of the mind and soul.

When David McAllister told me I was one of the lucky recipients for this year, I knew where I wanted to go straight away. As a student of 16, I was actually set to finish my study at The Royal Ballet School, but after a homesick month there decided to go to The Australian Ballet School instead. So I’ve always wanted to return to London to taste what might have been my destiny. Besides that, I’ve long admired the company’s traditional English style, and today its additional reputation as a multicultural tour de force; it has some of ballet’s brightest stars amongst its Principal Artists.

On my first day at the Royal Ballet, London was being gloriously defiant, with warmth and sun temporarily casting aside its notoriety for grey and cold. Sitting on the Tube, I instinctively scrolled to listen to The Kinks on my iPod. Just as it was playing their ode to Carnaby Street in the swinging 60s, I found myself shuffling apace with a military file of commuters up to the surface at Covent Garden station.

I don’t know how, but I found the stage door at the Royal Opera House straight away. Perhaps it was a dancer’s intuition. Intuition and initiative, I thought to myself, were going to be very important in the next few weeks. With no real structure to my day, apart from morning class, I was going to have to operate these devices a lot in order to get the most out of this experience. You’re on your own now. Butterflies teased at my insides.

I was met at stage door and shown to a dressing room by one of The Ballet’s staff. When I walked into the vast De Valois Studio and was greeted with warm welcoming smiles by dancers sprawled on the floor, languidly limbering, my butterflies eased. Soon some old friends from my brief stint at The Royal Ballet School welcomed me with embraces that reassured me that I wasn’t completely alone.

Today’s class was to be taken by former Sadler’s Wells ballerina Elizabeth Anderton. Feeling decisive and geared up for work, I placed myself at the barre next to my friend, Soloist Kristen McNally, as ‘Betty’ called the dancers’ attention for the first exercise.

“We’ll do the usual warm-up, facing the barre. Ready, AND…!”

I obediently turned to face the barre, but if I had looked straight ahead as the other dancers were doing, all I would have to guide me through the ‘usual warm-up’ was a window framing a view of the rooftops of Covent Garden. Unhelpful. And so I faked my way through the warm-up with my neck craning back over my shoulders, following along with the other dancers as best I could. This was not really the start I was hoping for.

Betty proceeded to set the rest of the barre exercises with almost as much haste, and though I had a bit of trouble keeping up, I soon got the hang of things. And then she started singing. With great gusto.

I leaned over to Kristen between exercises: “You didn’t warn me about the singing!”

After the initial giggle, I found myself smiling and humming along with Betty. I soon realised that this humming was helping my movement. There’s nothing like nervous energy to wrap you up with tension, like a mummy stiffened with bandages. The humming generated vibrations in the chest and throat that relaxed the respiring organs, neck and upper body. What had come across as Betty’s eccentricity actually turned out to be a very useful movement aide. I hadn’t been in the building an hour yet, and I already had an exciting new tool to take away with me.

Towards the end of class, Artistic Director Dame Monica Mason appeared in the studio to welcome me with humbling sincerity. I thanked her profusely for having me, and thinking that was it, started to walk away. But then she proceeded to tell me that she had organised some coaching for me with their ballet mistress Ursula Hageli, made sure I had tickets for the shows, and told me that if there was anything else I needed, I shouldn’t hesitate to ask. Before I came here, I had reasoned to myself that the company would be very busy putting on three different shows within one month, so being low on the priority list, I would be doing a lot of organising myself. I was touched and taken aback by this generosity, and once again felt a lot less alone.

After class, Kristen took me in to the dressing room. A spacious, light-filled room, it was packed literally floor to ceiling with dancer accoutrements – pointe shoes, toiletries, costumes and rehearsal gear – wedged in and around dressing tables and lockers. Window seats stretched invitingly under large windows overlooking Covent Garden Piazza, and photos of loved ones were arranged around the frames of dresser mirrors.

“This is our home! Sorry it’s such a mess,” Kristen apologised.

It really is a home. The Royal Ballet and The Royal Opera share the Royal Opera House stage and premises. So their dressing room tables are their sanctuaries in performance and rehearsal periods. In Melbourne, we reside in The Primrose Potter Australian Ballet Centre for rehearsal periods, and then just across the road at the Victorian Arts Centre when performing, so the only time we can really call our theatre dressing tables a home is during our long bi-annual season in the Sydney Opera House. It would take me a while to get used to hearing PA stage calls throughout every day for both The Royal Ballet’s and The Royal Opera’s rehearsals. It made the creative buzz of this building, with its abundant history of great performances, all the more palpable.

Read the next instalment of Juliet’s adventures overseas – featuring rehearsals for Wayne McGregor’s new work and performances at the Royal Opera House.