Grace Hume and Dean Rushton in Coppélia Photo Andrew Ross

Grace Hume and Dean Rushton in Coppélia
Photo Andrew Ross

Elmhurst School for Dance, Repertory Theatre, Birmingham
July 2, 2015

David Mead

It’s been a while coming, but hurrah, because at last Elmhurst School for Dance (the associate school of Birmingham Royal Ballet) has been able to stage its annual performances at a city centre theatre, and thus let the public at large to celebrate the achievements and progress of its students, instead of having them somewhat hidden way in the School’s own studio theatre where licensing regulations meant they had to be private affairs.

The evening climaxed with Act III of Sir Peter Wright’s Coppélia, in which Grace Hume and Dean Rushton led a cast of largely Graduate Year students, dancing Swanilda and Franz well, although the nerves showed through now and again. Standing out, though, was Ebony Thomas as leader of the Call to Arms, who wowed everyone with a near faultless series of leaps and turns; and his eight followers were not far behind. He thoroughly deserved what were the biggest cheers of the evening. Elsewhere, a special mention for Gemma Gullefer, who brought a nice sense of grace to Prayer.

A couple of other ballet pieces stood out. Taking excerpts from Elgar’s Engima Variations, with all its balletic associations, and setting a new work to them is always a risk. But Gloria Grigolato and Lee Robinson pulled it off with Preludes, a most enjoyable piece for senior dancers across a range of year groups that showed off their talents to the best. Among the highlights was an all-male section that gave the lads a chance to show off their excellent leaps and turns, while Victoria Grassmugg and Reika Vigilucci stood out in the female section.

Corey Baker's A Fragile Understanding Photo Andrew Ross

Corey Baker’s A Fragile Understanding
Photo Andrew Ross

Also by the graduate year was Errol Pickford’s Pas de Deux Le Diplôme. Actually a dance for five couples in near unison, it leaves nowhere to hide and requires a high level of classical precision, and the students pulled it off nicely.

But Elmhurst is a ‘School of Dance’ not a ‘ballet school’, and the showcase was a celebration of all the styles learned, and all the the students. How good too, to see locally-based choreographers being asked to create pieces for the evening.

New Zealand-born but Birmingham-based  Corey Baker had two contemporary pieces on show: Teenage Dream for the Year 11s and A Fragile Understanding for the Graduate Year, of which the latter, a rather dark, sometimes moody piece, most definitely had the edge. It showed off students’ talents well, and was very well-danced. As a piece of dance, the rather lightweight Teenage Dream was disappointing, and had rather less appeal and struggled to hold the attention, despite the best efforts of the dancers.

Of great interest was the unusual contemporary-flamenco collaboration between Carlos Pons Guerra and Ana Garcia, Encuentros. The opening (and closing) is startling; a remarkably beautiful contemporary solo for a girl in red that’s full of hugely expressive arms. Rachel Hickey furled and unfurled her limbs, graceful but with sharp angles, in a way that reminded one of a bird extending it’s wings for the first time; a sort of Dying Swan in reverse. Although the Year 6.1 and 6.2 students danced the flamenco that was the meat of the piece with a fair amount of passion and soul, it was hard to see quite where the link was. It was a meeting or encounter (the literal translation of the title) but looked like two pieces joined together rather  than a collaboration in the usual sense.

Encuentros (dancer shown is Jade Wallace) Photo Andrew Ross

Encuentros (dancer shown is Jade Wallace)
Photo Andrew Ross

Jump Up Photo Andrew Ross

Jump Up
Photo Andrew Ross

The first half of the evening was given over to the lower school, opening with Jump Up, a fine, bright number choreographed by Sarah Moore for the Year 7 students that certainly lived up to its title, during which one of the boys showed a remarkable double tour for his age.

The highlight choreographically and performance-wise, though, was Tempo Di Polacca, a very good neo-classical ballet for a huge cast from the Year 9, 10 and 11s by Birmingham Royal Ballet First Artist, Ruth Brill. Her modernist outlook and frequent use of flexed, turned-up wrists and especially outstretched arms recalled memories of Balanchine’s Symphony in Three Movements. It did look slightly beyond some of the younger dancers but Brill, and they, should be proud of their efforts. It would be interesting to see this danced by older dancers and on pointe. I suspect it might look very good indeed.

Birmingham is very lucky to have such talent in its midst, and it was good to see the public turning out to support the young dancers. Let’s hope the Rep does indeed work for Elmhurst and this year doesn’t prove to be a one-off.

Destinations for the graduating students are still being confirmed and finalised, but around 70% of students were able to secure employment before graduating, including with Birmingham Royal Ballet, Northern Ballet, Dortmund Ballet, Atlantic City Ballet, Alberta Ballet, San Diego Ballet and Romanian National Ballet