‘It’s not so much about the gift, but the graft’ – Lyndsey Winship on Being a Dancer

Winship, LyndseyIn her new book Being a Dancer, dance critic and arts journalist Lyndsey Winship shares invaluable advice and insight taken from exclusive interviews with twenty-five leading dancers and choreographers, including Carlos Acosta, Matthew Bourne, Darcey Bussell and Tamara Rojo. Here she reflects on her own personal love affair with dance, and what compiling the book has taught her…

As a kid, I loved to dance. I did it everywhere, all the time, in public, in private. I went to classes every week without fail, for over a decade: ballet, tap and modern.

Previously, if you’d asked me why I didn’t become a professional dancer, I’d probably have said: “I didn’t have the right body.” Ballet, in particular, is notoriously prescriptive about the necessary physique for success and I wouldn’t be the only one who found they didn’t have the genetic inheritance for the job.

But since putting together my book, Being a Dancer, my answer to that question has changed. Sure, I didn’t have the natural turnout or flexibility or proportions of a Darcey Bussell or a Sylvie Guillem. But the real reason I didn’t become a dancer is because I didn’t want it enough. I wasn’t willing to put dance ahead of everything else.

Darcey Bussell

Darcey Bussell, one of the contributors to Being a Dancer
Credit: Johan Persson / ArenaPAL

In the course of interviewing twenty-five successful dancers and choreographers for the book, and quizzing them about the ins and outs of their profession, from training to auditions to first nights, the abiding wisdom is that you’ll only make it as a dancer if you’re willing to dedicate yourself entirely to it. If you have to do it. If you can’t live without it. “It has to be like breathing,” Arlene Phillips told me. “I need to dance to breathe.”

Many of the dancers I spoke to were told at some point that they didn’t have the chops to make it professionally. But instead of meekly bowing their heads and hanging up their shoes, rejection only spurred them on further. Ballerina Melissa Hamilton, for example, when not accepted to the Royal Ballet School, took herself off to Greece for a year to train privately, then stormed her way to a gold medal at a major international ballet competition and straight into the Royal Ballet company. It’s that kind of single-minded tenacity that gets you on stage at the Opera House, not the fact of having beautifully arched feet.

I realise now that the real reason I didn’t become a professional dancer was because I didn’t work hard enough. I did my classes, yes, took my exams, but as Cassa Pancho, director of Ballet Black says, that’s not enough, because the physical demands of dance are so high and the competition so great. “If your leg doesn’t go high enough you need to do something about it,” she says. “Don’t wait for it to get up there – it’s not going to do that.” She recommends “floor barre, pilates, strength training, fitness training, endurance training, every day…” Say goodbye to your social life.

The discipline to work on the things you’re not good at is what marks out those who’ve made it to the top. Like West End choreographer Stephen Mear, a champion tap dancer as a teenager who turned up at dance school in London only to find he was bottom of the class at ballet and made himself do fourteen ballet classes a week until he was at the top. Fourteen classes a week! That’s a commitment most people don’t have.

Kenrick 'H20' Sandy, one of the contributors to Being a Dancer Credit: Francis Loney/ArenaPAL

Kenrick ‘H20’ Sandy, one of the contributors to Being a Dancer
Credit: Francis Loney/ArenaPAL

So I didn’t become a dancer (although I still dance all the time in private, less frequently in public these days), but as a journalist and critic I now have a front row view on the professional dance world. I speak to dancers and choreographers often and it seemed like a good idea to ask some of them to share their experiences and advice for the next generation, hence Being a Dancer. There are scores of books of advice for actors, on training, technique and auditions, but hardly anything for dancers. So it seemed like it was time to rectify that.

The book was put together relatively quickly. I did the interviews over the course of  four months, grabbing people between rehearsals, sometimes for an hour over coffee, sometimes for a quick chat on the phone, grilling them about the big things – ambition, stardom, injury – and the little things – what snacks they eat, how they do their make-up, how they tie their ballet shoes, what time they go to bed. It was a huge transcribing job (every journalist hates transcription) but it was fascinating to listen back to everybody’s stories, all their very different paths to the stage, and their often differing views on the best route to success.

Dancers aren’t always asked for their opinions – that’s the result of it being a mute art form, I think – but the dancers and choreographers I spoke to for Being a Dancer were thoughtful, curious, driven people. Being a dancer at the highest level requires a unique combination of elite athleticism, military discipline, star charisma and artistic soul. But the main thing I learnt from compiling this book is that while some people might be born with talent, turning it into success is not so much about the gift, but the graft. Even if I’m too late for my own dancing career, that’s actually quite an inspirational idea.


Being a Dancer Being a Dancer: Advice from Dancers and Choreographers by Lyndsey Winship, featuring advice and insight from twenty-five leading dance professionals, is out now, published by Nick Hern Books.

‘Fascinating, insightful and highly readable, this is a book to add to your collection’ – Dancing Times

Read extracts from the book on the Guardian website.

Edinburgh Fringe Report 2015 Part I: cutting it at the fringe

Taking a show to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe can be daunting, exhausting, and about as financially sound as betting on the Chinese stock market. But it can also be a hugely rewarding experience for cast and crew, and even for audiences. Plus, if you’re really on top of your game, there’s a chance it might launch your career. In this first part of our Edinburgh Fringe Report 2015, four amateur companies performing plays licensed by Nick Hern Books give us a sneak preview as they prepare to take the plunge…

pp posterPassing Places by Stephen Greenhorn
Great Child Productions
Greenside at Nicholson Square, 10–15 August

A schizophrenic Motherwell gangster on a motorbike vs. two idiots in a Citroën Saxo en route to Thurso to flog a surfboard. Sounds ridiculous, huh? Well it has to be seen to be believed! Passing Places follows Alex and Brian on their journey through Scotland, meeting the real characters of Caledonia and beyond…

It’s truly the best play you could ever be involved in. I’m the show’s director and I still find it funny. Rehearsals have really differed from ones I’ve had in the past – we’ve improvised around the script and we’ve made lots of mistakes along the way, but it’s always been funny and fresh.

Passing Places by Stephen Greenhorn, performed by Great Child Productions

Passing Places by Stephen Greenhorn, performed by Great Child Productions

Despite the absurdity of the story and all the goofy action, it’s the characters that really stand out – and they’re brilliantly believable. Relationships are the real heart of the show, and Stephen Greenhorn has managed to make them genuinely touching. We’re a company of young adults so we feel a natural connection with the young characters in the play and their predicaments – and we’re looking forward to sharing that with audiences on the Fringe.

Plus, having a real car as part of the set is going to be exciting!

– Tom Sergeant, CEO of Great Child Productions


2015STRAWBE-ZR-300Strawberries in January by Evelyne de la Chenelière, in a version by Rona Munro
Gone Rogue Productions
C nova, 16–31 August

Strawberries in January seemed to us the perfect chance to stand out at the Fringe among the droves of dark, depressing student productions. Sitting just on the line between heartwarming and (dare I say it?) twee, Rona Munro’s adaptation of this brilliant romantic comedy has been a genuine joy to rehearse, and we hope that audiences feel the same way when they watch it in Edinburgh.

With a cast of just four (including me), plus a pair of directors, it means working together in a pretty intense way. It’s been a treat to be able to take the time to focus on details that might be missed in a larger-scale production. It’s had its challenges too – we’ve each got a lot of lines to learn, and I’d completely fallen out of the habit. Still, we’re getting there!

Strawberries in January by Evelyne de la Chenelière, in a version by Rona Munro, in rehearsal with Gone Rogue Productions

Strawberries in January by Evelyne de la Chenelière, in a version by Rona Munro, in rehearsal with Gone Rogue Productions

The show is completely driven by the characters’ relationships, so we’ve spent a lot of time workshopping and developing the all-important chemistry between us. We even played several rounds of the Newlywed Game in character to get to know each other’s characters better, and develop their relationships and the vocabulary they share.

We’ve just finished our preview season on campus, and audiences have told us they thoroughly enjoyed the show. Now we’re just tightening it up in a few places before we launch it on the Fringe!

– Caitlin Hobbs, co-producer and cast member


ff-posterprintresFoxfinder by Dawn King
Master of None
Bedlam Theatre, 5–30 August

“They want nothing more than our complete annihilation… Without Man, the Fox will rule.”

So states William Bloor, the Foxfinder after whom Dawn King’s dystopian parable takes its name. Reading the play for the first time, it was the impact of lines like these that made the play so irresistibly compelling. Replace ‘the Fox’ with any number of other supposed national threats within our own society, and the statement becomes an eerily familiar sentiment; one that could perhaps have been uttered by certain members of our own political class. Combine this parallel with the recent prospect of a repeal of the Hunting Act, and Foxfinder, along with the world of fear, blame and suspicion it presents, feels more relevant and exciting than ever.

As we would soon discover, this play is a big beast! However, we all recognised that staging it would be a worthwhile challenge, and as such our rehearsal process came in two distinct legs, separated by 4 weeks, 400 miles and 1 national border.

Foxfinder by Dawn King, in rehearsal with Master of None

Foxfinder by Dawn King, in rehearsal with Master of None

Our rehearsals began in London in June, when our main focus was to create a shared sense of what the England of Foxfinder is actually like. We were helped in this by considering dystopian civilizations within other works of fiction, such as Orwell’s 1984, along with comparably despotic and ideologically zealous regimes throughout history, such as those of Stalin’s Russia and modern-day North Korea.

However, the real crafting of the play’s action began in Edinburgh, two weeks before the Fringe began. We were able to rehearse at our venue, Bedlam Theatre, where it was full steam ahead with scene work, blocking and tweaking of characterisation. All the different elements of our production started to combine – our actors, original score, hand-crafted set and lighting design – as we sought to create the tense, paranoid and claustrophobic atmosphere of the play, and prepare ourselves for the month to come!

– Hugo Nicholson & Alexander Stutt, cast members


PentagonForever House by Glenn Waldron
Pentagon Theatre
Greenside @ Infirmary Street, 17–29 August

Pentagon Theatre is a theatre company based in the South West, so Glenn Waldron’s Forever House – which is set in Plymouth – seemed a natural choice for us. And it’s a fantastic, pitch-black comedy full of twists and turns, about three different sets of characters who unearth buried secrets just as they try to negotiate a fresh start to their lives. We’re very excited to be bringing the play up to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe!

We had an intense first four weeks getting the piece ready for Arts on The Move Festival in Exeter back in June. The performances took place in Poltimore House, a disused stately home and grounds which provided the perfect backdrop for our first showing of the play. As I write this, we are busy getting ready for our second round of performances, at the Old Red Lion Theatre in London on 29 July.

Screenshot (4)

Forever House by Glenn Waldron – a visit to the National Marine Aquarium, Plymouth, with Pentagon Theatre

Our favourite part of the preparations so far has been visiting some of the play’s locations in Plymouth, including the amazing Aquarium. It really helped the cast get a feel for the play’s natural setting. The excitement is definitely building now for Edinburgh. Many of our team have never performed at the Fringe before, so this is an amazing experience for them and we can’t wait to get up there and get started!

– James Bowen, director

Pentagon Theatre perform Forever House by Glenn Waldron

Pentagon Theatre perform Forever House by Glenn Waldron

 


1143114837LOGO_ORANGE[1]Look out for Part II of our Edinburgh Fringe Report next month, when we find out how our four companies fared on the Fringe.

And don’t forget to check out the exciting new plays we’re publishing alongside their Edinburgh premieres this year. Click here for all the details, plus a special discount code you can use to buy any of the playtexts.

Edinburgh Fringe 2015_website banner

See you in Edinburgh!