PRECIOUS ADAMS, ISABELLE BROUWERS AND SARAH KUNDI were talking with Linda Gainsbury
8th April 2021
LBC Chair Susan Dalgetty Ezra welcomed everyone watching, including the friends and family of the three guests, and the Patrons and Friends of the English National Ballet who were joining us for what she described as “the second part of our ENB double bill” following on from Gavin Sutherland the previous month. Anyone who had watched the three ballerinas perform could not have failed to notice them. “Finally,” she said: “ we get to meet the women behind the tutus”.
Opening the interview Linda Gainsbury said the three had all joined ENB in 2014, but the route each took to arrive there couldn’t have been more different.
Precious Adams described how she had been a student in Moscow at the Choreographic Institute, attached to the Bolshoi Theatre, from age 16 to 19. Before that she studied at the Princess Grace Academy in Monaco and prior to that at Canada’s National Ballet School. She danced at the Prix de Lausanne where she was spotted by the ENB and offered a corps de ballet contract by Tamara Rojo.
Sarah Kundi explained that she had not begun vocational training until the age of 16, “so I had a lot of catching up to do.” Her parents built her a mini studio at home and she took private lessons. Then, she went to Central School of Ballet from age 16 to 19, learning modern and contemporary dance alongside ballet. She described it as “a wonderful and warming place to train and I loved every single minute of it.” Upon graduation, she got her first job at the then Northern Ballet Theatre. Four years later she left and a job at Ballet Black “popped up”. She stayed there five years, one of only six dancers in the company. Leaving to take a sabbatical year or do freelance work, she did some teaching in Austria but, after a while, wanted to get back into full time dancing. Her mum spotted an ad. for extras for an ENB production of Romeo and Juliet in the round at the Royal Albert Hall and, two weeks after joining the production, Tamara offered her a job.
Isabelle Brouwers described herself as “an expatriate child with family changing countries every 2-3 years.” She had picked up ballet along the way, learning in various private schools. Having decided it was time to seek professional tuition, she was found a good teacher while living in Malaysia and from there she was sent to ballet competitions in the US. She took part in the Youth America Grand Prix three times and, on the third occasion, was lucky to be spotted by Gailene Stock and joined the Royal Ballet School. “I had never been exposed to being in a classroom with people of a similar passion, actually taking it seriously,” she said. She Joined White Lodge in 2008 and did three years there. Although she did not get into the Upper School, she went instead to ENB ballet school which she praised for its training in the English style, “very clean, very precise but also there was the emphasis on keeping one’s individuality.” This, she said, was something very special about ENB.
Linda asked Precious about the differences between training in Moscow and that in the UK at the ENB.
Precious said that because she had also been to other ballet schools, including in Canada where they followed the RAD syllabus and then in Monaco where the style was French, from the Paris Opera, she was also exposed to the two different styles “which made me a versatile, flexible dancer. They noticed that at Prix de Lausanne.”
Linda said that when the three joined ENB it was a very busy autumn season, a “baptism of fire”.
Sarah said that, after Romeo and Juliet in the round, she was asked to stay on and Coppelia was being taught so she joined in the rehearsals and ended up performing to replace an injured dancer. The ENB season was very classical whereas at Northern Ballet the programme had been narrative ballets such as Hamlet or Christmas Carol. Ballet Black had been classical, contemporary and hip hop. But, once at ENB, she was able to be a swan, a snowflake or a princess; roles she had watched so many times at the Royal Opera House.
For Isabelle, joining the ENB company was a simpler transition as she had experienced working with the company in her final year of training at the ENB school. Also, while at school, Stina Quagebeur had choreographed her end of first year summer show performance. Her first few months in the company were “very much a whirlwind.” Because another dancer was injured she was on tour immediately after her graduation with Coppelia. She described the experience of those early months as “quite tiring, but a dream come true”
Linda wondered how joining the ‘family’ of the ENB was for Precious?
The first year was Swan Lake and, said Precious, “it was like a crash course in corps de ballet work. But because we did so many shows it was a blessing. Any nerves about not being totally comfortable with being on stage, by the end of my first year, all of that was gone.” There were 60 shows of Swan Lake including a national tour, the Coliseum and a tour to China. Having survived the first year, she decided she could survive anything, working in any theatre, warming up in corridors; it made everyone more resilient. “ENB dancers are known for being some of the toughest”, she said.
Sarah agreed that touring helped dancers in the company to bond, to connect on a more personal level. Touring at ENB was not a new experience for her because she had done a lot at Northern Ballet, and in many of the same venues.
For Isabelle, some limited touring had begun while she was still at the ENB school the year earlier. One of her earliest touring roles while still a student, she recalled, was as the slave girl who brings in the poisoned flower in Le Corsaire. But what came as a shock was that, having joined the company, dancers had to do their own administration work to arrange accommodation for touring.
Linda wanted to know how the group reacted to touring internationally? For Isabelle, who described herself as a nomad having travelled widely with her parents from the age of two, travel was an essential need. That, she said, was the amazing part of being with ENB and to represent this country and the art form all over the world. “Under Tamara’s directorship the tours have become even more illustrious and glamorous than they ever were.”
Precious agreed with Isabelle’s viewpoint. “It made me think about how much I miss travelling. It informs who you are as a person and it impacts you as an artist and what you can bring to the stage. I really miss it.”
She went on to speak of a role she has in raising awareness of diversity within the dance world. It started at Prix de Lausanne where a previous teacher of hers from Monaco said: “’Don’t put your pink tights on, paint your shoes, wear brown tights. “It had never occurred to me but it planted the idea in my head.” Her identity was now formed as a black woman in the art form. And, because of so much coverage of the issue on the internet, she felt this was going to have influence on where the art form was heading. “I’m so proud of helping shape that and what ballet will be,” she said. She felt differing companies would be tackling diversity issues, including the appropriateness or otherwise of some traditional ballets, in different ways. There was now so much more sensitivity in talking about issues in general, whether race related, sex or such things as costume. “Ballet was really radical in the 1800s and we just have to carry on pushing the boundaries and the public will tell us what works and what doesn’t.”
Sarah spoke of the importance of Ballet Black and the work of its founder Cassa Pancho. The company had been started 20 years ago and at that time hardly any of the five mainstream ballet companies in the UK had any dancers of colour. Ballet Black was begun as a platform for these dancers but had since evolved as showcase for new work and was bringing in choreographers of colour as well.
As someone from an Indian background, Sarah said it was very rare to see anyone similar to her in the profession. This was something she would love to change. She hinted at an ENB project that she was to co-lead to bring ballet to schools that had not been exposed to the art form. “It would make me so happy and so proud if we could find a little Indian boy or girl,” to create more exposure of ballet to those from a more representative ethnic background within the UK.
Turning to new work at ENB Linda mentioned Memory of What Could Have Been created on Sarah by Renato Paroni de Castro. She then said that all three of the ballerinas had been involved in creating Akram Khan’s Giselle. Isabelle had been involved right from the start in developing the roles of Bathilde and Myrtha.
Isabelle said that as Khan came from a very strong Indian dance tradition, Kathak, his Giselle included influences from this, and contemporary as well as ballet. He created a complete amalgamation of three completely different languages which made working with him so special. This showed the power of their art form and the importance of evolving diversity within the dance world.
She said having watched Khan’s Dust while she was still at the ENB school she decided she needed to be in the company to dance a piece by him. Then, in due course, she found herself working with him at the workshop stage of creating Giselle. Individual scenes for the ballet were mapped out on A4 pieces of paper pinned to the wall and each day they would change order. “You could see how each storyline and character would evolve.” She said she was very grateful to have been part of the small, intimate group that started working on the piece early on. In due course all those sheets of paper “became this magical piece.”
Sarah had come into Giselle to dance Myrtha a year later, her first opportunity in a specific role. At the same time, she was also cast in La Sylphide as Madge.
Linda asked how she approached playing ‘baddie’ roles?
Sarah said it was fun to play ‘baddies’. She watched her peers to see how they interpreted it, especially watching some of her fellow dancers in character roles when at Northern Ballet. And another ‘bad’ role she had since enjoyed was Carabosse.
Still on the subject of preparation for a role, Precious had played The Chosen One in Pina Bausch’s Rite of Spring. This was, suggested Linda, a role that really required a dancer to “get in the zone”.
Precious described the rehearsal process as difficult. She was, she said, a dancer that gets caught up in the technical side of things and has to achieve that before concentrating on the theatrical side. But The Chosen One was “all emotion” and that was what the Pina Bausch team wanted from the outset whether or not you were secure in the steps. They wanted to see the real passion straight from the first rehearsal.
The whole cast would go on what she described as a 45-minute emotional journey which, in the Pina Bausch version, was also quite spiritual. It was natural to succumb totally to the music. She also said that dancing the role, on real earth on stage, allowed her to let go of some of her technical hang-ups. She described it as “almost like an out of body experience.”
Linda asked the three about the physical demands created by the varied programme of works performed by the ENB.
Isabelle responded that it was a learning curve that led to injuries along the way. “I think what we do to our bodies as ballet dancers is not really human. We’re putting our bodies into positions that the skeleton is not designed to do.” A saving grace was that the ENB medical team was progressing and growing in both numbers and expertise.
It was also a company famous for having the most amount of shows in a season. “It’s a company of extremely strong people, physically and mentally,” she said.
Linda wanted to know which of the two Myrtha’s - the traditional one or Khan’s version - did Isabelle prefer?
Responding, she said that the solo part of the role in the Mary Skeaping Giselle, performed by the ENB, was actually longer than the traditional version. She agreed with Linda that it was “an absolute killer. The hardest thing I have ever danced in my life.” But, nevertheless, it was her favourite role because of the succession of big jumps. So, more physical satisfaction from the Skeaping version, but emotional satisfaction from Akram Khan’s work. “You can discover something new in the role every time.”
Precious expressed her delight that ENB’s repertoire was so diverse and this presented a challenge. The medical team and sports science now employed made it physically possible for dancers to move from role to role; to “flip-flop” between classical, musical theatre such as Pina Bausch to Akram’ Khan’s contemporary style. During seven years in the company she now knew so much more about her body than was ever learned at ballet school.
A career highlight for her had being dancing the Calliope Rag in Elite Syncopations during the ENB’s contribution to the Royal’s celebration of MacMillan, marking the 25th anniversary of his death. It was, she said, an honour dancing with other companies in the Royal Opera House and she loved the rag as it was “ballet, jazzy and quirky with a comedic element. All the things that I have naturally.”
Linda asked how the three had individually coped during the pandemic?
Isabelle said she had entered lockdown with a fractured foot which curtailed her physical activity but she took on courses; one on sports psychology, another on sports nutrition. She then wrote an article about what dance meant to her, sent it to the Dance Europe writer Amanda Jennings, without any intention of having it published , but to her joy and amazement it appeared in print, as have other pieces elsewhere since. She has also done a range of podcasts.
Precious said she refused to take any time off, despite the lockdown, and is also working on a STEM degree on computing technology. Sarah had devised an eight-part beginner’s course for the ENB’s Ballet Active programme. She also began a teacher training course at the Royal Ballet School.
Turning to questions from the Zoom audience, one questioner wondered why Precious had not trained in the US. She responded that she had done so initially, but had joined a summer programme called Bolshoi Ballet in America and it was this teacher who recommended that she continue her training full time because of her obvious talent. It was then she enrolled in Canada’s National Ballet School but also looked forward to training in Europe which led to the Princess Grace Academy and then a Russian-American language programme ‘popped up ‘ that happened to be hosted by the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow.
Another questioner wanted to know what the three would most like to see and perform in during upcoming seasons, pandemic-permitting. For Isabelle it was Akram Khan’s Creature and she also looked forward to dancing some of Forsythe’s work. Precious was excited to see Tamara Rojo’s Raymonda and also wanted to dance Forsythe. Sarah agreed with her two colleagues and added: “For me it’s to get back on stage and dance to live music again.”
Winding up the session Susan commented: “It’s such a privilege to have time with three such talented, amazing and eloquent women.”
Written by Phillip Cooper and approved/edited by Precious Adams, Isabelle Brouwers and Sarah Kundi