Julie Bowers In Conversation with Brandon Lawrence

16th January 2024

The Chair of the London Ballet Circle, Susan Dalgetty Ezra, warmly welcomed Julie Bowers to the evening’s conversation. A former dancer with the Royal Ballet, Julie is now Artistic CEO at bbodance (formerly known as the British Ballet Organisation), and creator and Executive Director of GradPRO. At a time in which gaining employment is very limited, GradPRO is devoted to providing performance opportunities for dancers nearing the end of their professional training. 

Susan also welcomed Brandon Lawrence who would lead the conversation. A collaborator of Julie’s – and great friend – he is a principal at Ballett Zurich, a former principal at Birmingham Royal Ballet, and co-creator and co-producer of GradPRO.

Brandon commenced the conversation by explaining that Julie’s career trajectory had been different from that of most dancers, and he would like to explore it in more detail. Julie said that as an only child her mother had thought that ballet classes might enable her to socialise and find friends. They lived in Stoke-on-Trent and a class was found through the countrywide British Ballet Organisation – and she found that she loved to dance! She became a bboScholar at age eight, taking part in their annual get-together in London at Easter. In due course she felt that it might be possible to consider a career in ballet, although she had absolutely no expectation of ever becoming a famous dancer. 

Julie took and passed the 11-plus examination which was then the way into secondary education at a ‘grammar school’, but did not follow her peers down that path. Instead she succeeded in gaining entry to Elmhurst, the Birmingham Royal Ballet School, which at that time was still located in Camberley. Surrey was indeed a long way from home in Stoke, but she never felt homesick. The curriculum was broad, including genres such as modern dance and tap, and she had extremely enjoyable years at Elmhurst. Interestingly, at that time it was a girls only establishment, starting to admit boys as well only after she had left.

Prior to Elmhurst she had auditioned for White Lodge, where she was told that she ‘wouldn’t make a classical dancer’. Although somewhat taken aback by that response, she was not deterred, telling herself that she didn’t need White Lodge. She admitted, however, that at that stage of her life she almost certainly didn’t realise the significance of being accepted for training at White Lodge under the auspices of the Royal Ballet. She remained at Elmhurst until the age of sixteen, when she auditioned again for the Royal Ballet School - and this time was successful in winning a place in the graduate class.

Her time at the Royal Ballet School brought with it many opportunities to dance with the company itself. For instance, in her second year she toured with it for some nine weeks, all over the United States, and then to Korea, Japan, China and Hong Kong. Such a lengthy tour, said Brandon, would be unheard of today. Her mother was worried that she would be out of the country for such a long period, but Julie reported that they kept in very regular contact. 

The tour was built around a heavy schedule; for instance she reckoned that they may have done a hundred performances of Sleeping Beauty, sometimes with two performances a day. The company was looked after extraordinarily well and they were treated as celebrities, with visits to embassies and some exotic parties. It was an amazing experience.

There were six students in total on the tour, but when they returned to London Julie was the only one not offered a contract with the company. She took this very personally, forcing her question whether she really was doing the right thing in trying to pursue a career in dance. She persisted, however, and in the following year – her third in the School – she was offered a contract.

Thus in 1984 she became a member of the Royal Ballet, and Brandon asked how she had found the transition from school to professional life. Relatively easy, Julie replied, primarily because she had already had so many opportunities to dance with the company. She cited one instance in which Rudolph Nureyev had come into a school class and picked her out to dance one of the Shades in La Bayadere to replace an injured dancer. As a company member she continued in the same role for nine years.  

All the time she strived hard to learn and was thrown into many different roles, often at short notice. On one occasion Ashley Page, her partner for the evening, literally talked her all through Ashton’s Rhapsody. The zenith of this period in her life might have been the occasion when on tour in Moscow she had to step in to the very first night of Bintley’s Consort Lessons, as the soloist scheduled to dance the part had injured her ankle when alighting from their tour bus.

Brandon went on to talk about Sir David Bintley who, they agreed, was a great individual and a terrific choreographer. His method of casting a ballet was different from most, said Julie, in that he would select dancers straight from the corps into very relevant roles. She recalled when he had been devising Still Life at the Penguin Café he developed it in conjunction with all the dancers. The ballet, using music from the Penguin Café Orchestra, features endangered animal species and Julie herself played (as second cast) a Great Auk. Recently Birmingham Royal Ballet had re-staged the piece; it had been good to see it again and Julie was delighted to be asked to write a piece for the programme.

So why, after several years in the Royal Ballet, had Julie decided that she needed a change of direction? One incident, she recalled, was during a massive opera and ballet gala at the Opera House, celebrating the Queen’s sixtieth birthday. While waiting in the wings she had been asked by Placido Domingo what the rosin box was for. That interchange, with such a major figure who was not a dancer, and others which occurred during the course of the show (such as taking a curtain call with Judi Dench and Ian Mckellen) made her realise there was a world outside of ballet. There’s more to life than this, she thought, and determined to try something different. 

She had always had an urge to pursue academic studies. There had been relatively few opportunities to study for GCE ‘A’ levels while she was at the Royal Ballet School, and she felt that her education had been rather limited. She would like to study for a degree, although she did not know what subject might attract her.

Sometime later she was off work with an injury, having had a cartilage operation. Should she leave the company straight away, not going back to work? Julie decided it was best to return to the studio and try to recover a reasonable level of fitness. In that she had the great good fortune to receive some four weeks personal tuition from Dame Monica Mason, which was inspiring and fantastic. She returned to the stage to dance in Macmillan’s Elite Syncopations, went on a short tour, and then resigned from the company.

Leaving a ballet company, when dance has been your entire life, can be a tough and traumatic experience. Did you miss dancing, she was asked? The answer was ‘No’, although she had felt that it would be important to retain her fitness so she kept up attendance at her gym. Interestingly, much later, during the often boring days of lockdown, she did set up a barre and started some practise sessions which she felt had helped to maintain her sanity.

Julie hoped that study on a degree course would help to ground her. She opted for Keele University on the grounds that it was near to her parental home – and also likely to have students more of an age to herself! She commenced a course in law but after a couple of weeks discovered that was too much for her and changed to International History and American Studies, which proved more interesting. In her final year she had to submit two major dissertations and wrote about Diaghilev and the Ballet Russes, and Isadora Duncan. During research for her dissertations she was able to interview Dame Ninette de Valois which, she said, was quite an experience. 

Although she had at that time no inclination to become a teacher, Julie gained some experience teaching on the classical vocational training course at the Northern Ballet School in Manchester. She undertook some choreography for the school, and later for the Royal Academy of Dance (RAD) Fiftieth Anniversary show, which played to an audience including some significant individuals. For instance, David Bintley was there and he encouraged her to do more; Antoinette Sibley was also very complimentary. 

Julie then moved to Hammond, a performing arts school in Chester, where she took on a number of roles including teaching, choreography and administration. She realised that her future probably lay not just in dancing itself, but in the wider aspects of developing it as an artform. 

While working at Hammond Julie had to take maternity leave, during which she began to get ideas about developments which might be useful to students. She was able to start up a ‘youth company’ for local ballet-minded youngsters. By 2001 she had her second daughter and saw an advert for a post as a regional administrator for the RAD, working from home. Julie applied and was appointed. “It was then”, she said, “that I really knew where I was going.” 

She never looked back, remaining with the RAD for some thirteen years until the whole family moved to Canada for two years. While there she continued to work for the RAD, although that did not take up much of her time. Accordingly, she commenced online study for a diploma in Project Management, thinking that this would provide a useful background for whatever future job she might tackle. On the face of it, the content of this course seemed somewhat odd and irrelevant – dealing, for instance, in all the details and ensuing problems of arranging a large wedding. Nevertheless, she obtained merits and distinctions along the way and found the course a challenge which was to prove useful in the future.

The family returned from Canada and Julie was without a job. She then saw an advertisement and applied for a post with bbodance. After a couple of interviews she was appointed Head of Membership for the organisation. There was very much a family atmosphere within bbo said Julie, and she progressed through various roles, including being Director of Artistic Development, before being appointed Chief Executive Officer (CEO) for the organisation. 

As CEO she considered that one of her major tasks would be to attract patrons; significant individuals who could add stature to the organisation and perhaps also offer some financial support. She was able to persuade David Bintley to become a Vice President.  She also knew of Brandon, his talent and his background, and immediately invited him to become a patron of the RAD. And they both agreed that it had been wonderful working together. 

Then the pandemic struck, and almost every activity ceased – but there was still a business to run, to keep alive. Julie organised a twice weekly computer call to both teachers and membership. One plan she devised was to offer training for a formal teaching qualification at NVQ Level 5. She asked dancers to express interest in the project; learning to teach ballet. Brandon himself was one of the first to actually undertake the course, and in fact he was effectively a guinea pig for the project.

She was also concerned as to how their students were coping during the inactivity, and encouraged each to submit a short paragraph summarising their thoughts – these are all interesting and may eventually be published in book form. That led to a ‘lockdown’ virtual dance project in which over 150 students performed a short dance sequence over Zoom to music specially commissioned by Andrew Kirsty. There were no rules; the choreography could be whatever the student themselves considered appropriate. The results were impressive and quite touching, allowing individual students to express their artistry even though they were all working alone. 

The project gave her the germ of an idea which developed into GradPRO. This is a scheme to promote more performance opportunities for students who were almost ready to embark on their professional careers. Julie admitted that one trivial, but relevant, factor which had influenced her thinking was the fact that during her training she had not obtained sufficient marks to qualify for entry to the Adeline Genée awards; that her peers were able to do so had somewhat frustrated her. 

Students applying to GradPRO must have completed three years of vocational training and must be of a standard appropriate for entry to a company. They will be invited to perform at one of four regional events arranged so that travelling is not too arduous or expensive. They must present a piece usually, but not necessarily, choreographed by themselves in any style of dance. The performances are assessed by three judges and some 12-14 students selected to perform on a later occasion at the Birmingham Royal Ballet School at Elmhurst. 

The day at Elmhurst commences with class on stage; individuals then perform their repertoire solos following coaching by experienced professionals. Great performances can lead to monetary awards but, most important, provide an opportunity for the students to be seen by directors and others able to make recommendations for employment. Both Brandon and Julie emphasised that GradPRO was not a competition; rather it was an opportunity for dancers to demonstrate their artistry and creativity to an appropriate audience.  

Listening to young dancers she learned – not surprisingly – that they crave as much experience as possible. Accordingly, for this year she has been able to arrange for a small number of students to undertake a period of ‘total immersion’, placing them within a company for a week. To date the Royal Ballet, Birmingham Royal Ballet, and Northern Ballet companies have all agreed to participate in this scheme, for which support she is extremely grateful.

Initial funding for GradPRO came from private donors, including the London Ballet Circle, and amounted to some £20,000 last year. However, the bulk of the money this year will come from the students’ entry fees. Julie expressed enormous thanks for the generous support from all the donors. Venues had been provided, and individuals had given their time to act as coaches, judges, and other roles – all at no cost to GradPRO.  

Julie explained that GradPRO relied heavily on its ambassadors to promote and support the venture. She was happy to report that some very significant figures, all with very busy lives such as Dominic North, principal dancer with Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures, had readily agreed to participate in the scheme. 

She believed this team could in time constitute a ‘faculty of magic’, working together to assist young professionals into careers in dance. The need for this was amply demonstrated during a visit to Tring Park School by one of their new ambassadors; he reported that final year students were complaining that, mainly due to Covid and the lockdown, few ballet companies were hiring new young dancers. At that point Julie knew that her instincts were correct and that GradPRO would fill a need. No-one can promise employment, but GradPRO can provide a focus; an opportunity to showcase their talent and ability.

During the evening a short video clip was shown, this being the advertising for the 2024 GradPRO event.

And, as a final question, Brandon posed the possibility of a dinner party. Given that there were no constraints, which five people would she most like to invite and what might she serve? The last question was easy, she said, beef stroganoff. The guests might require more thought, so she listed:

Lady Sainsbury – a former professional dancer, who she’d known for ages and had been so supportive

Sir David Bintley – for much the same reasons

Kenneth Tharp – who had inspired her so much over the years

A ‘royal’ – probably the Princess of Wales because of her love of dance

Dame Margot Fonteyn – given that this was all mythical, because she was such an iconic figure……  

In concluding the evening, Susan, as Chair of the London Ballet Circle, said that it had been so interesting to listen to two good friends talking with such enthusiasm about Julie’s very full and fantastic career, including the way in which the London Ballet Circle had itself helped. Susan then thanked both Julie and Brandon most sincerely for giving their time to take part in such a great conversation. 

Written by Trevor Rothwell, and approved by Julie Bowers and Brandon Lawrence

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