Ruth Brill In Conversation with Graham Watts

April 30, 2024

The Chair of the London Ballet Circle, Susan Dalgetty Ezra, warmly welcomed Ruth Brill to the evening’s In Conversation. Ruth is a freelance choreographer and Artistic Director of the renowned London Children’s Ballet. Along the way she has danced with both English National Ballet and Birmingham Royal Ballet. This evening she would be conversing with the well-known dance critic and good friend of the London Ballet Circle, Graham Watts, who Susan also warmly welcomed.

Graham commenced the evening by exploring Ruth’s early life and her introduction to dance. Her childhood had been creative and constantly surrounded by music of all sorts. Her father, who possesses a vast and eclectic record collection, worked with the BBC, other radio stations and now Radio Caroline. She was aware that he had welcomed her birth very publicly on one of his radio programmes! Her mother is also really 'artsy', having trained as a dancer into her teenage years. Ruth recalled some early memories of herself giving 'performances' at home with material draped over the washing line and involving many costume changes! And also a recollection of running along the terrace outside the Royal Festival Hall having watched a performance of La fille mal gardée given there by the Royal Ballet during the closure of the Royal Opera House.

At about the age of three Ruth joined the local dance school, run by Judith Wilson and held in the village hall. It was clear that she had energy to burn and it was fortunate that there was such a group very close to where she lived. The school did not just teach ballet, but all styles of dance and also some drama. She loved being on stage. There were annual school shows - but they alternated between a show one year and a choreographic competition the next. One of her earliest memories of her choreography was being the ‘millennium bug'!

Although not wishing to move away from home and study dance full time at that young age, she took every opportunity to take part in all manner of ballet for young people, for instance London Children’s Ballet, National Youth Ballet, the Royal Ballet associate programme and various summer schools. Such a broad background in performance she believed helped her immeasurably in her later career.

At age 15 she decided that she wanted to train seriously as a dancer. She was a year ahead at school academically but secured an audition with the Royal Ballet School - which, however, did not offer her a place and told her to return the following year. She was then advised to try Tring Park School for the Performing Arts, where she was accepted and stayed for two most enjoyable years, passing her 3 A level exams with flying colours in Maths and Biology and Dance, in addition to her training.

Although she was on the dance course, she decided to take part in the Drama Cup competition, in a duologue with one of her fellow students and good friend, Jessica Brown Findlay (who went on to stardom as an actor). She won the Choreography Cup. While very pleased to have won she was slightly miffed that she hadn't won the Ballet Cup….

Ruth enthused over Tring and how much she likes to go back there. The place always buzzes with life, with students so active in a wide range of pursuits. She also noted the immense gratitude which she owed personally to Anthony Dowson, Artistic Director and a significant figure in the life of the school. 

Graham asked whether a background not completely confined to ballet was useful to a budding professional. Ruth responded that she thought it was, particularly these days when the dancer may be required to perform – with confidence – actions which would not classically have been regarded as ballet; even sometimes to speak! Although, she said, individuals are all different; activities which some seem to take to readily may not be possible for others.

After Tring she was invited to audition for English National Ballet School, going straight into the second year of the three-year course. While there she actually performed a great deal with the English National Ballet (ENB) itself and at the end of the course she naturally aspired to join the company, but no contract appeared to be on offer. So on learning that Northern Ballet (NB) was looking for dancers, she auditioned for them and was offered a job. 

She liked what she saw of NB and knows that she would have been more than happy to dance with them. However, she now had a bargaining chip – she went to Wayne Eagling (then Artistic Director of ENB) and told him of the job offer by NB. ‘We would like you to stay’ had been Wayne’s response, and so it was that she joined ENB where she remained happily for some five years. It was a hard life with the sheer quantity of work; there was a lot of repetition of roles and of course a great deal of touring. She even admitted that after five years she felt The Nutcracker  was ‘a bit dead’ to her. 

Ruth’s introduction to choreography was then explored by Graham. She recalled well the various pieces she had created while at Tring; she had only to hear the music and she was back in the studio. From the start, creating choreography had excited her. She had, in fact, won the Choreography Cup in her final year at Tring. There had been choreography workshops at ENB; however, she had not really participated. Ruth had felt it was important to learn and perfect her craft throughout her time at ENB, and that meant she was keen to perform as much as possible in other people’s work. She also took various courses with the Open University, to keep broadening her horizons and keep learning. 

And then came Birmingham Royal Ballet (BRB), which she joined in 2012. She had discussed the possibility of a move with Wayne, who had been very nice about it and told her that she would gain terrific experience with BRB. What Ruth didn’t know at that time was that Wayne himself was soon to leave ENB, relinquishing the role of Artistic Director which Tamara Rojo would take on. It seemed obvious that Tamara’s arrival would see considerable changes in the life of ENB, and Ruth naturally went on to wonder whether she should have stayed to see how the company developed. The die, however, was cast and she had joined BRB and never looked back. 

‘Why that company’, asked Graham. ‘For a mix of reasons’, replied Ruth. The range and quality of its repertoire, the fact that more new work was being created there, the positive atmosphere, the fact there was a ‘home’ theatre at the Birmingham Hippodrome, the presence of David Bintley, a noted choreographer, as Artistic Director. And the opportunity to dance more work of choreographers such as Ashton, MacMillan, Balanchine and Bintley himself. All of these possibilities made BRB a most attractive proposition. 

How had the move come about? Ruth explained that having had early training in the Cecchetti method she had been asked to take part in a Cecchetti Gala, dancing the role of Dorabella from Enigma Variations.

She had to go to the BRB studio to learn and rehearse the role with Marion Tait, then Assistant Artistic Director with BRB. Shortly after the performance she had been approached by Marion, who enquired as to ‘whether she was looking around', telling her that the company was interested in acquiring new talent and that she would be a good fit. She discussed the possibility of moving to BRB with her boyfriend, now husband, and they agreed it would be positive.

Dancing with BRB had been terrific. She was quickly offered fairly major roles, and very soon felt that she really fitted into the life of the company.

She joined BRB in the February of 2012 and just a month or so later took part in a choreography workshop, where she created The Artist  to a medley of music from the film of that name. David Bintley told her that he liked it, and hoped that she would do more. Very shortly after that he asked her to choreograph Rhapsody in Blue for a one-off gala, because he ‘didn’t have the time’ to do it himself. This was a wonderful opportunity for her, and she blossomed as a choreographer from then onwards. She expressed enormous gratitude to David Bintley, who had given her so many chances to develop and build her experience. He did not interfere, telling her simply that he was there if she wanted help or to discuss anything. He shared his experiences and advice but trusted her and wanted to allow her to learn and grow. 

Graham wondered whether there had been any strained relationships. After all, he explained, she was a new and junior dancer, not yet promoted, seeking to set steps on much more senior and experienced company members. Ruth was aware of the potential for dynamics but had never really found it daunting, or a problem.

 She chose individuals who she felt were right for particular roles and who were content to work together in the studio to create the piece. Her role as choreographer was to guide the team; she would come into the studio prepared, motivate her dancers and bring out the best in them. Although creating dance was essentially a collaborative process, the responsibility for achieving a successful and productive day’s work lay with her. She believed that she was respected by the company and it all seemed to work well.

Graham also wondered whether being a female member of the corps de ballet was more of a hindrance to her choreographic development than would have been the case with a male dancer. The women of the corps tend to be busier because they are usually involved in much more dancing than the men. Ruth did not think there had been any particular difficulty. The pace of life at BRB was different, the repertoire was more varied and it made a big difference having a ‘home’ theatre at the Birmingham Hippodrome. Blocks of time could be set aside to create and studio space was almost always available.

During her employment with BRB she created a number of ballets, starting with Rhapsody in Blue, thenMatryoshka (2015), Arcadia (2017) and Peter and the Wolf  (2019). ‘So you were choreographing works while still actively performing’ said Graham. Ruth affirmed that was indeed the situation, and that it had sometimes been quite difficult to juggle. She had always tried to be a ‘yes’ person and felt that she couldn’t turn down opportunities. Nevertheless, by the time she was working on Peter she was shifting over to the ‘other side’ of the room. Choreography opportunities continued to come her way and she had to cut back on some dancing roles. She couldn’t be in the works and conduct the rehearsals at the same time! 

That year (2019) was important for her. She was getting married in the summer. And she had other jobs – for instance on Sundays she was staging Cathy Marston’s Ballet Shoes for London Children’s Ballet. Ruth considers that she works best when under pressure. However, that 7 day working week level of commitment was not sustainable in the longer term. She wanted to take all the opportunities on offer but something had to give. When she found out that David Bintley was to leave at the end of the season, she felt it would be an end of an era, and that it was her time to ‘jump’ into a freelance career. So although still relatively young, she retired from active performance. 

She was by then a First Artist; had she stayed with BRB she would undoubtedly have been promoted to Soloist. But, she said to herself, is that important? She had already achieved much more than she had ever expected, and felt it was the right moment to leave when she did. She was relieved not to have to do daily class; that feeling became especially significant when the Covid pandemic then forced lockdown and virtual class was being organised online. 

Graham asked what came first when planning a new work? Ruth is passionate about narrative but music was the first essential; she could work with any style of music but it was so important to let the music build the structure and the shape of the piece. She carried in her mind a vast list of music to which – one day – she would like to set movement.

She also needs to know just how a piece will be used. Who will dance it? Where? Where will it come on the programme - that is, is it an opening piece, or will it perhaps form the finale to a show? And, of course, what music should be used? When a piece involves more than one choreographer, as seems more common these days, it is necessary to know how each will approach their part. Will there be common elements, for instance costume or lighting?

Ruth has completed a course in Dramaturgy and thinks dramaturgical thinking is absolutely essential to a successful creation. As a freelance choreographer Ruth had been commissioned to create works for an extremely diverse range of situations and locations, for instance, the Bullring in Birmingham, the Rugby World Cup opening ceremony, and for Heathrow Airport’s Christmas campaign in the International Arrivals Hall at Terminal 5. For one corporate event she had even devised a movement programme for a corps of drummers! 

Ruth believes that her comprehensive background in the world of full-blown classical ballet has in some way given her licence to spread the appreciation of dance as widely as possible. Whatever the situation you must respond in the best way possible. She would never agree to a commission if she did not really want to do it. You must listen carefully to the brief, and whatever work is eventually produced should feel authentic. Ruth has also been involved in a number of film projects – the very opposite of live work, commented Graham, because sequences can always be reshot if they are below standard. She had worked on the movement direction for a documentary, not so far released, about the life of Gillian Lynne. She had also collaborated with Brandon Lawrence to produce a film titled BODIES, an interactive dance film for BBC Dance Passion and the Chrysalis Project working with Oxford University. 

More recently Ruth has become even more involved with young people and dance. She was interim Artistic Director for National Youth Ballet in 2019 alongside Drew McOnie, just before taking on the permanent role of Artistic Director of London Children's Ballet, this year bringing back Erico Montes’ production of The Secret Garden for the company's annual show at the Peacock Theatre in the Aldwych.

London Children’s Ballet (LCB) is a charitable organisation offering great opportunities for talented children. There are no barriers to entry – not size or shape, nor whether classes can be afforded, this latter involving LCB in a great deal of fund raising. The company looks for ‘star quality’ rather than physical attributes, and youngsters are encouraged to develop their own personal gifts. All should grow through their own experiences. LCB always tries to attain the highest standards, seeking out both emerging talent and established professionals, in choreography, musical composition, set, costume and lighting design, participate in devising their shows. And the performances are always with a live orchestra.

Graham, a great supporter of LCB over many years, noted with approval that show programmes always include a note of previous alumni. Not all have gone on to dance professionally, but many have made a significant mark in a range of other professions. Being a member of the LCB company not only develops the art of ballet, it also inspires children and gives them confidence to shine in whatever profession they may eventually choose.

In response to questions from the audience Ruth said that, while dealing with pushy parents can sometimes present a problem, over the years she had found most parents easy to deal with once you realise they all want the best for their children. Joining LCB involves a considerable commitment of both time and effort from the whole family, for which she was enormously grateful. 

She also accepted that LCB could perhaps try to do more to maximise the youngsters’ knowledge about other essential aspects of life in the theatre – for instance, running workshops on costume or stage design. However, company members were all exposed to these activities during the planning and running of the annual show.

Ruth now has two children, Freya (3) and Maya (10 months). They already enjoy a large dressing up box – just as Ruth herself had as a young child. Will they follow her into dance? Who knows? They will do as they wish. Ruth is loving being a mother, her children bring her so much joy. She deeply loves her work too and is embracing the juggle! She is so grateful for the boundless support from her family to enable her to continue taking on choreography projects, guest teaching work, adjudications and her work for LCB.

In concluding the evening, Susan, as Chair of the London Ballet Circle, thanked Ruth and Graham for their extremely fascinating conversation. Ruth had last talked with the Circle some ten years ago, and Susan said it was very clear that she had lost none of the sunny disposition and infectious enthusiasm which had been so obvious all those years ago. The evening had been so interesting and entertaining, and she thanked both contributors most warmly. 

Written by Trevor Rothwell. Approved by Ruth Brill and Graham Watts.

© Copyright LBC

The London Ballet Circle is registered in England and Wales under charity number 1123258 © 2021 The London Ballet Circle. All rights reserved unless explicitly stated otherwise.
Log in | Powered by White Fuse