x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Dancers learn the finer pointes

Ballet students in Dubai are attending two days of masterclasses by a leading British choreographer and two former Royal Ballet dancers.

Jacquelin Barrett from the Royal Ballet School teaches with Dance Tours International.
Jacquelin Barrett from the Royal Ballet School teaches with Dance Tours International.

In the main auditorium of the Dubai Community Theatre and Arts Centre, a motivational speaker is loudly haranguing his audience, trying to raise the energy level in the room by making them cheer and clap. A few metres down the hall in the venue's dance studios, the atmosphere is different. Taped piano music plays, legs are raised into arabesques, and the only sounds, apart from the soft thudding of ballet slippers, are the voices of teachers. "High on the demi-pointe, chassé - good!" The ballet students, attending two days of masterclasses by a leading British choreographer and two former Royal Ballet dancers, don't need any input from motivational speakers. Aged between eight and 18, clad in leotards and wearing name tags, they are rapt with concentration, following chains of steps demonstrated by the teachers in front of mirrors that reflect every bourrée, ronde and plié.

This week, the touring masterclasses of Dance Tours International visited Dubai for the first time, giving UAE students the opportunity to learn classical ballet and modern choreography in the distinctively English style of the Royal Ballet. The extraordinary line-up of teaching talent goes some way to explaining why several of the young dancers have travelled from far afield within the UAE to attend. Justin Meissner, artistic director of DTI, is an award-winning former senior soloist with London's Royal Ballet who maintains a freelance career as a principal dancer with companies such as Scottish National Ballet and K-Ballet Company in Japan. Alongside him for the Dubai masterclasses were two guest teachers, Jacquelin Barrett, a senior teacher at the Royal Ballet School, and Christine Sundt, who, like Barrett and Meissner, trained with the Royal Ballet, and is now an award-winning choreographer.

Sundt's Dubai class of under-14s learnt a dance from The Secret Garden, a ballet she recently choreographed for London Children's Ballet. "While what they do in their own regular ballet classes is often the same syllabus repeated until they take an exam," she said during a break. "Here we're suddenly throwing at them myriad styles." Encouraging and gentle with her students - "We're not in Le Corsaire! We're doing soft, feminine, silent jumps!" - Sundt is an ebullient figure, enjoying the "newness and energy" of Dubai. She foresees a bright future for dance in the UAE. "What one would hope for Dubai is that it will develop a real dance scene. That one day it will be training professionals, both from the expat and Emirati community, and bringing them through into a professional company."

Down the hall in Meissner's senior class, the focus was on classical ballet and the atmosphere taut with effort as he led students through a dance from the prologue to The Sleeping Beauty. He is an inspired teacher, demonstrating a sequence of steps, and the students responded perceptibly as he sketched in the plot of this part of the ballet. Meissner has long wanted to bring DTI to Dubai, and, like Sundt, is enthusiastic about UAE talent and the international origins of students attending the masterclasses. "The mix of cultures is great in any workshop," he says.

Meissner feels strongly about the value of this kind of masterclass. He was spotted by Royal Ballet School talent scouts while attending a similar event as a teenager in Brisbane. This is why he feels that those who say that nothing of significance can be taught in two days are wrong. "They are really worthwhile events. You can take a lot of stuff away from them, and you might forge networks and connections. That's what I hope it will do for these students in Dubai."

Both Sundt and Meissner argue that the DTI philosophy is not simply tailored to those considering training for a professional dance career. "What is important is that each child achieves their best. If we can inspire a child to go back to their teacher and do better, then we've done our job." Zoe Edwards, of Dubai's Ballet Centre, who watched her students at work, agrees. She feels they will benefit hugely from the classes, stressing "the chance to see that there are other people dancing within the Emirates, and that international professionals are willing to come a long way to teach them, to show them it's possible to look further ahead than the next exam". Saava O'Kirwan, 12, tired but exhilarated from a morning of dealing with classical and modern choreography, was anxious to declare: "It was fun."