Ballet West – the Scottish school dancing up a storm in Malaysia
Based in the Scottish Highlands, Ballet West has ambitions to conquer far-off stages. School principal Gillian Barton tells Cath Carver about the logistics of touring to the other side of the world and how setting up a professional company has given its graduates a stepping stone to an international career
Ballet West, a dance school set deep in the Scottish Highlands, can boast a surprising claim to fame: last month, it became the first international company to take a full-length professional classical ballet production with a UK cast to Malaysia.
With local partner the Dance Company, it ran six performances of Swan Lake in a cavernous 1,000-seat auditorium at Resorts World Genting, nestled on the peak of Mount Ulu Kali, an hour’s drive from the capital Kuala Lumpur. The school also offered a series of dance masterclasses alongside the Swan Lake run, with profits from the classes helping to support the production.
The company’s journey from the Scottish to the Genting highlands has been achieved thanks to its high visibility at international competitions, maintaining a well-established youth touring company, developing local partnerships, and no small amount of bravery.
The Ballet West Youth Company has been going since the 1990s, enabling students to perform full-length ballet across Scotland, as well as on tours to China. Based in Taynuilt in the West
Highlands, the school offers full-time higher education courses leading to BA (hons) in dance validated by the Open University. It also runs a variety of outreach classes for students from age two through to adults and an extensive associate programme, as well as the semi-professional touring company.
Launching an international touring troupe had been a long-term ambition for the company.
“It seemed a logical step to have a professional touring company as well,” says the school’s principal Gillian Barton. “We have been able to offer 10 graduates a contract and we are excited about creating jobs for dancers.”
Apprenticeships have also been offered to two second-year students and five first-year students.
For the past three years, Ballet West students have won Royal Academy of Dance Solo Seal awards – the top accolade. Students have also won medals at the Genee International Ballet Competition, the Scottish Youth Ballet Grand Prix and the South Africa International Ballet Competition. Three Ballet West dancers were also selected for the 2017 BBC Young Dancer televised national competition, with two making it to the final, including Uyu Hiromoto from Japan, who is performing in Swan Lake.
The school was first approached by its Malaysian partner three and a half years ago. The Dance Company had initially been impressed by Ballet West’s online presence, as well as its results in international competitions and its experience of touring with the youth company.
“We’ve taken the students to China twice already, which gave the Dance Company confidence that we knew how to operate within international touring,” explains Barton. “When they heard that we were starting a professional touring company, that’s when they invited us.”
Five things you need to know about performing arts in Malaysia
1. The rapidly growing performing arts industry in Malaysia is centred on the capital Kuala Lumpur. Regional variations reflect the country’s different cultures: the majority religion is Islam, with large Buddhist, Christian and Hindu groups. The official language is Malay, while English is also widely spoken.
2. Genres range from traditional theatre such as bangsawan (traditional opera) to Shakespeare, immersive experiences and musicals.
3. Major venues include KLPac in Sentul, Damansara Performing Arts Centre in Damansara Perdana, Istana Budaya in Kuala Lumpur, PJ Live Arts in Petaling Jaya and Penangpac in George Town.
4. Five Arts Centre, Instant Cafe Theatre, and the Actors Studio are some of the oldest established theatre companies, while newer groups include PAN Productions, Pentas Project, Ayaq Hangat and Dama Orchestra.
5. The George Town Festival (georgetownfestival.com), running through August in Penang, includes the country’s largest theatre festival. It commissions new works locally and internationally, and features shows from around the world. Following on throughout September is the KL International Arts Festival (diversecity.my), which takes place in Kuala Lumpur.
Swan Lake was not Ballet West’s first experience of Malaysia. In 2015, it worked with Direct Academia International, an education-focused social enterprise, on a knowledge exchange programme with Malaysian ballet students coming to Ballet West. In 2016, it hosted a week of ballet and jazz workshops with hundreds of Malaysian ballet students in attendance.
On Swan Lake, the greatest challenge for Ballet West has been funding the tour, with revenue coming principally from ticket sales. This has meant that it has had to commit considerable resources to marketing, using local companies to spur sales to new audiences.
Host venue Resorts World Genting – known as the ‘City of Entertainment’ – attracts a large regular audience, so Ballet West has been able to focus its efforts on a single venue, unlike on its previous tours to China, when it visited different venues each night. This also proved exhausting for the dancers.
For Malaysia, the company chose a relatively safe bet by programming a classic like Swan Lake, a well-known ballet likely to attract a larger audience. The choice also plays to the school’s classical ballet strengths: future repertoire for the international touring company will include The Nutcracker, Cinderella, Romeo and Juliet, Giselle and Coppelia, as well as contemporary works.
Ballet West member Uyu Hiromoto. Photo: Ryan James DaviesOpen auditions with interest from around the world helped decide the cast of 32 professional dancers, led by principal dancers Hiromoto and Brits Jonathan Barton and Natasha Watson. Belgium-born choreographer Daniel F Job specially adapted the touring production, trimming the ‘fluff’ in the work and ramping up the technicality for the professional dancers.To help raise the profile of the show, a glitzy gala launched the run with VIPs and Malaysian royalty in attendance.
Barton points out that Malaysians have been excited to see work from the UK. To take advantage of that enthusiasm, Ballet West has played up its roots: a recent video showing dancers arabesquing amid the bracken with dramatic Highland backdrops has brought attention to the company’s Scottish heritage.
Barton would like to receive assistance in the future from funding bodies for its international touring company.
“Right now, we’re showing we can do it, and that there is demand,” she says. “Funding is in place for the very big national companies such as Scottish Ballet, Royal Ballet and English National Ballet. But for a company like us, proving what we can do is helpful.”
She advises other companies wanting to do the same to find good local partners and hosts before finding the energy and resources to deliver – and also to be prepared to reach out of your comfort zone.
“Be willing to take a chance and go for it,” says Barton. “Once you make that commitment, you have to realise it’s a lot of work. There are a million little things that you haven’t planned for or thought of that crop up when you’re first doing it. You have to care enough about what you’re doing to want to take it to that next level.”
In terms of a timeline, she estimates six months to a year is enough for planning. For Barton, all the extra work is worth it. Offering as many opportunities to their disciplined and hard working dancers is clearly important.
“It’s a really worthwhile thing for companies like ours to step up and offer opportunities for these young dancers. We treat them well and value the professionals they are.”
Ballet West’s adventures in Asia look set to continue with tours planned for Korea and China in spring 2019, and a return to Genting in autumn 2019 with The Nutcracker.
Further details: balletwest.co.uk
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