Elmhurst Ballet School at 100. Feature by Diane Parkes

Thursday January 12th 2023

By Diane Parkes

Birmingham’s Elmhurst Ballet School is planning a year of celebrations to mark its 100th anniversary.

Founded in Camberley in Surrey by Helen Mortimer in 1923 and initially taking just a handful of students, Elmhurst moved to a purpose-built site in Edgbaston in 2004 and is today an internationally renowned centre of excellence.

The school counts among its alumni stars of the stage and screen including sisters Hayley Mills and Juliet Mills, Dame Merle Park, Jenny Agutter and Helen Baxendale. Recent alumni are now dancing with prestigious companies across the world including Birmingham Royal Ballet, Matthew Bourne's New Adventures, Northern Ballet and the Royal Ballet.

For Hayley Mills, who attended the school between 1956-62, Elmhurst provided her first time on stage, an experience she still remembers today.

“It was a little sketch of a fairy on the top of the Christmas tree but one of those bedraggled fairies, you know rather a grubby tulle skirt and a broken wand. It was a funny song and it made the children laugh. That was my first experience of being on stage and getting a reaction from the audience which I absolutely loved. So it prepared me for being on the stage.”

Hayley, who first found fame as a child actress in Tiger Bay and has since starred in a host of Hollywood movies, television shows and plays, is currently on tour with the stage adaptation of Deborah Moggach’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Coming to Birmingham’s Alexandra Theatre in February, Hayley says she was drawn to her character and the fact the story underlines the fact there is always “the opportunity to discover new things about ourselves, and new relationships.”

Hayley, who is now in her seventies, says the school has always prepared young people for a life on stage.

“Elmhurst students are being introduced to the arts in the most wonderful way,” she says. “With wonderful music, self-expression, physical health, strength, a sense of their own bodies, being able to walk with grace and hold their heads up and look the world in the eye – all the kinds of things which come naturally from being a dancer. It is a wonderful start to life, even if you don’t become a dancer.”

To mark its centenary Elmhurst is planning a series of events including dance performances, a new commission, a gala and a fundraising campaign.

Jessica Ward, who has been principal since 2010, says the Elmhurst 100: More Futures to Shape centenary aims to celebrate the schools’ dynamic history while building on its successes for the future.

“The history of the school has really shaped who we are now,” she says. “If you look back at its foundation, Helen Mortimer was an incredible woman to have had such a forward-thinking vision of preparing young people for employment in the arts.

“We still have that fundamental ambition which is finding and making great opportunities for students to prepare them for leaving us. It’s our job to do everything we can in all ways. It’s about lifelong learning through their academic programme so that when they stop their dance career on stage they can go onto another career, maybe become a dance writer or a dance photographer or a leader and manager in an arts organisation.

“It’s about giving them all those transferable skills but it’s also thinking about the whole person and how they are navigating the world as young people now. It’s a challenging landscape for them so it’s thinking about their physical health, their mental health, it’s about the whole person.”

Plans for the anniversary year include a series of special performances.

“In May we have our Elmhurst Ballet Company 100 Years shows in London and Birmingham. We are building on our partnerships with Studio Wayne McGregor and BRB and also looking at creating a new commission which will be very exciting,” says Jessica.

“Then we’ll be having a celebratory centenary summer performance series which will be very much about looking to the past and into the future and what are the synergies between our rich history and now.

“And we will be doing our big fundraising gala on 11 July. We always do a really lovely event but we will be looking at how we can escalate it this year.”

As part of the campaign, the school is launching a capital appeal to refurbish its theatre.

“The theatre was state-of-the-art when we moved here in 2004 but now needs an upgrade,” says Jessica. “Our passion behind that is for our students to be performing in the best space, with the best lighting and the best sound quality - that will help prepare them for employment.”

Working with students, staff, governors and parents, the Senior Leadership Team have devised a new strategy for the next three years which will ensure its students are able to succeed in an ever-changing dance environment.

“The new strategy is going to set us up for a healthy and sustainable future identifying what we need to be doing to prepare the students for companies and directors. The boundaries have really been pushed in dance, you see that more and more in different choreographers’ work, and it’s how we engage with external artists and directors to really help keep challenging us and keep pushing our artform forwards so it’s relevant to today.”

The banner for the new strategy is ‘exceptional dancers and exceptional people’ which Jessica says is fundamental not only to the students succeeding as dancers but also maintaining a healthy wellbeing.

“I hope the students are phenomenal dance technicians and creative, that they’re interesting to sit next to at a dinner party and they are brilliant in an emergency – they are good, nice, engaging people who are grounded, resourceful, resilient and fantastic dance artists.”

One of the future developments for the school is increasing investment in dance science research working with Masters and PhD students in areas including identifying stress indicators in young dancers.

“We innovated with the launch of the Young Performers’ Health Trust Scheme through which we were able to bring in lots of health services. Now this new research will allow us to check in with that and ask are those services right and how else can we support students.”

Over the past century Elmhurst has gradually reached out to an increasingly diverse student intake, an achievement Jessica and her team are immensely proud of.

“I feel really strongly that the arts can be for anyone and everyone and, no matter where they are from or their financial background, it can help them on a journey to transformation,” says Jessica.

“Now we are so lucky to have the Department of Education Music and Dance Scheme, and the Education and Skills Agency Dance and Drama Award funding which helps us enable places. One of our real strong drivers is that talent is classless and if someone has the right ability to be here, we will find a way to make that happen.”

One example of this will be highlighted in the Disney Original Documentary Madu out later this year which follows the journey of Anthony Madu who was discovered after a video of him dancing in a Lagos street went viral. Awarded a scholarship to Elmhurst, the youngster has been supported to pursue his dream to become a dancer.

So how does Jessica hope future Elmhurst leaders and students look back at the 100 year landmark?

“I’d like to think that they recognise that we put students first and we are about the individual and about the person but equally that we were innovative and ground-breaking in our approaches. And that we were brave enough to challenge some of the cultural norms that we see in our world, that we broke moulds to change and move forwards.”

For full details of all Elmhurst 100 events visit the centenary page of our website. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel plays Birmingham Alexandra Theatre on 21-25 Feb, see https://www.atgtickets.com/venues/the-alexandra-theatre-birmingham/ for information and tickets.

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