Roz Laws talks to students of Elmhurst Ballet School
Very few people saw Amelia Thompson’s big break. When she stepped on stage to play the Snow Fairy in Birmingham Royal Ballet’s The Nutcracker, it was to an almost empty theatre.
But that’s about to change. Thousands of people around the world will be able to watch the Elmhurst Ballet School student, as the performance was filmed – and is now being released to sprinkle some welcome magic into our lockdown homes.
Tickets are on sale to watch the second performance of The Nutcracker at The Rep, the hugely popular ballet staged in December.
After lockdown scuppered plans to perform to socially-distanced audiences at Birmingham Rep, two shows went ahead in the empty theatre. The first was livestreamed and then on demand in the run-up to Christmas, and has been watched by more than 9,000 households around the world. The second performance can now be viewed for just £10 from February 15-24.
The shows had two separate casts, kept strictly apart in their own bubbles. The second cast has Laura Day as Clara, Tyrone Singleton as The Prince, Samara Downs as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Rory Mackay as Drosselmeyer – plus a special contribution from Elmhurst Ballet School students.
The pupils from the Edgbaston school, which has a close relationship with Birmingham Royal Ballet as part of the company’s commitment to supporting future dancers, made up all 17 parts in the iconic snowflake scene at the end of the first act.
That meant that, in a rare opportunity, one student was given a lead solo role of the Snow Fairy. After playing a snowflake in the 2019 Nutcracker, it fell to 18-year-old Amelia Thompson to step up.
“It was such a privilege and an honour to be cast,” she says from her home in Worcester.
“Usually students get corps de ballet roles, so to be given a solo was amazing. My dream company is Birmingham Royal Ballet, I’ve grown up watching them for so many years, so performing with them was really special.”
The experience was equally exciting for 19-year-old Jessica Stead from Dorridge, near Solihull, for whom being a snowflake in Nutcracker was her first performance with a professional company.
“It was surreal and pretty amazing,” says Jess, who’s been an Elmhurst student for eight years. “I’ve imagined dancing on stage with BRB for so long, I was like ‘is this actually happening?’. It was well worth the wait. Nutcracker is such a special ballet, it has so many elements which are just magical.
“It was really the last thing I ever expected to come out of 2020. We’ve had so much taken away from us, and there’s been so much uncertainty, that I wouldn’t have believed you if you’d told me I would have the opportunity to dance with BRB. It was a real boost to our confidence when we were all a bit low in lockdown.”
Elmhurst students didn’t return to school after Christmas and have been taking classes on Zoom, from ballet and jazz to flamenco and yoga, and adapting their home environments.
Jess says: “I’d already put a barre up in my living room, but unfortunately my parents weren’t keen on me taking up the carpet, so all my shoes are ruined! Every morning at 8.30 I have to push the sofas out of the room to have enough space to dance.”
Amelia, meanwhile, has been training in the conservatory of the family home, on pieces of dance floor she’s laid down.
Tim Morgenstern is taking classes almost 400 miles away in his home town of Wilhelmshaven in Germany. He moved to Birmingham at 18, choosing to study at Elmhurst because of its “meticulous training” and emphasis on injury prevention.
“And because of its association with Birmingham Royal Ballet,” adds Tim, who is one of four men playing the Wind in the snowflake scene. “The Nutcracker was my first time dancing with the company and it was a huge opportunity for me. It was such a pleasure to work with professionals.
“I wasn’t sure what to expect when I first came to Elmhurst, especially as I’d started watching Peaky Blinders!” adds Tim with a perfect English accent. “Birmingham has a bit of a reputation but I really enjoy living there and it feels like home now.”
The students rehearsed their Nutcracker roles at Elmhurst and then, for the final 10 days, they went into Birmingham Royal Ballet’s fully sanitised studios to work with the professional dancers and ballet masters.
Amelia says: “Being surrounded by professionals, doing what we aspire to be doing, made us dance even better as we want to impress. It was inspiring and made me even more certain that I definitely want to go down that route.”
The Elmhurst students were also spurred on to do their best when they realised their every move was going to be captured on film.
Jess says: “I was talking to one of the cameramen about how close they can zoom in, and he said they can capture your eyelashes. It was nerve wracking as you never knew when the camera would be on us, but it made us perform better.”
Another challenge was working with the ‘snow’ – thousands of small pieces of flame-retardant paper which float down during the magical snowflake scene.
Amelia says: “The snowflakes are very light but when you’re running at full speed across the stage it can be quite disconcerting. You’re extra careful – you don’t want to be the one who slips over!”
Tim remembers: “I inhaled some snowflakes but you just have to ignore that and carry on dancing.”
And Jess adds: “We were told to smile all the time, so when we came off stage we had clumps of paper in our mouths.
“But it didn’t matter, because my overwhelming feeling was one of happiness. Dancing on that stage was so emotional and a dream come true.”
On demand screening tickets for The Nutcracker at the Rep, from February 15-24, are on sale for £10 until February 21 at brb.org.uk/nutcracker-online.
Photography: Johan Persson