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In Conversation with the English Youth Ballet's Director Janet Lewis MBE

Photo Credit: Patrick Baldwin

In August a group of 100 accomplished and personally selected local performers will join the English Youth Ballet's principal dancers to perform in a full-length ballet, Swan Lake no less. But prior to that New Wimbledon theatre-goers will be treated to a stellar performance from EYB's nine principal dancers in a show termed Ballet Virtuoso, as it offers a diverse, alternative programme of ballets chosen specifically to demonstrate the calibre, dexterity and versatility of the dancers. And we all have former ballerina Janet Lewis to thank for what promises to be a series of performances packed with dance excellence and even local talent, in Swan Lake's case. 

Janet founded EYB in 1998 and now in its 20th year, EYB continue to not only display ballet and performance superiority, they consistently strive towards helping to introduce many youngsters into what the professional world is like and give them the opportunity and coaching they need in order to begin pursuing further training or a career in the arts. But let's hear from Janet herself about her incredible journey with EYB...

Tell us what got you started with EYB and why you think it is so important:

I founded English Youth Ballet to give young promising ballet dancers more performing opportunities within a classical ballet production. Young dancers take many ballet exams, and these are good as a measuring tool for their progress, but ballet is a performing art. It is an opportunity to express oneself through movement and music.  It is important that performing ballet is experienced alongside the technical exam work.   It gives the young dancers terrific confidence, a sense of achievement and an understanding and knowledge of ballet.

What was it like as a young dancer performing in both the Royal Ballet Company and London Festival Ballet?

It was an inspiring experience. I was part of productions which had world famous international dancers on the stage.  I was in awe of them.  In many cases, I had seen photos and read about them in ballet books and now I was dancing alongside them in productions choreographed by the late Sir Fredrick Ashton, George Balanchine and Sir Kenneth MacMillan.

We know you are an idol to many young performers, but who is your idol and why?

Dame Margot Fonteyn was the most famous dancer who I adored. She had the perfect physique for a ballet dancer. All was in proportion, the ideal height and shape. She had an incredible acting ability and a musicality, phrasing her every movement perfectly to the music.  Whatever role she danced she 'became' that part.  A water nymph in Ondine, the pathos of Cinderella, The excitement of a sixteen-year-old in the Sleeping Beauty,  The tragedy of Odette and the contrasting scheming evil Odile in Swan Lake., The dying Lady of the Camelias, and so on... Incredible!

What is your favourite thing about directing EYB's productions?

I like to bring together all the elements needed in a production. I like to organise the designs, set building, costume making, props, synopsis, music choice, budget, all the aspects of production.  I also like to choreograph some sections and direct other EYB personnel to choreograph other sections. I enjoy the challenge of creating an artistic production.

The principal dancers and regional performers will, of course, be undertaking a monumental performance of Swan Lake, so what is your favourite part of that particular ballet? 

I will be teaching and setting the Swans in my productions and having danced in the ballet so many times myself I enjoy adding the beautiful swan-like arm movements and teaching the style to the cast.   My favourite act is Act 4 when the wicked von Rothbart is killed. That character part is a wonderful contrast to the very vulnerable Odette and the wicked Black Swan Odile.

For all of your tireless work, you were rightly given an MBE. Tell us about the day you found out you were going to receive it and what it was like to actually go and get it...

I was sent a letter from the Prime Minister with a very official envelope which was very worrying. On opening it I did not quite understand or believe what I was offered and I had to send back an acceptance of the award.

It came as a complete shock. The day was wonderful. My husband and family came too and we entered the Buckingham Palace gates looking very important and were photographed by tourists!

We were given a lesson in curtseying to the Queen and walking backwards.

It was so exciting. I was presented with the medal and there were photos in the Palace grounds and a celebration lunch afterwards

Finally, we want to hear about your principal dancers, tell us more about their show Ballet Virtuoso and why audiences in Wimbledon should be clamouring to see them... 

I set up Ballet Virtuoso as a contrast to our classical ballets. The programme is entertaining and displays some more modern works, choreographed by myself and our principal dancers both past and present.  It is a chance to see our wonderful principals in a versatile performance.

Chopin Variations is a homage to Chopin and has a classical lyrical quality. The symbolic Firebird is exciting to Stravinsky's music and our Gershwin ballet portrays the dance styles of the Hollywood musicals. Two other modern works are in the programme and a well-known Don Quixote pas de deux.

It is an exciting evening of Dance.

The English Youth Ballet will be performing at the New Wimbledon Theatre from 21 to 22 August in Ballet Virtuoso, and 24 to 25 August, with Merton's regional youth talent in Swan Lake. So pirouette over to our website now and grab your tickets.