English Youth Ballet is presenting Swan Lake with more than 100 dancers aged between eight and 18. David Bellan talks to director Janet Smith and members of the company.

Janet Smith has had a long and successful career in dance, first dancing with the Royal Ballet and Festival Ballet, she toured with her own company, and was for a long time director of Scottish Dance Theatre. In 1998 she founded English Youth Ballet, and she told me how this very demanding project began.

“I wanted to give young dancers performance experience, which they don’t always get enough of. The ballet schools are quite hot on examinations and maintaining a standard through the grades, but dance is a performing art, and you need a little bit more than exam work. With us they can learn stage-craft, presentation, and expression to an audience, so it’s an extension of taking exams.”

The company does eight projects a year, all over the country, and many of the youngest appear regularly with the company for as much as ten years. Between 40 and 60 ballet schools are represented, and the company auditions for dancers locally wherever it performs.

“Local dance schools are very supportive and send their pupils to audition,” says Janet, “because they can see the result afterwards — more confidence, more technique — it’s an intensive course and it does them good.”

Some ex-members of the company have done really well, moving on to The Royal Ballet or other prestigious companies. But of course none of these youngsters is up to the demands of one of the leads in Swan Lake, so six very talented professionals are recruited for those parts. Some of the choreography has to be changed for the young dancers, and Janet has also done something rather clever with the plot.

“I’ve made the ballet more realistic. I have set it in the Mariinsky Theatre as the company is putting on Swan Lake, so the girls play dancers in the company, and then play swans and other roles when the company is performing. The evil von Rothbart is director of the company, and schemes to gain royal patronage by marrying his daughter Odile to the prince — the Tsar’s son. But he falls in love with Odette, who is the prima ballerina. But at the same time we see the dancers performing in the well known ballet, with the little ones being the cygnets, and they’re very cute.

“Odette and Odile are danced by different dancers in this production, so it’s a story of rivalry between the black and the white, and the contrast between them. I’m not going to give the end away, but it’s very very dramatic. It’s also very spectacular, as we have so many dancers; we have 36 swans, and all sorts of other characters too. The stage is very large at The New Theatre, and the local dancers were so keen that the audition was large and the standard was high, and so I felt I could accommodate them.”

A couple of weeks ago I went to watch rehearsals at the Oxford Academy’s big hall in Littlemore. There I met four Big Swans — no reflection on their size, but they are traditionally more mature and protective of the others. They’re all from Oxfordshire. Imogen Holthouse is from Burford, and studies dance in Witney — five students from Witney are in this cast.

Amy Kirtley, like the others, had only started rehearsals the day before I came, and was really looking forwards to three weeks of intense work to get ready. “It’s wonderful to be surrounded by people who love dance” she told me. Hannah Kemp is from Enstone, and Oona Landgrebe has just left the Spotlight School of Dance and got into Tring Park, one of the top dance schools in this country. They are all terrifically excited about taking part in this big production in a professional theatre.

Taking the rehearsal was Amy Drew, originally from Australia. She is playing the black swan, Odile, with all the original choreography, but, in addition, she has to teach the work to the children.

“I was in Irish National Ballet for six years, and I danced with Tasmanian Ballet, and I’ve done a lot of contemporary work as well. But this job takes us through from February to November, and it’s pretty full time for us — when we’re not with the children we’re in London rehearsing ourselves.”

Amy was teaching the entrance of the swans, and I was very impressed with the way she knows every step and every nuance, and works in a strict but very friendly way with her young cast.

It should be a great show.