The Nutcracker: Behind the scenes at the English National Ballet

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

With new artistic director Tamara Rojo on board, Victoria-Anne Bull goes behind the scenes to meet some of the ENB's rising stars

It's 11 o'clock in the morning and row upon row of well-sculpted men are pirouetting in a small room to the tinny notes coming from an upright piano. One, dark, with perfectly chiselled features and a brooding stare steps forward. Wearing grey tights and a matching leotard which has become so wet it is now see-through, he is reminiscent of Colin Firth's devilishly handsome Mr Darcy and his clingy white shirt after a quick dip in the lake at Pemberley.

But this is not the set of a quirky new period drama; it is the downstairs studio in London's Markova House, the HQ of Britain's premiere touring dance troupe: the English National Ballet. And the graceful, dripping Adonis is not a floppy-haired actor but James Forbat, an up-and-coming first soloist of the company. Later I ask why he appears to favour a more minimalist approach to his kit than his fellow dancers, to which he replies, "I sweat way more than everyone else. If I put on more clothes I am soaking wet by the end of the class." Well quite: quod erat demonstrandum.

It is 19 months since striking Spaniard Tamara Rojo, a former prima ballerina at the Royal Ballet, was hired as the artistic director at the ENB, and her appointment is proving to be a shrewd one. Today the company, founded 73 years ago by Dame Alicia Markova and Sir Anton Dolin, is rehearsing The Nutcracker – a glossy production famed for its spectacular snow scene and choreographed for the fourth year in a row by Rojo's predecessor Wayne Eagling. The ENB is the underdog of the ballet world, so it may come as a surprise to fans of the Royal Ballet that there are a number of impressive rising talents in this hard-working, smaller company who may eventually outshine the bright stars of other companies.

The Nutcracker: Ballet review

This afternoon a baggy purple onesie, made for Rojo by her mother (apparently she owns a number of these in a variety of colours) masks her slight figure. Busy as ever, in just under an hour she will be ushered into a cab and driven to the airport where she will fly to Granada to teach a master class and meet with key sponsors before hopping back across Europe. It's all in 24 hours work for her.

Warming up at the ENB Warming up at the ENB

"I do believe we can achieve international recognition, size is the least important thing, and history does not matter so much. It is about what we are doing now, our repertoire and the talent we can expose," says Rojo looking up meaningfully with the wide brown eyes of a basset-hound pup. "In truth there are all kinds of personalities which are attracted to ballet. Some love it because of the discipline it involves. They have a studious nature and love working in the studio. Then others are show people, you get them in the studio when you can and they do it half-heartedly but then you get them on stage and they are explosive."

Ah, I have already spotted one of these "explosive" types. Hours before in class, there was a nonchalant figure dressed in a stripy T-shirt, loose black trousers and swathed in thick gold chains whose hops and skips were rather lukewarm. His name? Yonah Acosta. Yes, the talented nephew of acclaimed Cuban dancer Carlos, Rojo's former partner at the Royal Ballet with whom she will be reunited in Romeo and Juliet at the Royal Albert Hall next year.

"When you belong to a famous family it is both a blessing and a curse. The question will always be asked, did he get it because he deserves it? Well he really does," says Rojo. "Sometimes I see Yonah do things on stage and it shocks me because it is so much like Carlos, his cheekiness when he looks at you and his gestures. But Yonah is smaller so he is faster… he is explosive in a different way to Carlos."

A short while later Yonah sits, still sweaty from the drills. The gold chains, he informs me, are from Cuba; one with a cross, given to him by his grandmother, is of particular sentimental value to him. "It is difficult for me because everyone compares me to my uncle when I dance," he says. "At the beginning it was OK but now it annoys me. I find it strange because I am a different person to him and we have different personalities, he has his, and I have mine.

Costume adjustments Costume adjustments

"He is very busy but he comes to see my shows and afterwards he will tell me what I have to do to make my performance better. I find classes and rehearsals hard but I love to be on stage; when I dance everything comes alive." Now dating the Royal Ballet's Australian starlet, Claudia Dean, after meeting at one of Carlos's shows he tells me: "When you go out with someone from the company you see each other all the time, in the studio, in rehearsals, it is not good for your relationship. This way it is better, we have different work and are part of different companies."

Do dancers in the company often find themselves romantically linked? It seems they do. Back in the upstairs rehearsal room smaller groups of dancers huddle apart from the main floor, like flocks of sheep grazing. When these sinewy creatures are not performing their steps they can be found pulling on woolly leggings to keep their muscles warm or lying on their backs, legs high in the air to allow the blood to drain from their limbs and back to their hearts. Either that, or they fly in and out of physiotherapy and massage sessions to help treat a plethora of injuries – in the morning two sheets of white paper pinned outside the medical wing are already full of appointments. An injury, I am told by Forbat, who is suffering pain in the ball of his foot, can sometimes be the one thing standing in the way of your promotion through the ranks.

Rojo's predecessor Wayne Eagling Rojo's predecessor Wayne Eagling

While Eagling, here to supervise his choreography, waves his arms around as he talks to the young children of Tring Park school cast as mice in the show, I sit with rising star of the ENB Laurretta Summerscales, who will be debuting as the Nutcracker's Clara, "I think people do date and get together, it happens in all dance companies… you all spend so much time together it's inevitable really," she muses. 'The longer I am here [this is her fifth year] the more I realise it's like its own kind of family. You have people who have arguments, you have people who really love each other and at the end of the day everyone always comes together and no one wants to see anyone else fall. It's a very special place."

Other gifted young dancers include the athletic Russian principal Vadim Muntagirov, a cool character often seen listening to music through his earphones on the sofas in the common room or eating alone in the kitchen between classes. He is looked upon by his colleagues as being "on another level". After a recent assessment of the whole company, it was revealed that Muntagirov, 23, can jump the highest "by a long way". Also not to be forgotten are the sweet-natured Brazilian Junor Souza, who will dance as the Nutcracker Prince, and the shaggy-haired 21-year-old Colombian Joan Sebastian Zamora, who joined only this year but is already showing signs of becoming another of those "explosive" types identified by Rojo.

Alongside the youthful and bright-eyed are more experienced stars like Georgian-born mother-of-one Elena Glurdjidze. Four years ago she performed an impromptu four-minute solo piece from Swan Lake for Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld during a costume fitting ("I was very nervous, I still wear the tutu for charity galas and every time I see a feather drop I panic", she says while stretching in the splits) and also lead principal dancer Alina Cojocaru. A recent addition from the Royal Ballet, she is the jewel in Rojo's crown. Never without her beloved long-haired chihuahua Charlie, who she carries around in a special "doggie" handbag and has himself become an honorary member of the company, she is delicately spoken with a steely determination. "I always knew there was a bigger world out there than the Royal Ballet. In some theatres experimenting is criminal and in others it is encouraged. Here I do not know much of the politics in the back office. I can just go to the studio and do my work – it is a relief," she says. It is Cojocaru's work ethic which Rojo hopes the younger dancers will follow. "If it is 11.30pm and I still have some energy I will continue to work, go to the gym for half an hour, practise my steps. Only then will I feel I have got the best out of my day," she adds.

So with her sure-footed cavalry of ballerinas, what is Rojo's next step for the ENB?

"You have to keep the classics alive, ballet is not like a museum," she says. "You can't just hang Swan Lake on the wall and hope that it will still be there in 200 years. You have to actually dance it. But I also want to explore new things too. I am particularly interested in the art world and how I can relate it back to ballet. Often I wake up halfway through the night with an idea that has popped into my head and I think: 'How will I solve that? Did I send that email? I need to call such-and-such.'"

At the mention of her attractive contingent of male dancers, her serious expression at once breaks out into a smile: "I am not blind," she giggles. "I am also aware that it is something that also counts when I bring dancers in. I have a very handsome group of people here." She reveals: "There are a couple more dancers from other companies outside of the UK I have my eye on. I want to bring them to the ENB next year but I won't tell you who they are because I don't want anyone else to pinch them."

And with that she sweeps up her belongings, grins and continues on her crusade.

'The Nutcracker', London Coliseum, London WC2 (020 7845 9300) tonight to 5 January

Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv'The Last Kingdom' embraces politics, religion, warfare, courage, love and loyalty, say creators
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

film
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
News
peopleThe Game of Thrones author said speculation about his health and death was 'offensive'
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Zina Saro-Wiwa

art
Arts and Entertainment
All-new couples 'Come Dine With Me'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Black Sabbath's Ozzy Osbourne
musicReview: BST Hyde Park, London
Arts and Entertainment
Ed Gamble and Amy Hoggart star in Almost Royal burning bright productions
tvTV comedy following British ‘aristos’ is accused of mocking the trusting nature of Americans
Arts and Entertainment
Sassoon threw his Military Cross into the Mersey
booksAn early draft of ‘Atrocities’ shows the anti-war sentiment was toned down before publication
Arts and Entertainment
Actors and technicians on the march against changes made by Hollande
theatreOpening performances of the Avignon theatre festival cancelled as actors and technicians walk out
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West performed in a chain mail mask at Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park
Rapper booed at Wireless over bizarre rant
Arts and Entertainment

They're back, they're big – and they're still spectacularly boring

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice
    Hollywood targets Asian audiences as US films enjoy record-breaking run at Chinese box office

    Hollywood targets Asian audiences

    The world's second biggest movie market is fast becoming the Hollywood studios' most crucial
    Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app - and my mum keeps trying to hook me up!'

    Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app'

    Five years on from its launch and Grindr is the world's most popular dating app for gay men. Its founder Joel Simkhai answers his critics, describes his isolation as a child
    Autocorrect has its uses but it can go rogue with embarrassing results - so is it time to ditch it?

    Is it time to ditch autocorrect?

    Matthew J X Malady persuaded friends to message manually instead, but failed to factor in fat fingers and drunk texting
    10 best girls' summer dresses

    Frock chick: 10 best girls' summer dresses

    Get them ready for the holidays with these cool and pretty options 
    Westminster’s dark secret: Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together

    Westminster’s dark secret

    Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Dulce et decorum est - a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Dulce et decorum est: a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality
    Google tells popular music website to censor album cover art in 'sexually explicit content' ban

    Naked censorship?

    The strange case of Google, the music website and the nudity take-down requests
    Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

    Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

    As England take on India at Trent Bridge, here is our pick of the high-performing bats to help you up your run-count this summer 
    Brazil vs Germany World Cup 2014 comment: David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

    David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

    Captain appears to give up as shocking 7-1 World Cup semi-final defeat threatens ramifications in Brazil