Last August, Royal Ballet First Soloist Meaghan Grace Hinkis was in her living room doing a Zoom ballet class when she realised it had been nearly six months since she had set foot on stage.
That is the longest gap I have ever had in my entire career. My colleagues and I were so desperate to get back onstage, and a thought just slipped into my head, “What if I built a stage myself?”
I thought it might be a bit too daunting, but I ran with the thought and three and a half weeks later my colleagues and I were back on stage performing to a live audience!
The gala was held in September 2020 at Athelhampton House in Dorset, one of England's finest Tudor manors. Such was its success that there will be another this year, on 11 and 12 September 2021, with dancers and musicians from The Royal Ballet. This year it is being billed as the ‘second annual Athelhampton Ballet Charity Gala'. Annual?
I would love for it to continue to be an annual event. I will take each year as it comes but the feedback from last year was so overwhelmingly positive, I don't see why I wouldn't continue bringing ballet to Dorset!
American dancer Meaghan Grace Hinkis joined The Royal Ballet in 2011 and in May of this year she was promoted to First Soloist, having become a First Artist in 2012 and Soloist in 2015. A review in The Times of last year's gala said, “After a divinely delicate pas de deux from Onegin with [David] Donnelly, where the pair seemed to float on the notes, [Hinkis] closed the evening dancing a warmly consoling solo from MacMillan's Requiem – a perfect choice.”
Donnelly is back this year in a generous line-up that includes Matthew Ball, William Bracewell, Lukas Bjørneboe Brændsrød, Leo Dixon, Melissa Hamilton, Daichi Ikarashi, Fumi Kaneko, Sarah Lamb, Mayara Magri, Laura Morera, Taisuke Nakao, Anna Rose O'Sullivan, Calvin Richardson, Giacomo Rovero, Joseph Sissens, and Akane Takada.
You must have winning persuasive skills to assemble such a glittering cast?
They didn't take much convincing! My colleagues jumped at the thought of getting back on stage after such a long time away. Six months away from the stage feels like an eternity! This year was the same. Everyone is still so desperate to make up for lost time and help get our theatres back on their feet.
And help they did. Last year over £45,000 was raised.
The beneficiaries are The Royal Ballet families – which include The Royal Ballet and Birmingham Royal Ballet – and Acting For Others, which is an incredible charity that provides financial and emotional support in times of need through their fourteen member charities.
It was difficult to choose where the money would go as so many theatres and theatre workers were struggling to stay afloat during the pandemic so when I discovered Acting for Others it felt like the perfect fit. The Royal Ballet families of course hold a special place in my heart. The two companies are closely linked, and The Royal Ballet has been my second home for the last ten years of my life.
Having willing colleagues and good intentions for raising money is one thing – getting a workable project up and running within a month is another. How did she do it?
A friend of mine, Stuart Gordon, who I had known from New York City had recently moved to Dorset just before the pandemic struck. I thought he might know of somewhere where we could build an outdoor stage. I reached out to him, and it turned out he knew the owner of Athelhampton House, Giles Keating. He got in touch with Giles and then everything started quickly falling into place.
A grand house with beautiful gardens makes a perfect setting, but an audience needs to be seated and dancers need a stage.
I was determined to learn what it takes to put on a show like this and I certainly learned a lot! I now know what goes into building and bracing a stage, laying a ballet floor, guaranteeing there's enough power for sound and lights, and making sure a piano is properly tuned after a long car journey!
Last year, we were dealing with a lot more unknowns with COVID-19. We had to be very careful with social distancing and making sure everyone felt as safe as possible. This year we are doing a few things differently. One of which is covering our whole audience!
Of course, the English weather, another problem.
We will be rain proof this year which is such a relief as British summers aren't exactly known for their consistent sunshine! I am still praying to the weather gods that they will be on our side, but this will guarantee we can continue rain or shine. The audience will be able to picnic in the gardens before the performance, which begins in the late afternoon.
The substantial programme includes Frederick Ashton's Rhapsody pas de deux and Meditation from Thais; Christopher Wheeldon's Within the Golden Hour pas de deux and After the Rain; Nureyev's Raymonda pas de quatre; Wayne McGregor's Chroma pas de deux; Kenneth MacMillan's Calliope Rag from Elite Syncopations, Concerto pas de deux, Des Grieux's solo from Manon Act I, and the Romeo and Juliet Balcony pas de deux; Victor Gsovsky's Grand Pas Classique, Marius Petipa's Rose Adagio, as well as lesser-known works and new creations from Erico Montes, Johan Kobborg, Craig Davidson, and Calvin Richardson. Touchingly, Laura Morera and Matthew Ball will dance With a Chance of Rain as a tribute to Liam Scarlett.
I am so looking forward to dancing in the gardens at Athelhampton House again. I love dancing in the open air. It feels like you can let go and dance with more abandon than when there are four walls surrounding you. It does come with its challenges as sometimes it is harder to find a “focus” point when trying to turn or balance, but the pros certainly outweigh the cons!
One of my favourite moments from last year was when the doves started flying over the stage while we danced. I think they loved the music as much as we did!
ATHELHAMPTON BALLET CHARITY GALA
ATHELHAMPTON BALLET CHARITY GALA – 11, 12 September 2021
Photos are from the Athelhampton Ballet Charity Gala 2020
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.