Scottish Ballet: Waking to a new dawn
IN THE main studio in Scottish Ballet's rundown Glasgow headquarters, dozens of dancers are rehearsing Sleeping Beauty, this year's Christmas production. It is the last full-length ballet they will work on in this leaky, ex-army drill hall that has been home to Scotland's national company for 30 years. The mood is studious rather than nostalgic. In three decades, the fortunes of Scottish Ballet may have risen and fallen, and – thanks to director Ashley Page's arrival in 2002 – risen again, but the frustration with the building has remained.
The company has earned the right to a decent environment," Page tells me before I tour the building and see the peeling plaster, foliage sprouting on the inside of the walls, and damp for myself. Next year, finally, Scottish Ballet will get that decent environment when it moves into its brand new, purpose-built 11m home next to Tramway. It's testament to the spirit of "soldiering on", which Page claims this place inspires, that everyone I ask about the move says what they're looking forward to most is not the huge, hi-tech studios, the education suite, or health and fitness centre, but being in a building that doesn't leak.
The studio they're rehearsing in today, one of three, is cramped, overheated and badly lit. Ballet shoes are stuffed into a radiator in a crooked row and tutus are strung up from seats. When a bank of tables, pram and mammoth cactus are dragged into the space to rehearse the first scenes, I have no idea how the dancers are going to fit around them, let alone perform Marius Petipa's sumptuous classical choreography, which Page has mixed with his own dynamic, shapely style.
The original cast for Sleeping Beauty run through their solos, while other dancers are forced to hang back and stretch their limbs on the sidelines, unable to try out steps because there simply isn't room. The full company have never been able to rehearse together here. Sets cannot be used either, and in two of the studios, dancers can't even perform a full lift. It's about as far from the Regency decadence and Forties glamour of Page's Sleeping Beauty as you can get.
"We took the whole building over in groups last week and it was the first time the dancers had really seen it," says Page of the new headquarters, where future plans include putting on work annually at Tramway – though they will still perform at Theatre Royal – hosting an international dance forum and, with the RSAMD, running Scotland's first degree in modern ballet. Currently, dancers are forced to leave the country at 16 to continue studying. "It's a miracle that we get some of them back," says Page. "I have two boys who returned recently, one who has just graduated from the Royal Ballet, another who was touring with Birmingham Royal Ballet. All this could change if we get the school right and the fact that the company has been more successful recently is an attraction."
Since his arrival six years ago from the Royal Ballet, Page has single-handedly created a new repertoire for the company, and a new company of dancers to boot. He has brought in works by George Balanchine and William Forsythe, his first commission to an outside choreographer was New York enfant terrible Stephen Petronio, and with designer Anthony Macdonald he has created a top-class trilogy of traditional Christmas ballets with a modern bite; The Nutcracker, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty.
All the dancers I speak to say the main draw of the company is its balance of classical and modern ballet, and the opportunities they get from Page. "There aren't many companies where you get your pointe shoes, tutus and pink tights alongside more edgy works," says Adam Blyde. He was one of the first dancers to join Scottish Ballet under Page and in a short time has become one of its star names.
Tama Bary, also made principal this year, came from New Zealand and danced in Australia for nine years before joining Scottish Ballet. He tells me the new building is the best space for dancers that he has ever seen. "It all comes from Ashley," says the 28-year-old. "As a dancer here, they look at you individually. I don't have the ideal body for a classical dancer – I'm quite broad and solid. But with my build I have a lot of power, something I've always kept a lid on because it's hard to control. Ashley really explores that."
Sophie Martin joined Scottish Ballet when she was 18, at the same time as Blyde, and became principal in August. "There are new dancers coming all the time," she says. "It feels really fresh. Ashley likes to give young people chances. He likes something in each of us and tries to use everybody."
And more and more people are starting to sit up and take notice. In 2006, Scottish Ballet returned to London for the first time in seven years and won rave reviews. "People in the dance world I know in London say everyone is talking about Scottish Ballet all the time now," says Page and, although he refers to himself as a natural worrier who never sits back and enjoy the success, he allows himself a smile. "All the costume makers in Britain have been so busy with our productions they're saying they work for Scottish Ballet more than any other company because we have the most new work. Considering we're the smallest company in the UK in terms of numbers of dancers and until recently the funding wasn't so good, it's very satisfying. It's hard to believe that a few years ago we were off the dance map."
It still, however, remains to be seen whether the Tramway building will live up to expectations, or indeed be finished in time. Designed by Malcolm Fraser Architects, the team behind Edinburgh's award-winning Dance Base, it has been state-funded in the main, but Scottish Ballet have had to raise 1m from private sponsors, and still need 300,000. Page says more funds have become available from the Government as the company has grown more successful. "We've been given more money as a reward for having done well," Page says. "It's that way round. But now that we're entering darker times economically, who knows? That's why there is always the pressure to keep on evolving."
Next year, the company will tour abroad for the first time since 2001. The plan is to visit China, North America and possibly Australia. It is also Scottish Ballet's 40th anniversary, and they will perform a programme of work including Balanchine's Rubies to celebrate. Page has also commissioned Richard Alston, his former mentor, to choreograph to a Sixties arrangement of Bizet's Carmen by the Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin. Now that he has beefed up the company's repertoire, Page will be free to travel more and he is already in touch with choreographers who recently made work for San Francisco Ballet's 75th anniversary. The plan is to use Tramway as a melting pot and work with artists and other performers. He and Macdonald have also commissioned a composer to make a new work for them, though Page won't be drawn on the name. It would also be something of a surprise if Scottish Ballet weren't back at Edinburgh International Festival in 2009 after a year's absence.
And next year, the company will move house for the first time since 1978, less than 10 years after it arrived in Glasgow from Bristol, where it was founded. When Page first arrived in Scotland in 2002, the Royal Ballet had ironically just moved into its rather more grand home, the Royal Opera House, so he was "pretty depressed" when he saw the conditions at Scottish Ballet. "I was like, 'I'm leaving that for this?'" he laughs. "Even though I knew they had been looking for a new building, there didn't seem much hope of it happening in the near future."
• Sleeping Beauty, Glasgow Theatre Royal, December 6-27, Edinburgh Festival Theatre, January 7-10, Inverness Eden Court, January 14-17, Aberdeen HMT January 28-31 www.scottishballet.co.uk