Photos throughout : Mo Greig
Maria praises her teachers for guiding her towards these goals. “The thing is, at the beginning I didn’t really speak that much English, and then I came here and I didn’t go home for the first month. That was the first time I’ve ever been far away from home.” It took only a few weeks to settle in and get used to fast-spoken English, a testament to the pastoral care at the school.
Ofsted (The Office of Standards in Education) inspected this course in January 2008 and the report listed the school's key strengths as 'very good and outstanding teaching; highly effective strategic management; high technical standards; high standards of performance in productions; thorough pastoral and academic support; effective staff appraisal.' Students, just like Maria, speak most highly of the support they receive and ‘the friendly atmosphere’ of the school, which aims to produce ‘thinking dancers’.
Maria’s approach to auditioning is to look through the profile pictures of the dancers in the Company, and with her own profile picture in her head, tries to work out whether her face might fit, “because sometimes the Company goes for a certain look which you can then see in their programmes.”
In fact, such was the standard of Maria’s dancing that Chris had quite a task on his hands to find a suitable partner for her. “I did find then after we decided to cast her, it was difficult to find a guy that would be suitable for her, to find a guy that was of a good enough standard. So then luckily we found Diarmaid.”
Just two weeks before the end of her training at Elmhurst, Maria received the news that she had been offered a contract. After screaming with a mixture of relief and excitement, she phoned home. “I was so happy, I was crying down the phone to my Dad.”
Maria, the youngest girl in the Company, was cast as the Sugar Plum Fairy.
What about the fiendishly tricky Gargouillades ? “It’s the way of approaching things and thinking. For example, I had coaching with my ballet teachers at Elmhurst who said, ‘think of the second leg coming in’, but for me it was really hard, and then they told me ‘bring your foot to the knee’ and that would make it work for me. So it’s just about approaching things in a way that you understand. The solo is hard because the Sugar Plum variation is pure classical ballet; it’s so pure that you can see any mistakes.”
I reviewed one of their performances recently and watched Maria dance with elegant, long clean lines, and a warm, expressive face. Secure in the choreography and in her partner, Maria fouttés effortlessly upstage and launches into the fish dives with ferocious abandon. But there is more, which is what Chris also saw in the auditions. Maria has a rare luminosity, she dances like a single dust mote dancing in a beam of light cast by the brilliance of her technique but also by her innate intelligence as a dancer.
Equally testing is knowing that friends and family are in the audience. In Tamworth last week Maria had three of her teachers from Elmhurst watching - Errol Pickford, Elizabeth Rae and Donald Tolj, and she says “I know they’ve seen me dance so many times but they’ve never seen me in the show, and I was so nervous and no-one can understand. So nervous !”
Conquering the nerves is part and parcel of a dancer’s life, and of course, Maria danced brilliantly. As we were walking between photo shoot locations, she told me that she felt it was her best show so far. Anyone who knows how modest and unassuming dancers are, will know that for Maria to admit to being happy with her performance under such scrutiny means a lot.
Audience feedback has been excellent and Chris says “I’ve been really, really surprised at the amount of comments. People have been emailing and I just thought that’s really nice of someone to email to say how much they enjoyed it.” The theatres too have been positive and “we’ve had quite a lot of them already want to confirm for next year.”
Whose choreography would Maria like to dance, given the chance ? “MacMillan. Manon is one of my favourite ballets actually”. And if she could choose her partner ? “I’m torn between Carlos Acosta and Roberto Bolle. Or maybe Robert Parker.” She’d be wearing a tutu, and it would be red, “I’m a bit obsessed with the colour red.”
I asked Chris how he’d describe Maria’s dancing now, at the half-way point of the tour. “I’d say she has definitely grown in her performance, just with the experience of doing the shows and touring, but the lovely thing about Maria which has come out as we’ve been travelling is that she’s such a positive person to have on tour. She keeps the morale up and is always happy. When you are sat in the bus and you’re going around for long drives, it’s nice really.”
As Maria was directed by the photographer, a crowd gathered around me and asked who she was. I replied, “That’s Maria Engel and she’s going to be a famous ballet dancer.”