Bronislava Pictures: Magda Hoffman.

Centenary Gala

Elmhurst Ballet Company


It was back in 1923 when the BBC made its first outside broadcast, in Egypt Howard Carter first unsealed the tomb of Tutankhamen, the first FA Cup final was staged at the newly built Wembley Stadium and the recently widowed Mrs Helen Mortimer, who had just returned to England from New Zealand with three young sons and little money, joined the staff of Elmhurst prep school in Camberley, Surrey, teaching scripture and elocution

With no recognised qualifications she started to also teach drama and dance to earn extra money and opened the The Mortimer School of Dancing, with a studio in the grounds and just eight pupils. By late 1950s there were 350 pupils, including 100 dance students and in the 1960s the school’s patrons included Dame Ninette de Valois, Dame Margot Fonteyn, Dame Flora Robson and Sir Donald Wolfit.

After 81 years the school relocated to Birmingham with the aim of meeting a growing demand for professional dance training, education and research beyond London and thus was formed the key link with Birmingham Royal Ballet, which had moved to the city from London in1990.

Today it is an internationally recognised ballet school with alumni performing in dance and ballet companies throughout the world, and the original eight have become some 187 pupils, and as part of the centenary celebrations the entire school took part in a gala evening performance which gave full rein to Helen Mortimer’s vision all those years ago.

It opened with Bronislava, a tribute to Bronislava Nijinska, younger sister of the famed Vaslav Nijinsky by Spanish choreographer Avatâra Ayuso and danced by the Elmhurst Ballet Company, the halfway house company Elmhurst set up between school graduation and professional dance.

Year 12 students came in with Memoria, a rather mournful piece from the school’s contemporary teacher Sandrine Monin set to the late Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson’s The Rocket Builder (Lo Pan!). The dance gave a feeling of loss of, of despair, beautifully danced to a soulful score that never attempts to lift the spririts.

The same could not be said of Juncture from year 13, set to Dave Brubeck’s Take Five by Charlotte Edmonds. Lively, fun and . . . oh so depressing for those of us who can remember the biggest selling jazz track of all time coming out back in 1959. Age doesn’t take prisoners.


Argonauts jazzing it up

Elmhurst Ballet Company students returned again in the shape of Isabel Tomquist and Léo Rech in a pas de deux from Atomos from Studio Wayne McGregor set to music from A Winged Victory for the Sullen. The result was a contemporary rather than classical dance but the emotions of a pas de deux are the same whatever the form and expressed with elegance by the pair.

Journey from Northern Ballet’s Gavin McCaig set to Oliver Davis’s music, opens with a schoolboy arriving in a new class, not knowing the ropes and struggling to fit in.

Commissioned by Elmhurst it is a story of a youngster entering vocational training as a dancer with the setbacks, injuries and even bullying a young would be dancer might have to overcome. Things McCaig had suffered in his journey from Motherwell via Glasgow and London to Leeds, and including things the young dancers in Edgbaston will associate with their own journeys.

The two schoolboy leads trying so hard to fit in, Anton Pigott from year 10 and Noah Nixon from year 12, were ably supported, or not when the piece demanded it of course, with massed ranks of lower school students.

Former BRB Director Sir David Bintley’s Argonauts from his The Orpheus Suite with music by Colin Towns gave a chance for graduate students to shine again along with students from years 12 and 13 led by the Elmhurst Company's Léo Rech who gets the posh white tux.

It opens with an alto sax and is set at jazzed up pace that would need a cardiac arrest unit on standby for most of us. The dancers never stop, even when they are merely watching, feet are still working away.

Luckily we get a more restful piece from Brandon Lawrence, the ex-BRB principal who has just left to join Ballet Zurich. A governor of Elmhurst he has created Watch Me Dance set to music from Tom Misch, for three graduates of Elmhurst.

The trio have not moved far though and are now  Birmingham Royal Ballet Artists, Amelia Thompson, Hannah Martin and Olivia Chang-Clarke, an d danced in costumes which perhaps show the range of dance taught at Elmhurst from contemporary through to classical.

Finally came the Grande Défilé with music from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin filling the Elmhurst stage with the school’s next generation to fulfil the vision of a remarkable young, widowed clergyman’s daughter a century ago.

Roger Clarke



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