Isabella Brouwers is a first artist at the English National Ballet. An interview by Mathilde Menusier.
Firstly, I want to express what dance means to me.
Dance is a universal language, it transcends all barriers of communication.
Dance is freedom of expression.
Dance is blind to ethnicity, it doesn’t comprehend social status or geography.
Dance is deaf to discrimination and judgement.
Dance can be an oasis of tranquility, a refuge in times of hardships, a way to express emotions that cannot be put into words or a private sanctuary into which you can retreat when those emotions don’t need to be shared.
Dance has been institutionalised, stylised, formalised, it has been branded and compartmentalised into its infinite aesthetic subdivisions and people have been guided or have chosen to pursue different paths within its endless realm. We may have each chosen to learn and master a specific style, pursue it with tireless dedication and attention to the most minute of details; many in history and in our current time are formalising their very own stylistic approach, whereas other have simply taken the liberty to just savour the ecstasy of movement without giving it a name.
What remains is that, at its core, dance is liberty and freedom; it courses through our veins and resides in us all; it is not reserved for a gifted few or the elite, and the doors remain open to all those who are inquisitive, curious or desire to be transported to a new realm, to see something beautiful without necessarily having to understand or put a story or label on it. It is an opportunity to immerse oneself in a sea of emotions, a chance to get in touch with what makes us uniquely human.
I started ballet when I was 7 years old and was mesmerised from my first lesson. I was living in Romania at the time, and I grew up moving countries every 2/3 years, until I settled here in the UK in 2011. I’ve now made London home, but growing up as an expat child in many different countries meant there were times when cultural adjustments were not so automatic. However, ballet remained for me the universal language that transcended the barriers of language and gave me a sense of identity and connection to the community wherever I moved to. I was always so inspired by the freedom and joy I felt dancing, and it was simply something I couldn’t refrain from doing! It’s an extremely special feeling to share an emotional journey and transport yourself and the public to new realms with every performance, and there’s a sense of fulfillment, gratitude and pure happiness after every show; it’s a feeling I need which gives me purpose, serenity, awareness and mindfulness of the moment…
Of course, there are periods when we perform huge amounts of back to back performances which are very draining, but these hectic performance schedules have made the stage a second home for me, and seeing the touching audience reactions, hearing about the emotions and joy they feel watching the performance, makes it all the more worth it.
There are so many lasting and poignant memories I have from very special moments on stage, it would be hard for me to list them all! The most memorable for me are the shows in which I’ve felt in complete synchrony with the fellow protagonists of the performance and in which I felt I embodied an entire new being and was transported to new world alongside the dancers on stage. It has happened several times in Akram Khan’s very special interpretation of Giselle, when I was in the role of Myrtha; there was an inexplicable sensation, a deep connection I felt with the Giselle. We were no longer colleagues, familiar with each other’s most mundane and personal daily rituals in the studio, no longer coworkers acting on stage; we were on a journey in the world of spirits.
I believe the true importance and impact of dance, and art in general, is undervalued in society.
Art is the most powerful and global tool for communication and expression, it offers opportunities for the mind to expand and it educates, nurtures and inspires the unquantifiable intangible things that make us human. It offers opportunities for refuge and freedom of expression, it gives us a means with which to communicate on a global platform and gives hope and purpose, the chance to create and experience something unquestionably beautiful, to those in even the most vulnerable conditions.
Back in 2017, I came across a rather life changing Al Jazeera video about a humble ballet school in Kibera, Nairobi (the most densely populated slum in Africa). The children’s joy of dance was evident in the video, but it was heart wrenching to see them having to train in such desperate conditions.
It made me realise how fortunate I was to grow up with all the resources to make my dream of becoming a dancer a reality, and I was passionate about trying to offer a similar opportunity to these children.
My parents had recently relocated to Kenya, and my two week holiday in January was the perfect opportunity for me to visit them and the incredible students I’d seen in the video.
After some research, I came to discover the greater picture behind the ballet class – the children in the video were students at the Spurgeons Academy, a school and oasis for the underprivileged children inhabiting the slum. What made this school especially unique were the incredible artistic initiatives offered to the students, to nurture the children beyond the academics, made possible by the incredible organisations Anno’s Africa and OneFineDay.
It was an educational experience that will stay with me forever.
I had a chance to visit the homes of some of the students in the slum, and it was heartbreaking to see the normal living conditions of Spurgeons Academy students. It really opened my eyes to the fact that the school was their sanctuary. It made me realise how important and impactful it was for them to have creative artistic lessons at school which could serve as personal oases of beauty and self expression for them, a chance to create and experience beauty and freedom and leave the hardships of slum life aside for a few hours.
Ballet class was executed in a converted classroom; the students swiftly transformed the little room, moving the desks outside, sweeping and sprinkling water onto the floor in an attempt to smooth out the dirt; paved or tiled flooring, let alone ballet linoleum floor, is a luxury beyond their means.
I had the opportunity to teach their weekly ballet class, which is usually executed by local teachers, during my visit.
I was overwhelmed by the students’ enthusiasm as they listened to the little images I used to clarify corrections and showed them exercises to help them improve their strength and keep growing as aspiring dancers.
I concluded class with a ‘reverence’ which is customarily executed to thank the teacher, but which I performed to thank the students for showing me true mental strength, gratitude and determination and for offering me one of the most eye opening, inspiring and indescribably life changing experience of my life.
I kept in touch with the school and sent students a care package with a few basic goodies that we take for granted here, but felt luxurious to them and I was touched to receive replies and photographs of them with the package. What was most touching was to hear though, were the stories of the most talented ballet students from Spurgeons who’d been given opportunities to join in classes at Dance Centre Kenya, which is Nairobi’s biggest ballet school founded by former ballerina Cooper Rust. This gave them the opportunity to dance in a real studio, experience feeling like true ballerinas, nurturing the hope that this art form could transport them to a new place, to a better lifestyle, and give them the opportunity to create a new future for themselves.
It’s amazing to see the journey of Kenyan dancer Joel Kioko, who I met at the academy, and who started dancing in similar humble conditions, and is now in his final year of professional training at English National Ballet School; its an incredible example of how many transformative opportunities this art form can offer. It is also a big eye opener to the public, proving that talent resides in every corner of the world, and it should be nurtured and developed no matter the nationality, social or financial status.
Of course, logistically this is a challenge, but I believe as artists we have a true responsibility to reach out to every possible corner of the world and share the art form and give hope and inspiration to as wide an audience as possible, to break any stigmas or misconceptions that art is a frivolous inessential luxury reserved for the elite or the highly specialised, rather than an essential component of our human nature which can be enjoyed, interpreted, understood by everyone. It’s actually the motto of English National Ballet, which I really admire, to bring world class ballet to as wide an audience as possible no matter what their means, which is why we tour a lot and offer very affordably priced tickets for performances.
However, this is a matter on a larger scale; it’s about fuelling and supporting artistic education at a young age. I believe it is fundamental to offer more varied artistic lessons to children from the early years of their education, to offer them scopes for mental development beyond the mandatory academic subjects, and allow them to expand their creativity and express themselves in ways that maybe words don’t allow them to. In vulnerable and dangerous corners of the world, children may not be aware of the vast possibilities their future could hold and may only be subjected to seeing their immediate surroundings of hardships, poverty and maybe violence. Including artistic education in the curriculum could offer children safe and joyful refuges, and offer inspiration and opportunity to grow into a life away from the hardships, veer them away from violent paths and give them the hope and chance to create a more positively purposeful future.
There are many charities and organisations budding around the world which offer outreach programmes, funding creative education in vulnerable and poor corners of the world, and I really believe in the importance of us artists supporting these organisations as best as we can, to nurture talent and potential in developing nations. I was very fortunate to grow in a position in which my family was able to support my dreams and fuel my talent, and it is heart wrenching to think that such opportunities might be taken away from some due to lack of education of the artistic possibilities or lack of funding and appropriate means. Art is global and we should strive to make it truly so, to open the doors to everyone to savour, express and indulge in the power of art.