In February, Satsuki Ueda, one of our final year students and a member of Elmhurst Ballet Company, participated in the video edition of the prestigious Prix de Lausanne, the international ballet competition showcasing the world’s finest ballet students. Denise Whiteman, Elmhurst’s Director of Dance tells us how Satsuki prepared for the competition as it moved it online and away from the usual live theatre audience. Satsuki was the only candidate in the year’s competition who is currently training at a UK ballet school.
Satsuki Ueda is from Nagoya in Japan, studies at Elmhurst and was the only dance student currently training in the UK to be selected for the 2021 Prix de Lausanne. With COVID-19 closing dance studios and theatres around the globe, the international ballet competition moved online and as Elmhurst navigated its way through lockdowns one, two and three, Satsuki’s lessons alternated between on-site at school and virtually at home in Japan. This resulted in a number of prompt adaptations to Satsuki’s tuition and training as the seventeen year old prepared for the Video Edition of a competition that attracts some of the world’s elite dance students.
Over the last year, Elmhurst has opened, closed, reopened and closed its Edgbaston based school. Satsuki, with her peers and teachers, have become incredibly adept at dancing to camera as virtual timetables became a reality and enabled continuity in the delivery of the school’s training programme. For Satsuki, one of Elmhurst’s 23 international students, each lockdown meant leaving Birmingham for Nagoya ahead of the school gates closing. With her teachers in Birmingham (Lei Zhao, Michael Ho and Laëtitia Lo Sardo) and in Japan (Saeko Wada for ballet, and Ryu Suzuki for contemporary dance) applying for Prix and training for a career in dance became a tale of two cities 6,000 miles apart.
With the nine hour time difference between the UK and Japan in mind, Elmhurst created a bespoke timetable to suit its students back home in East Asia. “I miss everything about Elmhurst, especially the routine of school life, its busy and productive days,” said Satsuki. “Sometimes it is difficult to join every virtual lesson from Nagoya so the Elmhurst classes scheduled in to suit Japan Standard Time has helped me to maintain a really good level of fitness and stay connected with my teachers and friends.”
Each time Satsuki arrived back in Japan she had to quarantine for fourteen days, significantly reducing valuable time to prepare and film her video submissions for the competition. Unable to access a large dance studio she made use of the time and watched self-tapes of practice footage and refined her acting skills for the solos to be performed and judged at Prix.
Satsuki chose the ‘Raymonda, Tableau du Rêve Act 1’ solo for her classical ballet video submission. “In the pre-recorded excerpt, I wanted to highlight the love the protagonist Raymonda has for her fiancé. I thought about how happy she must feel and so communicated these sentiments through my physical and facial expressions. I considered how the dance and details should be framed on camera so they read on film,” said Satsuki.
During lockdown, and complementing Elmhurst’s virtual dance and academic timetables, all students continue to have online sessions with Dr Niko Kolokythas, the school’s Performance Enhancement Coach and, from early 2020, Elmhurst recruited Niall O'Carroll, a Performance Psychologist who works with the students and staff to look at issues around performance, anxiety and pressure. This holistic approach, working in harmony with the traditional dance training, gives Satsuki (and her peers) the various coping mechanisms to become a confident, thinking dancer who is equipped with the psychological, physical and personal attributes required for classical ballet.
As an audience member I always feel cared for when I am watching Satsuki perform. Her fluidity of movement is accomplished for someone so young and her facial expression is striking. These attributes were exaggerated for camera to ensure Satsuki’s technical skills and artistry came across on film. “Knowing my teachers and family are always there to support me and by imagining I was performing on a huge stage in front a big audience motivated me to perform at my best for the video submissions,” said Satsuki.
Elmhurst students are no strangers to dancing to camera. There has been a shift towards our older students recording their own practice sessions to self-critique and talk through details with their teachers. Productions are recorded and watched back for notes and we invite guests into the school who film for dance. There is a move towards more digital performances and we are keen that the Elmhurst student experience is relevant to developments in the wider sector. Recently, Birmingham Royal Ballet Principal Brandon Lawrence and spoken word artist Davy Lazare met with all the students to discuss their collaborative film and dance project, BODIES. I am sure all these opportunities and more helped Satsuki as she thought about her own recordings for Prix.
In light of working through a pandemic, it hasn’t all been plain sailing to get Satsuki to competing stage. With restrictions to online training it is extremely difficult to jump or do pointe work on a kitchen or carpeted floor! There were some concerns. Would Satsuki be physically on top form, especially as Prix’s baseline requirement is for excellent technique?
The main issues with online lessons are usually logistical. What do the students have access to as far as space, quality of Wi-Fi and equipment, for example, a dance floor or a ballet barre? It’s not always a level playing field but what they have been benefitting from is constantly good teaching and a unified approach from all Elmhurst staff. Virtual learning has meant students have had to think for themselves a lot more, not being able to rely on a mirror or having the teacher there in person to always solve a problem for them. It’s helped our students to grasp a clearer understanding of the ballet vocabulary, the name of a step, why we do it and how it relates to a ballet and performance.
All proved to be very useful for Satsuki’s recent accomplishment. There is dance inside of Satsuki. It’s a jewel inside her heart. It’s a passion and a desire that has kept burning, regardless of a pandemic.
(A version of this article appeared in the April 2021 issue of One, the One Dance UK magazine available to download/purchase at bit.ly/OneMagazineSpring21)
Photography by Ryu Susuki