Georgina May is a soloist with Northern Ballet Theatre. She joined the company in 2002. She was born in Worcestershire, England and trained with the Royal Ballet School. Her favorite roles are performing in the short piece Jardi Tancat; Constance, The Three Musketeers; Lucy, Dracula; Aurora, A Sleeping Beauty Tale; Sugar Plum Fairy, The Nutcracker; Ophelia, Hamlet. In 2007, she created and performed the roles of Aurora in the world premiere of David Nixon’s A Sleeping Beauty Tale and Ophelia in David Nixon’s Hamlet.
Q. At what age did you start training at the Royal Ballet School?
I went to the Royal Ballet School when I was eleven as a full time boarding student.
Q. What was the auditioning experience like?
To be honest it’s hard to remember. I think I just really enjoyed myself. I went through a preliminary audition, which was near where my family lived, and I got through that obviously and then we went down to London for a weekend. My mum and dad came with me and I did the first day and then some people were eliminated and then I went back for the second day and I just really, really enjoyed myself. I think I didn’t quite realize the whole thing meant me moving away from home at the time. I just went and had some fun.
Q. And suddenly you were living at the Royal Ballet School in London….
Yes. At the Lower School. At White Lodge. I was quite an outgoing child, so I think I was telling my mum to leave because I wanted to play with all the girls there.
Q. What was the schedule like at school?
At the Lower School you do two hours of ballet class a day, and depending on which year you’re in, it could be at any time of the day. Then the rest of the day you do four hours of academic work. You fit in all the academic work you have to do and then finish at about four or four-thirty in the afternoon. Then after that you do other sorts of dance like we did character dancing and national dancing and some repertoire. When you get older, you do more solos and things like that until six. At six, you go for your dinner, and then after that, you do homework but you do it in a classroom with a teacher. So you do homework from half seven to half eight, and then depending on which year you’re in, it’s time for bed. Quite a hectic day really.
Q. And this is co-ed?
Yes. Boys and girls.
Q. Where in London were you?
The Lower School is in Richmond Park so it’s in part of London. It’s not near Piccadilly Circus. It’s right in the middle of a great big massive park so there aren’t any neighbors.
Q. Did you have time to go around London?
When I was a White Lodger, the first 2 years you have to be taken out by a teacher any time you go out because, of course, you’re very young. The third year you’re allowed to go certain places like to a little nearby village. We could go there on our own. Then in our fourth and fifth year, we could go out into Richmond. But we weren’t allowed to go into the center of London on our own. We’d always have to be with somebody.
Q. Did you like the school?
Oh, yes, I did. I really enjoyed the lower school especially. I spent five years at the Lower School and then I moved on to the upper school, which is next to Covent Garden for three more years. The first year of that was fine, but by my second and third year, I’d been there a long time and I was ready to move on and get a job. But I did enjoy it very much.
Q. You must have friends who are now all over the dance world…
Yes. It’s quite hard to stay in touch with some of them but I do try.
Q. How did you end up at Northern Ballet Theatre?
I auditioned at quite a few places and there was an opening at Northern Ballet Theatre. So, David Nixon gave me the job and ever since I’ve worked there.
Q. Northern Ballet has a very strong emphasis on story ballets…
Yes. It’s very theatrical.
Q. What kind of skills does that require of you as a dancer?
You definitely need to work on the acting side. I was well-trained technically but at Northern Ballet Theatre they encourage you to feel things emotionally. You have to feel it inside rather than just think of your steps. You have to think, what would the character be feeling? It’s really challenging when you first join but now I love it. It’s great.
Q. Nowadays with most companies, they just focus on the dance. The story is much less important and they often cut out parts of the story that are important in creating an emotional reaction in the audience.
I find the majority of an audience—except maybe a handful—doesn’t know anything about technique. Obviously, it still has to be good. It has to be strong otherwise the piece won’t work as a ballet, but most of the audience come to see the story. That’s what they’re going to understand and that’s what you have to give them to deepen their enjoyment level.
Q. Another trend now is that a lot of companies do Swan Lake with a happy ending.
Yes. That’s funny, isn’t it? Our ballets are completely different. Our Swan Lake has a completely different story than the original but it doesn’t have a happy ending.
Q. How do you develop the story? In classic story ballets, there’s a mime language. Is it different with Northern Ballet Theatre?
Yes. I think we try to do it as naturally as possible, especially with the more modern pieces. We try to feel it inside. We work quite a lot with a dramatist. Our Associate Artist Patricia Doyle comes to work with David on his productions. She used to be an actress and director herself and she comes in to work with us on the drama side of things. We do quite a lot of work on that. For example, when we did Hamlet last January, Pat came in to work with us before hand. The ballet is set in Nazi occupied Paris, so we spent three hours in the afternoon just standing in line as if at a checkpoint, feeling what it would like to be scared and some of the boys acted as Nazi officers, walking around us.
Q. Do the ballets use other elements like film or song?
Occasionally, we have some words. In our Midsummer Night’s Dream at the end Puck actually says the last speech from the play.
Q. Does this give you some impetus that when you finish with ballet you might like to go into acting?
Yes. I think it would be great. I think it would be very difficult. I’m not sure if I would be very good at it, learning all the lines. I think a lot of people do think about getting into the acting side of things when they finish.
Q. Aren’t ballet dancers known for good memories?
Memories for different things though. I learn steps quickly and I do remember them for a very long time. I find that natural. Words I don’t know. Maybe I would. We have worked with Pat on plays. She’s given us scripts and we learn the lines and then we have a couple of rehearsals with her and then we act them out in front of each other. We do things like that to develop our acting skills.
Q. How do you prepare for original ballets as opposed to classical ballets?
It’s quite different. We’re just rehearsing now for The Nutcracker, which is quite the classical version, and it is very different rehearsing for that than something like Hamlet. But it’s really good to have the contrast, to do both. I think with the classical stuff, you have to think of your technique much more and sometimes it changes the way you work in class for that period as well. You have to think about different things in terms of the history of the role, which is different than when a role is being created new around you. That makes it much easier really.
Q. Although you had about as good a preparation as anyone could have to be a dancer, were there still surprises when you started working professionally?
Definitely. I think coming to Northern Ballet Theatre, it’s quite different than going to a big company that just performs classics. My training set me in very good stead, but I did have to change quite a lot of the way I worked. It’s quite interesting because David Nixon and his wife, Yoko Ichino, NBT’s ballet mistress, have quite a specific technique, which they teach everyone when they come. I did have to change quite a few things as their technique is very much focused on injury prevention and things like that which at school does not have quite the same priority. At least, it didn’t when I was younger. But David and Yoko’s technique is really quite different and it’s very, very good, so I did have to change quite a bit when I came here.
Q. Is this change in technique something that only a dancer would notice or is it obvious to the general audience?
I think it is quite different. The way people dance is quite different. You’d notice it, if you watched our company doing Nutcracker and then you watched someone like New York City Ballet. It would be very different and you would notice the difference in technique.
Q. What are some of the challenges that you work on as a dancer? Do you set goals for yourself?
Absolutely. At the moment, Yoko is working with me quite a lot on my pirouettes. She’s trying to help me change the way I start the pirouette and where my body is within the pirouette, so I can hopefully make them better and easier and more consistent when I’m on stage. I always set myself goals—like I want to be able to do what she’s asking me by Christmas.
Q. What are some of the mental challenges?
Sometimes it’s very difficult mentally because you don’t always understand what they’re saying straightaway but eventually what happens is one day it suddenly clicks and you’ll go, “oh, yes, now I understand”.
Q. Northern Ballet Theatre tours a lot in England. What sort of challenges does that present?
It’s quite difficult actually. We tour England more than any other company. We go to very, very small stages and bigger stages and we go to raked stages, which is hard because when the stage is raked, you have to really think about the fact that your calves are going to be tight. You have to stretch out more and think about where you’re standing at the bar because if you’re always facing the same way, then you’re always facing down. Some places we have to change choreography slightly if the stage is too small or the wings on one side are too small. We have to do that on the day we arrive which is on a Tuesday and we open on Tuesday, so we have to really register the change and the second and third cast has to register the change because that’s it. They don’t get rehearsal. They just go on. For example, next week we’re going to Nottingham, which is a raked stage.
Q. And didn’t the company recently tour China?
The company went for four weeks. Chris, who you’re interviewing tomorrow, he and I stayed behind for ten days when everyone else was in China to rehearse with David for Hamlet. The tour went over Christmas Day and New Year, which was hard, but it was fine.
Q. In America, many dancers get their shoes from England. As you are in England, I assume you get your shoes from England?
No. We don’t all use English shoes. A lot of people use Freed which is the most well-known commonly used pointe shoes. But I don’t. I wear Capezio’s, an American Company. Some wear Bloch. We don’t all wear the same.
Q. I was going to ask you if you met the man who made your shoes because the English pointe shoemakers are so well known.
When I was at school, we had to wear Freed. It was the policy of the school, everyone had to wear Freed. So Michelle, who’s really quite famous—she’s the face of Freed—she fits all the shoes in the shop—she would come to school and fit us every six months or so but we never met the makers.
Q. What made you switch to Capezio’s?
I don’t think anybody will ever find a pair of shoes that’s perfect and you don’t have to do anything to them. You obviously have to sew your ribbons on and the elastics and I always sew an extra little bit on the front of the shoe to make the ramp slightly bigger and then I have to cut them with a Stanley knife in certain places. Everyone has their own things they do.
Q. I know many American dancers would like to join a European company for the experience and spending some time in Europe. Would you like to join an American company someday?
I would love to come to America but it’s difficult for us to work in America. Getting a green card is really quite hard. Once you’ve got a job, the company will get the card and then it’s OK, but it’s quite hard to get the job because they have to prove that another American can’t do the job as well. If you’re a principal dancer, it’s much easier.
Q. What do you do to get away from ballet?
My family lives quite close. It’s only a two-hour drive from here in Leeds. I like visiting my family. My brother only lives a ten-minute walk from me, so I like to go and chill with him and I also love cooking quite a bit. And I read a lot. Fiction books.
Q. Any ballet books you recommend?
Well, since we went to China I read Mao’s Last Dance which I really liked. I understand they’re making a film of it. I like watching dance videos and youtube.
Q. What do you like most about ballet?
When I was in school, it was full of challenges and I think that is what is really attractive about ballet. There are always challenges. There’s always something you can do better. With classical ballet it’s technique. You come off and think, well, that bit was good but I could’ve improved that bit, so there’s always a challenge. But what I really love is doing the emotional pieces which is why I love it so much at Northern Ballet Theatre because you get a chance on stage—it doesn’t happen every time—but sometimes when you’re dancing in the middle of a pas de deux or something, you really do just get lost in the character or the emotion and feel like you’re in love with your partner on stage and it’s a really amazing feeling. You can just be somebody else for two hours. I think that’s my favorite thing about ballet.
Q. What do you like the least?
I find the hardest the technical things. Like in Sugar Plums, they’ll always be something. You’ll come off and think that was really bad or I was really turned in on that and it’s really hard to switch off and say, try again next week. It doesn’t matter. That’s the hardest thing—to switch off and tell yourself, next time will be better.
Q. Any advice to young dancers?
Just work hard, if you really love it. Dance is one of those things that’s too hard, there’s too much effort involved, if you don’t really love it. Then, you should think about doing something else. At the end of the day, it always hurts. You’re always sore somewhere and unless you really love it, it’s hard to live with that.