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History of Imperial Classical Ballet

In the early decades of the 20th century interest in ballet as an independent, international theatre art developed significantly. In the few years between 1908–1911, dancers appearing in London theatres and palaces of varieties included Lydia Kyasht, Phyllis Bedells, Anna Pavlova and Adeline Genée. Appearances were made at Covent Garden in 1911 by artists such as Vaslav Nijinsky, Adolph Bolm, Serafina Astafieva, Bronislava Nijinska, Sophia Fedorova and Carlotta Zambelli.

The international artists appearing in London theatres were supported by less well-known English dancers. These were influenced by the impressive standard of training seen particularly with the Russian artists and they were eager to improve their own skills in order to further their careers. As a result, several influential schools of dance were opened in London by artist teachers such as Serafina Astafieva, Enrico Cecchetti, Marie Rambert and Nicolai Legat. This growth in dance schools also reflected the national interest in the development of a healthy lifestyle, a fitter population and an antidote to the cumulative pressures of industrialisation. Even so-called child prodigies could be seen, emulating the dances of the popular professional stars and often dancing en pointe.

To address this resurgence of interest in both theatre and social dance, from its inception in 1904 the early work of the Imperial Society of Dance Teachers (as the Society was then known) focused on the two dance genres of ballroom and operatic, the latter being the term given to ballet because of its place in opera productions throughout the 19th century. In these early years there were no branches or faculties and the work of the Society in promoting the advancement of dance training was through technical schools that lasted several days. Lecturers and teachers connected with these included Noreen Bush, Felix Demery, Jeanie Smurthwaite and recognised dance personalities such as Karsarvina and Sokolova.

In 1924 the working structure of the Society was significantly developed by separating it into four sections: the Operatic Branch (Imperial Section), Cecchetti, General and Ballroom.

The first time the Operatic Branch (Imperial Section) was mentioned was in the July 1913 edition of the Society’s Dance Journal (Vol. 6 No 36). Over subsequent years the Operatic Branch (Imperial Section) underwent many changes of name: Operatic Association Branch (1930); Operatic Branch (1939); Operatic Dancing Branch (1948); Operatic Ballet Branch (1951); Classical Ballet – Imperial Society (1960); Imperial Ballet Branch(1972); Imperial Classical Ballet Branch (1990) and eventually in 1995 the Imperial Classical Ballet Faculty.

The early work of the Operatic Branch (OB) was overseen by members of an elected committee. In 1924 Mildred Bult was recorded as the first Vice-President and Chair of the Faculty; Vivienne Saxton was elected as Chair in 2010. In 1928 a Board of Examiners was formed and in 1938 its international remit was initiated when the first examiner went out to Sydney, Australia.

The early syllabi of the OB were compiled by members of the Committee which as formed of well-known, established teachers. The syllabi were regularly reviewed to provide a strong foundation for advanced technique and the standards required in ballet at that time. Through this written support teachers were given guidance in the correct teaching methods. All students were encouraged to acquire sound basic technique plus the understanding of musical interpretation and co-ordination which were considered the essentials of a 'pure' classical training.

The earliest syllabi of the OB appeared to develop from the 1913 Technical School, which was in turn based on the teaching of the French School from the Paris Opera.1 In 1925 The Syllabus of Practical Examinations in Operatic Dancing (Imperial Section) Elementary was printed in the Dance Journal (October 1925, V. 1 No. 4) followed the next year by the Intermediate and Advanced syllabi. A Pre-elementary syllabus was not introduced until 1988.

Due to popular demand from teachers for a training programme suitable for the younger student, the OB presented students were their Syllabus of Children’s Examinations (CE) Grades I and II. By 1939 additional syllabi for Grades III, IV and V had been added. For these examinations no compulsory music was in place and teachers were given a free selection, with nursery rhymes being recommended for the Preliminary Examination, introduced in 1948. The first official music for the grade work was composed by Anthony Twiner, with alternative music by John Harrison in 1985 and Paul Stobart in 2004. In 1960 and 1988 Twiner composed music for the vocational examinations, with additional new music from Debbi Parks in 1994. 

Over the years and to the present day additions to all the syllabi have included new set exercises, dances and variations being added to examinations and new male set work for the Advanced 2. An important development was the introduction in 1979 of Class Examinations 1 and 2 and CE Standards 3 and 4 (in 1983) where the teacher conducted the examination format. Conceived for the ‘once a week child’ these examinations were to become especially popular with overseas teachers for whom language barriers in examinations could present difficulties. In 1988, due to popular appeal by students and teachers alike, the CE were extended to introduce a Pre-Primary, and in 1991 the Standards 5 and 6 examinations. In the same year a new Performance Award was instigated. The first filming of aspects of the work was undertaken in 1994.

Over the years various awards and competitions have been introduced in order to enhance the Imperial work. These include the Imperial Ballet Awards started in 1965 which presents 15 awards to competitors; the Stella Mann Bursary 1987–2013; Dancing Times Cup 1992; Kathleen Browning Choreographic Competition; Mavdor Scholarship for teachers (funded by Mavis James); Baines Hewitt Competition and Eileen Read Choreographic Competition and the Jean Campbell Award. The first year of the annual Junior Ballet Awards was 2008 and 2012 saw the first Malaysian Ballet Awards.

The work of the Faculty is also supported by several regional teachers groups: days of dance; the friends’ scholarship scheme for young teachers; the Faculty newsletter for teachers; a four day summer school for children; boys’ days of dance, teachers’ seminars and Junior and Senior scholarship classes.

Over the 110 year history, the ICB Faculty in all its manifestations has supported ballet training, endorsing the raison d’être enshrined in its first objective as: “The elevation and advancement of the Art of Dancing, and the preservation of its ancient prestige and dignity.’’ The Imperial work has expanded worldwide with a significant number of overseas teachers from more than 16 countries. This international contribution adds to the strength and continuing success of the Faculty and its work.

 Alexandra Barnes