Interview: Ballerina Tala Lee-Turton
Barnsley-born, Bolshoi-trained ballerina Tala Lee-Turton was told she would never make it as a professional dancer when she was only 11 years old
Tala Lee-Turton’s incredible journey to becoming a professional ballet dancer has taken her from Fearons Middletons School Of Dance in Barnsley to the world-famous Bolshoi Ballet Academy.
Having successfully auditioned at the age of 16, Tala quickly adapted to a new life in Moscow, a brand new language and a rigorous training schedule – which often involved training for six days of the week, often up to 10 hours a day – and became one of only three British females to have graduated from the academy in its 245-year history.
Now 22, and firmly on her way to becoming a leading talent on the international ballet scene, Tala has returned to her native Yorkshire this winter to perform in the much-loved repertoire of Swan Lake, Giselle and The Nutcracker with the Russian State Ballet.
‘It’s special to come back to the UK full stop, but to come back to Yorkshire is amazing,’ says Tala. ‘Nutcracker is my rest show – thank goodness, because in the other two I dance a lot! So I dance as a generic in Nutcracker: with the snowflakes, kids, that sort of thing. I dance cygnets in Swan Lake, which has been a real challenge for me, so I’m really glad I’ve been given the opportunity to dance that. I also dance Neapolitan in Swan Lake. Then in Giselle I’m one of Giselle’s best friends.’
In a stunning display of Russia’s famous character dances, Russian State Ballet showcases a season by Astrakhan State Opera and Ballet this winter, choreographed and directed by former Bolshoi Ballet soloist Konstantin Uralsky. Accompanied by a live orchestra, Swan Lake, The Nutcracker and Giselle will be performed on a 48-date tour across the UK. Having visited York and Harrogate as part of the tour already, Tala will also be performing at venues in Halifax and Scarborough in late November.
‘It’s pretty incredible that I’ve managed to join a company that tour excessively in the UK,’ admits Tala. ‘Lots of my friends and family have seen the journey that I’ve been on, and they understand just how difficult it’s been to get to where I am today, so they’re really excited to share all of these new adventures and see the different productions that we do.’
Having started dancing at the age of four when her talents were spotted by her local dance school in Barnsley, Tala won a government-funded scholarship to a leading UK performing arts school. However, it was there that she was told by her teachers that she didn’t have the right body to become a professional ballet dancer.
‘I always say that I wouldn’t wish this career path on anyone,’ says Tala. ‘I live for the performances – that feeling on stage and the buzz you have afterwards can’t be compared to anything else – but the life of a ballet dancer is really tough. There’s a lot of pain involved and there’s a lot of mental strength as you have to deal with the different pressures. So I think you should only really consider this career, not only if you’ve got a perfect body for dance, because there are very few people who do, but if you’re ready for it mentally and that you really want it. I’ve always known that I really wanted to dance, so I think that carried me through.
‘I knew that I had the passion, determination and the right work ethic, and I didn’t believe that if I was putting my all into it, I couldn’t achieve something. So, luckily, I managed to get in touch with some teachers at the Bristol Russian Ballet School – Chika Temma and Yury Demakov – who were teaching proper Russian-style technique, and through them I regained my confidence. They suggested that I auditioned for the Balshoi Ballet Academy; they even filmed my video and sent it off for me.’
But for Tala, the hard work was only beginning when she was accepted to study at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy. Having produced some of the most accomplished stars of the current generation – including Natalia Osipova, Alexei Ratmansky and Polina Semionova – the academy’s curriculum and pedagogy is recognised throughout the world for its focus on strength, musicality, clarity of technique, and personal expression. And that’s not to mention the huge cultural shift that’s involved in the move from a small town in Yorkshire to the bright lights of Moscow.
‘The lifestyle in Moscow isn’t for everyone,’ Tala reasons. ‘A lot of my classmates dropped out over the years for various reasons. The stress that is put on you to physically keep up with what you have to do can be very strenuous. Plus, it’s all in Russian. You really have to embrace the Russian culture. That was part of the big adventure for me, because I was learning the language and really getting an insight into a whole new way of life.
‘But Russians are just like Northerners, and I don’t lie when I say that! Once you’ve broken down that initial facade, which is just a cultural wall that’s been left over since Soviet times, you find the real warmth of the people. They’re really direct – they’ll call a spade a spade, just like in Yorkshire – and there’s a real friendliness there that you also get in the north, so it’s nice for me to notice that similarity with home.’
It’s certainly not been the easiest of rides to secure professional employment, and with almost every day involving a physically and emotionally gruelling training or performance schedule, it’s not a career for the faint-hearted. But it doesn’t seem like Tala is thinking about retirement any time soon.
‘It’s a question that many dancers ask themselves every day: why do I put up with it?’ she says. ‘But it’s the feeling of performing on stage, for sure. There is nothing else like it, and being able to share that with an audience, especially friends and family, is really special.’
CARE TO DANCE?
How do you spend your down time?
‘By sleeping a lot! I love to cook, so I usually try and eat bigger meals on my days off, and I try and make something nice for myself. It’s a de-stresser for me, cooking. I’m really into reading lots of different recipes from people like Yotam Ottolenghi, Anna Jones, those sorts of chefs. And when I get the chance, whenever I go into London, I try out the new restaurants that I’ve been keeping an eye on through Instagram. Most recently we went to Caravan. But I miss Ottolenghi. I need to go to his new restaurant, Rovi.’
What’s next for you?
‘We have a load of Nutcrackers in just a few weeks, and then we go to tour China with Swan Lake. When we get back we’ve got all the usual repertoire to perform, plus we’ve got an Italian choreographer, called Luciano Cannito, who is coming to choreograph something especially for us. He’s very Italian, so he wants to do The Godfather as a ballet! I’m a real film lover as well, so I’m really excited about it.
What are some of your favourite movies?
‘I would say it’s definitely To Die For, with Nicole Kidman; I love Amelie, and my all-time favourite is Pulp Fiction. I get Empire magazine every month, and I love watching films in my down time. It’s hard in Russia, because the films don’t come out immediately like they do in the UK, so while I’m home I’m really going to try and catch up on the ones that I’ve been excited about. I’ve been given five days leave after the tour ends, which is the best ever!’