Embodied ballet – Discovering Anne of Green Gables | Interview

Words by Bengi-Sue Şirin

It is a bright, crisp Saturday morning when I go to visit London Children’s Ballet. Lovely weather for an exciting day – exactly the kind of morning that would thrill Anne Shirley, the lead fictional character of Anne of Green Gables, my favourite childhood book series and the LCB’s latest adaptation for the stage! As Anne herself proclaims, “It’s delightful when your imaginations come true, isn’t it?”

“There was in it thankfulness for the past and reverent petition for the future”

This day is two years coming. This plan was made in Spring 2019, but a pandemic that rhymes with Ovid got in the way. The postponement was deeply sad at the time for the young dancers and for me, but as Artistic Director Ruth Brill tells me, it wasn’t without an unexpected silver lining. “Covid was extremely challenging for us at LCB,” she says, “Like a lot of the arts sector, we found ourselves trying to protect the company. But it gave us a window of time to achieve my dream of getting LCB a home.” When Brill stepped into her role in early 2019, LCB did not have a permanent rehearsal base. The charity has been running since 1994, and all the years since (including Brill’s participation in 2000’s The Last Battle and Royal Ballet Principal Anna Rose O’Sullivan’s dancing Sarah in 2004’s The Little Princess) worked on a basis of booking whichever London studios they could get. That all changed in December 2020, though. LCB made a successful pitch to Wandsworth Council, and with support from the Big Yellow Storage nextdoor, attained the children’s charity a beautiful multi-level space in the heart of Battersea. It is a young dancer’s dream; complete with sprung floors and mirrors and of course, all the (yellow) storage space for set and costume that a dance company could need. “It has been a game changer,” Brill admits. 

“Green Gables is the dearest, loveliest spot in the world”

As soon as I step inside I sense how much of a family feel the venue has. Young dancers roam from practice room to practice room chattering happily, and administrative staff can enjoy the energy of the rehearsals from a sort of overhead open-plan balcony, which is where I sit when I conduct my conversations. The Wandsworth link means that LCB are committed to ensuring children in that borough have especial opportunity to get involved. But young dancers come from all over London – some even just outside of. LCB strives for diversity and inclusivity amongst its cast. Everybody has a high level of ballet of course, but as choreographer Jenna Lee puts it, the casting process sometimes called for, “Actress first, technical second.” 

“I just couldn’t help thinking of the little girl you used to be, Anne”

And who is this particular dancer-actress that landed the role of Anne? Well, if I had come along in 2019 as planned, it would have been Harriet Mears aged 11. However, the pandemic-induced postponement of two years, coupled with her Anne-like inevitable growth in that time, meant when the piece was resumed this year, Harriet had become too tall. Like Anne herself declares, “It’s all very well to read about sorrows and imagine yourself living through them heroically, but it’s not so nice when you really come to have them, is it?”

Harriet has definitely had the roughest end of the stick. As much as this is the sort of thing LCB definitely do not hope their dancers have to go through, it was graciously accepted by Harriet, and she tells me a few times how wonderful she thinks the new Anne is. Harriet remains in the company dancing (amongst other parts) the appropriate role of Prissy Andrews, an older schoolmate of Anne whose beauty marks her out for a particularly dramatic storyline. I meet Harriet, and she is a really lovely, level-headed and beautiful young girl. Made of much stronger stuff than me! At just 13, Harriet has experienced how the industry can really be, but is by no means deterred from pursuing a career in dance. She loves ballet, but tells me she wants to go down the musical theatre route in order to sing and act too. I ask her what she hopes audiences take away from Anne of Green Gables and her reply is, “I hope a little girl in the audience is inspired to take up ballet.” Watching her dance Prissy Andrews, I am sure they will be. 

“There’s such a lot of different Annes in me”

Anne of 2022 will be portrayed by Annalise Wainwright-Jones. I do not get to speak to her because her character is in practically every scene of the ballet, and she is rehearsing back to back. But I get to watch her perform a little, and I must say, I think she is a marvellous choice. I am the type of Anne of Green Gables fan who loves it so much that I just can’t watch adaptations if Anne is ‘wrong’ for me (I’m looking at you, Netflix’s Anne With an E) – it is the same with all my nearest and dearest books. But Annalise is spot on. She is the type of pretty that is pale and impish – just like Anne – with Anne’s pride and joy, the ‘beautiful nose’ that wins her many compliments. Her technique is extremely sophisticated for such a young dancer, yet there is something delicate and poetic about her too – exactly like Anne. These things may sound trivial but as any Anne of Green Gables fan knows, they are important; she is the heart of the book, the Jo March without sisters, the irrefutable Beyonce. 

When I chatted to choreographer Jenna Lee, I was keen to know how the process of finding Anne went (both times), and interestingly, she told me that a pivotal moment in the casting was asking the dancers to have a tantrum. Anne has a few iconic tantrums – there could definitely be a Buzzfeed list on the topic. In Lee’s words, “Anne wears her heart on her sleeve, whereas ballet is very elegant and precise… We needed a dancer who could abandon that and really let go.” That aside, it is a physically demanding role. Anne’s talkative nature is transformed into dance through swings of pace and rhythm, with highly energetic body language… All with barely any time offstage to recuperate. I am sure Annalise is up to the challenge though. 

“The world calls them its singers and poets and artists and storytellers; but they are just people who have never forgotten the way to fairyland.”

I have talked a lot about Anne. Green Gables is her story. But, as Jenna Lee tells me, LM Montgomery’s novels are especially ideal for an LCB production because, “there are so many really interesting, layered characters.” From a reader’s perspective, she is absolutely right. There is huge variety in the cast of Green Gables, and they all develop spiritually due to Anne’s presence throughout the novel; from taciturn but loveable Matthew, to stern yet kind-hearted Marilla, sweet Diana, hilariously frank Rachel Lynde, the Mr. Darcy-style  Gilbert Blythe… And many more in the form of classmates, Avonlea residents, teachers, priests, their husbands, their wives… The text has been an excellent foundation to ensure Lee can give each of the 48 young dancers ample stage time.

I asked Lee to tell me about a couple of these other characterisations. With a smile on her face, she immediately described a sequence revolving around Rachel Lynde, who with her sharp wit and even sharper tongue is the architect of Anne’s very first tantrum. “Rachel is the sort of role I would have ended up playing in my ballet career,” she says, “And it’s where I started as a choreographer. I think you start with your own strengths.” It is obvious how much fun Lee had staging the scene. Rachel, who is danced by Kitty Cox-Harrison, is to be metaphorically enriched in a way that only dance can – with a supporting troupe of ‘Busybodies’ and ‘Gossiping Children’ portraying the pervasiveness of her words. “Anne of Green Gables has some dark moments, so it was important to me to balance those with comedy and lightness,” Lee says. As a huge fan of the Rachel Lyndes and the Mrs. Bennets, I am looking forward to seeing this section immensely. It will show how dance can tell stories with more texture than other artforms, as well as guarantee smiles all round.

Photography by ASH.

A huge aspect of Lee’s choreographic work with her dancers involves going back to the text itself and applying literary analysis. It is not as heavy as it sounds though – think less English lesson and more drama class. To help the children really get to grips with their characters, New Adventures alumni and experienced performer James Lovell has been helping them to develop character sheets. Lee tells me, “A lot of the time in ballet we talk about dancers as a team, as one body. In this ballet, we encourage each dancer to have their own back story.” She adds, “James has been working with each dancer to help them think about character traits, for example Matthew. He gets nervous a lot – so does he have a hanky?” I get to see a little of this process in action when I sit in on rehearsals. Lee does not simply tell the dancers what to do. She asks the children why they think they are doing it. It is collaborative, and as a literature graduate, really lovely for me to see. And I must add highly appropriate for a ballet about such a curious, thoughtful girl. In Anne’s words: “Isn’t it splendid to think of all the things there are to find out about? It just makes me feel glad to be alive–it’s such an interesting world.”

I do not meet James Lovell, but I am lucky enough to have a conversation with his younger brother Freddie, who has carried over the part of Matthew since 2019. (He is lucky – unlike Anne, Matthew is supposed to look old, and LCB have a higher age threshold for male dancers due to safety requirements in partner work.) Freddie is one of the older cast members at 17 and very easy-going and mature. I ask him how it is portraying somebody so much older than him and he tells me, “Matthew was the part I really wanted. I see him more as calm and gentle than old, and that’s what I think about when I’m dancing rather than trying to look like an old man.” Talking to Freddie reiterates for me how much it means to the dancers to be performing after the pandemic. “When I heard the music in the audition this time around I got really emotional,” he says. “Coming back to the show, I’m more ready.”

I also meet two brand new cast members, 9 year old Jake Durant (playing one of the twins) and 10 year old Sophia Johnson (young Anne). Their enjoyment of the process is very clear, and they tell me how much they like the music, working with a professional team, and making new friends with the same interests. Jake tells me that he hopes audiences “understand how beautiful and important ballet is, and how hard we worked.” And Sophia adds, “I hope they appreciate not just how hard we worked but how hard everyone worked. The musicians, the designers, Jenna… It wasn’t a thing we did in just a few days. It’s been a lot of fun!” 

“Kindred spirits are not so scarce as I used to think. It’s splendid to find out there are so many of them in the world.”

So there you have it – I hope I have done LCB justice and conveyed how delightful their Anne of Green Gables looks to be. I have written much but missed more. Before I end, I must observe how charming the costumes designed by Elin Steele are. Clothes and appearance are so important to Anne, and Steele totally respects my beloved heroine’s assertion that, “It is ever so much easier to be good if your clothes are fashionable.” Look out for clever sartorial transformations and beautiful hand-embroidered details that would do Marilla proud. And be on the alert for 13 year old John Holden dancing the nasty Mr Hammond. I am quaking in my rehearsal studio chair. He is excellently terrifying, a future Rothbart for sure. 

Anne of Green Gables debuts its premiere performance at the Peacock Theatre on Thursday 26th May, and continues each day until Sunday 29th. LCB will be doing their traditional £1 schools show, too, with the aim of bringing ballet to children who have not had that experience. So for new ballet-goers, old ballet-goers, fans of Anne Shirley, and those who simply love a good story, I heartily recommend this production. It seems only right to end with a quotation from Anne herself, who reminds us that everything in life, and especially London Children’s Ballet, “All things great are wound up with all things little.”