Beyond Black Swan | Brenda Lee Grech

Malta-born and Scotland based ballet dancer Brenda Lee Grech speaks to us ahead of her participation in ‘Triple Bill’, a trio of dance performances taking place at Pjazza Teatru Rjal in Valletta as part of the Malta Arts Festival.

Brenda Lee Grech in Jiří Kylián’s 14’20. Photograph by Andrew Ross
Brenda Lee Grech in Jiří Kylián’s 14’20. Photograph by Andrew Ross

How would you describe your beginnings as a dancer in Malta, and how you grew as a dancer from that point onwards? What were some of the most important things you learnt along the way?

I have always loved dancing, and at the age of four I took part with the Zejtun Band for Lisfilata tal-Karnival. Five years had passed and a dance school opened in my village (Zejtun) and so I begged my mum to enrol me in some dance classes. I wanted to do Latin American dance however they only offered ballet classes there. Hungry as I was to dance, I decided to take up lessons in ballet even though I knew little about it. 

I really cherish my five years of dance training that I had in Malta with Johane Casabene. I am grateful that she has introduced me to other dance disciplines such as Jazz, Spanish Dance, Contemporary and modern. This has really shaped the versatile dancer I am today. 
From as young as 13 years old, dance practitioners in Malta and foreign visiting artists had been encouraging me to move abroad and study dance full time. At the age of 16, I auditioned for the Scuola di Ballo del Teatro alla Scala and I successfully got in.

From there on my experience went from a student in one of the most prestigious schools in Europe to an apprentice with the company Ballet d’Europe in Marseille, to graduating with a 1st Class Degree B.A. (Hons) in Dance and Professional Performance with Ballet Central – London to finding a job with the Scottish Ballet Company. 
Making a career within the show business is a very hard road to take. I had to make a lot of sacrifices physically, mentally and emotionally. 
It’s not about having everything go right. It’s about having the patience and determination to work hard even when it seems like it might all go wrong. 
I learnt to continuously compete with myself. There’s a quote I really like: “If you continuously compete with others you become bitter, but if you continuously compete with yourself, you become better.” 

Having performed in various countries, what led you to decide to settle in Scotland? How do you find the scene there?

While studying in London for my dance degree I was auditioning for dance jobs in companies that I was interested in. It was a relief when Ashley Page (the director at the time) offered me a contract with Scottish Ballet. The varied repertoire the company offers meant that I would be dancing a lot of different styles, and that’s exactly what I was looking for. 

I remember there being many people at the audition. It feels so special when you get that email saying you got the job. I joined on a six-month contract and then on a definite contract thereafter and have been with the company for six years.

Having moved to Scotland from London felt quite different. London is really the hub for all art forms, however there are quite a few things happening up here in Scotland too.

Scottish Ballet being the National ballet company of Scotland, works very hard in nurturing the public in dance, and having joined the dancers education group has really enabled me to understand how many initiatives are available for anyone who may be interested in dance. I have most particularly enjoyed observing, and have been greatly moved by, Scottish Ballet’s Regenerate group – where anyone of 60 years or over is able to take ballet classes, get together and they also get to do their little performance.

Would you say that ballet is changing in terms of how people perceive it, on an international level? What would you say have been some of the most significant developments in the form over the last few years, particularly in your experience?

Ballet has drastically changed in the way it is being performed and presented to the audience. It has become more accessible to people and thus I think people are having a better understanding of what this art form is really about. Most major dance companies nowadays have also got an Education Department.

These departments are revolutionising the Ballet world. Ballet dancers are no longer these untouchable creatures. Companies organise talks with various members of the company – from directors, ballet masters and dancers. Again being part of the dancers Education group at Scottish Ballet has enabled me to grow and learn so much as to what the audience expects from a dance company. I have had the opportunity to answer questions at post-show talks and family insights, while also helping out on the audio description and touch tour.

I find it such a brilliant idea to also make dance accessible to those who are visually impaired, and Scottish Ballet has been the first company in Europe to offer this, so I am quite honoured to have had the opportunity to see, learn how its done and share my experience with a different kind of audience.  

However amongst all these good and fruitful opportunities, I have to say that certain stigmas and clichés are still very much around. For instance I think the movie The Black Swan is perpetuating these clichés and sending the wrong message – and cinema having such easy access to the public does not help at all. 

Through my experience, I feel that ballet is a language in itself and so it is an ever-evolving art form. Ballet is so vital in dance, and it’s amazing how every other form in dance relates back to the basis of the ballet technique.

Ballet is about finding your centre and establishing your balance from that. It is a very upright and correct way of dancing. However most choreographers these days are all about pushing boundaries and making the ‘impossible’ possible. 

Having had the opportunity to perform such a wide range of repertoire, some that dates back to the 1940s, to having work specifically created on me, really enables me to understand this dance evolution.

What can the audience expect from your participation in the Malta Arts Festival? How do you view the Arts Festival as an overall initiative? Would you say that the local cultural scene has changed substantially since you left the island?

I guess the most exciting thing in inviting me over to perform and be part of this triple bill is the fact that I am the only Maltese and female dancer performing.

I hope that I can be an inspiration to all those young girls and boys out there aspiring to be dancers and be an example to them – the same way I was able to work hard and make dance my profession, with a lot of determination they too can make it. For the adults and those passionate about dance, I tried to choose a variety of work for my participation in this program. I’m presenting works by two very current and world renowned choreographers, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa and James Cousins, and a dance film clip of Constant Vigier’s choreography Origine, filmed by Lewis Landini (both Constant and Lewis are dancers with Scottish Ballet). 

Yes, things have changed a lot since the first time I left home 10 years ago; however there are always positives and negatives. I feel that there is a lot of unhealthy competition between dance institutions. I understand that we are a very small island and we are all fishing from the same pond, but if we worked more closely together we could have better results. 

I feel that we still need to work harder in building a better audience in dance. It seems that not many people attend dance shows unless they have somebody performing that they know or because they have something to do with the dance sector. I have to stress though that this is not necessarily the Maltese public’s lack of interest in dance and theatre, but it is rather the lack of education in arts within the Maltese school curriculum. 

On a positive note there are some excellent qualified teachers and dance practitioners on the island who work very hard in creating new opportunities. I also find that there is a lot more financial help around for those who want to take this profession more seriously. 
It always amuses me how hard we as Maltese thrive to be on the same level as other countries, and that is well and good, but I guess we should never forget that at the end of the day we are a tiny island. I am proud of what we have and I do feel that things are really at a turning point.

There are some really passionate people who are pushing forward the arts in general – I too aim to be one of them, once I fulfil my passion as an artist on stage. 

What advice would you give to aspiring Maltese dancers?

For aspiring Maltese dancers I just have this beautiful quote that sums it all up: 
“Some dancers dream about successful careers... and some dancers wake up and do the hard work that's necessary to achieve them” – Grover Dale. 

Triple Bill will be performed at Pjazza Teatru Rjal in Valletta on July 31 and August 1, at 21:30