It's an hour until curtain-up and I'm sitting next to a ballet dancer, a real life ballet dancer. Unbelievably graceful despite still being in jogging bottoms, Céline Gittens, Birmingham Royal Ballet Principal, is transforming herself into the Rose Fairy for the evening's performance of The Nutcracker. And the humble, strong, knowing 30-year-old is simultaneously talking to me about ballet, Birmingham and burgers...
"I first watched The Nutcracker on VHS when I was four. I remember the production like some magical Tim Burton story. Thinking back, the fact that The Nutcracker was one of the first ballets I ever saw makes it even more incredible that I get to dance in the production now.
"I’m from Trinidad originally, and I grew up in Vancouver, but I've lived in Birmingham since I was 18, when I joined the company. Getting a spot with Birmingham Royal Ballet is kind of an amazing story. I was in England to take part in class at the Royal Ballet School, an invitation I received after winning a Gold Medal at The Genée [a prestigious international ballet competition]. My original intention was to audition for them but when we found out the international quota for the school was already full, my Mom, a ballet teacher, suggested I try out for BRB.
"We turned up at the door of the company the next Monday morning and asked if it would be okay for me to audition. The company had just come back from tour, so if we'd been a week earlier, there would have been no chance. After a few calls had been made, I joined the company for class, the class that would change everything. I remember David [Bintley, company director] peeking through the door much earlier on in class than he would usually. There was a buzz about me — this eighteen year old who'd turned up without an invitation — and David had come to see how I was doing. How did I feel? I don’t remember feeling nervous — I was fearless and 18 and well-used to competitions and performances — what other people would think of as pressure was my normal.
"I was the first ballerina of mixed race to perform the lead in Swan Lake in the UK but that didn't really register with me until it became a big deal on social media. I was debuting the role, and I was so focused that I really didn’t think about anything other than my performance. On reflection, the best thing about it was to show others that ballet is not an elitist art form, that you can look like me and be a principal at a prestigious company.
"Now? Well I'm playing four different roles in The Nutcracker. Tonight I'll be the Rose Fairy but I've been leading the sultry Arabian dance since I arrived at the company 12 years ago. The staff decide when a dancer is ready to take on a new role. There used to be a list that got pinned to a board, Center Stagestyle, but it's all done by email now. It doesn't feel competitive. The competitive bit was getting into the company — we've all succeeded now we're here.
"I can definitely see myself staying in Birmingham. It's evolved so much since I got here. Where do I like to eat? Well, not before a performance, but I've eaten at Meatshack burgers [opposite Stage Door] and Digbeth Dining Club is my absolute favourite — I was there the very first time it was open. The only thing I really miss is the mountains of Vancouver. I mean, I've been to Malvern and the countryside is so close but Canada has a lot of nature. Travelling quite a lot with this company, you realise just how diverse Birmingham is. A huge city compared to some in Canada, but also a hugely diverse city — I think that’s just amazing and I feel like everyone is so accepting of all the cultures here.
"BRB's production of The Nutcracker is the best there is. It just is. It's not often that I watch the company from the front but I get to when we have rehearsals. The transformation from the party scene to when Clara comes out and the clock strikes midnight and everything starts growing is completely magical. The Christmas tree starts getting bigger, the toy soldiers are rolled out, and King Rat comes out of his cave. Clara and the rest of the cast seemingly start to shrink but nobody has actually changed size. It's incredible.
"It's a strange job we do, pretty much just dressing up as different people or things each night. Well, I think that's pretty strange. It's also a total privilege."
The Nutcracker is at the Hippodrome until December 13. Tickets