“Tendue (tahn-dew) 5th to the plie (plee-ay)- to the plie,to the plie. Tendue 5th to the plie, slide 1st, front passé, back passé, fast 5th, in-out-1st-out. And if you want to use an arm, feel free.”
It’s Monday morning in mid-Sukhumvit and some of Thailand’s best contemporary dancers are being put through their paces by Stephen Beagley, a Brit, and current Artistic Director of the Bangkok City Ballet (BCB).
“Don’t go through the motions, give it a little push!”
Across the room, lithe athletic bodies bend and kick, hands gripping the barre, their highly honed muscles bristling under various shades and shapes of lycra.
“Keep lifting. We’ve got a long way to go!” Stephen jibes as he moves around the room – correcting an arm here and stretching out a leg there. The dancers giggle as he passes.
“Don’t go through the motions, give it a little push!”
Established in 1996, the Bangkok City Ballet Company puts on just 2 or 3 productions a year and is a part-time gig for its members, who range in age from 19 through to 48 years. Nam and Au, are still at University, while others like Orn and Gop are established professionals, with their own private studios, running classes and shows, as well as performing in their own right. For the most part, the dancers here live, breathe and make their living from contemporary dance, but 3 times a week and for those few performances a year, they push themselves to train in the most technically difficult and physically demanding dance style there is – classical ballet.
“I want to be in top physical form and ballet is the way to do it”. Jane (Aditep) says. “It is much harder, more precise, the jumps for example are very difficult. If I do ballet, it helps me to be a better contemporary dancer and teacher. Though he quietly admits – “I like the slow movements, I don’t like the jumps”.
“I want warm faces not hot faces” Stephen shouts, pacing back and forth. “Keep going!”
Beagley’s style is irreverent, cheeky and upbeat and at 57 he brings to the company a lifetime of experience and the kind of career success that most can only dream of. At 9 years old, he entered the Royal Ballet School in London and by 17 had graduated to become a fully fledged member of the Royal Ballet Company. He’s worked with some of the giants of classical dance – Kenneth Macmillan, Nureyev, Frederick Ashton, to name a few – while he’s also taken on major roles in a number of West End theatrical productions – including the lead role in Cats. And,since his own dancing days ended, Stephen has moved on to become a prodigious ballet teacher the world over – taking on stints in Italy, Malaysia, Japan, the USA, New Zealand and the UK, as well as being the principal ballet coach for Billy Elliot and Head of Adult Ballet at the English National Ballet. It’s some resume.
I’m curious then how he ended up here – in a country where the culture of classical western ballet has a limited following and in a classroom with dancers who couldn’t hope to – even if they wanted to – make a life out of this particular style of dance unless they moved permanently overseas.
“I was teaching in London and I’d become bored and frustrated by the attitude of many of the young dancers there’, he explains. “They didn’t want to work hard, they weren’t disciplined, I’d go to work each day and think – why do I bother”? Initially invited to do a 6 month teaching residency at the Bangkok City Ballet, Stephen was wary. “I hadn’t heard of the company so I said, I’ll give you 6 weeks and then let’s see what happens. Four years later I’m still here. And I love it.”
For the dancers too, having Stephen teaching them is a privilege they relish “He’s 57 and he can do seven or eight pirouette’s – no problem’! says Orn, one of the company’s most experienced members. “For us – we have to work and work and work but he just does it. He’s amazing”.
“He’s 57 and he can do seven or eight pirouette’s – no problem’!
The early days of Stephen’s tenure at BCB however wasn’t always such an easy fit.
“When I arrived it was nothing for a dancer to arrive half an hour late, saunter in, wave at their friend, plonk their bag down’. Beagley says. “They’re like the Italians – they say ‘domani’ (as in tomorrow, it doesn’t matter) … here it was the same. They’d say to me ‘well we showed up, we were half an hour late but we’re here, what’s the problem?’. But no- this is not how a professional company runs. So I told them, if you are 5 minutes later I’m locking the door, you have to turn up on time or else, if you forget your shoes, then its 50 baht in the jar. And after a while they started to get it. They could see that I meant business”.
As well as the difference in age and experience, the dancers come from a eclectic mix of backgrounds. Orn, came from a shrimp farming family down South, with no formal training dance until at 15, she moved to Bangkok and started out in a class with four and five year olds.
“I had to work very very hard. I was never as good as those who had been training since they were children, but I do my best and I worked so hard to fight my way up to the top”.
Since then, she has toured all over the world as both a classical and contemporary dancer, has opened her own dance studio and is Assistant Director and Choreographer for the Miss Teen Thailand and Miss Thailand Universe competitions.
In contrast, Jane (Aditep) came to dance by chance after studying Physical Theatre at University, while Gop (Pattanapong), is a founding member of the famous Thai hip-hop group THE ZOO. For others, they make their living by teaching, doing events and back up dancing for shows and at clubs.
“In other countries you can have a real career as a classical dancer. Here it is much more difficult.
“In other countries, Cat (Orawee) says “you can have a real career as a classical dancer. Here it is much more difficult. Even to take classes, it costs money, so the only way you can really do it is with the support of your family or to work two jobs … its very difficult”.
“Glissade assemblé, glissade assemblé, glissade assemblé, glissade jeté, coupé, coupé, assemble, relève, relève.”
The dancers , sweating and breathless now, watch Stephen as he skips across the studio introducing a new sequence to follow. “Not too flicky with the wrists. That’s better”.
Watching the dancers at such a close distance, you start to see just how difficult and physical their movements are and exactly what’s demanded of them. Arms, hands, feet, wrists all have to be exactly precise, their bodies thumping hard as they leap and land across the floor, there faces struggling to stay composed and relaxed with all grunt work required.
It’s the injuries too that have to be endured as they years go by. During his years of performing Stephen suffered four major back fractures, three broken noses and the possibility of paralysis along with a multitude of other major and minor injuries. Orn, now 40, is a petite ball of muscle but needs to rest frequently due to the four split ligaments in her legs and knees. During a short break, Tae (Sarassanan) helps Fiat (Anurak) to tightly re-strap his blistered toes before slipping back into his pink satin pointe shoes.
“I used to train footballers, Stephen says “and their injuries are nothing to those you get as a ballet dancer!”
Meanwhile, over in the BCB foyer, two seamstresses are huddled over a spec sheet, checking the placement of ribbons and bows on costumes for the upcoming production of The Wizard of Oz. On a table nearby, a hand made tin-man costume lies in pieces – bits of legs, arms, and the funny funnel shaped hat.
“The scarecrow doesn’t have a brain – but you do!” Stephen quips in the rehearsal studio, pushing Tam (Wasin) to think more deeply about his performance and the narrative of the show.
“I don’t want them to go through the motions or simply dance perfectly. I want them to think about the characters; where they are coming from and where they are going to. That’s the difference between a good show and a great one, and it’s how all the top companies around the world approach their shows.”
It’s in this role as Artistic Director, not simply as a dance coach, that Stephen feels he can make the biggest contribution here. By shaping performances and shows, he’s hoping to build a company that is renowned for its excellence and delivering something special.
“For Sylphide last year, I had some peers come from the UK to see the performance. They said it was like watching the Royal Ballet. They were blown away. It brought a tear to my eye. It makes it all worth it”, Stephen says.
While watching these dancers it’s clear there is something special here under Beagley’s tutelage.
A far cry from the austere and brutally competitive world of dance in places like the UK and Europe, the atmosphere at BCB is warm, friendly and inclusive.
“This company is very kind,. Orn says. “We are all friends. Some companies are very competitive, the dancers are always trying to outdo each other, but here we try to be supportive and we want to enjoy ourselves. This is something we do part-time, and we are here because we love it and we care about the company and everyone here. It’s very much the Thai way too. We have to stick together”.
As the class ends, dancers hurry away to their next commitment – jumping on motorbikes or into taxis, weaving off into the mad throbbing din of Bangkok traffic, while those left behind share food from the local street hawkers, chatting constantly – a custom so typically Thai.
For Stephen, his tenure at BCB is indefinite and it suits him. He works here for 9 months of the year, while the rest, he zig-zags across the globe taking up short residencies and teaching gigs at other companies. “As long as I enjoy it, and as long as the company is getting something out of me being here, I’ll continue to do it.”
There’s no doubt this will be the case for many more years to come.