Ipswich raised Royal Ballet Company star Helen Crawford in the spotlight
- Credit: ©Tristram Kenton
As a little girl in Ipswich, all Helen Crawford ever wanted to do was dance. The Royal Ballet soloist talks to entertainment writer Wayne Savage about making that dream a reality and returning to town with acclaimed dancer Gary Avis.
Being a professional ballerina demands sacrifice. Days are long, testing you physically and emotionally. It can leave little time for family, friends and relationships. One injury can see everything you’ve spent years toiling for disappear overnight. Luckily, Helen has had a secret weapon - her sister Sarah.
“She’s my absolute rock, supporting me from day one,” says the Ipswich born and raised dancer, currently in her 17th season with The Royal Ballet Company.
“She has been emotionally supportive from the day I left home until now, always encouraging me and reassuring me when I’ve doubted myself. I know that she’ll always be there for me in any situation and make me feel better.”
Helen also adores Sarah’s two daughters Alice, nine; and Charlotte, seven.
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“I’ve two gorgeous nieces and I’ve always said to my sister that even if I’m not lucky enough to have children, I couldn’t possibly love two kids more, so I do feel lucky. I’m an auntie, that’s special.
“They love watching me perform. They came to watch a ballet called Song of the Earth last season from the wings and were as good as gold. I could actually look at them while I was dancing; that was pretty amazing.
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“I’ve also had unfaltering support from my parents Peter and Anne. I’ve always felt very lucky to have such a close and supportive family,”
Helen, first soloist with the company, based at London’s Royal Opera House, would like a family of her own at some point.
“It’s a hard job and can be quite anti-social at times. Having a family sometimes happens later than it would do. A lot of my friends who don’t dance have families already but I think there’s time for that afterwards.”
Working so intimately for so long with the rest of the company, they become a surrogate family, she says.
The ex-St Mary’s Primary School pupil had to adjust to life away from her loved ones early on. She left Ipswich at 11 to become a boarder at the Royal Ballet Lower School, where she spent five years followed by a year-and-a-half at the upper school before joining the company.
“My Ipswich dance teacher Linda Shipton (who also taught Helen’s Royal Ballet colleague and friend Gary Avis) knew all about it. My parents didn’t have a clue at the time. I just knew I loved ballet but it meant leaving my parents, everyone I knew and training full-time. Hours of ballet and different types of dance mixed in with school studies.
“I think it was more daunting for my parents. I was just really happy to have the adventure and literally get into the school while my mum was crying in the car park!”
Helen had liked modern dance growing up but wasn’t great at it. Nor, she admits, was she great at tap. It was ballet she loved more than anything else. She remembers seeing the odd bit, including the London’s Children Ballet. She’d pore over videos and recalls Linda exposing them to the work of visiting companies.
“I felt like that was the only thing that mattered. I was a bit of a ballet freak,” she laughs.
Helen, who has travelled the world with the Royal Ballet, has called me during a break from rehearsing for the new season; which includes Anastasia and a Wayne McGregor triple bill.
On a normal day they start ballet class at 10.30am - 9.30am if there’s a stage call in the morning - and rehearse between noon-6.30pm. If there’s a performance in the evening they still rehearse until 5.30pm but their day finishes after the show at 10.30pm.
She’s had a really fortunate, long career, laughing that she doesn’t know how the last 17 seasons have passed so quickly.
“I’m 35 now (which is) old for a dancer. I think it’s something, especially after the age of 30, that people constantly think about. You have to... I’ve had friends lose their career because of a serious back or hip injury, you just never know.”
When I spoke to Helen a few months ago, she’d just been told she couldn’t dance in a performance of Swan Lake being beamed to cinemas across the country because of inflammation in a couple of joints and tendons in her foot. Relegated to watching rehearsals and strength training, she was walking around with an air boot on to waiting to see the doctor.
“I noticed the symptoms had got worse after a Swan Lake show, there’s lots of jumping involved and the next day I woke up and it was quite painful. You know there’s a certain extent where you can manage injuries and just get on with it, which a lot of people do. It’s quite rare to do a performance without any pain at all but sometimes your body says no and that’s it,” she said then.
“You can’t ever predict how your body’s going to be on a certain day. It kind of crushes you, it’s heart-breaking because you work so hard. If suddenly at the last minute you can’t do it you’re really gutted.”
Helen is preparing for life off stage by qualifying to teach ballet and yoga.
“I’m definitely feeling it in my body as I get older. If you think, footballers stop in their early 30s. We keep as fit as possible to prevent injuries and we’re involved with a lot of sports science now, so we do a lot of gym work, strength training, pilates, yoga; it’s a more intelligent way of working than it was even 10 years ago.”
Being unable to perform in Swan Lake was a blow as family and friends had a rare chance to see her, albeit on a cinema screen. She’s a fan of the live relays.
“It does feel a bit more pressurised because there are quite a few extra eyes in the audience. Sometimes they film for DVDs and you can stop or choose the best performance but what’s amazing about these relays is that you can just buy a cinema ticket and watch it actually happening.”
Helen hopes it gives people who would never have thought to try ballet or opera a taste for it, and inspires the next generation.
“Hopefully youngsters in the audience will start dancing themselves or choreograph or sing. It’s opening it up to kids like me who didn’t see ballet at the cinema.”
Her grandma, aunties and uncles who live in Ipswich won’t have to miss out this weekend, when she appears at The Royal Ballet’s Gary Avis and Friends Dance for Suffolk charity gala at the Ipswich Regent.
“Yeah, I’m feeling the pressure,” lauhgs Helen, who’s looking forward to spending time with Jodie, her best friend from St Mary’s Primary, whom she’s known 30 years.
“It’s a rare treat. I came back last weekend and worked with some of the kids who are in the gala and it was really cool. Ipswich has changed so much since I was young.”
Working with them reminded Helen of advice Linda Shipton, with whom she’s still in touch, drilled into her. That it’s not just about the steps, you have to smile, perform, because nobody wants to see a dull face. Helen has similar advice:
“Grab hold of any opportunities you can get with both hands and absolutely go for it. Put your heart and soul into it because if you love something and have the passion for it, that’s what makes an artist.”
There’s a real buzz ahead of today and tomorrow’s Gary Avis and Friends Dance for Suffolk charity gala at the Ipswich Regent, says Helen.
She’s looked up to Avis, ballet master and a principal character artist of The Royal Ballet, since she was little; first meeting him aged 10 when he judged a competition at the Linda Shipton School of Dance.
“Even working with him now... He’s an incredible artist and inspiration and so lovely with it as well. He’s got so much energy and he’s a good ambassador for this art and Suffolk,” says Helen, who’s worked her way up the Royal Ballet’s ranks to first soloist.
She’s danced on stage with him many times.
“I’ve never had the honour to be partnered with him - that was reserved for pople like Darcey Bussell,” she laughs.
Helen is inspired by the people she is lucky enough to work with every day.
“If Gary’s on stage say in The Nutcracker, if he’s Drosselmeyer and I’m the Fairy I kind of whiz past him. You share a moment. It’s really cool to have that relationship with someone like that.”
Helen’s first number, the pas de trois from act one of Swan Lake, opens the show.
“It’s pretty tough actually,” she laughs. “I’m starting to think I should have chosen something a bit easier.”
She’s also performing solos from the Five Brahms Waltzes in the manner of Isadora Duncan, “running around with a red wig and bare feet like the free-spirited woman Duncan (known as the mother of modern dance) was”.
Other highlights include Zenaida Yanowsky (a principal of The Royal Ballet) dancing After the Rain. “She is incredible. I stand there in class with my jaw hanging down because she’s so beautiful.
“I’m also dancing with some of my best friends like Emma Maguire. It’s nice to share these experiences with friends because they’re like family.”
Her actual family already have their tickets.
“I’ve given my tickets to uncle John and Sarah is bringing grandma. People should absolutely grab tickets. They’re not going to see anything like this anywhere else apart from London. Even in London you don’t often see galas with such variety.”
Gary Avis and a Royal Ballet all-star cast will perform a specially created programme of classics, hosted by Strictly Come Dancing’s Anton du Beke.
All proceeds go to Suffolk Community Foundation and its arts and culture fund for Suffolk. Read arts editor Andrew Clarke’s chat with Avis and partner Tim Holder about the herculean task of bringing Covent Garden to Suffolk.