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About the Change

Simone Clarke
and Yat-Sen Chang

English National Ballet

by Simonetta Dixon

© Patrick Baldwin

Clarke in ENB reviews

Chang in ENB reviews

Simone and Chang's website

English National Ballet reviews

English National Ballet website

Simonetta Dixon reviews

It seemed less than auspicious - the rain was absolutely bucketing down as I walked through Kensington Gardens to my meeting with two of English National Ballet's most charismatic dancers, and off-stage partners, Yat-Sen Chang and Simone Clarke. They might be much loved by audiences but I'm very wet, miserable and not so charitable about life - until they bound up that is. The sunny warmth and vitality you see on stage is nothing compared to having them 'land' on you in person: "instant sunshine in a dull world" comes immediately to mind.

They are still smiling after we find a bit of private space in the labyrinth of Jay Mews. Affably settled I start at the beginning - so how exactly had they come into the mad world of dance? Yat tells me that when he was a boy, he and his brother did gymnastics. At some point, the Cuban National Ballet School needed boys, so his older brother auditioned and was accepted. Not wanting to be in gymnastics class without his big brother, Yat also auditioned and was accepted. Although he was delighted to be with his brother, he really wanted to be a violinist at that point! However….”there was no violin for me, so I never learned to play.” Thank goodness for that; we would have missed out on a very talented dancer had he had access to a violin. Both boys have done well: besides Chang being a Principal with ENB, his brother is now an Etoile with Roland Petit’s company. I ask Chang about Alicia Alonso, who was here in London so recently and was deservedly feted as the legend that she is. “Yes, she is a legend, especially in Cuba. She was very nice to me, especially since my brother was her last partner, so we were close in that respect.”

Simone is that rarest of human beings these days: a “home grown” Principal. Hailing from Leeds, she joined the Royal Ballet School at 11 and went all the way through to graduation. In 1988 she joined what was then Sadlers Wells Royal Ballet. When it became Birmingham Royal Ballet in 1990 she moved up there with the Company from London, and stayed until 1998, when she joined ENB. Why the change of company? “I felt like I’d been at the RB since I was 11 years old, and I felt the need for change, to experience something different. I did consider joining a company abroad, but I felt better staying in this country. The repertoire here seemed interesting. You do need to stay in a company for a while, otherwise you never really settle, but there does come a point where you think it’s time to move on.”

Yat and Simone in the reheasal studio
© Daria Klimentova

Why did they both decide to join a touring company? Simone says it’s because you get seen by lots of different audiences both at home and abroad, and of course the dancers have a chance to bolster their salaries because they get a tour allowance. Yat dreamed of leaving Cuba so he could see the world…”every city” he laughs. In the corps in his second year with Cuban National Ballet, he began to be given opportunities to do more than corps work, so decided that that was probably the time to spread his wings and fly away. “I was getting quite popular and was invited to go and dance in Japan and then to France, where I met Derek Deane, and that’s how I ended up here; I thought ‘why not?’” Chang went to see the Cuban Ballet when they were here a few weeks ago and really enjoyed it. He still calls the dancers ‘his colleagues’. He doesn’t manage to get home too often, but this summer went for the first time in eight years.

The couple have been living together for five and a half years (“is it that long?” wonders Simone…”it’s gone so fast”!). She laughs that everyone always assumes they are married and she can’t be bothered to explain, “so I just let it go”. They have a four year-old daughter who lives with Simone’s parents in Leeds. “I didn’t plan it that way”, she sighs, “it just kind of evolved. Of course it isn’t ideal for us as parents, but she’s very happy and settled and knows who her grandparents are and who her parents are. Of course we get up there as often as possible and fortunately we tour quite a lot in the North, so whenever we go to Manchester we stay in Leeds. I feel that we really see her as often as we possibly can, but it’s hard to leave her especially when I’ve been with her for a month in the summer….I really miss her. It’s hard.” Yat nods his head in agreement.

Moving into the present, I ask Yat about his involvement in the upcoming Synergy project, a collaboration between composers at the Royal College of Music which will culminate in performances in the Britten Theatre at the RAM during the weekend of 29/30 September. Yat is one of four ENB dancers choreographing a piece; his is called ‘In The Beginning’. “I have based it on the four elements”, he explains. “It is a very energetic piece which originally had four couples, but now I’ve added a single male as well to tie it all together.” It lasts 17 minutes which doesn’t sound a lot, but many steps are needed to fill in that amount of time. “It really is good” confirms Simone proudly. Yat says that he always tries his choreography on himself first, to see if it will work. He also tries it on Simone whenever possible…”I am his guinea pig”, she smiles. Yat’s music is provided by the composer Dominic Sewell. “He sent me some tapes of his music and I really liked it”, says Yat. This was a real collaboration between choreographer and composer…Yat visualized steps to the music, and when Sewell started watching the dance rehearsals, he changed his music in order to fit it in better with the choreography. “It has worked so well” says Yat, “we have really fed off each other and it’s been a fantastic experience.” This will be a real treat for the audiences, made that much sweeter by the fact that the tickets are free!

Simone in reheasals for Giselle
© John Ross

Less than a week after Synergy, the couple are guesting with Northern Ballet Theatre for the first time, in David Nixon’s new The Three Musketeers (Yat is d’Artagnan; Simone takes the role of Constance). By all accounts, it has been a wonderful experience for them both. “I think this is definitely going to be one of my career highlights”, enthuses Simone. “I have learned SO much from this. Everyone can teach you something, and this really has been loads of fun.” She greatly admires the fact that NBT is one of the few companies around to risk choreographing ballets longer than one act. “Many choreographers fear too many changes, but on the other hand they need to make something that is different enough from other things to make it worth the effort. You can make new movement based on classical steps but without being too radical for audiences to accept. Then, of course, there is finance, which is always a big problem….” Yat then adds that if he ever choreographed a full-length ballet it would be The Mark of Zorro or Robin Hood.

The discussion then moves to favourite and most difficult roles. Simone’s favourite is Juliet, then Kitri. Constance might be up there as well, after she’s performed the role a few times. She says that Aurora is the most difficult, especially dramatically: “After all, she is supposed to be 16 growing up all of a sudden. I just feel very exposed trying to pull that off convincingly. I find [Michael] Corder’s Cinderella more difficult than Aurora, but not so exposed. With Odette/Odile there’s real character there. Before dancing Beauty, I do often get a sense of dread…what if I can’t pull it off convincingly, what if I put my second foot down during the Adage…sometimes I think before going onstage of every negative thing that could happen, then once I’ve gone through them all in my head, none of them usually happen onstage! The mental aspect is the most difficult thing here. I always feel relieved after Act 1 is over.” Yat adds that “you have to get the sensation of the role into your head, and your body, and try your best for it to get across to the audience through dance”. Simone talks her way through the major roles in her head. For example, “in Giselle, I’m saying to myself ‘but why are you doing this to me? You took my flower, you told me you love me, and now you have deceived me’.” I ask whether she feels it is really happening to her. She pauses to consider the question. “Do you know, I have never thought of it that way. Maybe that’s what’s going on as I talk to myself, maybe I’m acting as if these things are really happening to me.” Although she gets involved with the character from the very beginning of the ballet, she is not one of those performers who stays in role for the whole evening. “During the intervals, I go to my dressing room and have a cup of tea and I’m me again”.

Both Yat and Simone are highly critical of their performances, and Simone says it has got worse as they’ve got older. “Sometimes we’ll go home and watch a video of our performance and think ‘this was wrong, that was wrong’, even though the audience might have loved it.” “If the audience liked it, that is the most important thing”, says Yat. “If you get a buzz from the audience, it really helps the performance and makes you feel very good.” He says that most dancers’ interpretations of their roles change with each performance, as they become more familiar with and comfortable in the character, both technically and dramatically. Simone thinks that everyone should be able to act….”after all, life is one big act, so we should all be able to do it. Even our daughter is very dramatic at the age of four! Mind you, that is probably genetic….”

Do they read and are they affected by the critics? “Sometimes they get it SO wrong”, hisses Simone. “I mean, sometimes I wonder if they’ve been at the same performance. There have been times when I’ve danced the lead role and they haven’t even mentioned me. I’d rather have a negative review than not even be mentioned; that is very insulting!” Yat laughs that he “must be a masochist, because if I get a negative review I just want to go out there and do better, just to prove them wrong!”

Yat and Simone as the Bluebirds in Sleeping Beauty
© Patrick Baldwin

Does the fact that Yat and Simone are a couple offstage affect or deepen their interpretations of the tragic roles in particular? Both agree that it does: “It really helps if you can dance a lot with the same person,” says Simone, “especially if there is real feeling and understanding there. For example, when we dance Romeo and Juliet together it is great because there is an emotional aspect to it…in the final scene I think to myself ‘he’s dead’, and that’s it, I’m off.” I say that I don’t feel satisfied with a performance of R&J unless I leave the theatre in tears, and she laughs that “I don’t feel happy unless I’m crying at the end either!” Yat says that because they’re a couple they can argue much more and get away with it. “We always argue when we are in the studio because we are close and we’re perfectionists, so naturally there are fireworks.” However, all this bickering seems to enhance their performances.

Following the guest performances with NBT, the ENB national tour gets underway, then moves to the Coliseum for their now traditional Christmas season, which includes Christopher Hampson/Gerald Scarfe’s Nutcracker, Derek Deane’s Alice in Wonderland and Mary Skeaping’s Giselle. So far, Simone knows that she will be dancing a Dormouse in Alice, Sugar Plum in Nutcracker, and Giselle, but this latter not with Yat this time around. “She gets Giselle, and I get to be a bear and a rabbit” Yat says with mock envy. “But since I’ve been a father I enjoy these types of roles much more.”

At their respective ages of 36 and 34, are Simone and Yat’s thoughts beginning to turn towards life after ballet? “Well, there’s lots of life in me yet,” asserts Simone. She taps what she hopes is a wood, not laminate, table, and says, “I’ve never been injured, and the only time I’ve ever had off is when I had my baby. I was back after ten days. So I think I’m pretty strong. I feel that I have more to achieve. I’m not sure that being a star at 18 is the best thing, because you’ve often had it by the time you’re 25. I think that if you work your way into things slowly it is much the better way.” The couple then discuss the possible directions in which they would like to go after their dancing days are over. Simone is full of ideas. “I think I will end up staying in dance related areas, because although I’m good with money and finance and could probably be an accountant or a solicitor, I just couldn’t face any more training or studying. I could end up teaching or coaching, but I’d much rather do that in a company than in a school, because I know how it all works already.” I joke that perhaps she should train to be a plumber because they’re always in work. “Actually, we laugh” she smiles, “but a chap I was in ballet school with is now a plumber and I’m sure makes a lot more money than he ever would have as a dancer!” She also enjoys renovating and interior design and decorating, so that is another future possibility. How about choreography? “Yes, I do like it. I’ve choreographed pieces for three workshops and really enjoyed it.” “You got good write-ups for ‘Inside Out’”, Yat reminds her. She adds, “It was based on the three wise monkeys (hear, see, speak no evil) using three patients of a mental hospital. I also choreographed something to Mozart’s music, which I think kids would like. I know what I want when I choreograph, but I should keep practicing.”

Yat and Erina Takahashi in Coppelia
© Daria Klimentova

“I love doing things on the computer, especially film editing,” says Yat. Then, something surprising: “He is a very, very good singer” Simone says encouragingly. “He could even sing opera.” It transpires that when Yat was in Cuba in the summer, he was on a radio show and they played a version of The Great Pretender (the old Platters song from the 50s) that he had recorded. The station got lots of requests for it. When I ask if he has any recordings of his singing voice, he gets out his mobile and plays me an excerpt of a Spanish song by David Bisbal called ‘Quiero Perderme en tus Brazos’ (I Want to Get Lost in Your Arms). [“He never says that to ME” points out Simone]. I am very pleasantly surprised by Yat’s voice; it is smooth, warm and genuine, and sounds every bit like an old-fashioned Latin love song that I used to slow dance to as a girl. He laughs when I say this, and says that the song is quite new. Simone thinks he should do musicals, like Adam Cooper. “With Yat’s dancing and singing talent, this is definitely a direction he could take,” she suggests. “On the other hand, he IS very good at plumbing….”

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