Point of return

One of only a handful of Brits to graduate from the famous Bolshoi Ballet Academy, Barnsley’s Tala Lee Turton is now on a mission to bring dance to the masses

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Ask Tala Lee Turton what she is doing at the moment and the reply alone is exhausting.

In between juggling the final year of a degree with work as a freelance dancer, the 26 year old is also honing the pitch for her first feature film and producing a tour of her own triple bill of work.

“There is quite a lot going on,” she says with quiet understatement. “But it’s all good. I like to be busy.”

It’s that same work ethic that saw Turton realise her dreams of becoming a professional ballerina and was fine-tuned in the rigorous regime of Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet Academy.

As the world shut down Turton began to hatch her plan to chip away at stereotypes

In 2016, Turton, who grew up in Barnsley, was the first Yorkshire dancer to be accepted into the company’s renowned academy and when she graduated four years later was only the third ever British female to complete the course.

It is perhaps not surprising. At the Bolshoi, dancers are expected to train for up to 11 hours a day, six days a week and when she arrived in Moscow as a 16 year old she found herself alone in an alien city.

“I will forever be grateful to the Bolshoi,” she says, her Barnsley accent unaffected by the seven years she spent in Russia. “It was there that I really learned the discipline of my craft, but more than that it introduced me to a whole other culture.

“It forced me to learn a new language and to embrace a whole new way of life. I was young and I just did it. I didn’t stop to think.”

Eager to learn, Turton immersed herself in the Bolshoi’s Vaganova method, in which the emphasis is on ballet’s classical repertoire. It gave her, she says, the best foundation for performance but, looking back, she admits that while she lapped up everything her instructors said it took her a while to find her own voice.

“I was quite unquestioning,” she says. “My roommate was a real fiery character who always did exactly what she wanted. I really admired her, perhaps because she was so different to me.

“At the time I was so keen to learn that I never really thought about if there was another way of doing things. I don’t regret anything. The Bolshoi stood me in really good stead but when I was younger I was much less inclined to experiment.”

After graduating from the Bolshoi in 2016, Turton spent the next three years working for one of Russia’s state ballet companies. She returned to England three years ago having secured a contract with English National Ballet and was scheduled for a series of performances at the Royal Albert Hall when the pandemic hit.

For many in the performing arts the enforced hiatus forced them to seek alternative careers. Turton never once thought of leaving dance, but successive lockdowns did give her much-needed time to think.

“By then I had danced pretty much all of the classical ballets, from Swan Lake to Giselle, and I had been lucky enough to dance every role I had wanted to do when I was a little girl.

“Even before the pandemic I had been thinking that I wanted to take my career in a slightly different direction. I knew there were more stories that needed to be told by a greater variety of voices and I started to really reflect on where I wanted to be.”

While companies like Ballet Black, founded in 2001 in response to the lack of professional black and Asian dancers, and Leeds-based Phoenix Dance, which has always tried to reflect multicultural Britain in its work, continue to break down boundaries, much of the dance world remains white and middle class. As the world shut down, Turton began to hatch her own plan to chip away at those stereotypes.

“I knew that I still enjoyed dancing, but I didn’t feel fulfilled creatively,” she says. “When you are part of a company there is a certain repertoire that you have to perform and by its very nature that feels limiting.

“I would hear a particular piece of music and think: ‘I wonder what a certain choreographer or producer could do with that?’ Then I started thinking that maybe I didn’t have to wait to see what someone else would do; maybe I could do it myself.”

The result was No Time Like The Present, which premiered this summer in Sheffield’s Botanical Gardens. A collaboration between Turton and choreographer Zhongjing Fang, a soloist with American Ballet Company and award-winning director Katya Bourvis, the work, which was performed to a synth-pop score, explored what it means to be a woman in the 21st century.

“It was complete beginner’s naivety that got me through, but I am so glad that I did it as it was the first stepping stone for me as a producer.

“The weather alone gave me heart palpitations but it honestly couldn’t have gone better. We could have sold double the number of tickets and we got a much more diverse audience than perhaps we would have if we had staged it in a theatre.

“After the performance we held a Q&A and it was really noticeable that a lot of the audience weren’t typical theatre-goers. Some said it was the first dance performance they had seen and one admitted that it was the first live event they had ever been to.

“There is no point in trying to impose culture on people, but what it taught me was that if you engage with an audience then it can be really rewarding for both you and them.”

Tala Lee Turton
Tala Lee Turton’s No Time Like The Present, premiered at Sheffield’s botanical gardens, signals her intent to take her career on another path

Buoyed by the success, Turton is looking to secure funding to rework No Time Like The Present as part of a triple bill that will open at Northern Ballet’s Stanley and Audrey Burton Theatre next year before touring venues in South Yorkshire.

Splitting her time between Sheffield and London, where she is studying for an arts management degree at Goldsmiths University, Turton is in the middle of completing an application for Arts Council funding when we speak.

“The funding process can put some people off before they start. Luckily I haven’t grown too tired of it. In fact, I am constantly hustling and looking for ways to get my work out there.

“I honestly think that all dancers should also train to be art managers. We should learn to be sole traders and sell ourselves as business people. I don’t think that diminishes the creative element of what we do. In fact it gives you much more autonomy over the work.

“It is harder to be a producer and performer rather than focusing on just one role, but there is also something really rewarding about spinning all those plates.”

As part of her mission to make the arts less London-centric and “draw some more culture out of the capital”, Turton is also working on her first feature film pitch as part of Screen Yorkshire’s Flex programme.

The talent development scheme was launched last year with the aim of drawing together writers, directors and producers, many of whom haven’t gone through the traditional film school route, to tell stories that might otherwise remain in the shadows. Turton was encouraged to apply after producing her first short film.

Chinese Laundry was in part based on stories Turton heard from the Chinese side of her family, second generation immigrants who moved to South Yorkshire from Hong Kong, and she is now working on a pitch for a full-length film, this time inspired by her mother’s experience growing up on a prefab Barnsley council estate known to locals as Cardboard City.

“Mum and I went to the site where it stood and while some of the street names are the same the old buildings have all been replaced. It’s almost like it never existed.

“This isn’t a dance film in the literal sense but the aim is to include movement in it. It feels like an important story to tell and I really want to do justice to Barnsley and to my mum, who I have learnt so much from over the years.”

When she was at the Bolshoi, it was her mother Sara who led the drive to raise the funds Turton needed for fees, living costs and insurance. If the pitch is successful the film will be a tribute to the art of the possible.

“I suppose what I want to say is that we are all shaped by where we come from, but our background shouldn’t be seen as limiting. I want to show people that all of us have a story worth telling.”

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