It all started with a few teenagers hanging around a monument. Out for a run, Gillian Barton spotted them sitting slumped and bored, and thought she might have a solution. Newly resident in the village of Taynuilt, Glasgow-born Barton put an advert in the local post office offering dance classes – two people turned up. That was in 1991. Almost 25 years later, Barton’s school and company, Ballet West, is one of the most successful dance training institutions in the world. Students from as far afield as Australia, Singapore and Canada head to this remote idyll in Argyll safe in the knowledge that the training they receive will be second to none.
“I didn’t plan to do anything like the scale it’s on now,” says Barton, in an accent that’s more west coast America than west Scotland, after 20 years living in San Diego. “I honestly had no desire for that. At the start it was very low key, with two students taught in a room in my house. But then very quickly I built the first studio out in the garden.”
The views from said garden are nothing short of stunning. Based at the top of a winding hill road, Ballet West looks out over miles of fields, lochs and mountains; dramatic in winter, like paradise in summer. As Barton leads me through the tranquil grounds that surround her beautiful farmhouse home, it seems impossible that almost 70 teenagers are in our midst. But as soon as the studio door opens, their presence is very much felt.
In one room, first years take their morning ballet class in identical navy leotards. Next door, a student receives special coaching for an upcoming competition, while the dressing room in between is filled with young people limbering up for a run-through of Romeo and Juliet, the company’s latest production which is about to tour Scotland.
Despite the fact they have less than three weeks to finish a full-length ballet, a genuine sense of calm prevails. Barton greets students as they pass, wishing Happy New Year to those she hasn’t seen since the Christmas break, enquiring about trips home.
“It’s a nice environment,” she says. “There’s a lot of pressure, but there’s no point in doing anything if it’s going to be miserable. We want the students to have a nice experience, be happy and leave here feeling good about themselves.
“Ballet West is kind of like a big family. They’re not just a number, they’re a named person who we all care about and want to help reach their goal.”
Graduates from the school, who leave with either an HND or BA (Honours) degree in partnership with the University of Northumbria, have gone on to perform or teach with companies all over the world. A quick look at their weekly timetable tells you why. Long days, a six-day week, classes in a range of dance styles, and lessons in everything from stage make-up to body anatomy give the students an all-round education that equips them for just about anything. Plus, each year the Ballet West tour plays to theatres across Scotland – as well as performing to audiences of up to 3,000 in China for the past two years.
“One dance company director told me ‘I don’t need to teach the Ballet West students anything’”, says Barton. “They don’t mind taking on someone who has just finished training, because they know they’ve already done so much. The more skills the students have, the more employable they are for their whole lives.”
For your average teenager, the prospect of spending three years in a small village miles from the nearest nightclub or music venue would hold little appeal. But then these aren’t your average students.
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“They’re the kind of people who focus well,” says Barton. “They come here and work very hard, because there aren’t distractions. They’re not off sick because they’ve been out partying the night before – they’re up this hill at eight in the morning.”
It’s a work ethic that pays off. Ballet West dancers are well known for their high achievement in exams and competitions, with current third year student Natasha Watson excelling more than most.
Already a medal winner at the Genée International Ballet competition, the 18-year-old from Falkirk has just been selected to participate in the prestigious Prix de Lausanne – the only female in the UK to qualify.
Offered a place at the Royal Ballet School, Watson turned it down to study at Ballet West.
“The numbers aren’t huge here, so I knew I wouldn’t be lost,” explains Watson. “We have so much individual attention, we’re pushed to our limits and have so much help, because it’s a smaller school.
“I don’t think going to a big city necessarily means better training – up here is the best training I could find, it’s exceptional. And going on tour is wonderful, because we put into practise everything we’ve been working on.”
Watching the young dancers rehearse the ballroom scene from Romeo and Juliet, their enthusiasm for performing is palpable. Technically sharp and engaging, it’s easy to see why the company attracts repeat audiences year after year. Although much of that appeal is also down to Ballet West’s principal dancers – two of Barton’s biggest success stories, in more ways than one.
Trained at the school, Jonathan and Sara-Maria Barton danced with some of the UK’s largest ballet companies before returning to Taynuilt, not only to add their professional sheen and beautiful technique to the shows, but to help their mother.
“I enjoyed performing with other companies,” says Jonathan, “but Ballet West was becoming more well known and had the potential to grow into something very special – so I wanted to come back and be part of it. For me it’s been great – I get to dance in full-length productions, but at the same time I’ve learnt so much about teaching.”
Serving as fantastic role models to the students, the siblings are (quite rightly) as evangelical about their school and its surroundings as their mother.
“I loved my three years training here, and I think we offer something totally different,” says Jonathan. “The students stay in lovely accommodation in the village, they wake up every morning and don’t have to get a bus or tube. The air is fresh, they’re surrounded by nature and the studios look out on to beautiful views, as opposed to the building next to you, and that’s quite inspirational.”
As Ballet West grows, so too must its infrastructure, and a major fundraising project is underway to create a much needed new dance studio four times the size of the existing ones. Seeing what Barton has achieved so far, its arrival would no doubt herald an even bigger crop of medal winners and successful graduates.
For now though, it’s time to take Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers on the road. As always, Ballet West will sell out venues other companies couldn’t hope to fill. To what does Barton attribute their success?
“We do have a really good following,” she says, “and I think that’s because our shows are entertaining. But also, people enjoy watching our dancers because they’re young, they’re really enthusiastic and they give a lot.”
• Ballet West: Romeo & Juliet tours Scotland from 23 January. For details, see www.balletwest.co.uk
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