“I ended up doing what they called a ‘cattle market audition’, where there are 200 people and you each have a number.” I am talking to Deborah Weiss, Bachtrack’s new Dance Editor, and sitting open-mouthed. “You start a ballet class, and there’s a panel of people sitting out front, and they are literally chucking people off the ballet barre, as they think ‘no, wrong shape’, or ‘feet not good enough’, or ‘legs not high enough’.”

Deborah Weiss as Calliope in Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Elite Syncopations
© Charles Tandy

As someone trained as a classical musician, I like to think that I’m aware of the pressures young people are put under when beginning a career in the performing arts. But speaking to Deborah, I realise that the world of classical ballet is far beyond anything I might have experienced.

Deborah joined Bachtrack in 2022 after several years as a dance writer, working at many publications including Dancing Times. But before this, she was a classical ballet dancer, training at White Lodge, and the Royal Ballet Upper School. After graduating, she joined London Festival Ballet (now English National Ballet), becoming a senior soloist. She later had a stint at the Bayerisches Staatsballett. She has danced alongside everyone from Rudolf Nureyev to Margot Fonteyn.

I return to this hellish sounding “cattle market”. How did it work? “They get rid of people until they’ve sifted it down those that they think might be okay to join the company.” London Festival Ballet, I ask? Deborah nods. “I was number 98, and it was for one contract. I got it.”

As Myrtha, Queen of the Willis in Mary Skeaping's Giselle
© Sean Conroy-Hargrave

Deborah started dancing at around the age of four. “It seems unbelievable now, but I was an incredibly introverted, shy child. I’m actually a twin, I have a twin brother. And we had our own conversations – but we were slightly removed from everybody else. So my mother thought: right, we’ll take her to ballet.” It didn’t pan out as planned. “I went three times, and I refused to get up and do anything unless my mother did it with me. So we stopped, and then when I was seven, we tried again.”

From there things progressed rapidly. One of her teachers suggested she audition for the Royal Ballet School. “The process takes a whole year,” Deborah tells me, to my horror. “You do preliminaries, you have to have a physical examination, you have to do educational tests to see if you’ve got half a brain. And then you do your final auditions. There are thousands of kids, and they just get sifted through. In my particular year, we had 8 boys and 12 girls that were selected from thousands of children.”

Ballet is incredibly physically and psychologically strenuous, hardly something that a ten-year-old can know. “It’s very young to be making that kind of decision about your future, unbelievable when you think about it now. My dad wasn’t keen at all. He thought it was very insecure...” But surely her mother had thought about it? “I don’t think she did really. I think they thought: she’ll get her O Levels, if it goes belly up, then she’ll have something to fall back on and move forward. But you get swept up with it all.”

As Spring with Maurizio Belleza in Ronald Hynd’s The Four Seasons
© Sean Conroy-Hargraves

“The other thing about the Royal Ballet School,” Deborah continues, “is that yearly, they assess you, and people get ‘assessed out’ of the school. It’s very harsh. When I was at the Upper School, from 17 onwards, I think there were 8 of us girls, a few new ones had joined on the way, but we were down to that number. And there were about 6 boys left. Very, very small numbers.”

The workload is intense and unrelenting: six-day weeks, forever. “The first time that I ever had a full weekend, during my working life, was when I retired.” Ballet classes were held every weekday, and all day on Saturdays. Surely such a workload would affect one’s body, at such a young age? “That’s an interesting question for a woman, because female bodies develop in a different way from boys,” Deborah says.

“When you look at the way a classical dancer moves, it’s completely unnatural. Your hips are turned out, you’ve got to get your leg up round your ear. I can remember teachers actually coming up to me, when I was 11, and forcing my legs up, and forcing my hips to turn out. And it was really painful! But you just get on with it. You have to force yourself. It’s a very good way of increasing your pain threshold!”

The psychological stresses of ballet training can be as intense as the physical stresses – if not more so. “I think for me the most difficult thing about being at the school was knowing there were teachers who liked you, and those that really didn’t,” Deborah says. “Some of it, I can recall being quite cruel. Certain teachers would not hesitate to say that they weren’t impressed, that I risked being assessed out of the school. I can remember one teacher saying that I was about as interesting as the grey wall behind me. And thinking, what am I supposed to do – I’m 12!”

“Someone I knew at school, who was a very beautiful and successful dancer,” Deborah tells me, “actually had anorexia and bulimia for her whole life, after someone told her she was stocky at the age of 11.” I am shocked, but then, not too surprised by this. “There were many instances of ‘you need to lose weight’, but I think and really hope these situations have been replaced by nutritional advice.”

Yet the world of classical ballet can be intensely rewarding for those that excel in it, as Deborah did. She tells me about the atmosphere in London Festival Ballet. “There’s a very strange thing when you’re doing a ballet performance: where no matter what role you’re doing, you are egging everybody on to do their very best. Whether it’s a tiny solo, whether you’re in the back row of the corps, or doing the main part, you want the performance to go well. I think that was a genuine feeling and I think it is in other companies as well. In the film Black Swan there’s a hugely jealous atmosphere and we have this expression: ‘they wanted to put glass in your pointe shoes’. There was none of that. It was really, really good, very supportive.”

As Olga and Lensky in John Cranko’s Onegin with Mark Silver
© Leslie E. Spatt

At a young age, shortly after joining Festival Ballet, Deborah had the opportunity to dance a principal role. “I was very lucky because it was a sort of golden period. Beryl Grey was my first director: she’d already stopped dancing by then, she was coaching and teaching and hiring people for her company. Right up until she passed away last year she was still very much a big figure in the dance world.”

Deborah worked with Rudolf Nureyev too. “He had some productions in Festival Ballet: The Sleeping Beauty and Romeo and Juliet were done an awful lot when I was there. I have to be honest: I was absolutely terrified of him. The ballet mistress at the time used to call him the ‘god of the dance’. He had quite a volatile nature – you didn’t want to make him angry. Inevitably, even if you’re doing a small part, your paths cross. Everybody does a ballet class together when you’re warming up in the morning. You had to give him his spot on the ballet barre, it was really hero worship time (but I didn’t really enjoy working with him!).”

As Fairy of the Crystal Fountain in Peter Wright’s The Sleeping Beauty
© Charles Tandy

“I’m very grateful that I had the opportunity to see these great people explain how things should be done,” Deborah says. “You don't forget them, even if they’re quite funny. I remember Dame Alicia Markova in a ballet called Les Sylphides, where we would be facing the back of the stage – I was in the corps de ballet at the time – and she would just say ‘no no no!’. She had her back to us and she was saying ‘You need to look at the moon! The moooon!’ Everybody would be thinking, we’re in a studio here! But we're trying to look at the moon...”

After a career in the south of Germany, dancing for the Bayerisches Staatsballett, inevitably injury cut short Deborah’s dancing career. “I would say generally speaking, a dancer’s life is blighted with injury. The worst thing in my career was that the injuries I had were quite severe, and I had that mentality where I thought, I have to keep going. So I would get treatment, I would go to the osteopath and just try to push through the pain. Eventually it turns it into being a chronic injury, which you can’t get rid of, because you haven’t given yourself the time to recover.”

As Myrtha, Queen of the Willis in Mary Skeaping’s Giselle
© Sean Conroy-Hargrave

“I can remember doing a performance in Paris,” Deborah continues, “where I had a hugely septic toe. I was doing the main part in a performance I couldn’t miss, it was very, very important – and I couldn’t get my toes into a pointe shoe. The company doctor gave me an injection of anaesthetic into one of my toes. I went on and I danced on it. I didn’t feel anything, and I got through the performance. But that's how desperate you were mentally.”

This kind of first-hand knowledge and experience is incredibly rare. I felt privileged to hear about it. I felt sure, too, that this kind of experience grants rare insight into the remarkable psychological and dramatic performance art that dance is. I’m certain that Deborah will make an amazing addition to Bachtrack.