Twenty one year old Hannah Rotchell is a ready and eager to admit that her mother probably sent her to her first dance lessons at the age of three in Tunbridge, Kent for a very straight forward reason. To get the hyperactive youngster out of the house and into a place where she could expend a lot of energy before returning home, presumably to take long naps on the couch.
Hannah’s ebullient personality is apparent even when she's sitting still in a chair getting ready for an interview, an interview that is taking place in the main studio of Jasmin Vardimon Company where Hannah has been working for several months within the post-graduate company JV2. Hannah’s energy level and enthusiasm are even more impressive having just witnessed the company working over a two day period, an almost relentless process involving class, rehearsal, notes, more rehearsal and run throughs.
When Article19 visited the company the dancers, 14 in number, had just returned from a short holiday and they were immediately tasked with a physically demanding movement class from their course leader Marelina Dara. No tendus, demi-pliés or brushes, just onto the floor and start moving. Slowly to begin with then build to big movements and shifting across the floor in the space of 90 minutes.
Hannah’s beginnings as a youngster, she explains, were at the Geraldine Fox Theatre Arts Academy, also in Kent. She then races through a potted history encompassing her journey through modern and tap classes, introductions to contemporary dance at secondary school, the Laban CAT and professional training at London Contemporary Dance School. For our purposes however, we need to dig a little deeper.
A Place For Foxes and CATS
Many young dancers remain with a familiar teacher throughout their formative years and Hannah was no exception. In her case the teacher in question was one Diana Gibb, now principal of the Geraldine Fox Theatre Arts Academy, a teacher Hannah stayed with until she was 18 years old.
“She was a lady that was able to see that I was beginning to get interested in contemporary dance by going to Laban. She also encouraged me use that [interest] to help other students and I ended up teaching contemporary at the school and I was often asked to do my own contemporary solos. She was very much encouraging that creativity as well as my ballet and my modern technique and I think she really let me have a voice and that’s what’s really important.”
While still attending her local dance school Hannah also took on a place on the Laban CAT (Centre for Advanced Training) for 5 years until, once again, she became 18. joining the CAT was a move she cites has having huge benefits to her ongoing development.
“Quite a lot of people from my dance school are going on to these CAT programmes. I think they’re a very beneficial part of a young dancers development, to really get that kind of contemporary technique training, a high level of contemporary dance training at such a young age.”
Jasmin Vardimon and Marilena Dara
Jasmin Vardimon founded Jasmin Vardimon Company 20 years ago and the company is highly regarded around the world for the dance theatre works they produce. Ms Vardimon started JV2 to bridge the gap in dance training and schools like London Contemporary between technique and performance training and theatrical training for dancers.
We also spoke with Marilena Dara, the current course leader for JV2, about the course and about Hannah and why JV2 was the perfect fit for her.
One teacher in particular on the CAT programme stood out for Hannah, Lee Smikle, a former dancer with Adventures in Motion Pictures and currently a teacher and dance producer. Mr Smikle, among others, was present during Hannah’s entire run at the CAT and this continuity of teachers and teaching styles meant a constant and consistent monitoring of progress, something that is hugely important to the development of young dancers.
Professional training for Hannah happened at ThePlace in London. She says, laughing, that her dreams of being a ballerina were scuppered very early on so she gravitated more towards musical theatre but although Hannah knew she wanted to be a professional dancer it wasn’t clear to her what kind of dancer she wanted to be. It was her time at Laban and during the audition process at various professional dance schools that she finally made up her mind.
One memory that stood out for Hannah of her first few weeks at LCDS was the sheer cultural mix of dancers that surrounded her on the ballet bar. After spending many years with dancers from her own local area her first day of professional training confronted her with dancers from China, the USA, Japan and the rest of the world, all gathered in one place to learn their craft.
“It’s a tough procedure to go through, one day can be the best day and you come away thinking, yeah, I feel really good within myself and the next day you thing, why can’t I do a pirouette? (laughs) I could do that yesterday! You [have] to go through this rollercoaster of emotions, it teaches you lots of mind lessons. Physically, you expect it to be physically demanding but what I think people don’t understand is the mental capacity you need to go through that training, how much you [have] to be self motivated”
Some days things did get very difficult for Hannah. She tells us that many days at the school would run from 8.30am until 10pm. A combination of regular classes, that would end at around 6pm, followed by additional projects with fellow students that would make the days very long and somewhat arduos. Then the students wake up the next day and go through the whole process again. To cope with the constant physical and mental demands Hannah reminded herself of one very simple thing. Getting to do what you really want to do is a privilege so the hard physical and mental work is worth the moments of struggle that all dance students will encounter.
Hannah Rotchell takes part in rehearsals for JV2 at the studios for Jasmin Vardimon Company with other company dancers in Kent | photo by Article19
Another factor in getting through the long days and the arduous training were friends and colleagues within the school. Hannah mentions having forged strong friendships during her time at LCDS and these friendships provided a valuable source of support and encouragement when things were getting especially tough or problematic. Again, a teacher that stood out for Hannah was Rick Nodine, something of an oddity in dance as he is a trained biologist who specialises in contact improvisation. Hannah cites him as being integral to understanding of performance [expand].
The Theatrical Principal
At LCDS the students are required to take part in performances at the end of the summer and winter terms and it was one of these performances in the 1st year, taking place in front of the entire school, that re-connected Hannah with her theatrical roots.
“It gave me the opportunity to bring back that enjoyment of acting and everything that I’d had before and I felt very comfortable. Although I was nervous I thought, I’ve been given this opportunity to introduce the two worlds that I thought I would have to choose [between] and I can bring them together and getting people responses from that performance, it made me step up a level and say, you know what, people are believing in me here, especially with this area of work, this cross over physical theatre area and I thought, there’s something there for me.”
The prospect of transitioning out of the school and into the wide world of dance, something Hannah describes as a “black cloud”, is perhaps the most challenging aspect of dance training. It was during her third year that Hannah became aware of JV2, so alongside auditions for apprenticeship places with dance companies so also paid a visit to Kent to see what Jasmin Vardimon’s graduate company was all about.
JV2 answered one fundamental question for Hannah, as she puts it, “I either go down the really [dancey] route or the theatrical route. I think that JV2 and Jasmin’s work are bring the two together so strongly. I’ve never been so physically exhausted from the things that we’re doing in JV2.”
“Luckily these guys are amazing, they are so so good. We’ve all really gelled, we are very individual but have really come together and gone through a lot together, I’m going to be very sad to see them go!”. We’ve [also] learned so much repertoire from the company, we’ve obviously been working with the company lately (on the Jasmin Vardimon work ‘Maze’) and your body goes through so much but yet your mind is going through a lot as well. You’re putting yourself into these theatrical and physical states and you have to take yourself to these places that you didn’t think you could really tap into.”.
A straight forward takeaway that Hannah has gleaned from JV2 and her dance experience this far is not to over analyse mistakes. She says, simply, “that nothing is ever wrong, everything is valid within your journey”.
As for Hannah’s future plans she is undaunted by the inherent challenges of the dance profession. Being open to new experiences and offers is integral to her fledgling career alongside the daily work of classes, workshops, teaching and traveling but she definitely feels ready to do all of that.
*At the time of writing Hannah has completed her training with JV2 and is currently working with Full House in association with Motionhouse Dance Theatre.