Bristol is often hailed one of the most exciting cities in the UK in terms of culture, and it is no stranger to the world of music, theatre and dance. But are there any Russian cultural opportunities in this vibrant city? Of course there are. Anna Russell, a student at Bristol University and our contributing writer, interviewed Chika Temma and Yury Demakov, artistic directors of the Bristol Russian Ballet School.Chika has trained with the Vaganova Academy of Ballet in St Petersburg and Yury with the Bolshoi Academy; both are highly experienced dancers and teachers. Read below to find out more about their ballet school in Bristol, as well as their own experiences in the UK and in Russia.

Anna Russell: Can you tell us about your experiences in the ballet world in Russia?

Yury: When I was younger, at first, my father wanted me to be involved with music – I practised the violin a lot. My elder brother was being taught ballet already. To put it simply, I started dancing because my mother wanted me to! She already danced, you see, but of course it wasn’t all her – I myself wanted to dance too. After I finished studying in Moscow, I went to Saint Petersburg to work with the Yacobson Ballet Theatre.

Chika: This company is formally called the Saint Petersburg State Academic Theatre, but it’s known as Leonid Yacobson’s ballet company. He was the choreographer who started the ballet company in the 60s.

Anna Russell: What made you decide to come to the UK after that?

Chika: I think that during the nineties, everyone left Russia after Perestroika. Lots of ballet dancers danced in Russia, but then moved on to dance in Europe and other Western countries. There was someone who started up a little ballet company in Bristol in 1998. Dancers were invited from Moscow, from the Bolshoi Ballet, and from Saint Petersburg from various companies. And of course, some British dancers were here. That was when Yury and myself decided to come here. We worked in the same ballet company in Russia.

Yury Demakov and Chika Temma at the English National Ballet School, London

Anna Russell: And it was from that point that you decided to set up your school together?

Chika: Yes, that’s right. Our ballet company was actually moved from Bristol to Swansea because we had funding over in Wales. But sadly, in 2008, we decided to go into liquidation and the company was closed down. This was largely due to some changes made by the Home Office – we could no longer get the dancers from Russia. But by then, Yury and I were already residents of the UK so we didn’t have a problem. We liked Bristol so much that we relocated back there and with the help of some friends, we started up the ballet school again.

Anna Russell: Wow, you’ve had to move around quite a bit then!

Chika: I think it’s quite normal for ballet dancers to be moving a lot because of their work. Of course, when we were dancing professionally we were used to being on tour, and we would dance in other countries. So I think it’s quite normal for ballet companies to do the same. 

Anna Russell: Did you always want to set up your own ballet school?

Chika: My mum was a dancer who later set up her own ballet school in Japan. So I think it was already in my mind to move onto teaching ballet when I stopped dancing professionally. Yury actually worked for the English National Ballet School for a short period of time, which he enjoyed. But we decided to have our own school so that we could teach the way we like to teach – proper Russian ballet.

Anna Russell: How do you think a Russian ballet education, especially for younger ages, compares with an English ballet education?

Chika: Well, I think it’s very demanding for little ones. We have to adapt the lessons to very young ages. Professional ballet training only starts at age 10, but here, parents would like their children to dance or start lessons at ages 3 or 4, so the classes have to be suitable for that age. But we always try to teach them in a proper way, especially as they get older, using the Russian method. The Russian method is well structured, very demanding, very strict, very physical, but it also teaches a lot about artistry. It’s good in the sense that it teaches not only dancing, but a lot of other skills as well, as you can imagine. Russia has quite a rich history in terms of art.

Anna Russell: Is it right that some of your students have gone on to study ballet in Russia? Have you heard back from them about how the experience compares with studying ballet in the UK?

Chika: We have trained students who wanted to move on to do their final three years in Russia. The final three years of training is done at age 16-18, in order to become a professional, so we have trained a few dancers to move on to Russia to do that. They have said that the training there was very demanding.

A class during the Russian Ballet Summer Intensive course. The School holds Easter/Summer Intensive courses in Bristol for ages 8-18, with guest teachers

Anna Russell: That’s certainly interesting to hear. Moving on to your own ballet school here in Bristol – can you tell us a bit about the productions and programmes you do at the Bristol Russian Ballet School?

Chika: Our school does annual performances for around ages 7-8 years old up to age 18. Sometimes we have older students, and sometimes we have students from the University [of Bristol] as well – if they want to dance, they can join. We do full-length ballets, like The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, and Sleeping Beauty; this year, we did Coppélia. And because we used to run a ballet company, we have our own stage sets already. We use all of it, and it looks very proper because it was made for a professional ballet company. We also have all the costumes from that company, and also from my mum’s school…so we have a huge wardrobe. Our students never ever buy costumes! We provide them all.

These are the biggest shows we do, and they happen once a year. Additionally, once or twice a year we do a concert, a smaller one, in Bristol city centre somewhere.

Anna Russell: What kind of things do you do in your smaller concert?

Chika: This year, we have our Spring Concert in April [now postponed until July]. Our friend Sarah Knight, from New York, has choreographed something for our senior students – they’re dancing some neo-classical ballet. Sarah Knight is British, and she was trained in Russia as well. We also have a variety of famous classical ballet pieces, but some of them are just little pieces. We have invited two musicians – a violinist and a cellist – they are going to play for our students, so that they can dance to live music. We can’t have an orchestra, but we can have a couple of musicians, and for some pieces it really works; for the ‘Dying Swan’, for example, it’s beautiful music and it can be played with just cello and violin. We’ll also have some new dance pieces that we choreographed for the students, including Tango and some adagio with Shostakovich’s music.

A few dancers are also coming from London from the Masters of Ballet Academy, which is run by our friends, two Russian ballet teachers. They are coming to do their display with us. Three dancers from New York, trainee dancers (almost professionals) are coming too.

Swans from Swan Lake, with Youth Ballet Company Dancers. Bristol Russian Youth Ballet Company (auditioned) is a part of the School, made up of talented young dancers age 13-18

Anna Russell: Are there any Bristol Russian Ballet School productions that have stood out for you as being particularly special?

Chika: Last year, we performed Swan Lake. That was a very demanding production for the students because, as you can imagine, the swans are always dancing and they have to do a lot of work. But they did really well! Also, in this production of Swan Lake, one of our senior male dancers was still dancing with us, but straight after the show he was invited to train in Miami, Florida. So he’s now in full-time training and has got a scholarship too, so he did really, really well. And so last year, Swan Lake was really something to remember. But all the productions are good!

Yury: Chika has put lots of lovely photos from this production on our Facebook page.

Anna Russell: Do you have any exciting projects for the near future?

Chika: Each year, we do our one big performance and this is our biggest project for the year. We don’t yet know what we are performing next year, because it’s a little bit dependent on the venue as well; even if we wanted to do The Nutcracker, for example, sometimes we’re not allowed to do the same production as other companies [in the area].

The next biggest thing for us is really the Spring concert. For our students as well, this is quite a different style of dance, so we’re looking forward to doing the Spring Concert first.

Russian Dance from Swan Lake (Soloist: Pippa Cook, age 13)

Anna Russell: Thank you so much for your time! Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Chika: I think it would be nice if we could give the chance to our students to go and dance elsewhere, and get mixed up with other Russian dancers. Like you said, there’s lots of Russian musicians and dancers in England, but because we’re in Bristol, we don’t get mixed up as much! So we’re always happy to perform for any event or anything like that; we have good dancers who could display nice pieces of ballet, for anyone who is interested.

To find out more about the school please email info@bristolrussianballetschool.com