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'Northerners prefer football': Is ballet exclusively for "posh" people?

Tory MP Jake Berry’s comments suggesting Northerners prefer football and Southerners prefer ballet, 3 months after the 20th anniversary of Billy Elliot, has left us thinking – why is this cultural stigma still attached?

Hannah Bateman in Dracula. Photograph: Yumiko White

“It’s the sort of thing that you think would be referenced in an old sitcom from the 70s or something,” says Hannah Bateman, an ex-principle soloist from the Northern Ballet. “It doesn’t have a place in modern life.” The origins of ballet grew out of the Renaissance courts in Italy and France. Perhaps some of that elitist sentiment is still integral to the art form today.

29 September was the 20th anniversary of Billy Elliot. The film was iconic for debunking stereotypes of ballet being an upper-class genre of dance – Billy coming from a Northern working class background breaking down tropes that culture in the north is of lesser value. However, recent comments by Tory MP Jake Berry suggesting that Northerners prefer football and ‘Southerners have ballet at the heart of their culture’ seem to reaffirm that stigma.

These large sweeping statements don’t do anybody any favours and they are really hard to get rid of. As a Southerner who was influenced by a Northern-based company, Bateman feels she is in a position where she is fearful because that is somebody who has a platform, and it could potentially be dangerous to the industry. “The stigma seems to come from the people who come to watch the ballet,” she says. “If you look at the people that are involved in it, they come from all walks of life. It’s an amazing environment because it’s completely diverse in that sense. But everybody’s there for one purpose.”

Bateman referenced Deborah Bull’s speech where she said maybe it’s because the ballet industry uses a language that doesn’t make it easy for people to access it. Words like ‘pas de deux’ and ‘corps de ballet’ convey a sense of grandeur, which can deter people. And so asking those unfamiliar to ballet territory to go into that space may seem threatening. “If you get rid of that, you’re really going into a space to watch people tell a story or give a message or deliver something,” Bateman says.

Hannah Bateman and Christopher Hinton-Lewis in Wuthering Heights. Photograph: Merlin Hendy

The perception and understanding of ballet as an art form is a big part of this stereotype. “I know this is going to sound silly, but I didn’t even know that an ordinary member of the public like me could buy a ticket to go and see Royal Ballet at Covent Garden,” says Janet McNulty, a ballet fanatic from Liverpool. “I did exactly think it was for posh people.”

McNulty watched her first ballet when she was in London. “John Cranko’s Onegin was on at the London Coliseum,” she says. “I went to see it and it was like an overnight conversion on 26 May 1984.” Working in a male-dominated environment for most of her career, she used to get teased for going to watch several performances a week. “I’d ask, if Liverpool and Everton played each other everyday for a week with the same team, would you go? They’d say they would, but it’s different,” she says. “It’s not really different though, is it?”

These issues of classism and elitism may also be associated with ballet being an expensive hobby. Depending on the brand, leotards can cost between £10 to £60, tights cost an average of £15 and ballet shoes can cost up to £50. As girls get older and progress en pointe, a pair of pointe shoes can cost a minimum of £60. Ballet classes are available at different price points. However, training with the goal of dancing professionally can be expensive – the Royal Ballet School fees are £30,000 and the Northern Ballet School fees are £14,000.

Photo courtesy of Laud Ballet School

Jo Laud, the founder of Laud Ballet School says: “I don’t think the structure of the way ballet is done is going to change in regard to costs. I’m always going to need somewhere to run a school from, whether that’s my own studio or whether that’s hiring a space, there are costs involved in that.” Her ballet school, located in Stockton-On-Tees in Northeast England, provides classes for students ranging from the age of two to people over 55. Laud says it’s an issue of raising everybody’s standard of living so they can have access to whatever hobby it is they want to do.

Daniel Dolan, a first soloist at Lithuanian National Ballet, left the UK at the age of 15 after being accepted to the Bolshoi Ballet Academy in Moscow. He grew up with the idea that ballet was very expensive to attend. “But nowadays, big companies are doing more lower-end price levels for tickets,” he says. “You can even go into places like the English National Ballet or the Royal Ballet for maybe even £8 upwards.”

Statistics from Statista, provided by Arts Council England

The problem with accessibility also depends on how society values the art form. There is a huge disparity in the amount of funding given to ballet companies in the UK. Statistics from Arts Council England show that Northern Ballet, the only strictly ballet company in the north, receives considerably less funding than Birmingham Royal Ballet and English National Ballet. “It’s frustrating because it’s like saying it doesn’t matter how hard your company works or how much the reputation grows,” Bateman says. “This is how you’re seen in the packing order and that’s how it’s going to stay.”

And even though dance has gradually been more prevalent throughout the country, the trickling down of things like better companies in the north is going to take a while. “It’s incredible now, how many schools there are out there like mine,” says Laud. “But what it’s going to take is someone independently setting up another company in the north. It’s going to take somebody who has the ability to do so, because I don’t think the Government are going to do it.”

Increasingly, the ballet industry is starting to see more dancers from working class backgrounds, bringing a wider variety of creativity to the art form and a whole new world of opportunity of what these companies can put on stage.

“When you go into the studio, you go in as a blank canvas there as the muse for somebody else’s incredible creation. It’s equal playing field,” Bateman says. “So in a way, it’s super simple.”

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