Markova House — named after the great Jewish prima ballerina, Alicia Markova — is located on a tiny road next to the Royal Albert Hall and is home to the English National Ballet company. Administrative staff and dancers come and go through the reception area — the latter are easy to spot: small, lean and standing that little bit more upright, they make everyone else look flabby and clumsy.
One of the company’s youngest and newest members comes bouncing through the doors, full of energy despite having just finished class, the daily intensive workout needed to maintain fitness and technique. Shale Wagman, an 18-year-old Canadian, is starting his professional ballet career with ENB after winning a gold medal in classical ballet’s most prestigious international competition, the Prix de Lausanne.
Although he is now on the lowest rung of the ladder in the company — an artist — being a Prix de Lausanne winner augers well for his future. Past winners include Darcey Bussell, Steven McRae and Alessandra Ferri, and many of the world’s top ballet companies employ dancers who, as students, picked up medals in the annual Swiss competition. Wagman’s showstopper entry included the famous Don Quixote variation. (Watch it on YouTube: ten seconds in and he is already in full splits mid-air, all flash and drama.)
Wagman’s early success is a little unusual, considering he did not start proper ballet training until he was 13. “I was three and I loved taking swimming lessons. The swimming instructor advised my mum that I should take dance lessons as I was very flexible,” he explains. It took three years of persuasion before his mother finally relented and let him try dance classes.
“My parents were trying to put me in any sport, like soccer or hockey. Both my brothers were hockey players, but I remember I stepped on to the ice and started pouting. I just didn’t enjoy it. I remember my mum said I had to do something, play some kind of sport and be active.”
Under the guidance of a renowned Russian teacher, simply known as “Vlad”, Wagman began classes in an assortment of styles, include jazz, tap and hip-hop. “I was pretty shy as a kid, unlike now. Whenever I would go out, I would hide behind my mum. I was a bit scared to try new things, so when we went to the dance studio, naturally I told my mum that I didn’t want to go. But from the first class, I absolutely loved it. Dance was my calling. I knew that that was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. It was just a gut feeling, I loved to move and express myself through movement, to act. Being that shy kid, dance gave me a lot of confidence because being on stage felt so natural.”
Brought up in a traditional Jewish household in Toronto, Wagman learned to balance his dance classes and competitions with normal school. At 11, he applied for Canada’s Got Talent and reached the finals. (There are several YouTube clips of the young Wagman, dancing his heart out and winning applause for his extraordinary flexibility and expressive movements.)
“Canada’s Got Talent was a fun experience. My mum suggested it and she knew I was going to love it. I auditioned and the reaction was beyond anything I had expected. I loved performing on television and in front of a large, live audience. There were many talented acts and it was such a learning experience.”
Alongside his education and dance classes, he continued his Jewish studies as his barmitzvah was looming, but even then, he wanted to be that little bit different. “That year, you were going to barmitzvahs and batmitzvahs all the time, because everyone in my community was Jewish. I remember going to everyone’s barmitzvahs and they all had black suits and white shirts and I didn’t want to wear that. I wore a grey suit with a purple shirt and white and blue shoes, and a pink bowtie with blue dots! It represented who I am. It was very, very funny!”After Canada’s Got Talent, Shale had a couple of small roles in films, and a ballet teacher on set introduced him to the world of classical dance. “I knew nothing about turn-out or sculpting my body. Luckily I was very young when I made the transition at 13. For ballet it was pretty late to start, but my previous training helped me a lot and I just had to be ‘tweaked’. I also hadn’t gone through puberty yet, so I was able to have a base where I could make my body more suited towards ballet.”
Fitting in hours of serious ballet training after school became a major problem. “School would finish, I would eat and do my homework in the car. It was a lot of pressure and very hard to juggle those challenges.”
Further competitions and scholarships meant that he had the choice to train full-time in Monaco, at the Princess Grace Academy, or in Moscow, at the Bolshoi School. “At that time my parents didn’t think it would be safe to send 13-year-old to Moscow on his own, so I was in Monaco for four years.”
His family attended his graduation in Monte Carlo. “There were a lot of tears. My dad hadn’t seen me dance for four years — I had totally changed as a dancer in that time. I guess it was very emotional for him to watch.”
After winning the Prix de Lausanne, Wagman chose to join ENB. “I love the repertoire. It’s very versatile — contemporary and classical, and there is a very good mix.” He has his sights on all the leading roles in the classical canon, including Siegfried in Swan Lake and the Prince in Sleeping Beauty. But for now, he is working and learning, taking daily class alongside the principal dancers he admires most. “I know that in other companies you have to wait to be given opportunities and I don’t know what type of things I’m going to get yet, but I know that there are many performances and dancers are needed constantly.”
He says he feels his gift is from God. “I am definitely very spiritual and I feel guided. Yes, I do have a gift, but it is up to me to use it and it is about being able to share my love of the art with as many people as possible.”
English National Ballet is performing Lest We Forget, at Sadler’s Wells, London EC1 from September 20 – 29. www.ballet.org.uk
caption: Shale Wagman: ‘I feel guided by God’