It is a cold winter morning and young dance students at the London Studio Centre in North Finchley are being put through a tough class by their teacher, who demands more passion alongside the required technical precision. They repeat the exercises, knowing that they are privileged to have a former ballerina instructing them: Jane Sanig, once a principal with the London City Ballet and now passing on her skills to a new generation of dancers. They watch intently as she demonstrates the movements; her highly-arched feet point exquisitely, her ‘line’ is still impeccable.
Sanig’s journey as a dancer and now teacher has taken her from her roots in Manchester to theatres all over the world. Brought up in what she calls a “traditional Jewish household”, she and her two sisters were introduced to dance at an early age. Now in her 60s, Sanig was only two when she took those first steps that would lead to a lifelong love affair with ballet.
“Mum wanted to be a dancer so we were all allowed to do ballet,” says Sanig. “As soon as I could walk, Mum pushed me in and my teacher said straightaway, ‘That is the little girl I’ve been waiting for!’ I didn’t want to go to school, I just wanted to dance.”
Unwilling to move to London to train, she left school at 15 and boarded at a vocational dance college, the Hammond School, in Chester. “When I was 19, the secretary in the school office called me and said, ‘The Israel Ballet director is in Newcastle auditioning — get on the train and go!’ So I went to Newcastle and the director said, ‘Oh you’re Jewish…start in July!’”
To be offered a job by the formidable Berta Yampolsky, founder director of the Israel Ballet, was something she was not going to turn down, even if her parents were worried. “I was so determined, I didn’t even question what they thought. I got on a plane on my own and Berta met me at the airport in Tel Aviv. She took me to her flat — I didn’t know anybody, I didn’t speak the language. I tried really hard to learn Ivrit. I wasn’t fluent by any stretch of the imagination, but I could get by. I’ve forgotten a lot of it now. I’ve been back a few times and it comes back once I’m there.
“I loved living in Israel. I really learnt my trade there because we danced a lot, so I learnt how to be on the stage. We travelled all over the world and I loved it.”
The company attracted a number of impressive guest artists, including the former Bolshoi star Alexander Godunov, who later went to Hollywood and appeared in the films Die Hard and Witness. Sanig describes him as “a blond god” who was “the loveliest man”.
Godunov advised her to relocate to New York to further her career but she was reluctant and instead, after four years in Israel, decided the time was right to move to London. Once again, her dedication paid off. She was spotted after class by Harold King, the founder and director of the London City Ballet and he offered her a job on the spot. She remained with the company, working her way up the ranks and danced with them until she was 37.
Being part of a small touring company gave Sanig plenty of opportunities to shine. “One night I would be the Swan Queen and the next night I would be a cygnet or a princess. We were on stage non-stop. I was young and I had a lot of energy, but the travel was a lot. I found that quite difficult, every week we were in a different place, in different digs. Occasionally on a Friday night I would go to dinners at a shul, but it was hard.”
One of the highlights of her career was being singled out to dance Giselle by the great ballerina Galina Samsova, who was staging a production for the dancers. The company was lucky enough to have Diana, Princess of Wales as its patron and she regularly visited their studios. “She absolutely loved ballet so the conversation would always be about the dance. She would come in, often incognito, no one would know she was there, the press weren’t there. She was kind, beautiful and generous because she helped raise money.”
Unfortunately, even royal patronage could not save the company from rising debts, and it folded in 1996, not long after Sanig had decided to hang up her pointe shoes. “I was doing Cinderella in Aberdeen and I thought it is time to stop. I think I was just tired of the travelling.”
She retrained as a teacher and has found that as enjoyable as dancing on stage. Now, nearly 30 years after its initial demise, the big news in the dance world is that London City Ballet is being re-launched under the directorship of Christopher Marney. He has said he wants Sanig to talk to its dancers about LCB’s rich history — and he may even call upon her to teach.
“When he came round to see me I was just so excited because I really felt that when this company went, nothing ever replaced it. It had something special about it, probably because we toured a lot.”
So what can today’s young dancers gain from her? “Resilience – this generation needs to build resilience and ambition…and if you have a dream, go for it.”