Top ballerina Céline Gittens tells Shelley Carter about learning the grade 5 syllabus in her living room and practising jumps on the local running track, how she’s inspired by her mum and how Birmingham has become her home
The Nutcracker is back. I took my children to the Hippodrome when they were aged just three and four willing them to enjoy it as much as me and honestly, to sit still. Fast forward 12 years and we’re still gasping when the Christmas tree grows over a decade on. It’s tradition, it’s Christmas and Birmingham Royal Ballet does it best. We caught up with someone who’s on the inside creating the magic that keeps us going back for more.
Principal dancer Céline Gittens joined BRB in 2006 under the directorship of Sir David Bintley who took her under his wing making it clear she would be successful, but success would be gradual. Céline’s glad of that and feels it was important not to peak too soon.
With a teacher of classical ballet as a mother, perhaps it was inevitable that Céline would pick up the dance bug. Her mum, Janet Gittens opened the first ballet school in the south of Trinidad where Céline spent the first nine years of her life. She remembers looking on when she was very small: “I watched my mum teach and saw the older students dance. I enjoyed the movement and the music and loved how it made me feel.” Céline started dancing when she was aged just three and began taking Royal Academy of Dance (RAD) exams aged four.
A bit of a natural break in dance happened when Céline moved to Vancouver in 1997 aged nine where she wasn’t initially part of a ballet school. She remembers doing the grade 5 RAD syllabus in the living room of her home and practising the jumps on a sprung running track in the community park as her mum thought it was gentler on her legs than the hard floor. She found a ballet school in which to take the exam and was awarded the highest grade of distinction.
Céline has won many accolades and awards over the years including being awarded the prestigious Solo Seal and was the first Canadian to win a Genre Competition gold medal in 2005. Serendipitously when we caught up Céline, she was sitting in the very dressing room at Sadler’s Wells she had used in 2005 for the competition. This time she was touring BRB’s Black Sabbath which received standing ovations every night for two weeks in Birmingham as well as in Plymouth and the company was hoping for more of the same at Sadler’s Wells.
It wasn’t an easy leap from success in exams and competitions to building a stable career and being accepted by a company. Céline spent 15 years fighting for it. BRB came about almost by accident. She was only visiting the city as she had family friends here and thought why not try. She says making it into a successful company is one of her biggest successes.
“A lot of very talented dancers don’t make it. BRB is very stable – even during Covid dancers were paid 100 per cent and that wasn’t the case for everyone.” Céline is now an international ambassador for RAD as well as principal dancer at BRB. As part of her ambassadorial role, she has created an introduction to dance scholarship. The idea is to reach out to communities and award one new introduction scholarship to dance per year supporting a talented youngster through the first year.
Having watched the difference her mother has made to hundreds of young lives, Céline is inspired to give back and would love to teach at some point. “I’m inspired by my mum and I’ve seen what a difference she’s made to her students’ lives. Not just exams, but the difference to their self-confidence and life skills. I’d like to make that positive change.”
Céline has embraced Birmingham as home. She says: “I’ve lived in three different countries, so I excel at adapting to and understanding different cultures. Birmingham lived up to my expectations in terms of what I thought a European city would be with big, stone buildings with an obvious story behind them.” Having completed a Master of Philosophy at the University of Birmingham she feels it’s wonderful to have such an institution in the city, but more than that, she adds: “It’s the diversity that makes the city so great. It’s really wonderful, inclusive and accepting.”
Céline urges people to come to BRB and see what they’re doing – she says it’s one of the city’s gems and people should have a look at the website and take the plunge. If you’ve never experienced The Nutcracker, it’s a good place to start. At the time of writing there are still tickets available. If you’re reading this and it’s sold out, we’re sorry. It’s a classic and you need to get in quick, but take Céline’s advice and check out what else is going on – you might just be surprised. It’s not all ballerinas in tutus…