Making of a ballet

Founder and artistic director of the National Youth Ballet of Great Britain, Westerham's Jill Tookey, on creating her new ballet Rainbow Bear

Making of a ballet

Founder and artistic director of the National Youth Ballet of Great Britain, Westerham’s Jill Tookey, on creating her new ballet Rainbow Bear

Joanna Lumley’s journey in search of the Northern Lights, filmed by BBC1, inspired Jill Tookey to stage an ‘arctic’ ballet for the National Youth Ballet of Great Britain she created 22 years ago.

Speaking at her home in Westerham, Jill said she saw the actress not long after at the Hackney Empire and mentioned her idea, only to find that Joanna’s husband, the composer Stephen Barlow, had just completed a score for Rainbow Bear, based on the book by Children's Laureate Michael Morpurgo.

“In the story the young bear becomes enchanted by the dancing rainbow in the sky and wishes to become rainbow coloured himself.

“The delightful tale, with a moral ending, involved a multitude of animals and sea creatures, their fight for survival in the harsh arctic climate. It offered huge opportunities for NYB and so my creative planning was hatched!” says Jill.

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And this month Kent ballet fans will get a chance to see the results of her collaborative wizardry when Rainbow Bear, together with Wonderland – Scenes from Alice are presented at Tonbridge School’s EM Forster Theatre in advance of a Gala evening at the London Palladium.

The dramatic narration is provided by the divine Ms Lumley and Jill is delighted to have an NYB alumni, Jo Meredith, as her choreographer. The serendipitous way this new ballet came together seems typical of Jill's approach to her life and work – confident, creative and with not a little magic thrown in.

Born in Beckenham, she was a ballet dancer in her youth and after leaving Bromley High School received an all-round dance and design training at the Arts Educational School. She then used her theatrical background to pursue a career in fashion journalism.

“I became a fashion editor on Women & Beauty and Honey – we launched Honey in the late 1950s. It was a fabulous time,” she smiles.

Jill left magazines to bring up her four children but when the youngest was 10, decided to write a book based on a parrot owned by her husband’s New Zealand secretary, which had completely taken over her life. To her astonishment, Pedro the Parrot was accepted by Hodder & Stoughton and published in 1983 – and led Jill back into the world of ballet once again.

One of her daughters was dancing with a London company and there was a sudden gap in their repertoire. Jill offered Pedro – with the proviso that she’d direct it and do all the costume and backdrop designs. “I was told, if you can find a composer and sort this in six weeks, it’s yours!”

Jill rose triumphantly to the occasion, even securing the services of renowned British composer Alan Ridout. “It premiered at Sadlers Wells and they were very impressed with me, because we’d put it together so quickly and it was well reviewed.”

Sadlers Wells encouraged Jill to continue and she formed a ballet workshop based there, which grew into today’s hugely successful National Youth Ballet of Great Britain

One of her many triumphs was when Jill decided she wanted to create a ballet based on Prince Charles’ children’s book The Old Man of Lochnagar. Not only did she receive royal permission, but the Prince of Wales also introduced Jill to the composer, Nigel Hess, who had just written a piece to commemorate the Prince’s late grandmother.

And naturally, this being Jill, when she asked Prince Charles if he would do the voiceover for the beginning of the ballet, he agreed at once.

“I think I get such good support because it is my real passion but I also feel very strongly that it’s the encompassing of all the arts that go into ballet that has made us different,” says Jill, who was awarded an MBE in 2004 and thankfully for the future of ballet, adds: “I really see no reason to give up while I’m fit and well.” 

National Youth Ballet

E M Forster Theatre

26 August at 6pm

27 and 28 August, 2.30pm and 7.30 pm

Tickets: Children �9 and adults �15

%01732 304241

London Palladium Gala

5 September at 7.30pm

Ticket price range: �18 to �40

%0844 412 4657

National Youth Ballet

The Old Dairy, Dwelly Lane

Edenbridge TN8 6QD

Tel: 01732 864 781 

Email: nyb@btconnect.com

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