Skip to main content

Ballet Cymru: a dancer finds her feet in Wales

1st March 2021

The face of Richard Jinman

by Richard Jinman

Senior Creative Editor

Krystal Lowe, a young dancer from Bermuda, has found her feet in Wales with help from The National Lottery.

A woman (Kristal Lowe) in the main space rehearsal space at Ballet Cymru
Krystal Lowe in the main rehearsal space at Ballet Cymru, Newport, Wales

When Krystal Lowe, a young dancer from Bermuda, decided to move to the UK to pursue a ballet career she typed ‘British ballet companies’ into a browser and came across Newport-based Ballet Cymru. “I’d never actually heard of Wales at the time,” she laughs. “And when I arrived in I really struggled to understand the accents.”

Now, seven years after arriving in the Welsh city, Krystal, 29, is a guest artist with Ballet Cymru and is devising and dancing her own dance theatre works. She will tour China this year with the company’s production of Romeo and Juliet and says funding from The National Lottery has “played a massive part” in her efforts to establish a life and career in Wales.

Since The National Lottery’s first draw took place on 19 November 1994, more than £40 billion has been raised for good causes in the areas of arts, sport, heritage and community.

Earlier this year, Krystal received a £15,000 grant from The Arts Council of Wales to create a dance theatre work based on Whimsy, a story she wrote in 2014. The money enabled her to work with Year 6 children from a primary school in Newport to develop and perform the dance.

Since then, she has obtained another Arts Council of Wales grant to turn Whimsy into a dance theatre work that will be performed in Newport and Aberystwyth by herself and another professional dancer.

In a broader sense, The National Lottery has supported Krystal’s flourishing career by helping pay for Ballet Cymru’s headquarters. The building, on an industrial estate on the outskirts of Newport, was turned into a bespoke dance studio using capital funding from The Arts Council of Wales. It boasts a Harlequin sprung dance floor, air conditioning and natural light filtered through glazed windows. There is a Green Room, offices, a kitchen where dancers can store and prepare food and a gym area where they build the strength required to perform lifts and gravity-defying leaps.

A woman (Kristal Lowe) holding a baby in the main space rehearsal space at Ballet Cymru
Dancer Krystal Lowe and her son Thomas at Ballet Cymru, Newport, Wales

Krystal says the sprung floor and the ability to keep the rehearsal space at a constant temperature are both vital to the comfort and safety of the dancers. “Temperature control is a big, big deal,” she says. “We work hard in the morning to warm ourselves up for the day’s work, so the ability to keep the temperature at a certain level prevents a lot of injuries.”

The building that became Ballet Cymru’s headquarters was once used as a crèche and in some ways, it still resembles one. Members of the company are encouraged to bring their children to work and a selection of toys sits next to the pointe shoes and props on the edge of the dancefloor.

Krystal, who has a 19-month-old son called Thomas, says the studio’s kid-friendly atmosphere has helped her juggle her career and motherhood.

“There was a time when women had to choose between being a mother or a dancer,” she says. “Ballet Cymru has done an amazing job supporting me as a mother and again the building helps with that. I can have my child here in the rehearsal space or asleep in a bassinet in the Green Room.”

Krystal also loves the fact that Ballet Cyrmu rents out its dance studios to other performing arts companies because it provides the opportunity to meet and share ideas with a diverse group of performers. “We can network with other artists – circus performers, for example,” she says. “The building has become an arts hub that has made a huge difference to the arts community in Newport.”

Ballet Cymru was formed in 1986 by Darius James. Born and raised in Newport, he won a place at The Royal Ballet School in Richmond, London at the age of 10.

Darius enjoyed a successful career as a dancer and travelled the world. But when he returned to his hometown he was determined to set up a ballet company that would offer young people in Wales some of the opportunities he had enjoyed.

For two decades Darius ran Ballet Cymru from his house in Newport. He stored costumes in his loft and sets in a shed at the bottom of the garden. Rehearsals took place in school halls and derelict buildings where broken glass had to be swept up before the dancers arrived.

“Somebody said ‘why don’t you go for Lottery funding to get a premises’,” recalls Darius. “We did a feasibility study and looked all over Newport for a space.”

None of the buildings he inspected fitted the bill. They were either too expensive or didn’t offer the big, open space required by a dance studio. Then he visited the former crèche on an industrial estate near Junction 27 of the M4. It wasn’t glamorous – some of his dancers were horrified when they were shown the derelict space – but Darius saw an opportunity.

A woman (Kristal Lowe) in the main space rehearsal space at Ballet Cymru
Krystal Lowe at Ballet Cymru, Newport, Wales

A capital grant from The Arts Council of Wales helped unlock about £500,000 of funding – enough to buy the building and turn it into a bespoke dance studio. “People couldn’t believe how much we’d done with that amount of money,” he says.

The building, which opened in March 2014, has given Ballet Cymru a platform to expand its operations and build its reputation. “The quality of what we’re doing is much, much better and that means we can recruit better dancers and better teachers,” says Darius. The building has had a massive impact on the standard of the company and the quality of what we can put on stage has just shot up.”

As well as providing a temperature-controlled rehearsal space for its company of 12 dancers, the dance studio supports a range of other initiatives. They include the Pre-Professional Programme, a scheme that offers training and work experience to young dancers negotiating the difficult period between dance school and a job at a dance company.

“They [pre-professional students] take classes with the company and if they’re good enough they come on tour with us,” says Darius. “Independent choreographers come in and work with them and we make a portfolio for them. We’ve had people from Belgium, Finland and China – people from all around the world and we couldn’t have done it without the studio.”

Another initiative supported by the building is Duets, is the brainchild of Ballet Cymru’s Assistant Artist Director, Amy Doughty. The scheme aims to offer dance opportunities (ballet in particular) to children who would not normally have access to it.

“We work closely with schools – head teachers and family liaison officers – to identify kids deemed most in need or hard to reach and give them two years of free dance training,” explains Amy. “Every Tuesday, a coach picks up a group of about 25 kids from a school in Cardiff and brings them to Ballet Cymru. Two weeks ago we had a sold out premiere of Romeo and Juliet at The Riverfront [a theatre in Newport] and had a curtain raiser from the Duets children.”

Using funding from The Arts Council of Wales and The Paul Hamlyn Foundation, the Duets programme is being expanded to offer dance opportunities to children across Wales.

“Fundamentally, all of this – things like the Pre-Professional Programme and Duets - couldn’t happen without this building,” says Darius. “It’s become a hub for all these different things. We also work with four local schools whose students come in for a day once a year, do a workshop and have lunch with the dancers. They get to be part of a professional dance company for a day.”

Looking to the future, Darius has high hopes that Ballet Cymru will one day become Wales’ national ballet company. If that happens, it will be another milestone in a remarkable journey.

“When we first started going into community centres in Newport doing workshops, we used to cover up the word ‘ballet’ on the van because of the connotations that had for people,” he recalls. “Then halfway through the workshop we’d say ‘we’re a ballet company’ and kids would say ‘yeah, that’s cool’. More than 30 years down the track we’re still breaking down those boundaries – its integral to what we’ve become as a company.”