A Creative Artist Talk with Shevelle Dynott
Accomplished alumnus Shevelle Dynott has a unique perspective on ballet. He’s so passionate about the art form and recounts the many wonderful experiences he has had on and off stage, but he also came into his professional career as a Black man in the early noughties, navigating racism, biases, and the difficulty of having to blaze his own path. Recently retired from performing, he recognises the breadth of work still to be done to reinvigorate ballet and now dedicates time to working with organisations widening access.
As a young boy, his talent was spotted and nurtured by Chance to Dance, a programme that is still active today that aims to broaden and diversify the pool of young people with potential in ballet. Shortly afterwards, he joined the Junior Associates programme at the School and went on to train at White Lodge and Upper School.
After winning bronze in the Royal Academy of Dance’s Genée International Ballet Competition in 2004, Shevelle joined the English National Ballet as a company artist in 2005, appearing in multiple notable works including Akram Khan’s Giselle, Nureyev’s Romeo and Juliet, and Macmillan’s The Sleeping Beauty.
We’re thrilled that he came back to the School to share his knowledge and experience with the students in a Creative Artist Talk.
A child with varied interests, including science club and football, he turned up to Chance to Dance not expecting any more than to have fun.
At the time, it was a collaboration between The Royal Ballet and Dance Theatre of Harlem, and it was to get children who looked like me, Black children and children with mixed backgrounds, into ballet. This was the early nineties. I was in Brixton and I literally thought it was a PE lesson and turned up in my y-fronts and vest thinking I was going to be jumping on a climbing frame or playing with a parachute or whatever you do at that age [seven]. They saw something in me. Probably some natural turnout from my hips. They offered me two years’ free dance training.
He went on to talk about his time at White Lodge and Upper School.
I had an amazing time. I can say I was in a very very good year group. Dancers that were in my year were Xander Parish, Joseph Caley, William Moore, Alex Jones, Aaron Robison, Tom Forster [later in the session, he went on to describe the close friendship he still has with the group today, and their mutually supportive group chat]. I do think the training was fantastic. When I joined there was a change; old school into new school, we saw the change under the late Gailene Stock, rest in peace. She was just so nice to me and you could see that she had a vision. To be so involved with the changes, we just adapted. You weren’t doing anything on your own.
He was at the School at an interesting time. He was also in the first year to be in the Covent Garden Upper School building, one of the first to walk over the Bridge of Aspiration, and he met Dame Ninette de Valois on her hundredth birthday. He wondered how many Black students she had met before and considered the profundity of his encounter. When asked about his role models, he said:
In 1997 there weren’t many dancers of colour to look up to. I think it was 2000 when I first saw Carlos Acosta at the Royal Opera House. I believe you need to have someone that looks like you to look up to and believe that you can do it too, and that happens subconsciously. Look at Spider-Man, Superman, Wonder Woman, it’s only now we have Black Panther that a little Black child feels that they can be a superhero. I think that did impact me more than I realised as I got older. I was never someone who thought, ‘I want to be Siegfried’, because I never saw it for me. I think because I was in such a good year group I didn’t feel it as much at the time. When I got into the big wide world, not the bubble we were in, it did affect me.
So, in terms of idols, Carlos was definitely a big one for me — he was just incredible and so powerful but elegant. Having someone with a similar physicality to me really made me step up my game. And it was literally just him. And my father. From when I was young, If I got teased for doing ballet at primary school, I’d go home and my dad would be there making sure I did all of my exercises. Having that support meant I knew I was doing something right.
He was also part of the creative process for Akram Khan’s critically acclaimed Giselle, and said:
I was so happy to be in the creative process for that piece. I don’t care what anyone says, I believe it’s one of the best pieces that ballet has ever shown to the world. There’s a certain way you have to turn up to the studio as a ballet dancer and Akram didn’t want any of that. He wanted personality. In some institutions they want to tar you all with the same brush, and that carries on with you as you leave. Shake that off as soon as possible. Especially now, companies are working with a range of choreographers and they want to work with the person, not just the physicality that you’ve got. We felt like we could speak to Akram on the level. Of course, I had the utmost respect for him, but he also wanted to see me, not a caricature of a ballet dancer. Working with Akram was amazing, just to be able to move to that type of music. It was hard, but it was fun.
Shevelle also recounts a time where a major donor to a ballet organisation said to him that Black dancers ‘stick out too much’ in the corps de ballet, where everyone should look the same. He said if there were more Black dancers, they wouldn’t stick out. The students asked him about his perceptions of the old ballet norms as he moved from the School to professional life, and whether he thinks his race affected his career.
I came from a programme specifically designed to get more children like me into ballet. If you’re the first one to make it all the way through the programme, there are going to be things you feel that you don’t understand.
When George Floyd passed and the whole world started to look at Black people, I did so much research into my history.
I was asked to do a lot of different talks on inclusivity. And it was a whole learning process for me. I was saying things that I had just realised myself. I never had any representation and those things do play on your mind a lot. I do think if I could’ve seen myself in some of the ballet dancers we were looking up to at School, I would’ve had a different career. And everyone else in my year went on to become a principal. That could’ve just been fate. But when I was getting started, ballet institutions were only just starting to think, ‘what do we do with a dancer like this?’. So, I do believe it had a knock-on effect.
Soon after 2020, I was seeing Black dancers all over the shop. So, they have been here!
He also graciously shared his wisdom with the students; on mindset:
Enjoy it. It’s a fast career. And don’t get too down about things. I’m not saying don’t love what you do. Definitely love what you do. But realise there’s a bigger picture out there if you make one little mistake. There’s so much we can do to keep positive. Come back tomorrow, because that day will never be repeated again. Don’t compare yourself to other people’s careers. Enjoy it – it goes so quick.
And on auditions:
When you’re in the room, really be in the room. Show them you’re interested. If you get the job, they’re paying you a salary, so show as much as possible that you want it. Show your personality.
Shevelle also answered questions about having his image in the National Portrait Gallery, in a series titled Black is the New Black from Simon Frederick, which brought together exceptional figures from the world of politics, business, culture, religion, and science to celebrate Black British achievement.
For me, that was one of the biggest accolades I could’ve had. And it’s in their permanent archives. In the year 3023, if we’re still here and they decide to do a piece about Black ballet dancers, I might still be here digitally or in a photograph.
Now, Shevelle dedicates a lot of his time to advocacy work for arts groups. The students asked him what could be done to get more children of colour into ballet.
What I loved about Chance to Dance, when I was there, was that it went to Lambeth, Hammersmith, it went to places where it was predominantly Black and mixed people. I believe most of the outreach programmes [Shevelle prefers to call them reach out programmes because it sounds more inviting, that ‘we want you to be here’] aren’t doing that enough. If you want to find dancers of colour, you really have to find them. You can’t just go to a local ballet school and there may be one child of colour there, because the average Black person probably wouldn’t go to a ballet class. If you really do want to find someone special, you have to go and look for them.
That’s what Dance Theatre of Harlem did. Even when they took a hiatus, they still continued their education programme. The organisation just turned 50 years old, so think of how many Black dancers kids in America have had to look up to since then.
The students were so engaged with Shevelle’s talk. From sharing knowing glances when he talked about the strong bond he still has with his year group, to asking hard and profound questions; we’re incredibly grateful for his time, candour, and wisdom.