Arabesques in Astrakhan

Photo taken by Darian Volkova

Tala Lee-Turton did not simply leap into the world of ballet with a grand jeté. The 23-year-old’s journey to become a successful, Russian-trained ballerina took time, perseverance and proving people wrong in order to get to where she is now.

Although she was young and putting her efforts into ballet, Tala felt no one was investing time in helping her progress. “I didn’t understand when I was little; but now I can see that, although I was given a scholarship to train at ballet school, the teachers soon decided I didn’t have the perfect body-type for ballet and they weren’t prepared, or didn’t know how, to train me,” said Tala. The professional dancer wished that her previous teachers could help to develop her weaknesses such as flexibility in order to complement her strengths in both musicality and performance.

“I often say, Russians remind me of Yorkshire folk.”

Nevertheless, these setbacks did not deter Tala from setting her sights on a career in the ballet industry. And it seems the hard work paid off. At 16 years old, Tala left her hometown of Barnsley, South Yorkshire for the Bolshoi, the world’s most renowned ballet academy based in Moscow. Tala was full of excitement and could not wait to make the most of embarking on such a unique and fabulous opportunity. What impressed Tala the most about Russia was the warmth and friendliness of the people, and in spite of the distance, she found some similarities between the locations. Tala said: “I often say, Russians remind me of Yorkshire folk.  My time training in Moscow and working in Astrakhan has proven to me that Russian people share that same directness of speech and generosity of character.”

As well as being exposed to a new country, Tala had to learn Russian from scratch to communicate inside and outside of ballet classes, but she very much liked the challenge. She was also introduced to alternative teaching methods such as the one named after the Russian ballerina, Agrippina Vaganova, who revolutionised the art of ballet with her technique. Tala said her body responded well to the Vaganova method from the start, with its focus on turnout and precision in the execution of specific movements. Tala added: “There is much repetition involved which did great things for my muscle memory and stamina.” The Bolshoi not only taught Tala the superlative technique but also how to dance from the soul. These skills and qualities are what Tala believes that she will always carry with her as she progresses through her career.

“You have to learn not to take the rejections personally, and just keep focusing on getting that job.”

Being away from her family, friends and cat, Oujar, was tough at times, even with the assistance of technology, and required her to strike a balance. “I had to coordinate my time back home really well so that I had chance to see everyone, whilst keeping up my training,” said Tala. Training is an everyday requirement for Tala in order to maintain her flexibility and technique. However, Tala has been lucky to have performed in UK tours with her current job as a professional ballet dancer for the Astrakhan State Theatre of Opera and Ballet, meaning she has at least one familiar face in the crowd. “The best thing about being able to perform in the UK is that all my family and friends get to see me!  I love having people that I know in the audience, it makes me feel like I am performing specially for them,” said Tala.

The majority of Tala’s time is spent working solidly in an industry full of high-intensity training amongst many talented dancers where negativity and criticism is prevalent. Tala explained by saying that ballet is about perfecting your technique so you can perform and evoke an emotional response from your audience. She believes that by correcting your technique, this is an inherent part of your training as both a student and as a professional in order to develop and progress as a ballet dancer. Tala points out that good teachers, coaches and repetiteurs are able to do this well. However, this is not always the case. “Where it doesn’t feel positive, or where I find myself in a negative environment, I try to draw as much learning as I can from any criticism and negativity and use this to propel me towards a new challenge; sometimes it’s small steps, sometimes, large,” said Tala.

It does not go unknown that the performing arts world has a lot of fierce competition. Tala explains that there is an oversupply of incredibly talented female dancers, and more graduating from excellent schools every year both nationally and internationally, which adds to the already difficult challenges. Tala travelled across Europe, Russia and beyond during her graduate year in order to take part in multiple auditions, as well as entering international ballet competitions, such as the World Ballet Competition in Orlando, Florida, with the aim to seek exposure to artistic directors. “You have to learn not to take the rejections personally, and just keep focusing on getting that job,” said Tala. “Having a plan helped.  I researched the types of companies I wanted to work for and then targeted them for private auditions but this was a long and slow process that you have to persevere with.”

“I think it is a vocation that you have to be prepared to devote time and hard work and be really convinced it’s for you.”

Rachel Neville Photography
Photo taken by Rachel Neville

Yet, Tala does not want to discourage the next generation of dancers out there, but many things need to be carefully taken into consideration when it comes to a career in the dance industry. Tala mentioned a few examples such as the duration of one’s job as a performer based on maintaining a fit and healthy lifestyle, as well as the lack of good professions due to the over-supply of very talented female dancers and they are often seen as dispensable. “I think it is a vocation that you have to be prepared to devote time and hard work and be really convinced it’s for you,” said Tala. “I work six days a week, long and unsociable hours and the wages are not high.  This is after training full time, away from home, since I was 11.  I don’t know any other vocation that requires that kind of commitment.”

However, Tala said there are lots of benefits to a dancing profession, not to mention transferrable skills which make it worthwhile for her and she wouldn’t have it any other way. She also added: “It’s important to have a career plan, though, and be determined about putting this into action.” Tala provides plenty of advice about the ballet industry on her blog for young people and their parents too.

“Where it doesn’t feel positive, or where I find myself in a negative environment, I try to draw as much learning as I can from any criticism and negativity and use this to propel me towards a new challenge; sometimes it’s small steps, sometimes, large.”

Tala is currently enjoying performing in Giselle as it is new and fresh, however she would love to perform in Mayerling, or one of the big classics such as La Bayadere, because they have some of the most iconic moments. When she is not dancing herself, she is teaching young ballet dancers when she is back home in the UK and choreographs for students entering international competitions, such as Youth America Grand Prix, who require contemporary solos. Tala particularly enjoys working with young people who do not have access to Russian training or intensive classical technique classes. She gets a real pleasure from seeing them make a small improvement or watching them express themselves when performing her choreographed routines. Tala and the dance company she performs in are also expanding their repertoire in the second half of the season, so she is looking forward to exploring new roles.

Yet Tala’s passion for dance does not stop there for she has more than one plan for the future. “I also have a choreographic piece I am working on; a group piece to music created for me by my friend, musician Rudi Arapahoe.” Despite her jam-packed schedule, Tala manages to find time for her other passion, food. Tala loves to create her own recipes and adapt existing ones to become grain free and vegan. Not only has she brought her dancing talent to the country famous for the 3 Bs (ballet, borscht and blinis) but it seems her baking prowess too.

If you would like to learn more about Tala’s journey you can visit her website and her Instagram account, @talaleeturton


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