Mary Brennan

Months of lively brainstorming have paid off: Scottish Ballet has come up with an impressive game-plan for celebrating its 50th Anniversary this year. And though the legacy of previous, profile-building, decades is openly acknowledged by the company’s artistic director, Christopher Hampson and his team, the energy that underpins the various programming strands is significantly future-forward.

Memories of who did what, and when – ranging from Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn appearing as guest artists in the 1970’s through to taking America by storm with A Streetcar Named Desire in Spring 2013 (and again in 2015 and 2017) – will doubtless be affectionately swapped in interval foyers and at the official social gatherings. However an abiding aim of Scottish Ballet @ 50 is to generate a wealth of new memories, off-stage as well as on – with many of them emerging through the direct involvement of the public, either as individuals or as communities.

The Five Wishes initiative is an inspiring example of how the company has been reaching out to young and old across the country, making special dreams come true. As soon as the plan was announced, the wishes flooded in. Over 400 were put to a public vote, and the top 50 were presented to a celebrity judging panel which included Dame Darcey Bussell, Susan Calman, Fred MacAulay, Janice Forsyth, Christopher Hampson and Principal dancer Christopher Harrison.

The five selected wishes ranged from rehearsing and performing with the company, to conducting the orchestra and working alongside the wardrobe team – and in each case, the resulting experience is definitely an immersive one as we’ll see for ourselves when a BBC Scotland documentary about Five Wishes is broadcast at the end of the year.

“We know how much Five Wishes has really connected with our public,” says Christopher Hampson, as he reflects on a project that has been underway since last December. Sadly, terminal cancers have recently claimed the lives of two Five Wishes recipients: young ballet fan Rosie Mitchell (7) and Jemma McRae, owner and dance teacher at Academy Street Dance Studio in Aberdeen. So when Hampson says that this particular campaign “has been life-changing for our company” he is stating an unvarnished truth.

“I’ve been speaking with the company about these first wishes,” he says. “And it’s been a very emotional time, very emotional. But as a company, if we’re really going to engage with the public – discover what it is they feel they need and want from their national company – then that takes you on a demanding learning curve of listening, of not being in our own ballet bubble, but reaching out and connecting with the wider community. Five Wishes has already proved not just fulfilling but humbling for all of us – a valuable reminder of what it means to be Scotland’s national ballet company.”

The Five Wishes initiative hasn’t gone unnoticed beyond these shores, however. Hampson has done some busy travelling recently – looking at what other companies are up to, doing a bit of useful networking and re-affirming existing links with overseas producers, especially in America. “I kept meeting people who’d been following our Five Wishes project,” he says, “and they were telling me how it was a really inventive way to acknowledge, and engage with, the community that supports us. And maybe catch the attention of other people who haven’t been interested in what we do. Getting that kind of feedback, that kind of recognition outside of Scotland... I do feel proud. We’re on their radar, on that international map.”

Further proof of that comes with the ongoing effects of another ground-breaking initiative: the Digital Season that came on-stream in 2017. Hampson laughs as he thinks back to a gambit that was a freefall leap into the unknown for everyone at Scottish Ballet, including him. “I could see the question marks in people’s eyes when I introduced the idea - and I could understand why. I really didn’t know, myself, what it would end up like.”

But by bringing in collaborators from other art forms – filming the results and putting them online – the company opened a portal that was accessible to everyone at the click of a button or the touch of a screen. “The films that we made in that first digital season have been seen all over the world,” says Hampson. “It’s a real calling card. When I meet with other artistic directors, or producers, they know more about us from our digital season than from seeing us live on-stage.And actually, I think what also impresses, is us doing it at all. Taking that plunge, deciding to make new technologies work for us, demonstrating that classical ballet could be allied to those technologies and using them reach out to new audiences.”

And so, as part of the 50th anniversary output, the Digital Season will be returning in May. Described as a ‘month-long programme of work created for smartphones, cinema and everything in between’, it sees the company appoint its first ever Digital Artist in Residence, Glasgow-based sculptor Zachary Eastwood-Bloom. “The whole intention of our digital work is to encourage people to see dance in new and different ways,” explains Hampson. “And Zach is an ideal, and really imaginative, fresh pair of eyes. Coming from a sculptural background, he understands the body, its lines and form. He understands movement. And he has been working in a transformative way with digital technologies – we’re delighted to have him, as part of our second season of digital discovery.”

On-stage, too, the year ahead sees the beginnings of the Five in Five endeavour, which aims to create five full-evening works over five years. The Crucible, based on the Arthur Miller play and choreographed by Helen Pickett, will receive its world premiere at the Edinburgh International Festival while Hampson’s own new version of The Snow Queen will be the family treat over Christmas. Before then, however, there was the world premiere of Dextera by the company’s Artist in Residence, Sophie Laplane which – along with Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Elite Syncopations – kicked off Scottish Ballet’s Spring! tour in Inverness this week. Dextera (which translates as ‘right hand’ or ‘a pledge’) sees Laplane setting moves for 20 dancers to music by Mozart – new challenges twice over, compared to her other works where duets and contemporary music have highlighted her distinctive edgy expression of relationship tensions and resolutions.

So, why Mozart? “To commit to just one composer was tricky,” says Laplane. “But for me, Mozart had such a wide range of feelings – musically, he could be very playful, and he could be dark, but just beautiful also. For me, he had the richest language to work with – but it’s the first time I’ve worked with music that has so many notes! Like working with twenty dancers – some of them new to the company – this has been something very different for me.”

Her referencing of ‘hands’ in the title is a pleasing echo of how Scottish Ballet has been reaching out, on so many levels, to the country that Hampson declares has shaped the company since it came into being here in 1969. And he points out, with obvious pleasure, that Dextera has been financially supported by The Peter Darrell Trust. The company’s late founder-choreographer was, during his lifetime, hugely committed to encouraging new talents and taking quality work out, across the entire country. Scottish Ballet@50 is keeping faith with those ideals – and that’s something we can all celebrate.

Full details of this anniversary year are available at