Now a principal dancer with the prestigious Birmingham Royal Ballet and after performing in the handover ceremony for the 2022 Commonwealth Games, Céline Gittens discusses the current climate for black and mixed heritage dancers and how Birmingham has become her home.
How did you first come to Birmingham?
I was 18 years old and having won a Gold Medal and the Audience Award at the Genée International Ballet Competition in 2005, I was invited to take classes for a week at the Royal Ballet School.
My mum, being my ballet teacher, accompanied me on the trip and we planned to visit family friends in Birmingham after my week of classes. My mum had an extensive knowledge of ballet companies in the United Kingdom as she received her ballet and teacher training in London, so she suggested I audition for Birmingham Royal Ballet whilst we visited.
I auditioned on the Monday after the company had returned from a tour to Sunderland. If I had visited Birmingham Royal Ballet one week earlier, I wouldn’t have seen the company or the director, David Bintley, in Birmingham, as they would have been away.
Marion Tait, ballet mistress at the time, taught the class and I remember David glancing through the studio doors during barre exercises, when usually the director only watches the centre exercises. There was definitely a sense of intrigue as there was no prior announcement of my arrival for the audition, which is commonplace to do so. As the audition progressed, another ballet master and the assistant artistic director joined David to watch the class. After the audition I met David in his office where he offered me a full contract with the company.
How long have you been in Birmingham now? How do you think it compares to other cities in terms of diversity?
I have been living in Birmingham for 11½ years. I can truly say that it is one of the most diverse cities I have ever been a part of. One thing that really strikes me about it is its inclusiveness and celebration of all backgrounds, cultures, and beliefs.
How do you think the arts in Birmingham reflect its diversity of cultures? How could this be improved?
The arts attract people to Birmingham both on a participatory level and as an audience. I think the diversity of Birmingham is mirrored in its cultural output; dance and other art forms produce work as a result of these cultural cross-pollinations.
I believe that dance should be a more integral part of the school curriculum and my credit goes to the Birmingham Royal Ballet education team who coordinate outreach programmes in the wider community. It is so important for children to have the freedom to express themselves through movement. This, alongside the inclusion of music, develops artistic and meaningful experiences.
What is it like being a black dancer in a ballet company in Birmingham?
It gives me a platform to inspire children, teenagers and adults to pursue their dreams and aspirations, to know that there is nothing stopping them from being the person that they dream to be.
In what ways do the areas of art, music, and education thrive in the city?
Birmingham Hippodrome is one of the busiest and most popular theatres in the UK and provides a wonderful home to us at Birmingham Royal Ballet.
The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra perform an outstanding number of performances every year and recently the Birmingham Conservatoire has relocated to a fine new headquarters where talented musicians can continue to be nurtured. Home to world class universities, Birmingham’s graduation rate is also very high. I graduated with a master’s in philosophy from the University of Birmingham in 2012 and was always in awe of the beautiful campus and facilities available. There are also a number of projects that support the arts to include community input and build stronger and more integrated communities.
How was it to be involved in the Commonwealth Games handover?
Being a Commonwealth citizen myself made me jump at this opportunity. I was born in Trinidad, raised in Canada, currently live in England and have recently become a British citizen. All of the countries that have defined my life are a part of the Commonwealth, therefore it was an honour to be a part of the handover. I really felt that on that day I became an advocate for the Commonwealth, and that gives me great pride.
What excites you most about the opportunity of the upcoming Commonwealth games in Birmingham?
The opportunity of the Commonwealth Games positively brings Birmingham into the spotlight to show the world the talent, thriving industry, and natural beauty of this fantastic city.
What’s On Birmingham Royal Ballet
3-6 October | Birmingham Hippodrome
30-31 October | Sadler’s Wells Theatre