28 October 2015 at 3.01pm | 6 Comments
'The face of ballet is changing', says Solomon Golding, the first black British male dancer at The Royal Ballet. 'A lot of dancers aren’t from wealthy backgrounds and aren’t born with a silver spoon in their mouths', he says. 'Ballet doesn't discriminate – if you’re good enough you will make it'.
Born in Tottenham, Solomon spent his early years moving around London, West Africa and Jamaica with his father and mother, the latter of whom was an avid fan of The Royal Ballet. Solomon's own interest in dance began when his grandmother sent him a VHS of Wallace and Gromit, with a Royal Ballet Christmas Special also recorded by accident: ‘I loved it and when the next video my grandmother sent was Billy Elliot, it just resonated’.
Having started dancing in West Africa, the opportunity of formal training presented itself upon the family’s return to England, at Octagon Studios in Ely, Cambridgeshire. Solomon’s whole family were involved, with his father renovating the studio in exchange for lessons for Solomon and his siblings in ballet and drama. So quick was Solomon's progression and development that a suggestion of an audition to The Royal Ballet School soon followed.
In a twist of fate, Golding was turned down for a place following his audition, only to be offered a place by then Director of the School, Gailene Stock after she saw him in class. The offer was a mixed blessing: ‘My dad was really, really happy but my mum was a bit reserved’. He explains that her experiences as a social worker gave her concerns about his background and British institutions: ‘She said, “Solomon you’re half black and you’re from a council estate – this doesn’t really happen and I don’t know how many people like you they’ve seen before”’. His father was more optimistic: ‘We’ve always been a very proud family', says Solomon. 'My dad's view was, "Is The Royal Ballet School the best school for him to do ballet in the country, if not the world? If so, I want him to be there"'.
Upon joining The Royal Ballet's Lower School at White Lodge in Richmond, by his own admission, Solomon found himself slightly out of his depth and while strongly rejecting any notion of prejudice, did encounter preconceptions:
'There was to a small degree, a stereotype that black dancers don't have ideal feet for ballet. But by that logic, all white dancers have perfect turn out which is patently ridiculous!'
Soon after joining the school, Solomon began being taught by Anita Young, previously a Royal Ballet Soloist, and a great influence on his career since. 'She was almost like a family member - we'd just sit and listen', he recalls. I remember once when we were in the Pavlova Studio at White Lodge, she said: “Always take your work seriously but never yourself”. That ignited my passion.’
After graduating from the School, Solomon joined Hong Kong Ballet. He was the first black company member in their history and is full of praise for them - ‘it’s a great ballet company and an amazing city', he enthuses. After visa issues stalled a move to Boston Ballet, Solomon turned back to London and was offered a position with The Royal Ballet. He is now in his third Season with the Company and has performed in Connectome and Romeo and Juliet among many other works. Solomon also created a role in Hofesh Shechter’s Untouchable and describes the production as ‘a real moment’. 'The Company is an international melting pot where change is being driven by directors with vision', he says. 'Kevin O’Hare has done some great things'.
Access is vital for both The Royal Ballet Company and School and Solomon points to the value of initiatives including World Ballet Day, live cinema relays and Chance to Dance, a Royal Ballet-run community programme offering dance training to children in Lambeth, Southwark and Thurrock.
'Ballet should be accessible to all', says Solomon. 'Using social media, online streaming and cinema relays audiences can see what we're up to on a daily basis and see if it's for them.'
There are of course many distinguished black male dancers in the Company from other countries, including Carlos Acosta, Fernando Montaño, Marcelino Sambé and Eric Underwood but Solomon sets this challenge for black British dancers:
‘Of course, I feel like there could be a lot more black dancers represented', he says. 'But it works both ways. There can be more done in minority communities to encourage ballet. If you want to see more black dancers, then be those black dancers that you want to see.'