At the epicentre of London City Island stands the home of English National Ballet, a striking minimalist building with a translucent white exterior. Designed by Glenn Howells Architects, who also masterminded the colourful residential towers at London City Island, the award-winning building invites the public to view the activities of the distinguished company through translucent and lightweight materials. On clear days you can even see the dancers rehearsing from the Island’s iconic 80m red bridge.
As more and more creative and cultural institutions migrate to east London, Glenn Howells saw an opportunity for the building to act as a ‘focal point for ballet in the capital and on the world stage’. The spacious new home marks a milestone in English National Ballet’s history, and includes state-of-the-art training, fitness and teaching facilities, seven stage-sized rehearsal spaces and a unique production studio with five-storey fly tower.
This is where Ivana Bueno, Artist of the Company, has been coming to rehearse since the company moved to its new location from west London in 2019.
Ivana’s first encounter with English National Ballet took place while she was still studying at the Princess Grace Academy in Monaco. It was there that Tamara Rojo, Artistic Director of English National Ballet, saw the young Mexican ballerina dance in class, recognised her talent and offered her a contract. A year later, in 2018, upon graduating from the Academy, Ivana joined English National Ballet as an Artist of the Company. It was a dream come true.
Ivana started dancing when she was four years old. The first time she performed, she realised it was something she wanted to do forever: ‘It wasn’t even a big role, I was just running across the stage, but my body was full of goosebumps and I just loved it.’ She still experiences the same emotions now as she did then, even though there has been less scope for performing to an audience over the past 15 months.
When the pandemic hit, lockdown forced Ivana, like many other professional dancers, to adapt her routine. It led her to explore new forms of exercising, from pilates to boxing. Looking back, however, Ivana has no doubt as to what helped her remain positive: ‘The Emerging Dancer competition really helped me to stay motivated because I knew I would have this competition as soon as I would be out of lockdown. I didn’t want to be out of shape.’
“It’s a dream to be in this building. It’s been great and has opened so many doors.”
IVANA BUENO, ARTIST OF THE COMPANY, ENGLISH NATIONAL BALLET
The annual Emerging Dancer competition celebrates the rising stars of English National Ballet and Ivana was one of six finalists for the 2020 event. In July – after the first lockdown ended and dancers were able to resume rehearsals at the studios (in bubbles, with an adapted timetable and precautions in place) – Ivana practiced for her first principal role as a professional ballerina.
The competition final was broadcast online from the new Holloway Production Studio, a space that had been expressly designed as a productive technical theatre space in which to rehearse and produce performances, and which possibly came in useful sooner than anyone could have imagined. The digital format made up for the lack of an audience: ‘We were able to broadcast it to the whole world. It was so emotional for me knowing that all of my people in Mexico were watching me dance.’
Her stellar performance won her the competition. Reflecting on her win, she describes the entire experience as a valuable life lesson. ‘I just did it for me. It taught me that that’s the way you have to go for everything in life.’
Ivana is full of praise for the City Island building. Not only does it have world-class facilities, such as a gym and a hydrotherapy room, but it has also proven to be a lifeline for dancers during the pandemic by providing them with the space needed to be Covid safe. She says: ‘It’s a dream to be in this building. I don’t know what would have happened if we were having to deal with Covid-19 in the facilities that we had before, so I’m very grateful that we were able to move before the pandemic. It’s been great: it has opened so many doors.’ One of those doors, competition aside, was the possibility for the company to produce a successful digital season of films, all shot at the London City Island studios.
Although set against the bleak backdrop of a pandemic, 2020 marked an auspicious first year for English National Ballet’s new home. Nestled among the other buildings on City Island, it has seamlessly integrated into its surroundings. Talking about the location, Ivana says: ‘I love the fact that there is a little community. Everyone knows each other, everyone is super nice, including with us dancers. They are really interested in what we do and in how our day goes.’
“I love the fact that there is a little community here. Everyone is super nice, including with us dancers.”
IVANA BUENO, ARTIST OF THE COMPANY, ENGLISH NATIONAL BALLET
A mere three years into her career, the dancer is excited for the journey that lies ahead. Her long-term ambitions are to perform as many roles as possible including Manon and Giselle. Of the latter she says: ‘I love how much acting, how much emotion you can put in that ballet.’ Ultimately, she remains very humble: ‘I just want to learn as much as I can, soak up all the information that I can, so that then, in the future, I will be able to deliver that information to new generations.’ Part of that goal involves, one day, returning to Mexico to transmit her love of dance to young dancers there.
Right now, however, Ivana is focused on upcoming performances including Solstice at the Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall in June (16-26). Her delight at the prospect of returning to the stage – and, with that, the goosebump-inducing thrills of dancing for a live audience – is palpable.
Discover more at ballet.org.uk
Words by Ginger Rose Clark
Photography by Buster Grey-Jung