Impact recently spoke to Órla Baxendale, a 23-year-old dancer from Manchester, about her experiences in the dance industry. A rare opportunity to gain a glimpse into this clandestine and often highly elitist art form, we were keen to hear about Órla’s personal journey within this cutthroat world.
As she answers my call from a buzzing coffee shop in central Brooklyn, New York, it’s clear Órla has come a long way from her Manchester roots.
Beginning her dance training at the Northern Ballet School, Órla told me that she used to leave her academic secondary school early. This enabled her to jump in the car and head straight to the studio, where she would train for numerous hours in the evening, multiple times a week. From a young age, it seems she was no stranger to hard work or sacrifice for the art form that she loved.
Then, aged 15, Órla’s hard work paid off and she was granted a place at the prestigious Elmhurst Ballet School. This was alongside achieving straight As and A*s in her GCSEs: a feat which landed her in local newspapers as an up-and-coming star of her hometown.
Elmhurst Ballet School is located in Birmingham and runs in association with the Birmingham Royal Ballet company, so being granted one of only twenty-seven places felt like “a huge achievement for a young girl from up north”, Órla told me.
Leaving home, Órla suddenly found herself training between five and ten hours a day in order to achieve her goal of becoming a professional dancer: a huge step up from her previous evening classes. She recalls how she was “determined to be as good as the other girls”, many of whom had been in full time vocational training since the age of 11.
she’s captivating in more ways than just her dancing
With the gift of beautifully arched feet and bright red hair, she often found that people commented on how ‘captivating’ she was as a dancer. Listening to Órla speak, with her lilting Mancunian accent, which has withstood the test of her New Yorker surroundings, and her ability to tell a story with perfect timing and wit, I can’t help but think she’s captivating in more ways than just her dancing.
However, ballet does not lend itself well to dancers who stand out from the crowd. A corp de ballet must be entirely uniform: the swaying of many bodies as though they are one whole. Ballet leaves very little room for individuality, at least not unless you’re lucky enough to make it as a soloist or principal.
Órla realised, almost as soon as she came to Elmhurst, that the confines of ballet were not for her. A born performer who loved standing out from the crowd, she had even made a name for herself around the school with the wonderfully bright and whacky clothing she used to wear to class. It became clear she needed to think about other options which may enable her to better express her creativity.
It was then that Órla discovered her passion for contemporary dance. Far less prescriptive than ballet, and often set to a far wider range of music than just classical, Órla found herself falling in love with this exciting style.
Thankfully, it seems she was very good at it too, as the school began pushing her to perform contemporary solos at events and audition for non-classical companies.
Thinking back on this time, Órla told Impact:
“I will always have a deep appreciation for ballet as a dance style. Undoubtedly the most disciplined and simplistically beautiful expression of dance, I know my rigorous classical training has set me in good stead for the rest of my life. But contemporary dance is unlike anything else. It’s so vast and expressive – it covers such a wide range of styles and it gives you the opportunity to develop your individualism as a dancer. I adore everything about it.”
this was “a huge confidence boost”
After graduating Elmhurst, Órla secured a place dancing at the studios of Alvin Ailey in New York: one of the best contemporary schools and companies in the world.
She was also offered a role in Matthew Bourne’s Romeo and Juliet in 2019. Undoubtedly one of the most renowned neoclassical companies in the UK, if not across the globe, this was “a huge confidence boost” for Órla as she first set out on her career.
Since then, she has had countless amazing opportunities come her way. From being featured in Vogue Magazine after participating in New York Fashion week last year, to dancing in The Carnival NYC (an evening where producers and agencies watch talented dancers perform works by notable choreographers in the music video industry), Órla’s world nowadays is a far cry from her life back in Manchester.
This year so far, Órla has already been cast in a new show called English with an Accent, which first premieres on the 1st April 2022 and will tour around the US for the next year. She has also been cast as Juliet in an upcoming performance of Romeo and Juliet.
As I stare at my laptop screen, listening to Órla discuss all she has achieved since she first embarked on her journey as a dancer, I am impressed by her determination and resilience. Even in times of setback and uncertainty, she assures me that her love for dance “never faltered” and if anything, “was the only thing getting me out of bed in the morning in really difficult times”. For the mere mortals amidst us who couldn’t possibly fathom getting up before the sun rises to stretch, ready for a full day of rehearsals, Órla’s life sounds like some dystopian world. But all the same, despite pursuing something so extraordinary, Órla hasn’t lost sight of her roots. Speaking fondly of her hometown and the family she left behind, she says how it can be tough sometimes when she thinks about how much she has given up to pursue dance.
I know that every sacrifice has been entirely worth it.
“I miss my family every day. They’re my world. But then I look out of my apartment window at the buzzing streets of New York City, packing my dance bag ready for another day of training, and I know that every sacrifice has been entirely worth it. I just wouldn’t be me without dance and the people who really care for me know that.”
And on that note, I asked Órla what she thought lay in store next career wise: “My aspirations? Gosh, they never stop evolving and changing as I realise how many amazing opportunities there are out there! To stay in this wonderful city. To continue giving back the gift of dance to the people living here. To strive for constant improvement and perform on as many amazing stages as I possibly can. In short, I’m only just getting started. This red head has plenty more to give – so the world better watch out!”
Her face lights up as she says this last line; her smile filled with joviality, but her eyes clearly detailing how seriously she means what she is saying. With so many impressive achievements to her name at the young age of 23, I have no doubts Órla will go far. It’s just a shame virtual interviews don’t lend themselves particularly well to asking for autographs. I have a feeling Órla’s might be worth something in years to come.
Featured image courtesy of Brian Dowling. Permission to use granted to Impact. No changes made to this image
In-article images courtesy of Brian Dowling, Nir Arieli, and English with an Accent production. Permission to use granted to Impact. No changes made to this image
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