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Julie Felix: I Remember

BY Valentina Valentini

14th Sep 2022 Life

Julie Felix: I Remember

Told that her skin colour wasn't right for the stage, ballet legend Julie Felix left England behind and sought fame leading Black excellence in New York

…going to the local park in Ealing. The swings were my favourite, because I could get myself as high up in the sky as possible.

I would jump about the house because it gave me the same feeling. My mum said, “What are we going to do to stop you from jumping around all over the place?”.

There was a ballet school around the corner, and when she asked if I wanted to have lessons, I said, “Oh, yes, please!”.

…I was 11 when my mum realised how serious I was about dancing. Growing up, my mum showed great talent as a mezzo-soprano opera singer.

Her parents wouldn’t let her pursue her dreams and neither did my father, unfortunately. It was such a shame, but she put all her effort and love of performing into my joy and love of ballet. She was never pushy though.

"When the school fees came in the post, I knew there was absolutely no way we could afford it"

…seeing my first live performance. My mum took me to see Madama Butterfly at The Royal Opera House—her favourite.

We could only afford the cheapest tickets. Sitting up in “the gods”, we looked down on the stage and she whispered, “Julie, if you continue to work really hard and put all your passion and love into ballet, then one day, you could be on that stage.”

…loving Julie Andrews. Even though she was a musical theatre star, I thought she was incredible. So, when I was almost 16, I investigated where she went to school for her training.

She had attended London’s Arts Educational School—quite a few famous people have gone there.

I applied and auditioned—I even had the audacity to sing “My Favourite Things” as part of it! I danced too, of course, and I was offered a place. When the school fees came in the post, I knew there was absolutely no way we could afford it.

I gained so much courage and strength and determination, though—I was not going to let anything deter me. I knew that I could do this. So, I carried on and upped everything, doing higher level ballet exams and festivals.

Julie Felix stands in lineup with other Harlem Dance Theatre ballet dancers dressed in black leotardsJulie Felix found a community of fellow ballet dancers in New York with the Dance Theatre of Harlem

…the minute I walked into the doors of Rambert School of Dance, I thought, I've got to get in here. It was in the Mercury Theatre in Notting Hill Gate at the time and was still a classical ballet school.

The atmosphere, the teachers, even in the audition, it wasn’t a cutthroat feeling. It just felt right. I auditioned and waited to hear back.

…it was a Saturday morning and the post came just before I needed to go to my dance lesson. I saw the letter from Rambert and called Mum into the kitchen. Between the two of us we managed to open the letter.

She read it and told me I got in. I was absolutely elated. I felt like this was where it truly would begin for me.

But my mum’s face fell as she turned the page and saw the school fees. Yet again, it was too expensive. We could not stretch to that amount of money.

Something in me said, “Mum, don’t worry. I’m going to get funding.” At this point, I had a little bit more about me, so I started to investigate. In those days, the Inner London Education Authority were giving grants to talented artists. But I had to audition yet again.

Eventually, they offered me a 75 per cent grant. Our beloved holidays to Cornwall were put on the back burner. I’ll never forget the sacrifices that my family made for me.

"They said that I could train with them, but that I would never perform"

…getting asked to dance with London Festival Ballet (now the English National Ballet). I had so much support from the staff and teachers at Rambert. They obviously saw that I had a huge talent and they nurtured that.

In my third and final year there, about three or four of us were selected as trainee apprentices with the London Festival Ballet. We had no formal contract, but were to do a season with them and take classes, with a performance at the end, and feel what it was like to be a part of a professional dance company.

…how rude Rudolf Nureyev was. One day, we were doing company class and were told that the famous ballet dancer and choreographer would be coming in to teach us in preparation for his version of Sleeping Beauty, which we would eventually perform.

We were all in class early—we were very disciplined. We waited 15 minutes, he didn’t arrive. We waited a half an hour, an hour, and finally, the doors flung open.

Rudolf was notorious for wearing a long, heavy fur coat. Even in the heat. He never put his arms in the sleeves. He flew into the studio, took his coat off, swirled it around his head like a matador, let it fly across the studio floor, clapped his hands and said, “Let’s begin!”.

We hardly got started dancing and he stopped, picked his coat up, didn’t say goodbye to anybody, walked out and left. I’ve known lots of famous people, but I don’t care how famous you are, you must be humble.

…it was like somebody had punched me in the stomach. I was loving every moment of working with a professional company. There was no doubt that this is what I wanted to do with my life.

At the end of my time with them, the artistic director of the London Festival Ballet spoke to my ballet teacher at Rambert and said that they would love to offer me a contract, but that, unfortunately, due to the colour of my skin, I would not look right in a corps de ballet.

They said that I could train with them, but that I would never perform.

Julie Felix wears Dance Theatre Harlem t-shirt while brushing hairJulie Felix went on to tour the world as a principal dancer with the Dance Theatre of Harlem

…the most daunting thing I had ever done was getting on a plane to New York City. I’d been offered a contract with the Dance Theatre of Harlem, but didn’t even have a passport.

In July 1970, I left my beloved Ealing, my beloved family, and touched down in NYC without knowing a single person.

My new employers told me what to do, and I had the money ready, got a yellow taxi and moved into the Webster House for Girls on 34th Street, which was sort of like a hostel. I had to take the subway up to 147th Street in Harlem to get to the studios—it went through a lot of dodgy areas.

New York City was incredibly dangerous in those years, the subways were filthy, there were blackouts, there was looting all the time, cars set on fire.

Once, I saw a Black man shot in the middle of the street by white police officers for some petty theft.

"I had toured all over the world with the Dance Theatre of Harlem, but I was not allowed to dance on a stage in London"

…The Harlem Dance Theatre and their camaraderie. When I began with them, they became my family in a way. I was this young girl from London, and they were so caring, and not just about helping me navigate a new city or learning to be savvy.

It was in the classes and rehearsals, too. If there was a step that somebody didn’t get, we worked on it together.

…coming back to dance at the Royal Opera House. By the early 1980s, I had toured all over the world with the Dance Theatre of Harlem, but I was not allowed to dance on a stage in London. So, I had to go and join a Black company in order to come back and perform at the Royal Opera House.

Both my parents came to the performance, and I’d never seen my dad so proud of me. My mum had the poster from the front of house framed and it was in pride of place in her home until her death. Now it’s in mine.

I stood on that stage, alone in the theatre except for the cleaners, I put my hand on my heart, looked right up at “the gods” and said, “Mum, I’ve done it. I am here dancing on the very stage that you said I could dance on if I worked hard enough. Thank you.”

If I had been offered and accepted a contract with London Festival Ballet, I don’t think I would have had anywhere near the experiences I got to have or reached the level that I did in my career.

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