She has danced in Italy, France, Spain, China and the UK, and is a rising star with the Scottish Ballet. Who would have thought all this was possible, from a girl whose parents were told she might never walk? Jane Vella meets Brenda Lee Grech, a 22-year-old from Zejtun, together with her parents, Susan and Lawrence Grech.
I meet Brenda Lee when she is home for her summer holidays. She’s a pretty, bubbly and enthusiastic young woman, and it proves quite a feat to keep up with her happy chatter.
“I always wanted to be a dancer, but I never believed it could be possible,” she tells me,as we leaf through a number of international ballet magazines where she has been featured. She also shows me some of her childhood photos – a smiling little girl with a pom-pom in each hand.
When Brenda Lee was born, doctors thought she had a condition that could leave her unable to walk. Her parents were shocked, but luckily it turned out to be a false alarm. They soon told them it was just an error and that Brenda was perfectly healthy, explains Susan. “And now, I don’t only walk, I dance on the tips of my toes,” her daughter adds.
It all began with a dance school opening in her hometown. “I came home one day and told mum that I wanted to go. When I had my first lesson and saw my teacher, I felt so excited,” she says. “If my mum had known what was coming, she might not have wanted me to go. But she thought it was a phase.”
This was followed by training at the Johane Casabene Dance Conservatoire, before joining the Scuola di Ballo del Teatro alla Scala (Milan) for full-time training. She then went on to join Ballet d’ Europe (Marseilles) as an apprentice, where she had her first professional performance.
Upon joining Ballet d’Europe, Brenda wasn’t sure whether she’d actually be performing with them. However, two dancers got injured, and this twist of fate meant that she’d be going to Spain to take part in Mozart’s Requiem. “It’s such a beautiful dance, the flow of movement, a neo classical piece. And the music is incredible,” Brenda recalls.
“do you think I can live without my heart?”
Ballet d’Europe was followed by Ballet Central, with whom she read for a B.A course in Dance and Professional Performance, and later the Scottish Ballet, her full time job today.
I ask Brenda if her parents supported her decision to pursue ballet as a career. “That was the first argument,” she admits, “they were worried I would fall behind at school. And they wanted me to go to University.” However, her parents’ fears were unfounded, “I never disappointed them academically. I used my good results at school as a weapon,” she says, laughing.
On the eve of her Maths and English ‘O’ level exams in Malta, Brenda had the La Scala auditions in Italy. She made it through both the exams and the audition so that come summer, it was off to La Scala. “Mum said that after summer we needed to talk and consider my options. But after the apprenticeship in France, I never looked back. Every dancer dreams of dancing with a company. My dad had also finally understood and told mum, ‘we can’t hold her back anymore. She wants to dance’.” Susan admits that she still asked her daughter to stop dancing a number of times, especially during her ‘O’ Levels. “Whenever I did she used to reply, ‘do you think I can live without my heart?’”
“Brenda was right,” her father explained, “we were so proud when she graduated. It was amazing, the students dancing, the beautiful theatre.”
“After Brenda performed she got a lot of applause. There were some other students that didn’t get so much,” adds Susan, “I remember thinking, ‘God forbid my daughter gets little applause!’”
After graduation, Brenda was faced with a dilemma. “People in Malta would ask me; what are you planning to do next? Won’t you miss us? What will you get out of dancing? Some don’t understand that it’s hard work.”
The B.A course itself not only involved a thesis, which included a write-up and a practical, but also a tour and a blog, where she would record her experiences. “The tour prepares you for a professional career. You learn all that goes into it – even fitting the flooring on which you’re going to dance.” After the B.A, Brenda was one of the lucky few who found a job with a classical ballet company.
The dancer admits that in such a career, it’s difficult to make friends. “When I was with the Ballet d’Europe, almost everyone was much older,” she explains, “I’d be online with my family all the time, and sleep with my laptop on.” Luckily, in the Scottish Ballet, her colleagues are closer to her age, yet there is a lot of competition amongst them. To find friends outside work is quite tough: “I finish work at six, and I’d be exhausted. All I’d want to do is put my feet up and relax.” She admits that sometimes she does question what she’s doing, especially when she feels lonely. “However, when I come to Malta for a little while, I just want to go back.”
Brenda’s first contract with the Scottish Ballet was short-term, for six months. “Then they decide if they’re going to take you on or not.” She explains that she was up against six other girls, all fighting for the same job. Once the contract came to a close, Brenda’s was extended for four more months, after which she joined the company on full-time basis.
“she was up against six other girls, all fighting for the same job”
Brenda explains that the Scottish Ballet performs with a live orchestra. “My very first performance was a solo. It was too much for me,’’ she confesses. “I was one of Aurora’s fairies in Sleeping Beauty.” She explains that performing with conductors who understand dance is an exhilarating experience. “They know our steps, and when we’re going to stop. You really get into the performance with a live orchestra.”
So what’s next on the cards? “Besides taking part in our autumn tour, I have to work on strengthening my ankle due to an injury I suffered this year.”
I ask her where she sees herself in the future. “I’ll definitely stick to dancing, but I don’t know what the future holds. I love the Scottish Ballet and I’m happy with my job.” She is well aware that she can’t be a dancer all her life, though she still wishes to do just that. “Then again, that’s what’s beautiful about life – you can let it guide you and there’s no telling where it will take you.”