“In my day-to-day life I’m so uncoordinated,” says Arielle Smith. “I’ve never had a test, but I’m pretty sure I’m dyspraxic.” It’s an unusual admission for a choreographer, but like stutterers who find they can sing fluently, “somehow when I’m in a studio in front of 30 people I can kind of get it together. Dance helps my brain in a way I just can’t describe.”
That power of movement to unlock the unexpected is behind Smith’s latest project, a film for children made with the Unicorn theatre and director Rachel Bagshaw. It’s a call for kids who’ve been stuck behind computers during the pandemic to leap to their feet and connect with each other IRL. Let Loose features dancers from English National Ballet, first stuck in Zoom rooms but gradually finding their freedom in lively, colourful dance scenes. Much of the concern about children being off school has been about academic attainment, “but so much development is done through interacting with people, being in a room together, able to talk and touch and play,” says Smith.
Smith’s own experience of the past year hasn’t been all bad. “I have got some survivor’s guilt, because I’ve had a relatively quite nice year, career-wise,” she says. Just turned 25, her reputation as a choreographer is very much on the rise, and last summer Smith was commissioned to make a dance film for English National Ballet alongside world-class choreographers Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Yuri Possokhov. Her homage to silent movies, Jolly Folly, was joyful, witty and inventive, and came with classical-meets-salsa soundtrack.
Born in Havana and brought up in Camden, north London (her dad is Cuban, her mum British-Irish), Smith has kept in touch with her Cuban roots. “Growing up biracial, from two very different places, I connected with both sides of myself,” she says. One thing she loves about Cuba is how big ballet is there. “Everyone loves it,” she says. “You go to your hairdresser and she went to the ballet the day before. I wish the UK cared a bit more about the arts in the same way.”
Smith comes from a “very working class” background (her dad is now a university lecturer and librarian, and her mum a primary school teacher). Her dad is “a big dreamer” and her parents were hugely supportive. She was serious about dance at a young age but couldn’t afford to attend enough classes in London, so Smith and her mum worked out that her best bet was to try to win a scholarship to a performing arts school, aged 11, where all her costs would be covered. It worked out for her, but Smith is vocal about the financial barriers to dance training. “There are some great programmes out there, like Chance to Dance, but I think that a lot of the lack of representation in dance is to do with how expensive it is – things like pointe shoes, they’re 40 quid a pop, and you really go through them.”
At 16, Smith went to the Rambert school, and having made dances for her fellow students and the National Youth Ballet, went straight into creating her own work after graduating (while holding down a day job to pay the rent). At 22, she was hired as an associate choreographer on Matthew Bourne’s Romeo and Juliet and her career was on track.
The secret of her success so young? Partly, she just didn’t see the barriers. “I didn’t know the limitations society had on people like me,” she says (although she did her dissertation on the lack of women in senior roles in dance). And, she admits: “I’ve been really lucky.” Perhaps most importantly: “I’m not afraid of putting myself in slightly uncomfortable situations.” Naturally warm and ebullient, you can imagine Smith makes friends everywhere she goes. “This is what I talk to students about; if you like a company, tell them. People think everyone’s big and scary – well, some people are big and scary, but often they’re happy to help you.” Bourne got in touch with Smith after seeing a piece of her work, “and I really latched on to that,” she says. “It’s getting a foot in the door and putting yourself out there.”
Since working with Bourne, Smith has a new interest in storytelling, but she’s still developing her craft, working across classical and contemporary dance. She has a drive to make work that’s meaningful and relevant. “As a person I guess I’m quite politically charged,” says Smith. “When I was training in classical ballet, every part I was learning existed because of the man on stage. I’d either die of a broken heart, or wait for him to save me. And I had a massive problem with that – what message are we sending? We need new narratives that reflect the 21st century.”
The dances she’s made this year, however, are full of joy and humour, whimsy and a certain nostalgia, because that’s what the world needs right now. “We have to remember the audience is the most important thing,” she says. “After the year we’ve had, I just want to make people smile.”