A leap of faith with Ballet West in the Highlands

It takes someone with vision to set up a ballet school on a working farm in the Highlands, but as Gillian Barton explains, this wasn’t part of her retirement plan.

A ballet school set in the rugged Scottish countryside seems a little incongruous, yet for Gillian Barton and her company Ballet West, it is the perfect location.

‘I came back to Scotland from the US to retire because my husband at the time wanted to farm. I wasn’t planning on doing any teaching, but I would see the young girls and boys hanging around the monument in Taynuilt and I thought I could give them something that would make them feel good about themselves and enjoy. I only had two students for a while, then all of a sudden I had a small group who did incredibly well and it just grew from there.’

Ballet West is going from strength to strength, formed over 33 years ago, offering an HND and a BA honours in collaboration with Northumberland University, as well as workshops and classes around the country, plus a summer school and touring productions.

‘I think it’s unheard of to have a school doing such high-profile work based in a rural location,’ Gillian continues. ‘I think part of it is down to our ethos – we really care about young people and put them first.

‘They get a tremendous benefit from dance – they feel good about themselves, it helps with posture and with sport, in particular the boys playing football and rugby tend to find their feet work much faster. They also learn to work as a team. I don’t really think you could put a value on the skills it teaches them.’

Ballet West graduates now work around the world with classical ballet companies, in West End theatres, and in universities. But what does the future hold for the school itself?

‘We’ve been so successful that at the moment we desperately need a large, new studio, so we’re trying to raise funds for that and hope to have it up and running soon,’ says Gillian. ‘We just want to keep delivering really high standards of dance and continue working with young people .’

(This feature was originally published in 2015)