Dancer Leigh Alderson’s Incredible Career Took Him From An NI Stage To Across The Atlantic

Flight of freedom, by Karin Pritzel

Originating from Portadown, Northern Ireland, 29 year old professional ballet dancer Leigh Alderson is an extraordinary example of the great artistic talent to emerge from this country.

laCurrently living in Montreal, Canada, Leigh is a Demi-Soloist with Les Grands Ballets Canadiens and has a litany of career achievements behind him.

Leigh spoke exclusively to BAM Mag about how the curiosity of a seven year old boy from NI lead to a successful career in the arts.

Hi Leigh! How did you first start dancing?

“Growing up in Northern Ireland in the early 90s, i don’t ever remember being exposed to any type of dancing. It was truly just an off the cuff remark of an overly hyperactive child…I asked my mother if i could dance. And i wanted to do ballet.

“My mother, Jennifer, while only too happy to oblige, if not only to shut me up and tucker me out. She thought like many would have back then: What an odd hobby for a young boy in Northern Ireland. It was rare for boys to take up dancing. But i absolutely, without thought or hesitation, knew its was what i needed to do.”

What inspired you to want to become a full time ballet dancer?

“My mother enrolled me in the The Donna Whitten Dance Studio which had built a very healthy reputation for solid training for young people in the Craigavon area, and to date can boast a number of students who later went on to have professional careers and further training in England. It was a 6 week summer course.

Leigh about to go on stage during The Nutcracker - photo by Beau Campbell

Leigh about to go on stage during The Nutcracker – photo by Beau Campbell

“My mother foolishly thought it would cool my heels and I’d soon exhaust of the idea. Oh, how she laughs about that now!

“I enrolled in the school after and kept dancing 2 or 3 times a week. As I got older I realized that my passion was still very much ballet, while learning other types of dance such as tap and modern. My teacher at the time, Donna, suggested that I continue my ballet training with Susan McMillan in Lisburn. Susan did wonderful things for me. First and foremost she put me through all my R.A.D training (Royal Acadamy of Dance, which is an examination) and then later she fully encouraged and helped start the process of me auditioning for The Royal Ballet School summer program in 1997, and later to audition for the full time training in London in 1998. It was then that i started my journey with The Royal Ballet School. I studied there for the full 8 years and graduated at 19.”

Where else have you trained?

“Since graduating The Royal Ballet School in 2006, I began my career with Scottish Ballet. I was there for 2 years and spent a further year in the UK with two other companies: New English Contemporary Ballet (now defunct) and Alan Foleys Cork City Ballet, based in Cork. What Alan does is truly amazing, he brings such a high calibre of international ballet stars to lead his productions, which is really remarkable and truly a blessing for Ireland.

“After shooting some scenes as a “featured dancer” in the dance film Street Dance 3D, I set sail for Canada and began dancing with The Atlantic Ballet Theatre of Canada. I was there for 3 years before moving to Montreal and I am now currently starting my fourth season (4th year) with Les Grands Ballets. This is officially my 10th year of being a professional dancer and 22 years since i began dancing at the tender age of 7. It’s mind boggling!”

What has been the highlight of your career?

“I hope i haven’t had the highlight of my career yet. I like to think it will always keep growing and progressing, even when my body starts to fail me. I want to embrace the changes and fall in love with what dancing means to me in different ways. Life should be about that i believe.

Leigh stretching in the studio

Leigh stretching in the studio

“But to name a few moments that have brought me joy…filming a short ballet film to an original Jerry Burns song. She has had music in several major motion pictures (Cruel Intentions, Wings Of Desire, Crush) and worked with some amazing people, most recently the incredible Craig Armstrong. We filmed it in 2009 in Scotland. It was made available to view online after a short stint on the Film Festival circuit.

“Not much longer after that i did a very special shoot with Dublin based artist Karin Pritzel. We went to the coast in Ireland and took a shot. Something just ‘clicked’ and we created something really beautiful. The photograph, later named “Flight of Freedom” sort of took on a life of its own. Famed fashion designer Malan Breton used the image as inspiration for his Fall fashion collection at New York Fashion Week. The piece has been sold numerous times as a print to raise money for a variety of charities, been part of a calendar and is now part of a book, “Quoted Moments”, which is available to purchase online and the proceeds go towards the Irish Cancer Society (

“While heading off to the Royal Ballet School, i was rather fortunate to have the BBC follow my journey with a series of documentary films. For me this was fun and I feel incredibly lucky that such a pivotal part of my life has been recorded this way for me to always remember.”

What are the most memorable productions that you have featured in?

“In terms of my dancing career, two moments really stick out for me: Dancing in Toronto and Suttgart at 19 in my graduate year at the Royal Ballet School. I was cast in one of the most beautiful things i have ever performed, “Four Last Songs” by Rudi Van Dantzig. He saw my fragile confidence, which i struggled hard with, and wrote me a letter after the performances telling me that i was special. I try to never have regrets, but one of the saddest moments of my life was never getting around to writing back before he died. It broke my heart.

Rehearsing with Anya Nesvitaylo, also a Demi Soloist with Les Grands - photo by Sasha Onyshchenko

Rehearsing with Anya Nesvitaylo, also a Demi Soloist with Les Grands – photo by Sasha Onyshchenko

“I remember feeling so alive on stage performing in his work. Dancing the role of the Prince in Mats Eks ‘Sleeping Beauty’ was another special piece for me. I hope i can continue to add to this list and that my appreciation of what i do never fades.”

What has been the hardest part of your career?

“The hardest part of dancing, apart from the constant scrutiny you put yourself through, the mental games you play, the feeling of defeat you sometimes have and the general pain your body is in, is of little consequence because we have this love/hate relationship with dance and we know what we are setting ourselves up for. And truly, it is worth it. That incredible feeling you have on stage is nothing short of true joy.

“But for me, the hardest point of my career was trying to continue after the suicide of my fiance in 2012, a month before our wedding. I completely fell apart and had a hard time picking up the pieces. We all do grief differently, some need desperately to throw themselves back into work. I wish it was like that for me, i sort of just gave up on life. Thankfully over time, i feel strong and passionate about my art again, but it was a hard up hill climb.”

Where can young people interested in a career in dance go to in NI?

“There is so much going on in Northern Ireland now, more than ever before, which is so reassuring and very encouraging. The Donna Whitten Dance Studio has now become The Portadown Dance College and is now run by a dear friend Rachael Scott, whom i grew up dancing with as a very young boy. The torch has been passed and now she continues to do the same great work that Donna did before and is really pushing the school forward.

During ballet class, photo by Sasha Onyshchenko

During ballet class, photo by Sasha Onyshchenko

“I know that Susan McMillan also continues to offer excellent ballet training. She worked extremely hard for me which is so important if the student wants to actually pursue a career past a weekly hobby.

“Most recently I became very aware of the great work another two young ladies were doing. One, Jill Dickson Monte, I knew very well. We both trained under Donna Whitten and left for London in the same year. Our careers took us in two different directions, but after a ten year performing career, she focused on creating a family and has now opened up her own studio in Portadown, Respira Dance. Fortunately she has teamed up with another hard worker, Tamy Conn, who runs the Mrs Conns Dance Academy along side her blossoming ConnfiDANCE Ballet NI, a professional youth ballet company that is the first of its kind in Northern Ireland.”

How will this help the arts community in Northern Ireland?

“Both girls are joining forces to excel the company forward. I think this is such an incredible opportunity for young aspiring performers in N.I. Certainly leaps above what we had when i first started when the likes of Donna and Susan , my first teachers, started paving the way for good solid training in N.I. I was very honored beyond measure to be asked to give my patronage to ConnfiDANCE NI, which i accepted gratefully without any hesitation.

“What i do hope continues to grow is the communication between all the teachers and coaches of Northern Ireland. We have such a stable platform now which can lead to such great things. We must nurture that community that has been built and keep growing.”

What are your interests outside of dance?

“I love music and films. I’m a little bit of a film nerd. I’m desperately trying to make myself read and educate myself with some new piece of information each day. Its all about growth.

Rehearsing Mats Eks Sleeping Beauty (Prince and Aurora - with Valentine Legat, first soloist with Les Grands Ballets.)

Rehearsing Mats Eks Sleeping Beauty (Prince and Aurora – with Valentine Legat, first soloist with Les Grands Ballets.)

“I have become very fond of cycling around Montreal. Im a Sagittarius, so by nature we are wild untamed and in desperate need of travel.

“My job offers me this luxury but i need to make more effort to see even more of the world. I hope to start being more active in this and if I’m lucky, I will be able to do this with my family. That would be rather special if we could sync schedules.

“My younger brother is so busy with 3 functioning ventures. He has D’S Emporium, his cocktail specialist service which caters weddings and parties (he makes the best Cosmopolitan I have ever tasted!), his White Rabbit Coffee Co, and his National Beerpong Association. He’s very business savy. I admire that so much about him.

“Often when i have time off i just end up going home and spending some much needed time with my amazing Mum. She is the most incredible person…a never ending supply of love, support. I’m extremely lucky. I also bet you 5 quid she burst out crying when she read that…she’s a big softy!”

What are your goals for the future?

“I have lots of things I want to try and achieve. Getting older I understand when they say that there just isn’t enough hours in the day! I recently shot a short horror film, which was very fun and very up my alley. I love scary movies and i love acting, so this was a good project for me to learn a bit more about that craft.

“I also shot another feature length independent film which I’m excited to see completed! So for sure acting, but i would also love to be behind the camera directing one day. I’d love to run a ballet company, or even manage and run a theatre. Something definitely involved with the arts. I think I’ll be in the arts till the very end!”

Is there anything else you would like to add?

“I’d love to add that I have an amazing support group in Northern Ireland, amazing childhood friends (Yes you, Nicola Brenchley and so many others!) I love you all. My amazing family, June Dave, David, Daryn and most importantly my Mama! You have all supported me and been a huge reason why I can keep going when things get rough. The biggest thank you.”

About the Author

Abby Williams
Belfast based author/writer specialising in entertainment, mental health and human interest.