As she eases into her post-ballet life, Zenaida Yanowsky talks to Ballet Position about the Royal Ballet and the future
She graced the stage at Covent Garden with poise, versatility and uncommon intelligence, her smallest gesture capable of conveying a wealth of inner emotion.
And then on 7th June 2017, aged 42, Zenaida Yanowsky danced Ashton’s Marguerite one last time and said goodbye to the Royal Ballet; though not entirely to performance – not yet.
“I thought to stop abruptly would maybe have emotional consequences, and I thought I didn’t want to have that separation anxiety.”
Almost a year after her semi-retirement, Zenaida Yanowsky remains every inch a ballerina. Tall, trim and willowy, it’s hard to believe she no longer does class every day, but “I do keep my body… yeah… in check.”
And she’s still dancing, though sporadically.
“I felt very strongly if maybe instead of just stopping in a harsh way I would trickle it down, so that I’d be able to choose things that would allow me to still enjoy my work without the physicality and the pressures [of] maybe a big organisation like the Opera House with such high level and talent .”
She ’s the subject of the BBC documentary The Dying Swan,* which follows her recovery from a knee operation and progress towards a gala performance of Dying Swan – not her choice of work, but she acknowledges the symbolism.
And later this month she will be on stage at the Barbican dancing one of her favourite roles in choreographer Will Tuckett and librettist Alasdair Middleton’s Elizabeth.**
A dance-drama drawn from diaries, poetry, plays and other writings from the Elizabethan period, Elizabeth blends dance, music and the spoken word, to give an impressionistic account of Elizabeth I’s reign, her life and loves. It had a short run at the ROH’s Linbury studio in 2013.
It was created on Zenaida, and she loves it.
“I love story-telling and I thought that was a brilliant way of story-telling. (…) Nobody ever really told the story of Elizabeth through her love letters and poems, and how beautiful, how extraordinary!
“I love the team, and yes, it was created for me, I was very frustrated that work was never pushed forward, because I always felt it was such a jewel of a work.”
Carlos Acosta was Zenaida’s original partner in Elizabeth, taking on all the roles of the Queen’s favourites. Acosta is now retired and back in Cuba running his own company. So, who’s going to replace him?
“My brother!” and she dissolves into gales of laughter.
Talk of her older brother Yury, formerly a Principal Dancer with Boston Ballet, takes us down memory lane to the days when the siblings – “we kind of are like twins, we’re only one year apart” – growing up in the Canary Islands and being coached by their parents, dancers Anatol Yanowsky and Carmen Robles, started their careers together.
“We would do competitions and we always teamed up together. My parents, who were our teachers, felt that we would be stronger contenders as a team than separately. (…)
“And then he decided to go to Boston Ballet, I decided to go to Paris Opera and start my career there. So, even if we both thought we were going to have a career together, in the same company, I think I was very stubborn about where I wanted to start, and Paris Opera was always my dream and I felt I suited their physicality, I was tall,” (she’s 1,75 m tall) “that was my handicap…
“So, through the 80s we hardly connected, and so now I really wanted to reconnect at the end.”
Paris may have been Zenaida Yanowsky’s dream, but it proved a disappointment, and by 1994 she was on the move, aiming for Amsterdam and Dutch National Ballet. She came via London, where fate intervened.
Zenaida Yanowksy – Looking Into the Rainbow
She auditioned for the Royal Ballet.
“I came, I did an audition, but felt there is no way they’re ever going to… because I’m so tall… and.. blah, blah. But you know, after a few days [Artistic Director] Anthony [Dowell] said, ‘I’ve got a job for you if you want to stay.’ What???”
Her face takes on an expression of sheer incredulity, and again she laughs heartily. She goes on:
“When I was offered the job, of course I said, ‘yeah! yeah, yeah, I’ll take it, fine!’ and I remember [they said] ‘when do you want to start you’ve got to go home, get your stuff…’ ‘No,’ I said, ‘tomorrow, I’ll start tomorrow, is that OK?’ ‘Yeah, OK.’ ‘Then I’ll start tomorrow.’ I think I was terrified to lose that opportunity, that they would think twice…”
She laughs again, but then laughter gives way to a sense of wonder, as she recalls sitting in on a rehearsal.
“It was Sarah Wildor, and Stuart Cassidy, Johnny Cope, I mean, everybody, Viviana [Durante]… and I remember sitting there thinking, wow, I have fallen on my feet. This is what I want. I had never seen such theatricality in dance…
“For me at the time it felt like I was looking into a rainbow and I wanted to be in that rainbow.”
And she did become part of that rainbow for a wonderful 23 years, where she progressed from First Artist to Principal and brought unforgettable colour and definition to many of the main characters in the Royal’s repertoire.
Like Natalia Petrovna, in Ashton’s A Month in the Country.
She also brought to the stage a wicked sense of humour, which spiced up characters like a memorable Carabosse in The Sleeping Beauty and a scarily funny Queen of Hearts created on her by Christopher Wheeldon in his ballet Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
Zenaida Yanowsky – The Path to Swan Lake
Despite all that, the one feather missing from a her cap as her career progressed was Swan Lake.
And that she finally got to do in 2007, soon after returning from her second maternity leave – she has two children with her husband, the baritone Simon Keenlyside.
“It was very hard. I felt strongly for various reasons that I needed to come back as soon as possible, within reason (…) And I remember, it was wonderful because Lesley Collier was coaching me at the time, and she had had two kids herself, so she knew what coming back was.
“And she wasn’t bullying me, but at the same time I could see in her eyes that she felt I wasn’t going to make it (laughs) because I did say to her, ‘listen Lesley, if I don’t make it, I don’t make it – it’s fine, so people get sick and they get replaced in two seconds, it’s not a problem (…)’
“It was pretty much three days before [the performance] that I got the strength I needed for it. And then it happened and I was pleased for many reasons, mainly for the achievement, but also because I felt that, despite all the hard work and sense of achievement, I felt at heart that I had given a good performance.”
Zenaida Yanowsky: Beyond the Rainbow
So, what of the future? The family, of course, is a priority; wanting to spend quality time with her children was a key factor in her decision to retire from the Royal; and we sense that cycling to school with her children every morning is a particular pleasure. Beyond that?
“Right now I want to have a break, I want to enjoy a little bit of time off, obviously I’m still dancing a little bit, [but] I want to find who I am as a person also, what makes me tick outside dance (…) because you know, as a dancer and as an artist despite my security on stage, where I know I’ve always had a sense of ownership, outside the stage I’m extremely insecure, (…) and so I have to find something that I feel maybe confident about.”
We’re quite sure that won’t be as a car dealer (her son’s suggestion), or a hairdresser (her daughter’s)… but we have no doubt that after a career littered with distinctions and awards, which left the critics reaching for superlatives and etched indelible memories in the minds of her public, Zenaida Yanowsky will soon find a new fitting role beyond the rainbow.
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by Teresa Guerreiro
*The Dying Swan is on BBC Four on Monday, 7th May, at 19:30 and on iPlayer afterwards
**Elizabeth is at the Barbican Theatre, 16th – 19th May at 19:45