Fumi Kaneko – A Deeply Affecting Juliet

Fumi Kaneko as Juliet in MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet © ROH 2021. Photo: Bill Cooper

Newly-minted Royal Ballet principal dancer Fumi Kaneko talks to Ballet Position in the aftermath of her stunning debut as Juliet

Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet is a narrative masterpiece, distilling in its structure and choreography all the passion and ultimate tragedy of Shakespeare’s doomed young lovers.

Add to that Prokofiev’s magnificent, eloquent score, and it’s easy to see why Romeo and Juliet is one of the best loved works in The Royal Ballet’s repertoire. Having seen it countless times, I didn’t expect to be surprised, much less blown away, when I took my seat at the Royal Opera House for a matinée towards the end of October.

The lovers were to be danced by William Bracewell, a stylish and very affecting Romeo, and in only her second performance as Juliet the Japanese dancer Fumi Kaneko, with whose work as a technically accomplished dancer in both classical and contemporary repertoire I was familiar.

Fumi Kaneko as Juliet, William Bracewell as Romeo © ROH 2021 Photo: Bill Cooper

Yet, by the end of the performance I was an emotional wreck, such was the intensity Kaneko brought to the role. Hers was an interpretation that blended careful characterisation with an instinctive freshness and small telling gestures that were hers alone. In the final scene, where Juliet is faced with Romeo’s dead body, Kaneko was the epitome of utter, profound desolation, a Juliet overwhelmed by the magnitude of a loss she couldn’t quite comprehend.

It reduced me to tears.

So, when I met Fumi Kaneko at the Royal Ballet’s Covent Garden home, I naturally wanted to hear more about her Juliet.

“When I was cast I was surprised, because I’ve turned 30 now and I didn’t think Kevin [O’Hare, the company’s director] would cast me.”

At this point it’s only fair to note that with her delicate features and inspired acting, she looked very much the 14-year-old Juliet.

“Then I saw my name on casting and I was like, wow, this is my dream role and it’s going to be a dream come true.”

FUMI KANEKO – CREATING JULIET

Fumi Kaneko’s preparation for the role was intensive.

“I think watching so many amazing ballerinas before helped me a lot to create my own Juliet. I started to read Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, which [repetiteur] Lesley Collier gave me in rehearsal, but it’s quite difficult to read… I also had an audiobook, so you can hear what they’re saying, as well.

“I also watched the original [Zeffirelli] movie from 1968; it’s not ballet, but I loved watching it.”

And then she was paired with William Bracewell, an experienced Romeo and an attentive and inspirational partner.

“The thing is, he IS Romeo!” She laughs, and goes on, “he IS Romeo, and that helped me act naturally.”

Fumi Kaneko as Juliet, William Bracewell as Romeo © ROH 2021 Photo: Bill Cooper

So, who was Fumi Kaneko’s Juliet?

“I think because she’s really young she always follows what her parents say; and suddenly she fell in love with this person and she couldn’t see anything else and that gave her all the strength to do what she wanted to do.

“I think she didn’t know what she had in herself – she grew so much in this ballet and I wanted to show that. I want to think that’s her life, but also my life, I’m not just doing this ballet, but I wanted to live that life, to live that moment on stage.”

Perhaps what made Fumi Kaneko’s Juliet so unique, so affecting, was the fact that in the same way as her character discovered in herself things she hadn’t known before falling in love with Romeo, so Fumi Kaneko discovered in herself things she didn’t know were there before she danced Juliet.

“After Romeo and Juliet I felt I didn’t know this side of ballet. I had a more technical side of ballet, but I lived Juliet’s life and had this feeling I never had before, so I want to experience something like that again.”

FUMI KANEKO – A LONG WAY FROM HOME

Born in Osaka, Japan, Fumi Kaneko started ballet class at the age of three.

“My mother took me, because when she was young she wanted to do ballet, but her mother only allowed her to do Japanese dance. So, when she was young she wanted to become a mother and she wanted to take her kids to ballet.”

Young Fumi soon fell in love with ballet, so much so that she was prepared to attend ballet class from 5 to 11 every evening at the end of her long school day, year after year.  After graduation,

‘I just wanted to dance all day. My teacher had a small company [Jinushi Kaoro] and I joined and I was able to dance from morning to night and that was my dream come true.’

When she joined the Royal Ballet in 2011 her CV already included gold at the Varna International Competition and silver at its Moscow and USA equivalents. The transition was not easy, though.

“It was hard to adjust to a new life without speaking English. In the beginning my Mum came with me and she helped me find a new home… go to supermarket to find something to eat…” She laughs. However,

“I loved this company straight away. Everyone was so helpful, and getting to know each other’s cultures as well, that’s how I learned English slowly.”

Her English is totally fluent now, if charmingly accented.  Her manner is gentle and unfailingly polite, and hides what you suspect is the iron will that saw her through those young years of hard, relentless training.

It also helped her through two devastating bouts of injury, that kept her off stage for the best part of one year each time.  Despite that, her career progression in The Royal Ballet has been steady, and she reached the highest rank of principal this season.

Fumi Kaneko’s has brought her strong technique and attractive stage presence to many of The Royal Ballet’s best loved roles, including Princess Aurora in the company’s signature ballet, The Sleeping Beauty.

FUMI KANEKO – THE FUTURE

Early next year Fumi Kaneko will debut as Odette/Odile in Swan Lake; and as a principal she’ll have access to some of the plum roles on which she’s longing to make her own mark: Giselle, Tatiana in Onegin and, above all, Manon.

“Manon is my dream role, maybe because it was the first ballet I was involved with after joining the company, and I was watching particularly the final pas de deux between Manon and Des Grieux, and I was crying, and I loved it, and I want to experience that.”

As one of a large number of Japanese dancers plying their trade abroad, she is well known and admired in her own country, where she tries to perform every summer.

She laughs modestly when I ask whether she’s a star in Japan, but says:

“When I became a principal I had so many messages from Japanese fans, and that was incredible, because I didn’t know I had so much support there.”

We’re only just beginning to discover the hidden depths of this wonderful dancer. I for one, can’t wait to see a lot more of Fumi Kaneko!

by Teresa Guerreiro

Fumi Kaneko dances the Sugar Plum Fairy with Nicol Edmonds as her Prince in The Nutcracker at the Royal Opera House

on Wednesday 22 December, matinee at 12:30pm,
and Wednesday 29 December at 7:30pm

 

Valentino Zucchetti Dancemaker

The Royal Ballet dancer and choreographer Valentino Zucchetti talks to Ballet Position about his present career and his future plans

Valentino Zucchetti is well launched into his second career, even while his first is still in full bloom. At just 33-years-old, he’s reached the Royal Ballet’s second highest rank for dancers, First Soloist; and he is fast developing a reputation as a choreographer of note.

Zucchetti’s latest work, Anemoi, opened The Royal Ballet’s final programme of the 2021 Spring season to general critical acclaim. Not even last minute changes imposed by COVID-19 strictures dimmed Anemoi’s engaging quality.

The Times described it as “his breezy, felicitous creation,” while The Arts Desk saw it as a “crafty, confident and polished piece of work’, with The Guardian highlighting its “elegant geometry.”

Dancers of the Royal Ballet in Anemoi © ROH 2021 Alice Pennefather

ANEMOI – THE GENESIS

The ballet’s title, Anemoi, refers to the four winds of Ancient Greece, a concept from which Zucchetti drew the inspiration to create a longer piece using Scherzo, a divertissement he’d created during lockdown for the company’s corps de ballet, as a starting point.

As he told Ballet Position, “I thought the piece should be about the fact that these people are young, they represent the future of the company, and they represent the future in general, they represent the wind of change. But I couldn’t use the phrase ‘the wind of change’ because it was a famous song, so I thought I’d conceptualise it.

“It’s always good to go back to Greek mythology, because the Greek gods personify everything, whether it’s the sun, the moon, wisdom, mischief… the ‘anemoi’ were the Greek gods of the four winds, and the ballet has four principal dancers that represent the four ‘anemoi’, and everybody is their afterwind.”

Anemoi is Valentino Zucchetti’s first work for the company on the Royal Opera House main stage; but he’s been honing his choreographic skills since his school days: in 2005 he won the Royal Ballet School’s Ursula Moreton choreographic award.

Since then he has choreographed regularly for the Royal Ballet School, as well as the ROH Draft Works programme.

Artists of the Royal Ballet in Summer Draft Works © ROH 2015 Andrei Uspenski

VALENTINO ZUCCHETTI – THE DANCER

Valentino Zucchetti combines his growing choreographic commitments with a busy career as a full time dancer, something he says he set his mind on aged three in his native northern Italian town of Calcinate.

“I think it was a bit of a calling, because none of my family had anything to do with ballet, nobody I knew, but I saw [Mikhail] Baryshnikov on TV when I was three and something just clicked.

“When I see kids today and I see a three-year-old, I realise they’re just incapable of making that kind of decision unless it comes from somewhere. I used to watch superheroes, I used to watch cartoons, firefighters, spacemen, whatever, but nothing clicked like that. So, in a way it’s probably a calling, or something that’s within us.”

So, at four-years-old he started ballet class locally. He progressed to the School of La Scala in Milan, from where at 16 he joined the Royal Ballet School on a scholarship. As a student he distinguished himself, winning the Genée International Ballet Competition in 2016 and the Royal Academy of Dance Solo Seal Award the following year.

After graduation, Zucchetti spent some time at Zürich Ballet and Norwegian National Ballet, before joining The Royal Ballet in London in 2010.

This made for an international outlook.

“If you work your whole life in one system, the longer you stay in that system, the more close-minded, the more rigid you become. It’s a globalised world, a globalised repertoire all over the world, so versatility is important.

“Usually this exploration of different styles transfers to your own way of dancing, so you’ll find that certain dancers, who excel in contemporary work, have a much freer way of moving in the classical, so they can bring something less rigid to classical ballet.”

Valentino himself is a versatile dancer, who has put his exacting technique to the service of very many demanding roles over the years.

Valentino Zucchetti in Scènes de Ballet © ROH 2014 Tristram Kenton

He’s been a thrilling, impeccably classic ‘Blue Bird’ in The Sleeping Beauty, a reckless, irrepressible Mercutio in MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet, a mischievous Puck in Ashton’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, to mention but a few of his many notable roles; not forgetting a strong turn as the heroine’s dissolute, drunken brother and pimp, Lescaut, in MacMillan’s Manon.

Valentino Zucchetti as Lescaut in Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon ©ROH 2019 Alice Pennefather

All things being equal, Valentino Zucchetti has many years of dancing ahead of him; so I asked which roles he still aspired to dancing.

“There are so many that I would like to tackle! The decision isn’t just on me… You could say Romeo; or one of my absolute all time favourite roles is [Crown Prince Rudolf in MacMillan’s] Mayerling.  For any male dancer that’s a goal.

“I’ve been known to be a demi-character, happy dancer, I can say confidently that I’ve mastered that. I can be a buffoon, but there is a much deeper, darker side that I haven’t been able to express.”

VALENTINO ZUCCHETTI – COSMOPOLITAN ITALIAN

He’s been abroad a long time, but a question about his relationship with his native Italy reveals conflicted feelings: pride in seeing his achievements recognised by his country of birth, mixed with a refusal to be pigeonholed as “an Italian abroad” or “a local boy done good.”

“Every time a new milestone happens here, it makes news in Italy. For example, last summer I organised this festival of [open air] dancing on the Regent’s Canal – out of the blue it became a worldwide success and I was on the main [TV] channel in Italy.

“And this time, after I received this commission [for Anemoi] I realised I was the first Italian choreographer ever to choreograph for The Royal Ballet.

“But I find nationalism a form of tribalism. For me, I only belong where I feel that my personality can fit. That’s probably the reason why I try to sound English as much as possible” (and yes, there is but the merest trace of an accent in his speech), “ because it’s not about me coming to another country and trying to maintain what I used to be until the death, it’s about adapting.”

VALENTINO ZUCCHETTI – THE FUTURE

For the time being, Valentino Zucchetti remains a dancer and choreographer. In the medium term, as his dancing slows down, so choreography will take more of his time and talent; but what are his long-term ambitions?

“I’m aspiring potentially to becoming an artistic director, because on top of choreography, which is my greatest passion, I just love the idea of organising a season, so, taking an audience on a whole journey, through a season, or through two or three seasons; or to organise ballet festivals, where you can gather together great artists.

“I don’t necessarily want to have a whole career based entirely on myself; I also like the idea of using my expertise to develop dancers’ careers.”

Brainy, uncompromising, strong-willed and very talented, Valentino Zucchetti will doubtless achieve his aims.  After all, not even COVID-19 has been able to stop him in his tracks…

by Teresa Guerreiro

António Casalinho – The Making of a Star

António Casalinho in Flames of Paris. Photo: Tomé Gonçalves

Fresh from winning the Gold Medal at Prix de Lausanne 2021, the Portuguese dancer António Casalinho talks to Ballet Position

There are times when superlatives fall short of the reality they’re trying to describe. That is certainly the case with the 17-year old Portuguese dancer António Casalinho, worthy winner of two awards at the 2021 edition of the prestigious Prix de Lausanne: Best Contemporary Interpretation and the Gold Medal, along with the coveted title of Laureate of the Prix de Lausanne.

The dancer, choreographer and artistic director Maina Gielgud has worked with Casalinho. This is her assessment:

“He already has, at age 17, the maturity, technique, stylistic understanding, musicality, artistry, acting ability of a top Principal in a first rate company. [He has] really good proportions [and] outstanding coordination of movement.”

And as if all that weren’t enough, Maina Gielgud adds:

“And the X factor, which is not describable.”

You can judge for yourself. Here is António Casalinho dancing the Acteon variation, his classical entry for the Prix de Lausanne.

António Casalinho – The Beginning

We’re a long way away from the hyperactive eight-year-old from the small town of Leiria, just north of the Portuguese capital of Lisbon, who determined he wanted to do ballet class, even though he wasn’t really familiar with ballet, not having watched any performances in his short life.

So, over WhatsApp I asked Casalinho, what attracted him to ballet?

“Girls I was friends with at school attended ballet classes (…) I was always a very active child, never still, full of energy, playing, climbing trees, all that. I always wanted to do things outside of school.

“So I saw ballet as something I should try, put my energy to some use.”

The version told by Annarella Roura Sanchez, the Cuban dancer and teacher, who just over 20 years ago set up an Academy of Dance, and subsequently her Conservatório Internacional de Ballet e Dança, in Leiria, is a little fuller.

“One of the little girls I taught at the Catholic school came to me and said there was a boy who wanted to come to class. I said, No, as I thought this was a childish prank. But she insisted: ‘You know, he can do the splits!’

“So, he came to me, all sweet and well-behaved (…) I put some music on and said, ‘you like to dance, then dance!’ And, you know, he reminded me of Tarzan: he pranced around, walked on his hands, performed all kind of circus tricks and ended by doing the splits.”

She laughs at the memory with a mix of pride and affection – Casalinho is, after all, very much her creation.  She was, however, impressed with his agility, natural facility and easy en dehors, and took him under her wing, having persuaded his naturally protective parents to allow him to do ballet.

Over the following years his passion for dance developed gradually.

“At the beginning I went to class only four times a week. Little by little Annarella got me to do more, which I liked; and then we started going to competitions, I saw there were better dancers… and then Annarella explained that one day I could earn a living from dancing, make dance my profession.

“It was at that point that my interest in dance became more serious.”

António Casalinho – Multi-Award Winner

Trained in the Cuban style of ballet, Casalinho has won awards in every international competition he’s entered: prior to Prix de Lausanne he had won the Beijing International Ballet and Choreography Competition in 2019, Gold Medal in the Junior Category at Varna in 2018, first prize in the Junior category at the Youth America Grand Prix in 2016.

António Casalinho, Le Corsaire, YAGP 2016

Natural talent is one thing; top level teaching and wise mentoring another. Both go towards making an artist; but neither would work without the right mental attitude. Interviewed after an early edition of YAGP, the child Casalinho stated he would always have something new to learn, and added “nobody is perfect.”

I asked him whether that was still his attitude:

“Yes, of course! Nobody is perfect, and that’s a fact. When we really like something and want to do our very best, we are never satisfied. Never. And therefore we always find something that can be improved (…) and that’s what makes us grow as dancers and human beings.”

In António Casalinho’s case, his technique evolved a lot faster than his acting ability, and Annarella felt he would benefit from expert coaching. So she invited Maina Gielgud to guest teach at the Conservatório.

To begin with, Maina Gielgud found him “not at ease and quite restrained.

“The mime was sincere but held back (…)

[However] He is a super-quick study, remembers all corrections and (…) of course, this means that it is possible to advance quickly to explore a role not just technically (…), but to discuss the different possibilities of the character, the stagecraft involved in letting the audience into the story, into the emotions of the characters.”

All that work came to fruition in Gielgud’s staging of Giselle for Conservatório Annarella, with Casalinho as Albrecht and another outstanding talent, Annarella’s 15-year-old daughter, Margarita Fernandes, in the title role.

António Casalinho as Albrecht, Margarita Fernandes as Giselle. Photo: Tomé Gonçalves

António Casalinho – The Future

You would imagine, therefore, that ballet companies everywhere would be falling over themselves to engage Casalinho. Has he had many offers?

“My dream is to join The Royal Ballet in London, but the problem is that at the moment the Royal Ballet is not hiring from the Prix de Lausanne, even though it is an associate company.

“I’ve had offers from some schools in Russia, from some Junior Companies, I’ve also had an invitation from a company in England, another in Russia…

“But all this has to be well thought out together with my parents and my teachers, because these are decisions that will change one’s life.”

As I tried (and mostly failed) to digest the fact that the Royal Ballet was apparently foregoing the chance to bring an extraordinary dancer into its ranks, I asked Casalinho what he was most looking forward to learning, as he starts his professional career.

“First of all, I’m going to learn to live by myself in a vast world. It’s a completely new world for me, and that’s the reason why Annarella wants to take me to various companies, have a try, take part in galas, so as to familiarise myself with that world.

“ No matter how much people tell you things and try to explain, you never really know until you’ve tried different things.

“I think joining a company will help me acquire the maturity of a professional dancer.”

Talking to António Casalinho is a fascinating experience. Off-stage he looks younger than his 17 years, a smiley, totally unpretentious teenager; but his words carry the wisdom and maturity of a young man twice  his age, surely to a large extent the result of Annarella’s intelligent management.

I feel certain that whatever he decides for now, his future cannot be anything but stellar.

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by Teresa Guerreiro

Matilde Rodrigues – On The Threshold of Her Dream

Matilde Rodrigues as Myrtha, Giselle Act II, Conservatório Internacional de Ballet e Dança Annarella Roura Sanchez Summer Gala, Leiria. Photo Tomé Gonçalves

Just a few days before starting her first engagement as a professional dancer, 18-year-old Matilde Rodrigues speaks to Ballet Position 

Portugal hasn’t much of a tradition in classical ballet.  It’s true that more and more Portuguese dancers are are good enough to join important foreign companies; but, like Royal Ballet Principal Marcelino Sambé and former Wayne McGregor company dancer Catarina Carvalho, to mention but two, all finished their training in prestigious foreign schools.

So, when you hear that a young Portuguese dancer has graduated straight from a Portuguese ballet school into a major company, such as Birmingham Royal Ballet (BRB), you sit up and take notice.

Matilde Rodrigues. Photo Nikki Roberts

Matilde Rodrigues was invited to join BRB as an Artist even before her 18th birthday in the Spring.  She told Ballet Position how the job offer had come about:

“After the Youth America Grand Prix Finals in Barcelona in December [2019], the BRB representative there invited me to come to Birmingham for an audition.  But then there was a problem and I couldn’t audition in person, so my director assembled a demonstration video, and a couple of months later BRB formally invited me to join.”

We spoke in the provisional Birmingham flat, where, in the company of her mother and aunt, she was fulfilling the UK’s requisite Covid quarantine, before starting with BRB on 1st September.

A mere wisp of a girl, Matilde is tallish (1,68 m), lithe, with dark eyes and a gentle smile, which doesn’t quite hide an iron will and an unwavering determination to succeed.

Clearly a perfectionist in all she does, while in quarantine she’s been doing class by herself every morning.  A keen cook, she’s taught herself nutrition, and devised her own well balanced diet, which sounds perfect for the extreme physical demands of life as a professional ballet dancer.

Matilde Rodrigues – The Beginning

Matilde started dancing, or rather prancing around, in a children’s after-school activity club in her native Leiria, a small town just north of the Portuguese capital of Lisbon.  She was six-years-old.  Her fateful first contact with ballet, though, came a year or so later.

“I went to watch the ballet class of a friend and loved it, so I immediately asked my grandmother to sign me up.”

At this point it’s worth mentioning Matilde’s grandmother is the “arty” member of the family, the one who may have spotted Matilde’s talent before anybody else.  Matilde’s mother, a committed Scout leader of 20+ years’ standing, told me she thought her playful, vivacious child might perhaps follow in her footsteps.

Anyway, granny wasn’t the only person to spot Matilde’s talent:

“The school director liked me and felt I had the conditions to go far in ballet.”

The school director is Annarella Roura Sanchez, a Cuban former dancer and teacher, who just over 20 years ago set up an Academy and International Conservatoire in unlikely Leiria  (pop 127,000).  Since then, her Conservatório Internacional de Ballet e Dança has been attracting students from all over, and churning out cohorts of remarkably assured young dancers.

She teaches the Cuban technique, of which the current BRB Artistic Director, the superstar Cuban dancer Carlos Acosta, was a famous exponent.

“It’s a very strong virtuoso technique, relying very much on turning, jumps, strength; but there’s also a lightness to it,” Matilde explains.

“Some people think it’s a very masculine technique, but that’s not true. Last year a Cuban teacher guested at our summer course, and he kept reminding us that it was all about dancing.  Dancers have to express themselves, technique is not everything.”

Matilde herself is an expressive dancer, judging by her performance as Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis, in Act II of Giselle, staged by Maina Gielgud  for Conservatoire Annarella Roura Sanchez’s Summer Gala in Leiria.

Matilde Rodrigues Dances Myrtha

Myrtha is an implacable spirit, determined to punish with death any man who ventures into her forest realm during the night.  An arduous, demanding role, its parameters are clearly set; so, I wondered how much leeway Matilde had been given to put something of herself into her performance.

“Maina is an amazing coach; even as she’s coaching, simply marking, she seems to be living the action, and that helped me a lot to get into the character.  She gave me a lot of freedom of interpretation. 

Matilde Rodrigues as Myrtha in Giselle Act II, Conservatório International de Ballet e Dança Annarella Roura Sanchez Summer Gala. Photo: Tomé Gonçalves

“She’d say, for example, ‘at this point you could look that way,’  but always urging me to put something of myself into the character, because that’s what gives each dancer her individuality.  Each has to bring a little of her own heart into her performance.”

Sanchez accustoms her students to perform from a very early age, regularly taking them to national and international competitions; and this is where we find the second chapter of Matilde’s story – the time when her interest in dance grew to become a passion.

“I think it came about when I went to my first competition outside Leiria, when I was about 10-years-old.  It was a national event in the Algarve, but it all felt very different and I think that’s when I first felt really committed; and with each new competition I got to learn more about the world of ballet.”

Matilde Rodrigues is about to immerse herself in the world of professional ballet, as an Artist with BRB, something, which – of course! – produces mixed feelings.  I asked her to tell me about her fears and expectations.

“It’s a great change in my life: coming to a different country, leaving behind all my colleagues, who have supported me so much, my parents… also training will be so different, I shall be going from a school to a company, doing company class for the first time (…) That will be a great challenge.

“At the same time, though, I am excited about those same things, about having a new life, new colleagues, sharing a stage with great dancers; and working under a Director who was a great star and is Cuban!”

Matilda Rodrigues – From Star Student To Corps de Ballet

At the Conservatoire Matilde was a star student, used to solo roles and adulation; now she enters a company at the lowest ranks of the corps de ballet. Will that be much of a shock?

“No! I’ve danced corps roles from the very beginning and I actually like them (…) I’m aware I have a lot to learn, and to be able to watch the company soloists is going to be great, because you learn a lot simply by watching.”

Matilde Rodrigues finds herself on the threshold of the career of her dreams, the result of talent, hard work and perseverance.  What advice would she give to aspiring young dancers?

“Never give up.  When you really, really want something, then the will to achieve that has to be stronger than the temptation to give up.

“You need to be able to overcome negative feedback, turn it into renewed strength and keep going.”

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by Teresa Guerreiro

The full performance of Giselle, Act II by students of Conservatório Internacional de Ballet e Dança Annarella Roura Sanchez can be seen on YouTube

 

The Royal Ballet's 'Heavenly' Ryoichi Hirano

Ryoichi Hirano and Marianela Nuñez in rehearsal for Onegin, photo Gavin Smart

Ryoichi Hirano talks to Ballet Position about his life as a Royal Ballet Principal and how he became ‘Heavenly Hirano’

Royal Ballet Principal Ryochi Hirano’s first year with the company was not exactly encouraging. He joined as an apprentice in 2002, fresh from winning the Gold Medal at the Prix de Lausanne; but the transition from ballet school in his native Osaka, Japan, to London and the UK’s most prestigious ballet company, was far from smooth.

“Mentally it was very difficult, because I didn’t have friends, I spoke no English, it was hard to communicate, so I was a little bit isolated, in a way.

“I was the first apprentice dancer in the Royal Ballet, perhaps they didn’t know how to deal with me, how to use me, so I was only doing class, maybe one rehearsal standing at the back…”

Many others would have been discouraged; but not Ryoichi Hirano.

“I said to myself, ‘this could be just one year; I need to take everything that I can by watching, listening, learning.’ So, I tried to do everything, I tried to be able to speak English, I studied a lot, and I watched so many shows, rehearsals… I didn’t just sit there going, ‘why am I not doing this and that?’”

His commitment and application paid off, and eventually he did set foot on the Royal Opera House stage in the ensemble of John Cranko’s dramatic ballet, Onegin.

“I was general cover for all those 12 men in the [Act III] ballroom scene, and one day in rehearsal one guy got sick. Christopher Carr, former rehearsal director, picked me to go on.

“Of course, I had tried to do everything, I learned everything, and he was actually amazed I did it perfectly, and since then he calls me ‘Heavenly Hirano’’’.

He laughs, his obvious amusement at the moniker tinged with not a little pride.

Hirano and Onegin

Justified pride, in fact: spool forward to the present, and not only is Hirano one of the Royal Ballet’s most interesting Principals, he has just made an impressive debut in the title role of Onegin (21/01/2020).

Onegin, the arrogant anti-hero of Pushkin’s verse-novel, who breaks a young girl’s heart and leaves it too late to see sense and repent, is a difficult character to inhabit. It’s tempting to make him rather bi-dimensional – a bad guy who gets his just desserts – but that is not Heavenly Hirano’s way.

‘I always say ballet is… of course, it’s dancing! you have to be technically good; but at the same time I think the most important thing is the story-telling. Acting is the key.’

Hirano puts a lot of thought and observation into building his characters.

“I watch so many people doing so many different roles, I see what works, and then I can use that as ‘a weapon.’  So, I really love acting, it’s not easy without words, but it’s amazing how much you can tell with just body language, how much you can express.”

Hirano’s Onegin is a complex, well-defined and extremely nuanced character; an arrogant city man, prey to deep ennui, who, though dismissive of country-life, is, nevertheless, a courteous and unfailingly polite guest in Tatiana’s household.

His spurning of young Tatiana’s love comes not out of pointless cruelty, but rather impatience, a sort of ‘oh, just leave me alone, little girl!’

His performance is full of realistic touches: when his friend Lensky challenges him to a duel by slapping his face with his gloves, he staggers back, not from the strength of the blow, but from sheer surprise: he never thought his open flirting with Tatiana’s sister, his friend Lensky’s fiancée, could break up the all-important male bond.

Onegin’s restlessness in the Act III ballroom scene, when he recognises in the elegant aristocratic married woman the girl he spurned, feels real: he frenziedly paces the stage, alternately wanting to show himself to her and hiding, shock, anguish and desire flowing backwards and forwards across his face.

And his central pas de deux with Marianela Nuñez’s sublime Tatiana, the perfect lover of her dream in Act I turning at the end of the ballet into the supplicant suitor she must refuse, truly touch the heart.

In his progress towards the plum lead role of Onegin, Hirano danced Prince Gremin, Tatiana’s dignified and doting much older husband.

Marianela Nuñez as Tatiana, Ryoichi Hirano as Prince Gremin (c) ROH 2013 Bill Cooper

“It’s always nice that I can play Prince Gremin and then Onegin, because I know what the Prince feels (…) I always find it easier to know other characters.”

Hirano’s Versatile Career

Ryiochi Hirano is a versatile dancer, and despite his preference for narrative ballets finds himself equally at ease in abstract works, his solid technique and powerful presence suiting Balanchine, as much as Wayne McGregor.

He’s danced many of the main classical roles, always bringing something very much his own to all his characters, be it a depth of understanding to his portrayal of the brain-addled, drug addicted, suicidal Prince Rudolf in Kenneth MacMillan’s masterpiece Mayerling

Royishi Hirano as Prince Rudolf in Mayerling, (c) ROH 2018 Helen Maybanks

… deep corruption and venality (despite his naturally noble demeanour) when dancing the character of Manon’s brother and pimp, Lescaux; or a thrilling sensuality to the bullfighter Espada in Don Quixote.

However, the lead role of Onegin eluded Hirano for many years; not something he regrets.

“Onegin is such a demanding part! You need a maturity, a mature aura on stage; you can’t just be a good partner, tall… I think the person that is acting Onegin needs to have experience as a person, as well, in life.

“If you don’t know what happiness is, you can’t express happiness on stage. The more you’ve been through in your life, the more understanding you have of what those feelings are like, [the better] you understand Onegin’s feelings. It takes a long time to get to do those roles.”

From Osaka to London and Back Again

Despite having spent more than half his life in London, Ryoichi Hirano is a major star in his native Japan, with a loyal and enthusiastic following among Japanese balletomanes. He regularly performs in Japan, either when the Royal Ballet tour there, or in special galas.

So, where is ‘home’ for him?

“I would like to say here, because when I was in Japan I was a minor, a student, I didn’t know anything about adult life: I went to high school, did ballet after school, and that was my life.

“When I came here, this is my adult life. When I go to Japan I feel a bit weird, because I only know what I knew when I was at school. People ask me, where is a good place to have a party…  He looks helpless, shrugs his shoulders and laughs: “I don’t know! I know more about life in London.

“So, every time I go back home…” he stops himself, and then repeats “home,” making the inverted commas sign with his fingers, “when I get back [to Britain], I feel I am really home.”

Ryoichi Hirano gives the impression of a very centred person, an artist happy with his life and his career so far. He’s done it all, or most of it, anyway; although asked whether there is still one role missing from his extensive repertoire he says, diffidently, “Des Grieux.”

Who knows? Perhaps the poet lover of MacMillan’s Manon will come his way before too long.

E N D

by Teresa Guerreiro

Onegin is in repertoire at the ROH until 29th February.

Ryoichi Hirano dances Onegin on 8th and 27th February.

Yasmine Naghdi – "Striving for Perfection"

Yasmine Naghdi, photo c/o The Royal Ballet

Ballerina Yasmine Naghdi talks to Ballet Position about her life as a blossoming Principal Dancer with Britain’s premier ballet company

Once upon a time there was a very busy little girl. So busy, in fact, they said she was hyperactive. She couldn’t sit still for a moment except… but let Yasmine Naghdi take up the story. It is, after all, her story.

“The one thing my parents saw that I could sit still for was when they put a ballet on TV, and then I was absolutely fixated on the screen. All these creatures that were doing these amazing things, like gravity defying jumps and these amazing turns… and I just thought, that’s really what I want to do.”

Spool forward a couple of decades and she is indeed doing it: Yasmine Naghdi is now a Principal Dancer with The Royal Ballet, attracting glowing reviews, as well as public adulation, for her dancing in most of the key repertoire roles. Her affecting Juliet opposite fellow Principal Matthew Ball’s Romeo was relayed live to cinemas the world over last summer.

Yasmine Naghdi is reaching the pinnacle of her career, and yet there were no airs and graces about her when we met in a small Royal Opera House office. She was gracious and smiley and ready tell the story of how she made it to the top along a road with its fair share of bumps.

“No-one had done ballet in my family before, and my father was saying, ‘no, absolutely not, you can’t have a good career in ballet, and she needs to go the university!’ and the mother figure then comes in and says, ‘but this is her dream, let her follow her dream and if it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out.’

“So I auditioned at the age of 10 for the Royal Ballet School, and I didn’t get in.”

YASMINE NAGHDI – SECOND CHANCES

However, she was in the Royal Ballet’s Junior Associates programme, and through that she was given a private audition with the then director of the Royal Ballet School, Gailene Stock, the following year. The offer of a place at White Lodge followed.

That offer gave her confidence, but then,

“as soon as I joined the Royal Ballet School in my head I thought, my gosh, I’m a year behind these girls, I need to work extra hard, and I think that drove me into pushing myself beyond my limits.”

Yasmine joined the Royal Ballet upon graduating in 2010 and progressed steadily up the ranks, becoming a Principal Dancer seven years later, at the age of 25.

Her range is wide. She was an ethereal Giselle…

Yasmine Naghdi as Giselle (c) ROH 2018 Helen Maybanks

… a fierce Gamzatti, the Sultan’s daughter promised to the warrior Solor in La Bayadère; and an impressively skittish and feral Firebird.

Yasmine Naghdi and Edward Watson in The Firebird (c) ROH 2019 Tristram Kenton

YASMINE NAGHDI – STRIVING FOR PERFECTION

Being a Principal Dancer, however, doesn’t mean you’ve arrived. On the contrary: Yasmine Naghdi says she constantly works to develop her roles. Take Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty, a role she danced in current run’s opening night:

“Ballet is always striving for perfection. If anyone would say, I’ve reached the finished product, you’re not demanding the best of yourself. There’s always something you can do better, always something you can change.

“I never ever want to deliver the same performance twice.

“I recently stepped in for another dancer half-way through a performance [of The Sleeping Beauty]. I was called in and picked up in Act III (…) It was with Alexander Campbell, we haven’t danced together that much, so we just spoke in the wings about what we were going to do. Things like that add layers to your experience.

“My approach is, demand something different of yourself. Your Aurora, whether she’s just a little more timid when she comes on, or maybe she is very exuberant… I always want to find different ways of playing my characters and that keeps it interesting.”

Yasmine Naghdi as Aurora, Matthew Ball as Prince Florimund (c) ROH 2017 Bill Cooper

Once rehearsals are finished, Yasmine’s physical and mental preparation for a performance starts the night before.

“I prepare my body with as much fuel as possible. I always have a steak the night before because of the high iron content and load up with carbohydrates for energy. And then throughout the day of the performance as well, I have a lot of carbohydrates and electrolytes.

“In terms of getting into character that would start probably around midday, I plug in the music and I lie down and go over the ballet in my head (…) visualising the performance, going through the steps in my head. And then, of course, you get the hair and the make up and you do your warm up.

“I like to keep as calm as possible. As a young dancer, when you’re getting an opportunity, until the last minute it’s practise, practise, practise… but I’ve learnt that can tire you out for the performance and you want to be at your fittest.

“So, I’ve had to learn to hold back a little bit and trust myself, which is hard for dancers to do.”

In the first night of The Sleeping Beauty, enthusiastic applause started well before the end of the highly demanding Rose Adagio, with its slow turns and exacting balances. I wanted to know how aware she was of the audience throughout her performance.

“It’s hard to explain but I almost feel the energy of the audience. You feel whether the audience is with you, supporting you, or whether they’re a bit more judgemental and cold; and it gives you so much when you feel the audience is warm and supportive (…)

“You’re giving everyone a performance, you’re putting the energy out there, but you’re getting an energy back as well.”

YASMIN NAGHDI AND MATTHEW BALL PARTNERSHIP

At the moment Yasmine Nagdhi is rehearsing for her debut in the lead role of Swanilda in Coppélia, The Royal Ballet’s Christmas offering, a work she describes as “so fun.” Once again her partner will be Matthew Ball, in what appears to be developing as a dream partnership.

Yasmine Naghdi and Matthew Ball in rehearsal for Coppélia photo Gavin Stuart

For one thing, they are very beautiful together, her delicately exotic looks (she was born in Britain of an Iranian father and a Belgian mother) perfectly matched to his golden boy features. What makes the partnership work?

‘Matthew and I have had a lot of lovely opportunities. We first danced together in Onegin as Olga and Lensky, and Kevin [O’Hare], our director, said, ‘when I saw you as Olga and Lensky together, that’s what made me think of you as Romeo and Juliet together.’

“Matthew and I are very good friends outside of work, and very supportive of each other’s careers. I think it’s lovely to have that as a foundation (…)

“I think it’s very reassuring that we get to dance quite a lot together because you build that bond – I feel very safe in his arms.”

She does, however, welcome the opportunity of working with other partners: looking ahead to The Royal Ballet’s winter period, she is rehearsing for her debut in one of her dream roles, Tatiana in Onegin, where her partner will be the company stalwart Federico Bonelli.

Yasmine Naghdi is a good role-model for young girls dreaming the ballet dream; and this is her advice to them:

“Having a passion is one of the most important things in life, so to keep that passion alive is so important.  One has to remain kind to oneself: if you have a bad day, just let it go. 

“Know that it’s not a complete upwards journey – you hit bumps along the way, but those bumps will make you stronger.”

And with that she picked up her rehearsal tutu and off she went to work on becoming Swanilda.

by Teresa Guerreiro

Coppélia is in repertoire at the ROH 28 Nov – 7 Jan.  Full details here

Joel Brown and Eve Mutso Dance 111

Joel Brown and Eve Mutso in 111, photo Susan Hay

Dancers Eve Mutso and Joel Brown talk to Ballet Position about 111, a duet combining their diverse yet complementary abilities

There are times when you come upon something that so subverts your preconceptions and expectations that you are left dazed and gasping for air.

One such was, for me, 111 (One Hundred and Eleven), a dance duet that seamlessly blends the very diverse physicalities of Eve Mutso, formerly a Principal Dancer with Scottish Ballet, and Joel Brown, a member of the inclusive ensemble Candoco Dance Company.

Set to a medley of music that segues from Penguin Cafe Orchestra, through Dawn of Midi, Julia Jacklin and Radiohead, 111 results from, in Eve Mutso’s words,

“Curiosity about how we can explore movement coming from such different backgrounds and techniques, and then develop a movement language which combines our own abilities and experiences, but also pushing our weaknesses to the next level.”

Joel Brown adds, “I’m interested in saying something a little bit more than presenting just movement. At the same time, I also do believe in movement for movement’s sake (…)

“So, it’s narrative in the sense of, ‘dear audience, I’m Joel, this is Eve, we enjoy doing this together.’   So, it’s framed with a relationship.”

It is one of the most intense, complete on-stage relationships you’re ever likely to see. When their eyes lock, which is often, they establish a climate of trust and intimacy so profound it sets your heart beating faster.

111 – Where it all began

Joel Brown and Eve Mutso met four years ago at a Glasgow joint workshop by Scottish Ballet, Indepen-dance (a company for able and disabled dancers) and Marc Brew Company.

Estonian-born Eve was still dancing with Scottish Ballet; American Joel, then a member of the physically-integrated Axis Dance Company, based in California, was a guest there.

There was an instant rapport: in Joel’s words, “we just got on.”

There’s a little more to it than that: in the opening sequence of 111, Joel recounts how he kept sending her little notes that started, “Eve, can I tell you something?” and always ended with an invitation to dance.

Four years on, the depth of their rapport is one of the many breath-taking aspects of 111, the new work they are taking to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe prior to a wide-ranging international tour.

The title is an in-joke: because of her ballet training, Eve Mutso’s supple spine seems to have 100 vertebrae, rather than the standard 32; Joel’s spine is fused, so he jokes he only has 11 vertebrae.

The sum of both comes to 111.

111 – The Challenges

Ballet Position watched a rehearsal in a bare London studio; and even without the benefit of full staging and atmospheric lighting it became clear what a powerful, entrancing work this is.

It starts on the floor downstage, then moves centre stage, where Joel Brown’s gliding wheelchair provides a focus for Joel and Eve’s dancing, arms interlocking, flowing and turning in a smooth perpetuum mobile of preternatural coordination.

The next sequence takes place within an aerial frame that looms upstage, where the two dancers hang, twirl and climb, in the process creating unexpected and exciting configurations.

Joel Brown, Eve Mutso in 111, photo Susan Hay

“You can see that frame as an exoskeleton,” says Joel. “You can see my two wheelchairs as exoskeletons, maybe… but we have our real skeletons as well, and spines are quite integral.

“We expose something about our bodies and I think maybe mine is a little more mysterious.”

He was paralysed at nine-years-old; but, coming from a large family of dancers and gymnasts, remained active in sport and dancing.

“When I kind of jokingly demonstrate how, if I shift a hip, then I’m able to rotate, it’s important, because it’s kind of funny, but also it’s true and it’s not too precious around disability.

“It’s the reality of my physicality; and I think it’s important for the audience to have a sort of understanding of my physicality.”

For Eve Mutso that frame represents a whole new challenge. For one thing, she used to be scared of heights:

“I’d never done anything aerial before, never had to adjust my body to these quite challenging, difficult ways of dancing and creating movement.”

The work ends with both dancers on the floor, Joel having jettisoned his wheelchair, both moving slowly, shifting their bodies in perfect unison, though it’s noticeable – and interesting – that Joel’s movement is a touch more fluid than Eve’s.

Joel: “One of my favourite feelings in that floor phase is this real connection between head and tail [laughs].

“I’m on the floor and I’m pushing on the ground, but I really feel that I’m moving my tail. (…) I think when you bring attention to your whole spine, you move in a more integrated way.”

There’s an undeniably erotic undercurrent to 111; but not deliberately so, says Eve:

“It’s about what different relationships can be on stage, in life; and also how communication can develop through the movement. You don’t have to touch somebody to feel a connection.

“I think every section is offering another insight into us as artists, as humans and as friends. We keep saying we all are boxed [in] in a way; so, it’s trying to take away the limits and use this set as a liberating place to function.”

111 – Edinburgh and Beyond

111 has been selected as part of the 2019 Made in Scotland programme, a curated showcase of music, theatre and dance performed during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

Beyond that, an extensive international tour is planned; but it has to be built around the performers’ other commitments.

Now a freelance dancer and choreographer, Eve Mutso is going back to Estonia, the prodigal daughter returning to her first company, Estonian National Ballet, with whom she has re-established a fruitful collaboration since leaving Scottish Ballet.

She’ll dance the lead role of Blanche DuBois in Annabelle Lopez Ochoa and Nancy Meckler’s A Streetcar Named Desire, which she first performed to great acclaim with Scottish Ballet.

Eve Mutso as Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, photo Andy Ross

Joel Brown, who settled on these shores four years ago, is a full-time member of Candoco Dance Company, the UK’s leading troupe for disabled and non-disabled dancers.

Joel Brown in Alexander Whitley’s Beheld for Candoco Dance Company, photo Hugo Glendinning

A versatile artist, Joel Brown is also a singer and songwriter, and will have a prominent singing and dancing part in The Lost Thing, a collaboration between Candoco Dance Company and The Royal Opera, which plays at the ROH’s Linbury Theatre over the Christmas period.

A musical reimagining of Shaun Tan’s beautifully illustrated book about a boy who helps a lost thing find its way home, it’s a show for all the family, a story about how we are all connected.

It’s a theme not a million miles away from Eve Mutso and Joel Brown’s 111

by Teresa Guerreiro

111 is at Emerald Theatre, Greenside @ Nicolson Square (venue 209), Edinburgh
Mon 19 – Sat 24 Aug
http://www.greensidevenue.co.uk/

The Lost Thing is at the ROH, Linbury Theatre
7 Dec 2019 – 4 Jan 2020
https://www.roh.org.uk/productions/the-lost-thing-by-ben-wright

 

Ruth Brill – Leap Into The Unknown?

Ruth Brill in rehearsal, photo by Dasa Wharton

Ballet Position meets Ruth Brill as she prepares to swap her pointe shoes for life as a full time choreographer

Ruth Brill is a vibrant bundle of energy, which is just as well – when we met, she was simultaneously touring as a dancer with Birmingham Royal Ballet, overseeing the company’s new production of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, which she choreographed, and regularly commuting to London to put the budding dancers of London Children’s Ballet through their paces in her new version of the much-loved classic Ballet Shoes.

Ruth Brill rehearsing with London Children’s Ballet, photo Tina Francis

Oh, and there was also the ‘small matter’ of planning her forthcoming July wedding.

Not to mention making the necessary arrangements for life as a full-time choreographer: her very last performance as a dancer with BRB will be when the company visits London at the end of June.

And yet, she seemed unfazed; rather, she clearly relishes the pressure. When I pointed out that other brides-to-be would be falling apart with nerves at this point, she just laughed:

“We’re being very very efficient. Between [lawyer fiancé] Simon and I, we have evenings when we just try and blitz a few things. I mean I’m naturally quite a planner in life, and we both have the perspective that it’s going to be an exciting, wonderful time with everyone there, but it’s one day.”

Nevertheless, Ruth acknowledges that there’s only so much she can do; and this is why, at the early age of 30, she’s decided to stop dancing altogether.

“It’s been such an exciting year, and I’ve had so many exciting opportunities that I’ve grabbed with both hands, so it’s been a very very busy schedule, I haven’t had days off at all, kind of juggling everything, so I think something has to give.

“And there’s no doubt in my mind, it feels like the right moment. I’m really content with what I’ve done as a dancer, I’m still loving the stage and I always will, but being part of a touring company is hard, and I think I have more to give on the other side of things now.”

Ruth Brill is already an experienced choreographer, having created works for BRB – Rhapsody in Blue (2014), Matryoska (2015) and Arcadia (2017), the latter her first main stage commission.

Outside her home company, she has created a wide range of work including flash mobs for Birmingham Weekender Festival and the Rugby World Cup.

Ruth Brill – The Early Days

“I’ve always really enjoyed choreography, from the very beginning at my local Judith Wilson School of Dance in Penshurst village hall. There we would do a full show and then the following year we’d do a choreographic competition.

Ruth Brill (c) Richard Battye

“So, every other year I was making work, I’d spend time at my friends’ houses choreographing things; I continued at Tring [Park School for the Performing Arts], I won a choreographic cup there (…)

“The interest was always there, but when I joined English National Ballet, my focus was on dance: I wanted to prove myself as a dancer in other people’s choreographies.

I was always doing the extra things, but I wanted to dance. I promised myself, next year I’m going to choreograph a piece, but then the following year that I’d made that promise to myself [2012] I moved to BRB and just had to take part in the first choreographic workshop there.”

 

As a full-time choreographer, Ruth Brill will be catapulted right into the current debate on the perceived scarcity of women choreographers. So, naturally, I wanted to know where she stood on this debate.

“Personally, I have never felt discriminated against, and thankfully not pro-discriminated either, because I’ve got my opportunities not because I am a woman but because of the work.

“I think I’ve been lucky enough to have brilliant opportunities at BRB to create and develop; and actually Peter and the Wolf is in a bill of three female choreographers, [Un]leashed (…) so I think the climate is really shifting.

“I think it’s a really good time to be a female choreographer, because I think we’re pushing forwards and it’s being talked about, which is brilliant, because then the balance will be redressed.

“I mean, you can see that the majority of those leaders and creative people at the moment are men, but then I think back to those people in the past, a lot of those pioneers were women, so I think the tides are changing and I am more than happy to fly that flag and inspire other people.”

On this point, she notes that although it was the outgoing BRB Artistic Director, David Bintley’s idea to turn Peter into a girl in Peter and the Wolf, she was happy with to go along with it:

‘We shifted [the setting] into a present day urban setting: it’s kind of a recreational ground, basketball court, with a scaffolding tower at the back, therefore all the characters are modern day, personified characters.

“I sat down with David and discussed which dancers in the company could play Peter, and actually the dancers’ names I could live with, four out of five of them were girls.

‘So, it felt right to have Peter as a girl (…) it is important that we do put females at the centre of things at the moment.”

Laura Day as Peter in BRB’s Peter and the Wolf, photo Andy Ross

Ruth Brill – The Future

Ruth Brill has plenty of choreographic work in the pipeline already; some things she won’t be drawn on yet, but many others have already been firmed up:

“I’m going to be hopefully doing more for London Children’s Ballet, I’m being interim Artistic Director of National Youth Ballet between July and September and choreographing a new work for them, which will be a very high energy pure dance piece, because I’ve been doing lots of narrative recently (…)

“Then I’m doing the English Ballet Theatre choreographic lab, so I’m doing a couple of hours’ worth of creation and exploration at the end of the summer, and then we’ll see if that develops into something else.”

And not only that: Ruth Brill has her eyes on other forms of theatre.

“I love the ballet world and the ballet bubble – that’s home for me – but I’m also excited to branch out and get some different experience, whether that’s movement direction or working in musicals… I’m kind of an all-rounder!”

With her talent and seemingly inexhaustible energy we’re quite sure we’ll be hearing a lot more from Ruth Brill very soon…

by Teresa Guerreiro

Ruth Brill’s final performance as a dancer will be in Hobson’s Choice at Sadler’s Wells on Saturday, 29th June at 19:30

Laura Morera: Being "The Best Possible Version of Myself"

Frankenstein, Federico Bonelli as Victor, Laura Morera as Elizabeth (c) ROH 2016 Bill Cooper

Royal Ballet Principal Dancer Laura Morera talks to Ballet Position about the ups and downs of her life in ballet 

You can tell when Laura Morera really cares about something (or someone) because her speech, normally soft and thoughtful, gains a certain urgency.

Her dancing. Even as a small child “every breath I took was ballet.”

Her late father: “My Dad loved me dancing so much (…) I think he gave me that pride in myself.”

Her husband, former Royal Ballet dancer Justin Meissner: “He’s the love of my life”

Her favourite choreographers: “Ashton, MacMillan, Scarlett.” No hesitation.

There is palpable passion in Laura Morera. Not a loud, histrionic, tempestuous sort of passion; rather an un-showy, slow-burning, internalised passion that brings an intense charge to all her dramatic roles.

Mayerling, Laura Morera as Maria Vetsera (c) ROH 2017 Alice Pennefather

LAURA MORERA: FROM MADRID TO LONDON

Laura Morera joined the Royal Ballet in 1995 straight out of the Royal Ballet School, and has been with the company ever since.

Born in Madrid, she fell in love with ballet very early on: “I remember I was really sick one week and wrote my Mum a little letter to say, I know I’m really sick and you’re not going to let me go to ballet, but please, please, if you just let me go to a class!”

Her parents’ support was important: “My Dad was super supportive and he would take me [to class] on his bike, and then my Mum and Dad would wait and we’d walk back.”

Her talent earned her an invitation to apply for the Royal Ballet School aged 11; and she has lived the best part of her life in the UK, as witnessed by her barely-accented spoken English.

In her first year at the RBS, while suffering from almost unbearable home sickness, she was picked by the then Royal Ballet Director Anthony Dowell for a small part in Swan Lake. That was an important moment in her development as a dancer:

‘I’d never seen the Royal Ballet (…) and I just remember arriving in this theatre, and the smell of the theatre, sometimes even now it takes me right back to that moment…

“And then in Act I just watching the dancing (…) and they were such amazing dancers at the time, and there were these beautiful costumes – I’d never seen anything like it! And watching their footwork, it was so beautiful (…) I was mesmerised, and I just remember thinking, ‘OK I want to be part of this!’”

And a part of it she became, her rare and exquisite musicality, intelligence, versatility and unstinting professionalism making her an asset for the company.

LAURA MORERA: LIFE IN THE ROYAL BALLET

For a while her progress was smooth: promoted to First Artist three years after joining the company, Soloist the year after, and First Soloist in 2002.

And then her career stalled.

The brief Ross Stretton directorship of the Royal Ballet (2001-2002) was traumatic for the company as a whole and for Laura, too, even though she felt he appreciated her talent. His successor, Monica Mason, did eventually promote her to Principal in 2007.

The seed of doubt, though, had been sown.

“I will always be grateful to Monica, she didn’t have to do it (…) but I felt like what sometimes was being said of the type of dancer that I was wasn’t quite reflected in the casting, and one thing I never wanted was to be a Principal that people don’t understand why they’re Principals because they’re not doing any roles.”

The frustration and uncertainly, the sense that the powers that be at the company felt the way she looked was a hindrance, led to a catastrophic loss of self-worth.

“I just felt inadequate and small, I felt like I didn’t belong in this ballet world, but I knew I had something in me that went beyond how you’re meant to look as a ballet dancer (…)

“I made myself quite ill from feeling so sad and frustrated and miserable, and I went to a healing retreat in Thailand. I went there for 10 days, then I came back, and then went there for 10 days again. They helped me give myself back [self] worth.

“One of the people there said, ‘when you first arrived, you looked dead in the eyes.’

“And then I came back and suddenly I didn’t hate myself, I didn’t feel inadequate, I knew my value, and all I could be was the best version of myself.”

That switch inside her head made a difference; as did the arrival of Kevin O’Hare as company director:

“He gave me Mayerling, and Giselle, [Midsummer Night’s] Dream, roles that I wanted to tackle but never had the chance. And he gave me a few first nights, I did Fille with Vadim [Muntagirov] in a first night.”

La Fille Mal Gardée, Laura Morera as Lise, Vadim Muntagirov as Colas (c) ROH 2015 Tristram Kenton

Her interpretation of the sassy Lise in Ashton’s La Fille Mal Gardée earned her Outstanding Female Performance (Classical) in the 2015 Critics’ Circle National Dance Awards.

Some roles never came her way, though: she regrets not having been given Juliet; and still hopes against all hope to be cast as Natalia Petrovna in Ashton’s A Month In The Country, a complex, passionate role in which I strongly feel she would excel.

On the plus side, Laura Morera became first choice interpreter for the choreographer Liam Scarlett, Royal Ballet Artist in Residence, creating roles for him in, for example, Sweet Violets, and Hansel and Gretel and the central female character in The Age of Anxiety.

The Age of Anxiety, Laura Morera and Steven McRae (c) ROH 2014 Bill Cooper

She talks of Scarlett with fierce admiration.

“We [dancers] definitely have input [in his work] and I love that about Liam, his trust; and you just keep growing in those roles (…) Age of Anxiety was such a difficult piece for him because [WH Auden’s poem] is not a perfect piece of literature (…).

“I think he opens himself up sometimes to extreme criticism, but you’ve got to admire the fact that he doesn’t take the easy route. For me, I’ve never had an experience that I haven’t been proud to be part of with him.”

LAURA MORERA: BEYOND THE ROYAL BALLET

Laura Morera’s next project is a little left-field and she’s excited about it: she’ll be the dancing Anna, alongside the irrepressible cabaret artist Meow Meow as the singing Anna, in a revival of Kenneth MacMillan’s long forgotten Seven Deadly Sins, the choreographer’s take on the Brecht/Weill ballet chanté (ballet with songs).

It will be performed at Wilton’s Music Hall:

“I love the venue, it’s one of my favourite venues in London, I think it suits the piece really well. So, I’m excited about that; and then the content, the fact that it hasn’t been done much; and also working with Meow Meow.”

Away from The Royal Ballet, Laura Morera and her husband run Dance Tours, providing workshops and short training courses to aspiring dancers in Britain and abroad, ‘because I find as an art form ballet has so much that it can give you.”

I was curious to find out more about how Laura and Justin came together at The Royal Ballet – was it love as first sight? She laughs:

“Well, no, because I was in a squirrel outfit for Tales of Beatrix Potter and he was also a squirrel!”

The squirrels didn’t talk to each other, because she was new to the company, and he was a Soloist and at that time “it was very hierarchical”; but from unpromising beginnings love grew:

“He’s just amazing. We’ve been together for 23 years now and the love definitely grows each day… Justin is the love of my life.”

Laura Morera appears to inspire younger colleagues in the company: the young Principal Matthew Ball recently quoted her by name in an interview with The Times. Another young colleague, William Bracewell, told Ballet Position one of the attractions of joining the Royal Ballet was the opportunity to share the stage with dancers he deeply admired, like Laura Morera.

At 41-years-old she is enjoying her life and her dancing to the full. “I feel I’m having a second wind.”

Long may it last.

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by Teresa Guerreiro

So You Want to Become Choreographers?

Peggy Olislaegers in the studio with Dane Hurst, photo Stephen Wright

With fierce competition on for places in Dutch National Ballet’s Choreographic Academy, we ask what can the budding choreographers  expect?

Aspiring young choreographers have a chance to find out whether they have it in them to become professional dance makers, should they be lucky enough to gain a place in Dutch National Ballet’s Choreographic Academy, which takes place in June 2019.

They will work with the dancers of the Junior Company in a series of creative workshops, which should provide them with a solid basis for future work.

Among the professionals helping and guiding their work will be the Dutch dramaturge Peggy Olislaegers – except she doesn’t like the designation “dramaturge,” if nothing else, she told Ballet Position, because “dramaturge” means different things in different countries. So, how does she describe herself?

Peggy Olislaegers, photo Sophie Knijff

“I am a full time Artistic Ally to choreographers and artistic directors in several countries in Europe. People gave me the title ‘dramaturge’, but everything that I know I developed in practice; I’m not trained in the context of university, I’m trained in the context of studios, theatres and companies. I prefer Artistic Ally.”

You would definitely want Peggy Olislaegers as your Artistic Ally. A small bundle of energy, behind her owlish glasses are sharply intelligent eyes, and she speaks with the kind of passion that results from a restless and inquisitive mind always ready to stimulate new questions, new fields of inquiry.

So, when we spoke at the London home of Rambert, where she regularly works on choreographic creation with company dancers, Ballet Position asked Peggy what was her first injunction to aspiring young choreographers.

“First continue dancing, please, because I think in the broader sense we need choreographers with embodied knowledge, who can do physical research, next to the more traditional conceptual, intellectual research.”

Choreographers’ ‘Embodied Knowledge’

The notion of ’embodied knowledge’ resonates absolutely with the choreographer Juanjo Arques, whose ballet Ignite, inspired by Turner’s painting The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, wowed Sadler’s Wells in the Spring. Now a well established dance maker, Arques has worked with Peggy Olislaegers and will be involved with the forthcoming Choreographic Academy.

Juanjo Arques at work in the studio, photo Ty Singleton

“As a dancer I had the opportunity to dance different dance codes and styles, from classical repertory ballets to contemporary choreographers from our times. This allowed me to learn how to use my body in different ways, analysing movement from different perspectives and discovering endless possibilities to create dance forms.

“Muscle memory allows my body to remember and store movements that I reuse when I create new works. It is like a library and toolbox that I use to create new steps, sometimes consciously and sometimes intuitively. This knowledge is the key to develop a personal movement vocabulary.”

So, choreographers need to know their bodies and start from their bodies; or, as Peggy Olislaegers puts it,

“they need to feel urgency, and that urgency can be a physical one: I want to go into the studio, and I want to start moving and understand the kind of movement I want to bring across.”

The Choreographers’ Quest

Olislaegers stresses, though, that having an inquiring mind is equally important.

“If you are a dancer, and you want to become a choreographer, you need to have the opportunity to change perspective (…) A young choreographer needs to start from a clear question. That question needs to be related to clear curiosity.

“So, to give you an example, you want to create a work about patriarchy, and you are a ballet dancer, say. Well, study the physical parameters in a pas de deux: who steps into whose space (and just that element is already enough to explore!), so, who steps into whose space in order to be lifted? Is it the man coming to the woman in order to lift her, or is it the woman stepping into the space of the man and allowing him to lift her? There’s a difference.

“That’s a kind of awareness, a kind of tuning that will question spacial projection, that will question details in the construction; and before you know it for us, the audience, that will question the relationship between a man and a woman.”

Luke Ahmet

Luke Ahmet is a Rambert dancer who’s worked with Peggy Olislaegers and found her insistence on inquiry very helpful.

“When I choreographed things, especially earlier, I was very step driven; and then after working with Peggy it really did broaden my way: I had to build my language rather than going straight in with steps and not really exploring to its full potential what would come out, as well as my [initial] intention.  Sometimes it could open up many different things, more questions, until I could really define it and establish something that I was really happy with.”

Next, choreographers need to be able to work with dancers; so, how to communicate, how to lead, how to embrace their dancers’ own embodied knowledge is important.

Choreographers and Leadership

Budding choreographers need to ask themselves, as Peggy Olislaegers puts it, “what kind of leadership is it what I would like to embrace.”

“You co-create with the performing artists in front of you, so that happens more and more in dance, but the core thing is, there’s just one author.

“First of all, it’s crucial that as a choreographer you are able to really see a proposal and then take a proposal further; if the co-creation is a dancer using his or her body knowledge, you as a choreographer seeing that, taking it further, that’s for the dancer beautiful because then the dancer is challenged to use that which is already there, to take it into different directions.”

That kind of communication does not come naturally. English National Ballet (ENB) First Artist, Stina Quagebeur “started creating solos based on things that I had seen in the theatre by the time I was 7,” and has kept choreographing throughout her dance career.

Stina Quagebeur in Akram Khan’s Giselle, photo Laurent Liotardo

Stina is currently working with ENB colleagues on arguably her most significant commission to date: the one-act ballet Nora, inspired by Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House, to be performed in the Spring.

“In the first couple of years I had to learn how to communicate with the dancers. You might have a great idea in your head but you need the skill to be able to explain it to a group of dancers. (…) The most interesting time in the studio is once you have created the bulk of movement vocabulary. Then you have to start assembling it in the right order and that’s when it becomes narrative.”

Luke Ahmet puts the relationship between choreographer and dancers this way:

“Giving some of the power back to the dancers,  not just being a tool, really allowed me to explore my choreographic style.”

So, a lot to take in for those hopeful young choreographers; but they are doing it at an exciting time, a time when, says Peggy Olislaegers, there is a fertile dialogue in both ballet and contemporary companies about where dance goes next.

“I think people are reflecting a lot upon the variety of dance languages that dancers seem to connect to more and more, I think we talk a lot about the competences in order to be co-creative with the choreographer, I think we talk a lot about a variety of body types on stage, a lot of questions are there. Each company is embracing that in a different way, which is good.”

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by Teresa Guerreiro