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

Zenaida Yanowsky: Beyond the Rainbow

Zenaida Yanoswky's farewell performance ROH 7 June 2017

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.”

Marguerite and Armand, Zenaida Yanowsky, Federico Bonelli (c) ROH 2013 Tristram Kenton

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.**

Zenaida Yanowsky as Elizabeth (c) ROH 2016 Andrej Uspenseki

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’re 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.

A Month in the Country, Zenaida Yanowsky, Rupert Pennefather (c) ROH 2012 Tristram Kenton

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.”

Swan Lake, Zenaida Yanowsky, Nehemiah Kish (c) ROH 2011 Bill Cooper

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