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

William Bracewell: First Year Report Card

William Bracewell, photo Dani Bower

Approaching the end of his first Royal Ballet season, William Bracewell helps Ballet Position write his First Year Report Card

Modesty is a profoundly endearing quality, and Royal Ballet soloist William Bracewell possesses it in spades.

A beautiful dancer, technically assured, supremely elegant with a fine classical line, he is widely predicted ‘to go far’; but as he approaches the end of his first year at Covent Garden, he still has the slightly dazed look of someone who can’t quite believe his luck.

Like a kid in a toy shop.

“On a professional level, the level of commitment that goes on every single day just blows me away, and it’s massively inspiring.”

William spoke to Ballet Position in a small meeting room somewhere in the vast warren that is the Royal Opera House, where he admits to still losing his way sometimes.

“I had a general expectation of what I might find in the building, but in all honesty what goes on has totally surpassed what I’d hoped for (…) I have felt so welcome! The other day I had somebody say, ‘I can’t believe you’ve been here for just a season; it feels like you’ve been here for so long!'” 

Looking much younger than his 27-years, William smiles easily, his clear brown eyes widening as he describes his enjoyment of his new life, his speech punctuated by pauses where he takes a deep breath and searches for the precise words to convey his meaning.

William Bracewell: The Road to London

William Bracewell joined the Royal Ballet as a soloist at the beginning of the 2017/18 season, after seven years with Birmingham Royal Ballet. His work at BRB had attracted critical attention, with one dance writer describing his portrayal of the young Louis XIV in David Bintley’s Sun King as,

‘…stepping high on his arched feet like Rudolf Nureyev, and turning slowly in classical arabesque as if to summon up that paragon of British classicism Anthony Dowell.’

Praise doesn’t come much fuller than that; and is backed up by distinctions such as Young British Dancer of the Year in 2007, Youth America Grand Prix in 2010, and Outstanding Male Performer (Classical) in the 2015 Critics Circle National Dance Awards.

William Bracewell as Dancing Gentleman in Manon (c) ROH 2018 photo Bill Cooper

He found a huge difference in the demands posed by the Royal Ballet when compared with what he was used to at BRB, particularly in the scheduling of the repertoire.

“In Birmingham you’d have a rehearsal period and then tour a production of a full-length [ballet] and a triple bill for maybe six weeks, or four weeks. So, you had the low times where you could rehearse and really push your body, and then you’d have the more stamina [demanding periods] when you’d be on tour performing.

“Here you’ll do an opening night for a triple bill, the next day you might be rehearsing a full- length ballet, the coming triple bill and creating a new work at the same time. There’s a lot of overlap, so I think mentally that was kind of different to get my head around.”

He’s had to get his head around a lot of work, as he has been in almost every production in the Royal Ballet’s current season ranging from that staple of the Christmas repertoire, The Nutcracker, to Christopher Wheeldon’s The Winter’s Tale, where he took on one of the principal roles, that of Polixenes, King of Bohemia.

William Bracewell as Polixenes in The Winter’s Tale (c) ROH 2018, photo Tristram Kenton

William relishes the variety. He loves acting roles – “it’s when I felt most free on stage, when I’ve been able to completely live someone else’s life” – but loves, too, the specific technical demands of different choreographers.

“It was amazing to do Hofesh [Shechter]’s Untouchables – that was incredible! And then working with Wayne [McGregor] for the first time was amazing! I absolutely loved it and Chris [Wheeldon] as well, at the same time, that was fantastic!”

He created roles in McGregor’s and Wheeldon’s new works this season, respectively Yugen and Corybantic Games.

William Bracewell with Matthew Ball in Corybantic Games (c) ROH 2018 photo Andrej Uspenski

When we spoke, William was preparing to dance in another Wayne McGregor work: his 2016 Obsidian Tear, part of the current season’s final Triple Bill. But whereas Christopher Wheeldon’s choreographic language is firmly rooted in the classical ballet vocabulary, McGregor’s is quite something else, with its hyper-extensions and jerky, contemporary inflections.

Did he find it easy to adapt to the specific demands of Wayne McGregor’s works?

“What I loved about working with Wayne was the amount of freedom he gave you. You train all the time to get things really perfect in a very classical sense and then for someone to just give you a phrase and say, ‘make of that what you will’ … it’s really liberating, to just completely launch yourself in something.”

Another reason for William Bracewell’s pleasure in his current job is that he gets to share the stage with people whom he’s idolised ever since he entered the Royal Ballet School as a shy 10-year-old from Swansea.

Dancers like Laura Morera and Federico Bonelli in The Nutcracker, “who I’ve looked up to since I was tiny.”

Laura Morera and Federico Bonelli in The Nutcracker (c) ROH 2013 photo Tristram Kenton

“I think Federico is one of the most stunning dancers I’ve ever ever seen! and Laura, who I’ve known since I was at school is just such a beautiful dancer, and such a wonderful woman…. being on stage with people that you’ve looked up to has brought a new life to productions that I’ve worked on before.”

William Bracewell: Beyond the Stage

Another reason why William Bracewell loves his London life is being able to explore all that the capital has to offer, even if he’s had to forego some of perks of smaller Birmingham.

“I had a house in Birmingham with a garden, which I suppose is possible here, but it’s difficult… but there’s just so much going on, so many more pieces of live theatre, and art. You know, you finish work at 6.30 and it’s not too late to go to the theatre or go to a gallery before it shuts.

“I love art, I love music and all different types of theatre!”

William Bracewell is a long way from his Swansea home, where we suspect he may be a bit of a local celebrity but is too modest to admit it, saying only he “supposes” his Mum’s friends know about his success…

And so we come to the point where we fill in the First Year Report Card. On a range of 1 – 5, he hits a 5* on Attendance, Proficiency, Work-Rate, Artistry and sheer Likability.

As for future prospects, why, Glowing, of course!

by Teresa Guerreiro

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William Bracewell is dancing in the Royal Ballet’s Obsidian Tear Triple Bill in rep until 11th May 2018.

He’ll dance the Principal Role of Prince Siegfried in Swan Lake on 19th, 31st May and 15th, 21st June.  Swan Lake is in rep 17th May – 21st June 2018