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.”


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


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.”


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

Laurretta Summerscales: becoming Juliet…

Laurretta Summerscales in English National Ballet's Romeo and Juliet, photo Laurent Liotardo

ENB Principal Laurretta Summerscales talks to Ballet Position about her favourite roles and the current  phase in the company’s history.

Juliet is one of Lauretta Summerscales’ favourite roles. Juliet, that is, in the Rudolf Nureyev production of the tragic love story of Romeo and Juliet. Nureyev’s 1977 ballet on Prokofiev’s complete score is the version danced by Laurretta’s home company, English National Ballet, for whose predecessor, London Festival Ballet, Nureyev created the work.

“Oh, I love Juliet!” she exclaims, and her face, already animated throughout our lengthy conversation, lights up further. “This is the only version of Romeo and Juliet I absolutely love.”

Nureyev himself described his Juliet as “passionate, willing and more mature than [Romeo] is.”

Lauretta: “You can see the transition as she turns into a woman – she realises what she wants and then she’s put into a situation where she has to choose between two sides, but she loves them both, doesn’t understand it. She’s, like, caught in a trap.

“I see her as a very strong character, so that’s why I can act her quite easily because she’s strong, even though she’s not toughened, harsh; but she knows what she wants and she’s very strong against everybody.”

Judged by many to be the balletic version of Romeo and Juliet closest to Shakespeare’s original, Nureyev’s ballet doesn’t stint on the bawdiness and violence that characterised Renaissance Verona. And he introduces some changes that intensify the dramatic effect.

“This is the only version (…) where she actually sees Tybalt dead. In all the other versions that I have seen you never have the chance to show the audience your emotions, what you go through!

“You have seen Tybalt dead and you have love for him and you have love for [Romeo] different types of love… this complete torture of two sides… and also you have a go at him saying, “how dare you do this?” and at the same time you love him.”

Throughout, though, and this seems to be the clincher for Lauretta Summerscales, “she’s quite calculating, thinking about things, thinking about “should I, shouldn’t I?” she’s scared, but you can see that she hasn’t lost control.”

Laurretta Summerscales
Laurretta Summerscales

As she gestures to signify her enthusiasm for this role, the tell-tale sparkle of diamonds flashes from the ring finger of her left hand. She is engaged to fellow Principal Yonah Acosta, with the wedding booked for the very first day of their summer holiday, post Romeo and Juliet.

The natural question, then, is, would she like to establish a regular stage partnership with her life partner?

“It would be great to do Swanilda and Franz [in Coppelia] because there’s a bit of feistiness, and we’re like that naturally, so I would love something like that because I would just have so much fun with him on stage.”

‘Feisty’ is definitely one word you would associate with Laurretta. It’s also a word that applies very much to ENB’s Director since 2012, Tamara Rojo. Does that create problems?

“I find we’re both quite feisty. I think it’s more because I’m pushy and I think I annoy her sometimes, which is understandable.

“It’s difficult, because as a dancer you don’t want to be seen that you’re laid back or that you’re super confident and you expect everything. I always want to show that I am always wanting more, I don’t want anybody to see me as big-headed (…)

“So, I never want her to think badly of me, so sometimes I’m like, ‘Im here, just to let you know.’  I’ll bet she’s gonna say, ‘go away, leave me alone.’  I don’t know that for sure, but that’s the impression.”

Big-headed is definitely not the impression Laurretta Summerscales gives. On the contrary, with her open smile and willingness to engage, she comes across as disarmingly unpretentious. Strong-willed, though; and intent on widening the range of her roles.

Brought into the company after only two years in the English National Ballet School, her progress up the ranks has been fairly swift, and promotion to Principal came, aged 25, in January 2016.

A strong dancer with a powerful jump, and appearing taller on stage than she is in real life (at 5ft 4 or 1.62 m she’s well within a female dancer’s average), she has tended to be typecast as, say, Medora in Le Corsaire, Odille rather than Odette, Myrtha rather than Giselle.

And yet, she gave a good account of Giselle in her debut in the role last Winter.

Laurretta Summerscales as Giselle, photo Laurent Liotardo
Laurretta Summerscales as Giselle, photo Laurent Liotardo

“I want to be able to be versatile and feel I can bring a bit of this, a bit of that, I’m not in a box. I don’t like to be in a box, I have this thing, ‘no! no box!’” (Laughs)

Versatility has to be the name of the game under Tamara Rojo’s ambitious plans for English National Ballet. The company’s repertoire now includes work by contemporary choreographers such as Akram Khan, Russel Maliphant, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa and China’s Yabin Wang, in whose complex reading of the Medea myth, M-Dao, Laurretta starred.

Laurretta Summerscales in M-Dao by Yabin Wang, photo Laurent Liotardo
Laurretta Summerscales in M-Dao by Yabin Wang, photo Laurent Liotardo

Another coup for Rojo was the acquisition of MacMillan’s seminal work, Song of the Earth, choreographed on Mahler’s haunting Das Lied von der Erde, where Laurretta would be eager to dance the central role of The Woman – though she has no idea yet whether that’ll come to pass.

There is actually a lot ENB dancers don’t know about Rojo’s overall plan for the company.

“I understand she wants to push the company up there, to be different, to grab people’s attention, but what her plans are for the future, like what ballets and stuff, no. We may have an idea, rumours, there’s always rumours, but you never know because things do change like this” – she clicks her fingers – “so until you see it in black and white… but that won’t be shown to you until literally a month before.”

Laurretta is understandably reluctant to be drawn on internal company politics; but pushed about the Director’s accessibility to ideas or even suggestion from below, she will say this:

“When she’s a dancer, in dancer mode, you can talk very freely, but when she’s a director it’s a very different dynamic.”

She is much happier talking about her ambitions for the future, the roles she’s got her eye on beside that of The Woman in Song of the Earth:

“Definitely La Bayadère, I’d love to do both Nikiya and Gamzatti, but I absolutely love Gamzatti, especially the last solo – it’s really difficult in the red dress, it’s beautiful!

Don Q, for sure – I feel like I can really just explode on stage. Elite Syncopations I’ve always liked because of Darcey Bussell.

“And the last one that I’d like to do is Sleeping Beauty. The Act II solo – I like the challenge, it’s such a long solo, it needs so much control…”

More immediately, Laurretta Summerscales is reprising the role of Juliet during ENB’s forthcoming stint at London’s Royal Festival Hall; and then, of course, there is the small matter of her own love story to attend to come the first day of the summer holiday and her wedding to Yonah Acosta.

by Teresa Guerreiro


ENB dance Romeo and Juliet at the RFH, 1 – 5 August 2017. Laurretta Summerscales dances Juliet with Paris Opera’s Josua Hoffalt as Romeo on 4 August at 19:30

Maina Gielgud, Béjart and “the lost art of épaulement”

Maina Gielgud talks about her career, a gift from Maurice Béjart, and ballet’s need to rediscover the  joy of movement

Few dance careers can have been more diverse than that of British ballerina Maina Gielgud.

Ballet de Roland Petit… Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet… Staatsoper Ballett Berlin … Ballets du XXème Siècle Maurice Béjart… The Australian Ballet… these are just some of the companies with which she danced in a 20-year career spanning pretty well all of Europe, plus the Americas, Africa and Australia.

All because she had inside her an overwhelming “need to dance.”

Black Swan, London Festival Ballet 1972 photo M Gielgud's private collection
Black Swan, London Festival Ballet 1972 photo M Gielgud’s private collection


“In the old days, dancers were not paid well,

didn’t have any security,

didn’t have health insurance,

didn’t even have their shoes paid,

let alone their classes;

so, if you became a dancer,

it’s because you really wanted to


Even after she hung up her dancing shoes her life-long passion for ballet didn’t wane.

She became Artistic Director of the Australian Ballet – the company’s longest serving director to date – and then briefly held the same position in the Royal Danish Ballet. She is Artistic Adviser for the Hungarian National Ballet.

And Maina remains in great demand internationally as Guest Teacher, as well as being regularly invited by major companies across the globe to mount her own productions of the classics.

Most recently, over Christmas, she recreated Coppelia for students of the Australian Conservatoire of Ballet, Melbourne.

Australian Conservatoire of Ballet, Coppelia, Production and additional choreography Maina Gielgud, Melbourne Dec 2015
Australian Conservatoire of Ballet, Coppelia, Production and additional choreography Maina Gielgud, Melbourne Dec 2015

By all accounts, the standards of Gielgud’s Coppelia were so high one reviewer wrote it was hard to believe it was a student production.

Standards are very much Maina Gielgud’s thing

“I find nowadays there is little talk of style or understanding of it in coaching in general,” she says.

Another problem is that many dancers appear to have lost a feel for pure movement.

“I’m starting to think that they see dance as a succession of photographic possibilities.

“I think they’re thinking about the next Facebook photo that they can put up, the best line, the highest leg and the odd video of triple fouettés, but the sense of dance so very often gets almost completely lost.”

She’s fighting her one-woman battle against this trend:

Coaching Anais Chalendard, Rome photo M. Gielgud's private collection
Coaching Anais Chalendard, Rome photo M. Gielgud’s private collection

“I find that more and more even when I’m teaching now, I talk about the upper body, I talk about the head, the use of the eyes in just classical combinations, the épaulement – the lost art of épaulement! – and more and more a sense of movement and coordination.” 

Contemporary dance technique, with its different awareness of body weight and how to use it, could be extremely useful to ballet dancers, Maina Gielgud feels, if only they were able to harness it.

“In contemporary they feel free, they can move, they have learnt how to use their weight, but unless it’s demonstrated to them (…) they simply don’t think of utilising the tools that they have in contemporary in their classical, and more’s the pity.”

She only came fully to realise how useful contemporary technique could be to ballet dancers relatively recently; but her first brush with contemporary came in the late 1960s, when she was with Béjart’s company.

“There was a wonderful contemporary black dancer called Dyane Gray-Cullert. And she had worked with Lester Horton and she proposed to some of us to do some Horton Technique classes.”

Horton Technique emphasizes a whole body, anatomical approach to dance, that includes flexibility, strength, coordination and body and spatial awareness to enable unrestricted, dramatic freedom of expression.

“I’d only ever heard of ‘hold your back, hold yourself straight’ and I’d never discovered that there were so many things you could do with your back, and indeed your weight.

“That was a really big discovery for me, utilising different aspects of your back, your neck and different parts of your body that people don’t talk about in classical training even though some of the greatest dancers do use them.”

A Gift from Maurice Béjart

Her four-year stay with Ballets du XXème Siècle Maurice Béjart, one of the longest sojourns of her dancing career, brought the young Maina Gielgud more revelations … and a bitter-sweet parting gift. Béjart liked her:

“Oh yes! And I adored him!

Maurice Bejart with Maina Gielgud and her Mother, Cannes 1969
Maurice Bejart with Maina Gielgud and her Mother, Cannes 1969

“It was when I saw Béjart’s ballets in Avignon that it struck me that indeed ballet, dance, was very serious and could communicate important things to do with the present, to do with philosophy and religion, way beyond what at the time I thought perhaps classical ballet could.

“[I realised] he always had something to say which was important to him and obviously important to all the dancers in the company; and huge audiences responded to that, all kinds of people who would never be seen dead at a classical ballet performance.”

Maina decided she must join the company; but had to wait a full year for a place.

She was fascinated by what Béjart was creating for his male dancers and dared hope he’d create something as extraordinary for a woman.

Béjart’s great gift, when it finally came in her last summer with the company was, however, something quite unexpected.

“Just before we broke up Maurice said to me before a performance, ‘Oh Maina, if you dance very well today I’ve got a surprise for you at the beginning of next season.’

“He came round afterwards and said, ‘I want to create a solo for you.  We’re going to go to the US and do a season at the Brooklyn Academy next January.   In September when we come back [from the Summer break] we’re going over to do a little preview for publicity.

‘I’m going to take four of my dancers and I realised that I have no solo for a woman that stands on its own.  So I want to do for you the later scene from Lady Macbeth with the recording of Maria Callas singing it.’”

Maina Gielgud laughs heartily at the memory.

“As you can imagine, in summer I thought all my Christmases had come at once.

“First day back, my name was up on the board, it just said Maina, studio whatever. I went into the studio about an hour before to warm up and be ready.

‘[For music] he always used tapes, the old reel-to-reel, so there was (…)  the music man preparing some tapes, and he was making a bloody awful noise and squeaking and screeching.

“Finally I said to him, ‘look, could we put on the music for what Maurice is going to start working on for me later on?’ and he looked at me and he said, ‘oh, but this IS the music!’

At that point Maurice Béjart walked in.  Not a word about Lady Macbeth or Callas…

“He made this solo in two sessions. I don’t think I ever had the courage to ask him, but I think I cried all night that I had to dance to these squeaks and groans.”

The piece became know as Squeaky Door (La Porte).

She can see the funny side now…

“We went to the US and I did it for the publicity preview and that was that.  It was quite amusing and it was quite fun, but certainly it wasn’t Lady Macbeth.”

The tale doesn’t end there.   Maina was exceptionally allowed by Béjart to do a guest performance for Rosella Hightower’s company – Béjart, Hightower and Gielgud were all good friends.   Hightower had heard of Squeaky Door and asked to see it.

Next thing Maina knew, Rosella Hightower was on the phone to Béjart.

“She said, ‘I’ve got a gala, could Maina do it for the gala?’ 

 “And when I left the company, which was soon after, Maurice gave it to me as a present and said I could do it wherever I wanted to.”

So many memories of a dancing life lived to the full – and all because Maina Gielgud had that all-consuming “need to dance.”  That, she feels, is what auditions for companies and indeed ballet schools should be able to assess as part of their selection process.

Do applicants have the right physique?  Good feet, good turn out?  Fine! but “do they really, really want to dance more than anything else?”




For a full list of all our blogs click here