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

Kevin O'Hare's Royal Ballet: New Horizons

Kevin O'Hare, photo Joe Plimmer

In the dazzlingly redeveloped Royal Opera House, Royal Ballet Director Kevin O’Hare talks about exciting new prospects for his company

The run up to a new season is always a time of excited anticipation for performers and audiences alike. But as he gears up to the 2018/19 season, Kevin O’Hare, Director of The Royal Ballet, is particularly excited at the new prospects offered his company by the recently completed redevelopment of the Royal Opera House.

In particular, Kevin O’Hare told Ballet Position, the redesign of the 406-seater Linbury Theatre, coupled with the refurbishment of the smaller Clore Studio, opens a wealth of new possibilities to The Royal Ballet.

“I’m thrilled (…) to have this beautiful intimate space to perform and create new work and also with our choreographic programme to help young choreographers within the company and also [from] outside, to have a space to try things out.

The ROH’s redesigned Linbury Theatre (c) Hufton & Crow

“And now we’ve got three spaces, with the Clore Studio much improved and with better lighting, we’ve got the Linbury and also we’ve got the main stage, so I think there’s going to be a progression, there’s a way we can really nurture people especially choreographically.”

The first dance on the new Linbury stage, presented at the theatre’s unveiling, was indeed the work of a young choreographer nurtured by The Royal Ballet’s choreographic development programme, Charlotte Edmonds. It was performed by one of the company’s most charismatic young dancers, Joseph Sissens.

Nor is that all. The Royal Opera House’s new ‘open and accessible’ policy means that there will regularly be free performances in front of house spaces. That, O’Hare feels, will give his dancers more opportunities for creative development.

“We’re talking to all sorts of different people and say, ‘we’re going to put a dancer down there, would you like to do a duet, would you like to do something in the Hamlyn Hall, would you like to do a concert with singers’; so, it is much more a stage for them, they need to come up with ideas as well.”

The Royal Ballet – Something Old, Something New….

There is, however, a need to be realistic about how much more work can be required of an already very busy company. So, for the forthcoming winter period at the Linbury the Royal Ballet as such will perform in only one out of four programmes, New Work New Music in early February.

“To be honest, I think the Royal Ballet as such will only be able to perform one programme a year in the Linbury, because we have such a busy schedule; but then associates of the Royal Ballet will be doing things as well.”

As will other smaller national and foreign companies, such as the National Dance Company of Wales and the Dutch ensemble Introdans, both of which feature in the inaugural period.

Having the Linbury to try new work also gives the Royal Ballet the ability to pack its main programme with established works, without – O’Hare hopes! – being accused of not programming enough new work.

The 2018/19 season opens on 8th October with Mayerling, undoubtedly one of Kenneth MacMillan’s masterpieces and a key part of the Royal Ballet’s repertoire.

The Royal Ballet, Edward Watson in Mayerling (c) ROH 2017 photo Alice Pennefather

Among other hardy perennials are Natalia Makarova’s production of La Bayadère, and that unavoidable staple of the Christmas season everywhere, The Nutcracker, in Sir Peter Wright’s unsurpassable production.

In fact, for the whole of 2018/19, the Royal Ballet will present only two new works on the main stage: Alastair Marriott’s The Unknown Soldier, marking the centenary of the end of World War I, and an as yet unnamed piece by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui.

“For the past five years we’ve done so much and we’ve really pushed the boat out, we’ve had five new full-length productions, which is a lot in five years, plus all the other new works, so it felt like it really is a moment to take a little bit stock, and also knowing that we wanted to make the most of this new opening at the Linbury. I think it’ll be more balanced in the years to come.”

The Royal Ballet: The Heritage

Kevin O’Hare is also keen to use the versatility of the Linbury to show work from an earlier phase in the life of The Royal Ballet, the better to illustrate the company’s history and development.

“We’ll use the Linbury to look at heritage work as well, some of the things that really were done for a small theatre. I’d love to look at something of De Valois that hasn’t been seen, and probably that is the space to do it in, because it was danced at either the Old Vic or Sadler’s Wells or on tour, not a massive opera house stage, so I’m going to look at that.”

It’s fair to say that The Royal Opera House’s redevelopment has been an all-consuming project for all involved since 2010, when the first steps were made, through the past three years when the actual building work went on full steam ahead to meet the unveiling date of September 2018. Kevin O’Hare found the project took him away from his dancers for longer than he would have liked.

“When I first took the job [in 2012], this was when we were talking to all the developers and architects, so for the first six months I had to be at those meetings, because I wouldn’t have wanted not to be a part of it, and for the company to make sure that we didn’t miss out and all those things, but I was going, ‘oh my goodness, I’m having to deal with this and I want to be there with the company.’

“I think it’s very important that I’m there all the time (…) I want the dancers to know I’m there, I’m interested in what they’re doing, I’m coming back afterwards, the next day, I’ll find them in the corridor and say ‘that was great, have you tried this?’

“The same with how it looks on stage, because things change all the time. (…) And if I’m going to make decisions on their careers, what they’re going to be dancing next, I think I need to be seen there all the time.”

The 2018/19 season promises to steer The Royal Ballet in new directions, with the energetic Kevin O’Hare at the helm.  Looking ahead to the year 2020, he says the emphasis will be on new work, gathering together ballets the company premièred in the preceding ten years alongside two new big productions.

All in all, quite a lot to look forward to!

E N D

by Teresa Guerreiro