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

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