Fumi Kaneko – A Deeply Affecting Juliet

Fumi Kaneko as Juliet in MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet © ROH 2021. Photo: Bill Cooper

Newly-minted Royal Ballet principal dancer Fumi Kaneko talks to Ballet Position in the aftermath of her stunning debut as Juliet

Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet is a narrative masterpiece, distilling in its structure and choreography all the passion and ultimate tragedy of Shakespeare’s doomed young lovers.

Add to that Prokofiev’s magnificent, eloquent score, and it’s easy to see why Romeo and Juliet is one of the best loved works in The Royal Ballet’s repertoire. Having seen it countless times, I didn’t expect to be surprised, much less blown away, when I took my seat at the Royal Opera House for a matinée towards the end of October.

The lovers were to be danced by William Bracewell, a stylish and very affecting Romeo, and in only her second performance as Juliet the Japanese dancer Fumi Kaneko, with whose work as a technically accomplished dancer in both classical and contemporary repertoire I was familiar.

Fumi Kaneko as Juliet, William Bracewell as Romeo © ROH 2021 Photo: Bill Cooper

Yet, by the end of the performance I was an emotional wreck, such was the intensity Kaneko brought to the role. Hers was an interpretation that blended careful characterisation with an instinctive freshness and small telling gestures that were hers alone. In the final scene, where Juliet is faced with Romeo’s dead body, Kaneko was the epitome of utter, profound desolation, a Juliet overwhelmed by the magnitude of a loss she couldn’t quite comprehend.

It reduced me to tears.

So, when I met Fumi Kaneko at the Royal Ballet’s Covent Garden home, I naturally wanted to hear more about her Juliet.

“When I was cast I was surprised, because I’ve turned 30 now and I didn’t think Kevin [O’Hare, the company’s director] would cast me.”

At this point it’s only fair to note that with her delicate features and inspired acting, she looked very much the 14-year-old Juliet.

“Then I saw my name on casting and I was like, wow, this is my dream role and it’s going to be a dream come true.”

FUMI KANEKO – CREATING JULIET

Fumi Kaneko’s preparation for the role was intensive.

“I think watching so many amazing ballerinas before helped me a lot to create my own Juliet. I started to read Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, which [repetiteur] Lesley Collier gave me in rehearsal, but it’s quite difficult to read… I also had an audiobook, so you can hear what they’re saying, as well.

“I also watched the original [Zeffirelli] movie from 1968; it’s not ballet, but I loved watching it.”

And then she was paired with William Bracewell, an experienced Romeo and an attentive and inspirational partner.

“The thing is, he IS Romeo!” She laughs, and goes on, “he IS Romeo, and that helped me act naturally.”

Fumi Kaneko as Juliet, William Bracewell as Romeo © ROH 2021 Photo: Bill Cooper

So, who was Fumi Kaneko’s Juliet?

“I think because she’s really young she always follows what her parents say; and suddenly she fell in love with this person and she couldn’t see anything else and that gave her all the strength to do what she wanted to do.

“I think she didn’t know what she had in herself – she grew so much in this ballet and I wanted to show that. I want to think that’s her life, but also my life, I’m not just doing this ballet, but I wanted to live that life, to live that moment on stage.”

Perhaps what made Fumi Kaneko’s Juliet so unique, so affecting, was the fact that in the same way as her character discovered in herself things she hadn’t known before falling in love with Romeo, so Fumi Kaneko discovered in herself things she didn’t know were there before she danced Juliet.

“After Romeo and Juliet I felt I didn’t know this side of ballet. I had a more technical side of ballet, but I lived Juliet’s life and had this feeling I never had before, so I want to experience something like that again.”

FUMI KANEKO – A LONG WAY FROM HOME

Born in Osaka, Japan, Fumi Kaneko started ballet class at the age of three.

“My mother took me, because when she was young she wanted to do ballet, but her mother only allowed her to do Japanese dance. So, when she was young she wanted to become a mother and she wanted to take her kids to ballet.”

Young Fumi soon fell in love with ballet, so much so that she was prepared to attend ballet class from 5 to 11 every evening at the end of her long school day, year after year.  After graduation,

‘I just wanted to dance all day. My teacher had a small company [Jinushi Kaoro] and I joined and I was able to dance from morning to night and that was my dream come true.’

When she joined the Royal Ballet in 2011 her CV already included gold at the Varna International Competition and silver at its Moscow and USA equivalents. The transition was not easy, though.

“It was hard to adjust to a new life without speaking English. In the beginning my Mum came with me and she helped me find a new home… go to supermarket to find something to eat…” She laughs. However,

“I loved this company straight away. Everyone was so helpful, and getting to know each other’s cultures as well, that’s how I learned English slowly.”

Her English is totally fluent now, if charmingly accented.  Her manner is gentle and unfailingly polite, and hides what you suspect is the iron will that saw her through those young years of hard, relentless training.

It also helped her through two devastating bouts of injury, that kept her off stage for the best part of one year each time.  Despite that, her career progression in The Royal Ballet has been steady, and she reached the highest rank of principal this season.

Fumi Kaneko’s has brought her strong technique and attractive stage presence to many of The Royal Ballet’s best loved roles, including Princess Aurora in the company’s signature ballet, The Sleeping Beauty.

FUMI KANEKO – THE FUTURE

Early next year Fumi Kaneko will debut as Odette/Odile in Swan Lake; and as a principal she’ll have access to some of the plum roles on which she’s longing to make her own mark: Giselle, Tatiana in Onegin and, above all, Manon.

“Manon is my dream role, maybe because it was the first ballet I was involved with after joining the company, and I was watching particularly the final pas de deux between Manon and Des Grieux, and I was crying, and I loved it, and I want to experience that.”

As one of a large number of Japanese dancers plying their trade abroad, she is well known and admired in her own country, where she tries to perform every summer.

She laughs modestly when I ask whether she’s a star in Japan, but says:

“When I became a principal I had so many messages from Japanese fans, and that was incredible, because I didn’t know I had so much support there.”

We’re only just beginning to discover the hidden depths of this wonderful dancer. I for one, can’t wait to see a lot more of Fumi Kaneko!

by Teresa Guerreiro

Fumi Kaneko dances the Sugar Plum Fairy with Nicol Edmonds as her Prince in The Nutcracker at the Royal Opera House

on Wednesday 22 December, matinee at 12:30pm,
and Wednesday 29 December at 7:30pm

 

Valentino Zucchetti Dancemaker

The Royal Ballet dancer and choreographer Valentino Zucchetti talks to Ballet Position about his present career and his future plans

Valentino Zucchetti is well launched into his second career, even while his first is still in full bloom. At just 33-years-old, he’s reached the Royal Ballet’s second highest rank for dancers, First Soloist; and he is fast developing a reputation as a choreographer of note.

Zucchetti’s latest work, Anemoi, opened The Royal Ballet’s final programme of the 2021 Spring season to general critical acclaim. Not even last minute changes imposed by COVID-19 strictures dimmed Anemoi’s engaging quality.

The Times described it as “his breezy, felicitous creation,” while The Arts Desk saw it as a “crafty, confident and polished piece of work’, with The Guardian highlighting its “elegant geometry.”

Dancers of the Royal Ballet in Anemoi © ROH 2021 Alice Pennefather

ANEMOI – THE GENESIS

The ballet’s title, Anemoi, refers to the four winds of Ancient Greece, a concept from which Zucchetti drew the inspiration to create a longer piece using Scherzo, a divertissement he’d created during lockdown for the company’s corps de ballet, as a starting point.

As he told Ballet Position, “I thought the piece should be about the fact that these people are young, they represent the future of the company, and they represent the future in general, they represent the wind of change. But I couldn’t use the phrase ‘the wind of change’ because it was a famous song, so I thought I’d conceptualise it.

“It’s always good to go back to Greek mythology, because the Greek gods personify everything, whether it’s the sun, the moon, wisdom, mischief… the ‘anemoi’ were the Greek gods of the four winds, and the ballet has four principal dancers that represent the four ‘anemoi’, and everybody is their afterwind.”

Anemoi is Valentino Zucchetti’s first work for the company on the Royal Opera House main stage; but he’s been honing his choreographic skills since his school days: in 2005 he won the Royal Ballet School’s Ursula Moreton choreographic award.

Since then he has choreographed regularly for the Royal Ballet School, as well as the ROH Draft Works programme.

Artists of the Royal Ballet in Summer Draft Works © ROH 2015 Andrei Uspenski

VALENTINO ZUCCHETTI – THE DANCER

Valentino Zucchetti combines his growing choreographic commitments with a busy career as a full time dancer, something he says he set his mind on aged three in his native northern Italian town of Calcinate.

“I think it was a bit of a calling, because none of my family had anything to do with ballet, nobody I knew, but I saw [Mikhail] Baryshnikov on TV when I was three and something just clicked.

“When I see kids today and I see a three-year-old, I realise they’re just incapable of making that kind of decision unless it comes from somewhere. I used to watch superheroes, I used to watch cartoons, firefighters, spacemen, whatever, but nothing clicked like that. So, in a way it’s probably a calling, or something that’s within us.”

So, at four-years-old he started ballet class locally. He progressed to the School of La Scala in Milan, from where at 16 he joined the Royal Ballet School on a scholarship. As a student he distinguished himself, winning the Genée International Ballet Competition in 2016 and the Royal Academy of Dance Solo Seal Award the following year.

After graduation, Zucchetti spent some time at Zürich Ballet and Norwegian National Ballet, before joining The Royal Ballet in London in 2010.

This made for an international outlook.

“If you work your whole life in one system, the longer you stay in that system, the more close-minded, the more rigid you become. It’s a globalised world, a globalised repertoire all over the world, so versatility is important.

“Usually this exploration of different styles transfers to your own way of dancing, so you’ll find that certain dancers, who excel in contemporary work, have a much freer way of moving in the classical, so they can bring something less rigid to classical ballet.”

Valentino himself is a versatile dancer, who has put his exacting technique to the service of very many demanding roles over the years.

Valentino Zucchetti in Scènes de Ballet © ROH 2014 Tristram Kenton

He’s been a thrilling, impeccably classic ‘Blue Bird’ in The Sleeping Beauty, a reckless, irrepressible Mercutio in MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet, a mischievous Puck in Ashton’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, to mention but a few of his many notable roles; not forgetting a strong turn as the heroine’s dissolute, drunken brother and pimp, Lescaut, in MacMillan’s Manon.

Valentino Zucchetti as Lescaut in Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon ©ROH 2019 Alice Pennefather

All things being equal, Valentino Zucchetti has many years of dancing ahead of him; so I asked which roles he still aspired to dancing.

“There are so many that I would like to tackle! The decision isn’t just on me… You could say Romeo; or one of my absolute all time favourite roles is [Crown Prince Rudolf in MacMillan’s] Mayerling.  For any male dancer that’s a goal.

“I’ve been known to be a demi-character, happy dancer, I can say confidently that I’ve mastered that. I can be a buffoon, but there is a much deeper, darker side that I haven’t been able to express.”

VALENTINO ZUCCHETTI – COSMOPOLITAN ITALIAN

He’s been abroad a long time, but a question about his relationship with his native Italy reveals conflicted feelings: pride in seeing his achievements recognised by his country of birth, mixed with a refusal to be pigeonholed as “an Italian abroad” or “a local boy done good.”

“Every time a new milestone happens here, it makes news in Italy. For example, last summer I organised this festival of [open air] dancing on the Regent’s Canal – out of the blue it became a worldwide success and I was on the main [TV] channel in Italy.

“And this time, after I received this commission [for Anemoi] I realised I was the first Italian choreographer ever to choreograph for The Royal Ballet.

“But I find nationalism a form of tribalism. For me, I only belong where I feel that my personality can fit. That’s probably the reason why I try to sound English as much as possible” (and yes, there is but the merest trace of an accent in his speech), “ because it’s not about me coming to another country and trying to maintain what I used to be until the death, it’s about adapting.”

VALENTINO ZUCCHETTI – THE FUTURE

For the time being, Valentino Zucchetti remains a dancer and choreographer. In the medium term, as his dancing slows down, so choreography will take more of his time and talent; but what are his long-term ambitions?

“I’m aspiring potentially to becoming an artistic director, because on top of choreography, which is my greatest passion, I just love the idea of organising a season, so, taking an audience on a whole journey, through a season, or through two or three seasons; or to organise ballet festivals, where you can gather together great artists.

“I don’t necessarily want to have a whole career based entirely on myself; I also like the idea of using my expertise to develop dancers’ careers.”

Brainy, uncompromising, strong-willed and very talented, Valentino Zucchetti will doubtless achieve his aims.  After all, not even COVID-19 has been able to stop him in his tracks…

by Teresa Guerreiro

António Casalinho – The Making of a Star

António Casalinho in Flames of Paris. Photo: Tomé Gonçalves

Fresh from winning the Gold Medal at Prix de Lausanne 2021, the Portuguese dancer António Casalinho talks to Ballet Position

There are times when superlatives fall short of the reality they’re trying to describe. That is certainly the case with the 17-year old Portuguese dancer António Casalinho, worthy winner of two awards at the 2021 edition of the prestigious Prix de Lausanne: Best Contemporary Interpretation and the Gold Medal, along with the coveted title of Laureate of the Prix de Lausanne.

The dancer, choreographer and artistic director Maina Gielgud has worked with Casalinho. This is her assessment:

“He already has, at age 17, the maturity, technique, stylistic understanding, musicality, artistry, acting ability of a top Principal in a first rate company. [He has] really good proportions [and] outstanding coordination of movement.”

And as if all that weren’t enough, Maina Gielgud adds:

“And the X factor, which is not describable.”

You can judge for yourself. Here is António Casalinho dancing the Acteon variation, his classical entry for the Prix de Lausanne.

António Casalinho – The Beginning

We’re a long way away from the hyperactive eight-year-old from the small town of Leiria, just north of the Portuguese capital of Lisbon, who determined he wanted to do ballet class, even though he wasn’t really familiar with ballet, not having watched any performances in his short life.

So, over WhatsApp I asked Casalinho, what attracted him to ballet?

“Girls I was friends with at school attended ballet classes (…) I was always a very active child, never still, full of energy, playing, climbing trees, all that. I always wanted to do things outside of school.

“So I saw ballet as something I should try, put my energy to some use.”

The version told by Annarella Roura Sanchez, the Cuban dancer and teacher, who just over 20 years ago set up an Academy of Dance, and subsequently her Conservatório Internacional de Ballet e Dança, in Leiria, is a little fuller.

“One of the little girls I taught at the Catholic school came to me and said there was a boy who wanted to come to class. I said, No, as I thought this was a childish prank. But she insisted: ‘You know, he can do the splits!’

“So, he came to me, all sweet and well-behaved (…) I put some music on and said, ‘you like to dance, then dance!’ And, you know, he reminded me of Tarzan: he pranced around, walked on his hands, performed all kind of circus tricks and ended by doing the splits.”

She laughs at the memory with a mix of pride and affection – Casalinho is, after all, very much her creation.  She was, however, impressed with his agility, natural facility and easy en dehors, and took him under her wing, having persuaded his naturally protective parents to allow him to do ballet.

Over the following years his passion for dance developed gradually.

“At the beginning I went to class only four times a week. Little by little Annarella got me to do more, which I liked; and then we started going to competitions, I saw there were better dancers… and then Annarella explained that one day I could earn a living from dancing, make dance my profession.

“It was at that point that my interest in dance became more serious.”

António Casalinho – Multi-Award Winner

Trained in the Cuban style of ballet, Casalinho has won awards in every international competition he’s entered: prior to Prix de Lausanne he had won the Beijing International Ballet and Choreography Competition in 2019, Gold Medal in the Junior Category at Varna in 2018, first prize in the Junior category at the Youth America Grand Prix in 2016.

António Casalinho, Le Corsaire, YAGP 2016

Natural talent is one thing; top level teaching and wise mentoring another. Both go towards making an artist; but neither would work without the right mental attitude. Interviewed after an early edition of YAGP, the child Casalinho stated he would always have something new to learn, and added “nobody is perfect.”

I asked him whether that was still his attitude:

“Yes, of course! Nobody is perfect, and that’s a fact. When we really like something and want to do our very best, we are never satisfied. Never. And therefore we always find something that can be improved (…) and that’s what makes us grow as dancers and human beings.”

In António Casalinho’s case, his technique evolved a lot faster than his acting ability, and Annarella felt he would benefit from expert coaching. So she invited Maina Gielgud to guest teach at the Conservatório.

To begin with, Maina Gielgud found him “not at ease and quite restrained.

“The mime was sincere but held back (…)

[However] He is a super-quick study, remembers all corrections and (…) of course, this means that it is possible to advance quickly to explore a role not just technically (…), but to discuss the different possibilities of the character, the stagecraft involved in letting the audience into the story, into the emotions of the characters.”

All that work came to fruition in Gielgud’s staging of Giselle for Conservatório Annarella, with Casalinho as Albrecht and another outstanding talent, Annarella’s 15-year-old daughter, Margarita Fernandes, in the title role.

António Casalinho as Albrecht, Margarita Fernandes as Giselle. Photo: Tomé Gonçalves

António Casalinho – The Future

You would imagine, therefore, that ballet companies everywhere would be falling over themselves to engage Casalinho. Has he had many offers?

“My dream is to join The Royal Ballet in London, but the problem is that at the moment the Royal Ballet is not hiring from the Prix de Lausanne, even though it is an associate company.

“I’ve had offers from some schools in Russia, from some Junior Companies, I’ve also had an invitation from a company in England, another in Russia…

“But all this has to be well thought out together with my parents and my teachers, because these are decisions that will change one’s life.”

As I tried (and mostly failed) to digest the fact that the Royal Ballet was apparently foregoing the chance to bring an extraordinary dancer into its ranks, I asked Casalinho what he was most looking forward to learning, as he starts his professional career.

“First of all, I’m going to learn to live by myself in a vast world. It’s a completely new world for me, and that’s the reason why Annarella wants to take me to various companies, have a try, take part in galas, so as to familiarise myself with that world.

“ No matter how much people tell you things and try to explain, you never really know until you’ve tried different things.

“I think joining a company will help me acquire the maturity of a professional dancer.”

Talking to António Casalinho is a fascinating experience. Off-stage he looks younger than his 17 years, a smiley, totally unpretentious teenager; but his words carry the wisdom and maturity of a young man twice  his age, surely to a large extent the result of Annarella’s intelligent management.

I feel certain that whatever he decides for now, his future cannot be anything but stellar.

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by Teresa Guerreiro

The Royal Ballet's 'Heavenly' Ryoichi Hirano

Ryoichi Hirano and Marianela Nuñez in rehearsal for Onegin, photo Gavin Smart

Ryoichi Hirano talks to Ballet Position about his life as a Royal Ballet Principal and how he became ‘Heavenly Hirano’

Royal Ballet Principal Ryochi Hirano’s first year with the company was not exactly encouraging. He joined as an apprentice in 2002, fresh from winning the Gold Medal at the Prix de Lausanne; but the transition from ballet school in his native Osaka, Japan, to London and the UK’s most prestigious ballet company, was far from smooth.

“Mentally it was very difficult, because I didn’t have friends, I spoke no English, it was hard to communicate, so I was a little bit isolated, in a way.

“I was the first apprentice dancer in the Royal Ballet, perhaps they didn’t know how to deal with me, how to use me, so I was only doing class, maybe one rehearsal standing at the back…”

Many others would have been discouraged; but not Ryoichi Hirano.

“I said to myself, ‘this could be just one year; I need to take everything that I can by watching, listening, learning.’ So, I tried to do everything, I tried to be able to speak English, I studied a lot, and I watched so many shows, rehearsals… I didn’t just sit there going, ‘why am I not doing this and that?’”

His commitment and application paid off, and eventually he did set foot on the Royal Opera House stage in the ensemble of John Cranko’s dramatic ballet, Onegin.

“I was general cover for all those 12 men in the [Act III] ballroom scene, and one day in rehearsal one guy got sick. Christopher Carr, former rehearsal director, picked me to go on.

“Of course, I had tried to do everything, I learned everything, and he was actually amazed I did it perfectly, and since then he calls me ‘Heavenly Hirano’’’.

He laughs, his obvious amusement at the moniker tinged with not a little pride.

Hirano and Onegin

Justified pride, in fact: spool forward to the present, and not only is Hirano one of the Royal Ballet’s most interesting Principals, he has just made an impressive debut in the title role of Onegin (21/01/2020).

Onegin, the arrogant anti-hero of Pushkin’s verse-novel, who breaks a young girl’s heart and leaves it too late to see sense and repent, is a difficult character to inhabit. It’s tempting to make him rather bi-dimensional – a bad guy who gets his just desserts – but that is not Heavenly Hirano’s way.

‘I always say ballet is… of course, it’s dancing! you have to be technically good; but at the same time I think the most important thing is the story-telling. Acting is the key.’

Hirano puts a lot of thought and observation into building his characters.

“I watch so many people doing so many different roles, I see what works, and then I can use that as ‘a weapon.’  So, I really love acting, it’s not easy without words, but it’s amazing how much you can tell with just body language, how much you can express.”

Hirano’s Onegin is a complex, well-defined and extremely nuanced character; an arrogant city man, prey to deep ennui, who, though dismissive of country-life, is, nevertheless, a courteous and unfailingly polite guest in Tatiana’s household.

His spurning of young Tatiana’s love comes not out of pointless cruelty, but rather impatience, a sort of ‘oh, just leave me alone, little girl!’

His performance is full of realistic touches: when his friend Lensky challenges him to a duel by slapping his face with his gloves, he staggers back, not from the strength of the blow, but from sheer surprise: he never thought his open flirting with Tatiana’s sister, his friend Lensky’s fiancée, could break up the all-important male bond.

Onegin’s restlessness in the Act III ballroom scene, when he recognises in the elegant aristocratic married woman the girl he spurned, feels real: he frenziedly paces the stage, alternately wanting to show himself to her and hiding, shock, anguish and desire flowing backwards and forwards across his face.

And his central pas de deux with Marianela Nuñez’s sublime Tatiana, the perfect lover of her dream in Act I turning at the end of the ballet into the supplicant suitor she must refuse, truly touch the heart.

In his progress towards the plum lead role of Onegin, Hirano danced Prince Gremin, Tatiana’s dignified and doting much older husband.

Marianela Nuñez as Tatiana, Ryoichi Hirano as Prince Gremin (c) ROH 2013 Bill Cooper

“It’s always nice that I can play Prince Gremin and then Onegin, because I know what the Prince feels (…) I always find it easier to know other characters.”

Hirano’s Versatile Career

Ryiochi Hirano is a versatile dancer, and despite his preference for narrative ballets finds himself equally at ease in abstract works, his solid technique and powerful presence suiting Balanchine, as much as Wayne McGregor.

He’s danced many of the main classical roles, always bringing something very much his own to all his characters, be it a depth of understanding to his portrayal of the brain-addled, drug addicted, suicidal Prince Rudolf in Kenneth MacMillan’s masterpiece Mayerling

Royishi Hirano as Prince Rudolf in Mayerling, (c) ROH 2018 Helen Maybanks

… deep corruption and venality (despite his naturally noble demeanour) when dancing the character of Manon’s brother and pimp, Lescaux; or a thrilling sensuality to the bullfighter Espada in Don Quixote.

However, the lead role of Onegin eluded Hirano for many years; not something he regrets.

“Onegin is such a demanding part! You need a maturity, a mature aura on stage; you can’t just be a good partner, tall… I think the person that is acting Onegin needs to have experience as a person, as well, in life.

“If you don’t know what happiness is, you can’t express happiness on stage. The more you’ve been through in your life, the more understanding you have of what those feelings are like, [the better] you understand Onegin’s feelings. It takes a long time to get to do those roles.”

From Osaka to London and Back Again

Despite having spent more than half his life in London, Ryoichi Hirano is a major star in his native Japan, with a loyal and enthusiastic following among Japanese balletomanes. He regularly performs in Japan, either when the Royal Ballet tour there, or in special galas.

So, where is ‘home’ for him?

“I would like to say here, because when I was in Japan I was a minor, a student, I didn’t know anything about adult life: I went to high school, did ballet after school, and that was my life.

“When I came here, this is my adult life. When I go to Japan I feel a bit weird, because I only know what I knew when I was at school. People ask me, where is a good place to have a party…  He looks helpless, shrugs his shoulders and laughs: “I don’t know! I know more about life in London.

“So, every time I go back home…” he stops himself, and then repeats “home,” making the inverted commas sign with his fingers, “when I get back [to Britain], I feel I am really home.”

Ryoichi Hirano gives the impression of a very centred person, an artist happy with his life and his career so far. He’s done it all, or most of it, anyway; although asked whether there is still one role missing from his extensive repertoire he says, diffidently, “Des Grieux.”

Who knows? Perhaps the poet lover of MacMillan’s Manon will come his way before too long.

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by Teresa Guerreiro

Onegin is in repertoire at the ROH until 29th February.

Ryoichi Hirano dances Onegin on 8th and 27th February.

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

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!

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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

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

Irek Mukhamedov - A Life Renewed

Irek Mukhamedov and Viviana Durante in MacMIlan's Manon, The Royal Ballet, photo ROH

As the stage lures him back once again, Irek Mukhamedov talks to Ballet Position about “performing, acting, interacting, being alive.”  

A dancer’s career is cruelly short. Actors can act into their 80s (look at Maggie Smith, Judi Dench), singers sing well into old age (Josephine Barstow currently hitting the top notes in the National Theatre’s production of Follies). Dancers, though? Theirs is the cruellest profession. And even years after leaving the theatre very few dancers ever stop craving the stage.

Irek Mukhamedov
Irek Mukhamedov

For 57-year-old Irek Mukhamedov, it’s “being on stage that’s actually quite rewarding; and it’s a kind of atmosphere, it’s a kind of the music, acting comes with the music and you live new life, maybe little bit renewed.”

We spoke in London at the end of a day when Mukhamedov had been coaching dancers at English National Ballet, where he is Guest Ballet Master. His modesty and courtesy are disconcerting in someone who reached the stratospheric heights of his career; his fluent, but accented English, peppered with the quirks of his Russian mother-tongue, is its own kind of music.

As well as coaching at ENB, Mukhamedov was preparing to return to the stage in a piece tailor-made for him by Arthur PIta for inclusion in the second iteration of Ivan Putrov’s Men in Motion, a showcase for male dancing.

“It’ll be a one man show approximately 10, 12 minutes, me on stage talking, a little bit of playing music, a little be of dancing. It’s a kind of old man remembering the past. (…)

“It’s based on classical, but I’m not the prince anymore.”

Mukhamedov – The Royal Ballet Years

What a prince among dancers he was in his heyday, though! When he joined the Royal Ballet in 1990, fresh out of the Bolshoi, he brought with him the breathtaking technique required for the heroic Soviet roles in which he’d been typecast; but London added further depth to his dancing.

“I can act. I thought I could be romantic, but coming to Royal and working with Kenneth [MacMillan] on his ballets, it actually opens up even more, to become even more romantic, I understood even better Giselle after that, so I became even more dramatic, became real actor.”

Kenneth MacMillan immediately spotted his potential. The very year he arrived at the Royal Ballet, MacMillan created a pas-de-deux for Mukhamedov and another of the choreographer’s favourite dancers, Darcey Bussell, to mark the Queen Mother’s 90th birthday.

That was the genesis of Winter Dreams, MacMillan’s take on Chekhov’s Three Sisters.

Irek Mukhamedov and Darcey Bussell in MacMillan's Winter Dreams, photo ROH
Irek Mukhamedov and Darcey Bussell in MacMillan’s Winter Dreams, photo ROH, Leslie Spatt

There’s a general consensus that Mukhamedov was the perfect vehicle for Kenneth MacMillan’s ballets, in particular his darkest, most complex works, where depths of human behaviour were plumbed in roles such Mayerling’s unhinged, drug-addicted, mother-fixated Habsburg Prince Rudolf, whose life would end tragically in a murder-suicide pact. Rudolf is Mukhamedov’s favourite MacMillan role.

“It’s so demanding, demanding from beginning to end, and you had to be Rudolf, you cannot be yourself even one second, even in interval, you have to be continuing with Rudolf, otherwise you lose the plot, you lose the momentum, you lose that growing role – the role grows from beginning to the end. If you switch off, it’s very difficult to come back.”

Irek Muhammed and Viviana Durante in MacMillan's Mayerling, The Royal Ballet
Irek Muhammed and Viviana Durante in MacMillan’s Mayerling, The Royal Ballet, photo ROH

Mayerling predates Mukhamedov’s arrival at the Royal, but one role that was created on him was that of the Foreman in MacMillan’s last – and most controversial – ballet, The Judas Tree. I wanted to hear Mukhamedov’s take on the piece and on the controversy itself.

“We talked to Viviana Durante, this work was created on both of us (…) when it was created we never ever went into a situation, ‘oh, because it’s rape we have to think about it.’ No.

“It was just simply telling the story, telling the story of one of the evenings, and the boys from a working site are enjoying themselves and this is the girl that destroyed all, but at the same time she had to be destroyed too. But she’s still alive! So, that’s kind of idea (…) and of course it’s a Kenneth MacMillan, we didn’t say, ‘well, we’re doing Romantic ballet’”.

Interviewed about The Judas Tree when first asked to dance The Foreman a few years back, Carlos Acosta said, “it messes with your head!” Did it mess with Mukhamedov’s head, I wondered?

“No, not really, it’s not messed, it’s just you go into the role, into the character. It’s very difficult afterwards to smile immediately, I can only be back to myself by next morning. With Prince Rudolf, that took even longer, because there’s even deeper to go.”

Mukhamedov – After the Royal

Mukhamedov was let go by the Royal Ballet in a staggeringly ungracious way in 2001. He seems not to bear grudges, though, and has returned to coach the current crop of Royal Principals, most recently for the programmes marking the 25th anniversary of MacMillan’s premature death backstage, while Mukhamedov was dancing Rudolf.

Equally, he’s back coaching at ENB, even though his full time association with the company ended in the summer.

In the studio I’m told Mukhamedov is a very hard taskmaster towards both dancers and pianist. Is that true?

He laughs. “Well, this comes with the job. We can be a little bit relaxed, but when we do, we have to do, otherwise the body will never remember. The mind will understand probably, but the body must remember!”

"A hard task master" - Mukhamedov in the studio with ENB's Cesar Corrales
“A hard task master” – Mukhamedov in the studio with ENB’s Cesar Corrales

There is perhaps one grudge he bears. After his abrupt and rather acrimonious departure from the Bolshoi, amid the upheaval caused by the fall of communism and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, he never went back.

“I think Russians are hard people, they probably ‘knew,’ like I ‘knew’ when Rudolf [Nureyev] left, I learned afterwards he is actually traitor, he defected, he betrayed our country, so probably the rest of the people think, me too, I’m a traitor, I betrayed the country and everything. But in the end we continued [carrying] the Russian flag of ballet up high, not hating Russia.”

Nor was he asked back. As he is keen to point out, when they left the Soviet Union his wife Masha was pregnant with their daughter, Sasha. So, Mukhamedov’s own family started in the UK.

Asked about Sasha Mukhamedov, now a Principal with Dutch National Ballet, he tries (and fails) to sound as though he’s not bursting with pride…

“I’m very happy for her success and her progress whatever she’s doing. A lot of things is in the genes. She’s just done Mata Hari, (…) she was very good acting, technician, dancer and all this, so it’s good.”

There’s also a son, now 21, being coached by his mother in her private teaching studio in France, where the Mukhamedovs now reside.

Mukhamedov – The Future

So, after an illustrious dancing career, and spells as Artistic Director in Greece and Slovenia, as well as the occasional return to the stage, what’s next for Irek Mukhamedov?

“So far I’m freelance, I’m enjoying myself, I’m travelling a lot. I started as a freelance from August, so I’ve been in Uruguay, I’ve been in Korea, I’ve been with the Royal Ballet and now ENB.”

Next it’s Amsterdam, where he’s looking forward to seeing his daughter. Any thoughts of retirement?

“No, no, no, no way!… I don’t know, [only] if somebody eventually say, I don’t need you anymore…”

They’d be fools to…

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by Teresa Guerreiro

Men in Motion is at the London Coliseum on 22nd and 23rd November at 19:30