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

Kim Brandstrup: The Marriage of Dance and Film

Kim Brandstrup photo Henrik Bjerregrav

Fresh from winning Britain’s National Dance Award for Best Modern Choreography, Kim Brandstrup discusses his love of dance and film.

Kim Brandstrup picks his words carefully. As carefully, in fact, as he lights upon the telling details that will bring his choreography to life.

It’s to do with his early training in, and continued love of film.

“My way of seeing is through a camera and probably I see close ups, how somebody attacks the music, where the gaze is, that slight hesitation before we move… All those little things are what I look out for.”

“Detail” is one word that recurs in our conversation, whether it focusses on dance and dancers, film, opera or theatre, where the Danish-born choreographer is in great demand.

We talk at London’s Lyric Hammersmith Theatre during a break in rehearsals for the stage adaptation of Paul Auster’s novel City of Glass, for which Kim Brandstrup is Movement Director.

That choreography award, then. It was for his reading of Schönberg’s Transfigured Night for Rambert, a piece which The Guardian described as “superbly constructed, inventively musical, beautiful and profoundly humane.”

And yet, Brandstrup hesitated before taking up the commission.

“I was slightly apprehensive about the music’s emotional expressivity, I thought it may be hard to match. There are so many layers in it…

“But then I always found when you give yourself to these masterpieces suddenly they yield something completely unexpected. And it certainly did.”

He was uncertain, too, about the 19th century poem that inspired Schönberg.

“This woman who’s pregnant but she is terrified of telling her partner that it’s another man’s [child], but miraculously this man totally forgives her. And of course, I can see that being a beautiful idea at that time, but now it seems a little bit idealised.

“I think my take on it was (…) to try to find out the cost of that narrative, that it must not have been easy to forget, there must have been lack of trust, unfaithfulness.”

His narrative is, therefore, ambiguous; or, more precisely, the end…

“… is not completely transfigured.”

This commission from Rambert Director Mark Baldwin was special for Brandstrup for another reason:

“For the past ten years I’ve been working almost exclusively with ballet dancers. There’s something in that re-encounter with contemporary dancers that made it possible. I thought it was interesting to explore this territory with a contemporary language.”

Contemporary dance is where Brandstrup first developed his unique choreography. He moved to London in the late 1970s to study dance after obtaining a film degree by the University of Copenhagen, and took class at The Place – “where at that time they had formidable teachers” – before setting up his own company, ARC, in the 1980s.

“At that particular time, 80s and 90s, narrative work in contemporary dance was practically non-existent (…) And I wanted to explore that. And, of course, all those narrative works were much more related to my film training. At that time it was only through having my own company that I could do those experiments.”

ARC Crime - Elegy - History
ARC                    Crime                                                           Elegy                                                                  History

A narrative thread runs through all of Brandstrup’s works.

“My way of watching dancers is always to say, where did they come from, where do they go now (…) Whatever somebody does will embody a kind of intent, and that’s what I’m sensitive to and what I look for – it’s that strange kind of poignancy and alertness of going or being on the move.”

“Coming out of the past and projecting into the future” through movement and stage presence, or “tridimensionality” as he calls it,  is what Brandstrup looks for in dancers. Favourite interpreters include Irek Muhamedov, Zenaida Yanowsky and Alina Cojucaru, on all of whom he’s created work. And since 2015 Sara Mearns, New York City Ballet principal.

A question about Mearns yields the first moment when words fail Brandstrup.

“ Well, Sara…. I just saw her…. and I mean, what can I say? …. She’s a theatrical being, who lives on stage; there’s a tridimensionality to her presence that is fantastic. And she’s fearless!”

They came together when Brandstrup was invited by the NYCB Artistic Director, fellow Dane Peter Martins, to choreograph Jeux on Debussy’s score.

Kim Brandstrup, Jeux, Sarah Mearns with Amar Ramasar photo Paul Kolnick NYCB
Kim Brandstrup, Jeux, Sara Mearns with Amar Ramasar, photo Paul Kolnick NYCB

“We think that Balanchine is the great purist of form, abstract, that it’s the technique and the music that guides it rather than the narrative; but, of course, what we sometimes forget is that they also have Robbins, and that made me think I could tap into that vein.

“I had a great time there and I was astonished at how quick they were. You had to step up your game; and they would give you something at the end of each period.

“You’d get half-an-hour for a solo, you’d get an hour for duets and you’d get, if you were lucky, an hour-and-a-half for full corps. But even at the end of half-an-hour calls somebody would perform something for you, so it made the whole process very quick and very playful.”

The dancers, too, relished the novel experience. Sara Mearns was quoted was saying she found the whole process “liberating:”

“We realised, we are out of our comfort zone, but we are really free. He is directing us, but he will let us go where we want with the movement.”

I’m beginning to get the essence of what makes a Kim Brandstrup work. A narrative thread. Powerful, though understated feeling expressed through movement, rather than “histrionics” (“if you start pulling faces, you really lose your audience”), immersion in the score. And, of course, “detail.”

That’s why he so enjoys working with the Danish Royal Ballet, for whom last Spring he created a full length work, Shaken Mirror (Rystet spejl) – his fifth for the company.

Shaken Mirror, Dancers Sebastian Kloborg and Ida Praetorius, Royal Danish Ballet
Shaken Mirror, Dancers Sebastian Kloborg and Ida Praetorius, Royal Danish Ballet

“Looking across the ballet landscape there is great subtlety in the Danish tradition. I suppose because it was a small theatre and it preserved that quality of detail in the dancing and especially in the mime that I felt I could tap into.

“Also, I think it’s very important that the mime and the acting is never detached from the music, I mean, it was part of the choreographic fabric.”

Shaken Mirror takes its inspiration from the poetry of Brandstrup’s friend and contemporary, Søren Ulrik Thomsens. Here, too, he hesitated before plunging in- “I am always reluctant!” – but finally took the poetry as a starting point for a reflection – a shaken mirror – on a myriad of relationships between men and women.

As in all of Brandstrup’s works we are left with a sense of yearning, a suspended breath.

“Things change, disappear and you remember them and you try and hold them. (…) Choreography is a way of trying to pin down a moment, to recreate it… but of course, it will go away… I mean, it’s not necessarily sad, it’s just how it is.”

Having just celebrated a “significant birthday” Kim Brandstrup is on a roll: last October, an award from Denmark’s Wilhelm Hansen Foundation joined a growing collection that includes an Olivier and an Evening Standard Award, marking particular stages in a considerable body of work.

He has a major dance project underway for 2017, but so far we’re sworn to secrecy; NYCB are reprising Jeux in the Spring; Britten’s opera Billy Budd, on which he worked with Director Deborah Warner in Madrid last year, is embarking on an extensive tour; and he’s going back to his first love, film.

The film of Brandstrup’s Leda and the Swan, created in 2014 for Britain’s Royal Ballet, received critical acclaim. Now he’s putting the finishing touches to another film.

“I’ve done what I call three small portraits of three dancers. It’s basically them listening, marking and doing a few phrases of something that I keep track of very closely. I’m editing at the moment. It’s exciting and I managed to get Carlos [Acosta], Alina [Cojucaru] and Zen [Yanowsky] to do it.

And, of course, what he is trying to grasp “is the detail of what the dancers do.”

In the end, Brandstrup feels, detail is what keeps the audience watching:

“You’ve got to create a particular kind of concentration and emphatic watching of the detail in the audience. They have to lean forward and say, ‘what is this? what is it?’  (…) I feel less is more and you mustn’t lose the depth of the image and the depth of movement.”

Teresa Guerreiro

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