Principal Dancer, The Royal Ballet
interviewed by David Bain
Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, London, 20 September 2007.
LAURA LAST CAME TO SPEAK to The Ballet Association seven years ago. She was born in Madrid, and arrived at White Lodge aged 11. She is now 29, so has spent over half her life in London ‘half British, I think!’
Laura started dancing by attending dance lessons during the evening, after her academic school. They were not particularly good classes, but were ‘accessible to everyone’ at her school. Her best friend at five years old went, so Laura wanted to go too. Laura was hooked. Her teacher said ‘This girl’s quite good.’ Aged seven, Laura attended the RAD Summer School in England. She had got a grant to come back and after the fourth year thought maybe she should try the Royal Ballet summer school. They sent a video to the Royal Ballet School and received an invitation to audition. She came with her father and was offered a place in the second year. Laura remembered being in the kitchen at home with the family discussing whether she should accept a place at a boarding school, which in Spain is regarded as some kind of punishment, and in England too; it was decided that she should try it for a year because it would be a really good experience …and now she is still here18 years later!
Laura explained the difference between ballet training in Spain and England. When she moved to her dance school, Africa Academy, it meant a heavy day. School until 6.30 then working at ballet till 10 and all weekend. It was quite focused. Her teacher formed a group of 12, who performed in shows around Spain. The teachers were very good; two were principal dancers in a Spanish company. There were free style classes, not just the RAD classes, so it wasn’t so regimented, which Laura feels has helped her now.
So when Laura went to the Royal Ballet School at 11 with no English, it was ‘pretty depressing.’ She had never been away from home. ‘It took me about a year.’ In her audition video, rather than just do a couple of rélevés, Laura performed a solo from Don Quixote and ‘full-on fouettés’ – ‘imagine their faces on seeing it, like I was some kind of circus freak.’ In Laura’s year, she was the only ‘non-Brit.’ There was a Korean girl in the third year, and maybe a Japanese girl. They couldn’t be bothered to talk to a new girl who had just joined in the second year. Laura found her lessons challenging at first, owing to the language barrier, ‘History lessons were pretty hard.’ Her family are academics and scientists, and her grandfather would ask ‘How’s that hobby of yours going?’ When they saw her performing in Holland Park in the end of year performances, they realised she was serious about ballet, and the Morera section of the audience would be very vocal at curtain calls.
Laura found White Lodge hard to start with as she’d never boarded before – her brother had been threatened with boarding school as he was lazy. ‘The corridors were just damp. There was no light – pretty much as England.’ She soon made good friends with Vanessa Fenton, Victoria Hewitt, Henry St. Clair and Bennett Gartside, who she graduated with. Martin Howland and Will Kemp were also in her year. ‘Apparently, we were the character year.’ Overall, Laura has good memories, and doesn’t regret going. ‘It opened a whole new world to me, I didn’t know existed. It taught me so much.’ ‘If I wanted to be a dancer I had to go back to basics, and even at that age I knew there was no way I could dance professionally going at the speed I was going in Spain as by 16 I would have broken something.’ She now feels 100 per cent Royal Ballet and says it opened a whole new world for her from a tiny show in parks in Spain to be surrounded by amazing talent from the teachers to kids, and so much dedication.
Her teachers at the Upper School at Baron’s Court, included Julie Lincoln for repertoire and David Drew for Pas de Deux classes. From the second year she started work with the Company. She appeared in Giselle, and learned The Dream and Swan Lake. At White Lodge, she had danced the girl in the blue hat and a little swan in Swan Lake. She didn’t know who anyone was. At her audition for Swan Lake, she asked ‘Who’s that?’ only to be told ‘Anthony Dowell.’ These opportunities showed Laura what was possible, and helped distract her from any homesickness. Claire Livingstone and Vanessa Palmer were known as ‘the scary ones’ in the corps de ballet, who knew exactly what they and everyone else should be doing, yet Laura was often between them on stage. Laura got her first call to say she was needed in a matinée of Giselle after getting in at 6 a.m. from a night out. She picked up a pair of tights, realising too late they were a small pair from when she was little with the crotch down at her knees. She wore them for the performance! Every time she did an arabesque they didn’t stretch and down would come her leg.
Laura did the Gypsy Girl in The Two Pigeons at her graduation performance which she wishes they would bring back. She also performed in Valse Fantaisie that year ‘which was excellent.’ She performed in Napoli the previous year. ‘The graduation performance was so good because we were so close as a year, I had really good work to do and it was the first time when you get out there and it is your show, that you are a little bit the star of it – it was really nice.’ Laura’s family come to watch a lot. She has a ‘very proud father,’ who is more of an opera fan, although he got into the ballet more through watching her. All the mums would be there, ‘and there’s my dad!’
At contract time the Royal Ballet ‘kept me sweating for a bit.’ Birmingham Royal Ballet and Dutch National Ballet were interested in her after seeing her in class. Laura also went to Monte Carlo to audition, although she lied about her height. They sent a glass-bottomed helicopter to take her back to the airport afterwards, as she was needed back in London at 5 p.m. on the day of her audition. ‘Your helicopter has arrived!’ Monte Carlo offered her a contract. She told Merle Park, but the Royal offered her one the following day. There have been no more helicopters to date.
Audio clip - her first solo:
Laura joined the company in 1995. The first thing she remembers doing was a harlot in Manon. She said that, when brand new in the Company, there could be nothing more embarrassing than acting like a whore. Everyone has eyes on the new one, wondering what she’s like, trying to make little jokes and you don’t know these people. Laura remembers phoning her mother to tell her that she had a role as a harlot and hearing the surprise in her voice. Her first solo was the Coulante solo in The Sleeping Beauty, which they forgot to tell her she was learning. As it has turned out throughout her career, she was given about two hours notice. When they realised, Gerd Larsen took Laura into a studio and taught her the solo and then she had to do it for the first time in front of the whole company. ‘It was pretty much how it was going to be!’ She also did ‘that famous solo that got taken out of Jewels in Act III, the jumpy solo, I did that too’. At the Hammersmith Apollo, Laura recalled, it was only the fourth time she’d done this solo and she had a mad moment. “Going up the diagonal, it is supposed to be single, double, single, double and I debated, what about doing double, double, double, double, shall I, shan’t I, what if I mess it up? Ricardo and Julie Lack were watching, the conductor didn’t know and I just kept going quite fast. The faces! Everyone said how good I was but Gerd Larsen came back and told me off so badly, ‘never to do that gain, never improvise or decide to do something on stage. I am your coach.’ It really taught Laura a lesson.
The Company was changing when Laura joined. There were ‘some really lovely people’ who were really behind her, who remembered her from school. As a newcomer you don’t know how the company was before. ‘It has really changed now, but now I am ‘an oldie’.’ When Laura first joined there was a real respect between the corps de ballet and people like Benazir Hussein and Rachel Whitbread. You didn’t talk to them unless they talked to you. Now everyone is free to talk to everyone which is fine.
Laura loved the first tour “It was fantastic, I think I slept for one hour!” They went to Bergen with Twyla Tharp, Israel, Argentina, Italy, and Laura really got to know everyone because everyone goes out. Looking back, Laura described her first year as nice, her second she spent thinking “I could do that solo” in the third confidence starts to get knocked and then it gets better again. The third was a weird year because the Company was out of the House. She explained that they had to give up so much to keep their jobs, so now when the Company is being filmed ‘they think shouldn’t we be paid but no, we gave up the right with our new contracts.’ It was hard and it was depressing but the ballet company had it easiest out of everyone, the opera chorus was reduced, stage people went.
Laura’s first principal role was as Kitri in Don Quixote, owing to lots of Principals being injured. ‘I really enjoyed Don Q.’ Laura loves the Royal Ballet and its heritage, yet ‘we had to prove ourselves to Ross. He treated everyone the same.’ Established Soloists auditioned for roles alongside new members of the Company, which some found humiliating. Although ‘he let some major talent go,’ he used her, ‘which gave me a boost.’ On tour, in Australia, he called Laura into his office, and told her she had two weeks to learn Kitri, which he wanted her to dance with Ivan Putrov. Laura felt up to the challenge, and Ross Stretton said to her ‘No matter what you do, I’ll be proud,’ ‘which was really nice. It was a different attitude to communicating to dancers which we weren’t used to.’ He promised her that there would be a lot of good work – and then he left. ‘I should have recorded it.’ Laura would love to go back to Kitri, with proper rehearsal time. The first time Laura learned Onegin, it was in similar circumstances to Don Quixote, yet when she was down to do the role again, she appreciated having time to build up the role.
It was pointed out what an amazing CV in terms of range of roles Laura has. ‘I’ve had loads of work,’ and reckons she has been in almost every show. ‘I’m not scared of working. It’s a short career, and I want to do it now.’ Laura has worked with lots of great choreographers like Ashley Page, who gave Laura her first real break with Room of Cooks, working with Adam Cooper ‘a really amazing experience.’ It was working with Ashley that Laura and Ricardo Cevera realised they had a rapport. She also danced Sleeping with Audrey for Ashley and ballets such as The Minotaur for William Tuckett. The way it is now younger dancers probably wouldn’t get the chances, it would still be the same people. She thinks it is harder for the younger ones, apart from the few when you think ‘Phew! How did they get there?’ Laura sees a lot of talent in the corps de ballet and she always makes sure she goes up to them to tell them that they looked really fantastic especially if they are feeling a bit low.
Laura has performed several roles in Mayerling. She first did Princess Louise, then Mitzi Caspar. She loved doing Mitzi ‘as I have played harlot or whore so much Mitzi comes naturally. Innocent girls I have to think a lot about.’ She danced Larisch, ‘she’s really complex,’ with Johan Kobborg. Having covered the role originally, she got thrown on, owing to Chloe Davies being pregnant. She felt they worked really well together in dramatic ballets, especially with Alina, it was an ideal cast. Laura also performed Princess Stephanie ‘not my favourite’ with Robert Tewsley at short notice because of injury, and his need for an experienced partner. ‘I was more forceful in that relationship.’ This is the only time Laura has said she didn’t want to do a role, apart from Cygnets.
Laura tries not to watch videos, as she wants to find her own path with roles. Laura thought Larisch was similar to the Glenn Close role in the Dangerous Liaisons film, pushing a young girl towards the man she herself loves. ‘Macmillan had it all there. He made it pretty clear what he wanted.’ Laura has covered Mary Vetsera for a long time and would like to do it, but won’t cry if she doesn’t. Laura would love to do Juliet. ‘I really don’t know if it’s going to come my way.’ It thrills Laura to express something, and to project that to the audience. Onegin gave Laura that weapon to say ‘I can do this.’ Laura feels very comfortable in the Ashton repertoire with its witty British humour. On comedy – ‘my whole life outside work is a comedy, a one woman show!’ To be told ‘You’re really Royal Ballet’ is a real compliment for her. Her one performance of La Fille mal gardée was with Ricardo Cevera, and ‘there was such a buzz in the Company. It was a really special day.’
Laura loves dancing with Ricardo, and met him at the RAD. ‘We’re like brother and sister.’ He watched her through the school, and it was Ashley Page who first used them together. They have danced together on and off over the years. ‘We have a similar way of moving. We have a similar way of working.’ They can be quite pedantic when working in the rehearsal studio together. In Castle Nowhere by Matjash Mrozewski they followed Zenaida Yanowsky and Edward Watson in their roles, yet performed it in their own way, so it became very individual. Laura hates being second cast to Zenaida Yanowsky because “she has a way of moving that no-one else has, unique, so when a role is created it is hell for the second cast. She has a way of moving her back that no-one else has, like it is broken in four places.” But ‘we brought something different, as if we had our own show. It was like we complemented each other, together you can’t tell where one stops. We think of each other which is rare and it is nice.’
Laura’s boyfriend Justin Meissner left the Royal Ballet, as he felt he had done the same work for a while. He formed ‘Dance Tours International’ for Japanese students. There would be repertory solos, character and mime classes and Pilates in the morning, followed by ‘the Aussie experience’ in the afternoons, with the weekends free. The students would stay with Australian families. It started in Australia, but they moved it to Spain as well. The project has been going for two years. It started with 15 people who came back this year, and 30 have applied for next year. They try to get Royal Ballet dancers to come and teach. Laura feels that dance is an expressive art form, and not just about passing exams. Ricardo has been out to teach, and Steven McRae had come this year. People have asked them back, and they want to come to England in the next year. Laura and Justin are trying to project a love of dance in the students, and there is a plan to build it up.
Laura had almost given up hope of being promoted, having been told ‘you’re very useful where you are.’ She did Voices of Spring with Steven McRae on tour. Monica Mason asked a Mexican promoter what they thought of Laura as a dancer, who replied they felt Laura had held her own against thePrincipals. When Monica said ‘I’m going to promote you,’ Laura replied ‘Really?’ Laura phoned her parents to tell them, and got through to her father. There was silence, followed by ‘Call your mother – I need a drink!’ When Laura told her work colleagues, they said ‘That gives us all hope’ and ‘The Royal Ballet will be a better place having you as a Principal.’ The company clapped when Laura walked into class – ‘National Laura Day!’ Belinda Hatley asked Laura to contact her to let her know how her interview went. Laura would have liked to have seen Belinda get that promotion to Principal, and personally viewed her as one. ‘You can’t really expect it, no matter what they tell you.’ It’ll still be hard work, ‘but a nice feeling though.’ As a Principal, you are much closer to getting roles, but as a First Soloist, you always have to wait.
This season, Laura will be performing Gamazatti in La Bayadère, ‘Good to come back to it’ as well as Bluebird and Fairies in Sleeping Beauty, a harlot in Romeo and Juliet, soloist work in the Emeralds and Diamonds sections of Jewels, a Blue Girl in Les Patineurs, Beatrix Potter, and the Sugar Plum and Rose Fairies in The Nutcracker. She ‘would love’ to dance The Dream and Rite of Spring. As for the rest? ‘We’ll just see.’ There is potentially some nice stuff for the tour.
As for any faults, ‘Not really – uh – maybe I do!’ Laura can take a long time to appear at the stage door. Now she is sharing a dressing room with Zenaida Yanowsky, she might be even longer. ‘It takes time – by the time you’ve finished all those stories!’
Reported by Rachel Holland, corrected by Laura Morera and David Bain ©The Ballet Association, 2007.