Ballet Mistress, The Royal Ballet
interviewed by David Bain
Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church,
London, 10 October 2008.
Ursula was born in Switzerland, and started ballet training in Zurich. Nicholas Beriozoff, who was Svetlana Beriosova’s father, was the director of the Zurich ballet company. He spotted her, at the age of eleven, when she was a pupil at the Zurich Opera House School. Ursula had started out as a page boy in Swan Lake, bringing on the crossbow for dancers such as Nureyev. She would watch each performance as a page standing at the side of the Queen’s throne, and can remember seeing Fonteyn’s amazing smile as the Black Swan. Beriozoff felt Ursula reminded him of his daughter. He wanted her to train at the Royal Ballet School. When she was twelve years old, Ursula auditioned for, and was accepted by, the Royal Ballet School. She obtained a scholarship from Zurich.
It was made clear to Ursula that only British and Commonwealth pupils were offered contracts from the school to the Royal Ballet Company at that time. Therefore Nicolas Beriozoff’s initial intention for Ursula was to attend the school for two years and then return, aged fourteen, to Zurich Ballet under his direction. In the end, Mr Beriozoff moved on to direct another company and Ursula continued her training at the Royal Ballet School. As the scholarship from Zurich only lasted for two years, more funds needed to be found to secure further training at the school. Her father obtained another scholarship from Migros, a large supermarket chain in Switzerland. That initial scholarship has developed into the Prix de Lausanne.
Ursula considers herself lucky with her varied training before attending the Royal Ballet School. One early teacher was Maya Kuebler, who had trained with Kurt Jooss. Another teacher had trained at the Kirov. At the RBS she was given the great foundation of the Cecchetti training. Dame Ninette de Valois frequently visited the School and on such occasions she emphasised the importance of alignment, the use of the floor and use of the head. Ursula’s contemporaries at school included Julian Hosking, Jeanetta Laurence, Wendy Ellis, Christopher Carr and Wayne Eagling.
Ursula then joined Stuttgart Ballet under the direction of John Cranko. Shortly after she arrived the company embarked on a three month coast to coast tour of America, which started at the Met and Sol Hurok was the impresario. It seemed ‘very glamorous and fabulous’, but being 17 she took it all for granted thinking that this was the norm of any touring ballet company. Little did she know what was to come!
She said ‘the company was close knit. Cranko had a wonderful way of making even the youngest members of the company feel like soloists when creating new choreography. Working on new pieces was very exciting. Cranko encouraged you to be creative in rehearsals, if he saw and liked what you did, he would use it, and you would feel part of the creative process. New works created included Glazunov’s The Seasons, Carmen (full length) and Greening. There were always new pieces being created.’
Ursula remembers touring to Russia in 1971, ‘which was quite an experience at that time. It was freezing cold and half the company was off sick with upset stomachs within days of arriving with the atrocious food. Within a week we were left with just one cast dancing so many people had upset stomachs. We performed in Moscow, Riga and Leningrad. The audiences particularly loved Onegin and Taming of the Shrew. On one occasion after the performance we all went about our usual routine of taking off our make-up and getting ready to leave the theatre, but the applause continued on and on. The stage crew had already dismantled the set back stage and still people would not stop applauding. In the end Marcia Haydée and Richard Cragun repeated one of their pas de deux without a set or music to satisfy their audience.’
When Ursula had been with the company for three years, Cranko died unexpectedly on a flight back home. ‘We had been on another tour to the States and were on our way back to Stuttgart about to enjoy our summer break. The whole company was devastated, Cranko had been a real father figure to the company.’
Soon after, being a young, impatient dancer, Ursula left Stuttgart. Laverne Meyer offered her a principal contract with Northern Ballet Theatre. She was aged 20. Ursula arrived in Manchester where the company was based to dance the title role of Cinderella within two weeks of joining. She was coached by Christopher Gable. With Stuttgart Ballet, Ursula had been used to dancing on big stages in big theatres with a big cast and full orchestra, and nice, warm and comfortable hotel rooms. With NBT, she had to adapt to everything being on a smaller scale, and the touring was pretty grim in cold hotels. She remembers her first run through of Cinderella in a university theatre in Aberystwyth. Her first performance with Northern was at the Theatre Royal in Bath which had a small raked stage that felt like being ‘on a mountain top.’
Despite the frequently unglamorous working conditions, she enjoyed a fabulous repertoire. She danced the Partisan Woman in Kurt Jooss’s The Green Table, ‘which I loved’, Chiarina in Fokine’s Carnival, and Jonathan Thorpe created A Woman’s Love for her to the Schumann Song Cycle Frauenliebe und Leben which won critical acclaim. Keith Rosson came to guest with the company and she danced with him in Simon Mottram’s Tchaikovsky Suiteas well as in Walter Gore’s Eaters of Darkness, a piece originally created for Paula Hinton, which was incredibly dramatic, the ballet ending with her strangling Keith. Another dramatic role she enjoyed was the woman in Peter Darrell’s Prisoners. ‘I really loved it.’ Her partners included Nigel Spencer and Simon Mottram. On tour the company performed eight shows a week of ballets such as Aladdin and Cinderella. Nicholas Beriozoff mounted Spectre de la rose, and Svetlana Beriosova started to coach her in several roles.
The company was doing pioneering work at that time, and Ursula was excited to be there at the start of it, and grow with it. ‘We did have great times.’ She stayed for five years, but developed stress fractures on both her shins which were wrongly diagnosed as tumours, and were operated on.
Royal Academy of Dancing P.D.T.C.
She thought she would never be able to dance again and so embarked on her Teaching Diploma from the Professional Dancers Teacher Training Course at the Royal Academy of Dancing. The course was at the time in its second year of existence.
From there she went to teach in Canada at a place called Lloydminster on the border of Alberta and Saskatchewan where for a year she ran a ballet school for 200 children. Again, it was very cold and she remembers it was an odd place because the population seemed to consist of a mix of Eskimos, cowboys and native Indians. Ursula staged a production of Peter and the Wolf whilst there and entered students for RAD examinations.
London City Ballet
One year later, when Ursula returned to Manchester, ‘the shins were fine,’ so she started training again. At that time, London City Ballet was starting, and Harold King invited her to join. Once again she was with another pioneering company ‘going forwards,’ with a full orchestra and corps de ballet. Donald MacLeary was guesting with the company and she was delighted to be partnered by him in Swan Lake Act II, Paquita and Nutcracker pas de deux. He had been her idol since her student days at White Lodge, when she used to watch him perform at the Opera House. It was with London City Ballet she danced her first Odette/Odile, coached by Svetlana Beriosova. She coached Ursula in many roles: they worked through Les Sylphides, Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake and Giselle, Don Quixote pas de deux and many more. ‘We had wonderful times together.’
The company’s first tour abroad was to the United Arab Emirates ‘We worked hard and enjoyed ourselves.’ The company regularly toured to Norway and Princess Diana became their patron, and with her support ‘the company really took off.’ She came to watch rehearsals and performances on many occasions. ‘When we toured to Norway the Norwegian Royal family came to watch and we had a post performance reception at the palace, where Princess Diana took great delight in introducing our director to the king: “King Harold….. this is Harold King!”’
It was with London City Ballet that Ursula met Richard Slaughter, who was brought to the company to partner her in Swan Lake. They formed an enterprising partnership which was to last for 20 years. Initially they embarked on a freelance career guesting with endless Swan Lakes throughout Europe. She also became interested in Baroque dancing, which provided the chance to see how ballet from the court of Louis the XIV has developed into the ballet we know today. She found it fascinating to learn how closely the Grand Pas de deux from The Sleeping Beauty Act III follows the pattern of a court minuet. She also adored the costumes, the beautiful paniered skirts.
Royal Ballet Education Unit
During this freelance period Ursula frequently worked for the Royal Ballet education unit, which was fascinating. She was used to the audience being at a distance, but now she was able to see the immediate impact of what she was doing. ‘We visited many different, schools, hospitals and hospices.’ The work was very rewarding, to see peoples faces light up at such close proximity, especially for people with physical and hearing impairments. She was once asked ‘Do you get that same sense of elation when you are dancing as we do watching?’
At the time Kate Castle was the head of the education unit and this work provided the foundation of what has now developed into our Chance to Dance and the Insight Days. We would often get to a school at 8 a.m. to warm up whilst the dance floor was being laid. We devised an hour long Introduction to Ballet demonstrating a typical dancer’s day, explaining how we train. We often invited four boys on the dance floor to do the balances of the Rose Adagio, and would usually end the session with a Black Swan or Don Quixote or Beauty pas de deux in costume. After that we would have a question and answer session. After a short break, we would teach the children some basic ballet technique in the afternoon. This would go on every day, projects lasting three weeks at a time, which was gruelling, with conditions being far from ideal’. During this time she was still giving guest performances of Swan Lake, being in her mid 30s, felt she was coming to the end of her dancing days.
Before ‘hanging up her shoes’ Ursula decided to develop their education work into a performance, so together with Richard she co-produced a production of Pavlova’s life story, researching it fully. The company they formed was called Ballet Creations. The production toured successfully round UK and abroad with a group of eight dancers, five musicians and one actor portraying the role of Victor Dandre, Pavlova’s husband. To fund it they danced 60 full length Swan Lake performances with a small touring company round Europe, which was an exhausting experience. The production included some of Pavlova’s best-known pieces such as, Bacchanale, La Nuit, The Pavlova Gavotte, The Swan and excerpts from The Fairy Doll. They felt they really got to know Pavlova, and could also see where Ashton’s inspiration came from. Richard had been lucky enough (at the time an injured student with the Royal Ballet School) to sit at Ashton’s side whilst he was choreographing A Month in the Country, and he apparently made constant references to Pavlova whilst creating the ballet.
Following the success of Portrait of Pavlova and at the request from theatre managers they went on to produce The Little Mermaid with music by Debussy and designed by Terence Emery. The production cost £30,000. They received no public funding, but luckily the Disney film was out at the same time, which meant houses were full, and they just about broke even. So almost accidentally they had co-founded Ballet Creations, an independent small to middle scale touring company. Later a full length Cleopatra and Gala Performance were added to the repertoire and the company became resident at Wimbledon Theatre.
Just a few days after the company reached its fifth birthday following performances of the Little Mermaid in Paignton (where incidentally she chose Lauren Cuthbertson to perform the role of a baby Mermaid aged eight with the company) disaster struck and the mini-bus transporting the dancers back to London overturned on the motorway. Luckily nobody was killed but it was a huge shock and the decision was made to stop the enterprise.
Just at that point Wayne Sleep contacted her and asked if she would be interested in joining him for one of his shows which was going to be based on the history of dance and he wanted to include some of the Pavlova numbers they had re-created. She was delighted not to have the worry of administration, booking theatres and organising costumes. Just taking care of herself dancing seemed like a real treat. She had a very busy time dancing a lot of different roles. Pavlova’s Californian Poppy, the girl in Wayne’s Chaplin ballet, Don Q and Lac Act II pas de deux, as well as a cancan with Wayne. She was 40 at the time and after 15 weeks of 8 shows a week dancing all those numbers in every show, she ruptured her Achilles tendon on stage at the end of Pavlova’s Bacchanale. She was convinced this was the end of her dancing career. However, ‘I got into shape again, following the advice of my orthopaedic surgeon, to ensure I got the Achilles tendon fully mobile again and, completely unplanned, ended up dancing for another four years until the other Achilles tendon ruptured’.
Ursula then moved to the New Forest, and started a school in Christchurch near Bournemouth. She devised a one year course for students which culminated in a week of performances with the principal roles danced by professional dancers. Together with Richard Slaughter she co-produced Nutcracker, Coppélia, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty for that set-up.
The Royal Ballet
The company is always very busy. Currently we are working on Swan Lake, Manon and a triple bill. Next is Ondine and then Nutcracker takes us up to the Christmas season. It is quite normal for the Company to be working on three productions at any one time. One production will be up and running, whilst another will be almost ready for performances and another in the early stages of learning the choreography. Most of the time this is taught from notation before it is rehearsed and then coached in more detail. Each production will have several full run-throughs. Soloist roles are given to three or sometimes four different casts and they all need to have rehearsals in the studio before going on stage. This calls for a lot of rehearsing but is essential for the development of the dancers. As a result the timetabling is very complex and everything is planned to the utmost detail.
Swan Lake has a massive cast and everybody works very hard, so if for instance a soloist is sick it has repercussions right down the ranks and I have to ensure there are no gaps in the corps de ballet. This is when I have to call on the students across the road for help. It is good for them to have the experience of dancing with the company and we need their back-up.
Rehearsing the big corps de ballet numbers with the girls is very rewarding when there is plenty of time to work on fine detail, with the dancers graduating perfectly in height, looking impeccable. It is also most frustrating when at short notice dancers need to switch places, sometimes having to do everything on the opposite leg and to the other side at short notice in an emergency if someone is sick or injured. The dancers cope amazingly as do the students. A few days ago we had as many as nine students on stage in Act IV of Swan Lake.
The Far East tour in the summer was tough. We travelled huge distances, performed 30 shows within five weeks with four different productions. This meant more rehearsing on tour than usual when the dancers were tired at the end of the season and we had a lot of injuries. The summer holiday seemed to go by very quickly and when we came back for this season not all of the injuries were fully recovered.
When questioned whether the current injuries might be due to the dancers taking on too many guesting opportunities during their holiday time, Ursula said ‘Injuries can happen for many different reasons. The injury problems at the moment are not down to dancers doing a certain amount of guesting elsewhere. One has to remember that although it’s important not to overdo it, dancers want to make the most of a short career and dance as much as possible whenever they can. Every dancer is different; some will thrive on a heavy workload. It can be equally difficult to perform well when there are very few performances, especially at a principal level. In Swan Lake, there is the potential for the girls to get sore achilles tendons, there is a lot of jumping and standing in lines, the girls are on stage throughout four acts, which is especially taxing if there are two shows in a day. Just recently many of our soloists were affected by injuries which in turn have given many of the younger artists an opportunity to do soloist work.’
There is no such thing as a ‘usual day’, each day is completely different. The girls are very good and let me know as soon as possible if they are unwell or have a problem that will prevent them from working. This morning we had a stage rehearsal of Manon where we were missing many dancers due to injury and sickness. I received my first mobile call at 8.30 reporting sickness, another girl sent me a text, as she had lost her voice. As a result we were rehearsing dancers for Act II during the end of Act I.
Anything can happen! I remember one particularly difficult day. Christopher Wheeldon had re-choreographed the Garland Waltz on the students of the Royal Ballet School in mid-season, as our dancers’ schedule was too busy to permit extra rehearsal time. Once it had been set on the students it was taught to the Company dancers. We had just one hour to teach and rehearse it to be performed that evening. It was taught in record time but minutes later a dancer became injured in another rehearsal. This then required an emergency call to replace the injured person for the new version of the Garland Dance. The curtain went up at 7.30 with everyone in place. However, during the Prologue one of the Lilac Attendants twisted her ankle on stage. This meant that now I was short of a Nymph for Act II. I tried to organise a placing call in the scene dock, whilst the Hunt Scene was going on but there was so much scenery from other productions that there simply was no space available. As the girls were rushing to get changed from Act I into their Nymph costumes in order to get down to the stage for a quick placing call before curtain up of the Hunt scene one girl grazed her leg on a knitting needle. The accidents that evening just didn’t seem to want to end but the show did go on and we kept it all together.
For Swan Lake, Christopher Carr is overall in charge of the rehearsals. He takes the full company numbers like Waltz and Polonaise in Act I and the National dances in Act III. Ursula rehearses the swans, cygnets, big swans and princesses in Act III separately. Lesley Collier, Alexander Agadzhanov and Jonathan Cope coach the principals. When all is ready the full company comes together for the studio run-throughs. After several run-throughs to accommodate all the different casts, the company progresses from studio to stage calls. There is much stopping and starting to make sure all the dancers are correctly placed on the stage. At this point we will just have a pianist in the orchestra pit. For the next run the costumes will be added and finally lighting and orchestra complete the full production. These stage calls are watched critically not only by the ballet staff that have conducted the rehearsals, but also by Monica Mason and Jeanetta Laurence. Copious notes are given to all concerned to ensure the production looks as perfect as possible. The whole process usually takes three to four weeks.
Due to the many cast changes for soloist roles there are continuous changes in the corps de ballet. Before a production is revived Ursula will visit the school to see which students are most suitable to use within the productions and check with the school if they are available for the company at the required dates and times, so that if for example the second cast cygnets are scheduled to perform, they need to be replaced in the corps de ballet. She has to make sure students of a suitable height and ability are available and able to fill the gap.
When Ursula was questioned about the British style, she remembers at White Lodge Dame Ninette de Valois’ pointing out the importance of the use of the floor, epaulement and the use of the head. To this day, when coaching or rehearsing, Ursula can still hear those ‘pearls of wisdom’ in her head. The training then was very Cecchetti orientated. Nowadays dancers in the Royal Ballet come from all over the world and have been trained in many different ways. This makes it more difficult for the corps de ballet to achieve a uniform look. However, she believes dancers can benefit from having a varied input of different styles as the repertoire with the Royal Ballet is so enormous that dancers need to adapt constantly from Ashton to Balanchine or McGregor.
Many things have moved on since the days Ursula trained at the school. She is aware of the world class conditions they enjoy at the refurbished Opera House. When working in such conditions daily it is easy to forget how lucky they are to have the big studios and sprung floors and points this out to the dancers occasionally.
Ursula has little time to pursue any hobbies. The job is very demanding sometimes she can be in the building from 9.30am to 10.30pm. Some of her friends came to watch Swan Lake a few days ago and they loved it. That is really what it is all about, giving people the pleasure of watching great artists in a wonderful setting dancing some of the best ballets.
David Bain thanked Ursula for giving a fascinating insight into the workings of the Company.
Report written by Rachel Holland, corrected by Ursula Hageli and David Bain ©The Ballet Association 2008.