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Nathalie Harrison & James Wilkie

First Artists, The Royal Ballet

interviewed by David Bain

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church,
London, 2 October 2009.


BEFORE STARTING THE INTERVIEW David Bain thanked James Wilkie for replacing Lara Turk as one of our guests. Lara was unfortunately ill and unable to attend. He then explained that firstly, we would hear how James and Nathalie got into ballet and their time with the Royal Ballet including their highlights to date, before moving on to the recent tour to Washington, Granada and Havana.

 There was a mixture of the Rolling Stones and Vivaldi in the house!

Nathalie is ‘a complete product of the Royal Ballet School.’ She was a Junior Associate, at White Lodge, and the Upper School. She grew up in a musical household – her dad was involved with a rock ’n’ roll band, and her mother would put on classical music, as she felt it would help Nathalie concentrate on her schoolwork. There was a mixture of the Rolling Stones and Vivaldi in the house! Nathalie had been at school on an art scholarship in Surrey, but was seen in a dance class and told to audition for the Junior Associates. She went on as a boy mouse in Tales of Beatrix Potter. Her father had suggested that she go to the school for three weeks as a trial, but she caught the bug, and graduated seven years later – ‘that slowly, but surely’ route.

James came through White Lodge and the Upper School. His family have a military background. Having been overseas early on, his family came back to England when he was eight years old. ‘Blue Peter was my inspiration. I’ll say it was Rudolph and Margot. It’s good for the memoirs!’ He asked his mother about different types of dancing. ‘Not the sort of thing your mother expects you to say.’ She listed everything she could think of. Thinking about it, James decided on ballet. The condition was James did it for a term. There were all those girls in the class, and he was the only boy. ‘Brilliant!’ At White Lodge, he realised he really enjoyed ballet and joined the Company in February 2002, when Ross Stretton was director.
Nathalie’s school highlights included attending the Adeline Genée awards in Sydney in her third year. She went for three weeks, had the time of her life, and came away with a medal. Her classmates included Paul Kay, Zachary Faruque and Martyn Garside. She always felt like the ‘lanky, struggling girl in a very talented year.’ Every time she felt she was making progress, she grew some more. Merle Park was director of the school at the time. ‘She was great. She had amazing feet, and everyone was always looking at her arches,’ when she came to sit and watch anything. A low point was breaking her foot. In her final year, the Upper School moved premises from Baron’s Court to Floral Street.

As well as doing the Genée, James was selected to spend two weeks at the Paris Opera Ballet School, ‘a real eye opener.’ His French wasn’t great then, which made academic classes a challenge, but it was good to see another style and approach. It was ‘a real learning curve,’ and made you realise there were other, equally valid approaches. The Royal Ballet School felt like a little bubble, but it’s changing now, and is becoming savvier about the dance world. ‘It’s healthy.’ Students at the Royal Ballet School at the time included Lauren Cuthbertson, Paul Kay, Leanne Cope, Olivia Cowley, Jonathan Watkins and Zachary Faruque, so it felt like the ‘Brits trying to hold their own. I don’t think we’ve done too badly.’
James went to Salt Lake City to perform as part of the cultural festival for the Winter Olympics as a student, after being asked to audition for the Royal Ballet. One day Gailene Stock, who was director of the school, put out an announcement for seven dancers to see her after the show. They did so wondering what they had done wrong. They were told when their plane landed in England, they would have their first day as members of the Royal Ballet. ‘It was one of the most magical experiences.’ James went to watch the Cross Country Skiing, and in the (very) long pause of one and a half hours between the skiers whizzing past, he made a reverse charge call to tell his parents. The response? ‘That’s great; this is costing me £30!’

Nathalie had been doing La Bayadère in London when she found out how many of the third years had been offered contracts.  She got a call when she was on the treadmill at the gym with Leanne Cope and Paul Kay. She put Paul on the phone, who found he’d got a contract too. Gailene Stock had known that Nathalie had a contract for a few months, but kept the news from her. She was asked to tell Leanne that she would be covering Lilac Fairy Attendants in The Sleeping Beauty, and it went from there. Paul Kay joined the company in the February. Nathalie and Leanne joined a few months later.

In the corps, you
are on stage for lots of magical moments.

‘In the corps, you are on stage for lots of magical moments.’ Other amazing moments include the adrenaline of tours and shows, guest teachers, other dancers, choreographers, and ‘the unsung heroes,’ such as the physios and the costume people, even though they are often the first people who get shouted at if something is wrong. ‘We all whinge, but everybody loves it.’ ‘The moaning going on in the wings, you wouldn’t believe it.’ There are so many talented people in the company that you might see somebody do something amazing in class or rehearsal, whatever their rank. Whilst on stage, something small or silly might happen, and everyone will corpse on stage, such as when Eric Underwood’s trousers fell round his ankles in the final Mazurka of The Sleeping Beauty. ‘He was cabrioling away in his gusset.’ ‘Other than that, we are serious professionals.’

Nathalie had a favourite week recently. She did her first solo Shade, and then went on in a DGV pas de deux, performing ‘the dirty dancing lift’ with Gary Avis. A few days later, she broke her wrist! She and Gary were rehearsing the lift, trying to do it more quickly, arriving in a breath. She felt her feet going higher, before sliding down, and ending up on the floor.

Audio clip - James Wilkie's first Puck:

One of James’s highlights involved going on as Puck in the middle of a performance. One of his closest friends Ludovic Ondiviela was dancing the role when his achilles snapped. James was watching in the wings, and realised no one else was in the building who knew the role. Johanna Adams put a call out for him to get to the stage in a Puck costume ‘immediately,’ People rallied round helping him get ready. Roberta Marquez, Ivan Putrov and Ludovic were already making their debuts that afternoon. When the curtain went up, James (now making his debut too) thought ‘Oh my gosh, what do I do?’ Paul Murphy the conductor indicated for him to wait, and catch his breath before starting. ‘I just remember focusing on him.’ Christopher Carr was running from one side of the stage to the other guiding him through it. There was an amazing reaction and camaraderie from the rest of the company. ‘All my best things, I’ve been chucked on in. My absolute high was Puck.’ Another moment is performing the herald who announces Carabosse is coming in The Sleeping Beauty. No matter how many times he rehearses and performs the role, he always seems to be just off the music. ‘You look good in the outfit though.’

The interview then moved to discuss the most recent tour. Before going on tour, Andrew Hurst, the new company manager, hands out the Red Book, ‘company bible,’ to everyone, which lists for instance, flight schedules, hotels, per diem and good restaurants. There’s no privacy on tour, as everyone else goes to the places recommended in the guide.

In Washington, the company spent a week in a state of the art theatre. The company performed a triple bill of Chroma, DGV and A Month in the Country followed by Manon. It was James’s second time there, which made it easier to really enjoy it ‘and go shopping.’ When the company goes on tour, everyone appreciates the Opera House, and its facilities. Whilst in Washington, the company attended a ‘lovely’ reception at the ambassador’s residence, which was a huge mock colonial building, and they received ‘amazing hospitality.’ ‘We like Washington.’ Christopher Wheeldon came from New York to rehearse DGV. ‘He has so much energy.’ Chroma was well received, and A Month in the Country? ‘They clapped!’

 it was quite spectacular to look up whilst running round during the revenge of the swans and see the full moon.

The Company came home for a week, with three days to rehearse Swan Lake. James and Nathalie appreciated the chance to spend a few days at home. It’s the little things you miss when you’re on tour, like doing your washing or cooking dinner. The company then went to Granada for two performances of Swan Lake in an outdoor theatre. The floor got put down at 8.30pm to prevent it melting during the heat of the day. Class was at 9pm. The dancers put their clocks on ‘regular’ show time to help with exhaustion, as the shows started so late. In the last act, it was quite spectacular to look up whilst running round during the revenge of the swans and see the full moon. The stage narrowed towards the back, so Nathalie was standing in a bush. Siegfried jumped into the same bush, with the girls trying to go around him, saying ‘s'cuse me, s'cuse me!’ to get back on stage for their next entrance. It was a high point for Nathalie. The men finished early in Swan Lake, so the girls told them to go back to their hotel and order lamb chops from the barbeque for them. It was difficult to hear much applause, yet according to dancers who watched out front, there was a great response. The shows were danced by Tamara Rojo and Carlos Acosta, and Marinela Nunez and Thiago Soares. Tamara was very nervous performing back home, but you’d never know it. She had such a calm exterior. After Granada, some dancers went straight to Cuba, via Madrid. Others, who weren’t in the mixed programme, came back to London for two days, ‘to do the washing again.’

For those who came from London, 20 minutes after arriving in the hotel in Havana (which was in the middle of nowhere), the dancers had to be ready for a reception at the British Embassy! David Bain suggested we get swine flu out of the way at this stage. A few of the dancers had contracted the disease prior to going to Cuba, and showed symptoms on arrival. One poor student who came on tour, didn’t feel right, and was ill within a day. Kevin O’Hare dealt with it quickly, but people edged away from the boy he had been sharing a room with. The Company were well looked after, and Tamiflu was issued as a precaution. The press back home built it up into more than it was. There was always a doctor around. The biggest concern was giving the illness to the Cubans.

At the first reception they saw Alicia Alonso, ‘who was like a film star.’ Nathalie felt mortified after going up to introduce her mother to Kevin, who she suddenly realised was talking to a major sponsor. The heat was very intense in Havana, and everyone was drenched after the first company class. ‘We had thought it was hot in Spain!’

James had half a week off, so watched the first night of Month in the theatre. The second night of diverts was performed with the Cuban dancers. Thousands watched a screening of the performance. James talked to one man at the screening, who was so knowledgeable, and knew about the dancers and their repertoire. At the end of the evening, he got back on a rickshaw – this was his job. At the end of the divertissements at this performance, which was the Royal Ballet’s tribute to Alicia Alonso, Monica Mason came on stage and presented flowers to Alicia. The Cubans gave an amazing reception to for the Royal Ballet dancers, and didn’t just cheer their own dancers. Carlos had an amazing week, and said he felt like Michael Jackson.

One man stopped Nathalie and Laura McCulloch in the street, and said ‘Royal Ballet! Royal Ballet! Thank you! Thank you for coming!’

One man stopped Nathalie and Laura McCulloch in the street, and said ‘Royal Ballet! Royal Ballet! Thank you! Thank you for coming!’ The Company were struck by the infectious joie de vivre in Cuba, and how resourceful people seemed. People seemed to interact, and go out more. You’d go to the beach front on a Saturday night, and tens of thousands of people would be hanging out at the world’s longest bar.’ There were lots of parties – ‘loved it!’ Carlos threw one of the best. It was nearly 3am when they got there, but it was ‘amazing.’ Nathalie recounted how she seemed to spend time stopping others from stepping into Carlos’ water feature, a fountain in his living room. There was a joint party with the Cuban dancers at a private beach, Club Havana, which was when the Royal Ballet dancers really got to interact with them. There was a dance-off with the Royal Ballet and Cuban dancers. You want to do as much as you can! ‘We do work hard on tour too!’

The Cuban dancers were very interested in how the Royal Ballet dancers used their arms and their port de bras. It’s such a different schooling. The Cuban dancers laughed when the girls walked out in their Manon fur coats in the heat. Nathalie couldn’t fit her enormous hat in the narrow corridor, so she had to walk lopsided to the stage. The audience went wild for the last pas de deux in Manon. It was equally well received on both nights. It was also great to see Alina back after her long injury too. ‘She was back, and on it.’ It was ‘a nice way to end the tour, somewhere so exciting.’

After the tour finished, James went on to a world heritage site at Vinales with Romany Padjack and Moira the physio for a few days. ‘It’s only when you stop that you can really switch off.’ They took a two and a half hour taxi ride down a very bumpy road to get to there. James had considered driving but had been warned off this. They went riding, and swimming in caves. Nathalie did a photo shoot at a wedding parade wearing a tutu and pointe shoes in a convertible, and it was very hot. Tony Hall was outside the cigar factory where the parade finished, waiting with his camera. After the tour, she stayed with an actress called Esther in a B & B type place, with 20’s and 30’s furniture. Esther took her to the beach, and picked up several others on the way. It was such an insight hanging put with the locals on the beach, having their picnics and everything. Nathalie gatecrashed the hotel where some of the others were staying on, and made full use of the pool facilities. They were extremely grateful not to be on the ‘sick’ flight back to London, although on her return to London Nathalie went down with swine flu!

Report written by Rachel Holland, corrected by Nathalie Harrison, James Wilkie and David Bain ©The Ballet Association 2009


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