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Laura McCulloch

Soloist, The Royal Ballet

interviewed by David Bain

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church,
London, 17 March 2010.

DAVID BAIN WELCOMED LAURA and suggested that, as she’d last come to speak to us, along with Kristen McNally and Gemma Sykes, just a year after she joined the Company, she began by reminding us how she got into ballet. Laura said when she was very young she was always jumping around in front of the TV at home in Glasgow, so when she was three her Mum took her to dance class. She refused to do anything and so tried another dancing school which she loved and wanted to go every day. At that stage she was limited to once a week. When she was older she was accepted into the Glasgow-based Scottish Ballet Junior Associates which is similar to the Royal Ballet JA programme, and stayed there for two years, attending twice a week.

 the students weren’t all used to having dancers around them, especially boys, and used to throw things at them!

Feeling she wanted to take dance further she applied for, and got a place at, the Dance School of Scotland, where she continued training for the next few years. It was an interesting concept as the dance school was in the middle of a normal Glaswegian secondary school but the students weren’t all used to having dancers around them, especially boys, and used to throw things at them! There were about 100 pupils, in each year, of which, there were 12 dancers in Laura’s year – seven girls and five boys. They were taught English, maths and science etc together which was good but they rotated quarterly on a few subjects like home economics and technical and in place of these had double periods of ballet and jazz dance. (Some of her friends from that time have gone into West End musicals.) There they had about two hours a day of dance training and stayed after school for another hour’s work twice a week. Students came from all over Scotland. Initially Laura was travelling two hours daily as the school was the other side of Glasgow from her home but decided she’d rather be with her friends so went into residence for years 3 and 4. Although the residence itself was only for the dancers it was good to be in contact with the other students at school and having normal people around helped to keep you grounded!

There was no background in dance among her family, though her Gran was a bit of a performer! Her parents were always supportive and happy that she was doing what she wanted and every week her Mum would ask if she still wanted to go back to school. By the age of 15 Laura knew she wanted to dance professionally but wasn’t sure where to go or how to go about it. She auditioned for and was accepted at the Royal Ballet Summer School and thought she’d then return to Scotland for another year to do highers and complete her education. At the school two teachers asked to speak to her Dad, who’d gone with her, and said they’d like her to go to London for another audition for the Royal Ballet School. She went for a weekend and much to her surprise was offered a place. She thought she’d try it out for a year and if it didn’t work she could pursue a new path. So at the age of 16 she went to the Upper School where she did academic A levels and RAD Advanced ballet grades. The Upper School was very different from Glasgow, but the transition wasn’t hard and she enjoyed her every-day activities. Instead of being only seven, it was great to be in a class with 20 girls, including 12 who’d come from White Lodge, and four pupils who came from her own school in Glasgow, two boys and two girls. These four are now in Monte Carlo, Scottish Ballet or Rambert, so it was a successful year.

Her first year in the Upper School was quite different as the emphasis was on dance training while academics were definitely secondary. They could take ‘A’ levels over a two year period and Laura gained a Grade A in dance and Grade B in maths. She also sat advanced RAD exams in her first year and then did the Phyllis Beddels course. Gailene Stock had introduced a third year in the Upper School. Initially there were 20 girls and slightly fewer boys in Laura’s year but in third year there were only 10 girls and 10 boys while the rest got jobs or went elsewhere.

After five minutes in the studio with all the other company girls she was in the changing room getting ready for a performance!

At the school they did La Valse with Christopher Carr as coach and in the first year they did Giselle which gave Laura her first experience of covering Queen of the Willis for Gemma Sykes. In the third year they were getting their performance skills together and learning to become professional dancers and Laura’s year was taught by Jackie Barrett. Laura’s first experience dancing with the Company was in Swan Lake. One evening at 5.30pm she was taking a contemporary class when the school secretary came and said she should go to the Opera House at once. Laura wondered what was happening but changed and went to see Gail Taphouse who said they were missing a swan for that evening’s performance and she was to go on. After five minutes in the studio with all the other company girls she was in the changing room getting ready for a performance! It felt like a dream but a couple of girls who knew the roles well helped her through. Parts of the dance are formulaic and quite easy but in Act IV there is a lot of running around which is more tricky. Some time previously they had done a rehearsal of swans but Laura hadn’t seen or danced it since. Now people stand in the wings to watch a performance and get an idea of the moves but she’d not been aware of that at the time. Luckily things went well, they saw she was a quick learner so from there on she was on frequently including Nutcracker which was being filmed. Following that she was in Fille and it was during that show that she was offered a contract.

Asked what were the advantages of her particular schooling as opposed to White Lodge, Laura said she couldn’t say how much was through her schooling and how much because of her own personality. She’d been unaware of the hierarchy within the Company but she’s someone who’s always been determined to ‘give it a go.’ This is particularly important now that the focus isn’t just on classical ballet and, having done a lot of other types of dance before, it comes naturally to her.

Her contract came half way through the year but prior to that Laura had heard through a friend about auditions going on in Monaco. There was a biennial system whereby anyone could send a video and lots of people of a certain standard were invited to show their skills to a number of company directors or their representatives. Each director would choose who they wanted and you were then given a list of the interested companies. It sounded fun to go to Monaco for a couple of days but the reality was they stayed outside in a place with no swimming pool (as they had hoped), no lights or heating (as they had expected), and it was cold at night so they all had to sleep in warm-up clothes! As a result of this venture, Laura had some options including San Francisco Ballet, ABT and Dutch National. She was invited to go to Stuttgart which Gailene encouraged her to do, she did a class there and was offered a contract for the following season. When she came home she was also offered her contract to start at the Royal immediately which she accepted. This was just as Anthony Dowell was retiring from the position of Director.

It was good to join a company which she knew and had already worked with the people so there was less anxiety than going to somewhere totally new. After a couple of months they were off on tour to Washington and Boston which brought you closer and gave her another opportunity to get to know better the others involved with the company. Her first roles were in Fille, Giselle and Firebird.

Several students who are still with the Company joined exactly a year later – Kristen McNally, Lauren Cuthbertson, Emma Maguire, Pietra Mello-Pittman, James Wilkie and Jonathan Watkins – and during Ross’ season as Director dancers came from all over the place. Laura meanwhile spent a lot of time in the video room as there was so much rep to learn – you’re constantly trying to catch up as everyone else knows the work. Once you’ve learned the roles you become more relaxed and then begin to look for another challenge. It can be a hard transition for them after their hectic final year in the school doing pas de deux, solos and rep so they have to find their own way of keeping trained and improving even if they’re not busy on stage.

Lauren’s first solo part was in Bayadère. She was also learning Lilac Fairy in Makarova’s production and, while preparing to go on as Lilac attendant one day, Christopher Carr called her to say the Lilac Fairy was ill and could she have a go. She hadn’t seen any of Act II and didn’t know her positions so the stage manager was calling instructions from the wings! She started to understudy roles and it was a huge experience to rehearse any of them, under the instruction of one of the company’s fine coaches, let alone do a performance.

Asked if being one of the taller girls is frustrating, Laura said there are several roles she couldn’t do due to height issues. But as Zenaida Yanowsky had said why does Cinderella have to be small? If you have a small Juliet then her friends can be small but if a taller Juliet then why can’t her friends also be tall?

Rubies
Rubies with Johannes Stepanek and Kenta Kura. Photo ©Frederika Davis

Laura’s first principal role was in Rubies. She had been down as cover but to see the notice with her name among the principals was a great boost. She went into rehearsals and practised at the back, having a great time learning it. There’s so much going on in the studio but it’s also important to enjoy the whole process. Pat Neary came at the beginning of the season which was a bit of a shock as she’s very particular and there are no half measures with her, but you need that for the role and when she gets her leg above her head you have to do the same. As someone who’s danced the role herself she knows all the little details and it’s always very fortunate to have danced roles with those who created them. Just after opening night, when Laura was also performing corps de ballet roles in Emeralds and Diamonds, Monica Mason called her to say she might have to do Rubies in the next show so she went into rehearsal. It was quite a big role to let her loose on as she’d not even done a stage call. But Pat and Chris Saunders had faith in her and knew she was capable which was encouraging. In the end she did four performances. After your first performance of anything new it always feels strange because even when you’ve rehearsed a lot there is something different about a first performance. By the second show you might still feel scared but your body is calmer so you can concentrate more.

Laura’s next big role was Lilac Fairy. Initially she’d been down as cover and had done a few rehearsals with Monica. Because someone went off, her debut was a week early and although she was down for two shows she eventually did five. Laura became a soloist in 2008 so this is her second year.

Now she’s doing the tall girl with Paul Kay in Elite. So far they’ve not had much rehearsal time but it’s quite a fun role with the whole pas de deux being based on height differences. Although short, Paul is very strong and it’s good to have a personality to play rather than focussing on the technique. It’s all about timing: you must be very precise and right on the music so you have to find your own way of coordinating with your partner. The tumble shouldn’t be over rehearsed as it needs to look natural but it has to be particularly precise so as not to injure either party. Concerto is in the same triple bill which is very classical so it’s lovely to have the contrast and it is a very challenging role for technique and stamina.

Recently she’s done some new choreography including Jonathan Watkins’ piece, As One. Laura said he did really well throughout the whole rehearsal process. He is a very good friend and a popular personality within the Company. The transition from being friends to being the boss can be hard but he knows how to get his ideas across, he was very professional and everyone already had a lot of respect for him so they all wanted to make it a success for him. For the party scene he worked with the individual dancers as he had to have the bodies in front of him to sort out exactly what he wanted. Everyone in his ballet knew what they should be getting across – the beginning should be monotone but precise, then a certain energy was required but without the personality but towards the end the personalities come through and join together. Laura said that choreographers are very good at explaining themselves so by the time you’re on stage you know what is expected. She’s recently had quite a lot of new experiences and it’s interesting to be part of the creative process – sometimes choreographers know roughly what they want but not how to achieve it so the dancers can help with their own input and it’s a collaborative process. She had worked previously with Alastair Marriott for the main stage, Sensorium, when she and Nathalie Harrison spent time trying things out and working things through with Alastair, so that was an interesting process.

She’s trained in a variety of dance styles and has always been fascinated not just by ballet.

Laura has danced a range of Macmillan harlots and is now finding her first season doing the harlot in Romeo and Juliet a very enjoyable experience. She’d watched it over the years and once in the costume and wig you feel like a different person and the acting side comes to the fore. She’s trained in a variety of dance styles and has always been fascinated not just by ballet. Myrthe, Queen of the Willis, isn’t modern but you need to use your skills to make her personality come through. She first covered the role 10 years ago in school and danced it last season coached by Monica and Vanessa Palmer who’d been dancing the role since school and remembers every detail. It’s very helpful as Vanessa had herself been taught by Monica. It’s quite a role and you need to be tough. The day before her debut she watched Myrthe from the wings and the dancer came off and collapsed, heaving, on the floor! Laura thought – help! Technically it’s exhausting being both dramatic and evil. But once you’ve put on the sparkling crown and evil makeup you begin to feel the part. Laura would go early to the set and look around the stage to get the atmosphere and try to imagine she was in a forest dragging people to their graves.

Her greatest wish is to do Manon, especially the Act III pas de deux. She’s about the same height as Darcey Bussell, and Zen is a bit taller, so fingers crossed.

As she’d mentioned before, just after joining the company Laura went on tour to the US which she’d enjoyed. She loves seeing different countries and tries to stay on after tours to play tourist. The first couple of years they had to come straight back home but she stayed after Orange County and travelled around, also going to visit some friends who live on a remote Island in Canada. It was strange to go from the New York stage with only their dance clothes and party frocks but it was a nice way to wind down. She’d also had an extra week in Cuba, stayed on in Hong Kong and spent two days extra in Japan where she noted the Sumo wrestlers were quite flexible despite their size.

Asked how much rehearsal she had had for her first Swan Lake as a student, Laura said they’d had no rehearsals during the company run but one of the necessary skills in the company is to be able to turn your hand to anything and learn quickly.

Her parents come regularly to see her and have always been supportive. Moving to the Upper School was quite a change for Laura and the first week when her parents were leaving her after bringing down a car-load of her things, they said they would buy her a return ticket home so she could go back at any time. They actually bought her an open return lasting a year so even if it got too much and she just wanted a weekend at home she wouldn’t have to find the fare. In the end she didn’t use the ticket but cashed it in and went on holiday! Her parents have seen her in just about every role and will come down at a day’s notice even if they have to drive. They were planning to be there for the triple bill the following week.

In thanking Laura very much for coming to talk to us, David said it had been delightful to watch her progress over the past nine years from a swan to Rubies and Lilac Fairy and we looked forward to following her continuing progress over the next 9 years and beyond.

Report written by Liz Bouttell, corrected by Laura McCulloch and David Bain ©The Ballet Association 2010


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