Principal Dancer, The Royal Ballet
interviewed by David Bain
Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church,
London, 23 February 2010.
RUPERT STARTED THE INTERVIEW explaining how he got into ballet. He used to watch his twin sister’s ballet classes, and when they got home, he would tease her by repeating the corrections the teacher had given her. After a while, their mum decided that it would be a better use of his time if he joined the classes instead. He was seven years old at the time, and the only boy, which he did not like because it made it difficult to get any encouragement. Then another boy joined, and when aged ten, they both auditioned for White Lodge. Although Rupert was originally on the waiting list, he was able to join as a Junior Associate, after someone dropped out. In the same year were Helen Crawford, Gemma Sykes and Michael Stojko. He fondly recalled performing with the Royal Ballet in Prince of the Pagodas, and in Cyrano while at the school.
He was very homesick at White Lodge and missed his twin sister incredibly. He also did not like being in an enclosed space all the time, and this affected his motivation. In his second year, he just wanted to go home and did not work hard enough, such that he was assessed out of the school. He was pleased about it, as it meant he was going home. Ironically, his father, who had never liked school, was proud to see his son follow in his footsteps.
After this, he went to a comprehensive school for a year, doing ballet only once a week at the local dance school (compared to six times a week at White Lodge), but despite the relief of not being boarding anymore, this was not a satisfactory arrangement either, as he wanted to dance more and was getting frustrated.
The following year he enrolled into the Tring Park School. Although he was boarding again, he really enjoyed his time there. Overall, Tring was less strict than White Lodge and Rupert enjoyed having more freedom. He liked the beautiful building, the diversity of the school (where other performing arts than ballet were taught), and the fact that students mixed more than at White Lodge, and he made some very good friends. One of them was Alastair Postlethwaite, who is now performing So You Think You Can Dance. It was at Tring that he really decided that dancing was what he wanted to do, as he watched lots of videos that inspired him during his time there. Unfortunately the school, which had just started accepting boys, was “not prepared” and struggled to handle the 13-14 year-old boys who had just joined, and Rupert, as well as several others, was asked to leave, which he did regretfully.
After this, schooling was put aside and he received private coaching from Julie Rose, a former Royal Ballet dancer, who prepared him for the Upper School, although Rupert did not think he could be accepted after having been assessed out of White Lodge. In any case, he felt he had to be as good as he could, and after the lack of consistency and continuity in his training, he had a lot to catch up on. Julie gave him private ballet classes, as well as strengthening exercises to do on his own in the gym. She also focused on bringing his confidence back up, to offset the impact of having failed in two schools. Rupert kept in touch with Royal Ballet School attending classes every two weeks there, as part of the Senior Associates, which he had started doing while at Tring. In addition, he believes that Jay Jolley, who is a good friend of Julie Rose, was keeping an eye on him during his training. The Associates classes led to an audition for the Upper School, which he succeeded. He recalled that he did not have socks on for the audition, which Dame Merle Park saw straight away, and which concerned her, but Jay Jolley persuaded her to focus on Rupert’s dancing instead. His old classmates were surprised to see he had not given up ballet after being expelled from White Lodge, but welcomed him back. He also attended the summer school before joining the School, so he already knew the teachers. He was at the Royal Ballet School when Gailene Stock took over from Dame Merle Park as Director. This had an impact on the students as they have very different styles of directing. The structure of the day, as well as the classes changed, and the students felt that they had to prove themselves again.
While at the School, Rupert had the opportunity to go to Japan and China with the company in 1999, which was great not just because of the opportunity to see two new countries, but also because of the possibility to watch and take class with Royal Ballet stars such as Darcey Bussell, Sylvie Guillem, Irek Mukhamedov, Igor Zelensky and Tetsuya “Teddy” Kumakawa. Rupert knew that the tour was a chance to show his motivation to join the Company, and was attending all the classes, even when not compulsory. He learned he had a job with them on his 18th birthday, while in China. Anthony Dowell and Monica Mason pretended they did not know it was his birthday, but he thought they did. It was a memorable day, which ended with a party with David Tang, where a live band sang Happy Birthday for him. Rupert also talked about the dramatic contrast between China and Japan at the time, with Beijing being so dirty and Tokyo so immaculate. The dancers who were also part of the recent tour to China were impressed to see how much the country had changed.
Although he came back very skinny from the trip, he was able to participate in the end-of-term School performance at Holland Park, in which he danced Albrecht in the second Act of Giselle, coached by Jay Jolley. Gemma Sykes was Myrtha. The performance also included Theme and Variations and a piece by Christopher Wheeldon.
When he joined the Company, the Royal Opera House was still closed, so he started with a rehearsal period, which was a good time to get to know the Company. Although everyone was excited about the reopening of the House, he was sad to leave Talgarth Road, because it had so much history. Ironically, Rupert did not find the new facilities very special at the start, after the high standards of the Japanese theatres, but he was nevertheless pleased not to have to commute between locations
As a young dancer with the Company, although he was frustrated to dance very little on stage, he knew that he was not a finished product, and he had to do his time in the corps. He also understood that the Royal Ballet has standards to maintain and a reputation to protect, and that inexperienced dancers represent a risk. Rupert had little time under the directorship of Anthony Dowell, and while Anthony thought young dancers had to work their way up, Ross Stretton was keen to give them opportunities. Before Ross joined, Nigel Burley, a dancer with the Company who knew him, had told Rupert that he liked tall dancers, so he would get his chance provided he was strong enough, which he did. Although Ross’s unusual allocation of roles created some tensions within the company, Rupert was grateful to him for casting him in Don Q. Unfortunately, a serious foot injury prevented him to perform the other roles he was going to dance. He was out for almost two years, and Ross had left by the time he came back. He said that many dancers got injured when they joined the Company; he feels this is because the workload is much heavier than at school. When he came back, Monica had been made Director, and her initial task was to get the members of the Company together again.
On his return from injury, he was not getting the roles that Ross had given him, and was becoming frustrated again. He even told Chris Saunders he was thinking of leaving, but Chris convinced him to stick with it. Rupert felt he had reached the point where he needed to have ballets to work towards to make progress, and he was not getting opportunities. This is when he decided to ask Sylvie Guillem to be her Paris, knowing that she could decide whom she would dance with. So one day he walked up to her and told her that he had the right height to partner her. Luckily he was cast as her Paris. Rupert joked that it was a perfect role for him, because there are no solos and no character shoes, but he said that the actual performance was nerve wracking, having to act and partner Sylvie after five years doing very little on stage. He said that working with Sylvie was easy in a way, because she is a woman who knows what she wants, so Rupert simply did what she said and hoped for the best.
Audio clip - Sylvia:
After this, Monica asked him to do the lead (Aminta) in Sylvia with Marianela Nuñez, when they were touring in Orange County. He was very excited about doing the lead role, particularly the “goody”, and to dance with Marianela. He was less excited when he saw the costume, and that there was not much of it; he said he probably got the role because no one else wanted to wear that costume. They were coached by Donald McLeary, who knew exactly what he wanted from them, and Rupert thought it was a good thing for the young dancer that he was to have little freedom. He viewed it is a good lead role to start off with because it is not too demanding, since it is only performing in the first and third acts (only a vision in the second one, “probably my best act”). The main difficulty is to come on stage and start with an adage solo, which he always find difficult, as there is no time to feel the stage and gets somewhat settled. He also said he would never pass on an opportunity to partner Marianela (“a dream”), and he sometimes feels she is partnering him because she is so strong on her legs. He says that when something goes wrong, he feels it can only be his fault. He also thinks that Sylvia is one of Marianela’s best roles.
Because seasons are planned a long time in advance, Rupert explained that unfortunately, it is not because you get one opportunity that further opportunities will keep coming straight after that. After Sylvia, he did Month in the Country, his favourite ballet, with Darcey Bussell, coached by Anthony Dowell. He found working with Anthony a very refreshing experience, because he always makes sure when you are in the studio, that you understand what is meant to be going on, and that you feel what is meant to be felt. Rupert was also amazed that Anthony could still perform all the lifts for the role, when he was teaching him how to partner Darcey. Rupert found partnering her difficult because of how long limbed and tall she is. Although dancing with Darcey was also nerve-wracking, she was very understanding, as she knew what it felt like to be pushed. Rupert said that this was overall one of the best experiences of his life.
After Month in the country, Rupert did La Sylphide with Tamara Rojo, for which they were coached by Johan Kobborg. The ballet represents an unusual partnering exercise because the male dancer is not allowed to touch the female dancer, something Rupert found “incredibly frustrating”. However, while there is no physical contact, there is a lot of emotional contact, and Tamara taught him how to stay connected to your partner and act back throughout the ballet. For this, and for giving him other opportunities to dance with her (such as in The Nutcracker), he remains very grateful to her. He said it is very important for a young male dancer to get support from female dancers.
After that season Jonathan Cope started to coach him, and has been coaching him a lot since. David pointed out that during a recent meeting, Jonathan said that he initially saw Rupert as his protégé, but he felt he had now gone beyond him. Rupert was touched by this, but said he felt it was untrue. He thinks Jonny was the best partnering-wise, which is very important for Rupert, and Jonny makes him feel secure with his partner. Rupert thinks that Jonathan, who was his favourite dancer, has become a very good coach. He thinks the transition from dancer to coach is very difficult, as you can be seen as a know-it-all, which is not in Jonny’s personality at all.
Rupert does not really choose who coaches him, although some dancers have strong preferences and tend to often be coached by the same person. Recently, Rupert enjoyed being coached for the first time by Alexander Agadzhanov (who coaches Tamara a lot) for Romeo & Juliet. Alexander has a very different coaching style to Jonathan, so it was very interesting for Rupert to get a different perspective on the performance. Rupert then talked about Romeo & Juliet, and how much he likes that ballet. He first danced it with Mara Galeazzi, and then with Lauren Cuthbertson (“an incredible Juliet”). Lauren and Rupert were both promoted to Principals after dancing together, so Romeo is a very special role for him. This season, he danced many performances with Tamara, as he was replacing Carlos Acosta, and she was replacing Lauren Cuthbertson, and said how nervous he was on the opening night (that Carlos had been scheduled to dance). He explained that the acting for the role is very different depending on who plays Juliet.
Rupert also talked about dancing Rudolph in Mayerling for the first time earlier this season. He sees the ballet as a masterpiece, and thinks Rudolph is one of the greatest roles, but said it was one of the hardest things he ever had to do. While relishing having had this opportunity, the circumstances were difficult for him. He had recently had a big back injury, and Rudolph is the hardest role physically for a man. The ballet is also very demanding emotionally, and Rupert was not in the best spirits at the time. David asked him how he prepared for this role emotionally; Rupert replied that, as with every role, every gesture, every thought of the character is explained to the dancer by his coach, but that for this ballet the dancer needs to go beyond. He feels one has to dig deep into oneself to play that role, and one is constantly on the edge while rehearsing it, to the point where he one day wondered whether he was actually going crazy. He says the role “puts your head in a weird place”. He explained, for example, how distant and somewhat moody he was after the performance; everyone was congratulating him, and all he wanted to do was to get out. Thankfully, Monica Mason was very understanding of his unusual behaviour. Unfortunately, he only had one performance, which he felt was too much pressure (“one should never have only one performance”), especially for such a challenging role. One of the difficulties of Mayerling is the large number of pas de deux, and the fact that they are danced with different partners. He said at the end of Act I, which is exhausting, it is the dramatic character of the music and a little bit of anger that keeps you going. In Rupert’s case, all of the five dancers he partnered were new to their roles, and he talked about the added difficulty of having an inexperienced cast. He explained that in the past, a dancer new to a role would typically work with an experienced partner, who would provide help and support during the rehearsals, but this is not the case anymore. On this occasion, he was coached by Irek Mukhamedov, which he described as an incredible experience, as he had always been a fan of his. There were not enough coaches at the time of the rehearsals, and Melissa Hamilton, who had trained with Irek, had suggested him to Rupert. Melissa felt that she was not in a position to ask for him, so it was down to Rupert to ask Monica Mason to be coached by Irek, and he was very pleased that it was possible.
This season he also danced in Sphynx, which was new to him and to the company. His previous experience of Glen Tetley’s work was with Voluntaries, which he did twice. Rupert did not directly work with Glen Tetley, although Glen was around the first time he did Voluntaries, so he knew what his work is about. Rupert explained how physically difficult Voluntaries is, and when he told Monica Mason after a performance that he would never have to do something as hard, she replied that she had found something for him. Although she would not tell him what it was at the time, Sphynx was the ballet she had in mind. At the beginning of the season, Rupert was concerned about his back following his summer injury, and thought that rehearsing Sphynx and Mayerling at the same time would be too just much. He suggested to Monica that she finds someone else for Sphynx, but it did not happen. In the end, Rupert really enjoyed the piece and relished the opportunity to dance with Marianela.
Rupert also talked about the Royal Ballet tour to Cuba. He was scheduled to dance Month in the Country with Zenaida Yanovsky, but he injured his back in a studio rehearsal, having arrived in Cuba not in the best physical condition, and then suffering from the heat and the humidity there. There was no dancer able dance Month with Zenaida because of her height, but luckily Jonathan Cope was getting there on a later flight, so he stood in for Rupert on the first night. The following day, Rupert’s back was no better and although Jonathan had been celebrating his “last” performance by the hotel pool, he ended up dancing on the second night as well. Rupert felt that, despite the circumstances, Jonathan thanked him because the second night gave him a chance to improve himself (which Rupert said he did, having watched both performances), as well as to have his performance filmed, in particular as this is one his favourite ballets. Rupert ended up staying longer in Cuba to have his back treated by an “old-school” physio whom he hopes to see again when the Ballet Nacional de Cuba visits London, although his back is fully recovered now.
As the meeting was coming to an end, David had to stop Rupert because time was running out. He reminded Rupert that when he had asked him to speak for the Association, he initially replied “I don’t talk”, which was clearly not true, and David thanked him for a fascinating evening.
Reported by Nathalie Dantès, corrected by Rupert Pennefather and David Bain ©The Ballet Association 2010.