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Lauren Cuthbertson

Principal Dancer, The Royal Ballet

interviewed by David Bain

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church,
London, 30 March 2011.

DAVID BAIN WELCOMED OUR GUEST and suggested she began by telling us about her life and career since her previous meeting six years ago when, Lauren said, she was very young.

Lauren talked first about her first ballet teacher, Pamela de Waal, whose life and 50 years work on the association for dance festivals all over the UK was being celebrated last Friday. She’d been awarded a medal for her work and for her prize had chosen to come to London to see Swan Lake which was her favourite ballet, but sadly she passed away a few months ago. However, several of the others involved came along and although unfortunately Lauren had been ill during the rehearsal period and couldn’t dance that night she was able to spend time with them to chat about old times. She’s fine now and ready for the next performance.

 Her teacher, Anatole Grigoriev, said ‘you’re too domestic, go do something, do anything’…

When she came to talk to us in 2005 Lauren had danced Symphony in C second movement and Romeo and Juliet but now she has lots of principal roles to her name. Lauren said at that time she’d been pushed to a certain level covering everyone who was sick or pregnant but they came back and she felt she’d reached a plateau which was frustrating. Her teacher, Anatole Grigoriev, said ‘you’re too domestic, go do something, do anything’. He encouraged her to enter the Varna International Competition in 2005/6. She worked on eight solos in the holidays and rehearsed in between her already busy work schedule. It was tough but took her to the next level. It’s not so much about winning the prize but where you end after an intense period like that. The focus, sheer determination and hard work needed to enter that sort of competition really pay off. She was coached by many people and it was a fantastic experience being in a room with so many different influences, talents and backgrounds. The competition was for mostly established dancers – Lauren had just been promoted to First Soloist and at 21 was in the category for 19-26 year olds. It was amazingly full of pyrotechnics and was a real eye opener. There were three rounds – two solos in first round, two solos and a contemporary solo in the second round and two more solos in third round so the soloist competition was more intensive than for the pas de deux.

Audio clip - the Varna competition:

Lauren was the only entrant from England and as studio space was allocated by the number of people representing their country Lauren was literally in a cupboard with only a few square metres to practice! As she wasn’t a competition kid who knows how it all works, she wasn’t ahead of the game so found herself rehearsing outdoors at 3pm at 32 degrees in a sunhat! Everyone stayed in the same hotel and after each round, a notice went up in lobby at 2am when you saw if you’d got through. You still had to do class at 10.30 and rehearse your next solos, then you had a stage rehearsal in the sunshine, if you’d not been rehearsing at 4am after the announcement! She took class with Elizabeth Platel which was a glorious experience and she learned a lot. Elizabeth looked out for, and was very helpful to, Lauren, who won a silver medal. There were some big names there. Ivan Vasiliev, aged 17, was in the young group. He was astonishing although in the final something happened when he was doing incredible jumps and had to leave the stage but was allowed to come back and repeat his dance which upset some people! Lauren did Black Swan (coached by some very eminent former dancers), Aurora, Gamzatti, Queen of the Dryads, Corsaire and Paquita. Her contemporary works were by Will Tuckett and Wayne McGregor as you had to show as much variety as possible in a short time. She first danced Swan Lake with the Company the following year but although she’d prepared the Black Swan for Varna, her flashy version didn’t suit Anthony Dowell! She was coached mainly by Lesley Collier and Jonny Cope, as well as Anthony.

She’s now made the transition from doing the secondary to the main role in many ballets. She did Lescaut’s mistress before being Principal. She can’t wait to do Manon herself but that won’t till November. She’s watched a few rehearsals but scheduling doesn’t always allow you to be there. The role of Mistress is so much fun. It was put on quickly the first time and Monica coached which was great as she’d been an infamous Mistress (on the stage!) Lauren had Slava Samadurov and Ric Cervera for her shows. The first with Slava was very funny. She’s supposed to knock him down but she fell down after him. It worked so she may use that again though you can’t try too hard as it must be spontaneous – it’s better to leave something unsaid and trust that you have right rapport on stage. Doing those roles with different people is part of what helps keep it fresh. If you always do it with the same person you know what you’re going to get.

With Bayadère she began with Gamzatti at the age of 19 and not till much later did she take on Nikiya. For Gamzatti she had two weeks to get it together with Natalia Makarova and Donald MacLeary. Olga Evreinoff worked with her on the role which she danced with Iñaki Urlezaga and Thiago Soares. It was fantastic though she has more memories of Nikiya. (The second time round she was in quite a lot of pain with a stress fracture and had to miss a show when she couldn’t jump on her left foot so Laura Morera went on instead.) Both roles are so different that there’s no question of getting them mixed up. It’s wonderful that over the years she’s done all of Bayadère starting with the pas d’action, then the three Shades, then Gamzatti and Nikiya so she has a rich sense of what the ballet is all about and feels she has something to bring to it as a whole. She loved working with Natalia Makarova. It was inspiring – a wonderful rehearsal period when she had a great time. Natasha is strict, honest and hard but Lauren loves that as she wants criticism, feedback and something to go home and think about.

She also loved working with Natasha on Beauty when she was really young. There were Russian coaches who were very strict about arms and placement. Suddenly Natasha came up after a Dryad call and (here Lauren did a wonderful imitation) suggested she do Lilac Fairy saying ‘show me some now’! Immediately after she said ‘now try Bluebird’ so Lauren began to do much more in that production though not Aurora. Lauren said she can pick things up quickly particularly if it’s well explained and you know why you are doing it.

Working with Wayne McGregor is quite something. He gives you so much material it’s impossible to remember it all but somehow she can feel when it’s not right.

Working with Wayne McGregor is quite something. He gives you so much material it’s impossible to remember it all but somehow she can feel when it’s not right. Her first collaboration with Wayne was Qualia when she was in the group of five. It was amazing to be in front of a six foot beanpole doing weird movements and she didn’t understand what to do as she was fresh from ballet school. But she thought she’d give it a go and found it impossible to emulate anyone else so you just have to watch him and interpret the movements in a way that fits you. She had had to learn Jaime Tapper and Leanne Benjamin’s part so worked with Wayne a lot. She then did Chroma with Eric Underwood – they called it ‘the domestic’ as there was so much aggressive tension which was great fun. Wayne didn’t tell them everything but just asked for more and more, and pushed and pushed so you had a sense of where you had to go and it created a texture. There was a real buzz around Chroma – the pinnacle of Wayne’s arrival with the Company and putting down his mark. Then came Infra in which Lauren has a very powerful role. It was relentless and she wondered if she’d get through it as her part started in the middle and went on to the end of the ballet without stopping. They went into ‘zebra crossing ‘when people dance in boxes, then she mooched around Ric while Eric gyrated, then there’s a pas de deux with Ric leading into a long solo followed by a duet with Mara by which time you’re genuinely crying because when you’re at the end of your tether, ‘It’s real’. Wayne said it was about the London bombing and together they came up with idea of an underworld with the people on top. Mara whispers the worse news, there’s the breakdown in Euston station with people everywhere – life moves on but you’re in pain and in the moment. Wayne said decay and the breakdown needs to be shown but it didn’t come together until they got on stage. Wayne likes to put different people together doing different things. For example she and Mara learnt solos and Wayne said now put them together so you’ll use Lauren’s left side and Mara’s right side and make a sequence out of that and then he mixes all the current material to make new material. Or you’ll do a certain phrase and he’ll put something in they did a couple of weeks ago, then turn it around and upside down! You feel you’ve just got the hang of it and there’s another change. Wayne remembers what he’s done but he’s very patient. He’ll bring in some beautiful music for the start of the creative process which isn’t related to the piece he’s making and over the weeks you hear other music and over time he brings in the actual music. Lauren’s just heard the Tippett which he’ll use for his next ballet.

Another perhaps controversial choreographer Lauren’s worked with was Mats Ek on Carmen. She learned the role at the same time as she was working with Makarova on Nikiya so was rushing from tutus in one studio to another with Poppea Santoro who created the role of M. This makes for an amazing experience because there are no gaps as the original person knows exactly what the role consists of. She and Kristen McNally learned it together and had beautiful rehearsals with Poppea who was very calm and without talking about the role they were able to absorb it from her body, eyes and expression. She was very particular but once you got the sense of what she wanted there was suddenly a whole world to explore. Then Mats came for two rehearsals and gave a million positive corrections which made it better still. It added such a positive layer and Lauren just wanted more and more. When she’d first heard they were doing Carmen she really hoped she wouldn’t have to do M. Then the notice went up on the board saying she should audition for the role. From the very first rehearsal she had to eat her words – it took about 10 seconds to convince her that she’d love it. The role of M has three elements – death, mother and lover. Poppea let you decide when you were which character. At one point you’re behind a board for a long time and it was incredible being hidden on stage with that amazing music and it gave Lauren a beautiful feeling and she stood there crying. Certainly she’d love to work with Mats again.

She’s done quite a lot of Balanchine over the years. She loves its differences but it’s mostly vibrant and quick which stretches you. Working with Pat Neary is phenomenal – she has so much energy and knowledge and it’s great to work with someone so passionate about her work which makes you want to push and raise the level which creates a vibrancy in the room. She’s danced Symphony in C, Agon, and Serenade (her favourite). From the first rehearsal Serenade seemed to flow and she felt such abandon getting freer and freer with her hair flying wildly!.

Lauren first worked with Christopher Wheeldon while in the school when Anthony Dowell put on a gala and she did Souvenirs as a 1st year girl and got to dance with the 3rd year boys. She joined the company the following year and went straight into Tryst followed by Polyphonia. Then it was DGV which was hard as there wasn’t much time for second casts to work on it and she couldn’t make a lot of rehearsals at a time when really you need to hear it from the horse’s mouth, but she did two shows. In comparing the way Chris and Wayne work, Lauren said the energy is similar but their way of creating is different which is natural as their works are very different. Not knowing how Chris works, Lauren felt apprehensive beforehand but with Alice she saw a completely different side to him than previously which was maybe because she saw so much of him and was more intimately involved in the making of the ballet. She first knew she was doing Alice when she was still recovering from her illness so couldn’t do much initially and she began in earnest in the new season. Chris arrived and made something, he then went to Denmark to put on his Sleeping Beauty for several weeks during which time Lauren focussed on Sylvia and Cinderella. He then came back as she was finishing Patineurs and afterwards she did nothing but Alice for a few weeks.

The first time in the studio they began with Alice’s solo in Wonderland not knowing where she is or where she is going. Initially Chris made several bits of the ballet but not in sequence so it was only when they had the picture board of Bob Cowley’s sets that they knew how it would run. Lauren suddenly realised there were 14 scenes and she was in them all and it dawned on her she’d be on stage the whole time so there wouldn’t be the luxury of going off after a solo or pas de deux for a drink or to tweak the footwear! She’s worked with Ed Watson a lot so that was great though there’s not much to do with the rabbit but as the creative process moved along Chris wanted the relationship to develop. Initially working with Sergei Polunin was harder as they haven’t danced much together and as he doesn’t appear in a lot of the ballet he wasn’t around for many of the rehearsals. He’d be off doing other work and pop in to lift her around a bit! Only later did he really see where he fitted in and was then very excited. There was pressure to get the last pas de deux finished but Sergei has such a lovely temperament and is lovely to work with so they found a way through.

Alice is a ballet full of effects and lots of them were there from the start. Lauren said the Fonteyn Studio was a kiddie’s dream as it was packed with different props including the butcher’s table and pig and sausages as the choreography and sets intertwine. The tapper’s stage was also there from the beginning with its cup cake and bouncy sponge, as well as the flamingos so it was a very busy studio for a long time. She doesn’t know how it will be changed next season but meanwhile it’s being done in a few weeks in Canada. Sets and costumes have been boxed and shipped already.

Turning to Ashton, Lauren has also done Cinderella. It wasn’t a ballet she really wanted to do but it has wonderful and hard choreography and once she started working with Federico Bonelli as her prince it was amazing as she felt like a princess and it all came alive. She was inspired by Lesley Collier whom she’d seen in the role on video. She had three shows which makes a big difference – normally you only get two. She did Sylvia once in Japan and it was her first big ballet after coming back from illness so Lauren had to take it easy and could only push once she felt able to. During the summer she worked on improving her stamina and strength. Sylvia is a very different sort of Ashton – Act I Sylvia and Act II Cinderella’s don’t feel the same choreographer’s work. Her baddie in Sylvia was Tom Whitehead and it was quite hard as he’d not done the role before. They did extra rehearsals and even by the stage call it was touch and go but it all came together by the end.

 Her illness caused the loss of a whole season. Lauren said dancers live in denial a lot of the time – always there’s a bit of pain and you get on with it…

Her illness caused the loss of a whole season. Lauren said dancers live in denial a lot of the time – always there’s a bit of pain and you get on with it but she’d had a couple of bad months with a foot injury of a temperamental joint which is important for point work and jumping so she was up and down like a yoyo on painkillers trying to get back for Swan Lake. She’d do three days rehearsal and spend four days in trainers trying to keep going. Then she started to feel quite ill. It proved tricky to diagnose but after some blood tests she had another for glandular fever and it took ages for the results to come back. Meantime she kept thinking it wouldn’t be glandular fever so carried on and pushed through as she was trying to do Giselle and Sylphide. That whole period is now a big blur. She was having to wear layers and layers of clothes but was freezing cold while sweating underneath. She slept all the time and was so sleepy she wasn’t aware of what was going on. Finally the glandular fever diagnosis was confirmed but by that time she was already in bed. She had just turned 25.

The Company went off on tour and Lauren thought it wouldn’t be too long before she was better and stayed at home listening to music for the next season’s programme. But she got worse and worse and the specialist said unfortunately she’d developed illness response post-viral fatigue syndrome. She went on a rest programme but it was hard as she wanted to sleep all the time and couldn’t do a thing. She was too sick even to go home and had to wait until she was strong enough to do the journey. After six months doing little she couldn’t wait to get back. At the end of the season she went on tour to Japan where she feels at home having been there three times before. Rest and relaxation are crucial and she was sent out two weeks early so she was able to prepare. She danced Romeo and Juliet and felt it was the best show of her career. It was a children’s matinée which was lovely as there wasn’t the pressure and it wasn’t as stressful as it would have been in London. The kids screamed the whole way through and it was a glorious show, she was so happy and the whole management were there and there wasn’t a dry eye among them. She felt it was a massive achievement. David commented that she’s now back and as wonderful as ever. Lauren said she feels she’s had to take a step back from life and is now calmer and absorbs more things and isn’t in so much of a hurry.

David asked if she feels a pressure being the only British principal ballerina in the Royal Ballet. Lauren said she’s definitely aware of this. Some time ago the Company was predominantly British, but it’s changed a lot so it’s now a luxury to be in that position in an international environment.

From her wish-list Lauren hasn’t done Mary Vetsera but Manon is coming up later in the year. Creating a ballet was a luxury which could bear repeating! In a dream world both roles in Prince of the Pagodas would be good (she’s seen the tape but not a live performance).

Questions:

Lauren was asked about their collaboration with the Royal Opera on Acis and Galatea. Lauren said it was wonderful to be on stage with those world class singers, really being able to hear their voices – it was like being at a disco! Apparently the singers also loved the collaboration.

As she’s obviously quite analytical in terms of the character and personality of a role, how difficult is it when there’s no obvious story. Lauren said you have to use your imagination and bring something to it as there has to be a dynamic running through. In Dances at a Gathering she has worked out a whole story so there’s not a blank moment the whole way through. She actually does it as a warm-up speech in the dressing room.

Asked if she’d like to be a choreographer Laura said she didn’t feel it was her calling. She did a piece at school with the King and Queen of the Ocean with eels running round which didn’t work very well.

There are still other things on her wish-list but it gets harder as you can only do what’s in the company rep. She’d love to do more Macmillan as she’s only done Juliet in a lead role. As a youngster she covered Mary and of course Lescaut’s mistress, Mitzi, and lots of harlots.

Lauren was asked how it feels after a long rehearsal period to get just one or two shows. She said it’s a luxury to do three shows. There’s no point in complaining as nothing can be done about it so she looks forward to revisiting roles as you can start where you left off and can keep growing and building on it from there. If there were more shows maybe they would have fewer productions.

David said it was always delightful to talk to Lauren and in thanking her for giving us a great evening said we appreciated her honesty about what had been a difficult time. Everyone had loved seeing her again this year after a worrying season and we looked forward to seeing her at the annual dinner.

Report written by Liz Bouttell, corrected by Lauren Cuthbertson and David Bain ©The Ballet Association 2011.

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