Camille Bracher & Yasmine Naghdi
Artists, The Royal Ballet
interviewed by David Bain
Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church,
London, 2 September 2011.
DAVID BAIN WELCOMED our visitors and began by asking them about their backgrounds and how they got into ballet.
Camille Bracher (left) & Yasmine Naghdi. Photo by Alex Paul
Yasmine explained she started taking ballet classes aged seven, at the Marie Rambert Mercury Studios in Notting Hill. Her parents had enrolled her in weekly gymnastics classes when she was four, hoping this would get rid of her excess energy but clearly that wasn't enough for her. Whilst attending Hill House International Junior School in Chelsea, she became a RBS Junior Associate at the age of 10 and continued the following year as a Mid-Associate. It was during that year that Yasmine appeared on the ROH stage with The Royal Ballet for the first time. Christopher Carr had selected her to be a Spring Page in Cinderella. Jacqui Dumont, then in charge of the RBS Associates Programme, had observed Yasmine during the annual June appraisals and had called her parents soon after, asking if they could take Yasmine to White Lodge for the Director Gailene Stock to have a look at her. Yasmine was due to take her end of year academic exams at her Secondary day school, Queen’s College in Harley Street, and three weeks passed by before her parents could take her to White Lodge. Yasmine was very laid back about ballet and as a 12 year old was totally unaware of the importance and consequences of training at The Royal Ballet School. When Gailene offered her a place it came as a big surprise. Within months after she'd started at White Lodge, she danced as a Cygnet in Swan Lake with The Royal Ballet and the following year she was one of five Party Girls in The Nutcracker. She also collaborated in the making of the BBC documentary The Magic of Swan Lake in which she can been seen talking about Swan Lake and being taught a Pas de Quatre by Darcey Bussell. By the time she was 14, Gailene had selected her and a few others to go on an exchange programme to the Vaganova Ballet Academy in St Petersburg. Sergei Polunin was also in the small group of selected students. She took daily ballet classes with the Russian students and danced Tarantella from Napoli, Dance of the Mirlitons from Nutcracker and Dance of the Fiancées from Swan Lake in a joint performance with the Vaganova students. The day she was selected to go to Russia it made her realise she must have something special and from then on Yasmine never looked back. Three years after going to St Petersburg she joined The Royal Ballet.
Camille began dancing in her hometown of Johannesburg at an early age. Her mother was one of the main reasons why she started attending ballet classes as she herself was a contemporary dancer and choreographer. Johannesburg does not have any ballet schools as such (excepting for the National School of the Arts which was made famous by former student Charlize Theron of Hollywood fame) due to lack of support and funding. Because of this, the standard of dance in South Africa has deteriorated throughout the years so Camille understood that the only way forward was to have private training after normal school hours. Her teacher was Martin Schonberg who had danced in companies throughout Europe. Camille was put through Cecchetti exams but her training was largely influenced by the French style. She went to class every day after normal school from the age of 12 when she became more serious about dance. She knew that such a career can be short and life can be unpredictable and therefore she was determined to complete her studies. She left school when she was 18 having completed English literature, mathematics, accountancy, science, Afrikaans and life orientation and still wants to continue her academic studies. In her earlier years of training Camille says that she never thought it would actually develop into her career and she therefore finds it amazing to be here.
After four years training at White Lodge and finishing eight GCSE exams (she gained an A* in History, French and Music), Yasmine continued at the Upper School and during her first year she won the Young British Dancer of the Year competition. After the summer, Gailene promoted her straight into the 3rd Year and six months later she joined The Royal Ballet. In her Graduate Year, Yasmine was invited to perform Kenneth MacMillan's Concerto second movement at the Birmingham Royal Ballet 20th Anniversary Gala, she also danced at the John Neumeier Gala with the Hamburg Ballet, she performed in Japan and in Toronto where she joined an international group of dancers taking classes at the National Ballet School of Canada, and also performed work the RBS students had created at a Choreography Competition, including a piece by Liam Scarlett.
Camille’s experience was quite different. In South Africa it is quite difficult to judge one’s standard of dance as there are not many dancers to compare oneself with. She and her teacher knew that in order to gauge her standard on an international level she needed to compete in international competitions. She went to New York to compete in the Youth America Grand Prix which was an amazing experience for a 15 year old and a great opportunity for her to be inspired by other dancers, choreographers and teachers. Camille performed Aurora's Act III solo and the process of perfecting this with her teacher was a great way for her to grow and develop both technically and artistically. She says that the music from that dance will give her butterflies for the rest of her life. Her contemporary piece (choreographed by one of her teacher’s ex-students) had an African theme which well received. Camille won the contemporary award for this and was asked to dance in the final gala where all the prize winners perform alongside some very prestigious professional dancers. This was a great ending to her New York journey. Camille also won a month’s scholarship for a summer school in San Francisco, another great experience from which she gained a lot both technically and personally. The US style is different – more, not perhaps flashy, but free and open and flamboyant – whereas she had concentrated on the little nuances and subtleties. She was inspired by the American dancers’ enthusiastic attitudes and courageous approach.
After San Francisco she returned to South Africa where she entered the first Cape Town International Competition. South African dancers weren’t used to that level of dance so it was a big shock and wakeup call which was needed for both teachers and dancers. Camille got to the final and again won the contemporary award – her mother’s influence must have come to the fore as Camille had never in her life taken a contemporary class! She gained a scholarship to Washington summer school and two years later while in her last year at school she went to compete in the Helsinki International Competition. She’d not previously done pas de deux work as there weren’t any men in her class – people came and went in her studio as it took a lot of dedication and it was exhausting trying to focus on dance while doing full times studies. They found her a partner and she did one contemporary solo, two classical solos (Giselle and Paquita), one classical pas de deux (Esmeralda) and a contemporary pas de deux. She won second prize in the Junior Girl Division. Another student, Megan Grace Hinkis who was there and won third place has joined the Company this year.
Yasmine’s experience of competitions had been very different. At White Lodge she participated in the Young British Dancer of the Year competition and on the day of her 15th birthday she became the youngest YBDY finalist, dancing Lilac Fairy and Bluebird; a year later she won the first prize when she danced La Esmeralda and Cinderella's Summer Fairy variation. She was coached by Zenaida Yanowsky in both variations and it was an enriching experience to say the least. YBDY is a truly unique opportunity for British dancers to compete against each other. She would have loved to compete in the Prix de Lausanne had she not skipped the 2nd Year Upper School and at YAGP had she not joined The Royal Ballet midway through her graduate year.
Yasmine heard about her contract offers when, in the midst of her pas de deux class, Gailene asked some of the students to come into her office. Yasmine was first told that Wayne Eagling had offered her a contract with the English National Ballet. Then Gailene added that Monica Mason had also offered her a contract. News had barely sank in when Gailene specified that Monica wanted Yasmine to start the following month. On top of all this she was told that David Bintley had invited her to dance at the Birmingham Royal Ballet 20th Anniversary Gala. Whilst she was taking in all this overwhelming news she realised it meant she would never dance her Graduate performance Concerto on the ROH stage and would leave the School in the middle of the year. It all went so fast for Yasmine as barely 18 months had passed by between leaving White Lodge and walking through the ROH Stage Door as a professional dancer. It felt strange that one day she was attending the Cinderella rehearsals as a student wearing her RBS uniform leotard and the next day she was in rehearsal wearing her own choice of professional dance wear. On her first day as a Company member, one of the dancers remarked that she was rather cheeky to dare turning up dressed like a Company member. Yasmine had to explain that she “was a student yesterday but as of today a member of the Company”. Within a few weeks of dancing with the Company, she was contacted by someone from The Royal Swedish Ballet and a very attractive offer was made to her but Yasmine decided she'd start her professional life as an Artist with the RB and take it all from there.
Audio clip - Camille joins the Royal Ballet:
When it comes to the Arts in South Africa there’s always a struggle for funding. If Camille wanted to pursue dance as a career she knew she’d have to go abroad. She sent her CV and a DVD to various companies in Europe and the UK and began with an audition in Berlin. She received an offer from the Royal Ballet as well as Berlin but it was the Royal where she wanted to be. She says that she can’t imagine herself speaking German although some words were familiar from Afrikaans.
Camille joined at the start of last season so coming to London was her first experience of leaving home and living by herself. Being in a company was a big adaption for her, especially coming from a small studio. It was particularly daunting because in South Africa people knew her and she’d started to build up a reputation but here she was totally unknown. She wasn’t used to taking class with so many people as well as learning such a huge rep so it took a few months to get accustomed to a company lifestyle. Luckily her mum came with her to help her settle down and find accommodation which proved to be a difficult process! When Camille was asked how different the classes were from those in South Africa and the USA, Camille said that no matter how much classes may vary, you can always apply what you already know and rely on your muscle memory. The difference between the Cecchetti and the Royal style, is more to do with the subtleties such as the head and port de bras. The first couple of weeks were perhaps easier as she was in her own bubble and still had her own teacher’s voice fresh in her head telling her what to do. But it’s like starting any new job – you have to learn to adapt to a new environment so that’s what Camille did and she’s never looked back since.
Audio clip - Yasmine is 'thrown on' in Asphodel Meadows:
The first ballet Yasmine danced as a Company member was Cinderella which she’d already been doing as a student. She had also been down as a cover in Asphodel Meadows and when one of the dancers got injured just two days before the world premiere, Liam Scarlett called her in the evening asking how well she knew the ballet, then told her she was on. That night she learned the role by watching the rehearsal DVD until early in the morning. She went on for the stage call and danced in five of the six performances, and ended up dancing three different places. It taught her the valuable lesson that she should always learn as much as possible in every ballet as people go off suddenly and one must be prepared and ready to take over at very short notice without any rehearsal time. Yasmine’s first tour with the Company was to Japan (Tokyo and Osaka) and Barcelona. It was the second time she returned to Japan that year and absolutely loves it there.
Camille’s first ballet in the Company was Onegin which was great. She got chucked on but it’s not as tough as some other corps de ballet work and her partner calmed her down before the show. She says that being on stage and looking into the auditorium for the first time was an amazing and surreal experience. She then got thrown on in Sylvia in four different places which was a very stressful experience as she wasn’t yet used to Company life but she knew she had to learn fast and get on with it as it is all part of the job. Her next ballet was Cinderella and then Swan Lake. Doing eight acts in one day was very tiring but she loves the ballet and says that the music got her through. In the first season she was mostly involved in full length works because when you first join the Company you cover a lot as you still have to prove what you are capable of. She says that in the corps de ballet there’s not much pas de deux work but she learnt a lot about dancing with a partner in Helsinki which should be helpful when the time comes. At the end of the season one of the dancers got injured in the stage rehearsal of the last triple and she was thrown on for Scènes de Ballet and also did Rite of Spring. She found it a stimulating experience moving from such a classical work to a ballet with a lot more freedom and so much energy.
Last season,Yasmine danced in all the full-length ballets and in all the Balanchine ballets. She also danced in DGV, Voluntaries and Rite of Spring. She enjoyed Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and working with Christopher Wheeldon was an experience in itself but sometimes the rehearsals seemed to go on forever. She danced as a Maid in Act I and as a Flower in the Flower Waltz and Red Card no. 8 in the Card Dance which was her most favourite part of the ballet. For Draft Works at the Linbury, she was asked by Valentino Zucchetti to dance in his new work Trio Sonata, a pas de trois with Sergei Polunin and Sander Blommaert. By the end of her first full season, she was literally thrown on at the very last minute in Voluntaries. She’d been watching the rehearsals but had never had any opportunity to dance it at all. In the midst of the general rehearsal she heard her name being called out over the tannoy and was told to get on the stage asap as she would dance it. This was yet again another steep learning curve but it proved to be one of the highlights of her first season. In July, she was involved with Dance Futures, David Pickering’s project to get young children into ballet, and she was asked to cover Lauren Cuthbertson in her debut role of the Firebird. Whilst the Company had all departed on their annual holiday break, Yasmine remained in London and learned Firebird. She had to know it just in case… and she did end up dancing it at the general rehearsal. It was nerve wrecking but she had loved the challenge. During the summer, she performed Concerto at several galas, including at the Gary Avis Gala in Ipswich, and danced the Aurora solo and pas de deux at Ivy House.
David said the first time Camille really came to the audience’s attention was in the new works programme. Alex Whitely, who’s involved with Wayne McGregor’s company, made a work and Camille loved being in a small group and getting back to the one-on-one attention. It was great to be able to work on something different to keep stimulated and fresh. This was more a contemporary piece and she really enjoyed the process of having a work created on her which requires trying new things and seeing how it works on your body. Five other dancers from the Company were involved in Alex’s piece which received very positive feedback. It was a wonderful opportunity for her because when you are part of a company it is sometimes difficult to judge your progress. Dancers can be very hard on themselves and crave positive feedback as well as constructive criticism but in a professional environment you can’t expect to be babysat all the time. Camille hasn’t actually worked with Wayne but Alex’s style is similar. Asked how different this was from the contemporary works she had done previously, Camille said that all choreographers have their own style and flavour but once you’ve done some contemporary work and know how to move your body in that way you should be able to adapt your style to anything.
Camille said that many full length ballets, particularly MacMillan, involve a lot acting but the students are given no acting training. She feels that going to a normal school during the day helped her with this because by dealing with all the dramas going on one can learn a lot! But she feels that generally you just have to learn from life’s ups and downs. To come across as a genuine artist you have to draw from your own experiences and feel from within so although you have to learn certain techniques it’s perhaps better to keep away from formal training in order to appear genuine. Yasmine took drama classes at her day school before joining White Lodge and learned mime from Muriel Valtat (former RB dancer) at Summer school. She also watches a lot of old movies and Art House productions. It helps watching older dancers too. There is little feedback once you are a professional dancer – maybe more as a Principal but not so much as an Artist. You are expected to take everything on board, apply it, work and learn very fast, and improve yourself. Few teachers give any personal corrections. Sometimes you just have to give yourself a “well-done” tap on the shoulder!
Earlier in the summer they had the experience of performing Romeo and Juliet in the O2 arena. Camille said this was quite different from the Opera House. There were big screens which were sometimes an advantage as they would zoom in and capture certain magical moments. On the other hand, the dancers found them quite distracting at times when they would suddenly catch themselves on screen during the performances. For the corps, this ballet involves a lot of energy and acting and because of the size of the auditorium the dancers really had to exaggerate everything to get the effect across. They did class on stage in order to get used to the magnitude of the arena and said that it was both scary and exciting to bring in something new to the Company. They weren’t too aware of the audience but they found that the schools matinée was very noisy. They were however amused by the heckling of the bad guys during the performance which showed how drawn in the children were.
After the O2 they went off to Taiwan for 10 days. With one day off after their arrival they performed DGV, Chroma, Rhapsody, and Giselle. Their Giselles were Alina Cojocaru, Marianela Nuñez and Roberta Marquez, who all did beautiful performances with Johan Kobborg, Sergei Polunin and Thiago Soares. There were lots of cast changes on account of stomach problems which was sad for those who’d travelled so far and couldn’t perform. It wasn’t always easy to source food and they had to go a long way to find something to eat with not a lot of time to do so. The night markets provided fried cockroaches and there were odd smells everywhere but they decided not to eat them! Although careful, some people were ill from drinking water or eating fruits. They were worried that there wouldn’t be sufficient Wilis and some students who had travelled with them had to dance in every performance. In contrast to the O2 stage, the Chiang Kai-shek Theatre in Taipei had a much smaller stage with a closer up audience who were very friendly. The performances went very well. They felt perhaps there aren’t a lot of Westerners in Taipei as the dancers and particularly the blonde dancers got some strange stares. This was the first time The Royal Ballet performed in Taiwan and the dancers all enjoyed it. There wasn’t much time to go sight-seeing as most of the sights were outside the city.
They are now well into the rehearsal period for Jewels, Requiem and Limen, Marguerite and Armand and later Sleeping Beauty and 27 performances of Nutcracker! Yasmine danced Rubies and covered Emeralds and Diamonds. Although very scary, this time Pat Neary is being nice to her! Camille is learning Limen and Yasmine is covering Yuhui Choe’s role in the ballet. She will be dancing Lilac Attendants, Garland Dance and Nymphs in Beauty with Camille covering three roles. Camille is covering all of Jewels. When you are covering certain pieces it can sometimes prove to be rather challenging. When rehearsing for a ballet that involves many dancers, there is often not enough space to practice the steps and it is also tough to learn everyone’s positions. But this is part of a dancer’s job and they love what they doing so they are happy to accept the challenges.
For the future Camille would like to work with Wayne McGregor and have him create a role on her. She’d also love to dance Giselle which is one of her favourite ballets. She says that she can definitely do mad! Yasmine really wants to be able to push her own artistic and technical boundaries beyond her comfort zone. She’d of course love to dance Odette/Odile one day, who wouldn't, but she would also like to dance the beautiful role of Nikiya in La Bayadère. She adores the lyrical roles in all the Kenneth MacMillan ballets. In contrast, she also admires Forsythe’s work and although she has not done a lot of contemporary she would dearly love to dance In the Middle Somewhat Elevated.
In the corps de ballet there’s not much pas de deux work so Camille hasn’t done much in the Company so far but she learnt a lot about dancing with a partner in Helsinki which should be helpful when the time comes. Yasmine has done a lot of pas de deux work in her classes at The Royal Ballet School and danced them at the School's end-of-year performances on the Linbury stage and at the ROH matinée. These were her favourite classes and she is missing them a lot!
Asked about their favourite dance steps Camille said adage at the bar; Yasmine really loves pirouettes and adagio.
In thanking our guests for a very interesting evening, David said it was a privilege to have them talk so early on about their careers. It had been lovely to watch them both during the past season when they have both stood out in different ways and we were looking forward to seeing them in a variety of roles this year and to following their progress through the company.
Report written by Liz Bouttell, corrected by Camille Bracher, Yasmine Naghdi and David Bain ©The Ballet Association 2011.