First Artist, The Royal Ballet
interviewed by David Bain
Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church,
London, 9 March 2012.
DAVID BAIN WELCOMED Claire who told us she’d begun dancing when her mother put her into a very low-key ballet class. When she was about seven years old she did some exams and one of the examiners suggested she audition for Junior Associates of The Royal Ballet. Having got a place she went for three years to Bristol. One of the JA teachers then suggested she apply for the White Lodge summer school where she went aged about nine and hated it, crying ever day as she didn’t like being away from home but Claire said she may have been influenced by one of her friends who hated it and perhaps she was copying her! She remembers being upset but not much else about that week except that one of their teachers said she should audition for White Lodge and she agreed, just for the experience, although she didn’t really want to go there. At that time she didn’t even wear ballet shoes so was dancing bare foot! Claire was only on Grade 2 and the others around her had gone as far as they could in their exams so she felt rather left behind. She got a place at White Lodge and accepted without being particularly excited about it. By this time she was 11 years old and not at all fazed by the experience and didn’t suffer any more homesickness.
Claire said she enjoyed ballet and some people must have seen a talent in her but she didn’t go with the idea of being a ballerina and it was only over the years that it became more of an ambition. It was a good experience for Claire and she felt lucky to have gone to the Lower School in the old building during Gailene Stock’s first year, so was with her all the way through. Gailene made a lot of changes, including what was in the vending machines, and with some of the old guard of teachers moving on – the only ones remaining in Claire’s time were Patricia Linton and Anatoly Grigoriev. The style of teaching changed during her first couple of years. Although she had some catching up to do with her peers, she did lots of Nutcrackers and Swan Lakes which was an amazing experience. But it did mean that for the first few years they ‘lost’ all their Christmases. It was hard for the families as well as the students not to be able to go home at Christmas and New Year. One New Year they were so busy that all the families came to stay at White Lodge for that period. During her first year the Opera House reopened and there were several teething problems with the scenery so that the tree in Nutcracker didn’t grow properly leaving a 14 foot drop in the stage. She recalls it beginning to roll around and not filling the gap and the stage crew urging them to stand still so they didn’t fall down the hole! In that year Alina Cojocaru was a snowflake and then Clara. In Year 7 they were at Holland Park where Marianela Nuñez danced Raymonda. Now they are both big stars. It must have been so hard for them coming from abroad with no family and perhaps not speaking the language.
For the end of year performance in Year 3, Christopher Hampson made a piece in which Claire did the lead role in the second movement of three. Later on, she also toured to Dubai and Stuttgart. In the second year of the Upper School she went with the third years to Washington DC for a gala where they did Birthday Offering, another good experience. As she got higher up in the school it became apparent she was working her way up the ladder. They had an annual assessment which is quite daunting to see your friends going in and out. They also had end of term meetings where there would be hints about the need to work harder or improve in certain areas. Her year was quite talented so by her fifth year most people were still there with only five or six leaving. This may have been because Gailene had selected all of them personally whereas the year above almost half of them went. When she moved into the Upper School there still weren’t many students from overseas though Sergei Polunin was one.
In Years 4/5 end of year performance they did Poems, an Australian ballet where Claire had to ride a bike which broke on stage, as well as Christopher Hampson’s piece. It was towards the end of the second term of your fifth year that you got an idea of whether or not you’d go to the Upper School. Once in Floral Street there were 18 of them and just over half moved from the Lower School. A few came from abroad but not as many as in other years. Coming from Richmond Park to Floral Street was different. In the first year you still had curfew but you had freedom and had to do your own washing, buy food, paying bills, budgeting and finding somewhere to live, paying rent and buying your own pointe shoes. Their time at White Lodge didn’t really prepare them for their future way of living so it was difficult for some but you become like brothers and sisters with your fellow students from age 11 and care about and help each other out. You’re also suddenly thrown in the middle of Central London! At White Lodge everything about their uniform was strictly controlled but once in the Upper School you could be more individual in regards to hair and clothes and there was more flexibility to develop their own style and find yourself as a dancer and personality. Katya was their teacher. She pushed them very hard but this suited Claire who pushes herself hard as well as responding well to someone else’s challenge.
Beginning at the Upper School, there is class in the morning and then school lessons for whichever A levels you choose (at White Lodge they did AS dance and Claire took the BTEC in arts management and A level English Lit), then pas de deux and solo classes, or rep and solos or pointe work, then rehearsals. Some days were harder than others when they had to do choreographic work. There are no choreographic classes but the students do make works – Claire only did what she had to do as it didn’t interest her, though of course she appeared in other people’s work. The end of first year was the Linbury performance when Claire didn’t do anything major. In the second year there was a change of teacher. Petal Miller-Ashmole came in. She had also taught in their first year at White Lodge and again in the fifth year. She’s now gone back to Australia but they were very close to her and they are still in touch. During the second year there was the tour to Washington DC and Claire also did the same ballets in the Linbury. In the third year they began performing with the Company and Claire did a lot with them. She now had her own place in Nutcracker Snowflakes, Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake. They were also doing auditions for jobs though Claire was lucky enough to get her contract early on. During that time unusually the Director of Dutch National Ballet came in and auditioned in the school. He was there the whole day and offered Claire and Yannick Bittencourt (who is now with Paris Opera) contracts so that gave her the chance to ask if the Royal wanted her or not. Sometimes the Company makes the students wait to let them know if they have contracts and this can be tricky as they may find themselves without jobs at the end of school year. Claire was lucky but wished she could have joined straight away rather than at the end of the year but she finished the school year and graduation with her friends which was important.
In the third year Claire and some others did a week’s exchange with the Vaganova. She loved their system of training and work ethic but it was very different from White Lodge where they have very good relationships with teachers and the same with staff in the Company. In Russia it is still quite military. One teacher would give them an exercise and then they’d just stand until the next ‘order’ was screamed at them. Here it’s more interactive. In Russia they are very disciplined and just take the screaming from the teachers. The teachers are also harder on their younger students and as they get older they seem to have more freedom to find their own way. The floors are raked in every studio which was a bit tricky. They were totally integrated with the school doing pas de deux and class. They also stayed in new dormitories in the nicer part of the building.
It was quite an easy transition into the Company as Claire had done a lot already with them. Some people went on tour that year but she was doing the end of year shows so couldn’t go. It would have been nice, as tours are a good time to really get to know people as you’re not in a home environment and have to socialise outside work, and enjoy lots of parties! You’ve lost a lot of your friends from school, though Sergei, Kevin Emerton and Elsa Godard joined at the same time, and don’t know anyone else well so it takes a while to settle and find your own group. It was strange as she had presumed that everyone was close and hung out together after work but you spend so much time working with the same people in the studio, that after the show or in the evening the last person you want to see is the one you’ve been next to all day!
Claire’s first ballet once she joined the Company was Bayadère which she hadn’t done before. It was a good experience as you dance a lot. It would be daunting if you didn’t dance for ages once in the Company. There is a big corps for Shades and you have to be really cohesive – it’s tough but an experience which brings you together and everyone is rooting for each other and it helps you to become part of the Company. Claire didShades, temple women and some other roles with quick changes and lots to do. They were taught by Olga Evreinoff, while Natasha Makarova came for the following season. Asked how that was, Claire said it was filmed that time which made it very different and a more intense experience. She was cover for pas d’action so was only observing. However, she recognised that some people mellow with time so, perhaps, it was easier than some dancers had found it previously. Perhaps, the same can be said for Christopher Carr who used to stand at the stage door ticking off people who arrived late! She was in Canada this mid-season break as her boyfriend’s brother was performing with National Ballet of Canada. Christopher was there and was smiling and happy. In Canada, they rehearse two or three things and then do the shows, and then rehearse the next block and do the shows so they’re not rehearsing while performing and are fresh and eager to go. Here the schedule is more mixed and stressful as they are rehearsing new works while performing others, which can mean that after a late night performing you’re not so eager to do something different in the morning.
During her first season, she recalls learning a lot of rep and trying to get on stage rather than being just a cover. Covering is really hard. You don’t get the chance to rehearse properly as you’re confined to the back of the studio with little space so can’t pick it up properly. But there is great stress, because if someone goes off you have to go on. In the last show of Tzigane, the Balanchine work, Pietra Mello-Pittman sprained an ankle and Claire had to go on. There were only four people in the studio and there was a bit more space and she had a bit more support so it was OK. The worst was Rite. She didn’t go on but was general cover for anyone who went off anywhere. Every night you sit and hope and pray no one goes off as it’s impossible to learn everyone’s counts. You just have to learn the steps and on the night you have to hope you’re on the right count. If everyone is up and you’re down it doesn’t look good! This time she was in it properly so that was fine.
Audio clip - the Lilac Fairy:
Her first solo role, half way through her second year was Lilac Fairy. She’d done her research and saw there was no Isabel McMeekan or Alexandra Ansanelli, as both had left, and Lauren Cuthbertson was off and Marianela had bigger and better things on her plate. Claire hinted that it would be nice for her to learn the role and she had asked if she could go to rehearsals in preparation for performing it in Ernst Meisner’s outreach programme in Kent. Effectively Claire cast herself. When she went for the audition as all the covers had to do, she actually knew it and when the casting went up Claire’s name was on it and she ended up in the shows. Claire said the role was appealing as the solo is hard and she likes a challenge. It is a key role in the ballet although in the programme she isn’t highlighted, which is strange. The Lilac Fairy is in every act as the story teller and propels the action forward. You have to do more than just a good solo and bring part of yourself to guide people through the story. The fouettés are tough but the role is more than technique. Technique is easier than the acting side. That is what she is learning as she repeats the role. There were no acting classes in the school, where acting was about smiling and looking happy, and little character role work! Her only experience was in Poems where she was in love which was no problem as she could smile and show emotion towards someone. Claire was coached in the role of Lilac Fairy by Monica Mason who has coached most of the big roles that she has done, like Winter in Cinderella, Rite, and Mistress in Manon. Claire considers herself lucky to have had that experience and realises what an impact Monica has as a coach. She has such an eye and knows the roles in detail, especially as some were made on her. She doesn’t try to enforce her ideas but encourages the dancers to have their own ideas. Working with her caused Claire to change the way she danced and looked at things. After Lilac Fairy, Claire thinks Monica may have seen something similar to herself in her, as having been down to cover Summer, she was then changed to Winter.
Claire fights for what she wants – Mistress is such a big and intense role and is the only one she was given and didn’t have to fight for. Mistress is special to Claire as it’s one of the biggest things she’s done and she’s a real character, not make-believe or fairy-like, and you get to interact with everyone else on stage. It has made a big impact on her career. She had done a harlot before but actually performed Mistress before doing a courtesan in Manon. Her Lescaut was Thiago Soares, who knows it very well having danced it everywhere and is great in the role. When you begin doing a role it’s good to have such a partner who can pull things out of you when you’re unsure of yourself. Equally with Chris Saunders, Genesia Rosato and Elizabeth McGorian who are key characters, and also know it so well, it is easy to bounce off them and interact, which isn’t the same with a totally new cast.
The thought of rehearsing the role was a bit daunting as Thiago is a principal and she was corps de ballet but Claire didn’t feel intimidated in having to ask what to do. Thiago said she was easy to work with and to partner which was pleasing and it is perhaps less difficult with the steps being a bit off the leg than with a classical pas de deux. But sometimes it’s hard to make things look bad rather than good. Monica said originally it was not supposed to be funny, just drunken but over the years it has developed. She encouraged them not to try to get a laugh. Manon is danced to the characters on stage rather than the audience whereas others, like Sleeping Beauty or Swan Lake, are performed to the audience. You are very much setting the scene and interacting with people on stage. As in Romeo you’re angry with those on stage, not the audience. Thiago keeps you focussed. Claire said it is an easy pas de deux and generally everything went OK, though in the future maybe things won’t work so well. She is still very much conscious of what she is doing and must not lose concentration.
Claire is now learning another funny role, the Queen of Hearts in Alice. It is a difficult role as she’s a big character. It is not just acting but almost pantomime with big facial expressions, so you have to get the balance between making things funny but without trying to be funny. Chris Wheeldon gives you the scenario on what you are thinking and feeling at the time and is building on the character differently this time. In the first scene, you don’t want to give a clue to the angry person she will become. Initially she is concerned about trying to please everyone but eventually she gets uptight and worried and finally is just being angry. So far, she has not had a lot of rehearsals and is following two very different Queens, Zenaida Yanowsky and Tamara Rojo, neither of whom are doing it this season. Chris works on the individual and picks on the dancers’ strengths, asking them to do things slightly differently depending on the personality.
In Fille, Claire will be a friend and is covering Princess Epine, the evil one in Prince of the Pagodas so she is beginning to see a trend in her roles! With Sleeping Beauty, Manon and Fille her only way up is to take on the lead roles! Everyone wants to see that progression in their career. In other ballets she’s not even been in the corps. Since she’s been in the Company, Jewels has been done three times and this year was her first time she danced, as second cast in Diamonds. The Company is changing, as in the past you had to wait for roles whereas now there is a group who are doing them straight away. So it seems it is more of a struggle for more experienced dancers to get on and do things and you sometimes feel you’ve missed the boat. With some people the Company take more risks. Claire doesn’t feel she has been pushed within the Company, but rather she’s pushed herself for what she’s achieved.
New choreography: Claire is working on her first Wayne McGregor ballet, where she’s second cast for Akane Takada. (As Akane was injured, Claire danced the role in performances.) This is a very, very different experience. She enjoys his ballets but they’re complicated with different steps, first one way and then repeated in a different order. Wayne holds workshops where you work on something, then come back to it weeks later when you have to try to remember that particular routine as you’ve already learned a further three routines meanwhile with different people! Then he sets the ballet sometimes to music and sometimes just a ping! Wayne may put in different movements, when the people he’s using are different in first and second casts, as some people have extreme flexibility but are covered by others who are less flexible. It can be tough on the dancers who’ve already spent many hours in the studio working on other things.
Of other choreographers, Claire said she’d like to work with Forsythe, although of his ballets she’s only seen In the Middle. She has seen Darcey Bussell and Sylvie Guillem but perhaps performing it wouldn’t be the same. For her the biggest up and coming choreographer is Liam Scarlett. She’s known him for a while (he was two years above her in school) and believes he has something special as he can create an amazing pas de deux, and can make something different which still looks like ballet. She isn’t involved in his new piece but it should be very exciting
Question from the audience: What language was used at Vaganova in the studio? Claire said it was all Russian but, although hard, in the world of dance you just understand what’s required without understanding the language. Certain things she loved about the Maryinsky and its company members. They have beautiful arms and port de bras, and a strong technique. There is something special about them. They stand by their beliefs and the way them want to go in ballet and how the dancers should be. The Russians all dance in such a similar way and with similar qualities which gives their performances an extra wow factor. Sometimes here it gets a bit lost as to the style people want from the Company, especially the corps de ballet. Claire recently did an interview with Luke Jennings who is doing an article about the School and the Company, and asked her thoughts about the system. She can’t put her finger on why some years not so many people get taken into the Company as other years but felt perhaps there could be more of a defining stamp.
In thanking Claire very much David said we looked forward to following her career, hopefully to see her as the Queen in Alice, and to see what roles she chooses for herself in the future!
Report written by Liz Bouttell, corrected by Claire Calvert and David Bain. ©The Ballet Association 2012.