Principal Dancer, The Royal Ballet
interviewed by David Bain
Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church,
London, 17 April 2012.
SARAH LAST CAME to talk to the Ballet Association four and a half years ago. She is now in her eighth season with the Royal Ballet.
The interview started with Sarah’s major injury, which occurred soon after her last talk. She was rehearsing the bedroom pas de deux from Manon. Lots of dancers have been injured rehearsing this, but Sarah’s was one of the most severe. She jumped into one of the slides, wasn’t aligned properly, and crashed into her partner. Sarah knew it was serious, and had to get her shoe off quickly. Her partner carried her down the stairs to the physio room. As Sarah was screaming in agony, she strangled her ankle and kept it in the air, as they managed to find the massage therapist. Hikaru Kobayashi gave Sarah some ice, and she was rushed to the Princess Grace Hospital in a cab. Roadworks meant that her journey took half an hour, when it should have been far quicker. The hospital initially told her nothing was broken, so Sarah thought she’d be off for two or three weeks at the most. She had an MRI scan, and was sent home with painkillers. She had a CAT scan the following day to try and reveal more. Sarah hadn’t experienced pain like it before. Sarah felt a lot of ‘fear, rage and sadness.’ She spoke to her physio in Boston, who then spoke to her surgeon. The CAT scan revealed four clean breaks in different metatarsals and a rupture of the lisfranc joint. Surgery was the only option. Lloyd Williams, who performed the operation, was able to put one screw through three bones rather than multiple screws which he initially anticipated. The surgery was September 12, 2008, the same day the stock markets crashed and the day the Large Hadron Collider malfunctioned! Sarah had six weeks in a hard cast, ‘so I decided to read War and Peace.’ Sarah remembers falling on leaves outside her flat on a wet day, and no one came to help her. She also threw her crutch across her room at another low moment. Sarah did rehabilitation after her cast came off using pool therapy. The exercises were similar to ballet and dancing. She worked with an eminent therapist from Ukraine, Dr Igor Burdenko, who treated Nureyev, Patrick Armand, Trinidad Sevilliano, Fernando Bujones, and figure skaters such as Nancy Kerrigan, Oksana Baiul, and countless other Olympic athletes.
Part of Sarah’s rehabilitation involved using black foam rollers, which she cut in half and used to balance underwater. She also ‘started doing arabesques across the pool.’ These exercises were difficult, but it gave her good core strength and stability when unable to weight-bear on dry land. Sarah got up at 4.30 a.m., and would do three to four hours in the pool, the discipline and routine being one of the only ways she was able to have some positive outlook despite the situation. She saw her physiotherapist biweekly at Children’s Hospital in Boston. Seeing young children and families living through horror and grief so much larger than her own put her injury in perspective.
The screw in her foot was removed before Christmas, but she still used crutches for a few weeks, in total she spent 17 weeks on crutches. She remained in a walking boot until March, and rehabilitation to regain strength and muscle mass in her left leg was ongoing. In March the company asked her to return to London to complete her rehabilitation. Sarah danced in May/June in Chroma and went to perform with the company on tour in Cuba. It was ‘really wonderful’ to be back dancing with the Company again. Chroma was choreographed on her so it was very comfortable to return to.
Sarah feels ‘very flattered’ to have performed ‘such a breadth of repertoire,’ and grateful that choreographers want to work with her. It’s ‘one of the most wonderful things’ to be part of collaboration, and to have that input. Sarah is working on Titian with Stephen McRae, and they are enthusiastic about the project. ‘It’s a lot of fun.’ They are working on the Chris Wheeldon/Alastair Marriott collaboration. Chris and Alastair are working in the studio simultaneously, whereas other choreographers are working on their sections more independently. So far, they are using music from a computer, which Sarah isn’t so keen on – it sounds a lot nicer on the piano. The scenery is ‘quite circular.’ There is a mirror almost all the way around and a lunar landscape, reflecting the Apollo moon landings. The lunar references are in terms of shape, and visuals. Sarah has worked with Alastair on Tanglewood and Children of Adam, as well as with Wayne McGregor and Liam Scarlett. They each have different choreographic styles, Liam knows what he wants, but if he sees something he likes, he will keep it in. Christopher Wheeldon knows what he wants musically and is less prescriptive in each exact step. Chris always knows what he doesn’t want, which is similar to Alastair, who always has an idea of the general shape and trajectory of the piece.
Wayne has many different ways of working with his dancers. For example in Live Fire Exercise he said the word ‘blue,’ so Sarah thought that might mean Sinatra’s ‘blue eyes’ and Ed thought of cold and made an igloo shape, completely different ideas from one word, and Wayne took those shapes as a starting point. The dancers didn’t hear the music for Carbon Life until well into the rehearsal process. One of the most challenging aspects of working with Wayne is in terms of the continuity of what you learn. He will have many different pieces which he doesn’t order until much later in the process so there are many fragments you need to keep in your brain. The dancers work to various ticks and noises made by Wayne in place of music, ‘eek, pah’ for instance, ‘but we are so used to it and it illustrates the emphasis he wants in his movement.’ Once the music appears, he becomes specific to when and where the movement will occur. Sarah’s pas de deux in Carbon Life was set in counts of 13s, then two bridges of four 8s, where ‘Wayne wanted us moving slowly, almost like a time lapse.’ With Live Fire Exercise, the dancers were never shown the video projection, but it was explained to them. Sarah hasn’t seen any of Wayne’s pieces from out front, so wasn’t even aware of the pixelated walkway in Infra. Chroma was the only ballet to date where a second cast has gone on. Sarah has had a lot of different partners in Wayne’s ballet, so they always feel different, as everyone thinks differently.
Sarah first worked with Chris Wheeldon when she was 18 on The Four Seasons, and performed in the Fall section. There was a big wagon on the stage, which she had to dance on as a barmaid. It was a very jovial, Bacchic event, and was ‘beautiful.’ She also danced in his version of The Firebird, which was neoclassical. He has ‘a really unique range’ and breadth of choreography – just look at Tryst, Alice and Polyphonia. Sarah first danced in Polyphonia with Gary Avis. It is very hard in the first section – the music is hard to count, and the four couples aren’t dancing in time together. ‘It takes a lot of rehearsal to make the beginning look good.’ The ballet is often danced by four principals, who aren’t used to dancing in sync any more! There are some ‘beautiful pas de deux.’ Chris had already set the choreography elsewhere, but once you’ve learnt and rehearsed it, ‘you do see how it all fits together.’ With Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, it wasn’t aiming to be profound, it was always meant to be entertainment, ‘so Chris was successful.’ He started creating it whilst Lauren was still ill, so Sarah did a lot of work on it with Sergei Polunin. Sarah and Stephen McRae were around to work on a lot of the new choreography this time around. A lot of it was done on Sarah, even though she didn’t ‘create’ the role. They were initially told the characters would be around 14/15 years old. Chris was trying to mix the original character of Alice, whilst giving her a modern twist.
In the Ashton repertory, Sarah first danced La Fille mal gardée in Boston with Carlos Acosta [which she described in her last interview]. Christopher Carr went out to teach it. Ashton was inspired by Pavlova, her use of épaulement, and the carriage of the body. Sarah sees a lot of lineage from there. Her teacher was Legat’s granddaughter. Sarah sees herself as being open, a risk taker, and eager to try new things, and find a new way. She approached learning Fille in the same way as she learns Balanchine. You have to have the ability to be receptive of anyone’s corrections. Sarah really enjoys dancing Ashton. Although she hasn’t done A Month in the Country or Marguerite and Armand, she ‘really enjoyed’ doing Symphonic Variations and Fille. Ashton’s purity and simplicity can provide as much pleasure ‘as throwing yourself across the room.’
With Manon, there was no fear when it came back, as ‘you have to get back on the horse’, and Sarah loved dancing with Rupert Pennefather. They really believed each other on stage. It was ‘a phenomenal experience.’ They want to dance more together. They were coached by Alexander Agadzhanov, Lesley Collier, Jonathan Cope and Carl Burnett. Sarah is coached by Alexander Agadzhanov a lot, although she is happy to work with anyone. Alexander and she have a very close relationship and work very well together. A lot of who rehearses the dancers depends on scheduling. Sarah enjoys getting feedback and corrections so she has something to think about and work on, however it can be hard if the coaches contradict each other. When Sarah did La Bayadère in Boston, she learned three different versions simultaneously from three ‘very powerful Russian women’ – Natalia Dudinskaya, Tatiana Terekhova (the ballet mistress), and Tatiana Legat (her teacher). In the end, she went to the director for help, and they worked out a compromise.
Audio clip - taking corrections; interpretation:
‘It’s always good to have someone else’s perspective.’ You can’t drastically change the dancer you are. Symphonic Variations is notated, and you have to respect Ashton, but with Swan Lake, you have more poetic licence to adapt it as it’s ‘been adulterated so many times.’ With Manon, you might change your performance, as you react differently, depending on your partner’s actions. So many of the situations are out of Manon’s control. It’s very flattering to the dancers that people want to see things several times.
Sarah danced Marie Larisch in Mayerling who is a real manipulator, yet she is manipulated herself. Her love for Rudolph is so strong; it compels her to do things that are not in her own best interest: Larisch is ‘slightly unhinged.’ It’s thrilling to do on stage. Mary Vetsera is so sheltered, and reacts only to Rudolph, whereas Larisch reacts to everyone, she is very involved in the court. When she is banished she is absolutely crushed, it is as if she dies. Sarah tries to read about, and find out all she can about a role.
Sarah is still learning Prince of the Pagodas. She has absorbed one and three-quarters of the pas de deux, and nearly two of the solos, as well as currently working on La Sylphide and Titian. Kenneth MacMillan was ill when making the ballet, Jonathan Cope and Darcey Bussell have said he never got out of his chair when creating it, and just made Darcey do things ‘again, and again, and again!’ Sarah isn’t totally convinced by the music yet, although she’s only heard it on the piano so far. She hasn’t interacted with Epine in the studio yet.
Sarah and Rupert got very good reviews for their partnership in Manon. She enjoys working with different partners, and is having a great time with Stephen McRae. She has worked with him on Sleeping Beauty, Symphony in C, Rubies, Carbon Life, Titian, and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland so far. Stephen is very co-ordinated and strong, even though she’s a little tall for him. Federico Bonelli is a kind person, as well as a great partner, and she loves performing with him too. Johannes Stepannek is also very kind, and a hard worker. With a partner, it’s more about the personality than strength. Sarah did La Fille mal gardée in Boston with Carlos, as well as Afternoon of a Faun by Robbins with him. Sarah liked the concept behind Afternoon of a Faun. Its ‘short, but a gem.’ You couldn’t make it better. It’s ‘like a miniature painting.’ Carlos is ‘a very wonderful person.’ Sarah was involved with his show at Sadler’s Wells. He had worked the repertory out, and tried to give a narrative to it, which is why he included the warming up section at the beginning. In his shows Sarah did La Sylphide and the Edith Piaf solo by van Cauwenbergh.
Next season, Sarah has Swan Lake and Nutcracker with Rupert. It’s good to have consistency with a partner. Sarah would love to dance Tatiana in Onegin, but doesn’t know if Reid Anderson sees her in that role: she has previously done Olga. Sarah would also like to dance Mary Vetsera in Mayerling, and the Pie Jesu role in Requiem. Sarah tries to see other companies, but if she’s had a couple of busy weeks, it’s nice to have an evening at home. She’s recently been to see Paul Lightfoot and NDT2. Sarah also really likes Kylian. As for guesting, Sarah has to say no to most things because she performs so much here. She’s not doing Fille this time, but is busy rehearsing other things. Sarah would rather do a full length somewhere else, ‘and not just fouettés’ in a gala show. When on tour, Sarah always tries to find the grocery store for simple food and fruit. Her first night in Seoul she went with Lauren to Dunkin’ Doughnuts, and had bagels… they avoided the canine kebab in the street markets…!
Sarah is rarely off through illness. She was worried in Havana because of the heat, and the Swine Flu going round. Sarah felt a bit of heat fever after walking round with one of Alicia Alonso’s close friends, and regrets not seeing more of the country. As a principal, you’re carrying the show, so she prefers to have a quiet night in before a show. She loves touring, yet doesn’t get to see a lot of a country, so she will have to go back and see them again. Sarah did manage to get to the Great Wall of China though – in her platform sandals, as her trainers were in her theatre case!
Report written by Rachel Holland, corrected by Sarah Lamb and David Bain ©The Ballet Association 2012.