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Marianela Nuñez

Principal Dancer, The Royal Ballet

interviewed by David Bain

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church,
London, 5 September, 2012.

IN WELCOMING MARIANELA who was last our guest four years ago, David suggested she began by telling us what she’d been doing this summer. Marianela said that she’d been in Buenos Aires to visit family and she and Thiago were in Brazil where he had been invited to partner a ballerina who was retiring from full length ballets and wanted him to be her Onegin in her last performance. Back in Buenos Aires she and Thiago performed two pieces in a gala, and this was the first time she’d danced there in seven or eight years so it was a big deal and very nice to do. They’ve also been working on a film, a project which started some time ago but it’s now taking shape and due for release in the spring. It came about because the director had made a film called Only When I Dance about Brazilian kids from poor backgrounds, one of whom now works in Boston Ballet and the other in São Paolo. One of the boys went to the same school as Thiago and he appeared in a role designed to show what could be achieved. Through this they became very close to the director, whom Marianela described as an incredible artist with great vision, as well as the producer, and they decided they wanted to make a documentary on Marianela and Thiago. They didn’t want it to be cheesy, nor a round the clock film but to tell their story with dance, so they’ve been following them for a while including recording some of the Romeo and Juliet process, and a bit of their wedding last year. There’s also a pas de deux with Marianela in her wedding dress dancing in the streets at 5am in a temperature of -2 degrees! There’s not much taking place in the ballet studio so it can be tricky to schedule and arrange these shots outside. For those who are interested, there are some trailers on Facebook under its title All I Am.

 Marianela worked closely with Merrill Ashley, whom she described as an exquisite dancer, on Ballo della regina. It’s a wonderful Balanchine piece…

Marianela worked closely with Merrill Ashley, whom she described as an exquisite dancer, on Ballo della regina. It’s a wonderful Balanchine piece with all the necessary ingredients to make a ballet really work and it was incredible to be chosen to do the role by the person on whom the ballet was created. The whole process and all the knowledge Merrill brought was fantastic. It’s wonderful to perform – very short but nerve-wracking and very tiring, like dancing a full length ballet in 20 minutes. Merrill is very particular when she coaches, down to the finest detail so you can’t cheat with her. When you are moving fast your instinct is to cut corners but everything is so precise that cutting corners isn’t an option. While performing a showy piece it’s easy to lose those ballerina qualities and Merrill helped so much on that. The way she was marking the part was incredible – she could probably still dance the role! Marianela’s other Balanchine works include Jewels (Diamonds), another stunning work which is also one of Thiago’s favourites, as well as Symphony in C, second movement. She’d always been cast for the 3rd movement but it had never actually happened. It was amazing working with Pat Neary, another favourite, and she’ll be coming to coach Apollo and probably again for Symphony in C so everyone’s very happy. Marianela was in Apollo before when Darcey was dancing Terpsichore and every time she thinks of that role it reminds her of Darcey and Carlos but this will be the first time for her in the role of Terpsichore which is all about the joy of dance. This suits Marianela perfectly as she says that’s exactly how she feels when she’s dancing. She’d been watching the closing ceremony of the Olympics and seen Darcey flying from the roof top and thought how joyful it was to carry on loving dance.

Last season Marianela danced Song of the Earth which was a very big present for her as she considers it a masterpiece, a work of genius. She was so grateful to Monica for giving her the opportunity and for the month’s one-to-one coaching she gave in the studio which Marianela will treasure always. What she has learned and what Monica has given her is so wonderful. It made her grow and opened her mind to so many things. You are in tears in the studio and on the stage but it’s heaven to dance and for Marianela she thinks heaven is just like that! It’s hard to verbalise why it’s so wonderful – it’s beyond expression but it’s the feeling it gives when you’re performing the piece. Earlier in the season Marianela was in Requiem and is about to do it again.

Audio clip - MacMillan ballets and her career:

The more MacMillan ballets she performs, the more she realises how they touch your soul, and for a few minutes they take you through an emotional experience and make you grow as an artist. In another MacMillan ballet, Winter Dreams, she had the time of her life and her last show with Thiago in Romeo and Juliet she was in tears for ages. This is another masterpiece from a genius. Initially she was getting the other roles rather than the leads. She’s done Larisch in Mayerling – playing the older woman in a very meaty role. Unfortunately she only had one performance but hopefully there’ll be the chance for another go when it comes back. David asked her if she knew which role convinced Monica that she could perform the dramatic roles. Marianela thought Winter Dreams was the part which impressed Monica and for Marianela herself something clicked in that work. Perhaps it wasn’t just one ballet but the way she matured as an artist season by season, which did the trick.

She is so grateful for the way Monica managed her career. What she is today is because of Monica who helped her to develop and mature, and gave her roles at the right time. It made her work harder and Marianela has such respect for Monica and their coaches who are very special too. The season before last she did Manon for the first time. She has seen lots of Manons and was obsessed with it. She grew up watching Kenneth MacMillan ballets and since the age of 16 had been watching from the wings or out front so though not playing the main role she had an idea of how to approach it when the moment came. She couldn’t wait to do it but even surprised herself on the first night, especially in the last act. She really understands why everyone wants to dance MacMillan roles because they are amazing. For Marianela, Manon isn’t a nasty or a cold person. She was surrounded by the wrong people and she made the wrong choices which changed the course of her life and by the time she realised it was too late. David asked how much homework you do with a dramatic role? Marianela said every dancer reads as much as possible. For Manon and Onegin you read the books, and you use your own and other people’s life experiences. The ballets are so real and human which is why they feel so good and you can just let yourself go for a few hours. This season she will make her debut as Tatiana. She’s danced Olga already but jumped up and down with joy when she got the role which came as a surprise as there aren’t very many casts. She’s always wanted to do Tatiana. She’s very familiar with the ballet, knows the choreography so well and has an idea of how to approach the role. She will be in extremely good hands as Nela believes Thiago is one of the best Onegins in the world at present, and this isn’t just because he’s her husband! It’s the right moment for her and she can’t wait to get going – but it’s going to be very interesting having to deal with all the emotions of rejecting him in the final act. Reid Anderson came to re-audition and watch class etc and will probably come again. He and Jane Bourne guide you on every detail and Marianela loves this process of spending hours in the studio working with such talented people. All their coaches are amazing and every day you learn something new which is why she considers herself so lucky.

One MacMillan role she’s not had is Mary Vetsera but it’s good to have something to aspire to! She would also love to do Month in the Country one day but she’s happy to wait for these roles. They get to do the best rep in the world at the Royal Ballet. An Ashton ballet she’s done from quite a young age is Fille mal gardée which is on video – she’s watched it a lot as her niece loves it. It was a breakthrough for her as it was her first full length ballet and it fitted her like a glove – it is so much fun to do that they keep smiling all the way through. It is beautiful but very hard, you have to be very fit, and on top of the technique, but it’s another masterpiece. She’s had a couple of glitches and has had to learn how to come through the door in Fille. Her first night she was supposed to open, go through and close a door but the door simply didn’t open and she thought how Alexander Grant would be very angry with her so she had to improvise and pretend her mother had locked her out! She’s not great with props but says to be fair most dancers are a bit clumsy with props. Mitzi was another of her roles where props caused a disaster. The skirt has a lot of looped ribbons and in the scene with Rudolf (Jonny Cope was dancing the role) she was sitting down but couldn’t get up because her skirt was caught on the chair. Jonny kept insisting she get up which she eventually did but not without dragging the chair behind her – and this is on film! At least it’s something to show her grandchildren.

Working with Glen Tetley on Voluntaries and on Sphinx was another highlight. She likens Voluntaries to Requiem – a very spiritual work. Whether on stage or in the wings or out front, you get similar feelings with these two ballets. Sphinx was an incredible challenge (and Nela mentioned Titian as being just as hard). You’re on stage for 23 minutes so you have to be extremely fit. The choreography is beautiful and makes you feel confident as a dancer. Bronwen Currie was also an incredible coach who explains the Tetley style very well. This was another key moment which made her move another step up the career ladder. It would be good to do some of Tetley’s ballets again. It was in 2005 that Marianela had the chance to work a little with Glen himself, describing him as a lovely and very kind man. When she found the end of the 4th movement very hard he patiently explained and helped her through.

Marianela has also been in a lot of new works with Chris Wheeldon, Wayne McGregor and most recently Liam Scarlett. Liam’s a star and they all love him.

Marianela has also been in a lot of new works with Chris Wheeldon, Wayne McGregor and most recently Liam Scarlett. Liam’s a star and they all love him. She so enjoyed Sweet Violets and Asphodel Meadows was a beautiful piece. Liam’s so young and amazing as he can take charge of a room even when it’s full of principal dancers but everyone wants to please him and will do anything he asks. He definitely has a special quality – a little genius – and Marianela feels privileged to have worked with him at this stage as he is going places and will be an important choreographer of the future. He’s intelligent and ahead of his time with his ideas and not just his pieces for the stage but his range of interests. She’s looking forward to being in his next piece as well. He’s even got her to take her clothes off but he was so careful and understands female dancers very well so you trust him. For Sweet Violets he had all the top ballerinas and male dancers together where there might have been egos running riot but there was an incredible atmosphere with no tension, and everybody was happy, wanting to help and giving 100 per cent in every rehearsal and show. Liam also makes the corps feel special as he pays attention to them as well as the principals.

Wayne is completely different but she loves working with him too. The first time he created something for her she was very nervous as she’s comfortable with her classical language and couldn’t think of moving in a different way but it blows your mind when he is working in front of you and he is very fast. He calmed her down and respected her for who she is. Initially she was in a work he made for a gala for Ed Watson, Eric Underwood, Zenaida Yanowsky and herself. Then it was Infra when he made the amazing classical number for her to close the piece, which showed off her best qualities. He’s so open and generous and incredibly he’d managed to get Boy George to the Opera House for Carbon Life and put it all together with lots of different dancers in a very short time.

She also loves Chris Wheeldon whose choreography is more classical. She’s grateful to him for creating the role in DGV which won her the nomination for the Olivier Awards. He makes some amazing work, particularly for women. His pas de deux are like cream, with a wonderful touch, and he coaches more out of you. He is a perfectionist and she loves his language, classical but broken down, and very musical. From his time in the States he has an American touch which makes for a wonderful combination. She’s hopefully doing After the Rain next time. How lucky can you be having three wonderful choreographers. Every time they are around there’s a special feeling of wanting to be in their pieces and work for them. Marianela only did one show of Alice as she was injured but it was amazing to see the whole process of creating the ballet before your eyes with all the Opera House departments working on it. There are lots of incredible things happening this season. Marianela has six debuts so is very happy – In the Night, Raymonda, Onegin, Apollo, and Liam’s and Chris’ pieces.

She’s done some guesting and galas this summer but generally not as much as others. Invitations come along and dates don’t always work out but she’s so involved with what she’s achieving here and how she’s being looked after that it doesn’t bother her. She emphasised the importance of looking after your body and focussing on your performance for the audience here who deserve you to be at your best. If she wants to have a long career she feels she’s doing the right thing. She’s committed to doing her best and, while appreciating guesting can help you grow and learn, she likes the way things are going now.

Marianela said she danced very young with Maximiliano Guerra in Argentina and worked really hard as a kid doing what she loved. To find your passion at such a young age, about five years old, is extraordinary.

Reverting to her childhood, Marianela said she danced very young with Maximiliano Guerra in Argentina and worked really hard as a kid doing what she loved. To find your passion at such a young age, about five years old, is extraordinary. It was then she told her mum that’s what she wanted though no one else in the family was involved with dance but she knew she wanted to be the best at the thing she loved. Her family doesn’t live near the city centre where the Colon Theatre and school is located so her ballet class was an hour’s drive away. She was woken at 6am with her mum picking her up and putting her into the car under a duvet and she slept on the drive. She trained from 8 to 12, her mum would bring lunch (somehow she kept it warm) and they’d eat in the car after which she went to academic school another hour away. At the end of her school day her mum collected her again for private ballet lessons from 7-9 in the evening – this she did from the age of 8 until 14 when she joined the Company. She’d go to bed after midnight having done her school homework and was up once more at 6am to start over again. Marianela insisted it was her choice and she wasn’t forced into any of this. She’s healthy and sane with amazing memories and not that damaged by it all! She always enjoyed the support of her family and her parents did everything they could to help her. Her friends were mainly from the ballet school and she wasn’t the only one leading this sort of life. They’d get together in groups and perform, and loved it all. She wouldn’t change a thing.

Most of her fellow students are now principal dancers. She also had a few friends in academic school but they weren’t quite sure of what she was about. In summer they had three months holiday: she’d take about a month off but was desperate to go back and did workshops and classes for 12 hours a day. At that time, when she was 12, she first met Loipa Araujo who gave her one-to-one lessons for three hours. When she was 14, Maximiliano saw her in one of these classes. She went to Japan at the age of 15 when she danced straight after Sylvie Guillem. She likes Marianela and was always very supportive and watched her shows. At the time she did mainly pas de deux from Don Q, Corsaire etc. After her first show in Don Q there was tremendous applause and she was asked to do the coda again. For a 15 year old this was quite something. Afterwards she was shivering and probably had a temperature! Anthony Dowell saw her some time later when the Company was touring in Argentina.

She had a lot of pictures of the Company including a beautiful one of Darcey’s amazing profile in Sleeping Beauty when Anthony Dowell was Carabosse. Her mum got her tickets for the performance and after the first show she knew she wanted to join the Royal Ballet. She spent a week auditioning when the Company was in Orange County, California, doing class every day and she got a mention in a Deborah Bull’s book ‘Dancing Away’. One day Anthony, then Monica and then Jeanetta were all watching and on the last day she was asked to do a solo. Unfortunately she’d no music for her prepared solo and the pianist didn’t know the piece so she performed it in silence while Anthony watched in his Carabosse costume! Afterwards nothing was said and she was very upset as she thought she’d not impressed, so they went to Disneyland to get over it. When they arrived back home there was a fax offering her a job. Only when they were looking at contracts did they realise that she couldn’t work in Europe as she was only 15, so she was offered a place at the Royal Ballet School. Obviously she took it and so went back to school which at the time was quite difficult. It was tough leaving family and home where she was treated like a princess for 24 hours a day, not speaking the language and not appearing on stage. Looking back on it now it was the best decision. At the end of the year she did Raymonda – but at the end of the performance her tutu was round her waist! She could see her father looking horrified and Mara was standing in the wings holding a T shirt for her. Liam was in White Lodge at the time. Perhaps if he saw her it gave him the idea of asking her to take her clothes off all those years later!

She joined the Company while the House was closed and recalled a very special feeling, working at close quarters among her favourite ballerinas, and the Company was so together during what was a tough time for everyone. A few months later everyone was worrying about their jobs but the togetherness was obvious and it was like being in an amazing family. It was a very special year when they travelled around England with Dance Bites and also had a season at Sadler’s Wells.

Marianela is about to have her fourth director of the Company – Anthony loved her from an early age and gave her a job, Ross made her a principal, Monica made her the artist she is today and made every dream come true for which she’s so grateful. She also loves Kevin whom she describes as an amazing person. He has been their boss as Administrative Director but everyone was so happy when his appointment was announced that the clapping went on for about 10 minutes. It’s wonderful to have the Company so happy with a great atmosphere, and everybody wants to work with him. He is giving her lots of debuts, and the rep is good this season with old favourites as well as new works. Marianela feels they are in great hands.

As for her ambitions, really it’s the leads in Month and Mayerling. She’s happy with her rep and her main ambition at 30 is to keep growing and improving as an artist and she doesn’t want to think about the future as she’s enjoying the present having worked hard all her life.

Would she be competing with Tamara as successor to Kevin as director, asked David? Marianela laughed and said, whatever she does, it will have to be connected with ballet as she couldn’t just give it up because she loves it too much. It definitely won’t be choreography but possibly coaching.

David said everyone had enjoyed watching Marianela giving wonderful performances in a wide range of roles over a period that has covered almost half her life. We look forward to the next 10 plus years.

Report written by Liz Bouttell, corrected by Marianela Nunez and David Bain ©The Ballet Association 2012.


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