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Annette Buvoli and Reece Clarke

Artists, The Royal Ballet

interviewed by David Bain

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church,
London, 11 September 2014.

FOLLOWING DAVID'S WELCOME, Annette told us she began ballet in Boulder, Colorado, aged 10, because she was doing jazz dance with her best friend but to progress the jazz she had to take ballet classes and discovered she really liked it. She went to a small studio, three times a week, and it was really exciting to go on pointe a few years later. Aged 14 she started to get serious about ballet and went to the Kirov Academy in Washington DC. This was followed by two years at the Royal Ballet School from where she went into the Company.

Before going to the Kirov Academy, she entered the Youth America Grand Prix where she did the Corsaire variations. It was her first big competition and made her realise how hard you have to work to succeed and although it was a very interesting experience Annette thought it wasn’t to be recommended! It was so scary to see all those great dancers who’d been training for ever and it was a shock for someone who’d come from nowhere. The Kirov Academy is a branch of the Vaganova School, so the teachers and training were all Russian. It was all new to her so she went for intensive summer training for six weeks and was pushed to the limit but afterwards said to her mother that she didn’t want to go back to ordinary school, she had to go there full-time. She was there for a year, learning a lot and suffering a lot in some ways. Ballet went from being the most exciting and happiest part of her day to becoming her whole life and everything she wanted to be but Annette did wonder if she’d make it as a ballerina. The teachers didn’t make it easy and weren’t encouraging but she loved the challenge and urge to make you try harder and want to succeed. When the school began changing direction, she began to think of moving on, perhaps to Russia as that would be a natural progression, but not being Russian or a Russian dancer and not speaking the language was a drawback. She was too young to go to the Vaganova School but the Bolshoi School offered a three year contract which her family had translated. She also applied to the Royal Ballet summer school and while she was there open auditions were being held. Annette had no expectations so was completely relaxed and made it through and next day Gailene Stock offered her a place at the Royal Ballet School. It was so unexpected and exciting though not what she had visualised as her path. But she accepted and now thinks it’s the best decision she ever made. She went into the Upper School at the age of 15 and graduated at 17, and is still the baby in the Company.

At 16 his older brothers went to the Upper School and as he was Junior Associate level they said it was a good step towards getting into White Lodge.

Reece comes from a Scottish family from Airdrie where ballet wasn’t really considered – it was all about sports and he thought he’d be a sportsman. However his older siblings went to dance classes and he was dragged along but didn’t really enjoy it except that he was surrounded by beautiful women! At 16 his older brothers went to the Upper School and as he was Junior Associate level they said it was a good step towards getting into White Lodge. He and another brother auditioned for JAs before going to White Lodge for five years and then into the Upper School. In his last year there he was invited to join the Company. Most people like White Lodge but some hate it. He hated it to begin with – leaving home at 11 and then following the intense schedule at such a young age wasn’t something for which he was ready. The first couple of years he didn’t really enjoy it but in his third year he started working with the Company a little and began to see what it was like to be on stage. That’s what really drew him in and he realised what he was working towards and his teachers saw he was working hard and pushed him to progress. So there were mixed emotions about White Lodge and he much preferred the Upper School.

Asked why all his brothers danced, Reece said his Mum (possibly a frustrated ballerina?) said they all had so much energy they needed to do something besides swimming and playing sport. They went to a local dance school where the teachers saw something in them and suggested going to auditions. Reece really loved the Upper School. His first year teacher was Mr Pakri who was a real inspiration. His way of teaching was what appealed to Reece, the very masculine, Russian style of dancing meant a lot of work but it paid off. Everyone fought against Mr Pakri but you rarely won and most of the time he was right! He encouraged Reece to go in for competitions which he won and then he knew if he kept working he was good enough to get into a top company. In their first year he and Annette danced together. David said he’d seen Mr Pakri teaching and was amused by his methods but others thought he was extremely hard on the students. Annette said he knew everyone’s potential and would do everything possible to make you succeed. She recalled for her appraisal she was too scared to do a triple although she knew she could but Mr Pakri just stood next to her and said ‘do three’ – she cried but did it and agrees you need someone to push you. Reece said you couldn’t have a bad day with Mr Pakri or you’d be punished. It was extreme but worked well for Reece and they have a lot of respect for him. Mr Pakri said when he leaves the school he leaves work behind but neither Annette nor Reece think that’s true!

The girls’ teacher was Katia Zvelibilova, who had original and brilliant ideas involving exotic exercises. She’d give them an adagio holding the leg high for ever and then said to do a promenade in relevé. Afterwards everyone was dripping but that sort of exercise, together with press-ups and sit-ups, made them stronger. She left earlier in the year for personal reasons and was clearly missed. They then had a variety of teachers including a lot of Gailene Stock to whom Annette was so thankful, and described as an amazing teacher and person to whom she owes everything. She was so matter of fact and on a bad day she’d say ‘you tried and you won’t do that tomorrow’. For her it was just ballet and she put it in perspective which was very good. She said ‘don’t pray when doing a pirouette as God has more important things to worry about’. Miss Young also taught a lot and was very good and knowledgeable.

In the first year school performance they did John Neumeier’s Yonderling but the defilé was the most exciting moment of Annette’s life although she had a broken rib (Reece’s fault!). The first year was a lot of fun and they didn’t feel so much pressure but it was still stressful as for Annette it was the first time on the Opera House stage and when she walked out initially she forgot everything. Then instinct takes over, you just get on with it and it feels so comfortable.

The second year wasn’t too tough for Reece – moving from Mr Pakri to Mr Peden was one extreme to another with different styles, Mr Peden’s English port de bras making movements float in contrast to the more stiff and harsh Russian style, but it was good to have had both. He was then entered for the Lynn Seymour competition for expressive dance focussing more on emotions so Reece went for the solo from MacMillan’s Winter Dreams and won, learning a lot not just from dancing it but also from watching other dancers. For the school show they did La Destinée and Reece danced with Gina Storm-Jensen in Valentino Zucchetti’s piece which was tough, constantly running and moving. Reece also worked with the Company more which was very good.

Asked when she knew she was to skip the second year, Annette said it was after the mid term holiday. Gailene came to watch class, then asked Hannah Beach and Annette to go to her office (Annette thought she was going to be expelled!) where Gailene said they had received honours in all their appraisals and she wanted them to join the 3rd year. Hannah was very excited but Annette was shocked as she hadn’t seen it coming and thought the next year she would not only be a year older but a year stronger and more talented and felt she needed that year to work on her strength and technique. The idea of being at the bottom and having to work so hard to catch up was tough. It was bitter-sweet as you bond with your year and she’d be leaving her best friend behind. Gailene said there was no rush to decide but suddenly the paperwork arrived and she found the decision had been made! It was scary too as suddenly she realised she’d be looking for a job after that summer and would have to be ready to join a company. She’d never had ambition to go into a small company and had always dreamt of joining one of the big companies but at the age of 16 it didn’t feel right and she wasn’t ready. But she trusted Gailene and knew she’d have support from all the teachers. The first couple of months were very hard – she felt she couldn’t do anything, was constantly upset and felt she couldn’t manage. But you just have to keep going back every day and working hard and Miss Tranah, a very good teacher, picked up that she really wanted to improve and was very good, helpful and patient with her.

She found out in the December of the 3rd year that she was to have a ballet choreographed on her. Rehearsals were beginning for La Destinée by Mark Annear, head of the outreach programme, and three other names and hers were down but she thought she would only be covering and questioned if there’d been some mistake! Not until they went into rehearsal did she realise it was really her. She had two solos choreographed on her as well as a big pas de deux. It was a challenge, with a very mature storyline about a woman who had fallen in love and gone through heartbreak when the man left her. Annette had no experience of that sort and felt she could have done it better in a few years’ time. It was a big learning curve but it was so much fun and amazing to know you are the only one on stage and everyone is looking at you! Rehearsing the kiss was difficult. They’d just about finished and set everything and she was having a ball with Matthew Bell who was her partner and then he needed surgery and she had to redo it with David Donnelly who is more like a brother figure so the very romantic pas de deux was tricky. The ballet ends with a big kiss and they had to run on and kiss but so many times things went wrong – she knocked him over, then he stood on her foot – and for 45 minutes they had to keep repeating it.

During Reece’s third year he learnt a lot from Gary Norman whose classes were quite extreme, and he was also working frequently with the Company. He was in Don Q and had started on the Rite of Spring. He recalled it was 25 October when Mr Jolley called him and Gina in early in the morning when he was still half asleep and asked how things were going (Reece said OK but it’s early days) and Jay asked how they’d feel about joining the Company on the following Monday – this was Friday – and they were only six weeks into the 3rd year! Gina jumped up screaming with excitement and Reece didn’t know what to say but wasn’t going to say no as it was his dream company. He was told he’d be on stage doing Rite and this was a week before the show opened. It was very scary to know he’d only a few days to learn the work as soon as he joined the company, and had only once done company class. It seems like a lot of pressure and you feel everyone is looking at you as the newcomer but as you get into the swing of it you find everyone is on your side and it’s like a family giving a lot of support.

 She’d already auditioned for Dutch National Ballet, ENB, Ballet Munich and she’d been offered various contracts…

Annette found out in January of the graduate year that she had a contract. She’d already auditioned for Dutch National Ballet, ENB, Ballet Munich and she’d been offered various contracts so felt over the moon but had chosen DNB and was so excited, ready to say goodbye and go to Amsterdam. During a solo lesson for the Swan Lake pas de quatre she was called to Mr Jolley’s office to be told Kevin O’Hare would like to offer her a job with the Royal Ballet. She cried so much as she didn’t know what to do – she’d decided to do something completely different so said she couldn’t accept immediately (great surprise from Jay!) and needed a night at least to think about it! Her parents couldn’t believe what she was saying and although it was supposed to be a secret, the next day she phoned Gailene who more than persuaded her. Deep down she knew she really couldn’t turn down the Royal which was the dream so she accepted and cried some more but it was very exciting.

First year highlights for Annette: she wasn’t cast for very much initially but had been injured towards the end of school with two partially torn ligaments and a stress fracture so her foot was in a bad way. Unusually, she took the whole summer off before coming back when she definitely hit rock bottom. Everything was different and she felt terrible in a new environment and she couldn’t do anything with her weak foot but there were great coaches and physios on hand and gradually things got better. They started on Don Q which didn’t go so well for Annette and it proved the worst moment of her career so far! Everyone was watching the rehearsal which was being filmed, and Annette was dancing a Gamache women with one of the soloists and with her long arms she managed to hit him on his cheek with her elbow. It was so embarrassing and he was in a lot of pain. Everything stopped and she felt very low at that point. Then things improved. Her first very exciting thing was to do Diamonds when someone went off on the day of opening night. She’d never even done a rehearsal but felt calm and it was such fun and she was ecstatic. She then had two more shows. In one, she was really going for it and fell flat in the centre of the stage. It seemed things couldn’t get any worse so it was much more fun afterwards. Annette also got thrown on at 4.30pm in all three acts of Chris Wheeldon’s The Winter’s Tale, never having done it in rehearsal, let alone on stage. She only had a half hour emergency call but it was a really good experience. She was also in Serenade and fairies in The Dream and believes the more you get thrown on the better it is and it gradually becomes the norm. Annette’s waiting to get thrown on again this season!

One highlight for Reece was Diamonds. Being allowed to dance in that classical piece on that amazing stage in lovely costumes was a great experience. Another highlight was Rite. He was worried about it at the rehearsals and stage calls but on the night the adrenalin kicked in and it was amazing. At the end of the season he went back to the School to do Raymonda. On tour he was coached by Jonny Cope, Lesley Collier and Kevin watched by the whole company. Then at home he danced with Chisato Katsura, rehearsed by Christopher Carr for another main stage appearance which was a very good experience.

The current season is just beginning. The previous day Reece went to Thurrock with the Chance to Dance project and was coached by Jonny Cope and Lesley Collier in Swan Lake – being coached in another principal role was a good experience. As part of the Deloitte Festival, Annette and five others had performed a very contemporary, modern piece by Aakash Odedra. It was lots of fun dancing with young friends, but very demanding. It was the first thing they did after the summer break and they then had to get back in shape for classical ballet as it was the complete opposite from what they were used to. He is an amazing dancer, he’s short but an incredibly speedy mover and it was a big learning experience. Chris Ofili designed the costumes and did body paintings on them which proved a lengthy process. It was a nice way to start the season to get the adrenaline going after the summer break. Now they’re getting ready for Manon. Giselle was a favourite for Annette last season. She did a short interview for the broadcast when they focussed on a section on the corps. Making the film was very daunting – she’d rather speak to an audience than to a camera!

Touring was an amazing and exhausting experience but such fun, though with not enough time to explore.

Touring was an amazing and exhausting experience but such fun, though with not enough time to explore. In Moscow it was incredible to see the new Bolshoi Theatre and the Kremlin and all the wonderful architecture. The flight wasn’t too long but culturally it was different and, although the people looked European and the shops were European, the feeling was very foreign. Leaving the airport they were stuck in traffic slowly passing huge, run-down grey concrete buildings. In the city there were massive buildings everywhere, but not many people around – a big change and cold! Performances: they did a triple bill of DGV, Tetractys, and Rhapsody. They had a few days to settle in and explore and did class and watched from the wings of the huge stage. When you look into the auditorium from the stage it feels so grand with lots of gold decoration. The first thing Annette noticed was that the audience didn’t clap as ours do (except for Natalia Osipova) and the slow clap sounds strange. Then they did Manon in which Annette felt very nervous. It is amazing but stressful as there’s a lot of responsibility being a Royal Ballet representative on the Bolshoi stage. The audience cheered Natasha who really went all out and was going crazy in Wayne’s piece. She also did Manon with Carlos which brought the house down. He is calm and confident and she’s a fire-cracker on stage so the contrast is amazing and there’s great chemistry between them.

The flight to Taipei was so long. It was very humid and suddenly you felt very far from home as the local people seemed not to be accustomed to Europeans and they were staring and pointing at, and taking photos of the visitors. It was a big culture shock and the people aren’t so used to ballet but on the whole they were very nice. Romeo and Juliet was fun for the corps with lots of acting so not so stressful. Lots of local school students were in it doing small acting bits and really went for it and very much wanted to be part of it. It was a warm atmosphere and Annette’s favourite place.

Audio clip - Haunted hotel!

Reece told a story about the older members of the company saying their hotel in Taipei was haunted. He shared a room which had two double beds with Solomon Golding and the first night he slept really well but when he woke up Solomon’s bed had moved across the room and he asked Reece if he remembered what happened during the night. Reece said no, and Solomon said he was walking round the room and ripping the covers off his bed. Reece had no recollection of that at all and had a great night’s sleep! People were really scared and Annette and Yasmine Naghdi left their lights on all night and barricaded the door with chairs. Then they realised they’d all been fooled.

Shanghai had a very different audience which responded in a different way – instead of clapping and the occasional bravo they actually screamed which was weird when Matthew Golding came out on stage and they seemed to think he was Brad Pitt! They were slightly shocked by the culture. It wasn’t as ‘giving’ as in Taipei and it felt colder and more distant. Stage hands were spitting back stage (normal for them) which seemed shocking to the visitors. It was the end of the tour so they were tired and ate mostly in Pizza Hut. The last night’s show was Don Q with Marianela and Matthew – they really fed off each other and it was an extraordinary performance for any number of reasons.

There wasn’t much time to see things in China though they did visit the hot springs in the Taipei hills from where there were beautiful views, and Elephant Mountain from where you get a wonderful view of the city. There’s a great distinction between very poor and very rich. We see the occasional homeless person here but there they found real poverty. Annette felt bad to be staying in a 5 star hotel surrounded by people who had nothing. Shanghai was different from what she’d expected and they witnessed some disturbing things there. There were a lot of homeless people, there was a guy on a skateboard passing the hotel holding out a begging bowl and a woman tucked away with nothing just being ignored by passers-by. It made Annette very thankful for her city and life style but in the end it was a very important experience, making you more aware of things which she’d seen in films but never before in real life. Ballet is all-important to the dancers but you realise that there are other things outside so it was a big learning experience and good cultural exchange.

 Annette’s really looking forward to Swan Lake which is the first thing she did as a student with the Company… She may regret that after their 20 shows!

This season they are now rehearsing Manon and Scènes de Ballet. Annette isn’t cast in Scènes but hopes she will get thrown on. Christopher Carr is teaching and he is brilliant. It’s very technically demanding with lots of counts. Reece is rehearsing the role of one of the gentlemen in Manon and will be in Frankie Hayward’s debut show. It is a character role but it’s good to be a presence on stage and to be looked at. Annette’s really looking forward to Swan Lake which is the first thing she did as a student with the Company so to come back to it as a Company member is good. She may regret that after their 20 shows! There’s also a full evening of new McGregor work, centred on Alessandra Ferri (she’d been Annette’s screensaver for a long time and suddenly she was at the barre with them) and Roberto Bolle. Reece is looking forward to Alice which he did as a student, and Onegin although he’s not sure what he will be dancing but just to watch is wonderful.

Annette was asked about her favourite choreographer. She said that each new choreographer she dances becomes her favourite. Every choreographer favours a certain type of dancer and just now she loves Balanchine who really liked tall dancers and made movements to suit them, whereas MacMillan’s and Ashton’s works are made for smaller dancers. Watching these works is incredible but dancing them is more difficult. As a student, coming out of the stage door after a performance of Symphony in C she said it was the most enjoyable experience of her life. Annette recalled running out of the wings in such a rush with Gina and three other girls and being so excited, and smiling, and there was so much energy on stage. Everything in Balanchine is extreme. It was great fun, very stressful but on stage it was amazing and afterwards they couldn’t come down to earth and were up till 3am going over every step!

In thanking Annette and Reece very much for talking to us, David said we were very proud of them as our award winners and looked forward to following their careers in the Company. To prove how popular they were a member of the audience had come back from Australia on purpose to hear them this evening!

Report written by Liz Bouttell, corrected by Annette Buvoli, Reece Clarke and David Bain ©The Ballet Association 2015.

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