First Soloist, The Royal Ballet
interviewed by David Bain
Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church,
London, 28 August 2014.
FOLLOWING DAVID'S WELCOME Melissa began by telling us what she’d been doing during the summer. She said that, after the Company tour, she was invited by Robert Parker to go to Elmhurst and dance at the school where she had spent two years as a student. She did the Two Pigeons pas de deux, something she’d never envisaged herself performing, but she loved it and found it, in contrast to her usual roles, feminine and girly. Lesley Collier and Jonny Cope coached her and she danced with Nicol Edmonds who had also been a student at Elmhurst some four years previously. They only had a couple of sessions while on tour to put it together. Elmhurst itself is much the same as she remembered, same building but with several different staff. She then went to Berlin, which she’d never visited but described as gorgeous, and this was followed by Santorini which was absolutely beautiful. Then she got ready for a gala in Mexico City where she danced Giselle Act II with Vito Mazzeo. This again was put together a couple of days before the show which was in a massive auditorium holding about 7,500 people. The show was organised by a young Mexican, Isaac Hernández, now with Dutch National, who is trying to bring ballet back to Mexico. Melissa had the chance to see Frida Kahlo’s house – it was incredible to see how badly she suffered. Last weekend she was in Barcelona to visit the studio of artist and sculptor, Lorenzo Quinn. She’d previously seen his work in a gallery and tweeted that she’d fallen in love with it. He got in touch and there are plans for using her for his next sculpture. He will have an exhibition in London in May and Melissa hopes it’ll be a good collaboration for the next few years. She enjoys variety so looks forward to being an artist’s model. Her body was used as model for the ballerina in the globe high up outside the Opera House. It was an amazing experience to see how the artist measured every inch and element of her body and moulded and sculpted it so it seemed she was looking at her own body.
When Melissa last came to talk to us she had been cast for the following season in Romeo and Juliet and Nutcracker, saying she was very interested in Nutcracker. For Juliet she had a three day crash course with Ed Watson with no stage call. She would always be grateful to Ed, who’d not even been rehearsing it himself, for helping her through an opportunity not to be missed. By the time of the fourth performance on tour Melissa felt it was coming together and she was developing the character as she wanted it to be. It’s important to take from your own life experiences and this helps you feel more comfortable on stage. The portrayal will change according to how you are feeling at the time. If you’ve just fallen in love the balcony scene is sensational. If you dance by the book without relating to your own life you get no variation. After a show if she gets a certain feeling she knows it’s gone the way she wants and when it all works it is the most incredible feeling which keeps you going back to it time and again.
Audio clip - Mayerling and Mary Vetsera:
Another MacMillan role which Melissa loves is Mary Vetsera. She danced it first with Rupert Pennefather and then with Thiago Soares. The first time she was just grateful that Monica had chosen her and she felt the pressure to prove herself. After that there was a lot more freedom and it was hers to do what she wanted with. She also had a run of performances which makes a huge difference and you trust yourself more as you gain experience in the role. Sometimes a teacher suggests things which aren’t necessarily the best for the dancer but as a young dancer you want to please everyone – your teacher, coach and the audience. There was a very different relationship between Melissa and her two partners which is fascinating emotionally and dramatically. In a MacMillan ballet you never know how it will turn out. Initially she danced Mary as a blonde – she wanted to establish herself and for people to know it was her – but afterwards she wore a dark wig as she wanted to be Mary and it worked. She then went dark in real life.
Now she’s rehearsing her next MacMillan role, Manon. When Melissa joined the Company there were two roles she saw and coveted, Rubies and Manon so this is a dream come true. She loves the role but is glad she has already done other things as she now feels ready to tackle it and can’t wait to see how her character will develop on stage. Her partner will be Matthew Golding. They did DGV together and she knew him previously but they’ve only started rehearsing together this week. In answer to a question, Melissa said it doesn’t matter whether or not you know your partner well as it’s all about the characters. Matthew danced Des Grieux in Moscow so has already experienced the role which is nice for Melissa who had just been watching others in the studio.
Melissa was also in Gloria and Las Hermanas, one of many MacMillan workswhich haven’t been seen for some time. It was the beginning of the season and she wore another dark wig. She ended by doing it with two different casts and two very different mothers (Alina Cojacaru and Zenaida Yanowsky) and that altered the energy on stage. Ray Barra came and was a dream to work with. You feed off being in the studio with someone so passionate and inspirational and you feel part of something special. It created a good feeling which everyone enjoyed.
In Gloria, Melissa had done the solo roles so she wasn’t new to the ballet but new to the lead role. It came at a horrid time when a very dear friend had just left the company and moved elsewhere and there was a lot going on in her life so to do the role felt amazing personally and it’s one of her favourite experiences as it was therapeutic to let out the pain and angst on stage. She hated the first show of Rubies as she was exhausted: it was at Christmas which is always hectic and she wanted to enjoy it but it felt awful and she was so upset at hating it so much. It just didn’t feel as she wanted it to feel so thought it was pointless if it wasn’t her idea of how it should be done. She had had a stage call which was OK and so was the performance but that’s immaterial if you don’t like it. Management thought it was great so she must be a good actor! The second and third shows she loved and being with Natalia Osipova, whom Melissa thinks is amazing, and Steven McRae probably helped so she really enjoyed that experience.
She loves working with Pat Neary – either you love her or you hate her – but Melissa knows she’ll enjoy any experience with her. Pat holds nothing back, has great stories and a lot of energy and you have to love someone like that with such a love and passion for ballet and Mr B and you want to get into the studio with her and feed off that. Pat wasn’t there for Melissa’s Jewels shows though she was for Serenade which Melissa really enjoyed on stage – it’s a beautiful ballet especially for the women with everyone running on stage in lovely costumes in which the girls look stunning and you all feel great satisfaction from it.
Apollo is one of her highlights to date and she really got it through others’ injuries. She didn’t know the role well beforehand and always associated it with the male lead and Darcey’s photo as it hadn’t been done since Melissa joined the Company.
Returning to Nutcracker, Melissa said she never felt comfortable as Sugar Plum Fairy. She hasn’t found her own way and she doesn’t feel it sits well on her but she enjoyed dancing with Sergei Polunin and Dawid Trzensimiech. Of other classic roles she’d never thought of doing the Lilac Fairy – such a thankless role. If you do it well it looks like nothing. If you do something wrong it is a disaster as you are centre stage and that wasn’t a good time for Melissa.
About that time she was doing Mayerling and she suffered an injury, completely ripping the middle of three ligaments on the outside of the ankle. She heard and felt something go and thought her dancing career was over, it was so painful but though she was able to walk off and move she knew it was something extreme. She went to the physio and they thought it was a mild sprain. She was advised to have complete rest for six weeks and then only do gentle work. But Raven Girl was coming on and Melissa wasn’t prepared to go off at that time so took a second opinion and had the ankle strapped but dancing with an injury like that it doesn’t sit well with your mental state. She’d just under a year of dancing with a taped ankle so Sleeping Beauty wasn’t a good experience. Melissa has not had a lot of injury, constant niggles but nothing to keep her off stage, but that one was enough.
Raven Girl is a very different ballet which she really enjoyed as a dancer perhaps because she was just glad to be on stage even with a taped ankle. She did the final pas de deux recently in Russia. All the dancers loved it as a work in progress but it didn’t click and wasn’t a critical or box office success. Melissa said that Wayne rarely explains what he’s trying to portray but did say there should be no mime. By way of preparation they did meet the author for a reading. Everything is so personal in art – for one person something can be a failure, for another a success. Wayne keeps things abstract but he looks at the individual and likes to see the work moulded on the person in front of him. So many people have a lazy eye and want repetition but he is open to new and different interpretations. What you see on stage is what he wants as a creator but it isn’t necessarily what the audience wants. It is great to be with, and listen to, someone with those ideas and intensity of focus.
Last season she worked with David Dawson, and previously Alexei Ratmansky and Alexander Whitley who were visiting the company. Choreographers ask for dancers and Melissa likes to be around different people and find out how they tick. Sometimes ego and attitudes get in the way and you wish personalities could be left outside the door so you can focus on what you are doing. When you collaborate with someone who is doing it for the right reasons it is fascinating to work closely with them. The Human Seasons was David’s first ballet with the Company and he felt a huge pressure being back for the first time and put a lot of his pressures on to the dancers. It was a difficult working experience but some of his pas de deux were lovely which Melissa would love to do again some day. The costumes were beautiful too. It was a long working process and came at the end of a very heavy season which included Don Q. In triple bills sometimes dancers are on in all three works but the choreographers expect their ballets to be done as they want. For Alexei’s work Melissa was in the second cast who didn’t know if they were going to get on in the 24 Preludes shows but they landed up doing lots because of injury. Alexei took a long time to create the work and the second cast weren’t much involved initially, and as it was in the same bill as Apollo Melissa’s focus was more on that.
At the end of last season was The Concert. She’d only seen parts of it before and didn’t think she would be in it but it was a role which reflected more how she is as a person – she doesn’t take herself seriously and is always messing around and making jokes against herself – and she had a ball and loved it. It was very brave of Jean-Pierre Frohlich to push and as an artist she’s so glad he did as she felt comfortable making a fool out of the situation.
In Don Q she was Queen of the Dryads. When she won the Youth America Grand Prix she had landed flat on her face as the Queen so it was her biggest phobia and fear. Then it turned out that she was on stage not only for opening night, but also on the DVD and the live relay. In that ballet she was a Queen, as a vision. She has a nightmare of a solo, bizarre and weird. Until you have done it, it is difficult to explain why. She doesn’t envisage dancing Kitri but who knows – the dancers have no say in what they perform. You wouldn’t see half the things on stage if dancers had their choice! But at the end of the day it is a job and a show has to go on. No human being is suitable to do everything, though everybody has their strengths.
Of Chris Wheeldon’s work they have begun rehearsals for this season on Aeternum and she and Eric Underwood have taken Tryst to different galas. She’s dying to do After the Rain. Chris’s work is so good for making the female dancer look beautiful. She danced DGV with Gary Avis and, unless there are any changes, he will be her Monsieur GM in Manon. They get on so well and are great friends too. She feels safe with him and wishes they’d had longer together on stage because she trusts him, but Gary is coming to the end of his career. She was also in the piece which Chris did with Alastair Marriott for Titian. She wore the most beautiful leotard and would love to do a pas de deux in it as it makes her feel like a goddess! The project was a ground-breaking collaboration and a massive success. The dancers didn’t really have a concept of how big it was until afterwards and it would be good if it came back.
This season Melissa will do Symphonic Variations, one of the masterpieces and jewels of the Company. She never imagined being cast and was as shocked as anybody when her name went up. Rehearsals begin in a couple of weeks. Of another Ashton work, La Fille Mal Gardée, Melissa says she doesn’t see herself as Lise. For the moment all she can focus on is Manon so the rest is in the background, but it’s an open book and who knows what may happen. Sasha Aghadzanov and Julie Lincoln are now coaching Manon, though Julie wasn’t coaching for Russia where it was Sasha, Lesley and Jonny. Melissa says Julie will scream if she sees something is ugly but you don’t make the same mistake again or get into bad habits. A dancer can love it but it might look hideous so it’s good to have someone tell you how to make it look good and this is the sign of a good coach. Melissa has a little camera which she uses to record when she’s not stepping on people’s toes. You know your body better than anyone so if you see it you can work out how to improve. A lot of dance is preparation by someone else. Teachers should never say you can’t or will not be able to do something. If they don’t know how to get the students to do something, it reflects badly on them. Great teachers can find a way and are willing to try to make it work. If you have a good rapport it’s a collaboration and creating something is exciting but there has to be a trust between you for it to work.
Melissa’s coach, Masha Mukhamedov, moulded her and made her into the person she was for a number of years because she herself didn’t know who she was. Now Melissa is travelling her own journey and finding herself. She will be forever grateful to Masha for what she did but there is a fine line between being programmed and being developed and coached, and Melissa felt programmed. It’s bizarre how she came to the ballet world and the learning curve is a fascinating one.
What of next season? Melissa would love to do Afternoon of a Faun but after Manon and Symphonic she doesn’t know. The coach for Symphonic is Wendy Ellis whom she worked with on Cinderella when she did Summer Fairy – it’s not left a lasting memory as it wasn’t something she wanted to do. For Manon Julie is going back to what was notated in the original. When you are preparing an old work you don’t know what the original was and a dancer could have done it differently on two different days. Unless the choreographer is there you don’t know what he/she wants. When you work with contemporary choreographers on a one to one basis you are sure of what they want. Melissa would give anything to have worked with the genius Kenneth MacMillan. She tries to absorb as much as possible with current choreographers as in future dancers won’t have that experience. When working on past works you are going by the book and it’s so important to watch as many DVDs of the ballet as possible but in the end you have to be yourself. With MacMillan’s work it’s not just about a movement for movement’s sake and to be able to speak to the audience through movement is amazing. When Julie came to work with them on Romeo and Juliet it was mid season and it’s quite difficult if someone tries to change things at that stage particularly when it’s a work the Company knows so well. With Manon she’ll be starting from scratch which is OK. David said that from an audience viewpoint you could see the differences Julie had made last time. Melissa said the dancers see it from the wings and the audience, who have probably seen it more times than she, get a very different view from the front.
On other MacMillan roles Melissa would love she said she had covered Judas Tree a couple of years ago and would love to do it – she’s really open to anything. She sees reason and sense in his work and likes to be able to play with it and to know the background story. Anastasia would be wonderful to do, also Marguerite and Armand and Cranko’s Tatiana (Onegin) but with these last two she wouldn’t feel comfortable yet as they are roles which Melissa feels need life experience to bring depth and make them more fulfilling.
Turning back to her injury, Melissa said she was no longer wearing the ankle strapped which had become her security blanket. There is an operation to reattach the ligament but she chose to live with it. Last season she was aware that potentially it could give way but the pain was due to inflammation so if you can deal with that there’s no harm to the rest of the ankle.
David said it was always a pleasure to welcome Melissa as she was very open and honest and we were very grateful to her for being our guest and are looking forward to her performances this season.
Report written by Liz Bouttell, corrected by Melissa Hamilton and David Bain ©The Ballet Association 2014.