Principal Dancer, The Royal Ballet
interviewed by David Bain
Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, London, 10 November 2015
DAVID BAIN WELCOMED FEDERICO who apologised for not bringing his newbaby to meet us but the timing coincided with feeding and sleep! It had been six years since he was last our guest and 12 years since he joined the company and, having studied in Italy and spending time in two other companies (Zurich and Dutch National Ballet) before joining the Royal Ballet, he now feels it is his artistic as well as his real home as his family are here.
Talking about his last six years, Federico reflected on the many new choreographers he'd worked with. He had done a lot with Wayne McGregor. At one time the Royal didn't do so many new ballets but now it was a regular feature with big, new full-length productions. Some were successful, others less so but that is how it goes. Even Ashton and MacMillan weren't always so successful. From a dancer's point of view you hope and wish you're going to have the next Marguerite and Armand and that's the intention but it doesn't always work. Working with Wayne is very comfortable. Their relationship in the studio is good and he is open to ideas. His last piece for the company was Woolf Works and it was a nice process and good experience. Federico had seen Alessandra Ferri a couple of times live and on videos and as she's older than the rest of the Company it was interesting to observe the different dynamic. In the Company generally they pay attention to and follow what they're told. Alessandra worked in a different way with her great experience and big presence so Wayne was listening to her as much as she to him and that was new. It was a smart move and for somebody with such a career, why not use it? Wayne would say ‘do this or that’ and she would say 'but why?' though not in a disrespectful way! Wayne didn't talk a lot to them about Virginia Woolf and her books and Federico didn't have much chance to read her works as the baby was born about that time. Like many choreographers Wayne didn't follow the story exactly and gave it his own interpretation. He knew the books and said it was important to make the relationships work so they knew what they were trying to achieve. The ballet is a mixture. Wayne gets inspired by feelings and puts them into dance. The Royal Ballet has a good tradition of telling a story and there are many ways to tell a story but the emotions are important so he tells the story of the relationships between the characters. We saw Alessandra as an adult, then her younger self, danced by Beatriz Stix-Brunell, and then the return to adulthood. David commented that it is more a European way of telling a story. Federico said tradition is good and has to be respected and at the same time you move forward and make things in a different way. Sometimes it works and sometimes not but you need to do new works and you need to create the new classics.
This was Wayne's second attempt at a story ballet. First was Raven Girl which Wayne changed when it was revived. The dancers feel and know if things are going well or not. Genesia Rosato said that when Manon was first put on there were mixed reviews and reactions. When you are part of a work you want it to succeed so you put your whole self into it but sometimes you need to be outside to look at it objectively. Federico's first work with Wayne was partnering Alina Cojocaru in the Linbury, making use of a lot of video. Alina said she hadn't done contemporary work so would he please be patient and if you don't get his way of moving, Wayne tries to make it easier for you. He produces ballet as a visual art, almost like an art installation. Asked if he had changed in the way he works over the years, Federico said he remained the same so they create a lot of steps which don't all end up in the ballet. You work for a week on one section and then it gets forgotten. In the beginning it was difficult as he is a very cerebral choreographer switching from A to B and C to A as in mathematics but after a while you become accustomed to his way of creating works. With Raven Girl and Woolf Works you could feel he wanted to tell a story, and put a lot of thought into it while changing things dramatically. When they were creating Chroma in the studio they did bits and pieces and finally put them together with the music which was quite exciting.
Polyphonia was Federico's first work with Chris Wheeldon when he did a pas de deux with Alina. There were a lot of counts and it was quite stressful but since then they have done lots of things including Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and The Winter's Tale. Alice was very successful and wonderful to do but The Winter's Tale was more exciting as, when you get older, you want something less light and more meaty. His role was Polixenes but before they started rehearsing Federico had said he would rather be a Sicilian than a Bohemian! It was lovely to do things against type and he'd like people to see him as an actor as well as a dancer and play different characters in challenging and rewarding roles. Polixenes was fiery and almost gypsy-like and Chris was pushing him to do things differently. As with Escamillo (in Carlos Acosta’s Carmen) it was a challenge and nice to be different. There are differences in the way Chris, with his Royal Ballet and New York City backgrounds, and Wayne tell a story. Polyphonia was very Balanchine but Chris reveals the drama in The Winter's Tale. Wayne works in stages making small pieces and then putting them together, but Chris in more linear and works from the beginning to the end. Federico recalled reading that Balanchine worked from the middle with his pas de deux and then choreographed around them and he thinks Liam Scarlett works the same way in Frankenstein, starting in the middle and then doing a bit at the beginning and a bit at the end.
Liam began working on Federico's role as Victor, the doctor, in Frankenstein about three weeks ago. It is a very good experience so far and they've done a good chunk of his character. You forget how young Liam is as he is so mature. As with most choreographers he likes to choose who he works with so it is a happy collaboration and sometimes you do something which he likes and he puts it into the work. He takes steps and changes them and moves them around so it's an interesting and rewarding process. The older you get the less you want repetition but during the creative process you have to do things over and over again which is more tiring. The score is by Lieberman. They've only heard the piano version so far but Federico likes what he's heard of the music and when he's away from the studio he sings it in his head. For both Liam and Chris music is very central to their work. Wayne sometimes creates steps to different music and switches scores so it is a different process. Liam says he wants to concentrate on the love story but Steven McRae is to be the creature and Federico had seen some of the make-up which is amazing and quite gruesome! There are dark feelings and remorse and a few murders along with way but this is the choreographer doing what he feels passionate about. He has said let's mark that music with 100% bodies and then repeat it with 100% emotions, and it's the first time a choreographer has said that. He wants you to focus on telling the story. It's not difficult to separate the movement from the emotions. You need to think about so many things so you close your eyes and disconnect and it helps to fix the movement in the brain.
Talking of the somewhat negative reaction to Sweet Violets, Federico said that perhaps the story wasn't clear enough. You know the story and you do the steps to interpret what you want to say but his first inkling that it wasn't right came from Hikaru Kobyashi whose views he trusts and she said she didn't understand who he was and what was going on and sometimes you fail to recognise that when you're actually in a piece.
David asked for Federico's reaction to Carlos's suggestion he did both Escamillo and Don José in Carmen. Federico said Carlos is so enthusiastic – says it'll be fantastic and I'll show you the moves and then you can't say no. He's just the same in the studio. It used to be done more often with one person in the two roles and it is great to go back to being an actor on stage. Initially he was a bit type-cast because he does the Prince quite well. He loves doing Romeo but would like to be Mercutio which is something different. You want to be pushed to do other things. Carlos danced both Des Grieux and Lescaut. Federico saw Carlos's last performance and said it was great. But you do have to take care you're dancing the right role because sometimes the same steps are done by the other character! Carmen is a great story and he has enjoyed doing both roles, and listening to comments it's Escamillo which most people like but it's also good to dance the other role with Laura Morera. Whatever the reaction to a production, you always commit to the character and you try hard to find a way to play the character and make it work which he hopes does show. For Federico, Escamillo was hard. Carlos was quite specific about some of the moves but he can get away with it, unlike Federico! You have to be true to the choreographer's ideas but it has to work for you too. After the first stage call he wasn't sure but Carlos said it was fine. He has been in other versions of Carmen – Dutch National Ballet (DNB)'s but doesn't remember that much about it, and Mats Ek's version which he's danced only once but seen many times.
Federico said it would be great to do Lescaut in Manon. After the experience of Escamillo and Polixenes it would be another good challenge. He might not be as suited to the role as to other characters and in this Company you are always working on five things at once but, given the time to concentrate on it properly, it would be good. Mayerling would be great too. Rudolf is a dark character, and it might not be a natural role for him but he would like to do it justice through his acting skills. He has watched many of the shows so is very fortunate and then there are new challenges which are stimulating. Federico thought he'd probably said the same thing to us six years ago!
Asked how you prepare in other companies for the acting side of a role, Federico said he was 18 when he joined Zurich Ballet and his first work was Romeo at 19 so he wasn't very well prepared. It's kept coming back throughout his career and it now feels very natural. The company was very different, with a lot of abstract ballets requiring little acting, but working with Sir Peter Wright the first time on Giselle he told Federico he was doing it wrong because he’s not a nice guy and there's a fault in his character. You definitely learn by watching other people – Jonnie Cope in Mayerling or Johan Kobborg in Giselle. In his first year he watched Johan in Mayerling giving the exploding cigar to the Prime Minister and realised he was portraying just what he wanted to say and Federico was mesmerised by his performance. It is very important for your development of a dancer to watch your colleagues as there's a wealth of experience in the Royal Ballet. He worked with Wayne Eagling at DNB, and it was interesting that some of his corrections in pas de deux were then given by Donald McCleary and again by Johnnie Cope. They all have the similar Royal background and Federico hopes he'll be able to pass on some of that in the future.
It was Wayne Eagling who took him into DNB. He was almost brash but had a lot of passion for the ballet and he told you what he felt. Some of his choreography was more successful than others. In the corps of Magic Flute Federico went on as one of three punks. Wayne was a very nice person to work with in the studio but Federico was only there quite a short time. Now if Wayne sees him performing he says 'very good, but…!'
On Ashton's Marguerite and Armand, since Nureyev only Jonnie Cope and Nicolas Le Riche had done the role. Federico said he was very happy to do it as it's a beautiful ballet. He's always been coached by Jonnie and, although it’s a great role, he didn't get it the first time when he was concentrating more on the steps. He felt happier with his second performance. He had a great partner in Zenaida Yanowsky. It should be coming back in the future.
Speaking of the challenges of Ashton, Federico said he’d done some Ashton work with DNB where Wayne said that Symphonic Variations was the best classical ballet ever, though Federico didn't enjoy it. Sometimes it is the process which makes it different. When he did it here he really fell in love with it. It is very hard but worth the effort. He's found the same with other Ashton works. DNB had been touring to Sadler’s Wells and he saw a rehearsal of The Dream at the Opera House which he had never seen before so had big expectations but was disappointed and found it old fashioned. When he sees it now he really loves it. He was down to do it but then he was injured. It's so well formed as a ballet, nothing more nor less than necessary, not too long and funny and witty and romantic. He feels very lucky to have done so many Ashton works. But The Wedding Bouquet is his favourite though he's never seen it from out front.
The last time Federico was our guest he was in the middle of a period of injury. He had a problem with his shin and a hair-line fracture and something similar to RSI. It's a predisposition and wouldn't go away permanently. The doctor said to take three months off but it didn't work and perhaps he kept coming back too soon. It may have been a stress fracture not understood at the time but now he has a piece of metal in the shin-bone so it doesn't break. Previously the idea of surgery sounded too dramatic but it had been straightforward and he returned after four months and since then the leg has been fine so now he wishes he'd had it done earlier and not lost so much time. The surgeon said don't come back with the other leg! Disappointingly Federico said that it doesn't set off any metal detectors at security checks!
In terms of dealing with injury, there’ve been changes at the Opera House since Federico joined the Company. The new Monica Mason Health Care Suite, a state of the art facility for which a major donor provided the finance, is a big plus. How you approach and manage an injury is a subject close to his heart as injury almost ended his career. Ballet had been done the same way for 150 years but now they learn from sportsmen. It's very complicated as the way the ballet company works isn't the same as a 100 metre sprinter who has two months to prepare for the Olympics and then stops after the Games. You are working from September to July so you need to know how to manage that amount of work. The older you get the more you understand, but the physios and management should ensure that younger, less experienced dancers don’t overdo it. Sometimes injury is resolved quickly, sometimes not, so it needs to be improved. Little by little they are moving in the right direction. When people have an injury they generally go to a physio but sometimes it isn't enough so you take anti-inflammatory drugs, but they can talk to sports scientists or do Pilates to prevent injury to a particular part of the body. Before the damage is done it isn't compulsory to seek support. He started working at the gym because of an injury but continues as it's worth it as a preventative measure and you become stronger and a better dancer. Working by example is good, as people copy you. Every little helps because you want to do the best you can. The average age in the gym is quite young as it is normal for them. When Federico first went he saw Patrick Rump who has quite a body and he said to him ‘if I look like you I’m out of a job’! Obviously he trains in that way but a dancer does different exercises just to strengthen the body.
Looking back over his whole career, Federico picked out some highlights. He mentioned first dancing Romeo aged 19 which was very unexpected. Moving companies when you're so young is nerve-racking and also starting to do big classical productions. Symphonic Variations was a highlight although initially he wasn’t so keen. Of the Balanchine rep he’d wanted to do Apollo at DNB but finally did it here. Romeo and Juliet and Marguerite and Armand are not to be forgotten but he loves new choreography and meaty roles. Alice was probably not his favourite role to play but it was good to be part of the process of the first full-length creation for the Royal in a long time. Also Month in the Country which is so quintessentially Royal Ballet even though he doesn’t get to dance a lot.
How has the Company changed over the past 12 years? Federico said he’d been discussing this with Carlos recently. In the past three years so many people have left and the Company has a lot of young people but that is part of its natural evolution. People have to be nurtured, some come from the school and some from other companies, maybe as principals, and it makes a company strong. People come in and sometimes they themselves change which he felt was his own experience as he saw things differently then. They will miss Carlos as they miss the other great dancers who’ve left but the Company should be strong enough to progress and bring on new dancers.
How has Federico’s role changed and would he like to teach? He said that when he can’t dance any more he wants to be involved in the creative process as it is a passion. He's starting to think of these things. He hopes to go on dancing for a few more years but is trying to prepare in many ways – studying, observing etc. He’s been teaching class in the RBS and around the world. It’s very satisfying to put works on stage and that’s something he’d like to be involved in.
Partnerships. He has danced with lots of different ballerinas and has been very lucky to have had wonderful partners. Some people dance more with the same partner, but this hasn’t been the case for Federico. It’s not necessarily a bad thing as you learn a lot from different people, and partnerships do change over time. A highlight was to dance with his wife Hikaru in Sleeping Beauty. When you are lucky enough to do something together at the Opera House you have all the preparation behind you and then you are on the stage in a beautiful fairy tale with wonderful music. The second act can become a bit repetitive when she goes away but with Hikaru it was 100% genuine! He also loved dancing with Tamara Rojo who’s a very intense person and artist. It was hard with Alina Cojocaru at the beginning as she was demanding in the studio but she’s a wonderful dancer and he then got better with her corrections! Zen has been great and he'll dance again with Laura Morera in Frankenstein. He likes it when you look into your partner's eyes and it’s a conversation and not just execution of the steps. Alessandra Ferri was great. Dancing with the young is a responsibility. Federico recalled when he was young he danced with Miyako Yoshida and a journalist asked why Monica had put them together. Federico didn’t know how to answer but said they were similar height. The journalist asked if perhaps it was because she had more experience and could guide him – a very good point, said Federico! He learned so much in four years dancing with her and he remembers everything she taught him. You take in different things from different people and they become part of you. In Giselle with Hikaru he still recalled things which Miyako had taught him years before and which really work. You want to pass on knowledge to the next generation but you can’t say ‘do this, do that’. It’s always good to be open as the young can teach you as well with their fresh take on things. He did Swan Lake with Akane Takada on her first performance and could help her while learning at the same time.
Questions: Does the metal in his leg weigh a lot or make a difference to his dancing? Federico said he doesn't think so – he tried to weigh his leg without success! It isn't an operation which is done that often on dancers: he knew of two in Japan, and it only worked for one. It wouldn't be the same for everyone but it rescued his career.
What ballets would he still like to do? Federico mentioned works by John Neumeier, Bejart, Ek and Kylian, most of whom unfortunately we don’t have at the Royal.
In thanking Federico very much for entertaining us, David said it was always a pleasure to welcome him and as he could see from the attendance this evening, he has a massive following in the Ballet Association.
Report written by Liz Bouttell, corrected by Federico Bonelli and David Bain ©The Ballet Association 2015