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    Anna Rose O'Sullivan 2021

    Anna Rose O'Sullivan

    Principal, The Royal Ballet

    Interviewed by David Bain
    The Royal Ballet Upper School, Wed 22nd Sep, 2021 


    After David welcomed Anna Rose to our first live meeting since the pandemic started, she began by telling us about performances at Athelhampton where she danced Rhapsody pas de deux with David Donnelly and Chroma pas de deux with Leo Dixon. It was lovely to be dancing in Dorset again and ultimately to raise money for the arts. The idea came about last summer, was very successful and it was so exciting to be performing again with a live audience and having the chance to dance with friends in the open air and to raise money at the same time. It was a pleasure to perform and have that live energy of an audience which is irreplaceable. The streaming was good but as a dancer you really miss feeding off the audience and their response. Sometimes on-stage things happen unrehearsed and you share something in the moment with the audience. They were cut off in many ways during lockdown – it was like a military operation - but things are now feeling more normal around the House so, while they’re being very careful, wearing masks, testing etc, they are allowed to remove masks in the studio which is wonderful.

    Since coming back in August, they opened with Romeo and Juliet though Anna Rose’s shows aren’t until January. They are currently rehearsing Wayne McGregor’s new work, The Dante Project, so it’s very intense but exciting. There’s a real hunger for new work and coming back to live audiences makes it doubly exciting. She is Dido and also dances in another part of the ballet and it’s great to revisit something which was created a couple of years ago. They premiered the first part in Los Angeles when it went down really well, with Tacita Dean’s artwork and gorgeous music.  This is a narrative ballet though the movement is quite extreme - it’s not really classical but has an interesting story line within The Dante Project so there’s characterisation of her story of Dido and Aeneas. Anna Rose always tries to have that in mind when learning the steps to give them meaning and at the moment she’s really enjoying creating that interpretation in modern ballet and finding that voice so it will be interesting to see what people think about it.  They have had a really clear understanding of this story, working with Wayne and his team, but it’s also up to the dancers to find their own story within it. With a neo-classical ballet Anna Rose tries to find her own story within it as personally she finds that more enjoyable. Even if there’s no story to read and prepare, she likes to create a dialogue with her partner within the movement – what are our bodies saying, what do the movements mean, what are the audience reading into it? It’s still open to interpretation, but they know what they’re trying to express.

    The other new full-length ballet this season is Chris Wheeldon’s Like Water for Chocolate. They started on it last season: it is really exciting and completely different in style and concept, and they’ve had meetings with the production team and know it’ll be really fun. It’s very modern which could be a classic of this generation in the Royal Ballet, and there was a sense of that around the building when they were working on it. With Chris’ ballets you can forget you’re dancing as it becomes very human, and working with him and all the characters you felt like actors working on a play. A lot of importance is placed on setting the scene so when the pas de deux come on, you know what is happening. The story is really beautiful and it should work very well as a ballet with the story transferring into movement. We might be advised to read the book before seeing the ballet, said Anna Rose, but that’s up to the individual. As a dancer she wants to know the story line for her character so you know how to react to others around you when dancing with them as well as in your solos.

    In the 2019/2020 season Manon came first. Anna Rose was one of the two girls at the beginning. It was the first time she’d done the role and it’s always fun dancing with props. It’s such a beautiful ballet, she looks at the lead role as a dream for her. Then came the Concerto programme, completely different in style, needing lots of stamina and she did the principal couple in the first movement for the cinema relay and then a lot of shows. It’s great fun but there’s no set or scenery to hide behind. It’s music, lights, action! Exciting to perform, but incredibly tiring. You’re without legs at the end but you feel such an achievement.. In Enigma she was Dorabella which is fun, again a completely different role with quick footwork and requiring a different sort of stamina. It’s interesting how different styles tire the dancers. You have to learn to navigate your energy in various roles to give importance to all the choreographer’s requirements.

    Of other Ashton’s works Anna Rose was most recently in the excerpt from Fille which was fun and she was dancing with Marcelino Sambé who is a great friend. It was their first performance for a live audience after the pandemic and was also streamed and they felt like caged animals let loose! It’s a military operation to put on a show. They were sitting down in isolated pods by the stage, when it was your turn you took off your mask and went for it so it was very bizarre. She and Marcie really trust each other so went out to have fun and enjoyment which everyone needed at the time. She’s looking forward to doing the full length one day. Ashton’s work is incredibly challenging and very athletic but disguised. Some roles are pretty and cute with bows in your hair and frilly costumes but inside you have to have grit and strength and a lot of athleticism which requires lots of training.

    Asked about the differences in preparation for Ashton and MacMillan works, Anna Rose said for each role there are challenges but they are all so beautiful. She is doing Juliet this season and with MacMillan it’s more about the partnering and moulding with your partner. His pas de deux are not standard works but more like a jigsaw. You have to trust your partner and really let go. It’s about weight placement and you need to find ‘grooves’ in each other and bend your body to make the shape and line. To be the character you have to have confidence in each other. There are many similarities between these two greats, but it depends on the ballet so it’s hard to make a general comparison. People talk of the Royal Ballet style, but these are two very contrasting choreographers. Anna Rose feels it’s about the interpretation of roles and the dancers’ voices within the choreography. They are lucky to have had those incredible choreographers and perform their works which everyone around the world wants to put on, and with the new generation of dancers it’s exciting as there will be a fresh approach, honouring the past while moving with the times and seeing different interpretations.

    In 2019 there was Sleeping Beauty. Anna Rose has done most of the roles except for the Prince and Carabosse! As a classical ballet it has everything. She really enjoys it and it’s given her a lot of opportunities. There’s no hiding in the ballet and, like most dancers, she feels it’s the epitome of a ballerina’s test of nerve, endurance, artistry, technique. When you think of the famous Rose Adage you think of Margot Fonteyn and when it came time for Anna Rose to dance the role she couldn’t believe she’d been given the chance and was so excited. It was the first ballet she had seen as a child and it was her idea of a ballerina, so to portray Aurora was a wow moment. Many wonderful dancers have done it before so there are a lot of references but you have to find what you can bring to a role. You go out onto the stage as a 16 year old at her party with such an abundance of energy, the challenges after the entrance are quite virtuoso and very jumpy, and then you have to calm it down. You need the endurance in your legs, you’re holding the balances on one toe while being a princess and looking like you’re enjoying it! You’re thinking of a lot of different things but you’re also telling a story. Lesley Collier and Monica Mason coached her which was a huge honour having those wonderful artists’ input into the role. It was exciting and altogether eventful because for the first show she didn’t have her partner, James Hay. Kevin said you’ll always remember your Aurora debut because unfortunately your partner’s ill so Matthew Ball will be dancing with you today - she thought wonderful, but not wonderful as she had a half hour to get the partnering together with someone else. You spend so long creating a bond with your partner and changing at the last minute in such a ballet is daunting. It was gutting for James after all their hard work though they did do another show. But it was incredibly special to dance it with Matt as they’d been at school together from the age of 11 so she really enjoyed it and he was a great, supportive partner. There are challenges to working with different partners: it’s about rehearsing as everyone has a different weight placement so you have to find your rhythm with somebody and it’s not always easy if you change at the last minute. Anna Rose feels very at ease with Matt, it’s hard to articulate but sometimes you can’t put your finger on why the chemistry works. It’s a constant learning process for both people and you have to have full trust in your partner so you’re able to let go as you know you’re supported. Her other roles in Sleeping Beauty are Songbird and Golden Vine fairies, Aurora’s friends, white cat, Princess Florine etc. During the prologue Anna Rose watched her friends from the wings. People were surprised as she was so calm but it’s enjoyable watching from the beginning so you feel really part of it, setting the tone and bringing a positive energy which is good.. It’s important to come into the ballet supporting her friends and colleagues and they do the same for her. They’re together as a Company, producing a show, so there’s the backbone of people around her and then it’s Anna Rose’s responsibility to do her part. If you’re giving good energy and good vibes it’s reflected and that’s what she enjoys. Watching and eventually warming up seemed to calm her down. She doesn’t like to over-think things - the rehearsal process is the time to do the hard work so in the show you rely on your natural instincts. David asked if the Princes also wait in the wings. She thinks everyone is different but more often they are having their hair and wigs done. Some people like to run the ballet just beforehand but Anna Rose does that in the run-up but then treats the day itself is normal so the legs and energy are there to go out and give it her best.

    Coppelia was exciting and interesting. Normally some Company members know a ballet and help you but this was new for everybody so they all learned together which was a really special journey. It’s challenging, looks cute but is very tiring. She really enjoyed Swanilda, dancing with Marcelino, and it was around Christmas time which was fun. Christopher Carr was working mostly with the group dancers and they had Leanne Benjamin and many other voices to help them though Anna Rose was mainly coached by Lesley Collier. It was important as couples for them to find their own interpretation. It’s also interesting to watch your colleagues because it’s a very funny ballet and every dancer has their own comic timing. It’s clever choreography, intricate in style and a joy to perform. She rehearsed with many Dr Coppelius’. With Phil Moseley it was so much fun, as they know each other well, so performing with him is a genuine laugh. You feel mean and mischievous so she often felt she had to apologise to him.

    Onegin. She performed Olga in that beautiful ballet and hopes to do Tatiana one day. It was an honour to do, and enjoyable working with Joe Sissens to stunning music, with its very poetic movement, and finding characterisation of the role. She enjoys the process of delving into the character to take the narrative forward, reading the book, talking with fellow characters about how to portray it. With Joe they first learnt the partnering so they felt comfortable before discussing what the movement meant, what they were portraying, what age they were and how to express youth and sorrow in the movement. You’ve done all the preparation but sometimes when you get on stage someone does something different and you have to react so the surprise aspect is quite fun. They were cast with Federico Bonelli and Yasmine Naghdi so a great team and Kevin coached which made it special. At the beginning Reid Anderson helped with the partnering which was great especially for the guys to have a male voice to explain what you have to do to make the positions work.

    Dances at a Gathering. Anna Rose was Apricot. She enjoyed the ‘giggle dance’ with James Hay which is another number which is quite upbeat but repetitive and hard on the muscles, and they did it for the cinema. It’s really special at the end when you’re together with all your cast members. Anna Rose recalled she’d just found out she was going to be a principal next season and at the final reflective moment looking into the audience she felt quite emotional. It was a great time to perform that ballet with her colleagues and have the energy and support around her.

    The previous season they had Swan Lake which was cut short but Anna Rose did manage a couple of pas de trois shows before the pandemic hit. It’s wonderful to come back to and she is really looking forward to her debut as Odette/Odile. She’s started training, not for the dance but for the endurance, and loosening the shoulders to become a swan and make a break in the line.. She and Marcie send each other videos of the greats of the past, reflect on how they performed, take what they want and then find their own interpretation. She didn’t start preparing Odette in 2020 as that role only came to her this season.

    The pandemic was very challenging for everyone and they mostly did their training on Zoom. The Company were really supported – they had ballet class, Pilates, strength conditioning, yoga and many of them learned to cook and were able to spend time with the family but it was quite difficult as they missed the stage so much. After a while the postman on his rounds got used to seeing her with her leg up high, doing leaps and trying not to crash into her parents’ white walls! She was working on technique which was challenging in a small space. All the dancers were sent lino to work on and with Zoom they saw into everyone’s homes and got to know their animals! They are very close anyway but became closer for moral support and when they came in to do the streaming it was so exciting. The pandemic did give them the chance to explore other avenues. Anna Rose worked with Emma Flett on a video based on the Juliet text, and work involving a couple of other Royal Ballet dancers so she was open to collaboration.

    She came back to do Fille in the gala, the Tchaikovsky pas de deux, Within the Golden Hour and Dances at a Gathering at the end. In the summer she did some film work which she really enjoyed, as working with people with different skills and different artists helps you as a dancer. There was a chance to take in very different art forms during the pandemic. She watched shows and films a lot and found things to draw on so used her time wisely.

    At the end of last season Anna Rose did Apollo for the first time which was great with Pat Neary in town. It was wonderful to do a ballet which is up in the gods of Balanchine’s work. Pat’s amazing with so much energy, wherever you are you can hear her counts, clearly giving instructions and she’s still dancing which is inspirational. She knows the style, and you can’t get away with anything so it’s a challenge but by the time you’re on stage you feel so prepared as she’s done it all. She’s great fun and has infectious energy. Each of the three muses has a different nuance and flavour. It’s quite empowering to dance though Anna Rose wasn’t Apollo’s chosen one, they call it Destiny’s Child!. It’s a very powerful trio as he’s in the middle surrounded by women, each bringing a different quality while almost supporting him. Her particular challenge is using the mouth with the movement and to make that visible out front while on pointe in an arabesque. Pat really showed it and the timing which is so important, how you hit a balance, hips back or forward and slightly off pointe and leg muscles really working to make that shape. With Balanchine you should never be safe, and Pat makes that clear - dance big, go for it and eat the stage in the fish-dive!

    Voices of Spring is another lovely little number. Marcie was her partner, coached by Chris Saunders. It was the first time for both of them so they’ll grow into it together. It’s very smiley with petals but very technical, being held above someone’s head by one hand, and in the end you’re very tired. Timing and coordination are very important as it’s so fast and you’re changing weight distribution but they felt they were bringing joy into the programme.

    Her big break was probably Cupid in Carlos Acosta’s’ production of Don Quixote. It was her first featured role. It wasn’t done on rank and Carlos saw something in her, supported her and gave her chances. She also did his gala with a couple of other dancers. Carlos is an amazing personality, so warm and enthusiastic and put everyone in good spirits so they were willing to work when he was creating the ballet and everyone wanted to do it well for him.  It’s one of his famous roles so a great ballet to put on. The energy of working with him really counts and the process of putting on a show was lots of fun with him.

    Her other first featured role was Clara. She’ll be doing Nutcracker later this year and will debut as the Sugar Plum Fairy which she’s looking forward to. She was just about to perform it when, the day before, after all the hard work lock-down happened again so it was gutting and there was no filming either. She’ll also be revisiting Clara. Sugar Plum is another feat to tackle and a dream to perform. She’s done Clara a lot, it was her first narrative lead and each time she’s developed the character. It’s useful to have a younger sister, now aged ten, and uses her as a reference and how she feels at Christmas. Anna Rose loves Christmas which is a big event in the family so it’s a joy to perform at that time of year. A beautiful role which gives you lots of opportunity to act, holding the stage. You’re there from beginning to end whereas the Sugar Plum is only in the second act but the solo is so long and you have to be on sparkly form. For her debut as Clara, Peter Wright was around more and he was really sweet with his help and guidance. Anna Rose and Marcie are shortly doing a talk for the London Children’s Ballet. She’d performed with them when she was nine as the Little Princess at the Peacock Theatre. It was great, holding the stage in the West End, having to act but having fun with friends and really going along for the ride. They worked with Vanessa Fenton who choreographed the piece and James Wilkie was there, both former Royal Ballet dancers which was very special. Gailene Stock saw Anna Rose in a show and encouraged her to audition for the Royal Ballet School so that was the starting point for the rest of her career.

    Prior to that, a talent scout came to her old dancing school, when she also did a bit of singing, and was put up for a couple of musicals, Chitty Chitty Bang Bangat the Palladium at the age of seven, and Cosette in Les Miserables.She’s always loved musical theatre and at the age of 16 reached a crossroads and would have gone down that route if the ballet hadn’t worked out.  She goes back with cast members to watch Les Mis,which has been around for so long. Who knows, she might return to it one day but now just enjoys singing in the shower. She thoroughly enjoyed musicals and it was a wonderful experience to have been in the West End and at that young age you have no fear and she thought nothing of it. Anna Rose recalled having a black eye in the show and her mother had to calm her brother down when he was saying ‘leave my sister alone’. She fell into the part and her parents supported her as they always have.

    The Royal Ballet School was very different but so exciting because it was a dream come true as she saw it as the first step to becoming a prima ballerina with the Royal – it wasn’t quite Hogwarts as she’d imagined but wonderful!. Anna Rose went through the whole system from Junior Associates, White Lodge and Upper School and got her contract with the Company a couple of months into her graduate year. Gailene called her and Marcelino into her office and said there is good news and bad news. They thought they must have done something awful when she said the bad news was they wouldn’t be in the end of year show, but the good news was that they were joining the Royal Ballet the next day! It was so exciting and they performed Rhapsody at Buckingham Palace that evening with Matt and the following day they were in the Royal Ballet Company. Gailene was really responsible for all this – she saw talent in Anna Rose who only wishes Gailene could be here to see her now as she was such a big part of her career. A wonderful person who saw so many dancers into the Company and has left a remarkable legacy. Anna Rose had won Gailene’s award for most promising student, and in 2011 she won the Young British Dancer of the Year award which Gailene introduced.  It was a great opportunity because they did no competitions at White Lodge. She enjoyed getting on stage with other dancers and with a bit of pressure so it was good training. The winner had always become a principal in one of the Royal Ballet companies and this inspired her next few years at school. It was wonderful to be nurtured in that way and YBDY was a joyful experience when everyone had fun. David mentioned that in Monica’s time she wasn’t keen on competitions but since becoming a judge she sees the merits. Anna Rose didn’t think of them as competitions but more the chance of performing which she loves, and learning not to have a fear of the stage so any opportunities are good.  At school the artistic subjects always appealed more than others though her parents encouraged her to work on the academic side. When she was young she did dip her toe in the choreographic water and then she was too busy and working hard but may go back to it as she dabbled with ideas during the pandemic and it’s another extension of being an artist. She loves working on new projects and has done several Draft Works in the past but recently not so much as she’s had a busy schedule and you need to give the choreographers time.

    Questions from the audience:

    Is Chris Wheeldon’s new ballet modern as the book is set in the 1940/50s? Without giving too much information, Anna Rose said his movement is hard to explain but will become clear when you see it. It’s a beautiful story and as a dancer the movement makes you feel like an actor working on a play. All she could say is it’s similar to the film in its approach to story, time and style.

    Alice: she performed at the last minute with Stephen McRae. Chris has a very naturalistic approach. There are motifs where you can differentiate the characters because of the movement. He is really good at expressing emotion through the steps and movement quality. In The Winter’s Tale, Ed Watson could articulate his inner thoughts, imagining what is happening. He has an incredible way of putting his brain into the studio and dancers just understand it and he’s also open to collaborating with them. He’d dance with them, and if they did something he liked he’d say carry on with it. He is fun to work with, an inspiration, and he’s done some incredible work and his choreography is theatrical which she particularly enjoys..

    What ballet would you like to be in? She loves so many ballets but Romeo and Juliet is one of the tops. She’d loved to work with Jiri Kylian and do more John Cranko but can’t pick one as there are so many. A great wish would be to have a ballet made on her - that would be a real honour.

    Would you like to have been one of the dancers in London Fashion Week? Yes, Anna Rose said she’s always open to new things, likes to see what is out there, and bring it back into ballet, and she loves fashion. If there’s a gown involved, she’s up for it!

    Anna Rose had said she supports fellow dancers on stage but do they talk to each other? Within reason, she said, but you have to be professional. During one Giselle, a giggle went down the line, wonderful but also an awful feeling when you try not to laugh and feel the tension in the abdominal region.  You have to be careful, but it’s easier in narrative works.

    David gave Anna Rose our big thanks saying it’s always wonderful to talk to her and she’d given us a fascinating evening. Everyone was looking forward to Dante and her Juliet and other performances coming soon.

    Report written by Liz Bouttell and edited by Anna Rose O’Sullivan and David Bain.

    © The Ballet Association 2021