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    Claire Calvert 2019

    Claire Calvert

    First Soloist, The Royal Ballet

    Interviewed by David Bain
    Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, May 10 2019

    Claire had last spoken to The Ballet Association seven years ago while still a First Artist. That summer, she was promoted to Soloist at the same moment as Kevin O’Hare became Director. So, at the same time as Claire was feeling different because of her change in rank, the Company also had a different feel because of the change at the top.

    Claire was cast as Gamzatti (alongside Sarah Lamb and Thiago Soares) in La Bayadere soon after her promotion and, of course, she had reprised the role (alongside Sarah Lamb (again!) and Ryoichi Hirano) during the 2018/19 season. For Claire, Gamzatti was a wonderful role, embracing, as it did, the very classical Act 1 solo made famous in ballet competitions and the less classical choreography of Act 3. There was also the challenge of judging how to portray the character. Claire had focused on the “spoilt brat” rather than a woman who was inherently evil and wanted to try to show that Gamzatti had feelings too. But, if anything, she had given her a more steely exterior this time round.

    In neither instance had she rehearsed directly with Makarova but had benefited mainly from “the amazing, motherly and helpful” coaching of Olga Evreinoff. As in other instances, for example the MacMillan three act ballets, different coaches sometimes expected different things and individual dancers needed to find their own way through the advice. “After all, you can’t expect a dead choreographer to jurisdict”, added Claire to audience laughter.

    Another of Claire’s roles as a Soloist had been the Third Movement ‘girl’ in Concerto. She reminded everyone that Macmillan had abandoned the idea of a male partner during the creative process and that the role made huge demands on dancers’ stamina. However, especially with Christopher Carr doing the staging and coaching, there was no scope for anything other than a full-on commitment.

    That year also, as indeed in this, Claire had danced ‘second couples’ in Symphony in C. However, before the season ended, she had injured herself in such a way that her cartilage had become detached from her tibia. She was aware that other dancers had had similar problems and had had surgery to re-attach things, but Claire took a slightly different route by which the area was made to bleed so that it would grow new cartilage. She was unable to put any weight on her leg for three months and had to rely on a machine to keep it moving in order that the cartilage didn’t grow too much. In the subsequent six months, the focus had needed to be on re-building her muscles. After nine months off, she could have danced in both Serenade and The Dream the following summer but felt it wiser to wait until her Mercedes in Don Quixote on tour in China.

    After the summer break (2013), The Sleeping Beauty returned to the repertoire and, building on some educational work she was doing with Ursula Hageli (the former Ballet Mistress), Claire asked if she could ‘learn’ the Lilac Fairy. This enabled her to show that, even though the solo is very hard and you can’t feel your legs by the end of it, she had capacity to pull it off and to lend the role the necessary authority. Dancing the Lilac Fairy also brought with it the privilege of working closely with Monica Mason whom Claire could “talk to all day and still learn something new”. She appreciated intense coaching of that kind because it meant that her “cogs were turning all the time”. She had particularly enjoyed a rehearsal with Monica as Carabosse and had also worked with Monica on Lescaut’s Mistress in Manon.

    Her first Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker had been coached by Darcey Bussell who had, in fact, mentioned to Claire that there was always the risk for a ballerina of being perceived in one or other mould – “harlot or fairy”, laughed Claire. But she confessed that the hardest aspect of being a performer was that other people did not necessarily see your potential as you yourself would like it to be seen. Dancers can try to demonstrate the different facets of their artistry to the Director or to choreographers but, ultimately, the decisions lie with them and it is always open to choreographers in particular to use corps de ballet members in preference to someone of a higher rank. At the same time, Claire appreciated that all Directors had the tricky balancing act of continuing to give new opportunities to longer serving dancers while, at the same time, developing young talent.

    For her part, Claire was grateful that she had had the opportunity to play corps or minor roles in a particular ballet before dancing a main part. She also felt that there was value in being third cast or cover in the first instance in order to really get under the skin of the required technique and the characterisation. However, the pattern seemed to have changed of late with some new joiners having no previous School or Company experience of a work before they got a leading role.

    Claire commented that she had now been around for long enough to see the same ballet staged by a number of different people and there was a tendency for them to have different memories of what, say, MacMillan wanted. She thought that, as a result, some scenes had changed quite significantly over time and some had even evolved further over the current three-month rehearsal period for Romeo and Juliet.

    The pas de deux between Lescaut and his Mistress was, in Claire’s view, an interesting example of how the perceptions of the audience as well as the coaches also differed over time. What was thought to be funny many years ago was not necessarily so amusing now and Monica Mason, in particular, gave very clear feedback as to what was, or was not, OK. Inheriting roles which were indelibly linked with their creators carried the added difficulty for dancers of putting their own stamp on their interpretations. In the case of The Queen of Hearts in Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Zenaida Yanowsky had been “hilarious, no matter what she did”. When starting to rehearse the role, Claire had been advised to “do your own thing” but it felt as if, the minute she did so, someone would immediately jump in with a “no, not that”. It had therefore taken Claire a while to sift all the advice and work out what her Queen was going to be like. When she had the opportunity to reprise the role, Claire thought that she was then able to perform with renewed conviction and greater confidence, the reward being that Christopher now really seemed to like her take on the character.

    Claire has missed the opportunity to dance Myrtha in Giselle during the year she was off injured and, when eventually cast, she was unsure as to whether she could get through the testing, long solo at the beginning of Act 2. Peter Wright held strong views as to what he wanted from his Myrthas and that tended to compound the stress of the immense stamina issue. But there could be no greater sense of achievement for Claire than that she experiences when she dances Myrtha and, as the solo comes to an end, she is calling out to herself, “I am amazing!”

    While these kinds of meaty roles were very special for Claire, she said that she had learned over the years that every role was significant – “every one of them would have been a person who was there”, she added.

    Claire had coveted the role of Hermione from the outset and believes that The Winter’s Tale is a truly great addition to the Royal Ballet’s repertoire. She had covered the role initially before being cast opposite Thiago Soares, as Leontes. “It is one of those roles which every female dancer hopes to get”, she said. It was sometimes slightly intimidating to be partnered with someone who is older and more experienced in life as well as in dramatic roles. However, Claire had been Mistress to Thiago’s Lescaut and knew that he was a fine and supportive partner. She had “of course” enjoyed the role, believed that it was a privilege to have been cast in it, and “wanted more”.

    Claire felt that, at an earlier juncture, she had “sort of ruled herself out” from being selected for other new work by Wheeldon, and other choreographers, because there was a concern that she should not jeopardise her knee. However, she had been in McGregor’s Carbon Life.

    Asked what roles she particularly aspired to dance, Claire mentioned that, while she would have preferred to have danced Odette/Odile in Anthony Dowell’s production of Swan Lake, she nevertheless hoped that she might still dance that dual role. She would “of course” love to dance Manon, Juliet and Mary Vetsera but pointed out that Lescaut’s Mistress was perhaps a greater technical test for a dancer than Manon and Mitzi Caspar was far harder technically to dance than Mary Vetsera.

    Referring back to what Claire had said about there being various ‘takes’ on a ballet in the minds of coaches, a member of the audience enquired as to the part played by Benesh notation. Claire replied that some repetiteurs preferred to go by what they themselves remembered whereas, when she was working with him on The Two Pigeons, Christopher Carr was very keen to use the notation in order to get everything absolutely correct. In the case of Romeo and Juliet, the steps remained fundamentally the same but the acting had its variations. In Wheeldon’s Aeternum, Claire thought that there were almost two versions: hers and Marianela Nuňez’s.

    Another questioner asked whether there were any Ashton works which she would like to dance. Claire mentioned The Winter Fairy from Cinderella but her preference was for MacMillan as his work seemed to her to be less dated and she liked its radical feel. The last question to Claire from the audience was whether there was any advantage for students in attending White Lodge. Claire replied that the only way of being offered a contract with The Royal Ballet, especially nowadays, was to have been through the Upper School which, of course, was now training people from all over the world. In conclusion, Claire remarked that she had probably “rambled on too much” but, in thanking her for coming, David assured her that she had given everyone an evening packed with interest and members of The Ballet Association were very much looking forward to following the next stages in her career.

     

    Report written by Linda Gainsbury and edited by Claire Calvert and David Bain ©The Ballet Association 2019