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    Annette Buvoli 2020

    Annette Buvoli & Harry Churches

    First Artist & Artist, The Royal Ballet

    Interviewed by David Bain
    Zoom video conference, September 24 2020


    Following David’s welcome to members at our second Zoom meeting and to our guests Annette and Harry, he suggested they started by telling us about 12th March this year, the last performance of Swan Lake last season. Annette did corps and solo couples in the first act, and lead mazurka instead of the Spanish dance which she was supposed to do but her back was hurting so she swapped. Everyone seemed to know it was the last performance. Marianela Nuñez and Vadim Muntagirov came out at the end of Act IV, did their bow, stood apart and turned around and there was a huge standing ovation and it was very emotional. Everyone was aware theatres were closing throughout the world and Annette felt so appreciative of everyone who showed up. They had amazing support but went off like after any other show and that was it. Harry was doing corps boys at the beginning of Act I, Czardas in Act III and wasn’t there for Act IV as he’d cycled home. They finished on Friday and then had Saturday to Monday off for a long weekend, so some people were going away. On Monday they received an email saying no classes tomorrow and things were gradually getting postponed day by day. They were due to do a double show on the Thursday, so went in and did class just with Téo Dubreuil and Isabella Gasparini. It was weird and wasn’t clear what was happening and the weekend was extended for just another day and then another day, but they thought they needed to keep fit for the shows so did old World Ballet Day classes that Olga Evreinoff and Brian Maloney had done, not knowing that ‘kitchen ballet’ would be reality for the next six months. It was very weird and a week or so after they announced the House was closing, and it was a very sad moment and a bit scary as it had never happened before and they never thought the Opera House would close, joking and saying the shows will go on. Annette spoke to someone in the office to find out what to do and what was happening but the feeling was they didn’t really know. She grabbed leotards and Harry’s shoes and tights and they went home thinking their world was ending which was strange and shocking. After that, the Company very quickly started organising things. Looking back, the process seems blurry as you were in shock and weren’t really aware until you were in the thick of it. Initially they thought of doing their own thing but the Company soon put together a quite extensive programme which was enough to keep them going with a positive mind set so they stayed fit and ready to reopen.  The whole health care team was involved with gym and Pilates, and Brian did classes so it was good to have a routine as it was hard when it was taken away. Before that was organised, they decided to run, perhaps do a marathon so started running in a park nearby but they’ve never been so sore, using different muscles which they quickly discovered so it was quite painful at first but the body adapted. It was similar to the feeling you get after a show, when you’re so tired but there’s endorphin release, and they got that from running, cycling, yoga and generally keeping active. It was weird as, particularly for the girls, when you’re doing Swan Lake you’ve never been fitter and you think your body is so fit so why aren’t you performing? The most ‘ballet’ thing possible is to go from show number five thinking there are another 20 to follow but suddenly there’s nothing and you can’t understand why when you’ve worked the whole season for this. It’s hard to try to substitute some kind of exercise for ballet and make the most of your fitness.

    Where did they do their Zoom classes? There wasn’t a lot of space and Annette and Harry showed us their ‘working area’ - Harry by the washing machine (kicking the bins and fridge) and Annette was using a chair (kicking the wall and the plants) but they figured it out. Brian took three classes a week, and there were various other channels like Dutch National Ballet who were doing a class, sometimes it was Olga and some pre-recorded classes and felt they needed to keep the ballet going. On Tuesdays and Thursdays there was yoga, Pilates and gym, strengthening and conditioning. They’d never really done yoga before but it tied in nicely with ballet movement and kept you calm.

    Annette said that after the novelty wore off, she was thinking about what she’d like to do, if not a dancer? They were worried how long it would go on and how the Opera House would handle the dancers and Company size. She’s always had a passion for the environment, and reading about things on line she found environmental law and thought it would be very interesting. It encompassed environmental factors and a legal degree and Annette decided that was what she wanted to do. She signed up for an eight-week international law course even though they said you had to have some legal knowledge beforehand. She thought she’d be totally fine - as a dancer you’re very disciplined and hard working - and she studied every day for five hours. It was very intense - and for Harry as well! – but this was another level of intensity and struggle.  You have to memorise so much and Annette said she doesn’t have the brain for that so felt like throwing the computer across the room but she has great respect for people who can do it. She has books full of notes but now knows she’ll never be a lawyer. Harry prefers science-related subjects and discovered various on-line courses like Open Learn, the OU’s web access for free courses, and he dabbled in a few to see what was of interest and what he could get into. To make it work he would need to do ‘A’ levels so is about to start studying biology and chemistry through distance education on-line.

    When Kevin came to talk, he told us people were given the option to go home if they wished. Annette and Harry decided not. For Harry it is a long haul to Sydney, he always catches cold on a flight, he has older parents and didn’t want to put them and himself at risk. Then there was being apart for an unknown period of time and it felt wrong to abandon ship as they’d only moved into their flat the previous month so they decided to stay together and battle it out. They were in a new, unfamiliar neighbourhood and everything was disappearing from the supermarket shelves, Harry, the early bird, would go out early, queuing and trying to get the last ingredients that they needed to stock their cupboards! Harry had been home for Christmas and although it was the right decision Annette does feel homesick.

    David asked how they heard about the Hoxton Docks project. Annette was following Chisato’s Instagram account and she was posting pictures of Luca Acri and David Donnelly and others on a stage on the canal and thought it was super cool and she’d love to be a part of it. Chisato was a bit vague but very excited about the venue and wanting to do performances outdoors, so Annette said to sign them up (without consulting Harry) and it ended up like a whirlwind and on the Wednesday they were getting ready for the first show on the Saturday. Annette agreed to do Dying Swan and agreed on Harry’s behalf that he’d choreograph a solo for himself! He’d not done any choreography but was interested and after being sceptical initially he thought why not?  It was an opportunity even though only a short time to get it together. Also, it was strange as there were no restrictions, use any music, dance any style but he just went for it. Chi’s landlord owns the whole the complex of the Potemkin Theatre and while she’d been rehabing at home he asked if she had any dancers or friends who might perform or help put the project together.  Chi said she thought she could manage it so there were people from the Royal and Wayne McGregor’s company. Valentino Zucchetti was brought in as he has experience of managing this sort of thing and his partner is an aerialist so knows a group of circus performers and that was introduced. It was an opportunity not just to do class for its own sake but for a reason. They’d cycle to the yoga studio where they was doing class, the floor was horribly slippery and ridged, but there was space to move around. It was really fun and nice to be a dancer again and make what you wanted it to be with no-one there to say ‘no’, though it would have been great to have a coach. The first performance on the docks Annette was very nervous, but exhilarating once they’d started. Initially they had a fairly small but passionate audience who were very keen to have a live performance, and the response was amazing and gave them a high. (They then showed us a clip of them in a piece created along with Erico Montes which went viral.) When this happened they were driving to the seaside, and saw it had 60,000 views and then the whole project exploded in a good way and went on for three or four weeks. It was nice to have something choreographed on them and they worked pretty well together, though there were moments! They were dancing on a pontoon which shifts slightly on the water so sometimes pirouettes could be a bit risky. Commenting on the video several people suggested Harry should throw Annette into the canal but that didn’t happen. Erico’s piece was created in the yoga studio and the kitchen, and a bit at the Opera House on Zoom, they laugh about it now but it was very different. Royal Ballet dancers are so lucky and only want the best working conditions - nice floors, not to be cold - and suddenly they were creating a pas de deux on wooden planks but Harry thought after the hard concrete of the kitchen anything was OK! It gave them the impetus to keep going and ran till the end of August.

    While this was happening, they had started class in the Opera House, with the studio spaced out and they were divided into many groups and social bubbles and couples. That was getting them back into the building but it was voluntary and of course some people were still away. Some dancers (including Annette and Harry) went in every day, some sometimes, some not at all. Then they had a week off. It seemed time was going so slowly and yet it just disappeared and you thought, ‘how did that happen?’  On furlough they were paid 80% of their salary. It isn’t great but they are incredibly thankful when considering the circumstances around the world with other people and companies, so just to have their jobs is a super blessing. It’s nice to know they still have a dancing home that they’re part of. Annette was talking to her parents who are going back to work in shifts so not seeing everyone at the same time. Annette and Harry have recently started rehearsals but it’s sort of weird going into the Opera House which is empty as they’re missing the back stage crew and the people who worked in the canteen and everybody who makes the place alive. So many people are there normally and now it’s quiet and lacks the buzz. Rehearsing is almost normal though you have to keep your distance, they are doing a great job of keeping it safe with masks and bubbles but Harry finds it annoying with only one teacher in the Ashton Studio, and the others have a camera so you’re watching on a screen, it doesn’t feel you have a teacher there watching and giving corrections. They’re rehearsing Elite Syncopations and Untouchable in a shortened, adapted version. Kevin wants to bring on stage as many people as possible in a variety of pieces. Untouchable is in a grid and the part they’re doing will be easily socially distanced. The stage is so pushed back for it anyway and they can spread it out even further than originally so it’s easier to manipulate than a classical piece.

    Reverting to the beginning of the season, first there was Manon. Annette did the courtesan in the first little number which is really fun and very fast, but she thought she’d end up on the floor and breathed a sigh of relief when she made it! On stage it feels very warm and private, you’re in a little bubble and it’s not a ballet you feel you want to project - you’re in that world with colours and costumes and it’s all happening around you like real life. Harry was doing beggars which is fun and hard but they’re told they have to make it realistic so it’s a good role for acting. Annette did harlots in Act III which is very emotional, and she really appreciates where it’s coming from but when you do 26 shows you want to change something so she painted some of her teeth black and told no-one. She also had an atrocious wig. Harry said it’s all quite stately and then the music changes and you see the girls coming on, and you’re taking each one in. Most of the girls are small but Annette feels she’s like a giant harlot. You don’t smile because that’s not the role but she just looked at people and opened her mouth and they all laughed. It was a very funny experience, probably the most fun ever on stage, and actually worked with the role so Annette took it further including two black eyes and even the staff said they appreciated it. She did every show with Gary Avis, Benn Gartside and Tom Whitehead as her various gaolers. They were very professional and kept it together but it was more the girls who were laughing. David commented on the changes made to Manon over time. Annette’s very first season they toured it to Russia but not at the Opera House. People said it’s different from before but she has nothing really to compare it with. Maybe there were subtle changes made by Julie Lincoln and some discrepancies between the staff and her ideas but Harry and Annette tend to do the work and move on to the next so any changes hadn’t really registered.

    Then they did Sleeping Beauty. There was more fun for Annette this time. Generally, as a tall girl you either do a lot or nothing at all. She did Aurora’s friends which she really enjoyed, and it was particularly nice to be watching Fumi Kaneko doing the live cinema relay and it was special to be supporting her in her big moment. That day was crazy as she was called only three hours before it was happening. Annette also did Florestan, and it was really her first time working with Monica Mason which was so nice. Her attention to detail is amazing – like saying ‘what is your thumb doing?’ She was really incredible and it was a huge privilege to have three hours with her in the studio. She danced it with Calvin Richardson and Romany Pajdak, then Téo Dubreuil and Leticia Dias, and Nicol Edmonds but the casting got a bit mixed up. She was very nervous in the first show but after she slipped, she was then really calm and relaxed. Harry did cavaliers, coming on with a big jump. Also did rats and all the usual stuff. He was covering Florestan but there was a huge line-up of boys so he didn’t get on.

    After that there was the triple bill with Concerto, Enigma and Raymonda when Annette danced Winifred Norbury in Enigma Variations. It was her first solo and was the most exciting thing that had happened to her at the Royal Ballet. Last year was her seventh season and she appreciated why she was made to wait as she had a lot of growing up to do in the Company but by then she felt she was so ready and could make the most of it when it came without being too nervous or self-conscious. It felt like flying so the role has a very special place in her heart and her Mum flew over to watch. There is something surreal about being the only person dancing on that big stage and knowing everyone’s looking at you. Harry said also Winifred is special with an incredible period hair style, and lovely dress and the character so a combination of things. How much did she know about the character? Annette said Isabel Mortimer came in and was fantastic.  She and Chris Saunders helped them but it was strange going from the corps de ballet schedule to a soloist role as it’s a bit more relaxed and they take time to tell you what’s going on and what you can bring to it. Isabel was super helpful in bringing out certain aspects, like cheekiness, of the character and helped Annette imprint herself on the role. Both she and Chris were great.  Harry said the Company loved doing Concerto when your body’s on show and you have to be tight and fit and not go wrong, and he had the minor role of the post-boy in Enigma.In Raymondathey gave a couple of the younger guys the chance to do more of the classical couples so it was good to have that experience on stage rather than just a character dance, and you’re in white tights and showing off in a very regal setting. (Here Annette commented that he looked really good.)

    Then came Coppelia. It was fun, said Annette. She was doing lead peasant girl which was very stressful because of the somersault she had to do with her partners Calvin and Nicol. She’s never been good at them and recalled in her first year at School for Yondering, Mr Pakri literally stood over her and screamed. So, the somersault caused her a bit of trauma. The music is building and it comes to the point when you’re centre stage and the guys do a quick flip and pull out of it but Annette was late and was still upside down when she shouldn’t have been. Coppelia is really fun though it was a strange but welcome change not to be doing Nutcracker. Then Annette unexpectedly got the Prayer solo for which she was down as cover. She didn’t know a lot about the ballet and was a bit disappointed not to be down for Swanilda’s friends. Then Teo said his mum used to do that role and it looked so good. Maybe some people got injured and Annette was told she’d get some shows. She did a stage call which went really well. They paused the music, Annette started and there’s the big stress of the promenade into penché when she felt good and then they stopped the music and she wondered what they were trying to do to her! Anyway, it went well and she got good feed-back and then a few days later was told she’d be doing the cinema relay. It was unexpected and perhaps some of the First Soloists were a bit put out but they were off doing other things and couldn’t be there for the practice filming as well as the actual day so it had to be someone who could do both and it was so exciting though a bit stressful.  Annette’s Dad flew over from the States before knowing she was dancing the role so it was by chance that he was here but he was more nervous than Annette! The night before he was so stressed and didn’t know what to do so she said he just had to sit and watch. It went well and was another highlight in her season.

    Next was Onegin. Harry loves it - the music is beautiful, everything is beautiful, the boys and girls playing cheekily, the jetés across the stage. Annette was partnered with David Donnelly in the second Act where they do a jump and lift and this time they really excelled. For the first time, Annette and Harry danced together in the ball room scene. Also, for the first time ever in Onegin in Act II they made the younger dancers do the old people with amazing hair, make-up and costumes. As with Annette’s Manon, it was some of the most fun he’d had acting on stage just being able to walk around and create and live a character. They got a mention from Reid Anderson and the ballet masters whose eyes were more on the old people than on the dancers! It’s probably the only ballet where the dancers stay to watch the last pas de deux from the wings because everyone has a different interpretation and it’s such an emotional ballet and is so fantastic but they cry every night. Last time David mentioned he’d predicted she would be Tatiana, and Annette said ‘if only’ - that would be a mega highlight but she is so tall that she doesn’t get to partner a lot.

    In Swan Lake she was in the corps and did soloist couples in Act I which are very different so the learning process was a bit overwhelming. They were taught by Johannes Stepanek who was incredible and brought such an energy to it. He was calm and really showed that every step has a purpose and gave them a story line to work with. Annette did a stage call of big swans with Gina Storm Jensen. In their third year at school Annette was in Swan Lake with the Company and remembered saying wouldn’t it be fun to do swans together - it was a dream. At the stage call she looked across the stage and realised it was happening and the two of them were there together. Unfortunately, they didn’t get to do shows. In Act III Annette was the Spanish princess with deceivingly tricky formations and choreography, and she also did the mazurka.

    Reverting to their time at the Royal Ballet School (RBS), Annette said she wasn’t supposed to be there. She went to a Russian school in the USA but came to do summer school here and Anita Young asked if she was auditioning for the school. She said no, she was going to the Bolshoi but would do the audition if they wanted her to. She had been too young but then they lowered the age to 14 so she did the audition and was very relaxed as she wasn’t going to RBS, and then Gailene Stock offered her a place. She’d not planned on that but talked back and forth with her parents and in the end decided to accept. It was a quick turn-around and four or five weeks later she’d made the big decision and found herself in London. It was very exciting and Annette felt quite adult living in Baron’s Court and commuting to school.  It was so nice and she really enjoyed it, but was working very, very hard and looking back wished she’d taken it a bit easier. She continued with her on-line schooling in Colorado, so would go early to the school to warm up, did her ballet classes and then straight home to study so it was really full-on. It was the best training she could have had and was worth the effort, opening her eyes to what was here in Europe and how different it was from the USA. She learned what it means to be corps de ballet and go through the ranks so it was a very valuable part of her education. You can be a star at school but you need to know what to do in a company as otherwise you can upset a lot of people. They also had lots of character and contemporary classes which she hadn’t done before. At the end of the first year she won the BA award. It’s a blur because Gailene said she would move up a year going straight into the third year and then she broke a rib. She has interesting memories of those last two weeks at school because it was a whirlwind but she was in so much pain, and they were dancing on the Opera House stage and then she won the award and was going into the third year so it was a huge explosion of things all happening at one time.  She was very young at 15, and joined the company aged 17 after only two years in the school. Gailene thought she was very mature in the way she conducted herself in dance and life but Annette slightly disagrees. She was mature until she realised how young she was in the Company, she was the baby of the Company for two seasons, and saw people at the school who were acting her age. It took a few years to readjust and grow – to become young and then grow up again.  Today doing class with the apprentices she felt so old, and thought this used to be me! At the end of the third year School performance she took the lead in a new ballet by Mark Annear. Annette has very fond memories of that time. She was surprised to know she was given the lead. It was a dream at graduation to have a big piece made on you and it made you feel on top of the world and was so much fun. At the end of her first year she had a broken rib, and it was only in the summer at the end of the third year that she discovered she’d torn two ligaments in her foot and had a stress fracture. So, for that last performance she was very tired, emotional and drained and was ready to go into the Company but to take a moment before that all happened. From going into third year until the last performance it felt like the ball never stopped rolling.  The third year is so difficult and you feel you’ve always got to be on and, as the runt of the class and perhaps not the most talented, Annette felt she had to work ten times harder but it does pay off. The memories of that last show were amazing but she was ready to have a break as her foot was really painful, she could barely plié and she thought it had been so much fun but needed time before embarking on the next chapter.

    Harry joined the RBS from Sydney where he went to the Alegria School of Ballet, the same school as Steven McRae where there was always a good group of boys and RBS was always their goal. He did competitions, including the Alana Haines Australasia Award where he did quite well and it was there that he first met Gailene Stock who chatted to him and could see the potential, but Harry was very new to ballet at that stage and he wasn’t quite ready at the age of 14. He was full time at his school who sent auditioning DVDs to various European schools, and RBS said they’d like to have him but could he come over and see them?  The year had started and he came in October for two weeks in what would be his class, enjoyed it and chatted to Gailene who said come when you can. It was agreed he’d go home and finish his year which is December in Australia. He had applied for Prix de Lausanne but Gailene said why, when your goal is here? So, he came in January to start in the second term of the first year. It was a bit of a difficult beginning as his year group had already made friends and moved in together, also there was no space at Wolf House and he stayed with the second years so socially it was a bit difficult to integrate but they were lovely people and that was his start at RBS. It was Mr Pakri’s last year and he gave them the best training and that’s where Harry realised the potential of the RBS – whip you into shape and let’s get the boys strong and ready to go - so they worked really hard that first year and it set them on a good course. In the second year they had David Peden and started getting a taste of working with the Company. Harry did the Ursula Moreton and Lynn Seymour awards so there were opportunities to choreograph and show yourself as an artist. During his first year there was a situation with casting and Harry was given the lead in Daphnis and Chloe. It’s such a whirlwind ballet, a lot of fun and it was a huge surprise but it made him feel he was on the right track. There was quite a hierarchy at the school. In Gailene’s time the years were segregated and there was a level of respect which was quite scary! At the end of his second year Harry won the BA and Leanne Benjamin awards. Harry said that was wonderful. He’d heard of Leanne and had seen her dance but didn’t know her so when she chatted to him one day and he heard the Australian accent he thought ‘I’m home, but who are you?’ and then he realised!  In the third year you’re getting your CV together and talking to the staff about companies you’ve researched and think would suit you and they give a realistic view of what you should be going for. It’s a fine line because they want to hint to the students if they think Kevin would be interested and particularly if you’ve been working with the Company they don’t want you to take a job elsewhere if there’s a chance of joining the Royal or BRB. Harry had auditions in Stuttgart and Norway, and was about to go for a weekend to Berlin, Dutch National and others. He booked flights and hotels and the Thursday beforehand Kevin asked to see him. It was the first year of the Aud Jebsen apprenticeship programme, and the issue for Kevin at the time was he didn’t have enough contracts to offer but through Aud Jebsen he could take Harry and five others which was a huge relief. They were working a lot with the Company and didn’t have to go around the world where you are one of 150 dancers trying to be noticed among the sheer volume of people but it’s tough when your class-mates come home disappointed. If you have an Aud Jebsen contract there’s another year when you’re still not sure of your future but there is a probation period and your first year as an artist is also probationary so you’re on your toes and working hard. They did wonder if all six of them would be taken and luckily they were all given contracts. Harry feels Kevin is structuring quite a young company and they are now some of the oldest of the young generation. Annette said she looks at them and wishes she had the same amount of energy!

    Harry represented the Company in the Erik Bruhn competition in Toronto in 2016. He danced with Chisato and it was an incredible experience. Their first season with the Company they went to Japan, dancing in five cities. Touring with the Company is a whole other story – it’s wild - but their last night in Tokyo, Kevin called him in and told him the next year he’d be doing the Erik Bruhn competition which happens periodically and it sounded like a real opportunity.  There was discussion on what classical rep they’d perform and Kevin asked Calvin, who Harry shared a flat with at the time, to choreograph a contemporary piece. He also did a gala in LA which was very interesting. He went home for the summer and came back when they decided on the Swan Lake Act III pas de deux. He was enjoying it but there were certain elements Chi didn’t feel comfortable with so they decided on Sleeping Beauty Act III instead. They were working with Alexander Agadzhanov and it was like a principal rehearsal schedule on top of the corps de ballet. It was Harry’s second season so it was like diving in the deep end and going from beautiful rehearsals being coached in a pas de deux to something like the Fille reaping dance. A funny mixture but it made Harry feel he was progressing as an artist. He loved the two-month rehearsal period but by the end they were struggling to keep it fresh and they had to find the initial spark again when they went to Toronto and gave their best performance. It was a three-day trip and Brian Maloney and Kevin went with them although Calvin couldn’t go – there were dancers from Royal Ballet, ABT, Hamburg, San Francisco and National Ballet of Canada. They had rehearsals with other competitors and it was good to meet people in similar ranks from other companies and discuss their various lives. It was very interesting because they are different worlds and structures. They didn’t win but felt very privileged to be part of it. They did feel some of the dancers were a bit ahead of them and were used to doing solos on stage in front of a packed audience so it was a bit scary but an honour to be there.

    One of Annette’s interests is painting. It’s a personal venture. Hating law, she needed to do something artistic that she loves and she’s always doodling. She was listening to a podcast of an artist she was following on Instagram who said you should create something every day. Her Mum was really into art so it was always part of her life but she never had time to do it.  You can be free as an artist and it’s so much fun painting so instead of five hours on law she spent that time painting little post-cards. She created a website (which was very hard) and made some sales. The site is Annette showed us some of her work – a tribute to Rosa Bader Ginsburg and some of Marianela who’d asked Annette to interpret her favourite roles in portraits including Month in the Country and Tatiana in Onegin. The hardest part for Annette was making it into a little business as normally dancers don’t sell themselves but she’s had a few commissions and it’s a fun way to express a different side of her creativity and it feels natural, unlike the law!

    David thanked Annette and Harry so much for joining us. We are always very proud of our award winners and last season in particular it was wonderful to see Marcelino Sambé promoted, the first of our award winners to become a principal, so we look forward to Annette and Harry following in his footsteps. We look forward too to seeing them on screen on 9 October and of course to being able to see them live when we can return to the Opera House. Annette and Harry said they love chatting and in some ways it’s more relaxed than in the church though Annette likes having a mike which is better than speaking to a laptop! Reverting to the pontoon dancing, after it went viral there were so many people coming to watch, not social distancing, residents were complaining and it got out of proportion and the police closed them down which seemed unfair and frustrating.

    Report written by Liz Bouttell and edited by Annette Buvoli, Harry Churches and David Bain.

    © The Ballet Association 2020