Itziar Mendizabel 2020
- Denilson Almeida Afonso
- Sir David Bintley
- Annette Buvoli
- Harry Churches
- Jessica Clarke
- Jonathan Cope
- Helen Crawford
- Melissa Hamilton
- Dame Monica Mason
- Itziar Mendizabel
- Yasmine Naghdi
- Kevin O'Hare
- Hanna Park
First Soloist, The Royal Ballet
Interviewed by David Bain
Zoom video conference, October 21 2020
The evening started by going back the beginning, and how Itziar started dancing. She lived near San Sebastian in Northern Spain in a small fishing town. It was a small town, and she went to the local school, like ‘all the little girls in town.’ She had a brilliant teacher for the basics. They followed the RAD syllabus. As Itziar got older and more eager, her teacher suggested she would have to go away to a more vocational school to continue her training. She told her parents she wanted to go and do this from the age of 11 and went 600km away to Madrid when she was 14 years old. She went to the Victor Ullate School. The training was very different, and would happen from 9am – 12pm, and 5 – 9.30pm. This was a big change from doing an hour a day or week. She was suddenly in full time training. Itziar’s parents were teachers and were keen that she continued her academic education. So she signed up for school at 9pm, and the intention was to study this way, but the reality was ‘I was exhausted!’ She postponed her school studies to focus on the ballet. The best schools are private ones, and it is ‘a choice you have to make.’ If Itziar had gone to the conservatoire, she would have learned a wider range of styles, such as Flamenco and Spanish, but this isn’t ideal for a professional ballet dancer. She wanted to focus on classical ballet, so went with Victor Ullate. Other dancers who trained there included Lucia Lacarra, and Tamara Rojo. Itziar took the risk, and stopped academic studying.
Highlights included being surrounded by these incredible dancers. You are constantly watching and learning from them. You have your friends, yet you’re on your own in a big city, so there are hard moments as well. You are on your own, yet you have your independence. If you were good, you got into the company. There was no set graduate year as such. You could do school and company work combined for 2 years. It was incredible to have that chance. Itziar performed in Don Quixote, Giselle, and ballets by Balanchine and Hans Van Manen, which were ‘technically really challenging.’ It was great to have the chance to perform when she was so young. Itziar performed in The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude when she was 19. There were some jealousies within the company. Victor had very young dancers, and Itziar suffered the envy, jealousy and conflict a lot, as she was one of the youngest. She was pushed a lot. The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitudewas a real highlight of her time with the company. Her first show was going on as a Dryad in Don Quixote on tour. She felt she was ‘like Bambi’ on stage, as she was all legs, without quite having the strength yet, but feeling that she’d made it as a professional dancer.
Itziar then left Victor Ullate’s company. She auditioned for, and went to Zurich ballet. At the time Itziar left the company, they were losing some of the repertory, and doing more of just Victor’s choreography. She wanted to do other choreography as well. Heinz Sporli was director in Zurich at the time; another choreographer. He was a difficult character, and ‘not the most approachable director,’ but Zurich allowed her to see how a big company and theatre works. There were great working conditions and terms. Itziar had some great friends there. Other choreographers would come to choreograph, and want to use her, but Heinz kept her at soloist level in his ballets. He wouldn’t push her to the next level. You have to see if a director has a vision for you. She appeared in Cloudgate Companyballet as smoke. It was ‘a beautiful piece.’ She appeared in a Forsythe piece as well. Itziar wants to be exposed to different choreographers and styles, but found she was doing more and more of the same things. It was another reason to leave. She then auditioned for the companies in Munich and Leipzig. Munich offered her a corps de ballet contract. She worried she’d end up just doing corps work because of her rank. Itziar felt an instant connection with the director Paul Chalmer at Leipzig and he was ‘so excited’ to have her there. She was offered a soloist contract straight away. ‘I knew he would push me.’ He came to watch her in Oneginrecently, a ballet that David remembered seeing Paul dance when at London Festival Ballet. Itziar’s first major role was in Swan Lake. ‘He didn’t lie.’ It was a huge jump up from soloist work. ‘It was the big one. It was amazing.’ She had a couple of Italian coaches. One was Renata, who had worked with Paul Chalmer at London Festival Ballet. There was also Sylvain Barrett. Monique Loudieres helped coach her for Giselle‘which was incredible.’ Highlights included dancing Taming of the Shrew. ‘I fell in love with Cranko’s choreography.’ It’s just such a fun role, with a bit of humour and temper. ‘I don’t tend to do many princesses.’ She also performed The Firebird and was nominated for a Benois award. It also got her promoted to principal. It’s ‘a very special role for me.’ Itziar spent three years in Zurich, and four years in Leipzig.
Itziar left Leipzig, as they didn’t renew Paul Chalmer’s contract. The new director coming in had a vision of dance theatre for the company, and it wasn’t what Itziar wanted at that stage. ‘Hanging up the pointe shoes wasn’t an option.’ Itziar got to perform in Glen Tetley’s version of Rite of Spring. Bronwyn Curry came to coach it. She suggested that Itziar audition for the Royal Ballet, as they were looking for someone for the following year, and ‘I just laughed.’ Bronwyn insisted, so Itziar gave her a video, which she showed to Monica Mason. ‘A week later, I was in London.’ She did a class ‘behind Marianela,’ and was offered a first soloist contract. When Itziar came out of the stage door, her reaction was ‘I can’t say no to this.’ Tetley’s Rite of Spring is ‘so earthy.’ She played the mother. ‘A shame it’s not done so much.’ Itziar feels it’s ‘a great version.’ Itziar had also been in touch with Bordeaux Ballet. Bordeaux is a beautiful city. She had guested with them previously in Swan Lake, with a view to joining the company permanently later. Charles Jude was in charge. In her head, Itziar was all set to go there, but you just can’t say ‘no’ to the Royal Ballet.
It was a huge change going from a small company where she was one of three principals, to being one of eight first soloists, with principals ahead of her, and soloists coming up behind you, who have done principal roles. You have to prove yourself. Itziar was incredibly happy with her decision. She was aware of the quality of the dancers around her. There were some difficult moments. For instance, she was rehearsing the huntresses in Sylvia. The others had done it the season before, so it was mainly a recap for them, and she was trying to catch up, and learn the steps. This was one of the hardest moments. It was a new style for her, and she didn’t know her colleagues yet. The rehearsals as Olga in Winter Dreams provided her first exposure to MacMillan. It was ‘a completely new language’ for her. It was a main reason she wanted to join the Company, and she felt ‘privileged’ to be cast so early on. Whilst rehearsing Theme and Variations, as one of the four soloist girls, Pat Neary exclaimed audibly ‘Who’s that new girl!?’ Grant Coyle set Winter Dreams, and Monica was around too. ‘I’ve been so lucky’ having the opportunity to work with her. The first time Itziar stepped forward to perform her solo from Winter Dreams in front of the whole company ‘was terrifying.’ Itziar has also performed ‘all the whores, and all the mistresses’ in other MacMillan ballets as well. Itziar really enjoys performing the Mistress in Manon. ‘How wonderful. She’s so much fun. So cheeky. I love that role.’ It can be hugely different, depending on who you perform the role with. She reckons she has performed the role with Thiago Soares, Ryoichi Hirano, Ricardo Cervera, and an insight evening with José Martin. On one occasion at the insight evening, José tripped, and she fell! You have to manoeuvre carefully. She’s had such great partners in Manon, who have such control. ‘They’re not going to drop you. The coaches are really good at not letting you go too far. The first rehearsal is often the best, ‘as it’s fresh.’ You have to go for that on stage. Itziar doesn’t like to over rehearse the pas de deux, as it becomes easy to overdo it.
Itziar also danced Epine in Prince of the Pagodas. It’s a very technical role, and she got to perform it very early on. It’s such a particular ballet, and quite different. Beatriz Stix-Brunell was Rose. ‘Beatriz was a baby.’ Her kings included Johannes Stepanek, Andrej Uspenski, and Valeri Hristov. If you don’t have good men with you, it can be touch and go. Itziar feels she was lucky to have great men in her cast. They had a great time. Itziar likes performing strong characters. It feels ‘very natural’ doing a role where she can ‘investigate, and find something.’ They sometimes have the choreography. Rose comes on looking amazing, and you’ve just been doing pirouettes en attitude. ‘I’m up for a challenge.’
Itziar has performed Marie Larisch in Mayerling. ‘I absolutely love that role.’ She tells the story, and makes everything happen. There is the subtlety, but the power of the woman is incredible. The Rudolfs she has performed with all give her something different. Larisch is so intelligent and calculating. You can play her differently in every show, without changing the integrity of the role. It can depend on your Rudolf. Thiago Soares is a very strong Rudolf, and more aggressive. You level with that, and might not push him as hard. Rupert Pennefather had a bit more delicacy, so you can push it more. Itziar also performed the Empress opposite Federico Bonelli, and Matthew Ball. They were different types of Rudolf, so you react differently. Her Marys have included Lauren Cuthbertson, who could be a bit more ‘innocent,’ and Melissa Hamilton, who was more ‘cheeky.’ Performing both Larisch and the Empress meant the fight scene was ‘the same, but different.’ It was hard in rehearsal, but once you understand the characters and the story, there’s no way that you will mix it up. You’ve gone through such a different journey together. ‘It’s what you’re saying.’
In The Sleeping Beauty, Itziar has performed the Lilac Fairy, Bluebird, and Carabosse, so she has tried to save the world, and destroy it. There are such a range of roles. The Lilac Fairy solo is ‘just terrifying,’ and not very rewarding. Once it’s done though, you have the story, and the journey on the boat. It’s a lovely role. The Bluebird is ‘one of the nicest things to dance.’ You feel beautiful, and the solo’s gorgeous. It’s a perfect pas de deux, and ‘it’s just a little jewel.’ Performing Carabosse was one of Itziar’s highlights of the short season. Monica Mason was ‘incredible’ to work with. You watch her do it in rehearsal, and you’re terrified. It’s electrifying. She helps you find the way that works for you. It says so much about her as a coach. You find a way of walking. ‘You try to ‘feel as if you have a very heavy pumper.’ You have to open your legs a bit. It gives you the right idea that just changes your walk in a second. ‘I’d love her to do it one more time.’
Monica has coached her as the Mistress for Manon. She really helps with technical issues, such as noticing things that will help with the turns. The performance is so important, and how you can embody that person. Monica will spend time talking about who the character, and what the role is. Some of that has been lost or forgotten, maybe because of time. A highlight has been working with Monica. It’s like working with a living legend. ‘She’s got stories for everything.’ Monica is like a book. When rehearsing a role like Mythre in Giselle, they would spend hours on one step. She can be quite naughty sometimes and make you do something again and again, but you are so ready by the time you get to the stage. Monica knows the role of The Firebird inside out, and has such respect for them. Itziar also worked on Calliope from Elite Syncopationsas well. ‘She’s incredible.’
Ashton ballets Itziar has worked in includes The Dream,where she danced the role of Helena. It’s so much fun. She hasn’t done much of his work, but it’s incredibly special. Christopher Carr knows the ballets inside out, and fights for the integrity of the ballet. As with Manon, it’s easy to overdo it. If it’s too silly, it can be a bit uncomfortable. It will spoil it if it’s not done properly. Christopher Carr has an incredibly good eye, and will tell you if it’s not up to much. The Gypsy Girl in The Two Pigeons is such a fun role. She was working with Alex Campbell this time round. She’s cheeky and manipulating. The solos are extremely tricky. You must build stamina for the Gypsy Girl, and rehearse it. You won’t finish the role otherwise. Christopher Carr staged it from scratch the first time around. He’s so efficient. He has such respect for the ballet, and won’t leave a thing out, and will double check things. He won’t take liberties. Things can change, and end up not being what they’re supposed to be.
Moving on to talk about Christopher Wheeldon’s ballets, Itziar has performed The Red Queen in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. ‘I’ve never gone so crazy on stage.’ The Tart Adage is just so much fun. You can play crazy in so many ways. She has played it differently each time it has come back. It helps to keep it fresh. You have ‘an action, and a reaction.’ ‘I had great examples in front of me,’ such as Zenaida Yanowsky, Tamara Rojo, and Laura Morera. They were very different, but so funny and intelligent in their portrayals. There is a delicacy to Paulina in The Winter’s Tale. It’s one of the most special roles. She tells the story, and ‘links it all quietly.’ There is a subdued power. Her frustrations and love are in the choreography. You do the reveal, and it’s an incredibly special role. Itziar loves the beautiful dresses as well. Strapless wasn’t perhaps Itziar’s favourite ballet, but it was fun to do. Christopher Wheeldon tried to compress too much into too short a time. If there had been time to create three acts, it could have been great, as he’s such a great storyteller.
Itziar described dancing Tatiana in Oneginas ‘the most special moment in my career.’ She has always wanted to dance the role. To dance it at the Royal Opera House with the Royal Ballet. ‘You can’t beat that.’ Nehemiah Kish is ‘the most generous partner,’ and is such a gentleman. He was beautiful to work with. They discussed, and went into it with such depth, thinking about the way he would take her hand for instance. He’s such an intelligent dancer, and thinks a lot about it. It was incredibly special. Itziar’s dad hates flying, and has come over only two times. He’s been for Winter Dreams, and for Onegin. ‘My mum didn’t give him a choice.’ Itziar felt happy with her performance as Tatiana, and felt rewarded for the work she had done. It was ‘just one of those incredible moments,’ and took days to shake off. She wasn’t down to dance it last season. She’s aware she’s a first soloist, and there are principals waiting to do it. Itziar was disappointed, but not surprised. Kevin O’Hare took her to one side and told her. He asked if she wanted to be a cover. She replied this would be fine if she got to do it if someone went off. ‘As it turned out, I ended up doing it.’ She was in Spain when Kevin called her. She had three weeks to prepare. She would be dancing in Thiago’s last shows, and was ‘so proud to be part of that.’ Itziar was able to discover the role again with a different Onegin, and adjust to that. It made it even more special to discover a different Tatiana. Itziar was able to work with Reid Anderson this time, which was ‘so inspiring.’ Being part of that last show, and see Thiago have that was ‘really a huge blessing,’ and for him to be happy with it.
Itziar originally appeared in the second movement of Wolf Works by Wayne McGregor. She performed Sarah Lamb’s role on tour. She was in the second cast of Multiverse, and they didn’t get much rehearsal time. They got thrown on, with one stage call at the last minute. They didn’t even know if they would have a show. It was one of those ‘have I done it?’ moments. It was hard to sink in. Working with Wayne is hard. He pushes you, and works at a tremendous speed. You feel like you’ve run a marathon in four or five hours. It’s an amazing insight into his mind. It’s the way he thinks about what he’s done. It’s very interesting.
There aren’t any roles Itziar feels she really wishes she’d done. ‘Maybe Kitri, a few years ago.’ She is open to new things. She also feels she has covered ‘such a great repertoire,’ and been given so many roles. Choreographers she would like to work with include Kylian. She performed Petite Mort and worked on Stepping Stones whilst in Zurich. Working with him was such a special experience. Bella Figura has a beauty, and there is an imagery to that ballet. ‘We have the dancers to do it,’ and the audience would love it.
Itziar took the teacher’s course at the Royal Ballet School in 2014.She has taught at the summer schools since that point. She has also taken part in a couple of Easter intensives. Itziar loves teaching, and it’s clear to her it’s what she wants to do. She doesn’t see herself choreographing. She’d like to work with students mainly. She has a huge respect for the profession, and feels it’s in her. You never stop learning to be a better teacher. She has just started a university degree on dance teaching, and is doing it online. It’s for dancers who are still active, and is based in Madrid. There are lots of modules, and will take four years. Itziar would love to teach at the Royal Ballet School. She feels such a part of the Royal Ballet, and wants to keep that link with the Company.
Itziar is one of the oldest dancers now. The Company has changed, but in such wonderful ways. She’s seen people join as members of the corps, and come through to be principals. There is such huge talent, and it’s amazing to see that talent evolve and develop. There are certain things she doesn’t need to dance any more, and it’s exciting to see younger dancers do them It’s also interesting to see those dancers perform them from the perspective of not fighting for those roles any more. The ambition is different, and she’s happy with what she’s achieved. Itziar would definitely consider performing character roles, and wonders if Kevin sees her that way. He seems to value her range and qualities for those roles, and has used her in this way. Itziar considers acting to be one of her strong suits. It’s not easy to add to the Principal Character Artist ranks, because of trying to be cost effective, but it’s one of the strongest parts of the Company. ‘Do you want to put my name forward to Kevin!’
Report written by Rachel Holland and edited by Itziar Mendizabal and David Bain.
© The Ballet Association 2020