Yasmine Naghdi 2020
- Annette Buvoli
- Dame Monica Mason
- Denilson Almeida Afonso
- Hanna Park
- Harry Churches
- Helen Crawford
- Itziar Mendizabel
- Jessica Clarke
- Jonathan Cope
- Kevin O'Hare
- Melissa Hamilton
- Sir David Bintley
- Yasmine Naghdi
Principal, The Royal Ballet
Interviewed by David Bain
Zoom video conference, November 30 2020
After his welcome, David talked to Yasmine about her performances during Season 2019-2020.
Yasmine said she came back in September 2019, after her summer break, with an injury to her left ankle. She had a nasty fall down a rock whilst hiking in the mountains. Her ankle swelled up and looked the size of a grapefruit. She was taken to hospital and spent the remainder of her holiday on crutches. After having danced so many demanding roles on stage at the Royal Opera House without any incident it was very unfortunate to get injured whilst on holiday.
At the start of the Season, she had been invited to dance Odette/Odile in “Swan Lake” in Moscow, at the Kremlin Palace “VIII World Classical Ballet Kremlin Festival” with Isaac Hernandez (Principal English National Ballet) as her Prince, but sadly she had to cancel those performances. The Royal Ballet opened the Season with “Manon” and she was cast as Mistress - a role she has danced since she was a soloist - with Marianela Nuñez and Roberto Bolle - but she had not recovered in time so her first come back role was dancing “Concerto -2nd Movement”,partnered by Ryoichi Hirano.
Getting back on stage after an injury was a very new experience for Yasmine who since joining the Company in April 2010 had never sustained an injury. Her recovery began with daily physiotherapy in order to mobilise her ankle; there are a lot of ups and downs when rehabilitating. From September to early November she continued with her rehabilitation, building up the muscles surrounding her ankle, strengthening the metatarsals and various other muscles to protect the injury and allow surrounding muscles to take the pressure off the injured area. It took a few weeks of strength building, focussing on ballet technique, and working in layers. The first time she put on her pointe shoes felt alien. You have to retrain your body and mind when coming back after injury because one is fearful of re-injury and the pain you will feel when you start dancing again which you have to overcome. A lot of mental strength is needed and how you approach your rehabilitation but throughout the process you learn a lot about yourself and how to cope. This was pre-Covid and she wasn’t used to having a lot of time on hand, over the past decade she had always been very busy. It was a great learning curve and she considered herself lucky she was only out for a couple of weeks rather than months or a year or two, and she didn’t miss dancing any major roles.
Her performance in “Concerto” was filmed for the Live Cinema relay and it was the perfect short ballet to come back to as the 2nd Movement is very lyrical and slow and controlled – there’s time to plan what each move should be and feel like, and what move is more testing, allowing for a well considered approach when dancing on an injured ankle. She danced “Concerto”again a few weeks later, after dancing the Opening Night of “The Sleeping Beauty”. It was interesting to note she felt ten times stronger as she had had more time to regain her strength and had recovered by then. At that time Yasmine was still using anti-inflammatories – a dancer’s best friend and most frequent companion as they reduce swelling so you can dance without pain and sacrificing movement. Without it, after Act I, the ankle would swell up like a balloon and she wouldn’t have been able to continue so the anti-inflammatories enabled her to dance the whole performance. After the performance you have to be really smart as a dancer and take sufficient time to do your recovery properly. Yasmine always had a bucket of ice waiting in her dressing room to plonk her foot in in order to reduce inflammation and to rapidly pump fluid back into her ankle as it wasn’t quite ready to be on full demand just yet. Fast recovery was key, so she was taking protein shakes, high calcium tablets and doing icing whilst carrying on with her rehabilitation programme. Bit by bit things improved, her strength came back, the injury disappeared, and she felt lucky to have made a relatively fast recovery. Sometimes a dancer gets a chronic injury that stays on forever and one just has to learn to manage it but fortunately this was not Yasmine’s case.
About dancing “Aurora” in “The Sleeping Beauty” Yasmine said it is technically one of the hardest roles to dance. She recalled one evening during “The Sleeping Beauty” run, she went home at 5.30pm as she was not scheduled to dance that night. She had just had dinner when her phone rang. As soon as she heard Kevin’s voice she knew what was up! He asked her where she was and how quickly she could manage to get to the Royal Opera House. She said it would take about half hour and she asked Kevin if the principal she needed to replace had already danced the Rose Adagio? Kevin confirmed she had, so Yasmine quickly dressed and ran out of her flat to grab a cab, knowing the audience would be made to wait for her arrival. The taxi driver must have thought she had gone mad as she constantly urged him to drive faster and take short cuts! The 2nd Act was cut out and the Interval was extended until she arrived at the Royal Opera House. Kevin went on stage to announce her arrival and to inform the audience “The Sleeping Beauty” was about to resume. She ran to her dressing room where staff was waiting for her to do her make-up and hair, and put on her tutu. The Prince that night was Alexander Campbell. They had never danced Princess Aurora & Prince Florimund together and they literally had five minutes together in the wings to quickly practice their fish dive before going on stage and finish the ballet. At that time it was immensely stressful but looking back it is quite funny. Afterwards she felt like she had finished running a marathon!
Talking about the challenge of the “Rose Adagio” she said her physical control starts in her mind. “At that precise moment in time you know all eyes are on you – the audience, the conductor, everyone on stage and at the sides are looking solely at you – and you have to erase everything what is going on in your mind and fully focus on what’s to come. It almost feels like entering a state of meditation, you have to be 200% in the moment and your body and mind have to become one, you have to be able to draw out every possible mental distraction. That moment, when you let go off your partner’s hand, you have to find a way as if to make yourself “float”. Yasmine said when she is in full control of her nerves she can fully feel the floor and feel her weight and she knows exactly where she is in that particular moment in time. Stress also causes increased intensity of breathing and she wouldn’t be able to feel the floor, so total control of breathing is absolutely necessary in order to execute the “Rose Adagio” to perfection. After many hours of practice in the studio it all boils down to controlling that one moment in time. Just before dancing the “Rose Adagio” she already feels tired but the mime gives her a chance to breathe before tackling the “Rose Adagio”. You are also dependent on the support of the four male dancers. In November 2019 Yasmine danced five and a half performances as “Aurora” instead of her three scheduled performances so she was working with different sets of male dancers to support her during the “Rose Adagio”. You rehearse with each one of them and you must constantly adapt to their way of supporting you although she feels it should be the other way around. It’s less challenging if you have a fixed set of male dancers you can rehearse with instead of three different sets.
In November she danced her debut as Swanilda in “Coppelia”. Yasmine had a great time being coached by Merle Park. She is an eccentric character and great fun to work with. Swanilda is a light-hearted, witty, funny character and is mostly a soubrette role. Act II, in the dollhouse, is very tiring as you just don’t stop, followed by a complete change of energy and dynamic in Act III, which is more classical, and the Pas de deux and Coda, hopping backwards on pointe, are very taxing. Yasmine’s Dr. Coppelius was Bennett Gartside.
Over the Christmas period she had been invited to dance in Milan in the “Roberto Bolle and Friends Gala” but she chose to give herself a proper rest in order to prepare for her debut as “Tatiana” in “Onegin” and the Live Cinema relay of “The Sleeping Beauty” in which she was cast to dance the Bluebird Variation with Matthew Ball, and Lauren Cuthbertson as Princess Aurora.
Her next role was dancing her debut on 24th January as “Tatiana” in John Cranko’s “Onegin”. Years ago when still in the Corps de ballet she did the mirror reflection scene and all other Corps de ballet roles such as the eight girls, the party and ballroom scene. Shortly after her promotion to First Artist she was selected to dance “Olga” and her “Lensky” was Dawid Trzensimiech. She danced “Olga” again in two further Seasons of “Onegin”, with Matthew Ball as her “Lensky”. It was a dream come true to be finally given the role of “Tatiana”. She felt she had grown up in this ballet having danced all the other roles. She had watched and admired many “Tatiana’s” in the past and had always wondered how she would eventually portray her. It is definitely her absolute favourite role to date! “You can live the story on stage with so many outpourings of emotions. It’s the same as with Juliet. You can go deep within the character and the story; you feel emotionally totally drained afterwards in a very beautiful way. The score is glorious as she is very sensitive to the music. “We are lucky to have such a great orchestra”. Each time you dance this role you mature and grow artistically as a dancer and this throughout each performance. Yasmine is very much looking forward to further mature in this role as the years go on, discovering how she will revisit the role and what else she can bring out of herself. Her Onegin was Federico Bonelli, a highly skilled partner, and a very kind and generous person who really guided her so well and she felt in a very safe pair of hands. Reid Anderson and Jane Bourne came to mount “Onegin”. Reid, who has full control of the ballet, isn’t easy to please but he was very supportive of Yasmine and she greatly values the opportunity she had to work closely with Reid. Reid is of a generation of dancers and rehearsal directors who work in a very efficient and logical way, commanding huge respect without being too intense, and with an aura around him of having worked closely with John Cranko. He is like a god in the studio and there is much respect as he speaks with great intelligence, he has great energy and knowledge, and she felt truly inspired by Reid. Every Tatiana is different and it is amazing to have a degree of artistic freedom in such a dramatic role allowing you to put your own stamp on it. To some extent you are given free rein, it is even encouraged as long as you do the steps correctly. It was very reassuring whenever Reid told her he really liked her interpretation at the various stages throughout the ballet. There is a moment of artistic freedom in the Act II when Onegin hands the paper to Tatiana and rips it up in front of her: there is freedom to interpret your individual reaction. The Mirror pas de deux with mime and acting at the table gives you a chance to say everything what is going on in your head so that you can communicate your emotions with the audience. You have to physically express what is going on in Tatiana’s mind, throughout the ballet she goes on a life changing mental journey and that development needs to be reflected throughout the various acts, and is expressed through your movements, steps, facial expressions and subtle body language. As a dancer you learn what does and does not work. As an example Yasmine said she initially struggled with “walking” and “running”, which is not as you would do in the street or as a ballet dancer. One day Alessandra Ferri happened to take class with her and she gave Yasmine some really great advice how to do it. It’s lovely when a great ballerina like Alessandra passes on her knowledge.
Immediately following her debut she flew to Japan to dance in a gala organised by Hikaru Kobayashi. Yasmine danced “Swan Lake”’ - Black Swan pas de deux, Solo and the Coda - with Vadim Muntagirov as her partner, “Juliet” in the Balcony scene from “Romeo and Juliet”, as well as “La Sylphide” pas de deux with William Bracewell. They danced three performances in Tokyo. While she was out there she got a phone call from Alina Cojocaru asking Yasmine if she could take over from her to dance “Ballet Imperial”with Friedemann Vogel as her partner. She said yes before even realising what she was getting herself into, as she had never danced this ballet before. On arrival in Tokyo she had come down with the flu and a chest infection and she was really unwell. She always seems to catch a bug whenever taking a long-haul flight as she felt perfect well flying out to Tokyo. She learned “Ballet Imperial” all by herself in her hotel room in a matter of two days and on the third day Yasmine and Friedemann Vogel had their stage call with Tokyo Ballet. She loved dancing with Vogel and they danced two performances of “Ballet Imperial”. It was an amazing, albeit nerve wrecking, experience.
She flew back to London ready to start rehearsing Odette/Odile for “Swan Lake” and to perform in “Dances at a Gathering”. Yasmine was cast as “Apricot” and Ben Hughes put on the ballet. There is so much history with all the various casts who have danced it before. The music, energy, steps, all make it into a fantastic ballet and great crowd pleaser. It was the first ballet by Jerome Robbins she had danced. She always wanted to dance in “The Concert”. “Dances at a Gathering” asks for a very different style of dancing, although you are telling a story it is not a narrative work. Initially she didn’t see herself as “Apricot” but she loved the challenge to move speedily and really bonded with her role in the end.
By early March rumours started going around that the Royal Opera House might shut down. Yasmine initially thought they would keep going no matter what. She recalled one morning, whilst having her breakfast, Philip Mosley called her to say her rehearsals were cancelled and she would be updated as soon as possible. Then a Company email arrived on Sunday afternoon telling all the dancers not to come in to work on Monday. They were still allowed into the building, so she went to the Royal Opera House and grabbed a pair of her pointe shoes and some dancewear just in case they went into lock-down. They all thought they might be off for maximum three to four weeks. She thought they might cancel the Triple Bill but she didn’t want to miss dancing “Odette/Odile” in “Swan Lake” so Yasmine ensured she kept fit and for that reason there was strong initial motivation combined with Zoom Company classes, Pilates, yoga, and strength training. She did them all. Four weeks became six weeks and during a Zoom Company meeting it was announced it would last much longer. It was a heart-breaking feeling. It is such a short career and having all that taken away from you was very difficult to digest but she sympathised with the overall situation affecting other people, other artists, the smaller theatres and arts organisations, as well as small businesses in the UK and their predicament was far bigger than any of her own feelings. The dancers continued doing class in their living room or kitchen and then came a lovely surprise as Aud Jebsen generously arranged with Kevin for professional dance lino to be sent to all the dancers’ home, the same floor material they dance on every day, the perfect blend of friction and glide. Once she got her Harlequin dance floor she was able to practice her turns and do her ballet barre properly. The situation went on for much longer and the light at the end of the tunnel seemed to fade away as they didn’t know when they would be able to go back into the Royal Opera House. She had never ever had that much time off in her career. The dancers all had to rethink how they would now approach their work and life. She had some days when she felt she was in need of a total break and she was able to convince herself, and accept, that for now things had to slow down and that she should not put any undue pressure on herself. For the past sixteen years, ever since she started training at The Royal Ballet School as a twelve-year-old, she thrived on the daily discipline of ballet class and to feel highly motivated, to have a set daily routine of working and achieving but now she had to seriously slow down, and the usual routine was absent and left a great emptiness. Everyone realised they needed to slow down and not be hard on themselves. However, she ensured she woke up at the same time every day as she usually would, and she developed her own routine. She would have a healthy breakfast, do ballet class every other day, followed by focussing on her Italian private lessons and eventually she enjoyed taking life at a slower pace. She did not miss her daily commute on a packed tube to Covent Garden! She also started coaching young students via Zoom as many had contacted her as they were feeling low and in despair. They were panicking about getting jobs and getting out of shape. She worked with many young students and helped them to stay motivated, she also worked with various ballet schools, she taught ballet classes and she felt happy to be able to help the younger ones. There were regular Zoom meetings with the Company updating all staff and dancers about the situation. When it became obvious that the dancers would not be required back any time soon the long summer months lay ahead of her. She had several invitations to guest and dance abroad but this was now not possible. Usually she takes about two to three weeks off during her summer break.
By the beginning of June, the borders with Italy re-opened. Yasmine and Riccardo, her Italian boyfriend, didn’t wait and they flew to Italy the same day the borders opened up. They spent June on the Italian Riviera where they rented a house by the sea. After one month they extended their stay because their flight back home to London was cancelled and the dancers were not required to go back to work any time soon. It felt like she was having a gap year. As soon as her boyfriend was able to take his summer break from work, they decided to go on a road trip and travelled to Sardinia for ten days, then onwards to Sicily and beautiful Noto. In August they continued their road trip to Puglia, an area she totally fell in love with. Towards mid-August they spent time in Tuscany and also went to Verona where Yasmine finally saw Juliet’s balcony and the beautiful arena. It was a truly unique time in her life, a soul-healing time, allowing her to leave any concern about her career being on halt behind her. She had never felt so free.
During her first month in Italy Yasmine needed to keep herself busy, as her boyfriend was not yet on holiday so Yasmine decided she needed a new project to keep her going. One day she felt really low, lost and restricted as an artist, and she felt a great lack of being able to express herself artistically. She hated having nothing to do – she is definitely not someone to lie on the sofa and do nothing - so she decided to make a dance film. One day, as she was walking along a beautiful promenade by the sea, the idea grew in her mind. She had always felt connected with the sea, the smell of the salty air, the energy and sound of the waves. She wanted to create a film projecting hope, promoting positive thinking and show that there is light at the end of the tunnel, especially aimed at all young dance students, inspiring them to feelings of hope and that things will eventually get better, that they would come back stronger after these difficult times. She contacted a ballet school in Genoa and found four young ballet students keen to work with her. She met with a filmmaker who had never worked with dancers so she had to explain the angles and timings for each shot and make clear what she envisaged for the short film; it allowed her to make good use of her energy, take her mind off the dreadful situation, and it offered an interesting learning curve. She also contacted Paolo Buonvino, the composer of the music for “Medici: The Magnificent”,a beautiful Netflix historical drama series set in Florence, which she had enjoyed watching during lock-down. The soundtrack is so beautiful! She first approached his agent who told her she would have to pay a copyright fee, which could be several thousands of pounds. She explained it was for a charitable video to inspire young dancers during this difficult time and he was happy to waive the copyright fee. She also contacted BLOCH Dancewear UK, they loved the idea and generously sponsored her short film. She was achieving things that were very different to what she was used to do. She created simple dance movements for those youngsters and at the same time she directed, produced and danced herself in the film, all whilst communicating in Italian.
Once The Royal Ballet dancers had returned after the summer, they started with daily Company class. There were allocated timed studio slots with marked squares on the floor and they all wore facemasks. At the stage door there was hand sanitizer, you were beeped in, your temperature was measured, and you went straight to the studio, into your allocated square, together with about maximum eight to ten other dancers. They had about four to five weeks to get fit and eventually they were told about the upcoming repertoire and their roles. They slowly started rehearsing. As the few real-life couples could automatically dance with each other without any problem the other dancers were very unhappy and objected, they felt they would lose out on any opportunity to dance simply because they were not in a relationship with another fellow dancer. It was considered unfair and the Management realised they would have to do regular testing - which meant throat swabs twice a week – so that those not in a relationship with a fellow dancer could also perform. The dancers formed a bubble, they could only touch and dance with their specific bubble partner. Yasmine was bubbled up with Nicol Edmonds and they danced the “Stop Time Rag” and “Bettina Waltz” in “Elite Syncopations” which was a great Season opener. Kevin was keen to get as many of his dancers on stage and this ballet was fit for purpose. The feeling when the curtain came down was incredible and everyone was clapping and stomping. Kevin had moved heaven and earth in order to get us all on stage. We really were in it all together, especially since Kevin had been such great support to us all throughout the past months. He regularly called to see how we felt and if we were ok. We were so proud we managed to get a show together. A lot of other dance companies didn’t even manage to open their Season; in other companies some dancers got the virus and had to cancel performances. We were all holding our breath during the last round of tests right before the performance.
Then Management was thinking of doing another gala. It’s quite difficult as you’re limited to what pieces the Corps de ballet could safely dance whilst being spaced out. Looking at couples who had danced roles together before, and keeping the dancers of the Corps, the soloists, as well as all the principals happy, was an immense task but Kevin managed brilliantly and he got another show together for us to dance. Then came the second wave and we were locked down again in November so our performance was Live streamed which is really not the same as having a real audience but we were lucky that we were still able to keep going at the Royal Opera House. Great credit must go to all the back stage staff, and other staff, who ensured we could all keep going, from taking class, to rehearsing and performing. When the announcement came of a second lock-down we all felt we could not go back again to taking class in our home so we were very grateful we could continue going into the Royal Opera House, even as we were being submitted to those horrible twice weekly nasal swabs which are not pleasant at all!
They are now preparing to dance Sir Peter Wright’s Covid-adapted “Nutcracker”. She hasn’t seen all of the changes yet as she is working within her given time slots. Her bubble partner Prince is Matthew Ball and are rehearsing together with their coach Alexander Agadzhanov. Their Pas de deux and solos are unchanged but it will be interesting to see all the other changes. She was scheduled to dance the Sugar Plum Fairy on 19thDecember and on 22nd December, which was to be filmed for the Live Streaming but both her performances got cancelled due to London going into Tier 5 lockdown two days prior.
How do you prepare yourself for the Sugar Plum Fairy? Yasmine feels very different this year as normally, after three months into the Season, one’s stamina is well and truly at its peak, you are in top condition, and you feel ready to take on the Sugar Plum Fairy. She expected to feel at her peak but a few weeks ago she got to a certain point with her jumps when she couldn’t get to her usual height. Rehearsal time was very limited, due to the Covid-safe environment, and she could not get properly through rehearsing everything in such a short space of time. It was very frustrating. She said she paces herself through the physical demands when preparing for a role, she gradually pushes for more but now there is no time to pace so you are pushing yourself faster whilst taking great care not to get injured. They just cannot work as they usually would under normal circumstances. Having endurance and stamina when dancing the Sugar Plum Fairy is vital and there was not enough time to fully build up on it but she felt confidant she would be able to dance the Sugar Plum Fairy. She was incredibly sad and disappointed when the live stream was cancelled as she had built herself up to it, and she had very much looked forward to performing a classical role on stage again. It was now well over a year since Yasmine last danced a classical role
Talking about some of the highlights earlier on in her career, Yasmine said she was still a Soloist when she was given the role of Juliet, her first full-length ballet. It is a beautiful role with glorious music and wonderful choreography telling a great story and she adores dancing this role. Later on, as a Principal, she was given the Live Cinema relay of “Romeo and Juliet” and she loved performing for a worldwide audience. Does the camera affect the way you dance a role as you’re filmed in close-up a lot of the time? You are more aware of being in close-ups and dancing to an audience who is seated on their sofa at home or in the cinema. For example, she pays attention to facial use such as not licking her lips or taking an extra breath or resting her facial expressions. She is hyper-aware there could be a close-up at any time that she will not be aware of, and she is likely to take less risks in order to avoid any mishap during the filming. With the cinema relays there is a different pressure compared to dancing on stage in Covent Garden. She felt with the recent streamings the pressure to be perfect is greater as the streamings are out there to be watched on repeat and for much longer than the usual evening performance. It is a much more stressful preparation process as it will live on being out there on social media so you risk dancing in a more tentative way, you reduce your risk taking and this is an aspect of the live streaming she does not like. She much more prefers to push herself which she can do when her performances are not live streamed: if something goes wrong, when you slip or fall or have any other mishap on stage it’s just a brief moment in time and you and your audience quickly move on.
One of her favourite classics is “Swan Lake”. She felt so lucky to have danced it in her first year as a Principal but she got the shortest straw in the rehearsals. She had a very tricky stage rehearsal that came straight after the Opening Night when everyone was exhausted, and her rehearsal felt like crazy as they were skipping so many things, it was a mishmash of a rehearsal. She first rehearsed the solo, then the Finale; after Act IV, she had to rehearse Act III - which is the hardest – as after Acts II and IV there were no divertissements to give her a break so she had to push herself beyond her limit. She was scheduled to dance two “Swan Lake” performances in Covent Garden but ended up dancing three, as well as two unscheduled performances on Tour to Madrid. She danced her debut in May 2018 partnered by Nehemiah Kish who was a wonderful, generous, and incredibly supportive partner, and in her third performance she was partnered with Federico Bonelli (when Yasmine replaced Lauren Cuthbertson). Shortly after the “Swan Lake” run ended the Season, the Company went on their annual Tour, to Madrid this time. Initially Yasmine, being the new Odette/Odile, wasn’t cast to dance the title roll as there were only six scheduled “Swan Lake” performances and Nunez, Osipova, Cutbertson, Lamb, Takada were scheduled but just before the Company left on Tour Kevin asked Yasmine if she could dance two shows in Madrid: one on Thursday night (to replace Lauren Cuthbertson) and the next one on Saturday evening (to replace Natalia Osipova). Yasmine unfortunately got the flu just as she was departing on Tour and the Spanish doctor advised her not to perform because she wasn’t able to breath properly. Yasmine insisted she was ready and capable to perform. She was given an inhaler and he prescribed the strongest antibiotics. Unable to take class and rehearse for two days she had just one day to rehearse with Matthew Ball (who had not been her scheduled partner in “Swan Lake”) and dance her first performance on Thursday night. Taking no time to rest the following day she rehearsed with Federico on Friday and danced the 10.00pm Saturday evening performance, performing 32 fouettés well after midnight!
David said it was always fascinating and delightful to talk to Yasmine and thanked her for being our guest and for her support of the Ballet Association, always happy to come to our dinners and we are very grateful for that. We hope to see her in a few performances during the rest of the Season. Yasmine in turn said the same and thanked us for our help and for listening to her experiences. Our encouragement, love, and devotion were important. She hoped we were all safe and well and not going too crazy staying at home.
Report written by Liz Bouttell and edited by Yasmine Naghdi and David Bain.
© The Ballet Association 2020