Beatriz Stix-Brunell 2021
- Alejandro Valera
- Beatriz Stix-Brunell
- Christopher Saunders
- Hannah Grennell
- Isabella Boyd
- Johan Kobborg
- Julie Petanova
- Marion Tait
- Matthew Ball
- Mayara Magri
- Meaghan Grace-Hinkis
- Téo Dubreuil
- Valentino Zucchetti
- Yuhui Choe
- Zhan Atymtayev
First Soloist, The Royal Ballet
Interviewed by David Bain
Zoom video conference, March 10 2021
After David’s welcome, Beatriz began by telling us about Manon at the start of the last season. She did some of the same roles as before: Mistress, one of the two courtesans and again covered Manon – another lovely opportunity but unfortunately for her no-one went off! When you get to cover a role like that it’s usually in the midst of a very busy season so you can get double booked but it’s a total dream come true if you can be in the room rehearsing it.
Mistress is technically very challenging. She has solos, which Monica Mason is very famous for, which are very grounded with jumps and pliés, and you can’t be light on your feet. There are lots of turns and waltzing, quick and slow, and being off balance yet on balance at the same time. One famous step in Act II when she’s performing for Lescaut is a pencil turn having both legs together and then stay on pointe while opening one leg really high and falling off balance. Character-wise, she has to be quite different from Manon and the others around her - she’s holding court in the brothel which is her domain. She has to portray her sense of attraction and allure to Lescaut and Des Grieux, where there’s a seedy triangle going on. The drunk pas de deux is a perfect example of on-and-off balance. It is one of the most difficult things to do in this ballet. If it is done badly it falls so flat and it has every potential to go that way as none of them is drunk but are very much on the ball. The manoeuvres are done in such a way that you’re supposed to look as if you are falling whereas if you are really falling nothing will work. It’s all about comedic timing which Monica would coach amazingly. Sometimes a Lescaut would think gestures had to be over the top as when he’s trying to grab the leg but in fact they have to be so subtle to make them work. You really need people at the front of the room watching and correcting you all the way. Her first Lescaut was Marcelino Sambé, who was fantastic. He’s not tall but he is so strong physically and artistically that it’s not a problem even when she’s on pointe. Marcie is one of those big characters who plans nothing - he is spur of the moment and spontaneous. It was the first time they’d danced together, though they have a great relationship off stage and laugh a lot together and he is a big ball of fun. Bringing that to the stage meant they had a great time particularly on the sides in the brothel scene. She also danced with Valentino Zucchetti whom she’d done other works with, so that was good fun too as he is experienced in the role and brought his own knowledge to it. For coaching last time, they had Julie Lincoln and Helen Crawford who made a great team. Helen has lots of experience so brought all that knowledge to the rehearsals. The main idea, especially in MacMillan ballets, is that you mustn’t be performing to the audience. The dancer should be totally immersed in her own space which can be very difficult. When you’re performing a variation, everything is projecting out but you cannot look out front, so you change and veer towards the inn or a footman so you’re talking to someone. Julie was adamant about this and rightly so.
After this came the mixed programme in the Linbury. Bea was in Pam Tanowitz’s piece, Everyone Keeps Me. She had done the Night of 100 Solos,the Cunningham event the previous April at the Barbican, so had a little experience of his work but it was interesting to transition from that to Pam’s work which she’d only previously seen on line. The first time they met was the previous season when Pam came to see a show and was taken on tour of the Opera House. Bea had just come off a stage call of Juliet and was looking a mess but when they met Pam said it was so nice to meet her as she’d seen her, aged 15, in New York City dancing with Morphoses and since then she thought she really wanted Bea to be in her piece if she ever came to work at the Opera House. Now a few months later here she was, feeling very excited that they’d be working together so it was really nice to have had that connection and to be in the studio with her. Her movement is wonderful, a jigsaw puzzle, suddenly you go into a dramatic language but it’s personal between all the dancers. As classical dancers they are very ‘held’, and Pam would say you look beautiful and I love it but for this you need to be more relaxed and very personal and have a language between all of you. At one point she had shown them a step she wanted them to do and they didn’t all remember it and were trying to copy each other so in the end it was a mess and they burst out laughing but that was exactly what she wanted to see. It’s OK to look at each other and bounce and feed off each other and it created a real sense of harmony. Two younger dancers were covering at the back and half way through the rehearsal Pam said they should be in this piece because they were great dancers, and she fitted them in. She had her music from the beginning but they often rehearsed without it though they did have a live violinist which was amazing. It made such a difference and they were breathing with each other which adds another great dimension. For the Cunningham piece at the Barbican, from the Royal there was Beatriz, Frankie Hayward and Joseph Sissens. They were all new to Cunningham’s work and it was the first time that the girls were dancing bare-foot, though Joe had already. It’s very different from dancing in shoes. Ballerinas feet are notoriously calloused but mostly on the toes though this was on the ball of the foot and the friction of moving bare foot was very difficult at the beginning and took time to get used to. The solos only lasted one minute, 30 seconds, or 45 seconds. Bea did one when she just moved stage left, then stage right, split, stand up, split, stand up and walk off. It was either crazy movement or stillness within yourself and very exposed. They were surrounded by different dancers from different backgrounds and cultures and dance types. It was a true amalgamation of dance and although each ‘team’ wore different coloured leotards which identified them (the Royal were in coral) they were always trying to be in the totally naked Cunningham style. Bea did see the feet of the dancers who are barefoot all the time and then realised just what a callous is!
Next was the Concerto/Enigma/Raymondaprogramme. Bea was one of the three women in Concerto and was down to do the principal role when it came back but was injured. She did Isabel & Arnold with Reece Clarke in Enigma, and the 4th solo girl in Raymonda. It was a great bill and good fun to have the three very different works. There were so many quick costume changes behind the scenes and it was mayhem in the dressing rooms. Concerto was a stark leotard ballet with a French twist, Enigma was period drama, so glammed up, changing make-up, three people doing her hair, changing tights and blue pointe shoes and then back to the classical tutu, big tiara, three people back-combing hair and make-up toned down for Raymonda. They were all sprinting to the stage for curtain up but it made a really fun show. They were lucky to have Isabel McMeekan coaching Isabel and Arnold and Bea had previously worked with her on Two Pigeons and, the season before, Les Patineurs. Bea really loves her, she has a lot of knowledge from her years as a dancer but is also so kind, very detailed and the cadence of her voice and manner is a lovely energy in the room. The Isabel and Arnold pas de deux is about innocent young absolute love and as soon as she’s swept off the hammock it all has to be like a breath of air and feeling the beautiful music. Bea really loved it and feels you can’t go wrong with a bit of Elgar, having loved Enigma and again more Elgar in The Cellist.As Isabel you are sitting in a hammock for a long time before dancing and they would all try to angle it so you could move your feet around to keep warm, but she did the live stream/DVD so couldn’t get away with it that time!
Raymonda is a completely different style, all about shoulders and épaulement and the way you present yourself - she loves the grandeur which is at its Hungarian finest and is very chic. You have to be very polished and, in this ballet, you do have to perform for the audience. She loved the variation with its very fast footwork, and a lot of quick jumps and difficult diagonal turns at the end. Certain things look simple, like the consecutive passés not coming off pointe and very fast going back, but it’s positioning that you’re not used to, so you have to work on the little details to make a tight variation.
Sleeping Beauty was a contrast. Bea has been doing it since joining the Company 11 years ago. It’s a staple, like Swan Lake,they love it and it’s a good thing for the Company to have these hard classical works in the rep. As dancers they’re in shape but classical ballets require a different type of shape, with everything exposed. She revisited Lilac Fairy, Enchanted Garden Fairy and this time made her debut as Crystal Fountain Fairy which she loved, and also Florestan’s sister. Lilac Fairy is a central part of the story but only has a (very difficult) 30 second solo at the beginning and after that she goes throughout the ballet with mime which is so much harder than it looks. She and all the other Lilac Fairies worked on it with Monica, as these gestures are a huge part of the role. Mime is so difficult because it has to be musical and technical without looking stiff and wooden. You have to take care with gestures and be very precise (here Bea gave a demonstration of the importance of placing the gestures correctly to avoid giving them a different meaning) and they have to be schooled and very particular. You also have to be on time with the music, on your mark, watching out for the rats, and not getting your wand stuck in the scenery when leading the prince through the forest - that wand is hazardous, said Bea! The 30 second solo is hard and you wonder why you’re so tired. It ends choppily and people don’t know if you’ve finished as it’s so short but doesn’t look as impressive as you feel it should. It’s filled with textbook pirouettes and you can’t fudge anything as it’s all so visible. There are lots of pliés and it’s very slow and laboured but it mustn’t look that way. You have to keep the fluidity through the slow jumps without looking as if you’re dying. It then finishes with a series of fouettés into arabesque, with a windmill turn, repeated, all done on one leg so by the end your leg is cooked. It just requires a lot of grit and stamina but Bea wishes that Tchaikovsky had given the Lilac Fairy a better musical finish! Enchanted Garden, which she’s been doing since joining the Company, is less than 30 seconds. It’s a series of diagonal turns, super quick, a little aggressive, and a perfect little solo. Then Crystal Fountain is full of grace, you’re wearing a beautiful tutu and head-dress and hopping on pointe the whole time which definitely gets your toes! She loves it as it’s very quiet and different from her other two fairies.
At Christmas Bea was off with an injury to her heel when she couldn’t put a shoe on for a month but got back for rehearsals for The Cellist. It was a big thing to put together and they were working on it with Cathy Marston full time so they weren’t pulled in different directions which was great. She’d seen her choreography on line and loved it. The season before, Cathy had done a workshop so she could see them moving though they didn’t know who would get the roles. After that Bea thought she would love to do it as it would be something really special and she loved Cathy as a person too. She was over the moon to be given the part. At the first rehearsals they didn’t dance but spoke about Jacqueline du Pré and Daniel Barenboim and Cathy laid the ground work with the history of the characters. They watched videos, listened to music and a cellist came in to play for them. They also started talking about affectations and little mannerisms which would define Jackie to create who she was before her illness. It was a very interesting way to start working on the ballet because with a narrative like that it’s imperative that you understand exactly the person you are going to portray and what is going to happen to them. It’s very different from Manonor Romeoor Sleeping Beauty as it is a real person and people are still alive who were close to her and you want to do her justice. Bea thought it a clever way of starting the process. Then they started the movement and immediately Cathy wanted the cello to be a person which was one of the most successful things. Jackie had the relationship with Daniel and with her music but the love and passion of her life was the extension of her arm, her cello. At first the guys felt they were just going to be there feeling manoeuvred but no-one knew how the shapes would evolve not just between the two but also between the three of them. Cathy never wants the woman to be reliant on the man to lift her. Weight transference evenly distributed between girl and guy was a key part of creating the ballet. Bea recalled trying a barrel move between Daniel and Jackie where they lie on each other and roll over, all weight bearing, and both Lauren and she thought they’d bust a knee and there was no way they could bear the men putting their whole body weight on their thigh, but it happened and became a trade-mark move of the ballet. Bea had a very different cello in Calvin Richardson, who is much taller and longer than Marcie. Normally when creating a ballet the first cast will be at the front and the second cast at the back but Cathy would change it up and choreograph some on Lauren and Marcie and some on Bea and Calvin. Certain things would naturally be different because when Marcie was kneeling Lauren bent over to ‘play’ him, but that wasn’t the case for Bea and Calvin who are both quite long so certain things had to be changed technically to make it work. The fluidity came once they started working on it and getting to grips with the intricate and difficult choreography. When you’re at the back of the studio it’s hard to grasp the technicalities but the more they started honing it and working on it, the subtleties of the movement became clear and they understood how slight adjustments would make it easier, particularly dancing on the podium which was a bit scary as it’s postage stamp size. She loved working with Calvin on something quite different for them both in what was one of his first big things. He is so strong which is very important for this choreography as his neck and back are in very uncomfortable positions but naturally, he’s a mover who is comfortable with those positions and can contort himself and put his body in strange places which made it even better. Her Daniel changed at the last minute. Cesar Corales and she had worked on it together through the whole process, had developed a nice sense of movement and were geared up for their shows. Then the day before her debut Bea was told Cesar couldn’t do it as he’d been away and was now in quarantine. She ran into Matt Ball, who was in a heavy period of work, coming off from Onegin,and said did you know it’s you and me tomorrow night, and Matt just said don’t worry, we’ll get into the studio later and go over everything. Each movement is so personal and once you get to understand them with your own partner it’s tricky to do them with someone else. Luckily Matt is very good at last minute things and very generous and will take the time so they went into the studio with Ed Watson, who was ballet master on it, and it was just so easy. She was expecting them to take a while to get used to each other with all the different grips but in half an hour it worked. The other relationship is with her mother. Christina Arestis is a mother and her true personality is what you see on stage – she is so generous, giving and very funny. They have worked together in the past with this kind of relationship - she was Bea’s mum in Romeo and Juliet and she has been with Bea in milestone moments. She felt very lucky to have her on stage, as their relationship goes from very turbulent and fast paced initially to becoming tender, loving and caring. Christina made Bea feel like her child, the way she looked and touched her and it was very special to be able to do this show with her. Looking back on the whole process she felt extremely fortunate to have had that type of role in that production before everything hit. It was very emotional to take on this role and this life, regardless of what was going on in the outside world, so it was very special. The day following the last show of The Cellist was opening night of Swan Lake,a total contrast. The Cellist is very physical so you are bruised all over your body from rolling on the floor, being thrown around and manhandled and you have bumps and bruises everywhere. It’s also heavy on the right leg because of weight transference and she really felt it the next day being all battered and bruised which isn’t a good look for Swan Lake! It was very tough, totally switching gears, and moving into a feathery tutu. She did big swans for opening night and they managed a few shows before everything fell apart.
Then came the eternal lock-down. Bea went home soon after it happened. It was a difficult decision as her boyfriend couldn’t go home to Australia but she’d not seen her family for a while but worried if she didn’t go then it might be a very long time. She made it home and stayed with her parents in Florida for six weeks, much to their chagrin, and felt lucky to be in Miami with beautiful weather where she could see the water and go swimming in the ocean. It was surreal when you are hit with the realisation that what you’d worked on and for since the age of six had toppled over and everything was in a very different place. They had to go back to being six or seven years old and harness those skills and apply them to the next chapter. Bea found that life for her, and for everyone, was like Groundhog Day, but her general attitude, pandemic or not, is to approach everything with a sense of humour. It’s a high stressed and highly pressured profession when you’re asking your bodies and minds to do very difficult, intense and dense work, with the same people 24 hours a day. Bea’s mantra is always not to take herself or things too seriously and maintain a sense of humour and she appreciates like-minded people. When you’re dancing 12 hours a day it’s a great release to have moments of utter laughter and that she applied to lock-down. For social media Bea uses mainly Instagram. The biggest thing for her is to be a gateway into what dancers actually do. Ballet can seem a bit unapproachable when people don’t know what’s involved – working through pain, rehearsing five ballets a day and performing in the evening all year round, and when not rehearsing you’re in the gym and always active. She wants to break down that barrier between audience and performer as it’s interesting for the public to have a glimpse into what they do, in the way that insight evenings are a great forum. She used social media to harass her father which she did a lot during the first lock-down - at first he was pleased to have her home but finally couldn’t wait for her to go! Since then it’s been about little things she sees and feels throughout the day, nostalgia for past experiences and shows and life, they’ve been doing a lot of reminiscing with pictures from the past and bringing up a treasure trove of mementoes of life and career that are special. While not in any way diminishing her understanding of what’s happening in the world, Bea has provided some levity and offered little things she finds uplifting during the day which she tries to impart on social media.
In the previous season Bea did a lot, finishing with the Dante Project in Los Angeles. She said it was a really great season. She did Two Pigeons again which she loves, but the highlight was Romeo and Juliet which was the biggest moment of her career. Then they went on tour and performed Dante Part I in LA with her in the role of Beatrice. It was such a cool, cool ballet, extremely dark and weird. They didn’t know what to expect as they had rehearsed it totally separately from each other except when people were doing a section together. They saw no-one until one day it was the full call. A list of names for each section went up on the wall and suddenly there were all the dancers involved, a panel including Kevin O’Hare and Wayne McGregor, artistic staff and costume people were there, and suddenly it all came together before their eyes. It was jaw-dropping. It looked so great and they felt very proud of each other as everyone had been creating in secret with Wayne, and then suddenly there were ten movements with a lot of dancers doing amazing things and it all came together. It obviously needed more work but they finished the run through and everyone was laughing as they had pulled it off. They felt immediate excitement that they were going to debut the first movement in California, and everyone loves California.
Reverting to Juliet, Bea said she’d first covered it when she was 19 and it had always been the dream role. She knew it inside out and it was what drew her to MacMillan and the Royal Ballet. She was very fortunate to have incredible coaches and an incredible partner. Ryoichi Hirano had covered it many times and knew it inside out and they have danced together a lot so she felt totally safe in his hands. The coaches were Ed Watson, Leanne Benjamin, Lesley Collier and Julie Lincoln so together they had years of huge knowledge and experience which was passed down for every little step. It was everything that she hoped it would be and when that happens they’re the most sacred moments. Her whole family – cousins and aunts and uncles – came to watch so it was a very special life event. The knowledge she gained from just two rehearsals was incomparable. Every part of the ballet is about story telling. It’s not just the movement, but how you place your feet, how you run or touch something, and the gestures and movements are all part of who you want your Juliet to be. She’d be told you’re walking too turned out, too like a ballerina, make it more natural. You almost have to dig into the ugly and raw to make MacMillan’s vocabulary have its full meaning and that she loved delving into.
Bea also loves Two Pigeons so much. She feels kinship with the young girl - it takes you on a really big journey, she starts out being so naive, mischievous and playful, annoying and an absolute nuisance. Through love and seeing the world from her atelier she begins to mature and it shows major growth in a short time through the dancing. There’s a beautiful pas de deux finally when she is a woman who understands herself and her love. Ashton was clever in the way he portrayed all the elements of the story not just with the acting and timing but truly through the dance movement. The chicken dance is when they move like chickens and that is who her character is. It was a perfect revisit for her.
Sugar Plum Fairy is a ballerina staple which Bea has done for the last four years. It is one of the most challenging roles technically. Her progress from her first to last time involved a lot of learning and real growth for Bea as a dancer. It’s all about having beautiful warmth and an air of nothingness and grace and elegance but it is so physically demanding. Legs and feet have to work like steel. It’s so exposed and takes a huge amount of stamina preparation to get ready for it. There’s a mix of melancholy and uplifting beauty in the score of Sugar Plum music that is Christmas and pure dance so she has a special place in her heart for the role.
Don Q. Here Bea had another debut as Mercedes, the street dancer. She’s aggressive and showy with her big jumps and tambourine, and everyone looks at her centre stage. You dance with all the guys throughout the piece and there’s one solo which is very uncomfortable dance-wise. The body twists one way when you go the other way, there’s a lot of repetition of particular movements and turns while using your fan and it’s awkward. She had a great time with Matt and Valentino as her Espadas.
In Mayerling Bea has done Princess Louise, and Mitzi with a great cast of guys. They need to be totally on the ball as they are throwing you around and catching you to very fast music. You’re wearing the heaviest, most uncomfortable costume, it’s so thick around the waist and the whole dress starts to ride up so they’re grabbing and throwing you by the costume. It’s a fantastic role as Mitzi has such command of her area and space. The music is so not her, very aloof and almost too feminine and girly, but she uses it to play to her allure and mystique. Then the officers’ dance music is so aggressive, which is really her, so there are two very different parts dance-wise.
Asked how she kept fit during lock-down, Bea said motivation was a large part of it. For a dancer it’s so obvious when fitness levels go up and down and they really feel it. They had to have the stability and push to do daily class to keep them grounded, keep up the technique, remain focussed and not get injured. Having the discipline and knowledge that even if you are kicking a vase or your leg brushes a bed-frame, it will be worth it in the long run even if you can’t see the end. Discipline is important for them all and particularly on days when it’s a struggle and you don’t feel like getting out of bed in the morning.
They’re now back in the studio in a very regimented, masked and socially distanced way and are being tested twice a week. They are being very careful having got this far and they don’t want any bumps along the way so feel lucky to be back and having massage, physical therapy etc when they know so many other dancers don’t have that luxury. They’re due to put on two Crystal Pite works. There are no more details but Bea hopes to be involved as she loves her work and wasn’t in Flight Pattern as she was doing another ballet and there wasn’t time. They don’t know when they’ll start rehearsals and Bea hopes soon but they’re careful about announcements as they live in hope and it’s hard if hopes get up and are then dashed when something gets in the way.
Sadly, we had come to an end but David thanked Bea very much, saying it was always an enormous pleasure to talk with her. She is someone who always comes to the stage door and everyone is looking forward to following the rest of her career as she goes forward in the Royal Ballet. In her turn Bea thanked us and said she was a baby when she first came to talk to us, but she loved meeting everyone and making a connection. She feels she’s lived so many lives since then but as a dancer it’s special to have a connection with the audience and people who care about and support them, particularly now.
Report written by Liz Bouttell and edited by Beatriz Stix-Brunell and David Bain.
© The Ballet Association 2021