Matthew Ball & Mayara Magri 2021
- Zhan Atymtayev
- Matthew Ball
- Isabella Boyd
- Mayara Magri
- Julie Petanova
- Johan Kobborg
- Marion Tait
- Alejandro Valera
Matthew Ball & Mayara Magri
Principal & First Soloist, The Royal Ballet
Interviewed by David Bain
Zoom video conference, January 20 2021
Following David’s welcome, our guests started by telling us about last season. Matt had his debut as Des Grieux in Manon, a role he’d always had an eye on and was one of the most exciting in the repertoire. He’d been involved with the ballet since his first season in different roles, but this proved to be everything he ever expected and more – the technical challenges are amazing and often people talk about how difficult is the Prince (Mayerling) and even Romeo but this was every bit as hard. Anything created on Anthony Dowell is always difficult as there are a few steps which only he could do, which is a challenge! He was coached mainly with Ed Watson and had some time with Leanne Benjamin and Lauren Cuthbertson (his Manon). Ed had started to settle into his role as coach and his experience of the MacMillan rep is second to none. He was impressive, so clear with everything that he wanted and very knowing as he’d only recently left the role himself. He gave Matt the kind of freedom he needed as a performer, which is necessary in MacMillan ballets, while also hanging on to key moments in order to keep the integrity of the work. David asked, when tackling a piece like that, how do you put your own individual interpretation on the role? Matt said he’d been watching it since he was 12 on a big screen in a park in Liverpool with Carlos Acosta and Tamara Rojo, then at the Royal Ballet School and then in the Company when you’re on stage watching different performers. You develop a sense of attachment over time and become part of the fabric of the piece, and when you’re in crowd scenes you get the atmosphere and ambience and beÏing in the back row it’s nice to be able to be a spectator as well as a performer, having a seat that no-one in the auditorium could match. Those experiences allowed Matt to have an idea of what his version of the role would be so he’d already made decisions about what he liked, what he didn’t and what his approach would be. Having said that, when you get down to the nitty gritty with partnering etc there is so much depth to the role that you need to be very studious and structured in the way you learn it.
Mayara got to do Mistress for the first time, having only covered it before. When she joined the Company, Monica Mason was still coaching and it was nice to be learning the role in the room with her because she was amazing in it. Mayara kept watching videos to try to get that freshness and freedom. Helen Crawford, who’d done the role so many times, coached them, and they also had one on one coaching with Julie Lincoln who loves teaching a whole role – she feels she can give so much, talking about the old days and it’s fun to have her in the room as you don’t focus quite so much on the pure technicality. It is a very technical role and having that dress super tight around the waist and the big wig you need help with what you have to do. She helped Mayara live the part and be sassy and flirt so it was fun. She only did two shows, so it was hard to pull it together but she really enjoyed it, putting her own personality into it and doing the role her own way without copying anybody. She would have liked more time to find different things about her character. The comedy is really difficult and to make it funny it has to be all about timing and not letting your body tell what will happen next so the anticipation must not take over. She danced with Cesar Corales which was fun, though it was a bit hard to connect at first as she hadn’t worked with him before; she had her own ideas, he was doing his own thing and they had to find the right timing and dynamic to tell the story, but they went out and had fun and the audience had fun as well. Two shows don’t give you enough stage time to master everything. She feels Lescaut has so much power over her and in Act I he just pushes her around. By the pas de deux, she is thinking he is drunk so she will be carefree and just mock him. Cesar was a bit too active with her and they struggled to find the right timing initially. He was wanting her to do things and Mayara was trying to do as little as possible and let the reaction be spontaneous.
As Matt had watched and been in the ballet for many years, David wondered how it had changed as a production? Matt felt it means something different to every generation and that makes it exciting and it lives on in live performance. Working with people like Monica gives a sense of authenticity to what it originally was. For Matt the way the story works is the same today as it was when he first watched, touching on a love story within a rigid class system and it still felt relevant to him. The way the Company performs it now, they are a younger generation with lots of energy on stage so that is a change since he first watched it. From the beginning the beggar boys with the first dance come on and set the tempi. Carlos and Tamara were the people he watched the first time and they made a strong impression. But going back to the videos of Anthony Dowell it seems just as fresh and invigorating so perhaps you can’t argue that the modern era has more in that sense. And in Matt’s approach it’s more about being honest which feeds into the whole MacMillan thing and you can’t hide from your own personality and especially with a character like Des Grieux, who is almost too naive to cope in the real world, he tries to give a sense of earnest to get that vulnerability.
Next came the Merce Cunningham Centenary celebration in the Linbury. Mayara said they were so excited to be involved. It was good to be experiencing Cunningham’s work and they should also have gone to Paris as part of the celebration but were too busy in London so Kevin sent others instead to enjoy six days in Paris!. It was really hard. Mayara had only seen videos of his work but Matt had taken Cunningham classes at the Royal Ballet School, so he understood the technique but performing within that strict format was an interesting challenge. There’s an internal rhythm to the piece and as a dancer you’re acknowledging your connection to the music and the other dancers, but the leeway playing off one another is an active participant in the dance itself. For Matt it felt like modern art almost belonging in a gallery and that was the ambience he got - there’s a coldness in some aspects but it’s also incredibly charged where you’re trying to listen to everything around you whilst completing an unusual step four times and then reversing. Normally they’re told here’s the music and here are the steps but with this they had to learn the choreography with no music and they (Mayara, Matt and Frankie Hayward) had to feel it together as a trio so they went through it, running seven minutes of choreography without music just by stamping their feet and taking breaths. They did time it and found they were doing it within five seconds of the seven and a half minutes of music. They found an internal musicality but suddenly they were thrown on and got the music which was just noises. David asked if they were told to block out the music. Matt said it was more that there was an awareness you might want to go with it when it was really about letting it be where it is and you are where you are. Sometimes as a dancer there’ll be some sync you can’t avoid so don’t resist but don’t give in. It feels as if there’s a whole philosophy behind it and working on it with Daniel Squire, you got the sense of how committed the dancers were to the niche within the art form and how incredible was their focus and almost mathematical approach to the work. With more time on their hands, Mayara and Matt have been watching some different dance styles on TV. There are famous dance practitioners whose names you know and associate with a few steps or particular ballets that define their work, but the root of the knowledge isn’t quite there so they’ve been looking at people like Graham, Cunningham and Limón, who are part of their world but on the horizon, so doing some background research on them has been very interesting.
Then there was the Concerto, Enigma and Raymondaprogramme. A hard triple programme for Mayara, who was involved in all of them. The third movement of Concerto is tough but fun but if you didn’t have Christopher Carr shouting at you, you wouldn’t get through it! He coached Mayara and she had a lot of fun, it’s a very physical eight minutes and you reach exhaustion but the reward is great, the music is energetic,it leads you on and at the end you have a feeling of accomplishment. In Raymonda she did the fourth solo which was fun as well. She could connect with it - very much the way she dances, very energetic, and she enjoyed the style, the lovely music and it looked so grand on the Opera House stage. In Enigma, Matt laughed about dancing Troyte which is 50 seconds of glory before shooting off stage, but it’s a tough 50 seconds, particularly with his long legs, as you probably get more steps in that time than Mayara had in her five-minute pas de deux. As Matt had said before, dancing Anthony Dowell’s roles is never easy but this was the other end of the scale in terms of the technique involved. He has always loved the ballet which is a real master class of how skilful Ashton was at crafting character sketches within a short space of time with so many idiosyncrasies and interesting passages of movement. Matt said that even watching it from a very young age his mind was blurred and he couldn’t believe how special was the purity and directness of Ashton’s use of the movement language when Nimrod comes on and the two men are having a conversation. He watched Mayara’s duet with more attention this time, and really loved it as well and thought it a touching moment. Mayara found the choreography lovely, and period and design were beautifully captured. The only problem for her is when the curtain goes up, she is already in the hammock with her back just so and she’s like that for eight minutes before she has to dance. She piled up cushions behind her back to try to take her mind off the long wait before the dance! It’s a lovely pas de deux which she did with Tomas Mock who is adorable and it was great to work on it. The style and use of the upper body, with lots of Ashton head and shoulders involved and the costume and blue shoes make it all special. Also, it’s such a different role from the others she was doing and it was hard to experience all of the different elements - very physical in Concerto, grand and stylish in Raymonda and then Enigma, loving and generous, though luckily not all in the same shows. It was a very exciting triple for the Company as everybody had opportunities and Kevin was amazing at finding roles for people so they could get on stage.
Sleeping Beauty came next. Mayara said it was her least favourite ballet and for Matt not his favourite either! Even as a Junior Associate he had a lot of ideas about its place in the heritage of the Company as the classic of all classics, and at White Lodge he was the Lilac Fairy’s page. He feels a sense of pressure performing it, but it’s nice to come back to it after his debut having more confidence and experience working through the role and he even enjoyed the Dowell slow solo in Act II. It’s the biggest opportunity you get to give the character some cleft and make him a bit more three dimensional. A special bonus was being part of Anna Rose Sullivan’s debut as Aurora as they’d been together at White Lodge since the age of 11, so it was a highlight of the run as well as doing some Bluebird shows, another big challenge but an enjoyable one. With the likes of Troyte, he feels he can’t move very fast and it’s easier for smaller dancers, but this has the jumps which are a good challenge. Mayara admitted it was probably because of the amount of shows she’d done in all the roles since joining the Company that made it her least favourite ballet. But this time she had the chance to do Lilac Fairy and it was so special and she loved working on the role. Monica was there and they worked on it together and managed to find the serenity needed and also the strength as she’s the most powerful fairy. They also worked a lot on the mimes and she loved performing it. She and Matt also did Bluebird together for one show and she did lots with Cesar and it’s a lovely grand pas de deux and not too hard technically, so you can just be a fairy. The Lilac Fairy role is hard in the prologue because it’s so technical and for the solo you must be absolutely sure about your technique as everything little thing shows. It’s hard to go on and just spread the goodness being all fairy-like, knowing you have to deliver a two-minute solo which it could go very wrong. Matt put forward the idea that it’s not just the solo but the music is so grand and stately and you have to do the turns precisely with the music and be on top of every moment. You’re maintaining grandness while achieving quite hard technical steps. After that it is just fun going on the boat and taking the Prince on a boat ride, you’ve got the wand and tell Carabosse to go away. Monica always says you have to be able to see things through the trees and she puts a lot of imagery in their minds so they are able to tell the story. It’s very enjoyable and good that you can save the day in the end. So, not really her least favourite ballet!
Coppelia was fun. It was new for so many of the Company and they all had a pleasant surprise as a change from Nutcracker.It has brightness and fun character parts and beautiful music which Matt didn’t know. As far as debuts go, he enjoyed the shows and tried to get the most out of them. Franz is not the most complex character but he enjoyed getting on stage in the first act and settling in to the role. Body language is telling and from the beginning you have to bring to the fore the comedy and mime elements which are really central to the ballet. You have the grand pas de deux to make your statement with proper dancing. For Mayara it wasn’t at all complex, she went on stage and was just herself. She was so pleased to do the role and had fun from the very first moment she came out of the door. At the Prix de Lausanne she did a version of Coppelia and it meant a lot to her at the age of 16. It was quite special as it brought her here to the Royal Ballet School and the Company. The whole Company also enjoyed it because it isn’t complex but just a simple, straightforward story and everybody gets it and the audience leaves the theatre happy so it was nice to have for Christmas. Mayara’s Dr Coppelius was Tom Whitehead and it was good to play it with him. The second act is quite long with two of them doing just about everything while the male lead is asleep on the table getting leg cramps! It’s such a nice scene and needs to be well rehearsed as the timing is very hard. Leanne Benjamin was coaching and was great, pushing in every way technically and her energy was great, she had been coaching for some while but she was fresh and happy to be there and it was a role she had owned in the past so she had a lot to pass on which was good.
Onegin. Matt said it was special as it had been his first principal role and his first opportunity to get a character role on stage, which was something he went into head on. This time it was with more understanding and also there was the ease of being partnered with Yasmine Naghdi as he often has been and they have experience working together, so technically it came together quickly. The role is so expressive with all the honesty of juvenile, youthful love in the first act and then the contrast when it turns out tragically. Lensky’s lament solo is one of his favourite solos, full of very difficult turns but at the same time telling the story. He always thought of himself as acting the part but it was interesting rehearsing with Reid Anderson who wanted to pull more out of him, saying you can’t just do the pirouette, you must give me more, give me more. The way he dealt with the whole Company, and not just the iconic solos and pas de deux, was really instructive about the feeling of the piece which he had down to a tee. It was inspiring to work with him as he didn’t have the chance last time. Although he did enjoy another outing of Lensky, Matt is desperate to do Onegin and really feels ready to give Eugene a go.
The next programme was The Cellist/Dances at a Gathering. Matt said they spent a very long time working on The Cellist and getting it ready. When it was first talked about, he already knew about Jacqueline du Pré and the Elgar cello concerto which was featured strongly and was excited by the prospect but everyone was unsure of the approach. They were introduced to the idea of the cello being played by a dancer and he was involved in some movement workshops for the cello. Although Cathy Marston had worked with the Company previously, the current generation wasn’t familiar with her so it was uncharted waters, but once they got their teeth into it, it flowed out quite quickly and created a 50 minute ballet which is no mean feat. On the stage they were unsure how the continuity would work, with set changes etc, but with the lighting and revolving set in place, it gathered momentum and all came together with the orchestra involvement and the incredible climaxes they gave which were very powerful. He was at the back of the stage with his head in his hands during the Rachmaninov moment between Marcelino Sambé and Lauren and it was incredibly touching just to be a witness to that. They did approach Daniel Barenboim for permission for them to do the ballet but Matt didn’t meet him. He confessed to being quite intimidated at the prospect of playing this giant of the music world but their approach to the playing and the development of his character was not to go for literal representations of his mannerisms but the youthfulness of their moment in the spotlight of the music world was their key focus. Mayara said it inspired Matt to start playing the cello during lockdown – lots of giggles!
In Dances at a Gathering, Mayara was Mauve which was amazing and such a nice role. Jerome Robbins’ choreography brought back the simplicity of the art form just telling a story though there’s no real story to tell with lovely music guiding you through interactions with different people of different temperaments and it was so enjoyable to do, a pleasant, feel-good ballet with the audience getting involved. She had the scherzo as well as the waltz so could show both sides of herself, the strong and the soft, gentle side. For The Cellist she was involved throughout the process learning the Jacqueline du Pre role but focussed mainly on Dances so another busy double bill for both of them. Will there be a third cast when it comes back? Who knows but if you try to see another cast Matt will still be there!
Then Swan Lake. For Mayara it would have been the highlight of her season as, like all ballerinas, it’s a role she’d dreamed of doing for so long. You always want to experience and challenge yourself with this role so she was hoping for it to happen, and very excited to work with Marcie as they get on so well and they have a great partnership but she was a bit worried about being in the tutu and the height. She really enjoyed being coached by Zenaida Yanowsky, who was unbelievable, trying to pull from her as much truth and body language as she could put into it, rather than trying just to do the perfect arabesque, almost making it contemporary in the use of the upper body. But, unfortunately, they didn’t make it onto the stage as everything shut down two weeks before their show, though they did do a stage call but Marcie didn’t quite know all the choreography as he’d been concentrating on his six hour day working on The Cello. Then she was stressing about the stage call for both of them but they did have time to pull it together so Mayara got a little taste of it. Hopefully it will be back soon and it might feel very different as there’s been a year without proper ballet. Matt said he didn’t get started with it, just a couple of rehearsals, but the first time round it was a big moment for the Company doing a new production of this iconic ballet. He partnered Natalia Osipova, which was a very big honour and very exciting and it tested him in a lot of respects so he enjoyed the opportunity and looks forward to doing it again. He has a new favourite Swan Lake and Mayara said he’s danced Swan Queen before she has! David mentioned Miyako Yoshida saying Jonny Cope was a frustrated ballerina – was Matt also? He wouldn’t quite say that but he knows the feeling from time to time and to some extent they can have the better roles than the men. Here Mayara intervened forcefully to say MacMillan gave the men all the roles and Matt agreed it evened out and anyway he didn’t feel like doing the Rose Adage, and probably the audience wouldn’t want to see it either!
Then came lockdown. It was hard; they almost couldn’t believe it and no-one anticipated the chain of events that happened. At first, there was an element of novelty and they really stuck at the training as much as possible, training in the park, doing class in the kitchen. The most frustrating thing was to go back to work in a fairly functioning capacity and then it was taken away back and forth again and that’s the most difficult to deal with psychologically. They have tried to see it as an opportunity, having the gift of time it allowed them as being special, a bit like injury with enforced leave where you get a fresh perspective on what you’re doing and having free time and energy to commit to other things. So, they tried to invest the time wisely, developing new pursuits, hobbies and projects, personally and collaboratively. They are trying to hold on to the positivity but where we’re at in 2021 it feels a bit dismal. Mayara reiterated they found time for themselves and to think of things other than ballet. In one way, it was advantageous as they had the opportunity to dance together for the first time because as a couple they’d not done that. They were in Christopher Wheeldon’s piece in the last concert and Carousel and then Corsaire. So, there was a positive outcome for them as a couple but it was very fleeting and it feels you get back up to a certain point and then inevitably go down again. We don’t often see Carousel on the Opera House stage. Mayara said she’d watched the pdd, but didn’t know about the musical though Sarah and Carlos had performed it in a gala in the States. They were amazed by how much they could get from that piece, the music was fun and the choreography made sense and was special to go out there and be free and tell the story. As a first experience to be back on the stage with the orchestra in the stalls it had a different look but spectacular and unusual but to hear the sound swelling in the show and nostalgic tunes and anyone who hears them thinks, where have I heard that before? It was also an amazing opportunity to do one of MacMillan’s last creations and although not the most original or groundbreaking choreography it has a highlight and it’s glorious to get on and do some big lifts and then you turn and face one another when the music hits you and it felt it gave them a new and fresh understanding on why we love to be on stage. Then following on was Corsaire and Matt said you feel it’s ‘now comes the marks out of 10’ moment! For Mayara it was quite hard for her confidence level. It was the first grand pas de deux that she did at the age of 12 at home in Brazil, so knew it so well but having not been on stage for so long and not having the contact with ballet, she did doubt herself so much and with only two days’ notice it was tough. Marianela and Vadim were the first cast and there were to be two different programmes of the gala but the first programme was the only one that was able to go on so Kevin was trying to squeeze extras into it including Corsaire. They were rehearsing for a week or so down the line but on the Monday, they came back and Kevin said can you do it on Wednesday? It was another extra hurdle as they were all feeling a bit sensitive to the circumstances and freshness of getting back on stage for that sort of work. But it was fun and they went out and did it.
There was then a great build-up to Nutcracker with alterations including Will Tuckett’s redoing of the battle scene and some cuts. They were excited to be putting something on and were booked for 17 shows though in the end were only able to do five with all the same cast because of restrictions of costumes and changes. There was no filming so it was a bit unsettling as the whole Company should have been involved but because of restrictions not everyone got on. Mayara had five shows of lead flowers and it was great to be back with the Company around you, and that’s what they do best, it was an amazing production and nice to have the audience there and feel the energy and the pleasure people had in watching a live performance. Matt lost the filming with Yasmine when Mayara should have done Rose Fairy – sadly it didn’t happen but it will in future.
They have just come back from mid-season break but they’re not yet called to rehearsals as there are no shows, so it’s just classes. They should have been going to Brazil for Matt’s first visit, but that can’t happen though Mayara said in a way it was a blessing in disguise. Reverting to the season before last Mayara’s highlights were Kitri, Gamzatti, Firebirdand the Gypsy. She said she was so lucky to get these wonderful roles and it was amazing to do Gamzatti with Matt and Lauren, working with Natalia Makarova which was truly one of the biggest things in her career. She wants to do it more and get better at the role and develop it artistically. It’s one of those traditional roles where she can enjoy the physicality – super tough in Act I but then enjoy Act III. She loved the role of Kitri where she could be herself and go out and enjoy it. It was lovely to work with Alex Campbell and he supported her all the way through as an experienced principal who’d done Basilio so many times. So, while she was worrying about her debut and just getting through it he helped her along the way. She had such fun on stage, her family came from Brazil and her sisters appeared as a surprise so it was an emotional moment which was remarkable for her and will stay with her for ever. Her father thought she was exactly the same as real life! Mayara wasn’t meant to do Firebird but Akane Takada went off, Monica asked her and of course she said she’d love to. She worked on it with Monica which was very special as she makes you dig deep and get as much as you can out of it. After Queen of the Willis it was her hardest role yet as it’s emotionally draining and physically tiring. She loves story-telling ballets and you feel a sense of achievement afterwards. It’s been amazing and she feels they have been given opportunities as Kevin understands them, what they want and what they are capable of. There is hopefully a lot more to come.
Highlights of Matt’s career. That year was incredibly busy for him. He started working with New Adventures for Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake, got it ready in the last few weeks of summer before the Royal began their season and performed it once in Plymouth, before coming back to work on Mayerling when he had to learn Rudolf for a stage call in five days. Then straight into Solor for the first time, followed by the new creation, Unknown Soldier, and then a run of Swan Lake at Sadler’s Wells. As a result, he was very skinny and hard worked that year! He did more shows of Swan Lake than any other role and it was amazing to get that time on stage and settle into the part so you feel comfortable with it. Usually when he performs a role he wants it to be the performance to remember, but with this he felt he could experiment and play it a different way rather than always trying to reach the peak. You also have to be intelligent about the way you pace yourself within those runs of four shows a week which was a lot more intensive than he’d experienced at the Royal although it does elements of very difficult rep and a lot of different work at the same time which has its own challenge. It was a very busy season but some of the most exciting work he has ever done, it felt like a whirlwind moment but coming out of it there was a lot that was really memorable. Asked why there was no DVD of him in Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake, Matt said unfortunately they filmed it for cinema release when he was off for two weeks with a not-too-serious but recurrent swollen knee problem. It mended quickly but not in time for the cinema performance though he was back and able to go to Japan and New York for those shows. Of other highlights from earlier on, Matt said Romeo is a role he feels very attached to, it could be a natural affinity and it was his first titular role. It’s such an incredible work and the experience as a relative newcomer of that mammoth role, and diving into it head first and trying to put his own mark on it was remarkable and very special. In terms of other highlights there are so many but he’s particularly pride of the new creations and hopefully they might endure. Works like Obsidian Tear where they created something quite unique and special, and the corps work of Crystal Pite’s and Hofesh Schecter’s new works were something inspiring which don’t garner you lots of attention and praise but you are part of something really profound and that he’ll remember just as clearly.
Earlier in Mayara’s career she did Rubies with Marcelino which was such fun as they’ve created a great partnership and they had Pat Neary, who came and took class every morning with them and was so active at 80 with so much energy and quoted Balanchine as if he’s still alive and there with them – he won’t be happy with that rehearsal, he won’t like this’. It was very exciting to work with her on such a role. In Chris Wheeldon’s Corybantic Games again with Marcie they created the super quick, breath-taking pas de deux, a super ballet for Bernstein’s anniversary. Queen of the Willis was her first time working with Monica. She enjoyed gypsy as a biggest highlight until Firebirdwhere she found the connection between the physically hard role and being emotionally involved. They’ve had so many chances to challenge themselves through the years with the company and she can’t wait to get back to the routine.
It’s been a delight to talk to them, said David. Many BA members have followed Matt since his Nutcracker at the School and we are so pleased that Mayara came to the Royal Ballet School after the Prix de Lausanne and joined the Company. David thanked them so much for being our guests, and they have been our most popular webinar meeting yet with 147 devices logged on to the interview.
Report written by Liz Bouttell and edited by Mayara Magri, Matthew Ball and David Bain.
© The Ballet Association 2021