Sarah Lamb 2023
- Alexander Campbell
- Amelia Townsend
- Annette Buvoli
- Carlos Acosta
- Christopher Powney
- Iain Webb
- Isabella Gasparini
- Laura Morera
- Liam Boswell
- Madison Bailey
- Margaret Barbieri
- Nadia Mullova-Barley
- Ryoichi Hirano
- Sarah Lamb
Principal, The Royal Ballet
Interviewed by David Bain
American International Church, Tue 14th March, 2023
In welcoming Sarah, David said that they would start by talking about the current season. Currently they were preparing for the return of Cinderella.Sarah is now one of the few in the Company who’ve danced this ballet before. Marianela Nuñez is another. It has been quite a few years since it was last performed. Now it’s all coming back to her. She loves the music and, of course, dancing with Steven McRae. Leanne Benjamin is their coach. She is very exacting and certainly knows all Sarah’s peccadilloes. Sarah appreciates Leanne’s honesty and enjoys working with her immensely. Discussing the changes to this production, Sarah feels that the changes are more to do with the set and costumes than the dancing. As for the step-sisters, she knows that Christina Arestis and Kristin McNally are one pair but that’s all at the moment. As the casting not finalised, she doesn’t know her ‘Sisters’ for each performance. Apparently, Kevin O’ Hare was said to have vetoed a return of Cinderella up until now because of what is perceived as its ‘dated humour’. However, Sarah feels that that the humour still works if taken in a pantomime way – and key to that is the timing.
Turning to the start of the season, which was the return of Mayerling.In the first cast, Sarah was Marie Larisch. This time she enjoyed being with Marcellino Sambé on his debut as Rudolf. He was appreciative of her experience in the ballet. She could remember being a novice herself and realises that now she is in a position to pass on what she has learnt and indeed is still learning. Every teacher will tell you that they still continue to learn.
Her original coach for Marie Larisch was Monica Parker who had a superb notation and deep understanding of the ballet. She was already less physical in the studio by then. Sarah was nervous about working with Monica because of her reputation, but now thinks perhaps she had a slight ‘in’ because of being partnered with Ed Watson of whom Monica was very fond. Another early coach was Jonny Cope who was helpful for the pas de deux.. She thinks she found her way herself in to acting Marie Larisch .
Later on, she was coached by Leanne Benjamin, who had been a memorable Mary Vetsera and was one of the last chosen by Kenneth MacMillan to dance the role. Leanne’s great understanding and feeling for the ballet is palpable and Sarah feels it a great honour to be part of this lineage. Sarah doesn’t like being told what to do regarding characterisation as opposed to ballet technique. Of course, Kenneth Macmillan’s interpretation of Marie Larisch is not the same as the historical character. Sarah is intrigued by Marie Larisch and doesn’t see her as simply an evil character but rather as a multi-faceted one. She’s blinded by her desire to be as close to Rudolf as possible whether out of pure love or love of power. Sarah tries to bring out the goodness in her. She feels that now we would see Rudolf as being mentally ill or at least as having a schizoaffective disorder and Mary Vetsera as having a misunderstanding of life and death. However, death pacts were not unknown in that milieu at that time. Sarah tries to research her roles carefully and reads around them a lot especially with Mayerling where she had read about the history of the family as well as Marie Larisch’s own memoir. David pointed out the apparent contrast in Sarah dancing the older Marie Larisch earlier on in her career and only dancing the much younger Mary Vetsera later.
David then touched on Onegin,another ballet where Sarah danced two contrasting lead roles. She had danced Tatiana in Boston. Onegin was a favourite ballet when she was young. She has read Pushkin in translation. She is a great fan of Russian literature, reading lots of Gogol & Dostovesky. She first read Onegin aged about 13 and has been able to grow into the roles. She might look like the blonde Olga but is Tatiana. She first danced Tatiana with Valeri Hristov who now teaches in the Royal Ballet School. She thinks he really was typecast for Onegin, with his looks, his imperious carriage and demeanour.
Returning to this season, Sarah absolutely loved dancing Diamonds. She had first danced Rubies with Carlos Acosta when she was covering Diamonds and was reading Suzanne Farrell’s books and watching all the beautiful ballerinas at the Mariinsky. It’s Balanchine’s homage to the Russian Court and you can see the grandeur, the beauty, the perfection and the genius. She had danced a lot of Balanchine at Boston, including Slaughter on 10th Avenue, Serenade, Theme and Variationsand Apollo.Here at the Royal Ballet she’s danced Symphony in C, Diamonds, Rubies, Four Temperamentsand Apollo.
David commented that critics talk about the difference in how Balanchine is danced by the Royal Ballet as opposed to companies in the States. Sarah felt that it comes from the style of training and demonstrated the way a dancer comes out of a position from the hips rather than straight down. So, there is a definite difference in time and space which would explain why the Royal Ballet appear to dance more slowly and with less of the extreme risk element that Balanchine loved. This is quite clear in Rubies where there’s a sense of excitement and focus on centralised movement.
She worked on Balanchine’s Concerto Barocco at 13 and learned from the approaches of teachers who had actually worked with Balanchine. This was quite a contrast to the experience of those of her contemporaries who had been at White Lodge and the Royal Ballet Upper School. However, training has changed since then. Now Pat Neary teaches Balanchine for the Royal Ballet. Sarah thinks she’s fantastic and her humour brightens up the room. She had worked in Boston but now just is based in Europe.
Sarah had danced in Mozartiana in Boston as a child. She remembers that Suzanne Farrell could give them the steps but felt that her own experiences of being the dancer stopped her from communicating the ‘how’ to others. Other dancers all had their unique personalities and relationship with Balanchine. And it was clear to Sarah why they had been chosen for different roles. She does miss dancing Balanchine and wishes she could do it at least once a year.
Sarah has been dancing The Nutcracker for a long time! She was Baby Mouse in 1989. She had been given an envelope with her part but read it as Baby Moose so when she was told “pas de couru, Baby Mouse!” by the rehearsal director she had no idea what it meant! Someone saved her saying “run, small and fast!”
She danced Clara for the 100th anniversary and then the first time she danced the Sugar Plum Fairy she was an apprentice with her (now) husband Patrick and yes, they were a couple at the time. It was a small company about 40 strong but lots of people were off sick. Once her solo started the audience clapped along - OUT of time all the way through! This was in the Wang Theater, originally a movie house seating 4200! It had a flat stage and an enormous orchestra pit. Now it’s been renovated as the Opera House and suits ballet much better. The first time she had gone there, she saw Alvin Ailey from the seats at the top, it was like watching it on a small screen but that performance so energised her and she absolutely loved it.
She was going to take time out to get her nose fixed (breathing issues) at the start of this year but Kevin O’ Hare asked her to step in for Sleeping Beauty. It was a case of that or hire a guest artist. However, Marcellino Sambé has been unable to do the rest of the Sleeping Beauty run due to injury, such a shame as he had given a beautiful performance.
Sarah is not in Woolf Works this time but was in the original cast. On Wayne McGregor; doing Beatrix in The Dante Project was very emotional and it was very meaningful and an honour to dance with Edward Watson in his final performance and to say goodbye on stage. Sarah feels that Wayne respects her artistry and thoughts in the creative process. When cast for Chroma, David Dawson, who had worked with her in Boston, had put in a good word for her. The attention to detail that is necessary for great classical technique transfers well to McGregor. He respects your version of what he does. ‘Watching him move and you think there’s no way I can do that’. She has noticed that dancer input has increased over the years certainly as far as she is concerned. Dancing Chroma with Federico (Bonelli) it all seemed to unfold and to fall into place.
With Raven Girl, it’s difficult to be objective when you are in it. It has very contemporary issues about being in the wrong body and gender and things about self that you want to change, testing boundaries as with a teenager. Sarah would do things like going over the pointe in shoes that would be quite hard for others but is not sure if she could do it now.
Asked how much did Wayne McGregor talked about the book with The Dante Project,Sarah said ‘Not much at all.’ He used the William Blake illustrations for his inspirations and Tacitia Dean had used them too for costumes. Sarah herself has read it in translation- the original is in a regional dialect anyway. It is
Journey of Man through Life in to the Sublime. She felt it was expressed most beautifully though dance. It was a very hard final performance, almost crying but one has to be able to keep something back emotionally so as to perform.
She was 2 days away from her Swan Lake performances when Covid hit. Her aunt was going to come over to London from the States and see her. She had not been back to England since she was eight and now sadly she isn’t able to travel anymore. Sarah felt so badly for the younger members of the Company, those who’d just joined, those on the cusp of their career and the new principals. She realised that she might never dance Swan Lake again but it’s all relative if you consider the effect on people overall and losing life.
She felt herself to be very fortunate being able to do class in the kitchen, it was hard but they were lucky.
Her mother was very anxious during lockdown so they both flew back to the USA ( a horrible flight experience with masks and all), stayed in friends’ cottage in the country which meant they could get out and walk outside. A real mitzvah.
David then asked about Sarah’s biography on Wikipedia and especially her grandmother. Sarah hasn’t read her Wikipedia article as she does not do social media at all. Her father’s father died in Preston just after World War Two, leaving her father’s mother with three small children. She moved the family to the States as she had a sister there. So her father grew up in Rhode Island where his mother (Sarah’s grandmother) was a speech therapist in the public school system. Her pupils had a range of special needs including cerebral palsy, and asphasia. The wider family had a summer camp in Martha’s Vineyard, which was quite a different place then – it was very undeveloped. In the early 1950s her grandmother really felt that the children she worked with would benefit from being out of the city in the heat of the summer. They came from communities where special needs were seen as bringing shame on the family and were often hidden away. The first camp was with seven children and a girl from high school to help as a counsellor. It was a success and they carried on. Her grandmother asked local businesses to donate time and food. Later on a local church offered land for permanent camp buildings. Her father became director of the camp. In fact, her parents had originally met there when her mother was a camp counsellor. Her grandmother continued to be involved up to the mid-1970s and now her older sister is co-director of the camp. It is a place very close to Sarah’s heart and a big part of her life.
Sarah then spoke briefly about her early career. Her mother had done some dance at college and had noted that the best Twyla Tharp dancers had a ballet background. So, she and her sisters went to ballet classes when young. She followed a friend to the Boston Ballet School and didn’t like it because of the lack of praise! She wanted to quit but as her parents had paid for the term she had to stay till Christmas, by which time she had completely forgotten about wanting to leave.
Her teachers: Tatiana Nikolaeva Legat, who passed away last year, was her teacher from the age of 12 to 17. She was a huge influence on her style. Later, she was her coach for Swan Lake and in fact, flew to London to see her first Swan Lake with the Royal Ballet. She also had teachers who’d worked with Balanchine so actually her style is quite eclectic: Russian, American Ballet Theatre and Balanchine. She joined Boston Ballet and danced in La Bayadère early on the corps de ballet and had some little featured roles in Le Corsaire. She had been offered a position at the Royal Danish Ballet but in the end decided not to take it as she didn’t like all the work they did. She was a soloist in Boston for a couple of years and then was made principal. However, when Anne-Marie Holmes, the director, left the Boston Ballet, she knew she wanted to move on.
Christopher Wheeldon had originally told her to send a video to Jeanetta Laurence. Monica Mason invited her to take class and she was offered a soloist contract at the Royal Ballet which she accepted. Her first role at here was in Requiem, then she danced in Sylvia, Swan Lake, Symphonic Variations and as the Winter and Summer fairies in Cinderella. She was promoted to Principal after Sleeping Beauty. Then the Royal Ballet went on tour to the USA and she danced in Boston with them.
She had first watched Chistopher Wheeldon at 18 and danced in Corybantic Ecstasies (now Games and quite different visually. Sarah also thanked Christopher Carr whom she met in in Boston when he staged La Fille Mal Gardee after which she was appointed principal. She ended up dancing Lise opposite Carlos Acosta. At the time he said he was too old to dance Colas for four days straight but then he did continue dancing for a further 20 years after that!
Asked to name her career highlight dancing for the Royal Ballet, Sarah said she definitely has more than one. She would love to do the Pie Jesu from Requiem.
Asked whether she feels it necessary to research characterisation Sarah quoted Balanchine who famously said ‘Don’t think, just do”. She doesn’t agree with that statement but perhaps what Balanchine meant was ‘Don’t overthink’. But in real life as dancers there isn’t have time for that. She feels that if she embodies the character internally, emotionally and empathetically that helps overcome any anxiety re: technique. For example, dancing Aurora in Sleeping Beauty and to recall what it’s like to be 16 and then to be able to express that effervescence or when dancing Marie Larisch , a much more layered character. The humbling and rewarding part of being an artist is the recognition of one’s craft.
However, there are roles that are non-characters such as in La Sylphide. Sarah feels that the Sylph is what she is – a figment of James’ imagination- and as such she has to communicate the absurdity of her existence. Certainly in the version by Johan (Kobborg), the Sylph’s magnetism and unflinching gaze, lures James on to heartbreak .The chair in which the Sylph sits was sold by the Royal Danish Ballet to the Royal Ballet. In turn they sold it on recently to the Sarasota Ballet who are premiering Johan’s production of La Sylphide this year.
David thanked Sarah enormously for talking to us this evening and congratulated her again on her many wonderful performances.
Written by Susan Gordon, edited by Sarah Lamb and David Bain
©The Ballet Association 2023