Yasmine Naghdi was born on 25 March 1992 in London.
Everyone I meet says, ‘Where are you from?’, and I say, ‘I’m from London’, and they say, ‘No, where are you really from?’.
Well, she has an exotic name and a somewhat exotic look but, although she also has an exciting mix of blood running through her veins, she is a true Londoner.
I was born in London and have lived here all my life, so I really consider myself British.
In fact, Yasmine is one of the new Great British Hopes at the Royal Ballet. She came up through the Royal Ballet School and last year became a soloist with the company. For several years, Principal dancers from outside the UK have dominated the billing, with Latin countries especially well represented (Spain, Brazil, Argentina, Italy and Cuba) as well as a smattering of American, Australian, Russian, Danish and Rumanian talent on the Company roster. There have been the Leannes and Deborahs and Darceys, but recently Ed Watson and Lauren Cuthbertson must have been feeling quite lonely up there. Although Xander Parish was one who got away (pre-O’Hare days), a year ago, Judith Mackrell in The Guardian wrote an article entitled Francesca Hayward: the next great British ballerina? (and Gramilano featured Francesca here), and now there are two other young Brits being tipped for the top: Yasmine, who will make her début as Juliet on 3 October, and her partner for that performance, 21-year-old Matthew Ball.
When I interviewed Royal Ballet Director Kevin O’Hare a couple of weeks’ ago, he commented,
It does seem to come in waves, but the school really has been producing some great talent and, since I’ve been Director, I’ve had a hard time NOT taking people on.
Yasmine’s family didn’t boast any dancers, unlike that of her current Romeo:
My dad is the Managing Director of an eco-engineering company manufacturing electric cars and he likes to think he’ll save our planet from further pollution one day! Mum is an Art Historian. She has a PhD in Art History and Ancient Civilisations, and also studied Cultural Anthropology and Ethnology. For many years she worked at Sotheby’s here in London as an art expert and auctioneer.
However, like many families who want to restore peace and quiet at home, they took their hyperactive child somewhere to let off steam.
I started out with gymnastics, which I enjoyed for a while, but then I got a little bit bored. I had some friends who took ballet class so my parents thought that maybe that could be the answer, and as soon as I started, I never looked back.
There is, however, a remote family link with ballet, and a fascinating one too, which Yasmine discovered just recently.
There were two sisters who were both Grand Sujet at the Paris Opera during the time when Carlotta Zambelli and Olga Spessivtseva were étoiles. I have family photos of both of them and, funnily, they share a very close resemblance to my maternal grandfather.
Yasmine grew up surrounded by art and music.
I clearly remember mum taking me to New Bond Street as a kid and placing me on the auctioneer’s rostrum. She handed me the hammer and told me to always hit the gavel hard! She used to take my younger sister and I to every possible art exhibition and museum, she drove us to school every morning whilst listening to Classic FM and she was forever testing our knowledge of musical instruments and composers.
From a very young age, I was exposed to the arts and classical music but not to ballet. However, whenever the family were around, I would do my little performance in the drawing room, which everyone seemed to love.
Yasmine joined the Royal Ballet School’s Junior Associate programme, which is for 8 to 10-year-olds, and that allowed her to get the feel for the School’s system of training while continuing to study with her local teacher. In 2003 Christopher Carr and Wendy Ellis chose her to be a Spring Fairy’s page in Cinderella – her first taste of the Royal Opera House stage – and little Yasmine suddenly found herself rubbing shoulders with her idols.
Cinderella was played by Alina, Marianela, Tamara… so I got to see all these wonderful dancers which was so inspiring as a child. They are still inspiring me now.
Marianela, with her precise technique and pure strength, is incredible and her versatility really is an eye opening. She is not a typecast ballerina, she can dance so many roles! Dancers like Zenaida Yanowsky are incredibly artistic, and you can learn a lot from the way they act, the way they portray emotion, and their character. We now have Natalia Osipova who is a real firecracker and she brings such excitement and fire to the stage. We are so spoilt with all our principals; you can watch these incredible dancers and take what you want from each of them.
The idea of auditioning for full-time training with the Royal Ballet School at White Lodge, though, hadn’t crossed her mind.
Jacqui Dumont, then Principal of the Associate Programme, came up to my mum and asked her why I hadn’t auditioned for White Lodge? My mother said she didn’t know if I was good enough.
Yasmine auditioned and was offered a place. Straight after her audition she was also told that she’d be dancing as a ‘baby swan’ in Swan Lake with the Company.
I was oblivious as to what lay ahead. It may sound a little strange, but it seemed that everything just came to me and only later did I realise the hard work necessary to continue. But I loved the determination needed and the passion that comes with it all. When I got accepted to White Lodge I thought, Wow they believe in me so I’m really going to work hard!
The Royal Ballet School divides its eight-year course into two parts, with the first five years at the Lower School at White Lodge, in the heart of Richmond Park, and three years at the Upper School in Covent Garden, next to the Royal Opera House.
At White Lodge, there is naturally a sense of isolation from the outside world as it is located in the middle of a park, but we were allowed out every Saturday afternoon. We would walk in small groups to the nearby village of East Sheen and were free to stroll around unsupervised for a few hours. Our daily ballet classes fitted around the academic lessons so besides our training we also benefited from an excellent academic education.
It might sound idyllic but the students don’t hang around in the park kicking a ball around and lolling around in the ferns. Being a student at the prestigious School is hard work.
From a young age you have to become very disciplined, there is no allowance for any teenage tantrums. Your daily life as a pupil is scheduled out for you and you are under constant supervision, in class and in your boarding house. There are annual appraisals and some pupils may be asked to leave if their ballet progress is not satisfactory so there is continued pressure to do well and to constantly up your game.
Talent alone is not enough and a love of dance is also not enough; you have to have it in your blood and feel that you have to dance, that nothing else in the world counts more. It is a very long road, with many ups and downs, tears as well as joy, and one has to be very strong – physically and mentally – to get through the rigorous training.
I always thrived on self-discipline and as a child I worked best with the strictest of teachers: Diane van Schoor, Anita Young, Hope Keelan, Nicola Katrak.
One of the most memorable moments at White Lodge, was when she was chosen to go to the Vaganova Academy in her penultimate year.
We had a little exchange programme, almost like a mini tour. Eight of us took class with some of the dancers at the Vaganova and then we performed with them at the end of the week.
The eight chosen were a mix of White Lodge students and the senior students, 16-plus, who train at Covent Garden. Sergei Polunin was one of the participating dancers.
First of all, for White Lodge students to be among the Upper School students was fantastic. Then to be alongside students from the Vaganova, which is such a prestigious school, and to be taught by dancers who had been stars of the Kirov, was a real life changing experience for me. I clearly remember sitting in the plane after taking off in St Petersburg, telling myself, ‘Well, now I know for sure, that’s it… I shall become a ballet dancer!’
It was a key moment in my life: I realised that the School trusted me to be good enough, and to do so they must have seen something in me. I gained a lot of confidence.
After five-years in the park there comes the big move from the ‘isolation’ of White Lodge to the hustle and bustle of central London.
Having lived several years at White Lodge it is a shock to have such great freedom when joining the Upper School. As 1st year students, we lived all together in a house in Barons Court and we had to take the tube to go to Upper School. We all sensed a greater freedom, the house parents were less strict and we now had to go out to buy our food and cook our evening meals.
We were also allowed out in the evening until 10 pm. At Upper School you can go across a beautiful glass bridge linking the School to the Royal Opera House. There we could see all the amazing dancers rehearsing and that in itself is a great inspiration and stimulation. You also have opportunities to work with the Company doing small walk-on parts or dance certain roles with the corps de ballet.
During her first year at Upper School, in 2009, Yasmine won the Young British Dancer of the Year competition, which Lauren Cuthbertson and Sergei Polunin had won in previous years and would be won by Francesca Hayward the following year.
The wonderful Zenaida Yanowsky was our Guest coach and she worked with me on the Summer Fairy variation from Cinderella and Esmeralda. Gailene Stock also prepared all of us for the competition.
It was indubitable that there was a big talent waiting to blossom in her. What I recall is that she had the most beautiful control and beyond that, she was proficient enough to add colour and style to the languid movements required of the Ashton choreography. Her port de bras were – and are – stunning, which for me is a sign of a ballerina.
She has the capacity to create the illusion of ease owing to her secure technique and the harmonious way in which she moves. It can be difficult for someone who moves with such ease to be noticed; people often thinking that it’s all very nice, but not exciting, but it is all done through hard work and hers is a talent that will last.
Then the ball really started to roll… in truth, it was given a jolly hard kick!