Interview with Yasmine Naghdi as she dances in the world premiere of Alastair Marriott's The Unknown Soldier – with photos by Dasa Wharton
I last interviewed Yasmine Naghdi in September of 2015 when she and Matthew Ball were preparing to dance Romeo and Juliet together. They were dancing the roles for the first time — she was a Soloist and he a First Artist.
Time passes faster in the ballet world, and in the last three years the two have been promoted through the ranks and now are both Principal Dancers.
My earliest partner was Matthew. We danced together in Onegin when I had just been promoted to Soloist and Matthew was still in the corps de ballet. We were both at the start of our careers and those early performances together will always remain precious to us. A few years later we danced Romeo and Juliet together, a real turning point.
They will be revisiting those roles next year and their performance on 11 June 2019 will be relayed to cinemas around the globe.
Many excellent dancers never reach these heights as temperament (and fortune) are not equally distributed.
To become a professional ballerina, you must start building mental strength as a young trainee, this is extremely important. It is imperative to remain positive, however hard this may seem at times but the ability to turn a negative into a positive builds mental strength. Don't take criticism as a negative thing, your journey will be filled with criticism. You will need a tremendous amount of determination and don't let setbacks ever affect you, just keep going.
After many years of training you will have acquired the technique but there will be many other skills you'll need to develop. Many obstacles will need to be overcome in order to get through the various ranks. You'll also need a certain amount of luck and a very strong, relatively injury free body. Success as a professional ballerina does not solely depend on one's talent but also for a great deal on your mental strength, sheer dedication and enormous will power.
So why do you do it?
Dancing is my greatest passion in life as well as the ability to move my audience, to make them forget anything that's going on in their daily life, to give them enjoyment. I can really feel the audience when I am on the stage, when it is an enthusiastic audience or an indifferent audience. I get great satisfaction when my performance goes well.
Do you feel extra responsibility to that audience now that you're a Principal?
Every rank in the company comes with its own requirements and responsibilities. Reaching the rank of Principal is the greatest honour. As a Principal you have to uphold the highest standard and quality of dancing, but the learning process never stops. Giving a beautiful performance comes from increased experience and regularly revisiting roles.
Striving towards perfection?
Dancers are perfectionists, but I have learned that no performance is ever perfect. When I was in the corps de ballet, I would come off the stage feeling devastated if a tiny detail of my dancing hadn't been perfect. I no longer allow this to affect my happiness after a performance. I will always evaluate it the following day and analyse what can be bettered or how to do things differently in order to achieve the desired result. I feel any of my performances can always be improved upon and that's the beauty of growing in this career. Every morning when I walk through the stage door I think, “Today I have to be better than yesterday”. Every day I want to up my game and that desire motivates and drives me daily.
And when you come out of the stage door after a performance?
I have many lovely and loyal fans — some have known me since childhood when I was training at The Royal Ballet School, and I really appreciate all their support. I often see them at the stage door after my performance and I always enjoy meeting them, no matter how tired I feel. Many make tremendous efforts to come and see a ballet, some face long and often difficult commutes, so it makes me very happy when they tell me how much they enjoyed my performance.
So beforehand, apart from your daily training and rehearsing to prepare yourself for a role, what do you do as the performance itself arrives?
The evening before dancing a full-length ballet or a debut is vital “me time”. I like to be on my own in order to prepare for the following day. I usually have a hot bath to relax followed by a hearty dinner. I take some time to mentally rehearse myself and visualise my performance and after that “ritual” I completely switch off. I watch a bit of TV whilst I prepare my pointe shoes as this quietens my mind.
Then on the day of the performance?
In the hours just before going on stage I do a proper warm-up, go into my dressing room where I'll listen to upbeat music such as Reggaeton whilst I do my hair and make-up. The excitement to perform gets the adrenaline going and a few minutes before I am due on stage I jog from my dressing room to the wings.
On a few occasions I have sent my stage manager into a state of panic as I wasn't there when she expected me to be, but I always arrive on time to go on. I just don't like standing in the wings for too long before my performance, for me it's “Ready, Steady, Go”!
Naghdi is ‘Royal Ballet' through and through, being a Junior Associate before entering full-time training at The Royal Ballet School, White Lodge and Upper School, then joining The Royal Ballet in 2010. She was promoted to First Artist in 2012, Soloist in 2014, First Soloist in 2016 and Principal in 2017.
I grew up with The Royal Ballet since I was 11 years old. As a child I appeared on the Covent Garden stage in Cinderella, Nutcracker and Swan Lake, and later on — when I trained at the Upper School — I danced with the corps de ballet in Romeo and Juliet, Sleeping Beauty, and Nutcracker, so since childhood I have been close to the company.
Like a big family? But in all families there are both quarrels and hugs.
Of course, it is a very competitive environment to work in but there is mostly a positive and healthy atmosphere amongst the dancers in all the ranks. Many of us are supportive towards each other and I believe this not only stems from a feeling that we are “all in this together” but also from having a wonderful director, Kevin O'Hare. I am very devoted to the company and it is an extraordinary family to belong to.
It's a close-knit family and former stars such as Leslie Collier, Leanne Benjamin, Carlos Acosta, Jonathan Cope and Darcey Bussell are all still around to coach the principals and the link with those great dancers of the past who are now passing on their knowledge is just fantastic.
That must be invaluable, especially when first approaching a role.
My coaches are extremely important to me, I couldn't do without them. Each coach has a different style. They bring a wealth of experience and knowledge and I would not achieve dancing a role successfully without their support and guidance.
Olga Evreivoff coached me as Odette/Odile. She is undeniably wonderful, and she was of tremendous mental support when I prepared to dance my debut in Swan Lake last June. I worked with Alexander Agadzanov who coached me in the roles of Aurora and the Sugar Plum Fairy. Alexander has a Russian approach and style of coaching — he likes to stop and start until every single, minute detail of my role is perfected.
Leslie Collier also coached me in Swan Lake as well as Gamzatti in La Bayadère. She is very caring and inspiring, and I am always honoured to have her as my coach.
Leanne Benjamin coached me in Giselle. I joined the Company when Leanne was still a Principal, and I always had the greatest admiration for her, so to have her coach me in Giselle was very special to say the least.
Natalia Makarova also coached me in Gamzatti and to have a ballet legend transferring her immense knowledge could not have made for a more precious and extraordinary experience.
You mentioned Gamzatti, a repertoire role, but just a few days ago, on 20 November, you danced Florence Billington in the world premiere of Alistair Marriott's The Unknown Soldier, again dancing with Matthew Ball. What did you enjoy about creating a new role?
Learning repertoire is a matter of learning the steps, rehearsing and adding your own artistry to the role.
Working with a choreographer is a very different ball game as you start from scratch. The creation process can be very time consuming, steps are created and re-created, your muscle memory has to adjust daily to new changes — something which is not the case when learning repertoire.
Each choreographer has his or her own distinctive way of creating and it helps hugely if you have a good connection with the choreographer. There has to be a reciprocal energy flow; it's a give and take process. If there is no empathy it makes it all much harder.
What new roles have you coming up?
And your dream roles? What are the roles you'd like to subliminally whisper into Kevin O'Hare's ear?
There are many amazing roles I would like to dance but above all I'd love to dance Tatiana in Onegin, one of my favourite ballets, and also the role of Manon and Nikiya in La Bayadère as well as the second movement of MacMillan's Concerto.
This is your ninth season with The Royal Ballet and now, at 26, a lot must have changed in your life.
Yes. I have been able to purchase my own flat and I have a wonderful boyfriend who is extremely supportive and understanding of my profession. His career is very different to mine. He knew nothing about ballet at first, but he is rapidly learning. I no longer have to perform every night and that leaves me with more time to enjoy what London has to offer in terms of theatres, museums and restaurants.
So it's not all dance, dance, dance?
My boyfriend and I each have busy careers and we work long hours, so our time together is really precious. He is Italian and we both love good food, we enjoy dining out and trying different cuisines, as well as eating the inevitable pizza in his favourite place! I am passionate about traveling and discovering different cultures, and during my mid-season holiday we are off to Kenya.
You seem to be very happy.
I feel there is a good equilibrium between my working and private life. My life off-stage is all about striking a balance between enjoying my life and having time for the people I care for.
Yasmine Naghdi's last performance of The Unknown Soldier is on 29 November, and she performs in Kenneth Macmillan's Winter Dreams on 19 and 20 December at The Royal Opera House, London.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.