On 14 March 2020, The Royal Ballet's principal dancer Lauren Cuthbertson was dancing Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty on the stage of the Mariinsky Theatre. A rare honour. She was partnered by former Royal Ballet dancer and Mariinsky principal dancer Xander Parish and cheered on by her mother, her boyfriend and his parents. Two days later, they were returning to London on the Gatwick Express when a message arrived: Royal Ballet classes, rehearsals and performances were suspended with immediate effect because of the spread of the coronavirus.
I'd heard from friends in Europe and America that things were shutting down, so I knew what was coming. So we drove out of London, and now I'm in the countryside with my boyfriend and his parents. I'm lucky to have a garden – if I were in London, it would be a very different story.
So how are you keeping your body ready for a return to the Royal Opera House?
Harlequin and the Opera House have managed to arrange that the dancers have dance floors and a barre, which is great. It has made all the difference, because once the novelty of dancing in the kitchen wore off, we realised that this might go on for months. I'm used to it because if ever I'm away for the weekend I will always hang off a banister or a kitchen top – I'll do whatever just to keep going because that's what we do. I feel really sorry for swimmers; they can't practice at all. I've seen video clips of them lying on their beds and wiggling, practising their strokes on dry land. It's a really testing time.
I'm practising my chassé pas de bourrée glissade to keep the coordination… but the grand jeté finish has to be done on the grass!
She might be in isolation, but she doesn't train alone. If you look at Lauren's Instagram account, you will notice Bertie.
Bertie's my boyfriend's family dog, but over this period of time we've become best friends. I was having a bath last night and he just sat near me for the whole duration. He'll train with me for a bit but manages an hour tops and then he wants to leave. He'll be in the garden with me, jumping around, when I'm doing my cardio training and sprints. He's so clever.
But is ballet class enough? And of course, a complete class isn't possible unless you have a private studio.
Ballet training is sequential. The beauty of ballet class is that you start with the basics and then you build up, so when you get to the end, you're ready for your rehearsal. The class is just the beginning for us; it's not the be-all and end-all.
I feel so grateful that I've had so long in my career – except for interruptions because of injury or illness – with nothing blocking me culturally, or in any other way, from doing the thing I love. Of course, it's the same for all the dancers. This is a first for us, and it's quite surreal.
There have been a few times when Lauren's been kept away from the stage by injury. One devasting time it was by illness: in 2009, glandular fever and post-viral fatigue stopped her from performing for 18 months.
It's proven to me that I've usually come back a little bit better because you have time to really hone in on your technique. To concentrate on the basics and build it up again. When you return, the appreciation and the love that you have for dance is greater – it's like falling in love all over again.
The psyche is such an incredible thing that it can forget trauma. So when we return from this period, it obviously won't be forgotten completely, but when you're in the thick of work, you won't be thinking about how you spent the last six months but be thinking how you'll spend the next six months. I say six months, but of course, we have no idea when we'll get back.
How difficult will it be to get back in the saddle?
I suppose that being off before has made me realise that no one is going to forget how to dance, it's impossible. You just might be a little bit rusty and need some time to recalibrate everything.
Not knowing how long this break is going to be must be testing.
When I was injured, it was finite: this problem will take six weeks, and this takes seven, the bone bruising will take three months, and so on. There are always a few ups and downs, but you have a rough idea of how you can build up.
But this current situation is similar to when I was ill, and I really didn't have an idea of how long it would take. I had to learn how to exist with the unknown and yet still be positively moving forward when I could, and not let things frustrate me when I couldn't. My doctor at the time said to me that you can only control the controllable. I'll possibly benefit from that period now because I know you can only do what you can do – things like that will stand me in good stead.
When you dance the Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker, you look so dainty and perfect, yet after your 18 months off stage, you came back with one of the most demanding roles, that of Sylvia, a warrior. This was also a role you performed with only a couple of days notice at the Mariinsky after not having danced it for a year. The porcelain ballerina with the steely core is an intriguing fusion.
I always come from how I feel on the inside. You know, the minute I hear that Sugar Plum Fairy music I get a certain feeling because it's so refined, like delicate bone china, and when you come out to dance Sylvia, I think, well… maybe British beef! I draw those sorts of parallels. I do think about what the audience takes away from my performance too, but I think it has to start with how I feel. It's like having a palette and painting different colours. I think I developed a bit later than many dancers because I'm attracted to lots of different qualities, and I don't really want to feel as though I've just got one area. That becomes a bit of a challenge because you can't actually do everything well at the same time.
Your dancing is so detailed and precise as the Sugar Plum, yet you give such much poetry to those movements; it's never one-two-three-four. Yet in Peter Wright's version, there isn't a character as such, though clearly there are emotions behind your dancing.
You're right, she is a role, she's the Sugar Plum Fairy, but there isn't really a narrative for her. And the dancing is calculated, you must concentrate on the specifics. But when you've done all the preparation, when you've done all the hard work and you know exactly what you're aiming for, you feel free. You've got that feeling and you go out, you hear the music, and you can let the music carry you… you feel the orchestra through your chest and through your heart. It feels like a life's work coming to fruition at that moment and that is a really inspiring place to be.
A lot of it also comes down to having a good partner because every nuance, every angle is supported or released by him. So I can't take credit for a lot of it. It comes down to communication and coaching and detail. You start off with a version, and then you refine a section, then another section, and you put it all together and build stamina: without stamina, there's no point in working on the details because you'll be too tired to apply them halfway through.
I put the tutu on for weeks before I do the show because it makes me feel very different and all these details help towards getting the finished result.
At the same time, it's important not to be affected. I remember that Monica Mason said to me that you can have a long, fruitful career but try to remain unaffected, and that's a really useful thing to strive for. In The Nutcracker, I try to be totally pure, and not to have any modern affectations from other repertoire that can influence dancers today.
Although it's pure and you are true to the style, it is preserved in a way that is exciting.
That exciting part comes with musicality and how you play with it. I never feel restricted. During the fouettés, I add in a double here or a double there, and in the diagonal sequence in the pas de deux I try to squeeze in three really quick pirouettes and not two. The difference between two and three isn't just a technical feat, it's about how you make it musical by having to make the turn faster and the preparation less obvious and the finish sharper. Therefore you do feel like you're contributing to making the art form move forward and be exciting while remaining true to its origin.
Moving from that to Cathy Marston's The Cellist (which opened on 17 February this year) means a huge shift in the way you are using your body.
The Cellist is very contemporary, and when you're creating a work, you will be repeating movements hundreds of times. And they were all very un-balletic. Afterwards, you must strive to be balletic again.
I spent most of this season heavily invested in that piece. The classical part of my season was really only just beginning when the quarantine started. I'm glad that The Cellist had its opportunity to premiere and have its run of shows before this happened because there was a whole team who invested so much into creating it.
There's the classical Lauren, the contemporary Lauren, but also goofy Lauren.
I love entertaining, being fun. I'd quite like to be a comedian. Of course, I loved [Jerome Robbins'] The Concert, it was one of my favourite things to do. I was taught the steps and that was it, the comedy came naturally.
Of the various characters that you play so successfully, what types are you most attracted to?
I'm drawn towards the big character roles and especially creating roles. You have so much freedom to really become a character by being Alice, Hermione [in The Winter's Tale], or Jacqueline du Pré [in The Cellist]. Though Du Pré was very different because it's a true story and there's so much footage of her to watch, so I wasn't being a character from a book, so in that way it was a very different ball game.
When approaching The Winter's Tale, for example, did you go to the Shakespeare play first or did it come together while choreographing it in the rehearsal studio?
Chris [Wheeldon] knows what I'm like and so when he has his new ballet, he says this will be your role. But I found the play impossible to read. Of course, it's a play, not a novel, but even reading the ‘dummy's guide to figuring out a plot' I found it quite disjointed. The thing that helped was when Nick Hytner, who was then the director at the National Theatre, brought up a load of actors and we sat next to the actor whose part we would be playing, and they did a read-through.
Having them at the Opera House let me feel completely locked into the story and not just my character, but all the other characters as well. It's the greatest thing when you're creating a ballet as a team and you're all on the same page. Chris is an incredible gauge of what's enough and what isn't, and what reads and what doesn't. He's a complete genius, and it was incredible to see that play turn into dance. In some ways I think that the ballet is actually easier to understand and to feel emotionally attached to than the play.
When you're on stage, I've never seen you dance in your own bubble, but you continually engage with everyone around you.
For me, it's critical. That's the beauty of what we do. It's a live show and the number of artists I have around me make it just so inspiring. I always say to young kids, don't compare yourselves because everyone's completely individual. Everyone's different and they inspire you in different ways, and you, in turn, inspire them. The way of sharing those qualities is something that you can only really do when you're on stage together in the eye of the storm. It's quite hard to describe because it's completely shared there and then. It's about having complete trust in the slight unknown. Even though you've rehearsed the piece over and over, there's that space to really express something in the moment and be generous to receive as well as give. It is really special.
The Royal Ballet certainly has had, and indeed has, a generous supply of inspiring artists. Who inspires you?
It's a really hard question because I'm definitely a glass-half-full kind of girl. I look at someone's best attributes. If you give a dancer a platform where they can shine, they are capable of so much more than the rank or role they are given. I find Alessandra Ferri completely captivating, Viviana Durante I found incredible, and Zenaida Yanowsky could completely draw me in. There are so many good dancers and for all sorts of different reasons, but I have to believe them. They have to get to my heart and get the tears to flow. If they don't, then I'm sure to be really impressed by their technique!
I didn't grow up watching many videos, but I did have one of Makarova in Swan Lake, which was amazing, and I was absolutely bowled over by Anthony Dowell as well. I wasn't just looking at the females.
I think so many dancers inspire you as you're growing up, and they all help form how you develop. I felt so lucky when I was a young corps de ballet member at The Royal Ballet and I could sit around and watch the all the full calls and see every principal… they helped make me the dancer I am, and you only hope that you do the same for the next generation.
When you are preparing for a repertory work, do you watch videos of ballerinas in your role?
I've done less of that recently. It's not that I don't do it at all because I'd reference it if I needed to learn something and get ahead with the steps, but I like to get a sense of it myself so that I have my own identity attached to the role. Then I definitely have a forage for inspiration which is also very exciting to do.
I like to think that if you've been given a role, it's probably because people think that you can do something with it and that you would suit the role, not because people want you to watch someone else on a DVD and be similar to them.
When I was younger, I felt that I should watch and watch and watch and then I felt daunted by the prospect of trying myself. Whereas if I just do it and gain confidence and trust my coach to push me in the right direction, then when I feel like going to watch something to be maybe inspired by, I've already got an almost completed canvas.
Are there any dream roles that you would like to do?
I don't know any ballerina who doesn't want to dance John Neumeier's The Lady of the Camellias because it's such a beautiful story. But there aren't that many others. I think I've been so blessed that I've created a lot of roles and that possibly appeals to me more than doing the ones that have already been created and done lots of times.
Your use of perfume to help round off your characters on stage is well documented, but it is so unusual that I must ask you about it. Does Juliet, for example, have a different scent for each act?
I have a suede box beautifully lined with silk and lace, which references Juliet's costumes. I think Juliet has five or six scents: I have one for the shawl, and there's one for the crypt which the stage manager sweetly sprays on the set for me during the quick change. That for me is the most powerful because you wake up and feel a sense of tragedy – I can literally smell damp and death and a feeling of the stone that would have been in the crypt. It's very mothy and smells like your worst nightmares. That one is really powerful! And then there's a peaceful balcony pas de deux scent, the nursery scent, the ballroom scent and the bedroom scent… she has quite a lot. Anastasia Brozler and I have collaborated on making these scents for over ten years. I now have a ‘library' of scents.
Are you very aware of smells in everyday life?
Maybe I've got a heightened sense of smell and certainly a lot of my memories are attached to them, though I think that's the same for most people. If you let the smell of a familiar place take you back to it, it gives you a memory… maybe of churches, hospitals, schools, those sorts of places.
It's always been something that's interested me, like a side topic to the ballet, and it's something I'm very passionate about. There have been a couple of ballets when I haven't used scents because I didn't have the time to prepare them, and so it doesn't affect my show, but it definitely gives me a heightened appreciation of the character when I have them. I've found it a really amazing tool to help shape the character and learn more about them.
What are you wearing now, for example?
Right now I'm wearing Hermès, which is probably the only branded scent that I wear because it feels natural and fresh to me. I certainly don't wake up thinking, oh, today I'm going to be Odette or Odile! Though there have been a couple of scents that have been useful on dates, but I won't say any more… [she whispers] though the Black Swan scent is very seductive!
I think one of my all-time favourites was for Balanchine's Diamonds, which I started to wear more and more in real life, so I had to beg for a new supply.
You recently danced with the Mariinsky. Is guesting with other companies of use to you as a dancer?
It's amazing because it keeps you really fresh, having to adapt and learn new things. You need to work hard because you'll often learning these things while you've already got a full schedule on at the Opera House and you don't want anything to have a knock-on effect because you're concentrating on too many things at once. So often you have to learn things and take on corrections very quickly. You sometimes turn up and find it's a raked stage or the floor is slipperier than you're used to – there are so many variables that you have to attend to. But it's the most inspiring thing when you go in and you meet new dancers and see new faces on stage.
The dreaded rake. You danced Wheeldon's Swan Lake with Federico Bonelli in Rome, where there's a very steep rake.
I get used to it when I can do a series of shows, so it was a shame that those were spread out so I'd be working in London during the week and then I'd fly to Italy to do a show, and then I'd work in London again for a week – if it had been scheduled a bit differently I would have got used to the rake a bit quicker. I haven't done fouettés enough on a raked stage to be able to do what I consider my normal sequence, so the Black Swan was a bit of an anticlimax for me because I can't achieve the same on a rake as I can on a flat stage.
You have to adapt a lot – for example, for the first arabesque in Act Two, I had to imagine that my right arm was going uphill otherwise I'd literally have fallen down because your body weight is tumbling forward. You have to keep your back more open and lean further back and have your right arm upstage just to feel like you're hitting neutral.
But then it's lovely to do the big jumps coming downstage, that's heaven… there are some moments where you feel so free!
How does this fit into scheduling at The Royal Ballet?
Kevin [O'Hare, director of The Royal Ballet] has allowed me to go and guest at other companies when I've had the chance to. This year I haven't, for example, because Cathy Marston was here creating The Cellist for a lot of the season, so I couldn't go anywhere until after The Cellist was done. That's the first time that I've stayed put in London in about five years. I think that it's a beautiful thing to travel, but I don't think I could do only that. It is amazing to come back to the Opera House and perform in what we call home.
ON HER CAREER
You're a principal with The Royal Ballet, dancing the repertoire and creating new works, with the occasional guesting job too… I guess you're happy.
I do feel really, really lucky, but you have to do the best with everything you're given in order to create more luck.
Is there anything that you would have liked to have been different? Anything you still want to achieve?
I've never had one partner, and so I've always had to adapt to having someone different, though that can be a positive thing too. But it's quite hard to stop every time you do a classical ballet to start working with someone that you may not have worked with before, despite how talented these partners are, and start from the beginning. They have to learn your balance, and you have to learn their coordination. Continuity has a big pay off.
I still feel driven to create more and be better, but I'd be quite happy to step aside when it's not quite the right time for me to do things anymore and allow talented and inspired dancers who are younger to step up. I think that's quite a nice place to be really: accepting where I am and being confident and happy with that, and yet still striving for the things I do think are suitable.
Excellence breeds excellence. Every time I watch a dancer, I want to be moved and motivated. There is an abundance of that where I am at the Royal Opera House. It's so international. I'm very grateful that it's international because it has the best of the best in the world. Kevin is an amazing director. He can determine which of the younger dancers will come up quickly, which keeps it a really fresh place for inspiration.
You must be longing to get back.
We completely miss being all together; we're isolated, we're not performing, we're not rehearsing, we're not taking class, we're not hearing live music… there are so many things that we took for granted before.
There'll be so much passion and excitement when we all get back.
As part of the #OurHouseToYourHouse series, The Royal Ballet is offering on YouTube the possibility to watch Christopher Wheeldon's The Winter's Tale with Lauren Cuthbertson. If you are able, please consider making a donation to help sustain the Royal Opera House community: http://www.roh.org.uk/donate-now
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.