The Royal Ballet's Argentinian principal dancer, Marianela Nuñez, is in lockdown in Buenos Aires. She went there to be near her family and partner, because now home, for Nela, is London, which also happens to be home to her beloved company at The Royal Opera House.
We caught up via Skype in June: I was in my office in Milan, and Nela was 11,000 km away, sitting against an orange wall which steadily turned maroon then almost black as the day drew in.
Lockdown in Argentina! How's that working out?
It's very strict here. We started lockdown at the same time as England, pretty much – I know you in Italy started earlier. There were only a few cases, but obviously here there are more difficulties compared to Europe, and they were worried that the health system would collapse.
Here, the problem is that we are now getting into winter, which is difficult, and a lot of neighbourhoods are very poor. People don't have running water and they're living literally on top of each other. This is in Buenos Aires because actually the rest of the country is running more or less normally.
We're only allowed out once a day to walk 500 metres, so we just go around our place, then everything else is at home. It's unbelievable how suddenly your home becomes a studio by moving the furniture around. It's been hilarious, and it's incredible how creative people are.
So, why Buenos Aires and not London?
Alejandro [Parente, her boyfriend and former principal dancer at Teatro Colón] is the reason I came here because my idea was to stay home, and for me home is London. I didn't want to leave London and my little flat, because I knew that as soon as things became easier I would be closer to my other home, The Royal Opera House.
I just wanted to feel safe, and the last thing you want to be doing at this time is travel. I travelled on the 22nd of March! At the airport, it literally felt like I was in a movie. It was scary and sad, so empty, and we were running not to miss the plane – it was way too stressful. But it was a complicated situation: Ale had only just arrived in Argentina from Italy where he was dropping off his daughter Luna who had spent the holidays with him in Europe. Then he was meant to be coming back to teach in Milan. Obviously, that didn't happen because everything was closing.
Also, my mom and dad are here, and they're over 60, and my brothers too, so it seemed like the best place to be. Otherwise, I would have been alone in my flat in London without knowing for how long. It was the worst moment to realise just how divided your life is.
I'm just waiting now for the airport to open here then obviously, I need to go back home. [Since we spoke, lockdown has been extended in Argentina, and now she's hoping to get a plane back to London at the end of July.]
What are you doing to keep in shape?
I have to do Pilates because otherwise my body won't function and just hurts, so yeah, Pilates is a must. I just finished a session before you called. I do it online with a studio opened by Luciana Ravizzi, an Argentinian teacher who's a friend of mine from The Royal Ballet School, though I was already in the company when she joined. When she graduated, she went to Scottish Ballet, but we stayed friends. Then she opened her Pilates studio in Argentina. I'm doing it three times a week.
The rest of the time I do my own thing together with ballet lessons that the company's been providing us with. A friend of mine, Erico Montes, from Brazil, is a dancer with the company and he's starting to teach, so he's giving me lessons too. Sometimes Alejandro teaches me. I don't often catch the live version of the class that the company does, but they record it, so I'm able to access it later. The choices are unbelievable. Olga Evreinoff, who often comes to The Royal Ballet to teach and take rehearsals, teaches us online. She's a wonderful, wonderful teacher. I wonder if she ever imagined teaching a company via Zoom! She's always giving corrections, ‘Stretch your knee!' Fantastic. Amazing.
It's also a way to see your colleagues.
The first time I will never forget because to do a class live with them online I need to wake up at 5.30 am – I'm four hours behind and class starts at 10.30. I did it twice! The first time I did it, it was wonderful –Zoom went on and suddenly you see all these people popping up on the screen. I was in tears. Even when I do the recorded version and I see everyone again I just… [tears well up]. Well, I'm missing them so much. I can't wait to see them.
Do you do class with Alejandro?
Alejandro does his own thing and he's also teaching a lot, so basically he does his own little barre, but he's quiet and I hardly even see him do it. He's been giving classes to Rome Opera Ballet online and on Thursdays a class with Joburg Ballet in South Africa. Before lockdown, I was meant to guest there. I was going to do Don Q [Don Quixote], and as it didn't happen, they were disappointed because it was going to be a highlight for them, and for us as well. So their CEO Esther Nasser asked if we could do an interview online, talking to the dancers and all of that. We did, and it was such a lovely meeting that now Ale is teaching them class, and I do it with them every Thursday.
That sounds encouraging. What are some of the positive things you've got from this period?
You know, funnily enough, there are a lot of positive things because online I see this big dance community that is all together, not just little groups. All over the world, we are trying to inspire and support each other. Every time I see a video of dancers doing class at home, trying to stay fit, trying to be creative, I find it amazing and I feel so proud. I feel touched to see how dancers are saying, OK, this is tough, but we're going to do something with it.
I feel honoured to be part of an institution like our company. Our management calls us, you know, and they're constantly in contact with us, sending us emails and making sure we are OK and providing us with classes online and ballet and yoga and all sorts of fitness. To feel that you have your company behind you is amazing. We've literally stayed together throughout all this.
I actually get very emotional because it's powerful to see all these people trying to produce art from home and helping each other. One of the biggest positive things is that our creativity, and wanting to stay together, and keeping in shape to be ready for coming back, has come through.
The emotional element is palpable. Another Royal Ballet dancer told me that the company was offering some of their online teaching to smaller companies who don't have that possibility. That's a beautiful thing to do.
Kevin [O'Hare – director of The Royal Ballet] decided to just open it up because not every company has the facilities that we do. It's an amazing gesture. It's kind of scary right now, and a gesture like this brings the community together. It's just phenomenal. I was so touched.
So you're back in Argentina where it all began… why did your mother send you to ballet school? Why not gymnastics or something else?
I had three brothers, so everything was very boyish at home. Football, football, football. My mom had had enough, and finally a girl arrived she was like, ‘OK, thank God, I'm not alone in the house anymore!' She dressed me in pink. She loved dancing herself, and although my granddad was amazing – my number one fan, now looking down at me from up there [she indicates the heavens] – he didn't want her to dance. She just did a little bit of Argentinian folk dancing and that was it. So as my mom loves dancing, she took me to a little ballet studio, three blocks away from our house.
What she didn't expect is that little Nela would love it too. The teacher's studio was her garage. She would take the car out and there were some barres and a concrete floor. My kindergarten friends were also there but it wasn't serious enough for me… it was more like playing. Why I wanted something else I can't explain because I had never seen ballet, but that little girl said that she wanted to dance seriously. I think you're born with your calling and there is no other way.
I read this wonderful book that you have to read. I had it in my dressing room and Alex Ferri saw it and she said, ‘Oh my God, I've read it, it's wonderful.' It's called The Soul's Code by James Hillman. It's about how you are born with this, and no matter what you think, if it's definitely your calling, somehow you'll get there.
It may have been your calling, but for you to fulfil that it must have meant a big change for your family.
For the family it was a revolution, especially when I really took it seriously because from that studio, I went to another studio, still in the neighbourhood, but where they only did ballet. But it still wasn't the Teatro Colón, you know? But the teacher was wonderful and actually she's a figure that is still in my life, helping with the shows that I do at home every year for charity. She had trained at the Colón school and she said, as soon as she saw me, ‘She's got a lot of talent, she's determined, and she's disciplined, and I think she should definitely go to the centre of the city to study.' She and another teacher got me ready and I was accepted.
When that finally happened, my mom had to travel around with me a lot as we lived far away from the Teatro Colón school. I basically stole away my mom for me, and my brothers had to adapt to that; so it was a big shift for the family. My grandma would stay and cook for them. But they all did it, and I'm so grateful because obviously I was doing what I loved but the whole family had to support that. Even though they were not interested in ballet, they were definitely interested in what I was doing and my achievements.
And do they come and see you dance now?
They do. They watch everything online and if our relays are shown in Argentina they will go. They read everything that's printed about me and are super proud.
How old were you when you entered the Teatro Colón School?
At the Colón school you start at eight years old and you finish at 18, so it's ten years. But I only did half of that because Maximiliano Guerra wanted me to dance with him when I was about 13. He was doing the same as I do now when during the summer break in Europe, he would come to Argentina and do his performances here. There was a tour that he was doing around Argentina with La Scala principal Anita Magyari.
So we toured around Argentina. They were doing the third act pas de deux from Don Q and I was one of the two friends. At the end of that tour, Anita had to return to Europe and as there were some performances in Uruguay coming up, he said, ‘OK, I'll dance with you.' We did Don Q and the Diana and Acteon pas de deux. I mean, unbelievable! I was always super star-struck with him, and he had this wonderful presence, but when you're young and naïve you just kind of do it, like you don't really see what's happening.
We were at the beautiful Teatro Solís in Uruguay and I remember when we finished the Don Q I was thinking, thank God I made it. But the audience went wild and wanted us to repeat the coda. We did. That meant doing the 32 fouettés again.
I had a temperature afterwards from all the pressure and I was shaking when we were having dinner, but it was wonderful. At that performance was Raquel Rossetti who was the director of the Teatro Colón and had been a principal ballerina. She said, listen, I want you in the company. So I joined the company of Teatro Colón right after that. I was 14.
I did a lot of corps de ballet work, but the director really liked me, so whenever there was a gala somewhere, she would take me to do a pas de deux, and that's when I danced with Alejandro for the first time – I was 14, he was 24! We did the Don Q, and Graham you have to see that online – I'll send you the link. I stayed in the company that year, but I'd known since I was about 11 that I wanted a career outside Argentina, and I had it clear that The Royal Ballet was my dream company.
I had all the videos: La fille [mal gardée] with Leslie [Collier], Bayadère with Altynai [Asylmuratova], Darcey [Bussell] and Irek [Mukhamedov], Romeo and Juliet with Alessandra [Ferri] and Wayne Eagling, Manon with Sir Anthony Dowell… I had all of them. I had never seen ballets like that before. I saw Onegin at the Colón and although I was really young, I went, whoa, as I'd never seen anything like it. But all the other powerful ballets I saw were on video and with all my favourite dancers at The Royal Ballet.
Teachers explained how the company's repertoire was amazing and how important repertoire is in a dancer's life. Massimiliano said, ‘If you go to a company like that, not only will you have all that, but also, they will look after you properly; with someone like you who is super talented, it could easily happen that people will take advantage and you'll get burnt out, but in a company like that you will be guided, and you will grow as an artist.'
So I decided to audition for my dream company. It was my 15th birthday. The fiesta de quince años for a girl here in South America, especially in Argentina, is big. You have a party, kind of like a wedding, and you wear a big dress. My parents said, ‘It's either the party or we'll pay for the ticket for you to go to LA.' The company was in Los Angeles on tour, so I went to LA, auditioned, and I got my place.
The Royal Ballet
Did you know that you couldn't immediately go into the company and work because you were too young?
Actually, I didn't know. When I auditioned, that wasn't taken into consideration. But then they said, ‘No way, you're 15, you can't, it's not possible.' So they said, ‘Listen, we'll keep the contract for you, so go to The Royal Ballet School for one year and when you turn 16 you can join the company.' So I said, ‘OK, fine, I'll go back to school.' Now, this is me looking back, being mature about it, but at the time it was a little bit hard for a 15-year-old to understand. I'd been dancing all these roles, but I had to go back to school. It was emotionally quite difficult because I was in a new country, far away from my family. But it was a blessing. I needed to finish school and I needed to learn the language. I also needed to learn what the company was about, what our style was about, what the history of the company was. I just needed to nurture myself. So that was definitely, definitely the right choice. That was back in 1997.
It was necessary.
It was totally necessary. From a very young age, my teachers here had given me a strong technique, a really good base, so that's why I could do all that stuff. I probably was born with some of that, but I think my teachers played a big part in it. They gave me the confidence to be on the stage. When you see pictures of me in competitions, or the videos with Massimiliano or that video with Ale, you can't believe it's only a girl. Of course, you see it's not refined, and my port de bras is not great, but there is a presence, and even though I'm standing with principal dancers, there is nothing childish about it. I guess my teachers gave me that. What I needed to learn in London was how to refine all that strength and confidence and really understand what this art form is about.
What opened my mind in London was the importance of stagecraft and the artistic side of things. I had seen that, obviously, in the videos that I had, but when I saw it live when I attended my first full call, I was amazed. I just had never seen ballet done like that before – they weren't just dancers; they were actors.
It was Belinda Hately in Giselle. I loved her so much… beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. And it was her debut. I had never seen a ballerina like that. And then I kept looking around the stage and usually in the classics people will be standing all in the same way and moving their arm at the same time. This was the first time I saw each person in the corps de ballet with their own character and they were standing in different ways. They were not reacting in the same way at the same time. I had never seen such a beautiful thing in my life; it was so real. I thought, OK, definitely, I have so much to learn.
Your drive is strong, but not in a negative way. I imagine you don't put broken glass in other ballerinas' pointe shoes, but you just want to be the best you possibly can.
From a very young age, like five, I wanted to do this for real. When I started at the Colón school, I said, I definitely want to become a professional dancer. I knew I didn't want to be in the corps de ballet. Not that there is anything wrong in being in the corps de ballet, but I personally wanted to be a prima ballerina. Having clear what you want from such a young age definitely helps you to focus in order to get what you want.
Tell the truth: you didn't want to be in the corps de ballet because you can't keep in line!
You're laughing, but it's true!
Really! I got promoted to first soloist when I was a baby, because I joined the Royal Ballet aged 16 and usually people are about 18, so the girls in the corps looked after me really well. When they found out that I got promoted they were so happy and one of them, Julie Lack, who has a great sense of humour, wrote in lipstick on my dressing room mirror, ‘Congratulations. We are so lucky you're finally out of the corps de ballet because you can't keep in line.'
And I thought I was joking!
[laughing] It was brilliant: ‘Congratulations, we're really happy that you're out of here!'
Technique and preparation
I hear people say that you have an ‘easy technique', yet everyone knows that technique is never easy. How much have you worked to make it seem easy?
My teachers gave me a good base, working hard on me to make it clean and strong, but they did it in a positive way… they never pulled a trigger on me, and they gave me a sense of freedom and ease. Now, I constantly work on my technique. I feel that to be completely free on stage and live the story and have fun and project that to the audience, you mustn't think about the steps. The audience can tell when you lie, or if you're insecure: ‘Oh my God, is she all right? Is she going to make it?'
I really work hard on that because, especially now, at this point in my career, I can use it to really let go. It doesn't mean that I go crazy on stage and do whatever I want because I really like to keep my technique neat and in the style of the ballet. Just because I can do certain things doesn't mean that I need to them in every ballet. I know what I want to do and what each ballet requires, and I think to do that you need to keep your technique in top form.
Genesia [Rosato, principal character artist with The Royal Ballet for over a decade] once told me that as the Queen in The Sleeping Beauty, sitting on the throne before Aurora's entrance, she sees the ballerina in the wings. She said you were the only one who looked excited, as though you couldn't wait to get on stage.
Well, I do get really nervous and the older I get, the earlier the nerves start… probably three or four days before a performance. I get more nervous now, but at the same time, seriously, I really want to go on that stage and do it. It's so weird, and I can't explain it, but there are other nerves that say, oh my God, let me get out there. But if you put The Sleeping Beauty music on now, I'll really feel like I want to be there. It's unbelievable. So, I do get nervous, but at the same time, my body wants to do it. I get most nervous before Swan Lake. With Swan Lake, it's the whole four weeks of rehearsal that I'm nervous thinking, oh my God I have the performance, I have the performance! But then you hear the music [she sings], and you see the Prince, and I feel as though my heart is going to break. It's the best feeling in the world.
You positively use that emotion and don't let it destroy your performance. Others could crumble under the stress of that responsibility.
Yeah, It could definitely go the other way! But I was born loving pressure and pressure makes me kind of push more and get in the zone. It just drives me. I'm not going to lie: now that I'm older, there are moments where I have to tell myself, come on Nela, you've worked hard, you've done this before, you've rehearsed. So yes, the nerves are very strong but so is the passion and that counterbalance is fantastic.
Your career has been relatively injury-free.
Well, in 22 years I've never missed a season. I did have a couple of minor things. I pulled the TFL muscle, which stabilises the hip, so it's kind of an important muscle and its super painful. The first time I did it, I didn't stop. Like all dancers, I never want to miss anything and we were doing amazing ballets like Ballo della Regina, which I'd never danced before, and we were getting ready for The Prince of the Pagodas. I thought that there was no way I was going to miss that, and I carried on. Then six months later, I did it again.
The second time, I had only three weeks until my debut in Onegin. I had waited all my life to dance in that ballet and I was like, OK I'll do it with one leg, I don't care. But I seriously couldn't walk because the pain was so strong and so I was crawling. It was before Christmas, so I said, OK, I can rest over the Christmas break and then come back, I don't care what it costs, I'll do it. I did, and so I didn't miss that debut. Phew! I also had something in my foot early on, and I needed to have a little injection. It's probably the only injection that I have had in my whole career. I've had nothing major for a long time, so I'm lucky.
And your feet? Those pointe shoes can be cruel.
Look at them [she holds up her feet to the camera]
They are taped because I was doing pointe work just now – but you know, I never had a problem in my metatarsal, and I do a lot of jumping… a lot! I don't have bunions either, which is unbelievable for the amount of work I do. My toes are the only thing that probably are not great because they have a shape from being so much on pointe. So my feet are all right – they're not pretty, but they're all right.
They're healthy. They're not pretty but they're healthy.
When you're not in lockdown, what other things do you do to keep your body healthy?
We are super lucky at the Opera House because we have an amazing team of physiotherapists and it's like a clinic on the fourth floor. We're constantly looked after, so I make sure I have treatment all the time. I get massages during the weekends. I look after my body at all times, and the first thing when I go guesting is to find a masseur – I'm very conscious about that. Exercises and recovery treatment are essential.
When do you do a massage – immediately after a show?
It's changed over the years. When I was younger, I would have a massage before the show. People were like, are you mad? [laughs] I've got such a strong body that I sometimes feel better when I feel more relaxed. I don't like soft massages but really strong ones. Now, I will probably do it the day following a performance, just to recover.
You've said in other interviews that you are very neat and ordered in your house and your dressing room. Is there any connection between that need and feeling secure with your technique? Everything always is in order.
The control freak in me. Definitely. Yeah. There has to be a connection for sure. I don't function without order. I say to Alejandro, look I need things neat around me because otherwise, seriously, I freeze, I can't cope.
If you see my ballet bag, it is freaky. It's like perfection. Otherwise, I feel sloppy. And it's the same with my dressing room and the same with my wardrobe at home. It's the same with my little bag that I take on to the stage. I've told this story before, but when we were doing Dances at a Gathering, not this time but around 2009, I took my leg warmers off and folded them neatly, as I always do, to put in my bag. Most dancers will chuck them into their bags, but I always take my time. We were about to do the pas deux and Fede [Federico Bonelli] shouts, ‘Nela!' and I turn around and see him scrunching up my leg warmers. I gasped and really wanted to go and refold them, but I'd have missed my entrance. Oh my God, what do I do? It was like Sophie's Choice. Of course, I went on stage, but I think there's definitely some connection there.
On a performance day, how do you gear your body up to go onstage? I imagine that you do a company class before the performance, but what about The Sleeping Beauty or a gala when you are offstage for a long while, and then you have to come on and fire off some technical pyrotechnics?
In our company we don't do a company class before the show because usually we're working until 5.30pm, so everybody does their own warmup. But if I'm doing Aurora in the evening, I won't be rehearsing during the day.
What I do is that I come to the theatre in the morning and do my Pilates class and then ballet class with the company, but I take the rest of the day off, when I usually sew my shoes and so on. I start getting ready in the theatre about three and a half hours before the show – I take my time. Then I calculate for the role. For Aurora, I would probably be warming up just a little before curtain up, and then during the whole prologue. Then I like to put my tutu on for the interval and go on stage. I try things out with the cavaliers, I feel the stage, and then I go into the wings. I don't exhaust myself. I keep warm, and I need to feel calm. Some dancers make themselves almost late so they don't have to think about going on, but I'm the opposite. I need to just kind of drop, you know, just to be calm. If it's a gala or something – and when I dance I'm often on last because its Don Q or Swan Lake or something – and maybe it's cold in the theatre, then you have to be clever with layers and leg warmers and so on.
Of course, when guesting abroad, you might find yourself on a stage with a rake – I remember your performances with the Rome Opera Ballet where the rake is steep.
I used to freak out with rakes. In fact, the first few times I went to La Scala, I felt like I couldn't dance. I think it was back in 2006 and then again in 2009. I couldn't find my balance, no way, but it's amazing what experience brings. I still worry about rakes because I'm not used to them, but now I get nervous, but I can do it.
What does guesting give you – apart from some extra income?
Many things. Obviously, you see different people doing ballet in different ways, with different styles, so it kind of opens your mind and enriches you.
I love waiting and watching. Especially dancing with Vadim [Muntagirov] we're usually at the end with the classical pas de deux, and sometimes those galas can be long. So I like to watch all these dancers up close, dancers that I don't get to see often, or only online, so it is super inspiring. Usually, the audience for galas is so excited and you can see the bubbles, like champagne, it's fantastic… fantastic.
And the pressure dancing alongside other top dancers and having to show your worth?
Galas are like parties where you see all these dancers together and it's amazing to see, but of course you do feel the pressure because, as you say, you have the best of the best around you. You just have to show your game, though after doing it for so many years you kind of know-how to beat that pressure.
Galas are actually really difficult thing to do because usually you arrive either the day of the performance or the evening before. You've probably done a full-length ballet the night before, you need to adjust to a new theatre because the floors can be hard or the lighting can be strange, so it's certainly a challenge, but it actually makes you grow as an artist because you are out of your comfort zone and you have to make it work.
Guesting is a big and very important part of my career and I learn a lot from these experiences and working with different artists. It has helped me to mature a lot over the years. I feel I have the best deal: the most wonderful and special Royal Opera House family and also I have the chance to visit these other wonderful opera houses and companies… I am living the dream.
Roles, casting and interpretation
Do you ever feel taken over by a character and so immersed in the story that you are able to get lost in the moment, even while following the choreography?
I think lately I've gotten to a stage where I can do that quite often. Of course, there are performances where it's more but always in the second act of Giselle you can totally forget about the world. Like suddenly you're there. Definitely in Onegin.
In the last performances I did of Swan Lake before lockdown, well wow, I wish those performances had been recorded. It was unbelievable. And not just because of how I felt or how Vadim felt but also the company and the audience. I never thought it would be possible to experience that with a ballet like Swan Lake, which I love very much, but I get so nervous about. Seriously, I could close my eyes and almost forget about myself. It was like when we did the recording of Bayadère when we worked with Natalia [Makarova] and suddenly I felt as though I'd left Nela behind and I was on another planet. I think the older I get, the more I have those experiences, and they are super strong.
I think the audience senses when that's happening.
In those performances of Swan Lake before lockdown, I could feel that the audience was in the same bubble as we were… there was something in the air. You're right – the audience can sense that for sure.
Have you ever had roles given to you that you felt that you'd rather wait for, and also the opposite, that you were desperate to do a part and it wasn't offered to you?
The opposite! All the time! Now, the mature me can say that it was right to wait for certain roles, but most of the time I've had to wait. I did my first Onegin when I was over 30, and also Manon. For Giselle, I was 27 or 28. So I have had to wait, but I'm now so grateful for that because I think you can do them when you're young, but the understanding you have when you're more mature is something else. It's another game.
I recently did Marguerite and Armand and A Month in the Country for the first time, but it was the perfect way to do it because when you get the chance, you're so hungry that you want to do your absolute best… ah, finally! Also, you understand things in a different way and you can prepare in a different way, and absorb the information you are given in a different way. I think that that waiting for roles, and for a lot of things in my career, as I said at the beginning of our conversation, comes from the fact that I was looked after properly as an artist. It's a journey. I think I've matured in the right way and, after 23 years of career, I hope I'll still have chances to learn and to improve. And I want to do it. I don't think, OK, I'm done. No, I'm still like, oh my God, I have so much to improve on, so much to learn.
You revisited the role of Myrtha after many years. That seemed such a wonderful thing for you to do as it's such a difficult role physically, but also so difficult to judge emotionally: she's got to be strong, but she can't be spiteful. She's not the wicked stepmother, and I've seen dancers get it totally wrong.
When I did it for the first time, it was filmed – it's the one with Alina [Cojucaru] as Giselle and I'm the queen, and I was probably only 22 at the time. I had the most amazing time with Monica [Mason] in the studio. She can coach that role like no one else. Someone should film her and put it in the archives because what you can learn from her is incredible.
We worked, and we worked, and we worked. She has such an amazing way of coaching that it stays with you. It really does. Obviously, I moved on to doing Giselle, and I did that for many years, but then the last time we were doing it, I said to Kevin, ‘Listen, I would love to go back to that.' You know Graham, as you were saying, it's such a demanding role, technically and artistically, but I felt that as I now have a little bit more knowledge and a little bit more experience, I wanted to go back and see what I could do.
It's was a challenge because it's probably harder than doing Giselle [she laughs]. Monica came to coach me again, and I remembered every correction that she had given me years before because it had made sense. It had such a big impact on me. You know, next time we do it, I definitely want to do it again because I think it keeps you intellectually alert and helps you artistically in many ways. As you said, it's a very difficult role to get just right, and you're the character that sets the scene: the first act has been very earthy and human with all this emotion going on, and then suddenly you go to a different world, and you see this person crossing the stage in a pas de bourrée. Monica said that crossing that stage you really have to set the mood, and you have to make the audience believe in the world we've gone into. It's a huge responsibility.
You danced with Alejandro for his farewell performance in Argentina in a role which I think is perfect for you: Ronald Hynd's The Merry Widow. Those demi-caractère roles seem aligned with your offstage personality.
That is kind of where my career started. I always feel La fille's Lise put me on the map. The soubrette roles, even Kitri, are very fiery, and they come naturally to me, so that's why, at the beginning of my career, I was doing those kinds of roles. The Merry Widow was recent, but with Coppélia and Lise, I was worried that I was going to get stuck… get pigeonholed. I love them, but I knew I could do all the ballerina roles. I knew I had a dramatic side in me.
I don't want to sound big-headed and arrogant, but one of the things that I really treasure and work hard on is having a full range. Not just for the sake of it, but because I really feel comfortable in all those different roles. I feel equally comfortable doing Lise as I do playing Tatiana, Swanhilda and Odette/Odile, Giselle then doing something abstract like Balanchine. I feel the same joy doing them all. I feel comfortable. I don't feel fake going from one extreme to the other.
These two extremes come together in La Sylphide, yet you've never played her, or indeed danced in that other sylph-themed ballet, Les Sylphides.
I was never cast. It's funny because a lot of people go, ‘Oh my God, with all the jumping and being so joyful, it's so you.' But no, I was never cast.
And you are good at acting naughty…
Oh yes, she's so naughty – unbelievable! I would love to do that part but, like anything really, it would have to be properly rehearsed. I think there is so much of the style to get absolutely right. To learn how to do those movements correctly. And Les Sylphides? Definitely!
You know I love Makarova very much, and there's a video of Les Sylphides with her and [Yuri] Soloviev [she sings and moves her arms]. Oh my God, I keep looking at it, and I go, how is it possible to dance like that? It looks effortless. It's phenomenal what they can do, a piece of art in capital letters, and though it's from many years ago, I don't think anybody can come close. I keep rewinding and going forward. It looks like she's not real. Incredible. To do a ballet like that, you need a lot of rehearsal… rehearse, rehearse, rehearse.
Like Giselle, they're the ballets that are meaningless if there isn't an understanding of the style.
You might get close to the style, but that's not enough. You see Carla [Fracci] in Giselle, act two, and with some of the steps she does you think, are you human or what? It's like she's floating. And look at those eyes of hers and how they focus into another world. It's faultless. You need to study these roles for hours and hours and hours.
Coaching at The Royal Ballet is treated very seriously, and it must be fantastic working with someone like Leslie Collier, the latest of a long chain of dancers who now creates new links of the chain by working with younger dancers.
It's made me the ballerina that I am today. Thanks to The Royal Ballet, I've worked with the best of the best. You get to work with people who worked directly with Kenneth [MacMillan], with Ashton, with Balanchine and the roles were often created on them. It's like drinking water from the fountain. It's important not only for a debut but even for a ballet such as Sleeping Beauty that you've done many times to return to the coach. And it's not just the steps, but they cover all the angles of a performance. It's never, OK, just do this and do that, and then they leave. No, it's about the meaning… why we do these steps. At The Royal Ballet, you are cared for from head to toe – how your makeup is, your wigs, the length of your costume, the lighting. You're continually refining everything to the highest level, and so you feel safe because you've been looked after in such a complete way.
It's the biggest advantage of being in a company, and something you don't get when guesting.
I've built my career thanks to all these people teaching me, looking after me, dancing with me, and being able to see the others dance and share the stage with them. When I do Sleeping Beauty, the King and Queen are not just sitting there watching, but you feel like they are the King and the Queen. You do Swan Lake, and you have a Rothbart who acts the role which is it's so inspiring. When I do Onegin, the letter for Tatiana is not just a piece of paper, but our wonderful prop department actually writes it. So I'm standing there, and I'm literally in tears already, and then I look at that letter and I'm in pieces. The audience won't see that writing, but for the artists, it's amazing. They're doing their job at the highest level. It really is an unbelievable place.
Touring the world, I've discovered so many wonderful dancer/actors in many companies, but I'm grateful that at The Royal Ballet that special quality is guaranteed.
After the performance, you're very generous with giving autographs and chatting to people at the stage door, but there must be times when you'd rather just go and eat, or get home and put your feet up.
I genuinely love it, and I'm telling you the absolute truth. I'm dancing for them, you know, so it's like give and take. I'm grateful for the fact that they have come to see a performance and given me their support. People go to the theatre also to forget about the world and their problems and to connect with art, which is so necessary for all of us. At the end, to have that interaction is unbelievable, not only for them but for me too. They're sharing my passion and that's why I genuinely love connecting with my audience.
That's why I love social media too because I generally love to interact with ballet fans. Also to show them my gratitude for everything that they give me. I love to have that contact and if I'm tired it actually gives me energy back.
Do you know when it's hard? It's when I feel that I didn't perform well, and I'm a little bit upset. It's almost like I feel guilty. I kind of want to go, I'm so sorry, I feel bad, you paid for the ticket, and I didn't deliver what I wanted to deliver for you. But generally, I love it and I'm so grateful to them.
Although you're a dancer who adores everything about dance, what do you like doing when you're not sewing shoes or doing Pilates?
As you know, I'm a city girl, and I love London, so when I'm not dancing, I make the most of that city and oh boy, there's a lot to do in London. Even when I don't have a specific thing to do, I enjoy sitting in cafes and walking around the city.
A lot of Sundays, which is my only day off, I go to Columbia Road Flower Market or the garden centre. I don't have a garden myself, but I have window boxes, and I love buying plants and playing around with flowers. I love flowers a lot. I'm lucky that I get a lot of flowers after performances, but I just sometimes go to Colombia Market to see the different kinds of flowers and talk to people to learn about flowers. Hopefully, one day I will have my own garden so that I can really get into it properly.
For me, a lot about London is seeing performances and we also have The National Gallery just next to the theatre and that's a place that I go to often. But for much of my spare time, I'm not going to lie, I often just want to stay home. I travel a lot, so when I'm home I enjoy having a hot bath, candles everywhere, cashmere socks, good pyjamas… just being at home, chilling out. Enjoying home is great. There will be time to do more things when I'm 80.
At 80, when you retire.
Everybody loves Nela. Is there a nasty Nela hidden away somewhere?
Oh, I can get in a bad mood. Probably my parents get to see that. Maybe not nasty, but I get frustrated, mostly with myself if things don't go as I'd like or if things aren't done as I want. I'm a perfectionist, like every dancer, but I'm good at keeping irritations to myself. The words can flow if a rehearsal is not going well, so my coach will see that, but it's frustration mostly with myself. I wouldn't be nasty.
You seem extremely happy having Alejandro in your life. What does he give you? He must be special as logistically it can't be easy, living in different continents.
Ale is older than me, and we have totally different personalities. His feet are firmly on the ground. I think he has helped me mature as a woman, but also artistically. He often has a different view of things, and that has opened my mind to see things in a totally different way. He's wise, and I'm not saying that because he's my boyfriend. He's a deeply grounded person and that has helped me a lot, I think people who know me have seen a change in the last five years.
But he's also fun.
Crazy fun! Unbelievably fun. And very spontaneous. We laugh a lot. He lets me relax.
[Whispering] Is he tidy?
[Shrieking with laughter] No, he's not!
I knew it!
I think he's helped me with that because I'm so the opposite and we compliment each other. We balance each other, but he's learning too: you know the Japanese lady on TV who teaches how to tidy up things? In lockdown, that's what I've been doing in his flat!
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.