It's full steam ahead for The Royal Ballet's Anna Rose O'Sullivan. Last year she was promoted to the rank of principal dancer with the company, in January of this year she made her debut as the Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker, she will play Juliet when The Royal Opera House streams Kenneth MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet to cinemas worldwide on Valentine's Day, and she will make her debut as Odette/Odile in Swan Lake soon after that.
Even with a temperamental internet connection, her generous Cameron Diaz smile lit up the Zoom app. When I tell her so from my office in Milan she laughs, “Grazie mille!”
Anna Rose's dancing reminds me of The Royal Ballet's former star Lesley Collier with her precise execution of the choreography she dances, her music box ballerina proportions, and her communicative sparkling eyes. I ask if Collier is one of her coaches.
Yes she is. I've had the honour of working with her on many ballets, maybe most. For my Aurora debut, I worked with Lesley and Dame Monica Mason, and on Coppélia with Lesley. She's a jewel of the Royal Ballet's crown, so whenever you get her pearls of wisdom, it's pretty special.
The Royal Ballet's Back on Stage gala in October 2020, saw the company's dancers return in front of an audience after seven months of closure due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Lesley rehearsed Marcelino [Sambé] and me in La fille mal gardée for that gala. Everything is, like you said, reflective of her dancing, so very precise. She is really hot on the use of the upper body and how the body should reflect the feet, and the use of bend, which is not always easy in Ashton's fiendish choreography…
But very Royal Ballet…
Yes, extremely, and that's something I really try and soak up from her because we don't want that essence of the Royal Ballet's technique to be lost. Musicality is a huge point for her as well, making sure that the movements don't blur and that they are seen together with the music so that it marries perfectly. She's helped me tremendously with my port de bras, and I would say that that has been the most important thing for me: how I carry my arms and how I use them as well, not just hitting a position, but the way that my hands and arms take me there.
Collier also has the marvellous Royal Ballet quality of being a perfectly regal Sugar Plum Fairy, but also a gleefully impish Lise in La fille mal gardée, which seems to align with your personality too. You've also recently been jazzy and sexy in Christopher Wheeldon's Within the Golden Hour and darkly dramatic in Wayne McGregor's The Dante Project. What ballets are you most attracted to?
Anything with a story, so that can include the spectrum of styles. A narrative that I can express, a story I can tell through the steps that I'm doing, gives me so much joy. There's so much more freedom in dancing, even when it's challenging, when you have something to say. I enjoy dramatic roles and that's something that in recent years I've delved into more and hope to continue to do so. Pieces with a character that I can really get into is what I lean towards.
Just before the pandemic put your career on hold you made your debut as Aurora in a ballet with a very famous story…
The Sleeping Beauty…
… when James Hay, the partner you'd rehearsed with, was taken ill at the last minute.
I danced with Matthew Ball for my first show. I had a last-minute Prince Charming.
She laughs. Delightfully, she laughs frequently.
James was back for the second show.
I was obviously hoping that James would be okay. It was a shame because we'd worked really hard together, but at that moment there was a sense of joy as well to dance with Matt. We've been dancing together since we were very young – we've known each other since we were 11. We had literally, I think, about 30 minutes to touch each other and go through a few things so it was a very spontaneous performance. We had a kind of full-circle moment before entering where we just looked at each other. He's somebody I'd grown up with so it was really special to be there with him.
Even so, it's not easy to change partners like that.
There is a difference in everyone you dance with: their energy, how they are on stage and in the studio, and that's something you learn about somebody as you go along. Then proportions as well: some people's arms are longer, some shorter, and so you find ways of adapting and moulding as one with each person. You both change your shape for the other person – it's a ‘it takes two to tango' situation. I enjoy dancing with people that have an open sense of collaboration so that you are there for them and they are there for you. It's wonderful that I get to dance with so many dancers because you're constantly learning as each person brings out something different in you each time that you're with them.
You have often been cast with Marcelino Sambé.
Marci's been a really good friend of mine since I met him. I think we were 16 at upper school and we immediately became friends. He's got this incredible energy and there's a sense of moment when I dance with him. I feel like I can fully trust him, which is a wonderful feeling. I can just go for every moment and know that he's there, and I'll be there for him too… not that I have to catch him! I think we hold each other up nicely in our dancing, and it's very honest. I don't need to really act too much [as Juliet] with him because I am genuinely happy being there with him in that moment. We've shared some really lovely performances together and it is wonderful to dance with a friend… an added bonus.
Does that trust allow you to play off each other emotionally too?
Definitely. That's one of the reasons why I love dancing with Marcelino in Romeo and Juliet. We had a rehearsal today and there are moments when I can see his big grin or maybe he does something differently, and he knows how to make me react in a certain way. Then I do the same with him. It's an unspoken dialogue you can have with somebody that creates an energy and you feel like, oh, I just want to run to you and for you to catch me or twirl me around. It's almost like playing. You bring out that sense of play in the other person.
Tell me about your Juliet?
My Juliet starts out very naive and effervescent and just so unknowing – she's very much in the moment. She doesn't know any different. Her life is all planned out for her. And then as you go along in the story, it's meeting Romeo that makes her mature. Everything is ignited after meeting him and the passion and love change her course actions. If you feel that love, it's the most powerful thing. Hopefully my Juliet comes across as honest. I think she's quite feisty and she knows her own mind because she doesn't do what her parents want her to do. She follows her own heart.
And then you find yourself in the last act with the expansive dramatic arc as she moves from the passion of the bedroom scene to the desperation and tragedy in the crypt. How do you feel when you are on stage? Is there room to let yourself go or do you have to remain focused on physical control?
When you are in the studio doing the really dramatic scenes, it isn't the same as when you are on stage and kind of set free, let loose. It's bizarre because you have thousands of people there, but you feel like there's nobody, and you can be extremely dramatic and not worry about how you look. I think when you are not worrying about that then you just let the emotion run. It does get me in the last moments because also act three is very much Juliet's act. I see it as being Juliet in her own mind. Obviously, there are the parts when she's with her family and so on, but the last time she sees Romeo alive is in the bedroom scene. I feel that from that moment there's a real change in her mentality and it's almost like the audience is seeing into her mind as well as the situation around her. I feel like it's a split display of events in that moment… it's quite hard to articulate the feeling.
Your character is dead, the curtain closes, and then you must get up to take your applause. What are you feeling?
I remember the feeling when we debuted. I'm not somebody who takes their work home with them – I have a very normal life outside of my ballet life – but the curtain closed and I was expecting to feel this rush of euphoria because after a show you are usually on a high and feeling happy. But the heavy curtain was closing, and Marci had to pull me back as I was just in a bit of a blur. You allow yourself to go into this despair. I just had to wait and wake up again. Then of course, when you go out, you see the audience, the lights rise, and you are back to reality, and you can take that amazing feeling in. I think you can be really in that character, and you just need a few seconds more than you would if you were in La fille mal gardée, for instance.
Technically, MacMillan gives his dancers some complex challenges, especially in the pas de deux.
His pas de deux are known for not being straightforward. You are often not on your leg as the girl is off at an angle and the boy has to hold her in a certain way to make a specific line. It's like putting a jigsaw together in rehearsal. You have to trust your partner because you have to give your weight to him so that he can manoeuvre you in certain ways.
When I watch Romeo and Juliet or Manon, I enjoy the euphoria. Wow, these two people are so completely and utterly at one with each other and you can see that in their movement. There's no hesitation. They know how they feel and that reflects in their dancing. So the audience kind of gets whisked up with it and you feel like you are doing it with them.
Although there's great technical difficulty, when it works it appears natural.
When there's harmony, yes. And that's what rehearsals are for.
So now your third performance of Juliet will be recorded and transmitted worldwide.
Yes, I've only performed Juliet twice before, with Marci, and this is our first time revisiting the roles. It's really interesting to revisit something and allow things that are in your own life to inform your work. Experiences or feelings that help your portrayal, hopefully.
Last year, 2021, you were promoted to principal dancer with The Royal Ballet.
I remember being in the lift with Kevin leaving work and I was just about to meet some friends. He said, “I have to speak to you about something.” He was quite serious, so I thought, oh God, what have I done wrong? I was racking my brain, as he waited for people to leave. We were outside on the street and he said, “I can't keep it in any, any longer. I just wanted to let you know that you're going to be principal as of next season. It'll be announced soon but I wanted to tell you now.” So obviously I went and saw my friends and cracked open some champagne. It was in the summer of last year that I found out and it came into effect from the beginning of this season. So yes, this is my first season as a principal.
Was it something you'd dreamt about?
Yes, I did. When I was very young, at White Lodge, I always looked up to the principals in the company, like Darcey Bussell. It's wonderful to be recognised for the years of work that I've put in. I was already dancing some of the principal repertoire so it doesn't feel like a massive change, but it's an honour and a privilege to be leading the company and to have the recognition from my director and the company around me.
The principal roles are now coming thick and fast – you've just danced the Sugar Plum Fairy for the first time.
I really enjoyed it. Loved every moment. I was supposed to do it last year and then we closed down. And then the same thing happened this season when we were supposed to debut on Christmas Eve and unfortunately we had to close again for a few shows. So finally Marci and I got to make our debut just now, in January. I worked with Darcey Bussell and Edward Watson and that was pretty special to have them in the room helping us.
The Grand pas de deux is extremely demanding. Long and rich in detail. Yet you have to go on to perform it almost cold. Most of the evening everyone else is dancing and you're in your dressing room.
It's bizarre because as Clara you have the whole story to kind of warm up into the stage, but with the Sugar Plum Fairy, you do a little entrance, welcoming everybody to the kingdom of sweets and then you're off again. Backstage you hear everyone's dances going on and you're thinking, oh, I've still got 10 minutes… how much longer? You just want to get out there.
How do you make sure that you're ready to enter and perform the showstopper right at the end of the evening?
Before going on stage I like to conserve my energy so I sometimes sit down for a bit, then start warming up so that I'm perfectly warm before I enter the stage but not exhausted, so I don't jump around, going nuts backstage. I like to have a sense of calm and just think: You've done all the work up until this point and now is the time to try and enjoy it.
Having the audience there helps so much when you are doing something like the Sugar Plum Fairy, which is a bit of an endurance cookie. It's all sweetness and light and sparkles on the outside, but inside your carves are screaming. Sometimes you feel like you could take off with the Tchaikovsky score, so I have to keep detached and sit on the music a bit and allow myself to do everything as planned. I love being in the moment, and that's the challenge with the Sugar Plum Fairy because it's understated and pure. It's been a wonderful role to work on and I'm excited to grow in that role as well because it's a ballerina role that you want to try and improve on every time you do it.
So you enjoy being in front of an audience?
I think the time in the studio is the hard work, giving your everything for that rehearsal and trying to utilise your training time well. When you get to the stage it is so much more rewarding as you have the audience there willing you to do well and I really do feed off them. Obviously you are wanting to do well with your coaches in the room too, but it's completely different than having the live audience there with you in that moment. I love rehearsing. I love being in the studio. But the performing part is ultimately, I think, why I do what I do.
You were rehearsing The Dante Project and dancing Aurora at the same time. Two very different roles – is that tough on your body?
I quite enjoy having the different styles not too far apart. It can be a challenge. Maybe in one you're very loose because you've allowed your body to go to its full extreme, and then you have to kind of like hone it back in. And there can be things that sometimes you bring into your next rehearsal, which you then have to change, but I enjoy doing the different styles and the versatility of the rep in the company because I find that they help each other. You can go from Dante with fearless partnering, and you are pushing your body to its limit, to something more classical and I think sometimes that helps you with maybe the way you bend your body, for example, instead of being too upright. I think they all inform each other. They all have a place.
When you danced before an audience again after the first lockdown you learnt a new role for your colleague Meaghan Grace Hinkis' open-air gala at Athelhampton.
Yes, it was a really beautiful setting and a wonderful way for artists to raise money for the arts and have an opportunity to perform for people and continue doing what we do. The natural element of being outside makes you freer – it adds a bit of magic.
I danced The Dying Swan. Zenaida Yanowsky helped me with that. We did it via Zoom. I went to my local dance studio and she was in her trainers, in her garden, doing the swan arms with me. We had to find ways to try and make it the best possible show we could and I was really grateful that Zenaida found the time to help. You don't always need to be in a ballet studio to improve what you are doing and there can be other sources of inspiration that help your work. Obviously being in the studio is wonderful, but when you don't have it, you dig deep and try and go on.
Your path to the ballet world was unusual as you were a child performer in the West End.
I was in the original cast of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. I was about seven or eight and the youngest in the cast. I just absolutely loved it. I've always enjoyed performing. From a very young age, I'd put on shows like in my fireplace hearth in front of my family, enjoying giving joy to people I suppose. Then I did Cosette in Les Misérables at the Queen's Theatre [now the Sondheim Theatre] before going to The Royal Ballet school.
Do you still sing?
I do. Though now it's more for the shower. But in lockdown, I did enjoy revisiting that a little and try a bit of acting. I'm open to all things within the arts as I think they can all help your performance. And never say never – one day maybe the right thing could come along when I'm older. I love going to the theatre. I love musicals. I love films. Anything with performing in it and I'm there.
Being accepted by the London Children's Ballet and cast as the lead in its 2004 production of A Little Princess showed your talent for ballet, but it seems that you're not a 24/7 bunhead.
When it's needed, I can knuckle down and be a bunhead in the studio, but when I leave I'm very much Anna Rose. I live and I think that hopefully helps with dancing.
I peeked at your Instagram account, which is work orientated. There are only a few photos of friends and family, and I didn't spot any cats!
I'm happy with my life and very proud of my family, but it's nice to have a personal element to your life. That might change and evolve over time, but I think it's important to have a sense of reality and have your feet firmly on the ground. My family always taught me to be kind and completely, authentically yourself. I like to share things and I like expressing things – I love to perform. But then there is a part of life that it's nice to keep personal. I don't need to show everyone what I'm having for breakfast, lunch and dinner and when I'm brushing my teeth.
I say that I've noticed a little sign next to her dressing room mirror which reads, “Enjoy the little things”.
Yes. You're very observant.
More laughter… So what are the little things that you don't want to miss out on?
Oh, many… making sure you go outside and enjoy a sunny day? Being grateful I think is a huge part of it. My friend brought [the sign] to me before a big show and I was like, you know what? You're so right. Enjoy the little things. And I think everything else follows if you are grateful in your life. I think you see things in a different light. You know, happiness creates that energy for life.
I have such an incredible life here as a ballet dancer, but I also have such pride in the relationships I have with my family and my friends outside of the theatre. I think giving time to that is important. And they're always there for me. So the glamour and the fairy tale of the theatre I love, but then I also love home life and being surrounded by family and friends that I'm very close to.
Next up is another debut, this time as Odette/Odile in Swan Lake.
I've just started preparing and I'm extremely, extremely excited about making my debut. Again, with Marcelino – we're having a great time. I think this is definitely a year for growth. Growth and challenges.
I'm letting myself go in all these different roles and, hopefully, finding my own voice, my own interpretation. Obviously there are incredible dancers that perform these roles and have done so before me, so it's about honouring them, but also finding my own take on the classics that everybody knows and adores. Hopefully, when they come to see Anna Rose it can be a different version, even if the choreography is the same.
What are your dream roles that you want to put your stamp on?
I'd really love to perform Manon. Yes, I'd say Manon and Giselle.
And this year will see the end of your first decade with The Royal Ballet.
Yes. I joined at the end of 2012 with Marcelino… Oh… Oh my goodness!
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.
Loved this conversation. She is a star without being a diva. Thanks
She is such a gorgeous presence on stage and technically ticks all the right boxes. Love her. Thought she should have become principal a couple of years ago.
I have never had the pleasure to see her dance, but what a beautiful person.