After 27 years with The Royal Ballet, Laura Morera's final performance at the Royal Opera House is on 17 June in Kenneth MacMillan's Anastasia Act III. She dances on the company's visit to Japan in Frederick Ashton's A Month in the Country, with her final performance in Himeji on 8 July.
In conversation with Paul Arrowsmith, Morera looks back on her performing career and ahead to her future, which includes overseeing the staging of Kenneth MacMillan's ballets for the MacMillan Estate.
You have an interesting juxtaposition of roles as you retire – Cinderella, Anastasia, Natalia Petrovna in A Month in The Country …
That's totally in line with my career, I've always pushed myself and tried not to limit myself at all.
Cinderella was a debut. The second act, particularly, is challenging. Because of casting decisions here over the years, the big tutu roles have evaded me so that when I do one, that's a big mental challenge I have to overcome.
Lesley Collier [who coached me in the role, a former Cinderella herself] has transformed me over the years, developing in me a lot more softness. Roles like Cinderella have to be danced from the heart.
Ahead of my debut, I've had a calf injury, so I have had to push hard to be able to embody that sense of a ballerina or princess. All the hard work is done in the studio with your coach. Onstage, it's down to you to show what you have learned and display your gifts.
Anastasia must be an ideal role to show your dramatic abilities.
It's hard to do the third act alone without having done the previous two, and hard to show how Anastasia arrived at the point she's at, without the journey of how she got there.
Of course, the role is associated with Lynn [Seymour, who created it], but I don't believe in attempting to recreate previous interpretations. Why dancers are drawn to performing with this company is that there are no longer restrictions on age and look. The focus is on creating a performance – using your eyes, your face, your dynamic, not just your technique – to transform yourself in a role onstage.
And Natalia Petrovna – another role created by Seymour.
The appeal is that she is not at all one-dimensional. I've loved playing her.
Natalia is spoiled, you must portray that. She is stuck in a place, in her marriage. She meets somebody who sets her free, able to feel passionate again. Something [Beliaev] sets her on fire. At the end [the audience should feel] sadness, her moment is gone. She is back locked in her cage.
Part of my research was reading the play [by Ivan Turgenev] but onstage you have to let all that go – it doesn't relate to the choreography that it inspired from Ashton. In MacMillan's works too. Your performance has to have its own clarity. You have to show that Natalia's behaviour isn't over the top for no reason: to show why she is rattled when she is caught out – how she tries to divert the conversation to escape those moments.
What it cannot be is a caricature lacking any depth and truth. You are the one who has to convey the hundreds of emotions running through Natalia in that moment.
Did you do similar research for other literary characters, Tatiana in John Cranko's Onegin or Mama Elena in Christopher Wheeldon's Like Water for Chocolate?
Yes, not just Pushkin for Onegin, but the social history of the time to understand the mind and heart of somebody in Tatiana's position, what it would be like to be in a marriage like hers. You carry that information in your head, the more research you do, the more layers you can portray in helping you come closer to the truth of the character.
With Like Water for Chocolate, Chris [Wheeldon] and Jacquelin [Barrett, his assistant] had done the preparatory work with their scenario. He was clear in his ideas for movement but the principal dancers were given the book [by Laura Esquivel]. I knew it already so I had a sense of Mama Elena but I went back to the film too.
Elena is not one-dimensional. In the ballet her wake allows us to see her backstory. That set me up to go back, to understand her beginnings. It works that way in ballet: you have to get to the end to understand how things begin, why Mama Elena is the woman she is. She was a young free spirit in love. Tragedy and trauma inflicted by her own family made her close herself up to all happiness and created such bitterness and all consuming anger in her that unfortunately she has chosen to inflict that upon her own family, specially Tita.
Like Water for Chocolate is quite extreme for what a ballet can show. I loved doing the fight with Tita [Francesca Hayward]. It is difficult to put brutality into ballet, but I loved doing it – a whole experience!
Besides making your debut as Cinderella you've been coaching, I think?
Yes – all the fairies and the Fairy Godmother. All the Cinderella fairies were new in their roles.
Coaching has emerged quite naturally. Dancers have always come to me. I've done lots of roles, so I suppose it was natural for them to seek me out for some guidance and it's natural for me to want to share my experience.
Ashton is pure musicality, elegance and emotion. So much of human life is in his work but I observed in the company in past years that many dancers didn't like performing his works. I see it as part of my duty, as a dancer and a coach, to inspire the new generation through my true passion and respect of the work.
The current dancers have really enjoyed working on Cinderella and are looking forward to dancing his works more regularly, which is a positive step forward.
Ashton has a different way of moving – you cannot, CANNOT, sacrifice bending when you perform Ashton.
To perform Ashton, you cannot just deliver a great show but deliver a great Ashton show. With Ashton, you must always go deeper to find a way to express his language. It's like speaking a foreign language. You can learn it correctly but that's not enough. It's only when you travel abroad you recognise that you may have the language technically correct but not the lingo [of how people really speak]. When you have it, that is when you will truly blossom. And that is a long process [with Ashton].
What does your future role involve, staging and coaching the MacMillan repertoire? Is that for The Royal Ballet or with other companies too?
Here for now, but who knows where in time. I would welcome that.
The goal in coaching across all the MacMillan roles is to keep the essence of them – and natural acting. With tiny roles, my aim is to give them the depth of principal ones. MacMillan's ballets have to work like that, always.
Coaching is about guiding dancers to be honest in their reactions, for instance, when Romeo and Juliet first touch hands. MacMillan's ballets are very open to interpretation, but you should always know you are watching a MacMillan ballet.
It's very difficult reviving a ballet when the choreographer is no longer present, but choreographers like Ashton and MacMillan allowed their work to breathe in different bodies. Of course, if the choreographer is in the room, they can change something that doesn't work for a particular dancer. Without that, for a coach or stager, it's difficult because you always want to be true to the choreographer's vision artistically.
When I coach, that means having to understand the essence, what the choreographer stands for, and that requires a lot of knowledge and research. Now if somebody does something different that makes sense and it works, then good. You can't recreate what is past.
Going back to 2001, in the turbulent year when Ross Stretton was director of The Royal Ballet, you seemed better regarded by him than other dancers.
Yes, but you still had to prove yourself. When, in his eyes, I did that, then everything was mine on a silver platter. Being offered Kitri in Don Quixote [which I saw in July 2002] came out of nowhere.
But being a company member is not just about ‘me'. A lot of the dancers in the company were miserable or leaving. I had to ask myself is this really the company I want to be in? Stretton really broke the company.
You've said you have danced many roles but how much did you doubt yourself when roles didn't come your way – or were taken out of them?
I never did Kitri again – when Carlos [Acosta] did his Don Q [in 2013] I was Mercedes, but even if it might have slightly bothered me, I was able to let it go and enjoy what I was doing.
But the one that devastated me, really broke my heart, was being taken out of Tatiana [in Onegin]. I didn't understand what happened. Was it me? Or something else? I don't know.
Not getting roles was a slow chip, chip, chip away at my self-worth. I was considered a supposedly dramatic dancer, but I didn't even get them. I got into a bad state. Nothing within the walls of Western medicine was working for me to help me.
Is that what led to your interest in complementary therapies?
That was a bid for survival – do I sacrifice my health doing this or do I give it up? Neither would have been right because of my passion for what I was doing.
As a performer you have to be completely open-hearted, any self-doubt or hatred, anything like that diminishes your performance. There are always mental and physical challenges in pushing yourself as a dancer. It's hard to take risks when all eyes are on you, to put your body at risk.
So, I Googled ‘holistic retreat' and found one in India and another in Thailand. I'd been to Thailand so I thought I would go there again. I had already explored ‘holistic therapies' in Bethnal Green but really, I just didn't get it.
In Thailand I was working with somebody authentic, somebody who had helped world leaders – and little people like me. Learning the techniques for self-help set me free personally and then artistically.
I still have some doubts when I put on a tutu. All the stories that some people have told [about me as a classical dancer] replay in my mind – but now I don't get attached to them. I have the awareness of the truth and the actions to deal with a situation. A process.
Before Frankenstein [Liam Scarlett's ballet created on Morera in 2016] I had a calf injury. I had a scan and was told it was ‘a one-week problem'. Two months later I couldn't do a step. I knew I had to go do something else. I took myself to Romania where the specialist from Thailand happened to be. A couple of two-hour sessions put me right. And this was only a fortnight before the Frankenstein premiere.
Really the injury was not physical, but my treatment enabled me to release the grief, sadness and fear I was feeling after the death of my father [who did much to support Morera's career].
Going forward, are you hoping to introduce the methodologies you have learned and developed for yourself more widely, with the company?
I have started offering some sessions here and have been amazed how people have reacted. Without this [level of self-awareness] there is a missing piece of the puzzle towards a dancer's wellbeing on and off stage. Achieving personal freedom liberates you artistically.
You've mentioned Kitri in Don Q as a breakthrough moment – what were the others?
In Mr Worldly Wise  when Twyla Tharp put me with Ricardo Cervera for the first time. We absolutely just got each other as performers and people. [They later proved an instinctively natural pairing in Ashton's La Fille mal gardée, Morera's performance in the title role earning her a 2015 Critics' Circle National Dance Award].
Doing Ashley Page's Room of Cooks on a mini-tour . Ashley saw something more dramatic and more mature in me.
Muse is a word that has been used in relation to your work with Liam Scarlett …
I loved working with Liam. He had very clear ideas but was always open for discussion. We didn't necessarily even have to talk. I felt I could contribute something of my own, which he loved. And then he would ask me to try it in the opposite direction.
Working with Liam was truly a collaboration [Morera's eyes ablaze with passion at this point]. Liam was passionate about work and his dancers.
Working with him was just incredible. I never had a bad day with Liam in 12 years. I was always excited. He was inspiring, freeing. Every day was different: he allowed me such depth and breadth.
Liam showed me respect and a sense of belonging that convinced me why I wanted to belong to this industry. With Liam I was never boxed in, compared to what I was experiencing at the company at the time.
Will we see Scarlett's ballets at The Royal Ballet again?
I have asked the question, and the answer is ‘no'… for now. [Morera's eyes fill with tears]. But never say never. Other companies are making different choices.
Liam was quite a shy person who put himself into his work. It is hard to grieve for somebody, to feel a closeness to them, when all that remains of them is contained in their work – but you cannot see or perform it. But he is missed and grieved. Liam gave freedom, so much else, to many dancers, including Leanne Cope – not just me.
Liam was my artistic love story.
Asphodel Meadows would be the perfect farewell ballet for you?
Maybe. I asked if my farewell could be in something by Liam but it was not to be. Asphodel with The Two Pigeons was a bill we performed where I thought, ”I could retire with this.”
[Asphodel Meadows was Scarlett's first main stage ballet for The Royal Ballet in 2010 and is set in the hinterland between life and death. Morera performed the gypsy girl in Ashton's Two Pigeons at her graduation performance from the Royal Ballet School in 1995, a role she reprised for the company 20 years later].
However, Symphonic Dances would have been my chosen Scarlett piece for my send off, but I am retiring now, honoured to be doing so with a MacMillan ballet, and one as dramatic as Anastasia.
I have truly loved what I have done – all the fairies and Bluebirds in Sleeping Beauty, the many harlots and mistresses, all my principal work – and that I have lasted so long!
I don't have a favourite role, but anything by Ashton, MacMillan, Scarlett… I loved performing Jerome Robbins… I enjoyed working with Kim Brandstrup on Rushes. That brought out Carlos [Acosta]'s animalistic side and it was wonderful to perform with him.
There was a sense in 2018 that Manon may have been your farewell, alongside Federico Bonelli.
That's right – a partnership 15 years in the making.
But what of the roles that got away – Juliet?
I still asked to do just a single performance on the tour to Japan this summer – obviously I was not successful in my quest [Morera is now the same age as Margot Fonteyn when she created the role in MacMillan's ballet.] But if anybody anywhere else wants to offer me the chance …
[Morera and I spoke on the day when The Royal Ballet announced its 2023-24 season]
Was there anything there that might tempt you to return to the stage?
I have made my peace with ballets like Giselle, (the title role) in Manon, and so many others because I knew, when I was last performing them, it would be my last time. I was able to say goodbye to them.
I think that's what has been so difficult about Liam's work for me. I was not able to do that with his work so I would keep my pointe shoes ready for something by Liam… and of course Juliet!
You've performed many roles in Mayerling – Larisch, Vetsera, Mitzi, Stephanie – might you return to the stage in 40 years' time in a character role, as Marcia Haydée did in her eighties with Stuttgart Ballet's Mayerling, as Archduchess Sophie?
And what of the project to rework MacMillan's Seven Deadly Sins that did not come to fruition at Wilton's in London in 2019?
Ah… Well, that's something that I would hold onto my pointe shoes for. Not that anybody is talking to anybody else about anything. Yet!?
Laura Morera will dance Anastasia on Friday 9, Wednesday 14, and Saturday 17 June 2023.
More details and booking via The Royal Opera House.
Paul Arrowsmith has been watching dance for 45 years after Peter Wright's Sadler's Wells Royal Ballet was his baptism in dance in the UK. He wrote for Dancing Times between 2010-22, reporting from China, Greece, Italy, France, Switzerland, Germany and Denmark, along the way interviewing Alessandra Ferri, Akram Khan and Miyako Yoshida among many. He has a particular interest in design for dance and has profiled the work of Natalia Goncharova, Jürgen Rose, John Macfarlane and Anthony McDonald. Paul collaborated with Sir Peter Wright on his memoires Wrights & Wrongs and in 2016 was programme consultant for the BBC documentary, The Ballet Master: Sir Peter Wright at 90.
I have followed her entire career at Covent Garden, appreciated her convincing portrayals of such diverse characters, the technical competence, and her honesty/sincerity/soul in everything I’ve seen. I never go to the stage door, but after reading this I’d truly like to shake her hand. WYSIWYG.
Wonderful interview. Thanks Graham! And also Laura who I never have had the pleasure to meet unfortunately.
Thank you Paul, thank you Laura, thank you Gramilano. Lots of space given to a special dancer, We will miss you.