Interview by Stuart Sweeney
Stuart Sweeney meets the Royal Ballet's Italian first soloist with passion in her veins. (August/September 2001)
You trained at La Scala. Were those happy years?
The first three years were not easy. My home is in Coccaglio, near Milan and to go away to the School at 10 was hard for me and my family, particularly my mother. Also I had problems with my dancing, lifting my legs high enough and so on. At the beginning of my fourth year I was placed on probation - unless I made a big improvement I would be out. So I felt I had something to prove and I was determined to make it. As a result I improved so much that I had the highest score and after that I enjoyed the final years at the School. One teacher always believed in me and felt I brought expression and emotion to my dancing and that meant a lot to me. Looking back my time there made me self-reliant and it was a good experience as it showed you how to focus on your life and prepare for your professional career.
How did you come to join the Royal ?
I was offered a contract at La Scala, but someone suggested that I should try for the Royal and after an audition they also offered me a contract and it seemed like a wonderful opportunity. So I travelled here in 1992 with a friend from La Scala who was joining English National Ballet. The big problem was that I didn't speak English at all and couldn't communicate, so I was lonely and had no friends in the Company. This was hard, especially in the rehearsals and I would have a dictionary and look up one word to express what I wanted to say! I was lucky that Monica Mason was a big help to me. She really looked after me and was so important in those early stages. Looking back it was tough, but exciting.
What was your first big break?
After six months I was covering the role of the Young Wife in La Ronde, and then I had to do the first night. I was there with all these really experienced ballerinas and I was very nervous. But part of me also wanted to show them what I could do. Then at the end of the season I had my first tour and I had to learn the role of Mary in Mayerling with very little time. It was so exciting, dancing with Adam Cooper. He's one of my favourite partners together with Jonathan Cope. The first performance was in Istanbul and beforehand I was really shaking, really emotional and then the set collapsed just as I made my entrance. But it went fine from then and that tour is one of my happiest memories, especially as my Mum and Dad came to see me dance with the Royal for the first time.
Have there been major influences on your dancing?
Natalia Makarova, who is such a beautiful dancer. Also Alessandra Ferri and Viviana Durante, who has such a clean style and so much passion. In coaching it's Monica Mason. She always appreciates how much I enjoy ballet and can always read my emotions so well. She is an amazing coach, showing you how to act, how to use your arms and express emotion. Anthony Dowell is a lovely coach for pas de deux. He has a wonderful eye and inspires confidence.
I remember you making a big impact in the pas de deux in MacMillan's Concerto.
It's such a beautiful dance and I love Kenneth MacMillan. His ballets are so true to life and bring out personality. He doesn't hide bad things; it's not just fairies. I only met him once, but I feel I learned to know him through his ballets.
So it must have meant a lot to play Juliet.
I always wanted to do it, perhaps it's because I'm Italian. Anyway I was determined to do it. It's been my dream ballet ever since I saw the video when I was 14. I remember we were rehearsing La Bayadère and someone said I should look at the casting sheets. I couldn't believe it when I saw my name. There was one month's coaching everyday from Monica Mason and I loved every minute. It felt so right for me and really good. I believe in love at first sight, so for me it's like in true life. To help me when I'm performing, I talk to myself in my head, things like, 'Who is this man' when I first see Romeo, which lets me feed my own personality into the role.
You had an important part in Ashley Page's new work, This House Will Burn. Was it a good experience?
We all loved dancing in it and Ashley always makes the dancers look great. I was excited before the rehearsals and just couldn't wait to do it. It was hard work, but the pas de deux are so beautiful. Ashley doesn't impose a role on you - he lets it emerge from you, so it's almost as if he brought out a second personality from me. It was interesting with those scenes up in the room above the stage, smoking and acting, not dancing. I was a bit embarrassed by the see-through dress, but then I thought, 'So what!' I get on very well with Ashley and respect and love his work, which feels very natural for me.
You're a classically trained dancer. Is it difficult to perform more contemporary dance work?
It's a good experience for me. You get to know your body better and it helps me be more relaxed. It's great to change the position of your body, even though you have to switch back when you return to classical roles. I'm always interested to do modern work with choreographers like Ashley and Cathy Marston.
You've danced with Irek Mukhamedov several times and guested with his Company.
It's been very good for me. I really enjoyed dancing with him in Ashley's Fearful Symmetries. With his Company, he pushed me a lot especially with The Talisman pas de deux. But the atmosphere was different - less pressured and it gave me more confidence and made me more secure on stage. He's a great man, full of life and his wife Masha is lovely too and has given me a lot of help.
What are your impressions of this season, your first as a first soloist in the Royal Ballet?
It has also been a fantastic year for the company. I've loved it, but being a first soloist is maybe the hardest position. You get less shows than the principals or the soloists, but I've learned a lot. It was lovely to have the chance to dance Lise with Johan Kobborg in La Fille mal gardée on the American tour. However, it's also been a stressful year for the company, which is understandable with a change of director [next season Ross Stretton takes over from Anthony Dowell, but is already working with the Royal]. We know it's going to be different and changes are already taking place. We need to respect new ideas and I have positive feelings. I'll carry on working hard to improve and I'll try to enjoy whatever he's going to give me.
What do you do outside of work?
I love playing the piano, but I haven't had a chance recently. It would also be good to start composing again. I used to write what you could call light classical music. Reading is important for me and I enjoy books on psychology, which can help you live your life easier. Dancing is hard work, so I need to rest, but cleaning my flat is good therapy for me. Spending time with my friends is great and if I meet one I haven't seen for some time, then I can talk for hours. With three or four free days, I often go and see my parents, who are very important for me and give me a lot of support.
What are your hopes for the future?
I'm so lucky that I love my job. I don't want to be a big star. It's more important for me to be on stage and do the ballets I want. There are so many roles I would love to dance - Manon, Anastasia, The Invitation, The Judas Tree, Different Drummer and from the classical rep. Don Q and La Bayadère. In the future I might do an acting course and I want to get married and have a family, of course.
First published in Dance Europe, August/September 2001.
© Dance Europe 2001
Special thanks to Emma Manning, Stuart Sweeny and Dance Europe