Photo provided by Viviana Durante.
Interviewee: Viviana Durante (V)
Interviewer: Natasha Rogai (N)
Date: 25th August, 2016
Venue: Kwai Tsing Theatre
N: What made you accept this particular invitation to adjudicate at the HK Ballet Group Stars Award? The last competition you judged at was the Prix de Lausanne, which is very different.
V: I am always interested in and curious about different cultures and other parts of the world. What we do is something where you don’t need to speak, we speak the same language in the dance world, so it brings us all together. I’ve never been to Hong Kong before, I was asked to dance in Hong Kong many times, but it never worked out. So I’m very happy to be here, what a great chance to explore and see the dancers, to see what is happening out here.
N: What is your impression so far of the local kids that you’ve seen in the competition?
V: We just saw one master class today. Very nice, everybody is so sweet. So committed and so focused. You can hear a pin drop, everybody is so into it and really listening to the teacher. I can see everybody in the class today is able to take in the teacher’s instructions. Their minds weren’t veering off somewhere else, which can happen. However, I found them a little bit nervous, which is understandable. It looks as if there’s a lack of confidence from what I saw today, but I think that’s normal, it’s their first class in front of us. You know…I would feel the same. So let’s hope when we see them later on in their solos, that won’t happen. We’re here to help them, anyway. We’re not here to judge them, we’re here to help them go further.
N: What are the benefits for young dancers of participating in competitions?
V: First of all, it teaches you how to command stress or how to learn that you’re going to feel like that. Somehow, the show must go on - you get a hint of that. And then the fact that it makes you competitive, which is not a bad thing to be. In any world, in any kind of organization, you have to be slightly competitive to go further. I don’t mean in a horrible way, but you can compare yourself with other dancers. Especially technically, it can make you better. It pushes you, it lifts the level where you might be at, when you see somebody else and you try to be like that. One thing it doesn’t do is make you an amazing artist. Even if you don’t win gold, silver or bronze, you might become an amazing principal dancer, in an amazing company. So it’s not the end, it’s just the beginning of something.
N: The problem for ballet students here is that there’s no performing arts high school and they can only begin professional training at the Academy for Performing Arts when they are 18.
V: And they stay there till 20 or 22?
N: Yes. So for the crucial age from 11 to 18, they don’t have full-time training. Some ballet schools make a lot of effort to help gifted pupils -
V: But they are private schools, not vocational schools?
N: Exactly. I know that you famously left Italy at the age of 10 to start at White Lodge [the Royal Ballet Junior School] and got into the Royal Ballet at 17, I think?
V: Yes - 17 and a half.
N: That experience must have been extremely tough - you didn’t even speak any English when you started. Would you look back on that and say that the benefits of doing it that way outweighed the hardships, was that the right way to do it?
V: It was the right way to do it for me. There is no right or wrong way, I think. Everybody has their own path for arriving somewhere. My path was that I met Galina Samsova and André Prokovsky [famous Russian dancers then based in the UK] and they brought me to the Royal Ballet School, so that was my journey. For me, it was the best school I could have gone to. So therefore I think it’s a good school to help anybody that has a talent or bring out the talent, then nurture that talent. It was harsh for me in the sense that I was away from home. The fact that I was in a boarding school… I wouldn’t advise everybody to go to a boarding school to learn ballet - becoming a ballerina is not about that. That’s the way they run White Lodge but there are different ways.
N: Is it essential for ballet students, especially girls, to have that full-time, daily training from an early age?
V: Yes. Absolutely. If that’s what you’ve decided you want to do or try to achieve, definitely it should be a school which you do every day. It becomes like a life form, you know. It’s about “being a dancer”, it’s not “I do dancing”, there’s a difference in that and you have to embrace that if that’s what you love. In my case I embraced it, I loved it, and that took me away from homesickness that I was feeling. It’s not the same for everybody, not everybody would have felt that. Of course practicing every day is important - I’ve been reading a book on education recently and the author’s theory is that if you practice something a lot, a lot, a lot…. Then you’ll become a gold l winner. I don’t think that is so. I think you’ve got to have the talent and THEN practice every day. That will get you to be a winner. You don’t necessarily win because you practice something a lot.
N: You can swim as many lengths in the pool as Michael Phelps but it won’t make you Michael Phelps…
V: Exactly! I understand what the theory is trying to say, but in ballet I wouldn’t agree that practicing every day is the reason why you win. You have to be the right person.
N: But you have to do it every day as well.
V: It’s like being a musician, you have to practice every day. You have to love it. It becomes your life. Then the achievement comes naturally. It’s part of your life. If you can only do it once a week, that’s not enough.
N: What about young dancers today in general? Do you see a lot of differences between dancers now and dancers in your generation? In terms of their technique, their attitude?
V: I think the ballet world is changing, in a very positive way. People are looking after their bodies a lot more, they are treated more like athletes, because we do use our bodies, in a sense part of us is an athlete - you do wild things with your body! They look after the diet of dancers nowadays, which it wasn’t so much the case when I was in White Lodge for instance. That’s all amazingly good. Also the fact that classical and contemporary are sort of merging together, is a great idea, you can create even more, explore even more. The only thing I would say in classical ballet is that we must not lose who we are as classical dancers. You are an artist after all. I’m only saying classical dancers, not that it’s not the same for contemporary dancers, just because I do classical, I can only speak for my side. That must not be lost, otherwise you do end up being just an athlete. Then, when you find yourself telling a story it’s very difficult. You have to practice the telling of the story, the emotional side of something, just as much as you practice your tendus every day.
As a brief example, when I was a young dancer Dame Margot Fonteyn came to take one of my rehearsals for The Sleeping Beauty. All she was concerned about was my practicing who I was, knowing who I was before I came on to the stage. When I came down those steps, she wanted me to practice the fact that I was actually arriving at my 16th birthday party. She said, “You have to practice that emotion. I want to see that you’re happy. It’s your first time meeting people you haven’t met before, your parents love you, you’re the happiest girl in the world, you’re the princess.” Because what I was thinking was, “Arabesque…I must do my arabesque!”
N: And it’s such a difficult thing technically, that entrance…
V: Yes, absolutely, but it’s true, after practicing and practicing the technique it can take care of itself, but you do have to practice the emotional side. We mustn’t forget that we are telling stories at the end of the day. Through something which can be more technical at some times than at other times, but you must nurture that as well. I think that is getting a little bit lost in classical ballet. We have to be careful not to be thinking too much “the leg has to be there, the penché has to be there”, in fact if it’s too high it can look quite ugly…
N: The six o’clock extension.
V: You mustn’t lose who you are. In Giselle, for instance, you do the hops - and then you’re kicking your leg up? She’s a peasant girl, she would NOT be doing that! I’ll be rehearsing Anastasia at the Royal Opera House in September and one thing that was said to me is, “Please could you get some emotion, some sort of drama”. You have to rehearse that drama, as much as you rehearse your technical side, it doesn’t just come on its own.
N: I interviewed Alexei Ratmansky here last year and we were talking about dancers doing extreme extensions in classical work. What he said was that it’s just common sense, you should realize that Giselle’s not the sort of girl who’d be showing everybody her underwear!
V: Absolutely. She’s a peasant girl and you have to remember the time she was in, she wouldn’t even know what it was to kick her leg up like that. You are telling a story. You have to practice that. You can’t just practice for instance the solo technically, and then think that [the other side[ will just come on stage. It won’t. I’ve worked with actors. I’ve done some acting myself, and you have to practice the emotion. Not every performance is going to be same, I’m not saying that. Of course it will never be the same, even if you want it to be. But you have to practice where you are at that point within the story, even if you are doing arabesque at that point in the story! So that must not be lost. There’s a tendency nowadays to think, “Must do my running, must keep my stamina up…” That’s great! But please don’t forget the other side.
N: Do you think that also applies to style? There’s a lot of debate in the UK, for instance, about the Ashton style being lost because the subtlety, the delicacy is tending to disappear?
V: Yes! It’s important, it’s absolutely important to keep that. It’s about looking after the history of ballet. What it is. You don’t have to damage what it has been because you want to be something else, because that’s your starting point to be that. You walk into the Royal Opera House and there’s an amazing gym there now. I wish they’d had it in my day! Oh my God - there’s a physio room, there’s a massive gym. It’s incredible for exercising - it even has an amazing view! And there’s someone there to advise you, say if you’re feeling tired, maybe you’re not eating the right things… So it’s great because you look after your body but please don’t forget the other side, otherwise, all ballets would be almost the same.
N: You recently completed two major teaching qualifications?
V: Yes, I did a teaching qualification at the Royal Ballet School and a dance education degree from Trinity College.
N: You took them at the same time? That must have been tough!
V: Yes. I did them at the same time. [Laughs] I was writing my essays at 2 o’clock in the morning after putting my little one to sleep! But it was great for me because my husband is an author and he tends to write in the evenings, so I was in the other room, writing too... It was good energy.
N: Clearly you’re very interested in teaching and in dance education. Is that what you plan to make your main focus in the future?
V: I would like to, yes - because I would like to direct a school or company. I wanted, just like I did when I started in the company, I worked myself up to be a principal and I learnt by doing roles and doing things. I wanted to learn, before I take over something. I need to know about people’s psychology and how to deal with children growing up. It’s not just about making them dancers, you’re actually looking after them as little people that are growing into adults. They are still people and it’s essential to look after that - as you’re nurturing the dancer, you have to look after the person, with the two going together, otherwise it doesn’t work. It was interesting doing psychology and dance education. It made me think about what’s around and how to reach out to people in need through dance as well. I think that is a wonderful thing to do.
For instance, there are people who suffer from osteoporosis, or Alzheimer’s. You can actually, through movement, through dance - I’m not saying cure them - but by making them move, apparently it actually helps them.
N: So there are all sorts of applications.
V: Yes. That interests me a lot and I think it’s wonderful. But it was mainly because one day I want to direct a school, like the Royal Ballet School, or a company like the Royal Ballet Company. I wanted to inform myself and I haven’t finished, I’ve also been shadowing the artistic director of the South Bank, Jude Kelly and I’ll be shadowing somebody at The Barbican later. I want to learn about management. It’s like being a principal dancer. You practice, you know, you think and it gives you that confidence, to be able to then transport people and help people. I think without knowledge it’s not possible... I don’t like taking things by chance, I don’t think it works like that.
N: You want to be well prepared.
V: Yes. I am curious, anyway, I like to know things!
N: You mentioned that you’re going back to Covent Garden this autumn to rehearse Anastasia. Are you coaching the ballerinas who are doing the title role?
V: Yes, I’m coaching all the Anastasias and doing the pas de deux as well.
N: The Kchessinska pas de deux? That’s very exciting. So you danced both those roles?
V: I did the title role and I did the pas de deux in galas a couple of times. It’s really a tough one! So I have all the principals, men and girls, about four or five casts.
N: How important do you think it is, because this is something integral to classical ballet, the tradition of passing on, that one generation of dancers then coaches the next. What was your own experience of being coached by your predecessors? You’ve already mentioned Fonteyn. What did they give to you?
V: I worked with Anthony Dowell, Antoinette Sibley and Lynn Seymour, of course - my heroine! That’s the only way you preserve, like we were saying before, the style of something. Especially for someone like Lynn, or Antoinette who worked with Frederick Ashton a lot. I worked with Kenneth McMillan myself but Lynn worked on everything with him, he created almost everything on her. For me, it was like being in touch with the source of something. It adds to you as an artist and at the same time you preserve the style of when it was made, why it was made - the history of it. Of course my performances were very different to Lynn’s, even though I learnt so much and she filled me with information. You then make your own performance out of that. But having taken all that in, it’s important to do that, because otherwise you will lose the history. Thinking one can do it better - with that kind of information from the past you can do it better, but if you didn’t have that, you couldn’t.
N: Where do you think ballet is now? I agree with you - you have the history and that’s what enables you to do new things afterwards. But today there tends to be almost a conflict between people who say “I want to see something nice like Swan Lake” and people who say “I want to see McGregor”, especially younger people, they love McGregor or Forsythe, they are excited by that but find Ashton is “boring”.
V: I think that’s because when you’re doing something by Wayne McGregor, who’s a great friend of mine -
N: Weren’t you in his first ever piece for the Royal Ballet in 2000?
V: Yes, I was. And he’s a wonderful choreographer! If you’re doing his work, you need to be going to the gym, building up your stamina. Otherwise you’ll hurt yourself because he’s so technically demanding. It’s something exceptional on your body and different on your body, he moves you in such an amazing way. You have to learn to do that and train yourself to do that.
I think what’s happening is that because you’re looking after that so much you think “Oh, Giselle, that’s quite easy to do, I’ll just do it.” And that’s not true. In Giselle, you need technique, but you need to be emotional. In fact, it’s not easy at all. I think it is because people are seeing [work like McGregor’s] as more trendy and focusing on that.
N: How about for audiences?
V: Audiences are educated by the dancers and by what they see. You have to educate an audience. I think that by working on the acting side of classical dance, you can bring classical dance higher than something like that. Not because I want to compare with Wayne, he really is an amazing choreographer. I admire him, I love the guy, he’s amazing. But from an audience point of view, of course you’d find that more trendy because it’s more comparable to what’s happening outside like computers, video games - it’s more about that. My son is four and a half and he’s on the iPad already! The only way for classical ballet is by working on the tradition so you are telling a story. You can go to see Wayne’s work or something similar. It’s great! It gives you one kind of feeling. But it’s also very nice to go and see something which is like an amazing movie, something that makes you cry and brings out the most inner emotion that you have but maybe haven’t spoken about for a long time. When you’re looking after the artistic side you can re-balance things or even go above that. A movie that’s all about flashing things and very fast images is fine, but when I go to the cinema or especially the theatre, I really want to see a great story that transports me. That’s not looked after so much any more, because you think it’s been done or it will look after itself, but I don’t think it does, you have to keep going on about it. Even the fact of revisiting some mimes that are done in some ballets, you can make that more natural. Like in Swan Lake, you can make that maybe more believable rather than just doing the traditional mime [demonstrating], because some people wouldn’t know what it means. By just revisiting those bits of the interpretation, you can bring it up to date.
N: Isn’t it mainly the way you express emotion with your body and your face? That should tell the story.
V: Yes, your arms, for instance. I would like the students to do an acting class once a week using their voices. I know we do something which is silent, we don’t use sound. But it’s only bu using sound that you can find the silence. Do you know what I mean? You can find that inner silence.
N: You see in contemporary dance now, they are starting to bring in a bit of dialogue. So for them it’s not taboo to use their voices.
V: Yes, absolutely. In classical ballet that would be quite difficult because you have the orchestra. But to work on that once a week, as training, it really brings out your emotions. You think “Oh yes, when she goes there she does this”, or if you’re just saying “hi” or “look at me". Say it, but then do it without saying it. I tell you it makes a difference. It really makes a difference.
N: That’s very smart. I agree that it’s a difficulty for dancers. One thing that annoys me though, I’m seeing it more and more, is dancers mouthing words when they’re on stage.
V: Oh no, no, no! That’s terrible! And when you see them counting!
N: Even worse!
V: That’s why I think that by practicing it in the studio, saying it there, then you can find the silence. It’s all about
training people, training the audience, training dancers that you can do that, you’re not going to lose your arabesque if you “say something” while doing your arabesque. Lynn Seymour made me do something in rehearsing the third act of Anastasia which I will also do with the dancers. “Take off your pointe shoes, come in with a tracksuit. Let’s go through the emotion of what she’s saying. She sits on the bed, she runs forward. She screams. I want to hear you run before that scream.” That’s the only way you bring that true emotion. Of course you have to take it away [in performance], but by then it’s in you already. So the silence doesn’t become something dead, it lets you speak in silence.
N: I saw Seymour do the original version. She was unbelievable - she just sat there on that bed at the end and yet she had you in tears. What an artist.
V: Yes, she was unbelievable!
N: You can’t really teach someone to be that kind of artist...
V: Of course not, but you can help them to get something out. Of course you’re going to get somebody who does it naturally, or somebody else who’s a little more technical. It’s like actors - you see an actor who is THE actor! [Laughs] It’s the same thing.
N: It’ll be very exciting to see how the Anastasias you’re coaching do. Is this the first time you’ve been back to the Royal Ballet since you left?
V: Yes! Very exciting. It’s the first time I’ve coached a major role there although I did one of the wonderful Clore talks they do at the Opera House with Deborah Bull, which was very nice.
N: Wasn’t Kevin O’Hare, the current artistic director, your classmate?
V: We weren’t in the same year at the school, but we did dance The Sleeping Beauty together. He’s such a nice man, really a nice guy.
N: So let’s hope this is a renewal of the relationship - you’re definitely someone whose experience they should draw on.
V: Yes, I’d love to do that. I’ve seen the four casts and they’re all very different, so it’s interesting for me as well to work with each one of them.
N: One of the special aspects of ballet is the emphasis on partnering, on dancing together.
V: On becoming one!
N: Exactly. There are legendary partnerships which have been very important for choreographers and for audiences, like Fonteyn and Nureyev, Dowell and Sibley - or Viviana Durante and Irek Mukhamedov! How important is it, technically and emotionally, to build regular partnerships? What makes a partnership work?
V: It’s important to establish a relationship. You have to get on with your partner, you have to respect them, you have to listen. You have to be in tune with them, mentally and physically in order to become one. Most partnerships happen quite naturally - it either happens or it doesn’t. It’s like a marriage. You can’t force it - well, maybe a little - [Laughs] but if it doesn’t work it doesn’t work. What’s nice when that happens is that it allows the audience to dream. It allows that dream to go even further than the story, seeing the two of them together in something else and something else. It’s good to establish a relationship with a partner, but it’s good to be ready to change. It’s live theatre, anything can happen, you can’t just get stuck on “I won’t dance if Irek can’t go on.” The audience is still coming to see the show and you have to deliver the story.
N: Are there also different partners that you prefer to dance with for different roles?
V: Yes, because you can establish a relationship with somebody which is more emotional, then with somebody else that you’ve got a good understanding with body-wise. Somebody who’s the right size for you, or finds it easy to dance with you because you’re light… or somebody who can help you a little bit more. Like I said, it’s wonderful if you can find somebody but being an artist is about being live. You don’t know, do you? The unknowns. I love that, you just don’t know. You go to the theatre and all sort of things can happen. You just have to get on with it. You have to be strong enough and high enough, emotionally and physically as an artist to be able to cope with it. If somebody gets injured on stage, then somebody else will come on.
N: As you did so famously in Swan Lake.
V: As I did! [Laughs] So that’s why live theatre is great, you have to be quick at doing that.
N: I’ve noticed that it’s happening less now to get these regular partnerships and I do think that’s a shame, especially if you’re dancing something like Manon or Mayerling where you go through such a huge emotional journey as well as the trust that you have to have because the partnering is so difficult.
V: You want to see those couples because you can see them telling a story. I wonder why it happens less now. I think probably some companies are trying to get away from people becoming huge stars, it’s a way of mingling the principals… It depends what the artistic director believes and if they don’t mind there being a star couple. Some people would mind.
N: Your career falls into two parts. The first 12 years with the Royal Ballet, the next 12 years dancing with different companies. Although you were based at K-Ballet, they don’t perform all year round and you also danced frequently at La Scala and ABT. So you were a star ballerina appearing with different companies. It created a stir when you chose to leave the Royal Ballet in 2001, at the height of your success, because being a principal at that kind of company was traditionally a lifetime job. Today there seem to be more principal dancers doing what you did, leaving their original home companies and dividing their time between different companies. From your own experience, what do you see as the pros and cons of these two ways of working?
V: What’s good is that you spread your wings, you experience other companies, other choreographers, other audiences, which fulfills you as an artist. At the end of the day, an artist is a free spirit. There’s also a bad side which I found. You can slightly lose your identity as a person and also as an artist by doing that. I suddenly found myself, I felt… homeless. Thinking about it now, what I’d advise my dancers if I was directing a company would be, let’s make a contract, you’re here, you dance here. Then maybe once or twice a year, you can go somewhere else . So it’s more balanced, you don’t just leave a company and go touring around. Maybe Fonteyn and Nureyev could do that in those days, because there weren’t as many amazing dancers as we have now.
So you can lose yourself slightly. It happened to me and I didn’t want to feel like that any more, so I came back [to the UK] and I was lucky to find my husband and get married. So I would advise a dancer to be part of a company. It gives you an identity and it gives you a home. As we all know, if you have a safe home, you can fly anywhere from there.
N: Because you know that that’s there for you.
V: Yes. If you’re in a company and your director doesn’t like you doing that, I would still say stay where you are, don’t just fly off. Because like I said I sort of lost myself a little bit. I was only finding myself on stage and I think doing too much of that is not very healthy.
N: Also, if you’re a classical dancer you do a lot of Swan Lakes and Giselles and you may not get to work with choreographers like you do in a company, if you have good fortune to be in a company that has great choreographers.
V: Absolutely. Also, as a guest, you get to the place four days before the performance and they tend to say “do your own thing”, so you’re not even expressing yourself through the style of what they’re doing. “You do whatever you need to, don’t worry, we’ll just run around you”. They’re doing that in order to be very respectful and very nice, but it makes you feel even more lonely. There’s a fine line, it’s a very delicate subject that I’ve been though. If I was directing a company, I would advise the dancers “be careful of this” but if that is what they really want to do, of course [you can’t stop them].
N: I remember Nina Ananiashvili told me when she started dancing with American Ballet Theatre, in class nobody ever corrected her. She finally said “Why aren’t you correcting me?” They said “You’re a big star, we don’t want to offend you.” and she said “I want to be corrected. I want to learn”.
V: I agree, the same with me. In class I could cope with it because I was just warming up, but when it comes to the performance and they don’t want to disturb what you’re doing, although they’re trying to be nice, actually in that niceness, you’ll find yourself doing the same thing all the time.
N: Because you’re not interacting with people.
V: Yes, you will lose yourself. This is what happened to me. For sure, everybody has a different journey, but this is what my advice would be.
N: As a dancer, what gave you the most satisfaction? Was it the emotional satisfaction in the performance? Was it working with choreographers?
V: The emotional satisfaction in performance is amazing. I love being on stage. I still do, I miss it. If the right thing came up (without fouettés and things like that!) I would certainly go for it. Yes, that fulfilled me. It’s like taking drugs - I’ve never taken drugs but I can imagine it’s like that. It’s an addiction of feeling that only an audience can give you. The satisfaction of playing a role, playing somebody else. I love it! That’s why I love acting as well, putting yourself in somebody else’s shoes.
N: When you see the curtain call at the end of a ballet like Manon, the two lead dancers come forward and they’re absolutely drained.
V: Yes, you’re emotionally drained! I was fulfilled by the opportunities that I was given at the Royal - they made me the dancer that I then became. They gave me great opportunities which were right for me. They spotted what I was good at, then gave me those kind of opportunities.
N: MacMillan actually created roles for you, which is very special.
V: Yes, I was one of the three sisters in Winter Dreams - I did Olga and later Irina, which was wonderful.
N: Then you did The Judas Tree. That must have been hard. [Durante’s role includes being gang-raped and murdered.]
V: Yes, Judas Tree was hard. Kenneth guided me through that just like a theatre director would. He spoke to me about it, what it was going to be, asked me if I was going to be OK. He really looked after us - he was a great man. I haven’t coached that one yet.
N: They don’t revive it often, it’s such a harrowing ballet.
V: It’s not for everyone. You’d have to think what to bill it with. It’s so full on, you’d need something light to go with it.
N: They’ve revived MacMillan’s The Invitation recently.
V: That’s beautiful, it’s a wonderful ballet.
N: But also with a harrowing ending.
V: Yes. Another one is My Brother, My Sisters. I remember we were learning that and Kenneth came and explained to us that it was about incest. [Laughs] “Oh!” we said, “We thought there was something funny going on…”