Dancing queens: Meet Britain’s next great ballerinas

For years, dance lovers have waited impatiently for the next great British ballerina. Now three have come along at once

Features

29 Nov 2017

Yasmine Naghdi, the Royal Ballet’s newest principal, is busy talking about the challenges of her profession. But instead of the usual complaints about aching muscles and too-tight pointe shoes, things have taken a darker turn. ‘I had to stab myself, I was hanged and raped, all on stage. It was tough — I felt completely drained and lost.’ She pauses. ‘I don’t think my parents enjoyed that season very much.’

At 25, she has already proved herself an adept interpreter of some of ballet’s most psychologically complex heroines. First there was Juliet (The Spectator called it ‘a dream debut’); then came the fatally framed Justine in Frankenstein, followed by an abused teenager in Kenneth MacMillan’s disturbing The Invitation. She even managed to give Aurora, classical ballet’s two-dimensional golden girl, a hint of sex appeal.

So her promotion to the company’s highest rank five months ago has balletomanes seriously excited. After years of mutterings about a lack of British stars (until last year, just two of the Royal Ballet’s 21 principals were homegrown), suddenly here was a ballerina to get behind. That her rise has coincided with the emergence of two other major British talents — Francesca Hayward and Melissa Hamilton — at the same time that a host of youngsters are making their way up the ranks, has created a real sense that British dance is entering a golden period not seen since the 1970s.

We meet in the Royal Opera House (for all the glamour of the theatre itself, backstage has the same grey walls and beige lino of an NHS hospital). Her excitement at her promotion is clear (‘It’s an incredible honour’) but she’s also keen to emphasise that she wasn’t too young to take up the mantle (‘Don’t forget I’ve been dancing since I was a hyperactive three-year-old. Ballet lessons stopped me driving my parents up the wall.’) The great Russian companies are aware of how short a ballerina’s career is (the average age for a dancer to retire is 35), so give talented charges their opportunities early; the Royal Ballet treats its dancers like fine wine, believing they should mature slowly. Yasmine knows, therefore, just how lucky she is: ‘Yes, I’ve been given opportunities early but I felt I was really ready for them. Of course we all doubt our abilities but there’s nothing I’ve questioned whether I might be able to do.’

Left: Each pair of pointe shoes is made by hand to a dancer’s specification. Right: Francesca, the Royal Ballet’s current youngest principal
Above left: Each pair of pointe shoes is made by hand to a dancer’s specification. Above right: Francesca, the Royal Ballet’s current youngest principal

Yasmine is warm, articulate and, despite a full day of rehearsals, incredibly glossy. She’s also intensely — read intimidatingly — focused (the Royal Ballet’s director, Kevin O’Hare, has called her ‘nicely ambitious’). Last season she was asked to dance the lead in The Sleeping Beauty three times in a week after another ballerina fell ill. Taking on what is arguably classical ballet’s most physically demanding role requires strong technique; even to consider dancing three in so short a space of time requires the steeliest of minds. (‘By the end I was still walking, so I must have been doing something right.’)

Has becoming a principal taken the pressure off? Surely she’s earned the right to relax a little. ‘It’s a different ball game,’ she says. ‘I’m happy with some of the things I’ve achieved but I’m not content — it’s the cliché of ballet that we’re always striving for perfection in an art where perfection is impossible, but it’s true.

the dancers in the ultimate symbol of classical ballet — the tutu
The dancers in the ultimate symbol of classical ballet — the tutu

‘Dancers of any level inevitably have pressure; now there’s the expectation I have to deliver a “principal” performance. If a soloist dances a lead and they do well, an audience thinks: “Wow, for a soloist that’s great.” I don’t have that luxury — I have to be the best I can be. And if my dancing dips below that, questions are going to be asked.’

It’s a pressure fellow principal Francesca Hayward can well relate to. Having joined the company as an 18-year-old in 2011, within a year she was being fast-tracked into some of dance’s top female roles: Juliet, Alice, Lise, Titania. (Along with Yasmine, she’s currently preparing to make her debut in Giselle, one of ballet’s most sought-after parts.) Last season she even managed to overshadow the Russian ballerina Natalia Osipova in Frederick Ashton’s fiendishly difficult Rhapsody (the Telegraph called it a case of ‘the superstar being outshone by the young pretender’). That takes some doing.

Does she ever get nervous at the weight of expectation? After all, she has been compared to Margot Fonteyn (they share the same fleet footwork, delicate musicality and beauty of line). It’s a lot to live up to.

She admits she finds it easier to escape the pressure on stage than she does in the studio. Posing for our photographer Ben alongside Yasmine and first soloist Melissa Hamilton, she appears shy and even a little uncertain; yet in the photographs this hesitancy translates into the most direct and unflinching of gazes. It’s not difficult to see the impact she has on stage.

Yasmine in the studio
Yasmine in the studio

‘Being in front of an audience lets me block everything out — I feel freer,’ she says. ‘You’ve only got this time, this one opportunity, to do whatever it is you have to do. You can forget about what people are thinking about you and just be. It’s addictive.’

Francesca doesn’t remember a time when dance wasn’t central to her life. Born in Nairobi, she was brought up by her grandparents in West Sussex from the age of two. It was they who introduced her to ballet (‘They didn’t know what to do with a two-year-old and — on a whim really — bought me a video of The Nutcracker. That was it; I was hooked.’) Like Yasmine, she attended her local ballet school before being accepted at White Lodge (the Royal Ballet’s junior boarding school), and then its Upper School. Both were offered contracts with the company before the usual three years’ senior training was up.

The 25-year-old is proud to fly the flag for homegrown talent, but is less comfortable with being the poster child for another cause. Born to a Kenyan mother and British father, she is the Royal’s first mixed-race ballerina. Other black dancers, notably the superstar Carlos Acosta and ABT’s Misty Copeland, have become passionate campaigners for diversity in what is an overwhelmingly white profession; Francesca appears keen only not to be drawn into the debate.

‘One of the first things I was asked when I became a soloist was, “How does it feel to be a mixed-race dancer?” and I was taken aback because it’s something I’ve never thought about,’ she says. ‘No one in the ballet world has ever made me aware of the colour of my skin — to be asked now makes it feel like we’ve taken a million steps back.

‘When I was little and watching ballet videos in my living room, all the dancers were white but I never thought, “That’s a white ballerina; I’m not, so I can’t do that.” It worries me that people are putting a label on me and that it will make dancers of colour think, “Is this a problem? Will it be a problem?” If I am an inspiration for little girls I want it to be because race was something I never noticed — and they shouldn’t notice either.’

Yasmine and Francesca followed a fairly traditional route into classical ballet; were it not for a twist of fate, Melissa Hamilton might not have made it as a dancer at all. She grew up in Northern Ireland — ‘where vocational ballet training and knowledge is basically non-existent’ — and until 13 was taking only one class a week in a local church hall. Then she attended a summer school in Aberdeen ‘and for the first time met girls who were considering ballet as a career. I’d only ever thought of it as a hobby — I didn’t know you could dance for a living’.

At 16 (an incredibly late age for a dancer to start their professional training) she was offered a scholarship to Birmingham’s respected Elmhurst school — and her troubles began. Hugely behind her peers, many of whom had been training six days a week since the age of 11, she was told after a year that she would never make it as a professional. She was devastated.

Melissa at the barre
Melissa at the barre

‘It totally shattered me,’ she says. ‘All I could think was, “They’re destroying my dream.” Now, of course, I can see things a little more clearly. Yes, I had nice feet and long legs, but in truth there was nothing there. I was completely raw — any talent I had was totally hidden beneath a lot of problems and a lack of foundation. I was standing next to girls who had been doing this for years, and there I was, rocking up, thinking I could compete.’

On the verge of quitting, she was thrown a lifeline. Masha Mukhamedov, wife of the Russian superstar Irek Mukhamedov and herself a former dancer at the Bolshoi, arrived at Elmhurst to teach and — much to the everyone’s astonishment — announced she had discovered a ballerina in her class; Melissa. When the couple left to work in Athens months later, the then 17-year-old followed, training privately with Masha to fill in the gaps in her technique. She had a year to absorb what her classmates had learned in five.

‘It was intense,’ she admits. ‘I was trying to soak up as much information as possible, trying to eat up all these facts. At the time, I was so young [she is now 28]. I just listened and accepted everything Masha told me. I had no opinions — I didn’t question anything.’

At the end of the year, she entered the 2007 Youth America Grand Prix, the world’s largest ballet scholarship competition, and won. A contract with the Royal Ballet soon followed. Does she feel the British training system let her down? ‘Sometimes,’ she admits. ‘But then it wasn’t until people started saying, “You’ll never make it” that I thought, “No I really am going to do this.” You learn to use all that doubt as ammunition. I’ve learned I’m stubborn and determined — and I like a challenge.’

Films such as Black Swan and the US TV series Flesh & Bone have painted the ballet world as nothing but a sadomasochistic trip, full of blood, sweat, tears and self-sacrifice. In past interviews, Melissa has admitted there was a time she felt adrift and questioned her punishing, all-consuming lifestyle. After all, this is a world where a typical day can include eight hours of rehearsals followed by a three-hour performance — only for it all to begin again the next morning. How is she feeling now?

‘Yes, the ballet world is insular and all-consuming — but that’s the joy of it,’ says Melissa. ‘To a lot of people my life can seem like a huge compromise, but I’ve got to a point where I don’t feel like I’m giving up anything; I’m only gaining. I never hated ballet but there was a time when I questioned if I was right for loving it this much. I had a lot of older friends who were looking to settle down and I started asking myself, “Why don’t I want these things? Am I the one in the wrong?” But I’ve come to accept I really am just a ballet freak. My feelings only made sense when my lifestyle stopped becoming a fight.’

Last season, she took a leave of absence to join Dresden’s Semperoper Ballett as a principal, leading to rumours she was growing frustrated at the lack of ‘big’ classic roles coming her way. Was she sick of the Royal Ballet? No, she says. ‘I knew if I were to wait then Swan Lake, La Bayadère, etc. might come too far down the line. I was ready. The time to do them seemed to be now.

‘You have to remind yourself that this career is not for ever — you could trip in the street tomorrow and be out for two seasons. You have to grab opportunities when you can. You have to make everything matter because when you step away from the stage, all you have are your memories. No matter what anyone says, you’ve had that experience; you have ownership over what you’ve created and it sustains you. That’s
all that matters.’


Close