ANNA ROSE O’SULLIVAN “IN CONVERSATION” with Linda Gainsbury
13th October 2020 via Zoom
Anna Rose had previously agreed to be the LBC’s guest in person on 6th April 2020 after a scintillating 12 months during which she had made her debuts as Juliet, Aurora and Swanilda. However, she joined members via Zoom 6 months later and just a few days after The Royal Ballet returned joyously to the stage where, with Marcelino Sambé, she had performed the cornfield pas de deux from La Fille Mal Gardée to much acclaim.
Congratulating Anna Rose on her performance, Linda enquired whether she was still buzzing. Anna Rose said that she had been “on a sort of cloud” all over the weekend because it had been so uplifting to be on stage performing again. It had felt as if a surge of electricity was running through her veins and the atmosphere around her, combined with the warmth of support, had been unbelievable.
She explained that, following an earlier return to class, The Royal Ballet (RB) had started rehearsals early in September. The dancers had needed to follow very strict social distancing rules, wipe their area of the barre and wear masks unless excused from doing so within a given ‘bubble’. Performing couples were also tested twice a week. The fact that everyone was walking around in masks had not only had the effect of changing the dynamic, with a lot of “speaking with our eyes going on”, but had also made people somehow more aware of one another. However, all the precautions went against every natural thing the dancers as human beings wanted to do – “especially giving someone a hug after not seeing them for some time”.
In fact, because of the separation of groups for classes and for the two Company pieces – Within the Golden Hour and Elite Syncopations - the dancers had not actually seen one another until the run through the day before and it was only then, on stage and after everyone had been tested, that most masks were allowed off. This had made the experience of watching the cast of Elite Syncopations, with those not involved spaced out around the side, even more incredible.
Another novelty had been the waiting area where everyone had a named chair. So the routine had been: “get ready; come down masked; leave your mask and water on the chair; go and perform; and reverse the process”. Anna Rose had, in fact, had an interval in which to prepare (quickly!) for Fille. For just two people, the stage had “felt enormous” and she and Marcelino had needed to “eat the space”, pushing their legs as far as they could go and filling the area with energy. She described this as a very liberating experience – “the polar opposite of being caged in a kitchen or living room”.
Anna Rose had been “so happy” to be able to perform for a live audience but also felt that she “was dancing for every single person watching”, wherever they were. The sound of the orchestra was “like a wave” because the musicians were spread over the Stalls rather rather being contained within the pit and, despite the small audience, the echo of the applause had seemed somehow heightened. The ‘clap along’ had been a wonderful surprise and, while knowing that she should concentrate on her feet at that point, Anna Rose wasn’t able to stop herself looking up and smiling. “It put a spring in my step, quite literally”, she added.
Going back to March, when performances had come to a sudden halt, Anna Rose (who had been on stage in the early performances of Swan Lake) said that the situation had come as a terrible shock, even though (as she said later) there was a dawning awareness both of the coronavirus and of the possibility that the shows might have to stop. However, at first, no one thought that the lay off would be as long as it turned out to be. “It was like being in a time warp” and first thoughts had to be about people keeping safe and well and looking after one another. But Anna Rose had really missed being able to perform for an audience because “that is what makes a dancer what he or she is” and “having nothing to aim for was really hard”.
However, she felt that she had somehow become more resilient, trying not to be pessimistic but drawing inspiration from reading, watching old performances, listening to music, and playing around with movement. The RB had been very supportive and Anna Rose had engaged a lot with the daily classes, body conditioning, and strength training which had been provided online. This had helped people to feel “connected but apart”, perhaps more so because they all became familiar with one another’s interior design, their family members and their pets. In addition, what Anna Rose described as her friendship group called one another after class to check on plans for the day and have a laugh.
At the point when ‘lockdown’ eased a little, the film maker Emma Flett had invited Anna Rose to collaborate on a song and dance piece in the midst of nature, based on a Juliet text adapted by Paul Knight. [Apparently, Marcelino had told Emma that Anna Rose could sing but, for the moment, concentrating on ballet was what she wanted to do.] Another film in which Anna Rose was dancing was a poetry project involving a group of RB dancers. The opportunities had come at a time when it was especially important to have something to work towards where thinking about the character was key. Both projects were at the editing stage but should emerge for viewing eventually.
Referring to her choice of performing The Dying Swan at the Athelhampton House Gala in early September, Anna Rose said that it was an iconic piece that every ballerina wanted to try one day. It has felt particularly poignant to her at that moment in time and she had been privileged to work on it with the help of Zenaida Zanowsky – “swan arms flapping on a computer”, she laughed. Anna Rose said that it had been wonderful to have that focus, to perform, to raise money for the arts, and to bring a live performance to people who had been deprived of that for so many months.
Anna Rose agreed with the perception that she had been on social media more. She thought that dancers generally had opened up. Having no contact with their audience made it feel right to have online interviews and to try to put something back via teaching – in her case on Instagram Live via Bloch. She felt that, in this way, the dance community had really pulled together and she was proud to have been a part of it. As regards any longer term benefits, Anna Rose’s hope was that the opening up of the art form to new audiences via streaming would enable ballet to reach more people in future. As far as she herself was concerned, having had more thinking time had enabled her to realise that she “had to perform”. It went deeper than appreciating what she did all the more because she was without something she had done all her life: she now knows that she really needs that form of expression.
Reeling back further to the twelve months which preceded ‘lockdown’, Linda recited some 20 different roles which Anna Rose had had, including several debuts and created work, and commented that the catalogue seemed like a lifetime of performing.
Reminiscing, Anna Rose said that Aurora was a role which she has always dreamed of performing and, when her name went up for that and Swanilda, she felt so honoured to be trusted to perform them and knew that she “would really need to do her homework”. She could feel herself growing with every opportunity and had loved working with all the different coaches and trying to meet the various technical, artistic and emotional challenges each role presented.
Ashton’s work was a particular favourite and she had treasured the opportunity to be coached by Antony Dowell and to let herself go in Vera’s pas de deux with Vadim (Muntagirov) in A Month in the Country. The coaching she had received from Leanne Benjamin for Romeo and Juliet had provided Anna Rose with “so much extra knowledge” about using her body to express feeling – she gave an example where Leanne had kept shouting, “Yield; yield” and then demonstrated how her chest could help her express that Juliet did not want to leave Romeo. That experience had emphasised to Anna Rose that the “in between moments” were just as important as the danced ones.
Reminding listeners of the saying, “If you can do Aurora, you can do anything”, Anna Rose said that that role was a mountain for everyone. She continued, “You come on; you’re 16 arriving at your party, but you need to be calm. Everyone is willing you to balance on your toe!” She had hugely valued the advice she had had from both Monica (Dame Monica Mason) and Lesley (Collier). Telling the story was the crucial thing for Anna Rose. She had watched videos of many past performances, each them uniquely beautiful, but, while honouring them, Anna Rose also wanted to bring her own individual qualities to the role. “I think that, when you allow yourself to come through, you connect to an audience the most”, she said.
In the event, and following on from her General rehearsal with James Hay, Anna Rose had had about 20 minutes before dressing for her debut as Aurora to touch base with her “amazing substitute Prince”, Matthew Ball. She was sorry for James, who had been well enough to return for the second show, but she had felt so at ease in Matthew’s arms They had been friends since they joined White Lodge aged eleven and she knew that, together, they could let it “happen in the moment”. Just before they went on for Act 3, they had “just looked at one another” but hadn’t needed to say anything. Anna Rose was “so appreciative” of Matthew’s support.
By contrast, she had found Coppelia to be “such a fun ballet”, There was so much room for each Swanilda’s own personality to shine through (even though Anna Rose didn’t think she was as naturally bossy as the character). She had revelled in the workshop scene where Swanilda was really mischievous with Dr Coppelius and she had enjoyed playing off his reactions.
Asked how she coped with simultaneous rehearsals involving very different styles of dancing, Anna Rose said that she particularly enjoyed the varied repertoire of the RB. She would check the board every day, armed with her different outfits and shoes which helped her to change her mentality from one rehearsal to the next – (she recalled moving from Aurora to a Wayne McGregor work in the space of half an hour). She went on to explain that the constant need to push her body and mind in different directions not only meant that she learned the different styles but also that she had experiences from one context which she could then deploy in another – for example, she could take some of her sense of freedom from modern pieces into the heritage works and the emotional pouring of her heart from MacMillan into other areas of the rep.
A question from an LBC member about the roles which Anna Rose most wanted to dance elicited the response of Giselle and Odette/Odile, the latter because the contrasting aspects of the roles really appealed.
Turning to how she prepared for her roles, Anna Rose explained that she liked to research as many previous interpretations as she could and almost “splice them together” or, rather, “take the essence of them” while, at the same time, giving what she did her own stamp. She loved to undertake roles where the character or circumstances were completely different from her own experience. Even with the ‘darker’ roles, she thought it essential to “believe 100%” that she was that person and react as she would in life. It also provided an outlet for her own emotions.
She continued by saying that it was emotion which drove her performances. For example, in the case of Stephanie in Mayerling, there were so many technicalities to learn, not least how to use her body to help a very tired partner (who, by the end of Act 1, had already danced several other pas de deux) but, still, the emotional interaction was what carried them through.
Anna Rose considered herself very fortunate to work with many different members of staff, each of whom brought their own expertise and “pearls of wisdom”. She had had the privilege of being coached by Lesley Collier for Aurora, Swanilda and, recently, Lise and Lesley was able to pass on advice which had come down through generations from the choreographers themselves or from people who worked closely with them. One example was to think of her feet in the pas de deux from La Fille Mal Gardée as being like a tambourine. Anna Rose keeps such quotes in a notebook so that she has a written memory of what has been said to her at a particular moment and notes to help her when she revisits a role.
Commenting that the roles Anna Rose was now occupying required of her an ability to ‘carry’ a show, Linda enquired as to how that responsibility rested on Anna Rose. She said that she felt the weight most at the point when she first found out that she had been cast. However, as soon as she started talking with her coaches and her partner, “Marcelino and I talk a lot”, she felt more at ease and could invest all her energy in bringing the character to life.
‘Coming round’ after a dramatic ending was hard – indeed, at the end of her debut as Juliet, Anna Rose was so “out of it” that Marcelino needed to pull her away from the danger of the descending curtain. Applause did take her “out of the moment” but, although it was sometimes hard, she felt she adjusted quite well in terms of going back to being Anna Rose. She could sometimes feel that she left her heart with a role but there was little time to dwell on her performances: she knew that they had gone and couldn’t be changed and the need to move on to the next production left little time for reflection – apart, perhaps, from brief mutual congratulations and expressions of pleasure with her partners.
Anna Rose has many different partners – she observed that she was “lucky” in that her height enabled her to dance with both taller and shorter men, each of whom brought something different out in her. In every case, for a partnership to work, she thought that mutual support and respect for their individual attributes was essential, as was a willingness to listen to one another’s thoughts and feelings and a physical trust that left then both free to be their characters. While accepting the concept of ‘chemistry’, Anna Rose added, “Sometimes magic just happens” and a very special connection and feeling develops “as if you know what the other person is going to do before they do it”. She feels that this makes a “huge difference” to her interpretation as, when partners are on the same page, it enables both dancers to develop their artistry further.
Asked about creating roles, Anna Rose replied that she really enjoyed that opportunity. A choreographer like Pam Tanowitz would require of her a kind of move or step which she would never do naturally and creators of new work would often give her and her fellow dancers the gift of what amounted to another language of movement. Opening nights of new work felt very different from the norm because they were about to share something which had been private hitherto, dancers felt a sense of investment in the piece, and they were anxious to know how the audience would react.
As regards her career development, Anna Rose had joined the RB early from the School and had begun covering Principal roles quite soon. However, an injury set her back for an entire season and she spent some time as an Artist, albeit subsequently rising quite rapidly through the ranks. She thought that the roles dancers were given were indictive of how their career development was envisaged by the Director. Therefore, she did have a sense that her career was being managed, although she was also aware that timing could play a part as well – in other words whether there a was “a free slot” available for someone to be “given a go”.
It was necessary, she thought, to keep working hard to prove herself. She was conscious of being cast against type at times and it was important to Anna Rose to have an array of roles, including ones like a Courtesan in Manon which were “off the spectrum”. She hoped that she was able to demonstrate that she could push herself and succeed in doing, for example, “deep despair and sweet and innocent” in such a way that similarly wide-ranging opportunities would follow.
As well as touring abroad with the Company, Anna Rose had guested abroad, notably in Balanchine Galas with New York City Ballet. She commented that the experiences were completely different since, with the RB, it was like being away with one’s family whereas, when guesting, there was no company support and energy to hold her up. In New York, she had arrived into a completely different environment wondering how she and Marcelino would “go down”. Galas abroad were especially interesting because each participant was likely to have had a different kind of training and it was possible to learn a lot from their varying approaches to their work. Although Anna Rose’s heart would always be in London, she would love to be able to dance around the world as well and feed her wider experience back into her RB interpretations.
Anna Rose was aware of being increasingly in the public eye and she recognised the importance of maintaining a balanced and normal life. She felt very fortunate to have a close and loving family to keep her grounded and to help her to unwind. Sometimes, her dancing left her too tired to do much else but, in her free time, she liked to listen to what each member of her family was up to in their lives, to watch films, to go to the theatre, and to visit art galleries.
It was difficult for Anna Rose to look forward to her next performances because everything remained so uncertain. However, it was generally known that the RB planned to mount two programmes of divertissements on nine nights in November, one of them concluding with Elite Syncopations, the other ending with Within the Golden Hour. Anna Rose also hoped to be dancing a pas de deux in this context and everyone would look forward to that, especially since it was possible that some LBC members might even be among the lucky ones able to attend in person.
As a conclusion, Linda read from the various suggestions put in the Q&A box as to the roles people would like to see Anna Rose play (Manon, Tatiana and Kitri - she agreed with all of them!) and passed on the many compliments which had also been written about the evening and about Anna Rose herself. The evening ended with grateful thanks to Anna Rose, warm wishes for the future, and a virtual round of applause.
Written by Linda Gainsbury and approved by Anna Rose O’Sullivan
© LBC 2020