Cupcakes & Conversation with Yasmine Naghdi, Artist, The Royal Ballet
What motivates you at 8am on a Monday morning?
Knowing that I have a week ahead of me allowing me to move, that I can do what I love doing most of all and that I don’t have to sit still on an office chair all day long!
I really cannot answer this in a few words. A combination of circumstances lead to ballet becoming my career but moving was always a natural part of me; I really wasn’t born to sit still. I was such a hyper-active child and my parents enrolled me in gymnastics classes, aged four. When I was seven I started going to after-school ballet classes but during the day I went to a rather unconventional primary school where many sports were on offer. Every morning, from the age of six, we were made to run around the Duke of York’s track on the King’s Road before starting class. By the time I was ten, we were running around the Serpentine in Hyde Park, and we went climbing in the Swiss mountains twice a year. Unknowingly, all this prepared me for what was ultimately to come my way…
I never thought of myself as being any good at ballet but by the time I was twelve I was offered a place in Year 8 at The Royal Ballet School. This came totally unexpected and – rather bewildered – I found myself all of a sudden at White Lodge in the middle of Richmond Park, taking ballet class in the morning instead of running around in Hyde Park! Four months later I was dancing on the stage of the Royal Opera House with The Royal Ballet in Swan Lake, followed the year after by dancing in The Nutcracker.
By the time I was fourteen, the Director Gailene Stock selected me and a few others to represent the School in an exchange programme with The Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet, St Petersburg. This was THE defining moment for me and I thought “ballet. That’s it!” Three years later I was offered a contract with The Royal Ballet, in the middle of my graduate year. So, I didn’t really choose ballet, ballet chose me and I have never asked myself “why”.
What are you looking forward to dancing this year?
The casting has only gone up for the next few months. The Season opens with Jewels and I am very much looking forward to dancing Rubies, and also dancing in Requiem, Gloria, Sleeping Beauty and Asphodel Meadows.
Who would you most like to dance with & what would you dance?
I’d love to dance with my two of my best friends. With Jacopo Bellussi (Bavarian State Ballet) I’d dance Nikiya with him as Solor in La Bayadere and with Michael Burton (Zurich Ballet) I’d love to dance In the Middle Somewhat Elevated. I’d also love to dance with any of the fabulous Principals and Soloists in the company who’d be willing to dance with me!
If you could dance anywhere in the world (not only in a theatre), where would you dance?
On the beautiful Mirror Lake in Yosemite Park, California. The scenery there is stunning and so majestic.
When I am not performing, I am at my happiest near the water, near lakes and the sea.
How do you prepare your pointe shoes?
I wear Freed Studios Professional. They are perfect for my feet. I don’t have to do much in preparing my shoes besides sewing on elastics and ribbons and softening the vamp and shank.
What is your daily routine at the moment?
I wake up at 8:00am and after a substantial breakfast I get on the tube. I do some Pilates and thoroughly warm-up in the studio before company class at 10:30am. Class is usually followed by rehearsals and an evening performance. On days when I do not perform I usually finish at 6:30pm. When I have a performance, I normally finish around 10:30pm and arrive home by 11:00pm. I do need some time to unwind after a performance, I always like to read which relaxes my mind and helps me fall asleep. I am lucky I need little sleep and can get by on 6 hours.
You can ask six famous people to dinner – who would you invite?
Most of them will need to be resurrected! Peggy Guggenheim, Coco Chanel, Meryl Streep, Frieda Khalo, Rudolf Nureyev and Einstein.
What would surprise people about you?
That I can sing, play the piano and love to compose my own music.
Who inspired you to dance?
I was 10 year old when I visited the Art Deco exhibition at the V&A Museum. In one of the Galleries an old B/W film was showing Josephine Baker dancing Danse banane and wearing a banana skirt. I vividly remember standing there as a little girl with my eyes glued onto that screen. I watched the film over and over again and had to be dragged away to look at the rest of the exhibition but I stubbornly kept sneaking back to that gallery. I was completely mesmerized by Josephine’s movements but I can’t remember if it was her banana skirt that finally inspired me or not!
What is your best piece of advice?
Do what you really believe in, always stay true to yourself and don’t change yourself just to please others. Surround yourself with stimulating, positive and supportive friends and find opportunities in every difficulty as difficulties mastered are opportunities won.
How do you prepare in the hours before a show?
If I have a performance I finish rehearsing at 17:30. I take time to relax, get my dressing room organised with everything I need, I have a nutritious dinner and get ready for the performance. I do my hair, make-up and go to the studio to warm-up. I always go over my steps and mentally prepare myself. At last I put on my costume and jog my way down to the stage.
How do you deal with the stress of performing?
I try not to get stressed, I have been on stage since I was little and performing just feels very natural to me although sometimes I get an adrenaline rush just before a performance but that’s a good feeling, it helps me to focus.
Which role has tested you the most & how?
There have been several since joining the company; not so much technically, but more dancing at very short notice! I was just a couple of weeks in the company and Asphodel Meadows was only two days away from the World Premiere when Liam Scarlett (Ed note : the choreographer) asked me if I could take over from an injured dancer and be ready for the next day’s stage call. I had never rehearsed the role and only watched it from the side in the studio. That same evening I danced in La Fille mal gardée, came off the stage at 10:30pm, went home and learned the role from the DVD Liam had given me. I practiced until 2:00am and by noon I went on stage and danced it.
Another role that tested me was covering Lauren Cuthbertson in her debut role as The Firebird at the ROH Dance Futures event last July. I watched the rehearsals and marked it at the back of the studio. A couple of days before the performance I was told I’d have to dance The Firebird at the general rehearsal. This role tested me the most as I had had no rehearsal time and had to dance it full out. It was a great challenge and I loved it!
What do you look for in a dance partner?
Generosity, complete trust and good partnering skills so we can share that special moment on stage together.
What is your favorite quote?
I have two:
“Kites rise the highest against the wind, not with it.“
“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.“
What are you most proud of?
I am so lucky to have a loving and supportive family and a bunch of fabulous friends who are behind me every step of the way.
What’s been your best on-stage moments so far?
Dancing MacMillan’s Concerto – the 2nd Movement – at the Birmingham Royal Ballet’s 20th Anniversary Gala, performing Concerto at the Gary Avis and Friends World Hunger Day Gala in Ipswich last week and dancing Voluntaries and Ballo della Regina last season. Since the start of our new season I love every minute of dancing Rubies in Jewels.
Do you have a secret skill which no-one knows about?
Baking! Though it is not really a secret. It has become a recent hobby of mine as I can be creative in total freedom. Any creation coming out of the oven (successfully raised) feels like a battle won and a total victory to me!
In terms of your ballet career, where would you like to be in a year from now?
I hope to excel technically and artistically, enabling me to dance great roles; but what matters most of all is that I am happy knowing that I am being challenged and pushed, and given the opportunities to further develop as a dancer.
If you could dance in front of anyone, who would it be and what makes them special to you?
Anybody coming into the ROH to watch ballet is to me a very special person in their own right.
Watch Josephine Baker in Danse banane at the Folies Bergère in Paris, France c. 1927