Sugar Plum moments with Northern Ballet Principal, Martha Leebolt
I’m comparing toes with Cleopatra, a.k.a. Martha Leebolt, and it’s caught me slightly by surprise. How many prima ballerinas do you know who would, unprompted, whip off their shoes and show you their feet ? Leebolt’s are strong & tiny, with no discernable marks from a life in pointe shoes. For the record, Leebolt wears Freeds, (J maker). We’re having a chat during the company’s almost sell-out week-long tour to Sadlers Wells in London. It’s close to the seasons end, and feet are tired, but the dancer’s laser focus never wanes. With Leebolt’s relaxed style and infectious laughter it feels more like a girly lunch as we talk about her late start in ballet, her roles, her partners and her Sugar Plum moments.
Californian Leebolt, a Premier Dancer who has been with Northern Ballet for 10 years, trained at the Black Mountain Dance Center in San Diego with Sylvia Palmer Zetler. “In America, all young girls do ballet. Your parents just put you into it and so I was doing the combo classes; jazz, tap, ballet. Either you do sport or you do dance, or singing. Everybody does some sort of afterschool activity. I actually didn’t start serious training until I was 11 which is late for a girl.” Sacrifices had to be made as Leebolt focused on the yearly Cecchetti exams. “Well, it was hard because I was 11, in grade 1, with these 8 yr olds, so that was really tough at first because I could do a lot of dance jazz stuff but I couldn’t do proper ballet. But then you’re older, so you move ahead quickly because you have the mind to do it. And then, I just improved quite quickly so I started going to Boston Ballet summer school and San Francisco summer school. Pretty soon you have to start deciding, ‘are you going to go to birthday parties or are you going to go to ballet class?’ So then if you really want to do it, you have to go to ballet class.” By 14 Leebolt was studying ballet for 20 hours a week, but all the way through she remembers that her mother, though thoroughly supportive, “was insistent that I got good grades or I wasn’t allowed to go to ballet because if you hurt yourself then that’s it. So I was actually enrolled in college and deferred for two years when I first came over here because you just never know.”
Leebolt first came into contact with Northern Ballet’s Artistic Director David Nixon OBE in America, where he was Artistic Director at BalletMet in Columbus, Ohio. “I graduated high school in California and then by mistake I took their company audition class instead of the summer school audition class and they said, ‘why don’t you come and take a year with Yoko (Yoko Ichino, ballet mistress) and then you can join the company a year later’.” Leebolt joined their professional training programme, which she describes as “like a finishing school.”
Nixon accepted a contract as Artistic Director with Northern Ballet in 2001, and so at 19, Leebolt was invited to join his company in England; her first professional job. Since then, Leebolt has found the narrative works on offer by the company to be a natural fit, and she has danced Swan Lake, Three Musketeers, The Nutcracker, Hamlet, Dracula and Dangerous Liaisons, for which she won the 2010 National Dance Award for outstanding performance (as the Marquise). Did the role feel outstanding ? “I really enjoyed doing that role actually, I loved it. When I was younger -I think it was done probably in my 4th or 5th year – I didn’t play the Marquise but I loved watching it and I always thought ‘I would love to do that role’ because there are so many fun, different scenes; there’s a crazy scene, and a love scene and there’s crying and mean and there’s the whole range of emotions.” More emotions, when it came to the award itself, “it was something that I never would have even expected, and I didn’t even know! It was put on the website and my mom called me, because she looks on the website every day, and I said, “what, are you kidding?”
But the thing is, that was pre-Cleopatra. “Now that we’re doing Cleopatra, because that was created on me that is closest to my heart. The Marquise will always be an amazing role because all of the wonderful unexpected things that happened from it, but Cleopatra is so dear to me because I made it with David as well.” How does the choreographic process with David evolve ? “David is really good, he’s such a wonderful man to work with because he uses your strengths to create the role. He used what I was good at and what Kenny (Kenneth Tindall, who dances the role of the God Wadjet) was good at to create this thing.” As Wadjet is Cleopatra’s God, his movements became Leebolt’s. “The choreography with Kenny was all lyrical undulations, and then the process with David is just amazing because he says to you sometimes, you know, ‘what do you feel in that moment is right?’ He’s really into finding out how you feel, but if he has an idea that he’s really sure about he will try and make it work. That’s what makes the ballet so great, is that focus of the story and his focus of what he wants ultimately. He has it in his head, it’s just getting it out and making sure that it works on your body.”
Leebolt learnt that she would have Cleopatra created on her in a theatre in Leeds, when Nixon told her. “You can’t explain how that feels. It’s a dream come true. You never expect that to happen in your career.” What does Leebolt make of Cleopatra, given that she’s not instantly likeable ? She laughs. “She’s not, and I think that’s probably why it’s quite fun to play, because it’s so different from everybody’s normal everyday life. She’s the Queen of Egypt and she was a bit vicious and willing to do anything she could to be Queen and to make sure her country was safe. I think she was incredible to have become who she was in that time when women weren’t really doing anything. She was in charge, and to have the greatest love affairs with two of the most powerful men in the world at the time; I mean, she’s quite amazing.” But she laughs as she adds, “ I don’t want to base my life on her though !”
Leebolt researched thoroughly, “it’s really important, I find, to make sure you get everything, not to base yours on any particular one but just to have as many ideas as you can so then you can make your own adjustment of what you want for it.” Though she concedes “because it’s all BC, it is more, I think, ideas that people had of her, rather than facts. Everybody has their own idea. A lot people stand behind the fact that she was just this sexual, beautiful woman and that’s how she got what she wanted, but I don’t think she could have done what she did, just with that. She was very intelligent and you can see that throughout all the films and the books and the plays that, no matter what, even if she is beautiful, sexy, whatever; she still always had something going on in her head.”
Northern Ballet performs for 20 weeks a year (around 160 performances) and rehearses for 27 weeks, and has around 40 dancers. Rivalry in Cleopatra’s time seems as much a part of everyday life as it is in a ballet company today. In any ballet company competition for roles is fierce, but Leebolt counters, “this company is quite special. There’s always going to be competition in a ballet company, that’s just the nature of it, but this is a really close knit group and everyone is very supportive of each other. And everybody is really for the collective of the show. Always.”
The rehearsal time seems generous, and Leebolt has three strong, secure partners in Kenneth Tindall, Tobias Batley (First Soloist – that has to change, surely ?) and Javier Torres in Cleopatra, “they’re very strong partners so I don’t have to worry. So it’s fine. They know my body and they know exactly what I need.” Previously cast as the Marquise in Dangerous Liaisons, opposite Batley’s Valmont, they have played games with people’s lives, with more power than two people should arguably have, so working together on Cleopatra was second nature.
But still, there were surprises. The ballet opens with Cleopatra on her own. “That’s hard. Because you’re crouched down, you’re on your own in a closed set. It’s a lot scarier than I thought it would be, because in the studio you have the space, you can see people, its fine – you’re just there. But then once we’re on the stage, all the doors are shut. I’m actually out there on my own, in the pitch black, so that’s tough. It’s very intense.” Ironically the intensity helps Leebolt with nerves, “I get anxious. And I just want it to start. But especially with a ballet like this I just need to listen to the music and remember my story and then I’m fine.” In other ballets this is also true, “I find the story helps with nerves. It’s hard going out there and doing Sugar Plum; you have your story but you know if you don’t hit that balance…” In Cleopatra there are still Sugar Plum moments, “its the silly things like going down the stairs. You put a cloak on that is heavy and hot, and you’ve got to walk down these stairs and you don’t want to look down because then that makes you look weak, so you’re trying to look at the audience, trying not to fall, because then that breaks the whole magic of it.” Leebolt also appears rolled up in a carpet, and “that’s hot too.”
In the middle somewhat elevated
Given her preference for narrative roles, you might be surprised to discover that Forsythe’s In the middle somewhat elevated is on her wish-list. The title of the ballet apparently refers to two golden cherries, which hang above the centre of the stage of the l’Opéra de Paris, the space in which this ballet was created. The ballet received its world premiere in 1987. “I would really love to learn that once, just to see what it feels like. Everything I see, I quite like. Any opportunity you get to dance anything is gorgeous. I once saw a clip of Darcey Bussell doing In the Middle, with that wonderful music, and I love all of those high legs.” In class and in performance Leebolt excels with ease in the high sharp legs, strong torso control and dynamic shapes that define a Forsythe piece, and in Batley she has a strong partner equally matched to the choreography.
Unusually, in a time where dancers use social media as a way to promote themselves, particularly American dancers, Leebolt is absent. “I have really expensive phone bills” she laughs. “I’m probably one of the only people in the whole world who isn’t on facebook. I just think I wouldn’t be able to stop, once I started.” Leebolt is also unusual in that whilst retaining her privacy by not using social media, she is naturally very warm, open and engaging in interviews. While working with Bex Singleton on the photographs accompanying this interview, Leebolt took the time to make sure we had the best opportunity to capture some great shots. Humble and frank, Leebolt says, “I think either you’re good at it (promoting yourself) or you’re not, and I’m not good at it. Luckily I’ve had so many wonderful people that have been interested in me, and have given me so much coverage.” I don’t think it’s luck – I think it’s through Leebolt’s hard work and talent that she finds herself in the enviable position of not having to promote herself. After all, the first rule of PR is that the message is much stronger if it comes from someone else.
Flexor halluis longus
Away from ballet, Leebolt takes in the sights and says, “I’ve been to almost every stately home and castle there is here,” photographing as she goes with her regular Canon digital camera. She also enjoys eating out and socialising with her friends. Her routine doesn’t involve yoga but “I do a little bit of Pilates, not the Reformer, or anything, but do a little bit of Pilates stretching. I make sure to always stretch before and after – that’s really important, because I think that is something that makes injuries less common, and I’ve had a quite a few leg injuries. My ankles are tiny; all my muscle is in one place so I tend to get really bad FHL problems.”
FHL is flexor halluis longus, the so-called “dancer’s tendonitis” and is the largest and most powerful of the deep muscles of the posterior of the leg, and can be an issue as a result of a dancer’s constant repetitive plantar flexion.
After ten years at the top, I’m curious to know what keeps Leebolt inspired, and her inspiring answer is true native Californian, “That’s a good question. I think it’s the new work, actually, that we’re always doing. I put 200% into Cleopatra because it was new. That’s all I’ve focused on for the months we’ve been doing it. It’s also always wanting to do that little bit better. This is what you’ve trained so hard to do, so you’ve got to just keep doing it. It’s more that you’re on a roller coaster all the time, you have to just keep doing it, so you can be the best you can be. I know it sounds so American but you keep going until you aren’t going to do it anymore because once you stop, then it’s done and you’ll miss it, I think everybody misses it when they finish. That’s what keeps me going – is knowing that one day I’m not going to have it, so you know, do it, 100%.”
Leebolt has always maintained the importance of “believing in yourself. The most important thing is just to keep believing in yourself. Ballet is quite negative anyway; it’s not purposeful, I think, it’s just the way that it’s been, so it’s criticism and it’s hard, and you have to have a thick skin or else you’ll just crumble. So you have to keep reminding yourself every day to believe in yourself. That’s the most important thing, and to work hard - I mean it’s not an easy job. Anybody who says it is, is not telling the truth.” And here her infectious laugh returns but I’m in no doubt that it is hard.
When it comes to thinking about what might happen next, once she stops dancing, Leebolt is not short of ideas; it’s whether they can be made to work that is the quandry, living as she does away from home, having spent those important growing-up years in England where she now considers herself very at home, “originally I was going to be a special education teacher, for disabled children in school. I think if I go back to school that’s what I’d like to do, to re-train to be a special education teacher.” The catch is, would she go home to do that? It’s been ten years, and as she recounts a conversation she had on the street just the other day with an American girl, who told her that once you hit the ten year mark it’s very, very hard to go back, it’s clear that it’s a decision she can’t make right now. “It’s hard to know, isn’t it? So it’s something that you have to really think about, and right now I’m still on my dancing roller coaster. That’s what I’d like to do but you just never know, especially because dance is your life. It’s not your job, it is your life; it’s what defines you, basically, and I think that’s why it’s really difficult when you stop and that’s why you have trouble. So I say that I want to be a special education teacher but it’s really what comes next, because it is so difficult to leave this behind and to start new. It’s like starting a whole new life.”
One thing is certain. Whichever path Leebolt chooses in the future, she will take a graceful lead with her style and panache that has been the hallmark of her career so far. But for now, the siren call that is the intoxicating roller coaster life of a ballet dancer is the sound that can be heard above all others.