The Royal Ballet’s Chosen One | Claudia Dean
Picture the scene. You’re in the Corps de ballet. You receive an email informing you that you have been chosen to perform a Principal role. Your first thought : this must have been sent to me by mistake, surely ?
No mistake. For Royal Ballet Corps dancer Claudia Dean, all of her Christmases have come at once as she has been picked to debut in the main role of The Chosen One in Kenneth MacMillan’s The Rite of Spring, which opens this Saturday in Covent Garden in a triple bill alongside Wayne McGregor’s Chroma and a new ballet, Human Seasons, by David Dawson. She shares the honour with Principal Zenaida Yanowsky.
“It was a massive shock”
At The Royal Ballet, if you’ve been selected for a Principal role, you’ll receive an email well in advance of the performances. How did Dean react ? “I can’t even tell you how I felt. I got this email in April. It was Principal casting. I was like, ‘oh, maybe they’ve accidentally sent it to me.’ Then I looked and I saw Dean. I had no idea. Absolutely no idea. It was a massive shock. And actually straight after that I was being coached by Monica Mason, and afterwards I just had to say ‘thank you so much’ because she obviously knew. I had to say ‘thank you’ there and then. It’s honestly just like a dream come true to do something that’s so special to The Royal Ballet. It was just an honour. Very special.”
MacMillan aimed to choreograph a ballet that had a primitive feel and that was unlike anything seen before. The ballet premiered in 1962 but was commissioned almost by accident when plans went awry and MacMillan’s proposal for a new version of Nijinsky’s original version of Rite (for Diagalev Ballet) was approved by The Royal Ballet.
The Rite of Spring is not on pointe, there are wigs, the dancers wear striking ochre red and brown unitards marked with hand prints reminiscent of Aboriginal Australia and because of the complex patterns of choreography the ballet is best seen from above, which is unusual. This Aboriginal setting was MacMillan’s take – the original ballet was set in the forests of Northern Russia where a virgin was sacrificed in order for Spring to arrive, thereby ensuring the survival of the tribe.
Step up Claudia Dean, who has been coached in the role by Monica Mason, on whom it was created when she was the same age as Dean is now – 20 years. Indeed, the role of The Chosen One made Mason’s career. Dean trained in Australia and at The Royal Ballet Upper School, and I mentioned her in both my reviews of the Royal Ballet School’s Annual Performance at the Royal Opera House in 2010 and 2011 because she excelled not just in technique but also in artistry and stage presence.
Fast forward a couple of years and this new and unexpected opportunity takes that artistry to a new level. Dean is revelling in the opportunities she’s been given, as she describes when I meet her backstage at the Royal Opera House, “I did Raymonda solo last season which was fabulous. I’ve covered lots of great things. Sometimes you don’t necessarily get to go on, but the experience behind it is something that you’ll always remember. Because I’ve only been here for two seasons, it actually is quite unusual to be learning such good things, so that’s been really good. You normally get things like that a bit later on. I’ve been very fortunate to have learned these things.” How did she feel after dancing the Raymonda solo ? “Fabulous. It was really amazing. I wasn’t cast. I was just covering it. Someone was off so they put me on quite quickly and so that was a big shock and a big whirlwind, but it was cool.”
You’d expect nerves to kick in for big roles, and Dean concurs, “I would say yeah; for big things, yeah. For Rite, because it’s a character ballet, you have to get in the zone of whatever you’re playing, whereas for something like a Raymonda solo, because it’s technical I do get nervous but it comes in different ways, for different things.” For Dean, what’s around her is most important when it comes to keeping the nerves under control, “I like to have things with me. I have a ballet skirt that I’ve had since I was ten, and everyone know it’s called Touchy and I have to take it everywhere with me. Sometimes it’s not focusing so much on the solo, but it’s thinking about what you have to do; just show the audience what you’ve been working on. It really depends how you think of it as well; if you have in your head, ‘oh I’m nervous, I’m nervous’, you end up being nervous. If you just think, ‘show the audience what I love to do’, it’s a different approach and that makes all the difference, I think.”
Dean has been with The Royal Ballet for two years and is effervescent despite running from a rehearsal to join me, fresh-faced and wearing her pink waffle dressing gown. She says, “two full years. Yeah. I’m absolutely loving it. It’s been so amazing; it’s an amazing place to work in. Everything at our fingertips – fantastic facilities. I’m very fortunate to get lots of opportunities especially this one coming up, Rite of Spring, it’s actually mind-blowing. I’ve just come out of a full call. That’s the first time with everyone. So when there’s a ballet when everyone’s involved it’s just really rewarding because you know they’re all going for you, they want you to do so well, so it’s just fantastic.”
“when you join the company you’re obviously fresh meat, you’re down the bottom”
Not everything in the garden can be this rosy, surely ? Dean thinks differently, “at the beginning it’s difficult because at school you come from where you’re at the top, so when you join the company you’re obviously fresh meat, you’re down the bottom, and you have to get used to the whole process of working yourself up through the ranks. It’s something I don’t think you can ever get your mind around until you’re in it, until you know what it’s like to be in the company. So the cast goes up and at school you’re used to, say, getting this, getting that. Within the company, at first, you have to wait your turn, because there are so many people in front of you, because we’re a big company. But as I said, I’m very fortunate to have so many opportunities given to me through my hard work, so for me, it’s been rewarding. For me it’s been great.”
I ask whether she feels that her dancing has changed since joining the company, and she nods in agreement, “yeah, definitely. At school I would say that I was more one that could do everything, and sometimes I wouldn’t think of, say, the quality in how to do things. In the company I’ve learned from the teachers and coaches that it’s much more than just doing it; you need to have a quality about it. It actually comes through maturity, because when you’re young you think – especially where I’m from in Australia; we’re all, like, ‘just do it. Do this, do that.’ But you know, in the company, it’s different to Australia, so I’ve come here and quality is everything. I’ve learned that that’s how I have to do things and I feel like I’ve definitely been working on that, and it’s paying off.”
When it came to casting the role, Dean says, “Monica had such a great jump, really strong. She was quite similar to me; a good jump and a strong dancer, so she obviously saw something in me, and obviously Kevin [O’Hare, Director of The Royal Ballet] saw it as well and it just happened that way. So I’m very lucky !”
In the moment
Since receiving the news back in April it’s been “a bit of a waiting game. I just kept thinking to myself, I can’t wait to get stuck into it.” And now ? ” This is the moment I’ve been waiting for. I’m just taking it all in because it’s been amazing. I’ve learned so much in the past three weeks, learning Rite, than I’ve ever learnt since joining.” I ask for examples, and Dean has clearly thought about her part in the continuation of this direct line of teaching, “it’s more the way she [Mason] coaches, because she knows so much about the role and obviously Kenneth created it on her. She knows exactly what he wants so the information that she’s giving me is straight from Kenneth and for me, that is so special because I’m going to be one of those people who will hopefully be able to teach it to someone else.”
Being The Chosen One
The Chosen One is a demanding role, and Dean always remains focused and works very hard to keep herself in shape by using the cross trainer, and having regular physio and acupuncture, of which she says, “I have it twice a week. I usually have it in my calves and my back, because I feel like my calves are always really tight and tense, just to maintain my body.” I ask how rehearsals have been going, “at first we learned the full solo in four hours and it’s obviously a very hard solo and there are no repeats. The music is very hard. We don’t count it, we do it on music because it’s taught that way from Monica. Because I’ve had the music on my iPod I know it really well now. I guess you get used to it and then it all clicks. I remember there was one rehearsal and we just started running it and when you first run it, it feels like a bit of a shock, but then the second time you think, ‘oh, this is how it goes’ and it all comes together. It becomes natural and you can do it without thinking, which is cool. It’s good that way.” There aren’t many places to pause for breath, either, “there are places where it calms down but you still have to think about what you’re doing. There’s the first & second scene, so I’m on stage for the second scene the whole time and there’s this part where everyone is opening up their arms and legs and I have jump through their arms and legs and you have many heart attacks because you don’t want to stand on anyone. There’s that and a shorter solo, then you go to the back and they push you forward and that’s the big five minutes.” Dean has proved her capability when covering roles requiring a lot of stamina and she feels that everything has fallen into place for this role.
So can you put your own stamp on a role where the teaching has been handed down in a direct line ? “You can definitely put your own stamp on it. Monica said that she doesn’t want me to do it the way she did. She’ll teach me the steps but she wants me to think of ways to make it different, maybe put my head up in one place, that maybe she didn’t, so it’s definitely about making it your own because you don’t just want to be a strong dancer who just does it. You want to have something else to it, to create the character and we’re all different people. Monica talked to me about the story and will say exactly what’s happening at that point, and then I have to get my own feeling about that. She won’t say, ‘oh, ‘feel terrified at this point’. She’ll say, ‘so at this point you are The Chosen One, they’re asking you to dance yourself to death.’ Then you think, ‘if that was me, what would I be feeling ?’ And naturally you’ll do what you feel.”
“I just feel scared that I’m about to do something : dance myself to death”
For an extreme character such as The Chosen One, how does Dean get into the role ? “It’s hard to say. I always feel at the time when I’m performing it, that I’m scared. That’s what I think. I just feel scared that I’m about to do something : dance myself to death, so that’s all that’s running through my mind. When I’m looking at them [the Corps], and everyone is so serious, everyone is looking at me, and today especially because it was the full call, I could see everyone, and when I look at them, it’s funny, they are all my friends. Normally if I were to look at someone I would want to smile, and this time I can’t, but I don’t want to either. I feel scared.”
Having had three weeks of rehearsal time, with forty-five minute rehearsals pretty much every day, and now stage rehearsals, does she feel ready ? “Yeah, I definitely feel ready. My general’s on the 9th November and I feel that when I’m on stage that’s sort of it; it has to be ready.”
You can see Dean in rehearsal for Rite because she recently took part in an Insight Evening at The Royal Opera House, “normally the Insight is more about teaching. This time I ran it. I’ve only run it about twice before, so for this I just ran the first & second solo. Normally you’re just learning it and doing it in bits so it was quite a shock, but I was happy with the way it went. It’s good to do it in front of people because it’s just been in the studio with me and Monica, so to do it in front of a mini audience was a good start, I guess.”
I’m keen to ask what Dean has learned so far, and what she might take from this experience, and she says, “for me it’s the knowledge. Especially with character roles, you learn ten times more. The Principals do such amazing things, like Odette/Odile, and the things they learn are on another level to anything else. I’m learning a character which is really special. It’s just so different because as well, I’m only 20, I’m still quite young. I still have a lot to learn, whereas as you get older and more mature you understand; you can grasp things more easily and relate to things more, but I feel like I’m learning a whole new thing. It’s not very often where I feel scared that I’m going to dance myself to death, so whereas there are other ballets where you can relate to things – maybe you like someone, and you can relate to that as in normal life – in Rite, I can’t relate to it, so that’s about taking my mind to somewhere else.”
It’s a neat co-incidence that Dean mentions Swan Lake, because when I first interviewed her in August 2011 just after she’d graduated, Odette/Odile was her dream role. Is that still the case ? “Yeah, it is. There’s little things before that that I’d like to do. l love Queen of the Wilis in Giselle; that’s something that I would love to do, but as a dream role, definitely, Odette/Odile.”
Hard work is rewarding
And overall, how does she feel ? “There hasn’t really been anything where I’ve been like, ‘oh, I wish I was covering or learning or doing this’. I’ve always found I’ve really got what I deserved so far in my ranking, being in the company. I feel like I’ve got everything that I’ve deserved and I feel like I’ve earned it. I don’t feel like someone else has done it for me; I feel like it’s always just me that does it. I do it for myself and that’s how I like to have it, because it’s much more rewarding that way, if it comes from you.”
Dean has three performances, on 13th November (eve), 20th (eve) and 23rd (mat). At the time of writing, all of the performances are sold out, but keep trying because, as regular Ballet Newser’s know, Dean is one to watch.