The Royal Ballet’s Olivia Cowley | Pointe Shoes & Plasters
There is nothing remotely glamorous about being a professional ballet dancer. As Olivia Cowley, a dancer in her 10th season with The Royal Ballet tells me, “people think it’s blisters but actually it’s not. It’s the nails, the bed of the nails, no matter how strong your feet are. It’s unnatural.” Wincingly true, this is the reality of ballet.
“Because it is huge. I did dance with one of the top dancers in the world”
Olivia Cowley is a First Artist with The Royal Ballet who, earlier this year, juggled her workload in the Corps de ballet with the Principal role of Calliope in George Balanchine’s Apollo. When I first interviewed Cowley in 2009, she expressed a wish to dance with Carlos Acosta. That’s not unusual among dancers : what happened to Cowley, however, is. She actually danced with Acosta, and afterwards she tells me “there is a special thing with Carlos. He doesn’t even have to do anything, but it’s just this sense.”
As first cast in Apollo, Cowley danced with Acosta on opening night, February 22nd. Was this not terrifying ? Cowley says, “it’s easy, it’s just quite relaxed. He’s so confident that it actually rubs off on you. It’s not arrogance; it’s pure charisma. There was an air on the stage; it was so exciting,” she says with feeling, “because obviously I have worked with him as a Corps de ballet dancer, but actually as Principal, alongside him, it’s amazing. I wasn’t really scared, I was more excited. I didn’t want to let the team down. I didn’t want to let Patricia Neary down, so there is that on you, but I wasn’t scared. I was more, ‘let’s take this opportunity. They think I can do it, let’s just do it.’” Besides Acosta, her fellow Muses were none other than Marianela Nuñez and Itziar Mendizabal, stars in their own right, and of whom she says, “they are great girls to work with. They’re hard workers. So that’s obviously very important, that you get on with your colleagues.”
This is so refreshing to hear because there is no mistaking that it’s a hard life as a ballet dancer, and no point in dressing it up – as it is, Cowley is fresh from six hours of rehearsal for the up-coming La Bayadere and in the evening she will dance three animals in Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (if you’re interested, she danced the turtle, caterpillar women and flamingo). Cowley has a quite remarkably brilliant attitude to her work, saying, “if I’m doing something I try not to make a big deal out of it because sometimes you can hype it so much that you can get edgy, and that has happened before. So I try to take it in my stride, ‘this is what I get paid for, this is my job, I’m just entertaining the audience.’ So I try to be a little bit pragmatic. Because it is huge. I did dance with one of the top dancers in the world, but you have to say, ‘well, we’re all trying to put on a show here’ so I try to be a little bit under.”
So what alchemy conspired to bring the role of Calliope her way ? At the time Cowley was in Onegin and rehearsing Christopher Wheeldon’s aforementioned Alice, and his new ballet Aeternum, which premiered as part of the same triple bill as Apollo, so her working life was an immensely busy one already. “I worked with Patricia Neary who’s the lady who puts on the ballet. She’s part of the Balanchine Trust. She basically spotted me and she used me for the role so it was her that cast it. She knows me from before but obviously there was a rehearsal for that particular role and there were a few girls in there. She basically dug me out from that rehearsal.” Neary was looking for “who you’re most suited with, like Marianela, and your stance, your look, things like that. It was great to find out that I was doing it, let alone with Carlos. And then I’ve been working with Carlos and it was quite good because I got to do it with two casts, with Rupert Pennefather and Carlos.”
How did Cowley prepare to dance a Principal role ? As you’d expect from her engagingly straightforward approach, just the same as any other role! “Obviously there are nerves just before. Carlos is so chilled, when you know him, you become relaxed. I’ll put my make up on and then I’ll leave the Corps de ballet girls because it can sometimes get a bit noisy, and then I’ll go into the studio, warm up, do a barre, go through the role and then go down on stage. I like to be with the stage crew so when they are working on the sets and the floor, I like to be on the side stage watching them while I’m stretching, because they’re also putting on the show, as well as me.”
Cowley was a sensation on press night; graceful and poised and perfectly at home on stage with the Principals.
Playing different roles
This is a lot of juggling, not only between the different Corps roles but also the bigger opportunities, with no special dispensation afforded; no dressing room to herself or extra time to prepare. How does Cowley manage ? “I don’t know. It’s just that as soon as you walk into that studio, that’s who you are, what’s what you need to do, and then, and when you go to a studio for swans, in Swan Lake, then you stay in line and you play different roles. I’ve been doing it for so long; I think that’s why I find it hard to explain because it just comes so naturally now. And obviously you find where you are. It takes a while but as soon as you’ve got it, it makes your life easier, and I do know everyone well.”
What about the much-hyped competition among dancers, especially in the Corps where most dancers seem keen to spend a bare minimum of time, learning the ropes before seeking the spotlight for themselves ? Cowley is adamant, “no, we’re all such different dancers, everyone gets opportunities in other ways and so you’re not all fighting for that one role. Someone would know that they’re just not suited for that role for, say, high extensions, but if they’ve got a high jump then if there’s a role involving a big jump that’s what they’d want to go for. We’re all so different.”
New work. Creating. Being created on.
What are the aspects of her job that she especially loves ? “I love working with choreographers. New work. Creating. Being created on. It’s brilliant because they get your body and so they work around that and it’s fantastic. I’ve been rehearsing for La Bayadere today, which is really tough for the Corps and that is also beautiful, so I think to be in this company we’re really fortunate because we get the best of both worlds. We get fantastic choreographers to come in and work with us and we get to do the great classical ballets too. There are so many ballets throughout the season so when you start to get a bit tired of one ballet you’re on to the next thing so it keeps it fresh for the audience. I feel the audience can sense if the company gets tired.”
Different types of stress
I say that working with Wayne McGregor on his contemporary ballets and then switching to something ultra classical like La Bayadere is a dramatic shift in styles, and perhaps hard on the body, but Cowley focuses on how McGregor’s work is mentally taxing, “it’s really hard, the way he works with you. He’ll choreograph something on you and then he’ll say ‘do the arms the opposite way and then do the legs in slow motion but with the left leg I want you to do it fast and I want you to face that side rather than the other side and then I want you to do it backwards’, so he’s constantly making your brain work, which makes his work slightly unusual. It’s brilliant the way he works but it’s really hard.” So then, back to La Bayadere ? “You can breathe. But then again you have to stay in line with the other girls, you can’t put your leg down, so there is that. It’s just different types of stress.”
On 8th October last year, Cowley decided to use social media platform twitter to communicate with her followers under her account @damegrace to highlight the everyday life of a Corps de ballet dancer, posting updates and photos from behind the scenes using the hash tag #adayinthelifeofacorpsballerina. Of course, it began with breakfast, immediately debunking another myth that ballet dancers gnaw on a couple of twigs a day to get by :
— Olivia Grace Cowley (@damegrace) October 8, 2012
Did she have to go through layers of red tape within the company to get permission first ? “I just did it. I just thought it was a good idea.” Why? “I just thought that the public gets to hear a lot about the Principal dancers but I thought that the Corps de ballet is somehow missed. It’s a completely different life to a Principal dancer. It’s not harder, but it’s just different, so I wanted to bring that forward to show that to people.” Cowley is proof positive that you can be a media-savvy ballet dancer, that you can take control of your own profile and still get the roles and be well thought of within the company. So often the fear of reprisals holds dancers (and dance students) back from just going for it, and whilst supply and demand in the ballet world will always be working against you, as Cowley has demonstrated, knowing your value is a better way.
Was she surprised by how successful this innovative approach was ? “I couldn’t believe the reaction. I got an extra 1000 followers from it. I thought it was amazing. I knew people would be interested but I thought the people who followed me would find it interesting; I didn’t think I’d gain followers. People are surprised at how many hours we actually do in the theatre. Today I started at 9.30am and I won’t leave until a quarter to 11 and it will be the same tomorrow.” There is some downtime, but even that can come at inopportune moments for a ballet dancer who needs to maintain condition. Cowley had a mid-season break in between performances of Apollo, and needed to keep fit, so she stayed in London and took her own classes during the break, away from the Opera House. Over Easter the dancers also had a couple of days off and Cowley tells me, “I’ve never had four days off at Easter” and the worry about maintaining stamina was ever present for everyone in the Corps. Hardest of all, after the long summer break it takes a tremendous amount of focus and determination to be performance ready again. It is important to take time off, but maintaining the fitness level of an elite athlete takes full-time dedication, especially when the break falls between your big performances.
You need a sense of humour to get through these long, tiring days, and Cowley has that in abundance, an example of which is this recent tweet, just as we had our first, belated taste of spring (even though we are officially in British Summertime) :
It’s 8 degrees out there guys, keep hydrated and don’t forget to put your SPF25 sun cream on.
— Olivia Grace Cowley (@damegrace) April 7, 2013
In terms of her views on social media generally, Cowley says, “I think it’s brilliant and last year we did that Royal Ballet Live feed and that was hugely successful. There are a lot of stereotypes about ballet dancers and I think using social media shows that actually we’re more like athletes in the way we train. And although it seems glamorous, actually it’s quite gruelling and I think maybe that’s come across.”
The Royal Ballet’s Artistic Director, Kevin O’Hare has almost completed his first, very successful, season with the company, and I’m keen to see how he is viewed from the dancer’s perspective. “He personally has given me more opportunities and I feel his first season has been quite successful for him. I think he’s going to be fantastic for the company. You just try to keep him happy and he will say ‘that was good,’ or he will say, ‘next time work on this,’ so that you’re constantly improving. But there is so much positivity from him and he constantly says to the company ‘really good show last night’ and ‘good luck,’ so he’s always there as a support, so as a whole team, as a whole company, it’s fantastic. There’s a really good atmosphere, striving for better, because he’s very confident with us that we’ll do a good show. It makes you a little bit more relaxed but then to push yourself to be better for him. Relaxed is the wrong word; not relaxed, just more confident that we can do it.”
— Olivia Grace Cowley (@damegrace) April 6, 2013
Cowley is already in rehearsals for Wayne McGregor’s new ballet, Ravel Girl. “I’m a principal in that, yes.” When I briefly outline the story, she says, “sounds like a thriller, sounds brilliant. I’m really looking forward to that, and then we have Symphony in C alongside that which is brilliant.” She doesn’t know all the casting but says “Don Quixote would be exciting. I’ve never done it; we haven’t done it in 10 years. So Carlos [Acosta, who is producing this new version for the company] has started rehearsing with us this season, just getting an idea.” Unfortunately Cowley’s other commitments prevented her from being able to attend any of these early rehearsals, but “when we come back from holiday after summer we will just be doing Don Quixote.”
“And although it’s seems glamorous, actually it’s quite gruelling and I think maybe that’s come across.”
What about the likelihood of promotion, having successfully danced these Principal roles ? Cowley has been a First Artist since 2009. “Maybe, but I’m quite happy because I get to do the roles, so maybe I don’t have the name but just to get to do the roles is what I want. So if I do; fantastic, that’s great, but if I’m still getting the roles I’m quite happy. I’m quite content in the sense that I’m pushing for higher roles. I’m not expecting anything.”
Every year new graduates enter the company from The Royal Ballet School and elsewhere; how does she view the yearly influx of new Corps dancers ? “It’s nice because you tell them little ways of how you do things in the Corps, how to stay in line – you look at their shoulder blades and that’s who you line up with – and about heels and things like that, because they don’t really get taught that at school. So you learn as you go along in the company and we’re quick learners; we’re dancers, so they pick it up very quickly. They’re equal, it’s huge and I remember it’s very hard.” Her advice when I ask her to recall what she found hard is very useful, “I was so nervous when I did join the company; I would not get in line, so I’d be too trying to be on it that it would make me stick out even more. The more confident and relaxed you are, the better you are at Corps de ballet work.”
“If you do try to stand out it doesn’t help because you’re standing out for the wrong reasons. Because that’s your job. That’s what you get paid for. You don’t get any brownie points for that.”
How do you ever get noticed then ? “People watch our classes and when you’re in class, that’s for you to improve your technique. So when people do cast you in things, they watch class. Or they’ve seen you for years and they know what type of dancer you are.” She laughs when she tells me, “if you do try to stand out it doesn’t help because you’re standing out for the wrong reasons. Because that’s your job. That’s what you get paid for. You don’t get any brownie points for that.”
Pointe shoes & plasters
I notice that Cowley’s feet are snugly encased in slippers with a couple of plasters poking out, and we move onto pointe shoes. “I have Gaynor Minden’s (GM’s). They are really good for my feet because I’m quite slight in my feet; I’m narrow, so these are lighter shoes. They last for a long time, around 2 months though I’ll be working several pairs at once, but it’s not the reason why I use them. They just go with my feet. I had problems with Freeds and any other brand. I got a lot of bone stresses and as soon as I wore these it just relieved it so they are really good for my feet.” I mention some of the controversy surrounding the shoes, that some people have said that GM’s do all the work of the foot and she says “I really disagree with that. You have to really work; you have to have strong feet to wear Gaynor’s. Alina [Cojocaru] wears Gaynor’s and she has beautifully strong feet. There’s a lot of work on pointe, a lot of bourreés so your feet just hurt.”
And so as I leave her to meet her Physio, “just general maintenance,” before the show, I’m left with the feeling that this elegant and collected lady should be really going places. Not in a showy, noisy way, but with the quiet, calming confidence that comes from doing a job you love, however difficult at times, consistently very well, and being recognised for that.
Spirited, funny, clear and eloquent, Cowley has so much going for her, and deservedly so.