Even the clothes are wilting. The air in the studio is languid and thick with endeavour. Discarded tutus and dresses longer and thinner than pencils scatter the floor and droop earthwards. But not our star dancer. Celisa Diuana, a corps de ballet dancer with The Royal Ballet, is trying to hit the photographer’s mark with a grande jeté. The mark is there because we want to capture the London Eye in the background and make the most of the stunning London skyline which the studio overlooks. She can easily make the jump; what makes it harder is simultaneously responding to the stream of instructions : “be careful you don’t shadow your face with your hands; really point your fingers; and smile; let’s have some serious Brazilian attitude; keep your arms away from your face; that’s it, more like that; keep smiling; don’t look at me; and smile; that’s it, leg up, as high as you can; bring your head round a bit; smile; keep smiling and bring your leg up; hand away from your face; that’s exactly what I want but you have to jump earlier, on that spot; big smile, huge smile; open your eyes and just look forward; relax; and smiling; let’s see the real Royal Ballet line, that look; and big smile.” I counted 57 instructions and they were just the ones I recorded. All this and still smiling; who knew ?
To be in this elite corps, Diuana is used to absorbing multiple instructions. But we’re not learning choreography today; we’re here to photograph her for the pre-season interview that she and I met up to complete a few weeks earlier. A true professional, Diuana follows every instruction, never complaining and mutli-tasking through several outfit changes. That she does this following a “hard class” given by renowned Cuban guest teacher Loipa Araujo, giving up her rare free afternoon, is a mark of her dedication, and of her ambition.
At 25 years old, she has been in the corps de ballet for seven years, arriving in August 2003 on an apprentice scholarship as a result of winning at the Prix de Lausanne. When her year was up, she was given a full contract in the corps de ballet. I suggest that seven years is a long time to remain in the corps, and isn’t she a bit fidgety to move up ? She answers the question by saying “that things take time.” She is not unhappy, but “you always want to achieve more.”
Stepping into the spotlight with La Bayadère
Last year Diuana did step out of the corps, dancing the Third Solo Shade in La Bayadère, her most challenging role to date. Her face lights up as she says, “I never wanted to blend in, but I had to as my work in the corps required it. It was really hard; the hardest thing is to dance in line, behind the girls. And you have to limit yourself, a lot. And then when you step out, when you’re used to being the corps de ballet, then, it’s completely different. I mean, you know what to do, but it’s just because you are used to doing different work. When you step out it’s a big challenge, but it’s not that you’re not able.”
I ask whether there were any other unusual roles last year and she remembers, “oh, Rushes. It was unusual because I was covering it last time, and since the last time he (Carlos Acosta) did it, it has changed. For me it was different body movement and I was just trying to get the choreographer’s style. It was a good thing.” Her partner in Rushes back in February was Eric Underwood, and I recall that with the changes choreographer Kim Brandstrup made to the piece, Diuana and the other ensemble dancers (including Fernando Montaño, Johannes Stepanek & Tara-Brigitte Bhavnani) were more visible on stage, despite the bead curtain .
White Couple in Les Patineurs
Diuana was also cast in Les Patineurs as the White Couple pas de deux with First Soloist Valeri Hristov, “it was great, I really enjoyed it.” They will reprise the White Couple roles in December.
I want to know more about how Diuana got into ballet, and it turns out that she had no idea what ballet was; had never seen it before. “I used to watch DVD’s and I was always fascinated. And I always thought oh, The Royal Ballet must be the best company in the world. I really wanted to go there. When I was six or seven I started dancing, in a small school (the Maria Olenewa State Dance School), just for fun.”
When I ask whether she had ever thought of anything besides ballet, she says (emphatically) “no. I don’t know how to explain that. My sister went swimming, and I used to go with her, just to keep her company. When I was six, my Mum said I should do some sport to keep active.” Basically her mum gave her two choices : swimming or ballet. “I chose ballet. I’d never seen a ballet. I think something clicked.” What was she expecting ? “I knew it was dancing, it was to do with dancing.”
As time passed and maintaining the balance of school work versus ballet became harder, decision time loomed for Diuana. “I was in school and it was very hard. I used to study all day and then go to ballet classes. There was one year when I was about thirteen that I really had to decide what I wanted to be focusing on, and it was better for me to be doing ballet, rather than studying. I like studying but as it required more focus I wasn’t able to work on my dance as well, so I had to really choose. It was very hard for my Mum because she didn’t know, and when you’re thirteen you are very young, you don’t know what’s going to happen. To encourage/support her in making a decision, the only thing my Dad said to my Mum was that ‘only time will show if it’s the right thing or not.’ And then after that I kept winning competitions, kept doing well in ballet, doing ballet exams and dancing a lot.” Diuana started pointe work when she was about eleven. “I remember my teacher telling us to buy an Argentinean brand. We didn’t have to do anything to them, it was really hard but somehow they were very easy to go up on pointe, they helped you.” Then she adapted to a Brazillian brand – Cecilia Kerche (rebranded as So Danςa until recently). At The Royal Ballet, with one brief change in between (to Innovation), she has stuck with Freeds of London.
Studying at the Vaganova Academy, Russia
After winning competitions at home, Diuana won her first scholarship to the prestigious Vaganova Academy in St Petersburg. She had the opportunity to learn, and took it enthusiastically, learning Russian as well as ballet. Adapting to a new language and culture came as naturally to her as dancing. But I’ve heard the Russian teachers have a very different style and I ask her about it, “yes, they were tough. They are very hard, very passionate, so you understand that, but at the same time when you get to know them, they are very warm people and they are there for you. But you know, you have to do your work right!”
And the different style of dancing ? “Yes, it is very different. But for me, I just adapted very well. And my teacher was Russian, she was Ukrainian actually, and she was studying at the Vaganova School. She knew the style and she took people who would suit that style. And just to have the opportunity to develop my potential…” she tails off, eyes busy with memories. At the school, the students are given a lot of stage experience, which has given her an advantage at the Royal Opera House with its huge, imposing stage. Diuana fondly remembers her teachers : Lobov Kunakova and Altynai Alssymuratova. At the end of her scholarship year, she was offered a contract with a small company, but opted instead to head home to prepare for the Prix de Lausanne; a fortuitous decision, resulting in another win that allowed her to choose to join The Royal Ballet – her long-held dream – as an apprentice for the 2003/4 season, on her second scholarship.
An apprentice at The Royal Ballet
As an apprentice, during her first year she didn’t dance a lot, instead concentrating on learning the rep, and she tells me “whenever I had to go on for someone I would go on and do it well, and then towards the end of the season I got busier because people were injured and needed to be replaced. I was dancing even more the following year, and then it got busier, busier, busier; the work got like, a lot. And in the corps de ballet you always have to be on.”
Being on stage practically every night, standing in those punishing positions that look so beautiful in, say, Swan Lake, requires experience and an iron will, “you learn; you have people watching and correcting you when you are rehearsing, and you have just have to stand still, (she is laughing here) no matter what happens. I mean, it’s hard. It’s very hard. Then you have to move and if you get cramp in your foot, can you imagine ? You have to really concentrate because you’re holding your body, your foot, in a certain position for a long time and then you have to move. It’s a lot of work.”
Was she nervous of stepping out onto such a huge stage ? “Oh it’s amazing. I was amazed by the theatre, the audience. You have to be aware that people are watching but you’re not aware of each person. It’s very dark. You can see some spots, and the exits signs, and the centre.” How did she find the audiences’ response after her La Bayadère Shade solo then ? “That was amazing because it’s a response to what you are doing. So when I did the Bayadère solo, and I had all that response, it was amazing. Because I was dancing behind a gauze, it was like I was somewhere dancing and then I had that response. It’s amazing. It was amazing.” Was she nervous ? “I just wanted to do it, you know. When you want to do something it gets rid of the nerves.”
Given that other, equally ambitious dancers have become frustrated by their time in the corps and have left the company, I ask what she feels are the benefits of staying with The Royal Ballet, and her reply echoes her life-long belief in fate, “benefits ? Ok. I think the roles will come. You just have to be wise about your work and what you are doing right, or what are you doing wrong. Then try to correct things and if the time comes to get your roles, you get the roles. If it’s time to move then you would know it’s time to move as well. I’m just not worried about things.”
She tells me that “it’s very competitive here, to be the best.” So what of her quietly held ambitions ? “Oh of course, I want to be a Principal.” We agree that it’s good to earn your chops by getting to know the work in the corps, because being a Principal doesn’t mean that you are on stage alone; the corps is there to make you look good and they are important. “Exactly. I value corps de ballet work very much because I’ve been there a long time.”
Holidays and touring
During the long summer break Diuana goes home to Brazil to be with her family. When in London, she is not particularly homesick because they come over to watch her dance. She likes to rest at the beginning of the holiday and then take classes. Before her summer break last year the company embarked on an historic tour to Cuba. The whole company were excited but for Cuban Guest Principal Carlos Acosta, effectively that meant taking his company home. “Yes, it was amazing for Carlos as the whole country was behind him. They were very supportive, and very happy because he was there.” They also toured to the beautiful Alhambra Palace in Granada, “the sun is so hot so we started dancing at about 10pm. It was beautiful – the landscape, trees, the garden, the stage, and you can feel the wind. You know, sometimes when you’re on stage you can see the sky as well. The stars and the moon were amazing.”
In a year from now Diuana hopes that she will be where she has wanted to be her whole life – at her best. She feels that she is working hard and dancing the best she can now, but after another year perfecting her craft she hopes to be even better. Diuana has a winning, underlying confidence, and spending time with her and watching her dance you can’t help but feel that her calm, centred (literal and figurative) way of dealing with the challenges of ballet life will continue to guide her to well-deserved stardom.
And that’s where you come in.
There is a rare chance for you to see Diuana as she reprises her role in Les Patineurs on Christmas Eve. There is no better place to celebrate the season and to toast Diuana’s success than with her at the Royal Opera House. Both of her shows are matinees, which is helpful if you are busy with Christmas festivities, and child-friendly too. Public booking opens on Tuesday 5th October at 10am and it’s likely to be busy so please mark the date in your diary and book early. The tickets probably won’t be there for long….
Celisa Diuana will dance White Couple pas de deux as part of the Pas des Patineurs from Frederick Ashton’s elegant and fun ballet based around the style of ice-skaters (including, of course, falling over!), Les Patineurs on Christmas Eve, Friday December 24th 2010 at 12.00pm and on Tuesday January 4th 2011 at 12.30pm. To book tickets, please call 0207 304 4000 or go online.
As corps de ballet, Diuana will dance most of the rep during Autumn/Winter, including Onegin, La Valse, Theme & Variations, Sylvia, Cinderella, Giselle & Swan Lake.
I will have some backstage footage taken during the making of this shoot for you very shortly.
With special thanks to Ghost and Elliott Franks