Marianela Nunez knew she wanted to be a dancer at three years old. Now starring in Giselle and celebrating her 20th year with the Royal Ballet, a place she calls ‘magical’, she tells Anna Winter she still has a lot to learn
Even as an infant, Marianela Nunez sensed the stage was a sacred space. The Argentinian dancer, who this month celebrates her 20th year with the Royal Ballet (16 of those as principal dancer) took her first balletic steps aged three on the concrete floor of a local teacher’s garage-turned-studio, in a small neighbourhood outside of Buenos Aires.
“There’s a funny photo from an end-of-year show,” Nunez recalls. “One of my little friends had a sweet or chewing gum and she started to peel it and I got cross, because we were on stage and it was a performance. I was like: ‘You can’t do that. This is a show.’ I was about four.”
Fast-forward a little over 30 years and Nunez is a ballerina who consistently beguiles on the London stage. This season she’s dazzled in Sylvia and Giselle. In the spring, she’ll make her debut in Ashton’s Marguerite and Armand and open Liam Scarlett’s new production of Swan Lake with her current partner Vadim Muntagirov (nicknamed “Vadream” by his colleagues).
Artistic director Kevin O’Hare notes that Nunez possesses “an extraordinary technique that doesn’t seem to exist in a way. It allows her to do whatever she wants in performance. She can be the character without having to worry about doing a step.”
Born into a “big, beautiful, traditional Latino family” in 1982, Nunez was the youngest of four siblings and the only girl. As an antidote to all the rambunctious male energy, Nunez’s mother decided to dress her daughter in pink (“with a massive bow even though I didn’t have any hair”) and send her to dance lessons, where she did “a bit of ballet, a bit of folk dancing, a bit of everything”.
It wasn’t long before Nunez demonstrated not only a prodigious gift for ballet, but also a singular drive. Aged five she decided “this is not intense enough. I said to my mum: ‘Enough with all the other stuff, I want to focus on ballet.’ She was surprised, but she could see how serious I was.”
Only nine years later, Nunez was plucked from the Teatro Colon’s ballet school and primed for principal roles with the professional company, dancing with its star Maximiliano Guerra at the opera house in Buenos Aires and touring abroad for gala appearances.
It’s easy to imagine that such precocity, matched with an early spot in the limelight, might breed an out-of-touch obnoxiousness or a jaded attitude in the adult performer. But there is absolutely nothing cagey, affected or starry about Nunez.
As O’Hare says: “The way she behaves off stage counts for a lot. When she guests with other companies, directors are often in touch with me afterwards to say how fantastic she is.”
Chatting in her dressing room, surrounded by neatly arranged make-up boxes, photos and cushions, the conversation segues from Nunez’s career to Brexit (“It’s going to be terrible. People mingle and exchange: it’s how we achieve things.”) to her love of cats, who live with her boyfriend Alejandro Parente, a principal dancer at the Teatro Colon. She had been married to fellow Royal Ballet dancer Thiago Soares, but the couple announced their divorce in 2016.
It was Guerra who suggested Nunez go to England and the Royal Ballet, saying the company “would form me as an artist properly”. She knew of the company through VHS tapes of Bayadere with Altynai Asylmuratova, Darcey Bussell and Irek Mukhamedov. “And of course I knew of Sylvie Guillemand and Viviana Durante’s Sleeping Beauty. I thought, ‘All my favourite ballerinas are there; I want to go.’ ”
So, she flew out to Los Angeles in 1997 to audition during the Royal Ballet’s West Coast tour and remembers being in class. “People were like: ‘Who is this little girl?’ Nobody could understand it. By the time I got back to Argentina I had a fax offering me a contract.” She laughs: “I’m definitely marking the 20-year period here. Fax, VHS – I’m glad I didn’t say telegram.”
What was your first professional theatre job? Dancing at the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires.
What’s your next job? Hermione in Christopher Wheeldon’s The Winter’s Tale.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? I feel grateful because I had people guiding me. Sometimes you can have the talent but things don’t quite work out. I always had the support from the right people at the right time.
Who or what was your biggest influence? My family. They are the base from which I approach things and think of things and deal with life. They gave me such a good education and a lot of love.
What’s your best advice for auditions? Be yourself.
If you hadn’t been a ballerina, what would you have been? I can’t imagine anything else. I have such a strong sense of purpose. I can’t explain the determination I had when I first started, aged three, four and five. I knew I wanted to become a ballerina because it’s in me. I was lucky that I had people who listened and saw what I wanted and had and so it flowered.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? No, but I’m very tidy. I need to have everything in order before I go on stage. I do my make-up and everything goes back into its place. In my ballet bag I need to have things properly placed. If I take off my legwarmers I don’t just chuck them, I fold them. Look at my leotards – they’re colour-coordinated. And my tights, rehearsal tights and skirts. At home, things are really neat.
Filling out the paperwork, it became apparent that UK labour law prevented her from joining the company at 15. So she joined the Royal Ballet School for a year. Exchanging her costumes for the school’s regulation navy blue tracksuit proved difficult. “I didn’t speak English and I didn’t have my family. It was a massive change. But even though it was hard, I knew I was in the right place. I had all these dreams, I was following them and that gives you so much strength.” Once again, Nunez was fast-tracked and promoted to principal aged 20.
“I call this house and this company my family and my home because they’ve given me everything. Not just the dancers and ballet management. Backstage, everything is done with such intelligence – costumes and wig fittings. The girls in the canteen are gorgeous. The stage door staff. My parents always say: ‘We feel so welcome when we visit.’ This is a magical place.”
Not that there haven’t been difficulties. She struggled with her weight in her early 20s. “I guess you’d call it puppy fat. I was very athletic and muscular.” An Argentinian doctor helped. “I eat something small every three hours. Anything, in moderation. We work very long hours so we need to be strong, but we can’t feel full, and we need to be lean – it’s complex.”
Early on, there were a few years when she worried about being pigeonholed into “strong, technical roles” like Myrtha in Giselle. “I knew that a big range was within me, but I doubted.” But diverse dramatic and lyrical roles followed, such as Tatiana in Cranko’s Onegin, Giselle and Lise in La Fille Mal Gardee.
Nunez has made her mark on all of them, notes O’Hare. “To see her in Balanchine’s Diamonds is extraordinary, that marriage of musicality with technical ability plus the warmth of her natural personality makes something quite pure and classical very moving.”
Her “weakness” is pointe-related: corns. “It’s like dancing with little needles on your toes. I’ve had big pains around my body but nothing compares to corn pain. I had one under my toenail.” As a result, every three weeks, she travels to Croydon to see a chiropodist called Derek.
Ballet takes its toll on the body, but Nunez is committed to dancing for the foreseeable future. “I want to dance for a long time. We’re lucky here, because there’s amazing physio support and so much research into making a dancer’s career longer. I want to be working properly: doing class properly, rehearsing properly.”
Looking ahead, directing appeals to her, as does teaching, “If I can give something back, I’d be very happy.” For now though, she insists “I have a lot more to learn”.
Born: 1982, San Martin, Buenos Aires
Training: Teatro Colon Ballet School, Buenos Aires; Royal Ballet School, London
Landmark productions: At the Royal Opera House, London: Infra (2008), Lise, La Fille Mal Gardee (2010), Aurora, The Sleeping Beauty (2011), Tetractys (2014), DGV: Danse a Grande Vitesse (2014), Kitri, Don Quixote (2014), Manon (2014), Odette/Odile, Swan Lake (2015), Romeo and Juliet (2015), Tatiana, Onegin (2015), Jewels, Diamonds (2017), Symphonic Variations (2017), After the Rain (2017), The Human Seasons (2017), Mayerling (2017), Giselle (2018)
Awards: Best female dancer at the National Dance Awards (2005, 2012), Olivier award for outstanding achievement in dance (2013)
Giselle runs at the Royal Opera House until March 9