Since joining the Royal Ballet in 2002, the principal dancer has developed an impressively varied repertoire that includes leading roles in works by MacMillan and choreographers such as Ashton, McGregor and Wheeldon. She talks to Anna Winter about what it takes to prepare for a show and how trauma brought her to a place of self-acceptance
Last November, Royal Ballet principal Lauren Cuthbertson was in a Mayfair cinema, but couldn’t concentrate on the film. Her boss, Kevin O’Hare, had just phoned to say Mariinsky director Yuri Fateyev wanted her to perform Frederick Ashton’s ballet Sylvia in St Petersburg that weekend. Cuthbertson remembers her bewilderment with a laugh: “This… this week? After the film, I called him back and said I’d be mad to do it but I’d be so mad with myself if I say no.” So began the ballerina’s Russian adventure.
Short notice is an understatement for what happened next. The following day, she performed the Sugar Plum Fairy for the Hearst Publishing Group, then rehearsed La Bayadere with famed former ballerina and producer Natalia Makarova that afternoon. “I then had about 30 minutes to gather up my things, run home, put them into a suitcase and get to the airport. I made it within minutes.”
Adding to the drama was her lack of a Russian visa. “They said: ‘Don’t worry, there’ll be a note on the computer’…Okay.” Cuthbertson recalls it all with expressive energy: “It felt like a movie. If I’m honest, I’ve never felt more alive. There were fireworks along the motorway; something magical was in the air.” After delays en route, she got to her hotel at 5am, slept for a few hours, and then plunged into a rehearsal of a ballet she hadn’t performed for more than a year.
Ashton created Sylvia as a paean to his muse Margot Fonteyn in 1952, and it is a notoriously demanding role. “Usually, you need a minimum of a month to get the stamina for it. When I went on, I realised I hadn’t had a stage call. Suddenly the stage is pitch black with a spotlight on me and I’m going downhill because it’s a rake, doing posé turns and grand allegro – I was thinking: ‘Lauren you’re mad, what are you doing?’ It wasn’t a perfect start, but by Act II, I was really enjoying it. Act III was…” She searches for words. “It was a very special experience.”
She was partnered by Yorkshire-born Xander Parish, who was plucked from the Royal’s corp de ballet by Fateyev nearly a decade ago and honed into one of the Mariinsky’s leading men. “He’s a beautiful human being. I feel very privileged to have had an insight into his life there. He’s grown up in Russia, as a man and a dancer.”
The performance marked the first time that a British couple had danced on the renowned St Petersburg stage. As well as making ballet history, they clearly impressed the Mariinsky management – Cuthbertson was invited back to the theatre to perform The Sleeping Beauty and Ashton’s Marguerite and Armand in March this year.
She spent 10 days rehearsing the Mariinsky’s version of Sleeping Beauty, “which was heaven – the coaches I worked with were so inspiring and I love Russian class”. How does it differ from daily class in Covent Garden? “It’s really short, barre is really quick – it’s an hour maximum. They get everything done, bam, bam, bam,” she explains. “Direction is so clear. For every exercise there’s an optimum – there’s not choice, there’s an optimum. It’s so clear as to what you’re aiming for, there’s that precision every day and it’s in their muscle memory, although there’s nuance, obviously, in timing and musicality.”
The Vaganova system – named after ballet pedagogue Agrippina Vaganova – is common to the whole company, even those who’ve come from outside of Russia. Cuthbertson describes the “potency” of the feeling in the studio. “To see it is quite amazing. For a couple of days, I was quite distracted at the barre because it was so wonderful to take it all in, and then [there were] other days when I felt completely at one with them.”
There are big differences between the Mariinsky and Royal Ballet versions of Sleeping Beauty, she explains, heightened by the fact that, although the work originated in St Petersburg in 1890, much of the Royal Ballet’s identity is based around the version with which it reopened the Opera House in 1946.
‘It takes so much stamina to still be eloquent with your dancing when you’re cream-crackered’
Performances in New York three years later made a name for British ballet – and launched Fonteyn to stardom. Staged in 1930s London by émigré ballet master Nicholas Sergeyev, from his notes and memories of Russian performances, the Royal’s Beauty holds a special place in British ballet history. “I grew up watching and loving and dreaming of performing Sleeping Beauty,” says Cuthbertson. “What it takes to get to a show, you can’t imagine: every day you’re fine-tuning, you have to work so incredibly hard for about three weeks up to the show. That’s when you already know it. It takes so much stamina, getting to the point of still being eloquent with your dancing when you’re absolutely cream-crackered,” she says.
The Mariinsky Sleeping Beauty was a distinctly new prospect for a dancer schooled in the British tradition. “To go there and realise that Sleeping Beauty was actually born in St Petersburg – I had to swallow my pride a bit. All the port de bras and musicality was so different. The preparations, the in-between steps, the emphasis of steps, sometimes it even feels like a reverse. It was a completely new challenge and that’s why it’s so devastating that I didn’t actually do the show.”
Unfortunately, Cuthbertson’s blood pressure became dangerously low and she was forced to spend the rest of the week on an IV drip, although she made it back to perform Marguerite and Armand. Her experience of illness and injury is substantial – between the ages of 25 and 30 she was forced to spend around three and a half years off the stage, recovering from glandular fever and a foot injury.
From that trauma, she’s gained a sanguine approach. “My perspective changed and I accepted myself much more. That doesn’t mean to say I’m not always striving to improve, but I feel quite comfortable with who I am and [am always] so happy to see other people in their element on stage.” It’s a mindset that made her Mariinsky experience more inspirational than intimidating.
Despite the setbacks, Cuthbertson – who joined the company in 2002 and was promoted to principal six years later – has developed an impressively varied repertoire, creating the title role in Christopher Wheeldon’s 2011 Alice in Wonderland, Hermione in his Winter’s Tale, plus roles in Wayne McGregor’s Infra and Chroma. As well as taking on Marguerite, she debuted in Don Quixote this year.
Up next is another new role – a Russian one. She’ll debut in Ashton’s A Month in the Country, based on the Turgenev play. When we met, she had just had her first rehearsal with her dressing-room pal and fellow principal Natalia Osipova. “It’s very musical and witty, with it being Sir Fred’s choreography. If it were writing, it’d be wordplay. It’s step-play. You feel connected to him somehow when you learn it. You go: ‘Ah, this man’s a genius.’”
She recently revived the role of the boisterous Young Girl in Ashton’s Two Pigeons, alongside Laura Morera and Vadim Muntagirov – plus a couple of real pigeons that flew on stage for a poignant reunion at the ballet’s close. “It’s otherworldly. You can’t beat that moment when you absolutely respect and adore the people you’re on stage with. And you share this moment together, with the audience, in a ballet that you all love.”
While Cuthbertson is a natural in comic roles – her daffy turn as the pretentiously dreamy ingenue in Jerome Robbins’ The Concert is a standout – she’s a protean and powerful presence in the intensely dramatic, often harrowing, parts such as Kenneth MacMillan’s Anastasia and Mary Vetsera in Mayerling.
She credits it to an early start dancing complex characters. Aged just 17, new in the company, she stepped in to cover the leading role in Cathy Marston’s Between Shadows, a narrative work “with a sex scene and everything; I’d never acted before in my life”. Her talent was noted and she performed Juliet the next season.
“In classical ballet there’s a finish to a step, then a reverence [formalised curtsy] and you’re engaged somehow with the audience. But when you’re playing someone in a scenario and the audience is zoning into your world, I love that. I just love stories.”
Born: 1984, Devon
Training: Royal Ballet’s junior and upper schools
All at the Royal Opera House:
• Romeo and Juliet (2004)
• Chroma (2006)
• The Sleeping Beauty (2006)
• Infra (2008)
• Manon (2011)
• Live Fire Exercise (2011)
• Alice in Wonderland (2011)
• Tetractys (2014)
• The Winter’s Tale (2014)
• Anastasia (2016)
• Don Quixote (2019)
A Month in the Country runs at the Royal Opera House until June 14. Further details are available at roh.org.uk