"Some people laugh about that, actually –
7 o'clock in the morning
and she's ready."


An Interview with Marianela Nunez,
Principal Dancer, Royal Ballet
April, 2002

By Emma Pegler

(I interviewed Marianela Nunez when she was still a First Soloist. At the time, we had no idea that her promotion to Principal was imminent.)


When I arrive at the stage door of the Royal Opera House, I am met by a young woman putting on a brave face. I had arranged to meet Royal Ballet First Soloist, Marianela Nunez, after the Schools' Matinee performance of the "Enduring Images" programme because she was to dance only In the middle (as William Forsythe's In the middle, somewhat elevated has affectionately become known) and so was guaranteed to finish early for a change. As it happens, a torn thigh muscle prevented her from dancing. She had tried not to dance Gamzatti in La Bayadère the night before but the lack of a substitute meant that she had had to go on. Now she is suffering. A friend asks after the young Argentinian dancer while eyeing me suspiciously. "Oh, I'll call you later – that's if I'm not back in Buenos Aires." I hear the story as we wander down to Simpson's on the Strand.

She tore her thigh muscle a couple of weeks ago whilst rehearsing one of Gamzatti's solos. Her thigh improved and so she danced the role, but now she has to be careful. "Forsythe is 25 minutes of just burying yourself. You are under the influence of adrenalin so you wouldn't notice if you were making the injury worse," she tells me in her calculatedly precise English. She now has to subject herself to rounds of physio, ice, ultrasound and massage. Still, she is in good hands: her treatment will be supervised by physiotherapist Torje Eike, Deborah Bull's partner, who works with Royal Ballet dancers (and the Rolling Stones) and whom she describes as "divine."

Nunez walks tall and proud but slightly awkwardly, with her feet 'at ten to two', in comfortable rubber-soled shoes. She reminds me of the young Bambi, his legs a bit too long and thin to support him properly. She's not like this on stage, of course. What strikes you about her in performance is her self-assuredness and a confidence and maturity beyond her tender 19 years. Her blonde hair is pulled back in a pony-tail poking through the back of a base-ball cap. This gives her a very American preppy look. Her eyes are the palest blue and her skin is beautiful, flawless and translucent, with no traces of the ravages of heavy stage make-up.

Like most well-brought up young Argentinian women, she is charming, open and friendly, keen to make a connection with me and create a positive impression. She is responsive to my questions and intelligent and considered in her views. You can tell that she has always been encouraged to think positively about herself and her abilities and you wouldn't believe that at the age of 15, she left the Argentinian education system before officially finishing her studies.

Nunez joined Argentina's principal, and practically only, ballet company at the Teatro Colon Theatre in Buenos Aires when she was 14. She left Argentina in 1997, aged only 15. Her big break came when her agent rang up the Royal Ballet on tour and asked whether Nunez could audition for the Company while it was in Los Angeles. Once there, she took a whole week of classes and on the last day was asked to perform a solo after class. "I had to do this solo from Don Q without music and the whole management was there with Anthony Dowell in the corner dressed as Carabosse because he was to perform in Sleeping Beauty. I just thought, this is not happening to me. I finished the audition and they hardly said a word to me, just 'thank you very much.' I thought, great, I didn't get it. I remember flying home and my face was just like that…" She pulls a long face. She had merely been a victim of British understatement and had, in fact, been successful: the Royal Ballet had accepted her into the Company but wanted her to attend the Royal Ballet School for a year.

I am curious how a young ballet dancer, aged only 15, could summon the courage to audition for a big prestigious company, and why the Royal Ballet, rather than American Ballet Theatre or New York City Ballet, whose bases are much closer to Buenos Aires and to home. "I always liked those companies as well but Europe was the place to be. It was either Royal Bal-let [she pronounces every letter of the word] or Stuttgart and I had the chance to go to audition for the Royal Ballet. But I never really thought they were going to take me." The self-belief in part came from the encouragement of teachers and Maximiliano Guerra, principal guest artist with La Scala Ballet in Milan. Nunez met the Argentinian while he was guesting at the Teatro Colon and he invited her to partner him while touring his own small company around Argentina. He told her to be realistic about her talent and recognise that there was nothing for her in Argentina. I ask her what her life would now be if she had stayed in Buenos Aires. She is generous about the company she left, believing that the repertoire is "actually very good" including Swan Lake, Romeo and Juliet, Natalia Makarova's production of La Bayadère, Peter Wright's Sleeping Beauty, Rudolf Nureyev's Nutcracker, and even John Cranko's Onegin. There are, however, only 20 shows a year at the Teatro Colon. Although she doesn't say it, I infer that even with a good repertoire and the likes of Guerra and Carlos Acosta popping over from time to time to guest, in which case she was first-choice partner even at 15, she would not be consistently guaranteed of a supply of decent partners. Unfortunately for Buenos Aires, the good dancers leave, allowing ABT to snap up Julio Bocca and Paloma Herrera, and the Royal Ballet, Inaki Urlezaga.

"She has Argentinian tenacity and persistence – Argentinians never give up."

Arriving in London with no English and away from her close-knit family was somewhat of a trial. She built up her support networks at the Royal Ballet School – an Argentinian girl in the year below and a Brazilian girl in her year – with whom she could chat in Spanish but she hated her first year. Once in the Company itself, she found herself trying to follow the blonde girl in Swan Lake but blanked when there turned out to be at least 4 blond girls in the corps de ballet. "I knew I had to be behind Sian Murphy and I was looking around, thinking, where is the blonde girl? I couldn't remember what was next… and there were 3 or 4 blonde girls and I was panicking. I blanked and someone had to drag me and put me in line." That, she decided, was the last time she would permit herself to be directionless. But, for what seemed like ages (although in reality was only two years) she was a member of the corps de ballet and was wishing for another break, the effects of the first one – getting into the Company in the first place – having worn off.

The next break came – she substituted for another dancer in Forsythe's The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude – with just two and a half days to learn the role. "My brain was burning," she says. Ever since, she has been an aficionado of Forsythe's work: "It's something that I have to say feels fantastic – I feel good doing it." When I watched Nunez in rehearsal for In the middle I could tell that she relished the choreography and that the responses to the music and to the beat were welling up from that Latin blood deep inside. We agreed that South American and Spanish people quite definitely have the edge in abandoning themselves to the music and responding to the beat.

Aged 18, she was awarded her first big promotion in true fairytale style. Sir Anthony Dowell came to her just after a gala performance with Carlos Acosta of the Diana and Actaeon pas de deux and awarded her a First Soloist's contract, jumping two categories – First Artist and Soloist – in the normal promotion ladder. It came as a surprise because she hadn't been allocated very much work that season but again, the break came after a last-minute substitution. Acosta had been due to dance with Leanne Benjamin, but with his partner injured, he asked for Nunez to take her place. It was an exciting jump to join class with "all the stars." Acosta was also her partner for another lucky break earlier this year when, with critical acclaim, she stepped in once again for the injured Benjamin, this time as Kitri in Don Quixote. She had just two days to prepare but pretty much knew the role because she had watched it so many times on video and had been Benjamin's understudy. What turned a good performance into an inspired one, however, was the rapport with her fellow Latino. She is effusive about all the men she has danced with, but, "I have to say that with Carlos I just feel really comfortable… especially when I did Don Q – it's just so 'him.'"

Naturally, she now has her eye on the next step – to become Principal Dancer. Alina Cojocaru's rapid rise to Principal has shown that, although she is an exceptionally gifted young dancer, attaining the top contract with the Company is not merely a question of showing consistently good dancing over years of service. Cojocaru and Nunez were promoted to First Soloist at about the same time and had places in the shared dressing room next to each other. Now Cojocaru is downstairs with all the stars. Nunez craves for what she calls "the Management" to give her the chances to reach her goal. She wants to stay with the Company, has grown to love London as her home, and has no designs on dancing with other companies just yet. The opportunities are finally coming this year. "When the casting came up for In the Middle I just couldn't believe it – it was Sylvie's part [Sylvie Guillem] and I thought, gosh, here we go…" When Nunez first came to the Company, she was constantly fretting about her future. She is clearly ambitious and completely overflowing with energy and drive and was worrying needlessly about her progress. It felt to her as if she wasn't getting the roles. Now she feels differently – it was clear from the casting by the new Artistic Director, Ross Stretton, that her star was in the ascendant - and more able to take a step at a time. Progress doesn't just come from stepping into the shoes of an injured dancer. Now she is just concentrating on devouring her new roles with more leisure than the standard 48 hours a dancer is given to learn a role when you are substituting. She will, however, still be enthusiastically getting ready way in advance of each performance: "Some people laugh about that, actually – 7 o'clock in the morning and she's ready."

Yet, Nunez clearly doesn't see herself as in competition with the other First Soloists and enjoys the camaraderie of sharing a changing room with Spanish speakers Laura Morera, Mara Galeazzi, and Zenaida Yanowsky who, despite her promotion to Principal hasn't moved downstairs. Rather, Nunez studies her fellow dancers in a bid to improve her own dancing: "There are so many dancers I love in this Company and everyone is so different. I think, oh, I'll take that from her and that from her. I have always loved Darcey [Bussell] and I love Alina [Cojocaru]." And if she was ever cast as Tatiana in Onegin she would take Galeazzi's direction – she can hardly find the words to express how beautiful she thought Galeazzi's rendition earlier this year. Outside the Company she admires ABT and La Scala dancer Alessandra Ferri. Onegin was being staged when Nunez first joined the Teatro Colon but she was too young to be cast. "But I saw Alessandra dancing Tatiana – oh my God… I just went mad. She's fantastic for me; she really makes me believe."

So what chances does she want? She likes the Balanchine works in the Royal's repertory. So far she has only danced the second-cast pas de trois for Agon. She wants to dance Serenade. At the same time she craves MacMillan's great heroine roles – Juliet, Manon and Mayerling. She is happy that Stretton is bringing new works to the Company and challenging the dancers. She believes nonetheless that he is committed to the English tradition – to MacMillan, to Ashton and to the classical works. And Nunez wants to be known for the full range of roles within the Company and not be pigeonholed. She knows she is equal to Forsythe's strong technical creations but she is worried that the Juliet and Manon in her will not be allowed to develop.

With this worry, Nunez is just being a nervous teenager. She is clearly able to tackle any role thrown at her and, as Luke Jennings (writing for the Evening Standard after an interview with Nunez) pointed out, "She has the requisite 21st century science, but also the budding artistry which makes the science sing." Besides, the classics are coming her way. Earlier this year she was cast as Olga in Onegin and gave a convincing performance as the airy, vacuous sister. Luke Jennings believed her to be closer to Pushkin's Olga than the other dancers taking the same role. Like all the dancers, she did her research and studied Pushkin's verse-novel (her mother sent over a Spanish translation) and the film versions. "It wasn't that hard with Olga once I'd read the book. I felt quite natural with it – it's not that I really had to try." Other inmates of the Royal Opera House had some difficulties with the role: "People were saying that Olga was the oldest sister and I was insisting, no, she's the youngest."

As with most dancers, Nunez's life is pretty much dominated by dance. The tiredness felt after an average day of intense training which finishes at 6:30 pm, and a performance day which finishes at 11:00 pm, leaves her wanting to stay home and watch a movie or the series Friends which, she claims, was the tool to the perfection of her English. She looks for the quiet side of London. Her mother visits regularly from Buenos Aires to give her support. How Argentinian does she still feel? She has Argentinian tenacity and persistence – Argentinians never give up. At Christmas she was shocked by the changes in her country produced by economic collapse. There were long queues at the embassies where people were desperately trying to secure visas to leave the country. She observed a sadness about Buenos Aires where people were losing their homes, forced to sell any property to raise capital to live from. Nunez is convinced that her countrymen will fight back.

Most Argentinians listen to tango, particularly when away from home, and Nunez loves Piazzolla. Although part of her dance training in Buenos Aires consisted of folk dances, she has never learned tango. Shame on her, I say. What strikes me is that although she enjoys the Spanish mafia at the Royal Ballet – once in Romeo and Juliet she found herself dancing the third harlot with Tamara Rojo as the first harlot and Yanowsky as the second, whilst Urlezaga was Romeo and Ricardo Cervera, Mercutio – she is international and very much considers London to be her home. So she enjoyed playing host to the dancers of Julio Bocca's company in town in February. Most of the dancers had been her colleagues at the Teatro Colon and Bocca had also wanted her to join his company.

Although her work has been consistently praised by critics, some of the ballets she has danced in, most notably the latest mixed bill, have been panned. I ask her if she cared about the press. "Actually I do not read the reviews. If someone from the press office gives me the reviews I will read them. But I don't look for them." Not even all the articles about what Stretton, an Australian, is doing to the Company? "I think the dancers are so involved in what they have to do; there is so much going on at the Opera House that we don't really have time to think of stuff like that."

A modern young woman who knows her worth, Nunez nurtures big dreams of glory and success but tempers them with a realistic assessment of her capabilities. In other words, she knows where she is headed.

Please join our forum to discuss this interview.

Edited by Malcolm Tay

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