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  • Listen: Zenaida Yanowsky reflects on her career to date – 'I am an illusionist'

Listen: Zenaida Yanowsky reflects on her career to date – 'I am an illusionist'

The award-winning ballerina reveals how she moved from contemporary dance to ballet, and the challenge of balancing dance with being a mother.

By Chris Shipman (Head of Brand Engagement and Social Media)

19 March 2015 at 1.21pm | 6 Comments

'I grew up in the theatre [but] if anything, I hated classical dance,' confessed Zenaida Yanowsky, one of The Royal Ballet's most experienced dancers, at a recent ROH Insights event.

The Lyon-born Principal's exposure to dance began at a very young age. Brought up in France and Spain by contemporary dancers, she spent a lot of time behind the scenes at her parents’ rehearsals and performances. Yet, despite this early exposure to dance, her artistic passions lay elsewhere and she was more interested in painting and singing, so much so that she surprised her mother when she made a sudden decision to become a professional ballet dancer: 'There was never any expectation from my Mum and Dad,' she said. 'It was very clear that they would never push us, but they were so involved and so in love with they did, that the passion for the art form was contagious.'

Aged 14, she attended a ballet summer school in Cuba that had a lasting impact on her. ‘When I came back from that trip,’ she told interviewer David Pickering, ‘I said to my mum: “I think I want to dance!”’.

After winning competitions, including a silver medal at the prestigious International Ballet Competition in Varna, Bulgaria, she joined Paris Opera Ballet and thought she had achieved her dream. But she soon realized that the French company wasn't for her: 'It was an amazing experience but I couldn’t fit in properly,’ she remembered, reflecting on a year and a half in Paris. 'I planned on going to Amsterdam but I went to a trial class at The Royal Ballet, just because I was going via London. I didn't think think at any point that I would be offered a contract. I thought there was no way that they would take me, because of my size [Zenaida is 5ft 8 inches tall]. I was wrong, which is great’. She joined as a First Artist in 1994, and quickly moved up the ranks to become a Principal seven years later.

In 21 years with the Company, Zenaida has fine-tuned an enormous repertory, performing classics such as Manon and the iconic The Rite of Spring, 21st century works including Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Winter's Tale, and contemporary works by emerging choreographers.

It is this last genre in which the dancer's versatility and stamina have truly shone and it soon became clear that she was a natural for contemporary dance. ‘I think I understood it because I saw it so many times and I grew up with it,’ she said. But she also succeeded at portraying the classical roles of the British tradition that she didn’t believe were for her at first: ‘I didn’t come from the Royal Ballet School and didn’t have Frederick Ashton’s fast footwork, that evolved over time. I thought I'd never do an Ashton but then Sylvia came along. I thought they'd cast it wrong, with Darcey [Bussell]Marianela [Nuñez] and me. We all looked at each other and said "Are you sure? This is miscast - we can't do this at speed!". I've never done anything like it stamina-wise, it's like a triathlon!'

Another challenging role Zenaida picked out is Odile/Odette in Swan Lake: 'Technically it's very demanding because at the beginning you have to be soft. I am ultimately, an illusionist - what I want is for the audience to see this bird swimming on a lake and if I don't give that illusion then what's the point? You want to do a good job and do the role justice.'

When asked about favourite roles, Zenaida was unable to pick one single part, but Manon is definitely up there: 'I imagine it's what an actor feels when they get to perform Shakespeare,' she said.

Challenges for Zenaida continue off-stage as she's mother to two children: ‘I try my best to spend as much time as I can with them. There’ve been times when I had to do a show with very little sleep and sick kids, but you learn to manage’.

Zenaida Yanowsky's upcoming performances include roles in The Four Temperaments and In The Night. Visit her people page on the ROH website to be kept up to date with her forthcoming roles.

By Chris Shipman (Head of Brand Engagement and Social Media)

19 March 2015 at 1.21pm

This article has been categorised Ballet and tagged by anthony dowell, by Kenneth Macmillan, contemporary dance, interview, Manon, Production, ROH Insights, Soundcloud, Swan Lake, Zenaida Yanowsky

This article has 6 comments

  1. Blueraspberry responded on 19 March 2015 at 7:56pm Reply

    I saw Zenaida in Manon on Nov 1st with the fabulous International star that is Roberto Bolle -- Wow, what an evening. Zenaida is not just a great dancer but an accomplished actress too and together with Roberto Bolle, they created Magic that night. Many people then and since, have wondered what it will take for the ROH to pair these two dancers who have such rapport and chemistry, together again ....before they miss the chance!

  2. Koji Moriya responded on 19 March 2015 at 8:08pm Reply

    I have been a bit paranoia, but will she retire at the end of this season?

    • Ellen West (Head of Creative Studios and Digital Products) responded on 19 March 2015 at 10:14pm

      Dear Koji

      I am unaware of Zenaida having any plans to retire at present.

      Best wishes


  3. Lyn responded on 19 March 2015 at 11:33pm Reply

    So amazing, what inspiring thoughts from such an inspiring dancer. I would eat up absolutely everything she does, even if it's inspiring bread.

  4. Stephen Taylor responded on 23 March 2015 at 12:59am Reply

    The interesting thing about the solitary performance with Bolle - leaving aside all considerations of his excellence and scandalous ten-year absence from the house - was the extent to which it absolutely liberated her as a dancer, finally partnered by a man tall and strong enough to restore a sense of physical fragility to her lovely assumption. Would it be too much to hope that as both pass 40 and the clock ticks ever louder we might see some further outings for this ideally-matched pair?

  5. Jerome responded on 30 March 2015 at 4:46pm Reply

    Wonderful dancer with great comic ability. Her performance in Alice in Wonderland was hilarious.

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