The Royal Ballet’s Chosen One | Claudia Dean
Picture the scene. You’re in the Corps de ballet. You receive an email informing you that you have been chosen to perform a Principal role. Your first thought : this must have been sent to me by mistake, surely ?
No mistake. For Royal Ballet Corps dancer Claudia Dean, all of her Christmases have come at once as she has been picked to debut in the main role of The Chosen One in Kenneth MacMillan’s The Rite of Spring, which opens this Saturday in Covent Garden in a triple bill alongside Wayne McGregor’s Chroma and a new ballet, Human Seasons, by David Dawson. She shares the honour with Principal Zenaida Yanowsky.
At The Royal Ballet, if you’ve been selected for a Principal role, you’ll receive an email well in advance of the performances. How did Dean react ? ”I can’t even tell you how I felt. I got this email in April. It was Principal casting. I was like, ‘oh, maybe they’ve accidentally sent it to me.” Then I looked and I saw ‘Dean.‘ I had no idea. Absolutely no idea. It was a massive shock. And actually straight after that I was being coached by Monica Mason, and afterwards I just had to say ’thank you so much’ because she obviously knew. I had to say ‘thank you’ there and then. It’s honestly just like a dream come true to do something that’s so special to The Royal Ballet. It was just an honour. Very special.”
MacMillan aimed to choreograph a ballet that had a primitive feel and that was unlike anything seen before. The ballet premiered in 1962 but was commissioned almost by accident when plans went awry and MacMillan’s proposal for a new version of Nijinsky’s original version of Rite (for Diagalev Ballet) was approved by The Royal Ballet.
The Rite of Spring is not on pointe, there are wigs, the dancers wear striking ochre red and brown unitards marked with hand prints reminiscent of Aboriginal Australia and because of the complex patterns of choreography the ballet is best seen from above, which is unusual. This Aboriginal setting was MacMillan’s take – the original ballet was set in the forests of Northern Russia where a virgin was sacrificed in order for Spring to arrive, thereby ensuring the survival of the tribe.
Step up Claudia Dean, who has been coached in the role by Monica Mason, on whom it was created when she was the same age as Dean is now – 20 years. Indeed, the role of The Chosen One made Mason’s career. Dean trained in Australia and at The Royal Ballet Upper School, and I mentioned her in both my reviews of the Royal Ballet School’s Annual Performance at the Royal Opera House in 2010 and 2011 because she excelled not just in technique but also in artistry and stage presence.
Fast forward a couple of years and this new and unexpected opportunity takes that artistry to a new level. Dean is revelling in the opportunities she’s been given, as she describes when I meet her backstage at the Royal Opera House, ”I did Raymonda solo last season which was fabulous. I’ve covered lots of great things. Sometimes you don’t necessarily get to go on, but the experience behind it is something that you’ll always remember. Because I’ve only been here for two seasons, it actually is quite unusual to be learning such good things, so that’s been really good. You normally get things like that a bit later on. I’ve been very fortunate to have learned these things.” How did she feel after dancing the Raymonda solo ? “Fabulous. It was really amazing. I wasn’t cast. I was just covering it. Someone was off so they put me on quite quickly and so that was a big shock and a big whirlwind, but it was cool.”
You’d expect nerves to kick in for big roles, and Dean concurs, “I would say yeah; for big things, yeah. For Rite, because it’s a character ballet, you have to get in the zone of whatever you’re playing, whereas for something like a Raymonda solo, because it’s technical I do get nervous but it comes in different ways, for different things.” For Dean, what’s around her is most important when it comes to keeping the nerves under control, “I like to have things with me. I have a ballet skirt that I’ve had since I was ten, and everyone know it’s called Touchy and I have to take it everywhere with me. Sometimes it’s not focusing so much on the solo, but it’s thinking about what you have to do; just show the audience what you’ve been working on. It really depends how you think of it as well; if you have in your head, ‘oh I’m nervous, I’m nervous’, you end up being nervous. If you just think, ‘show the audience what I love to do’, it’s a different approach and that makes all the difference, I think.”
Dean has been with The Royal Ballet for two years and is effervescent despite running from a rehearsal to join me, fresh-faced and wearing her pink waffle dressing gown. She says, “two full years. Yeah. I’m absolutely loving it. It’s been so amazing; it’s an amazing place to work in. Everything at our fingertips - fantastic facilities. I’m very fortunate to get lots of opportunities especially this one coming up, Rite of Spring, it’s actually mind-blowing. I’ve just come out of a full call. That’s the first time with everyone. So when there’s a ballet when everyone’s involved it’s just really rewarding because you know they’re all going for you, they want you to do so well, so it’s just fantastic.”
Not everything in the garden can be this rosy, surely ? Dean thinks differently, “at the beginning it’s difficult because at school you come from where you’re at the top, so when you join the company you’re obviously fresh meat, you’re down the bottom, and you have to get used to the whole process of working yourself up through the ranks. It’s something I don’t think you can ever get your mind around until you’re in it, until you know what it’s like to be in the company. So the cast goes up and at school you’re used to, say, getting this, getting that. Within the company, at first, you have to wait your turn, because there are so many people in front of you, because we’re a big company. But as I said, I’m very fortunate to have so many opportunities given to me through my hard work, so for me, it’s been rewarding. For me its been great.”
I ask whether she feels that her dancing has changed since joining the company, and she nods in agreement, “yeah, definitely. At school I would say that I was more one that could do everything, and sometimes I wouldn’t think of, say, the quality in how to do things. In the company I’ve learned from the teachers and coaches that it’s much more than just doing it; you need to have a quality about it. It actually comes through maturity, because when you’re young you think - especially where I’m from in Australia; we’re all, like, ‘just do it. Do this, do that.’ But you know, in the company, it’s different to Australia, so I’ve come here and quality is everything. I’ve learned that that’s how I have to do things and I feel like I’ve definitely been working on that, and it’s paying off.”
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