Trust the road less travelled: my journey to the Royal Ballet

Confie no seu caminho: minha trajetória ao Royal Ballet

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I began my ballet training at Ballet Marcia Lago, my mom’s school, in Sao Paulo. When I was about eleven years old, I started to realise I really enjoyed it and that people saw something special in me. I ended up in the hands of a strict Japanese coach, Toshie Kobayashi. My grandpa used to pick me up from school and drive us across the city to see her - a two-hour journey - while I had lunch in the car and got my hair up in a bun and sometimes even changed to balletwear whilst crouched on the backseat. The time spent in the studio with her was so intense and so meaningful that even though I was little, I still remember it vividly. I did a lot of competitions in Brazil because that’s the only way to be on a stage. I would spend hours rehearsing a single variation. Back in the days, there were no prospects for me of ever joining a ballet company in Brazil. There simply was none. I only heard of American or European companies, so I knew that someday I would have to adventure out. But how?

At fourteen, ballet for me meant going from one competition to the next. At first, I just enjoyed the experience of being on stage, but soon enough it became all about winning. It wasn’t fun anymore as I really struggled with anxiety. I was getting sick and tired of it all, but my mom and Toshie saw no other way of setting me new challenges. That’s when, without us knowing, someone from Instituto Passo de Arte sent a videotape of me dancing to YAGP (Youth America Grand Prix) in New York, and I got accepted to the finals. I was just so excited to be participating in an international competition, with kids from all over the world, that I really let go of all my expectations. All I wanted was to feel like I did my very best there. To my surprise, besides winning gold medal I received scholarships to four top ballet schools, one of them being The Royal Ballet School! The Royal Ballet had always been my dream. Don’t ask me why. I don’t remember particularly watching any Royal Ballet videos apart from a balcony pas de deux of Romeo and Juliet featuring two Royal Ballet dancers, Wayne Eagling and Alessandra Ferri. She became my idol. Clearly, the school would have been the most straight-forward way to get into the company? Well, it wasn’t going to be that simple. Since I was very young and feared that I would get very homesick, my parents thought it best to send me to Toronto, where they had friends who would keep an eye on me (I also learned from my dad that this decision had to do with the political climate in England at the time). Besides, we had heard great things about Canada’s National Ballet School.

This wasn’t an easy choice to make. I never saw myself leaving home, but if I really wanted to be a ballerina, I knew this was my best shot. I grabbed this chance with all my heart and again, I just wanted to make it worth it. As soon as I turned fifteen, I left home. The language barrier, cultural differences, loneliness… I slowly overcame them all. The first few years were the hardest, but despite my homesickness, I had the constant feeling that this was what I needed to do in order to make it as a dancer. Graduation year came, and I had not done many auditions. Especially not the one I wanted so badly in Covent Garden. I stayed one extra year at school doing an intensive programme. My first audition for The Royal Ballet was in 2007, and I remember feeling quite overwhelmed. Of course, disappointment came when I heard that it wasn’t the place for me, at least not yet. I spent a week in London, taking classes here and there and getting a feel of the city. Yes, this was where I wanted to live. I held on to that.

Rehearsing Cecile (Dangerous Liaisons) with NBT in West Park- Leeds.

Looking back now, it didn’t feel like I fitted in the company. I felt quite "raw". Maybe it was just a confidence thing? Northern Ballet, on the other hand, felt like home. The audition process ran smoothly, I enjoyed the atmosphere of the company and could even say that I had fun in class even knowing full well I was being watched closely. I didn’t get an answer until a couple of months later. Northern Ballet (NB Theatre at the time) was a smaller company of less than fifty dancers. I got given opportunities to perform so many roles, from corps de ballet to principal. Best of all, the company did a lot of storytelling ballets which I loved. Training was strict, but having joined straight from school, it was what I needed. They expected dancers to pick up every detail of choreography and be quick learners, reinforcing discipline. I had always been scared of suddenly being responsible for my own training, creating bad habits. One can become ‘lost’ in a big company, not knowing how to keep themselves motivated. At least here I would be pushed and challenged.

After five years on the road, as Northern Ballet mainly tours, something started to stir up in me. I would ask myself… am I happy here? Or am I staying because it’s safe and comfortable? What about the big classics I’ve always wanted to do, like Sleeping Beauty or Swan Lake? What else is out there? Touring was tiring me out and the repertoire was too narrow. My soul ached for more. It took me some time to finally have the courage to say: ‘I quit’. Six years had gone by since my audition at Royal, so I got in touch again and felt lucky to get a second chance. My heart pounding full of expectations, I thought now I had some experience and felt stronger technically. Once again, they said they had no contracts and mostly hired people from the Royal Ballet School. There was nothing I could have done but think outside the box, so I came up with plans B, C, and D.

I went on a few auditions in Germany, but none successful. Most companies would say I was too short and wouldn’t even give me a chance. English National Ballet hired me for a short-term contract to perform Swan Lake at the Royal Albert Hall. I got hopeful that I would be hired full time after the run, but it wasn’t the case. I wanted to stay in London where I could audition easily, so I tried New English Ballet Theatre who were doing a gala performance at the Linbury Theatre, a small theatre inside the Royal Opera House. Bingo! How much closer could one get to the main stage?? I was going to be inside that building, and that for me was progress!

Kreutzer Sonata with Valerio Polverari, Linbury Theatre.

I had to look at the positives. It was summertime. I was still in London. With a job! And good weather. Even though the uncertainty of my future scared me, I embraced my new life as a freelancer. I never felt so independent and so hopeful that things would work out. More than anything, I was proud of my decision to take responsibility for my own destiny. I made some amazing friends at NEBT and enjoyed having more time off. I got into practicing mindfulness and other new habits, like walking in the park, swimming, and pretending to be interested in joining a gym so that I could get free passes. I remember walking one day in St James Park and suddenly thinking… what if the staff of the Royal Ballet were watching this NEBT Gala? What if they saw me on stage and were like…she is quite talented?! I did something completely out of character for me. I spontaneously sent an email to the Royall Ballet, a simple reminder that I existed. I said that if, by any chance, they came to this Gala, I would be portraying the dramatic lead role in Kreutzer Sonata. I told myself: ‘This will be my first real audition for them. Bring it on!’

Maybe this email was the lucky strike? I will never know. The day after the gala, I went back to Brazil thinking I’d be staying with family for a while. After all, it had been ten years! I did not want to settle for anything less than my dream job. If this was it for me as a dancer, so be it. I wasn’t quitting, I was just accepting that for now, I had done everything in my power. Still being open and alert to changing situations yet letting life drive me instead of me trying to control it. I guess destiny took its course. A month later, I was called back to London to perform at English National Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker, due to start in a few days. I packed my things and went, learning a tricky snowflake dance off my phone on the plane. Literally within a week, I received an email from The Royal Ballet. They wanted to know if I was still available to join them on a three-month contract as they desperately needed an extra dancer for their productions of Giselle and The Sleeping Beauty. And here I am, six years later.

What I learned over the years is that life is never against you. Everything that happens, happens for a reason.

Everything I needed to know, I learned through every step of my journey. I could have accepted the scholarship to the Royal Ballet School and maybe that would have been a shortcut, but maybe I wouldn’t have survived being away from home without the support of my incredible friends and teachers in Toronto. I realise now that Northern Ballet was the best place for me to mature and develop at my own pace. Interpreting roles became one of my strengths as an artist. Most importantly, they reassured me that discipline is essential and that there is no such thing as a small role. Northern Ballet made me efficient at picking up choreography and its intricate details, and ENB’s Swan Lake sharpened up these skills by throwing me into a different spot in the swans' dance every day, which then made me ready to grasp THE biggest opportunity of my life. I proved my worth and became a reliable asset for The Royal Ballet’s corps de ballet. What they needed was someone with experience and ready to fill in any gaps, and there I was, in the right place at the right time! But was it luck? I don’t believe so.

I also realise more and more that when you have no expectations and really dance from your heart, when you think oh well, I have nothing to lose, that’s when your true self shines. By being cast as a cover for featured roles and, whether by luck or merit, getting to actually perform them, and by showing good work ethic and professionalism, I climbed even higher up the mountain. Whenever I felt anxious, mom was always there to remind me: 'Just be yourself.' This is how I got to be a soloist of The Royal Ballet.

With Elizabeth Harrod in Les Patineurs © Royal Opera House

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