*“Because it is huge. I did dance with one of the top dancers in the world” Olivia Cowley is a First Artist with The Royal Ballet who, earlier this year, juggled her workload in the Corps de ballet with the Principal role of Calliope in George Balanchine's Apollo. When I first interviewed Cowley in 2009, she expressed a wish to dance with Carlos Acosta. That's not unusual among dancers : what happened to Cowley, however, is. She actually danced with Acosta, and afterwards she tells me “there is a special thing with Carlos. He doesn't even have to do anything, but it's just this sense.”
As first cast in Apollo, Cowley danced with Acosta on opening night, February 22nd. Was this not terrifying ? Cowley says, “it's easy, it's just quite relaxed. He's so confident that it actually rubs off on you. It's not arrogance; it's pure charisma. There was an air on the stage; it was so exciting,” she says with feeling, “because obviously I have worked with him as a Corps de ballet dancer, but actually as Principal, alongside him, it's amazing. I wasn't really scared, I was more excited. I didn't want to let the team down. I didn't want to let Patricia Neary down, so there is that on you, but I wasn't scared. I was more, 'let's take this opportunity. They think I can do it, let's just do it.'” Besides Acosta, her fellow Muses were none other than Marianela Nuñez and Itziar Mendizabal, stars in their own right, and of whom she says, “they are great girls to work with. They're hard workers. So that's obviously very important, that you get on with your colleagues.”
This is so refreshing to hear because there is no mistaking that it's a hard life as a ballet dancer, and no point in dressing it up – as it is, Cowley is fresh from six hours of rehearsal for the up-coming La Bayadere and in the evening she will dance three animals in Christopher Wheeldon's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (if you're interested, she danced the turtle, caterpillar women and flamingo). Cowley has a quite remarkably brilliant attitude to her work, saying, “if I'm doing something I try not to make a big deal out of it because sometimes you can hype it so much that you can get edgy, and that has happened before. So I try to take it in my stride, 'this is what I get paid for, this is my job, I'm just entertaining the audience.' So I try to be a little bit pragmatic. Because it is huge. I did dance with one of the top dancers in the world, but you have to say, 'well, we're all trying to put on a show here' so I try to be a little bit under.”
So what alchemy conspired to bring the role of Calliope her way ? At the time Cowley was in Onegin and rehearsing Christopher Wheeldon's aforementioned Alice, and his new ballet Aeternum, which premiered as part of the same triple bill as Apollo, so her working life was an immensely busy one already. “I worked with Patricia Neary who's the lady who puts on the ballet. She's part of the Balanchine Trust. She basically spotted me and she used me for the role so it was her that cast it. She knows me from before but obviously there was a rehearsal for that particular role and there were a few girls in there. She basically dug me out from that rehearsal.” Neary was looking for “who you're most suited with, like Marianela, and your stance, your look, things like that. It was great to find out that I was doing it, let alone with Carlos. And then I've been working with Carlos and it was quite good because I got to do it with two casts, with Rupert Pennefather and Carlos.”
How did Cowley prepare to dance a Principal role ? As you'd expect from her engagingly straightforward approach, just the same as any other role! “Obviously there are nerves just before. Carlos is so chilled, when you know him, you become relaxed. I'll put my make up on and then I'll leave the Corps de ballet girls because it can sometimes get a bit noisy, and then I'll go into the studio, warm up, do a barre, go through the role and then go down on stage. I like to be with the stage crew so when they are working on the sets and the floor, I like to be on the side stage watching them while I'm stretching, because they're also putting on the show, as well as me.”
Cowley was a sensation on press night; graceful and poised and perfectly at home on stage with the Principals.
Playing different roles This is a lot of juggling, not only between the different Corps roles but also the bigger opportunities, with no special dispensation afforded; no dressing room to herself or extra time to prepare. How does Cowley manage ? “I don't know. It's just that as soon as you walk into that studio, that's who you are, what's what you need to do, and then, and when you go to a studio for swans, in Swan Lake, then you stay in line and you play different roles. I've been doing it for so long; I think that's why I find it hard to explain because it just comes so naturally now. And obviously you find where you are. It takes a while but as soon as you've got it, it makes your life easier, and I do know everyone well.”
What about the much-hyped competition among dancers, especially in the Corps where most dancers seem keen to spend a bare minimum of time, learning the ropes before seeking the spotlight for themselves ? Cowley is adamant, “no, we're all such different dancers, everyone gets opportunities in other ways and so you're not all fighting for that one role. Someone would know that they're just not suited for that role for, say, high extensions, but if they've got a high jump then if there's a role involving a big jump that's what they'd want to go for. We're all so different.”
New work. Creating. Being created on. What are the aspects of her job that she especially loves ? “I love working with choreographers. New work. Creating. Being created on. It's brilliant because they get your body and so they work around that and it's fantastic. I've been rehearsing for La Bayadere today, which is really tough for the Corps and that is also beautiful, so I think to be in this company we're really fortunate because we get the best of both worlds. We get fantastic choreographers to come in and work with us and we get to do the great classical ballets too. There are so many ballets throughout the season so when you start to get a bit tired of one ballet you're on to the next thing so it keeps it fresh for the audience. I feel the audience can sense if the company gets tired.”
Different types of stress I say that working with Wayne McGregor on his contemporary ballets and then switching to something ultra classical like La Bayadere is a dramatic shift in styles, and perhaps hard on the body, but Cowley focuses on how McGregor's work is mentally taxing, “it's really hard, the way he works with you. He'll choreograph something on you and then he'll say 'do the arms the opposite way and then do the legs in slow motion but with the left leg I want you to do it fast and I want you to face that side rather than the other side and then I want you to do it backwards', so he's constantly making your brain work, which makes his work slightly unusual. It's brilliant the way he works but it's really hard.” So then, back to La Bayadere ? “You can breathe. But then again you have to stay in line with the other girls, you can't put your leg down, so there is that. It's just different types of stress.”
Détails : There is nothing remotely glamorous about being a professional ballet dancer. As Olivia Cowley, a dancer in her 10th season with The Royal Ballet tells me, “people think it's blisters but actually it's not. It's the nails, the bed of the nails, no matter how strong your feet are. It's unnatural.” Wincingly true, this is the reality of ballet.