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Marianela Nuñez on Giselle

Posted on June 8, 2016

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The Royal Ballet principal speaks to Zoë Anderson about Giselle on stage and on screen

Offstage and on, Marianela Nuñez seems to have energy forever. When I spoke to her in December, it was a conversation full of delighted exclamations, and opinions, too: she’s blunt about guest artists who don’t get to know the companies they visit. Nuñez speaks a mile a minute, sketching out movements to illustrate a point, happily miming her own reactions.

Born in Argentina, she joined the Teatro Colón company at the age of 14, later studying at The Royal Ballet School before joining the British company. Now 33, she’s already been with The Royal Ballet for 18 years, becoming a principal in 2002. In March, she returned to the role of Giselle, which she will also dance in a live cinema relay on April 6.

What is it like to come back to one of the major ballerina roles? “Giselle is such a special ballet for, I think, every single ballerina,” she says. “I had to wait a long time to do it. When I made my debut, I was 28. It was a role I had always, always wanted to do. I had a whole list of ballets – I’m a real bunhead, I want to do everything! I do.”

She’d danced other roles in the ballet – the peasant dance in the first act, and Myrtha, the stern Queen of the Wilis in the ballet’s ghostly second act. “I was worried that I would never get there. I knew it was in me. I had thought about it for many years – even if I hadn’t danced Giselle, I knew how I would feel, how I would do it. I would watch every person, every ballerina in the house do it. I was pretty much obsessed. I’ve seen that documentary – I don’t know if you’ve seen it? Every ballerina talks aboutGiselle, Makarova, Carla Fracci. Giselle is beyond everything, especially act II.

“By doing all the other roles in the ballet, I had seen it from different angles. Standing there as Myrtha – ” she sketches a characteristic pose – “I’d see all these wonderful ballerinas. One of my favourites, I was very lucky that I could do it for her, was Alina [Cojocaru]. I would watch her, she was incredible. I had plenty of information and ideas and inspiration, then I found my own. At the time, I was worried that I was going to be pigeon-holed as the strong dancer. I think I am like that as a person, I’m very strong – Latin strong! – but at the same time, I cry a lot! I knew I could bring it out on stage, the combination. I had to wait for that challenge. When I finally got it, it was everything I had been waiting for, and more.”

She’s danced the role with many partners: Carlos Acosta, Rupert Pennefather, Sergei Polunin, her then husband Thiago Soares. This time, she’ll be partnered by Vadim Muntagirov. “Every time I do it, it’s with a different person! I love that, because with every person I found something new, and something new in myself. I always have an idea of how she is, but obviously you react to what the other person is doing, and they were all completely different. I will feed on how they play Albrecht. Wonderful with all of them.”

Giselle offers the contrast between the first act, when the peasant heroine falls in love and is betrayed, and the second, in which we see her as a ghost. “In our production, Sir Peter Wright emphasises that a lot,” Nuñez says. “He really wants to see that difference. Even though she’s a peasant, you still have those lyric movements – but still, you’re a peasant girl. And in act II, you’ve got that amazing adagio, to just beboneless.” She curves her arms, illustrating the change in line.

When I spoke to Nuñez, it wasn’t yet confirmed that she would also be dancing Myrtha, the Queen of the Wilis, in this revival. “I haven’t done it now for a while,” she said then. “It’s very demanding. The preparation for it, and during the show – it’s major. Major, major, major. I remember having amazing, amazing rehearsals with Monica [Mason], she usually takes the rehearsals for that because she was an incredible Myrtha herself. I remember… it just takes a lot. It has to be really well done. It is a ballerina role.

“Every time La Bayadère comes round, and I get to do both roles, it’s amazing. Because I care for the two roles, Nikiya and Gamzatti. They are two ballerina roles, and when you get those two major ballerinas on stage, the tension – just by having two ballerinas on stage, without even trying, you have two big presences. It’s the same with Giselle, when you have two big ballerinas, it’s magical. I remember when we did Bayadère for many years, it was me and Tama [Tamara Rojo] and Carlos. I’m glad that’s recorded, it was just amazing.”

This will be the second time Nuñez has danced Giselle in a live relay. How does she combine dancing for the audience in the theatre, and for the camera? “The camera is literally here, especially these days, with high definition. So you’re very aware. Usually they film a show before the live relay, to check for camera angles. I like to see it, to be aware of facial expressions. Everything has to come down a little bit – or quite a lot! But you also have the people in the theatre. It takes a lot of skill to find the right balance.

“I’ve done a lot [of cinema relays] now, and I really enjoy them. It gives me such a buzz, and I know how much people appreciate it. People can’t afford to come, maybe from far away, or from different countries. In Argentina, they’re obsessed with The Royal Ballet! They love the company, they love all the dancers here, but it’s a 14-hour flight, obviously they can’t come! With cinema relays, they can see a show live. It’s wonderful, but it takes a lot of experience and you have to be very cool. The nerves – you’re exposing your art to the camera, up close. It’s quite something. I love doing it, I love the challenge, I feel I can connect with people all over the world. When [The Royal Ballet] went to America, we hadn’t been on tour there for a very long time. I hadn’t performed there since 2007. When I got there, everybody knew everything. They had followed my performances, with all the DVDs, and on YouTube, and all the rehearsals we do online.”

Some performers hate seeing film of themselves. Nuñez clearly watches her own performances? “I do. I look at it and – ” she groans – “but I look at it to perfect myself. I face it, and I can take it. It’s like medicine: it doesn’t taste good, but you know it’s good for you! Obviously, we have people looking at us, advising us, you take that and you process it, but when you really see it, you think, ‘Oh, OK, I get it now.’ It’s an extra help.”

Giselle is at the Royal Opera House until 15 April, with a live cinema broadcast on April 6. Visit theRoyal Opera House website for cinema details.

Read the second part of Zoë Anderson’s interview with Marianela Nuñez here. A shorter version of this interview appeared in the January 2016 issue of Dancing Times.

Pictures: Marianela Nuñez in Giselle, with Vadim Muntagirov as Count Albrecht and Itziar Mendizabal as Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis. Photographs: Tristram Kenton, courtesy of the Royal Opera House

Zoë was born in Edinburgh, and saw her first dance performances at the Festival there. She is the dance critic of The Independent, and has also written for The Independent on Sunday, The Scotsman and Dancing Times. In 2002, she received her doctorate from the University of York for a thesis on “Nationhood and epic romance: Ariosto, Sidney, Spenser”. She is the author of The Royal Ballet: 75 Years and The Ballet Lover’s Companion.

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