Last summer, Nuñez made her guest debut with American Ballet Theatre [ABT]. “With ABT, we’ve been trying for a long time, and the dates never quite worked. It was fantastic timing, because I had just finished the tour, and it was [Frederick] Ashton’s Cinderella, which is from our rep. So I felt I was there with my British flag, waving it! Then, before that, I had been at the Vienna Opera. [Svetlana] Zakharova was injured, so I got to do a Swan Lake there, Nureyev’s production. And La Scala, I did Romeo and Juliet, our production, as well.
“As I said, I really go there, proud of my Royal Ballet flag! I can share with them what we do here, and at the same time you take a lot from the company that you go to. The directors from each company coached me. At ABT, I had Kevin McKenzie taking my rehearsals, and I had my Kevin [O’Hare, director of The Royal Ballet]! I felt very looked after. They are very big things to do, those guestings. In every place, I’ve learned so much. Dancing on a different stage, you’re new, it makes you grow a lot.”
The Vienna Swan Lake is very different from the Royal Ballet production that Nuñez dances in London. “Totally. That takes a lot. It’s the style, what that production demands, it’s a whole process. This is very, very serious. These days, I think it’s really sad – it became very fashionable that dancers just go to companies. They arrive the day of the show. They don’t do the production that that company does. They come and they do their own thing, they sell their names. I don’t think that’s on.”
Nuñez feels strongly about this. It’s a point she returns to, underlining the downside of international careers but also her own identity as a company woman, a Royal Ballet ballerina. “If I take a guesting performance, I would like to spend some time with that company, get to know the dancers, show them respect, and learn the production as it is,” she says, emphatically. “Because it’s not fair to arrive and then, ‘I do my own thing’. No. So I don’t do that many guestings, because obviously my priority is here at The Royal Ballet, at the opera house. When I do do guestings, I want to give them my 100 per cent, to respect the company and also this art form. It’s something that should be addressed, because it’s not fair, to just… Otherwise it becomes like fast food, and that’s not it.
“Cinderella is a ballet that we do here, I know it very well. Before I went on tour, I had rehearsals with Wendy Ellis, who owns the rights to the ballet, so I prepared here, I did my tour in America, I did some rehearsals with Kevin O’Hare for Cinderella, and I went for a whole week with ABT. So then you do it properly. I think if you do it like that, with that honesty, you get back a lot more. Dancers really do appreciate that. You learn from them, you have time in the studio to listen to what they do. Otherwise, it’s just… rude.”
Nuñez had waited a long time to dance Giselle. What ballets are on her current wishlist? “I’m a pretty happy ballerina! I’ve got my full range. I think that’s very rare, and I’m very proud of it. I would like to doMarguerite and Armand, I would like to do A Month in the Country, there are some Kenneth [MacMillan] ballets I haven’t done that I would like to, and of course, it would be amazing if a choreographer did a full-length ballet for me” – especially, she adds, now that new productions are more frequent at The Royal Ballet. “Of course there are ballets that I haven’t done and I would like to do. As I said, I’m a real bunhead, and I’d like to do everything, but I’m very happy.”
In April, Nuñez returns to the role of Hermione, the wronged queen in Christopher Wheeldon’s The Winter’s Tale, based on Shakespeare’s play. “It’s a massive ballet,” she says. “The story is intense and complicated. It was so good, how Chris did it. The steps and the structure of the ballet – it guides you. So I managed to understand her [Hermione] very well. I remember, I finished the first show, and everybody was saying, ‘You look really mature’ – but in a good way! They were saying, ‘Don’t take this wrong…’ And it’s true. I could really feel her.
“Obviously, we talked about it. I did try to read the play, but I’m not going to lie to you, it’s very complicated, especially in English. For people whose first language is English, it’s already quite complicated, so imagine if it’s not your first language! But I tried, and obviously I discussed it with Chris. For some reason, I really clicked, I really understood her. The process wasn’t long, but we had plenty of time to really discover all the sides of the character in the studio.”
She points particularly to the first act, in which Hermione is put on trial for infidelity, with terrible consequences, for her and for her young son. “I’ll never forget the sensation I got when I saw the little one coming down the stairs,” she says now. “She had just gone through the trial, and she’s so dignified. I’m really looking forward to doing it again. We didn’t have many casts, so everyone had plenty of performances. The more you do, the more you can get at.”
Nuñez’s most recent created role was in Carlos Acosta’s Carmen, a production that received terrible reviews. How do the dancers deal with that? “You deal with it,” she says, matter-of-factly. “It’s hard, because we all put 180 per cent into it. There is no way one person would go on that stage thinking it doesn’t matter. We all care. So when something like that happens, you go ohh. At the end of the day, you take it in, you go on, you do what we love. You keep pushing, you try to make it better.
“So yes, you deal with it. And sometimes, you take it in, and you think, ‘You know what? I’m going to prove you wrong!’ If you take it like that, it’s good. It’s like everything in life: when it goes wrong, either you learn from it, or you leave it and you fall again. I’ve been like this since I was a kid. They say ‘no’, I’ll be saying, ‘I’ll prove it to you! Yes!’” She thumps the table and laughs. “It’s helped me a lot.”
This reminds me of a moment, early in Nuñez’s career, when she slipped during a performance of Ashton’s La Valse. Margot Fonteyn once said that, if you bent as much as Ashton wanted you to while dancing, you’d fall over. Nuñez bent riskily far in La Valse, fell – and when she got up and kept dancing, she went right on bending, with no attempt to play it safe. Reminded of this, she laughs and laughs. “I was going for it! It’s true – it means you’re giving it all. And of course you shouldn’t fall, but you get up and you go for it again.” She laughs again: “You know, the video of that is in the archives here? Every time [the ballet is revived], the new people in the company watch it, and they say, ‘Did you…?’ ‘YES, THAT’S ME FALLING.’ And I really fall hard! I go down and I slide, it’s incredible.”
Then she sobers up a little. “It’s commitment, that’s the word I was looking for. It doesn’t matter what, we care. I care very much. Once I’m on the stage, and in the studio, I seriously give it all. I think because I had to work really hard, and because I’m so passionate about it. Certain things, I had to wait forever – waiting, you put more into it. I’m committed to this art form. I care about it very much.”
The Winter’s Tale is at the Royal Opera House from April 12 to June 10.
A shorter version of this interviewed appeared in the January 2016 issue of Dancing Times.
Pictures: top and below, Marianela Nuñez in Giselle, with Vadim Muntagirov as Count Albrecht. Photographs: Tristram Kenton, courtesy of The Royal Opera House
Centre: Marianela Nuñez and Bennet Gartside in The Winter’s Tale. Photograph: Johan Persson, courtesy of The Royal Opera House