A Prize-winning chat
What an eventful day it had been. Now we were tucked in a backstage office at the Royal Opera House for what turned out to be an hour and a half’s chat, and finally Laura Morera was having a well-earned sit down and resting her injured leg, a torn calf. Amongst much laughter, and some sadness, we chatted about her audition tape for admission to the Royal Ballet School – a full-out Paquita solo on pointe at age ten, when it should have shown her at the barre, doing simple exercises. And then there were the white socks which she objected to wearing. She talked of the affect her beloved father’s recent death has had on her dancing, and of being part of her husband’s team in his company Dance Tours, passing on their experience and knowledge to the next generation, and promoting the English style and its choreography. And there was the joy of a new, successful partnership with Vadim Muntagirov and the bitter disappointment of not being able to dance her ‘signature role’ of the Gypsy in The Two Pigeons for the live cinema screening due to her injury. But overshadowing all this was the fact that, earlier in the day, at the 2015 Critics’ Circle National Dance Awards, Laura had picked up the prize for Outstanding Female Performance (classical), beating Royal Ballet colleagues – Lauren Cuthbertson, Alessandra Ferri and Francesca Hayward – and Scottish Ballet’s Eve Mutso.
“I’ve never won a prize before,” said Laura, her eyes sparkling, “except one for swimming when I was eight. I certainly didn’t expect to win and was sitting at the very top of the auditorium at The Place, so that when my name was called out, I had to descend all those steps – very slowly! Vadim and Matthew (Ball) offered to help me down, but I had this vision of Dame Edna Everage who always made her grand entrance coming down stairs with two hunks on either side of her. When they reached the bottom and left her, she invariably fell in a heap. And I didn’t want to do that. So I went on my own – there and back – even if it did take some time!”
The role that won Laura her award was Lise in Ashton’s La Fille mal Gardée, a role that she has danced several times in the past, partnered by Ricardo Cervera. “There was an affinity in our dancing together, so that I felt that to dance it with someone else, and try to reproduce that chemistry again, would be tough. For me, who I dance with is very important. I’d rather not do something if it felt wrong. When they told me last spring, that my Colas would be Vadim, it was very unexpected as we are such different dancers. But he’s just a joy! (interview) He is so humble and relaxed and we immediately clicked and connected. The performance last April was his debut in the role, but there was immediate chemistry and I think the audience felt it too. We have been rehearsing and performing Pigeons more recently, and having great fun until I was injured. He inspires me and hopefully I inspire him! But the ballet is not just about us, and I try to make each performance a company show. I’m a real team player and know that everyone on stage is important to the evening’s success. It’s electrifying when the audience stops seeing the dancer and can just sit back and watch this art form at its best. I also love dancing with Federico Bonelli – there is an immediate rapport together and we both want the same thing. If I finish up my career dancing with these two splendid partners, I’ll be happy.” she giggles. “But I’m not thinking of going just yet! Yes, I did have to challenge regret when I got overlooked for roles time and again, but there have been some wonderful people that have made my career really feel better, and I’m happier for having met them.”
Though born in Spain, Laura has spent most of her life in England. She came over three years running for RAD summer schools from the age of 7, and then was accepted into White Lodge, where she worked her way through the Royal Ballet School system. “I found it very slow at first as I had been doing pointe work and shows in Spain. But I was glad to get back to basics. However, I couldn’t believe that we had to wear socks in Year 2, and not tights. My legs were naked and made me self-conscious! But the training and coaching I received at that school has made me the dancer I am today.” Laura graduated in 1995, performing the role of the Gypsy in Two Pigeons, and has been with the Royal Ballet ever since. Twelve years later, she was promoted to principal and many felt, given the quality and total commitment that Laura has given to every role, that it took too long. “I don’t have an ego, but I have pride. I didn’t mind doing the character roles – I have done my fair share of whores! – and I was always happy where I was. But I did feel that I should be recognised and valued. I needed to be given roles where I really could show every element of my own talent. So, becoming a principal is fantastic and I’m very grateful and emotionally feel I am on top of my career now. Life has given me some nice things, some hard knocks and some devastating things but I try to bring all the emotions gathered from them into my characters on stage. There have been many times when I have been called to do a role at short notice when there have been injuries – I learn things quickly fortunately! I can see that it is really important to push young people to big roles but you also need maturity and experience on stage. Strong technique is obviously needed but is not the whole show. It’s the musicality, how the dancer flows, the qualities he/she brings. I see every role as an exciting gift. And there are those roles that are really the best and are really amazing – like the bicycle you received when you were five. Then there are those I sadly haven’t danced.
“I really would have loved to do Swan Lake but I genuinely think no one is going to give it to me now. And also, MacMillan’s Juliet and Anastasia, Ashton’s Ondine and Natalia Petrovna in A Month in the Country. I love anything that has a character and emotion. I can find those qualities even in abstract works where I challenge myself to the musicality, to an exploration of my partner, what the choreographer is seeking, and how I can represent this company the best. Contemporary has such energy, dynamics and is very physical, not at all emotive. You want to see how far you can push yourself, how much ground you can cover etc – it’s brilliant! I am loving the first rehearsals of Frankenstein. I am playing Elizabeth and Federico is Dr Frankenstein. I have to be very realistic and want to explore the character and try to do it in my individual way. (Choreographer) Liam (Scarlett) has had to leave for a while, but Ricardo is taking the rehearsals. I can’t wait to get back to them. To have a work created on you is such an honour.”
Laura has become a real ambassador for English ballet. Her enthusiasm spills over when she talks about its qualities and uniqueness. “I love this company – after all I’ve been here most of my life. What is so special about the Royal and its training is that everything ‘just happens’ – the teaching shows how steps fall into place naturally and smoothly – and that’s what dancing is all about. I learned that here and have loved it ever since. I have great respect for this art form and want to represent English ballet traditions in the best way I can, and to share my passion.” This desire has led her, along with her husband, Justin Meissner, former RB soloist, to pass their knowledge down to young dancers.
“We have been working with dance students for ten years now under the Dance Tours banner, and have given over 100 workshops in dance schools in different countries. There have also been galas and dance education classes where we’ve demonstrated and talked a lot about Ashton and MacMillan, and the English style. While we are not affiliated with the Royal, we have always been given support from our directors – Monica (Mason) and Kevin (O’Hare). I work in the holidays and mid-breaks mainly in Japan and Spain, though Justin does a lot of work in Australia. The classes, which last from 3 days to a week, offer technique, mime, rep, variations etc, and give the kids the kind of experience I got here. We go back to basics to begin with and of course, they love pointe work. I show them that the pointe shoe should be an extension of the foot and the viewer should not know when you go on pointe or off – it should be like floating. I want them to experience that early. Justin also offers tourist dance workshops here in London. Ten kids from Australia and one Japanese, aged between 11 and 16, came over recently and had a full workshop week as well as being taken to see all the sights in London. Ricardo, a close friend as well as colleague whom I first met at RAD summer schools, also comes and teaches, as does Federico.
“We get kids of all talents. Maybe they won’t all become dancers but they learn discipline and get help in entering vocational schools. It takes very little time before they come out of their shells and become expressive. And we encourage choreography – I learned so much from creating works when I was at RBS.”
Laura is one of the longest still-dancing ballerinas in the company, so how have things changed in the studio since her earliest days? “Well, we have a really talented bunch of people in the company who have respect for their art and are genuinely nice people. Of course there are iPads and smartphones these days, but when you are in a room for six hours, you can’t watch dancers rehearsing all the time. However, there are many younger dancers who watch you rehearse and afterwards ask questions, and I am happiest when I can help. I learned so much in my early years watching wonderful ballerinas like Viviana (Durante), Sarah (Wildor) and Leanne (Benjamin).”
Laura has always been very well supported by her parents. “They used to come to every one of my shows, and my mother had organised a group of friends to go to the cinecast of Pigeons to see me as I was cast as the Gypsy. Then I was injured. So sad.” (However, there was a mini-rehearsal film before the performance started and Laura could be seen dancing in that, so at least she appeared on screen in one form that night.) Her father was the one who took her to the summer schools in England each year and was so very proud of her. In accepting her award at the National Dance Awards ceremony, she made a poignant tribute to him and dedicated the prize to his memory. “He passed away in the autumn, so suddenly and it was a real shock for me. Two months later I danced Onegin, fortunately with Federico who knows my family well, so could comfort me. The first performance was devastating, knowing that he should have been there. I couldn’t stop crying every time I went into the wings, though I used the emotion on stage. The second performance was more protective and I dedicated it to him. Then the third show. Because I was so drained with crying every day, I couldn’t imagine bringing out the level of emotion needed in the ballet. But it just came in double whammies. I gave the audience heartfelt emotion, though of course, they knew nothing about my private life. I’ll always be grateful to my dad as he encouraged me so much and loved watching me. He made me a better artist and I miss him every day.”
Looking forward, Laura is due to perform Giselle, The Winter’s Tale and then Frankenstein. “Fortunately I am a quick healer and will be back for rehearsals”, she said positively. Her exciting day was coming to an end, so how was she going to celebrate? “I think I will just stay home with Justin, with my injured leg up,” she giggled, adding a little wistfully, “my dad would have been so proud of me today.” And she gave another of her lovely smiles and hobbled off back to her dressing room.