Interview – Zenaida Yanowsky – Principal, The Royal Ballet

Zenaida Yanowsky.<br />© Rob Moore, ROH. (Click image for larger version)
Zenaida Yanowsky.
© Rob Moore, ROH. (Click image for larger version)

The Royal Ballet’s Zenaida Yanowsky talks about her long career and also about the joys of working with Carlos Acosta – part of which is appearing with him in ‘Cubania’ this summer – at the Royal Opera House, 27 July – 2 August.

Cubania details:
Royal Opera House, 27 July – 2 August

Zenaida Yanowsky bounced into the room beaming broadly and sporting a stylish new haircut, cropped at the back with honey-coloured wavy tresses falling around her face. It was very becoming. “I just had it done yesterday and it still feels so strange,” she explained. “My hair was down to my waist so I always had it up. Now there’s nothing there. But I have kept the length they cut off as it will make a perfect bun when I need it.”

We met up in artistic director Kevin O’Hare’s empty office while he was on The Royal Ballet’s recent highly successful American tour, a tour that Zenaida was not part of. “Of course I was a little sad about not being included, after all I have been a principal here for a long time and I would have liked to dance again in America. But”, she said shrugging her shoulders, “it was not my rep. so here I am!”

Zenaida Yanowsky in Edwaard Liang’s Sight Unseen.© Bill Cooper, ROH. (Click image for larger version)
Zenaida Yanowsky in Edwaard Liang’s Sight Unseen.
© Bill Cooper, ROH. (Click image for larger version)

She has not however been sitting twiddling her thumbs waiting for her colleagues to return, but has kept busy preparing for her various performances with fellow Royal Ballet principal, Carlos Acosta, this summer. When we met up, she was looking forward to performing in his production ‘On Before’ in Cardiff, then touring to other venues. “I have danced with Carlos for a long time now and when, seven years ago, he told me that he was planning a ‘just-for-me’ show and wanted me to be his partner, I was really interested. It’s just the two of us, so it’s quite a marathon every night. We put the show together with works by Will Tuckett, Edwaard Liang, Yury Yanowsky and Miguel Altunaga – all contemporary and challenging but there are some beautifull pas de deux in the programme. Naturally we have become older over the seven years but I feel that experience comes with age and we dance well today – though I find my body takes longer to recover. Of course we keep true to the original but we try to bring new things to the style of the choreography when needed, so that the works don’t become stale: sometimes finding different angles; perhaps changing things a little bit if we both feel strongly about it; and of course we express different emotions, even though the pieces are abstract. They are like a second skin to us now.’

Zenaida Yanowsky and Carlos Acosta in Edwaard Liang’s Sight Unseen.© Bill Cooper, ROH. (Click image for larger version)
Zenaida Yanowsky and Carlos Acosta in Edwaard Liang’s Sight Unseen.
© Bill Cooper, ROH. (Click image for larger version)

Acosta’s Cubania is also second skin to Zenaida and she will shortly be back at the Royal Opera House performing with him in this extravaganza which shows off the exuberance and enthusiasm of the Cuban people. “Dancing with Carlos is really special,” she says. “There’s something relaxing about him. He brings out the best in you and when you’re on stage with him, he makes you feel pampered! You always feel safe with him as he is so conscientious with his partnering and his attention. I feel he comes from the animal kingdom – a kind of leopard, so careful and ready to spring into action. We’ve done a lot of Balanchine together and we read each other so well. I always feel fulfilled on stage when I am dancing with him as we obviously know each other so well now. That’s what really makes us buzz.”

Zenaida first met Carlos when she was 14 years old in school in Cuba where she and her brother Yury had been sent for the summer. The second of four children, Zenaida was born in Lyon, France where her parents, Russian born Anatol Yanowsky and Spanish Carmen Robles, were both members of Lyon Opera Ballet. Since the company was always touring, the children went along too and so their early years were spent in dressing rooms and watching classes and rehearsal. After successful stage careers, their parents opened up their own company and ballet school in Las Palmas on Gran Canaria. It was most successful, according to Zenaida, who explained that, in some ways there was plenty of culture around since the islands are a stopping port for the Americas and many people pass through. “There was no pressure on us children – our parents did not insist that we should become dancers. In fact, early on I wanted to be a singer or painter.” However, the seed was obviously sown for three of them. “My brother Yury who is eighteen months older than me, is a principal at Boston Ballet, and my sister Nadia is with Dutch National Ballet.” And Nadia actually just performed in London as an Ugly Sisters in Christopher Wheeldon’s Cinderella.

Zenaida Yanowsky in Christopher Wheeldon's The Winter’s Tale.© Johan Persson, ROH. (Click image for larger version)
Zenaida Yanowsky in Christopher Wheeldon’s The Winter’s Tale.
© Johan Persson, ROH. (Click image for larger version)

“When Yury was 15, my parents decided that, since he was such a good dancer, he should go to the summer school in Cuba for further training. He wasn’t very keen on the idea and I felt it was unfair to be left out. So, being the more bossy one, I demanded that I go with him. And so I did. That’s when I met Carlos who was also in the school at that time. I loved the dynamics of the Cuban people and have such happy memories of my time there, and was very sad to leave. We returned the next summer and Yury was given a scholarship to stay on while I had to come back – he only stayed for six months as he missed the family.”

By now, Zenaida had decided that she really wanted to become a dancer. She continued to study and began entering competitions. She won silver at Varna in 1991 and then joined Paris Opera Ballet for nearly two years. In 1994, she and Yury won gold medals at Jackson, Mississippi (which is where we first met), and, en route to Amsterdam to audition a few months later, she stopped off in London to take class and was amazed to be offered a First Artist position at The Royal Ballet (RB). She was made principal in 2001 and won the ‘Best Female’ award at the Critics’ Circle National Dance Awards in 2003.

Zenaida Yanowsky and Federico Bonelli in Ashton's Marguerite and Armand.© Dave Morgan, courtesy the Royal Opera House. (Click image for larger version)
Zenaida Yanowsky and Federico Bonelli in Ashton’s Marguerite and Armand.
© Dave Morgan, courtesy the Royal Opera House. (Click image for larger version)

During her years with RB Zenaida has danced many of the big classical roles, notably Swan Lake and Giselle. She has performed in many of Ashton’s ballets – she was a powerful amazonian Sylvia – and plenty of MacMillan’s works – her favourite for its continuing dramatic and emotional content is Manon. And she has performed in many of Balanchine’s neo-classical ballets. She is at ease with contemporary where her superbly controlled long limbs entwine and encompass her every sinuous movement, and she has often been chosen by the new generation of young choreographers – Christopher Wheeldon, Will Tuckett, Alexei Ratmansky – to create roles . “I especially love those with dramatic content. I remember Kim Brandstrup creating a gorgeous short piece for me twelve years ago. We were both going through a pretty rough period at the time and the solo was full of sadness and anger. However, later on in my career when I was happy and content, I danced it again, and it was really hard to regain that deep sorrow I’d felt earlier. That’s when the dramatic side has to jump in.”

Zenaida Yanowsky in Alexei Ratmansky's 24 Preludes.© Johan Persson, ROH. (Click image for larger version)
Zenaida Yanowsky in Alexei Ratmansky’s 24 Preludes.
© Johan Persson, ROH. (Click image for larger version)

When working, Zenaida likes to think of herself as an artist in constant research and goes through every single step before she goes on stage both mentally and physically so that she doesn’t have to think of anything other than the emotional input during the actual performance. “I have to feel fulfilled – I cannot bear to leave the stage ‘empty’, not having given, for some reason, of my best. It’s not fair to the audience and it makes me work harder.” This applies to her feelings about gala appearances. “They are not my favourite things – they are a bit of a circus, show-off places. I perform best when I can show the journey taken to reach that chosen solo or pas de deux – even in abstract pieces there is still emotion. Of course galas are great for meeting other dancers from around the world but I can’t help feeling that one dances on automatic pilot, doing the same pieces all the time. I want to be an actress not a robot.”

Zenaida has worked under four directors at RB – Anthony Dowell, Ross Stretton, Monica Mason and now Kevin O’Hare – and she thinks it wonderful to see dancers from other cultures joining the company. “They all bring something special with them, but in recent years, Monica and Kevin have been really firm about keeping the English heritage.

Zenaida Yanowsky in Rubies, part of Balanchine's Jewels.© Dave Morgan, courtesy the Royal Opera House. (Click image for larger version)
Zenaida Yanowsky in Rubies, part of Balanchine’s Jewels.
© Dave Morgan, courtesy the Royal Opera House. (Click image for larger version)

“There have been many highlights in my career. At the top was being hired by the Royal Ballet. Then there was my first big role – Swan Lake with Johnny (Cope). He was very experienced and I was new, and I was a bit overwhelmed by having this big star as my partner. Shyness took over and I had to struggle, but he made me feel so good that I really enjoyed the performance. Then I grew up!

“Another moment was in A Month in the Country, in one of my favourite roles. I was due to open the Royal tour to Cuba, dancing with Rupert Pennefather. But he got injured and Johnny was summonsed to fly overnight from London. He didn’t have time to rehearse at all and we had never danced these roles together. But he was wonderful and brought a new dimension to my dancing. Then there was Manon with Roberto Bolle. Despite having a severely injured hand, he was a wonderful, magnetic partner and it was a joy to work with him.”

Zenaida Yanowsky in Ashton's A Month in the Country.© Dave Morgan, courtesy the Royal Opera House. (Click image for larger version)
Zenaida Yanowsky in Ashton’s A Month in the Country.
© Dave Morgan, courtesy the Royal Opera House. (Click image for larger version)

There were big chuckles when I said that, for all her wonderful performances with the company, many people were going to remember her best as the Queen of Hearts in Alices Adventures in Wonderland, and especially the moment when she ends bottom up on the ground with legs bent out at her sides like some stick insect. “That’s so true. I just love the role, it had everything in it – technique, characterisation, comedy and drama. And,” she said with a twinkle in her eye, “I finally got to dance the Rose Adage – well, a pastiche of it. I was told many years back that I was too tall (she is 5’8”) and not pretty enough to be Aurora – ‘handsome but not pretty’! I initially had some issues with why I couldn’t do it – after all Aurora is 16 and usually has tall parents. But I don’t have hang-ups about it now. The same goes for Juliet who of course is much younger. But I realise that because of all the lifting, it would be hard on Romeo to carry me around. So those are two roles I would have liked, but never got to dance.” (She made a great Harlot, I reminded her, which made her laugh.)

Zenaida Yanowsky with Thomas Whitehead and Johannes Stepanek in Christopher Wheeldon's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.© Dave Morgan, courtesy the Royal Opera House. (Click image for larger version)
Zenaida Yanowsky with Thomas Whitehead and Johannes Stepanek in Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
© Dave Morgan, courtesy the Royal Opera House. (Click image for larger version)

But ballet is not Zenaida’s only interest. There is a family to care for. In 2006, she married the internationally acclaimed baritone Simon Keenlyside and they have two children, Owen 6, and Iona 5. Now 40, she inevitably looks to the day when she will leave the company and she talked about what she might do later on.

“I have a feeling of wanting to give. I have a shopping trolley full of experience and would want to share it. Maybe it will be in teaching like my mum who was such a good teacher, establishing a reputable school on that small island in the Atlantic. But there’s another part of me that says, ’just cut away from dance altogether. Do something else.’ So I don’t know at this point. I have really enjoyed the journey as a dancer. I love performing especially when I’m creating something dramatic. What I will miss is not so much being on stage but the theatricality of performing before an audience” – and over the years, she has built up an audience that truly appreciates her ballerina individuality and sparkling personality in a variety of styles.

Zenaida Yanowsky.<br />© Rob Moore, ROH. (Click image for larger version)
Zenaida Yanowsky.
© Rob Moore, ROH. (Click image for larger version)

But, like the fairy tales she dances, it was at this point that this lovely talented ballerina turned into a real-life mum and had to rush off to do the school run for her children.

About the author

Margaret Willis

Margaret Willis’s interest in ballet stems from a five-year stay in the former Soviet Union (1976-81) where she studied classical ballet and began writing on dance. Visiting Cuba in 1990, she first saw Carlos Acosta and has continued to follow his stellar career. She was a member of London City Ballet from 1990-3, performing principal character roles, is the author of Russian Ballet on Tour and contributed several articles for the International Dictionary of Ballet. She writes regularly for The Dancing Times, Dance Magazine and international publications. In 1986, she was the researcher for a BBC-TV documentary on the Bolshoi Ballet and in 2010 wrote "Carlos Acosta: The Reluctant Dancer" (Arcadia books).


  • I’ve been reflecting on the matter of Miss Yanowsky being described as “handsome but not pretty” and at one level can probably understand what was meant – and even then I’d direct anyone saying it to Dave Morgan’s picture, above, of her as Marguerite. But what that description omits is, for me, an admitted devotee, the sheer sense of intelligence that her face transmits. Look again at those eyes in Rob Moore’s photo. If the face is indeed the mirror of the soul, the RB has in her a prime examplar. I think of her years ago as The Bride in Les Noces, her face blank, expressionless – a young woman resigned to who knows what future – then fast forward to the other extreme, the zany mugging of her Red Queen in Alice. And there’s lots of masterly characterisation in between – I’m thinking of moments as Paulina in Winter’s Tale as I write.

    As a postscript, I’d long hoped that the RB might commission Cathy Marston to create a main stage work, something based on a strong female character as in so much of her work, and with Zenaida as the central protagonist – but I accept that’s not really going to happen now. Oh, and am I right in thinking that she has not danced in any of the McGregor works for the RB? If so, and as an accomplished dancer in other contemporary work, I wonder why not.

    • I don’t think she has danced in a McGregor work, but that doesn’t make her unique as such. Different dancers speak to different choreographers and Zenaida has been used by Brandstrup for example.

      Margaret’s piece has been very well received and been much retweeted etc – Yanowsky is always noticed and clearly much loved. And wonderful that she enjoys such a warm relationship with Acosta.

      She might not dance all the rep but what she does dance in is always memorable.

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