One of the leading interpreters of Kenneth MacMillan’s dramatic ballets, Viviana Durante’s leaving of the Royal Ballet at the height of her powers was a sad loss to London, if the gain of those who saw her perform elsewhere all around the world. Well now she’s back at the Royal Opera House, this time to coach MacMillan’s Anastasia, which is where Jann Parry caught up with her…
The Royal Ballet in Kenneth MacMillan’s Anastasia continues its run at London’s Royal Opera House until 12 November 2016. Full Detailswww.viviana-durante.com) shows her still very much a dancer, in practice dress and pointe shoes. Now in her 40s, she’s embarked on a diverse second career, however, as a ballet teacher, coach, competition judge and, above all, as mother to five-year-old Orlando. ‘I’ve wanted to be with our son full-time while he was little. Now that he’s going to reception class in infant school, I’ve been able to undertake other things’, she says.
She has completed a two year diploma in dance teaching at the Royal Ballet School, with an additional qualification from Trinity College London enabling her to work with children and young people. She’s started teaching as a guest at the Rambert School and Royal Ballet School summer course, as well as coaching Royal Ballet principals for the revival of Anastasia. ‘I’ve been keeping fit by doing class with the company’, she says. ‘The ballet regime is what my body knows, ever since I started at the age of six.’ She began in her home town of Rome, before joining the Royal Ballet junior school at ten. She was taken into the company at 17 in 1984 and made a principal at 21, under the directorship of Anthony Dowell.
She soon caught the eye of Kenneth MacMillan, who cast her as Juliet, Manon, Mary Vetsera in Mayerling, Irina and Masha in Winter Dreams, and created his last ballet, The Judas Tree, with her as the sole woman in a cast of 13 men. A versatile ballerina, she danced leading roles in the classics, as well as in ballets by Ashton, Balanchine and many contemporary choreographers. Her best-known partnership was with Irek Mukhamedov in dramatic ballets. After taking the title role in the first revival of Anastasia in 1996, she left the Royal Ballet and joined American Ballet Theatre. She returned to the Royal Ballet as a guest and also danced with La Scala Ballet in Milan and Tetsuya Kumakawa’s K Ballet in Japan. She married the writer Nigel Cliff in 2009 and continues to make her home in London.
‘I’ve learnt so much from the teaching course’, she says. ‘When you’re a dancer in a company, you’re absorbed with what affects you. When you teach, at any level, it’s not about me, it’s about her or him. Having to prepare lesson plans impresses on you what a responsibility you have for the person in front of you, not just how a dance should be done. It’s made me appreciate my teachers a lot more, I’m embarrassed to say. Good teachers enable you to channel your talent as well as polishing your technique.’ She also appreciates working with youngsters who may not become professional dancers: ‘It’s amazing how many people you can touch through movement.’
She found the dance-in-education diploma from Trinity College a challenge: ‘Lots of writing was involved, so I had to think on a computer, exercising my brain instead of my body, which didn’t come naturally at first.’ Viviana was a famously fast learner in the Royal Ballet. While still a soloist, she stepped in at the last moment to replace an injured Odette/Odile, without having rehearsed the role. Promoted to principal soon after, she developed an extensive repertoire of roles with the Royal Ballet and other companies.
She has been passing on her experience of dancing MacMillan’s ballets to the three Anastasias in the latest revival of the three-act ballet – Natalia Osipova, Laura Morera and Lauren Cuthbertson. ‘The nearest you can get to theatre is with Kenneth. That’s what I’m coaching. I feed information, and I know they can’t take it in all at once. But then they do too much, and we start stripping it back, letting the choreography tell the story. What remains is who you are in the role – and they’re all very different. They couldn’t be more so.’
Viviana was dancing the role of Mary Vetsera, with Irek Mukhamedov as Rudolf, in the 1992 revival of Mayerling the night MacMillan died backstage. ‘He had been so sweet to me just before we went on’, she remembers. ‘ I’d had this inhibition in rehearsals about pulling my top down in the scene when I enter Rudolf’s chamber in my nightdress. I just couldn’t do it with people watching. What I’ve been telling the Anastasias is that you have to learn to detach yourself from everything around you, ignore what other people might be thinking. That’s what distressed me back then. But when Kenneth asked me before the first performance of Mayerling, ‘Will you do it for me?’ he unblocked me. I thought, I’m so lucky to be doing this amazing ballet, I’ll do it. And on stage, in character, you don’t even know who’s around.’
Viviana has tried her hand at choreography, presenting a piece based on Swan Lake at the Edinburgh Festival fringe in 2010, and collaborating with director Richard Eyre in a National Theatre Studio workshop. ‘We were working on a dance adaptation of a film, but the project grew too big and the rights ran out,’ she says regretfully. ‘It was an amazing experience. Richard is so musical, directing how the choreography should build to an emotional point and really tell a story. I’d like to be able to explore more, but I can’t at the moment, with a little one to look after.’
She is interested in finding out about the management side of an arts institution, as yet another possible future career. She shadowed Jude Kelly, artistic director of the Southbank complex, for six months and will be doing the same with Louise Jeffreys, head of arts at the Barbican Theatre. ‘I’m intrigued how you put together a season of works’, Viviana says. ‘I’d like to look at new ways of bringing ballet classics up to date. I’ve still so much to learn.’
Meanwhile, she has been busy this year travelling as a judge for ballet competitions in Lausanne and Hong Kong, with another due in Beijing next year. She, Nigel and Orlando travel together while their son is still young enough not to have to be in school. Nigel’s fourth book, Moscow Nights: the Van Cliburn Story – how one man and his piano transformed the Cold War, has just been published by Harper.