Ballet performances are strictly off limits for the moment, but ballet dancers still need to adhere to a strict exercise regime to maintain peak fitness. We look back to Joy Sable’s interview with Bath-born Claire Calvert, First Soloist with the Royal Ballet
Sitting in an office in the Royal Opera House, Claire Calvert is looking remarkably cool and refreshed. She has already taken a morning class – the daily workout necessary to keep a dancer’s body in tip-top condition – and is ready for a day of rehearsals. She looks a decade younger than her 31 years, and is now a First Soloist with the Royal Ballet. She often dances roles given to the highest ranking Principal dancers, such as the Queen of the Wilis in Giselle, and the Lilac Fairy in The Sleeping Beauty.
Taking solo curtain calls on the Opera House stage seems a world away from Claire’s first steps as a dancer when she was just three years old. Born in Bath, she lived with her parents and younger sister in Chippenham, and, like thousands of other little girls, attended ballet classes for the fun of it.
“I obviously enjoyed it otherwise I wouldn’t have kept going, but I had a lot of other interests; I did a lot of sport,” says Claire. Although dance was in the family – both her aunt and her grandmother were dancers – there was no great pressure on Claire to follow in their footsteps and classes at The Morphew School of Dance were just another enjoyable after-school activity. But someone obviously spotted talent in the young Claire, as she was encouraged to become a Junior Associate of the Royal Ballet School. Junior Associates – or ‘JAs’ as they are known, are children who take classes linked to the Royal Ballet School, in addition to their regular ballet classes. These lessons prepare pupils to audition for White Lodge, the junior section of the school, which is in Richmond Park, London.
Being a JA meant regular trips to Bath for Claire and her mum. “We used to drive up there, do the JA class and then get lunch. It is a very beautiful place. My dad also supports Bath Rugby so he goes back there to support them.”
With her dance gifts developing, Claire successfully auditioned for the Royal Ballet School. It meant boarding away from home, but Claire loved the life. “I preferred to stay there at weekends. It made me more homesick if I went home, because there were classes on a Saturday. You would be picked up, go home, sleep and then have to drive back. Sometimes my mum would come up on a Sunday and we’d go into Richmond and do stuff. I’m not sure it was easier for her because it meant lots of driving and me not coming home, but I found it much easier to stay. It was a good five years and I made lots of amazing friends I’m still friends with now.
“From there I joined the Upper School and was there for three years. I enjoyed it, but it was a bit of a shock in some ways. In the second and third years, we had to rent flats and it was a change from having our laundry washed for us and our food made for us. We weren’t prepared for that change of lifestyle.”
Those three tough years in the Upper School, which is adjacent to the magnificent Royal Opera House building, paid off and Claire was invited to join the company in 2007, working her way up the ranks.
“It is an amazing place to work, with wonderful facilities and dancers, but it is a lot of work and we don’t have time for much else. Trying to meet people outside is difficult. There’s a lot of time and effort that goes into everything, as we are rehearsing three or four different ballets in a day, and doing something different in the evening. Generally I have my friends from White Lodge but other than work people, I don’t have a huge amount of other friends.”
Perhaps only dancers can understand the pressures of life in a ballet company. “The hardest part of the job – aside from physically being very hard – are the ups and downs that come with doing a job that we love, like not getting roles or being told things you don’t want to hear. It is hard, because it is really personal; you’ve put your whole life into doing this. Everyone aspires to become a Principal and do all the amazing roles, and I think often the physical side of things is hard to deal with, and lots of dancers do get injured.”
A major injury six years ago – pieces of bone and cartilage had fallen off Claire’s knee – meant she was off stage for nine months, and unable to walk for the first three. It called for determination and dedication to return to peak fitness.
“I think the mental side of things doesn’t often get touched upon. This is something we all really love. We are not just doing it because we are good at it. When things don’t work out and you don’t get to do shows, it is heartbreaking – that is one of the hardest things, I find. To still pick yourself up and try again, still keep working, it’s having mental resilience.
“You plan your whole life around ballet – whether you are doing a role in a particular costume, so you have to be a bit more careful with what you’re eating. All these things take over your life. We are hungry most of the time and want to eat. We all want to look a certain way and with some people that is more natural than others. I wouldn’t say I’m super strict – I do still eat chocolate and crisps, but I know that they are not the best things to eat if I want to do a three-act ballet!”
Two of Claire’s favourite roles are the Lilac Fairy in The Sleeping Beauty and the Mistress in Manon. “They mean a lot to me because they were the first big things I got to do.” Another challenging role is the famous Sugar Plum Fairy. “When I was at White Lodge, I was in The Nutcracker as a Gingerbread [one of the minor roles taken by children at the school]. It is amazing to think that when I was 11 I did that, and now I’ve danced Sugar Plum Fairy.”
She was coached in the role by Dame Darcey Bussell, a celebrated Sugar Plum Fairy herself. “She said ‘This is one of the hardest things you will ever do.’ The pas de deux is three minutes – there is no recovery time and it is constant moving. It is hard to make it look effortless.”
Claire recently made her debut in the role of the Tsarevna in The Firebird. “There is a little bit of dancing around, but not in pointe shoes. It is good to challenge yourself in other ways. Sometimes when you don’t actually have many steps to do, to make something of that is quite hard. One of the hardest things is just walking or standing on stage.”
She has some wise advice for young people who dream of becoming a ballet dancer: “Always work hard, but do it because you love it. Everything in life is much easier to do if you enjoy it and feel happy doing it, so try and keep holding on to that.”