Interview: Viviana Durante Q&A

Monday 2 November 2009

Viviana Durante Viviana Durante joined the Royal Ballet in 1984 and came to prominence in 1987 when she replaced an injured Odette in mid-performance of Swan Lake, never having been coached in the role and aged just 20. She was promoted to Principal in 1989 and became particularly associated with the repertoire of Kenneth MacMillan, dancing the role of Mary Vetsara in the revival of MacMillan’s Mayerling on the night that he died, backstage at the Royal Opera House, in 1992. <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office”>

She left the Royal Ballet in 2000 and since 1996 has danced all over the world, starring regularly in Tokyo and elsewhere as the Principal ballerina of the K Ballet and guesting with the Royal Ballet, American Ballet Theatre and La Scala Milan amongst others. Last year she appeared at the National Theatre in Tony Harrison’s play Fram, dancing the role of ‘ballerina’, with choreography by Wayne McGregor more

Durante will be one of many guest speakers at a Conference to celebrate the eightieth anniversary of MacMillan’s birth. Kenneth MacMillan’s Creative Imagination & Psychological Insight is being held at Imperial College in Kensington on Sunday, 8 November. More information: www.Kenneth

Graham Watts talked to Viviana Durante about her recollections of working with MacMillan…

What first ignited your interest in dance?
**My parents both loved classical music and so as a little girl in Italy, I was always dancing around to the classics with my little friends and one day my parents decided it might be a good idea to turn this love of dancing to classical music into formal ballet. So I started ballet training when I was six years old and since then I’ve never missed my class. Actually, even now, there is nothing that I would miss my ballet class for.

Who would you say has influenced you the most in your career?
**It has to be Kenneth MacMillan – absolutely MacMillan – and he’s still an inspiration for me. I loved classical ballet language and he gave it new contemporary settings. No-one had made the combination of modern narrative and classical ballet click in the way that he did.

When was the first time that you worked with MacMillan?
**I did *Romeo & Juliet* and then Manon, followed by Mayerling and *The Judas Tree* and then – after he had died – Anastasia. I’ve also done *Gloria* and *Requiem*, as well. I was one of Juliet’s friends to begin with and then I did Juliet while still a soloist at The Royal Ballet. I learnt most of the ballet through Monica Parker, the Benesh Notator who worked with Kenneth, and then I worked more on the role with Kenneth himself; just by having him in the studio I was able to ask him all sorts of questions to help interpret the role.

*_Which roles did you create for MacMillan? *_
**Unfortunately I had only two roles made on me by Kenneth. Firstly, Irina in *Winter Dreams* (later on, I also performed Masha) and then the lead in The Judas Tree.

What do you remember about the creative process?
**I have always loved – and will always love – Kenneth MacMillan. He used to concentrate on what you were portraying as a person; what was going on, every moment, in a very theatrical sense. It was always much more than just steps. He was more interested in what you were trying to say by doing a particular ballet step than in the movement itself. If it wasn’t working, either in the studio or in the performance, from his perspective it would always be because we were not thinking properly about that moment in the ballet. For me, it was great because that’s the way that I like to work. I felt that once I started working on the creative process with Kenneth I grew, not only as a dancer, but also as a person. My approach to roles became much more intense; much more like an actress and not just as a dancer.

Did he come into the studio with a very clear idea of exactly what he wanted when making a ballet?
**Definitely not steps-wise, but he had a very clear understanding of what he was trying to say in the ballet and how your role fitted into that. With The Judas Tree he sat down with me right at the very beginning and said that the ballet would be violent and would end with my character being raped. At first he had an idea of this scene lasting for twelve minutes but it was gradually whittled down. I was young but when you are with such an artist in the studio, you feel so protected and that is the whole point of being with great people. Because when you feel so looked after in the creative process you can do almost anything. That was the feeling he always gave me and so I always felt fine, whatever he asked me to do.

Did he give artists an opportunity to contribute to the work?
**Totally, totally; I’ve never been interested in a choreographer coming into the room and just giving me steps. I actually find that boring. He always started by explaining the situation and he would say try and do this and perhaps the dancer would then try something different, and he would say “umhh, I’m not quite sure, let’s try something else”, so it was very much like making the work together… but, of course, on his side, much more! He was always adjusting things to suit the dancers. He had a big theatrical way of approaching choreography which left you with a gap in which to place your own interpretation of a role, which is so important.

Did you know him well outside of the studio?
**I didn’t really know him outside the studio; he was very private and I liked that. What you give, what you feel when you’re rehearsing in the studio is not really you, it’s something else. What you are in the studio can’t be what you are in life, at home. You have to keep something for yourself! There has to be something which is just you as a choreographer because that is where the inspiration comes from. I could only guess what he was like although I think we all knew that he was a very complex person.

What do you remember about the evening that MacMillan died?
**He revived Mayerling on Irek (Mukhamedov) as Prince Rudolf and I was dancing Mary Vetsara on the night he died. We didn’t find out until the very end although I think Irek might have heard something before our last pas de deux because I could tell something had happened. Jeremy Isaacs (then the ROH Chief Executive) came on stage as we were taking our bow and announced Kenneth’s death. It was awful to lose such a great artist and such a great person in the midst of a performance of one of his greatest works. I remember the audience reaction being just like a noise, you know, a mixture of grief and shouting and just disbelief. After that night we carried on with the performances and we then filmed it and there is always this memory of that evening, especially in the final tragic pas de deux. After Kenneth’s death, I was often moved to tears in that final act. A mixture of the memories of his death and the traumatic story on stage in his choreography is very chilling and it always affected me. He really was an inspiration for me; he still is, actually.

Is there a MacMillan role that you would have loved to dance, but haven’t?
**I never did *Different Drummer*, which I would have loved to do and also I’ve never done *Song of the Earth*, which I also love. There are lots of roles from his earlier work that I would have enjoyed dancing but most of these had dropped out of the repertory by the time I was working with MacMillan. But more than anything, I would have liked him still to be here and still choreographing work – we have lost so much since his death, 17 years ago. I miss the fact that he can never create another work on me.

Do you have a favourite MacMillan role?
**It’s impossible to choose because every one of his roles that I’ve danced has fulfilled me with something and there’s always more to find out about every role; no matter how many times one dances it. Each one of them has given me something different. I always seemed to die in most of my MacMillan roles!

If you could choose just one MacMillan pas de deux or solo for a gala performance, which would it be?
**I’d probably do the big pas de deux right at the end of Winter Dreams or the third act of Anastasia, which I think is very powerful and I love the fact that he made the final act as a one-act ballet, which was originally not well received (I think it was booed on its premiere in Berlin) before adding Acts I and 2 much later.

What will you be doing at the MacMillan Conference on 8 November?
**I’ll be there to answer questions about the way Kenneth was with dancers in the rehearsal room, and especially how he created roles, particularly in relation to The Judas Tree which I’m expecting to be asked about. I’m certainly looking forward to it and it looks like an incredibly comprehensive and very interesting programme.

You were injured earlier this year – how are you know?
**Yes, I was injured in Tokyo in my first performance of the season. I’d had a really bad calf and I carried on performing with injections which I really shouldn’t have done because there was obviously a tear in the muscle which just got worse. It’s strange because I haven’t really been injured in my career. But I’m fine now.

What are your current plans?
**I like being my own boss at the moment. I’m working on a couple of very exciting projects that I can’t say much about at right now, including one that I’m working on in a creative capacity. I got married four months ago and so I haven’t gone back to perform in Japan this autumn. I couldn’t really get married and then wave goodbye immediately to return to Japan!


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