Dame Monica Mason, The Royal Ballet's former artistic director, has likely stood before a corps of white-tutu−clad dancers thousands of times. In this Giselle clip from a Bavarian State Ballet performance filmed in 1979, she leads the wilis not as their director, but as their queen. Though Mason is a natural Myrta, she offsets her undeniably commanding stage presence with softness. Shaping air with the fullness of her arms, swirling weightlessly in a torrent of tulle, Mason is the perfect reigning figure of her ghostly realm. (And a shout out to the corps and soloist dancers' solid variations and pattern work!)
When I first saw Alexandra Ansanelli, she was darting across the stage with blazing vitality as the Firebird with New York City Ballet. Her fierce, staccato movements possessed all the daring and energy that characterizes the Balanchine style. At that moment, the stage of the New York State Theater seemed a world away from the traditions of 19th-century classicism. But five years later finds Ansanelli in London’s Covent Garden, about to lead The Royal Ballet in a performance of its ultra-traditional Swan Lake.
It’s rare for a dancer who has been immersed in one style and repertoire to pursue a very different tradition at the height of her career. Yet, after having spent all of her ballet life at NYCB, Ansanelli left abruptly in the summer of 2005, surprising her fans and colleagues. And—as she told me when she sat down for an interview, white practice tutu slung over her arm—her motives might seem surprising for someone then a principal at the country’s most famous neoclassical company. “From the very beginning I’d only studied Balanchine,” she says. “Although I’d been dancing the work of a genius, I knew there was so much more. Something inside of me was missing.”
Ansanelli had no job waiting in the wings, a situation that left her guesting and doing tours for several months. She soon received offers from several U.S. companies, but turned them down, feeling they wouldn’t provide the exposure to ballet’s classical heritage that she craved. Then Royal Ballet Director Monica Mason got in touch. Mason hadn’t seen her perform but came to New York, where Ansanelli rented a tiny studio to dance variations from Giselle and The Sleeping Beauty. “I was impressed by her musicality and sense of performance,” says Mason. “I felt that if she had the courage to adjust to an entirely different dance style, then I would welcome her.”
Mason explained, however, that she couldn’t offer Ansanelli a principal contract, noting that the company had many established artists whom she couldn’t simply pass over. Her loyalty impressed Ansanelli. “I thought, ‘Wow, she really looks after her people,’ ” she says. “That’s a very commendable trait in a director.” Ansanelli accepted a first soloist contract, hoping that over time she would earn a promotion to principal.
She threw herself into mastering the very different English style. Most Royal company members have been schooled in its signature emphasis on pliant upper bodies, supple port de bras and soft terre-à-terre footwork. For Ansanelli, it was a big stretch from her training. A soccer prodigy as a youngster, she had begun ballet at age 11 when her mother decided it was important to foster her tomboy daughter’s more feminine side. Ansanelli took classes at a local studio and went to a summer arts camp. There she was spotted by Miami City Ballet Artistic Director Edward Villella, whose daughter was also a camper. He recommended that she apply to the School of American Ballet. To her parents’ surprise, she got in the first time she auditioned.
When Ansanelli was still 15, ballet master in chief Peter Martins plucked her from the school to be an apprentice with NYCB. Within two years, she’d reached soloist rank. In 2003, she was made a principal. Ansanelli was often paired with another young dancer, Benjamin Millepied, now a noted choreographer and an NYCB principal. The two were frequently cast in Balanchine works. “Alexandra is a perfectionist,” Millepied says, looking back on their partnership. “She was driven and she knew what she wanted. It was difficult sometimes in the studio, but onstage it was marvellous. She was so wild and expressive and strong as a performer.”
Throughout her NYCB career, Ansanelli’s full-out quality pleased audiences accustomed to high-energy dancers with brio and stamina. British audiences, she has found, are more conservative. “British culture is more detail-oriented,” she says, reflecting on the nuances that some roles require. “I’m learning here that I can use a bit less emphasis in my movement and it’s still effective.”
Still, her first year tested her. Now 28, she had lived with her parents until moving to London. “I was scared,” she admits. “I’d defected from my life and a nurturing environment.” Her new apartment felt lonely. “I always found coming home to my parents very comforting at the end of a long day,” she says. “I’m not at a phase yet where I’ve met someone whom I’m going to be sharing my time with personally, so it’s hard because sometimes you need that comfort and it’s not there.”
She found herself cast at times in demi-soloist roles, a far cry from her NYCB days. Audiences and some critics were wary initially, but Ansanelli gradually made inroads, winning acclaim when she performed the role of Aurora in The Royal’s lavish production of The Sleeping Beauty. Even though she was dancing in the shadow of Margot Fonteyn, critics like Clement Crisp praised her performance. “She brought a radiant assurance to the role,” he wrote. And during the company’s American tour in 2007, Mason promoted her to principal.
Ansanelli is getting the best of both worlds now that The Royal’s roster of work by Balanchine and Robbins is increasing. “They were brilliant choreographers and their amazing ballets are what made me,” she says. “I never want to say good-bye to that.” She has certainly pleased Monica Mason. “Alexandra has proved to be extremely adept in absorbing the requirements of everything I’ve cast her in. She made an outstanding debut in the title role of Ondine, originally created by Ashton for Fonteyn.”
But Swan Lake was still the acid test, and in The Royal Opera House a few days after our interview, it was the final moments of the white act that clinched it. As Odette, Ansanelli slowly pulled away from Siegfried’s outstretched arms, magnetized by the spell of Von Rothbart into a curve of agonizing bourées, her arched back and beautiful rippling arms telling us of a princess transforming, once again, into the bewitched swan. She garnered praise in her debut from all quarters, not least from Crisp (a passionate advocate of classical correctness) who wrote she gave “a performance of beautiful line, emotional finesse and of fascinating promise for the future.”
For me, her sensitive artistry and crystalline clarity of mime and technique tells not just the tale of Swan Lake, but also of this ballerina’s journey from the fierce attack of one mythical fiery bird to the dignity, nobility and grace of a princess turned swan, as pure as the white tutu she wears. The contrast speaks for itself. Her passion for learning has set Ansanelli free from the limits of any one technique.
Only her American fans have cause for regret. “It was exciting when she was out there,” says Millipied. “There were performances with her I’ll never forget. I used to get scared going onstage with her, knowing that she would hold nothing back. But it was all coming from a sincere place, a relationship with the music. That sense of danger was great—I miss it.”
Graham Watts is a freelance dance writer in London. He writes regularly for Dance Europe, Ballet.co magazine, Londondance, SkyArts and other publications.