Andrej Uspenski was born in St Petersburg and trained at the Vaganova Ballet Academy and subsequently in Dresden and Berlin. He has been a member of The Royal Ballet for ten years. Andrej grew up with photography, spending much time in his father’s dark room. Surrounded by the Royal Ballet’s supremely talented dancers on a daily basis and drawn to capture their artistry both on and off stage, he discovered his own passion for photography. His photographs can be seen in Royal Opera House programmes as well as national magazines and newspapers. He recently performed in Swan Lake at the ROH in London.
Theodora Clarke: Andrej, first of all can you tell me about your work with the Royal Ballet and, in particular, with Swan Lake at the Royal Opera House in London.
Andrej Uspenski: Yes. I’m a first artist but I also dance many roles in Swan Lake. Such as on Friday I had a leading role and I then danced the Mazurka in Act 3.
TC: What is it like to be in the Royal Ballet – can you give us an idea of what the training is like for such an important company?
AU: As a dancer the most important aspect is the discipline. You have to be really careful and look after your body but, at the same time, you have to push yourself to the limit every day. You wake up, you go to rehearsals all day then you have just two hours break before the show. And that’s every day. So it’s a really hard discipline and there’s not much life outside the theatre.
TC: How long would you typically spend preparing for a new performance like Swan Lake?
AU: Well I’ve been in the company for ten years so I’ve pretty much danced everything. For Swan Lake it’s quite easy for the guys but for the girls it’s really hard. They are the Swans in Act 2 and 4 and they also dance in Act 1 and 3 so I think the boys’ roles are a lot easier!
TC: The Director of the Royal Opera House was on the BBC talking recently about new changes at the institution and how he wants to support dancers by introducing physiotherapy and making sure that dancers have the mental strength to do very difficult productions. What do you think about this new focus at the Opera House?
AU: It’s only been a few months so I can’t really say whether it’s working or not. However, it’s really nice for dancers to have a variety of different things to improve themselves. I have worked with a cross trainer and a personal trainer at the Opera House and I was looked after really well. But we need to have a little bit more time with the new system- maybe we will see the differences in a year’s time.
TC: You were born in St Petersburg and you trained originally in Russia. How important was this training and did you find it difficult as you were so young at the time?
AU:When I went to school I was ten years old in St Petersburg. I think it’s the normal age to start your dancing career about then.
Obviously different students need more of less time but in Russia its about 8 years of studying ballet.
TC: So what was the reason you moved to the UK?
AU: I really liked the style of theatre. It is quite classical and that’s what I always wanted to be- a dancer in a classical company. They were good times, really great and the Royal Opera House one of the best theatres in the world I think.
TC: Every year there are productions of Swan Lake and The Nutcracker, it seems Tchaikovsky is always popular. What do you think it is about those ballets that make them so appealing?
AU: I think the music is really incredible. The ballets have survived over one hundred years so they are something special. When you think about the history of Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty or the Nutcracker you have the show at such a magical moment. It’s before Christmas and you really feel the atmosphere outside and inside. It’s really enjoyable for me to dance as well.
TC: The performance I saw is very much based on the traditional designs from the nineteenth century. What do you feel about productions which are trying to be more faithful to Tchaikovsky’s time? Do you think that’s a good idea or do you think we should be trying to have more modern ballets that experiment with the same music but express it in a different way?
AU: I often like doing modern stuff as well but I don’t necessarily think that you have to re-do Sleeping Beauty as a modern ballet. I think if you do a modern ballet you should have a different theme as well. Modern ballets are very open minded, you can do whatever you where whereas with classical dance you have a structure. For example, you have twenty swans on stage, you have lines… I like modern dance but I don’t see the point in changing a classical ballet like Swan Lake or the Nutcracker into a modern version of that. But that’s my opinion.
TC: In the UK at the moment a number of arts organisations have had their funding cut. How has that impacted on the Royal Opera House? Have you seen a significant shift in the amount of money that’s available to train dancers?
AU: I don’t know for sure. I’m not dealing with those problems as a dancer.
TC: But do you think if you were a younger dancer now in the UK and, not at the Royal Opera House, would it be more difficult do you think to become a dancer?
AU: I don’t think so. I think as a ballet dancer if you have a talent you’ll always do well.
TC: How do the auditions work? If you’re applying to the Royal Ballet, what’s the process?
AU: In my case I was really lucky. I was dancing with the Royal Venice Ballet in Copenhagen and I wrote a letter to the Royal Opera House and said that I was really interested in dancing with them and that I’d like to have an audition. They invited me for an audition in the company class and I’m really lucky I got in.
TC: What is your favourite role that you’ve danced?
AU: I was in Sleeping Beauty and I loved it very much. It’s a tragic role where you have to jump all the time! Many great dancers did it in the past and I was very privileged to do it here.
TC:Part of the role for the male dancer is to be partnered with a female dancer and provide support for lifts etc. How important is it
for you to have a good relationship with the female ballerinas you’re partnered with?
AU: It is quite important if you’re dancing leading roles to be on the same level; to know what she thinks, what you think. You always talk to each other about what is comfortable, how I’m going to dance behind her. It’s really most important to talk and communicate with each other.
TC: What is the advice that you’d give to young people who would one day want to be in the Royal Ballet at Covent Garden?
AU: Work really hard and just be yourself and don’t copy anyone else. Get inspired from this and that and then take the best from them with you.
TC: What are your plans after Swan Lake?
AU: I’ve been really fortunate in that I have a photography book about the Royal Ballet that will be published soon. It comes out on April 15, so I will be working towards that. The book is about life of dancers in the Opera House. The reality of dancers; warming up, putting makeup on and going on stage. It started out as a side interest but turned out to be a good photography book. The Opera loves it and wants to publish them so I am very lucky really.
For more information on the Royal Ballet see http://www.roh.org.uk/about/the-royal-ballet