Cupcakes & Conversation with Hannah Grennell, Aspirant, Dutch National Ballet
What motivates you at 8am on a Monday morning ?
What motivates me is basically class. I enjoy the physicality of ballet and how focused it is. I find that in a company, class isn’t just class; it is the warm up at the start of your day making sure that you are prepared for the demanding rehearsals that follow throughout the day. It is a very personal time at the start of the day; class is for you, for you to become in tune with your body, every muscle, bone and extremity. Of course you want to exercise your artistry and take all advice from the Ballet Master/Mistress but at the end of the day it’s for you.
Why ballet ?
It is a very good question yet one that has so many aspects to it. It’s not being big headed but you wouldn’t choose something as your career if you didn’t have a natural talent for it. Obviously all talent needs to be nurtured from an early age but you need the focus and drive for ballet, as well as the enjoyment and passion for what you do. Ballet isn’t easy, all dancers will vouch for that but the satisfaction and adrenaline one gets after a performance, whether it is for one person or an audience of thousands is something that leaves you speechless yet wanting more.
What are you looking forward to dancing this year ?
There are many productions that I am looking forward to performing this year. I have joined Het Nationale Ballet, for what I can say, is one of the most exciting seasons to date. We are celebrating the company’s 50th Anniversary, as well as the theatre’s 25th Anniversary, therefore a lot of varied performances are to follow.
I think that I am incredibly excited to dance The Nutcracker and Mouse King. We have a special version that was created by Wayne Eagling and Toer van Schayk. Christmas is one of my favourite times of year and I haven’t danced Nutcracker since I was a student at The Royal Ballet School and I was a rat in The Royal Ballet company’s production. So a lot of old memories will be remembered and new ones made, which is always something to look forward to.
Who would you most like to dance with & what would you dance ?
There are a lot of dancers who I would dream to dance with; it’s a very difficult decision to narrow it down to one as there are many, many inspirational people in our world.
I think Mikhail Baryshnikov is one of the top; he had such power and elegance when he danced and his charisma on stage was special.
Also, there are many ballets which I dream of one day dancing, yet this is somehow an easy answer to find and Manon would be my ballet of choice to dance with Baryshnikov. This is a ballet that I would tell any person in the world to see; lesser known but a beautiful story that needs to be discovered by all audiences. I could ramble on about Manon for hours, from the exceptional movement that Sir Kenneth Macmillan created, to the indescribable music that moves your soul, not forgetting the tragic love story that will leave you with tears rolling down your face. Even talking about it now makes goose bumps appear on my skin.
If you could dance anywhere in the world (not only in a theatre), where would you dance ?
It may seem a bit unrealistic but if I could dance anywhere in the world, and it didn’t have to be in a theatre, then I would choose to dance in an Ancient Olympic Stadium in Ancient Greece. It would be very surreal, not only because it would be a huge outdoor venue but because of the thought that once upon a time sport initially started here and I would be performing a new artistic sport in that very same place. It would be interesting.
How do you prepare your pointe shoes ?
I am very fortunate as I don’t have to prepare my pointe shoes as much as some dancers. Of course there is the normality of sewing on ribbons and pointe shoe elastic that can take me longer than needed. I would like to say that my sewing is out of this world amazing but that is not the case. I’m just a little slow. Depending on the work we are doing I will darn the tips of my shoes but I don’t always feel the need to do this, and if I need my shoes to be softer and quieter then I will shave down the soles a little, just so that the backs aren’t as strong, making them more nimble and softer in sound. I like to work in a few pairs of shoes, rotating a few pairs so that I can have many on the go at one time. It also saves money because when you leave pointe shoes to air they harden again and keep for longer; a win-win situation for dancers.
What is your daily routine at the moment ?
My daily routine at the moment is very much dedicated to learning Swan Lake We only have a few weeks left to get the production together and making sure that we look at our best. Het’s Swan Lake, choreographed by Rudi Van Dantzig and Toer van Schayk, is very beautiful and will be our first classic production of the season. Ballet doesn’t get much better than a timeless classic like Swan Lake so I am very excited and want to learn all that I can. So a typical day would be like this;
Wake up 7am
(If we had a performance the night before then class is an hour later which means I get a lie in). I usually aim to be at the theatre for 9am leaving me enough time to get ready for class and to warm up sufficiently.
Class 10am – 11.15am
Each day there are two classes in our two main studios, and every day we have a different Ballet Master/Mistress for class.
First Rehearsal 11.30am – 1pm
Rehearsal times can vary depending on how much needs to be taught and learnt. If we are learning new work then rehearsals will be scheduled for a longer period of time; if it has been fully learnt then it is just a case of running the piece or act and making sure that it is at performance standard.
Lunch 1pm – 1.45pm
Lunch time will vary for each individual dancer depending on their own schedule, as one could be in many works, or not. The company is very good and makes sure that all of their dancers get at least 45 minutes, starting from 12.30pm, for everyone to have a break, as it is very difficult to rehearse when there is no fuel in the tank.
Rehearsals till home time which is 6pm
As I previously said, rehearsing is different every day and it can change depending on what season it is, whether it is more rehearsal period or a run of performances. With ballet you’ll usually be performing one ballet whilst learning/rehearsing a new one so we are mentally always working even if we’re not in the studio.
What do you eat during the course of a typical working day ?
I try to keep my diet routine as regular as possible. I prepare a lot of my food at home, though we do have a great restaurant/canteen at work which I will treat myself to one day a week. It suits me better to be able to have my food at hand when I need it most. Sometimes we will only have a quick break, i.e. 15 minutes, so it’s nice to not have to worry about running to the canteen as well as make it to the next rehearsal. I eat little and often as it really isn’t comfortable to dance on a full and heavy stomach, so lots of protein, fruit and light carbohydrates. A healthy balanced diet as our bodies are our instrument, which need to be durable and on top form.
You can ask six famous people to dinner – who would you invite ?
I would invite the following (dead or alive, as it is very unlikely that I’ll even have dinner with the living famous people) : Johnny Depp, Audrey Hepburn, Oscar Wilde, Alexa Chung, Guy Ritchie, and Aaron Johnson.
What would surprise people about you ?
What would surprise people about me? That’s a tough one but I think I would say my life is what I have made of the opportunities I’ve been given so far. I’ve met and know a lot of people who judged me at first sight, thinking I was a stuck up ballerina who went to boarding school in Surrey, but like everyone in this world I have a past and a story that is a part of me and that has made me the ambitious artist that I am today.
Who inspired you to dance ?
There are many people who have inspired me to dance. The two people that I count as my main inspiration are, my first dance teacher Bronwen Patching who continues to inspire to this day and none other than a legend herself, Darcey Bussell; from her book that I read countless times as I grew up, to seeing her dance on TV and in the flesh, to meeting her in person and asking for her autograph. Even just hearing her name makes me star struck.
What is your best piece of advice ?
The best piece of advice that I could give is that ‘Life goes on. Learn from your mistakes, be grateful and cherish those who have touched your life.’
How do you prepare in the hours before a show ?
In the hours before a show I like to have plenty of time to get ready, I don’t like feeling rushed or short of time. A good energy meal is very important, one that makes me feel like I have a sufficient amount of energy but not full or feeling bloated. I’ll spend time on my hair and make-up, making sure that I am happy with it as there is nothing worse than worrying about little things that have nothing to do with your dancing. Then a decent warm up; it is very important to make sure you are fully warmed up and prepared for the demands a performance asks of you but not to tire yourself out, as a performance is an endurance test which one has to survive.
How do you deal with the stress of performing ?
I deal with the stress of a performance by having some “me” time. I like to take myself away from the crowd, e.g. other dancers, so that I can mentally focus on myself and my performance; ‘get in the zone’ is what it is known as. Also I tend to calm my nerves better when I am alone because if I am surrounded by, even if it’s just one person’s nervous tension, then I immediately pick up on it and feel the same.
Which role has tested you the most & how ?
I haven’t had much experience with solo roles as I have only just joined Het Nationale Ballet and it is my first job out of school. However, when I was at school, in my final year, I understudied the role of The Black Queen from Dame Ninette de Valois’ Checkmate. I was fortunate enough to learn the role, even if I didn’t get a chance to perform it. It was demanding because her character had more to it than just the thought of winning the game; there are all these underlying emotions and stories going on throughout the ballet and it really tests you as an artist as well as a dancer.
If you were asked to design your own ballet costume, what would you create ?
If I was asked to create my own ballet costume then I know that I would definitely create something flattering and not white. Also you’d have to consider the fabric, how it moves, whether it’s restricting to the dancer in any way, what happens when the stage lights hit it. I think I would choose a midnight blue colour, it has always been a favourite colour of mine and I think it would be flattering against all skin tones. I think I would go against the normal initial thought of ballerinas, so no tutu, just a beautiful mid length dress with a slight corseted bodice. There would need to be room to breathe otherwise it’s not a ballet costume is it?
What do you look for in a dance partner ?
When I look for qualities that I would like in a dance partner then there are many that spring to mind. Importantly, they need to be someone that you can get along with. I feel that humour is needed when you work so closely with people and it very humbling to know that you take your work seriously but not necessarily yourself. Someone who is open minded; it’s not always his fault and it’s not always mine, as they say “It takes two to Tango”. Trust, is a very big factor; if you don’t have that then how will you be able to do all the big lifts and everything that is exciting and almost ‘dangerous’ in pas de deux ?
What is your favourite quote ?
I have many favourite quotes but I think this one is very close to my heart – “Honesty is the first chapter in the book of wisdom.” Thomas Jefferson
Do you have a ‘signature step’ – one that comes naturally to you ?
I’m not too sure if I have a signature step. I feel that this will be associated with me when a role has been created on me when I have worked closely with a choreographer on a new piece.
What’s been your best on-stage moment so far ?
My best on stage moment so far has been when I worked with The Royal Ballet company in their Swan Lake. I was a lady in waiting which meant that I stood next to the Queen throughout the whole of Act 111, which was always amazing as I got to watch each Principal make Odile their own. It was Carlos Acosta and Tamara Rojo’s night, which always gave me a buzz as they are a fantastic duo, and it was during the fiancés dance when my best moment came. Carlos Acosta was being the perfect Prince Siegfried and came over to the throne to tell his mother, the Queen, that he wasn’t interested in any of the fiancés, and then I felt we had a moment. I was so into the acting and I am a little smitten by Acosta’s presence, but what woman isn’t? And Acosta held my gaze. Then, after he walks off, the Queen, who was being played by Genesia Rosato, turned to me and whispered, “I think he is more interested in you than the fiancés”. As you can imagine my smile beamed!
Do you have a secret skill which no-one knows about ?
I don’t think I have a secret skill which I know about, let alone anyone else. I like to sometimes think I can sing but I am no Adele, so wouldn’t call it a skill.
In terms of your ballet career, where would you like to be in a year from now ?
When it comes to my career and where I see myself in a year’s time I imagine this:
Still dancing in Amsterdam with Het Nationale Ballet company, it will be my second year so most likely be the rank of Eleve, but I hope to be learning, understudying and dancing more roles. I am very happy here so I don’t want to be anywhere else, just yet.
If you could dance in front of anyone, who would it be and what makes them special to you?
If I could dance in front of anyone then it would be my late Auntie Wendy. She was the most beautiful, kind-spirited woman who died at such an early age, she never got to see me graduate from The Royal Ballet School or see me dance. So she would be the one person who I wish I could dance for, it may never be in person, but I know that when the magical day arrives and I dance my first Principal role, she will be there in spirit.