The Sleeping Beauty. Anna Rose O'Sullivan as The Bluebird. ©ROH, 2017. Ph. Bill Cooper.

Something in the Way She Moves

22nd March 2019

Joy Sable talks to local dancer Anna Rose O’Sullivan, as she prepares for her first performance as Juliet with the Royal Ballet Company

Of all the hidden gems to be found on YouTube, one of the sweetest is a short clip, lasting just over a minute, of ten-year-old Anna Rose O’Sullivan dancing at a local ballet school performance. Her talent is immediately apparent, even to an untrained eye. Her feet are beautifully pointed, all the steps are carefully executed and she has already developed a wonderful jump. Fast forward 15 years, and Anna Rose has matured into a young ballerina of outstanding promise. Now a soloist with the Royal Ballet, she is taking on principal roles – those usually reserved for older, more experienced ballerinas – and is attracting favourable notices from the critics.

Taking solo curtain calls at the Royal Opera House is a long way from her first steps as a dancer, over 20 years ago. Born in Harrow, Anna Rose started dancing at the age of four, attending Suzanne’s School of Dance in Ickenham. “My mother took me along to a local class and I really loved it – I didn’t want to stop,” she says. She is speaking in one of the offices at the Royal Opera House, on a rare break between classes and rehearsals. Petite and fragile-looking (though she is anything but), she is also exceptionally pretty: large, expressive blue eyes and a dazzling smile – ideal to project to the very back of the large Opera House auditorium.

Anna Rose has two younger brothers and a little sister, but she is the first in her family to dance professionally. She says she was brought up in “a house of music and fun. My great-grandmother was tea-dancing up until the day before she died, so there was a love of dance in the family.”

Anna Rose studied a variety of dance forms, before deciding to concentrate on ballet. “I always really enjoyed it and was encouraged by teachers and talent scouts who came down to my local dance school.” At nine she joined the London Children’s Ballet (a company which gives children the opportunity to perform in a professional production), attending rehearsals every Sunday so her schoolwork would not be affected.

It was while she was performing with the London Children’s Ballet that the director of the Royal Ballet School spotted her, and she joined White Lodge – the junior section of the school – when she was 11. In this beautiful former royal residence in Richmond Park, Anna Rose began her serious training as a dancer. Lucky enough to live within commuting distance, she started out as a day pupil, before eventually boarding.

“I was quite fortunate that I was able to see my family as much as I could,” she says. Other students from all around the country, or abroad, would spend a far greater time away from their families, and homesickness is a frequent problem for many of the young boarders.

“That was probably the hardest part of training at the school but it was a great experience,” says Anna Rose. “I thought it was going to be like Hogwarts, but obviously it was not. It was wonderful and the opportunities I had while I was at the school were amazing. I made lifelong friends and I particularly enjoyed the Upper School [based in a building next to the Royal Opera House]. The school was hard work and from a young age I was very driven, which a lot of people in the dance world are.”

For many young dancers, the dream ends when they finish school. Only a select few are lucky enough to be offered contracts with the Royal Ballet Company. “Obviously to join the Royal Ballet Company was a huge dream come true. And then the hard work begins, once you join. I remember the day really clearly: I was with my friend Marcelino [Marcelino Sambe – now a First Soloist with the Company] – we were very good friends at school. The director at the time brought us into her office and said, ‘I’ve got some good news and some bad news for you’. I thought, God, what had we done? She said, ‘I’ve had to take you out of the end of year show – that’s the bad news. The good news is that you are joining the Royal Ballet Company next week!’”

Company life is very different to life at school. There is the morning class – the daily ritual every dancer must do to ensure their body stays in tip-top condition – followed by rehearsals and an evening performance. “Probably the biggest challenge of company life I’ve learned as I’ve been here is how to pace yourself so you can peak in the evening and also deliver when you have been given opportunities.”

When Anna Rose made her debut in an evening performance as Clara in The Nutcracker a few seasons ago, she had already danced three smaller roles at the matinee on the same day. The life of a dancer is not for the faint-hearted – nor the nervous. “I don’t get a stressed kind of nervous,” she says. “Sometimes before doing something for the first time I get a buzz in my stomach. But I wouldn’t say it is nerves, I’d say it is more excitement. I’m one of those people who really like a bit of an adrenaline rush. As long as you hone it in the right way, it is definitely a positive thing; it gives you a bit more engine power and really helps you when you are feeling tired.”

Getting noticed is also not easy, as being a good member of the corps de ballet means, by its very nature, not standing out. “I remember being told certain things to make myself a bit more in line, which wasn’t the easiest thing for me. I’ve always tried to keep my special ‘something’ when I’m dancing, because ultimately that’s the reason you start – the love for dance. And I think it is really important to try and keep that, and hopefully that shines through in your dancing. With hard work, people notice somebody who is performing and connecting with the audience – I hope that comes across.

“I really enjoy dancing with a partner. When you find a wonderful chemistry with somebody, there is something really special about sharing that moment on stage with another person. I love dancing by myself as well, but there is another joy to dancing with somebody and creating a movement with them, because you trust one another so much, it becomes more daring.”

Nevertheless things can go wrong. “Costumes malfunctions – they are quite funny – not at the time, maybe, but afterwards.… When you’re connected to your partner in a funny position and you are trying to elegantly detach yourself from them… That’s the funny thing about live theatre, you find within that moment a way to disguise it or to make it part of the scene.”

In April, Anna Rose will be making her debut as Juliet in Kenneth MacMillan’s production of Romeo and Juliet. Her old friend Marcelino will be her Romeo. “I’m really excited about that. It’s a role I’ve wanted to play since I was a very young child. It is an incredible ballet and I feel very honoured to be able to take on the role. The whole family want to come and see it. Obviously they are very proud and they always come to support me in the big roles.”

With her close family, there is no chance she will let fame go to her head. “I think it’s nice that I’ve got a really great family around me that keep me very grounded and normal.”

And what advice would this young ballerina give to those who want to follow in her graceful footsteps? “I would say always enjoy dancing and never forget to, because that’s the reason you started. Listen to your teachers, always be willing to learn, and always hold on to your own individuality. It is a hard career but it is also very rewarding.”

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