Principal dancer Samara Downs talks about her contrasting lead roles in Birmingham Royal Ballet's THE SLEEPING BEAUTY

Samara Downs as Carabosse-in THE SLEEPING BEAUTY. Photo: Ty Singleton

Samara Downs as Carabosse in Birmingham Royal Ballet’s THE SLEEPING BEAUTY. Photo: Ty Singleton

Birmingham Royal Ballet principal dancer Samara Downs talks about her contrasting lead roles in THE SLEEPING BEAUTY

Birmingham Royal Ballet bring their critically acclaimed production of THE SLEEPING BEAUTY to Salford’s The Lowry this week for a four night run.

Based on the popular fairytale, THE SLEEPING BEAUTY tells the story of a beautiful princess falls into a deep, enchanted sleep at the curse of a wicked fairy which can only be broken by a kiss from a prince.

Ahead of its run at The Lowry, Birmingham Royal Ballet principal dancer Samara Downs talks about performing the contrasting lead roles of Princess Aurora and the evil fairy Carabosse in THE SLEEPING BEAUTY and how she prepares for this difficult ballet piece.

To start, tell us a little about yourself:

My name is Samara Downs, I’m from the UK and I’m a principal dancer with Birmingham Royal Ballet.

Why did you get in to ballet?

As the youngest girl in the family, I used to see my elder sisters going off to ballet classes when I was still too little to join in. My mum tells me that if she was ever watching the classes, I used to join in by myself at the side and, clearly having a feel for it, my parents decided to send me too when I was a little older.

What was the first ballet you ever saw?

I remember going into a video shop with my parents, back in the times of VHS, and being allowed to pick one film. I ended up with a wonderfully filmed and danced version of COPPELIA, and feel it was probably this that first really captured my imagination.

From there, my parents managed to get hold of various films of ballet productions, and I specifically remember watching SWAN LAKE and THE SLEEPING BEAUTY with Margot Fonteyn, whom I would try to copy in our living room. This must have been the first time I saw THE SLEEPING BEAUTY.

How do you feel about dancing the role of Aurora for the first time?

With its iconic score and fairy tale story, this piece is one of the seminal works of any classical company and, as it was for me, will most likely be one of the first works many dancers in training will see. This makes you feel quite a responsibility to deliver the fairy tale escapism that the audience will be hoping for.

Being so familiar with the production, I have ideas of how I might put my own musical and artistic emphases into the steps. However, I have found that when coming to a role afresh, you have to be ready and willing to drop your pre-conceptions and adapt so that you can find the best way of presenting the work on your body. It is only at this point that you begin to fully discover why you see certain steps approached in a certain way.

What are the main technical challenges you face when performing Princess Aurora?

All major balletic roles have their technical demands, with Aurora’s most daunting feats appearing in her initial appearance in Act 1. The Rose Adage is famous for its balances and the way the ballerina must change grips between each of her four suitors. It requires the ballerina to keep the kinetic chain through her partner’s hand so that she remains steady through the changes of partner and her weight remains constant through her supporting foot. Most of all though, it requires the ballerina to hold her nerve, and calm herself, even as the music continually builds to a symphonic climax. As if the Rose Adage wasn’t a challenge on its own, it is then followed by a long solo which requires not just clean line and stamina, but that the ballerina convey the Princess’s innocent coquettishness throughout.

Talking with fellow principal Jenna Roberts, more generally, it is both the sheer physical endurance required to get through the ballet, and the journey showing the development of her character, which makes dancing Aurora so rewarding. Emphasis on character has to be balanced with keeping the movement pure and clean in order to satisfy the classical choreography, especially in the first act where speed of foot work, nerves and tiredness can work against what the ballerina is trying to achieve artistically.

Samara Downs as Carabosse in Birmingham Royal Ballet's THE SLEEPING BEAUTY. Photo: Ty Singleton

Samara Downs as Carabosse in Birmingham Royal Ballet’s THE SLEEPING BEAUTY. Photo: Ty Singleton


Do you think your performance as Princess Aurora will be nerve-wracking?

Yes absolutely. It’s very normal to feel nervous before embarking on such a challenging role, even if you’ve performed it many times. When teaching Aurora, our assistant director, Marion Tait, told us of how she remembered waiting in the wings in the moments before her first entrance, daunted at the prospect of the marathon which was to follow. The stage manager would comfort her by saying that it was only 16 minutes until the end of the act. These moments of dread are common in ballet, where the dancer faces the huge feat of endurance to come, are matched only by the satisfaction which comes with completing the task and the feeling of a job well done!

In contrast, you also perform the role of Carabosse…

I was lucky enough to be able to learn this role from our assistant director, Marion Tait, who is the very best in stage craft. A role like this takes a certain amount of stage experience to master and it is only over time that you learn how to emphasize movement and mime in a way that makes it carry to the audience.

How does it feel to perform two such different roles?

Both characters use gesture, dynamics, posture, body language and eye line very differently. Perhaps more interesting though is the onstage development of Aurora’s character, as opposed to Carabosse, whose fully formed personality appears complete with backstory. Here you are left to exhort the fully-fledged bitterness, resentment and anger of an unashamed wicked witch. This makes for more of a flash in the pan experience, where you are left to rampage around the stage, causing havoc before being over-powered and leaving in a fit of pique on your open carriage – quite a fun experience!

How will you be preparing for your upcoming performances?

Show preparation is uniquely personal and any one dancer will tell you their preferred method. I like to make sure that I eat a small carbohydrate-based meal several hours before so I have time to digest and then get make-up and hair done, before warming up . Villains usually have some aspect of their outfit that requires more preparation time; in the case of Carabosse, the headdress requires heavy pinning. The dress is also heavy and corseted and, while Carabosse doesn’t appear until the end of the prologue, one has to get dressed deceptively early in order not to miss her spectacular entrance.

Birmingham Royal Ballet’s THE SLEEPING BEAUTY runs at Salford’s The Lowry from 28 February to 3 March 2018.