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‘It’s all about an illusion’ - Royal Ballet principal dancers head to the Cambridge Union

Principal dancers with the Royal Ballet, Marcelino Sambé and Sarah Lamb, are to appear at the Cambridge Union tomorrow night (Tuesday, November 9), alongside Kevin O'Hare, director of the Royal Ballet.

Ballet dancer Sarah Lamb. Picture: Johan Persson
Ballet dancer Sarah Lamb. Picture: Johan Persson

Marcelino and Sarah, two of the Royal Ballet's brightest stars, will dance in the chamber at the Cambridge Union - the oldest debating society in the world - and will also speak to the students, as will Kevin O'Hare.

Kevin trained at The Royal Ballet School from the age of 11, was a principal dancer at the Birmingham Royal Ballet and is now the director of the Royal Ballet having taken up the post in 2012.

One of Britain's foremost cultural institutions, the Royal Ballet, based at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, is one of the world's greatest classical ballet companies. Under Kevin's leadership, the company has sought to unite tradition and innovation through its world-class performances.

Marcelino and Sarah began our interview by revealing some of the maybe less well-known aspects of their very demanding jobs. "I think that it's very athletic," says Sarah, 41, who hails from Boston, Massachusetts.

"Whereas most athletes have a very specific training regimen that's geared up to either the Olympics or world events or national events, they have a very prescribed regimen... We have performances that overlap often with different repertoires - both contemporary and classical - so sometimes we keep training at a very, very high level for six days a week for months on end, which elite athletes just wouldn't do - they would have rest times more integrated into their schedules.

"I would say that it's physically taxing and I don't think it really looks that way because we're always smiling, and when you're playing football or basketball you show the effort on your face - it's very obvious that something's difficult.

"We sweat but we go off stage and people powder our nose and our forehead. It's all about hiding everything, it's all about an illusion - it's sort of a magic show at the same time as being a very physical and energetic performance as well as a drama."

Marcelino Sambé in action at the Royal Opera House. Picture: Tristram Kenton
Marcelino Sambé in action at the Royal Opera House. Picture: Tristram Kenton

Portuguese-born Marcelino, 27, the second black male dancer to be a principal dancer with The Royal Ballet, adds: "We go for such long periods without really getting that break because the seasons are so full-on, there are so many repertoires.

"I think it's very important as well to talk about how subjective it is. That's the painful part as well because you're obviously putting in so much effort physically, but then it's an art form so it really is subjected to taste and moment and the audience."

Succeeding in the world of professional ballet is an incredibly daunting and demanding task and can cause a great deal of physical and mental strain, as the film Black Swan highlighted - albeit in a rather extreme way. Was there ever a moment where either of the dancers doubted that they would 'make it'?

"There is a lot of pressure and people deal with it differently," replies Sarah, who trained at the Boston Ballet School with Tatiana Nicolaevna Legat, and then joined the Royal Ballet as a first soloist in 2004, becoming a principal in 2006.

Marcelino Sambé in a scene from Obsidian Tear/Marguerite and Armand/Elite Syncopations. Picture: Tristram Kenton
Marcelino Sambé in a scene from Obsidian Tear/Marguerite and Armand/Elite Syncopations. Picture: Tristram Kenton

"I never thought of walking away but definitely there have been times when you just really wish that you could open a trapdoor and go. I remember doing a competition and looking at the exit door - I really, really wanted to go out the exit door!

"But I think there are a lot of actors who feel that way. I heard one actor say that he feels like he's going to an execution every time he goes down the hallway onto the stage. I think for some people you do need that to get you to the place where you perform.

"I'm not saying that that's necessarily good for everyone but I think it is what happens to a lot of people. It is a natural part of performance and obviously being able to deal with that well is part of the psychology of performing, or of being an athlete...

"I think everyone does have doubts, but personally Black Swan, in terms of the people with whom we work, I think that kind of cattiness is not... Obviously in Russia people had acid thrown in their faces - that's totally extreme and I don't feel that that [level of cattiness] has ever been the situation in any company that I've worked with.

"Pretty much I get along with everybody, and I think you [Marcelino] get along with everyone too, and for me that's more important than anything else; just to be remembered as someone who was a nice person."

Sarah Lamb in The Sleeping Beauty. Picture: Johan Persson
Sarah Lamb in The Sleeping Beauty. Picture: Johan Persson

Marcelino trained at The Royal Ballet Upper School and graduated into the company during the 2012/13 season. He was promoted to first artist in 2014, soloist in 2015, first soloist in 2017 and principal in 2019. On this particular topic, he had this to say: "Well I was injured and I think injury is like a dark moment in any dancer's career...

"But I feel like it was a great opportunity to look at the world outside and try to understand what is out there and who am I besides being a dancer? And my parents always really tried to give me those hard questions because obviously, as you know, a career in dance is limited."

Sarah Lamb and Marcelino Sambe will be performing in Giselle on November 24 and December 2 at the Royal Opera House. For more information, visit roh.org.uk. For more on the Cambridge Union, go to cus.org.

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