It’s been an oddly fractured year for dance. Repeated lockdowns stifled talent, thwarted new ideas. Online and outdoor offerings provided some release but when theatres reopened in May, dancers emerged as if from hibernation, full of life, anxious to get on with their notoriously short careers.
None more so than Marianela Núñez. The Royal Ballet has excelled as a company this year, but she is the fixed star gleaming at its heart, never disappointing, always moving towards her aim of perfection. Her smile irradiates the stage, but it is the purity of her classical technique, the sense that you are watching someone at the absolute peak of their abilities.
She returned to performance in June in Jerome Robbins’s Dances at a Gathering, a piece for 10 dancers to Chopin’s piano music, which is both wistful and joyous, a subtle celebration of friendship and love. As the girl in pink, she was by turns playful and melancholy, carefully poised so as not to reveal too much but suggesting hidden depth. “It was just so lovely to be back and to feel the atmosphere with the other dancers,” she says. “We’d all been stuck in our little bubbles, working on our own, and it was very emotional to be back.”
Being part of a company is important to Núñez. She is a principal but not a prima donna. Last month, she danced the title role in Giselle but also, at other performances, the secondary part of the threatening, ghostly Myrtha. “I danced Myrtha a lot in the beginning of my career and then as soon as I started to dance the title role, I stopped. Yet Myrtha is so important for the story of the ballet; she establishes that mystical world in the second act and she has to hold the stage for so long. I just thought how brilliant it would be now when I have more understanding to give it another try. So I asked Kevin [O’Hare, the director of the Royal Ballet] if I could do it. It was a dream. But oooh, it’s demanding physically.”
She grins, letting out her breath with a sigh. “Sometimes I catch myself thinking, oh my god, how can I love this so much, especially with roles like the classics, because they’re scary. The challenge is huge. But it gives me so much. Coming back has been phenomenal. I keep trying to taste every little bit of it. What lockdown taught me, one more time, is just how much I love what I do. It is my true love and passion.”
All Núñez’s performances are notable for their refinement, the sense they give that she is pushing deeper on a long journey into classical ballet. She is determined to mine every nuance from roles that were created in the 19th and 20th centuries so that 21st-century audiences understand and appreciate them. “I am such a bun-head,” she says with a giggle, making fun of her obsession with ballet history. “Before my performances in Giselle, I re-watched the Anton Dolin documentary [A Portrait of Giselle] about the ballet, with dancers such as Alicia Markova, Yvette Chauviré, Carla Fracci, all these legends, and I am just constantly ticking all these things in my head.
“There is so much to learn. I am definitely getting more curious about these classical works, these styles, but also about me, how I approach these famous roles. Every rehearsal is seriously a journey. I still ask how can I push that, so that each performance is a work in progress. I still have a huge chance to achieve, to get better.”
Born in Argentina, Núñez turned up at the Royal Ballet in 1997, as a prodigy who had been dancing leading roles at Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires since the age of 14. UK employment law meant she spent a year in the Royal Ballet school, joining the company at the age of 16 and then working her way to principal in 2002. Now 39, she is still in her pomp, her physical abilities showing no sign of waning.
“I really do feel I am in my prime,” she says, with another laugh. “But I feel actually I have been in my prime for a long time. The fact that I can sustain it is the biggest gift to me. It’s not only to do with maturity and understanding about the art form, but also my body feels great. I can perform three days in a row and still feel really good.”
For someone who loves dancing, lockdown proved a particular challenge. For her first, long enforced absence from the stage in 2020, she went to Argentina to be near her parents – “I got the last plane out” – and her boyfriend, Alejandro Parente, a former principal at Teatro Colón. She ended up staying for five months. “Lockdown there was super-tight. At least here in the UK people could go for a walk in the park; we were only allowed to go round the block.”
Like every other dancer, she kept herself going by doing class in a confined space, finding refuge and solace in that daily routine of exercise. “I thought I was going to go crazy. But I was actually surprised about how grown up I was about it. I thought there were going to be more tears,” she says, smiling at herself. “I think it was because I could see that all over the world, we were all in the same place, giving each other strength. It was hard, but we did it.”
I am getting more curious about these classical works, these styles, but also about me, how I approach these roles
The return to England and to dancing, displaying radiant virtuosity in pas de deux from Don Quixote and Le Corsaire, when restrictions briefly lifted at the end of last year, was pure joy. “I could see how well everyone was dancing. I felt so proud. I think that just gave me a push to know that it was going to be OK, we just had to be patient.”
This year, her performances have been unforgettable. Not just in Dances at a Gathering, but also as a glorious Aurora awoken from sleep in the third act of The Sleeping Beauty. “The word I think of is content,” she says. “She has to be happy but not in a toothy way. It feels very grand.” The description might as well apply to Núñez herself. She contains happiness in her dancing, but it goes much deeper than teeth and smiles.
Since she wants to continue performing for as long as she can, she recognises the lockdown may actually have had a beneficial side-effect, because it gave her chance to rest, to ease those odd aches and pains that a dancing body always suffers. “My physio said it is going to give me another 10 years,” she says, laughing again. She is inspired by dancers such as Sylvie Guillem and Leanne Benjamin, prodigies like her who extended their careers well into their 40s. “It wasn’t just that they kept dancing, it was that every time you saw them, they were great. You could feel their energy. If I get to be like them, it will be amazing.”