Q&A Special: Sarah Lamb, Royal Ballet Cover Girl | Dance reviews, news & interviews
Q&A Special: Sarah Lamb, Royal Ballet Cover Girl
Broken ballerina who hobbled determinedly back to stardom again
You don’t usually find ballerinas in Monument Valley. Cowboys, maybe, but not a pale, slender girl in a glistening golden tutu alighting like an exotic butterfly briefly on a silk-shod toe in the very same red dust that John Wayne rattled across in Stagecoach. The cover pictures for the Royal Opera House season brochures have fielded some spectacular pictures, but the new spring image is symbolic of the enduring nature of the dancer's will to survive. Sarah Lamb, the translucent blonde from the US, is back on pointe after a year when her career appeared to be over.
Breaking her foot in a Manon rehearsal a year ago deprived her not only of her debut in this much coveted ballerina role, but, as she explains, forced her to wonder who she could be without dance in her life. Sarah Lamb (b 1980) joined the Royal Ballet six years ago from Boston Ballet, one of the rare Americans to cross the Atlantic. Conversation ranged over the gruesome details of injury, her unusual training under a legendary Russian teacher, her love of painting, and the accidents (literally) of the path to finding Mr Right on stage.
ISMENE BROWN: Excuse me, Sarah, I’m struck by how pretty you are...
SARAH LAMB: Er, thank you! Actually I'll tell you a funny story - Ed [Edward Watson, principal dancer] and I were recently in Japan doing advance prep for the company tour we’ll do there this summer. I was sitting in an interview room pretty much from 10 till 8 every day. One photographer came in, and I was standing there, he looked at me - and he ran out. Then he suddenly came back in, said, sorry he thought I was a doll!
You’ve come a long way to London from Boston - but in fact you’re not wholly American?
No, my mum is from Montreal, and my father grew up in Somerset, in England. He left as a small child for the US, but never became a US citizen - so I have dual citizenship.
How do you feel about where you are now? You missed last season.
I had a terrible accident at the start of last season, in September 2008. I was rehearsing the leading role in Manon, the bedroom pas de deux with David Makhateli, and on the very last step - well, we’re not exactly sure what the misalignment was, but as I went off on my slide step, my left foot smashed into him and the exact angle and force was perfect to create quite a catastrophic break of four metatarsals, and the arch was ruptured. It could hardly have been worse. That was the first time I’ve ever been injured, and it was really traumatic. The pain was so unbearable I thought I would pass out.
To get to hospital we were hailing a cab outside, and I had to stand on one leg with my left foot held up to my ear to keep it from throbbing so much - which must have looked pretty odd. It took over half an hour to drive to Princess Grace Hospital, it was agony, I didn’t have ice in the cab. They saw me quite quickly - the X-ray showed the breaks were quite clean, which was fortunate, but I guess the arch damage was quite hard to identify well, and an MRI was needed, and a Cat scan. And then I was rather hastily told it ought to be opened up the very next day. You just think, argh, that is exploratory surgery.
So I called a physio I had been close to in Boston and she got the orthopaedic surgeon there who is very good at the job, and he said he would be doing the same. So I went into the surgery, but not knowing what would result. Luckily the moment I got injured my husband landed from California. He was coming back from there because his mother had just died, so it was an awful time. But otherwise I would have been alone, and it would have been pretty awful.
What had been your plans in the season?
It was going to be a very good season for me, I’d have done my debut in Manon, my debut in Giselle, I was going to do certain ballets again, like Voluntaries, Rubies again, I was going to be in Wayne’s new ballet Infra. I missed quite a lot.
I was talking with Alina [Royal Ballet ballerina Alina Cojocaru] a few months ago about her similarly catastrophic neck injury - and she was saying, an injury like this is terrifying, no one understands what you are thinking, it is very lonely and frightening, it feels like your whole life is hanging.
Yes, I did feel in a way I’d lost myself as a person, because ballet is an all-consuming job and a very brief career, so you have to put your whole body and soul into it. I was on crutches for a long time. I went back to Boston to do my rehabilitation there, because there is an incredible therapist there who does a lot of aquatic treatment. There was the famous case of the American skater, Nancy Kerrigan, whose kneecap was shattered by someone, he got her back on the ice. And there was a Canadian silver medal diver who came back from Beijing whom he worked with. And we were working together on some things there.
Watch Sarah Lamb on shoot for the Monument Valley cover picture - video from the Royal Opera House:
It’s all about believing the advice is right, isn’t it? Because you have to feel that they know what is at stake for you. Because he could get it wrong, the treatment could just not do it.
Yes, it was very likely that I wouldn’t dance again. They didn’t tell me - you guess that. To a certain extent you believe what you want to believe. I am quite a pessimist, and people would say, oh, you’ll be back better than ever, and in my head, I’d go, oh yeah, and how does that happen? And also I knew it was a horrific accident that really could have been avoided. It was such a painful year, but I’m over it now. So where I am now is obviously that I am just very lucky to be back. I see the more how fortunate I am to do what I do. I am very self-critical, and I think I now learned to be slightly less self-critical. After all for a long time I could hardly walk. So being able to do barre a bit, and then rehearse a bit, and then get back gradually into performance are major steps.
Who supported you through it?
I did feel I became closer to Alina after it happened because we have both been through hell. And my husband [of four years] was incredibly supportive, because he left London with me to go back to the States for my rehabilitation. He’s a former dancer so he knew what I was going through.
Will you be able to catch up with Manon and Giselle?
I hope so.
What have you done or got coming up in this season that will compensate?
Oh, it was really wonderful having a part in McGregor’s Limen created on me. And I did Mayerling, Sleeping Beauty, Patineurs, Nutcracker (right, picture by Bill Cooper) - those are all things I’ve done before. I’m replacing Lauren [Cuthbertson] in Infra, which is something new for me, and that’s exciting.
In Mayerling I was strongly impressed by your performance as Countess Larisch - it was unusual, very painful to watch this character you formed, quite different from many interpretations of her. Has something gone into it from what you went through?
You can’t help that. You can’t divorce yourself from what you’ve lived, so you do draw on that for characters. When I was first doing that role, less than a month before I had lost someone who was very very close to me. You take these things, and if you have to express loss on stage, you use that. And sometimes it can communicate quite well.
You have to focus it through artifice, don’t you? You can’t just cry on stage and expect everyone to cry with you.
No, you can’t. It’s probably a little bit ingenuous to say that if you believe something enough you will communicate it - you do need the skill, and the more conviction and more confidence you have in what you are doing, the more someone is likely to believe you.
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