Celisa Diuana has a reputation among her dance students as being a ray of sunshine, her genuine affection and passion for teaching inspiring her students to work hard and stretch their technique while she gives out gentle corrections and praise. It’s impossible to walk out of the studio and not feel accomplished and lighter for having taken her class, regardless of your mood and mindset before you warmed up.
We had the opportunity to sit down with the retired Royal Ballet ballerina, and find out more about her journey into ballet, her experiences dancing the repertoire during her time in the Royal Ballet, and her love of teaching and what she has planned for the future.
Celisa, originally from Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, shares that it was really out of nowhere that she asked her mother to take ballet classes at age 6. She began her dance training at a local ballet school before taking the leap to successfully auditioning to train at a ballet vocational school in Rio, which she attended from the age of 8 to 16. She had the opportunity to take a summer course with a Russian teacher from the Vaganova School at age sixteen, and at the end of term was selected by an organisation to receive a scholarship to study at the Vaganova Academy in Russia for one year. “Once my family and I decided my mom was very worried she wanted to make sure I was sure about going. I was very aware it was a huge opportunity that I wanted to take”, she shared. “It was very scary, but I had this will to learn and be a ballerina. By then I knew I wanted to be a ballerina and that’s what you have to do. I knew the sacrifices I had to make, and that it would be very different than Rio.”
She studied at the the Vaganova Academy in 2002, the school had begun to accept students from outside Russia only recently which meant that Celisa was only a handful of international students, the others mostly from Japan, Korea and Italy. She had to learn quickly to speak Russian. Speaking to us about how competitive her experience was in the famous Russian ballet school, she was very honest. “It was definitely very competitive. I felt they treated Russians and international students a little differently, because the Russians were used to that mindset from such a young age, and it’s just how they are trained. Obviously the teachers would be really tough and the training would be the same but they wouldn’t treat us like they would the Russians, and I’m glad because it was hard enough as it was.”
Prix de Lausanne
She only stayed at the Academy for one year, the last graduation year, and performed on the famous Mariinsky Theater stage in two pieces, a contemporary ballet and the Sleeping Beauty pas de deux from Act III with Massimo Garon, who is now a soloist at La Scala in Milan. After that it was back to Brazil, where she learnt from a friend about the Prix de Lausanne competition. After receiving the support from her parents, she quickly prepared her application and was selected to compete in the completion at the end of January. “A lot of people would have been preparing the whole year in advance but I had just found about it in August. And that was it! For me I would say that was it, it was the key point, the crucial time for me to go. They only take dancers until they are 17, and I had turned 17 in August.”
Despite the very quick turn around from applying to performing in the competition she was adamant that she felt prepared. “Because I did the whole year in Russia I was already prepared in my own way. I performed the Act III Aurora variation [in competition]; at this point I was very familiar with it. It felt very natural for me to do that.” Though she admitted with a laugh that it was a very popular variation that year, and that about 30 other competitors also danced it.
Celisa was ultimately one of 8 competitors that got chosen for a prize in 2003. Amongst her other competitors were many familiar names in the ballet world today, such as Steven McRae. She explained what happens when you selected as a prize winner. “We had a meeting with one of the committee members, who was responsible to talk with you about if you want a scholarship or apprenticeship with a company. I wanted to experience company life because I had already done the scholarship in Russia, so I chose the apprenticeship. There was a list of companies and schools you could choose from. We had to make three choices. My first choice was the Royal Ballet, which is where I was accepted. They warned my dad that it was so expensive in London that the prize may not cover all the expenses, but my dad said it was okay they were willing to support me.” She noted that her other company selections had been Munich and San Francisco ballet.
The Royal Ballet Apprenticeship
Celisa walked us through her first day as an apprentice at the Royal Ballet. She explained that her at this point her English wasn’t very strong so her father came along with her to support her and assist her finding accommodations and getting to know London when she first moved to the city. “I came in [through the Royal Ballet stage door] with my dad on my first day, and an administrator told him to bring more girls next time, because she thought he was my coach” she remembered vividly with laughter. Celisa recalled “I walked into the stage door, and I remember feeling so overwhelmed. This was my first time in the Royal Opera House, and we went on a tour around the auditorium and the stage.”
We asked her about the experience of taking her first company class, which she remembered vividly. “The first day I went a girls class of Artists and First Artists. At the beginning of the season they tend to do separate classes. It was in the Fonteyn studio. Pietra Mello-Pittman’s mother was Brazilian so she spoke a little bit of Portuguese which helped me massively, when I didn’t know the building or where to go. Yuhui [Choe] was kind of new, it was her second season that year. Steven MacRae, who I met at the Prix de Lausanne was just joining at that time. The first class was fine, it was just getting to know people. Isabel [McMeekan] was also there, because soloists and principals can go where they want and don’t have to stick to their own classes. They knew I was the new face.”
She spoke about her experience at the beginning of her apprenticeship. “They started me off slowly, the beginning was just classes and getting used to the teachers, the studios, the buildings. A week later we started some rehearsals, and that season we started with La Bayadere. I started going to rehearsals for The Shades. It was an adjustment and I learned to know what my role was as an apprentice; I was a student within the company.”
Her debut on the Royal Opera House stage came not long after she began her apprenticeship, while the company was performing La Bayadere. “I had danced The Shades before so I kind of knew the choreography already. I had to cover for someone, I didn’t have a fixed spot. I covered someone in the Waltz in Act I, and I found out on the that day. It was for a matinee and we did a quick rehearsal. We had an emergency call, where they call the part in the ballet for everyone, and the new person can have a go. It’s a good way to learn and grow and prove yourself. My dad was still in London, so he was able to watch me and he was so proud.”
The Royal Ballet as an Artist
Celisa explained that towards the end of her apprenticeship while she was performing a piece in the Linbury Theatre. Monica Mason (then director of the company) asked to see her in her office after, and during the meeting said she was pleased with Celisa’s progress and wanted to offer her a contract as an Artists with the company
Initially there weren’t many differences from being an apprentice and an Artist, but Celisa felt like she had worked hard to get the job and that the hard work paid off. “At first I didn’t have many fixed places, I was still covering but I had some spots which was an achievement. I started dancing more and got more involved. The beginning can be very quiet for someone who wants to do a lot and be on stage. You learn a lot from being involved and learning the parts and watching, but you also want to be a part of it. In my second season I got solo roles. I did the First Sylph in La Sylphide. I covered lots of principle roles, and I danced the white couple in Les Patineurs. I covered Nikiya for La Bayadere, and some bits in Mayerling.”
During her time in the Royal Ballet Celisa also got to go on the many annual summer tours with the company to perform in different countries. “I went to America on my first tour. I went to Mexico, and Cuba. Cuba was quite stressful because people were getting sick, and there was a power cut [during a performance].” She laughed about that experience, “For me it was great and very enjoyable experience because the power cut happened when I wasn’t in the performance. The corps de ballet only performed Manon.”
She spoke about the vast array of roles she was able to perform with the company. “I liked MacMillan ballets, you obviously had to adjust the way you danced but it was a nice feeling to do it. I played the harlots and courtesans in Manon. The first time you do the acting in Manon you’re trying to figure it out and fit in, and to act and create your own story. But once you get there you can always get better and better, it doesn’t matter how many times you do it you just enjoy it more and get more into it.” Celisa also gave some insight into how it feels to perform the famous clog dance in La Fille mal gardee. “It’s fun and quite stressful because you have to place the clogs in a certain way before the dance and you have to go out put them on very quickly, they fit right over your pointe shoes, and make sure you know they are secure.”
Celisa spoke about what she found aesthetically beautiful when watching dance being performed. “I look for lines, and if the body lines are beautiful and how the person expresses emotions through them. Also, because ballet is a very athletic art form, I appreciate seeing good quality movement rather than just tricks and showing off. Of course these are also elements in ballet but if not careful it can be all about that and lose its artistry.”
Life as a Ballet Teacher
After spending 9 years as a professional dancer with the Royal Ballet, Celisa is currently a teacher for London adult dance lesson company Everybody Ballet (which provides group classes for adults, coaching for children, privates and duets, retreats and various events). “I think I was always interested in teaching. When I was looking to transition that’s when I began to teach and I really enjoyed it. It was only when I left the company that I taught my first class. It felt second nature to pass on everything. Obviously different stages have to have more skills, such as working with children or beginners. It’s more difficult to break it down, you have to really think about something you never had to think about. In a way it was a challenge on how you deal with your own dancing.”
She explained to us how exactly she got involved with Everybody Ballet, a company started by former Royal Ballet ballerina Isabel McMeekan. “When I left I was contacting people many people that I knew and teachers to see if there was anything that I could experience. I got in touch with Isabel and at that time she didn’t have anything to offer but she said to come along to assist. I started to becoming involved more, and she gave me some classes to teach and really enjoyed it. That’s how I became involved in Everybody Ballet.”
She is looking forward to the future, which includes teaching more Everybody Ballet classes, and a short dance film. “I still take classes and I do really enjoy it. I think it’s important to keep going, to be able to pass it on. I still want to dance a bit, like the projects with that film. I want to work with like minded people I can create with and do projects with.”
Pointe shoes are an essential part of the profession for a female ballet dancer so we couldn’t let Celisa go without finding out more about her own shoes that she wore throughout her career.
“While I was at the Royal Ballet I wore Freed of London which were handmade to fit my feet. My maker would make them especially for me. There was one point where my maker retired. so of course you have to change. I switched to Bloch and I was with them for a little while, about a year, before I found a new maker at Freed. I love Freed. I darned my shoes for a little bit, but then I ended up just cutting the satin around the block. I still have some pointe shoes left and I wear them for my own dancing and pointe exercises.”
Images supplied by Celisa Diuana, all © held by the photographers credited in captions.