Carina Roberts’s star is on the rise. In her fourth year as a dancer at West Australian Ballet, the 23 year old has already chalked up several lead and solo roles. Now she’s taking on her first Romantic ballet, dancing the title role in La Sylphide. She took a quick break between rehearsals to chat to Nina Levy.
Looking at Carina Roberts’s family, it appears that ballet is in her blood. Both her mother and her father danced with West Australian Ballet (WAB), and her sister, who recently graduated from the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA), is also a dancer. Even her twin brother, a lawyer, dabbled in dance as a child.
So was it a foregone conclusion that the Perth born-and-bred dancer would follow in her parents footsteps?
“Absolutely not,” she says with a laugh. “I don’t think I considered ballet as a career until I was in year 11, which is relatively late for a ballet dancer.” A student of Gail Meade Performing Arts Centre, she says she loved ballet but also enjoyed learning other dance styles like jazz and tap. “Mum and Dad very much encouraged school and I enjoyed school, and I wasn’t bad at it,” she continues. “I always imagined going to university and living a ‘normal’ life.
“But then when I was about 15 or 16 I thought to myself, ‘I really love ballet and I’m not doing too badly at it, so what would it be like if I gave it a go? And would I be happy not giving it a go?’ So I joined the after-school certificate program at WAAPA through year 11 and 12. Then I auditioned for WAAPA’s full time program while I was doing my WACE exams!”
Roberts trained at WAAPA for two years, and, at 19, was set to return for a third year when she was spotted by WAB’s Artistic Director Aurélien Scannella, at the Royal Academy of Dance’s annual Festival of Dance competition and gala performance. Roberts had entered the Pre-Professional Award (which she won) and Scannella was the adjudicator. “So Aurélien saw me in that, and WAAPA did a performance at the Gala, and so he saw me dance in the group piece too,” remembers Roberts. “After that he offered me a contract for 2015 as a Young Artist at WAB.”
In the highly competitive world of classical ballet, it is relatively rare for an artistic director to approach a young dancer with a job offer and Roberts was grateful, she says, not just to be offered a job but to be spared the stress of the audition process.
In the highly competitive world of classical ballet, it is relatively rare for an artistic director to approach a young dancer with a job offer and Roberts was grateful, she says, not just to be offered a job but to be spared the stress of the audition process. “My strength is in performance. It would have been interesting to see if the same thing would have happened if I had done an audition class,” she reflects.
Although unexpected, the adjustment from student to professional was relatively smooth, recalls Roberts. “Everyone at WAB is very friendly. The biggest difference is learning choreography all the time, always doing different styles. At WAB we have such a diverse range of repertoire, so it’s about learning to watch choreographers, and learning how they would like you to move, and being open to developing in different ways,” she muses. “The days can be quite long, too. School’s different, it’s spread out and you do different classes. In a company you’ve got to learn to be super focused.”
A lesson Roberts learned early on is that, as a member of the corps de ballet, you have to be ready to fill in for other dancers at any time. “You never know who’s going to go down, and whose role you might need to know,” she explains. “You’ve got to take responsibility for that yourself.”
And the lessons weren’t limited to the corps. Excitingly for Roberts, in her first year at WAB she was cast as Swanilda in Coppelia, for the company’s school shows. “That was the biggest challenge of that year,” she says. “I really enjoyed dancing Swanilda, she’s probably one of my favourites that I’ve done so far, but yeah, that was a steep learning curve.”
Then in November 2016 she danced The Nutcracker’s Clara, this time in the opening night cast. “Dancing Clara was a completely different experience to Swanilda,” she reflects. “It was a new ballet, so the role was created, on me, in a way. So that was a privilege and very special.”
Now Roberts is taking on the title role of the Sylph in WAB’s production of August Bournonville’s La Sylphide, staged by Danish Bournonville specialist, Dinna Bjørn. As is standard for WAB, there are three casts for this ballet and she shares the role with Chihiro Nomura and Claire Voss.
One of the world’s oldest surviving ballets, La Sylphide has all the hallmarks of a Romantic ballet; the long white tutus, the magical creatures, the forest glade. Created in the early to mid nineteenth century, the escapist, fantasy narratives of the Romantic ballets were a reaction to the increasingly urbanised world of the Industrial Revolution.
And so Romantic ballets are populated by otherworldly characters, the sylphs of La Sylphide, the wilis of Giselle. Fairies or spirits, these creatures have a movement style that is distinctive, airy and ethereal. “The Romantic style is so different to anything I’ve had to do before,” says Roberts. “I’ve never done a production of Giselle or anything like that, so to be a lead role in a Romantic ballet is a big jump, but it’s great! Now that Dinna is here I’m getting lots of new information. At the moment the hardest part is the miming. It’s easy to put effort into steps, but when you have to pare back the mime to its core, it’s challenging… especially when you get caught up in the moment. Often I get very dramatic with my arms – I like to express a lot. But for La Sylphide the arms have to be quite contained, gentle and soft.”
Often I get very dramatic with my arms – I like to express a lot. But for La Sylphide the arms have to be quite contained, gentle and soft.
In comparison to the ballets of Petipa, which came later (think Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty), it’s softness that is one of the defining characteristics of the Romantic ballet, says Roberts. “Petipa ballets are quite upright and big, with grand steps that you can put lots of energy into. For Romantic ballets you’ve still got to have really strong lower legs, especially because we’ve got on long tutus and all you can see is our lower legs, but the upper body has to be very soft, and very emotive and expressive.
“It’s very specific too…” Roberts takes a typical pose, one hand placed delicately under her face. “… Like where the finger is under the chin. Dinna was saying, ‘Now make sure you don’t drift it off the side, it needs to be right under the chin.’ You’d think that wouldn’t be important but then you see it when it’s done properly you see that it makes it look really beautiful, and makes the style what it is.”
In addition to her role as a dancer, Roberts is also the WAB’s Junior Members ambassador. Designed for dance students ages 5-17, the program offers its members discounted tickets and opportunities to engage with the company and its dancers. It’s easy to see why Roberts was chosen as ambassador – small and effervescent, one can picture her appealing to young dancers. With her ambassador hat on she says that La Sylphide is well suited to younger viewers… or first-timers to ballet. “There are lots of fairies, and the story is quite simple,” she explains. “And it’s not a very long ballet. Simple storyline, beautiful ballet, easy to follow, lovely music… it’s perfect!”
Top: Carina Roberts as Clara, with Gakuro Matsui, in West Australian Ballet’s 2016 production of ‘The Nutcracker’. Photo: Sergey Pevnev.