I Ursula Hageli ballet the

theballet association
Ursula Hageli
Ballet mistress, The Royal Ballet
interviewed by David Bain
Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, London, 10 October 2008.
n introducing Ursula Hageli, David Bain explained
that the evening would consist of two parts – her
past career, and the work Ursula is doing now as Ballet
Mistress. There would be a theme of Swan Lake throughout the evening.
Ursula was born in Switzerland, and started ballet training in Zurich. Nicholas Beriozoff, who was Svetlana
Beriosova’s father, was the director of the Zurich ballet
company. He spotted her, at the age of eleven, when she
was a pupil at the Zurich Opera House School. Ursula
had started out as a page boy in Swan Lake, bringing on
the crossbow for dancers such as Nureyev. She would
watch each performance as a page standing at the side of
the Queen’s throne, and can remember seeing Fonteyn’s
amazing smile as the Black Swan. Beriozoff felt Ursula
reminded him of his daughter. He wanted her to train at
the Royal Ballet School. When she was twelve years old,
Ursula auditioned for, and was accepted by, the Royal
Ballet School. She obtained a scholarship from Zurich.
Nicholas Beriozoff, who was Svetlana
Beriosova’s father, was the director of the
Zurich ballet company. He spotted her, at
the age of eleven…
It was made clear to Ursula that only British and
Commonwealth pupils were offered contracts from
the school to the Royal Ballet Company at that time.
Therefore, Nicolas Beriozoff ’s initial intention, for
Ursula, was to attend the school for two years, and
then return, aged fourteen, to Zurich Ballet under his
direction. In the end, Mr Beriozoff moved on to direct
another company and Ursula continued her training at
the Royal Ballet School. As the scholarship from Zurich
only lasted for two years, more funds needed to be
found to secure further training at the school. Her father
obtained another scholarship from Migros, a large
supermarket chain in Switzerland. That initial scholarship has developed into the Prix de Lausanne.
Ursula considers herself lucky with her varied
training before attending the Royal Ballet School. One
early teacher was Maya Kuebler, who had trained with
Kurt Joss. Another teacher had trained at the Kirov.
At the RBS she was given the great foundation of the
Cechetti training. Dame Ninette de Valois frequently
visited the School and on such occasions she emphasised the importance of alignment, the use of the floor
and use of the head. Ursula’s contemporaries at school
included Julian Hosking, Jeanetta Laurence, Wendy
Ellis, Christopher Carr and Wayne Eagling.
Stuttgart Ballet
Ursula then joined Stuttgart Ballet under the direction
of John Cranko. Shortly after she arrived the company embarked on a three month coast to coast tour of
America, which started at the Met and Sol Hurok was
the impresario. It seemed ‘very glamorous and fabulous’,
but being 17 she took it all for granted thinking that this
was the norm of any touring ballet company. Little did
she know what was to come?
She said ‘the company was close knit. Cranko had
a wonderful way of making even the youngest members of the company feel like soloists when creating new
choreography. Working on new pieces was very exciting. Cranko encouraged you to be creative in rehearsals,
if he saw and liked what you did, he would use it, and
you would feel part of the creative process. New works
created included Glazunov’s The Seasons, Carmen (full
length) and Greening. There were always new pieces
being created.’
Ursula remembers touring to Russia in 1971,
‘which was quite an experience at that time. It was
freezing cold and half the company was off sick with
upset stomachs within days of arriving with the atrocious food. Within a week we were left with just one cast
dancing so many people had upset stomachs. We performed in Moscow, Riga and Leningrad. The audiences
particularly loved Onegin and Taming of the Shrew. On
one occasion after the performance we all went about
our usual routine of taking off our make-up and getting
ready to leave the theatre, but the applause continued on
and on. The stage crew had already dismantled the set
back stage and still people would not stop applauding.
In the end Marcia Haydee and Richard Cragun repeated
one of their pas de deux without a set or music to satisfy
their audience’.
When Ursula had been with the company for three
years, Cranko died unexpectedly on a flight back home.
‘We had been on another tour to the States and were on
our way back to Stuttgart about to enjoy our summer
break. The whole company was devastated, Cranko had
been a real father figure to the company’.
were operated on.
Royal Academy of Dancing P.D.T.C.
She thought she would never be able to dance again
and so embarked on her Teaching Diploma from the
Professional Dancers Teacher Training Course at the
Royal Academy of Dancing. The course was at the time
in its second year of existence.
From there she went to teach in Canada to a
place called Lloydminster on the border of Alberta and
Saskatchewan where for a year she ran a ballet school for
200 children. Again, it was very cold and she remembers
it was an odd place because the population seemed to
consist of a mix of Eskimos, cowboys and native Indians.
Ursula staged a production of Peter and the Wolf whilst
there and entered students for RAD examinations.
Northern Ballet
London City Ballet
Soon after, being a young, impatient dancer, Ursula left
Stuttgart. Laverne Meyer offered her a principal contract
with Northern Ballet Theatre. She was aged 20. Ursula
arrived in Manchester where the company was based
to dance the title role of Cinderella within two weeks of
joining. She was coached by Christopher Gable. With
Stuttgart Ballet, Ursula had been used to dancing on
big stages in big theatres with a big cast and full orchestra, and nice, warm and comfortable hotel rooms. With
NBT, she had to adapt to everything being on a smaller
scale, and the touring was pretty grim in cold hotels. She
remembers her first run through of Cinderella in a university theatre in Aberystwyth. Her first performance
with Northern was at the Theatre Royal in Bath which
had a small raked stage that felt like being ‘on a mountain top.’
Despite the frequently unglamorous working conditions, she enjoyed a fabulous repertoire. She
danced the Partisan Woman in Kurt Jooss’s The Green
Table, ‘which I loved’, Chiarina in Fokine’s Carnival,
and Jonathan Thorpe created ‘A Woman’s Love’ for her
to the Schumann Song Cycle Frauenliebe und Leben
which won critical acclaim. Keith Rosson came to guest
with the company and she danced with him in Simon
Mottram’s Tchaikovsky Suite as well as Walter Gore’s
Eaters of Darkness, a piece originally created for Paula
Hinton, which was incredibly dramatic, the ballet ending with her strangling Keith. Another dramatic role she
enjoyed was the woman in Peter Darrell’s Prisoners. ‘I
really loved it.’ Her partners included Nigel Spencer and
Simon Mottram. On tour the company performed eight
shows a week of ballets such as Aladdin and Cinderella.
Nicholas Beriozoff mounted Spectre de la rose, and
Svetlana Beriosova started to coach her in several roles.
The company was doing pioneering work at that
time, and Ursula was excited to be there at the start of it,
and grow with it. ‘We did have great times.’ She stayed
for five years, but developed stress fractures on both her
shins which were wrongly diagnosed as tumours, and
One year later, when Ursula returned to Manchester,
‘The shins were fine,’ so she started training again. At
that time, London City Ballet was starting, and Harold
King invited her to join. Once again she was with
another pioneering company ‘going forwards,’ with a
full orchestra and corps de ballet. Donald MacLeary
was guesting with the company and she was delighted
to be partnered by him in Swan Lake Act II, Paquita
and Nutcracker pas de deux. He had been her idol
since her student days at White Lodge, when she used
Princess Diana took great delight in
introducing our director to the king: ‘King
Harold… this is Harold King!’
to watch him perform at the Opera House. It was with
London City Ballet she danced her first Odette/Odile,
coached by Svetlana Beriosova. She coached Ursula in
many roles: they worked through Les Sylphides, Sleeping
Beauty, Swan Lake and Giselle, Don Quixote pas de deux
and many more. ‘We had wonderful times together.’
The company’s first tour abroad was to the United
Arab Emirates ‘We worked hard and enjoyed ourselves.’
The company regularly toured to Norway and Princess
Diana became their patron, and with her support ‘the
company really took off. She came to watch rehearsals
and performances on many occasions. ‘When we toured
to Norway the Norwegian Royal family came to watch
and we had a post performance reception at the palace,
where Princess Diana took great delight in introducing
our director to the king: “King Harold… this is Harold
It was with London City Ballet that Ursula met
Richard Slaughter, who was brought to the company to
partner her in Swan Lake. They formed an enterprising partnership which was to last for 20 years. Initially
they embarked on a freelance career guesting in endless
Swan Lakes throughout Europe. She also became interested in Baroque dancing, which provided the chance
to see how ballet from the court of Louis the XIV has
developed into the ballet we know today. She found it
fascinating to learn how closely the grand pas de deux
from The Sleeping Beauty Act III follows the pattern of a
court minuet. She also adored the costumes, the beautiful paniered skirts.
an injured student with the Royal Ballet School) to sit at
Ashton’s side whilst he was choreographing A Month in
the Country, and apparently made constant references to
Pavlova whilst creating the ballet.
Following the success of Portrait of Pavlova and
at the request from theatre managers they went on to
produce The Little Mermaid with music by Debussy
and designed by Terence Emery. The production cost
£30,000. They received no public funding, but luckily
the Disney film was out at the same time, which meant
houses were full, and we just about broke even. So almost
accidentally they had co-founded Ballet Creations an
independent small to middle scale touring company.
Later a full length Cleopatra and Gala Performance were
added to the repertoire and the company became resident at Wimbledon Theatre.
Royal Ballet Education Unit
During this freelance period Ursula frequently worked
for the Royal Ballet education unit, which was fascinating. She was used to the audience being at a distance, but
now she was able to see the immediate impact of what
she was doing. ‘We visited many different, schools, hospitals and hospices’. The work was very rewarding, to see
peoples faces light up at such close proximity, especially
for people with physical and hearing impairments. She
was once asked ‘Do you get that same sense of elation
when you are dancing as we do watching?’
At the time Kate Castle was the head of the education unit and this work provided the foundation of
what has now developed into our Chance to Dance and
the Insight Days. We would often get to a school at 8am
to warm up whilst the dance floor was being laid. We
devised an hour long Introduction to Ballet demonstrating a typical dancer’s day, explaining how we train. We
often invited four boys on the dance floor to do the balances of the Rose Adagio, and would usually end the session with a Black Swan or Don Quixote or Beauty pas de
deux in costume. After that we would have a question
and answer session. After a short break, we would teach
the children some basic ballet technique in the afternoon. This would go on every day, projects lasting three
weeks at a time, which was gruelling, with conditions
being far from ideal’. During this time she was still giving guest performances of Swan Lake, being in her mid
30s, felt she was coming to the end of her dancing days.
Before ‘hanging up her shoes’ Ursula
decided to develop their education work
into a performance, so together with
Richard she co-produced a production of
Pavlova’s life story…
Just a few days after the company reached its fifth
birthday following performances of the Little Mermaid
in Paignton (where incidentally she chose Lauren
Cuthbertson to perform the role of a baby Mermaid
aged eight with the company) disaster struck and the
mini-bus transporting the dancers back to London
overturned on the motorway. Luckily nobody was killed
but it was a huge shock and the decision was made to
stop the enterprise.
Just at that point Wayne Sleep contacted her and
asked if she would be interested in joining him for one
of his shows which was going to be based on the History
of Dance and he wanted to include some of the Pavlova
numbers they had re-created. She was delighted not to
have the worry of administration, booking theatres and
organising costumes. Just taking care of herself dancing seemed like a real treat. She had a very busy time
dancing a lot of different roles. Pavlova’s Californian
Poppy, the girl in Wayne’s Chaplin ballet, Don Q and
Lac Act II pas de deux, as well as a cancan with Wayne.
She was 40 at the time and after 15 weeks of 8 shows a
week dancing all those numbers in every show, she ruptured her Achilles tendon on stage at the end of Pavlova’s
Bacchanale. She was convinced this was the end of her
dancing career. However, ‘I got into shape again, following the advice of my orthopaedic surgeon, to ensure I
got the Achilles tendon fully mobile again, and completely unplanned ended up dancing for another four
years until the other Achilles tendon ruptured’.
Ursula then moved to the New Forest, and started a
school in Christchurch near Bournemouth. She devised
Ballet Creations
Before ‘hanging up her shoes’ Ursula decided to develop
their education work into a performance, so together
with Richard she co-produced a production of Pavlova’s
life story, researching it fully. The company they formed
was called Ballet Creations. The production toured successfully round UK and abroad with a group of eight
dancers, five musicians and one actor portraying the
role of Victor Dandre, Pavlova’s husband. To fund it they
danced 60 full length Swan Lake performances with a
small touring company round Europe, which was an
exhausting experience. The production included some
of Pavlova’s most well known pieces such as, Bacchanale,
La Nuit, the Pavlova Gavotte, the Swan and excerpts
from The Fairy Doll. They felt they really got to know
Pavlova, and could also see where Ashton’s inspiration
came from. Richard had been lucky enough (at the time
quickly and when we came back for this season not all
of the injuries were fully recovered.
When questioned whether the current injuries
might be due to the dancers taking on too many guesting opportunities during their holiday time, Ursula said
‘Injuries can happen for many different reasons. The
injury problems at the moment are not down to dancers
doing a certain amount of guesting elsewhere. One has
to remember that although it’s important not to overdo
it, dancers want to make the most of a short career and
dance as much as possible whenever they can. Every
dancer is different; some will thrive on a heavy workload. It can be equally difficult to perform well when
there are very few performances, especially at a principal level. In Swan Lake, there is the potential for the girls
to get sore achilles tendons, there is a lot of jumping and
standing in lines, the girls are on stage throughout four
acts, which is especially taxing if there are two shows in
a day. Just recently many of our soloists were affected by
injuries which in turn have given many of the younger
artists an opportunity to do soloist work.’
There is no such thing as a ‘usual day’, each day
is completely different. The girls are very good and let
me know as soon as possible if they are unwell or have
a problem that will prevent them from working. This
morning we had a stage rehearsal of Manon where we
were missing many dancers due to injury and sickness.
I received my first mobile call at 8.30 reporting sickness,
another girl sent me a text, as she had lost her voice. As
a result we were rehearsing dancers for Act II during the
end of Act I.
Anything can happen! I remember one particularly difficult day. Christopher Wheeldon had rechoreographed the Garland Waltz on the students of
the Royal Ballet School in mid-season, as our dancers’
schedule was too busy to permit extra rehearsal time.
Once it had been set on the students it was taught to the
Company dancers. We had just one hour to teach and
rehearse it to be performed that evening. It was taught in
record time but minutes later a dancer became injured
in another rehearsal. This then required an emergency
call to replace the injured person for the new version
of the Garland Dance. The curtain went up at 7.30 with
everyone in place. However, during the Prologue one
of the Lilac Attendants twisted her ankle on stage. This
meant that now I was short of a Nymph for Act II. I tried
to organise a placing call in the scene dock, whilst the
Hunt Scene was going on but there was so much scenery
from other productions that there simply was no space
available. As the girls were rushing to get changed from
Act I into their Nymph costumes in order to get down to
the stage for a quick placing call before curtain up of the
Hunt scene one girl grazed her leg on a knitting needle.
The accidents that evening just didn’t seem to want to
end but the show did go on and we kept it all together.
For Swan Lake, Christopher Carr is overall in
a one year course for students which culminated in a
week of performances with the principal roles danced by
professional dancers. Together with Richard Slaughter
she co-produced Nutcracker, Coppélia, Cinderella and
Sleeping Beauty for that set-up.
The Royal Ballet
The company is always very busy. Currently we are
working on Swan Lake, Manon and a triple bill. Next
is Ondine and then Nutcracker takes us up to the
Christmas season. It is quite normal for the Company to
be working on three productions at any one time. One
production will be up and running, whilst another will
be almost ready for performances and another in the
early stages of learning the choreography. Most of the
time this is taught from notation before it is rehearsed
and then coached in more detail. Each production will
have several full run-throughs. Soloist roles are given to
Rehearsing the big corps de ballet
numbers with the girls is very rewarding
when there is plenty of time to work on fine
detail, with the dancers graduating
perfectly in height, looking impeccable.
three sometimes four different casts and they all need
to have rehearsals in the studio before going on stage.
This calls for a lot of rehearsing but is essential for the
development of the dancers. As a result the timetabling
is very complex and everything is planned to the utmost
Swan Lake has a massive cast and everybody works
very hard, so if for instance a soloist is sick it has repercussions right down the ranks and I have to ensure there
are no gaps in the corps de ballet. This is when I have to
call on the students across the road for help. It is good
for them to have the experience of dancing with the
company and we need their back-up.
Rehearsing the big corps de ballet numbers with
the girls is very rewarding when there is plenty of time
to work on fine detail, with the dancers graduating
perfectly in height, looking impeccable. It is also most
frustrating when at short notice dancers need to switch
places, sometimes having to do everything on the opposite leg and to the other side at short notice in an emergency if someone is sick or injured. The dancers cope
amazingly as do the students. A few days ago we had as
many as nine students on stage in Act IV of Swan Lake.
The Far East tour in the summer was tough. We
travelled huge distances, performed 30 shows within
five weeks with four different productions. This meant
more rehearsing on tour than usual when the dancers were tired at the end of the season and we had a lot
of injuries. The summer holiday seemed to go by very
de Valois’ pointing out the importance of the use of
the floor, epaulement and the use of the head. To this
day, when coaching or rehearsing, Ursula can still hear
those ‘pearls of wisdom’ in her head. The training then
was very Cecchetti orientated. Nowadays dancers in the
Royal Ballet come from all over the world and have been
trained in many different ways. This makes it more difficult for the corps de ballet to achieve a uniform look.
However, she believes dancers can benefit from having a
varied input of different styles as the repertoire with the
Royal Ballet is so enormous that dancers need to adapt
constantly from Ashton to Balanchine or McGregor.
Many things have moved on since the days Ursula
trained at the school. She is aware of the world class
conditions they enjoy at the refurbished Opera House.
When working in such conditions daily it is easy to forget how lucky they are to have the big studios and sprung
floors and points this out to the dancers occasionally.
Ursula has little time to pursue any hobbies. The
job is very demanding sometimes she can be in the
building from 9.30am to 10.30pm. Some of her friends
came to watch Swan Lake a few days ago and they loved
it. That is really what it is all about, giving people the
pleasure of watching great artists in a wonderful setting
dancing some of the best ballets.
charge of the rehearsals. He takes the full company numbers like Waltz and Polonaise in Act I and the National
dances in Act III. Ursula rehearses the swans, cygnets,
big swans and princesses in Act III separately. Lesley
Collier, Alexander Agadzhanov and Jonathan Cope
coach the principals. When all is ready the full company comes together for the studio run-throughs. After
several run-throughs to accommodate all the different
casts, the company progresses from studio to stage calls.
There is much stopping and starting to make sure all the
dancers are correctly placed on the stage. At this point
we will just have a pianist in the orchestra pit. For the
next run the costumes will be added and finally lighting
and orchestra complete the full production. These stage
calls are watched critically not only by the ballet staff
that have conducted the rehearsals, but also by Monica
Mason and Jeanetta Laurence. Copious notes are given
to all concerned to ensure the production looks as perfect as possible. The whole process usually takes three to
four weeks.
Due to the many cast changes for soloist roles there
are continuous changes in the corps de ballet. Before a
production is revived Ursula will visit the school to see
which students are most suitable to use within the productions and check with the school if they are available
for the company at the required dates and times, so that
if for example the second cast cygnets are scheduled to
perform, they need to be replaced in the corps de ballet.
She has to make sure students of a suitable height and
ability are available and able to fill the gap.
When Ursula was questioned about the British
style, she remembers at White Lodge Dame Ninette
David Bain thanked Ursula for giving a fascinating
insight into the workings of the Company.
Reported by Rachel Holland, corrected by Ursula Hageli
and David Bain ©The Ballet Association 2008.