Backstage With A Ballerina: Percy Pigs, Doc Martins and Lucozade

To celebrate World Ballet Day, ELLE chats to Anna Rose O'Sullivan, currently dancing the role of Alice in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland at The Royal Ballet.

MOST POPULAR

Ever wanted to know what a ballet dancer does before she goes on stage in front of over 2,000 people every night? Or what she drinks in the interval? Or the exercises she does before class?

To celebrate World Ballet Day on Thursday 5 October ELLE goes backstage with Royal Ballet rising star 23-year-old Anna Rose O'Sullivan (currently starring as Alice in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland) to find out what it's really like being a prima ballerina. Clue: Percy Pigs are a thing.

Anna Rose O'Sullivan rehearsing Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (photograph by Andrej Uspenski)
ADVERTISEMENT - CONTINUE READING BELOW

I usually get up around 8.30am. I like to stay in bed as long as I can and let myself have one 30-minute snooze: we have such long days and after a show I won't fall asleep until 1am because I'll be on such a high. Once I'm up I can get out of the house in 20 minutes. I manage to have a bath in that time (it relaxes my muscles) and I put toast on while the water's running. If I'm performing that evening, I'll plan a bigger breakfast: eggs, avocado and toast, orange juice and coffee. I try to really nourish my body.

I travel into central London from Ruislip which is a bit of a commute but the 45-minute journey is like therapy time for me. I love catching up on Desert Island Discs, or I'll listen to music like Father John Misty or old jazz music. I've also been re-reading Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, which helps with me get into the character. I didn't realise how spunky Alice was, she's always looking for something else.

There are times when I'm rehearsing a role so much that I naturally take away little things, but the moment I go home I'm a very normal person. Ballet and life are two different worlds for me.

Anna Rose O'Sullivan in rehearsal for Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (photograph by Andrej Uspenski)
ADVERTISEMENT - CONTINUE READING BELOW

By 10am I'm at The Royal Opera House in London's Covent Garden. Every time I turn the corner and see the Bridge of Aspiration [which connects the Royal Ballet School and the Royal Opera House] I have a moment and feel very lucky to have made it there. I never take it for granted.

Class starts at 10.30am so I'll change out of my boyfriend jeans and Doc Martins (I really like them because they're a sturdy shoe – you can't have any faux pas and break your ankle) and into my rehearsal gear.

For dancers, rehearsal wear is our way of expressing ourselves. Often people watch a class and say, 'Why have they only got one leg warmer on?'. It's just down to how our bodies are feeling that day or to keep a particular body part warm. I like to change it up, along with my hair style. As ballet dancers we become very ninja with our hair. I often plait my hair on the train without a mirror and fellow commuters stare because I can do it so quickly.

Before class I make sure I warm up with my own body conditioning exercises. I use one of those big elastic bands to warm up my ankles. It sounds strange but my bones crack a lot. When we start class there are always a few hip cracks at the bar. During the first few exercises everyone's cracking along to the music!

ADVERTISEMENT - CONTINUE READING BELOW

Class runs until 11.45am and then we have a 15-minute break before starting rehearsals which go on until 1.30pm when we stop for lunch. You have to learn to pace yourself and have lots of healthy snacks. I like Nairn's oatcake (I'm really into the chocolate chip ones at the moment) and Lucozade Sport is great for refuelling muscles.

For lunch, I'll have something light but nutritional, like a ham and cheese salad with seeds. I can't eat anything too stodgy because I'll usually be thrown around by male dancers in rehearsals, and then later on stage, so I don't want to feel like a washing machine. I want to feel elegant but refuelled and ready to go.

Dancers are very in tune with their bodies so we know what we need food-wise. If I need a sugar kick I won't hold back and will eat a cereal bar or some sweets, Percy Pigs are always a good option.

There's this great myth that dancers don't eat and I definitely do. If anything, we need the energy. We obviously need to eat healthily to maintain a particular physique, but like any athlete we have to nourish our bodies. That's been drilled into us from a young age.

I have my make-up done at 5pm and that's when I put my wig on too which needs about 40 pins to keep it in place. I feel like my head is a game of Kerplunk!

Once I've had my make-up done I'll got to the studio to tape up my toes. I put little plasters on each toe so I don't get any blisters. Then I warm up and have an energy gel and some water, and I'll have a flat Coke on the go during a show. There's a 30-minute and a 15-minute call for dancers before a performance. You can usually hear the buzz of the orchestra warming up which is always when I get a bit more excited.

When I made my debut as Alice, there was a real excitement and the whole company were really supportive and wanting the best for me. That was a lovely feeling, to have the company on my side, like they were holding me up too.

There's this great myth that dancers don't eat and I definitely do

I don't have a pre-performance ritual, I just say to myself 'Go out there and have fun because you've put in the work now, just enjoy it'. I'll usually say a quick prayer, 'Please keep me on my toes', which is my little comfort. I don't get too nervous beforehand, I just get very excited and then it's curtain up and there's no time to think about anything other than the performance.

During the interval, I quickly take my shoes off (I change them after each Act) and stick my legs up on the wall to drain some of the blood. During the season my feet get tougher and tougher and I put a surgical spirit on my toes to make the skin hard. I've also found that clear gel varnish helps make your feet look pretty but also thickens the nails.

After a show, the curtain goes down and there's a really joyful feeling. I got lots of flowers after my debut as Alice and had to enlist my two brothers, who had come to watch along with my whole family, to carry them home for me.

By the time I'm back home, I've calmed down and I like to have a small dinner and a cup of tea or a hot chocolate. I stick my legs up on the wall again until all the blood drains out of them and they look completely white!

I don't dream about being on stage and luckily don't have nightmares about forgetting my steps, usually I fall asleep straight away because I'm so tired. And that's a great feeling.


Join World Ballet Day LIVE stream 5 October; www.worldballetday.com. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland will be screened live in cinemas across the UK on 23 October

More from ELLE UK: