19 March 2015 at 1.21pm | 6 Comments
The Lyon-born Principal's exposure to dance began at a very young age. Brought up in France and Spain by contemporary dancers, she spent a lot of time behind the scenes at her parents’ rehearsals and performances. Yet, despite this early exposure to dance, her artistic passions lay elsewhere and she was more interested in painting and singing, so much so that she surprised her mother when she made a sudden decision to become a professional ballet dancer: 'There was never any expectation from my Mum and Dad,' she said. 'It was very clear that they would never push us, but they were so involved and so in love with they did, that the passion for the art form was contagious.'
Aged 14, she attended a ballet summer school in Cuba that had a lasting impact on her. ‘When I came back from that trip,’ she told interviewer David Pickering, ‘I said to my mum: “I think I want to dance!”’.
After winning competitions, including a silver medal at the prestigious International Ballet Competition in Varna, Bulgaria, she joined Paris Opera Ballet and thought she had achieved her dream. But she soon realized that the French company wasn't for her: 'It was an amazing experience but I couldn’t fit in properly,’ she remembered, reflecting on a year and a half in Paris. 'I planned on going to Amsterdam but I went to a trial class at The Royal Ballet, just because I was going via London. I didn't think think at any point that I would be offered a contract. I thought there was no way that they would take me, because of my size [Zenaida is 5ft 8 inches tall]. I was wrong, which is great’. She joined as a First Artist in 1994, and quickly moved up the ranks to become a Principal seven years later.
In 21 years with the Company, Zenaida has fine-tuned an enormous repertory, performing classics such as Manon and the iconic The Rite of Spring, 21st century works including Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Winter's Tale, and contemporary works by emerging choreographers.
It is this last genre in which the dancer's versatility and stamina have truly shone and it soon became clear that she was a natural for contemporary dance. ‘I think I understood it because I saw it so many times and I grew up with it,’ she said. But she also succeeded at portraying the classical roles of the British tradition that she didn’t believe were for her at first: ‘I didn’t come from the Royal Ballet School and didn’t have Frederick Ashton’s fast footwork, that evolved over time. I thought I'd never do an Ashton but then Sylvia came along. I thought they'd cast it wrong, with Darcey [Bussell], Marianela [Nuñez] and me. We all looked at each other and said "Are you sure? This is miscast - we can't do this at speed!". I've never done anything like it stamina-wise, it's like a triathlon!'
Another challenging role Zenaida picked out is Odile/Odette in Swan Lake: 'Technically it's very demanding because at the beginning you have to be soft. I am ultimately, an illusionist - what I want is for the audience to see this bird swimming on a lake and if I don't give that illusion then what's the point? You want to do a good job and do the role justice.'
When asked about favourite roles, Zenaida was unable to pick one single part, but Manon is definitely up there: 'I imagine it's what an actor feels when they get to perform Shakespeare,' she said.
Challenges for Zenaida continue off-stage as she's mother to two children: ‘I try my best to spend as much time as I can with them. There’ve been times when I had to do a show with very little sleep and sick kids, but you learn to manage’.