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Tierney Heap

Soloist, The Royal Ballet

interviewed by David Bain
Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, London, 1 June 2017

IN WELCOMING TIERNEY David apologised for having advertised the meeting with Tierney as a First Soloist. Tierney suggested that David knew something she didn’t and would tell Kevin at her interview! Tierney last spoke to the Association early in her career alongside Claudia Dean.

 Coaching is one to one with Monica Mason. She would talk a lot about the character of Myrthe, not just the steps…

David suggested Tierney start by talking about the first of her major roles, Myrthe in Giselle. Initially, she was a cover for the role, but as others were injured, she got her opportunity. Sometimes covers go to rehearsals but for some ballets you don’t go to a rehearsal but even if so many girls are off and there’s only one left out of five or six, you can’t assume you’ll get a show. Coaching is one to one with Monica Mason. She would talk a lot about the character of Myrthe, not just the steps but walking on and dealing with the atmosphere and how you are feeling at that particular moment. You have to learn the steps of the very long, extremely difficult solo, with encouragement from the Wilis off stage, but it’s one of Tierney’s most enjoyable roles. How does Monica set the character? She works in detail on your focus, where your eyes are and creating a presence but allows you to build the character. In dealing with Hilarion, Tierney isn’t too serious or aggressive, but playful as well as powerful. Monica gives you leeway. Bourréeing on for your first entrance you create atmosphere. Although she was doing the role at the same time as Claudia Dean, who was her best friend, they didn’t need to discuss how they were approaching it. You are on your own in rehearsals so you are in your own space. She would bring something different from Claudia because everyone has a different take on it. Tierney’s performance was a success – Monica liked it – and she did it again when it came back.

Her next role was Lilac Fairy, again coached by Monica. She took a lot of rehearsals the first time but this time she wasn’t there so Sam Raine was coaching. She was good but Monica had done the role and brought something extra to the rehearsals, not just on the technical side but creating the person of the Lilac Fairy even though it’s not a big character role. It’s another hard solo, very controlled, and different from roles Tierney had been doing as it is powerful but so elegant at the same time. It was a challenge but Monica helped to bring that elegant side out of her. The last fouettés are the scariest moment. It is a strange role as you dance at the beginning and then walk around a lot interacting with everyone but she’s a main presence at the party and Monica is great at putting that over. The current costumes aren’t very elegant, the old costumes were better, and hers isn’t lilac! Previously they were more subtle, but Tierney’s is now big and puffy.

Giselle comes back next year so she may get it again. Tierney much preferred it this time. There was the opportunity to perform with Natalia Osipova, which was amazing and she felt more comfortable in the role. Has she changed her way of dealing with the role, asked David? Tierney said she liked how she did it and wouldn’t want to change or interpret it in a different way. Both Myrthe and Lilac Fairy are very much solo roles and you relate a little to Hilarion and Giselle but her attitude remains the same. One great moment is leading Giselle down in Act II.

The hard bit for Tierney was that everyone spoke Spanish so she just hoped there were steps she could copy while Laura helped with the translation. It was a brilliant process.

Carmen: when did she know she was involved? Tierney said it was towards the end of the previous season. She was really excited at working with Carlos Acosta and alongside Marianela Nunez and Natalia. It was a very special moment and she was keen to get stuck in. Carlos started just playing with ideas before they went on tour, but they didn’t begin properly until their return home. She was the third cast and in a new production the first cast gets a lot of the rehearsal time so you have to put in the work at the back. Natalia was injured which prolonged the process a little as the role was retaught to Laura Morera. Tierney was still in the corps with a lot to do so there was a bit of juggling to be done. It felt a bit rushed but in the end rehearsals went well. Carlos had restaged Don Q but hadn’t choreographed much before. The hard bit for Tierney was that everyone spoke Spanish so she just hoped there were steps she could copy while Laura helped with the translation. It was a brilliant process. Carlos was quite relaxed with how it worked for Marianela, and dancing with Vadim was great – he’s just a dream, so secure and brilliant. As regards the character, Tierney took a lot from Marianela and Laura, not to copy them but to take things she liked and try to make it happen in her way. It was quite raunchy getting to grips with Carmen’s character in the studio environment but once on stage you are carried away. There were differences in her interpretation. She watched a lot of different Carmen productions and keeping it playful while being powerful was a big part of it which Carlos helped with. There were mixed opinions about the production but she enjoyed her experience, though she didn’t see any of the other shows, and it was one of her favourite roles.

Tierney’s first full length new ballet was Don Q. She danced a variety of characters in several scenes so there were lots of costume changes and it all required a lot of rehearsals but she liked the production. They began working on it the previous season and spent ages on each section, long hours and days of repeating steps which would then be changed the next day so it was a slow rehearsal process. When this happens and you have to go back to the first steps you were taught it’s difficult as it takes a couple of hours to relearn and it’s hard to retain every bit of information. Carlos was choreographing with a notator. He sat with the whole Company and would teach a piece. Chris Saunders would then take a rehearsal while Carlos continued choreographing the next scene. The hardest and longest process involved the non-dancing scenes with lots of mime but she loved the gypsies and the dryads which were challenging.

Other new full-length ballets Tierney was involved in were Frankenstein, The Winter’s Tale and Woolf Works, a contrast of choreographers. Wayne McGregor’s rehearsals are very intense and full-on and the steps are difficult to pick up. He tends to use one cast until show time and works very fast. Everyone interprets the movements very differently. For a second and third cast, it’s hard to pick up and you have to create your own way of doing it. Carlos and Chris Wheeldon know what they want and are clear. Jackie Barrett takes a lot of rehearsals of Chris’s works. Wayne teaches lots of sections and they’re not assembled until very close to the stage call whereas with Carlos you knew what he wanted and you were running it quite a lot before the stage call. For Woolf Works, Wayne didn’t have the music at first. He often uses something else or no music at all. It’s difficult re-rehearsing Woolf Works with no counts. You are given a block for the time frame and you have to fit the choreography into it. It’s hard with partnering in the pas de deux to come together but in the end it all comes together. Tierney is in the third movement with the waves but covers Sarah Lamb in Act II and Act III. She went to one rehearsal of Act II but that was all.

Working with Liam Scarlett is different again. He choreographs very fast and normally gives counts but Symphonic Dances was slightly different because it’s amazing music but difficult to count to so you just have to listen to the music until it gets into your head. He gets so much done in rehearsals and has a lot of material to work with. Tierney’s in the third movement of Symphonic Dances and covers Zenaida Yanowsky. She actually practised with the red dress and appears on screen having spent a couple of hours weaving about in it!

Tierney was involved in Liam Scarlett's new Frankenstein. She was one of the doctor’s assistants at the creation of the creature and in the big waltz in Act III. She finds character roles harder to get into when there's a lot of stopping and starting in the rehearsal process but that's just how the process is. Liam spoke about the story as he made each section gradually building layer on top of layer. It's always hard to fully know what's going on until the full call when it really came together. With Symphonic Dances Liam explained it was about a lot of different types of dance and he explained why things were a bit sporadic. The Rachmaninov music is great but difficult to dance to, particularly the fast movements. Tierney listened to it a lot before rehearsals to get the music into her head. Once learned it stays in your head always. You count for four weeks of the rehearsals and then stop.

 When Christopher Carr is involved you can hear him count in your sleep! He is brilliant and one of her favourites. Everyone will understand and know what they have to do…

When Christopher Carr is involved you can hear him count in your sleep! He is brilliant and one of her favourites. Everyone will understand and know what they have to do and are afraid if it goes wrong! He does most of the Ashton rep, including Two Pigeons where Tierney was one of the gypsies. He had never done it but he did lots of homework, watching videos till late, retained every role in his head and knew the counts. At Christopher’s first rehearsal they all went into the studio and he taught the whole ballet in the first 1.5 hours including the first and second casts. Everyone is scared in the best possible way. He will shout if you go wrong but you are running a ballet so long before the stage call that it is in your body so you can focus on the character and arms and expressions. It is more enjoyable being on stage when you are comfortable in what you’re doing and can just perform and he wants a 5-star performance. Even when Christopher has gone, the dancers all say they can still hear him coaching or shouting ‘bend’ so he never leaves you. Tierney does a lot of roles from snowflakes to country dances and characters in Nutcracker and in Swan Lake she danced peasants and swans, but never did big swans which was a role she always wanted to do. She hopes she will in the next production of Swan Lake

This season Tierney was nominated for the Emerging Dancer award along with Reece Clarke who won. Now they are rehearsing Woolf Works and the Ashton triple bill in which she’s not involved, not being fairy-like anymore! Next season she will be in the new Twyla Tharp piece but doesn’t yet know what her role will be. Tierney isn’t sure how she teaches or choreographs but Twyla came to work with Steven McRae and Sarah and listening to them it sounds as if it’ll be very challenging. (This year the Ballet Association has donated £5,000 towards this work which was originally a shorter piece for Baryshnikov using only two movements of a Haydn symphony. Twyla is now adding the other two movements.)

Reverting to where she started ballet, Tierney said she began aged two or three in Manchester. Her sister, who is two years older, was going to dancing classes and her Mum took Tierney as she thought it would help with discipline. She really enjoyed it and did her first ballet aged three, performing four shows with 18 dances and 10 solos so she learned choreography very early on. When she was nine she joined Junior Associates where she spent two years, auditioned for White Lodge, who turned her down, and Elmhurst where she was successful and spent three years. She was never told why she didn’t get in to White Lodge, which would have been helpful, but when you are so young (aged 11) you can change a lot. Elmhurst wasn’t her favourite place, she didn’t enjoy it and she wasn’t very well behaved. It was the first year they’d moved to Birmingham and some people weren’t driven or interested in ballet so she lost interest and didn’t work as hard as she should have. She didn’t enjoy boarding and coming from a large, close-knit family she found it difficult to adapt to sharing with unknown people.

She went home in year 9, unsure if she would continue dancing as she’d lost her love for it, and wondering if she’d go down an academic route instead. But she felt she wasn’t ready to let ballet go completely so continued with normal school, taking ballet classes three nights a week, and working towards college or university. She didn’t know what to do but in those two years her love of dance came back, doing jazz and hip hop etc as well as ballet, she enjoyed being at home and then her little sister came along and that helped give Tierney a boost. She auditioned for English National Ballet School and Royal Ballet Upper School still thinking that if she didn’t succeed she’d go down the academic route. She got into the Upper School when Gailene Stock was head of the school and although Tierney had auditioned every year for White Lodge they never spoke about it when she took up her place. Katya Zvelibilova pushed her to join and she worked wonders with her in the first year. She really got her technique up, and in the second year Anita Young worked on the English side of ballet, artistry and movement and it worked. In her third year her teacher was Nicky Tranah, who was great and did a mixture of everything. Asked if there were advantages in taking time out and going to normal school, Tierney said yes, she enjoyed the freedom, doing hip hop, expressing more outside the confines of ballet as you can be who you want to be. Tierney came out of her shell, wasn’t afraid of dancing and enjoyed it again, doing local festivals, being on stage where you would get a medal and be recognised. Once at the Upper School she knew only one other girl who’d been in her year at Elmhurst so she was thrown into an international group of students. There was also the White Lodge clique and as she was the only one who came from a high school it was all very different particularly going to full time ballet school after just doing classes three nights a week. For the school performances, she was injured one year but in the second year was the front girl in the defilé, the third year it was Checkmate and she covered the Black Queen. (An audience member later recalled Tierney’s memorable school performance in Paquita, while she herself remembered falling into the piano!) At first she was in the background as Gailene knew those from White Lodge and she wasn’t Gailene’s sort of dancer but she improved a lot after she joined and everything changed with the Genée competition. Tierney wasn’t selected at first but she had done the syllabus and achieved the highest mark out of everyone in the class so she went and found the Genée an amazing experience. It was the first time it had been held in England and she got bronze and Frankie Hayward got the silver but no gold was awarded that year.

On 20 January in her third year she heard she was coming into the Company. She’d auditioned for a lot of companies as she really didn’t think she would get into the Royal which was her dream but it seemed far away. The day of her audition for Dutch National Ballet Tierney got her contract. Gailene told her, saying she was offered ENB (Wayne Eagling was director at the time) and the Royal Ballet and which would she choose. She would have been happy with either. During the year the students had been asked to list in order of preference their top ten companies and these two had been at the top of Tierney’s list. She had actually accepted an offer from Munich but luckily hadn’t signed a contract.

Answers to audience questions:
Her first ballet with the company was Mayerling. In the tavern scene which is really a brothel you have to put your all into it so that it’s as realistic a possible. It’s hard when you first join, not knowing anybody and having to be so intimate with people you don’t know but she had some friends there and they made it fun so you’re not nervous about being in character. Grant Coyle took their rehearsals and David mentioned that Monica has on occasion told some people to tone it down! Tierney has been in all the other full-length MacMillan ballets, and they are her favourites involving drama and acting which she loves. They’re not taught acting at school and she believes it should be part of the curriculum. Acting while dancing is hard but they learn from watching the great actors like Zenaida and Laura. You feed off people around you so, while being very nervous initially, you’re not scared to express yourself and give it your all.

The Company is taking Woolf Works and The Winter’s Tale on tour to Australia. In Brisbane she’ll be reunited with Claudia Dean who was her best friend here and whom she’s not seen in three years so it’s very exciting. Claudia is no longer dancing but is passing on her expertise to the next generation as a private coach.

Vadim Muntagirov is spectacular as a partner and Ryoichi Hirano is great as well. She would love to dance with Reece Clarke as she’s often partnered by smaller boys which can be tricky. She works a lot with David Donnelly and it’s great to see dancers who aren’t Principals improve over the years. She danced with Thiago Soares in Carlos’s gala and he’s one of her best partners. She did Winter Dreams with him and Nehemiah Kish, and Carmen with Valeri Hristov. It was amazing to be involved with Carlos and the other Principals but it’s hard to pick out a particular highlight as you take something from every one you’re involved with.

David said it had been a delight to have Tierney as our guest and, in thanking her very much for sharing her experiences, said we looked forward to following the next stage of her career and to having her back to talk to us again.

Report written by Liz Bouttell, corrected by Tierney Heap and David Bain ©The Ballet Association 2017

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