Anyone who’s watched a performance by Marianela Núñez knows that she has a smile that radiates right to the back of the Royal Opera House. It’s no surprise, therefore, to discover that in the real life of her Covent Garden dressing room, she is just as naturally sunny. When we spoke in January, Núñez was in rehearsals for a revival of Onegin, John Cranko’s take on Pushkin and Tchaikovsky, whilst busy with three main stage performances of The Sleeping Beauty.

Marianela Núñez
© ROH | Johan Persson

I caught the second of those three performances and marvelled at Núñez’ stamina at tackling Aurora, regarded as one of the most challenging roles in the classical repertoire, three times within a single week. “You literally have three acts of pure ballet technique!” Núñez exclaims. “There is no way you can cheat or blur or fluff any step. It’s like going back to the start of your training – it’s one of the reasons I love performing and working on this role so much because it takes me back to my roots.

“On top of that, you have to apply the characterisation, even though people think it’s just a fairy tale. There’s a lot to put on Aurora, three totally different acts: you have the young 16-year old, an explosion of sunshine and happiness in Act 1; then the Vision scene where you have to become a totally different ballerina in Act 2; then the grand pas de deux in Act 3, so that already gives you a platform to think of her in different ways. Thank you, Petipa, thank you, Tchaikovsky, for producing such a brilliant ballet!”

But how can she manage three Auroras in just seven days? “I run through the ballet pretty much every day,” she explains. “We had a shorter rehearsal period this time, but usually we’ll have three weeks. Maybe the days when I don’t run the full ballet, I’ll take one section and repeat it a lot and pull it apart so then my body is not in shock when I finally do the performance. Obviously I’m still taking class properly and I do preparations in pilates for each ballet that I do, so I take everything into consideration for me to be fully strong and ready for the battle!” she grins.

While performing Aurora, Núñez has been rehearsing Tatiana in Onegin, both big roles but in two very different styles. “In Onegin, the pas de deux are quite technical, quite physical, quite athletic, so that takes a lot of energy and stamina. Then you have the Gremin pas de deux which is quite classical in how it’s structured, so you have to be fit. The commitment and the work that you put in every day pays off on the stage. Sometimes I will finish a performance here and head straight to the airport to guest somewhere else, so I’ve learned that if I prepare properly and look after myself, then I can take on anything I want!”

Núñez is in great demand as a guest artist and clearly relishes the chance to dance with different companies, but hates to just fly in and fly out. “When I do those guestings I like to have time with the company so that I see them and adapt to whatever version of a production that they’re doing. I don’t want to just arrive there and do my own thing. I find it super inspiring and then you come home knowing you can share what you’ve learned. I always say that I have the best of both worlds.”

Last autumn she guested at La Scala in Onegin with Roberto Bolle (a frequent collaborator) and is scheduled to tour with the company to Los Angeles in July (Giselle and Onegin). “I’ve been going to La Scala for many years so I know them well: the costume department, the wig department – it’s familiar territory for me!”

Núñez likes to head back to Buenos Aires in her native Argentina every other year to dance at the Teatro Colón, with her regular Royal Ballet partner Vadim Muntagirov at the end of this year to dance Makarova’s La Bayadère. “Their opera house is incredible!” she enthuses. “A lot of the people I went to school with are now in the company, so it’s like a reunion.”

Makarova’s Bayadère had a big influence on the young Nela. “When I was in Argentina, I had a lot of Royal Ballet performances on VHS – that dates us both!!” she giggles at me. “The other day, our new Bayadère with Natalia and Vadim came out on DVD, and I suddenly remembered that I used to have the VHS of Altyani Asylmuratova, Irek Mukhamedov and Darcey Bussell. I watched it so many times that my parents would cry ‘Again?!’ So it was that generation of dancers – Darcey, Sylvie [Guillem] and Viviana [Durante] – who were all dancing here that was one of the main reasons why I definitely wanted to join The Royal Ballet and why I auditioned for the company.”

Marianela Núñez in La Bayadère
© ROH | Bill Cooper (2018)

After joining The Royal Ballet in 1998, Núñez’ star was quickly in the ascendant, rising to First Soloist in 2000 and Principal in 2002. She is very much one of the company’s star dancers, with many audience members booking specifically to catch her performances. Does this, I wonder, bring added pressure? Núñez beams.

“First of all, I love pressure! I really do want to give the audience a really good performance every time, so I put pressure on myself to do that. I don’t know that I feel pressure from an audience expectation perspective, but I do want to deliver a good show every time. But I love it and I am truly grateful for the support that I get from audiences all over the world.”

She can feel it? “Yes, you actually can,” she replies earnestly. “I think the more I give, the more I get. It’s like a mutual exchange. For an artist, this is our lives, it’s what you live for, in a very healthy and passionate way. So to feel that people appreciate what I do and to appreciate this artform, then I am so grateful. This is what the world needs – more people who love the arts and can come to the theatre and just get lost in this world. The arts help heal.”

I suggest the arts are an escape from everyday life and Núñez agrees. “It makes you reflect and helps you see things in a different way. It happens when you go to the theatre or when you see art in a gallery or museum.”

Does she ever have time to switch off herself? Does she switch off? “Yes, you have to,” she laughs, “otherwise you’d be here all the time, but dance is in my life daily. Even on a Sunday when I don’t do anything, I’ll probably rest or meet friends or go and see an exhibition, but then I come back home and I’ll be preparing my shoes while watching a film or something, so dance is in me all the time. But family and friends help me to be grounded.”

Preparing pointe shoes is very particular to a ballerina. “One pair of shoes takes me about 30 minutes – sewing the ribbons, the elastic, softening the pointe. I use a lot of shoes. For example, in something like Onegin or Sleeping Beauty I will actually use one pair of shoes per act, so that’s an hour and a half of preparation for each show, and I wouldn’t just prepare three pairs; I’d probably prepare about nine pairs and try them because one might not feel as great, or another might feel better for Act 1 than Act 2. It’s like a whole other performance!”

Marianela Núñez as Tatiana in Onegin
© ROH | Bill Cooper (2013)

I confess it sounds remarkably similar to clarinettists and their reeds, scraping away, preparing back-ups, and Núñez’ gives a knowing nod. “People say to me, why do you prepare your own shoes? Can’t you have someone else do them for you? This is going to sound totally crazy but the preparation of my shoes is part of the ritual of what I’m about to do. I wouldn’t like anyone else to do it because it’s my moment to connect with the device that’s going to support me.”

We spend time talking about Tatiana, a role Núñez adores and inhabits completely. I recall opening night in the 2015 run when it took several curtain calls for her tears to dry and the real Nela could emerge to acknowledge the ovation. “It happens to me when I’m dancing Tatiana,” she nods, “but it also happens to me when I watch it. It gets me every single time.”

So what’s special about Onegin? Her eyes widen. “Everything! Everything about her! The whole ballet is a masterpiece from beginning to end. The way it’s structured, each act is the perfect length, and you get the story in each act with the progression of each character in the most fantastic way. Even if you’ve never seen a ballet, you will get the story. The music is fantastic. Choreographically, it is heaven! Those pas de deux – both to dance them and to watch them – are breathtaking. Every time I’ve seen it – and I’ve seen it about a thousand times! – or danced it, you kind of go “Wow”!”

Marianela Núñez and Ryoichi Hirano in Onegin
© Tristram Kenton (2015)

Núñez first came to know the ballet when, as a child, she saw its Argentinian premiere at the Colón. “Alessandra Ferri and Maximiliano Guerra did the premiere,” she recalls. “The second cast was my teacher, Raúl Candal, who was a principal, and prima ballerina Silvia Bazilis, who were doing their farewell performances with the company. Seriously, I had never seen anything like it. I became obsessed. I could literally close my eyes and see those performances and knew that was exactly what I wanted to do.

“Many years later I joined my family here – the Royal Ballet – and Onegin wasn’t in their repertoire, but in 2001 the company decided to bring it in, so we all had to audition and I got to be Olga. I danced Olga for many Tatianas, for many Onegins for many years. Then in 2013 I got my chance to be Tatiana opposite Thiago [Soares]. I was very lucky because he is a super-experienced Onegin, it is one of his best roles, he is phenomenal in it. Dramatically, he knew it very well. I danced it again with him, and obviously did it in Buenos Aires with Alejandro (Nunez’s partner, Alejandro Parente). I had 4-6 weeks in Teatro Colón, working really hard, so every time I’ve revisited the role, I’ve been able to go deeper, understanding it more not just dramatically but from the dance point of view, because some of the choreography is so complex.”

Núñez read the Pushkin verse novel when she first danced Olga, but really wishes she could speak Russian to read it in the original language. We share views on the character of Onegin and how he is interpreted. I suggest that in the ballet he comes across much colder than in Tchaikovsky’s opera, very cold, very cruel.

“But he’s really not like that at all!” Núñez argues. “It’s almost like he’s doing her a favour by rejecting her letter. Have you seen the film starring Ralph Fiennes? He was my neighbour when I lived around Hammersmith. I was always shy whenever I saw him, so I would never say anything, but I just wanted to call out ‘I think you’re great and your Onegin is amazing!’ I think he’s brilliant in it, Liv Tyler as well.”

Marianela Núñez
© John Phillips

Núñez is right at the top of her game right now, dancing brilliantly and adored by audiences. But if she could look back on her younger self, just arriving in London to join the RB School, what advice would she give young Marianela? The answer comes swiftly.

“To trust myself, to trust that everything will be okay.”

And, I ask, it has been okay, hasn’t it?

Another sunny smile beams across the dressing room. “It has. Don’t worry, it’s gonna be fine!”