Preview: Swan Lake

Martha Leebolt began practising the role of the white swan Odette at age four. Ali Schofield catches up with her in rehearsals for the role she’s now reprising

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There are just days before opening night of Northern Ballet’s Swan Lake and Big Issue North has been allowed access to rehearsals. Ballet mistress Charlotte Talbot critiques as Martha Leebolt and her partner Tobias Batley run through the duet in which their characters Odette and Anthony first meet.

Minutes of outwardly stunning dance are pulled apart and made even better as Talbot and both dancers offer new solutions – a leg extended just that bit longer there, an extra pirouette here.

“Perfection takes a long time,” laughs Talbot as a breathless Batley lowers Leebolt from a now flawless bluebird lift.

When artistic director David Nixon first premiered Northern Ballet’s Swan Lake – a 1912 New England-set version in which the traditional Prince Siegfried is replaced by Anthony and evil swan Odile is replaced by Anthony’s friends Odilie and Simon – it was 2004 and Leebolt had been with the company just three years.

“Back then I was only a swan in the corps. I wasn’t doing any of the big roles yet,” recalls the California-born dancer in a break between rehearsals. “Actually a year later was the second time we brought it back. Somebody got injured and I was understudy for Odilia. There wasn’t enough time to rehearse me so I said to David ‘I’ll work on it myself and then have a look at it’ and he said ‘Oh, well. OK, we’ll see.’”

Every spare minute of Leebolt’s time was then spent perfecting the lead role. She enlisted the help of other dancers in the company and lived and breathed the role until finally Nixon said she was up to the part.

She has since gone on to dance many other coveted roles including Cathy in Wuthering Heights, Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, Daisy in The Great Gatsby and Belle in Beauty and The Beast. But none are quite as significant as her first, which she is now reprising.
“When you do pre-primary classes you’ll do the swan positions where you cross your wrists above your head. You do that when you’re four. Odette/Odile is something that I think is in every ballerina’s mind to want to do.

“I remember the first night. I don’t remember dancing necessarily but I remember the curtain call. I got flowers. It was a big deal – it felt like a huge accomplishment. I had been injured before that previously, for a long time, so to come back and then to have rehearsed and gotten on was a big stepping stone for me.”

She reads reviews and admits that sometimes it’s hard. “You just have to keep it in perspective. That’s one person’s opinion, good or bad.

“There are nights when you’re in a lot of pain or you’re so tired and you think to yourself, how am I going to make it through the night? But the adrenaline gets you started and as soon as you step on the stage, and the music starts, and you’re identifying with your other characters and your narrative, and start physically moving, and you feel the audience, and see the conductor, it all comes together.”

After 15 years with Northern Ballet, she still feels nervous before every show, which is a good thing, surely?

“That’s what people say. I wish it was less, to be honest. I get so scared I think: ‘Ah, can I do it?’ But it’s good to have that adrenaline, I think. Otherwise it wouldn’t be as exciting as it is.”

Swan Lake is at Leeds Grand Theatre, 3-12 March, and Sheffield Lyceum Theatre, 15-19 March

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