How We met: Antoinette Sibley and Viviana Durante

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The Independent Culture
The ballerina Antoinette Sibley CBE (53), was born in Bromley, Kent and began dancing at the age of two. After joining the Royal Ballet in 1956, she went on to form a famous partnership with Anthony Dowell. She is now president of the Royal Academy of Dancing and guest coach at the Royal Ballet and lives in London with her husband and their two children. She has been a mentor to Viviana Durante (25), who lived in Rome until she came to England as a 10-year-old. Durante is now a Principal Dancer with the Royal Ballet, and has tackled most of the leading classical roles.

ANTOINETTE SIBLEY: I first saw Viviana in class when she was about 17, and I was still dancing. The children have a class every day with the company from the moment they come up from the ballet school. Sometimes we do mixed classes, principals, soloists and corps de ballet all together. But when it comes to exercises in the middle of the room, there's just not enough space, so one set watches the other. I admired Viviana from the start: her clean lines, her musicality.

Then, one day, I'd just finished my rehearsal and I noticed her working away at the Blue Bird pas de deux from The Sleeping Beauty - there's a really tricky bit at the end of it. Viviana was just at the back of the stage fiddling around, trying to get it right. Well, I did Blue Bird for years, so I know exactly the things you have to do to make that pirouette work. So I came in and said, 'Try doing this, and then this.' They were tiny little technical things, but they can make a tremendous difference to a very difficult pirouette like that, a pirouette you can really flounder on - and it worked like magic.

After that I often helped Viviana out, whenever I saw her practising. I'd suggest a different arm position or angle of the head. We're similar, we're both tiny, and she responds so well. She remembers corrections and immediately puts them into practice and never forgets them again. It's wonderful - not every dancer is like that]

We did appear once together on stage. The ballet was A Month in the Country, but I was 50 and soon after that, I retired. I never saw teaching as an extension of my career: I'd just assumed that when I stoppped dancing I'd get right out of the ballet world, and look after my husband and children. Then Anthony Dowell mentioned that the Royal Ballet was bringing back Scenes de Ballet. He knew damn well that it was one of my very favourite things, but more than that, Fred (Sir Frederick Ashton) always considered it his masterpiece. It's one of the best ballets that has ever been created, ever, by anybody. Fred had just died, and I knew I'd simply have to come back and help them put it on. And then Anthony said Viviana was going to dance, so it was easy.

I'd quite naturally helped Viviana so often before that she made my first professional coaching simple. We've always had this rapport. I do adore her; she's really like a daughter. Nowadays, I have long scheduled rehearsals with Viviana, and we have time to do things properly. The way it works in practice is quite complicated. If it's a ballet that I created originally, then I tell her everything that the choreographer told me when we first worked on it. That way, she gets the idea of the original intention behind it - and we're half way there. But I never try to make Viviana do anything just exactly as I'd have done it. She's dark and Italian and I'm fair and English. We each have our own temperament and sensuality.

But sometimes Viviana doesn't concentrate: I watched her play Manon. When she came into the, er, house of ill repute, I couldn't make out what she was trying to convey. Whatever it was, it didn't work. So I sat her down and I told her precisely what Manon would be thinking, with all those men eating her up with their eyes - the power of it all. I didn't tell her how to react, but I did tell her how she'd feel. And then she did it in her own way. It's the same thing later on in the ballet, when Manon watches her lover, Des Grieux, writing a letter begging for money. I told Viviana: 'All you can think of is that you want to get into bed with him. At this point, you don't care whether the money comes or not. You've just one thing on your mind, and that's what you're going to get.' I say these things to her, and then she translates them into her own style.

In Swan Lake, there's this famously difficult bit where you have to do 32 rapid fouettes on the spot, spinning very fast. I told her some tricks to do with the rhythm of the beat, a thing with the heel - about four things you have to remember on every single turn, doggedly, like a sergeant-major, to make those fouettes work. It was Margot Fonteyn who told me how to do it. With all the great classics - Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, Giselle - there's a line of teaching going down through each generation. I teach Viviana what Margot taught me, what Karsavina taught Margot. And Viviana's such a dramatic, lyrical dancer that to see her do something I've helped with makes me feel completely fulfilled. It's the next best thing to doing it yourself. In fact it's probably better.

VIVIANA DURANTE: When I first came from Italy when I was 10 years old, I couldn't speak one word of English. It was very hard: Italian families are so close, and when you join the company it's difficult because you get so terribly tired. You are doing class, learning new ballets and performing night after night. You worry that your technique is going, that you can't keep in line, that maybe you should give it all up. You begin to doubt yourself. Antoinette's been through all this. She gives me confidence, keeps me going. She knows exactly how to help. I do rely on her, because I know she would always support me. She has so much experience, and so much time for people.

I used to watch Antoinette before I ever met her. I saw her on videos and film - I saw her film The Turning Point about five times, and then, when I joined the company, I went to watch her dance. She was Titania and Anthony Dowell was Oberon in A Midsummer Night's Dream. She was just amazing. I watched her in class too, much more than the other dancers. I loved what she could do with her arms and particularly her back. You know, if we have our backs to the audience, we're always told that we have to speak with our backs, we have to keep them alive. She does that incredibly well.

At that time, Antoinette sometimes stopped and helped me in rehearsals, but I couldn't really speak to her. I was petrified, I was so shy. But when she came back and coached me, particularly in Manon, that was when we had our first real conversation. And now she's become not so much as mother to me as a really good friend.

If Antoinette doesn't like what I'm doing, she stops me and says: 'What are you thinking about, what's on your mind?' For the mad scene in Giselle, we just sat and talked about it. She said: 'Imagine how you'd feel if this happened to you, if you couldn't even recognise your own mum, if you just wanted to die'. Then we really understand each other.

The other thing Antoinette often says is that each little step, each plie, each tendu has a meaning as part of the whole ballet. It's always easier to feel it all when you're on stage in costume, but she says you must feel it all the time, in rehearsal, in the studio, not just rely on getting it right on the night. And of course she's right.

We both like the same classical, dramatic roles in ballet. But I admire Antoinette too much ever to claim that we're similar.

Ballet is so different, quite unlike the real world and you need friends. I'm lucky that I have some friends who left the Royal Ballet School at White Lodge and didn't go into ballet, so I can see them and keep in touch with the world outside - that's great. And I'm also very lucky to have Antoinette as a friend. At the moment, she's telling me how to grow my nails. She thinks they're terrible. She's given me some kind of liquid to put on them. It's supposed to taste horrid, so you don't want to bite them.-

(Photograph omitted)

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