Agnes Oaks: 'My body is fighting what I do'

The great dancer Agnes Oaks is hanging up her pointes, but fans can see her once more on tour and on the London Coliseum stage

Ican't stand ballet. I've tried, I've really tried, but all those Belsen-like bodies in tutus upset me. I don't like the panda eyes, the harsh smiles, the glassy stares. I don't like the sinews. I don't like the Sugar Plum Fairies, the sweeties or the swans. I don't like the way the human body is stretched and bent and pulled and yanked. I don't like the way that adult women teeter not even on toes, but on the edge of toes, like concubines whose feet have been broken and bound.

So I'm relieved when I get to see Agnes Oaks, departing principal dancer with the English National Ballet, and one of the top ballerinas in the world, that she's not wearing a tutu, and she's not doing a pirouette, or pretending to be a swan, or a nutcracker, or a corkscrew (though that might make a welcome change) and she's not mincing around en pointe. She's not even in a leotard. She's wearing black trousers and a black T-shirt, and the dance she's doing, with her husband Thomas Edur, in a scruffy-looking industrial space in a wasteland in west London, isn't all about flexing and pointing and look-at-me splits and leaps and pliés. It appears to be about flowing and holding. It appears to be about two human beings communicating with each other. It appears to be about trust.

The human beings, it's true, aren't exactly your walking-down-the-street, waiting-at-the-bus-stop, standard-issue models. Agnes Oaks, delicate-featured, blonde and whippet-thin, looks like a supermodel, and Thomas Edur, tall, muscly and square-jawed, looks like a Greek (well, Estonian, actually) god. He's so handsome, in fact, that I actually have to look away. And these beautiful human beings – beautiful even with no make-up, in baggy trousers – are swaying, moving, bending together, at times layering their arms over each other's, like the twists in a complex conversation, at times pausing, at times just brushing fingers on an arm. At one point, he lifts her entire body on his shoulders. At another, he touches her so tenderly I want to cry. This is the body not as receptacle for Doritos, or stuffed-down sandwiches at your desk, but as machine. This, perhaps, is the body as poem.

"You're going a bit fast," says the third person in the room, who has, until now, been stretching and bending behind them. She is Dana Fouras, choreographer, former dancer with the Royal Ballet and wife of Russell Maliphant, whose piece, Sheer, the couple are learning. She summons them to a laptop where they watch footage of Maliphant and Fouras demonstrating the piece, and then they go back and try again. Oaks frowns as she tries to get the steps right. Edur smiles. Gradually, as they move together and find the rhythm that works, Oaks's frown fades. At one point, she falters and they both laugh. Phew! The ice maiden melteth.

"I had such a bad day yesterday," she says, when I meet her at the English National Ballet rehearsal studios the next morning. "We had to get a visa for Russia and then Dana was late for the rehearsal and then I was worried because we're not really doing anything, we're just fiddling and I was worried that you were going to be disappointed." What, the ice maiden was worried about me? The ice maiden who isn't at all ice maidenish today, in fact, but smiley and solicitous and super-glamorous in tight jeans, high heels and make-up. Her voice – still, after 19 years in England, overlaid with a strong Estonian accent – is coquettish, slightly child-like and unbelievably sweet. You can see why Edur, after 19 years of marriage to the childhood sweetheart he met at ballet school in Tallinn when he was 11 and she was 10, still – damn him – adores her.

"I think this one really is very much like communication between two people," she says, when I ask what the piece is about, "and sensing and reacting to one another. It was originally done for Russell and his wife Dana because I guess as a couple they sense each other very well. I think the piece is very much like talking to each other, but we still need to find the way of the movement, because it's so different to us. We become suddenly classical and we want to perform and it's more just being very natural."

It's hardly surprising that Oaks and Edur become "suddenly classical", since that has been their mode for nearly 30 years. Since being invited to join the English National Ballet as principal dancers after winning a ballet competition in Jackson, Mississippi, they have done more Nutcrackers and Sleeping Beauties and Swan Lakes than many of us have had home-cooked dinners. They've done other things, too – Wayne McGregor's 2 Human, and a dance version of Gershwin's "The Man I Love", for example – but the main menu has been classical. Which makes this piece, Oaks says, a "real challenge". "You hold yourself like, 'I'm a ballerina,' and in this piece I have to get rid of that and just be me, as I would walk in my kitchen. In ballet, you never really walk on your heels, you always try to be up on demi-pointe."

Contemporary dance offers more scope for interpretation than classical – or it can do. "There are choreographers who won't allow you to do anything of yours," Oaks says. "That's really restricting. In classical ballet, it happens quite often. I like choreographers who are much more flexible and take your feeling. I think it should be the reason they take you on, because they want your talent and their talent to be combined."

It was in Manon, Kenneth MacMillan's epic tale of love and decadence in 18th-century Paris (still on tour, until May) that Oaks found the role – and, according to critics, gave the performance – of a lifetime. Oaks, said the Financial Times, "has the seemingly innocent, irresistible sensuality that you see with Marilyn Monroe on film; an impeccable timing of glance and gesture, a prettiness of step and unabashed erotic charge". Did it, I ask, feel like the role of a lifetime?

"I really enjoyed doing it," Oaks says. "People said, 'Oh, it's a shame that it came so late in your career,' but actually I feel it was the right time. I think as a person you mature and it's like somebody turning the key. I was very naive," she adds, with a charming giggle, "for too long time."

So how, apart from growing up, do you prepare for such a role? "Of course, everyone is different, but I read a book and saw the original video of it, and you really analyse it and think about it, and then when you go to the studio and work on it, it kind of naturally happens. Sometimes I really focus on it and then I let it go and try to forget for a few days and then you come back to it differently."

Ultimately, however, it's all about magic and all about chemistry. All, in other words, about the stuff you can't control. "I have done performances and really enjoyed them and then I get the response from the ballet staff, 'It was OK,' and another time I've thought, 'Oh, today just wasn't my day,' and people come back and say it was amazing, so I've learnt not to really believe what I feel. You can kill yourself with the thought of something, or make yourself believe in something which is not there."

This, clearly, is a perfectionist. Which, you might argue, is a precondition for any good art, but does it spill over into other areas of her life? This time, the smile is rueful. "Definitely," she says. "It creates a tension if you're not happy about something, you're trying constantly to solve it and you can go to extremes to conquer it." And, I say, thinking of yesterday's frown and Thomas's grin, is she a greater perfectionist than her husband? Briefly, the frown reappears. "I don't know. Thomas is not getting so easily distressed about things, whereas I'm much more serious. He has a very spontaneous talent, which I don't naturally have, so I think he has much more reason to be like that." How irritating! "It is!" she replies. "But then in a way it has helped me, because then I go, 'For God's sake relax, things are not so bad.'"

It isn't, of course, just about aiming high. It's also about keeping a machine functioning, a machine that demands hours of usage every day, even when there are creaks, even when there are cracks. Even here, on a Saturday morning, with no formal rehearsal, Oaks has been training. Day in, day out, week in, week out, year in, year out, the body is pushed through a punishing regime of twisting and bending and pulling. "I've had lots of injuries over the years," says Oaks matter-of-factly, "so I've never been pain free. I've always had some issues with my body, so I slightly felt like maybe I should never have done ballet, because I felt like my body is fighting what I do."

My God. This beautiful woman sitting opposite me, with the sweet voice and the coquettish smile, is in pain all the time. And functioning in a world, by the sound of it, not overflowing with support, or sympathy. "When you have an injury," she says calmly, "no one wants to know in the ballet world. It's very much as if you're not there, you're forgotten. It's a competition."

And it all started, unbelievably, not because, like little girls the world over, she saw a princess on peepy toes and fancied being her, but because for her mother, a Russian, ballet was "every woman's dream". At 10, the little Agnes was bundled off for an audition at the Estonian State Ballet school in Tallinn. "When they took me," she says, "it was a shock. I had to leave home and go to boarding school, and I missed home so much, and was crying most of the time. It wasn't like we learnt to dance. It was literally just holding the barre, and starting to turn out our legs. It was just tough training."

But she met Thomas and fell in love and gradually fell in love with ballet itself. All she knew of the West came from occasional glimpses on Finnish television, and when she came to London, after winning that competition in Jackson, it was a shock. "People in the Soviet Union would never smile," she said. "Life was very hard. So when I came here, everyone was like a friend." Which, it turned out, they weren't. "No," she says circumspectly, "I learnt to see the other side of the smile."

Now, at 38, and after nearly 30 years of ballet, she's giving it all up. Thomas Edur has just been appointed artistic director of the Estonian National Ballet and they are moving back to Tallinn. She wants the youth she never had, the life she never had, the life that you could say was stolen.

Her departure is a terrible loss to ballet, of course, but maybe ballet has had quite enough from this sweet, super-talented, super-disciplined woman, and maybe it's time the world got her instead.

Agnes Oaks performs in Russell Maliphant's 'Two: Four: Ten', 7–11 April, as part of Spring Dance at the Coliseum, London WC2 (www.eno.org)

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