Sarah Lamb swoops to conquer

With three title roles this year at the Royal Ballet, Sarah Lamb has emerged as one of the company's brightest stars: so what on earth is she doing mending her own shoes? David Lister finds out

There's something very insular about ballet dancers. You tend not to see them much at parties. What with classes and rehearsals all day, performances in the evening and dieting in between, they don't get out much. Indeed, the one scene in Black Swan that didn't ring true to me was when Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis went clubbing. I think not.

So I shouldn't have been surprised when I met the Royal Ballet's prima ballerina Sarah Lamb that she had come straight from a rehearsal and was carrying her tutu and dancing shoes.

Though when she stretches her leg across the sofa and fixes me with the disarmingly wide blue eyes that dominate her elfin face, one has to admit that ballet's gain is clubbing's loss.

Lamb, a 30-year-old Bostonian, is one of the company's brightest stars. In recent weeks she has been one of two ballerinas to create the title role in the new ballet Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, she has taken the title role in Cinderella and on Saturday she dances the title role in Manon. But first she has to sew some shoes.

I confess to a double-take at this. The Royal Ballet's international stars have to sew their own shoes? Isn't that akin to Wayne Rooney having to clean his boots? Shouldn't sewing the ballet shoes be a job for teenage wannabe dancers?

"I sew four or five a week," says Lamb. "And I use a razor blade to pare them down. Today in the Manon rehearsal the floor is dirty in the first act, then you get blood on a shoe in the next act, so new shoes are needed. I believe there used to be a boy here once who did it for £5 a time, but he has gone."

It sounds like a job for the Royal Ballet's Equity rep, who just happens to be Sarah Lamb. Before discussing the day job, I am quite curious about the world of negotiation at the Royal Ballet, perhaps from what I know of ballet dancers, some of the last smoke-filled-room negotiations left in the trades union movement. "I did it in Boston and there were more tensions there between dancers and management. Here it's very different. The management have all been dancers, so they are very sympathetic. The management are aware that dancers are worked very hard, but the schedule is manageable.

"Sometimes the corps de ballet gets very tired, though. They have performances in the evenings, then rehearsals all day. They are 'on' all the time."

Well, if Sarah Lamb negotiator, can touch the hearts of the management in the way that Sarah Lamb dancer, can touch the hearts of the audience, pay rates should be improving soon. Indeed, Ballet.co.uk website said: "Her cool elegance and unerring precision could make you weep."

I found in her creation of Alice a rare mixture of comedy and vulnerability; a vulnerability that can be heart-rending. The mixture was also apparent in Cinderella. Manon is a different kettle of fish. To quote from the posters currently on the London underground, it is "a sultry tale of dark desire".

Is that you, Sarah?

She neatly sidesteps that one, responding: "What appeals to me most about Manon is that she makes a mistake that she realises and then tries to rectify. We all do that once in our lives."

And what was Sarah Lamb's big mistake? "It was probably when I was a teenager, being a really horrible teenage girl to my parents; very self-centred.

"I did whatever I wanted and didn't communicate with them. And wasn't a loving person back."

Her parents, both teachers, weren't actively keen for her to be a dancer and suggested firmly that she apply for university, even though she told them at the age of 14 that she might not go. Then, at 17, she was offered a dancing job and they have been supporters and often in the audience at her shows since.

Sarah Lamb's roles and her childhood seem to connect more than once. "I have felt quite connected to Alice in Wonderland," she says. "My grandmother emigrated to the USA from England after the Second World War. She was a speech therapist and worked with children with cerebral palsy. In 1953 she created the first summer camp for children with these difficulties. It was called Jabberwocky. My father painted a school bus for them with pictures from Alice. The camp was in Martha's Vineyard. I spent every summer there."

Even before arriving at the Royal Ballet in 2004, she was awarded a Presidential Gold medal and invited to perform before the then President Clinton in Washington. What did he say to her, I wondered. "He just said: 'Congratulations'," she replies, but she endows that one word with a deep, southern drawl. "He had quite a ruddy complexion, I remember. We were in the rose garden. He was very warm; definitely had charisma.

"I also remember that I kept setting off a metal detector because I had a lot of hairpins in my hair."

She has said that it took her time to make friends at the Royal Ballet, but now does have good friendships. Without wishing to bring in any rivalry parallels from Black Swan – something she rejects firmly – I do wonder how close the friendships are in the hard-working, intensely-focused world of ballet.

When, I ask, did she actually go out for a drink with a fellow dancer from the company?

"I spend time with them here. But off work I keep separate. I spend time with my husband." He, too, was a dancer but is retraining as a landscape designer.

One thing they don't do together is watch television. The Royal Ballet's feisty star refuses on principle to buy a licence.

"I don't have a TV. They charge you a licence in the UK, so in true Bostonian fashion I refuse to pay the tax. It's an American thing. I love the BBC, really, though some of the things they show I don't like. That astronomer, you know, the physicist [Brian Cox]. I hate the way he speaks." It's a rare piece of negativity from a woman who exudes a natural charm, who indeed once said of performing the title role in The Sleeping Beauty: "I feel very much at home with Aurora's shyness and wonderment and also try to show all the gifts she has received from the fairies: purity, charm, musicality."

She takes a more qualified view now of the affinity with Aurora. "I think I'm very much a realist, so I'm a bit critical of myself. I'm never satisfied with my performances.

"But at the same time I look outside and look at the trees and think how beautiful they are. I think I do try and appreciate that what I get to do is a very real privilege."

And as she never watches TV, what does she do when she is not dancing?

"I like the theatre," she replies, "and I read a lot, though not as much as I should. And I sew a lot of shoes."

'Manon', Royal Opera House, London WC2 (020 7304 4000) to 4 June

Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'