Lauren Cuthbertson: Royal Ballet's first Alice dances into prima ballerina wonderland

The dancer talks to Susie Mesure about working her way back from illness to a dream role created for her

She was crowned the next Darcey Bussell long before Britain's last prima ballerina had hung up her pointe shoes. Yet it will be only tomorrow night, when the curtain rises on Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, that Lauren Cuthbertson can truly lay claim to her anointment.

Cuthbertson, who is the Royal Ballet's only female British principal, will dance on to the famous Covent Garden stage as Alice, a role created specially for her in the ballet company's first full-length classical ballet for 20 years. She is the first dancer since Bussell to open a ballet written for her and can hardly believe her luck.

"From the bottom of my heart, it's the biggest gift that a dancer can receive from anyone... I know that quite easily this could never happen again," she tells me breathlessly, still coming down from the high of Friday morning's dress rehearsal.

It is seven years since Cuthbertson, 26, debuted as Juliet in her first starring role, and three since she was made a principal, but the butcher's daughter from Devon thinks she has yet to peak. "Despite a fairly rapid rise, my progress has felt quite slow. I plateaued and went back in the queue. In some ways, I feel as if I'm only just coming to my potential," she admits. Given that it is between 27 and 34 that a female dancer is widely thought to excel – "because your technically best years match your emotionally best ones" – she may have timed it just right, more by luck, as it happens, than by design. Dancing Alice will complete Cuthbertson's astonishing comeback from an illness that left her unable to make it out of her bed and wondering if she would ever dance again.

Her body simply shut down months after her accession to principal; her doctors diagnosed glandular fever and "weeks and weeks would go by in a complete fog". Looking back, she says: "I had moments at home when I just thought, 'This could be it. It could so easily be it.' How do you get back when your body isn't functioning? My brain wasn't functioning; my eyes weren't functioning."

She spent much of 2009 and 2010 out of action, missing juicy part after juicy part. Rehabilitation was slow: she describes taking her exercise in two-minute bursts. But she made it and, luckily for the sell-out audience for tomorrow night's gala performance, she feels "comfortable enough to say I'm better". There are limitations, but she says: "I've learnt how to deal with it. I still have a couple of days here and there where nothing is co-ordinating, nothing is functioning, but I'm dealing with it. I don't want to be known as the girl-who-might-not-turn-up-to-a-show. I'm professional. I handle it."

Alice will be her very own Black Swan moment. Like Nina, Natalie Portman's character in the Oscar-nominated film, Cuthbertson has waited years for such an opportunity. Expanding on the similarities, she adds: "It's this talked-about thing and I'm right at the centre. Alice is my first principal full-length ballet I've ever been given first night for. For me, the experience of having something created is so rare, it's like gold dust."

But there the parallels with Nina end. Like many dancers, she cringes at the clichéd liberties that Black Swan's director, Darren Aronofsky, took with her world. For what it's worth, she wouldn't give Portman the best actress Oscar tonight. "Not for this part." She scoffs that Portman was called a "prima ballerina" when she won her Bafta; barely any of the supposedly top dancers merit the accolade, let alone an actress. She explains: "A ballerina is very special. Not everyone here is a ballerina, even if you're with the Royal Ballet. When one of my dearest and oldest teachers said to me after a performance, 'You were a ballerina tonight; you've become a ballerina,' for me that was not so much a compliment but almost a crowning of a rare title."

There's no denying, however, that she shares the slender physique of Portman's character, even if she doesn't share her eating habits (the only food Nina eats during the film is half a grapefruit and a lick of icing). Cuthbertson doesn't shy away from discussing her frame, conscious that a dancer gets criticised as much for her build as her technical ability: witness the storm that erupted when the New York Times' dance critic accused Jennifer Ringer, cast as the Nutcracker's Sugar Plum Fairy, of eating "one sugar plum too many".

"I feel sad for the girl," she says. "She's the victim of a massive debate within the world, not just the ballet world. The way society looks on people now is very judgemental." Yet judgements clearly rub off, and the slip-of-a-star sitting cross-legged on the sofa opposite me, nibbling a fruit salad, adds: "I feel quite strongly that to be your best you have to feel your best. That's hard for anyone and it's hard for a dancer. I was bigger a few years ago, but I'm much happier being slighter. I feel less self-conscious and I feel better doing pas de deux. But that doesn't mean I get dizzy all the time or just eat grapefruit. I have to swim; I have to do yoga; I have to do pilates, all on top of my work."

For proof of the transformative powers of ballet, you need look no further than her unlikely Alice co-star: the character actor Simon Russell Beale. Picked by Christopher Wheeldon, the ballet's choreographer, to dance the Duchess, Russell Beale has lost three stone since taking up his new art. As for what the actor brings to the Royal Ballet, Cuthbertson says he's "wonderful, like a breath of fresh air. It's really lovely to have him there".

Just don't expect the 49-year-old actor to be partnering her: Dame Monica Mason, the company's director, might like to chop and change her principals' partners, but Beale would be a step – even one of his "delicate" dance steps – too far.

As for the Bussell comparisons, the young pretender insists they are "totally different". But if she nails the reviews tomorrow night, any differences may become immaterial.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

E150/2014 - English Language Checker (Grade B3)

On Application: Council of Europe: The European Court of Human Rights’s judgme...

Marketing Executive

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Charter Selection: A professional services company ...

Project Manager - Bristol South West

£400 - £450 per day: Orgtel: Project Manager (PM), Key Banking Client, Retail ...

Principal Engineer – Biomass

£45000 - £55000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Day In a Page

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice
Hollywood targets Asian audiences as US films enjoy record-breaking run at Chinese box office

Hollywood targets Asian audiences

The world's second biggest movie market is fast becoming the Hollywood studios' most crucial
Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app - and my mum keeps trying to hook me up!'

Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app'

Five years on from its launch and Grindr is the world's most popular dating app for gay men. Its founder Joel Simkhai answers his critics, describes his isolation as a child
Autocorrect has its uses but it can go rogue with embarrassing results - so is it time to ditch it?

Is it time to ditch autocorrect?

Matthew J X Malady persuaded friends to message manually instead, but failed to factor in fat fingers and drunk texting
10 best girls' summer dresses

Frock chick: 10 best girls' summer dresses

Get them ready for the holidays with these cool and pretty options 
Westminster’s dark secret: Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together

Westminster’s dark secret

Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Dulce et decorum est - a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Dulce et decorum est: a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality
Google tells popular music website to censor album cover art in 'sexually explicit content' ban

Naked censorship?

The strange case of Google, the music website and the nudity take-down requests
Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

As England take on India at Trent Bridge, here is our pick of the high-performing bats to help you up your run-count this summer 
Brazil vs Germany World Cup 2014 comment: David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

Captain appears to give up as shocking 7-1 World Cup semi-final defeat threatens ramifications in Brazil