Breaking Ballet: An Interview with Olivia Cowley

olivia-cowley-interview-2The worlds of ballet and blogging seem to orbit in separate galaxies. Writing is little like dancing, and the tulle and toe shoes of ballet belong to a different century to the digital age of online blogging. Yet, balancing them both is British-born Royal Ballet soloist Olivia Cowley. Writing on her blog, she aims to ‘show all sides of the industry’, from studio warm-up clothes, to stage costumes, to a dancer’s street-style at stage door. Inspiring us all to find time for the things we love, here she is talking dancing, dress sense, and what a day in her life is like as a ballet dancer and a blogger.

Olivia’s grace and elegance onstage is equalled by her graciousness and eloquence on the page, so it’s surprising to learn she started ballet because of a speech impediment. ‘It made me incredibly shy at school. My mum thought it would be a great idea to take me to ballet lessons where I didn’t need to talk. I loved it and it was the first time I was equal to my peers.’ Proving far superior to her peers in her dancing, she went on to take a place at the prestigious Royal Ballet Upper School at sixteen, after she’d grown in confidence and found her love for ballet. Olivia didn’t follow the usual path through the Royal Ballet Lower School; instead, she ‘carried on going to a comprehensive school with a special department for speech therapy’, going to ballet lessons in the evening until she was accepted into the Royal Ballet Upper School: the ultimate finishing school for those with the skill, physique, and sheer determination it takes to pursue a career in classical dance.

Situated in London’s Covent Garden, the Upper School is connected to the Royal Opera House, the home of the Royal Ballet, by the Bridge of Aspiration, an aptly named concertina architectural structure that you’ve most likely unknowingly walked under if you’re a West-Ender. Olivia wasn’t. ‘Living in London was a huge change to my life’, and it wasn’t the only change either: ‘it was the first time I had trained for the whole day! It was incredibly exciting, having full days of doing something I loved made me love ballet even more!’ Sadly, love is rarely ever enough, especially at this level. ‘The training was intense’, and, like most teenagers, Olivia had a growth spurt to adjust to; although, for most teenagers it’s unlikely to jeopardise a career. Olivia’s career was only just beginning though, and upon graduation she was accepted into the Royal Ballet Company, rising up the ranks from an artist in the corps de ballet to a soloist in 2013.

After all that hard work, what is a dancers’ day like at the heart of a world-renowned company? Often after a show the night before, Olivia arrives at work at 9.30am to do 30-45 minutes of power plate work; preparation is key to a job that requires peak physical fitness in order to avoid injury, something else that jeopardises careers. Then, at 10.30, along with the rest of the company, she does a 1 hour 15 minute ballet class. ‘It’s to warm our muscles for the day ahead and work on our technique. I do this everyday before work like every other ballet dancer.’ Rehearsals for productions currently in the repertoire start at 12. ‘Our daily schedule depends on what productions we are working on but I usually finish at 6.30 if I don’t have a show, or 5.30 if I do.’ The dancers have a two-hour break between rehearsals and curtain up, ‘to grab some food and to get ready before the performance.’ There’s more preparation to do before then, as sometimes Olivia will ‘do another ballet barre before the show to be extra warm and to get “on my leg” for a role.’ With so many parts, productions and people to rehearse with everyday, most would need another pair of legs to prepare for an occupation so trying and tiring.


So, how does blogging fit in to Olivia’s lifestyle? ‘Fitting my blog around my schedule can be quite tricky at times’. This isn’t surprising, but what makes a busy ballerina want to start a blog in the first place? I’ve always thought that the lifestyle of a ballerina is incredibly interesting. I thought, “who better to highlight this life than an actual ballerina herself?”, so I took the courage and started it.’ Perhaps we could all do with some of her courage. Despite its challenges, Olivia ‘really enjoys putting on a business head for a part of my day, rather than concentrating on my ballet. It’s keeping me sane!’

Olivia’s blog,, looks at a ballerina’s life with a fashion focus, both on and off the stage. From costumes-up-close to travel style whilst touring in Tokyo, the costumes, clothes and photographs – all taken by Olivia herself – that she showcases are skilfully crafted. As a performer and fashionista, stepping into costume, especially ones inspired by the style of a particular time period, person or setting, help Olivia to find the character after the steps are in place. ‘Costumes are very important to a dancer; they are the last step to creating that role for you on stage. When the costume is on the next step is performing, be it a harlot in Manon, a fairy in Sleeping Beauty or an Arabian princess in Nutcracker! Very important for an artist.’

And with that word, ‘artist’, it suddenly dawns: ballet and blogging are not orbiting in spheres as separate as they first seem. There are parallels in the preparation, counterparts in the creativity needed for each, and a certain skill in presenting something to be proud of. Although one seems only to exercise the mind, and the other everything from the top of your head to the tips of your toes, both require you to pour it all – the mind, body, and soul – into the process to produce something exceptional.

Olivia has recently been exercising her mind, body and soul in the Royal Ballet’s revival of Anastasia – a ballet by British choreographer Kenneth MacMillan about the Romanov family, memory and the Russian Revolution – as Olga, one of the Romanov sisters. As a dancer, her lines are long and lithe, every movement fluid and effortless and perfectly poised, but, as an actress, a craft dancers rarely formally undertake, she excels. A bright smile slides into despair as she learns her father is off to war, a coquettish glance at her suitors crumbles into a giggle amongst her sisters, and a longing look as she desperately reaches out for Anastasia in the asylum inspires the deepest pathos in the audience: it is a performance alive with character.

It may look like an effortless performance, but Olivia assures me that rehearsing for such a dramatically demanding show is not easy, although it has been ‘wonderful to work on’, and her role, ‘Olga, is a great character.’ As for any professional actor, there is another layer of preparation required when performing as a historical figure: ‘there is always huge pressure [that] you put on yourself to get the role right when the story is based on real life events. You don’t want to be upsetting any historians in your portrayal!’

From recreating roles to creating them, Olivia has worked with Resident Choreographer at the Royal Ballet Wayne McGregor several times, as well as created roles in his works; a high honour for a dancer. ‘To go back to a role that has been created on you is like nothing else. It’s hugely satisfying’. As a modern choreographer, McGregor’s works are often sharply stylised, extending the balletic line beyond what is expected. As such, he expects a lot of hisolivia-cowley-interview dancers: ‘Wayne is a fantastic choreographer to work with, when you think you have pushed your balletic boundaries he pushes you another 20% – it’s crazy! Working with Wayne for 45 minutes on a solo is the equivalent of doing a marathon in metal armour while counting to music trying to look human in the face. It’s so physically demanding.’

Much of McGregor’s work is collaborative. One of his pieces, Carbon Life, returns to the repertoire this season as a fusion of contemporary forces in dance, music and fashion. With compositions from music producers Mark Ronson and Andrew Wyatt and costumes by fashion designer Gareth Pugh, there’s extra excitement for Olivia as the costumes, angular black pieces with razor sharp edges, play their own part, being acquired throughout the performance to alter the look and line of the choreography, and she’s ‘really looking forward to going back on stage’ with it.

Such is the life of a busy ballerina, always existing in that space between on-and-offstage, but somewhere amongst the pointe shoes, preparation and performances, Olivia still manages to find time backstage to work on her blog. Being an avid follower, I had to ask a few questions about her favourites on-and-offstage: ‘favourite roles or production is too hard to answer!’ she says, but her ‘favourite high street store is Zara’, and the place to find a perfect pair of mid-high heels? ‘Asos!’ If Olivia can balance ballet and blogging and still have time to find a pair of shoes that fit into a lifestyle notoriously unforgiving for the feet, what more inspiration do we need to find the time for the things we love?

Images: top, photographed by Rick Guest for What Lies Beneath; middle, from Royal Ballet’s Draft Works; last, photographed by Bill Cooper in Carbon Life. Click photographs for link to ROH site.

4 thoughts on “Breaking Ballet: An Interview with Olivia Cowley”

  1. Beautifully written, sympathetic, and enlightening observation of a ballet dancers life. A detailed description of the intense work ethic an ‘artist’ in the Royal Ballet must develop, coupled with some stunning photos of the incredible Ms Olivia Cowley…..a true inspiration for any aspiring Ballet Dancer, Athlete or fashionista!
    I have decided to follow you!
    Thank you!
    Bernadette Kazarian



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