Sarah Lamb is held upside down by a dance partner, her legs like half-open scissors, as dissonant violin music screeches through a London practice studio.
Pale and pencil thin, the U.S.-born Royal Ballet principal is rehearsing a Wayne McGregor choreography created on her. As the ballet master asks her to tweak a movement, she says it’ll be hard -- “unless I can put my knee on my head.”
At 31, Lamb is dancing better than ever, propelled by her drive and razor-sharp technique. She stars in “Nutcracker” as the Sugar Plum Fairy, having performed “Sleeping Beauty,” “Manon” and McGregor’s “Limen” in the five preceding weeks. After a 2008 mid-rehearsal collision that broke four of her bones and kept her away for nine months, she’s making up for lost time, and dancing every remaining minute of her ballerina career.
“Ballet is my life: It’s my calling, it’s my passion, and I know it won’t last forever,” says Lamb, who wears an unglamorous green track suit in her Royal Opera House dressing room. “I feel like taking it to the absolute maximum.”
“When I had that taken away, when I had that gone, I felt, ‘Who am I? Who is Sarah Lamb?’” she says of her injury. “I felt like I’d lost my identity.”
Our filmed conversation is repeatedly interrupted by a backstage intercom. “Second call for Traviata,” it yelps. Lamb picks up where she left off, exactly on cue.
The ballerina was born in Boston to a Canadian mother and a British father, both teachers. As a child, she also drew, painted and played the violin.
Riddle of Dance
Viewing ballet as “a riddle to be undone,” she threw herself into it, steered by a strict Russian teacher. “I almost lost my joy of dancing,” she recalls. “I became so overly aware of everything that I was possibly doing wrong.” Artistry, she quickly realized, mattered more than technique.
Joining the Boston Ballet in 1998, she left in 2004 for the Royal Ballet, where she became a principal two years later. London offered more visibility and a wider repertoire.
What did Lamb make of Darren Aronofsky’s movie “Black Swan,” starring Natalie Portman as a self-hurting dancer? “It was horrific,” she says. “It had an unfortunate script, and probably one of the worst dialogues I’ve ever heard.”
“I thought it was going to be a cult classic, something people go and watch and dress up for like ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ at midnight,” she says. “Unfortunately, it was received as a plausible and semi-realistic tale, and Natalie Portman was applauded for having become a ballerina.”
No More Tutus
Though “Black Swan” boosted box office, it’s not the way forward, she says. To lure young people, ballet companies should program “more current” productions with contemporary music and leotards, “rather than a tutu, which nobody has any relation to in the modern world.”
Today’s young audiences graduate from contemporary to classical dance, and not the other way around, she says. They should be reeled in with ballets like this year’s “Alice in Wonderland,” choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon, she says.
I ask why the dominant names in ballet -- Rudolf Nureyev, Mikhail Baryshnikov -- are male. “Men always get an easier break!” she says, only half joking.
“In ballet, the few boys that there are, stand out,” she explains, “whereas we’re used to having at least 25 girls who can all do about the same thing.”
Offstage, the ballerina enjoys reading. After her accident, she got through “War and Peace,” and likes Chaucer, Chekhov and Raymond Carver. She reads the New Yorker “voraciously.”
Otherwise, down time is spent sleeping and sewing pointes. “I can go through quite a number within a week,” she says. “It’s a long process to sew pointe shoes.”
What comes after ballet? Probably university, she says -- and turning her dance experience into something else.
“I really love rehearsing, not just performing,” she says. “I’ll probably take that discipline and commitment and put it into a different field. I just don’t know what yet.”
Sarah Lamb performs in “Sleeping Beauty” on Dec. 8 and 15, and in “The Nutcracker” on Dec. 20 and 30. “The Nutcracker” ends its run on Jan. 18, 2012. Information: http://www.roh.org.uk.
(Farah Nayeri writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)