Friday, 20 November 2009

Cupcakes at Tiffany’s with professional dancer Maria Engel

When I meet Maria Engel, co-incidentally on the opening day of the Christmas ice rink at Somerset House, she is wearing newly acquired and utterly fabulous skyscraper heels. Beaming her usual mega-watt smile at me, she drops into the conversation that she is a good skater. I fear that there may be a clause in her contract forbidding such precarious activity and thank my lucky stars that a giant Tiffany blue box provides immediate distraction.

Mirror, Mirror on the wall....  Maria Engel inside the Tiffany Blue Box
Photos throughout :  Mo Greig

Maria started ballet classes in her native Germany at Ballet und Tanzstudio Beatrix Klein aged three and a half, because her Mum spotted her flexibility and passion for spinning in their living room. Initially going once a week after school, by the age of 12 her teachers, (Beatrix Klein, Christine Steiniger, Elaine Underwood, Galina Georgieva-Weber & Jadwiga Antony) recognising her potential, suggested gradually increasing the number of classes until she was dancing daily, only having Sundays off.

Maria Engel at Somerset House

Auditions, the bane of any dancers life, followed for companies in Germany and abroad, including Elmhurst, a vocational school associated with the excellent Birmingham Royal Ballet. Maria says of her first visit “when I went with my mum to Elmhurst, it was so friendly and my mum felt really comfortable with the school, which seemed really like home, and I felt really comfortable.” Maria was accepted, and the sixth form students train intensively for three years towards the National Diploma in Professional Dance, which is recognised as the vocational equivalent of an honours degree. By the time they graduate, students are expected to have mastered a range of techniques and to have developed the maturity needed to take responsibility for their own future in dance.

Maria praises her teachers for guiding her towards these goals. “The thing is, at the beginning I didn’t really speak that much English, and then I came here and I didn’t go home for the first month. That was the first time I’ve ever been far away from home.” It took only a few weeks to settle in and get used to fast-spoken English, a testament to the pastoral care at the school.

Ofsted (The Office of Standards in Education) inspected this course in January 2008 and the report listed the school's key strengths as 'very good and outstanding teaching; highly effective strategic management; high technical standards; high standards of performance in productions; thorough pastoral and academic support; effective staff appraisal.' Students, just like Maria, speak most highly of the support they receive and ‘the friendly atmosphere’ of the school, which aims to produce ‘thinking dancers’.

Maria Engel at the Royal Opera House

During her final year Maria performed Elite Syncopations – “it’s a great show to do”, and toured with Birmingham Royal Ballet in The Firebird. “You get the credit of your hard work back as soon as you step on stage.” The audition process began again, this time for professional work, and I asked Maria whether she had considered going home to work in a ballet company there, but she replied “I really like to speak English. You know, it’s so strange, going home, for the first two days, I can’t speak, because you use different muscles, and when I’m on the phone to my Mum I start talking English to her. It’s really strange, because I think a lot in English, I think more in English than I do in German.”

Maria’s approach to auditioning is to look through the profile pictures of the dancers in the Company, and with her own profile picture in her head, tries to work out whether her face might fit, “because sometimes the Company goes for a certain look which you can then see in their programmes.”

Ballet Theatre UK, Britain’s newest classical ballet company, was auditioning at this time, and Maria travelled to London and was asked to perform a solo. She chose Kitri from Don Quixote, which company Director & Choreographer Chris Moore describes as “completely the other end of the spectrum from Sugar Plum, but I could just see that she was someone that I could work with and that she would create the image that I was hoping to go for with it.”

Maria Engel inside the Tiffany Blue Box

Chris cast ten dancers for his new production of The Nutcracker, with two alternating casts to cover all the roles. From the start of the audition Chris knew that he wanted to cast Maria, “well, to be honest, to be perfectly honest, she was the first one that we decided to offer a contract to, and we sussed that out pretty much within the barre work and the class really. Just because she presented such a finish with her work and she seemed to dance with quite a lot of maturity and a lot of style, which is quite unique in someone that’s obviously just left college and is on their first contract. She really shone out because of that style and her athletic dynamic that I was really looking for without it being someone non-expressive and just legs and technique. It was quite clear that she could act a little bit through her dance which was exactly what I wanted. There are so many things; style really was the biggest thing, she looked so right for it and has such energy in her dancing.”

In fact, such was the standard of Maria’s dancing that Chris had quite a task on his hands to find a suitable partner for her. “I did find then after we decided to cast her, it was difficult to find a guy that would be suitable for her, to find a guy that was of a good enough standard. So then luckily we found Diarmaid.”

Just two weeks before the end of her training at Elmhurst, Maria received the news that she had been offered a contract. After screaming with a mixture of relief and excitement, she phoned home. “I was so happy, I was crying down the phone to my Dad.”

Maria, the youngest girl in the Company, was cast as the Sugar Plum Fairy.

Maria Engel in rehearsals

I spent some time with the dancers at final rehearsals, where they were already portraying excellent characterization. I could see how impressive all of the dancers would be once they were in the theatre, as Maria highlights “well, once you are in the theatre, and you have the lights, the props, and you wear the costume, it’s completely different. It makes it about fifty per cent more than you are doing already. It just brings out the character; I’m actually wearing that red dress, something to be proud of, I actually get the necklace.“

What about the fiendishly tricky Gargouillades ? “It’s the way of approaching things and thinking. For example, I had coaching with my ballet teachers at Elmhurst who said, ‘think of the second leg coming in’, but for me it was really hard, and then they told me ‘bring your foot to the knee’ and that would make it work for me. So it’s just about approaching things in a way that you understand. The solo is hard because the Sugar Plum variation is pure classical ballet; it’s so pure that you can see any mistakes.”

Maria Engel as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Diarmaid O'Meara as The Prince

Maria’s Prince, Diarmaid O’Meara, says of dancing with her “Maria has real elegance when she dances, not only physically but a sense of poise and maturity. We very quickly gained each others trust which makes dancing with her a joy, and her openness allows us to improve with each performance. I hope that we'll have many opportunities to dance together after this tour. “

Maria Engel as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Diarmaid O'Meara as The Prince

In the famous Sugar Plum pas de deux, Maria has to trust Diarmaid “because if you are turning on pointe, on one leg, it’s the boy who saves you or puts you on your leg. And I love Diarmaid to bits. He’s so funny. I do trust Diarmaid and I know that he will be there. It gets better every time. Every performance is different but the more we do it, I think I get more secure.”

I reviewed one of their performances recently and watched Maria dance with elegant, long clean lines, and a warm, expressive face. Secure in the choreography and in her partner, Maria fouttés effortlessly upstage and launches into the fish dives with ferocious abandon. But there is more, which is what Chris also saw in the auditions. Maria has a rare luminosity, she dances like a single dust mote dancing in a beam of light cast by the brilliance of her technique but also by her innate intelligence as a dancer.

Maria Engel as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Diarmaid O'Meara as The Prince

The particular challenges of being on tour – new theatre each time, maybe a raked stage, the travelling - meant that at their first dress rehearsal the stage was a tight fit for the choreography, so adjustments were rapidly made and the cast adapted easily. “You have to be really secure on the choreography though, to then get the placement right.”

Equally testing is knowing that friends and family are in the audience. In Tamworth last week Maria had three of her teachers from Elmhurst watching - Errol Pickford, Elizabeth Rae and Donald Tolj, and she says “I know they’ve seen me dance so many times but they’ve never seen me in the show, and I was so nervous and no-one can understand. So nervous !”

Conquering the nerves is part and parcel of a dancer’s life, and of course, Maria danced brilliantly. As we were walking between photo shoot locations, she told me that she felt it was her best show so far. Anyone who knows how modest and unassuming dancers are, will know that for Maria to admit to being happy with her performance under such scrutiny means a lot.

Audience feedback has been excellent and Chris says “I’ve been really, really surprised at the amount of comments. People have been emailing and I just thought that’s really nice of someone to email to say how much they enjoyed it.” The theatres too have been positive and “we’ve had quite a lot of them already want to confirm for next year.”

Whose choreography would Maria like to dance, given the chance ? “MacMillan. Manon is one of my favourite ballets actually”. And if she could choose her partner ? “I’m torn between Carlos Acosta and Roberto Bolle. Or maybe Robert Parker.” She’d be wearing a tutu, and it would be red, “I’m a bit obsessed with the colour red.”

I asked Chris how he’d describe Maria’s dancing now, at the half-way point of the tour. “I’d say she has definitely grown in her performance, just with the experience of doing the shows and touring, but the lovely thing about Maria which has come out as we’ve been travelling is that she’s such a positive person to have on tour. She keeps the morale up and is always happy. When you are sat in the bus and you’re going around for long drives, it’s nice really.”

What does Maria wish for herself in the future ? “To get into a medium sized company, which gives me challenges.”

As Maria was directed by the photographer, a crowd gathered around me and asked who she was. I replied, “That’s Maria Engel and she’s going to be a famous ballet dancer.”


  1. Wow, she is stunning, a very beautiful ballerina. I enjoyed your post, I love all the great photos, it is always an inspiration for my little granddaughter.
    Margaret B

  2. What a beautiful ballerina! I so loved reading about her. She looks so flawless in her pictures and with a gorgeous smile! I bet she lights up a room when she is in it. Thank you so much for sharing her story!

  3. After backtracking a bit, I see that your posts are beautiful as always. This one and The Nutcracker article are nothing less than splendid. You have me googling for Nutcracker tickets now! :) My 5 year old daughter has expressed an interest in ballet so I think this would be a wonderful first experience.

    If I don't talk to you sooner, I hope you have warm, blessed, family filled holidays, sweety.


  4. She is so graceful and elegant. How wonderful it is to have a job to be able to see these wonderful ballerina's up close and personal. Wonderful story.

    *®*´¯`•.¸¸.♫• Happy Holidays ♫•.¸¸.•´¯`*®*
    (¸.•´ (¸.+´♥♥¸.+´
    (¸.•´ (¸.+´♥ Heidi ♥)

  5. She is beautiful. Thank you for sharing her with us.

  6. wow! not only is maria gorgeous, but she's also accomplished so much already in her young life!! she's absolutely enchanting.....thanks for introducing her to us!! :))

  7. Maria is beautiful, exudes classic beauty and style which definitely shows in the photos here. A great interview...wish I was close enough to witness her performance!

  8. Wow - wonderful interview. Love the photos and glad she likes red I'm writing my dissertation on the red dress, shame it isn't about tutus.

    Would you tell us what her diet is as she looks radiant!

  9. Your blog is beautiful! What a great idea for a blog. I wish I still did ballet, I gave up last year to come to university..after 15 years of ballet! I will be visiting again to look at your beautiful pictures :)

  10. enchanting... you have a fabulous blog... enjoy your weekend. x pam

  11. I really enjoyed reading this post :) I think this blog is great! It's so inspiring... and it opens back a door to my childhood where ballerinas and tutus once were a dream... :D Have a lovely weekend! Much love*

  12. She is so pretty, she's like an angel. Another great post Elise, I once again had fun reading.

    P.S. I added you to my link list ;)

  13. She is very beautiful and talented! I wish her best in her future ballet career!

  14. Maria is so lovely...what a find for the Sugar Plum Fairy. Thank you for posting this...I loved reading all about her. She is the perfect Sugar Plum Fairy! So lucky they found Diarmaid to be her Prince! Thanks for visiting me!

  15. Dear Elise,
    What a fantastic post! It was so interesting. Maria is just lovely. I would love to see a preformance some day. Thank you so much for sharing. I hope you and your family have a beautiful and blessed Thanksgiving ♥

  16. She makes the most divine Sugar Plum Fairy, doesn't she!

  17. Amazing pictures!!! So lovely... it makes me dream about dancing... Have a great week! Vanessa

  18. I just loved this post. She seems divine.

  19. hello Elise, yes Indeed! I agree she is on track to becoming famous, she looks very elegant and poised, and I believe she has a great working attitude too, for her mentors and colleagues to speak of her that way, she must be really nice and focused and fun to work with...'Lovely interview as usual! ^-^ Have a great week!


  20. Wow, she is just gorgeous! To have that poise. Sigh.

  21. Hi there-such a wonderful interview and she looks so pretty and talented,lovely photos too!!

  22. I went to me second ballet ever a couple of weeks ago, and it was The Nutcracker. It was performed by the Moscow Ballet, so I'd be interested to see it done by another company.

    Needless to say, I found it enchanting.

  23. Good for her...that's an amazing role to land :)
    The way she puts her profile pic into her head and sets her goals for larger companies is great!!! She WILL go far.

  24. oh she's stunning... ballet... love it!
    great blog, thanks for stopping by mine :)
    have a lovely day, xoxo

  25. Dear Elise
    I think you must have theeee most elegant blog in blogland :)
    Your images are always stunning, I realise it helps that they are of incredibly beautiful dancers.
    It's always such a pleasure to pop in.
    Of course you write so beautifully which helps too!

  26. What a lovely performer and how exciting that she has been so successful! I am sure that all of her dreams will continue to come true with all of her goals and ambitions!

  27. WOW!! She's beautiful!
    I soo love the 1st photo and the 5th especially - so magical!

    Interesting way she has of choosing which ensembles to perform with!

    Great ending of the post - fingers crossed! :)

    And now I want to go stretch and dance around a bit, lol. I think I need to read your blog more often! :)

  28. She is gorgeous! Your blog makes me miss dancing so much :( But I love reading about it!


  29. What an interesting concept, dance is a fascinating form of art. Your featured dancer is a stunning beauty and a talented performer.
    Thank you so much for stopping by my place, I appreciate your kind words.

  30. So stunning....if only I coiuld turn the clock back, oh the memories I have. Thank yoiu so much for all that you do to share and many thanks for taking the time out to read my mother's blog. Have a blessed Thanksgiving!

  31. Hi Maria, I am so proudly about you. I have a wonderful daughter. Your Daddy.
    I am so lucky that you can live your dream.
    Blödkuh! Ich lieb Dich
    und ich auch Erika

  32. My dear Maria,

    big recognition for your so great performance.
    Your style and charisma is wonderful and an enrichment for your audience and also for us.
    You are on the best way to a super star!!!
    God take care of you
    Your Mum and Hans

  33. The French Bear - thank you so much, it's lovely to hear that these posts are inspiring

    Lori R - Yes, that's pretty much true, thank you for summing it up so perfectly

    Mz Spider - thank you so much for your kind words. I hope you got to see The Nutcracker with your daughter !

    Fairy Footprints - thank you - yes, I'm pretty lucky that's for sure !

    Just Breathe - you are welcome, thank you

    lori vliegen - I know what you mean ! Thank you

    Alicia - thank you very much, that's a shame but I'm delighted that I could share the interview with you

    Make Do Style - I will ask the question and let you know....

    Jasmine - thank you very much; I hope you can continue with ballet - giving up after 15 years must be tough ?

    red ticking - thank you so much, you are very kind to say so

    Aima Kessy - thank you very much, glad you are enjoying it

    gleenn - I'm sure Maria will appreciate that compliment, thank you for adding me !

    AudreyAllure - quite by chance Maria chose the perfect colours for our Tiffany shoot and it worked out perfectly, thank you for your comment

    Miss Always Carried Away - No doubt Maria will appreciate your words - thank you !

    koralee - yes you are right, luck was very much 'in' when the Director paired Maria and Diarmaid together - it's not something you can force for it to work really well. Glad you enjoyed reading about Maria, thank you for your comment

    Charli and me - I hope you do ! thank you for your kind words

    Pamela Terry and Edward - She certainly does. As Diarmaid would say, Maria just has a Sugar Plum personality. Thank you for your comment

    Vanessa - how lovely, thank you

    paula - thank you, lovely to hear

    Sassy Scribbles - thank you very much !

    Kristin - I know what you mean ! Thank you

    SR@MyStyle - thank you very much, glad you liked it

    Lisa-Marie - thank you so much, isn't the Nutcracker just perfect wherever you see it at this time of year ?

    Aubrey - Let's hope so; thank you !

    Susan - thank you !

    Wendy - how lovely of you to say so - thank you very much !

    OceanDreams - Fingers crossed ! Thank you

    Layla - I agree, thank you

    Ashley - thank you !

    Protege - thank you

    The Little Uke's Cukes ! - thank you, very kind !

    thomas engel - I know that your words are very special to Maria, thank you for taking the time to comment here especially as I know that English is not your first language. Best wishes.

    Anonymous - again, your words mean everything to Maria so thank you so much for leaving them here.


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