Portrait of the artist: Lauren Cuthbertson, ballerina

'I danced Juliet at 19. I remember standing in the wings on opening night, telling the director I was hungover'

What got you started?

Being a very naughty little girl. There was a very strict ballet teacher in my town; my mum thought that if I went to her class, I might learn some discipline. It didn't work – but I did discover my love of dance.

What was your big breakthrough?

Dancing Juliet in Romeo and Juliet [with the Royal Ballet in 2003]. I was only 19, and had no idea about quite how significant this was. I remember standing in the wings on opening night, telling the director that I was hungover.

What advice would you give a young dancer?

Live a lot, love a lot and laugh a lot. It's no good perfecting a ballet step if you don't have enough experience of life to really put across the emotions of the ballet.

Why is dance still seen as a minority-interest art form?

Because it's difficult to bring it to the masses. Dance, especially ballet, doesn't really work on television – you don't have the same relationship with the dancers on stage. People really need to experience it live. When they do, it usually grabs them straight away.

Do you feel under a lot of pressure to stay slim?

Yes. It's just a fact of life; you can't dance a principal role, with a lot of pas de deux, if you're not slight and nimble. It's as much about how you feel, as how you look; at times when I've been fatter, I've felt less confident going out on stage. It's not easy for me to stay slim – I have to watch what I eat, and I swim as well as dance.

What work of art would you like to own?

Salvador Dalí's Meditative Rose. For me, it represents the vastness of life, with the rose in the middle a symbol of love and all that's good. But of course, as a surrealist, he probably didn't mean it like that.

What's the worst thing anyone ever said about you?

The worst thing is when people say nothing at all. I don't mind criticism – you can learn from it – but it's difficult to come off stage and be met with silence.

What's the biggest myth about ballet dancers?

That we're terribly serious all the time. Of course, we're serious about what we do, but we also have a lot of fun. The other day during rehearsals, I got cross about something, and then I looked at my co-star Ed [Watson] in this ridiculous costume with a tail and huge glasses, and I just had to laugh.

In short

Born: Devon, 1984.

Career: Joined the Royal Ballet in 2002, where she is now a principal dancer. Has played Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, the Sugar Plum Fairy in the Nutcracker, and Alice in Alice in Wonderland, which is at the Royal Opera House, London WC2 (020-7304 4000), 2-15 March.

High point: "Right here, right now."

Low point: "Being off stage with glandular fever for a year and a half, 18 months ago."


Interview by Laura Barnett

The GuardianTramp

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