‘You’re never comfortable as a dancer’: brilliant ballerina Beatriz Stix-Brunell’s next step

The Royal Ballet star, who is swapping the Covent Garden stage for Stanford University, talks about what she will and won’t miss most about dancing

You hear of dancers’ careers being ended by injury, or of them retiring with a heavy heart in their 30s or 40s. But it’s almost unheard of for a ballet dancer to walk away from the stage when they’re still on the up. That’s what Beatriz Stix-Brunell is doing. After 11 years at the Royal Ballet, the 28-year-old American is taking up a place at Stanford University in California. She has impressed in leading roles from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to Jacqueline du Pré in The Cellist (for which she was nominated for a National Dance award), and might have been promoted to principal. So why leave now?

“I always knew I wanted to go back to school at some point,” she says. “Ballet is so intense, you have to have tunnel vision and it does become a bubble. You give so much of yourself and you’re fine making those sacrifices because you love it so much, but there are so many parts of me that I haven’t discovered yet. It feels like a good time to step into this new chapter.”

With Reece Clarke in After the Rain pas de deux by Christopher Wheeldon.
‘You give so much of yourself’ … with Reece Clarke in the Christopher Wheeldon pas de deux After the Rain. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/the Guardian

Growing up in New York, Stix-Brunell trained at the School of American Ballet from seven (alongside attending Manhattan private school Nightingale-Bamford) and went to the Paris Opera Ballet school at 12. Two years later she joined Christopher Wheeldon’s company Morphoses, holding her own among seasoned dancers, and at 17 she was invited to join the Royal Ballet. It was an accelerated trajectory, even for a ballet dancer. Was she very ambitious, very impatient? “I think I saw little windows of opportunity, and in my head I always think: why not? I don’t have anything to lose.”

As long as she kept up her academic work, her parents – dad a banker, mum an interior designer – were very supportive. Her mum and brother (Alexander, a composer) moved to Paris with her when she decided to audition there after seeing a video of the school. “I didn’t speak French. I was drowning a little bit. But you give things some time and within a month I had found my footing.” In three months she was fluent in the language, and she finished the year top of her class.

There’s an admirable fearlessness about Stix-Brunell: soft and bright and engaged in person but obviously steely beneath (much like her dancing). It goes hand in hand with a dancer’s life, she says. “We do so much growth when we’re really outside our comfort zone, and as dancers that’s what we do all the time, pushing ourselves beyond the limits – beyond what’s comfortable, that’s for sure,” she laughs. “You’re never comfortable as a dancer.”

From such a focused existence in ballet, Stix-Brunell’s options are now wide open. American students don’t choose a major subject until their second year, but she is fascinated by the science/humanities crossover, and looking at courses covering maths, computer science, linguistics and philosophy. “I want to study something that will propel me into a career that’s relevant to where the world is going, maybe healthcare tech, my mind is very open.”

‘I’m excited to activate my mind’ … Stix-Brunell in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by the Royal Ballet
‘I’m excited to activate my mind’ … Stix-Brunell in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by the Royal Ballet. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/the Guardian

A British citizen, Stix-Brunell recalls answering questions about Charlie Chaplin and Lewis Hamilton on her citizenship test and says singing the national anthem was “one of my proudest moments”. She’ll miss London’s intimacy, history and energy, and the tube (“It’s the greatest public transport, way better than Paris or New York”). Mostly she’ll miss the connection with her colleagues. “You experience all your highs and lows together every day, and that’s been a beautiful community.”

Dancing Romeo and Juliet in 2019 “turned out to be everything I ever hoped it would be”. (Ever the good student, she had her high school text sent over from New York, with her notes in the margins.) But things like singing Whitney Houston’s I Wanna Dance With Somebody full-throttle in the dressing room while the dancers put on wigs and makeup will stay with her just as much. And the “transformation walk” to the stage, the low voice of the stage manager from prompt corner, the quiet lift of the curtain, “only a magical couple of steps between between you and 2,500 people.”

Beatriz Stix-Brunell and Yasmine Naghdi in Corybantic Games, part of the Bernstein Centenary Triple Bill at the Royal Opera House in 2018.
Beatriz Stix-Brunell and Yasmine Naghdi in Corybantic Games, part of the Bernstein Centenary Triple Bill at the Royal Opera House in 2018. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

What she will not miss is the pain. “The physical intensity of it can sometimes be overwhelming,” she says. “Very, very sore toes where you just think to yourself, it’s 3pm and I can’t actually get en pointe because my toes hurt so much. How am I going to do another six hours? But somehow you push through.”

That pain notwithstanding, it’s still surprising for someone to give up the kind of career that is so hard won. But she is sated. “I’ve had so many moments where I’ve performed on stage and thought, my goodness, this is what living your dream actually feels like.” Chasing promotion didn’t drive her. “I have done so many principal roles and they’ve given me this feeling of complete fulfilment in my career.” Which sounds like more job satisfaction than most of us get in a lifetime.

Stix-Brunell is bowing out with a duet by Christopher Wheeldon, coming full circle from her first job at 14. The gorgeous, glacially slow After the Rain pas de deux “is one of the most beautiful things to dance”, she says. “It’s so simple, so quiet, it’s for the heart.” Will she keep dancing? Her big brown eyes look sheepish and she says quietly, “I don’t think so.” Not at all? “When you know it’s your time, you know it’s your time,” she smiles. “I have spent thousands upon thousands of hours moving my body, and my main excitement now is to activate my mind as much as possible.”

  • Beatriz Stix-Brunell makes her final appearance in the Beauty Mixed Programme at the Royal Opera House, London, on 11 July.

Contributor

Lyndsey Winship

The GuardianTramp

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