July 21, 2024

Eearlier this year, Yasmine Naghdi struggled in the practice studio. Naghdi is one of the Royal Ballet’s leading dancers and her performance of Swan Lake will be streamed live to cinemas around the world. But although known for her crystalline technique, she became almost too anxious to hold a pirouette.

Naghdi looks enviable today: straight back, eyes shining under heavily etched eyebrows. But the impending show literally threw her off balance, she explains. “Perform Swan more up to 3,000 people [in the Royal Opera House] is stressful in itself, but it will be filmed and streamed live to cinemas worldwide, with the prospect of being streamed afterwards – this is the version of me that lives out there. So everything has to be perfect. It’s a tremendous amount of pressure.”

At 32, and a lead dancer since 2017, this was hardly her first rodeo. Was she surprised by the sharp anxiety? “I saw it coming,” she admits. “Dancers are known for striving for perfection. When I did a performance that was below my expectations, I stick with it. It is painful.”

Swan Lake’s most spectacular section is the “black swan” third act: the ballerina sets off a series of fireworks, especially 32 rapid turns called fouettés. “I wanted a really complicated ending to the solo, but would keep falling off the landing,” Naghdi recalls. A fan of sports science, she contacted performance psychologist Britt Tajet-Foxell. “I said, ‘I need some tools to help me because I’m so scared.’ Fear is the key word – fear of failure, in front of the audience. If you slip or something goes wrong, it hurts your soul.”

‘You have to make it look easy’ … Naghdi in The Firebird in 2019. Photo: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

“Yasmine is the ultimate ballerina,” according to Tajet-Foxell. “She has an athlete’s mindset – very sharp, very powerful.” The Norwegian-born psychologist speaks with authority – sports science leads the way in this field, and along the Royal Ballet, she also helps elite athletes, including Norwegian and British Olympians heading to Paris this summer. Her career began as a physio – now she supports anxious minds inside champion bodies.

Tajet-Foxell watched Naghdi’s rehearsal footage and saw a loss of focus: “Something in the eyes went, and I know what the brain is doing.” Naghdi describes a dancer’s internal conversation: “The voices that come into our minds! We are not quiet up there. Britt gives me tools – count, focus on the breath – to drown out the voice that says: ‘Waste it, mess it up!’.”

Together, they broke down the daunting task and built strategies for showtime. “The brain would get busy and doubts would set in,” says Naghdi, “but Britt was always there for me. I’d come away from a rehearsal, and a message would pop up, ‘How was today, give me three good things and one you feel you could improve.’ It was as if she knew what I needed without me even asking.” They also deployed the Royal Ballet’s nutrition and pilates teams. “I tried to create a bubble of support,” says Naghdi.

Tajet-Foxell is all clean, reassuring lines: silver bob, black suit, calm voice. Dancers contact her with numerous concerns: “a step, an injury, anxiety, stage fright”. Despite initial stigma around addressing mental health, she has assisted generations of star dancers. “It’s incredibly personal, we touch on very private thoughts and feelings.

A moment of calm… Naghdi. Photo: Christian Sinibaldi/The Guardian

Citing Nobel Prize-winning cognitive scientist Daniel Kahneman, Tajet-Foxell argues that “the brain encodes anything we experience as negative as two-and-a-half times stronger than anything positive”. For Naghdi, the memory of her rehearsal wobble burns brighter than her many perfect turns.

Tajet-Foxell is working to introduce more positive triggers, which help Naghdi stay focused on a successful fouetté. “Every single step is translated from brain to body. My work is about taking something multi-dimensionally complex and threading it into something that feels simple.”

I am surprised to learn that this work is self-directed, rather than at the behest of Naghdi’s director or coaches. “It has to come from within,” she confirms. “I’ve seen so many talented artists stay where they are because they didn’t push themselves. You are expected to do whatever it takes to be the best possible version of yourself. I didn’t set myself up for failure by winging it and seeing what happened. I put in so much work – I honestly couldn’t have done more.”

“You think like an elite athlete,” the psychologist approves. What is the difference between elite athletes and dancers? “Nothing,” said Tajet-Foxell. “It’s the same factors – focus, confidence.” Although unlike a strenuous sports person, Naghdi adds, “you have to make it look easy and not show the effort.” The dancer watches her body carefully. “As women, we have many changes throughout the month, which have an impact on the way we perform. It’s not studied to the extent I’d like for ballet, but I’m sensitive to my own fluctuations. I was very happy with where the date fell for the filmed performance.

“I’m not a Holly Golightly, someone who says, ‘Let’s see what happens.’ I do not think so. I have markers that I have set for myself and expectations that I want to meet and go beyond. But Britt hit the nail on the head, saying: ‘At the end of the day, it’s work.’ It resonated and gave me so much peace.”

As for the filmed performance? “I woke up knowing I had to hit that bullseye,” says Naghdi. “The most important thing was: you’ve done all this work, don’t let yourself down. When the third act was over, I went to the emotion and pushed all my energy until I was completely exhausted.”

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