Royal Ballet soloist Olivia Cowley has performed across the globe, but she tells Natalie Li that Buckinghamshire will always be home
Leaving the cast of the musical fantasy filmCats during filming in 2018 is something Olivia Cowley doesn’t regret. “It wasn’t my cup of tea; I didn’t love the choreography or the film, so I decided to leave,” she shrugs. “I was missing the shows at the Royal Opera House.”
Her quiet determination is apparent as soon as we speak over the phone during her maternity leave, weeks away from expecting her second child. Eloquent and composed, Olivia discusses her profession with genuine fervour. “I really love my job. One of my favourite roles includes Countess Marie Larisch in Mayerling – I loved dancing with [now retired] principal dancer Ed Watson. He had so much charisma and energy on stage. Working with Wayne MacGregor on Woolf Works was the most incredible experience. I didn’t feel like I was on planet earth when I was performing. You feel like you are being transformed into another world on stage.”
Olivia became a soloist in 2013, with a mix of principal dancer work, for the Royal Ballet.
Her illustrious dancing career spans 20 years under her belt with roles in almost every iconic ballet from The Nutcracker to Swan Lake, working with top choreographers such as Cuban dance star Carlos Acosta.
It’s a dream come true for Olivia after a tough start in life suffering from speech difficulties at primary school. Aged eight, she began dancing for the first time. “Having a speech impediment meant that I couldn’t always find my words,” she recounts. “My parents saw me dancing to Michael Jackson and they found a dance class in Aylesbury High Street, so I started classes to help with my confidence. My speech and language impediment meant that I needed therapy so I attended the Grange School in Aylesbury, which meant that I could continue with ballet.
“Ballet made me feel equal to my peers for the first time,” Olivia continues. “There was such a calmness, and it was a release for me. My parents were happy that I’d found dance. I am very shy, so I am happy to be mute on stage and simply dance. It’s a comfort blanket for sure.”
Olivia’s growing passion for dance was encouraged by her parents who quietly applied for grants and scholarships to nurture their daughter’s growing talent. “I wouldn’t stop practising, class meant so much to me,” enthuses Olivia. “We didn’t have much spare cash. Dad worked in Sainsbury’s for 40 years and mum was a nurse at Stoke Mandeville Hospital.”
Olivia became a Junior Associate of Tring Park School for Performing Arts. From the age of eight to 16 she had one teacher, Nicola Bowden. But the traditional path through to the Royal Ballet Lower School at White Lodge was not to be for her. Instead, she continued with her evening ballet classes until she auditioned for the Royal Ballet Upper School.
“Mum had worked hard later in life to become a nurse and she always said that ‘you’ll do it when you do it’. There was never a pressure on me. When I heard I had made it into the Royal Ballet School it was a big moment. The idea of dancing from 9am-6pm – I finally had the opportunity to do what I loved.”
Born and raised in Aylesbury, where her siblings still reside, Olivia left aged 16 to pursue her dream in London where she has remained. However, her Buckinghamshire roots still stay with her. “I had lived in Aylesbury my whole life and even though I live in London and have done for 20 years it still feels like home. I’ll always have a close connection, it’s like another comfort blanket for me,” she smiles.
“We grew up near the railway so whenever I hear the rumble of trains, I get this comforting feeling. I have fond memories of traipsing down Aylesbury High Street and lovely walks in the Chilterns and Wendover Woods.”
Now 37, Olivia lives with her partner Henry St Clair, a former dancer-turned agent, and their two-year-old son Forrest. “Henry and I danced together, were good friends and realised I loved this man. We’ve been together ever since.”
But leaving dance to become a mum hasn’t always been easy, she admits. “Every season brings something new and it’s hard for a dancer to part with that. When I had my beautiful baby boy it was tough to return.
“I took six months maternity leave and started building up with Pilates and private coaching. That mobility and strength returns, and this is what I hope for with my second child. You need discipline and mental strength because it can be tough. Your body experiences so much change through pregnancy. There’s been a lot of dancers having babies at work so there’s a great community to share motherhood with.”
Documenting her life as a dancer is another passion. Olivia’s blog, ballet.style, looks at her life with a fashion focus, both on and off the stage. “People don’t understand the nature of the job and I wanted to provide an insight,” she explains. “The response to the blog has been amazing, but I had to leave it while concentrating on motherhood.
“A typical day starts with Pilates, a ballet warm-up class followed by a full day of rehearsals and a show in the evening. A corps dancer, how I started out, performs most nights, and they won’t know which section they will perform. The life of a corps is exciting, but you are constantly grinding. You train in the day and do a show in the night. A principal has time to recover and rest. A soloist falls in the middle.”
When asked about what the future holds, Olivia replies quickly: “I still have that fire in my belly to perform so it’s not out of my system! It’s hard to think that ballet won’t be the subject of my job. I’ll always return to ballet.
“I’ve had an amazing life and career. There is a form of meditation in dance, and I’d love my son to experience it. I appreciate what I have, and I will continue to work hard, stay in shape, and keep my stamina and fitness on pointe. Whatever comes my way I’ll be ready and fit to go.”