When Leanne Cope takes the stage in Liam Scarlett’s Asphodel Meadows, her expressive, fluid movement hints at a lost relationship. In a company overflowing with foreign talent, she is practically an old-school dance actress. Her striking eyes and unshowy extensions bring to mind past Royal Ballet stars like Lynn Seymour, Kenneth MacMillan’s famous muse. The next night, however, the petite 29-year-old is likely to be back in the corps, one of a multitude of swans or shades. Meet the part-time muse: inspiration to one of the most promising classical choreographers, but, on paper, still a first artist with The Royal Ballet.
Her rank hasn’t stopped Scarlett from casting Cope in nearly every work he has created on the company. “Leanne is the type of dancer who makes choreographers do what they do,” he explains. “What draws me to her is the one thing I can never explain. She has a presence like no other on stage. Her face and eyes are just captivating.”
Cope has been in the company for nine years, and her chance to shine was long in coming. Cope’s mother, who regretted never pursuing ballet, sent her to a ballet school near their home in Bath, England. Her teacher spotted Cope’s potential and had her audition for White Lodge, The Royal Ballet’s Lower School, at age 11. But even as she completed the White Lodge curriculum, Cope felt doubtful about a career in ballet: “I had a real desire for musical theater,” she says, “and I wasn’t sure I was right physically. I don’t have the most fantastically proportioned body, the most arched feet, the most flexibility.”
In the end, she says, she found her heart lay with ballet. After completing the Upper School program, she was hired by The Royal in 2003. The company promoted her from artist to first artist in 2005. Yet other than a noted debut as Clara in The Nutcracker, The Royal seemed oblivious to her soloist potential. Featured roles remained few and far between.
Cope didn’t dwell on casting. Chosen for the Draft Works program, a small annual showcase for budding choreographers within The Royal Ballet, she started working with Scarlett. For Cope, Scarlett’s choreography was a revelation. “I realized from the first rehearsal: This guy is special. It was the most natural ballet had ever felt to me.”
Scarlett graduated to the Royal Opera House’s main stage in 2010 and brought Cope along for the ride. In Asphodel Meadows, she was Tamara Rojo’s alternate. Earlier this year, Scarlett created the opening pas de deux of his Sweet Violets on Cope and gave her a principal role in the second cast. Her emotionally charged performances earned critical plaudits.
Many dancers in her situation would find the daily corps work a grind, but Cope relishes it. “I don’t think I’ll ever be frustrated in the corps de ballet, simply because I never thought I’d be here,” she explains. “We are the substance; we’re there every night.”
She also credits part of the balance she has found to her fiancé, Paul Kay, a Royal Ballet soloist she met while they were both RBS students. The couple celebrated their 12-year anniversary last summer.
Confidence still doesn’t come easy, and Cope finds the more classical repertoire can still be a challenge because of what she deems her physical limitations. To gain strength, she has taken up weight lifting with the trainer recently hired by the company. In the studio, Scarlett constantly pushes her to do more, explaining: “There are many roles waiting to be created for her, in my eyes; she will always be the first considered for any part. Her only weakness is that she needs to believe in herself more.” Cope isn’t quite there yet, joking that she is “more amusing than a muse.” But she trusts Scarlett, whom she calls her fairy godfather: “He really brings out something in me that I didn’t know I had.”
At a Glance
Training: The Royal Ballet School (White Lodge and Upper School)
Favorite role: Principal part in Liam Scarlett’s Asphodel Meadows
Dream role: “If I’m being extremely selfish, I’d love for Liam to create a three-act ballet on me!”