The Pointe of Perfume: it’s all an act!
Fragrance really is a transformative tool: it’s a natural form of self-expression with the ability to alter your mood and character in an instant, making you feel more confident, sophisticated or sexier in seconds. Nothing else works that fast. Don’t believe me? Enter Lauren Cuthbertson, stage left, Principal Ballerina for The Royal Ballet, beloved by her audience for an extraordinary artistic talent as both a ballet dancer and an actress. Why, in a single performance she might turn from sweet ingénue one moment, to a seductive harlot the next, with barely enough time to unzip! Her resolve? To unearth a different perfume to enhance the unique personality and mood of her character throughout each and every performance. “Fragrance is so wonderful for art,” says Lauren. “It helps me ‘feel’ who I am in just one breath. Maybe I have a split personality, but you kind of have to in order to play out so many different people and emotions. Scent helps me identify who and what they are, and when; it throws me into the era. It even defines my posture.”
Next, Lauren found herself in the mythological ballet Sylvia – playing the Greek goddess (la nymphe de Diane). “I play a strong huntress in Act One, and she’s oh so manly; I really needed help fitting into this role. Then I thought, ‘well I have to wear aftershave!’ I popped on my trackies and headed straight to Penhaligon’s and bought a tiny bottle of Endymion, a men’s cologne that’s a bit ‘husky’. Instinct told me that nothing else would work! Now, whenever I’m struggling with a character, I create the whole picture of the person; highlighting something through scent helps me create that whole personality.” Whoah! Perfume really is so sensorial. It allows you to see with your mind’s eye. Nothing else brings back a moment and a memory with such clarity as scent – but mingle that here with a live orchestra, elaborate sets and costumes and we’re really talking potent stuff!
All change! In Act Two, Sylvia’s character becomes more feminine and alluring, as she needs to escape capture by performing a seductive dance. “It’s a snaky, slinky kind of movement using her whole torso, so I needed a really good, manipulative kind of scent. I wore Poison by Dior!”
Softer now, in the final act, Sylvia finds her love. “I wore the very feminine Penhaligon’s Elizabethan Rose,” says Lauren, “however on reflection, that wasn’t really right: it was just too country garden and not exotic enough to transport you into another land. If I do it again, I will choose a ‘heat scent’.”
Now it’s Getting Complicated The first time I met and watched Lauren perform was as Manon. “This is a ballet with three acts, about a young woman and her extraordinary, sometimes sordid life growing up, dominated by people and men around her,” explains Lauren.
“In Act One, she’s an innocent, so I chose Lanvin Eclat D’Arpege; a light, refreshing girl’s scent with lilac. I’d been sniffing around for a whole Sunday looking for this. On reflection I still don’t think it was perfect, but it is very feminine, gentle and not too ‘knowing’ – which is kind of how it is ‘in the beginning’ when you’re not so sure about so many things.”
As the character of Manon grows up, her character speedily evolves. “Manon is basically being pimped off to an old man by her brother for a better life, and this man gives her this elaborate floor length cloak that she puts on. This is the moment when Manon, enthralled, realizes what a tantalising and alluring world she was entering. I had literally just bought a gift for a friend of a box of rather tempting Laduree macaroons, so I bought the Amandine room spray and smothered the big cloak in it to give an aroma of luxury, as if she can actually smell the money!”
At this time, Dame Antoinette Sibley, a leading figure at the Royal Ballet, who co-created the role of Manon, knew how Lauren loved to wear different scents for each role. “For Act Two there’s a moment when Manon joins civilized company at a salon. Antoinette mentioned that she wore Guerlain’s Mitsouko and then presented a bottle to me at the dress rehearsal. It’s saucy but so charismatic. As a result my Manon elegantly walks into the party in an evening gown, looks a million dollars and everyone steps back in wonder. Mitsouko was such a match! It is a unique scent: you feel it and you wear it as if you’re the only woman wearing it, and only one wearing ‘that dress’, and every other woman is jealous.”
“I remember every show I’ve ever danced. When you’re young, you do these big roles and get these extraordinary chances; you put your life and soul into every performance. Why would I not embrace the character even more?”
The Most Elusive Scent The one ballet Lauren never found a scent for was Romeo & Juliet. “That girl goes through a rollercoaster of emotion,” she says, “starting out as one person, and ending as quite another; and because she was so young I didn’t want to overwhelm her.” Then Lauren met bespoke perfumer Anastasia Brozler of Creative Perfumers. “We have the most amazing connection. We have sessions where we plot and talk about the character form beginning to end; and she really gets my interpretation. She’s my ‘soul sister’; we even share the same birthday.” Now they work together on Lauren’s characterful scents.
“Lauren was struggling with what to wear,” says Anastasia. “It’s Prokofiev’s musical interpretation, so it’s doomed; hence I based one scent on poppy seed from Tuscany, that’s highly addictive; it’s actually a poison. It starts off as an innocent pretty flower scent in the nursery, and evolves as it gets stronger and more impassioned, until it’s jet black by the end.” Ah that’ll be the last scene then! “When I think about the Final Act – the death scene – it breaks my heart,” confides Lauren. “There’s a really quick change – I can’t be fluttering around with these scents between acts – but my lovely dresser might hand me the scent or my stage manager might spray the tomb. But oh! Waking up is just terrible. Anastasia is like a little magician and evolved this delicate flower, until it smells of death: of being alone, dark and vulnerable. It’s so powerful. I can honestly feel it when I smell it, right in the middle of my chest.”
One of Lauren’s favourite moments in Romeo & Juliet is a very small scene in Act Two when Juliet goes to get married. “It’s such a short scene but it’s incredibly hard to get back into the character as it’s quite diverting backstage. So we came up with the idea of the emotive scent of a chapel. When I smell it I really do get that sense of where I am.” Then for the wedding night, the bed was scented as a mixture of her scent and a naked masculine scent. “I remember my partner Federico (Bonelli) really liked that perfume: he said, “Oh, you smell divine!”
“Lauren is, for me, the most inspiring dancer I have met in the ballet world,” say Anastasia, “not only because she concentrates on her performance but because she IS that character. That wish to be embellished in scent. It takes away another element of illusion – the music, the make-up, the costume; but smell is so much more powerful!”
Recently, in Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale, a new interpretation for ballet, Lauren plays Queen Hermione. “The role takes me from dignified to wretched: from motherhood (I’m pregnant in the beginning), to a pleading wife on a prison floor, until finally becoming a statue covered in seven layers of powder and a cloth who comes alive right at the very end. The last fragrance we called ‘Breath’. As I come to life, the scent we captured was dignified yet had a note of forgiveness and enlightenment: it was so breathtaking, I almost wept. And you can imagine that as this big white cloth that is draped over me that gets whisked off, and with that you get this hauntingly beautiful waft of perfume through the air. Just magical.”
A True Artiste Ballet is such a sensorial skill in itself, with that innate need to ‘trust’ one’s inner feelings. Guided by her senses in every aspect of her performance, listening to Lauren express her soul-felt passion is so captivating: pure olfactory choreography! Is she addicted in an ultimate quest for perfection?
“Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a complete obsession. I’m not neurotic or superstitious about it all, I just have an imagination. I find the power of scent so captivating; I have a natural appetite for it and it helps me rise to the challenge.”
“The ballet isn’t really a job: it’s a vocation. An addiction! You are constantly aware – every morning when you wake up and every night when you can sometimes barely stand from the strain it puts on your body; but we have massage, physio… and painkillers! You have to give it everything and sacrifice your soul; but when you lose yourself in a performance, or achieve something you’ve been striving hard for, the performance transcends that. It’s a euphoria that’s unmatched and worth all the hardship.”
“Lauren is pioneering. Artists are now taking fragrance into the atmosphere of performance expression: to create, paint and with music. It’s multi-sensory and very much en vogue.” Anastasia Brozler
Do fellow performers respond to her passion for perfume? “I try not to influence other performers; but I do remember when a friend was playing Alice – a role close to my heart – she admitted to me that she wasn’t ‘feeling it’ so to show her support I gave her Annick Goutal Petite Cherie; sweet scent for an innocent girl who is in among the rosebushes. I explained ‘it will relax you and put you in the perfect place’. She loved it, and said it really helped her too.”
“Who am I in all of this?” This is the one time Lauren is slightly lost for words “Personality wise I think I’m all over the shop; but I accept that feeling, recognizing those ‘places’ so that I have less anxiety and can be more open and more confident. I’m really happy right now. I was 30 this year. I’m listening to myself and open to doing the things that really matter to me.” But for all the angst’s of the ballet world Lauren is very grounded. “I grew up in Devon, surrounded by clean, salty air by the sea, and the lush garden surroundings. Yet I loved nothing more than lying in bed watching my mother get ready to go out. Her fragrance was Anais Anais; and layered with powder, lipstick and her Paul Mitchell hairspray…. I remember that smell as if it was yesterday!”
I publish this blog post with deep love and respect for dear Lauren Cuthbertson, Royal Ballet Principal Dancer who was due to perform as Alice in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland which replaces The Nutcracker for Christmas and opens 6 Dec; www.roh.org.uk. Unfortunately Lauren has injured her ankle, so please join me and wish her a speedy and swift recovery. To celebrate the opening of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, on 6th December, ‘the Fete of Children’, Anastasia Brozler and her company Creative Perfumers are working on a children’s scent masterclass with Lauren that reaches out to less privileged children to create their interpretation of aroma for the characters in Alice: a wild rabbit, the caterpillar, the Mad Hatter. The fragrances will then go to a jury to select the winning fragrances.
A slightly shorter version of this article was published in the November 2014 issue of Woman & Home magazine (on sale until November 1st).