The rigour and determination of the ballerina is rewarded annually by the Critics Circle National Dance Awards, which since its inception in 1999 has recognised the greatest names in contemporary ballet. These women in their pointe shoes have all been at the pinnacle of their art, captivating audiences the world over with their grace and beauty. Here are the nine recipients of one of the most prestigious honours in dance.
Tamara Rojo has danced with both the Royal Ballet and the English National Ballet where she was appointed Artistic Director in 2012. She has been internationally successful and is one of the most enduringly popular and recognisable faces in modern ballet. Her move to English National Ballet did not, however, signal her retirement from the stage. She continues to dance as a guest artist, and has been praised both for her undoubted talent and her interpretative abilities. The Spanish dancer was born in Canada, although her parents moved back to Madrid, where she trained, when she was four months old. Over the years she has established a widely praised partnership with Carlos Acosta and the two were recently reunited in Derek Deane’s production of Romeo and Juliet, in which Rojo’s majestic movement and intensity of performance was critically lauded.
Moscow-born Natalia Osipova is a multi-award winning ballerina who began dancing at the tender age of five. She trained with the Mikhail Lavrovsky Ballet School and has since danced with the world’s leading companies, from the Bolshoi to the Mikhailovsky to the Royal Ballet, where she became a Principal as recently as 2013. She is also a guest dancer with a number of prestigious companies including the American Ballet Theatre. Known for her flying leaps, which achieve astonishing height thanks to a natural lightness of form, Osipova’s repertoire includes the lead roles in Romeo and Juliet, Coppelia, Swan Lake and Giselle. She has won the award for Best Female Dancer three times, more than any other female star, most recently in 2013.
Daria Klimentová finally bowed out of professional ballet in 2014 after a 25-year career. The last 18 of those have been spent with the English National Ballet where she became a principal in 1996. Born in the former Czechoslovakia, which at the time was still Soviet, Klimentová studied in Prague after early training as a potential Olympic gymnast. Her natural physical ability has been important to her development as a dancer as these qualities cannot be taught. She has travelled widely in her dance career, from South Africa to Scotland, where she arrived in the early 1990s to join the Scottish Ballet. A staunch defender of the classics, Klimentová warned of the dangers of interpretation for its own sake in a late interview with The Guardian where she defended the most famous classical ballets as ‘magical’ and hoped that their importance would not diminish in a generation that emphasises innovation often at the expense of art.
The Argentine Nuñez has been with the Royal Ballet for more than 15 years and has twice won the Critic’s Circle National Dance Awards for Best Female Dancer. Nuñez is known for a dancing style that is outstandingly lyrical. She has been praised for her interpretative choreography which brings an emotional understanding to every step. The purity and simplicity of her style allow the story of the dance to unfold in one beautiful sequences of movements. She has been dancing since she was three years old, moving to London to join the Royal Ballet at the age of 15. Her career has been a lesson in determination and she has reaped the rewards. Over the years she has danced all the major leading roles in classical and contemporary ballet and created a few for herself.
For nearly two decades, Agnes Oaks was the leading face of English National Ballet along with her husband and dance partner, Thomas Edur. The two met as children in the Estonian State Ballet School in Tallinn and so began a romance that itself has something poetically artistic about it. Oaks is one of the leading proponents of classical ballet and over the years has starred in all of the well-known productions, but it was in Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon, which came relatively late in her long career, that she earned universal acclaim for her sensuality and intelligence of movement. Oaks herself is in favour of artistic interpretation, arguing that the best productions arise out of collaboration between dancer and director, whereas some classical performances risk being limited by a rigidity of conception that does not do enough to distinguish them from previous performances. She was awarded the Richard Sherrington Award for Best Female Dancer in her last season on the stage.
Two-time winner at the National Dance Awards, Leanne Benjamin has also been honoured with a De Valois Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition of her contribution to dance. Born in Australia, Benjamin has danced all over the world, with the Deutsche Opera Ballet, the Royal Ballet and the Wheeldon Company in New York. She retired from professional dancing in 2013 after a career spanning more than two decades and during which she mastered all the main roles and created a few others. Benjamin flourished as a dancer into her forties, gaining recognition for her roles in more contemporary productions and noted for a realism in her dancing which she describes as ditching the ‘tutu roles’. She bowed out with Mayerling, the same piece that ushered her onto the international stage. Along the way she has also inaugurated her own awards in support of Australian ballet dancers dancing in the UK.
Alina Cojocaru left the Royal Ballet in 2013 after an acrimonious rift that saw her trade in 13 years with the company in favour of a move to the English National Ballet under the artistic direction of Tamara Rojo, whose vibrancy she found compelling. The two apparent rivals have come together to create a company of diverse brilliance in which the diminutive, Romanian Cojocaru is one of the principal stars. Her partnership with Johan Kobborg has been praised as one of the most successful in the history of ballet. She was also widely praised for her role in John Neumeier’s Liliom with the Hamburg Ballet, which he wrote especially for her and which saw her win the Prix Benois de la Danse for a second time, the only ballerina ever to do so.
Awarded the Best Female Dancer in recognition of her work as a Principal Guest Artist of the Royal Ballet, Yoshida joined K-Ballet in Japan the year of her win. She retired in 2010 and gave her last performance with the Royal Ballet in Tokyo, the city where she was born and trained. Over more than two decades in dance she made her final bow at Covent Garden with an emotional performance of Cinderella, while in Tokyo she reserved Romeo and Juliet for her final curtain call. Known for a precision of movement and an expressiveness that relied on the choreography rather than facial contortions, Yoshida’s dancing was always beautifully controlled and the more powerful for its elegant containment.
The Spanish Yanowsky was actually born in France to parents who were themselves both dancers with the Lyon Opera Ballet. As a child Yanowsky was accustomed to touring with the company although she did not decide to pursue ballet herself until the comparatively late age of 14. Since then she has gone on to have a remarkable career with the Royal Ballet which she joined in 1994, being promoted to Principal in 2001. Not only is she known for the more classical ballet roles but Yanowsky has also created roles for a number of directors, including her Queen of Hearts in Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which was well received by critics, and more recently Paulina in his The Winter’s Tale.