Lauren Cuthbertson talks motherhood, ballet and how fragrance has informed her career

(Image credit: Corbis via Getty Images)

Lauren Cuthbertson needs no introduction.

Having worked with the Royal Ballet for 20 years and now being an award-winning Principal Dancer, she is a household name, starring in everything from Swan Lake and The Nutcracker to Alice in Wonderland and The Cellist.

This year is momentous for the 38-year-old, marking her 20-year anniversary with the Royal Ballet and seeing her join forces with iconic fragrance house, Creed.

The collaboration for the Wind Flowers fragrance featured an iconic shoot by Rick Guest and live dance performance, with Lauren explaining that her role was "to bring the scent to life through movement." She added: "there is nothing better than me being able to bring something to life through what my body and soul knows and loves most."

On closer inspection, no one is more suited for a Creed campaign than Lauren, with the ballet dancer attributing the power of scent to the secret behind her incredible character transformations on stage.

"There’s a really big contrast in such a short space of time and you have to emote that very quickly to the audience. Scent puts me right in that time and place. It hits me harder than any costume or prop change can.”

To find out more, Features Editor Jenny Proudfoot sat down with Lauren Cuthbertson to talk 20 years with the Royal Ballet, her relationship with fragrance and career advice for anyone following in her footsteps...

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Let's talk your relationship with fragrance...

I have always loved scent. I was begging my mum for 'Sunflowers' by Elizabeth Arden when I was 11. I must have been about 18 when I was walking on stage wearing something like DKNY Sport - a really fresh, inoffensive scent but it wasn't evocative in any sort of way. I was about to be a fairy in Sleeping Beauty and it just felt a little bit inappropriate - it came more from that stance. So I decided for a while to never wear scent, which is a shame because I love it. Then I had this idea a few years later that I would find scents that would work with whatever role I was playing. I would go on my own to Liberty, Selfridges, Harrods - wherever I could go to try all the different fragrances. I was single then and had time, so I would literally spend my weekends looking for the perfect scent for ballets that I was doing. Then I came across a perfumer - I was auctioning her experience with a charity that I was working with, and I had to sample the experience before I could sell it. We made a scent together for a ballet and we got on so well that we have since created a library of scents for almost all of my repertoire.

Can you tell me about the power of scent behind your character transformations?

Scents put us in a time or place immediately and they can change a mood instantly, so in terms of memory they’re an incredible source. I've always found it really helpful and interesting working with a perfumer on the different layers of the character, the different levels of the story and how the different notes reflect that. I see ballet as an art form, just because of the pure amount of yourself that you have to put into it and the stories that you're telling and sharing. For me obviously the technical aspects of a ballet are huge and the physical feat is enormous, and so scent is almost like a support in that way. Scent has always helped me to articulate what story I’m telling, what era that's from and the posture of the person. All of those things come into play when you're trying to create a scent for them. It's been so useful. That's why I feel that the collaboration with Creed is such a natural and organic one. Because I really do love scent - it means a lot to me - and I wasn't ever going to have a partnership with a fragrance house unless it was genuine.

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Can we talk about the iconic Creed shoot...

I was shooting with Rick Guest, and he knows me as a dancer and a person, so when we were shooting he had this amazing music on. All the music meant something to me and represented pieces that I've performed to, which made the shoot much more powerful. They really wanted the aesthetic of this fabric swirling around but making quite big undulating shapes, so I had to do that with my body and make my body work with the fabric. When it was put to music, it felt like I was actually performing during the photoshoot. I was coming up with phases of dance and he was saying, "hold that", "stay" and the whole room would go quiet - no one would move. And then we would come together with a new phase and go again. I would say that was definitely one of the most unique and magical shoots that I've ever worked on. Usually a shoot is quite cut-throat and involves a lot of logistics, but this was a beautiful day and I think that the idea came from that because it certainly wasn't on the cards at the beginning. It just sort of happened and developed in a natural and organic way.

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I would never have made the connection between fragrance and getting into a character...

I have been lucky in my career that I've created quite a lot of characters, and the ways you have to immerse and imagine yourself as these characters when creating them is huge. So, when I was creating Alice in Wonderland, I cut my hair into that bob and I skipped around the Opera House. When I was playing Jacqueline du Pré, in The Cellist, I was at Josh Wood every bloody two weeks getting my hair the perfect shade of blonde. I did the whole lot. Creating new projects takes a long time and within that creative process you have the ability to really become that character, and the luxury of that has meant I've realised how cool that experience can be and scent is another layer of that.

How do you select the ingredients?

For the Sugar Plum Fairy for example, we were trying out fig and playing around with these sweet notes. Then there’s another ballet called "Diamonds" which is a real ballerina role. The tutu is amazing with beautiful diamonds, the tiara you wear is incredible and the music is Tchaikovsky. It's very grand and you have to walk on the stage and be the epitome of a ballerina and poetry and motion. We did three testers in different strengths for the role, and I ended up wearing one for each show. I found the strongest one too grand and overwhelming at first, so I started with the first tester and worked my way up to tester three for my third show. It actually took me those three shows to grow into the character and grow into the role. And the perfume grew with me so I ended up wearing the more mature scent for the shows after that.

It's so interesting...

What I think is interesting is for a perfumer to sometimes work on a role that doesn't just require for it to be a beautiful scent. But to also get to work on things that are a bit dark. I know for instance in the Romeo and Juliet tomb scene, it is a horrible scent. It literally makes me feel like I'm waking up in a damp, cold, haunted crypt which is full of dead bodies, "and there lies Romeo". It's this poisonous green scent, full of moss and dampness. And that is really interesting to me - when scent isn't just about the beautiful florals.

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How did you get into ballet?

I was a naughty child and so my mum sent me to the local ballet teacher who was very strict to get discipline and good posture. That's why I started - because I was a terror. I didn't want to go, but from the minute I got there, I never looked back. My mum never even had to ask me to practice. As a youngster, it felt like my best friend because I felt so good when I did it - and not good as in "tick the box" good, but just the sensation of it. It felt like I was flying. It's like that Billy Elliot thing - when you find that love it really does feel like electricity. It sounds really corny but that's it, and I found my thing. It's a natural love, and I was just very lucky to have found that so early on. That's why I am passionate about all children having the opportunity to find something that gives them their thing - I really do feel passionate about that.

I was fascinated to read about how your relationship with dance changed over pregnancy...

I just didn't have a relationship with dance when I was pregnant. It was complicated - I tried but it felt so horrible. I had a high risk pregnancy at the beginning so I was very much just lying down and hoping that everything stayed ok. Then at 13 weeks, Peggy absorbed her twin so it made it a normal risk pregnancy, but by that point I hadn't danced for months. I tried doing a few classes, but I felt really sick and unwell. I was like, "Who am I kidding? This is awful", so I stopped. I did a couple of stints of working with a personal trainer online to do some sort of preparation for holding work, but even that was short-lived. I did Gyrotonics up to the last week, and that's really nice for the spine so you're not waking up in agony all the time, but I just didn't really enjoy pregnancy and I definitely didn't want to dance. If I were to be pregnant again I would hope it wouldn't be high risk in the beginning and I could continue to dance a little longer, but no I just didn't feel good. I can't even explain it - I was just big and felt horrible. I was definitive with my director that I wanted to come back, but I didn't know if I was going to find that electricity again. But lo and behold, eight weeks after I had Peggy, the electricity came back. I think I was just waiting for that moment. Ballet is really hard and if you don't have the electricity then you will never succeed.

Would you say motherhood has changed your approach to dance?

It has changed my approach to life and everything I suppose - it has changed me. I feel like motherhood opens your eyes up to the world in a different way. In moments before I would have got really anxious and stressed about certain things, but I feel like my approach and the way I communicate with people now is probably more wholesome. There's so much with Peggy that I've learnt I can't control, and I feel like just letting go of that control is possibly a good thing. It’s having things throw you off at the last minute and actually not letting that affect you. It's just a part of life and I think you have to get your head around that constant flux of change being a sensation rather than something that you master. That is something that I'm coming to terms with as a new mum.

Is there a particular career moment that you've enjoyed the most?

It's a funny one because reaching a place of enjoyment on stage is wrapped up in so much sacrifice, hard work and mental challenges, so it's hard to say. But if I'm looking back retrospectively, I think it would be the premiere of Alice in Wonderland. That was a really special moment. Now directors push for new work every season, but at that time there hadn't been a full-length ballet with a new score for 17 years, so I was carrying a lot of weight on my shoulders. I was actually so worried that when the curtain opened, I turned to Edward Watson who was playing Lewis Carroll and said, "What if I don't feel my legs?" He told me: "You will, you will." I had never experienced a world premiere before on that scale and it was a huge moment. But I just felt like Alice from the moment the curtain went up. I told that story, I lived that ballet and it was a huge success. That was probably the moment I was most grateful for, to Christopher Wheeldon the choreographer, but it also stands out as a lovely memory.

What's your favourite role you've ever played?

It might be Alice in Wonderland, but that ballet for me was like a time and a place. It was the perfect time in my career to play Alice in Wonderland and I don't know if I would do it again if it was in the repertoire next year, because I feel like it was for that moment. I made The Cellist most recently and that was one of my favourite roles to create and play. It's a true story and that was really fascinating to me because I haven't had the opportunity to play that many characters that have been documented so heavily in recent history. It actually got me at my very core, because it's a very tragic story and there is also so much to celebrate within her career. I feel like The Cellist is definitely one that I will hold close to my heart. And then there are roles like Juliet and The Nutcracker that I just love. I literally love The Nutcracker - I feel so boring saying that but I do. I love it more and more every year.

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Is there a role that you still hope to play one day?

One that doesn't exist at the moment. The creation of roles are the ones that I feel the most excited about. That's what was quite nice about the piece we did for Creed - I got to work with a choreographer I hadn't worked with yet and who I had always wanted to. Making new pieces is a thrill. Then of course there are roles that I revisit. I have Swan Lake coming up - that's a cinema relay and that's a huge amount of pressure but to take on. That feat is quite overwhelming but also challenging and it puts you in such a focused mindset.

Do you have any career advice for anyone hoping to follow in your footsteps?

Don't compare yourself to others. If you feel like dance (and especially ballet) is your passion, pursue it and try and find the thing that makes you special and individual. Because at the end of the day when the curtain goes up, anyone watching you on stage wants to see you and connect with you as an artist. So don't ever let go of you, what you're driven by and what you're inspired by. The scope of dance is opening up and changing a lot. I'm excited by that and I'm excited to see where that goes in the next ten to twenty years.

Creed Wind Flowers Eau de Parfum is available to buy now.

Jenny Proudfoot
Features Editor

Jenny Proudfoot is an award-winning journalist, specialising in lifestyle, culture, entertainment, international development and politics. She has worked at Marie Claire UK for seven years, rising from intern to Features Editor and is now the most published Marie Claire writer of all time. She was made a 30 under 30 award-winner last year and named a rising star in journalism by the Professional Publishers Association.