Maureya Lebowitz has just completed class — the daily slog that every ballet dancer must do to ensure they keep in top condition. She doesn’t look exhausted at all, and a day of rehearsals still lies ahead. Sitting in the Artists’ Bar at the Royal Albert Hall, she looks exactly as you would expect from a ballerina: petite, with huge, expressive brown eyes and dark hair scraped back into a French pleat. Even jeans and a baggy jumper cannot hide the incredible grace with which she moves.
Lebowitz is a dancer with the Birmingham Royal Ballet, and is currently the only Jew in the company — something she does not mind at all, as she is proud of her Jewish heritage. “My last name — you can’t get any more Jewish than that,” she laughs. “I really enjoy having that unique culture and background because it’s a part of why I feel special.”
Maureya — named after her Grandpa Morry — does have quite a pedigree: her mother’s cousin is Bob Dylan and on her father’s side, her great-grandfather, grandfather and numerous great uncles were rabbis. (One of her favourite memories is accidentally eating ice cream with a ‘meaty’ spoon and having to go out and bury it in the earth.)
It all seems a long way from where she is now — an acclaimed soloist with one of the UK’s leading dance companies. She lives a stone’s throw from Birmingham’s Singers Hill Synagogue, but a gruelling schedule has precluded active participation in shul life.
Lebowitz spent her earliest years in Malibu, California, where she took her first steps in ballet. “I was always moving and had rhythm,” she says. When she was five, her parents, Beth and Gary, decided that Malibu was not the ideal place to raise children, so the family, including older brother Aaron, moved to Montana.“We were the only Jewish family in a surrounding five hours’ radius. We would travel two hours just for the High Holy days, and there wasn’t even a temple, there was just a place where the Jewish congregation could meet,” she says. The family maintained all the festival traditions. “It was really more about family time and the food; my mum’s an amazing cook.”
Ballet continued to play an important part in her life and, at 11, she joined the Royal Winnipeg Ballet School as a boarder. She was accepted into the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, Canada’s oldest ballet company, at 18.
She could easily have forged a successful career in Canada, but saw opportunities elsewhere. “I had always wanted to dance and live in Europe, just because I like the lifestyle. The culture has always intrigued me.
“I have never really felt American in the way that I dance or as a person and I was interested to continue travelling.”
She went to Israel on a Birthright tour, taking the opportunity to visit relatives in Jerusalem. She has also toured there.
“It was very special to perform in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and the theatres are really beautiful with good stages. I had a week off afterwards, so I came to England and auditioned. Now I have indefinite leave to remain and when I think of going back to the States, I’m not quite sure…I’m always open for a new challenge but I really appreciate the English history of ballet and obviously the repertoire. You just can’t get anything like it in America. It’s not just the choreography; it’s the people behind it.”
Although her early training was in the Russian technique, she has adapted well to the British style. “Some people mention that my way of moving is actually quite English, rather than North American — a little bit more refined and I take that as a compliment. I don’t see myself that way. I always watch English dancers and think that they are so beautiful in the quality of movement. To come from outside into this whole history and culture of ballet over here is incredible.”
Much of the current British repertoire for both Royal Ballet companies is either by Sir Frederick Ashton or Sir Kenneth MacMillan, which suits her very well. “In Canada I didn’t see very much MacMillan or Ashton... I would always just see it on film. It wasn’t really until I came over to audition that I saw it first hand.
“What I really appreciate about Ashton is his comedic timing because I’m definitely one to tell a story.”
As well as Swanhilde in Coppélia, one role she has danced to acclaim is Lise in Ashton’s La Fille Mal Gardée.
“It fits me like a glove. It’s all in the music and that’s what I love, because you’re never thinking about any of the choreography, as the music is just telling you what to do. I’m excited that’s coming back in the next part of the season and to revisit that role.”
She describes herself as “a theatrical dancer”, and a soubrette — a dancer who takes semi-classical roles, often with a touch of comedy. While the pure classicism of Swan Lake’s Odette may not suit her — unlike the great Jewish ballerinas Alicia Markova and Maya Plisetskaya — she would welcome it as a challenge. She is, however, dancing another classical role in the BRB’s forthcoming national tour — Princess Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty.
“I’ve been fortunate to have all these opportunities,” she says.
“You really feel like a company dancer in the corps, you breathe as one. In soloist work you get to do your variations, pas de quatres, and then principal shows. It’s really rewarding.”
When Lebowitz dances principal roles, her parents try to come over to watch her. The little girl doing her first pliés in sunny Malibu has come a long way. Now that’s nachus.
The Birmingham Royal Ballet’s tour of The Sleeping Beauty begins in Southampton on January 31. It will be performed in Birmingham, Manchester, Cardiff and Plymouth. Further details from www.brb.org.uk