THE OUTNET’S Head of Content, Claudia Mahoney, got to catch-up with dancer, model and movement director, Sophie Apollonia. In case you missed their live conversation, we made sure to save some of the best bits…
Claudia: Hi Sophie! Welcome to In Conversation! So, for those that don’t know, you’re a classically trained ballerina and you won a scholarship at 11. So, where did it start?
Sophie: I grew up in an estate in South London and my mum and dad are really supportive, absolutely no clue of like the ballet world whatsoever. And it was actually when I went to Pride Festival when I was little, my mum and dad would take me to Pride Festival, open my eyes to the world. And I was looking at these drag queens and being like ‘I want to be a Queen mum! I wanna be on the stage.’ So, she found this ballet school in Brixton and I suddenly started to get good and my ballet teacher said ‘hey, let’s get Sophie to audition for Royal Ballet. It’s a long-shot but let’s do it!’ I literally had been dancing for maybe a year…
Claudia: Wow! So, you must have serious, raw talent, because you have these children that are trained from sort of four sometimes.
Sophie: Yeah, well yeah that happens a lot. I felt behind when I came to Royal Ballet School, but I had the passion. I maybe didn’t have that much technique, but I certainly had flair and passion for dance at a very young age and I feel like that’s what got me through. They were like ‘we see something in this little girl.’
Claudia: So, do you remember going for the audition?
Sophie: Oh, absolutely yes. I was an absolute baby. I was number 11 and I remember a panel of people, just watching you, marking you… I wasn’t terrified though.
Claudia: That’s incredible because you hadn’t come from that background and you were not sort of versed in what to expect and you haven’t necessarily had a mentor…
Sophie: I think maybe that’s why. I didn’t have somebody saying, ‘this is really important, it’s Royal Ballet.’ I was just doing it because I was having fun and I felt beautiful and it took me away from the world I was in, I was suddenly this little prima ballerina, I was in a ballet studio living my best fantasy.
Claudia: Did the fantasy wear off with the hard work and responsibility that came with it?
Sophie: Yes, in a way. Of course, I went to the Royal Ballet School and it was like going to Hogwarts. Very few people are accepted, so I was very grateful that I got the scholarship. But, the training is full on. Six days a week.
Claudia: And then, I was reading that you were the only black girl in your class, is that right?
Sophie: The Royal Ballet School is incredible but there were very few people of color. I think there were two in the whole school from year 7-11 even going into graduating when I was 18, actually. I look back now and think ‘wow, you’re such a strong little girl,’ because yes, it was noticeable. And you know, I’ve got this massive mane of hair.
Claudia: So, you’re obviously working as a model as well. What was that sort of process then to accepting your innate beauty?
Sophie: It took me a really long time to be like ‘I’m beautiful and I shouldn’t be ashamed of my hair and my features and color.’ I guess it still took me a while to accept my hair because in ballet it’s all about slicking it back, nice, neat and tidy. And you know, I remember teachers looking like ‘how are we going to get this mane back?’ There was some minor bullying going on, at the time I didn’t notice. If the teacher remembered my name, somebody would be like ‘oh, but they only remember you because you’re black.’ But still, even then I was like ‘whatever, I know why I’m here.’
Claudia: Do you think the ballet world is much more accepting and diverse now?
Sophie: The whole art of ballet, it goes back centuries so it’s already quite behind. Looking from the outside now, they’re doing their best, but there still is a lot of work to be done.
Claudia: I wanted to ask about when you performed to your contemporaries at school, a routine that you choregraphed to Snoop Dogg’s Drop it Like it’s Hot.
Sophie: I remember at the time I was 15, 16 and I was like ‘this is something that’s never been done.’ And, I mixed Snoop Dogg with a score, a very famous solo from the ballet Sleeping Beauty, and I fused in ballet and hip-hop. It was a huge risk. Some people I don’t think understood, but my reaction was joy, appreciation and seeing that sort of reaction from my superiors. I would have thought they’d have thought I was destroying what ballet’s about. They didn’t, they seemed to enjoy it.
Claudia: Have you done other projects where you’ve pioneered this blending of the contemporary with the very rigorous original?
Sophie: I live by that; I live by it. I’m still doing it to this day. That’s my thing, I feel like that’s what I’ve been booked for a lot of the time, the fact that I can switch from having beautiful line, having strength and beauty but also edge, raw, just a little bit more real. Maybe someone who doesn’t understand ballet will now see something I do and say ‘oh! I never watched ballet before but this music I’m hearing to ballet, I relate to, and now I’m understanding it and can appreciate this.’ I feel like I was trying to reach people and give them a little look and insight and say that ballet can have an edge and it isn’t always what you think it is.
Claudia: You strike me as someone that’s really curious about lots of different things and who’s got fizzy brain.
Sophie: I like the way you said, ‘fizzy brain.’ I am incredibly curious. I wanna know about music, art, poetry, literature. I just wanna collaborate with artists across the field and maybe make a new form of art, who knows?
Claudia: That’s such an inspiring way of looking at things. So, what was it like working on The Nutcracker Disney production, and what was it like working with Misty Copeland?
Sophie: Every little girl dreams about doing a Disney film. It was an incredible experience and I feel very honored to be chosen to dance in it. But working with Misty, I was in awe of her, obviously. She was kind, open and it was a joy to work alongside her. There was just a level of understanding like, us being women of color in this industry. And, it’s like every little girl’s fantasy and we’re wearing these beautiful gowns; living that little renaissance fantasy is wonderful.
Claudia: Is that something that you have in your real life, that you like dressing up? Or are you fully in athleisure?
Sophie: I love dressing up! I love the way clothes make me feel and the sort of character I’m going to be for the day. So, if I wanna feel like a badass, I’ll dress like a badass. And if I wanna feel like a lady, I’ll dress in a little dress and put heels on!
Claudia: So, because of the global pandemic, do you train still every day?
Sophie: I do! Well, not every day… I work for myself and with my lovely agencies. So, I don’t feel like I need to be training every day. If I know I’ve got a big job coming up, I’ll get into training mode. But, for now, I will do a little barre fitness. I’ve been training others, trying to show them what to do. It’s really good for you and it’s fun, if you’ve got a great playlist wink mine’s disco, I’m obsessed with disco.
Claudia: I want to do your class. Ok, so, tell me about your lockdown experience.
Sophie: I’ve been in Stockholm so I haven’t had a lockdown. It was the best place to be because we weren’t forced to stay in our homes. But of course, I was still affected. Castings stopped, production stopped, so, I was just sitting around realizing ‘oh, god, when’s the work coming back? What am I doing? What’s my purpose? What’s happening?’
Claudia: Yeah, so, are you able to say anything at all about what you’ve got coming up?
Sophie: I can say that I’m working on something that I’m incredibly excited about and you can catch it on Netflix. That’s all I’m saying.
Claudia: Ok, that’s enough to sort of tempt us into the future. I wanted to ask you, what sort of advice would you give to people who wanted to pursue their dream of dancing?
Sophie: Just be yourself because that’s what got me to where I am today. Don’t be concerned about numbers on your Instagram, if you don’t have a huge following, it doesn’t mean you’re not talented. Just concentrate and be you and be authentic, people will see you for your talent and that’s what’s important.
Claudia: I think that’s really good life advice full-stop. Thank you so, so much for talking to us, we’re really, really grateful.
Sophie: Thank you so much for having me THE OUTNET!