Precious Adams: On Pointe
Precious Adams is no stranger to shaking things up. We speak to the ballerina about being only the second Black dancer in the history of the English National Ballet and her struggles when living and training in Russia
By Tomi Otekunrin
Precious Adams has never been afraid to pivot or should we say pirouette, into a new chapter in her life. From growing up in small-town Canton in the US state of Michigan to becoming a soloist at the English National Ballet, the ballerina’s story has been full of thrilling twists and turns. Dancing is in Precious’ blood. As a young kid, Precious spent her time dancing around her childhood home. Seeing a spark in her child, Precious’ mother signed her up for dance lessons in their local community. She first started off with jazz dancing before moving onto ballet and immediately became hooked. “I just absolutely fell in love with it straight out of the gate,” Precious says. “I wanted all of my free time to be consumed with anything to do with ballet and dance. I kinda got caught up in this fantasy dream of becoming a ballerina.”
In the summer of ‘05, Precious and nine other participants took part in the Bolshoi Summer Intensive in Massachusetts. This highly competitive, annual programme is conducted by the Bolshoi Ballet Academy, one of oldest and most prestigious ballet schools in the world. After completing the programme, Precious’ undeniable talent caught the eyes of one of the dance instructors. “The teacher was Russian and didn’t speak a word of English, so we had to have a translator, but she told my mother that I had all the makings of a professional ballet dancer and that I should go to a professional ballet school,” she says. At 10 years old, Precious enrolled into Canada’s National Ballet School.
After spending a few years in Canada, an opportunity arose for Precious to dance in Europe and she wasted no time joining the Princess Grace Academy in Monte Carlo, Monaco. Then after a few years in Monaco, she headed to the Bolshoi Ballet Academy in Moscow, Russia, where she finished her training and graduated. Out of all the places Precious has lived in so far, Russia required the most adjustment. “Obviously, I mean Russia is a totally different country. You know what I mean? Like culturally in every way,” she explains. However, Precious doesn’t regret the time she spent in Russia. “They have good training, that’s why I went there.”
Years and years of elite training allowed Precious to enter into the prestigious dance competition Prix de Lausanne, which is held annually in Lausanne, Switzerland. In 2014, against the world’s best dancers, Precious came out of the competition as a double prize winner. Her raw, yet graceful contemporary variation and her spellbinding classical variation from Sleeping Beauty won over the audience’s and judge’s hearts. As part of her prize, Precious was awarded Adveq apprenticeship and used it to gain experience at the English National Ballet. After impressing Tamara Rojo, the former English National Ballet artistic director, Precious was offered a contract.
The choice to move to England was so easy for Precious. “Firstly, I just thought it would be awesome to live in London. Secondly, it’s an English speaking country,” she says. “After living in Russia for three years, I think about the stress of that and I just wanted to be comfortable for a while. I don’t really want to struggle so much. Wherever I live, I want to not feel like an outsider.”
Stars such as Misty Copeland, have often spoken about how being Black ballet dancer can make you feel like an outsider. But there’s no doubt that Misty has opened doors so that more Black ballerinas like Precious can experience success in their careers. “I think that the climate has really changed over the past 10 years since I became a ballet dancer and I think that Misty Copeland had a lot to do with that as she’s really vocal about diversity within the art form,” Precious says. It’s never exactly easy being the only person that looks like you in any setting. But institutions having more sensitivity and awareness when it comes to matters such as race does help, as Precious explains. “Yeah, I’m the only Black person in the room so maybe you should just be a little bit aware of that and not single me out or make me feel you know, othered.”
Being a ballerina — especially a soloist — at one of the world’s top ballet companies, isn’t for the faint of heart. At the time of writing, Precious is currently in a six-week performance block of the Nutcracker. Meaning her schedule is relentless. “Pretty much, every day I do class for an hour and 15 minutes or an hour and a half. It happens every day, or at least six days a week. That’s kind of the minimum amount of physical activity I need to do to stay in shape,” Precious explains. “There’s like two shows a day. Maybe I’ll be in both shows or maybe I’ll just do one show, it just kind of depends. That’ll go on for six weeks.”
On top of her already hectic schedule, Precioius is also studying computer science at the University of London. “I spend most of my free time studying,” Precious laughs. “It’s so rewarding and it keeps me so mentally engaged. I just love having my quiet time to get on the computer and do some research or try to figure out a problem. Or try to make my programme work.”
In her downtime, Adams likes to watch Netflix and if she really has time, she’ll cook herself a nice meal. She actively takes care of her body, wellness and health. To keep up her physique, Precious does a variation of exercises. “I go to the gym a lot. I do a lot of pilates, yoga, things like that. Also, a bit of weightlifting,” she says. “I supplement whatever might be lacking from the intensity of my rehearsal schedule. I just kind of gauge [my workouts] based on the kind of shows I have or how many shows there are and then get myself right.”
One of the requirements of being a successful ballet dancer is looking after your body. Having to constantly monitor your body in the competitive world of ballet, where everything has to be ‘perfect’, can possibly lead to a negative body image and disordered eating. The trend of thin, waif-like ballerinas is attributed to the influential choreographer and co-founder of the New York City Ballet, George Balanchine, who had an affinity for dancers with long limbs, small heads and a short torso. Precious believes that many of the ballet dancers of today look different. “Now, you have really strong, healthy dancers who probably have a much higher muscle mass and are far leaner and stronger than the [stereotypical] ballerina in the 60s, 70s or 80s.”
Ultimately, there are ‘favourable’ physical attributes that are required of a ballet dancer such as flexible feet and ankles or a strong core. With ballet being a subjective art form, there’s no clear standard across the board, but what is always essential is immense talent and dedication. “This is the thing with ballet, you can see the type of work that someone has put into their art form, irrespective of the body that they were born with or the genetics that they have,” Precious explains. “It’s all there to be seen on stage.”
Precious always brings it when she’s on stage, whether she’s the serene Henrietta in Tamara Rojo’s Raymonda or part of the intensely, visceral Chosen Dance in Pina Bausch’s The Rite of Spring. As for what production she’d like to star in next, too many come to mind. David Dawson’s Romeo & Juliet intrigues her. What would excite Precious the most, is starring in a production where she is the muse. “It’s an honour to have certain ballets and certain roles made [specifically for] you,” she says. “You have to be at the top of your game to have those sorts of creations made on you. That would be like my dream!”
As for what’s next in the future of ballet, Adams is excited for new works that incorporate various art forms and feature different types of collaborators. A great example of this is New York City Ballet’s Playtime by choreographer Gina Riesen, which is set to a jazz-inspired score by Grammy-winning artist Solange Knowles. It also features oversized, Swarovski-encrusted ensembles designed by Spanish fashion designer Alejandro Gómez Palomo. Precious thinks that the ballet industry needs new ideas to appeal to a younger audience. “Classical ballet companies have to do a wide range of work,” she says. “They can’t just survive doing [productions] like Sleeping Beauty, Swan lake, Nutcracker and that’s it, year after year.”
Currently a soloist, Precious is a few steps closer to the coveted rank of prima ballerina — the highest level a dancer can reach. But is that the ultimate goal for Adams? “That’s really… it’s really hard to say. I’m very much a realist,” she replies. “I’m not going to wish and dream for something that’s unrealistic.” Whether she’s dancing in the world’s greatest ballets or programming the next big app, you best believe that Precious Adams will always be on point.