Precious Adams likens being a dancer to having fibre optic cables running through her body. “Our mind-body connection is on another level,” she says. “Even after all these years you’ll become suddenly aware of some new muscle and fire it up, like, I didn’t know I could switch my deep rotators on so intensely!” A few years ago, a coach told Adams to think about pressing her big toenail down to the floor for stability, “And suddenly it gave me the most control over my whole body; the magic answer. Was I totally unaware of my big toe this whole time?!”
Adams, originally from Detroit, did her first dancing around the living room to a Vengaboys CD, but went on to train in Canada, Monaco and Moscow before joining English National Ballet in 2014. She’s been regularly singled out by critics, whether for her Russian-schooled lyricism, charismatic American zing or getting under the skin of contemporary choreography, and she’s about to appear in a triple bill including Mats Ek’s new Rite of Spring and a William Forsythe work set to the electronic music of James Blake.
Recently promoted to soloist, Adams’s rise at ENB has been steady rather than a sprint, but she’s sanguine about that. “I can’t let casting be the thing that defines my happiness and fulfilment, because, you know, I still haven’t been cast as Odette/Odile [in Swan Lake] – it’s the same kind of unhealthy attachment to getting your gratification from Instagram.” Now 27, “I feel like the healthiest, strongest dancer I’ve been in my career,” she says. “I’ve never been happier just to take class and there’s something really liberating about that.” She sees the years between 25 and 35 as a female dancer’s prime, in technique, artistry and emotional maturity. “And there’s something beautiful about just enjoying that and not worrying about things that are out of my hands.”
One of those things out of Adams’s hands is ENB losing its director, Tamara Rojo, an inspirational dancer herself, who has transformed the company. Rojo leaves for San Francisco Ballet at the end of the month, and her successor, Aaron Watkin, won’t officially start until August 2023. Some of the dancers have panicked about being in limbo. “You know, ‘Who’s going to see the work we’re doing? Who’s going to give out promotions?’,” says Adams. “I’m like, my career is in the studio every day. It’s not determined by the promotion I’ve had that year.”
While Adams is as passionate about ballet as she ever was, perhaps her sense of perspective comes from the fact she’s also looking beyond her ballet career, and has just finished the first year of a computer science degree (she may be the one ballerina whose next job actually is in cyber). How does she manage her schedule? “You just fit it in when you can,” she says, in a “no big deal” kind of way. She’s doing it part-time, mostly remotely, and there are other dancers in the company also studying. “You don’t want to wake up when you’re 45 and have zero credentials.”
University has provided a nice contrast to her dancing job. “I get a lot of relief and joy coming into the studio after studying,” she says. “And I find that my brain’s a bit quicker picking up choreography, more clued in.” The last couple of years shifted things. “You become a ballet dancer and it’s your entire life, to an almost unhealthy perspective,” she says, “and the pandemic was a big wake-up call for me. I thought I might never be on stage again.”
Adams credits the time spent training in lockdown with giving her technique more clarity – “I think of my body as this geometrical puzzle; the physics of dance makes much more sense to me now” – and says the pandemic humanised the ballet world. “It blew the lid off any facade that ballet had around glamour and glitz.” Rojo was teaching daily ballet class online from her kitchen. “Seeing the inside of your boss’s home, it just humbled everybody, brought everybody more down to earth. Within the arts there’s a lot of creative energy, a lot of ego, and a lot of that’s been wiped out,” says Adams. “There’s far more awareness around being sensitive towards people’s wellbeing. The diva thing – no one’s really accepting that any more.”
When we speak, Adams is fresh out of the studio with Mats Ek. This is not the first Rite of Spring Adams has danced: she was cast as the Chosen One in Pina Bausch’s exhilarating version and calls dancing to Stravinsky’s totemic score “powerful”, “moving” and “daunting”. But Ek’s interpretation of ritual sacrifice is not the Wicker Man scenes of some Rites, but the story of an arranged marriage. Adams plays the bride’s mother, a complex role. “There’s a lot of inner conflict,” she says. “She has to sacrifice her daughter, but she’s in her own arranged marriage so it was her plight as well.” The process of creating a new role with a choreographer is the most rewarding thing for a dancer to do, says Adams. “You can bring your whole self to the room,” she says, which for Adams means fibre optic body, computing brain and magical big toes.