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Retired professional ballet dancer, Emma Lister from Roydon, given chance to perform on world-famous Royal Opera House stage





A former professional ballet performer, who thought her dancing days were behind her, was given one last chance to fulfil a childhood dream when she performed at the Royal Opera House in London.

Emma Lister, from Roydon, whose CV includes working for the English National Ballet and being a principal dancer for The National Ballet of Ireland and English Youth Ballet, retired in 2018 at the age of 38.

But this year, the 44-year-old came out of retirement to take to the stage one more time, bringing the curtain down on an illustrious career in the process

Former professional ballet dancer, Emma Lister. Picture: Mark Bullimore
Former professional ballet dancer, Emma Lister. Picture: Mark Bullimore

The Canadian-born ballet dancer said: “I started relatively late in ballet at the age of nine and was then accepted into the National Ballet of Canada, training there and at Canada’s Royal Winnipeg Ballet School for the next 10 years.”

After graduating, Ms Lister moved to London and became a freelance ballet dancer, securing a short-term contract with the English National Ballet, where she performed at the Royal Albert Hall.

A glittering career followed, including touring all over the globe, dancing in the likes of Australia, Bermuda, Moscow, Alaska and Lapland, while also performing at Buckingham Palace in 2013 for the then Prince Charles and Camilla.

But in 2014, while performing as The Nutcracker’s Sugarplum Fairy for the National Ballet of Ireland, the dancer started to have a niggling back injury.

The 44-year-old got her chance to perform at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, which she thought had gone. Picture: Mark Bullimore Photography 2024
The 44-year-old got her chance to perform at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, which she thought had gone. Picture: Mark Bullimore Photography 2024

“I should have listened to my body, but, with such a big dancing opportunity, I pushed through it,” she said.

She continued to dance for six months, before finding out that she had a stress fracture in her lower back and was told by medical professionals that she had two choices: to let it heal, start dancing again and risk further injury, or quit the profession she loved.

Following a period away from the industry, the dancer worked on and off with the English Youth Ballet, as well as doing rehearsal directing and coaching.

Her last performance was in 2018 in Derby, where she performed with her husband, Finnish circus juggler Sakari Männistö, in a show they co-directed called Insomniac’s Fable.

Emma rehearsing on The Royal Opera House stage. Picture submitted
Emma rehearsing on The Royal Opera House stage. Picture submitted

“It was a good show and I came off the stage thinking that, if that was my last show, that was okay,” she said.

“I had rounded things off by doing something that I had choreographed with Sakari and I was two months pregnant with our son, Arvo.”

With the combination of her back, having a child, moving to Diss in 2019 and the pandemic, Ms Lister made the decision to retire.

“There is an old saying that a dancer dies twice; once when they stop dancing and once when they stop breathing,” she said.

A crowning glory: Emma Lister, centre, bowed out of professional ballet with a performance in Andrea Chénier. Picture: The Royal Opera ©2024 Marc Brenner
A crowning glory: Emma Lister, centre, bowed out of professional ballet with a performance in Andrea Chénier. Picture: The Royal Opera ©2024 Marc Brenner

“It is a little dramatic, but I definitely felt a grieving process because, when you stop doing something you have pushed to do
since you were so young and have done every day, week, month and year, it’s very tough.”

After the pandemic, the dancer started teaching pilates in and around Diss, before taking a call in April that would bring her back into the world she loved.

“Agurtzane Arrien, the revival choreographer for the opera Andrea Chénier at The Royal Opera House, got in contact,” she said.

“She said a dancer was unable to do the show at short notice and needed someone to teach the audition in London. After trying to talk my way out of it, I finally agreed.”

Knowing the technique, Ms Lister taught the group the movements, which included a big lift, for a three-minute duet.

“When we were done, I went into the canteen with the panel of adjudicators to talk about the audition,” she said.

“I had grabbed a sandwich and, as I took a bite, they said ‘We think you should do it’ ... I nearly choked.”

After agreeing to take on the role, the dancer had two weeks to train, which involved her husband drilling a ballet barre into their kitchen wall.

“I gave myself ballet classes every single day and had to buy some new point shoes,” she said.

“My body was not too bad because I do pilates and the technique was in my head still, but what I suffered with the most was getting back on my toes.”

On May 30, after three weeks of rehearsals, the time came for the first performance.

“I was concerned physically and mentally about stepping on to the most important stage of my life after having children and walking away from ballet,” she said.

“I had looked at that stage since I was a child and dreamed of being on it; I had pretended to perform on it and had been to live performances there, but now I was actually performing at the Royal Opera House.

“I was amazed on opening night that there was not a worry in my head and, as I looked out into the auditorium, I felt calm and in the moment. The performance was the icing on the cake for me.”

After five performances, with the last being on June 11, including a live stream around the world, Ms Lister was able to find a sense of closure with professional ballet.

“The Royal Opera House stage was always on my bucket list; it is one of things I let go of when I walked away from it all,” she added.

“I had already said goodbye to it and this was just a bonus and I really felt grateful to be given one last shot.

“When I took my final bow, I felt really happy being on the most important stage of my career. It was like the end scene and the credits rolled.”



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