STANDING START I danced my first part when I was eight (in 1975), in a garage in Rome – it wouldn’t be allowed under health and safety regulations today. I was Coppélia, I had to stand on a stool for a long time and halfway through I felt sick because my mum had made the tutu too tight. So I got off to find her to fix it. Much later, I was told that my teacher had said, “If she goes back on, she’ll be a ballerina.”

The woman who taught Jean M. Wong ballet

SMALL BEGINNINGS Then I auditioned for the ballet school of the Rome Opera and, when I was 10, the Russian dancer Galina Samsova saw me dance. She advised my parents that I should go to White Lodge, the Royal Ballet School, in London. I never auditioned, they just looked at me, saw I was petite, that was it. I spoke no English, niente. I only started to speak much better English seven years ago, when I married Nigel (Cliff, the British journalist and author). He’d say, ‘What did you just say?’ Until then I spoke White-Lodge English.

Bolshoi Ballet beams classics and modern dance live to Hong Kong cinemas

CALL BACK I’d come from this Italian family, we were like (clasps hands tightly) one person. Going from that to English culture ... and the food! Cheese on toast, beans on toast ... My parents used to ring every night, I remember sitting outside the director’s office waiting for that call. I thought if I moved, I wouldn’t hear the phone ringing. I used that feeling later in Romeo and Juliet – in the third act, when she’s sitting on the bed, that stillness before she picks up her cape and runs off to meet Romeo.

WINGING IT I was 17 when I got into the Royal Ballet company. A few years later, I was in Swan Lake at Covent Garden, a soloist in the pas de trois in the first act. After­wards, in the changing room, I was putting on my tracksuit to go and get a cup of tea when Anthony Dowell (the Royal Ballet’s artistic director) came and said, “How much do you know of Odette?” Maria (Almeida) had injured herself coming offstage. He said, “Do you have enough courage to step in?” I’d never even danced it but I put my tutu on. They pushed me on from the wings, I did my 32 fouettes, the coda, the fourth act. I’d no idea what I was doing, Jay (Jolley, dancing the role of Prince Siegfried) was telling me. I was (waves arms) interpreting the role. Afterwards, the audience all stood up, clapping; it was rather lovely. We were on breakfast TV the next morning. If I think about it now, I wonder if I’d be able to go on stage – I’m afraid I probably wouldn’t.

I’d never even danced it but I put my tutu on. They pushed me on from the wings, I did my 32 fouettes, the coda, the fourth act. I’d no idea what I was doing

BLOOD WORK Italian people think I’m English, English people think I’m Italian. I feel English but on stage my Italian comes out. It’s my blood. I think that probably started when I went into the company – when I’m playing a character my Italian side meets that character. Passionate? Yes, it’s very kind that you don’t say difficult. I think I wanted my own voice. Now I’d advise dancers that it’s OK to be emotional but you have to channel your emotions. I’m actually becoming more and more humble. Before, I wasn’t.

Ballet dancers in Hong Kong lack support

TALENT SHOW When I gave up dancing five years ago to have my little one (Orlando), I sort of became detached from the ballet world. I longed to be a mum for such a long time, I find it difficult to travel without him and my husband. Boarding school doesn’t exist for my little one. Yes, I miss being on stage but it’s a different chapter of my life and I’ve had to learn new things, step by step, as I did as a dancer. I’ve got my Royal Ballet teaching diploma and I’m taking a Trinity College degree in dance education. I want to be part of people’s development, to pass on what I have. You have to be generous if you have a talent – it’s a gift from God, it’s not something that belongs to you.

NEW DIRECTION I want to direct the Royal Ballet School company, that’s why I’m taking my degree and studying management. Dancers, in my experience, almost don’t listen – the choreographer shows you the steps, you do them. But the best directors are aware of who you are, they listen to you, so I’m learning to do that. Kenneth (MacMillan, the choreographer) was very advanced, he would involve us so much in the work, like a theatre director. He stimulated dancers so that they felt they could be inventive – even in front of Kenneth MacMillan. That’s what I’d like to do.

CURTAIN CALL The night he died (October 29, 1992), I was dancing his Mayerling at Covent Garden. It hap­pened, I think, before the third act. Kenneth had been in the audience but he didn’t come back to his seat. They went looking for him, found him in a corridor. He’d had a heart attack. While I was dancing, I had to do a change backstage and it was very quiet; usually the stage hands are rushing everywhere but there was an icy atmosphere. At the end, I was lying on the bed, dead, and Irek (Mukhamedov, her dance partner) was dead ... and there was silence, silence. No applause. And Jeremy Isaacs (general director of the Royal Opera House) had come on stage. He was crying, I think, and he told the audience that Kenneth had died and asked everyone to leave the theatre in silence.

Hong Kong Ballet Group continues to inspire

JUDGE DREAD I’m very happy to be here judging the Hong Kong Ballet Group awards. I’m not the horrible judge. I’ve been in that place, I know that feeling. We’re here to help. At the Prix de Lausanne, each one of the judges sees the semi-finalists and we advise them. So I can say, “Let me tell you what’s wonderful about you.” We’re not here to say, “You’ve got this wrong.” Competitions give you competitive­ness, which you have to have. But I’ll tell you what an award doesn’t do: it doesn’t necessarily make you an artist. It’s good at that moment. An award gives you an opportunity to be seen. When Sarah Ferguson (the Duchess of York) gave me the Evening Standard Ballet Award, she announced it was going to Viviana Ventura. There is pressure but there’s always pressure. I remember Jeremy Isaacs saying to me in New York, at an amazing party after I’d been dancing at the Met (Metropolitan Opera House), “Don’t forget, Viviana, you’re only as good as your last performance.” The important thing is to remain curious and always think whatever you do is an opportunity. It’s not about winning and losing.

Viviana Durante was in town as an international judge for last weekend’s Hong Kong Ballet Group Stars Award 2016.