I was honoured to be asked to write a couple of guest posts for A Younger Theatre in preparation for their Digital Takeover of the Royal Opera House on Thursday for Romeo & Juliet. The first was all about starting ballet at 23 and the second was about MacMillan’s choreography for Romeo & Juliet. I thought I’d share them here, or you can read the originals here and here.
Dave Tries Ballet: Taking the first steps into ballet as an adult
What makes a guy decide, at 23, to take a ballet class for the first time? A year-and-a-half later and I’m still struggling to find an answer. I was studying in the US and wanted a new challenge, something completely outside my comfort zone. Ballet sprang to mind from nowhere and I’m hugely grateful it did.
It’s not exactly easy to start ballet at such a late (relatively speaking) age. Most people taking adult classes have danced as a child, even if they haven’t taken a class in years. As well as not having this previous experience, I felt my presence was particularly distinctive as I was a guy in a female-dominated activity. I was lucky to find some ‘absolute beginner’ adult classes and approached them with more than a hint of trepidation. My teacher told me to just follow along and do my best. I relished the challenge and emerged from the class feeling as if I’d accomplished something (even if it was just a quarter-turn pirouette), and was eager to try more. Soon, I was taking five classes a week and travelling to New York at weekends to get my fix.
Obviously being a 24-year-old guy doing ballet is not ‘the norm’. It’s rare to see other guys dance and can be hard to find adult classes. In fact, one of my weekly classes is at a local dance school and mainly consists of teenage girls, which took a little getting used to! It’s certainly humbling when someone half your age is leagues ahead of you.
I think the most frustrating thing about starting dance as an adult is that, whilst your brain can visualise a certain movement, your body doesn’t necessarily respond how you want it to. Whilst our brains are more analytical than a child’s, this can be as detrimental as it is beneficial. I have teachers telling me to “just go for it” when attempting something difficult like triple pirouettes or tours en l’air (a male move involving turning full-circle whilst mid-air), but often my over-analytical brain tenses me up and hinders me. At times I wish I had the fearlessness that children have to try anything, not afraid to fail or fall.
One thing that people assume when I tell them that I dance is that I’m going to try to be a professional. I find this rather strange; playing tennis doesn’t imply you’re aiming for Wimbledon. That said, I am still serious about becoming the best dancer I can be. I currently take, on average, three or four classes a week and rent out a studio at least twice a week to practice. I also dance with a group of other recreational adult dancers (including some former professionals), which involves weekly repertoire sessions and performances.
There is also the male ballet stereotype to deal with: camp, effeminate and enjoys wearing tutus. This is, obviously, inaccurate and hasn’t stopped me doing ballet, as I think it is important to show the world that being masculine and dancing are not mutually exclusive. Great strides have been made by introducing high-profile male dancers into the media, such as with Billy Elliot and, more recently, Harry Judd’s victory on Strictly Come Dancing. Add to this the work of all-male companies such as BalletBoyz and it is becoming more socially acceptable for men to dance. Being an outnumbered guy has its perks too: the last piece I performed involved three gorgeous women fighting for my attention. It’s a hard life!
Since starting classes I’ve also started to watch more ballet. I appreciate seeing dance more now that I realise just how hard it is. A professional can make steps I can only dream of doing seem utterly effortless, which adds its own magic. We are very lucky in the UK to have some of the world’s greatest dance companies and, contrary to popular belief, it can be very affordable to see them. On top of youth discounts and promotions, there are shockingly cheap tickets up for grabs if you don’t mind standing or sitting (with binoculars) at the top of a theatre. For example, I recently saw the Royal Ballet in a matinee and evening performance, and the total cost for both tickets was £10. I don’t think I need to add that taking someone to a ballet is a distinctively romantic gesture!
I think what keeps me dancing is that ballet is so much more than just working through steps. It teaches you grace, posture and respect. It develops lean muscle, core strength and agility. But on top of all these things are the moments when everything comes together, when you stop concentrating on technique or extension and get lost in the moment. And when that happens it truly feels like you’re flying. Why not try it and see for yourself?
Dave Tries Ballet: MacMillan’s Choreography
One fundamental way in which ballet differs from other theatre is that, for a given ballet, there might exist many different versions of the choreography. This would be akin to having four different version of Hamlet, all with the same fundamental plot but differing dialogue.
Amongst the most popular interpretations of Romeo & Juliet (all set to Prokofiev’s magnificent score) are those by Cranko, Nureyev, Ashton and MacMillan. It is MacMillan’s version that the Royal Ballet currently performs and it is, in my opinion, a masterpiece. Premiering in 1965 with Fonteyn and Nureyev, it was an immediate success and has been performed countless times since, across the world.
Sir Kenneth MacMillan is one of the great British choreographers. Forging a letter of permission from his father, he joined the Royal Ballet School during the second world war and later performed with the company. He spent 15 years as Principal Choreographer and was Director of the company for seven years. I make no attempt to hide that I am a huge fan of MacMillan’s work. He choreographed some of the greatest full-length ballets: Romeo & Juliet, Manon, Prince of the Pagodas and others. He was as versatile as he was talented, producing comic, serious and abstract works.
MacMillan’s genius is epitomised by his ability to make ballet seem completely natural. Take, for instance, the opening scene of Romeo & Juliet: the residents of Verona are attending the local market. As they wander, small groups break in sequences of steps as if it is a perfectly normal thing to do, before resuming their slow wander through the city with their wares. The following fight scene is a complex mixture of choreography and fencing, staying faithful to both. Later, MacMillan acknowledges the dance roots in sword fighting more overtly when Romeo, Mercutio and Benvolio have a fake parry before entering the Capulets’ party. Conversely, the fateful confrontation between Mercutio, Tybalt and Romeo is much more violent.
Concluding Act I is the famous balcony pas de deux, often performed on its own as a gala piece. In flowing costumes, the star-crossed lovers move around the Capulets’ garden as if ethereal, expressing their love and devotion. The lyrical choreography here is some of MacMillan’s most beautiful work. There is one particular moment where Romeo drops to his knees and lifts Juliet above his head. As he raises and lowers his upper body, Juliet arches her back in perfect synchronisation. Every time I see it my breath catches; it is too stunning for words. Another trademark of MacMillan’s work is his ability to advance the story with every single step. In more ‘classical’ ballets (such as Swan Lake or Sleeping Beauty) the story is told in segments of mime, interspersed with segments of dance. In MacMillan’s work he does away with the mime, relying on the dancing alone.
Early in Act III, Lord and Lady Capulet try to force Juliet to marry Paris and they share a courtship dance in the middle of her bedroom. Unlike the earlier passionate balcony and bedroom pas de deux with Romeo, Juliet is unresponsive to Paris’ partnering. She falls limp as he tries to earn her affection. In the middle of this sequence Juliet suddenly snaps her leg into a high arabesque (one leg lifted behind her) recoiling away from Paris. This defiant gesture reveals Juliet’s true feelings, a crack in her submissive façade. I cannot think how this level of complexity in Juliet’s character could be expressed with more traditional mime.
I saw Cuthbertson and Bonelli (the cast for the upcoming cinema-relay) last weekend and they gave a stellar performance. The pair exuded a completely believable and consuming chemistry. When Cuthbertson’s Juliet first looked upon her Romeo it made you believe in love at first sight and the final scene had me wiping away a tear or two. Dancers of the highest calibre, they brought the most out of this fantastic choreography for a truly memorable performance, reminding me just how special ballet can be. Bravo!
Hope you enjoyed reading them! Until next time, keep dancing!