Rules of Dance: Steven McRae

Famous dancers share their secrets of success, reveal the difficulties of the profession and the details of self-improvementin the “Rules of Dancing” column. Moreover, they give valuable advice to future generations of ballet dancers. This time we talked to Steven McRae, the principal with the Royal Ballet, famous for his versatile technique, speed and great dramatic range.

I’ve always been open to get something from everything. I like to work with different artists whether they are photographers, illustrators or sculptors. Obviously, I like to see what they can produce inspired by my image, but I also would like to work with them on other projects to see what we could produce together. I’ve got hundreds ofprojects floating around my head and I think it’s very important for people to find inspiration from many sources.

Motorsport is the biggest inspiration in my life, that may sound very odd as for ballet dancer. My father raced and we talked about the comparisons between drag racing and dancing. Motorsport requires a lot of skill, it’s not just about going fast. Racers dedicate their whole lives to their passion, and in ballet it’s the same. To have a lot of fulfillment in the career you have to give so much to it! And it’s all about adrenalin. Before the curtain goes up I feel the same as the racer before the accelerator.

I choreograph a little bit. Mostly for myself but I’m very open to the ideas. Right now I feel myself as a dancer, so I want to be selfish and I want choreographers to create for me. When I finish dancing, it will be my turn to help the next generation look and feel as beautiful as they can.

Having a live musician and a dancer on stage at the same time is always powerful. When music and dance come together they say something more powerful than just music alone or just dance alone. The music was the real driver behind “Czardas”, it’s the popular piece, most people are familiar with the tune. And I love to have the connection with the audience, and dancing to a piece of music which is familiar enables to make this connection instantly. And obviously the great musician on stage increases this connection.

My repertoire is very extreme; I do a lot of technically demanding pieces, which are mostly abstract. But at the Royal Ballet we also do a lot of dramatic work, like “Romeo and Juliette”, “Mayerling”, “Frankenstein”, which pushes and requires you to become a completely different person for 3 hours on stage. I adore those parts, I love to tap into dramatic side of the art form and make people feel in a certain way with motion. The role of a dancer or a ballet is to make an audience step away from life for a certain period of time. People want to be completely involved in what they arewatching. And that’s my job as an artist to produce a character that enables them to do that.

I’m still interested in dancing classical ballets, they are the foundation of the art work. We are lucky in Royal Opera House, that our productions are not two-dimensional. So if you are a prince in a Swan Lake, you are still a human being, not an artificial creature. Again, it’s about relating to the audience. If people see you as a human instead of ideal prince, they are going to get something out of that.

Characters come from life, we don’t take any acting lessons. We just tap into our own experiences of being vulnerable, insecure, frightened, naïve, etc. So I think artists become better as they get older. The way I perform Romeo now is very different from how I did it 10 years ago. And it still interests me! Every time I visit a role, I find myself changed as a human being. So I can develop the character further and further. And now I have two children, so that changes the way I view life as well. When there’s a very touching or upsetting scene in ballet, I always relate it to my children and it brings up much more raw emotion than ever before.

I think in the world of dance, if you continue pushing and developing yourself, there is no such thing as comfort zone. Every time I step on stage I demand more from myself, my coaches demand more from me. We don’t perform the same ballets every year, so it always feels new, even at the same company.

What dancers do with their bodies these days is phenomenal, and I think many choreographers are very excited by that, they want to explore possibilities of what the human body can do and come to. I don’t think they intend to break us, of course. Like artists we push the boundaries and they also try to push the boundaries. It’s painful, yet it’s fine.

That’s the problem in our profession: there is no time to recover. It’s an ongoing battle.

Your body is like a car. If you put rubbish in it, it’s not going to function.

You have to listen to your body every single day and learn what works for you.You have to know different parts of the body. For example, if I have the pain in a certain area, I have to push ahead with it and it’s fine. In other areas I have to stop and get it fixed. But it takes a long time to learn and to develop that sense.

I have a lot of massage and a physiotherapy treatment whenever I can. The key is to prevent things from development.

Lead athletes and sportsmen don’t work 6 days a week for 12 hours a day. But ballet dancers, particularly in Royal Opera House, do and that is not healthy for body and mind. Audience becomes more demanding to the performances, which is fantastic. But we have to learn how to look after the dancers.

You can’t score art. And that’s the difference between a dancer and a gymnast. Of course you can use a gymnastic element as part of a dance, if that helps to tell an emotion or a story. But when choreography becomes very gymnastic, I get a bit upset.

Ballet competitions are so subjective. Dance is not about required elements, not like you have to make 3 pirouettes in a certain time and position and get a mark for that. It is still art and each judge has their own opinion. However, competitions are good for young students, because it’s an opportunity to get on stage and feel a bit of the pressure of performing. And it’s always good to have something to work towards.

The decision to move to London from Sydney was kind of made for me. In 2003 I won Prix de Lausanne competition in Switzerland. The final was held on the Sunday evening and Gailene Stock, the director of Royal Ballet School, came to me and said: “Don’t go back to Australia, fly to London. You start tomorrow”. And that was it. So I just started next day in London and never went back to Australia. My parents were very supportive and excited, but I think that was incredibly tough for them. They didn’t get any chance to prepare, but they let it happen.

In Royal Ballet School I spent most of the time homesick. I felt lonely and isolated, but Gailene Stock supported me on 100%, even when I joined the company. I was very fortunate to have that mentor figure in my life.

Dancers need to be open to opportunities and experiences. There are no guarantees, of course, so they need to will to take chances and learn as much as they can. It can be very difficult, but very rewarding as well. Home is always there to go back to.

Dance is the language with no borders. You can perform everywhere in the world and communicate with the audience.

For dancers, social media is the way to communicate with the public. Many people around the world have a false idea of what a ballet dancer does and what that world is. We can help educate the public about the profession.

After performances many people say at the stage door: «We never knew anything about ballet, we had no interest, but we followed you on Instagram and decided to come and watch the performance. And now we love ballet and we are hooked». I’m excited by that!

Instagram gives you a sense of control, you can portray yourself with an image you like. A lot of ballets dictate who you are on stage, but with the help of Instagram you can show who you are as an individual.

Dancers have incredibly powerful bodies and it’s important to portray that to break down the stereotypes. People think you just put on a pretty costume and flit around the stage. It’s not like that at all. We are athletes as well as high end artists, and that’s a tricky balance.

I treat my body like a piece of art. But more like an instrument. I can tune it and untune it. And get the body to do what I need it to do.

When you find the chemistry with a certain partner it always seems amazing and you want to hold on that forever. But it’s also important to dance with many people because each ballerina brings something in you.

To be a good partner you have to be constantly alert, you have to imagine yourself being the ballerina: where would you want to be put by the man. You have to think that way. Ultimately, when I’m with the ballerina on stage, it’s all about the ballerina. I want her to feel as comfortable as possible. I think that mentality can help to develop yourself as a partner.

There are some ballerinas I just love to dance with. On stage I feel like I want to wrap them up in a cottonwool and look after them. When you find such a partner, it’s always very special.

Dancers support each other.

I’d like to become a director of a ballet company after my retirement as a dancer. It’s important to look after the profession, so it would not have to survive but continue to grow. And I think there is an endless amount of stories to be told through dance and I want to be a part of that in the future.

 

Photo: Nastya Tempinskaya