Soloist, The Royal Ballet
interviewed by David Bain
Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church,
London, 28 May 2014.
ASKED HOW HE STARTED DANCING, James said, “It’s not a very interesting story I’m afraid, but I have a sister who, like most girls, went to ballet class.” James was not interested in dancing but once his mother couldn’t pick him up from school when he was about four years old, so he had to wait at his sister’s ballet class, and was told to stay at the front, not to do anything and wait until collected. Instead of doing what he was told he ended up joining in with the class. When his mother returned the teacher explained what had happened and asked if he would like to return. He happily did.
He then officially started classes at The Linda Butler School of Dance in Reading. He covered every type of dance, ballet, jazz, tap, and started doing the RAD syllabus. At age six or seven the teacher suggested might like to audition for the Junior Associates at the Royal Ballet School, she hadn’t had a student go through this before but thought James might be good enough. James was keen to try as he was now very interested in dance, especially ballet. He went along to the auditions and was accepted. For three years he came up to Baron’s Court every Saturday. It was a brilliant time being alongside the Company and the school. It was a real eye opener to see everything going on. “The fantastic thing about the Junior Associates programme was that you got to work with the Company.” Unbelievable. Previously he had only been in productions in the local ballet school. Never before had he had to play a character. The first show was about 1997. It was Ondine when the House was closed and the Company were touring around London. It was wonderful to be in Sadler’s Wells. He was really taken by the whole experience. He played the role of an Acolyte and still has the tights. “They are so tiny. Someone found them in the costume department last year with my name on them and said I had to have them!” The next logical step was to audition for the Royal Ballet School.
There is no history of ballet in his family, his mother is a teacher and his father works for the Chamber of Commerce. He hadn’t really been exposed to dance. Only when he started to have a passion for it did his parents take him to shows; he first saw Moscow City Ballet’s Sleeping Beauty in Oxford. He was a little bored, it is a very long show for a little person to sit through. [David let us know that he thought it a very boring production.] The experience of being inside the theatre and how it works struck him, he knew nothing about how it worked before. But seeing the dancers on stage, the live music, the people coming to watch, the costumes, the lights… A good experience!
His sister carried on training locally until the sixth form and chose the dancing path but was also academic unlike James. She studied contemporary dance at Roehampton University, then completed a course at the Place (three years) coming out with fantastic qualifications. She currently works in arts management in Glasgow.
James continued at a normal school and the local dance school while at Junior Associates. Until he was 16 he didn’t know that he wanted to do dance as a career. “It's a very difficult thing to decide as a child.” Out of his class of 13 boys at White Lodge only three were left by 16 and various others had been and gone in between as well. It is a very niche profession, but it is a great profession to enable you to try other things especially with the academic side as well. Some boys had gone onto wonderful things.
Auditions for the school were at Baron’s Court. There were two tiers of audition. Thousands applied for the 13 slots. It was quite tough, there was basic dancing, then physical tests such as suppleness; it is important to have a good range of movement. The physical test was quite invasive, his parents were warned about it and told that it wouldn’t hurt the children. But it is important to see what the child is capable of. The bigger the starting platform, the larger the potential to develop in the future.
He thought if he didn’t pass the audition he would have to go to normal secondary school, but was absolutely elated when he heard he was in. It was quite exciting. He had spent a couple of weeks at an Easter course in White Lodge, experiencing the building, the studios, the dormitories. It draws you in. “As a child it’s a bit magical in a way…almost an adventure.” He did enjoy White Lodge, it was a great experience, character building, enabled him to be independent and set him up for life. Every place has its flaws but he had great friends, enjoyed the course and liked the teachers. He felt he had a normal childhood. One of his classmates at graduation who started with James was Andrew Peasgood, recently promoted to soloist in Scottish Ballet.
Highlights were obviously the ballet, this was the one thing he had to do. He had a fantastic teacher Anatoly Grigorovich, who really inspired James. He saw something in James which others didn’t and pushed him to develop that talent. “At that age you don’t know what is good and what isn’t. For someone to tell you that you’re actually very good and should be doing more was inspiring.” He liked Anatoly a lot, and James liked that someone was paying attention to him, not that this was unique to him because everyone received a fair amount of attention. He took the attention in a positive way, he is positive generally. “Ballet is competitive and you’re always being compared to your peers so being positive is important.” “When it comes to assessments (or examinations) everyone gets nervous, your future relies on the mark you are given. If you were unsuccessful then it is heart breaking.” One of his first teachers made it clear to the class that not everyone would succeed “You might like ballet, but ballet might not like you” he used to say…summed it up in a nice way; it does make sense, a fair thing to say although they were all upset by it. People are assessed out, this is fair, it might be due to your physical ability. You might love ballet. During training you’re expected to achieve a certain level. “It would be unfair to tell someone they are guaranteed a job and then they don’t receive any contracts from a dance company.”
As a student the first time he was on the Covent Garden stage was the opening of the Royal Opera House in 1999. In the Tableau at the end, on a little plinth at the top, two Junior Associates came on stage in front of the whole company, it was James and Rebecca Hartley. He stood right at the top of the pyramid. Afterwards Leanne Benjamin took them and sat them in the front row to see the Queen. It was brilliant. It was too overwhelming as a ten year old, all those people watching them with the best dancers in the world. “It seems crazy that I've been dancing on that stage for 15 years now.”
The summer before he joined the Royal Ballet School he was working on the Mariinsky Ballet summer tour. He wasn’t sure about the wigs! There were long blond wigs which were really bad. The kids were involved in so much in that production of Sleeping Beauty. He played Tom Thumb and really enjoyed it. It was really fun to be involved, no pressure, James loved it. He knew he loved performing but didn’t know if he was going to choose it as a career.
Gailene Stock arrived a year before James went to the school in September 2000.
He was not sure that he would get to the Upper School. He was quite a small person and hadn’t grown a lot in the five years at the Lower School. And he was worried he wouldn’t grow more but luckily he did. Also they said his jump wasn’t that great, they weren’t sure about his performance so he was really, really worried that he wouldn’t get a place. But Anatoly told him to audition in other places, America (School of American Ballet) or somewhere in Europe, not to get a place, but to experience something outside the bubble of the Royal Ballet School. “Experience different styles of training when you’re trying to make sense of ballet, as you’ve nothing to compare yourself with.” “Don’t worry, I’m sure everything will be fine.” “Just see how good you are.” But James didn’t go for any auditions! A week later he got accepted at the Royal Ballet School.
Moving to a different location can be a shock. At White Lodge he was able to go home at weekends, now that would be less frequent. About half of his class moved to the Upper School. Old friends left and new friends came along. He got to move to central London and lived in a fantastic place in Baron’s Court. Moving into the real world was a big transition, like any 16 year old moving to the big city, wow, great! People from other countries came in and the competition went up. “Everyone dances differently but it's important to recognise your own strengths.” In his year were Delia Matthews (BRB), Dawid Trzensimiech (RB, then National Romanian Ballet), Joshua McSherry-Grey (ENB), Yvette Knight (BRB) although she was bumped up a year. Jared Glavin (Norway), Lucy Emery (Norway) and Katy Harvey (Flanders) and Yoshihisa Arai, now with Joffrey Ballet in America.
James’ teachers in the first year were Chris Powney (before he moved to Holland), then various covers after he left. Maina Gielgud, Cynthia Harvey, Thomas Edur. In the second year he had David Peden (he was another cover in the first year). And in the third year Gary Norman.
James’s highlight at school was winning Young British Dancer of the Year. Everything felt really good on the night after a really terrible rehearsal the day before. He danced James’s variation from La Sylphide and Basilio’s from Act 3 of Don Quixote. They are two very different variations which is good because it shows versatility. Basilio was flashy and he liked it, he thought he was quite good at some of the technical bits. Dancing isn’t easy even if it seems like it, but that night he didn’t have to think about the steps, he just had a good time. This is quite important to him. You never feel the same two days in a row but he’s only experienced this feeling a couple of times since and those performances stay in his head.
Other highlights were his first trip to China where he was invited to a competition. This was the first time it had been opened to international students and was his first international competition. He has a travel bug, he loves travelling and this was his first time to the Far East. They stayed in the Ballet Academy. It was a fantastic eye opener to see other students and styles, and to be taught by different people. It was very hard work, there were five different variations. In the first round only two variations were required so if you didn’t get through it seemed like a waste of time. James gets a rush of adrenalin from competitions but he isn’t incredibly competitive, except at board games! It’s important to have composure in competitions, so he can see why some people don’t like them. He thinks being calm is important, he gets nervous but is quite calm and placid. The point of competition is about doing something good and being categorised and placed at the end. He went to China with Delia Matthews and his coach Petal Miller. He loved it.
James won the Lynn Seymour Prize back at school about a week after he returned from China. The setup was to create a solo and write an essay about it. Foolishly he decided to choreograph his own piece; he doesn’t have that sort of artistic vision but takes direction well, but he thought he might as well have a go. The purpose of the competition is expressive arts, many people missed this point. James chose a subject and thought the writing was better than the choreography. He thought about a content to base his ideas on, he thought about the emotions and thinks this is what allowed him to win. It wasn’t the choreography or the dancing, it was the performance and emotion. About the emotion and what you’re trying to convey at a particular moment.
In the school graduation performance he performed Bruce Sansom’s part in David Bintley’s Gallanteries. A beautiful but hard piece. The school performed this in Washington too, with three other schools, Paris Opera Ballet and the Bolshoi schools. This was the first time he met Akane Takada who was with the latter. It is such a small world! They are roughly the same age.
In the third year at the School he was working with BRB in Swan Lake. He asked David Bintley if there were any places but unfortunately there were none. In the graduation year you don’t audition at the Royal Ballet, and because he didn’t have a job he auditioned elsewhere. He went to Zurich for audition but didn’t get the job.
He contacted the director of Ballet de Rhin, Basel. He had been the lead adjudicator for the competition when he won YBDY. The audition was in Paris, so three days there would be great. He got the job but was asked “Do you really want a job here?” James said yes, he needed a job as he was finishing school. He struggled with height since many companies wouldn’t take men under 1.80m and he was maybe not even 1.75m. The trend in Europe and some companies in America is for taller men which you can understand because you need to partner the girls in the companies. He was told you’d be better off seeing if the Royal Ballet have a job for you. James replied that he didn’t know anything but that he could go and ask. “If you do hear anything let me know so that I can offer the place to someone else.” The day he returned to London he was due to go to Birmingham again so woke up at 6am. He wasn’t going into school but then got a call from Gailene to say that he’d been offered a contract. That made his life, he probably screamed down the phone! So he had to run into school, he gave his teacher a hug and said thank you. Dawid Trzensimiech already had a contract and started early, so the rest thought that was the only one. They hadn’t realised that the company needed someone urgently. James was delighted, then he had to go up to Birmingham and tell them that it was ok and he had a contract. But he was so annoyed because he thought the company knew they were going to give him a contract but they waited for him to go elsewhere and get a contract before offering one to him. That seems to be the trend. It’s very important in that you do have a choice. He’s seen many students get contracts and turn them down. But in this case it was yes, straight away. It was what he’d worked for since he was seven.
He joined in 2008 and his first role in the company was in Swan Lake. He was a Waltz couple and a Mazurka couple. At the first studio call on the first floor call he slipped over and there was a sharp intake of breath by everyone but maybe it was a good ice breaker. He was so excited to be on stage for the first time that he can’t say. Early on he was a beggar in Manon. He hadn’t worked with the company as a student although he had covered roles in Rubies and Diamonds. On the first stage rehearsal he got punched in the face and thought he’d broken his nose…he was a little embarrassed.
Touring is a brilliant part of the job, they are so lucky to go to such awesome places. His first was a big tour (2009), first Washington then Spain and then to Cuba. The facilities weren’t too great, they were dancing in 40⁰C heat with hardly any air conditioning. But they were in Cuba so it was fantastic. Havana is so stunning. The Karl Marx theatre was huge.
The week before they went to Cuba, Johan asked him to have a look at Sergei Polunin’s part in Les Lutins as they were really busy but James had little to do which is usually the case in the first year in the company. During rehearsals James only stood at the back but he was thrilled to be working with a couple of Principals. There wasn’t much to learn but it was very difficult, and he learned it in a couple of days and thought no more of it.
On tour Steven McRae was becoming ill possibly with swine flu, but Steven kept saying it was fine and nothing. Dancers do this! The day before the gala performance he decided he couldn’t do it. Johan thought he could do it himself but then realised he was doing so much else that it wasn’t going to be possible. James didn’t realise what was going on and was just wandering along corridors when people came up to him and said Johan that was looking for him. Johan asked him to please learn this for tomorrow, but it wasn’t even the part he had learnt originally. There were twice as many steps and music. But he said yes, he’d take the part. He was up all night learning the part from a recording.
The next morning he had an hour in the studio, then an hour later he rehearsed on stage. He didn’t have a costume, he didn’t even have shoes. It seemed he had no idea what was going on, he barely knew the music, he didn’t know any counts. It was the scariest moment of his career. But it was fantastic feeling afterwards. He hadn’t fallen flat on his face, he hadn’t injured anyone and he had got through it. And he was still alive. It was very good experience to show that he could work that quickly. You have to be so clued in to it and he thinks he is quite a quick person. “Sometimes you have to be thrown on at a moment’s notice without knowing the choreography at all.” It was a very unexpected end to the season which he will cherish for the rest of his life. During the curtain calls at the end of the show, he was thinking why am I here, I’m just an Artist at the end of his first year with all these famous dancers. How did it happen? They were then bussed around the corner to a large square where there was a big screen televising the gala live. The people there and the reception…he had never before heard those numbers with that passion. They are not so reserved. It was such an experience it would make anyone smile, but it was terrifying to be in a gala with so many famous people, and not just from the Royal Ballet. He hopes it does happen again! Although he’d want to rehearse more next time!
In the next season he performed the Nephew in Nutcracker, a production he’d watched since he was 11. That was very special, both his first pas de deux and character role. Although simple it is easy to get it wrong. He did Benvolio in Romeo and Juliet, something he’d been desperate to do. Unfortunately he was injured the last time it came round. He loves performing this role but it will be on tour this year. There are so many things he could mention.
Audio clip - Liam Scarlett's Hansel and Gretel:
Last season in the Linbury he did Hansel in Hansel and Gretel. It was incredibly intense and the first time he really had to act. He didn’t think he was a natural actor and has had no training at all. It was very challenging, more so than most roles he’s done. “And the space is very different, you are very exposed to the audience, but it was better the second time round. You have to act for two hours, this is really difficult. Leanne Cope is such a natural actress I’m sure she finds it easier!” Paul Kay was originally cast but he was injured and James was slotted in as he was the understudy but still didn’t know that he would do the role. He wasn’t really aware of how horrifying it would be to the audience “It could have been more graphic” but from being involved in it, it didn’t seem that horrific.
Not only was he playing narrative, that was difficult enough, but how to play a seven year old without being twee. Although he looks young he doesn’t think he looks seven. But because he has an adult conscience it was hard to have the complete innocence of a child. It was a fine line to get right and he thinks he is still working on it and it won’t be right until his acting skills have improved.
He also worked with Liam on Asphodel Meadows and Sweet Violets although not the latter this time round. He really likes Liam’s choreography, “From a dancers’ perspective it floats so naturally, it’s so musical, a very natural movement and he is a joy to work with. Liam is very much to the point and gets it done.” There wasn’t so much dancing but more acting in Sweet Violets where he played the mean and nasty stage manager who mistreats the girls and gets off with them. Treats them like dirt. It was kind of fun in a way, something he doesn’t normally get the chance to do. Normally he plays the nice guys so it was kind of alluring to play the bad guy. It is fantastic to be someone else for a couple of hours. It is so fascinating to build the character up.
In the Prince of the Pagodas he played the Fool. It was choreography that hadn’t been worked on for a while and was challenging not just for the dancers but also for the choreologists. The steps could change depending on the dancer and the night so what was recorded was just one version, sometimes it could get stuck with a variation from a particular night. The original Fool was Teddy Kumakawa, but the first cast wasn’t the one which was filmed.
Nobody really knows that much about the Fool. With the make up you can’t make any expression and it feels almost impossible without using the face to convey the emotion. You almost need to use the entire body to act it out. He hopes they make the wig a little bit smaller in the future! He did really enjoy the part and it was the most important part at that time in his career. He had a fantastic solo in Act III. He hopes it is done again.
He went to the Eric Bruhn Competition in Canada with Francesca Hayward and Liam Scarlett. Liam created a piece for them as part of the competition. The whole experience seemed like a couple of days – on to the plane, into rehearsals, perform, back on the plane and done. He thought it was going to be formal but it was different. There were only five couples involved; in his previous competitions there had been bigger candidate lists. He and Francesca were judged individually but also as a couple. This is a very different setup, he’d only ever performed on his own in competitions before. It was very easy to work with Francesca, they are good friends. They danced Liam’s piece and Flower Festival (Bournonville) in which they were coached by Johan Kobborg. They didn’t seem to have as long with Liam, he was busy with other things. James won the audience choice prize. It was a tough competition; dancers were from the National Ballet of Canada, the American Ballet Theatre, the Royal Danish Ballet and from Hamburg. Three couples chose Bournonville pieces and doing Bournonville against the Danish was perhaps not a good idea! But he had a good time and met some wonderful people. “It isn’t about winning although that would’ve been lovely, it was about the experience of working in a different venue, working with different people and how they might do things; that’s what will stay with you.”
Rhapsody with Francesca this season has to be the highlight of his career so far. At the end of last season in Japan, he got a serious pain in the shin though from an x-ray there appeared to be no fracture. But on his return to England it was x-rayed further which showed deterioration in the bone which could develop into a stress fracture. So he couldn’t dance for a certain period of time. He wasn’t happy, this is his job, his career, he was sad. It was going to get better but it would be something he would have to work alongside for the rest of his career. It will never be completely eliminated. It was a good opportunity for him to work on other areas of his training, it is impossible to do everything he wants to. He returned to dance in Nutcracker in January and then it was into Rhapsody. He had to learn this in a month and a half. Such a big piece, his first principal role, so fantastic. The music is synonymous. He vaguely knew the steps. If he had been dancing all season it would have been a different show. It was a brilliant show and he felt he had achieved something and pushed the boundary for himself. It was the only performance when during the curtain call he actually cried. He couldn’t help himself. Again he hadn’t hurt anyone or fallen flat on his face, he had made it through. But to hear the reception from people, he hadn’t expected it to happen. He had been working hard at something, he had really pushed it. This is what it was all for, it made sense as to why they did it. He felt something emotional during the piece which he hadn’t in rehearsals. It’s almost like a deeper meaning. It’s an abstract ballet but it was almost like there was something behind it. They are never told what that was, but he felt like he found it. It was nice to find that, not everyone one does. He was overjoyed about it, to achieve something in his career that he didn’t think he would, especially at this point in time. Hopefully a precursor for the future.
He can’t wait for the tour, he’s been in London too long. They go to Moscow for a week, Taiwan for a week and Shanghai for a week. They take Rhapsody / DGV / Tetractys and Manon to Moscow, Romeo and Juliet to Taiwan and Don Quixote to Shanghai. He is an understudy for the mixed programme, is performing the Beggar Chief in Manon, Benvolio in Romeo and Juliet and one of the Rascals in Don Quixote. It seems a really great tour for him personally, not too much work and plenty of time to look around and enjoy yourself!
As for the 2014/15 season he will be performing the Beggar Chief and a Dancing Gent in Manon. He will also be appearing in The Ashton Bill as well as reprising his role as the Solo Man in Aeturnum. Hopefully as the season progresses there will be more to come.
Report written by Chris Scott, corrected by James Hay and David Bain. ©The Ballet Association 2014.