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Matthew Ball

Artist, The Royal Ballet
interviewed by David Bain

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, London, 27 May 2015

MATTHEW STARTED BALLET aged six and said that he was probably a born performer as even while in nursery school he has been told he was always getting up in front of everyone, singing and dancing. Matthew’s mother suggested ballet classes as she herself had been at White Lodge for one year before growing too tall and having to leave. Matthew’s brother also started ballet classes but only lasted one month before he stopped. Matthew enjoyed the physicality of ballet but also enjoyed karate, swimming and anything active. Ballet became a huge part in his life almost unknowingly as it was where he felt focused and he enjoyed using his body as well as the skill, art and musicality. Ballet classes were in a school hall run by a husband and wife who had been dancers together in Switzerland. They were very kind to Matthew. He was the only boy and they gave him additional private classes, perhaps recognising that Matthew was more serious about ballet and in a different place to the others in the school. Matthew had a particularly close relationship with the husband, Freddie, who was very softly spoken and kind and kept Matthew going when his motivation faded at times, for example, when one of the girls made fun of him. In contrast, the boys at his normal school were very positive about his dancing – perhaps the Billy Elliot effect.

At age nine, on the suggestion of his teacher, he auditioned for the Manchester Junior Associates (JA). The first thing Matthew noticed was that the teacher was very posh and he remembers feeling very stressed at the audition, crying and believing that he was never going to get in. His mother told him not to worry and indeed he was overreacting. Classes were every two or three weeks. Matthew is still in touch with his JA teacher, Melanie Agar, who has continued taking an interest in him, though she does not seem so posh now that Matthew has had so many other posh teachers. The joining of JA’s felt like a juncture in his life as Matthew recognised the new standard that was around him and realised that he would have to raise his game. It felt like a different world, more a young professional environment, very precise and dancing to a piano, which he had not done before.

  “Dad, sometimes you have to make sacrifices for your art”, which was a very serious comment for an eleven year old…

He carried on with ordinary ballet classes for another two years before he auditioned for both Elmhurst and White Lodge. Matthew remembers his father asking him whether he was sure about the decision of leaving home at such a young age and answering him “Dad, sometimes you have to make sacrifices for your art”, which was a very serious comment for an eleven year old but even then he realised what had to be done. Matthew felt well drilled and ready for White Lodge auditions. The preliminary auditions at Manchester were straight forward, given his JA experience there, and then he went to see White Lodge which felt familiar as he had spent some time there at the summer school. He got his letter of acceptance while at school and remembers his classmates cheering. Matthew always felt that he had very good support from them, perhaps a different reaction to that expected in a northern city.

At first, sharing a dormitory with twelve other boys, being at White Lodge felt like a big sleepover before Matthew realised the severity of it all. Days were filled, of course with dancing but also with the addition of academics and homework and it was all quite regimented, however, the atmosphere was with a group of friends who became very close. Time flew past year to year and it was everything that Matthew could have expected. It was a very insular world in Richmond Park, beautiful but surreal as there was nothing and no time to think about anything but ballet. Matthew was taught by Hope Keelan in Year 7, by Antonio Castillo in Years 8 and 10 and by David Yow in Years 9 and 11. All the teachers affected him deeply in their different ways. For example, Miss Keelan had energy and enthusiasm to match the younger boys and it was good to have some freedom and to not always have to be too precise. In contrast, Mr Yow honed in on the fine tuning of things, directing the enthusiasm and the joy to something productive and efficient. The highlights of Matthew’s time at White Lodge were performing with the Company and the friends that he made. Matthew commented that there is no more magical ballet than The Nutcracker which he was in for three years – in Year 7 as a soldier, in Year 8 as Fritz and in Year 9 as a sentry soldier. It was exciting to go the Royal Ballet and the opera house stage, first to be part of the magical transformation scene and then to be Fritz and to get to fly, make mischief and be a little of himself on stage. Matthew was also in The Sleeping Beauty and La Sylphide. He loved being around the Company dancers and seeing what goes on. Some of the current White Lodge Year 7s have been involved in Woolf Works and looking at them Matthew remembers when he was in White Lodge how Company members seemed these huge creatures who were perfection incarnate and thinking how could he ever hope to be one. Apparently it just happened when his back was turned and now he is one.

Choreographers, often from the Company, came to create works for school performances and Matthew was in pieces made by Vanessa Fenton and by Samantha Raine. The Defilé at White Lodge was always the biggest part of the end of year performances for Matthew and he believes that it is always a great way to finish. (In third year of the Upper School, Matthew insisted on coming back to take part in the Defilé even though he was injured). He was in the Defilé eight times in total and it always felt very special.

The assessments were at the end of each year and from Matthew’s class nine boys progressed to the Upper School, all but one or two having been at White Lodge from Year 7, and two girls. The assessments held at the end of each year were a horrible process, which Matthew recognised even more as his mother had been through it. He has seen people leaving dance for various reasons but recognises the intense learning curve that is experienced at the school can be useful in any environment. Some are not enthusiastic from the start and regard it as a chore and just a job from school age but if you can commit to dance, even if it is not what you end up doing, it can give a set of life-skills and motivation and this can develop a determined and hardened character.

The contrast was a shock and Matthew realised that he had to step up or fall off and this was an impetus for him to bridge the gap and reach their standard.

Joining the Upper School felt like the biggest juncture that Matthew has experienced – moving from the insular environment of White Lodge surrounded by a small group, to the worldly, international quality of the Upper School and looking after oneself in Baron’s Court. Matthew’s year group was very talented with dancers from Mexico, Colombia, Japan, Portugal, many of whom had been competition winners whose goal thus far had been perfecting solos for years whereas at White Lodge only a few, simplistic solos, such as Napoli and Black Swan, had been danced. The contrast was a shock and Matthew realised that he had to step up or fall off and this was an impetus for him to bridge the gap and reach their standard. Matthew also slowly realised that some of the competition winners had to learn to address the basics of style and quality and not just focus on perfection of athleticism. There were egos in play before everyone slotted into their niche and realised that they were all different kinds of dancers. Matthew, as everyone else, wanted to be versatile but came to believe that the important thing is to realise what market you fit into and to improve further on your natural strengths to stand out.

The first year teacher was Meelis Pakri, who had a very fierce style of teaching, perhaps reflecting his Soviet Russia Kirov influences. Some people found this difficult to deal with but Matthew believes that he would not have improved in Upper School without Mr Pakri’s training. He commented the Upper School was the start of a new thing, and there was a need to reassess where you are heading and Mr Pakri was able to help with this and make a lot of students improve.

Second Year was taught by Mr Peden which was a strange transition as Mr Peden gave students more freedom and more room to develop which Matthew found very important. The focus was on British style, reflecting his training and career, and this gave Matthew more room to manoeuvre which helped his confidence. Third Year was taught by Gary Norman but, as this was the year that his wife, Gailene Stock, became ill, it was an odd year as Mr Norman was obviously under strain. Mr Norman treated the students like adults, in itself another lesson, and with humour and enthusiasm gave challenging classes keeping the students on their toes, always trying new things.

Matthew entered Young British Dancer of the Year (YBDY) twice, in 2010 and 2011, but he found the experience stressful, commenting that a competition environment can be difficult at a young age. In 2011, his first year at Upper School, Matthew again got to the final and had an itch to prove something to all the new international students, who were not competing but were watching – he came third that year which he was very happy with. It is hard to realise at such a young age about the subjectivity of it all and that the judging is about much more than the perfect pirouette.

The Genée competition in 2010 did not go very well for Matthew as he found dancing in a different environment very difficult. Although he enjoyed the initial time in Battersea with rehearsals and a workshop for which Liam Scarlett created a solo, he did not pass the semi-final round held at Trinity Laban. Matthew commented that it was important to learn to have confidence to be a dancer anywhere, no matter that it be in a new theatre with a different floor and lighting. This can be difficult after spending so much time at the Opera House but is an important skill.

Matthew is to compete in the Beijing International Ballet Competition in July with his girlfriend, Yaoqian Shang, who dances with Birmingham Royal Ballet and members will remember being a Ballet Association Award winner. He commented that the competition is an opportunity for Yaoqian to perform in front of her old teachers after being away for four years and, indeed, she may have something to prove.

The end of year performance for Matthew’s second year saw him perform Yondering by John Neumeier and Simple Symphony by Alastair Marriot. For Matthew it felt a really special performance. The Neumeier choreography was made for young dancers and it felt like it being meaningful, gestural and emotive throughout. He danced the Beautiful Dreamer section with Marcelino Sambé which was immense fun and finished in an embrace with Yaoqian Shang – which was the sign of things to come. The music has a folk element to it which Matthew found a treat to dance to as a contrast to the normal classical music used. Kevin Haigan, a ballet master for Hamburg Ballet and a teacher of the graduate year boys at their school, taught the ballet. Mr Haigen was an incredible coach who understood different dancers and recognised their strengths. Matthew feels very lucky to have been cast. Simple Symphony was made by working every Saturday for 3-4 hours for a couple of months with Alastair Marriot and Jonathan Howells. As it was made under the auspices of the school, it was a slow process as all the students involved had to sit in the studio throughout the making, even when not involved in the movement in hand. It was a good contrast to Yondering, bright, cheery and a fun piece to dance, particularly once on stage where the piece really felt it opened up. Working with Alastair Marriot on that piece was the reason that Matthew was cast in Marriot’s Connectome, as Matthew feels that sometimes, if a choreographer has worked with you, they like the comfort of knowing what they can draw on from you.

 …having been experiencing pain for over four years, he had an MRI scan on his knee and was told that he needed to have surgery to screw some cartilage back in place.…

Matthew was due to dance a new ballet in the graduation performance, and created it all but did not get to dance it. Having just got back from a tour to New York, and after having been experiencing pain for over four years, he had an MRI scan on his knee and was told that he needed to have surgery to screw some cartilage back in place or possibly suffer a knee breakdown and ensuing complications. Having been dancing through his knee problem, hearing this was a shock and it rather stopped Matthew in his tracks. The second opinion he sought was the same as the first and so Matthew had surgery and had to miss the end of year show (except for the Defilé), his end of year exams (meaning he never officially graduated) and a tour to Toronto and the Paris Opera. Missing all of this felt terrible but Matthew needed to be ready to start his new job.

The first audition that Matthew had done was in Hamburg where he was offered an apprenticeship which he was going to take. The Royal Ballet likes to see all their options and sometimes leaves it very late in making their decisions but in fact offered him a contract in January 2013 before he had to commit to Hamburg. His focus was then on getting back to dancing in time as the contract was on hold until he was better. In November he officially started his probation period and from December was doing full class. It was a scary time as Matthew was not sure what was going to happen. Surgery is a scary word for dancers who try to avoid it at all costs and manage with pain killers etc. Matthew’s bad knee is not the same as the other one but he can manage with it.

In the Company his first memories are of coaching, rehab and getting fully fit. The environment is very different to school and everything is treated differently. One is aware of the differing ages and the younger Company members are keen to be respectful, courteous and are aware of the need to be very attentive in rehearsals, to be in and finish class every day. In contrast, more experienced dancers need to concentrate less in rehearsal as they already know the choreography, do not always finish class depending on what they need from it for the day. Matthew was aware of the need to impress everyone and had a desire to show what he can do without being pushy. One is always on alert, something learnt from school where there are visitors and one never knows who or how important they are. In the Company Matthew is aware of the need to set a course and direction for his career and wants to learn how to influence decisions that are made for him.

There are men’s and women’s classes and sometimes an earlier class if it is needed before a stage call. Principals switch classes and people do have preferences. There are in-house and guest teachers and this variety is different to school where one has a single teacher for a whole year. It is important to learn how to use a teacher and one is always learning but now class is a preparation for what comes later in the day and for performance. This is a difference that struck Matthew, particularly as the younger dancers are on almost every performance in comparison to being at school with only a few performances a year. It is good to feel familiar with being on stage in comparison with the anxiety that can be felt about performing while at school. For example, now when Matthew is a servant in Manon, he feels he has a moment to look out and see the heads of the audience for a moment and feel comfortable with it.

Matthew’s first performance was as a Cavalier in The Sleeping Beauty. His first dancing role was The Winter’s Tale as a shepherd which was a very carefree role. As he was in the first cast, he was involved in the creation for the whole process which, as a new three act ballet by Christopher Wheeldon, was an exciting and enjoyable thing to be involved with. In addition to being in the new works of The Winter’s Tale and Connectome in his first year, in his second year with the Company Matthew has been in Untouchable by Hofesh Shechter and Woolf Works by Wayne McGregor. Thus he has worked with four very different choreographers. In The Winter’s Tale he was involved in the creation as first cast but with little input as Christopher Wheeldon gave the movements and Matthew just got on with dancing it rather than being the one to step forward to answer which movement felt better. The movement was very natural with flow and even the awkward moments had a neo-classical feel to them which was easy to adapt to. Connectome by Alastair Marriot was very different to his Simple Symphony which had had an academic quality to it. Connectome was more spirited with a deep back story of the human brain creating emotion as well as everything that we experience and contained something of the spiritual experience of life. Matthew found it very exciting dancing with the principals of such talent and experience (Natalia Osipova, Edward Watson and Steven McRae) in close proximity and partnering Natalia, even if it was only for eight counts. He commented that dancing with Natalia Osipova kept one on one’s toes and noted her commitment to the ideology of absolutely living what is being danced on stage. Dancing with Steven McRae to the boy’s falsetto voice in the music Matthew felt had a sense of occasion, quiet and spiritual, and he found the movement had a very fluid quality. The third and fourth movements were non-stop and some stamina was needed. Matthew commented on how dancing something is such an enveloping experience and there is such a difference between the visceral experience of dancing a piece and that of just watching. Matthew likes working with Alastair Marriot as he gives a sense of shape and movement, which a dancer does in their own way, and then Alastair pushes it to a new place. Alastair explained the science behind the piece at the beginning and people came in later to add more detail to this.

Hofesh Shechter gave the dancers lots of explanation and talked in depth about the quality and intensity of the movement, although not much about the meaning of the piece.

Matthew finds is surprising that some choreographers explain little to dancers; they give a little information and the steps and professional dancers just have to take that and run. If he, Matthew, were to choreograph, he would do it differently. Hofesh Shechter gave the dancers lots of explanation and talked in depth about the quality and intensity of the movement, although not much about the meaning of the piece. Matthew is not sure that it was about much but was more of a theme and a feeling. It was such a contrast dancing Lensky in the evenings at the same time as rehearsing with Shechter in his style which felt very foreign. Shechter started with all the corps and soloists, about 50 in all, in December and then in January the numbers started being whittled down with, in addition, some people leaving voluntarily. The cast ended up being younger with mostly newer Company members, which was good as everyone was very enthusiastic. The first rehearsal was interesting as everyone struggled with the movements and it took weeks to understand the style. It was amazing as in the end one just had to submit to such a different way of moving. Shechter described his style as being in a bubble and asked the dancers to introvert themselves and to give more of a rounded viewpoint in contrast with a normal classical movement which is more extroverted and with a single intention. There was an energy shared within the group which Matthew described as moving like a shoal of fish or a flock of starlings. Shechter did not explain the Nigel Farage moment in the music. Matthew felt that it implied things but that not understanding it did not take away from the enjoyment of it as the piece had an undeniable atmosphere to it. At moments it felt like being a Zen master, then being part of the terracotta army, then a moment of Tai Chi – a lot of imagery that is not normally seen in ballet. Matthew has seen a few other pieces by Shechter on YouTube but nothing live.

Matthew has seen Akram Khan’s piece, Dust, for ENB, which he thought beautiful but commented that Khan seemed to just put his style of movement onto classical dancers. In a way Hofesh Shechter did the same thing but Matthew felt that the experience of being part of it was very powerful. Matthew’s hope is for some contemporary choreographer to be brave enough to do more in adapting their movement to the abilities and language of classically trained dancers.

Matthew was in the second cast of Wayne McGregor’s Tetractys but this cast did not, in the end, perform. He had more substantial role in Woolf Works. Working with McGregor is a very different experience to working with any other choreographer. McGregor is very intellectual, and working with him is mind-bending and body-bending as he wants extremes. He makes a step and then the next step is the thing that you expect least which can be very exciting. Matthew worked with McGregor doing a solo, and found that McGregor has amazing energy which he tried to reciprocate. He thinks that McGregor’s pieces are almost too hard for anyone and so everyone has to adapt their movement to get through. Matthew really appreciated being able to partner Sarah Lamb in Orlando. Dancing with Alexandra Ferri in Tuesday was with a larger cast and was a compositional challenge. That piece had 18 dancers surging and running around which was hard to do without bumping into one another and while appearing smooth, calm and yet with power and giving the feeling of water. It was exhausting on the evenings where Matthew was dancing both Acts 2 and 3 but it was a very exciting project – so different to The Winter’s Tale, the other new three act ballet that he has been involved with.

McGregor explained little about the background to the project. It was more just about the movement until the last moment when the dramaturg who worked on the piece spoke to the cast for about an hour about Virginia Woolf and her works though there was nothing specific to the piece. Matthew had read the books, though not many others did, and believed that he got more out of the piece because of this. He believes that with dance it should not be necessary for the audience to do preparation but that the body language of the dancers should be enough. Dance is a larger arc than just body movement but there should be some things that all can recognise. Although, when being asked to create movement, it is hard without knowing the theme even if knowing the sense but without specific information.

 It was at the end of the China tour last summer that Matthew learned that he was cast as Lensky.

It was at the end of the China tour last summer that Matthew learned that he was cast as Lensky. Matthew had stayed on in Shanghai with Yaoqian Zhang for a two week holiday and he received a text from his mother as the casting had been posted on the ROH website. It was a shock but Matthew had been aware of Jane Bourne, who stages Onegin, watching class and knew that she had looked at him and asked his name. Dancing the role went smoothly and Yasmine Naghdi, who danced Olga, was very easy to partner. They had a good rapport and Yasmine was very kind and had done the role before which helped. Matthew had heard that Jane Bourne could be difficult with certain people but he did not find that at all. He got the feeling of the role from the first rehearsal and he felt that it was very obvious what to feel and what to do. Lensky is not an easy part. The partnering in Act 1 is not difficult but it comes at the end of a solo, while the Act 2 solo is very exposed with acting that needs to be done carefully with a transition to the duel. It was Matthew’s first big acting role although it is encouraged that the dancers create little characters even if it is minimal at the back of the stage, being a beggar in Manon, carrying a coat on and off, being pushed around and so on. Dancing Lensky was a pleasure to do as the progression as a dancer goes with the development of the character.

Matthew has been cast as Romeo in the autumn. It was a great surprise as he did not expect it, having only hoped for Benvolio, which is a dancing role, and dreaded getting Paris, as it is more about partnering and difficult to relate to. Matthew feels more confident about the role as he is dancing with Yasmine again, Kevin O’Hare having obviously seen something in their Onegin partnership. Matthew is very excited about the role as there is so much to do but he feels that the music and the choreography will carry him through. He cannot think of a part that he would prefer to do.

Matthew has also been cast as Escamillo in the forthcoming Carmen by Carlos Acosta. He is in good company as the other two casts are Carlos Acosta and Federico Bonelli. Matthew had been hoping to do a Toreador in Don Quixote to get some Spanish flavour but is still looking forward to his Carmen experience even without that. It will be a lot of fun, heated with a Spanish dimension and a sub-text to the story.

Yaoqian Shang is doing very well with BRB but she has recently had a rocky patch with injury. Matthew knows that injury affects confidence and it is hard to get momentum again. They are a little competitive with each other but very happy for each other’s success. Matthew wishes for more for her as he sees her talent. He thinks that there is some distance between the two companies, even though they share the same name. When Matthew was cast as Lensky he felt that people looked at him in a different way and that he needed to live up to that. Matthew said that he could not have hoped for more at this point in his career.

David Bain thanked Matthew very much for coming to talk to the Association and wished him well with his forthcoming roles. Members will follow his career with interest.

Report written by Annette Fraser, corrected by Matthew Ball and David Bain ©The Ballet Association 2015

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