Principal Dancer, The Royal Ballet
interviewed by David Bain
Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, London, 6 February 2015.
DAVID REMINDED STEVEN that 12 years ago last weekend, he had been in Lausanne. Steven said that Prix de Lausanne was terrifying, he’d never been exposed to the international ballet world at such a level. Ballet had just been something he did, he loved jumping around and spinning as fast as he could. Even just a few months before the competition he hadn’t realised that ballet was something you could do as a profession, or that ballet companies existed. It wasn’t his world. Suddenly he was in Switzerland, he hadn’t seen snow before; it was snowing outside while he was doing class; it was very distracting. People were talking about the prizes, what schools were on offer; if you went to that school you might get into that company. You are faced with the question, if you get an offer would you go to Germany, to Russia, to New York. There was a chance to live anywhere. He felt so out of his comfort zone, but he thought, well I love to dance, let’s get on with it. Luckily Gailene Stock, Director of the Royal Ballet School, was there as the head of the panel. At the end of the semi-final she made it clear that no matter what happened in the final she would make sure he could go to the school. Luckily when the results were announced he won and got to choose to go to London. She was incredible, after the final he asked when he should come to London thinking of August the next year and she said fly tomorrow straight to London. He had a Corsaire costume, his tap shoes and a tie, a coat which he thought was a winter coat (having just come from an Australian summer) and a little suitcase. He arrived the next day. His parents could not afford to cover the tuition fees and living expenses through to August. His parents were thinking they’d saved $1,000 but that was only £300 to Steven.
It was a bizarre time but Gailene was incredible, she basically said come to the school, but his name was not on any of the records, he was basically on scholarship or not really at the school at all. Up until the day she died she was finding a way for a student she believed in to be at the school whether they had a million pounds or nothing. It’s so obvious now looking at the talent coming out of the school that she had gone out and found it, she hadn’t just gone for the money.
That was twelve years ago, when he looks over at the corner [his new born daughter, Audrey, and wife Elizabeth Harrod were there] he couldn’t believe what had happened since then.
In his first year the Company were doing Symphonic Variations, now he feels awful saying it, but he had no idea what that was! He was so naive. The season started in September, around May they put the casting up for Symphonic Variations. He’d done what everyone does on joining the Company, he’d led the pony in La Fille mal gardée, and is still on the DVD doing that, he was excited if he got to do a second cast corps de ballet role. The casting went up with Bonelli, Kobborg, Sasaki and Alina in the middle with Hatley and Morera. The second cast was incredible too, all Principal level parts. And he was the understudy, the cover; everyone made such a big deal of it and he was “wow, what is it?” So he went to watch the video, he was eighteen and just wanted to do trick after trick after trick, he watched the video and thought “that’s it, where’s the rest of it”; now he says that was so stupid, he was so uneducated. Then he went to his first rehearsal, most had already done it and they ran through very quickly. When the music started, the hairs on his arms stood up and he got “this is a special moment” feeling and that he was honoured to be there in the Ashton studio. He did everything he could as an understudy, not just to know the part he was understudying, he made sure he knew everyone’s role. Unfortunately a few days before the opening Yohei Sasaki sprained his ankle, but Steven was Johan Kobborg’s cover. Wendy Ellis Somes was staging it and looked over to Steven and said “Do you know his part”. “Yes.” He didn’t know the detail of his part but he knew he could fake his way through it and jumped in and finished the rehearsal. The next day was the stage rehearsal, full make up, costume, photographers. Monica Mason, the Director, came up to him and said “Right you’ll do the stage call and we’ll see”. And so he did the stage call and then there he was on the opening night next to all these incredible dancers. “That will live with me for ever.” He couldn’t just go on stage and dance, he had to stand still for seven minutes thinking “Oh my God this could all go wrong”. That was his big moment.
His first full length was Romeo with Alina Cojocaru. Again this was due to injury: Kobborg had sprained his ankle. It all goes full circle, later Steven tore his achilles tendon; it happens to everyone! “Alina is one of the best Juliets.” He had only five days to learn the whole production; pas de deux, sword fighting, action scenes with the whole company, but you do it. He was in the bath every night with the DVD, he just lived Romeo for five days. Then after the curtain came down on Romeo and Juliet, Monica came to him with a DVD of The Dream and said you’re flying to Tokyo tomorrow morning with Alina to do this in four days time. And Anthony Dowell will teach you. But his poor parents had planned to surprise him and had flown over to watch the show and spend a few days with him and now he was leaving the country. He learnt so much from Alina and still is learning, for example last summer in Japan.
He’s worked so much with Roberta Marquez and probably learnt the most from her. She was older but trusted him so much. She was probably thinking what is this young kid doing, but she went along with it, she is one of the great dramatic ballerinas at this time and it’s a shame that she isn’t used more.
He did Miyako Yoshida’s final Royal Ballet show in Japan which was televised throughout the country where she is the Queen of ballet. She taught him things that teachers and coaches can’t necessarily teach you. Working with Miyako is what he pictures it is like to step out in public with real royalty. He felt so expensive everytime he put his hands on her. He’s not just this young guy from the suburbs of Sydney, he’s this über upper class guy with this precious jewel in front of him.
He did a last minute show last summer. He was with Queensland Ballet preparing Romeo and Juliet with Carlos Acosta and Tamara Rojo each thinking they were to be dancing together when in fact they were each dancing with members of the company. But that was the best way to share insights with members of the company. This was just after doing Rhapsody at the Bolshoi on the Royal Ballet tour and saying goodbye to the company who went on to Taipei while he travelled to Brisbane. Then Kevin O’Hare rang, people are injured, people are sick, I need you to come to Taipei. He did a stage call in the afternoon with a ballerina he had never met until two days before, got changed, got on a plane to Taipei, got off the plane and went straight to the theatre to meet Sarah Lamb. They had just done Manon together but never Romeo and Juliet. They talked through things and he went to the hotel to sleep, then went to the theatre and did the show. It was probably one of the most enjoyable Romeo’s he’s ever done. It felt like a glove. He’s managed to do more or less every classic with Sarah even though they’ve never really been cast together in the classics.
Then back in Australia he did Romeo with Natalie Kusch, who is a Ukranian trained dancer. She was beautiful and Julie Lincoln who was staging it said that MacMillan would have loved her because her body moulded to the choreography. The last Romeo and Juliet he had at Covent Garden was with Evgenia Obraztsova. This felt the most real of any shows. She had always wanted to do MacMillan’s production, the whole world wants to do his production, he’s biased but thinks it’s the best. She lived every single second of it and was such a pleasure to work with, so professional, so beautiful, and such a beautiful human being. This made it so easy to do Romeo; it wasn’t like “Mother Russia flying in”. He’s so excited that she’s coming back to do Swan Lake.
He has danced a lot with Sarah Lamb, this started when Patricia Neary was setting Symphony in C, the casting was already done and he was scheduled to do the third movement – jump, jump, jump! He was having some treatment and someone came down and said “Pat wants you in the Ashton studio NOW”. “But it’s not my rehearsal.” She said “learn this”. So he learnt a combination, Sarah was there and Pat said “do it together”. “There ok, you’re together.” He didn’t know what had happened, someone was injured or sick. Technically they shouldn’t be together because she is medium height and Steven is short. Pat said “That’s ridiculous. Balanchine didn’t care about any of that. It was all about the dynamic. If it works as a partnership...” He thinks the management saw this and liked it; another ballet would come up and a modern choreographer would see their shows... And before you knew it, it was Lamb-McRae, Lamb-McRae. She is one of the most intelligent dancers you will find in the studio. With modern choreographers you have to be so quick and keep moving; you can do this with Sarah, there’s no messing around and she’s fearless; she will sit on your shoulder and throw herself down. You want a partner who trusts you.
He has started dancing with a lot of guests, particularly Russian. This started after he’d been scheduled to dance with Alina Cojocaru, who left the company, and Kevin felt a responsibility to replace her with someone special. He’d seen Iana Salenko and Evgenia Obraztsova; Monica too had seen both and wanted to try them. Both of them were a success with the Company, which is why Kevin wanted to bring them back straight away. He wants London to see more of Iana because technically she can do more than anyone in the world right now. She looks so small but she has the strength of a grown man. They met when Steven was 19 at a gala at which he was dancing with Alina, Iana was dancing with her husband. They’ve met at galas throughout the years without ever dancing together so it was great to finally dance together because they have such a fun relationship. Her director Vladimir Malakhov would always laugh and say they looked like brother and sister because of the hair colour. Carlos Acosta has known her for many years and had a big part in choosing her for his Don Quixote; it was Carlos and Kevin, Steven had no say in it.
He is going to the Bolshoi at the end of the month to dance Giselle with Natalia Osipova; he had just come from a little session with her that afternoon. She is incredible, he has not felt that kind of energy for an awful long time. When they danced Rubies together she surprised him, but then he surprised her. They both went like that [banged his hand] with the energy, when you have someone like that you have to rebound off them. Working with her on Wayne McGregor’s choreography is something else, because those limbs go places you can’t imagine and again she is fearless. She will just go for it; there are no inhibitions with her. Next week they are starting Wayne’s new piece [Woolf Works] and he has got a rehearsal with her; there are a lot of Principals involved. He danced with Natalia in McGregor’s Tetractys. When you know how the mathematics is involved it is really clever, but that’s hard to translate when you’re actually watching it. It was so intelligent the way he choreographed it, but almost too intelligent. The real mathematical parts were the bits he did with Paul Kay, that’s where they did something then reversed it totally and mathematically it all worked out to match the music. Those rehearsals were so exhausting mentally because McGregor works like that [clicking fingers]. Then he had a separate section with Natalia Osipova, they were free, there was no mathematical equation in that pas de deux, it was just two people.
Chroma was the first McGregor piece he danced, it was iconic, it was a landmark piece for both the Royal Ballet and Wayne. Ten or eleven companies around the world have it in their repertoire now, which is incredible in today’s world when you see a modern piece maybe once or twice and never again. So it’s pretty cool that the whole world wants that piece and they had been involved in its creation. That was the first time he got to work with Tamara Rojo from whom he learnt a hell of a lot. Still today he is learning from her as they are still in contact. It’s a shame that though they were trying to work together at the beginning of the season but the dates didn’t work out. Chroma was one of those moments when they hadn’t seen each other’s section and when they put it together and finished, everyone looked around and you tell something had happened, McGregor had got it right. Whether you like his style or not, that particular ballet as a concept works. So that is something all those involved in the original rehearsal are proud of and will always be proud of. Alina Cojocaru in the original cast was the ultimate alien in that role.
Wayne McGregor is incredibly generous with his choreography and has reworked pieces for Steven for galas. He lets you go and do it at performances and whereas many people expect rights and credits, Wayne is not interested in any of that “go and do it, but I want to see it beforehand”. He’ll take you into the studio and make sure it’s right.
When he was really young he worked a lot with Kim Brandstrup. In his second year, one piece was in Bregenz, Austria with Leanne Benjaman for an opera on a revolving set with a massive glass wall and with a waterfall trickling down, no expense was spared. The story was told by opera in one part of the set and then by ballet in another part as the set revolved. Because the director liked Steven’s hair colour, the director made the opera singer portraying the same role die his hair to match! Kim Brandstrup choreographed many little solos for him at random events.
He also did a few things with Will Tuckett when young. His first exposure to new choreography was with Alastair Marriott when he was in the school. The students used to understudy pieces for the new choreography programme at the Royal Ballet and Steven went on when Paul Kay was injured. Alastair was very generous. He has also choreographed a number of pas de deux for him and Sarah.
He wasn’t originally going to work with Alexei Ratmansky because when asked the management said he had too much on. But Johan Kobborg was injured, so he had to do it anyway although he didn’t have his own part choreographed for him. Steven would like to work with Ratmansky from scratch.
Johan Kobborg choreographed Les Lutins for them with Alina but he has also done it at the Bolshoi with Svetlana Zakharova another tall ballerina. Luckily the stage was raked! She fell in love with the piece and wanted to do it. It was his first time at the Bolshoi.
He created Homage to the Queen with Christopher Wheeldon, which is probably the hardest thing he has ever done, he was in pain doing the solo. His sister was due to get married in Australia, and however ambitious you are, life comes first. You can’t let the balletic side of life take over everything. He had asked six months earlier to go to the wedding but they said no because he had too much to do. Then a week before the wedding he just thought he had to go. He walked into Monica’s office and said sorry but he was going, his sister was more important. So he flew off not knowing if he had a job to come back to. He went on the Thursday night flight, arrived Saturday morning, then had a two and half hour drive and surprised his sister who had just had her make up done. It was amazing. He got the first flight Sunday morning which landed in London Monday morning and went straight to the Opera House to the very first rehearsals for Homage to the Queen. Christopher straight away gave him a test of a difficult entry to try out, and Steven was so jet lagged that he just did it without knowing how. Christopher said “I don’t like that.” It took him a month to recover but he knows how much it meant to his sister so wouldn’t ever change it. There was no second cast for his part so he had to do all the shows, but remember that everyone is replaceable. It was five shows in five days, and he remembers that he had to jump onto his knee and this removed the skin, so he had a gauze to fit on his knee every show. Then it was stuck on after every show and painful to remove.
Christopher Wheeldon is willing to let you have a say and responds to people who are willing to have a go. Even if Steven thinks the choreographer is talking nonsense he will have a go, they may have seen something which he hasn’t. The next new choreography with Christopher was Alice in Wonderland, although he had been in the second cast of other new shows like DGV but that is not the same. The Mad Hatter was a whole new world. When Christopher arrived Steven was on the fifth floor and although there was no casting up he was toying with roles between him and Ed. Christopher knew Steven tapped and said can you bring your tap shoes. Christopher sang out a rhythm and Steven tapped it out. After an hour he said bring the tap shoes tomorrow. From that point on it was the Mad Tapper. Christopher is probably one person that has choreographed things specifically for Steven. The Homage part shows a little of what he is capable of and the tapping was another element that Christopher enabled him to bring out. There is a total professional understanding between them, they don’t socialise but in the studio they are there to create something.
For The Winter’s Tale, Steven felt Christopher was in one of those “What can you do” moods. He said “What’s your favourite step right now.” “Hmm, we’ll try.” He put it in but did it Christopher’s way. He created a new scene for Alice with Sarah and Steven for the second run; they had just finished Manon and Steven’s obsession with the girl over his shoulder found its way into the new scene. Christopher liked Steven and Sarah dancing together in Alice, so he continued with it in Winter’s Tale. There is a beautiful calm pas de deux for them in the production which is Christopher in his element.
When Liam Scarlett is choreographing he has Steven killing everyone, he has an obsession with casting Steven as a murderer or evil spirit or twisted drunk Steven loves it! Liam is trying to challenge him too. Liam is not afraid of thinking out of the box, he will cast two dancers for the same role when one is six foot and the other five foot. One is a man, one is a woman. That is inspirational, we need choreographers that are willing to try and risk it. He isn’t just trying to get a good review, he is choreographing for the long term and is putting down foundations and building blocks. Not every single ballet that MacMillan and Ashton did was a hit, look at the risks they took.
In Sweet Violets Steven’s character was a morphed creation. In the beginning Liam was honest and said he didn’t know exactly what the character was. He knew that it was some sort of creature but didn’t know then that it was a spirit of Jack the Ripper. It gradually became so but Liam didn’t want him to think he was Jack going around killing people. He was the bad voice. When they revisited it, the character became more sinister. Johan Kobborg portrayed his role as the great actor would, but when they revisited the production, Steven’s character became the puppeteer to everyone. Liam throws things at you but will pull you back if he thinks it’s going the wrong way. He still has ownership and a very clear image but allows you to morph into the choreography. Liam comes to the studio prepared, though he might not know every single grip in a pas de deux. In the last ballet, Liam created a little solo for him and it was done just like that in fifteen minutes. It just happened. He had obviously come prepared. It’s not the same with all choreographers, some days you can see them struggling and it’s not happening. When they make you repeat it ten times you think, can’t you think of the next step!
In Hansel and Gretel, Steven feels really weird now that he has a child. Liam was very clear “you are disgusting” but again he was that spirit creature that is not really there. It is strange that he wants Steven on there but not really there. Steven had to explore new ways of moving, for example how to get out of a fridge. Liam would throw the miniature doll version of his character on the floor and look at the arc it made and say can you do that. So Steven would have to throw himself to the floor. But there is still a balletic element, Liam is trying to use a broad range of dance. He hopes Liam continues to explore although Steven doesn’t want to always be the serial killer. And it has shown Steven in a different light to other choreographers.
Alexei Ratmansky uses the biggest vocabulary, he put steps in that Steven hasn’t done since he was twelve years old doing RAD exam work. It was fascinating to see him do that. Christopher Wheeldon is very pedantic about classical ballet, he will choreograph something very modern but then want you to hit the most classical line; it’s the Royal Ballet school training. That is nice, still the roots are there and the foundations of the company. “Footwork, footwork.”
Steven would love to have a dramatic role in a new full length creation. He would love to have his own Romeo or Rudolf. He can’t hint to Liam anymore if he tried.
Kevin O’Hare has made bigger changes than many people thought he would, and it has become apparent that he has a clear artistic vision of his own. He isn’t just there to keep the money coming in. He has grabbed the next generation of dancers and thrown them out there. You can’t wish for anything more as a dancer. They have a good mutual respect and Steven feels he can develop as an artist under Kevin. Monica was perfect when he as a young dancer and Kevin has given him a freedom and is challenging; he will give things to Steven even if Steven doesn’t like it; he is putting him with ballerinas that inspire him, to go on stage next to someone like Iana Salenko forces you to dance better. She comes on with such finesse, that it makes use raise your game. Steven couldn’t ask for much more. Many dancers feel this way, moral is good in the company.
Steven has done Alice in Wonderland and Nutcracker with the Royal Ballet of Canada. Nutcracker was surprising as he expected to only have to learn a grand pas de deux but actually the role did everything from when the curtain first went up to the end of Act 2. He was in full costume for the whole of Act 1. Karen Kain is doing fantastic work with the company which she knows throughout. She is shaking it up, with an extreme and diverse repertoire. Though the Royal Ballet has the widest rep in the world.
Steven’s home is the Royal Ballet but if there is an opportunity elsewhere and time available, Kevin will tell him to go. It helps to develop you artistically and you see how another company works which is good for later in his career, and he gains the experience of working with other dancers.
It’s all about detail, the Royal has the best character dancers in the world which makes such a difference, telling the young dancers what effect having them being “on stage” makes. As the lead in the middle of a show you can catch the eye of a Corp member and it makes such a difference depending on whether they are bored, or if they are actively involved and encouraging. And remember some of the Corp dancers may be able to do it better! This all encourages you.
He adores Rhapsody by Ashton, and he looks forward to retiring and watching the video of Baryshnikov. He doesn’t want to watch it and end up trying to mimic what he sees. He hasn’t watched any videos of it, although he saw Carlos Acosta do it when he [Steven] had just joined the company. He doesn’t want the image of someone else, because you end up trying to replicate it, not that you can replicate Baryshnikov. He has Lesley Collier as a coach for all the classics. Lesley was the original ballerina in Rhapsody, she was there from the day Baryshnikov arrived and Ashton said “show me what you’ve got”. You can’t beat this. She said that Anthony came into the role and did this. Because we have these people that are still passing it on from first hand. To have Anthony Dowell teach you from the first step of The Dream, you can’t get better than that. Anthony is working here now on Swan Lake, his production. Contact with people like that is invaluable. Anthony and Lesley are both such good coaches.
Lesley is like his ballet mum. She has got him on stage when he didn’t think it was possible. She was his rehab coach after he tore his achilles and he has stayed with her ever since. This is a mutual agreement between him, Lesley and Kevin. You get to know who you work best with, but it is not like saying I won’t work with anyone. You can learn something from everyone, anyone can give you something to listen to, you don’t have to take it on. With Lesley at this stage in his career she is the best for him. She pushes him, and he never goes on stage worrying about pleasing her. She will say now just go on stage and do it. Sometimes she comes to the dressing room at intervals. She also coaches Steven for MacMillan and all the big ballets.
This week he has been working with Akane Takeda on Swan Lake because Federico Bonelli’s wife gave birth two weeks ago and Steven’s partner is coming from Russia. Akane needs at least one stage rehearsal but that would be too much for her Federico. Lesley also helped Akane back from injury and he sees that they have a similar coach dancer relationship. He feels lucky because you don’t always have that with a coach. Lesley is honest with him, but she will let him have his moment when he thinks he’s done well and she will come back the next day and say “no…”. This relationship takes years to build up. Some people can take criticism straight after a show but others have such an adrenaline rush that this would cut it and bring the person down with a crash, almost like a depression. Lesley has learned how to handle Steven.
Steven is really a big kid and has always liked animations and cartoons, he liked to draw a lot when he was a kid. “Ballet Hero Fantasy” is a cartoon in Japan based on his character, it enables him to go to Japan once a year, sometimes two or three times. Steven loves Japan and he has talked about living out there at one point in his life. He had mentioned in an interview how he loved animation and how he would love to do something with it one day and then after a gala in Japan an animator met him at the stage door. Steven wanted to do something that would inspire the next generation and was particularly targeted at boys. So the idea came about that he would be a fantasy character that would go into fantasy land and inspire these young kids. We take them through this world of Swan Lake, Nutcracker and Corsaire. It is at the back of a dance magazine in Japan and every three months there is a new episode. It is so much fun, they did an event in Tokyo last summer for the first book in which all the episodes were brought together and in which they animated his childhood from birth to Prix de Lausanne. It was so cool to meet all these kids who were genuinely inspired and were showing him all the tricks they’d learned from the strips. It was a touching moment to see that it was having such a positive impact.
Steven had always dreamt of being a father, it was something he’s always wanted. Everyone says it’s going to be the best day of your life. You can’t describe it, you get bombarded with all these emotions. It is the most incredible thing. He actually went on stage to do Alice when his daughter was just 10 days old. He doesn’t know how; he did it on a lot of coffee. Lizzie has bought him an espresso machine for his dressing room which he shares with Federico Bonelli, so the machine is on all the time. During the show he felt like a different person. You have to be selfish to achieve a certain level. In the studio you look at yourself in a mirror and criticise yourself, you are trying to be perfect, trying to get better and better. In the studio “I want to get better”, “I want to get stronger”, “I want to build a relationship with that ballerina”. Now it’s no longer about him, in the studio he wants to be able to perform and let Audrey [his daughter] see his dream, so that she can realise her own dreams. During the show he did feel a bit distracted, because he would be doing something and every so often he would get a flash of Audrey in front of him. Maybe it was a lack of sleep! He feels alive now on stage. Now he comes to class and watches those coming in feeling low, or after a show complaining about their performance and he thinks “you probably had ten hours sleep last night”! Then Zenaida Yanowsky who has two kids walks in and she is still there working hard. Probably he was that complaining person once.
It reminds Steven of when he first went to the Royal Ballet School, he felt like a Tasmanian Devil who had had to fight for everything. The boys he met seemed so lazy, but his year had turned out very successfully – Principals at Boston, Toulouse, and so on. Now he sees that everyone works in their own way and just because someone might appear diffident it doesn’t mean they don’t want success. Steven has had to learn this, it’s about his own maturity. We are all different and we approach life and our roles differently. Who can say who is better?
Report written by Chris Scott, corrected by Steven McRae and David Bain ©The Ballet Association 2015.