Melissa Hamilton 2020
- Denilson Almeida Afonso
- Sir David Bintley
- Annette Buvoli
- Harry Churches
- Jessica Clarke
- Jonathan Cope
- Helen Crawford
- Melissa Hamilton
- Dame Monica Mason
- Yasmine Naghdi
- Kevin O'Hare
- Hanna Park
First Soloist, The Royal Ballet
Interviewed by David Bain
Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, February 19 2020
After welcoming Melissa, who first spoke to us in a double act with Sergei Polunin contrasting the differences in their training, David asked what she had been doing most recently. Melissa said last weekend she spent Valentine’s Day, much to her fiancé’s disgust, in Bruges dancing in a gala and did a world premiere of a pas de deux she created three years ago which had been filmed but never before performed on stage. There was also a Derek Deane pas de deux, Chanson, made on Alessandra Ferri and David Wall which was new to her. The premier was to music by Alix Baranowski and was created by Craig Davidson, originally from Australia, a dancer in Semperoper when she was there but now a freelance choreographer. She danced with Gareth Haw, ex Royal Ballet School, now with Semperoper, and it was the first time they’d danced together, so lots of firsts.
How do you plan travelling and guesting? Luckily, they get their schedules at the Opera House a long time in advance. When offers come in Melissa checks the rep and her schedule, when her shows and rehearsals are likely to be, sees what fits in and what doesn’t and just crams in as much as possible into a short career. Then she goes to Kevin to say ‘please’! Melissa says he’s brilliant as he gives them freedom, and sees the benefit of allowing them to travel and dance in different places. If dancers aren’t on stage at the Opera House it’s a good thing for the Company if they are seen around the world. How much work in galas is new work and how much already familiar? Melissa said it depends who she’s dancing with and what she’s dancing. When she’s with Roberto Bolle, they have a list of choreography they have done quite a lot so can just show up, rehearse and perform. Sometimes they need more rehearsal time to put new pieces together. For a recent Italian gala they got together on two weekends (Melissa had been dancing in Tokyo in between) and then met in Italy to perform. Roberto was brilliant and had learned everything from the video. The more experienced you are the more you can learn from a DVD and gauge how to do it. You get to know things you want to do.
The trip to Tokyo was also a new programme. Melissa premiered in a Bejart solo, La Luna. She had a week’s stint in Lausanne where she rehearsed with Elisabet Ros, one of their prima ballerinas, spending three hours in the studio, one on one, every day for an eight-minute solo. It’s a stunning piece made famous by Sylvie Guillem. This was Hikaru Kobyashi’s project, and she said she would love Melissa to do it if they could get the rights. Bejart is quite a closed circle and she never envisaged having the opportunity to do it. She’d seen Elisabet performing it in Tokyo a couple of summers ago and it was so interesting to see the difference between Sylvie’s and Elisabet’s interpretations. Hikaru contacted Gil Roman at the Bejart Foundation to ask if it was OK and he agreed. Melissa was only the fifth person to have performed it so it was a real honour and incredible to perform. Bejart’s style is very different from what they are used to. There’s so much use of the upper body. You have to be meticulously aware of the use of the body without any randomness while using every muscle possible. It looks very feminine, elegant and is beautiful to dance but is completely exhausting and you’re dancing alone centre stage for eight minutes in a white leotard! She also danced Terpsichore, which she’d done before, to Federico Bonelli’s Apollo and Raymonda grand pas with Ryoicho Hirano all during the week’s mid-season break. Amidst all this, Melissa and her fiancé do make a lot of time together. He’s super busy too but has his own property development company in London, so it’s easy.
How did her partnership with Roberto start? When he was guesting with the Royal, he watched her dancing from the wings. The following day Eric Underwood, whom she danced a lot with at the time, said Roberto had asked about her and suggested to Eric they joined his summer tour around Italy. A few months later he asked if she would do the Balcony pas de deux and Apollo with him. It was a career highlight for Melissa performing that pas de deux with him in the Arena di Verona. A favourite is the stunning Caravaggio which they have done so many times. They do a lot of Wayne’s work which is nice as Roberto hadn’t done any of his before. Together they did Qualiaand premiered Borderlands pas de deux over the New Year. The work was made in San Francisco on Maria Kochetkova, a beautiful piece, with lovely music. Last week they were rehearsing for the upcoming shows in the summer tour which was why Roberto was in the Royal Opera House to save the day for Onegin. This slightly disrupted their rehearsals but he squeezed one in before he flew out on the Thursday, and Melissa left for Belgium that night. His tours are mostly in Italy but they went to Shanghai and Bejing last November and will go to Napa Valley, California, after Italy this summer. Melissa also took part in performances at the World Ballet Festival in Tokyo where Roberto and Alessandra Ferri were appearing together, and in another gala in Russia. Asked if she ever took holidays, Melissa said she had over a week off last summer and went to Las Vegas and Hawaii with her fiancé after she’d finished dancing with Roberto in Tokyo.
She’s off to Ireland this weekend with the Royal Ballet School who’ve started insight weekends which she’s very happy about. They give ballet classes and Melissa will teach a solo. People in Northern Ireland don’t have a ballet education, there’s no vocational school or company, and only limited performances although BRB and Northern Ballet visit and ENB have started to go as well. The Grand Opera House in Belfast is closed for refurbishment so no performances for a while. In November she was there with BRB doing Ashton’s Dream pas de deux with Brandon Lawrence in his debut. It’s a beautiful pas de deux which they rehearsed with Marion Tait. There’s been a lot of travel and last weekend was the first for months that she’d been at home and not been travelling or working.
Why did she decide to take a sabbatical? Melissa got an offer from Jiri Bubenicek, a long-standing principal at Semperoper Ballet, Dresden, who was dancing in an annual gala in St Petersburg. Melissa also performed there that year, he saw the show and told her he wanted to do Manon for his final show and he would love her to be his Manon. She didn’t think much of it but a month later he contacted her to say he’d spoken to his director who’d agreed to do Manon and he wanted her as his partner. She talked to Kevin who said yes, a great opportunity, and as the company had never done MacMillan and no-one in the company knew the ballet it was good to have someone there who had grown up with the MacMillan rep. She then went to talk to the director, Aaron Watkin, who spoke about other productions they’d be doing that season including Bayadereand Sleeping Beauty. She saw an opportunity to do a rep that she wasn’t guaranteed at home and jumped at the chance. During one and a half seasons with Semperoper she debuted as Aurora, Odette/Odile and Nikiya as well as doing Mats Ek’s She Was Black,an incredible piece, and her first Forsythe, Ratmansky, a Cinderella and Aaron’s own Nutcracker.Then Manon came back in the second year but there were lots of new things too. You always learn and develop as a dancer and see different aspects of yourself when you do new things and work with new partners. She loves being surrounded by so many different people when you are constantly feeding yourself with experiences. It was also a breather, which was most poignant for Melissa because in London it was all go, go go and there was no time to take stock of what was happening. Also, it was around this time that she and her fiancé got together properly.
On the whole Melissa hasn’t done the classics so in a career with no certainties it was good to have the chance to do Aurora, Odette/Odile and Nikiya with those shows written into her contract with Semperoper. Classics are what they are and it was uplifting and enlightening after so many years to see herself in a different light. Her first was Nikiya and, after doing Shades, it was an incredible experience. It’s a benchmark role that you aspire to when you are young, so it was an incredibly fulfilling period in her career, and she’s so glad she took the chance and gave herself the opportunity. She recalled, when she was very young in the Company, a conversation with Mara Galeazzi who said she’d always wished she’d had the opportunity to do Odette/Odile. That stuck with Melissa who didn’t want to end her career with not having done those roles she really wanted. Odette/Odile was very high on her list.
Some time ago she was cast as Juliet and Sugar Plum Fairy in the same season and David remembered her being excited about the Sugar Plum Fairy rather than Juliet. Melissa said she’d already experienced MacMillan and was constantly searching for new and different challenges and those roles she’s not so naturally gifted in. There’s satisfaction in achieving something that doesn’t come so naturally. But now it would be Juliet any day!
Why did she come back from Dresden? Melissa said it was always the plan that she’d take the leave of absence and then return. Had the Company changed? Yes - when she joined as a young member of the Company it had its stars. Coming back, the babies and the newies had taken it over. Everything moves so fast that even when people return after being off injured for six months it is a different company. The turnover of rep and dancers keeps it moving and alive and exciting for the audience. There are new faces, and a wealth of youth.
On her return her first role was Judas Tree. Melissa felt she needed counselling afterwards. She thinks MacMillan is a genius and was so blessed to work on it with Viviana Durante, who took it to a different level. She had never experienced a performance that affected her so much. It stuck with her almost too much, being a woman in that position. It’s very unsettling and it takes a lot to step out of it particularly when you’re doing Elite at the same time, so emotions were everywhere. It was the first thing her fiancé saw her dance on the ROH stage and could hardly believe it. When preparing it, Viviana gave her a video to watch and she felt to be trusted with something so heavy was a great privilege. To be able to get a sense of pride in doing something so hideous and dark was amazing and it showed MacMillan’s bravery as a creator. Viviana as a coach is very human which is vital in this career. There are no airs and graces. She’s very matter of fact and makes it very real and human. It is a loss that she doesn’t work for the Company now but good for ENB school.
Of the MacMillan full length ballets Melissa has done Manon, Mayerling and last season Romeo and Juliet with Timofej Andrijashenko from Milan. She’s been friends with him and his girl-friend for some time but they’d never danced together before so it was incredible to do it with him. She did Mary Vetsera in Mayerling in her second season with Rupert Pennefather, then Thiago Soares and this time with Matthew Ball, a last-minute replacement and they had only four days to put it together. It’s strange how so much weight comes with the role when you’re young and then you come back to it. It is a special one because of her memories of it. How has her interpretation developed? A lot comes down to your partner. A huge part comes from the partnership so it was like a completely different ballet with Rupert and Thiago and that’s something she adores. You can take from your partner what they give you. Give and take is very present on stage and your response is one of the great things about it. As she has got older, she’s discovered a willingness to allow a rapport with different people and let herself delve into characterisation. When she first did the balcony pas de deux with Roberto Bolle it was the first time she really got the feeling of what it was about. Certain partners give you magic and words can’t explain it.
Do you analyse performances afterwards? Less now than before. Her focusses have changed as she’s got older, and it’s more about what she gains personally and the level of enjoyment each time on stage. The more comfortable you are in a role, the more you can try out things and play with what you have got. David reminded Melissa of a conversation after a performance of Las Hermanaswhen she did analyse it and the next time gave a very different portrayal. You’re always striving to learn something on stage, or find something new each time and every show is different. There’s a pleasure in exploring the differences in what you can get from the same piece which is very satisfying.
Melissa has done a lot of Wayne McGregor work. Her first collaboration was on Infra with Eric Underwood. It was her second season in the Company and had no idea what was happening. Now Melissa sees the naivety of younger members of the Company and can well remember that feeling. She had no clue as to what was being created and it’s great for younger dancers to be thrown into that situation when they don’t know what it means. She didn’t understand the importance of being given a stand-out pas de deux in her second season. She will do Live Fire Exercise (LFE)in the Spring. She has a huge respect for Wayne and what he’s done and what he continues to do around the world. He’s totally hungry for anything new. The first thing he asks when he sees you is “what’s new” as he’s interested and human. He gets into the studio and works and gets the job done. Melissa has grown up with him and he’s given her so many things. Because of Raven Girlshe got the opportunity to take her sabbatical, and then to partner Roberto in his work. How has Roberto fitted into the Wayne style? Wayne doesn’t expect people to do it the same. He’s open to the person in front of him in the studio and wants to see you and not a replica of someone else and wants to say something new. His language is about movement of the body and she enjoys that with Roberto. Besides LFE, she’ll also do Dante. He has created one act (Inferno)and it will be expanded into three. It premiered in Los Angeles last summer. They don’t know what it will be until they get into the studio or even opening night when the music and lights change! He knows the people who work with his system and uses the dancers to create his vision. Melissa has no idea what she will be and hasn’t read the work. Wayne didn’t explain anything but they knew their counts. In group sessions it is vital to count, otherwise there’d be chaos. The music comes later. He made Inferno to music from Mayerling which was incredibly disconcerting and it was difficult to get their heads around it but managed in the end. She has no recollection of what LFE was about. It was in the same programme as DGV and maybe she was focussed on that.
How did she come to ballet? Like every little girl Melissa went to class one day a week after school as her mum was trying to keep her and her sister out of the house to burn off excess energy. In Northern Ireland there was no White Lodge, or JAs. She didn’t know the Royal Ballet existed or that you could be a ballerina as a career but was happy to go along. This was in Lisburn, about ten minutes from Belfast. Until she was 16 she was at high school and went dancing one day a week. Her parents had high hopes for her academic career but when she was about 13, she went to summer school in Aberdeen. It was the first time she was around people who had been at White Lodge and the first time she had heard of it but she looked on line and determined to go to White Lodge without knowing anything about it. She got her info pack and read about it every night and it became a fantasy. She fell in love with the idea, it was different from everything anybody else was doing and was totally unique. She wanted to do it not at that stage as a career but as an education, doing it every day and having it as a goal. While doing her GCSEs she auditioned for ENB and Elmhurst upper schools and was accepted in both. She went to Elmhurst for two years and in her second year Masha Mukhamedov was her teacher who then left when Irek became director of Greek National Ballet. When she was 18, Melissa decided to leave without a diploma and followed Masha to Athens where she trained with her for 10 months before auditioning for the Royal Ballet and getting a contract.
Masha was Bolshoi trained and taught the Russian system. They discussed Melissa’s future as at 18 she had no stage experience and had never performed in an auditorium. Masha said she needed to get on stage and see what it was all about so suggested going to the Youth America Grand Prix in New York where she danced Queen of the Dryads and won. This automatically gave her a contract to ABT2 which proved a dilemma as at 18 she didn’t see herself moving to New York and it was too far removed from her idea of the Royal Ballet. On their return Masha asked the Royal Ballet if they would be interested to see her. Monica Mason said to send a DVD and despite the jet lag they put it together and sent it to Monica who suggested Melissa take Company class. She’d never seen the Royal Opera House or the Company, didn’t know any of the dancers but stood at the bar with Johan Kobborg, Mara Galeazzi, and David Makhateli having no idea what was happening. It was probably just as well not to know as she might not have gone for it but she did and got a contract on the spot.
Melissa’s first season started with La Bayadere, when she was second cast for shades. On opening night, she wasn’t even on, whereas now they need students to fill all the slots. There was also The Dream, Sleeping Beautyand a lot of big classics and Manon where she’s done all the roles. It’s good experience as when you come to do the lead role you know the story, and what all the others are doing. She learned gradually day by day. The second season she got lots of work and it continued. Highlights were Agon with Carlos Acosta, and her debut as Juliet as it was the first time that she experienced what MacMillan allowed the dancer to do on stage. It was a very scary debut as she didn’t have a stage call, and her partner (Ed Watson) was injured three days before the show. She remembered coming off, Monica putting her arm round her and walking to the dressing-room saying nothing. She realised Melissa had had the ‘MacMillan experience’ which is inexplicable until you’ve had it. So much as happened that it’s difficult to try to go back and take stock. Her career has allowed her to experience so many different things and different companies. Sometimes there are things you want to happen and then something comes along which is off the radar and it takes you by surprise and gives you the most pleasure.
She’s not done a lot of Ashton but besides The Dream she has done Monotones. When she was younger, she didn’t see herself as a very Ashtonian dancer but as you mature and grow into adulthood, the more you develop as a woman, the more you’re suited towards the Ashton rep. It’s more delicate and feminine and you have to be prepared to show that side of you to give the right emphasis to his work. Monotones is atypical. The Dream she absolutely loved. It’s one of the most beautiful pas de deux she’s done and it feels so complete. She talked to Leanne Benjamin about it who said she’d got the best bit because the rest of the ballet was awful!
Questions. Was Melissa tempted to take another sabbatical? She doesn’t think it’s possible as you’re only allowed one. Kevin gives her so much freedom she doesn’t really want to leave again and is very happy with the current arrangements. The schedule is out for next season fairly soon and you can then request when your performances will be. If there are things already in the pipeline you can request to work around them. Principals are cast three or four months in advance. Roberto has planned things for next September which she’s known about for some months. It all depends who it is – sometimes you get a call two days beforehand.
Watching Melissa as Juliet, she was totally in the scene on stage but also projecting to the back of the amphitheatre. How much are you aware that you’re projecting upwards? When you are feeling the personality, they aren’t your own thoughts, it is the life you are living on stage and so it must project naturally. She isn’t aiming to do it, but is almost drawing people in rather than projecting out. It was so much part of her in that moment.
Would Melissa see herself as a choreographer? Absolutely not, she said. It is a completely separate skill. She likes to be a muse and doesn’t see herself as a choreographer but never say never – who knows what the future holds. At the moment she’s just trying to get through day by day and has no plans for after dancing. Opportunities are coming. She never saw herself going into teaching but it’s come along and she finds it’s something she’s passionate about. You cover things from a different angle. She didn’t have a school and there was no base so she literally had to figure everything out. To work with people who’ve had that base and give them the benefit of what she’s had to learn over the years has brought great pleasure in the small aspects of teaching she’s done so far. In a company teaching is different altogether. People can be difficult! She loves being around different personalities and seeing what makes them tick and how to work with different people. Travelling gives that opportunity. There’s a lot to be said for not just coaching ballet but coaching people and when it comes to what people can deliver it almost comes down to the personality so being a life coach rather than just a dance coach might be of more interest to Melissa.
Kevin has brought back different people to stage different ballets. A fresh eye is essential and a different way of working shakes things up and gets different results. He sees the value of people who have experienced roles on stage and who are able to give back to those learning roles. To be one on one with someone who has been through it is a nice journey and it’s invaluable. Manonhas changed as people staging it have changed. Melissa has experience of being in a company who’ve never had the MacMillan rep and it’s a different thing altogether. It brings a different result to the stage as everyone sees things differently and there are different interpretations. If MacMillan was still here, he might say it is what you want it to be. If you make it believable and the audience believes it that is the result you want.
Do you feel a different reaction from audiences in other countries? Melissa said very much so. She’s danced in La Scala, Milan, which is much more reserved but in Italy generally with Roberto he’s like a rock star and his audience follows him around so there’s screaming etc. All around the world it is different. The dancers always feel an exceptional warmth from the audiences in the Royal Opera House which is a beautiful theatre to perform in.
Are there roles she’d still like to do or choreographers she’d like to work with? She’d love to do Marguerite and Armandbut otherwise she’s ticked off her bucket list which was mainly Odette/Odile, Manon and Nikiya. Those three in particular she wanted to achieve and has done, so everything after that is a bonus. Bejart wasn’t even on the list as she never thought of getting near it, Neumeier would be someone she would like to work with but she isn’t dying to do anything – what comes, comes. She doesn’t go to Kevin to ask for anything in particular - he knows what he wants to do so there’s no point in putting in demands.
In thanking Melissa, David said it was always a great privilege, and great fun, to talk to her and we look forward to the next stage of her career. She’s always been very kind to the Ballet Association and has come quite regularly during her career so we now look forward to the next time.
Report written by Liz Bouttell, edited by Melissa Hamiltonl and David Bain.
© The Ballet Association 2020