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    Steven McRae 2022

    Steven McRae

    Principal, The Royal Ballet Ballet

    Interviewed by David Bain
    American International Church, Mon 10th October, 2022


    David welcomed Steven by saying one of the high spots for us last season had been seeing him back on stage after his long absence through injury.

    Steven began by talking in detail about his experience of Mayerling. His introduction to the ballet was four or five years after joining the company when he saw it for the first time and performed the role of Bratfisch. The older dancers and principals had talked about this extraordinary piece but he hadn’t grown up with it and wasn’t educated in those incredible works. That role gave him a taster of the intricacy of the characters and their inter-connections. When Kevin revived the ballet he asked Steven to do Rudolf. Although he always wanted to dance everything, he was in his late 20s but felt he was still too young, probably because he had seen multiple casts (of those, he favoured Rupert Pennefather) and had an idea of how the character should be. After his initial surprise he got into it and for the first time was coached by Leanne Benjamin. He loved it and found something new, tapping into a number of characters he’d created with other choreographers. Liam Scarlett for example had always cast him as a creepy character or an odd being. It was interesting to pull them all into one character but it’s such a huge ballet that first time round it was a case of just getting through it. His cast then was Sarah Lamb, with Meaghan Grace Hinkis as Princess Stephanie, Hikaru Kobayashi as Countess Larisch and Kristen McNally as the Empress, a beautiful but unique cast which worked. Kevin brought it back quite quickly and Steven’s next Larisch was Laura Morera as Hikaru was retiring and wanted to do it with Federico Bonelli. This time it’s another new group with Anna Rose O’Sullivan as Stephanie, Annette Buvoli as the Empress and Yasmine Naghdi as Larisch, but still with Sarah as Mary Vetsera as well as Akane Takada. Every time he’s done it it’s been different and unique which is exciting. This time he’s chosen to step on stage and take each scene as it comes with no preconceived idea of how the character should be or how he should be viewed by the audience. One look from the ballerina can alter how you move forward and you have to be open to that so this time he’s waited for someone to look at him and then reacted. Speaking of differences from his first performance to now, Steven said he is older, has three children, has suffered injuries and then Covid came and changed everything. Naturally he wasn’t aware initially of what huge and insane pressure they were under but now he is far more aware of the intensity of the family element in the ballet, their responsibility as artists to portray those characters and appreciate them more.

    Speaking of the current rehearsal period, Steven said everyone was new except for Sarah. At first, several ballerinas asked him what he would like from them but he said do it your way and I’ll respond. The choreography was respected but it was so much fun as interpretation was free. Leanne, who is coaching, is fantastic because she is constantly asking you to try something new and then says no, try something else, and as an artist that is what you want rather than recreate what someone else has done. There is a script but like any piece of literature it is different for each person. It’s a constant quest for balance while pushing the boundaries. Sometimes the seemingly most simple things are the most difficult, like walking for example which you spend hours practising. Stillness is particularly hard for younger dancers. Steven recalled Monica Mason asking him so often to stand still and when he finally did it felt amazing. You can read so much from someone simply standing.  Asked to describe the relationship between Rudolf and his mother, Steven said to him he behaves like a little boy who, even though he’s much older in years, hasn’t grown out of that childish mentality. The pas de deux is beautiful, not just the emotion, but there’s a bit of cat and mouse as she is scared of him, knowing he’s not quite right but she’s still his mother as well as the Empress so there are royal protocols to be observed. She’s on edge when he walks into the room for the first time and he starts almost to play with her in the ‘Fred and Ginger’ moves which Steven tries to do differently each time with surprise, or fun, or a bit of anger. Annette has an incredible elegance and beauty about her. His wife, Liz Harrod, came to watch Swan Lake last season and, after briefly praising Steven, spoke constantly about Annette’s Big Swan and her natural beauty on stage. When Kristen wasn’t ready to come back this season, Kevin suggested Annette which Steven immediately agreed to. This was her first principal role but he emphasised it was her performance too so not to try to fit in with everyone else, and at once she embraced the idea. When you look into her eyes she destroys you! Immediately after this pas de deux Rudolf goes to his wife, Stephanie. Steven feels sorry for the ballerina as it’s a rough pas de deux and that’s the terror of it having such a profound impact at the end of the act. You have to have such a level of trust and mutual respect and the first time he felt very lucky to have Meaghan who guided him through it. This time it’s Anna Rose. They have danced quite a lot together and it has been a joy to have that level of trust so you can push the boundaries without going too far.  Previously he’d not worked much with Yasmine (Larisch) except in Bayadere but technically she can do everything and it’s been fun developing a relationship with her. Again, he said to keep her eyes on him as he is constantly looking around the room and wanting to catch her eye at odd times. She took him at his word as on Friday every time he looked she was glaring right at him! With Sarah, they have danced so many times over so many years that they hardly speak because they instinctively know what each other needs or wants to say and that’s something you can’t achieve overnight. They’ve also created new works together where there’s a clean slate, you’re genuinely using each other’s bodies to tell a new story and finding ways of communication and that’s when you discover a true partnership from which they can take that understanding into the classics or dramatic works. Not having to spend weeks getting to know each other but rather adding layers to a role Steven finds so interesting. Both he and Sarah want to ‘clean’ everything and make it as pure as possible but there can be a tendency to lose the rawness in anticipating each other’s moves. It takes something to surprise each other but on Friday Sarah did some different things which he absolutely loved. She is other worldly with an ability to wrap around you like a snake and you’ve no idea how she does it.

    On other roles he’s danced with Sarah, Stephen talked about the pas de deux Twyla Tharp created for them. It was such a huge honour and career highlight but the frustrating element was at the time his Achilles problems had begun so he was in agony and never felt able to do what he wanted to do. He was drugged up to the eyeballs and it wasn’t a good time for him. It’s the hardest pas de deux he’s ever performed but he didn’t want anyone else to do it as Kevin had gone to great effort to bring Twyla in for them and he felt a responsibility to him and to Sarah. Leaving aside the pain, it was an extraordinary experience to work with this rock star of the dance world who was still creating and pushing them so hard as no-one else had.  Chris Wheeldon’s The Winter’s Talewas fun and a real opportunity for Sarah and himself to exploit their mutual understanding in the partnering and doing things that others may not want to do. Chris has worked with them a lot so played on their strengths and weaknesses and pushed them so it wasn’t all within their comfort zone. Other choreographers they have worked with are Wayne McGregor and Alastair Marriott who created several pieces for events and galas and those are the times when you develop a partnership.

    This summer holidays he was in Denmark. Johan Kobborg had started this annual event with a team in Denmark and it was quite small with a handful of outdoor shows, live music, opera, ballet in beautiful locations like on a beach, or near a stately home. Now every summer Steven puts the group together and this year they did 13 shows in as many venues, split into two weeks each with seven dancers, Teams 1 and 2, with five dancers doing both weeks and two others coming in. He loves it as it’s such a challenge with lots of issues involved. With outdoor performances, sometimes it rains but they keep going, sometimes it’s a freezing 15 and sometimes 30 degrees when you burn up and this can change from day to day. It’s now expanded and is called World Ballet so Steven tries to have people from other companies, including this year Xander Parish who had just left the Maryinsky, Iana Salenko and her husband Marian Walter, Anna Rose, Danes Alban Lendorf and Astrid Elbo, a beautiful tall dancer, Steven himself was performing and Reece Clarke and Yasmine came in the second week. Steven loves assembling the right dynamic of people, who have to get on with each other on the daily bus ride from place to place, so you need to be relaxed as there are no Royal Opera House comforts. They performed eight pieces, six of which were new. Most of the audience haven’t seen ballet before so they started with Sleeping Beauty Act III, Alban and Astrid did Peter Martin’s Russian pas de deux from Swan Lake, Iana and Steven did a finale pas de deux, Juliano Nunes and Tobias Praetorius created works. The Queen of Denmark who loves the ballet attends every year and they hope she will do some designs for them next year.

    At the end of season Steven was in Japan. It was his first trip there for almost five years. The company, directed by Miyako Yoshida, were performing Aliceand Miyako invited Steven, Anna Rose and Akane Takada to do various roles but scheduling and logistics meant they couldn’t all go, then the Royal cancelled their tour and Miyako asked if Steven would go to do some Mad Hatters. It was a joy to be back in that incredible country where they love the ballet and it was great to see men and boys who had never tapped before tackling the Mad Hatter and achieving amazing things in a short time.

    Last season for his first ballet back on stage Steven danced Romeo. Throughout his injury time they had looked at opportunities for his come-back then Covid also intervened but now looking back it was so ambitious. They talk about this a lot as he works with sports scientists every day, and if you are a sports person it is easy to come back from an injury as you can be substituted if necessary. A dancer has to do it all and can’t do the entrance of Romeo and then ask someone to take over for the hard bits. It was a huge opportunity but terrifying – there’s no other word for it. He timed everything on the day of the show down to the last detail – wake up at a certain time, meals planned, shower and dress at a particular time, get a certain tube, warm up and he would walk to the stage as the orchestra was tuning up to allow for no distractions. This he did - and then there was a five minute hold which made him so furious that he stood at the back of the set looking at the stair-case and genuinely wondered what would happen if he just got up and left, thinking everyone would understand the pressure. He had worked through the trauma with the psychologists building up to that point but that five minute delay threw him. When he entered the stage, the audience were incredibly welcoming and warm and he was overwhelmed as he loves that stage where he had spent his whole career, loves the company and now this country which is where he feels he belongs. For all that, he had never felt the genuine acceptance from the public which happened that night. Realising he is part of all this, his body freaked out and he was cramping within 10 minutes with the rush of adrenaline and different emotions which was horrible. He got through his Romeos, and was building up to the Nutcracker with Sarah and Kevin coaching. Then a few weeks beforehand he pulled a calf muscle but it was managed and seemed OK. Two days before the performances, everything was going well in the studio, when he did one jump and his calf went which was so annoying. His old self would have got strapped up, had jabs and got on with it but the doctors said no and he had to take their advice. After missing Nutcracker he returned to Romeo in February which gave him the chance to build more on the role. Then the real challenge started for which Kevin apologised afterwards but he was given three Rhapsodies,the last of which was a Monday, then the dress rehearsal of Swan Lake was on the Tuesday with opening on Wednesday. For a healthy 20 year old that would be crazy but Steven had gone through a lot.  Anna Rose was his new partner for Swan Lakeand they had three days of preparation which was a rush. That period was crucial, there were lots of demons to put to rest, but mentally he got over it and he felt healthy. It was a huge challenge and he was proud to have done it.

    Steven then detailed his series of injuries. In the summer of 2017 they were on tour in Australia with The Winter’s Tale and Woolf Works. Liz was also performing and they had their two children with them so they boxed and coxed with shows. The practicalities of that aren’t good in a physical profession and with children there’s no recovery time. He went to Denmark immediately afterwards, followed by Japan. With Aurelie Dupont, he helped put together a programme with the Royal and Paris Opera Ballet and had to do a lot of work. There were seven shows and he did everything in Rhapsody, except for the corps parts, Don Q, Sleeping Beauty, and a tap solo. He’d been struggling with his ankle for a while and after his first show he couldn’t walk properly. He must have had a premonition as before Japan he got a whole lot of medication from the physio, just in case. He needed it all and did the seven shows but it was crazy. Lesley Collier was there and he always gets an honest opinion from her but she said nothing. Looking back at that period he was dangerously thin, very underweight, and not sleeping having the young children. He’d been like that for some time beforehand but managed because he was able to sleep but becoming a parent meant that was gone. He had no reserves to help fight the workload, being severely undernourished and underweight, and now looking at photos he was shockingly thin but no-one said you look tired or not great. He was obviously not well but didn’t see it himself and the people around him said nothing and that is terrifying and is something that must change and is changing slowly. Then came the summer break of two weeks and he thought he’d be fine but it was followed by Twyla’s arrival when they were also doing Alice.  They’d done Mayerling, then Sarah hurt her foot rehearsing Vertiginous so he did one show with her and the next with Akane and Alice with Anna Rose though he couldn’t rehearse his solos as he was giving everything to Twyla and performing the Knave every night without rehearsals as well as doing some Hatters. The Twyla ballet finished and to keep going he was on prescribed anti-inflammatory drugs and was also going to various chemists for over the counter medication, timing them all to get relief exactly when needed, but it was a horrible way to live. He couldn’t do anything with the kids as he could hardly get up and down stairs, was literally just doing his job and really wasn’t with it. A week later Sarah and he were doing Nutcracker for the cinema relay and again he only rehearsed the pas de deux. They finished the show but he was in agony and Sarah said he should sort it out, so next day he had a scan and was told it looked as if a dog had been chewing his Achilles and, although it wasn’t torn, there was major damage. He was off stage over Christmas 2017, trying to fix it conservatively, but by April 2018 he knew he had to have surgery and was terrified at the thought. He followed the whole regime that he was set but lost faith in the protocol as he didn’t feel it was working. His first show back after surgery was Mayerling which was pretty brutal but was being filmed for the DVD. He had also been offered the role in Cats which included singing, a first for Steven, and he felt a responsibility to do it after Mayerling and also Bayadere. He shouldn’t have done the latter as it’s physically very different from Mayerling but wanted to show he was doing his job. After starting Bayadere his injury flared up but he got through with the drugs. He did Cats which he thought might help him recover but the schedule was ridiculous and didn’t respect the dancers’ needs with a 6am class and then hanging around in a trailer till 2pm. The last day on Cats, after months compensating on one leg, a bit of cartilage in his knee snapped. With that injury you can carry on but this one flicked under and was excruciating. Back at the Opera House it was scanned, he had knee surgery and was off for six weeks. but the Achilles wasn’t right so he had further surgery for that making three surgeries in 12 months.  By this time it was May 2019 so he spent the whole summer rehabing to get ready for his come-back in Manon. He kept losing faith in the whole rehab process as he seemed to get worse so he did his own thing again taking lots of tablets but still in agony. About ten days before the show he had a meeting with Kevin and the medical team. Kevin was incredibly supportive and said they had to find someone to help. Although that day’s scan showed damage, it didn’t reveal anything sinister, so he and Akane did the show with Leanne coaching. After Act I he felt good and although in Act II he was in pain he relaxed, visualising corrections just before the next step when his Achilles gave. He tried to carry on and step on the foot but he couldn’t stand. The curtain was brought down, he hobbled to the wings and looked down at his tights where there was a huge chunk missing which looked like someone had bitten into his Achilles, and it was terrifying. There was no support network at home as his family were in Australia and Liz’s in the North and their third child had just been born. He was carried back to the dressing room screaming with lots of people around but in all that chaos Kevin got Reece Clarke to carry on with the show, while never letting Steven out of his sight. Within 20 minutes the curtain had gone up, Kevin was talking to the medical team and there was a plan in place. Liz was at home feeding their 5 week old baby and thought he must have died as she was getting so many missed calls. Steven thought there was no way back for him but Kevin said no, you will dance again and from then on the mission began.  The surgeon said he now had a clean slate, he could get rid of everything and make a bionic Achilles.  Unfortunately, his physio has just left the company but he was in all the surgeries and went to Steven’s every week to check the wound and get him up and about at home. A curious reaction was that every time he came to the door, Steven’s right foot started sweating. The children loved his crutches (‘slime guns’) and plaster cast which they would colour every day but he felt he was robbing them of valuable time as he couldn’t get to the playground or do anything with them. He had to learn to walk again which was brutal. While he missed dancing and performing he felt his profession interfered so much with his life – it had taken him away from family in Australia, made him lose his way health-wise, and was now impacting on the children so he got angry with dance and, despite loving it, that started to torment him. It would have been easy just to give in and go but it was apparent to him that although he was angry at those elements his love for dance was so much more than all this, so he had a lot of that to work through. He’d started rehab at home straight away but once he needed to continue back in the building it was so horrific and such an ordeal for him that he had to work with psychologists to get him through. Then came lock-down which was the worst thing to happen, trying to do rehab via Zoom with the children crawling over him, Liz was getting back on stage from baby three and they were doing home schooling. Fast forward and the recovery seemed to go on but with little progress made and it wasn’t till 18 months after surgery that he did his first barre. When he started to think about the balletic side of recovery he knew Leanne was the only person to call. You become a monster with the pain and he was putting pressure on himself feeling a responsibility to get back on stage. Leanne said yes of course she’d help, but he didn’t want her to feel pressure if he didn’t make it back but she shrugged it off. What she did for him was remarkable, she listened to him and enabled him to get back on stage. Gregor, the sports scientist, works every day with Steven and he and the physio saved his career. There was never any pressure from Kevin.

    Talking about the difference between the experts, Steven said a physio helps to diagnose what is wrong and suggests moves in the gym or Pilates, a sports scientist knows the body and what exercises are needed, plus nutrition and psychology. Gregor acted in all those capacities. Steven’s injury was unique as although there are papers about ruptured Achilles there was nothing to tell them how to deal with a dancer following three surgeries when nothing was working so it was their journey as well as his and for his first show back he really wanted them all to come on stage.

    David commented here that the last time Steven came as our guest he brought his young daughter. He said they asked to come tonight but it was too late for them before school so perhaps next time when they are older.

    Liz has now retired. Steven said their profession tolerates but doesn’t accommodate parenthood. The reality is when they were performing full time they had to have a live-in nanny so that was a salary to find. It was evident that they felt accessories to their own life with one hour at 6pm before bed or 6am for breakfast with the children, so it was pressurised. They both wanted to keep performing and they made it work but, although the children were happy, they weren’t. Finally, after lockdown, Liz said she couldn’t go back to doing eight Swan Lakes a week. Part-time wasn’t an option although they now know dancers would last longer. The reality of parenthood in that profession is it doesn’t work and lots of our rep was hard work. Liz’s first role back after Audrey was a Liam work just in a leotard and no nice floaty dress and then after that it was super fairies in The Dreamwhich are very hard to do. Redundancy was on offer and despite being told she could come back for some roles she knew the reality was that that would take six months of intense work. It just shows how the profession doesn’t understand what it takes to come back from a pregnancy and that highlights the difficulties of returning in that job.

    Looking at Steven’s regime of pills, David wondered if the company had learned from it. He replied that the medical team is growing which is great but when asked if he would change what he did Steven says no, as he did what he thought right at the time. You are eager to please and always say yes to everything, That won’t change in that stage of your career so it has to be managed from the top with red flags to mark up when dancers are overdoing it.

    Kevin once took a small group to Brazil. Steven was picking up lots of shows as some people had left and others were injured and he loved it but was burning the candle at both ends and that was even before he had children.  He did too much and was completely out of it.. He was working with Roberta Marquez whose teacher took him to hospital, where he was told there was nothing wrong with him except that he was clinically exhausted and needed to rest for a long time. Steven didn’t listen but had Vitamin B12 injections before each show which was ridiculous and showed a lack of maturity on his part but you’re scared wondering if someone else does it now, will I get the chance to do it again? When they returned, Kevin said they had to learn from this experience, so he’d not be in all pieces of a triple bill, which some times includes a new work which takes an added toll. Ideally Kevin would like to say this season you only do Sleeping Beauty and not Cinderella so you do more shows of one work needing less rehearsal but he couldn’t imagine the dancers agreeing. Steven, who still finds walking a bit of a challenge, wants to run around with his kids and potential grand-children but at the rate he was going that would never have happened. He sees the same cycle happening with dancers trying to get through a day and the next show but not thinking long term.

    Closing the meeting, David said everybody was very grateful for Steven sharing his difficult experience and suggested he should write it down as something dancers and companies should learn from. It had been fascinating, many thanks to him for coming and we looked forward to his classical performances after Mayerling - Nutcracker with Sarah, Sleeping Beauty with Anna Rose and Cinderella with Sarah. Steven too is looking forward to that as he last danced Cinderella at Miyako’s farewell in 2010.

    Report written by Liz Bouttell and edited by Steven McRae and David Bain.

    © The Ballet Association 2022