William Bracewell 2022
- Cesar Corrales
- Edward Watson
- Gemma Bond
- Gina Storm-Jensen
- Johanna Adams Farley
- Kevin O'Hare
- Leticia Dias
- Luca Acri
- Mariko Sasaki
- Mayara Magri
- Ricardo Cervera
- Steven McRae
- William Bracewell
Principal, The Royal Ballet
Interviewed by David Bain
American International Church, Wed 24th Aug, 2022
David welcomed William who had had quite a work-oriented summer. After Like Water for Chocolateat the end of the season which seemed to go down well, he had a few days off before going to Japan with a group of principals to perform in galas which went really well. It was nice to perform somewhere else and he did six shows of Dance of the Blessed Spirits,which he’d only performed once before, for the cinema relay during lock-down. That had been quite scary and a bit stressful, getting into white tights after a long time off so it was good to have more time to prepare this time. Originally, he had been coached by Sasha Agadzhanov and Gregory Mislin taught from the notation. It was a very intense experience in-house because of Covid. At the gala he also did the Grand Pas Classique with Marianela Nunez which was a real treat. Previously he’d only danced briefly with her in The Winter’s Tale.It was better than even he’d imagined. She’s such an amazing woman and he enjoyed seeing how she combines her superb work ethic with her sense of fun and the joy she brings to the studio. They laughed a lot during the whole process but she is a perfectionist who has the ability to raise her level again for the stage after what you think is good in the studio, and you have to rise to reach her level. He knew it would be an amazing experience to be dancing with her, having seen her from a distance, but it was wonderful partnering her, feeling how she moves and to be so close to someone who can do those things with her body. Kevin O’Hare had organised the Japan tour which included Francesca Hayward and Cesar Corales, Alex Campbell, Ed Watson who did a solo and a McGregor duet with Sarah Lamb, Ryoichi Hirano, Marcelino Sambé, Akane Takada and Mariko Sasaki. They were only there for a week and then William took a break on a beach in Greece before returning for rehearsals prior to going to Korea for a gala in Seoul. With Yuhui Choe he danced the Coppelia pas de deux and the Jubilee pas de deux, a challenging piece created by Liam Scarlett on Laura Morera and Federico Bonelli ten years ago for the Queen’s diamond jubilee. Yuhui wanted to do something of Liam’s as she had been very close to him and enjoyed his work, as had William, and it was really fun but challenging and hard to match the skills of Laura and Federico. Yasmine Naghdi and Marianela were there, Alina Cojacaru and Friedmann Vogel danced Manon pas de deux and Onegin, from the USA Isabella Boylston, Daniel Camargo, and Daniil Simkin, as well as Maia Makhateli, Dorothee Gilbert, and Marcelo Gomes so a host of big international stars and everyone was lovely. It was organised by Kimin Kim, the nicest guy, very humble and welcoming and quite normal! William got back at midnight on Sunday before this talk and went into rehearsals for Mayerling the next day. He’s covering Rudolf and doing the lead officer so the work isn’t crazy, but he wants to do as many as possible of the Rudolf rehearsals. Even though he’ll probably not perform the role this time, rehearsals are such fun and it’s such an interesting ballet to learn. Preparation of the solos is fascinating and dancing with so many different ladies is as much fun as a performance. There’s a lot of ladies, lots of material to learn and stories to tell so by the end of the day your brain can’t take in any more. It’s about how to get all that information across. The last time it was put on about five years ago William was one of the officers.
Last season it was like a dream dancing Romeo with Fumi Kaneko for her first time in the role. William had danced the ballet, one of his favourites, while in Birmingham and also on the film so this was his third time. It was a favourite experience seeing how Fumi changed throughout the process – between the first rehearsal and stage performance she was completely different. The first time she does something is often the best. When she has too much information and over-thinks it doesn’t work quite so well but as she has an inherent ability and amazing instinct he said just forget everything and let your body go.
Speaking of filming Romeo and Juliet, William said they didn’t have a lot of time to prepare but quite a lot of sections were cut though the pas de deux were more or less in their original form. His first thought was he’d only been in the Company a year and worried that people would think he’d stolen this amazing opportunity but everyone was lovely and they had a great time. It was weird filming on a set in Budapest - all outdoors, everything was fake, the walls were polystyrene, lino on the floor was printed like cobbles. They worked very long days, either a morning or a night shoot – so it was between 9am and 3 or 4pm, or 7pm to 3am. One night they filmed the ballroom scene and at 12.30 just before he was due to do his solo they had to cut and break for an hour. William had two Red Bulls and came back to do the solo at 1.30! Generally, they could do several retakes to get things right but knew they only had one go at the fight scene because the scaffold and pipe system which was the rain machine made the set all wet and once their clothes were drenched they couldn’t go back. That was one of the most fun and scariest moments in William’s dancing career because it felt so real. Also, you could make noise which you can’t do on stage and it was a bit terrifying, especially when Kristen McNally as Lady Capulet found Matt Ball as Tybalt dead on the ground, and she wailed and screamed with pain. It was amazing and watching the film it looks good but at the time it was something very different and felt very special. Having danced the role before, William had an understanding of Romeo’s journey through the ballet which was useful as it wasn’t shot in chronological order though they did keep all the deaths to the end. Michael Nunn was directing with the loudhailer and guiding them through the takes though Kevin was there and had discussed it beforehand. The pas de deux were relatively simple but some scenes they had to redo, for example the town square stuff because of camera angles and the different movement of people. Also, when a cloud came over the sun they had to cut and there was actually a man with a telescope responsible for looking for clouds during filming!
Reverting to last season, they did Swan Lake and the Ashton Triple Bill. William danced with three partners in Swan Lake, two were scheduled and the third was with Fumi. He’d prepared with Lauren Cuthbertson for the cinema relay just before lock-down so when it came back they were finally able to do it. Going into rehearsals with her again he realised how much stronger he’d become and how he’d changed since the last time and felt they were more used to dancing together. He began with Frankie on her debut and they got on well. The role is a big mental challenge for a ballerina and seeing it up close he really appreciated how iconic and technically challenging it was. Yasmine and Marianela say it is the hardest of all ballets and gives Nela nightmares. Technically you have to achieve very difficult steps, there’s so much story to tell and the character has to be so different in each act so there’s a lot to do with lots of steps and it tests the stamina. They were both determined it should be good and Frankie really knuckled down, rose to it and was so proud of what they achieved. Next time they’ll have a base point to start from and they’ll see what they can find different and start layering on it. William had four days to work on it with Fumi as Federico got Covid. They were very big shoes for him to fill as Federico is a wonderful partner so William had to be as good as he could for Fumi. They did a matinee at the Opera House and at night performed the White Swan pas de deux for the Ukraine gala at the Coliseum. Then he danced with Lauren and had a great time. She was coming back after having her baby, and it was a big thing to put the body through. She paced it so well but it’s still a big mental challenge even when you’re so established. The cinema relay is fun but stressful as you’re worried you’ll fall down and it’s out there for everyone to see, but it was lovely to work with Lauren again. Although it’s exactly the same choreography you’re dancing with such talented people with different personalities and artistic ideas so it’s never boring. For the Romeo and Juliet film they were told to bring down the acting, but for the cinema relay the cameras are really close though there’s also an audience in the auditorium to consider. Lesley Collier was coaching for Swan Lake. She is lovely, and so generous with her time and energy. He loved the process and felt they had the same values. It’s not about fancy tricks but more about telling the story and what emotion to bring and how to portray the character.
Differences in partnering different ballerinas. William said with Frankie it was always more diplomatic, if something wasn’t working they’d have a conversation, figuring it out between them. Lauren knows what she needs from a partner and is quite clear so could direct him about how to support her. It’s the same as any working relationship. Sometimes it takes more effort to find your way with someone, but the process is no better or worse.
In the Ashton bill, William danced Month in the Country with Natasha Osipova. They’d not danced together before except for a couple of shows of The Dante Project. She is a force to be reckoned with, never the same twice, a spur of the moment person, and he loves it but it’s scary as you don’t know what’s going to happen. She gives everything to whatever she’s doing. Sometimes it’s excellent and sometimes not, but he just goes along with it. With her timings she would sometimes hold a fraction longer and then they would catch up in the next movement but the next time it would be the opposite so it’s always a surprise but it’s fun and keeps him on his toes. Their coaches were Marguerite Porter and Anthony Dowell and it was great to have him in the studio again. He doesn’t always say a lot but what he does say are gems. Asked if William ever thinks ‘no’ when one of the many Opera House coaches offers advice, he says you listen and say OK but you can have a conversation as he did with Olga Evreinoff when he felt at that time his character would be trying to portray something different. He does trust the coaches’ eye as you can’t see what you are doing, but finally you’re the one who has to go on stage and perform so you need to feel comfortable with it and some movements may work better for you than others.
In Like Water for Chocolate, William was Dr John Brown. It was fun and a quite nice wind-down of the season as it wasn’t too crazy with lots of dancing. It was great seeing Yasmine really flourish dramatically in that role. He enjoyed performing it and the kids were great and really engaged with it, especially his ‘son’. William discovered he’d been in Les Miserables for a year so he knew a stage and was relaxed and chilled in the wings.
Dances at a Gathering. William loves it. It was another moment with Frankie where his mission was always trying to make her laugh on stage and nearly succeeded. It needed that energy and playful silliness but he didn’t think of it as telling a story. It was not so long after coming back from injury and back surgery and he could be free and have fun again and Frankie is amazing on stage and tiny which makes partnering easy.
Working on Dante with Wayne McGregor, William felt he got more from him this time and really enjoyed the process of creating so much material. He and Calvin Richardson had a15 minute duet and just a minute or two made it into the final piece but Wayne could make several ballets from the left-over work. William recalled one instance when he was about to run on for his entrance with Natasha in Paradiso.Everyone is in shiny unitards so you can’t see anything against the shiny floor and in the smoke, and he’d done a quick run around the back of the stage and arrived just before she went on when she said I’m going to jump really high this time – as if she didn’t normally jump quite high! He really enjoys working with Wayne who is fascinating and works at a million miles an hour so you have a battle to keep up with him. It’s fun but full on. You might create five minutes of choreography in an hour’s rehearsal which is a lot. Wayne doesn’t mind if you’ve forgotten something from the previous day and do it differently if you follow your instincts and William appreciates that. By the third or fourth rehearsal it’s locked in and you get the structure and choreography without thinking about it. William’s first work with Wayne was Yugen. which was very different. He set more tasks on them, associating numbers with steps and then moving the numbers around, whereas with Dante he had William Blake’s illustrations and other imagery and took inspiration from them, giving more gestures and directions which was very interesting. Sometimes with a new creation it is good to sit on the side and watch how a choreographer generates material and creates a piece.
William has worked with other choreographers, including Christopher Wheeldon. He enjoyed seeing how Chris arranged the complex story telling of Like Water For Chocolate. He watched rehearsals and being in the studio with him he’d question why she looks at him in a certain way, is the angle right, and he’s really keen on placement of people so the story reads properly and that’s a skill he’s honed. William also did Corybantic Games and The Winter’s Tale.
In 2014 while at BRB he danced Oberon and it was his first bigger ballet. He was quite young and when the list went up they were all principals like Joe Caley with William at the end. But he loved it with Anthony coaching, trying to engage with the story, but it was tough not to get stressed at how hard it is. It’s so technically difficult, but you have to tell the story and make it look easy. He danced with Natasha Oughtred who was so musical with a lovely port de bras and taught him lots about partnering. He also did the scherzo from The Dream for a gala which was really stressful and so tough to come back to after a long time off, when he’d been trying to stay fit not completely successfully.
Reverting to how he got into ballet, William said he was incredibly hyperactive as a child, a real terror who burnt his sisters’ dolls and not a nice little boy. He pulled all the drawers out of his chest of drawers when he was three, and he just wanted to run around and be naughty. His mum tried to occupy him and he tried different sports, martial arts and musical instruments, but he couldn’t sit still at the piano, so it needed to be physical but he didn’t connect with anything. Rugby didn’t work for him either but a friend at school was going to ballet and although he wasn’t particularly keen he thought he’d give it a go. At the first class when they were told to stand in first he didn’t understand but just copied everyone around him who were all girls. Potentially it was great because he was the only boy and a novelty though he didn’t know what he was doing. But he had a lovely teacher who was very encouraging and kept him going even though he didn’t want to wear tights. He then went into Junior Associates first in Cardiff and then Bath which was a good system if they thought you had talent or in William’s case he had relatively long legs and reasonable feet. Then he auditioned for White Lodge and although he didn’t want to leave home he took the place which offered a better academic education than in Swansea. He hated it at the beginning and had a phone call with his mum every day. She said if you feel like this in the morning she’d pick him up but he didn’t leave although it took about 18 months to get used to being away from home. There were lots of other boys which was nice as they had a shared experience. He now values that part of his life which was amazing. It’s a weird experience for a child, so intense and being away from home for eight years, but it offered him a good education and afforded him his career for which he’s so grateful. Both his sisters are far more intelligent but he got the better grades. His sisters also kept him very grounded during that time. You can be in a bubble and lose sight of normality so it was good to get home to Wales occasionally and be normal.
Highlight at White Lodge. William definitely enjoyed the ballet but he had a great art teacher and there was time to be creative in a different way. He didn’t see ballet as a creative outlet but a physical skill he was learning but he hadn’t connected portraying emotions with dancing or realise it could be cathartic. He began to connect these things and then started to enjoy and find his way more with ballet.
A highlight at the Upper School was the graduate tour to Japan and Canada. Travelling is one of William’s favourite things. This summer going to Japan and Korea was a highlight of dancing, sharing what they have here with others around the world. They went to smaller towns in Japan and it was so nice to travel around and see those places and it was really fun with amazing audiences.
Gailene Stock. When he went to the States for Youth America Grand Prix (YAGP) William performed the solo in the final round which went really well but when he did it again it really didn’t go well and he was unhappy. Gailene was very emotionally aware of the students and wrote him a lovely letter saying she could tell he wasn’t pleased, but it was still lovely and they wanted him to perform it at the end of the competition gala. She was his champion who always believed in him and he feels really lucky for that. She was very caring and helped him a lot. David commented that she had wanted to give the Ballet Association award to William but it didn’t happen because it was for overseas students though Gailene said “can’t we pretend Wales is overseas.”
William accepted a contract with BRB having received offers from three other companies as a result of YAGP, but he knew Birmingham was the right place for him. He had a gut feeling about it and being a bit shy he felt he couldn’t deal with the ruthlessness of some companies. It lived completely up to its friendly reputation and was such fun. There’s something about touring when you become really close and he loved touring the same production so you got to know it really well.
He loved Carmina Burana and really enjoyed The King Danceswhich was created on him by David Bintley. In his first Romeo and Juliet he was a court couple and it was so exciting - seeing the production for the first time was magic. You’d get pushed into a room and told you have a quick three minute change and it was such a thrill although there were some hairy moments. He has done a lot of different roles in the ballet and knows it quite well.
Although he had worked with Liam Scarlett in his graduate year, William hadn’t worked with anyone else until David Bintley. David was really fascinating and so musical and that stands out. Even in a normal shoe he would demonstrate and with the music you understood exactly what he wanted although he’d not actually described it. He’s so good at pas de deux and seeing Allegri Diversi which he made for Iain MacKay, William saw things he had never seen before. He was always lovely and trusted him in a way that hadn’t happened to William before. It was a risk to give a 21 year old such a hard ballet as The Dream with an established principal but William’s very grateful for all of the things David allowed him to do so he could learn and progress. Lots of his ballets are dramatic and our chairman wondered where the acting came from for William. He said they have the Eisteddfod in Wales, a big cultural annual competition, with musical events, he went to a drama group and did a bit of acting and he just enjoyed it and who wouldn’t want to be someone else and live their life for an evening and then go back to being you.
After five years when some of the rep was being repeated, William knew what his life would be like if he stayed with BRB and that was terrifying as he didn’t want his future mapped out at the age of 24. He loved BRB so much but wanted the challenge of another direction like Chris Wheeldon’s and Wayne’ works and other aspects of dance that the Royal Ballet offered. There’s a certain clout attached to the Company and it gives you freedom and opportunity to approach choreographers if you want to work with them. He loved Birmingham but was ready to move and be somewhere else. He had a lovely house and garden there and came to a flat without even a balcony in London so he hated that aspect for a while. While William wanted new challenges he feels he is quite risk averse but knows when something isn’t working for him.
Questions from the audience:
What will he perform in the Nureyev Galas? William said he’ll dance Albrecht, which he’s not done before, with Frankie. They’ll try to look back at the footage of Nureyev and Fonteyn and take it back to a more genuine version of what they would have done. He has no preconceptions of what it should be so is looking forward to it.
Are there dancers from the past who are his role models? William looks up to Desmond Kelly who coached him the first time he did Romeo. He was so fortunate in the way Desmond spoke so passionately about it and he had an amazing combination of being able to help technically if something wasn’t working but also had so much to give dramatically and he really stands out for William.
David thanked William so much for being our guest and said we all looked forward to following the next stage of his career.
Report written by Liz Bouttell and edited by William Bracewell and David Bain.
© The Ballet Association 2022