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    Matthew Ball 2023

    Matthew Ball

    Principal, The Royal Ballet

    Interviewed by David Bain
    American International Church, Tue 05th Dec, 2023


    Matthew began by telling us how he started dancing. He had always been a natural performer, dancing around the living room, performing on tables and doing karaoke, but he was taken by his mother to his first ballet class at the age of six. She had been a teacher at the Royal Ballet School for a year. Prior to that she had taught GSCE and A-Level dance and wanted her children to also “have a go”. Matthew was keen to stress that she did not force them and was not one of those parents who live vicariously through their children. Dance was simply one of many after-school activities, like karate, that they participated in. In fact, his brother did not take to it at all and stopped after only one week. He suspects that, nowadays, his brother still feels the same way about dance when he comes to see Matthew perform. His sister continued dancing until she was sixteen. Matthew, as the youngest of three, is the only one who persevered.

    As his mother and his Liverpool ballet teacher had both been teachers at the Royal Ballet School, it was almost inevitable that he would end up auditioning for White Lodge. He was always very impressed by what male dancers could achieve, whether it be through ballet or contemporary dance and, after watching a performance, he was frequently ecstatic, wanting to be the person he had just seen on the stage. He felt that he could achieve this through the classes he was taking and he saw leaving home to progress his career as the right step. Looking back on his time at White Lodge, he does see it as a strange and uniquely idyllic environment in which to spend five years of your life but, at the time, he accepted it as normal, partly because he was surrounded by like-minded people. Despite a few hurdles and bumps along the way, he quickly settled into the disciplined life of White Lodge.

    Choreography was one of the subjects at the Royal Ballet School and Matthew won a choreography award during his time at White Lodge. He realises now how valuable these lessons were but, at the time, he stepped away from it to concentrate more on his need to fulfil his potential and become a “star dancer”. His interest was reawakened during the pandemic and he has been doing choreography for about three years now having written some “Draft Works” pieces plus some pas de deux for himself and his partner, Mayara Magri, which they have performed at galas. He feels that he has something to say and will continue to choreograph.

    Anna-Rose O’Sullivan was one of the few company members who were part of his year at White Lodge, but in Upper School there were far more including Luca Acri, Annette Buvoli and Marcelino Sambé. The international students had experienced far more than the White Lodge students and much more had been asked of them technically, so they seem fully formed, mature dancers. However, both sets of students still had a lot to learn. This inspired some people but also disillusioned others who were more inclined to give up dance to do something else. Matthew was one of the inspired. One of his first teachers was Hope Keelan, who continues teaching to this day and is coming back with this year’s junior students who will be performing in “The Nutcracker” and having a very similar experience to the one that Matthew had when he was that age. He was also taught by David Yow and Antonio Castilla in the Lower School and then, in the Upper School, by Meelis Pakri, David Peden and Gary Norman.

    Once you are at Upper School, the level of academics drops off and dance tuition increases. Competitiveness heightens as you start to work with more international students and you see yourself on the cusp of becoming a professional ballet dancer. There is a palpable realisation that what you do during these few years will decide what version of yourself you become and you are desperate to be ready to make the change.

    Whilst still a student at the Lower School, Matthew performed in ballets like “The Nutcracker”, “Sleeping Beauty” and “La Sylphide”. The roles were simple and involved things like carrying pillows, being naughty children at the back of the stage or doing dance reels. During Upper School there are few performances at the beginning of the course, but later, roles become available as you head towards becoming a professional dancer. This time, for example, you graduate to carrying candles rather than pillows as in “Onegin” or “La Valse”, but you also get to cover dancers and Matthew’s first dancing role on stage was in “La Valse”, covering a dancer who had gone off sick. This was done with the approval of Christoper Carr.

    Interestingly, Matthew did not graduate from the Royal Ballet School. Around March of his graduation year, tours had been organised for the dancers with an opportunity to take part in various performances leading up to the graduation performance. He had already been offered a contract with the Royal Ballet in the January of that year and he was looking forward to performing the varied repertoire before finally dancing on the stage at the Royal Opera House in his graduation performance. However, he had been ignoring issues with his knees for approximately three years and when he finally told one of his teachers, Nicola Tranah, who had not been aware that he had a problem, she took him to the physiotherapist. The physiotherapist was concerned and insisted on a MRI scan, after which Matthew was told that he would need knee surgery or risk suffering cartilage and bone damage. This was distressing news, so he asked for a second opinion. The second opinion was that, yes, he could continue dancing until the damage caused the relevant piece of bone to fall off and then he could have surgery to ensure that he was still able to walk. This was convincing enough for Matthew and he went with the first option of immediate surgery. After the surgery, there were nine months of rehabilitation which covered the whole time of the student performances when the group would be going to Paris to dance on the Palais Garner stage (a dream that Matthew still has not yet realised), as well as travelling to Toronto to dance with Canada’s National Ballet School. Tempting as this was, Matthew listened to the advice of the experts around him who told him to start his career as early as possible and as healthy as possible. He was not able to dance with the company until January of the following year during which time he had to watch his friends dancing in ballets like “Rite of Spring” which was very frustrating.

    Matthew was told by his teacher, Gary Norman, that he had a place in the Royal Ballet at the same time as David Donnelly and Annette Buvoli. Anna-Rose O’Sullivan, Luca Acri and Marcelino Sambé had already been given their contracts as the Company was desperate for new dancers.

    A Winter’s Tale” was one of the first ballets Matthew danced with the company as he had to cover a dancer with an injury. He was a courtier in Act I and participated in the group shepherds’ dance in Act II. He was also lucky to work with Wayne McGregor as well as experiencing both contemporary and classical ballet. It was also interesting for him to see how his new colleagues prepared themselves for roles. The time he spent in the corps de ballet was useful and Matthew believes that spending as much time on stage as possible is invaluable in the learning process. He commented on the fact that he spent more time on stage than Aurora in “The Sleeping Beauty” as he was playing different courtier roles in all the different acts. It was exhausting, but a great opportunity to be part of the ambience and observe what was going on around you plus hone acting skills in the different settings of the ballets.

    His first big solo role was in “Connectome” by Alistair Marriott as one of four soloist boys. He had already worked with Marriott in the Royal Ballet School second year end of year show. Next came Lensky in “Onegin” which was his first principal role. This is one of his favourite roles. A few years ago, he revisited it and felt that he had gained a great deal of experience since the first time. This is the kind of role where Matthew is most at home because it has a rich text to draw on with many-faceted characters playing off one another, giving dancers the opportunity to add different interpretations to the characters, allowing the audience to see the subtleties in the dancers’ acting as well as their emotional response to the movements.

    He is also a huge fan of MacMillan ballets and finds them some of the most rewarding work that he has performed. In the more classical roles such as the Princein “The Nutcracker” or “The Sleeping Beauty”, he struggles more to embody the characters. It is easier with “The Sleeping Beauty” because there is the beautiful Sarabande solo and the Prince has a back story to work with which provides poetry and which Matthew feels he can grow with. It was one of the first classical ballets that he danced with the company. Dancing the role with Yasmine Nagdhi and seeing how she performs and how she has progressed is like holding up a mirror to himself where he can see how they have progressed together as well as his individual progression. During one of their general rehearsal performances of “Romeo and Juliet” there was genuine electricity between audience and cast and Matthew cannot remember a similar ‘hubbub’ after a matinee performance. This was a truly great moment for him.

    Matthew was promoted to Principal in 2018 and was told by Kevin O’Hare in his office during one of his standard meetings with the ballet company at the end of a season. He was lucky to be pushed as soon as he joined the company and though he was not promoted after his first year, he had been promoted every year since so he saw the “writing on the wall” and was not surprised to get the promotion as he had danced most of the repertory and been rewarded with most of his dream roles which was really what he saw as the bigger achievement. He knew that it was a privilege to become Principal and that the role came with lots of responsibility and duty.

    One of Matthew’s biggest moments was when David Hallberg was injured during Act I of a performance of “Giselle” with Natalia Osipova. He got the call from Kevin at home while he was cooking his supper. He wasn’t sure if it was a definite replacement or whether he would just be standing by, but Kevin confirmed that he would be going on with very little time to warm up and work out which version of the ballet was being performed. A funny anecdote told by Matthew is the insistence of ballet coach Alexander Agadzhanov on the exact on-stage position of Albrecht, whereas Matthew was thinking that there were much bigger problems than defining where he should be standing to the exact centimetre. The experience was a watershed moment for him and proved that he could be trusted to perform under such extremely stressful conditions. Natalia Osipova was very gracious about the situation and during the curtain calls kept pushing Matthew forward to take more of the credit for the performance whilst also applauding him wildly. This was very generous of her because that performance had been important for Osipova and Hallberg as it was the return of their partnership as he came back from an extended period of injury. From Matthew’s perspective it was important, therefore, not to disappoint the audience, but they were very much on side and clearly did not want him to fail. Matthew had only performed “Giselle” once before with Yasmine Nagdhi but, fortunately, he had spent his time in the gym doing squats and building up his strength.

    As a Principal in the Royal Ballet, you are more able to be part of the decision about the roles you play because Kevin O’Hare is a director who is very open to discussion. Matthew very rarely turns down roles and still finds it difficult to say ‘no’. Kevin encourages them to push themselves and dance a wide range of the repertoire and what is important to Matthew is to know that Kevin believes that he is performing well. Sometimes dancers have to perform very different characters during the same run of a performance such as Romeo and Tybalt.Matthew’s experience of the role of Tybalt comes from the Ballet Boyz film “Romeo and Juliet Beyond Words” which was a very untraditional way to learn the role. The requirement was to have Tybalt’s energy be a foil to Romeo and his friends. Doing it on set and on location meant that it felt much more real and vivid and engendered a stronger response from the dancers to how different it felt or how heated Tybalt’s death was. At the end he was left feeling like a shell and compares it to playing a role like Mayerling, even though the Tyballt role does not have anything like the same dramatic arc. When he performed it on stage, the stage manager commented on how different his performance was, but this was down to the film-based introduction he had had to the role. In addition, the person you are playing opposite makes a big difference to what you deliver. The Romeo role is very dramatic but also includes a great deal of tricky technique, due to the Nureyev choreography which means that you are forced to concentrate on that, whereas with Tybalt you feel more like an actor as there are no particular technical elements to the steps. Although most people would naturally cast him in romantic roles, these other roles give Matthew an opportunity to explore his “dark side” as well. He would love to be cast as Onegin the next time the ballet is performed, having already danced Lensky a few times. Lescaut is another character he would love to dance as he has already played De Grieux. In the past, David Wall and Anthony Dowell alternated those two roles and dancers like Irek Mukhamedov and Carlos Acosta have also played both roles. Likewise, Marianela Nuñez and Natalia Osipova danced both lead roles in a single run of “La Bayadère”, so this is something Matthew would like to see re-introduced. However, there are so many talented dancers in the company and Kevin O’Hare is very keen to give everyone an opportunity as much as possible. “Manon” has not come round as often during Matthew’s career at the Royal Ballet as it did during the previous ten years, so he doesn’t know it as intimately as some others whereas he does know “Romeo and Juliet” extremely well and is therefore much more ready to explore switching roles in that ballet.

    Matthew’s preparation for a ballet will differ depending on the role and whether it is story-based or plotless. Dancing a character like Romeo involves drawing upon an actual text and MacMillan’s choreography is full of description and opportunity to explore idiosyncratic ways of being a real human, whereas something like a Balanchine ballet involves a purity of vocabulary which necessitates executing the steps, shapes, lines and musicality in a very exact way. “Apollo” was a different Balanchine ballet, choreographed earlier in his career before he moved more towards abstraction and was interesting to dance because it felt like a dialogue with an abstract language involving strong symbols, gestures and imagery. There is Apollo on his chariot or with his harp, the three muses, the scroll…. How much Matthew enjoys abstract or story-based ballets very much depends on the coach or the choreographer because an abstract work is only as abstract as the choreographer wants it to be and all sorts of messages or intentions can be added to the work which means that it is not meaningless for the dancer and can provide a real sense of creating something important with an explicit meaning and a clear sense of itself. So, telling a fairy story or a clear story doesn’t necessarily mean that it is a more rewarding experience than dancing an abstract ballet, though it does allow for more theatricality and in-depth acting which is rewarding for an artist.

    For the role of Prince Rudolf in “Mayerling”, Matthew did not have a great deal of time to do research the first time he danced it because he was replacing an injured Ed Watson and only had four to five days to prepare. So, he learned the ballet by being in the very fabric of it and with Georgiades-MacMillan collaborations even the design and the weight of the costumes help to provide this “fabric” in the very way the ballet is woven together into a rich tapestry of a story. This is what makes it so engrossing for the audience and the dancers. The next time he performed the role he was able to do some research and was very inspired by a book called “A Nervous Splendor – Vienna 1888-1889” by Frederic Morton, about the nine months that preceded Rudolf’s suicide. It sets the context for the cultural and artistic world of the time: Mahler writing and conducting his works, Hugo Wolf composing his Lieder whilst having an affair the wife of an artist etc. So, it describes a decadent and depraved society at a time where we were not only on the cusp of the introduction of psychoanalysis but witnessing the vestiges of a great empire just before it was all about to crack. Matthew was also inspired by making a comparison of Rudolf with a character like Hamlet.

    He was coached by one of the choreologists, Karl Burnett, for his first performance and then for the next run by Irek Mukhamedov (for the first couple of weeks) as well as Laura Morera who was familiar with many of the female roles. Zenaida Yanowski was involved as was Alexander Agadzhanov.

    Matthew really enjoys partnering because, as a dancer, you spend a great deal of time training to be the best dancer you can be and in a ballet class you generally do the same things as a female dancer. What you do on stage, however, is vastly different and the main role of a male dancer is to partner the female. It is a very interesting skill which has its own ‘rule book’ and techniques but much of it is down to intuition and you learn from experience how to cope with different styles of partnering. Also, certain styles of choreography mean that you have to throw the rule book out of the window. All this makes it very rewarding to agree with a partner what they need, what both of you want out of the experience, how you can help them. In other words, it is a delicate push and pull with the partner. Working with more experienced ballerinas has taught him that he is able to work better and fix any mistakes when they are open to allowing him the time to investigate what is going wrong, whereas less experienced ballerinas tend to power through the choreography no matter what and do not give you the space to find out what is not working or, alternatively, they try and do it on their own which leaves you both in a static position. If you go wrong with someone who trusts you, you know it and can put it right, but with someone who doesn’t it cannot work as there is so little communication. Good partnering is something that interests him in his choreography and is one of his strengths. There is a good deal of choreography that does not include much advanced partnering because people are keen to see movement and do not want to get fixated on detail or specific complicated grips which are difficult to organise but allow you to achieve something remarkable. So, it becomes rare to see over the head lifts in the more modern works or even pirouettes which can be done in an organic way rather than the more prepared classical way.

    Although there is value in having an established partnership – and his long-standing partnership with Yasmine Nagdhi is a good example of this – Matthew enjoys changing partners frequently. Established partnerships can become like “an old married couple” who no longer appreciate each other and this generates resentment. When he and Yasmine get back together after a period of dancing with other people, it feels natural and nice to be working together again and they communicate with an ease and fluency but when they have been working together for an extended period of time, the appreciation of each other may get lost and there is then more focus on negative aspects. It is also interesting to work with more inexperienced ballerinas because it gives you the opportunity to become a mentor/coach which is a learning experience for you as the more experienced dancer.

    Recently one of Matthew’s performances of “Don Quixote” was filmed for the cinema relay, which Matthew found nerve-wracking as “Don Quixote” brings with it a great deal of expectation as it has been danced by so many great dancers. As a young dancer Matthew watched videos of the ballet, on repeat, danced by Mikhail Baryshnikov, Carlos Acosta, Ivan Vasiliev and Vladimir Vasiliev. Then, as a teenager, he practised the steps in the studio to prove to himself that he could do the tricks and dance like these international icons even though he was an English ballet dancer. That was a great challenge, but then the reality of perfoming the full three-hour ballet brought his insecurities to the surface as he compared himself not just to his peers but to the many dancers who had danced the role before him. Dancing the role of Basilio is fun when he is on stage, but Matthew is hyper-critical of his performances. However, the ballet is simply a joyful feast for the audience, allowing them to see great technique: one-handed lifts, jumps spins, as well as providing great pantomime. Cesar Corrales was originally due to dance with Mayara Magri for the cinema relay, but he was just returning from injury, so Matthew took over as he and Mayara, his life partner, were both keen to dance together. It was more pressure than in any other show and he has never been so physically well prepared for a performance. He spent a great deal of time in the rehearsal studio and managed his recovery time and nutrition well. This is something he and Mayara could do together as well as support each other. The cherry on the cake was being told a couple of days before the performance that the King and Queen would also be in the live audience at the Opera House which, obviously, did nothing to lessen the stress. All in all, they were both pleased with the performance although there were a few things they would have liked to change. It was a great moment for them both to share and have recorded for posterity. It also meant that Matthew’s parents could invite several of their friends in Liverpool to come and watch him dance, something they cannot normally do as the performances are in London.

    Working with new choreography is something that has inspired Matthew to create his own choreography. There are no set rules in how choreographers work with dancers. For example, Wayne MacGregor will give you the impulse for what the movement should be and will suggest the shape of the movement so that it transfers to the dancer’s body immediately, leaving them to own the movement and develop it in their own way whilst he continues to add his own dynamics. Christopher Wheeldon does not come with steps already formed but works through the imagery he is trying to create with the dancers via the shape or line of the body. He always homes in on the dramaturgy and is very aware of how the eyes of audience must be led to the significance of a moment. Hofesh Schechter has his own style of movement, so he will give dancers a phrase and then ask them to repeat it again and again whilst providing them with different analogies and imagery about how that phrase should feel so that their bodies eventually inhabit it.

    All of this illustrates to Matthew the scope and variety in choreography and how daunting and difficult it is to organise a room of participants and instruct them clearly so that they understand what you require of them. He likens it to a composer who writes a piece of music on paper and then brings it to musicians to allow the piece to grow. He loves the collaborative nature of choreography but feels that it is in his nature to first work on something on his own for a while before he brings it to others. As part of the collaborative process, some choreographers “give you permission” to make suggestions about the direction the choreography may take. This usually happens after you have built some rapport with them and understand their style of choreography. It can also depend on the mood of the rehearsal and whether the choreographer needs the energy from the dancers or is very clear in their own mind about what they want in that moment.

    Asked about who would coach them for a Balanchine ballet like “Apollo”, Matthew answered that he has worked with Cristopher Saunders on pieces at short notice or when they are not performing a whole ballet which was the case with the ballet “Symphony in C”. But, in the main, they have worked with the legendary Patricia Neary. She is very passionate about the transference of knowledge and inspiration of Balanchine’s works and this is the type of person Matthew likes to work with as it is that very passion that motivates him to keep working for much longer.

    Last summer the Royal Ballet toured Japan, taking highlights from the “Diamonds” celebration they had performed at the end of the season in London. Matthew danced Christopher Wheeldon’s “For Four” plus “A Month in the Country” which he enjoyed revisiting. Also included in the repertoire was “Romeo and Juliet”. The Japanese audience is quite unique and Matthew compared what happens at the stage door to “Beatlemania”. He doesn’t think that he could endure this adoration if it happened all the time in London. So many of the fans at the stage door before class in the morning had also been there the night before, after the show. Matthew finds it difficult to understand that level of passion and wonders what they do with all the pictures they take with the ballet dancers. However, they are a very responsible audience and very appreciative of the dancers, so it is no hardship to oblige them for the time that they are in Japan. The only downside of touring is that, after months of preparation, you generally only get the opportunity to perform a show once and this can disappointing especially if that one show turns out not to be as successful as you would like.

    Although the novelty has worn off slightly because he has been there so often, Japan is definitely one of his favourite touring destinations. He also has fond memories of his first tour which was to Moscow to dance with the Bolshoi Ballet, after which they continued on to Taipei and Shanghai. The next tour he did was to the United States, to Washington, Chicago and New York. He finds New York an exciting place to perform. He has been lucky enough to perform there a couple of times including an opportunity to dance Matthew Bourne’s “Swan Lake”. Performing on Broadway is very special, giving you the feeling that you are in an energetic, “happening” place where you are part of the “buzz”.

    Matthew has not done a great deal of guesting due to his commitments to the Royal Ballet. He was able to join Matthew Bourne’s company during different periods of an 18-month tour of their “Swan Lake”. Apart from this he has not done much, as guesting seems to have given way to galas which Matthew has done in abundance. The galas allow you to meet and network with new people. It is a more transactional affair as you often arrive the night before or even on the day of the performance and then leave the next morning.

    He does not see himself as a natural director and it is not something he would actively seek to do. The administration and managerial sides are more difficult for someone who has spent most of their life dancing. Coaching is more appealing and he is eager to help and support younger dancers. He loves discussing the detail of dance and this element would be very rewarding if he had the time to devote to it. However, he does not see himself as a ballet teacher.

    Finally, Matthew shared some funny anecdotes with us. During a “Nutcracker” performance when he was a still a White Lodge student, they were inside the soldiers’ fort ready to come out and fight when one of the wheels slipped into the opening where the Christmas tree was and the whole structure began to shake. At which point, the curtain came down. Also, when he was playing Tybaltto Cesar Corrales’ Romeo, Cesar became over-exuberant and actually knocked Matthew’s sword out of his hand during a fight which resulted in Matthew becoming quite aggressive himself, so the resulting fight was maybe more realistic than the audience realised. During his leaving speech recently, Tomas Mock reminded them of a scene where someone walked backwards into a chess table throwing all the chess pieces all over the stage. These incidents, of which there are many more, keep things fun and alive for the dancers and probably for the audience, too.

    An audience member asked Matthew whether there are any choreographers’ works he has not yet danced and would like to. His response was that there are several and he finds it disappointing that the Royal Ballet repertoire does not touch the late 20th century European masters like Hans van Manen, Jiri Kylian or William Forsythe. He is particular keen to dance some of Kylian’s work before he retires. He finds him a remarkable choreographer with a varied style. He is also a fan of more modern choreography such as the Netherlands Dance Theatre and choreographers like Paul Lightfoot and Sol León, Alexander Ekman, Maurice Béjart and John Neumeier. Though this list is not exhaustive, these are some of the key figures whose works Matthew would love to explore.

    Report written by Herma John and edited by Matthew Ball and David Bain.

    © The Ballet Association 2023