Every year ballet lovers await with excited anticipation the announcement of promotions in the hope that there will be good news for their favourite dancers. This year has seen some significant promotions amongst male dancers: Fernando Carratalá Coloma and James Streeter of English National Ballet, Mlindi Kulashe and Joseph Taylor from Northern, and The Royal Ballet’s Matthew Ball. So altogether a good excuse for us to focus our attention on particular male dancers who have played a notable, even remarkable, role in British ballet companies and repertoire. Although dancers often contribute in ways other than dancing, for example through choreographing, directing, coaching, and outreach programmes, we are concentrating on the influence of the dancing careers of our selected danseur son British ballet. As our focus we have chosen three dancers who have until recently performed, or are still performing, with British companies, and three from an earlier generation. In our male dancers now section we are discussing Carlos Acosta, Eric Underwood and James Streeter. We hope that you will discover the reasons for our choices as you read on …
Male Dancers Now
Two years ago Carlos Acosta staged The Classical Farewell at the Royal Albert Hall, marking the end of one stage of his career. This autumn sees a celebration of his 30-year career at the same venue, and on October 15thhe will be receiving a Queen Elizabeth II Coronation Award. These events are tangible evidence of the importance of Britain to Acosta’s career as well as his influence on ballet in this country. Winner of the Prix de Lausanne competition at the age of 16, the Cuban Carlos Acosta became one of the most celebrated dancers of his generation. He was still a teenager when Ivan Nagy, artistic director of English National Ballet at that time, invited him to perform with the company. Despite enjoying an international career, Acosta’s dancing life was concentrated in London, at the Royal Ballet, where he was principal guest artist from 2003 to 2016. As well as being an extraordinary dancer, Acosta was a wonderfully supportive, thoughtful and sensitive partner, known in particular for his partnerships with Tamara Rojo and Marianela Núñez.
Famed for being the first black principal at the Royal Ballet, his popularity as a dancer was perhaps fuelled by the stark contrast between the well documented poverty of his childhood in the backstreets of Havana and his technical ability in what is so often considered to be an elitist art form, lending a certain “exotic” element to his profile. Tales of his breakdancing on the streets in the 1980s have been eagerly pitted against his fabulously successful career in ballet. One of the reasons for this success was undoubtedly that despite his understandable protestations that he had “no clue” how to portray a prince onstage, he appeared to perform the classical roles with great ease, as if to the manner born. The way in which he took to the stage with a nobility of bearing, combined with luscious épaulement and amplitude of movement was magnificently complemented his virtuosity. The stylishness of his dancing was shaped by the ways in which he tempered the athletic thrust of his dancing. This he achieved through his sophisticated control and phrasing, for example by decelerating at the end of multiple pirouettes in order to accentuate a clean finish, and through the easy rhythm of his dancing. And unforgettable are his tours en l’air travelling downstage in the coda of Siegfried’s solo in the Black Act of Swan Lake, which despite the complexity of the setting chosen by Acosta communicate the ebullience and excitement felt by Siegfried at this point in the narrative. This balance of bravura matched with elegant style and expressivity made Acosta a remarkable exponent of the 19thcentury repertoire so vital to large-scale companies such as the Royal Ballet. In a review of Swan Lake Ismene Brown said of him: “This Cuban with the athlete’s body and the noble poet’s soul is a dancer one can hardly have enough of”. So fortunately Acosta’s repertoire was broad, including works by Frederick Ashton, George Balanchine, Kenneth MacMillan and William Forsythe.
James Streeter, who has just been promoted to First Soloist at English National Ballet, is striking in a different way from Acosta. Firstly, in this age of transnationalism, multiculturalism and portfolio careers, it is noticeable that after completing his training at English National Ballet School, he entered the Company in 2004 and has remained there as a dancer, moving up the ranks and expanding his repertoire. Perhaps this stability in his professional life is something that has enabled him to develop what appears to be a natural dramatic talent, but we are convinced that this must be an aspect of his work that he has striven to develop over time. For the range of Streeter’s acting abilities seems to us to be unsurpassable. No matter how minor the role, whether it be a mime or dancing role, comic, tragic or romantic, Streeter inhabits it, bringing the character to life. “Minor” characters with whom we are so familiar that they almost seem to dissolve into the rest of the stage action suddenly emerge in graphic relief with an almost uncanny vividness. We experienced this for example in his portrayal of the English Prince in Act I of The Sleeping Beauty (Petipa, 1890), whose main purpose is to support Aurora reliably and sensitively in the “Rose Adagio”. As important as this task is to the performance, Streeter in addition imbued the potentially cardboard cut-out Prince with credibility as a human being. As he strode energetically across the stage, impressively flourishing his cavalier hat, the Prince sprang to life as a worthy contender for Aurora’s hand. In stark contrast is Streeter’s “fabulously vicious Carabosse, who prowls the stage with the sallow features and madly crimped hair of a vengeful Tudor queen” (Jennings, “English National Ballet”). Luke Jennings’ evocative description conveys the quality and force of Streeter’s movements and expressions that enable him to embody the evil nature of the Fairy and dominate the stage revealing her in all her crazed malevolence. But even in MacMillan’s Song of the Earth, a work inclined towards more abstract representation, Streeter stands out as a member of the group in the Fourth Song “Of Beauty”, with the boldness and buoyancy of his dancing that imbues the role with character and makes the choreography seem fresh and vivid.
In our opinion Streeter’s ability to inject lifeblood into a role and project character, mood and emotion across the footlights has been brought to fulfilment in Akram Khan’s 2016 re-envisaging of Giselle in which he dances the role of Albrecht, a character torn by moral dilemmas, who in the course of the ballet is guilty of betrayal and cowardice, but at the same time is gripped by love, anger, jealousy, fear and remorse. Although Streeter recognises that Albrecht’s infidelity and the part he plays in Giselle’s death “hardly makes him a likeable character”, he also regards Albrecht as a victim of the class system (O’Byrne). And despite the technical challenges and stylistic hybridity of the choreography Streeter comes across above all as a human being expressing the emotions that have arisen in him from his situation. This achievement was recognised in the 18thNational Dance Awards in November, when he was nominated for the Dance Europe Award for Outstanding Male performance (classical).
Of our three selected dancers, the one whose name is most closely associated with specific choreographers is Eric Underwood, who became celebrated as a muse for both Wayne McGregor and Christopher Wheeldon, Resident Choreographer and Artistic Associate of the Royal Ballet respectively. Joining the Royal Ballet in 2006 from American Ballet Theatre, Underwood drew media attention for his ethnicity as an African American and a childhood dominated by violent crime, as well as for his modelling career (Rafanelli). Due to his height (6 foot 2 inches) and quiet but magnetic energy, he cut an imposing figure on stage. Like Acosta he formed significant partnerships, and the recording of McGregor’s Infra (2008) and Limen (2009) shows exactly why. Not only is there an arresting contrast between the paleness in skin tone of Sarah Lamb and Melissa Hamilton and the rich darkness of Underwood’s skin, but his attentiveness and skill in working together with the ballerinas gives seamless expression to the choreography, while the intensity of his gaze emphasises its sensuousness and dramatic potential.
The same works by McGregor reveal an interesting combination of features integral to Underwood’s individual movement style: on the one hand an exceptional ability to articulate the torso in fluid, rippling movements and to execute a huge range in extension; on the other, the ability to create long classical lines and sculptural poses of great beauty.
Underwood himself recognises the good fortune he has had in working with McGregor and the impact this collaboration has had on the development of ballet as an art form. In a 2015 interview he stated: “Wayne’s work offers me great opportunities to explore new movements, new forms of ballet …These newer forms of ballet bring new vitality, a limitless sense of creativity to rejuvenate the art of ballet”. We would go further than this and suggest that Underwood’s collaborations with two choreographers so central to the work of the Royal Ballet have created a new strand of the English style originally established by Ninette de Valois and Ashton. In his perceptive review of Limen, Luke Jennings draws our attention to a lineage we might not otherwise notice: “… when Lamb, lifted by Underwood, performs little gallops in the air, the sequence could have been created by Ashton”.
Yet as the Royal Ballet embarks on a run of MacMillan’s Mayerling, it is deliciously tempting to imagine what a performance of this led by Underwood and Hamilton would be like. And picture Underwood’s Romeo opposite Sarah Lamb’s Juliet …These are roles that the dancer named in 2010 as Royal Ballet repertoire that he coveted the most. Or what about Oberon in Ashton’s The Dream, a character that demands superb command of the stage in addition to great partnering skills, fluidity of movement and clean penché arabeques? We would have welcomed the opportunity to witness Underwood commanding the stage in a greater variety of roles. Unfortunately, given that he left the Royal Ballet last year having reached the rank of soloist in 2008, it is unlikely that our wish-list for Underwood’s repertoire will be fulfilled.
Male Dancers Then
From the 1960s to 1980s there were three prominent male dancers who played similar roles in the development of British ballet to Acosta, Streeter and Underwood: Rudolf Nureyev, the international ballet superstar who had such a monumental impact on the status of male dancing in the West (Freeman and Thorpe 116); the supreme dance-actor David Wall; and Anthony Dowell, one of Frederick Ashton’s muses, who personified the notion of the English style of ballet.
Surely no one could have foretold the arrival of Nureyev from the Soviet Union in 1961 and the stupendous impact that he would have on the world of ballet, including the development of the art form in this country. By the time Nureyev defected, the Royal Ballet had established itself as a company of international repute with Margot Fonteyn still at its helm, London Festival Ballet was in its twelfth year, Rambert was still operating as a ballet company, and the troupe that was to become Scottish Ballet had already been formed. In the course of his long and extremely active performing career Nureyev performed with all of these companies, undoubtedly raising their profile with his prodigious talent, energy and unrivalled fame.
De Valois and Ashton had led the development of a choreographic and performing style that had become recognisably “English”, embodied by the Royal Ballet’s internationally acclaimed Prima Ballerina Margot Fonteyn. Yet the arrival of Nureyev not only most famously prolonged and enhanced Fonteyn’s career, but also galvanised a generation of British male dancers to new technical and dramatic heights, thereby elevating the status of the male dancer in this country. David Wall, who at the age of 20 became the Royal Ballet’s youngest male principal, declared that Nureyev had had a “life-changing effect” on his perception of male ballet dancers (“Obituaries”).
Nureyev took the British ballet audience by storm. The combination of his glamour and charisma, his virtuosic Russian technique, voracious appetite for work, and the ferocity of his passion for the art form were unprecedented in British ballet, though it is important not to forget that ballet as a national enterprise was still a young art form when Nureyev became permanent guest artist with the Royal Ballet in 1962. Both Ashton and MacMillan created roles for Nureyev, most famously the male protagonist partnering Fonteyn in Marguerite and Armand (Ashton, 1963). However, we find it interesting that in 1960, the year before Nureyev’s arrival in the West, Frederick Ashton had already created a major role for a male dancer in his La Fille mal gardée.
Colas, the male protagonist in La Fille mal gardée, was choreographed on the British David Blair, and is a virtuoso role in comic disguise requiring enormous strength and dexterity in terms of both dance and partnering technique. In fact over the following two decades, while Nureyev was still guest artist with the Company, both choreographers concentrated on the young British dancers, creating complex characters through inventive and challenging choreography that were at least as central to the works as the ballerina roles. Striking examples of roles created on Dowell are Oberon in The Dream (1964) and Believe in A Month in the Country (1976), both created by Ashton, and Des Grieux from MacMillan’s 1974 Manon. For David Wall the creation of works, which included Lescaut, Manon’s scheming brother, culminated in the role of Rudolph in MacMillan’s Mayerling (1978), a prodigious role, still 40 years later, unsurpassed as a male dancing role. Even though Nureyev controversially danced the eponymous hero on the first night of MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet, the three central male characters were created on three British dancers: Christopher Gable as Romeo, David Blair as Mercutio and Anthony Dowell as Benvolio.
As part of our research we discovered that Wall’s natural dramatic flair was noted by the critic Clive Barnes early on in his career when he performed the Persian Princein the “Rose Adagio” (Freeman and Thorpe 131), a wonderfully serendipitous parallel with our own experience of watching James Streeter. Wall had a passion for theatre that clearly fed into his approach to his roles, enhancing his instinctive talent and enabling him to create ambiguous characters such as Lescaut and Rudolf with consummate skill. As stated in his Telegraph obituary, “MacMillan saw in Wall a performer brave and curious enough to develop a new kind of male ballet character, enabling more complicated and realistic storytelling than the traditional hero-heroine format”. Very similar to Streeter’s interpretation of Albrecht, Wall went to pains to communicate what he perceived as Rudolf’s sympathetic side (“Mayerling”). Again The Telegraph highlighted his “ability to find pathos in even the most damaged of characters”.
Dowell was a dancer of a different ilk, specifically known for his embodiment of the English style of his era with its emphasis on refined classical lines, lyricism, musicality and understated virtuosity. Both Ashton and MacMillan used these attributes in solos for Dowell in The Dream, The Sleeping Beauty (Ashton’s 1968 interpolation for the Prince), Manon and A Month in the Country with swooping, yearning or elegiac arabesques and elegantly challenging turns. In his analysis of Dowell’s dancing Jennings accentuates his “impeccable technique and purity of expression”, the “supreme elegance” of his line and the “quiet finesse of his phrasing” (“MoveTube”).
The power of Dowell’s physicality was totally different from Nureyev’s, but power it was. Jennings describes him as “perfectly proportioned … possessed of a dazzling tensile pliancy … the choreographer’s ideal instrument” (“Farewell”). He was only 21 and a member of the corps de ballet when Ashton chose him to create the role of Oberon, an event that led to a fruitful creative collaboration between the two men for almost two decades. According to Carrie Seidman, Oberon “set a new standard for male dancers of the day”. This can be seen in the speed and complexity of the Scherzo with its continuous variety of turning jumps, followed shortly afterwards by the pas de deux, which requires a quite different quality with its intricate partnering and luscious use of the body. Crucially, while Dowell himself referred to the role as “a real killer”, it was vital to him that audiences would never be aware of the effort necessitated by the deceptively challenging choreography (qtd. in Jennings, “Farewell”).
Given the enduring centrality of the pas de deux to ballet, we cannot omit the fact that celebrated partnerships were integral to the dancing careers of Nureyev, Dowell and Wall. While the Fonteyn-Nureyev is probably the most famous partnership in British ballet, and perhaps internationally too, Jennings suggests that the Sibley-Dowell partnership, which began with The Dream, was equal to it “in its empathy and intensity” (“Farewell”). Wall considered his partnering to be integral to communicating through movement (Freeman and Thorpe 138), and not only were his partnerships with Lynn Seymour and even Margot Fonteyn celebrated, but incredibly he had to partner six different ballerinas in Mayerling in addition to coping with extraordinarily demanding choreography. The Dream pas de deux performed by Sibley and Dowell is indelibly imprinted on our memory for its sheer magic, as are the pas de deux in Mayerling for their blistering sensuality when danced by Seymour and Wall.
Unlike the three dancers whom we selected from more recent years in British ballet, these three dancers had similar repertoires with the Royal Ballet, all dancing the 19thcentury classics, in addition to a range of 20thcentury work. However, their distinctiveness as performers lent a richness to the performances of the Company, enabling audiences to see a variety of articulations and interpretations of the growing and increasingly interesting repertoire for male dancers. The ways in which Dowell and Wall inspired Ashton and Macmillan, the two giants of British choreography, led to the creation of roles that continue to challenge male dancers of the highest calibre today, both in this country and internationally. Further, and equally importantly, these collaborations between choreographers and dancers upheld and enhanced two hallmarks of British ballet: the distinctive English style and an emphasis on the dramatic expressiveness of ballet.
Concluding Thoughts on Male Dancers Now and Then
What has become very clear to us in doing our research for this post is that while the ballerina indubitably still dominates the ballet stage, male dancers too have made enormous contributions to the advancement of British ballet in the 20thand 21stcenturies. However, it is not necessary for a dancer to reach the highest echelons of the ballet company hierarchy in order to make an impact on performances, the development of performance style, and repertoire. In these days of celebrity culture we feel it is crucial to emphasise this. We celebrate the momentous influence of Carlos Acosta, Anthony Dowell, Rudolf Nureyev and David Wall as dancers. But simultaneously we also look forward to tracing the legacy of Eric Underwood in future performances by male dancers in British companies and to following the continued unfolding of James Streeter’s career.
© Rosie Gerhard
Next time on British Ballet Now and Then… to mark the contribution of British ballet to the commemoration of the First World War Centenary, we will be writing a post on war ballets created by British choreographers.
Brown, Ismene. “Rojo is Queen of the Swan Queens”. The Telegraph, 29 Nov. 2002, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/theatre/dance/3586430/Rojo-is-queen-of-the-Swan-Queens.html. Accessed 28 Sept. 2018.
Freeman, Gillian, and Edward Thorpe. Ballet Genius: twenty great dancers of the twentieth century. Equation, 1988.
Jennings, Luke. “Agon/Sphynx/Limen; Mayerling”. The Guardian, 8 Nov. 2009, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2009/nov/08/royal-ballet-acosta-mcgregor-mayerling. Accessed 21 Sept. 2018.
—. “English National Ballet: The Sleeping Beauty review – a way with the fairies”. The Guardian, June 2018, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2018/jun/10/english-national-ballet-sleeping-beauty-review-alina-cojacaru. Accessed 23 July, 2018.
—. “MoveTube: Anthony Dowell dances the Prince’s solo from Swan Lake Act I”. The Guardian, 10 Nov. 2011, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2011/nov/10/movetube-anthony-dowell-swan-lake. Accessed 23 July, 2018.
“Mayerling: South Bank special, part 3, 1978”. YouTube, uploaded 21 Sept. 2013, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m41t5OKA9Y0. Accessed 8 Sept. 2018.
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O’Byrne, Ellie. “Classic Love Story gets a Modern Twist”. Irish Examiner, 23 Apr. 2018, http://www.irishexaminer.com/breakingnews/lifestyle/culture/classic-love-story-gets-a-modern-twist-838618.html. Accessed 26 Sept. 2018.
Rafanelli, Stephanie. “Royal Opera House ballet star Eric Underwood: ‘I want to be a great dancer regardless of my colour’”. Evening Standard, 15 Oct. 2015, http://www.standard.co.uk/es-magazine/royal-opera-house-ballet-star-eric-underwood-i-want-to-be-a-great-dancer-regardless-of-my-colour-a3091036.html. Accessed 16 Sept. 2018.
Seidman, Carrie. “Anthony Dowell hands down his breakthrough role in Ashton″ ‘The Dream’ to Sarasota Ballet”. Herald Tribune, 24 Feb. 2018, http://www.heraldtribune.com/entertainmentlife/20180224/anthony-dowell-hands-down-his-breakthrough-role-in-ashton-the-dream-to-sarasota-ballet. Accessed 25 Sept. 2018.
Three Ballets by Wayne McGregor: Chroma, Infra, Limen. Performance by Eric Underwood, Melissa Hamilton, Sarah Lamb and The Royal Ballet, Opus Arte, 2011.
Trebay, Guy. “Eric Underwood, the American star of the Royal Ballet: ‘I never wanted to be the ‘black’ dancer – I wanted to be a great dancer’”. The Independent, 26 July 2017, http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/theatre-dance/features/eric-underwood-royal-ballet-strictly-come-dancing-al-green-marvin-gaye-a7860836.html. Accessed 15 Sept. 2018.
Underwood, Eric.Interview by Kathrina Farrugia-Kriel.“In Conversation with Eric Underwood”.Network of Pointes, vol. 35, 2015, p.25, Society of Dance History Scholars.