From pupil to principal


Ten years ago I interviewed 14-year-old Matthew Ball, a pupil at the Royal Ballet School in Richmond Park. When I interview him again, Matthew is a principal dancer at the Royal Ballet, garnering rave reviews for his performances

When I went to the Royal Ballet School to interview Matthew Ball a decade ago, he was a gangly, tracksuited youth, all arms and legs hanging off the sofa, chatting to me about leaving home in Liverpool aged 11, to pursue his dancing dream. He spoke of how he had been inspired by Baryshnikov and Nureyev: ‘I want to make it to the top and become principal dancer, dancing the main roles in Swan Lake and Giselle,’ he said. We moved to the studio for his class, and I watched, jaw dropping, as he transformed into a ballet dancer – elegant, poised, those gangly arms and legs fluid in motion.

Now, at the age of only 24, he has already been promoted to principal dancer, already had the leads in both Swan Lake and Giselle¸ with more great roles ahead of him. Last month I watched him in the main role of The Swan/The Stranger in Matthew Bourne’s all male Swan Lake at Sadler’s Wells. He was totally mesmerising. When he was on stage you could only watch him. Powerful and beautiful as The Swan, all malevolent sexiness as The Stranger (and yes, actually, a slightly uncomfortable response when you’ve interviewed him as a teenager!).

It’s been ten years of hard work to get to this point, as I find out when I interview him again, as he rehearses for his next big role of Basilio in Don Quixote at the Royal Opera House.

‘In a dancer’s career, the best thing you can do is work hard and make sure you seize the opportunities you get, because a lot of it is in the hands of other people. I think I’ve been lucky in terms of the timing, the shift in the company, [which is]giving younger people opportunities to do these big roles.’

It is not a given, that having been to the school, you get a place at the Royal Ballet and there’s even less chance of being promoted to principal, the highest position. But Ball was always determined to stand out: ‘There’s a lot of talented dancers out there, but not necessarily all of them can tell a story. They can execute exciting technical movements, but not be exciting facially or with charisma, so that’s something I’ve always tried to kind of work on, to add to my performances.’ It’s certainly worked. His audiences are spell-bound and critics love him.

His love of ballet started at a young age. His mother took him to an early production of Bourne’s Swan Lake. ‘It really touched me back then, particularly as the male dancers are obviously the main cores of the dance rather than the female characters – that role of the black and white swan, I always wanted to do. I think it’s maybe a bit more special to be doing it as it feels like I’ve come full circle.’ Along with Billy Elliot, he feels these productions have really defined dance for a whole generation of boys.

When we talk, he’s in rehearsals for Don Quixote, playing the role of Basilio. He’s relishing a completely different role: ‘It’s famous for real virtuoso kind of show-off moments, with all the big jumps, so it’s going to be a challenge in terms of getting all that technique together to execute it, but also giving it the acting side of the cheeky Spaniard, which is good fun to play around with.’

I ask him if it’s hard to come down after a performance, to just go out for a drink afterwards or flop in front of the TV? ‘So, I’ve danced sometimes where you feel like you’re still on Cloud Nine and the adrenalin is still really up – then you tend to go out for a few drinks. But there are times when I’m not just physically, but emotionally exhausted, then it’s very hard to kind of return to normality. You really do get transported while you’re on stage. Swan Lake is like that, because of the climatic moment at the end, it’s really like a fight for yours and the prince’s life. At the beginning of the season, I danced the role of Crown Prince Rudolf in Mayerling… you almost suicide pact, you love her and kill her and yourself, so you have to go to such as bad place to express that to an audience. It leaves you, I wouldn’t say damaged, but it definitely takes a while for you to feel like yourself again.’

He’s occasionally gone back to the school in Richmond Park: ‘I still get butterflies in the stomach! The success I’ve managed to have since being there is way beyond my expectations.’

We agree to a third interview in another 10 years’ time. ‘I wonder where I’ll be?’ he ponders. I have no doubt he’ll be at the top. And I can’t wait.

Pippa Duncan

Matthew Ball in Don Quixote – Royal Ballet

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