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Lunch with the FT

June 3, 2011 5:15 pm

Lunch with the FT: Edward Watson

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Royal Ballet principal dancer Edward Watson talks about romantic roles, being stronger than a rhino and why ‘The Nutcracker’ is not for him
Edward Watson

In a giant rehearsal room backstage at the Royal Opera House, Edward Watson, a leading dancer with the company and once described on a promotional poster as “stronger than a rhino”, is lying flat on his back, panting heavily, looking rather more like a springbok that has just been chased over a dusty veldt by a pride of lions.

Occasionally he lets out a little yelp – “Yeargh!” – as he tries to get his breath back. He looks across at his tormentor, Monica Mason, director of the Royal Ballet. She is nodding slowly. It is a wordless cameo as dramatic as anything mounted on the main stage, pupil and master seeking accord across an empty studio. I have an urge to take a picture, to make my own promotional poster: “This is what it takes. This is why art is great.”

Watson has been rehearsing for his role in The Rite of Spring, and just completed a sequence lasting several minutes, all jumps and springs and thrusts, without interruption. Mason told him she would stop him “if there is an edge missing”, but there wasn’t and she didn’t. Watson is still gulping for air as Mason and I slip out of the room. “It’s no way to make a living,” she tells me dryly. I tell her that I need a lie-down.

Forty-five minutes later, Watson, 34, steps into the Dean Street Townhouse in Soho, showered, relaxed, elegant. He is neatly dressed in a fine black and white striped top and jeans. I offer him my seat, which features several plumped up cushions and no back, and he wisely declines. There are presumably posture issues. The restaurant is dark, fashionable and buzzy. A large bottle of water is his priority.

That was an amazing half-hour, I tell him. “It’s killing me,” he replies. “It’s exhausting. It’s on my mind all the time.” Watson has never danced in the ballet before, let alone taken the lead role, normally interpreted by a woman. “And then I am getting over this injury.” He rolls up his short sleeve to show me a three-inch scar above his left bicep, where he had surgery on a ruptured tendon just four weeks ago.

And he is dancing already? “It’s ridiculous, I know.” At least there is no lifting in Rite, he says. “It is perfect, just a lot of hacking around on my own.” If you are looking for someone who describes his art in artful terms, Watson is not your man. We get involved in some arcane talk about tendons, and he pulls out his iPhone. “Here, look.” There are vivid pictures of his bicep taken straight after the injury, which seems to have migrated sharply towards his elbow.

“Yuck,” I say. “Let’s order.”

Lunches with the FT are usually gastronomically enjoyable occasions but this feels like a nutritional rescue mission. Watson needs serious refuelling, and we pull the stops out. Twice-baked haddock soufflé, times two. A rib-eye steak for him, monkfish for me. Creamed spinach on the side. A glass of wine each. “I wouldn’t if I was going back to rehearsal,” he says. But he has been given the afternoon off to accommodate our lunch. Richly deserved, I say, and he seems to agree.

There may be no lifting in The Rite of Spring but there is plenty in Romeo and Juliet, which Watson is dancing with one of his regular partners Mara Galeazzi at London’s O2 arena on June 18. It is, I say, a rare romantic role for him, and he quickly lists the number of ballets that he doesn’t do, among them those hoary confections Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty. Was that by choice? “I’d be rubbish at them,” he says with disarming candour. “One look at me, and they’d be like ... ,” and he twists his face as if someone is tugging his bicep back into his elbow. “I don’t look like a handsome prince.”

This is more undue self-deprecation. He is handsome, and every female ballet fan I know seems to harbour a not-so-secret wish to be swept away in his alabaster arms for a tootle around a remote Austro-Hungarian forest. “And then there is the technique. it needs to be very exact, it’s not what I do very well. I don’t have that ‘wow’ thing. You can’t put my technique under a microscope.”

All of which has not prevented Watson from achieving the kind of critical acclaim for his dancing that his lifted his name to rare prominence. Here is our own Clement Crisp, on last year’s The Judas Tree, part of a triple bill of Kenneth MacMillan ballets: “There can be no praise too great for Edward Watson’s account of the victim of the betraying kiss, so potent, so anguished in its vehemence, wholly truthful.”

Dramatic resonance, then; but it is also Watson’s extreme suppleness that has contemporary choreographers such as Wayne McGregor and Christopher Wheeldon vying for his talents when they cast their new work. Watson has starred in a series of new pieces that have signalled a richly creative period for the Royal Ballet. “My body is weirdly flexible,” he announces as the soufflé arrives. “That has always been my thing. As I have got older I can still do it but I kind of think twice. Which is in my favour, because it makes me be a little bit more precise.”

The precision was evident in his rehearsal with Mason, I say. At one point, while he was lying on the ground, she moved his hand a fraction and turned the angle of his palm to the ground. “That’s the kind of thing I’ll forget,” he replies, with a hint of cheeky schoolboy about him. The soufflé is delicious in that several-hundred-calories way that distinguishes the embarkation of a proper lunch. We clink glasses, and I hope he is making a mental note about the angle of that hand.

Later in the week, he says, he is about to visit the O2 for the first time. He admits to feeling nervous about performing before such a large audience (there will be 12,000 seats for each of the arena shows, that is, almost six times the capacity of Covent Garden). “I think it will be so massive, I’ll go the other way. You can’t project to that many people. With all the screens, it will be important to keep it real.” He is excited about the performance for its potential consequences for ballet’s popularity. “It’s an experiment, and I really hope it works. A lot of my family will be there. They never ask to come to the Opera House, but I think the O2 is comforting somehow. Slightly terrifying for me, though.”

Really? “It’s the bigness of it. I still get first-night nerves, actually. That weird mix of adrenalin and terror. I used to be terrible on second nights. I had this thing of needing to mess up one so I could do it better next time. But I’m getting over that. The more I do, the more I doubt myself. Once you mess up a few times, you realise you can’t do everything.”

Watson, born in Bromley, south London, started dancing at the age of three with his twin sister Liz, and first attended the Royal Ballet School when he was 10. “I didn’t really know what I was doing but I knew I wanted to do it,” he recalls of his childhood passion. “It came from a very physical place. I had never been to the ballet when I went to school.” He was duly impressed on his first visit to Covent Garden. “Just the grandeur of the place. The orchestra was so huge! I spent all my time looking into the pit. And I couldn’t believe how noisy it was.”

He became a principal at the relatively late age of 28, and attracted attention and headlines when he featured in the Royal Opera House’s jaunty promotional campaign of 2007: “Meet Ed. Fact: when he’s dancing, pound for pound, he is stronger than a rhino. Superheroes really do wear tights.” He laughs when I recall it to him. “I thought it was funny. I mean, I am the least rhino-like person, this skinny little ginger thing. OK, Carlos Acosta, I get it.”

The campaign was poorly received by purists who thought that the irreverent tone of the posters constituted a dumbing down of their beloved art form. “I know! I ruined the face of British ballet!” He was even referred to as the “bad boy” of dance. What was that all about? “There was that campaign, and then I said ‘fuck’ in the Guardian, which is bad, I shouldn’t have done that. And then I said that I occasionally ate at McDonald’s. That was it. I quite enjoy being bad if that’s all there is to it.”

A massive steak is placed in front of him. The second stage of refuelling proceeds apace. We talk about another one of his classical roles, in Giselle. “I have a love-hate relationship with it. I’ve been good and I’ve been awful. It’s my nemesis. Once a conductor played it at half-speed. I died out there. And then once I fell flat on my face in the middle of my solo.”

What was that like? “Half of me couldn’t believe it had happened, the other half just carried on. If it happened to anyone else, I would have laughed. But because it was me, if anyone had laughed ... ” He tries his best stronger-than-a-rhino look but is, frankly, unconvincing. I suspect there were sniggers in the wings. He is frustrated by how few chances he gets to perform those plum roles. “It is always at the last show when I think, OK, now I know what I have been doing wrong, and I can’t wait to do it again.” So last night, rather than first, is the ideal time to catch him? “Yeah. With me, yeah.” [Note to reader: his final Rite of Spring is next Saturday, June 11].

We ask to see the menu for pudding. “I’m thinking cheesecake,” he says. “Are you going to?” All this sitting down has made me ravenous, I reply, and join him by ordering a modest tray of chocolate truffles. I ask him how he feels about his growing profile. There are many dancers who seem to adore the limelight but he does not strike me as one of them.

“I am not a natural performer. I hate taking curtain calls, I find it a bit embarrassing. I suddenly become aware of how many people there are. Without sounding like a real wanker, it is all about the work for me.” It is a noble response but I can’t help feel that Watson’s bad-boy index has suddenly lurched upwards. I ask how he responds to criticism. “I stopped reading reviews when I got bad ones,” he says simply. “I was called a ‘disgrace’ on a blog once, and thought, OK, I don’t need to know any of that. I know when I’ve been good and when I’ve been shit. And there are people who tell me.”

How do people tell him he is ... not so good? “You can see the disappointment in their faces. I am an unpredictable stage person. I’ll do something great, and then something really awful. From second to second. I just get carried away. I try really hard to do as I’m told. But sometimes it leaves me.”

Never mind the rhinos, I think; Watson truly is the face of 21st-century British ballet, unpretentious to the core, dedicated to his craft but unafraid to take it to new places, enough of the rebel in him to make it interesting, and part of an innovative new wave of talent that is bringing new audiences to an art form that is growing in profile by the day.

But, come on, I ask him to fess up over coffee: he must have a Nutcracker in him, somewhere?

“I did do it once, in Tokyo. Christmas Day. The money was good, I thought I’d really go for it. So there I was, blowsy shirt, white tights, and I thought, ‘How did it all come to this? This is not what I am about.’ It was a real moment. I just wanted to cry.”

Edward Watson performs in ‘The Rite of Spring’ at the Royal Opera House on June 11 and in ‘Romeo and Juliet’ at the O2 arena on June 18

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Dean Street Townhouse

69-71 Dean Street, London W1

Haddock soufflé x 2 £17.50

Ribeye steak £25

Monkfish £21.50

Creamed spinach £4

Truffles £3

Cheesecake £6.50

Virgin Mary £4

Bottle still mineral water £4

Glass Pinot Noir £8

Glass Sauvignon £6.50

Americano £3.25

Espresso £3.25

Total (including service) £119.81

..................................................

Clement Crisp on the Royal Ballet’s top trio

The old myths about male dancers – about tights and maquillage – are long gone, dismissed by the power shown by men dancing during recent decades. Roles such as the Archduke Rudolf in Kenneth MacMillan’s Mayerling (in which Edward Watson has given an astounding performance) are physical and emotional killers, needing Olympic-standard strength, and dramatic abilities of a similar order. Today, in the Royal Ballet, there is a trio of exceptional men: Edward Watson, Steven McRae, Sergey Polunin, hugely different save in the power of their talents.

Edward Watson is a dance-actor of rarest perceptions. His roles have shown an artist doomed, as it were, to doom: Rudolf in Mayerling dances on the edge of all-destructive emotion, despair firing every step that leads to his suicide. In the grand-guignol of Flemming Flindt’s The Lesson Watson is Fred West as dance-teacher, chilling the blood with the murderous ritual of his ballet class. In MacMillan’s The Judas Tree Watson is the victim, utterly vulnerable as the Christ figure. Then we find him in Kim Brandstrup’s eloquent Invitus, Invitam, as Titus, emperor of Rome, bidding his beloved Berenice farewell, the dance and the two leading players (Leanne Benjamin his equal in nuanced playing) showing their reluctance to part and the inevitability of that parting. In exploring choreography of all kinds with his fine and subtle physical intelligence, Watson is a unique artist.

Steven McRae is a polar opposite, his dancing having a muscular bravura that can make most other dance virtuosity seem commonplace. But, unlike those flashy performers for whom text is a vehicle for more flash, McRae is notably sensitive. In Ashton’s Rhapsody, set to Rachmaninov’s Paganini Rhapsody, where homage to virtuosity is the theme of music and dance, McRae’s dancing was prodigious, fiery, but it also exposed the romanticism at the ballet’s heart: artistry did not disappear in the flare of steps. In the standard repertory of ballet’s classics (three acts with feathers and anguish) McRae plays with notable assurance. I see in his dancing a man in control. In no way calculated or cool, McRae is aware of effects, of the potential of the dance itself. It is this clarity of understanding, allied to a radiant technical resource, that brings such value to his performance. In The Rite of Spring last week, his reading of the Chosen One drove the choreography to its proper sacrificial significance.

At Sergey Polunin’s christening, it seems that the good fairies bestowed every gift. A handsome physique that uses the classic dance with a natural grace; a stage intelligence which has meant that he takes to a role and gets it right – or as right as a debut will allow: his first Aminta in Ashton’s Sylvia was prodigiously good. Still young, he has an already beautiful, unaffected classic technique, and he has that princely decorum that has ever been the ideal for a premier danseur. His abilities are still developing; we have much to hope for.

The laurels that we offer at curtain-fall to these three danseurs – and to so many other men in the Royal Ballet, in English National Ballet, in every other troupe – are some reward for their sweated exhaustion. Their immortality, in an all-too-mortal art, is more valuable.

Clement Crisp is the FT’s dance critic

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