SPOTLIGHT: Mr Steven McRae
In fashion, we have seen a rise in menswear in recent years and small changes in the way that male models are seen in the industry compared to the way that their female counterparts are paid, respected and portrayed. In a similar way, ballet has always been an art form in which the male has been stereotyped, under-appreciated and seen as lesser than his female colleagues.
Of course, throughout history there have been those that have bucked the trend (Mikhal Baryshnikov & Rudolf Nureyev in the past and more recently stars like Carlos Acosta, Benjamin Millepied and Sergei Polunin). Today, Steven McRae is a star that also appears to be getting the respect that he deserves. The married father of two is a Principal Dancer of the Royal Ballet London. Hailing from Sydney, over the last few years he has worked non-stop in productions including Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Sweet Violets, Hansel & Gretel and The Winter’s Tale. As lovers of ballet and devotees of the male ballet dancer, we met up with Mr. McRae to find out what it takes to make a truly modern male ballet dancer.
How did you get involved in ballet?
My introduction to ballet was not your typical or bog standard introduction to the world of dance. My family is actually a motorsport family, so my sister and I were brought up at a racetrack. My father raced cars in Sydney and across Australia. So we were surrounded by High Octane fuel injected dragsters, and I’m still obsessed with that world but it was not your typical introduction.
My sister was the link to the dance world, she was a gymnast and a very good one at that, and did a lot of dancing. Aged 7 I went to my parents and said; “I would like to have a go, I want to try this.” They didn’t even flinch. They said great, go and have a go. I think they thought I would last about a week or so, and here I am, I’m still dancing all these years later.
As a dancer, who have you looked up to or admired?
As a male dancer, its hard not to be inspired by the greats, the classics like Baryshnikov, Nureyev, and of course then going back further to Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire. They are just such iconic artists, who really helped transform the image of the male dancer, and the male dancer became a celebrated figure, rather than just a ‘supporting’ figure. Today, of course you have people like Carlos Acosta, who has helped introduce a whole new audience to the world of ballet as well, and you cant help but be inspired by those people.
Much of my inspiration actually came from the world of motorsport, when I was starting out, figures that against all odds came through the other end and through hard work and sheer determination achieved their goals and their dreams, and I think across any field or any profession, those attributes are really inspiring.
Is ballet still predominantly a female world? Or is this changing in any way?
Whenever you speak to someone who hasn’t watched ballet before, or perhaps much dance at all, I think their initial concept or view of the world of dance is female dominated. That’s of course to be understood, because the typical image of a ballet dancer is a female in a tutu on point and that’s what the ballets like Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake portray. However, I think today, that had changed so much. The image of dance has evolved to the point where there are incredible ballets that were already created in the past, but particularly today are being created solely for the male dancer, and choreographers are really exploring new ways to celebrate the male dancer which is fantastic for someone like myself, who is dancing today in the current environment but also for the next generation coming through because they will have some incredible works created for them celebrating the male dancer.
What does a typical day involve for you?
My typical day starts off pretty early, I have two young children at home , a 4 month old and a 2 year old. Very early starts, and I am ‘Daddy’ as soon as I wake up and it’s probably my most enjoyable part of the day.
Once I get to work, I am usually in the Opera House anywhere from 9.30-10am
And I do quite an intense warm up and set of exercises. At 10.30, the Royal Ballet start their daily Ballet class every day, and that class goes until midday. The best way to describe it is giving your car a grease and oil change. It’s a dancers chance to continue to refine and strengthen their classical technique, and the classical technique is really the foundation for everything that we do, and that class is really, I see the most important part of a dancers day. Its not just a case of warming your body up, its really maintaining and developing your strengths and helping along any weaknesses you’ve got.
From midday until 6.30, I’m rehearsing different productions that we are either performing or about to perform at the Opera House. If there is a performance, I wont work that long during the day, the performance finishes at 10.30 at night so its very normal to do a 12 hour day, obviously with a few breaks in the middle, bearing in mind that’s a completely physical job, there’s no moment of sitting behind a desk.
You have to love it in order to survive those hours.
What are the specific fitness requirements to excel as a dancer?
Physically, the life of a dancer is very demanding, mentally as well. We are trying to remember and perform anywhere 5 to 10 different productions at the same time, so mentally it can be quite demanding. Of course the pressure of performing in front of a live audiences every day, and when we do these cinema performances where they broadcast to hundred of thousands of people live that obviously has a toll on you mentally.
Physically it’s very extreme. I like to describe to people that don’t really know that much about dance, that the dancers body is almost like a racehorse or an elite lightweight boxer. We need to have the right balance of strength that is required for us to do what we need to do, but nothing excessive. So, we don’t want to have excess muscles because it will make us too heavy, but then if you don’t have enough, you wont be able to do what is required of you. So, the minute you are a kilo heavier, that is of course going to put additional strain and pressure on your joints, its finding that right balance to being as close to a race horse as you can be.
How about the diet?
My diet is in my eyes, very normal. Everything in moderation is something my wife and I try to live by. I relate it to my childhood with cars and racing. If you put rubbish fuel into your car, it’s simply just not going to function correctly.
So my wife and I try to treat our bodies the same. We fuel our bodies with the best possible fuel we can put in it.
How did you develop to be a principal dancer?
My journey to becoming a principal dancer was an interesting one. I was given my contract here at the Royal Ballet, by the Director here at the time, Dame Monica Mason, I was 18 years old and I had been in the Royal Ballet School for a year and a half. She was incredibly generous and took a big chance by giving this young kid from Australia a contract to join one of the greatest companies in the world. I knew nothing about the company or the history of the company.
I knew its dancers of course, because I was inspired by them all, but until you are actually working in an organization that has such a rich history, its really impossible to know much about it until you are in there living and breathing it and working with these incredible artists that have been involved with such and incredible institute.
When I joined I just tried to be a massive sponge, soaking up as much as I can and watching as many people as I can. I was very fortunate to be introduced to some of the great choreographers who are here creating works for the company from my very first season. People like Christopher Wheeldon, who gave me one of my very first opportunities, he created a role for me that enabled me to really show my director a different side of me, and perhaps a side of me that she hadn’t known existed. Each choreographer I feel gives you an opportunity to do that and show another layer, I guess, of who you are as an artist and also as a person.
The journey to Principal, was also enhanced incredibly by working with the greatest aallerina’s. Alina Cojocaru, in particular, who is simply one of the greatest ballerina’s of our time, was really instrumental in helping me develop as a young artist.
I did my first Romeo and Juliet with her, I think it was my second season in the company and that was an experience and a moment in my career that I can really pinpoint and say was a massive turning point for me in helping me reach my goal of becoming principal.
Tell us about Ballet Hero Fantasy
The Royal Ballet has an incredible following in Japan. They are welcomed with such open arms whenever we arrive in Japan, and I have been fortunate to travel there a lot with the company over the years. Over my time I have learnt more and more about the country and its incredible culture. I learnt a little bit more about their world of animation and Manga, as any young guy, and I guess like every child out there I grew up loving animation and cartoons and I don’t think I ever really lost that love of it.
Now I have my own children, they are starting to be introduced to them as well which is fantastic. I really wanted to do something with that love, and I managed to meet an incredible Manga artist out there, Takafumi Adachi, and we have been developing a Manga based on ballet, which is called Ballet Hero Fantasy and its basically myself in this world as it is today, and I’m introducing young dancers to the world of dance but every single time you learn a step, it’s a magical dream land, so you are given super powers like a super hero, so the more complicated steps you learn, the more powers you gain. It’s really aimed at young children, and boys in particular, showing the athleticism and the incredible physical and mental strength that is needed to be a professional dancer at that level.
For those that have never been to a ballet, what are they missing and why should they go see one?
For anyone who hasn’t been to a dance performance, I’d say just give it a go.
I can first hand say coming from a motor sport family, that it’s probably something I would not have been introduced to had I not started doing dance lessons at a young age. I can honestly say, go and watch a performance.
Dance is one of the only ways we can communicate globally where every single person can understand us. There is no language barrier with dance. I can perform something and convey a message or an emotion, or I can make people leave the theatre feeling a certain way and I haven’t said a single word. It’s an incredible art form, and I think it is something we can all relate to because we all in a way, dance every single day, simply the way you move your body is a form of dance, and it’s a language we all can speak and relate to it.
If you are going to see something I suggest going to watch a ‘Mixed’ program, which is usually called a triple bill. The best way to describe it is as a ‘Chocolate Box’. Out of the three Ballets, you are going to like at least one of them. It’s a great way to introduce you into the world of dance.
What are you proudest of so far?
My career is something I have been aspiring to and trying to achieve since I was a young boy and I’m extremely proud of some of my achievements, performing for royalty at Buckingham Palace, working with all of these incredible ballerina’s, dancing on some of the best stages around the world.
It’s really something I genuinely proud of.
Nothing at all compares to the pride that I have for my children. I think that becoming a father, now for the second time, it just outweighs anything I have achieved in the world of dance; it is simply the greatest thing in the world.
What has been your career lows so far?
A dancer’s career is very extreme. You can have the highs that are the highest, where you can do a certain show and that particular day just feels right and everything about it comes together, you feel like you are flying. You have a great chemistry with your Ballerina and the Conductor is right there with you and everything feels like it is flowing the right way.
That can quickly change and everything can be taken away from you.
I had a severe injury soon after I had done my first Romeo and Juliet and I was very young and extremely hungry to keep learning and developing and climbing the ranks in the company. Unfortunately my body said “STOP” and my Achilles was ruptured an I was off stage performing for almost a year. That was an extremely difficult period of my life and my career. I felt like everything was being taken away from me, and I was nervous that I would never dance again. I had to learn how to walk properly, I had a limp once it had healed and I had to learn how to walk normal again and how to dance again. I put my hands on the bar for the first time and work so slowly with my coach, who I still work with today, Lesley Collier, and at the time of course you never think it is going to happen, you never think you are going to get back on stage, but I am so grateful looking back now that it did happened to me at a young age. I learnt so much about myself, about the Royal Ballet and the world of dance. I think it is going to help me long term in life.
I was able to watch so many performances and rehearsals from the front of house, from the side of stage, and it really makes you question so many things about you art form, about your passions in life, what it is that you like watching or don’t like watching, what works or doesn’t work in a performance, and you get to learn from it objectively rather than being caught up in the middle of it all.
It was a genuinely a life changing experience, that I was lucky enough to turn into a positive.
Are there any roles that you have especially enjoyed playing and are fond of?
I’ve been so lucky to do such a wide and diverse mix in my repertoire at the Royal Ballet. My heart lies in a very special place with the role of Romeo. It was the first full-length ballet I did at the Royal Ballet and I just love performing.
The production by Sir Kenneth MacMillan is brilliant, and I learn something new about the production every time I visit it. Dancing with so many different Ballerinas in the role of Juliet had also brought out so many different layers and qualities in my character of Romeo.
Working on many of the new modern works is very exciting, your body is pushed to limits you didn’t even know were physically or mentally possible, but I think the role of Romeo is something very special to me.
What are you working on at the moment and in the near future?
I’m currently performing Sleeping Beauty at the Royal Opera House, along side the brilliant lana Solenko, We are also preparing at the Royal Ballet for Balanchine’s ‘Jewels’, a very unique, three act Ballet, where it celebrates three different jewels, Emeralds, Rubies and Diamonds and it is really a celebration of dance. It involves the entire company, from Quarter ballet up to Principals and it’s really a fantastic evening of Dance.
We are also preparing some modern works in some triple bills, and then I’ll be performing in Mayerling for the first time, the role of the Crown Prince Rudolf, and that is a real tour de force role for the male and I just cant wait to get my teeth into that one.
And finally., for you, what makes a rakish gent?
A modern day man, aware of his style and ready to tackle any challenge ahead of him.
Ideal travel destination - The Maldives
Best store in the world - Paul Smith
Gadget of choice -IPhone
Go to pair of shoes - Tap shoes
Brand/ designer of choice - Paul Smith
Favourite fragrance - Chanel Allure
Best place to go in London - Royal Opera House
Essential grooming product - Kiehls Face wash
Recommended app - Instagram
Icon - The drag racer John Force.
Follow Steven on Instagram.
Shot on location at the Royal Opera House by Nicholas Andrews.