Steven McRae as the Creature in Frankenstein at the Royal Opera House. Photo dancersdiary

In a profession as a dancer you wear your heart on your sleeve

LONDON: ‘As I see it your career is a three legged stool, you need talent, you need to have hard work, extreme hard work, and you need to have luck. You can’t have it unbalanced, you need all three.’

Steven McRae, principal dancer at the Royal Ballet in London, meets our correspondent Maggie Foyer, for an exclusive interview for Dansportalen.

‘The day I was promoted to principal that was the day I started working harder it was not ‘Oh I’ve made it’. Reaching that level is the easy part: to maintain the level and develop that’s when the hard work really begins. And social media allows you to share that.’

Rhapsody Steven MacRae

Steven McRae in Frederick Ashton’s ‘Rhapsody’. Photo RO

Steven McRae’s muscular build doesn’t immediately bring to mind Charles Dickens’ workhouse waif, Oliver Twist. But, like the little boy, he keeps wanting more. ‘I said that to Liam (choreographer Liam Scarlett), “more”, I said, “more, more, more”.’ McRae admitted, ‘I am hungry to have something really dramatic or showcase pieces, my own Rhapsody for example.

Frankenstein a good experience

But yeah, I’m just hungry for more now. I’ve been very lucky. Since my second season with the Royal Ballet I’ve had works created on me which, for a dancer, is everything.’

Familjen McRae

Audrey Blue Bell McRae together with her dancing parents Elisabeth McRae and Steven. Photo dancersdiary

The other creation that is central to McRae’s life is his 18-month-old daughter, Audrey. The Royal Ballet’s summer tour to Japan was a family affair. ‘It makes such a difference having your family with you when you are away that long.

When I’m away anything longer than a few days I start saying: ‘Why am I doing this? I want to be with my family. My wife, Elizabeth Harrod, is now eight months pregnant. She danced the first week of the tour then she stopped.

But Audrey was the star of Japan really. I got so many lovely gifts and most of them were addressed to Audrey. She loved to be around the company, to have so much attention. What 18 month-old wouldn’t? Travel isn’t easy, but she was an example to all of us adults. Even with the cancelled flight, delays and jet lag she just got on with it.’

The Royal Ballet is always well recieved

The Royal Ballet dancers love visiting Japan. ‘The company is always well received. The Japanese public are incredible, they appreciate what we are doing and just about every performance was sold out. They get to see such a diverse mix of companies and they’re very good at acknowledging high quality art.

Steven McRae strech after class Japan

Steven McRae stretching after class in Japan. Photo Steven McRae Instagram

I was supposed to perform Romeo with Iana Salenko but her work schedule changed so I performed with Francesca Hayward who has recently been promoted to principal.

Francesca had already performed it here in London and we had a week to put it together which was fine. It was a lovely show and the audience gave her a very warm welcome to Japan. Obviously she’s not as well-known as the others but I am sure they will know more of her in the future.

Sarah Lamb and Steven McRae in Romeo and Juliet © ROH 2015. Photo by Alice Pennefather

Sarah Lamb and Steven McRae in Romeo and Juliet 2015. Photo by Alice Pennefather

The week after, I did Giselle with Sarah Lamb who I always love dancing with; she is an absolute pleasure. We also danced Romeo and Juliet which is heaven. Romeo is one of my favourite roles and with Sarah you can just play on stage and it’s almost as if we can read each other without having to say anything. It’s a great feeling to end the season that way.’

A new work by Wayne McGregor

This season Wayne McGregor will have been Resident Choreographer for ten years and the Royal Ballet will celebrate the occasion with a new work. McRae finds no problem in adapting to McGregor’s style. ‘I’m in his new work which will be nice. I worked with him from virtually my first year in the company and also I think my early training in multiple styles has really helped.’

McRae began his training in Sydney. He met teacher Hilary Kaplan at 13, who told his parents: “this boy will go to the Royal Ballet”. ‘We didn’t even know what that was! But she knew what was going on. I have had incredible relationships with my teachers and will forever be thankful to all of them.’

Gold at Prix de Lausanne

The turning point came when McRae won Gold at the Prix de Lausanne in 2003 – and caused a stir by choosing to dance a tap number for his alternate solo.

Gailene Stock was chair of the jury and offered him a scholarship to The Royal Ballet School. ‘Financially this would have been impossible for my family but Gailene just opened up the world for me. The final was on Sunday and she told me to come directly to the school. WHAT!!!

Genee Int Ballet Comp 2002 16 yr

Genée International Ballet Competition in 2002 when Steve was 16 years. Photo Steven MacRae Instagram

But she made it work and found accommodation for me. So, as of Monday I was a student at The Royal Ballet School. That evening, they needed a student to hold the tray with cups in the hunt scene in Sleeping Beauty. So on my first day I was on stage with Darcey Bussell and all these incredible stars that I had watched on video and idolised.’

Talent, hard work and luck

‘As I see it your career is a three legged stool, you need talent, you need to have hard work, extreme hard work, and you need to have luck. You can’t have it unbalanced, you need all three.

Since I’ve been dancing principal roles I’ve had Leslie Collier as my coach. She was an incredible artist herself and worked extensively with Frederick Ashton and Kenneth MacMillan. When I’m coached by her it’s totally unselfish. She doesn’t hold onto any secrets: what she knows she passes on to help you develop in your own way.

In a profession like this where you practically wear your heart on your sleeve, you need a coach that understands you as a person–I call her my ballet mom!’

Social media a fantastic way to communicate

Steven McRae loves social media. ‘For me it’s a fantastic way to communicate. I have contact with young dancers who are asking me questions and I get to watch what other dancers are doing and learn from them.


Some Black Swan action with Steven McRae and Iana Salenko from Ibstage Gala. Photo Steven McRae Instagram

I have always been interested in other areas of life, reading different things about different topics and social media is just a mini compact version of that. Instagram pops up and all your interest are suddenly there.’

‘You need to have a certain element of openness and truth about it as well. We are very fortunate to be in The Royal Ballet with incredible facilities but it’s not all smiles and laughs and it takes incredible hard work.

The day I was promoted to principal that was the day I started working harder it was not ‘Oh I’ve made it’. Reaching that level is the easy part: to maintain the level and develop that’s when the hard work really begins. And social media allows you to share that.’

Every single step is seen by thousands of people

He has been featured in many of the ‘big screen’ performances relayed from the opera house and seen all over the world. ‘The first cinema relays were quite off putting. I was thinking “every single step I am doing is being seen by hundreds and thousands of people”.

The cinema relays are not edited in any way. That’s very difficult especially if you do four performances and the one show that was filmed – that wasn’t your best one. That’s life! I try not to let it affect my performance as there are still 2,500 people in the audience who are expecting a normal live show.’

Steven McRae

The Evening Standard had Steven McRae as this years Progress 1000: London's most influential people. Photo Steven McRae Instagram

‘I think Macmillan’s ballets film very well because we have always been coached to make them as realistic as possible so it’s not a case of having to tone anything down and Ashton, particularly in La Fille mal Gardée, is such a genius in the way he does comedy that everything, even the over-the-top stuff in those ballets, actually works in the cinema.’

The family enjoy going to Australia for vacations. ‘I’ve guested with both Queensland and the Australian Ballet and I hope it will happen again. It’s important for me to keep my roots there because I am proudly Australian and my daughter is half Australian.

I would love to stay involved in the dance world out there as much as I can in the future. I’ve had this incredible career in London and Europe, Russia and New York and it would be selfish not to take some of that home and share.’

Maggie Foyer
20 Oct 2016

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