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Matthew Ball’s cerebral ballet

The Royal Ballet principal on embracing pain, bringing the unconscious to the stage, and the dance world after #MeToo.

By Kate Mossman

The pas de deux in The Nutcracker – also known as the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy – is one reason people want to become ballet dancers, but it is also six minutes of extreme cardiovascular endurance, much of which is invisible to the naked eye. From the stalls, you’ll never hear the desperate gulps for breath but in a rehearsal studio at the Royal Opera House, the sprung floor moves a couple of inches with every landing.

Yasmine Naghdi, a principal of the Royal Ballet, rotates like the dancer in a music box with one stiff left leg beating up and down in a series of tiny vibrations. Then she folds in half, chest heaving. “Breathe through your mouth!” barks her coach Alexander Agadzhanov: “Did you have a performance last night? Then why are you so exhausted?” Agadzhanov is exactly what you’d hope for from an ex-master who joined the Moscow Ballet in the days of Brezhnev: eternally unsatisfied, beating his thigh out of time over the sound of a sheepish piano player. He’ll show the dancers how to do it better. For Naghdi, each put-down is swallowed and metabolised into more determination to get it right.

There are only two dancers in the rehearsal: Naghdi and her partner, fellow principal Matthew Ball. Both around 30, they often perform together and their careers have progressed in lockstep. They don’t seem in pain when they’re dancing, their faces illuminated with a very specific ballet smile, broad and beatific. Naghdi’s body, doll-like and long-limbed, was built for dance. Ball envies it. He is the tallest male dancer in the company and has to look harder for his lyricism, he claims.

Ball is good at talking ballet to laymen. Before we got to the rehearsal room, he explained the problem of playing The Nutcracker’s principal roles, the Sugar Plum Fairy and her cavalier. The Nutcracker himself is far more dramatically interesting, he suggested: a toy “enchanted” into a boy, entertaining an adolescent girl. “We have no characters to fall back on. It’s the climax from the dance perspective – it’s very exposing, very demanding and you’re super-puffed – but you literally come on for the last ten minutes in a wig and have to sell this moment… The whole point of it is to have this ease and grace and elegance: it needs to simmer out and fill the space. But you feel limited. Even now, dancers will talk about the way certain people did steps in the past, because it was invested with something different – the tiniest things, like the way in which you offer your hand.”

He tells himself that it’s Christmas and people essentially just want a feelgood show. “It helps me feel less nervous if I think: at least I’m not dying for my art.” His real smile is goofier than his ballet one.

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Like a few hundred boys born in the 1990s, Ball’s life was changed by the film Billy Elliot, whose final scene held more meaning for future male dancers than anyone knew at the time: a grown-up Billy, all muscles and shaggy feather trousers, performs in Matthew Bourne’s all-male Swan Lake, which premiered in 1995. “From that point, people started to see male ballet in a different way and appreciate the athleticism,” he says. He saw Swan Lake with his mother, a dance teacher, back home in Liverpool: he recalls leaving shows at the Liverpool Empire as a child revved up, dancing across the car park. The youngest of four, he was “needy: that desire for attention was definitely part of who I was, especially back then. Showing my parents, ‘Look at me!’ and trying to do a cartwheel.”

[See also: In search of the meaning of sport]

He left home for the residential Royal Ballet School in Richmond at the age of 11, just like Billy Elliot does. During his early wobbles he would talk to his parents on the phone every night and his mother would use reverse psychology, offering to come and get him if he wanted. But what he wanted was to be the next Rudolf Nureyev. As a teenager Ball was both dreamy and ambitious: he read books on the old Russian dissidents, but as he grew older he became more iconoclastic. “I really bought into the mystique and the mythology that surrounded them. Even now, people talk about their performances like they’re unmatchable. I still think they’re incredible but it’s easy once something’s gone to put it on a pedestal. If they were still performing today, I’m sceptical as to whether it would get the same reaction.”

When Ball gets into the rehearsal space he seems to grow: blue-and-white-spotted headband, satin shoes on Pan-like muscular legs that go up and down in crunchy pliés. He throws his arms out and looks exhilarated. He is currently performing in Wayne McGregor’s The Dante Project, which runs alongside The Nutcracker on the Royal Opera House’s multiplex-style schedule. “In the first act, I am Paolo,” he says, spinning, eyes on the mirror, “blown around in a whirlwind of lust, with my crotch painted white for my sins.”

The Royal Ballet is a more international company than its equivalents in New York and Paris, especially at principal dancer level, and they need prominent Brits. But they nearly lost Ball when he turned 18, after seven years of training him up. He was offered an apprenticeship at the Netherlands Dance Theatre in The Hague, a creative house with masses of contemporary choreographers then under the directorship of another northerner and Royal Ballet defector, Paul Lightfoot. “The new work they were doing resonated with me perhaps even more than ballet,” he recalls. Lightfoot’s operation felt like more of a collective, with fluid casting decisions, which suited his ambitions: “The Royal Ballet is still a hierarchical institution. The traditional form of classical ballet means that there’s principal roles, soloists, a sense of who’s on top. There are still leading roles in contemporary companies, but it’s always up for grabs – it’s not codified in the same way.”

Ball also had no guarantee he’d be offered a place in the Royal Ballet company after finishing his schooling there: from his year, only six out of 30 made it through, “which is above average but still pretty crap”. If he were kept on, there was no way to be sure he’d become a principal: he might be condemned to minor parts. The Royal Ballet’s new director Kevin O’Hare was unsure whether to give him a contract, and discussed it with Lightfoot (ballet is a very small world). Years later, Ball asked Lightfoot what they had said about him – he wanted their criticism. “Your insecurity is one of your strengths,” Lightfoot replied.

“He is a lot more cerebral as an artist than one might imagine,” Lightfoot tells me. “He is in beautiful physical condition; you think, here is a lad who has built his body and concentrated on his technique – but when you speak to him you realise there is a kind of suffering in him somewhere. He is constantly under observation and criticism of himself: am I doing the right thing? Who am I? These days, for ballet dancers, Instagram is the biggest social platform. If you get a dancer who is gathering hundreds of thousands of followers, which are basically built off their physical image, that artist has to be very smart not to let it become their focus.”

[See also: Clemens Meyer’s lessons from history]

The often brutal life of ballet dancers has been illuminated in the wake of #MeToo: the entitled masters; the pressure to keep the weight off; the punishing regimes. Ball has noticed tiny changes in Royal Ballet hierarchies since. When he joined ten years ago, a principal might not have acknowledged a junior in the corridor, or thanked them for holding a door open. “Studios are these vast neutral spaces but the ambience in the room is very apparent once they are populated. I remember walking into class when I was younger and the atmosphere felt thick and dense. People in the higher ranks would do an exercise first and go and stand at the barre, and watch and judge everyone else… that happens less with my generation.” Now, if someone falls in rehearsal, it’s less likely to be whispered about and more likely to be laughed off. “But it’s gradual.”

He knows male dancers who have had eating disorders, but his own concern is not eating enough: if he has a calorie deficit he loses muscle mass and is more prone to injury. On the subject of pain Ball is more hard-line: avoiding pain at all costs can mean that “the art form gets watered down”.

“Pain is something that we are dealing with all the time – to improve your strength actually hurts. There is a number I did last night in The Dante Project and when I come off stage, I’m literally heaving. It is not a nice feeling, but I’m not going to say we shouldn’t be putting people through this because it’s uncomfortable. There’s a degree of realism that people lose sight of with these conversations. We are trying to achieve something superhuman, and to get there, there is hardship.”

In the end, Ball accepted a contract from the Royal, and O’Hare’s directorship marked the start of a new period, with bigger roles for younger dancers: he got two parts in A Winter’s Tale, in which he will finally dance the lead role in spring 2024 (ballets come back around at the Royal Opera House like carousels, with dancers jumping on to bigger horses each time).

Dancers have their own version of the stock flying dream, in which they find they can pirouette forever. They also have a version of the classic anxiety dream, like the one where you have to take your history A-level having not studied history for 30 years: being told to go on stage to replace the lead with five minutes’ notice, not knowing the part. Ball lived out this nightmare (though he did know the part, just) in 2018 when he was recalled from home during the interval to take the lead in Giselle. His performance earned a standing ovation, and he was made a principal within weeks. But he thinks his turning point came with a 2020 revival of John Cranko’s Onegin. Ball played the poet Lensky, killed by Onegin in the duel. “I didn’t go mental, but…”

The dance critic Lyndsey Winship, who gave it five stars in the Guardian, described Ball as “a sincere and curious person who seeks to bring some intelligence to his acting. It’s immensely difficult for dancers to translate their feelings about a character into something that feels authentic and yet is also visible from the back.” Ball thinks dancers should receive more actor training, and is interested in the unconscious: how cultural influences, from films to paintings to a person’s expression, might affect what comes out on stage. He “layers up” performances with a kind of synaesthesia, and often thinks about food. “The audience won’t know you’re doing a ‘creamy’ step, but you do…”

He has just bought a flat off Holloway Road in London with his girlfriend, the fellow Royal Ballet principal Mayara Magri, known for her panache on stage (Tatler called them the “Posh ’n’ Becks of ballet”). Among Ball’s first experiments in choreography – something he wants to pursue in the future – is a film featuring Magri dancing on the locked down streets of London. Ball’s career was just taking off when the pandemic hit: classical dancers tend to peak around his age now. But he saw it as an opportunity to confront the short life of his classical career: he took up Tai Chi and weight training. Once you’re a dancer, you’re on a course of eternal self-improvement no matter what you do: I can still hear Agadzhanov’s out-of-time slapping in the rehearsal room.

“The Nutcracker” runs until 13 January 2024 at the Royal Opera House. Matthew Ball performs on 19 and 22 December

[See also: Judi Dench: “Shakespeare’s rhythms are the beating of my heart”]

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This article appears in the 07 Dec 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special