As the 2009/2010 Royal Ballet season nears its final stretch we send it off in style. To celebrate Balanchine’s glittery Symphony in C which closes the season together with McGregor’s Chroma and Wheeldon’s Tryst, we invited principal dancers Roberta Marquez and Steven McRae to talk to us and pose for a Fred-and-Ginger photo shoot. We were in luck as they adore vintage movies and fashion. They meet us at the ROH’s Traviata room dressed to rival Betty and Don Draper; Roberta in a stunning Betsey Johnson fuchsia cocktail dress and stiletto heels, Steven in an elegant dinner jacket and polka dot bow tie. Together with Sojournposse’s Zarina Holmes we could hardly wait to proceed to the Opera House’s conservatory area and play with the fun shots you are about to see.
Steven and Roberta’s newly-formed partnership may not (yet!) be as identifiable to the broader ballet public as, say, Tamara Rojo and Carlos Acosta’s, but for the regulars they have been a joy to watch all season long. They are young, beautiful and vibrant. Together they charge the stage with their “matchy-matchy” mix of speed, precision, fluid dancing and emotional intensity. They are our top tip for your next outing at The Royal Ballet. Are they as excited about dancing together as we are about watching them? Here’s what they had to say:
This season you have been paired in almost everything: Sleeping Beauty, Nutcracker, Romeo and Juliet, La Fille Mal Gardée, Cinderella and now Symphony in C. Your performances have generated a lot of buzz amongst Covent Garden regulars. How do you feel about dancing together?
Roberta: I love every second of it. I am very happy that I’ve found Steven to share the stage with and I hope he feels the same because when I am onstage with him I feel I can do anything, everything is possible. He really inspires me and I think that’s what people can see. It is so obvious… the chemistry, he is fantastic.
Steven: I feel exactly the same. I step on stage and I know I can trust Roberta a million percent. I know she will go up there and make it a performance to remember. I think that’s so important: to be on stage with someone who feels the same and who enjoys working hard. I love going into the studio and being with someone who is there to create the best possible result and Roberta does that. So it’s been fun. We challenge each other and we both laugh at each other all the time.
How do you challenge each other?
Steven: We just set each other little goals.
Roberta: [cheekily] He likes to throw me around the studio…
Steven: It’s fun! We are actually doing a new piece by Vanessa Fenton in the Linbury Studio Theatre. We’ve done all the classics and triple bills together so it’s been nice having something new done for us.
How did it all begin, how did you get cast together?
Steven: Well our partnership started a while ago, back in 2007, quite by chance
Roberta: In Paris, actually, very romantic!
What happened then?
Steven: I was at my flat in London and I get a call from Roberta, late on a Saturday evening asking me if I could come to Paris and perform the Don Quixote Pas de Deux with her… the next day! Unfortunately the person she was dancing with got injured. So Roberta calls Monica Mason early on Sunday to ask for permission. Monica then calls me and says simply “so have you packed your bag?” I get on the Eurostar at about 9 am, they race me over to the theatre. It was about half an hour before the show started. We’d never danced together at that point and I’d never done Don Q in my life, so we tried everything, one of each. There were dancers from the Paris Opera, Russia. Don Q was at the very end of the bill. I didn’t even get to warm up, I just put on the costume, the makeup and we stepped on and we did it, and it was so much fun, everything worked.
Roberta’s experience and knowledge over her career is priceless so she guided me through it and it was incredible. So every other opportunity from that point on, we’ve just tried to do galas and things together and then Monica cast us together in [Ashton’s] The Dream…but then I was injured…
Did you get to rehearse at all for that?
Steven: Not really, I was doing my best but I was still trying to stand on one leg
Roberta: He was so positive, he kept saying “yeah I am going to be there”….
Was it because of this “can do” attitude that you thought of him to partner you at such short notice?
Roberta: Yes, I knew Steven from the company and we’d been in the corridor trying things together sometimes, playing around between pirouettes. I said to myself: “I think he is the only one who can do that, in a second without any rehearsal”, so yes his was the first name that came to my mind.
Steven: It was crazy, being in Paris, we came offstage and, it was like: “what did we just do?!”
In what way are your personalities similar or different and do you use those traits on stage?
Steven: Well, we are both from the south! Brazilians and Australians have very similar qualities a lot of the time.
Roberta: We are a little bit crazy, we are very excited about everything, we always want more…more!
Steven: [agreeing] in Cinderella for instance, there is a little section at the end of the Coda, where most people just do a double pirouette, they have to do it at the same time, the Prince and Cinderella. One day Roberta says “I’m going to do a triple” so I say “Are you crazy? You can’t!” But then I am trying and trying and of course we pull it off onstage. But then one show I don’t do it and Roberta does it, and I look at her like “grrrrr!!”…. The next show I do it and she doesn’t but we keep on trying… and then last show we do it again!
So, do you ever fight at all?
Steven: No, there is no point, because we both want to go on stage and enjoy it. In our last Cinderella show we were at stage door and there was a little girl, and we both said to her “did you enjoy it?” And she answered “I loved it”. To us that means more than anything, whether everything is perfect on stage or not, comments like these, they are the reason you step on stage, that generation is the future.
How do you prepare for a role? Do you discuss it much beforehand?
Roberta: We talk about it, for instance in a dramatic ballet such as Romeo and Juliet, we talk about how we are going to do a scene, artistically…
Steven: …but we both like to be free. I don’t think we ever say to each other, “we must do it like this every time” because being onstage sometimes just takes over, and you do more or less, but that’s the pleasure of being on stage with someone so experienced and so relaxed because like Roberta said, I can throw her around and do something different and she doesn’t panic, she just says “let’s go, let’s do it”.
What do different types of partnership bring? For instance, onstage & offstage partnerships like Alina Cojocaru & Johan Kobborg compared to onstage-only partnerships like Leanne Benjamin & Ed Watson’s?
Roberta: I find it very magical. When we did Romeo and Juliet it was the first time that I kissed Steven. I’d never kissed him before, I am not his girlfriend, so it was the first time, it felt so real … but we know each other well and that chemistry you can’t buy, it is hard to find, what I found with Steven it’s just like … “cling!”
Steven: A lot of those partnerships have been around for a long time. Leanne and Ed have known each other for years and years, Ed was in the corps de ballet and Leanne built him up, so what they have is really special. Alina and Johan obviously are an offstage couple, so that’s special in another way. Ours started with being friends. I think secretly I always was on the corps watching, thinking…I want to dance, I want to partner Roberta, so thankfully it has worked out that way. I think that all the partnerships are so different and unique, which is why The Royal Ballet is so special, well every show is different, isn’t?
Steven, you have a wide-ranging repertoire which goes from pure classical to very modern and you have been cast in everything this season. Has your approach to handling all that work changed since you had that injury in the 2007/2008 season?
Steven: Definitely. At first when anyone gets an injury, one thinks it is the end of the world and one panics. You think you are going to miss so much, you automatically think that’s a crack, a weakness and all your career is going to be cut short. But at that time so many of the older dancers like Leanne Benjamin said to me “you are very lucky… you are very young to have that kind of injury, you’ll learn from that” which obviously meant nothing to me at that time because I was depressed and wanted to dance.
But now that I look back I am thankful I had that at a young age because I’ve been able to pace myself far more, and I think I will last a lot longer. Watching older dancers like Miyako Yoshida get off the plane and come into rehearsal and work, I’ve learnt how to pace myself. Miyako is 45 years old and still doing ballerina roles, so there is something to be said about injuries and being smart… I changed a lot of my views on dancing: you don’t have to be in such a rush all the time to have everything yesterday, and your technique really is important, injuries enable you to fix what needs to be fixed and sometimes you get injured for a reason.
Roberta, we see you more often in 19th and 20th century classics (Balanchine, MacMillan, Ashton). Are there any more contemporary roles or particular choreographers that you would like to work with?
Roberta: Yes of course, I would love to work with Wayne McGregor. Liam [Scarlett] too, I think he has a lot of talent… and I am now doing the piece with Vanessa at the Linbury which will be the first work created on me since I came to The Royal Ballet.
We are talking choreographers and new roles and we read Judith Mackrell’s recent interview with Christopher Wheeldon at The Guardian where he says Steven is cast as the Mad Hatter for his new Alice in Wonderland. How much can you tell us about your involvement and what Wheeldon said about the potential for tap dancing?
Steven: Well, they haven’t released officially any casting to us, so reading that was the first time I knew about my involvement. He’s been doing workshops with some dancers whenever they are free, but I haven’t done any with him yet, because we are so busy doing the other ballets. So that was my first official confirmation, really, I read it in the paper, so whether it will have tapping or not I don’t know, but he is a creative guy so I am sure he will come up with something. He is a great choreographer, so to be involved in any of his ballets is wonderful.
What are your interests outside ballet?
Steven looks at Roberta and both say: Fashion!
Roberta: I love musicals, cinema, actually, I like the old movies. Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers…I love them.
Steven: Except I am the opposite, I am the ginger… [the entire room bursts with laughter] All of this glamour side has been missing for quite a while. It is nice to bring it back. We both like going to functions, it’s fun, it’s part of the job.
I am from a motorsports family. My father raced cars, drag-racing, the long thin cars, so I love motorsports, I will be watching the Formula 1 this weekend in Monaco. That’s the perfect combination, it’s in Monaco, where all is glamourous but it is also motorsport. That for me is the perfect weekend!
And which music do you listen to?
Steven: For the last show we were doing we put some really loud tacky music when we were both warming up a mixture of everything you can possible imagine, very embarrassing, like top 40, random things…
Spill the Beans!
Steven: Lady Gaga…and things. Well Lady Gaga is not that bad…but then also cool stuff like The Killers, they are the best band.
Do you spend any time on websites, Facebook, etc.?
Roberta: Well I am not an internet girl, I don’t have a website, I don’t see much. I use the internet to read the news, do my emails and talk to my family on Skype, but I think it’s important. Perhaps I should care a bit more.
Steven: We are in the studio all the time….
We are asking because there was a recent NY Times article about ballet dancers who network with their fans. The gist of it was that social media tools like Twitter help break down myths about this art form and alter perception about the dancers.
Both: well if it’s doing that then it’s fantastic!
For you how important is the audience’s perception, what is written in the media or out there on the internet? Steven, there was that BBC documentary a few years ago…
Steven: Uff!! I know where that one’s going… [laughter]
Back then you spoke candidly about your eagerness to be promoted to principal and it sparked all sorts of reactions.
Steven: When the BBC interviewed me, I was on my first or second season with the company and I was obviously very young and extremely hungry to chase my dreams. If they asked me the same questions now, I would give different answers because now I have achieved what I wanted at the time of that interview. But if you took me back to that time I would probably say the same things. Everything I said, I still stand by it today.
I was very ambitious and I think ambition can be looked at in a positive or a negative way. A lot of people see ambition as a negative personality trait and it’s not necessarily, it is just how you channel it, so that was an interesting documentary. I think a lot of people looked at me like a monster after that! I received many letters and things written to me that were quite nasty, people saying “get over yourself”; that I was very cocky. I would have loved to go out for dinner with those who thought that to say, this is who I really am, this is what I want to achieve and that I’m not walking around just waving flags.
How do you see your partnership evolving and what’s in store for us next season?
Steven: [looking at Roberta] Well we know what the next season’s repertory is but we don’t know what we are cast in yet. Obviously we have dreams of what we want to do, we’d love to do Giselle, Swan Lake, Manon, everything… Fingers crossed!
Roberta: We know we are doing Cinderella again.
Steven: Yes, we got three shows of that next season, but the one ballet we really want to do together is Manon. That would be fun.
Other dream roles?
Roberta: for me Mary Vetsera, because in Mayerling I’ve only ever done Princess Stephanie.
And you Steven?
Steven: Des Grieux is really top of my list at the moment, that’s what I’d love to do. But one day I’d love to have a 3-act ballet created on me, that would be quite fun. There are so many great choreographers coming through the company right now, so maybe one of them will do it.
We certainly hope so. It is frustrating most new ballets are one-act, plotless pieces. We like abstract works too but there are so many good stories out there waiting to be turned into ballets.
Steven: And that’s what The Royal Ballet is known for, as well, for its incredible story ballets so hopefully the next generation will carry that on.
Roberta and Steven are scheduled to dance:
Symphony in C (3rd movement) on 23, 28 May and 2 June at the ROH main stage.
Vanessa Fenton’s new work, part of The Royal Ballet at the Linbury Studio Theatre on 3-5 June .
La Fille Mal Gardée on 19 June (mat), during The Royal Ballet tour to Japan.
For more information & bookings visit the ROH website.