Steven McRae, Ballet Manga Hero

During one of his recent trips to Japan, Royal Ballet Principal Steven McRae met with Manga Artist Takafumi Adachi. This meeting would eventually lead to a collaboration on a new ballet manga that aims to be cool while conveying an inspirational message. In Japan, Ballet Manga is very much part of the cultural mainstream, a pop culture phenomenon, with publications that have been around forever like Kyoko Ariyoshi’s Swan or Ryoko Yamagishi’s Arabesque. We caught up with Steven a few days ago to hear more about this great new project and his increased interest in reaching out to audiences via social media:

TBB: How did the “Ballet Fantasy” Manga come about?

Steven: Well, I have loved animation since I was a kid and I think every adult really likes a cartoon. I loved The FlintstonesThe Jetsons and things like that. And I remember they had a Japanese animation called Sailor Moon, which was still new when I was young. So anyway, with all my trips to Japan (because I go probably two to three times a year now), obviously I’ve seen more of it and liked the way manga can capture action and I think it is beautiful, it is like an art piece, more than just a cartoon.

Steven McRae as James

Steven McRae as James in La Sylphide – Photo: © Alice Pennefather / ROH

TBB: And how did they approach you?

Steven: The animator Takafumi Adachi, came to watch me perform in Japan with his wife. I had done some features and had mentioned that I wanted to be involved in an animation of some kind. I met them afterwards and I think that initially he wasn’t the biggest fan of ballet, but after the show he was quite excited. In that show I had done a little bit of everything, it was a gala so I did full on classical, a bit of tap… So he came to talk to me, we stayed in touch and decided to try and do this. And finally, it happened! So we have been in communication with each other a lot. I have been sending him photos that Andrej Uspenski has been taking of me in the studio, as he wanted specific steps for each ballet. So for instance in The Nutcracker, for the Prince, I do a few barrel jumps and you can find them in there.

TBB: Who came up with the story?

Steven: Takafumi has a business partner who collaborates with him and helps him with the story. This first volume is based on The Nutcracker. They have planned four to five episodes to start off with, and they are doing all the traditional ballets. Next episode will be Swan Lake. It is obviously for kids not for adults, but I still wanted it to look cool. It was conceived as something for boys and girls. We have the Clara character, there’s also the Sugar Plum Fairy, we have a kid that is following me around and together we conquer evil. Interestingly enough, I’ve been contacted by adults whose sons have loved it, but then they read through it and liked the comic as well, so that’s very exciting.

Ballet Hero Manga Vol 1

‘Ballet Hero Fantasy’ as featured in © Dancin’ Magazine

TBB: It is interesting because when we saw this, the first thing that came to mind was how many famous footballers have been inspired as kids by Captain Tsubasa. Do you think this could work in a similar way for a new generation of dancers?

Steven: Well, one can only hope! It is this inspirational message that I am particularly interested in. I told them that I really wanted the manga to have an inspirational angle. I get particularly tired of hearing children say “Oh I can’t do that” or “I’ll never be able to do that”. It is the wrong attitude to have. Where I grew up, it wasn’t the most privileged society: it was the suburbs of Sydney and kids were always hungry to learn and to better themselves. So if you were in a class of kids and they said “the two kids in the corner, go!” you would fight to be one of those two kids. Now when I teach, I find that I have to say “come on!” and invite people to be in the first group. So I wanted to have that message in there because the kid in the manga goes “Oh no, I can’t do that” and I tell him that he has to try, encouraging him to get better and better.

TBB: Do you think that there’s potential for something like this to be translated and published in the West?

Steven: Yes, hopefully we will have it also in English, Chinese and Korean, and fingers crossed there’s also interest elsewhere.

TBB: What do you think about the ballet scene in Japan generally?

Steven: Oh I love it out there. The support is endless. People are so well-educated over there because they see so much. All the great companies perform in Japan, there are so many gala performances, so they know what they are watching and they know what they like. There is a real appreciation for what they do and for the Royal Ballet. They know us and they love what we do. So for me it is an absolute joy every time I get out of the plane. I feel very comfortable, almost at home.

Steven McRae in Ballet Hero Fantasy Vol 1 © Dancin’ Magazine

TBB: Do you have any other projects in the pipeline?

Steven: Right now I want to focus on reaching out more. We dancers have to show to people what is it that we do and get rid of that image of ballet as a ‘fluffy thing’. It is up to us to go out there and bring people in to what we do. I think most people don’t have any idea about the world that we live and work in and what actually goes into it. So I am also joining Twitter and launching a Facebook page.

TBB: Have you found the response on social media helpful?

Steven: Yeah, I think it showed me how easy and possible it is to reach out. It is so easy to communicate with people. When I joined the company, it wasn’t like that. Of course I don’t need people to know that I had a sandwich for lunch and my dog died… they don’t need to know that. My life is my life and I keep that for myself. But my profession and my art, and the company I work for, I am very proud of and people need to know about what we are doing and what’s going on.

I was inspired when I was in New York with ABT. I performed with Misty Copeland and she has a huge Twitter following and if I’m really honest, until then I hadn’t been a big fan of Twitter and things like that. Obviously I had seen examples of it going really wrong, but Misty really uses it in a positive way. And she has genuinely inspired so many people to get out there and try new things, it doesn’t have to be about putting a new pair of pointe shoes. And I think people like myself, who are fortunate to be in the position I am in, have a bit of responsibility to do more than just step on stage.

TBB: It is interesting you mention how you changed your mind over Twitter because the internet can be a scary place, since it breeds critics out of everyone.

Steven: I have been on the receiving end of vicious attacks on the internet, but I have decided that once I join Twitter, that all that stuff comes with it. As dancers, we are faced with criticism on a daily basis. We look at ourselves in the mirror all day rehearsing and criticise ourselves, so it is nothing new.

TBB: Do you think that cultural differences might also play a part in how opinions are expressed?

Steven: Yes. Perhaps that’s why Japan is refreshing because they are so appreciative and they love it and they show you their appreciation. They are not going to love everything, they are human but they don’t stand there on stage door and tell you what you did wrong that night or different to the night before. There is a respect there for what we are doing. We are putting ourselves in a very vulnerable position on a nightly basis.

TBB: Talking about stage door, how was guesting at ABT this spring?

Steven: It was a fantastic experience. I got to dance with Misty and she was just coming back from an injury so it was nice to help her out and we got on really well. I am hoping to dance again with her in the future. It was a really interesting experience to dance on that stage where so many fantastic people have obviously performed. It was my first time and it was Le Corsaire, so it was a ballet that I wasn’t familiar with as it is not in our rep.

TBB: Coming back to Ballet Hero Fantasy, the first volume of Dancin’ Magazine has just gone out on sale in Japan, right? How is it doing?

Steven: Yes, last week. I spoke to the editor and she said it has been selling very well. Probably better than they had anticipated because it is a brand new publication. It is not an established magazine so she was very positive and said it was a fantastic start. They are already working on the second episode, so it must be doing ok.

TBB: And how many volumes will there be each year?

Steven: This is the August number. The next one comes out in November, so it is quarterly. We are hoping to do five and then put them all together in a book. The big plan is to eventually have it animated once all the characters and story have been developed. It has been a really pleasant experience. Of course these are the initial stages, but you have to start somewhere!

Stay in touch with Steven McRae:

We started The Ballet Bag in April 2009 with the mission to prove that ballet is not stuffy, old fashioned and inaccessible; that it is quite the opposite: relevant, fresh and topical. With the aim to Give Ballet a New Spin we try to show it under a different light. When writing our capsule biographies, ballet fact cards, review roundups and commentary on social media, we cross it over with other art forms and cultural references (pop culture, cinema, rock music – ie. other things we love!).

3 Comments

  • [...] (and were technically correct!), which made it really exciting to read. In fact, according to an interview between McRae and The Ballet Bag, he sent over photos (taken by the talented Andre Uspenski of the [...]

  • August 27, 2013

    Emilia

    Glad you enjoyed Dave, looks like English episodes will be available by Christmas according to Steven’s latest tweets :)

  • August 26, 2013

    Dave

    Fantastic interview Ladies! It’s fantastic to know that McRae really cares about inspiring the next generation of dancers – something he was certainly doing before Ballet Hero Fantasy, but even more so now. Keeping fingers crossed for a book version of all 5 episodes in English!