A ballet star is born, and his success story is better than any fairytale
New Royal Ballet principal dancer Matthew Ball talks about his big break, and life beyond the glamour and stardust
Matthew Ball had just arrived home after a long day of rehearsals and was about to tuck into his takeaway burrito when his phone buzzed. It was Kevin O’Hare, director of London’s Royal Ballet.
“I don’t usually get calls from Kevin at that time of night so I was like: ‘Bloody hell, this is definitely serious’,” says Ball. The curtain had not yet fallen on the first act of Giselle but American star David Hallberg, who was playing Giselle’s lover, Albrecht, had injured his calf. Ball, a first soloist with the company, needed to get to the Royal Opera House – fast.
“I said: ‘Am I coming to stand in the wings in case he can’t do it or am I coming because you need me to do it?’” says Ball. “Kevin said: ‘I think you’re going to do it’. The adrenaline shoots through your system very quickly. I don’t remember feeling scared because there was a sense of inevitability.”
Ball raced in a taxi from his home in Clapham to the Opera House, got into costume, had a quick chat with the celebrated Russian ballerina Natalia Osipova (Giselle) and went on in a role he had danced only once before.
He says modestly that “the show ran quite smoothly” but that the ballet lovers there to see Hallberg, who was returning to the stage after a long absence due to injury, must have been disappointed. In fact, Ball dazzled, the audience was in raptures and, at the end of a performance that one critic described as “astonishing”, Osipova gently pushed her replacement partner forward to take a solo curtain call.
“I hadn’t ever imagined this happening,” Ball says. “It was overwhelming. I was quite teary about it. Afterwards, in the shower, I was thinking: ‘How did that just happen?’”
And then he went home and ate his abandoned burrito.
The life of an elite dancer is not all glamour and stardust. That was in March. In the UK summer, Ball, who will be 25 in December, was promoted to principal dancer, the Royal Ballet’s highest rank. He is the company’s youngest principal, having already delivered (among many triumphs) an authoritative Polixenes in The Winter’s Tale, a compellingly tortured Rudolf in Mayerling and a princely Solor in La Bayadère. Now he is set to dance the main character in a new one-act work, The Unknown Soldier.
Created by choreographer Alastair Marriott to commemorate the centenary of the end of World War 1, this is based on the recollections of Florence Billington, who was 16 when her young man headed over the Channel, and who told her story in a documentary at the age of 100 (footage of her forms part of the show). And then, over Christmas, he is on loan to Sadler’s Wells, where he will be the lead swan in Matthew Bourne’s ever-popular Swan Lake.
He’s enjoying working on The Unknown Soldier, which is allowing him to shape the role to suit his style, but also looking forward to the Bourne ballet, now more than 20 years old.
Shortly after starting ballet classes at the age of six, Ball saw the film Billy Elliot, about a northern lad with ambitions to dance. The film ends with Elliot as an adult taking to the stage in a production of Bourne’s Swan Lake. “That was a powerful image, and it feels like it’s come full circle for me now,” he says.
Ball is from Liverpool. When he got into the Royal Ballet’s Junior Associates training programme, he recalls his grandfather joking: “It’s just a shame it’s not Everton Juniors.” His mother, Liz, taught GCSE and A-level dance. His father, Chris, is in arts education. His earliest dance-related memory is of “dancing around to pop music at home when I was four or five, showing off and being a bit hyperactive. I did have a propensity to let off steam that way. My mum encouraged me and my two siblings to try dance, but I seemed to take to it quite naturally.”
At 11, he auditioned for White Lodge, the Royal Ballet School’s junior wing in Richmond Park, London. When the letter telling him whether he had been accepted arrived, his mother brought it to his school and he was summoned from his classroom to open it.
“I remember the elation of reading it,” he says. “I hugged my mum and then ran back to the class. I felt as though I was flying down the corridors. When I rushed into the room and told my classmates, they gave a cheer.” (Ball experienced none of the teasing Billy Elliot went through.)
As a youngster his mother had attended White Lodge but was asked to leave after a year (“assessed out” in the jargon) for growing too tall. “It’s not all easy,” says Ball. “Reality is going to hit you at some point. But then, it’s not specific to dance to have someone crush your dream.”
He loved White Lodge, a former royal residence in a fairytale setting. “It’s a beautiful, historical and picturesque place. It’s surreal in a way. You’re isolated, surrounded by deer and foggy mornings. And living with your friends – it was good fun.”
Ball started with the Royal Ballet in 2013 and is now set fair for a glittering career as the sort of star who, like Hallberg and Osipova, audiences will travel to see. He is aware of the weight of expectation upon him but unburdened by it. “It’s a pressurised thing to be doing, for sure. You’re always aiming for perfection. You’re always trying to keep it clean and mistake-free. But during a performance there often comes a point where you start to feel liberated – the audience is fully engaged and you can feel a synergy between you and them. Those are moments when you think: ‘Where else could I possibly be and feel like this?’”
To relax, he plays guitar and enjoys photography. When he gets the chance he likes to travel with the girlfriend he met at the Royal Ballet’s Upper School, Yaoqian Shang, a first soloist with the Birmingham Royal Ballet. He watches comedies and films and is a big Coen brothers fan. He is not a Strictly Come Dancing fan. “I can’t watch it. I tend not to watch dance when I’m at home and I don’t watch any of those contest shows – The X Factor, Britain’s Got Talent.”
Ball does so much dance he needs a break from it in his spare time. He doesn’t usually drink during the week. “If I was out at a restaurant I might have a pint, but that’s it. But at the weekend, at parties, well, dancers are quite free-spirited, they don’t shun pleasure. People drink, they have fun, they have a dance.”
Does he dance at parties? He laughs. “I have been accused of dad dancing. But yeah, I do like to go for it. You spend all day in the classroom doing this very formal kind of movement, so it’s nice to dance like a normal person.”
A dancer’s career is short. Ball had knee surgery at the age of 19 and, as much as his schedule allows, uses the gym at the Royal Opera House to do routines that strengthen his joints. If he can stay injury-free, he might continue dancing until his mid-30s and then he will need to do something else. He is with a modelling agency but doubts whether modelling will eventually become a fulltime pursuit.
“By the time I’m finished as a dancer I’ll probably be past it as a model as well,” he says, laughing. “I am interested in acting. I haven’t had lessons but perhaps I have a bit of an instinct for it. People have said about my performances that they enjoy the way I portray a role. I’m very committed to that and that’s not always the case in ballet.”
He has appeared in two short dance films, The Sun is God and In her Hands, directed by Alice Pennefather. “I’ve been photographing the Royal Ballet since 2011 and have watched Matthew grow as a dancer and develop into a performer, full of charisma,” says Pennefather. “He has a humility which is so rare and charming. Not only is he a hugely talented dancer who looks fantastic on screen, but his natural empathetic nature allows for a unique ability to act a role in such an utterly convincing way. Matthew is bound for great things.”
No one who has seen him dance would disagree.
– © Telegraph Media Company Limited