Edward Watson: Male ballet dancers no longer face stigma of being called 'sissy'

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Although Watson is officially retiring as a principal dancer, he is remaining with the company as a full-time coach, working with the next generation of soloists. – Paul Grover

Male dancers no longer face the stigma of being called a “sissy” or pressure to “man-up”, according to one of the Royal Ballet’s biggest stars as he retires from the stage.

After an extraordinary career, principal dancer Edward Watson takes his final bow in October, having appeared in all the major roles as one of the world’s foremost male performers.

Asked how the profession has changed since he first joined the company 27 years ago, he told the Telegraph that there is a greater expressive freedom today: “I think that’s really important for younger dancers now, knowing that no-one’s going to turn round to them and say you need to ‘man-up'. That’s not a language that’s used any more.

“There was such a stigma attached to male dancers. We all grew up with this thing of saying ‘don’t look like a sissy’, ‘don’t dance like a woman, dance like a man’. Now you think, well, what does ‘dance like a man’ mean? What is it to be man? What is it to be a woman? What is it to be a human on stage? It’s not about gender so much… That’s positive.”

He added: “Definitely the male dancer has come forward a lot more, just more into focus. It’s not so much about standing behind a woman.”

Watson said that dance is ‘not about gender so much’ anymore – Paul Grover

Although Watson is officially retiring as a principal dancer, he is remaining with the company as a full-time coach, working with the next generation of soloists. “I have an amazing opportunity to raise the game artistically, technically, make [dancers] feel brave enough to try something which could push things forward. You don’t want to be stuck, and say ‘do what I did, do what whoever did’. Let’s see what you’ve got and how that works now.”

He added: “It feels like the right time for me to have a bit of a change… Twenty-seven years is a long time.”

'I’m 45 which, for a dancer, is up there'

On average, Royal Ballet dancers retire in their forties, although some – like Alessandra Ferri – have later returned as guest artists.

Watson spoke of having noticed increasing physical challenges: “I’m 45 which, for a dancer, is up there. That’s old… To take into account my age, and having to work even harder to get to a level that I’m happy with, just doesn’t seem as joyful as getting out there and being good at what I do.”

Preparation and recovery take longer now, he now finds: “That’s when you kind of know that it’s time to not put yourself through that every day.”

Dancers certainly suffer for their art. He said: “I’ll be in the gym at 8.30am, I’ll be in pilates at 9.30am, I’ll do ballet class with everyone else at 10.30am, then the rehearsals start. When a show finishes at 10.30pm, I have to ice my ankles, make sure that I’m stretched out and have a physio session. I probably don’t sleep until 1am, by the time I’ve got out of the [Royal] Opera House and had something to eat.”

He referred to “loads” of past injuries: “I’ve ruptured a bicep tendon. I’ve broken bones in my feet. I have had bones removed from toe joints… I ruptured a tiny ligament under my foot called the plantar plate, which was very complicated to fix… So there’s things that sadly are part of the job. But it’s also amazing what your body can recover from.”

Edward Watson in 24 Preludes from the Triple Bill, Apollo – Tristram Kenton

Melissa Hamilton and Edward Watson in L’Invitation Au Voyage from the Triple Bill by The Royal Ballet – Tristram Kenton

Aged ten, he attended the Royal Ballet School every Saturday, before enrolling full-time at 11 in 1987. He graduated into the Royal Ballet in 1994 and was promoted to Principal in 2005, thrilling audiences in works by Frederick Ashton and Kenneth MacMillan and numerous role creations for choreographers including Wayne McGregor, in whose The Dante Project – a reimagining of Dante’s The Divine Comedy – he is appearing this month, in his final performance. His many awards include the 2012 Olivier for Outstanding Achievement in Dance.

Kevin O’Hare, director of the Royal Ballet, said: “Edward’s artistic sensibility and extraordinary physicality have made him one of the most distinctive performers of his generation, and indeed in the Royal Ballet’s history, ushering in a new era of possibility for men in ballet. His expressive versatility and openness for collaboration have proved an inspiration both for leading creatives such as our resident choreographer Wayne McGregor and also for the other dancers in the company.

Edward Watson in The Royal Ballet production of Infra, choreographed by Wayne McGregor to music by Max Richter – Bill Cooper

“He follows in the footsteps of the great dance-actors of the Royal Ballet giving memorable performances of dramatic intensity in such roles as Kenneth MacMillan’s Crown Prince Rudolf in Mayerling and Christopher Wheeldon’s King Leontes in The Winter’s Tale… He now brings his artistry to bear on leading the next generation of performers.”

In 2015, Dancing Times reported that Royal Ballet male principals included only one from the UK – Edward Watson, born in Bromley, south London. Today, of 100 dancers in the company, around 40 are British.

Watson said: “Everybody wants a local hero. But, in terms of the quality of the dancing that is in the Royal Ballet, it’s not really important where it comes from. We have a unifying style, which we’re all working towards. The place of your birth is not really of that much interest or importance to anybody any more. It’s pretty much like a football team. We’ve got the best… That’s more inspiring than the fact that I was born in Bromley.”

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