Edward Watson, the ‘best British-born dancer working today’, talks Theo Merz through his injuries and battle scars ahead of a new work celebrating male ballet
By Theo Merz
January 29, 2014
Edward Watson has suffered for his art and he has the scars to prove it. As a principal dancer for the Royal Ballet, Watson has been in rehearsals for the company all morning, then working on the choreography for a new show called Men in Motion into the evening.
Now it is 8.30pm on Friday and, sitting in a echoing rehearsal space in the Royal Opera House, the man who has been described as “the face of 21st British ballet” is talking me through the damage dance has done to his body over the years.
“There’s always something that hurts a little or hurts a lot, so you kind of get used to it,” he says, drawing my attention to a thin white line running down his foot. “This is where I broke my metatarsal by landing badly about ten years ago and had to have it pinned back together.”
He rolls back his sleeve to reveal a longer line at the top of his arm. “This is where I tore my bicep tendon. It just completely came off so they had to cut it, pull it up and stick it back on the bone. It was really painful but I was on stage again about four weeks later. We’re tougher than we look.”
Without wanting to sound too gushing about it, in his own way Watson already looks pretty tough. I’ve just sat in on the rehearsal for Men in Motion, a contemporary celebration of male ballet which will be performed at the London Coliseum on Thursday and Friday [January 30th and 31st], so I’ve seen his ham-hock calves and biceps in action; I’ve witnessed the incredible contortions he has to carry out for a duet with Marijn Rademaker of the Stuttgart Ballet, set to a cover of Gershwin’s The Man I Love.
While he has danced in dozens of new works over the years – his look, which is more Tim Burton than Disney, has meant he’s tended to be cast in contemporary ballets rather than the chocolate box-classics such as Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty – those with only a passing interest in dance are more likely to know him from the Royal Opera House’s 2007 advertising campaign. “Meet Ed,” the slogan printed over his face read. “Fact: when he’s dancing, pound for pound, he’s stronger than a rhino. Superheroes really do wear tights.”
The traditionalists didn’t like it much and there were accusations in the press that the Royal Opera House was dumbing down and sexing up. (You can only imagine what said traditionalists think of the organisation’s current posters, which feature a close-up picture of a couple’s faces in an orgasmic contortion and the strapline “Experience the real thing”.)
“It was the most bizarre moment of my career,” Watson remembers of the controversy it caused. “I just went in and had my picture taken. Then we were on tour in Mexico and the publicity people came in and said, ‘Ed, there are journalists who want a quote from you.’ There’d been an article saying there was a glint in my eye and it was too sexy, it wasn’t right for the Opera House. I thought: whatever, it’s just my face, they can get over it. I just thought it was funny.”
He doesn’t argue with the poster’s claim about his strength, though, and says he feels he has as much in common with an athlete as an actor. “When I watched the Olympics, I did feel a connection to the people taking part. You see that drive, that thing that makes you want to be brilliant.”
Like most dancers of his level, Watson has devoted practically all of his life to the pursuit of this brilliance. Born in Bromley, he went to his first ballet class with his twin sister at the age of three. He carried on with lessons all the way through primary school but tended not to mention that he did ballet to his classmates for fear of what they might think of him. Is there still that stigma around men who dance? “I think there probably is a bit. Silly as it seems, I think Billy Elliot changed things a lot though. It got people talking about boys doing ballet.”
But what his classmates thought of his extra-curricular activities stopped mattering when he enrolled in the Royal Ballet School fulltime at the age of 11. From there he graduated to the Royal Ballet company at 18, and became a principal dancer for them at the relatively late age of 27. In 2012 he won an Olivier Award for his portrayal of Gregor in an adaptation of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis created especially for him.
Now he is 37, though it’s hard to believe this after you’ve watched him move. He plans to keep dancing for as long as he can – “I still feel like I did ten years ago” – and has a few ideas for life after, though nothing that’s fully-formed enough to share yet. “I’ve never planned anything. I guess that’s the best and worst thing about me – I just see how I feel.”
What he feels like now is a steak, so he heads off in search of that. Normally on a Friday night he’d be at the pub with friends but he has to be back in rehearsals tomorrow morning and doesn’t think it’s a good idea. I’m surprised that was even an option – surely athletes like him are supposed to spend Friday nights in with a physio and a glass of carrot juice?
“No, you’ve got to have a life, have a laugh, see your friends,” he says. “Dancing’s great but I’ve got to take my head out of it for a bit.”
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