by Gerard Davis
Over the last few years, Royal Ballet soloist Eric Underwood has garnered something of a bad boy reputation as someone who likes partying and clubbing a little too much. It riles him.
“In the dance world, there are expectations for people to behave in a certain way. So when you’re doing something not in that box, it’s considered wild or outlandish when really it’s not — it’s just being normal,” he says. “I don’t want to be tamed.”
When we meet in the middle of the Royal Ballet’s hectic Christmas run of Nutcracker (he’s been dancing both the Spanish Dance and Lead Arabian), he is charm personified. Underwood speaks softly, and he has an infectious laugh as well as a striking sense of fashion — he arrives for the interview sporting an elegantly cut trench coat and a rather natty pork-pie hat. He comes across as a man at ease with himself. Born in Washington, D.C., Underwood got into professional dancing by default. His mom encouraged him to try for a performing arts school, but when he forgot his lines in the acting audition, he figured, “Well, at least I can do the splits!”
Dance had, in fact, always been important in his life. “Social dancing was a big part of the neighbourhood where I grew up — my mom would move the furniture and we’d dance! I still dance in my kitchen; I dance on a Friday night out.”
But it was only after failing his acting audition at the age of 14 that he started attending ballet class and simply fell in love with it. After six months, Underwood was off to New York to train at the School of American Ballet, where he was awarded the Philip Morris Foundation Scholarship. After graduating in 2000, he joined Dance Theatre of Harlem, reaching the rank of soloist before American Ballet Theatre came calling in 2003. The subsequent journey to London was almost as fortuitous as his failed acting audition.
“I’d seen the Royal Ballet perform when I was in school and was impressed. When Dance Theatre of Harlem toured to London, Monica Mason [the artistic director of the company at the time] invited me to guest at the Royal the following season to dance The Four Temperaments. But by that time I’d already joined American Ballet Theatre and they were in the middle of their season. However, I wasn’t entirely happy at ABT and one day I had a rehearsal where things just went too far, so I called London on my lunch break and asked to audition.”
Since joining the Royal Ballet in 2006, alongside the more traditional repertoire such as Manon and Romeo and Juliet, Underwood has had a fruitful time creating roles for Christopher Wheeldon (in pieces such as DGV: Danse à grand vitesse, Aeternum and as the Caterpillar in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland) and has proved a favourite with Wayne McGregor, creating roles in Raven Girl, Chroma, Woolf Works and many others.
Moving to London wasn’t as straightforward as expected, however. “Obviously, because English is my first language, I could understand everything being said, but that didn’t mean everything made sense. Things like people saying to me, ‘Are you alright?’ [a typical British greeting]; I’d be thinking ‘What have I done? Don’t I look OK?’”
Underwood eventually settled in, and also thrived in the artistic surroundings of one of the world’s great cultural capitals. Among many other projects, he’s performed in a film by British fashion designer Vivienne Westwood, danced in Gounod’s Faust for the Royal Opera, made a “hyper-sexual” (his words) music video with fellow Royal dancer Melissa Hamilton, posed naked for world-famous photographer David Bailey and recently found himself on the cover of the British Airways in-flight magazine. “Doing other things than ballet is a breath of fresh air,” he says, “and it can colour my dancing in a very positive way.”
Hard though it may be to believe looking at this confident, extraordinarily toned man, life wasn’t easy growing up. “I was quite a wimpish child,” he admits. “I was really short, really skinny and had big glasses — my sister would have to defend me. If I could go back in time to my 10-year- old self, I’d tell him not to worry, that I would grow up to be big and tall and strong, and that I’d be able to stand up for myself.”
Nowadays he uses his Royal Ballet status to try and inspire underprivileged children of all ethnicities into participating in the company’s Chance to Dance program. Equally, he’s spoken eloquently about elitism and racism in ballet. Refusing to put the blame solely on the companies, in an insightful article for the Guardian newspaper in 2013 he wrote: “A lot of ballet audiences, especially those who come for traditional pieces, tend to view ballet in a dated way. They’re not interested in it reflecting today’s society, but in maintaining the history and tradition of the form. Yet to go forward in today’s society, we have to go forward in ballet as well; the stage should reflect what you see on, say, the tube.”
It comes as no surprise then that awards and industry accolades are not the things that drive him. “I’ve never had any expectations of what I would achieve as a dancer. I just thought I’d give it a really, really good go and see what happened. Maybe at the end of my career I’ll look back and assess what I’ve done, but I’m not there yet!”
I ask him what’s been the proudest moment of his career so far and was given a typically personal response. “In 2009, I went on tour to America with the Royal Ballet and my mom came to watch in Washington. After performing DGV, Monica Mason was there and all these dignitaries, but I just wanted to get to my mom to hear what she thought. When I found her, she was like, ‘Oh, that twirly thing you did, it was amazing!’ I loved that; it was so honest and genuine. That was the coolest moment for me.”
Underwood has a strong personal philosophy on life that underpins everything he does. “I try to be as free as I can possibly be and not judge other people or put judgments onto myself, either. Life is just one big experience and I don’t know anything deeper than that. You can make your life as colourful and as interesting as possible, or you can just wait. I’ve painted the picture a bit, but it’s not as colourful as it could be. I think there’s a lot more to come!’
With that we conclude the interview and he whirls off down the corridor to get ready for the evening’s show. But almost immediately he stops to chat with one of the Royal Opera House security guards and his laugh is heard lighting up Covent Garden.
DI SUMMER 2016