The boys in the ballet

by Sharon Stephenson / 15 February, 2017
Photography by Nicola Edmonds.

They’re dedicated professionals, fitter than Olympic swimmers, and look very, very good in tights. They’re the male dancers of the Royal New Zealand Ballet. Sharon Stephenson sits in on rehearsals to catch the ballet boys in action.

If you want to be a professional male ballet dancer, here’s what awaits you. You will spend six days a week leaping and twisting and forcing your body into impossible contortions. On the seventh day, you will rise early to ice inflamed muscles.

You will watch everything you eat because you’ll need to look good in tights. You will earn between $37,000 and $69,000 and be questioned about your sexuality, testosterone levels and ability to get a “real” job. And all for the pleasure of being washed up in your mid-30s.

On paper it sounds foolhardy, but that hasn’t deterred 17 of the Royal New Zealand Ballet’s 36 dancers.

Francesco Ventriglia, the RNZB’s artistic director, says the 63-year-old company has long had an even split of male and female dancers. “We have a number of female contracts and a number of male contracts that we seek to fill,” says Ventriglia, who arrived in New Zealand two years ago from the  helm of Florence’s MaggioDanza. “If a male dancer leaves, then we look for a male dancer to replace him.”

As a child in southern Italy, Ventriglia resisted his family’s efforts to steer him towards football instead of dance. Understandably, he’s keen to send traditional stereotypes pirouetting out the door. “Old-fashioned attitudes to male dancers are changing and there seems to be a larger number of male ballet students coming through,” he says. “For example, the numbers of dancers aged between 11 and 17 attending our Ballet for Boys workshops has grown from 32, when it was first introduced in 2008, to 80 last year.”

Paul Mathews, one of the company’s longest-serving current dancers, agrees. A recent workshop he led in Auckland attracted 20 male dancers. “I was surprised,” says Mathews, 29. “When I was learning ballet, I’d be lucky if there were a handful of boys in the class.”

It’s tempting to attribute it to the Billy Elliott effect, a reference to the 2000 film (and later musical) about a young British boy who stuns his working-class family by choosing ballet over boxing. “Boys see that film and start to understand that ballet isn’t just for girls,” says Mathews. “It’s definitely a step in the right direction.”

It probably doesn’t hurt that ballet has some high-profile male fans, including elite sportsmen who use it to help their dexterity and co-ordination. Google Steve McLendon, a 141kg player for the NFL’s New York Jets with forearms the size of Christmas hams, and it’s difficult to imagine him doing a demi-plié or grand jeté. But ballet, he admitted to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, is “harder than anything else I do”.

Even a dinosaur like the Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger recently attributed ballet to helping him, um, move like Jagger.

It doesn’t, of course, mean everyone is on board with blokes prancing about the stage in tights. A 2010 US study on peer attitudes of participants in “gender specific” sports such as ballet and football, conducted by Pennsylvania State and Clemson Universities, found men who participated in “sex inappropriate” athletic activity were perceived as more feminine than those who did not. The words those surveyed used to describe male ballet players included “homosexual”, “narcissistic” and “soft”.

It would probably surprise the naysayers to discover ballet began as a male-only pursuit. Noblemen during the Italian Renaissance devised ballet-
like movements to entertain important guests. King Louis XIV introduced the art to France, where men would dance in women’s clothing. Ballet was also routinely used to train men in the arts of war such as fencing, jousting and military discipline. A 1681 ballet was one of the first to star a ballerina.

Paul Mathews has been dancing since he was four, following two older sisters and a brother into ballet.

Paul Mathews folds his 185cm frame into a chair, his mind still mossy from sleep. Two days ago, the RNZB returned from a Hong Kong tour, and the heat and jet-lag have taken their toll. “I slept for 15 hours straight,” says the Auckland-born dancer.

It's a rare day off for Mathews, who’s been with the company since 2006. The RNZB doesn’t have titles but if it did, Mathews would most certainly be a Principal Dancer. He’s been dancing since he was four, following his two older sisters and brother into ballet.

“They also started dancing at a young age and I’d spend weekends watching them at competitions. It was assumed that I would do ballet, too.”

Mathews’ father left when he was one and his seamstress mother raised four children on her own, subsidising their ballet lessons by sewing costumes for dance schools. But Three Kings Primary wasn’t the kind of place where a boy bragged about his ballet prowess; Mathews learned to keep his hobby to himself, especially after a fellow male dancer was thrown in a wheelie-bin.

“I was tall for my age so the bullies left me alone. But I always hid the fact that I was a ballet dancer.” 

The 2000 film Centre Stage about New York dancers (which featured Mathews’ hero Ethan Stiefel, who later taught him at the RNZB) convinced Mathews that ballet could be more than just something to fill in weekends. His teachers did little to change his mind and, by the age of 14, he knew he’d become a professional dancer.

Two years later, Mathews moved to Wellington to start a degree with the NZ School of Dance. On graduation, he was offered a year’s scholarship to the Boston Ballet; sadly it didn’t cover accommodation and on his single mother’s wages, he couldn’t swing it. Instead, in 2006, Mathews was awarded the prestigious Todd Scholarship at the RNZB. He was one of four new recruits, three of whom are still with the company (the fourth is now the RNZB’s pilates teacher).

Mathews recalls the learners’ slope as a fun place. “I was 19, getting my first pay cheque and having a great time.”

Perhaps too much of a good time. He recalls how, mystified by missing out on a role, a colleague pulled him to one side and pointed out that Mathews’ six pack had turned into more of a flagon. “I was eating loads of junk food because as a kid we couldn’t afford it and suddenly I had money. I had to give up KFC and spend six months sculpting my physique.”

Mathews tells a good story: laidback, amusing, with fun dancing behind his blue eyes. He even makes his daily food intake sound interesting (three eggs for breakfast, steak and another two eggs for dinner, more than the recommended five-plus fruit and veges in-between). “I can’t eat the way I used to when I was young,” he says.

Like so many in the company, his partner is a fellow dancer. Mayu Tanigaito, who’s from Japan, has been with the RNZB for four years and they’ve been together almost as long.

“I’ve been a full-time dancer since I was 16 so I haven’t had many opportunities to meet people outside of the dance world,” says Mathews. “Plus, another dancer understands the long hours, the pressures of the job and the amount of time spent away from home.”

He runs his hand through his spray of blonde hair and explains how hard it is to make ballet look easy. “Sportsmen are allowed to grimace when they’re in pain but ballet dancers have to keep smiling through it. The whole point of ballet is to make it look effortless, which can be hard if you’re injured or having a bad day.”

While Mathews may have avoided being teased as a child, he has met the odd raised eyebrow when he tells people what he does. “A taxi driver once asked me what my real job was. He couldn’t get his head around the fact ballet is a full-time, paid job. But you’ll never change some people’s minds.”

While he’s pleased how his career is tracking, Mathews understands a boy can’t live on ballet alone. He’s spent the past few years studying extramurally for a business degree, owns two Wellington apartments and is looking at buying a third.

“You have to have a transition pathway in this career, because it’s over so soon...”

Kohei Iwamoto: “It makes me angry that ballet doesn’t have a higher profile.”

In the cold, dark recesses of Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre, something didn’t feel quite right. As Kohei Iwamoto warmed up for the RNZB’s production of Giselle, he could feel a tingling sensation in his left knee.

Twenty minutes into dancing the main character of Albrecht, the niggle turned into something much worse. “I knew it wasn’t good but we’d come all this way and I didn’t want to let the company down.” For the next four performances, Iwamoto danced with compression tape and gritted teeth.

And then the company went to London to perform Passchendaele, Neil Ieremia’s work marking the centenary of World War I. It’s a role that requires much foot stamping. “That’s when I felt my knee go,” says Iwamoto, whose accent carries more of the textures of Australia, where he lived for two years, than his native Japan.

Back in Wellington last February, the 26-year-old had surgery on his ruptured anterior cruciate ligament (ACL). At the time of our interview, Iwamoto hadn’t danced for eight months.

“I desperately want to dance but I can’t,” he says. “I miss it so badly I can’t even watch my colleagues rehearse.”

Iwamoto has suffered for his art and has the narrow scar to prove it, but is currently undergoing extensive physio and hopes to be back dancing in a few months. “I’ve been warned the injury could happen again. This is such a risky profession, but ballet is all I’ve done and all I’ve ever been passionate about,” says Iwamoto, who admits he doesn’t have a succession plan.

He breaks off mid-sentence to ask me if I know what day it was yesterday. I shake my head.

“Yesterday was World Ballet Day,” he says, his annoyance bar spiking. “It makes me angry that ballet doesn’t have a higher profile. People don’t know how hard we work.”

It’s a rare outburst from the usually placid dancer who was born in Hyogo, a 15-minute drive from Osaka. His was an artistic family – both of Iwamoto’s parents are musical-theatre actors, his mother once did ballet and his older brother now makes a living filming ballet competitions.

His father initially tried to steer his son towards gymnastics to improve his posture. But when a young Iwamoto saw ballet on TV, he asked to try that. “My parents said no, it was too hard. But I kept on at them and eventually they let me go.”

He was 11 and – depsite being slightly put off by the tights – fell in love with ballet. At 16, he auditioned for an American scholarship that he didn’t get, but his performance of Swan Lake aroused the interest of the Australian Ballet School. “I lied about my height to get in! But they offered me the scholarship, so I didn’t confess.”

It was Iwamoto’s first time outside Japan, and one year in Melbourne turned into two. He might still be there had the RNZB not come knocking. He’s been based in Wellington since 2010, although he struggled at first with the accent and admits he was too scared to speak the first year. But while his feet are graceful, they’re not itchy: “I can’t imagine living anywhere else.”

Iwamoto’s previous partner, fellow RNZB dancer Madison Geoghegan, returned to the US two years ago and he’s been single ever since. He has, of course, heard the comments about “all male ballet dancers being gay”.

“I haven’t been hassled to my face but my response to such macho attitudes is, ‘I get to spend all day surrounded by beautiful women.’ There can’t be too many jobs where that happens.”

Like many Kiwi boys, Joseph Skelton dreamed of being an All Black, but followed his elder siblings to ballet classes.

You’d think a red, white and blue double-decker bus, barreling down a Birmingham street at 50km an hour, would be hard to miss.

Not so, says Joseph Skelton. The then 18-year-old was so focused on retrieving his skateboard, which had rolled into the street, that he didn’t see the bus. “My right leg got caught in the back wheel and it dragged me down the road,” says Skelton, now 26.

At the time, Gisborne-born Skelton was a student at Birmingham’s Elmhurst Ballet School. He can’t remember much about the accident but his roll-call of injuries included a smashed tibia and fibia and around 15 broken bones in his heel. Several surgeries and a titanium rod later, doctors told him he’d never walk without a limp. And to forget about ever dancing.

But Skelton has always been the kind of boy who won’t swallow his medicine: “I’m quite stubborn and if someone says I can’t do something, I want to prove them wrong.”

His older brother Nathanael, then a dancer with the Birmingham Royal Ballet, managed to get Skelton into the company’s dedicated physio programme. It involved days of mindlessly massaging muscles and learning how to be mobile again. Skelton, who surfs and snowboards, plays rugby and cricket, and can’t sit still, hated it. But he persevered and nine months after being hit by the bus, was back at the barre, relearning the dance steps he’d been taught as a child.

In 2011, he joined his brother at the RNZB (Nathanael retired two years ago to run a cafe in Gisborne) and apart from a short guest role with the Australian Ballet, he’s been there ever since.

He has the deliberate movement of someone who uses his body for a living, but admits his leg can still give him grief. As he stretches to massage it, muscles wrap around the 183cm-tall dancer’s torso like a grapevine.

“Ballet is as physical as anything I’ve ever done,” says the sports-mad Skelton. “All the jumping and lifting we do can put a real strain on the body. I’m lucky that I’m fit and strong, and I’ll keep dancing as long as I’m able to maintain peak physical performance.”

Like many Kiwi boys, Skelton dreamed of being an All Black. Growing up in South Auckland, the third of five children played halfback for Pukekohe High. But he followed Nathanael and an older sister to ballet classes when he was four – largely as just “another activity”.

“I loved rugby and cricket, but when Mum asked if I wanted to do ballet, I figured it was something else to do, so I agreed.”

Despite the testosterone-heavy rugby environment, Skelton was never teased about his dancing. “I can’t ever remember anyone giving me a hard time about doing ballet.”

His partner, Katherine Grange, is also an RNZB dancer; the couple first met as 15-year-olds at a ballet competition but got together much later, almost five years ago. They share a flat in Mt Cook, a 15-minute walk from the company’s Courtenay Place headquarters. “It is a bit of a cliché being with another dancer, but it’s much easier on a relationship when you can travel together.”

It would be hard to find a more laid-back bloke than Skelton: ask him about his career aspirations (“Keep going, I suppose”) or his career post-ballet (“I’m not sure, I’ll figure something out”) and he’s cheerfully non-committal.

“I’ve never been much of a planner. Right now, having a fun job where I get to travel the world and be active every day is enough for me.”

Who’s the Fittest of Them All?

Heard the one about ballet dancers being fitter than rugby players? Dr Andrew Foskett, head of Massey University’s School of Sport & Exercise, has – but he isn’t so sure.

“There’s no doubt elite ballet dancers are phenomenal athletes,” says Dr Andrew Foskett from his Albany office. “But ballet and rugby are such different disciplines, it’s hard to compare them.”

It all comes down to being fit for purpose, he says. “That means male ballet dancers must train to be able to hold a female partner above their heads, jump high and do repeated turns. They need above-average aerobic capacity and a large range of flexibility, muscular and postural strength over a sustained period of time, whereas rugby players tend to use their bodies more explosively over shorter, intermittent bouts of effort. Ballet is more about control than sheer strength.”

A better comparison is with international swimmers. A 2008 UK study found the overall fitness of ballet dancers was greater than that of international swimmers. Looking at 10 measures of fitness, including strength, endurance, balance, flexibility and psychological state, dancers had higher scores in seven of the categories.

 The Royal New Zealand Ballet’s Carmen with L’Arlésienne is touring nationally, February 16 to April 1.

This was published in the February 2017 issue of North & South.
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