An Unlikely Prince

Edward Watson doesn't fit the traditional British dance profiles. Yet he's become a paragon of today's Royal Ballet.

In The Metamorphosis, Watson unleashed his wild side. Photo by Tristram Kenton, courtesy ROH.

Pale, intense and writhing in black slime, The Royal Ballet’s Edward Watson made an indelible impression on Americans on his 2013 tour. The Londoner’s extraordinary performance as the hapless insect-man in Arthur Pita’s ballet version of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis was as far from the English ballet’s celebrated lyricism as is possible to conceive.

America’s next view of Watson will be a little more conformist, squiring the former First Lady of New York City Ballet Wendy Whelan in a night of new choreography, titled Whelan/Watson: Other Stories, at New York City Center. The pairing is an intuitive one of two absolute originals, neither of them your standard classical beauty, both radiating idiosyncratic power and shape-shifting charisma onstage—a lure to choreographers everywhere.

His performance in The Winter's Tale won a 2015 Benois de la Danse award. Photo by Johan Persson, courtesy ROH.

I meet Watson inside the Royal Opera House, where, in his 21-year career, he’s had more roles created for him by in-house choreographers than anyone thinks has been equaled at any time at Covent Garden. On this occasion he looks very much younger than 39, his apricot hair and alabaster skin gleaming like a teenager’s. He’s not your standard classical prince—big-shouldered, extremely flexible, androgynous, able to be graceful or gawky at the flick of a switch.

“I think I’m not what used to be expected of an English dancer,” he agrees, “but perhaps I’m how an English dancer would be expected today. And I like that idea. People say, Oh, Ed’s not very ‘English.’ No, I’m not Michael Somes! I’m not an Ashton expert. I’m a very British dancer. I’m lucky enough to be involved in the British choreography scene today.”

Watson is a man of two faces. One is what he’s called his “psycho roles.” He is par excellence the exemplar of the twisted souls that populate many ballet dramas on his side of the Atlantic: Gregor Samsa in Metamorphosis, with his knotted limbs and bewildered eyes; the tortured Crown Prince Rudolf in Kenneth MacMillan’s Mayerling; guilty Leontes in Christopher Wheeldon’s The Winter’s Tale. The other is the humanoid abstractions his hypermobility inspired in Wayne McGregor’s modernist ballets such as Symbiont(s) and Infra.

He’s an extremist, I suggest to him. Watson laughs easily. “I know. I worry that I’m going to be a caricature of myself. People think, Oh, he’s going to do that tortured thing where he throws himself on the floor.” Fans with a British sense of humor sometimes send him skulls, macabre signs of appreciation for his morbidly mesmerizing Rudolf in Mayerling. “But I don’t want to bore people, or be bored myself by just getting out a bag of tricks. I just do what I’m told, really. And if I’m well directed, then it’s all right. I learned something important from Wendy, which is that I don’t need to be so obvious, that you can draw people in in really sharp focus by not doing that much.”

The two first met when they danced a duet together in Wheeldon’s Morphoses, and they hit it off. “We did a few things at the Guggenheim Museum and she just walked on and everyone clapped, and I went, Ah, she’s the big time. She was very approachable, a good laugh, but when she started doing her thing, it made everyone go, Whoa, okay, respect.

“What’s so remarkable about those New York ballerinas is that you can’t not watch them. They just know how to do it, in leotard and tights, whereas we’ve grown up being given a costume. It’s a way of moving, it’s a way of being, it’s a stage thing. There’s less doubt in them. I think all that Balanchine choreography requires you to be really brave, to make it say what you want it to say. I’ve danced a few Balanchines—you nearly lose your teeth on some of those steps.”

The Other Stories evening, which was co-produced by The Royal Ballet and New York City Center, is an even split of the two dancers’ tastes, with solos and duets by London-based choreographers Javier de Frutos, Arlene Phillips and Arthur Pita; North American–based Annie-B Parson and Danièle Desnoyers; and (new for the U.S. tour) the London-New Yorker Christopher Wheeldon. The two dancers worked to harness all these disparate voices into a single suggestive arc.

Watson shows a lyrical side in the Phillips solo, while the noble Whelan shows an unexpectedly comic side in Pita’s blackly witty tango duo—which brought up a kind of “English” partnering that she was very unaccustomed to, says Watson quasi-apologetically.

Watson, here in Infra, is a regular muse for Wayne McGregor. Photo by Bill Cooper, courtesy ROH. 

“I’m kind of used to throwing people into stuff with all the force of my body weight. Wendy’s more used to being sculpted, although in some of the Wheeldon pieces she’s been partnered in some crazy ways, she’s always sort of floating up there. It took her a while to get used to it until she realized I wasn’t going to do it any other way.”

In fact, Watson is an exemplary, caring partner (as compensation for the torturing by tango, he introduced a grateful Whelan to banoffee pie—a dessert of banana, toffee and cream). His safe hands and burning eyes as Romeo in MacMillan’s choreographic version are much loved by London’s Juliets. But this season he decided to give Romeo up—it wasn’t his body but his memory that couldn’t take any more.

“I have had so many amazing Juliets. Even now I can shut my eyes and remember their faces, and how they felt. Amazing memories, and I really didn’t want to blot that out. It’s time for others to do Romeo.”

It’s not time to stop dancing, though. Ahead in 2016 lie a reprise of The Winter’s Tale and yet another new Wheeldon narrative ballet. This fall he danced a favorite Ashton, the hushed, lunar Monotones II, and is presently finding shelf space for a rush of new awards: Member of the Order of the British Empire from the Queen, and a 2015 Benois de la Danse award for The Winter’s Tale, to add to his 2012 Olivier Award for The Metamorphosis.

With a long CV of roles created for his physicality and his acting gifts by Pita, Wheeldon, McGregor, Kim Brandstrup and Alexei Ratmansky, among others, Watson is the distinctive, even definitive dancer of the present-day Royal Ballet, male or female—a man on dramatic and athletic cliff-edges, a man of the present. While some cry that The Royal is no longer generating the Ashtonian classical lyricism of Anthony Dowell’s era, Watson’s preeminence says a great deal about the company’s modern appeal, as a place where choreographers and curious dancers are welcomed.

“I think Ashton might be like the ‘British accent’ which Americans love,” Watson reflects. “But the ‘British accent’ is only a small part of Britain.”

Ismene Brown, founder of The Arts Desk, is dance critic of The Spectator.

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