The Royal Ballet soloist Eric Underwood has admitted to smoking, drinking and partying – and he’s not the only one. Is it time to admit that ballet isn’t as saintly as it seems?
Imagine the world of a professional ballet dancer and it probably goes something like this: endless hours of gruelling rehearsals, painfully early starts and highly restricted meals.
It’s the kind of carefully-controlled perfection that we saw Natalie Portman’s character in Black Swan so desperately chase.
It was exactly this image of ballet that was recently shattered by the Royal Ballet soloist Eric Underwood (who is currently starring in Wayne McGregor’s critically-acclaimed Woolf Works) when he said, “People think we go home and lay in velvet and constantly stretch, which is not the case.”
Underwood described the portrayal of ballet dancers in Black Swan as, “so clichéd, and so far from the truth. We’re not so angelic.” Ballet dancers drink, smoke and have casual sex, “just like anyone else,” he said.
The hedonism of the ballet set has never been fully explored, or acknowledged – at least publicly.
“I know I’ve been portrayed as the ‘bad boy’ of ballet [because of my comments] but that’s okay,” Underwood tells me. “I like to have fun. I’m a good time guy – why are people shocked that I like to go out, and have fun?”
The reason people are surprised, of course, is because we think of dancers as clean-living paragons of self-denial, whose lives are dominated by backbreaking discipline and rigorous schedules.
“To say it’s physically strenuous is an understatement,” concedes Underwood. “A typical day starts at 10.30am, but I’ll have done Pilates before that. Rehearsals go on until 5.30pm, and the evening performance runs from 7pm to 10.30pm.”
But this, he says, is exactly why “unwinding” is so important.
“I don’t have much hair to let down,” he laughs, “But I still need to! I’ll have a few drinks, smoke or have a cheeseburger. People have preconceived notions of dancers – they think we’re ‘Godly’. But I want to dispel that myth – we’re absolutely not.”
Kate* has been a dancer with the Royal Ballet for eleven years. “Dance is an art form,” she says. “It’s like painting, or music – we’re creative people. Drugs, drinking and one-night stands happen because it’s all part of creative exploration.”
“We embody incredibly intense stories on stage, so it makes sense that we’d embrace that in our real lives too.” She compares a ballerina’s wild side as, “releasing a valve or taking a breath.”
This bad behaviour remains under wraps because, she says, “We’re role models for aspiring students – it would be unhelpful to publicise it.”
The work-hard-play-hard ethic is something plenty of dancers share.
James* is a retired ballet dancer from London who is now based in LA. “Partying was a big part of the industry when I was dancing in London’s West End – it always has been,” he says.
“Dancers are young – their bodies bounce back. I knew dancers who’d drink every night. Others would visit promiscuous gyms in Soho during the day and take drugs before performing.”
Amber Doyle, 34, trained at the Royal Ballet School and Central School of Ballet, and has worked with musicians including Calvin Harris, Franz Ferdinand and Jessie J.
She tells me she would never drink the night before a performance, but others have different limits. One thing they all agree on, though, is this: “nothing will stop us from turning up at the studio.”
“Ballet is our religion – and that means being back on the barre the morning after a heavy night.”
The dancer/choreographer-turned-osteopath, Leon Baugh (who won an Olivier Award for Best Theatre Choreographer for Sucker Punch in 2011), treats some of the world’s best-known ballet dancers, including Sylvie Guillem and Jennifer White.
“I think dancers have always been wild,” he says. Among the wildest was Patrick Bissell, leading Principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre, who died aged 30 in 1987 from a drug overdose. His death prompted investigations into drug use within the industry, but little seemed to change.
Years later, in 2007, the New York City Ballet Principal Nilas Martin made headlines when he was charged with possession of cocaine.
According to Baugh, many dancers get away with hard-living because of “the work they put in – their bodies are incredibly efficient. They’re working seriously hard. In fact, most dancing injuries I treat are because of overtraining – they can be dancing for 12 hours a day.”
“But it’s not unusual for them to party – it’s not either/or.”
But, as in all walks of life, some people struggle. The Ukranian dancer Sergei Poluni (who recently performed in Hozier’s Take Me To Churchvideo, directed by the celebrity photographer David LaChapelle) became the Royal Ballet’s youngest ever Principal at 19.
Poluni has a well-publicised history of partying and famously walked out on two major productions in 2012. He later admitted to wild nights of clubbing and dancing while high on cocaine – and has since spoken of darker instances of self-harm and depression.
Speaking from LA, James also tells me about the anxiety and depression he witnessed in the ballet world. “It’s an incredibly pressured industry to survive in – some make it, some don’t’.”
Professor Robert Bor is the Clinical Psychologist and School Counsellor at the Royal Ballet School. “There are certainly obvious personality traits in dancers as a whole,” he says.
“They’re passionate, resilient, fastidious, and show huge attention to detail – often to the point of being obsessional. But that’s exactly what’s needed to become a professional dancer.”
“They gravitate towards the lifestyle because they feel aligned with the discipline it requires. There’s a very specific type of person who fits the role – and succeeds.”
“Young trainee dancers know they’re going to be exercising huge amounts of control by training all day and night, repeating the same movements over again. It can be mind-numbing.”
So perhaps it’s no wonder, then, that many let their hair down when they can?
“That can happen,” Professor Bor admits. “But dancers are so mindful they’re in public view – there’s such a lot riding on them, both financially and in terms of their reputation. If they fail, they’re not just letting themselves down, but their company down too.”
“They’re unlikely to want to risk losing everything they’ve worked so hard for.”
Another person who is less convinced by tales of ballet dancers gone wild is the makeup artist Kabuki. He has worked with everyone from Michael Jackson and Madonna to Rihanna and Lady Gaga and is now working on the Royal Ballet production, Woolf Works, that Underwood stars in.
“Compared to rock stars, dancers are world-class athletes – they’re so committed physically,” he says. “At a recent party, I noticed the ballet dancers walking around with glasses of water, instead of champagne. Can you imagine rock stars drinking water at a party?”
He laughs. “But when you’re invested in something emotionally, you can’t just go ‘whatever’ at the last minute and ruin it – your body is your instrument. They live by that, and I admire them for it.”
But others on the inside point out that this is precisely why a dancer can afford to push themselves to all limits. As James says, “When your body is in such great condition, you can abuse it.”
However, he concedes that’s a brief moment. The average retirement age for ballet dancers is considered to be in their mid-thirties – an event so traumatic there is an industry saying that, “A dancer dies twice.”